What Have I Done With My Former Self?

DSCF0597This past weekend I spent time at The Virginia Festival of the Book.  It’s a yearly event that pops up every March, bringing readers and writers together to share their love for words, books, and the pleasures of writing.  Once I was a participant when I did a poetry reading with the members of my poetry group.  But that was centuries ago and being in a group of other poets, I didn’t feel terribly vulnerable.  In the past few years I’ve been an attendee taking note of what is happening in the world of writing and publishing.

As I considered and then started writing my memoir over the last few years, I wanted to know what the climate was like out there. Being shy, anxious and intimidated by experts, I’d spent years working extremely hard selling my visual art. I also self-published an instruction book about an obscure rug hooking technique long before self-publishing became a hip thing to do.  Within the art community, I found other artists, agents, and galleries to be a very mixed bag of friendly and unfriendly beings often with noses stuck up high in the air.  I hated making cold calls to galleries, museums, and trying to get myself noticed.  It went fairly well and I was showing my work across the country. But feeling overwhelmed by having to be a sales person, which I wasn’t, I signed up with an agent who claimed she’d get my career of to a great start.  A couple of years later, having paid her up front for work that wasn’t helping me much, I fired her because she was all about making money for herself and not considering me, her client.

On the other hand my book, Australian Locker Hooking: A New Approach to a Traditional Craft, which I originally published back in the ’80s, was very successful because I knew who to market it to.  At the time I had a small flock of sheep and angora goats.  I spun their fleeces into yarn, dyed the wool with natural dyes, and wove or knitted the yarn into sweaters and a variety of other goods.  I knew other weavers and spinners all over the map and belonged to all of the organizations weavers and spinners belong to. It was the hippy, back-to-the-land era and I bet on the fact that this particular technique would turn out to have a hot market. I went to conferences, wrote articles for magazines, advertised to the niche I belonged to and ended up reprinting that book a number of times. I sold a total of eight thousand copies to shops and individuals all over the world before being a book seller got old. I wanted more out of life. I tried getting a publisher interested in taking it over but found no one game to take on this “small” project.

A few years ago, when I was told that writers had to build their own platforms and do their own marketing, I was not a happy camper. I wanted to write, not put myself out there even before I finished writing my intended book in order to sell it. I had been there, done that. Entering my 70th year I wanted to have time to do a bit of traveling and simply enjoy life. I had mistakenly believed that once a book is under contract with a publisher, that entity takes over all the dirty work like marketing.

But being passionate about getting my story down on paper and believing it has the potential to help readers who find themselves traveling down the same road I had, I decided I’d move forward with the project.  Even through the darkest of days, I made myself believe that my book would happen and that someway, someday, it would sit on bookstore shelves and sell.

As I pull the pages of my first draft together, I need to think ahead and begin exploring whether or not I will self-publish it, as I originally intended, or send it out to a few small publishers which several people have encouraged me to do. Either way I’ll need to do most of my own marketing. Both options have pros and cons.

That is what made the Festival of the Book, so valuable to me, this past week.  I talked to a small, nearby publisher, I talked to agents, and independent publicists to see what was what.  I talked to other writers, some of them at the same stage I’m at. They were all friendly, helpful, and encouraging. But what amazed me the most was my own behavior and reactions to them. I was not shy. I was not anxious. And I was not intimidated as I had been just a few years ago, when my inner critic told me I was stupid if I thought I could write a memoir. I suddenly realized those experts were in the same ballgame I’m in. They want to sell books and I want to sell my book.  I’m looking at them the same way they’re looking at me,  trying to judge whether working with any of them would be a fit.

Part of me had been dreading opening the publishing can of worms, but this past weekend I found it exciting to be doing the work.  On Sunday, when it was all over, I found myself, feeling low and let down.  I wanted more. As intimidated as I felt signing up to attend a nonfiction writing conference a few weeks ago, I’m now excited and can’t wait to get there and see what happens.

In the meantime, I’m happy but wondering what the %$#? happened to my former self and who is this new person living in my body now?  Isn’t change great?


Living With My Demons

IMG_0952“Silence arrests flight, so that in its refuge, the need to flee the chaos of noise dimishes.  We let the world creep closer, we drop to our knees, as if to let the heart, like a small animal, get its legs on the ground.”

– Barbara Hurd, “On Silence”

 Well over forty years ago, just after my son was born, I slipped into a nasty period of postpartum depression.  I had trouble going to sleep and when I did, awoke way before dawn with my mind in a tangle of troubled thoughts. I cried most of the time, found it hard to get in the shower, and to get dressed. I sought out a therapist. He told me that I was suffering from the changes that were occurring in my life and also in my body. He gave me an antidepressant and asked me to come back in a week.

It took a while for the meds to work but I kept going back to see him for a few more weeks. He seemed to think that there was more to my dismal state of mind than just being a new mother.  He asked me several times, “What are you so afraid of?”  I was totally confused by the question and answered, “I don’t know. I don’t think I’m afraid of anything.” Thanks to the pills my mood improved. Six or so months later I gradually stopped taking them and went on with my life, adjusting to motherhood and all that it entailed.

But his question stayed with me.  Over the years I’ve asked myself that same question, knowing in some way that it was an important question for me to think about. But no answers appeared. I was locked up tight, and ignored the sound I heard somewhere in the distance of someone pounding on a door wanting to be let in. I ignored it and just wanted whoever it was to go a way and quit making a racket.

