Margaret Atwood on Existing in Two Places

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the Canadian poet and novelist, Margaret Atwood.

mg_5527Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Because of her father’s work and research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of northern Quebec and traveling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was eight years old.

Atwood began writing plays and poems at the age of six and realized she wanted to write professionally by the time she was 16.

In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in philosophy and French.

She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000.

She has also published fifteen books of poetry. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have been interests of hers from an early age. She has also published four collections of stories and three collections of unclassifiable short prose works.

Atwood is also the inventor, and developer, of the LongPen and associated technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents.

She is a noted humanist, and, in 1987, she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.

“I exist in two places,
here and where you are.”

— Margaret Atwood

This week I’m thinking a lot about Atwood and her book The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course, because today her book becomes a show, and I’m pretty stoked about that since I recently read it, but I’ve also been thinking about time. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be the writer and the reader, and for time to pass between both. I’ve been wondering what it means for me to exist as I am now, and for me to exist again with you when you read these words. I wonder in what forms I will exist when I am read after I am long gone?

I know that I am a human and I know that all humans are mortal and still my own death seems impossible to me. How can there ever come a time when I will not breathe, or think, or write, or love, or look to the sky and feel small, and here, and so myself and so a part of everything that exists? How can there come a time when my heart stops and with it the thoughts in my head while the world goes on spinning and humans go one warring, inventing, and evolving, doing things I will never witness or be a part of?

This makes no sense, and yet it is a certainty, and it hurts me so every time I remember it.

I am afraid, I admit, not to be anymore. I want to face the fact, but I also want to keep it out of my mind. Why let the inevitable distract me and keep me frozen? Then again, the fear can be a motivating and focusing force until my end comes. If I want to live on after my death, I must remember that I am going to die and use what I have to limit my fading into the nothingness.

When I read the words of other writers they come into me, into my time and place, or some form of them does anyway, and I am happy to give them life again. I suppose I want a bit of that too. I want to know what it feels like to exist again and again and yet still be me, growing and changing here and now.

I want to live in every human and in every time after this one and words seem to be the only way to do that. It is a selfish thing to want, but I can’t help wanting it either. I am afraid of not being.

I am angry too. To be limited to this body, to this mind, and to this time feels so petty and unfair. One day there may be better ways to circumvent these pesky limitations, but for now, all I have are words. I have the imperfect ability to write down who I am and the improbable hope that in the future, minutes or eons from now, you will read them and remember me.

But who will it be that you remember? By the time this goes out I will be a little different, and the longer the distance between now and then the more the difference between the Lisa that wrote this and the Lisa that exists. So, I suppose no part of me will live on really, only bits of who I was. Only a snapshot in my history. Still, it’s all I have, and I am happy to give it to you.

Because even though I am not that Lisa anymore that does not mean she cannot be of some use. She can be a friend, a comfort, and warning, or a dream for you. She can walk with you when you feel alone, same as she walks within me. She can exist far longer than I. She can travel through space and time and be what I cannot.

And because the Lisa I am now is jealous of where that past me is able to go and where she is able to be, I will send this out and immediately sit sown to write again. I will send myself out to you over and over again, and one day, if all my works, everything from my little notes and journal entries, to the stories I’ve endeavored to tell here, and the books I may one day write, were to be put together it would be the closest a person could come to time travel. To real, complete, existence in another place and time.

I hope it happens for me one day, and that something like magic will allow me to feel what it is like to be here and there, now and then, and me, with you.

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***

Check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + some of my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

See also: Margaret Atwood on Writing Poetry

Featured image via Unsplash

If This Were Your Last Moment

Hello, and happy Monday! Yeah, I know, I know, Mondays aren’t exactly happy. Mondays are for being tired, and grouchy, and remembering all the things you don’t like about your life. Mondays are for wanting to crawl back into bed. I know.

But, let’s try something different. Let’s think of Mondays as a chance at a fresh start, a reset of sorts, every single week. Let’s take this opportunity to do it differently. Let’s make the changes we want to see in ourselves and the world, okay?

