The Power of Authenticity

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. – Dr. Seuss

That quote nearly lost its meaning for me after hearing it so many times, but I’ve recently rediscovered how liberating and empowering the message is.

I believe and practice a lot of things that would offend people I care about. I’m not a Christian. I practice polyamory. Sometimes I’m attracted to women. I’ve tried illegal substances. I would prefer a world without government. I believe that circumcision, spanking, and most forms of discipline are child abuse. I think formal schooling is unnecessary and usually harmful to children. Sometimes I wonder whether humans would be better off if we lived in tribes as hunter-gatherers and never created civilization.

Did any of those trigger you? I hope so. They’re all things I’ve been afraid to admit to certain people. And each one is a huge topic that I would like to explore on this blog.

But there’s been so much fear holding me back. What if I destroy friendships? Lose job opportunities? Get abandoned by everyone I love and am forced to live the rest of my life in solitary confinement?

Some of these fears are well-founded. I’ve felt deeply betrayed by attempts to “be myself” in the past. One time I even lost a job that I adored because I opened up to my boss about my feelings. I’ve destroyed friendships by revealing my political beliefs. I’ve been rebuked by one of my biggest heroes for expressing my feelings inappropriately on Facebook.

As someone who tends to hold controversial opinions, I’ve continually swung from one extreme—proudly offending everyone within earshot—to the opposite, where I lock my feelings inside and attempt to pass as “normal.”

In my struggle to find a balance, I’m learning that I need to have a bias towards authenticity. People who get offended by my opinions are not usually people I want to spend time with. I don’t want to be friends with them, I don’t want to work for them, and I don’t need them to read my blog.

Looking back on the traumatic losses I experienced by being open in the past, I can see now that most of them were for the best. It really would not have been good for me to stay in a job where I bottled up my concerns about the environmental impact of cotton farming practices. A friendship that required me to believe in Christianity was not worth my energy. By cutting off these attachments, I’ve freed myself to develop more fulfilling relationships.

My biggest struggle recently has been opening up about polyamory. It’s a big part of my life, and keeping it secret feels like betraying myself. I want my friends to accept me for who I really am. But I’ve been worried that people would lose respect for me, assuming I sleep around with everyone I meet with no concern for safety or stability (although even that should be no cause for disrespect). I’ve already shattered my parents’ hopes for me to be a holy daughter, but this might be the last straw that causes them to disown me entirely. I’m in the market for a new job right now, and potential employers might look down on such an alternative lifestyle.

A few days ago I conquered these fears and shared a post about why I practice polyamory. I’ve never seen such a dramatic response. My blog got almost 1,000 page views over the weekend, compared to my normal 2-3 visits per day. I received dozens of messages from people I’ve never even met and friends I haven’t talked to in years. They said they’re inspired by my courage, and now they want to start sharing more about what they believe. Some of them confided that they’ve been exploring polyamory in secret, afraid of the consequences of coming out in public, expressing how grateful they are for my effort to break the stigma.

Of course, there were plenty of responses that weren’t so positive. I offended people I care about deeply. Some people made me out to be a frivolous little girl who wants to run around and sleep with everyone I meet with no regard for my offspring and the people around me. Some of them made valid criticisms of my arguments. I’m not looking forward to the reaction I’ll get from my parents—last they heard, I thought boys had cooties.

What’s amazing is that I’m learning to appreciate the negative feedback. Criticism means that I’m saying something worthwhile and threatening real beliefs. If everyone already agreed with me, then I wouldn’t need to say it.

T.K. Coleman explains it well:

“If you’re writing, saying, doing, or creating something that’s not capable of being misunderstood, I can assure you of one thing: it’s completely useless. If it’s worth it to you to put it out there, it will be worth it to someone else to put it down. Liberate yourself from the illusion that it’s possible to find a mode of expression that will go over well with every single person. Doing things that are useful isn’t the same as doing things that are universally understood.”

Thankfully, the positive connections I made from that post far outnumbered the criticism. That might not always be the case. But as long as I’m speaking my truth in a helpful way, it’s worth it to take a stand for what I believe in. I’d rather form strong connections with a smaller number of people who value that truth than stay in the middle of the road with everyone’s approval.

For everyone reading this, I want to encourage you to be authentic. Prepare yourself for the consequences of people judging you, but know that the connections you do make will be so much more meaningful. Vulnerable self-expression shines like a beacon of courage through the dull clouds of content smothering the internet, shedding light on the fear and isolation so that we don’t have to feel so alone. You’ll discover an empowering freedom and inspire others to do the same.