As my life went on and more than a few years passed, I slowly got closer to opening the door. It happened over the span of life lessons that we all go through as we maneuver our way through earth school.  Once I opened that old beaten down door, I began to find many answers to the therapists question. It was scary to discover all the things that terrified me and there were more than a few. I was afraid of being alone.  I was afraid of my parents. I was afraid of the pain I was feeling and I was afraid of what tomorrow might bring. I lived in dread, making up stories of what cataclysm was about to happen next and how I would get myself through it. Plan A was always at the ready, backed up by plans B, C, and D.

One day I woke up and decided that I was not living the life I wanted. It had to go. Who would want to live in fear 24/7?  Who would want to hurt that much?

I started seeking help and over the years have learned how to cope with my demons. I began inviting them in one at a time. I listened to what they had to say.  As I got to know them,I realized that what made them so terrifying was slowly ebbing away. We got to be friends. We all live together now, helping one another as new life situations arise.  The part of me that is noise sensitive knows that when the clatter gets too loud I need to seek the solace of quiet places. When I feel sadness or overwhelm approaching, I’m able to converse with them and find myself feeling lighter and happy to move on.

I still get scared. Sometimes I’m afraid of the dark, of leaving this wonderful life, of what aging has in store for me.  But I’m able to let them go. They’re just thoughts that come along like rain clouds.  They are here and then they’re gone. It’s in not letting them build up to become powerful storms that allows the sun to come out and dry up the occasional rain.

Choppy Waters

DSC01405I’ve been on quite a roll with my memoir writing lately. But suddenly I’m in one of those places, where to move forward even more, means that I must build up my courage and reenter places and times that were cruel and heartbreaking. I’ve been in this situation numerous times in the past as I’ve gone back in time, processing the occasions that brought me to the place on which I stand today. It means remembering and feeling the way I did when both good and horrible things were happening in my life.

The good parts are no problem. Who wouldn’t be willing to revisit the births of their children? As physically painful as those happy occasions can be, they are times of celebration, bringing new life into the world and watching as tiny copies of ourselves take wing and find their own way.

It’s the heart wrenching times that can send me into hurtful funks. But I realize that in order to go where I’m headed, I must enter a roiling sea of emotions and make my way to the opposite shore, where I no longer have to hide from the things that made my life a living hell at times..

By revisiting those dark memories and arriving on the other side, I stand taller, unafraid, and grateful for the chance to move along into my new life. It is a rebirth in which I release myself from the tangle of horrifying events that left me stranded; a broken, needy person.

When I  enter the dark, I find the light and recognize where I am, knowing that I am not all that has happened to me. It is who I am becoming now that is important. It allows me to live each day with joy and forgiveness. It’s a place I never thought I’d find and I’m very grateful to have arrived here.

So this week, I’ll probably spend a few days procrastinating.  I’ll sharpen pencils, clean up the huge mess on my desk, and feel slightly depressed. I’ll listen to my inner critic who seems to think I’m useless and a horrible writer.  When I get tired of  her ranting about how useless I am, I’ll don my Super Woman cape, hold my breath and jump headlong into the mess of living.  I’ll arrive on the other shore with much less baggage, watching her as she tries to catch up with me, rowing a small, leaky boat across the choppy sea.  She’ll eventually make it and will try to torture me with her presence once again. But she’ll still be carrying her oars and hauling the little boat that holds all of her heavy stuff, behind her. I will be freshly bathed and ready to dive into the next waves that roll my way.  She’ll be screaming at me as I go, but I’ll reemerge on the other side once again, even lighter than I was before.

The Courage Of A Seed

Water Lily Seed Head, © Joan Z. Rough

Water Lily Seed Head,
© Joan Z. Rough

“In nature, we are quietly offered countless models of how to give ourselves over to what appears dark and hopeless, but which ultimately is an awakening beyond our imagining.  All around us, everything small and buried surrenders to a process that none of the buried parts can see.  We call this process seeding and this innate surrender allows everything edible and fragrant to break ground into a life of light that we call Spring.  As a seed buried in earth can’t imagine itself as an orchid or hyacinth, neither can a heart packed with hurt or a mind filmed over with despair imagine itself loved or at peace.  The courage of the seed is that, once cracking, it cracks all the way.  To move through the dark into blossom is the work of soul.”

Mark Nepo, Seven Thousand Ways To Listen, Staying close to What Is Sacred

 Last Sunday, found me shuffling through a pile of books that I had started reading and put aside because something else called to take their place for the moment.

I had started reading Mark Nepo’s, Seven Thousand Ways To Listen, in early December.  Wanting to preserve the sweetness of the experience of reading Nepo’s words, I opened it daily, reading only a few pages or even just a few paragraphs at a time.  I would ponder what I had just read, savoring the wisdom, as I might a raspberry lozenge that I don’t want to dissolve on my tongue too quickly.

Obviously, it was slow going and in the midst of total chaos and my failed time management in February, I set it aside until things calmed down and I could once again tap into the richness of Nepo’s writing.

Sunday, I opened the book slowly to the page where I had left off, starving for a shot of spiritual wisdom. I sat in my reading chair, while a chorus of birds sang just outside my window, and read the words above.

It was like a homecoming … finding a long-lost relative who I haven’t seen in years.  I was awed by the words and found myself rereading them over and over, filling up the empty spaces in my heart that had been drained over the past month or two.

I am so ready to begin reading just a bit of this book again every day … without rushing, so that the words settle in my soul and I again carry within me the courage of a seed.

What are you reading?  Do you have a book that you cherish and read only a few sentences at a time?