“Stop, breathe, look around
and embrace the miracle of each day,
the miracle of life.”

// Jeffrey A. White

Sometimes I do this thing where I pretend that I was popped into existence just this moment and in seconds I am going to pop back out. This moment and whatever setting I am in, whatever people are around, and whatever thoughts and feeling I have are all I’m ever going to have. I look around and wonder if this was the last moment I was ever going to have, would it be enough?

It may sound like a strange or even morbid practice but forces me to be mindful and to take quick stock of my life and where I am at. Every time I have don’t this I have found that instead of being disappointed by wherever I am and whatever I am doing, I feel grateful and I see more beauty around me than I otherwise would.

In those moments I realize what is important to me, and it is always surprising. It doesn’t matter as much how many adventures I have had because if I were to pop out of existence just now, none of it would matter to me anymore. What matters is who and what I am leaving behind and who and what I will spend my last moments seeing. I thank the universe I got to be alive at all and hope the people who will live after know I loved them with every part of my being.

Then I pop back into being regular old me, feeling my regular old feelings about my life. I still feel guilt, and shame, and regret, and jealousy only now it’s a little less.

It’s a useful practice and gives me a bit of perspective, but it would probably be exhausting to live every moment of your life that way. For all the woo-woo talk of the “enlightened,” I don’t think the average person can or should. What I think this practice does is teaches your brain that it is okay not to spend so much time “elsewhere.” On what you wish you had, or what you hope you have, or what you shouldn’t have done, or what others think. None of this is now, and none of it is helping you.

None of this will matter when your last moment comes.

What matters, what I think and what I hope will matter in the last moments is the beauty and miracle and love of it all, and all of that surrounds you every day, you only have to get outside of yourself and the bullshit. Sometimes you have to see a patch of grass, or a cloud crossing the sky as the miracles they are. Hear your breath, feel your heartbeat, listen to the voices around you and remember how rare it all is. This world, you, and whatever you are doing, are some of the rarest things in the universe.

Of course, life isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. This sink full of dirty dishes, this pile of work on my desk, and the complaints and critiques we hear in meetings and at home don’t feel much like miracles or wonders of the universe, but they are. You don’t have to love them, in fact, I encourage you to do what you can to change what you don’t like, but you still must acknowledge the beauty of every moment and the privilege you have to be there to experience it.

These unpleasant moments usually come and go either unnoticed or unwanted. I moan about my life too and wish it were something else until I force the realization that this is the only life I have and it is a very beautiful and special one, especially when you consider that there are so many who get no life at all.

There are vast stretches of the universe where no life exists. There are some who had life yesterday and don’t today, and there are many who aren’t alive today to see what you do but will be another day when you no longer are.

This week, just take a few moments from time to time, to look up from your screen and find some beauty and wonder around you. It is there, I promise, no matter how much you hate work, or your commute, or coming home to dirty houses, grouchy spouses, or demanding children or pets. I promise there is are wonder and beauty to be found, in this moment and throughout your life.

Take time to find the good, and work on making more of it, slowly, every day, every minute, when you can. Imagine what would matter, how would you feel, or what you would look to if this moment was all you had.

Maybe another day at the office isn’t the worst thing. Maybe a patch of grass is a miracle. Maybe the swirling dish water is beautiful. And maybe every human you know is the most important thing in the universe and you should feel grateful, special, honored, to be a witness to such marvelous and transient moments.

Attention must only be paid to what is around you, now.

***

Check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + some of my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

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Michele Leavitt on Bravery and Words

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the memoirist, Michele Leavitt.

8184355Michele Leavitt is a former trial attorney the author of the memoir Walk Away, and the 2013 winner of the inaugural Michael Macklin Poetry Prize, and 2010 winner of the William Allen Creative Nonfiction Prize from The Ohio State University. She’s a high school dropout, former trial attorney, adoptee, and hepatitis C survivor who has taught writing, literature, and critical thinking in New England, Japan, Florida, and Idaho.