Revival

I’m going to revive this blog. I let her fall into a coma, and the breathing is pained and shallow, but she’s not too far gone.

I’ll attach an IV and pump into her some life-saving nutrients from Anne Lamott, and when she’s strong enough I’ll spoonfeed her with The War of Art from Steven Pressfield. Every day upon waking, I’m going to give her several hours of tender loving care, gentle but persistent nurture. And it won’t be easy. She’ll have to learn to walk again on legs that have atrophied in bed for 14 months. The sentences will be jerky and awkward, like the first steps for the bedridden. The nerves waking up will inflict excruciating pain.

But with faith and persistence, the muscle fibers will grow strong again. If I push aside the self-doubt and hyper-criticism and fear of rejection, my creative muscles will rejuvenate, and I’ll once again be able to express myself through words. To communicate the truth of what I’ve experienced, and eventually connect with others and make them feel things they had forgotten how to feel.

To keep with tradition, I’ll end with a quote from my favorite author:

“Your mind is filled with voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Yet somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.

You may experience a jittery form of existential dread, considering the absolute meaninglessness of life and the fact that no one has ever really loved you; you may find yourself consumed with a free-floating shame, and a hopelessness about your work, and the realization that you will have to throw out everything you’ve done so far and start from scratch. But you will not be able to do so.”

– Anne Lamott

Speed Reading

When everyone around me is checking book after book off their reading list, I start to wonder if I really should take Tim Ferris’s advice about learning speed reading skills. I could get through so many books, and it would be so impressive. Imagine how smart I would get if I could finish 2-3 books a week!

Sometimes I find myself inadvertently employing some of those methods—skimming paragraphs, taking note only of the main ideas. Some books aren’t worth any more attention than this. But what I’ve realized is that the books I love deserve so much more. The best writers hide their treasures within unexpected imagery and clever wording. If you don’t take the time to unpack each sentence, then you’re missing the best part.

As I read Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, I can’t help but marvel at the depth to which her writing draws me in. If I start to read too quickly, a phrase or image will jump out and make me pause, then reread the last paragraph to find what I’ve missed.

Her words are so thick I can almost chew them. They’re so rich that I have to run my tongue over them, tasting all the subtle flavors. And they nourish me, filling up my hollow insides, giving me strength through their beauty.

To give you an example, her narrative on dealing with grief is especially poignant:

The depth of the feeling continued to surprise and threaten me, but each time it hit again and I bore it, like a nicotine craving, I would discover that it hadn’t washed me away. After a while it was like an inside shower, washing off some of the rust and calcification in my pipes. It was like giving a dry garden a good watering. Don’t get me wrong: grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit.

I’m pretty sure that it is only by experiencing that ocean of sadness in a naked and immediate way that we come to be healed—which is to say that we come to experience life with a real sense of presence and spaciousness and peace.

While I disagree with some of the conclusions she draws in the book, her writing awakens something inside me that leaves me craving more and inspires me to try to reach others in at least a glimmer of the way she has touched me. If you want to open yourself up to this transforming art, then you have to slow down and pay attention to more than the plot line. For books like this, speed reading will ruin your experience in the same way that rushing through life will sap the joy you can gain by living in the moment.

Don’t succumb to the pressure to read faster. It’s not about the number of books you can put on your list. Instead, read deeper. Make sure you’re getting the most out of everything. If it’s a flavorless, slimy book on marketing that you just HAVE to read if you ever want to succeed in your career, then plug your nose and gulp it down like the medicine that it is. Otherwise, throw that book out the window and go find yourself some true nourishment.

Stephen King on Reading

As a child, I devoured hundreds of books. I can honestly say that without that escape, I might not have made it through middle school alive. I remember how the cruel world of reality would fall away as I lost myself in the words of Chaim Potok or Toni Morrison. I believe that what writing skill I do have comes from all those books.

I would bring a book with me everywhere I went. I truly hate the constant chorus of Luddites whining about how cell phones are ruining our lives, but I will admit that having a smartphone has caused me to read a lot less, and I need to change that.

Although Stephen King writes from a time before books became so cumbersome, his exhortation about the importance of reading has reminded me what I’m missing out on:

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books—of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution. . . Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

He goes on to explain how these habits can transform your writing.

Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing—of being flattened, in fact—is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

Stephen King: On Writing

As many times as my good friend has encouraged me to read Stephen King’s novels, I could never make it past the first few pages. The stories are too full of the voices of his repressed childhood trauma screaming for attention for me to enjoy them. That’s why when TK Coleman and several other people I respect recommended that I read his book On Writing, I was skeptical.

After reading over half the book in the past 24 hours, I’m pleasantly surprised. Although the writing style does not pierce my heart like Anne Lamott’s and I still don’t think I’d like him in person, Stephen King’s writing is highly entertaining and has even made me laugh out loud a few times. In the first section about his history as a writer, he tells captivating stories from his childhood and his struggles with addiction that make it clear that the monsters in his novels are indeed coming from inside of him. But just because he has not resolved his childhood trauma doesn’t mean he hasn’t mastered the art of writing.

In the second section of the book, King delves into practical advice about how to progress from a competent writer to a good writer. He says that bad writers can never become competent or good writers; if you don’t start off as at least competent, then there’s no hope for you. I’m desperately hoping I fall into the latter category.

Here’s one piece of advice that struck me:

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.

More quotes to come.

Better Than Coffee

I’ve heard a lot of people say that when you’re feeling unproductive and down in a slump, all you need to do is finish something, however small, and you’ll feel better. Even if it’s making your bed or emptying your Inbox.

I had that nagging feeling all day. When your job requires you to answer customer service emails that pile up in the hundreds, it’s hard to ever get to that lovely zero. But I did it, several times. Yet the feeling persisted, gnawing away at my gut.

Finally, I had to take a break from the endless emails to schedule tomorrow’s Social Media posts–an image with an inspirational quote. I had been pushing it off because it’s hard to find the perfect quote and a picture to match it perfectly. I had to play around with a bunch of free stock photos and text placements before I got anything to look decent. But when I finally finished and scheduled the post for tomorrow, I suddenly felt the flood of relief I had been waiting for.

At least for me, it’s not the act of completing a task that soothes the ache. It’s the act of creating. When I’m answering emails, I stay in response mode. I’m like a tennis ball being hit around from task to task with no control over my trajectory. But even when I’m doing something as simple as designing a quote for Instagram, it puts me back in the driver’s seat and lets me return to myself so I can express what’s in there.

These feelings are pretty new to me. I think that since I’ve started writing, my insides have seen the light and they don’t want to be shut up again in darkness. They’ve tasted the freedom that comes through self-expression, and now they refuse to be caged. When they are, they will torture me until I open the door.

This is why I need to write in the morning, every morning. I need to finish something and post it, no matter how bad it is. Better than coffee for starting my day.

My Revolution

Anne Lamott encapsulates so perfectly all of my aspirations for being a writer:

Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.

Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done.

If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.

Other People’s Thoughts

I’ll be honest: I’ve been feeling a little guilty about publishing quotes from other people all the time. After I got in the habit of writing my own posts every day, copying and pasting someone else’s words seems like a cop-out.

But today, my mentor, TK Coleman, reminded me that being able to identify and share profound insights from other writers is a skill of its own, especially when it’s accompanied by commentary that adds context. I realized that on one of my favorite blogs, Brainpickings, nearly all the posts are filled with lengthy quotes from other sources.

That said, I still need to do some work on my own material. But for now, here’s another gem from my hero Lamott:

Toni Morrison said, ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else,’ and if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else. Not everyone will be glad that you did. Members of your family and other critics may wish that you had kept your secrets. Oh, well, what are you going to do? Get it all down. Let it pour out of you onto the page.

Monsters

Some day, I want to be able to write like Anne Lamott:

He told me about his monster. His sounded just like mine without quite so much mascara. When people shine a little light on their monster, we find out how similar most of our monsters are. The secrecy, the obfuscation, the fact that these monsters can only be hinted at, gives us the sense that they must be very bad indeed. But when people let their monsters out for a little onstage interview, it turns out that we’ve all done or thought the same things, that this is our lot, our condition. We don’t end up with a brand on our forehead. Instead, we compare notes.

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

Below the Surface

I want people who write to crash and dive below the surface, where life is so cold and confusing and hard to see. I want writers to plunge through the holes–the holes we try to fill up with all the props. In those holes and in the spaces around them exist all sorts of possibility, including the chance to see who we are and to glimpse the mystery.

The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake or the secluded, camouflaged hole. The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away or step around the brush and brambles; then we can dance around the rim of the abyss, holler into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in. It can no longer swallow us up. And we can get on with things.

– Anne Lamott