Walk Away is an unflinching and inspiring story of how Leavitt lived through the violence of her adolescence, how that violence haunted her through her escape to college and law school, and how she ultimately came to rise out of it to a place of possibility.

Her book-length poetry collection, Back East, won the inaugural Michael Macklin First Book Prize and was published by Moon Pie Press in 2013. A memoir excerpt, “No Trespassing,” won The Ohio State University’s 2010 William Allen Award for creative nonfiction, was published in The Journal, and received a notable listing in 2011 Best American Essays. Other recent works of poetry and prose appear in venues including Guernica, The North American Review, and Catapult. A high school dropout,

A high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, recovering English teacher and former trial attorney, she now lives in North Central Florida, where she works in a program dedicated to helping women over 50 achieve economic stability.

Her poems and prose are published in a wide variety of print and online journals, including Guernica, Medium, The North American Review, So to SpeakHEArt: Human Equity Through ArtThe Humanist, The Journal, Mezzo Cammin, and Passager

I highly recommend you check out her blog and her Medium page for personal stories on life, and love, and pain, and writing.

“Telling my story is possible not because of bravery, but because I have the words to tell that story now.”

— Michele Leavitt, Memoir, Bravery, & Facebook

I have been silenced, by others and myself. I have felt the fear of speaking up and speaking out. I have shut myself up tight not wanting to say things that couldn’t be unsaid, not wanting to tell my story or reveal my pain. I still feel this way now but words are coming to me easier every day and the more they come, the faster they come, and the more insistent my silenced-self gets.

But it never feels like bravery.

I had no words for my pain, my gender, my love, my wants and needs, my dreams. I couldn’t describe my anxiety, my panic, my hope, and my rage. I spent many years at a loss for words for who I was and where I had come from, and I learned a lot about silence in that time.

I’ve learned that silence is not your friend. It cannot protect you, and it will not save you. I’ve learned that silence is a liar. My silence made me believe I didn’t matter, that I was hopeless and alone. I learned that silence leads to loneliness, and loneliness is some of the worst hurt we can inflict.

I have written some personal things and burned with embarrassment and shame wishing I could gather my words back up and stuff them back inside. I’ve falsely believed that my silence was a place of comfort and I have falsely been called brave for the clumsy, and ugly, and sometimes quite selfish and cowardly ways I have shouted myself to the world.

I am not brave. I am weak, and afraid, and tired, and unsure all the time. I am not brave, I am only at my wit’s end. Hiding hasn’t helped. Keeping it all in hasn’t helped. Ignoring it hasn’t helped, and wishing it away hasn’t either. Below the surface the pressure builds. The guilt, the depression, the anxiety becomes too much and I have found the writing is the only relief. So, I tell my story little by little, and for no reason but because I have to, and people have thought I am brave. I am not brave.

But I am trying to be brave now.

There are things I am not ready to say, but that must be said soon. Maybe at first, it was only for me, now, then it was for me, then, but it is becoming increasing for us all, throughout time. I really do want to have some purpose. I want to be of some help to the world, and these words are all I have.

But no matter how hard it is, and no matter how afraid I feel, and how I fight through it, I still don’t feel brave. I feel compelled and through that compulsion comes practice and with practice comes clarity and skill, and maybe that makes it seem that the words come easily or that I, and all writers who write hard things, are brave when we really have very little choice in the matter.

I am grateful for the incessant need to write. I would never write if it weren’t for it. If I had a choice to be brave or not, I most certainly would not. To be so vulnerable and weak is my worst fear but something bigger than fear works in my mind. I have no name for it though, but it doesn’t feel very much like bravery. In fact, it may only be another kind of fear, a bigger and badder fear, death.

To go to my death having lived with such secrets, to live like a ghost before I become one, is the worst kind of waste, shame, and sin. I only have one life, and I am afraid of not living it more than I am afraid of anything else.

So, I tell my story and to do it right I learn the words and learn the way. The words are coming now, sometimes faster than I can write them, and sometimes at an agonizingly slow, drip, drip, drip but they are coming.

I am still learning to speak, and I have so much more to say, but there are new words now and new ways to use them. I am grateful to those who bring the words to me, writers who have come before, some longer than others, filling my head with all the ways a thing can be said.

I am grateful to those who have taught me the power of words. Words are what humans have to wield against one another, ourselves, and the passing of time. Words are all we have to get what is in us to the outside. Words are the things that change reality. That is why so many are afraid and so many seek to silence. Words are all we have that can survive time. Words can be a salve for the past and a preventative for the future. They shape our minds and our world. They are the closest to magic we have.

If I ever give anything to this world at all, I hope to give you all a few words to shout, to whisper, to share, and to stand up and stand on. If I ever give you anything I hope it is the knowledge that you need never be silent or afraid of words. Words set you free, in the end, after the pain and the work. I hope I can give the lesson to myself one day too.

In the meanwhile, search through your silence. Find the person who made you afraid, find the reason you cannot speak, start there to find the way to freedom.

At first, the words will not be perfect. They will shake from your grasp and fall to the world in ways you don’t mean, but practice makes perfect. Repeat, refine, and restate as often as you need, until you get it right. Until someone understands.

Throughout history, words have been made used, stolen, eradicated, given new life, and gave life in return. Go out and make some words of your own of your own. Find the power to define yourself, your world, and your experience. Don’t worry about brave or cowardly, only worry about what must be done for you to feel alive and real. Bravery comes later, I hope.

***

Check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or buy me a cup of coffee perhaps? :)

Biographical information via Leavitt’s blog and Goodreads

Featured image via Unsplash

People are People, Just Like You

Hello, and happy Monday! I know, I know, Mondays aren’t happy. Mondays are for being tired, and grouchy, and remembering all the things you don’t like about your life. Mondays are for wanting to crawl back into bed.

But, let’s try something different. Let’s think of Mondays as a chance at a fresh start, every single week. Each Monday is a reset button. Let’s take this opportunity to do it differently. Let’s make the changes we want to see in ourselves and the world, okay?

“Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”

— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot

People are simple, and stupid, and complex, and feeling, and wise, and fallible, and beautiful, and dark, and ugly, and so much more than we can ever convey with words. We know this because we know ourselves and deep down we know other people feel and think and go through what do, even though we rarely act like it.

We know we have rich inner lives, profound thoughts and feelings, shades of emotions, wants, and needs that language can scratch the surface of. We know there are reasons behind everything we do that rarely ever fall fully to one side of good or bad, selfless or selfish. There are more shades of human motivation and reason than there are stars in the universe or grains of sand on every beach but humans aren’t good with subtle shades of being or thinking.

We know that our psyches are deep and varied and we know that because of this, because every thought and action and all that we are is a product of all we have been through and sometimes all that many generations before us have been through, we know we are deserving of understanding and patience. Somehow, we know this, but at the same time, we know that other people are simple beings with simple and often nefarious motivations for doing what they do.

We forget that people are people, all over the world and all throughout time, same as we are.

They have the same thoughts, the same questions, the same failings and triumphs, the same daily, grueling, inner struggle between who they are and who they ought to be. They share the same complex inner life and painfully vague understanding of why they do what they do. They are hurt and hoping and fucking up, and we should be working harder to understand their needs and motivations, the way we would ask them to do for us.

We are too quick categorize and condemn each other in ways that are radically different from how we think of ourselves. They are mean. They don’t care. They aren’t good enough. They are stupid. They are trying intentionally to sabotage and set me back. They are the enemy, but it isn’t so simple. They are human, and so are we, and they do all the things they do for the same reasons as us. Because they don’t know any better.

 

Of course, in all the ways we are the same, there are as many ways in which we are different, and that is where the work of understanding happens. Besides the fact that we all come from different places and were born in different times, besides the fact that each of our parents was raised in a time with different struggles and different values, besides the fact that no two perspectives can ever be the same, we all simply have very different brains. We have different thoughts, needs, motivations, wants, and ideas about right and wrong and every shade in between.

Even on our best days, when we are listening well and using language as precisely as we can, no human language is articulate or exact enough to ever explain who we are, what we feel, and what our motivations and reasons may be. Each of us no matter how we reach out and to how many is alone within our own minds. We can never be understood and we can never fully understand, but we can try harder, and do better, and stop treating each other like simple beings and react with simpler solutions and emotions.

This week, before you judge who is right and who is wrong, who is worth listening to, and who is worth compassionate understanding, or friendship, just know that each person you encounter is a complex mix of history, culture, experience, emotion, and wisdom that you will never fully comprehend.

We owe it to ourselves to treat one another better. To owe it to each other to understand each other better. To step into each other’s shoes isn’t so hard when you stop acting as if you are the only one who can be right, who can be hurt, who can have needs, or can make mistakes.

This week, try to understand that you have no right to presume to know who a person is, why they do what they do, how they ought to act, or what help they need or don’t. Get to know people and do the hard work of letting them exist on a spectrum rather than at the easy to categorize extremes.

This world has become far too black and white, I’d love to see some grays, and one day, when we are better people than we are now, we might even be comfortable with color and hue and brightness too.

***

Check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or buy me a cup of coffee perhaps? :)

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Amy Krouse Rosenthal on Trying to Matter

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the beloved and prolific author Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

1351773Amy Krouse Rosenthal, born April 29, 1965, in Chicago, was an American writer of both adult and children’s books, a short filmmaker, and radio show host.

Rosenthal had several books on the New York Times bestseller list, but she is probably best known for her memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, her children’s picture books, including the Little Pea, and the film project The Beckoning of Lovely.

She published more than 30 children’s books between 2005 and her death in 2017. She is the only author to have three children’s books make the Best Children’s Books for Family Literacy list in the same year. She was also a contributor to Chicago’s NPR affiliate WBEZ, and to the TED conference.

Rosenthal made short films using her iPhone or Flip camera. Some invite further interaction from viewers, some are social experiments, and some build upon each other to become something else entirely. Her films include 17 Things I Made, Today is a Gift, ATM: Always Trust Magic, The Kindness Thought Bubble, The Money Tree, and The Beckoning of Lovely.

Chicago Magazine described The Beckoning of Lovely as:

Rosenthal’s masterpiece, unfolding over the past two years, began with a YouTube video called 17 Things I Made. In it, she invited viewers to meet her on August 8, 2008 (8/8/08), at 8:08 p.m. in Millennium Park to make an 18th thing together. That thing was a party. She expected a group of maybe 30, but roughly 400 curious people showed up, surprised to find themselves singing, dancing, blowing bubbles, and giving flowers to strangers. One couple met and fell in love. “I wish there was a word less obvious than ‘magical’ to describe that night,” Rosenthal says. “It was meaningful to everyone in some way.”

On March 3, 2017, at the age of 51, she announced that she was terminally ill with ovarian cancer by way of a New York Times Modern Love essay, You May Want to Marry my Husband, written in the form of a dating profile to help her husband date again once she dies.The article was picked up by several news sources and quickly went viral online.

Rosenthal died ten days later, on March 13, 2017.

“Just look at us, all of us, quietly doing our thing and trying to matter. The earnestness is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time.”

― Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Textbook

I am ashamed to say I only just discovered Rosenthal through her final essay and through another favorite author, Austin Kleon, who, like everyone else who read the piece, was deeply moved and saddened by the news of her cancer. I wish I had discovered her sooner. She was clearly a lovely and loving person and a great inspiration to all who knew her or followed her work.

I am working my way through her videos, slowly but surely, and have added her books to my ever-growing TBR.

Her essay was something else, something I can’t quite describe, something all at once disturbing, heart-wrenching, and so, so, beautiful. I tried to imagine myself in either of their shoes, Amy’s or her husband’s, and I concluded that under the circumstances it was the greatest gift a writer could give to their partner in their final moments. I can’t stop thinking about it, and my beautiful girlfriend, and what I would write to and about her at the end of my life.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this essay has changed me.

Rosenthal, I think, accomplished what most writer’s set out to do. To reach the hearts and minds of people and in doing so live on forever in what she teaches and inspires in others. She left a body of work behind that, in just the short time I have been consuming it, has brought me to tears and pushed me to rethink why I do what I do, how I do it, and how much of it I do.

Her work, her earnestness and attempts to matter, are inspiring and heartbreaking, and I see now that this all any of us are ever trying to do.

We want to leave a mark and while we know the odds are against us and the competition is steep we go on plugging away in home offices, crowded cafés, and in all the crevices of life, as Rosenthal once said, and it is beautiful.

I wish I could see all of you doing your thing. I wish you could see me too, sitting here at the kitchen table typing slowly, deliberately, every word here hoping that when you read it, you will be moved to change and work the way that Rosenthal inspired me to change and work.

And when I am finished, I’ll open another blank draft, and write again, and again, and again, to try and reach you.

I do it for the same heartbreaking reason I believe Rosenthal did, because time is short and what else can you do? What else is there really to do except bend all your energy to becoming a part of the great wave of humanity. What other reason do we do anything but to try to be a part of a future we will never see?

And how else can you do it but to get up every day and just do it. So far, from what I have seen, this has been Rosenthal’s message: Create, create, create with every free moment of your life create something! Don’t work so hard trying to achieve fame and fortune, work hard making the world a better place and the rest will follow.

I like that message. I like the idea that I can just be me and my tribe will come along to support me in time. Stop chasing the world, just create with an eye for what is good and right and one day you will look up and what you have put out will have come back to you after all. That is how I want it to happen for me.

As for Rosenthal, I will end by saying that to inspire and be loved long after you take your last breath, that is the closest to heaven I imagine a person can get. That is where all the great writers go and I hope one day you and I can be among them too.

***

If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or buy me a cup of coffee perhaps?

Biographical information via Wikipedia, Goodreads, and WhoisAmy.com

Featured image via Unsplash

We Know Not What We Do, I Hope

Hello, dear readers and happy Monday! I know, I know, Mondays aren’t happy. Mondays are for being tired, and grouchy, and remembering all the things you don’t like about your life. Mondays are for wanting to crawl back into bed.

But, let’s try something different. Let’s think of Mondays as a chance at a fresh start, every single week. Each Monday is our own personal reset button. Let’s take this opportunity to do it differently. Let’s make the changes we want to see in ourselves and the world, okay?

“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”

— Mary Wollstonecraft

I’ve been having a really hard time coping with the state of the people and politics here in the United State since the election. There are many of you, and many people I know in real life, who would tell me it’s long past time to get over it, but every morning I watch the news, I scroll my feeds and timelines, and I get progressively more afraid, more cynical, and more depressed.

It feels like there are so many people who want to hurt the poor, the lost, and the vulnerable. They want to hurt our environment. They want to hurt people who look and live differently from they way they look and live. They want to line their pockets and laugh while the world burns. I am convinced, but what I can’t understand is why.

I hear two voices shouting out at me through opinion pieces and blogs. One says not to listen to them, not to give them one moment’s consideration. They are the enemy and they must be guarded against at all costs. The other says to understand them. See the world their way. They are afraid, they are ignorant, listen and reassure them. They only need time and love to come around.

My heart likes the sound of the latter, but my anger tells me I am stupid and pushes the former course.

I’m highly suspicious of any calls to understand, and appeal to, people who refuse to understand or appeal to the needs of those less fortunate than them.

What I mean is, if you are angry because full equality under the law and fair and respectful treatment for immigrants, Muslims, women, and the LGBTQ+ community has become an important issue in American politics, I think the last thing we should be doing is giving you more time to explain why people who have suffered and fought for so long should slow down, take a back seat, and give you the floor. Sorry, I’m not sorry.

I am weary of anyone who says you can’t eat, you can’t feel warm, secure, and safe because they need more. There are real consequences for people when you won’t let go of your ego or a small amount of your money. When people say they need something, they need it. End of story.

But as weary as I am, as much as I don’t want to spend my time understanding and coddling, there is part of me that longs to understand and the only thing that makes sense is that people just don’t know any better. They can’t help themselves. They really think they are doing what is right.

We have so much privilege we have become so blind to it. We spend more time protecting our luxuries than we do protecting human life and dignity. We are all guilty of it. Some more than others, but every day more and more sees the light. There is hope, I hope.

I recognize that may be a lie I am telling myself too. Maybe part of me just wants to, has to, believe that the world isn’t that cruel. People can’t be evil for evil sake. Even if the universe doesn’t care and there is no rhyme or reason to any of this, we have to have reasons right? We have to, deep down, want to do what’s best, for love, for our families, for our country and our sense of right and wrong. Right?

So, this week, I’m exploring what lies are worth telling myself. What leaps of faith are worth taking. What aspects of human nature are not worth looking too closely at.

My instincts tell me none. My instincts tell me wherever humans are involved things are always complicated, and there are never easy answers. There is always a spectrum and it is rare we fall to one side or the other fully. People aren’t all bad, but they aren’t all good either. People’s intentions must follow the same patterns I suppose.

So, this week I guess I am exploring what that means to me and in these times, where we are so divided, so angry, and so willing to turn a blind eye or let loose our rage, we should all explore what that means for us, about us. How do we find common ground? How do we listen and teach? How do we change hearts? How do we do it without losing our own sense of right and wrong?

This week, ask yourself what are the value the value of rose-colored glasses and leaps of faith in humanity? Contemplate the motivations behind why we treat each other the way they do. Look within yourself and question how it makes you feel when another person says they need things that you cannot understand. In what ways do people who live differently from you make you afraid?

I want to know what evil lives in me and why I think it will lead to happiness. I want to know that about all people. I want to know how to fix it.

“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

— Anne Frank

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M.H. Abrams on a Writer’s Desperation

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the American author and literary critic M.H. Abrams.

23abrams-1-obit-blog427Meyer Howard “Mike” Abrams, born July 23, 1912, was the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Long Branch, New Jersey.The

The son of a house painter and first in his family to go to college, he entered Harvard University as an undergraduate in 1930. He went into English because, he says, “there weren’t jobs in any other profession…, so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn’t enjoy.” After earning his baccalaureate in 1934, Abrams won a Henry fellowship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where his tutor was I. A. Richards. He returned to Harvard for graduate school in 1935 and received a master’s degree in 1937 and a Ph.D. in 1940.

During World War II, he served at the Psycho-Acoustics Laboratory at Harvard. He describes his work as solving the problem of voice communications in a noisy military environment by establishing military codes that are highly audible and inventing selection tests for personnel who had a superior ability to recognize sound in a noisy background.

In 1945 Abrams became a professor at Cornell University. The literary critics Harold Bloom, Gayatri Spivak and E. D. Hirsch, and the novelists William H. Gass and Thomas Pynchon were among his students.

Abrams was an American literary critic, best known for works on Romanticism, in particular, his book The Mirror and the Lamp. In it Abrams shows that until the Romantics, literature was typically understood as a mirror reflecting the real world in some kind of mimesis; whereas for the Romantics, writing was more like a lamp: the light of the writer’s inner soul spilled out to illuminate the world. In 1998, Modern Library ranked The Mirror and the Lamp one of the 100 greatest English-language nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Under Abrams’s editorship, The Norton Anthology of English Literature became the standard text for undergraduate survey courses across the U.S. and a major trendsetter in literary canon formation.Abrams was not only the general editor of The Norton Anthology, but he was also the editor of The Romantic Period (1798–1832) in that anthology, and he evaluated writers and their reputations.

Abrams died on April 21, 2015, in Ithaca, New York, at the age of 102

“I think most of the things I published have been published out of desperation—not because they were perfected.”

— M.H. Abrams

I still do not have the honor of calling myself a published author. My book has stalled, and I am looking to other things, for now, but I think I do know something of a writer’s desperation and reasons for publishing. I have felt it with the publishing of every post, poem, personal essay, and story I have posted here and elsewhere on the internet. Surely these published pieces, bits and parts of my life and larger themes, were pushed out into the world out of at the same sort of desperation too and surely none of them left me perfected.

The word desperate, to lovers of this craft, means two things:

  1. (of a person) having a great need or desire for something.
  2. (of an act or attempt) tried in despair or when everything else has failed; having little hope of success.

A writer is a person with a great need for expression and communication. We write because there is nothing else that will satisfy that need. Art maybe, but writers often gravitate toward the clear expression that language can offer over the murky interpretations of art. We work to satisfy these needs, and we do it with very little hope for success. Still, we persist. Our need outweighs the hopelessness I suppose. Our need will not allow us to feel hopeless. It has to work, because if it doesn’t, who are we?

I am desperate to say something, to tell you something. All writers are. A writer’s work is at least hard, even if it is not always fast. Writers bend all their time, giving as much as they can give to words, words, words, always the words. Giving everything they h to getting them out of ourselves and into the world hoping to have an effect. Hoping to move someone, hoping to become and move themselves.

Why the urgency? Why the intensity? Why do whole worlds hinge on our abilities and dedication?. Why do these things scratch at us so? Why do we hurt ourselves this way? What do we hope to achieve?

The desperation stems from our inevitable deaths I am certain. No tomorrow is promised, we know that, and writers feel it more acutely than most. We know that if we hope to leave behind the thing in our chests beating to get out, we must work hard and fast. We must make choices and sacrifices in our lives, and in the work too, to do just enough, to say just enough, to get the message out in a way you can live and die with.

Desperation is a writer’s friend. Desperation leads to an outpouring of work. It leads to pens flying across pages and fingers flying across keyboards. It leads to a body of work that might be less than perfect but at least says what you were meant to say.

But I wonder, what will happen to the ones who don’t make it?  With a life lived straining toward work we may never get right? How can a writer cope with in obscurity without acknowledgment? What if I am among those who no one reads, hears of, or remembers? The thought alone makes me want to pick up a pencil and write furiously whatever comes to mind. The thought alone fills me with anxiety and hunger. I am reminded of my drive and my reason: To tell my truth. To get at what makes us all so great and terrible a force in this universe, even while we mean nothing and matter, not at all.

Desperation is a writer’s friend, and it may be the very defining thing that sets a writer apart from dabblers and fakes. Charles Bukowski wrote that a writer without desperation is nothing at all, and I am inclined to agree. Writer’s need to feel always on the verge of losing life and sanity without words or our work wanes both in quality and quantity. We forget to care about the truth and telling it, in just enough time.

When you sit down to write you should be sweating like you’ve just sat down to disarm and disassemble a bomb set to go off in seconds. You have to be struggling like you need food, water, or air. Write like the world depends on it, like your loved ones lives depended on it, like your life and legacy depend on it, no matter what your subject, from dystopian future to sci-fi, to memoir, to children’s books, and on down to little blog posts like these. Write like it truly matters whether you succeed or fail.

Of course, there ought to be balance, like all things. Walk the line between desperation and contentment, between urgency and patience. There has to be positivity and joy when you sit to write too, not just fear and anxiety. Find peace and focus in the knowledge that you are doing the work you were made for and that someone out there will agree. Even if it is one person you save through your sweating, you will have achieved your objective.

Balance is what keeps you getting better. It’s what keeps your ideas clear, organized, and coherent. Your words will mean nothing if rushed out there disjointed and jumbled.

Do not fear the desperation, the need, let it push you to stay dedicated to getting better and getting your name out there. Keep hold of that need, it will keep you going, and remember that without it, you are no writer. Keep it, cultivate it, let it guide you, but do not let it control you and never let it hinder your message.

Be desperate to get better, to learn, and to hone your craft. Be desperate to be different, desperate to show the world something new.

 

Be desperate to get it right.

 

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Quote via Alec Nevala-Lee

Biographical information via Goodreads and Wikipedia

Featured image via Unsplash