Tag Archives: thinking

A Word with the “Success” People

It’s nice to think that if we just keep trying, we’ll be successful. There’s a recurrent meme these days, if that’s the right phrase, that points out the number one marker of successful people is that they don’t give up. No kidding. Successful people didn’t give up before they became successful. Obvious. Tautology. What bugs me about this is that it’s waved about as though that’s all it takes. Not giving up. And that’s not true.

For every “successful” person who did not give up, there’s a crowd of strivers who have never given up and will never be “successful” in a corporate or financial or celebrity sense. Like Willy Loman, they try so hard, but they can’t make things work out in the way they dream. Not everyone can, and that’s just a simple fact. The problem is with the way success is measured. I think it can be an important growth moment to realize that a certain strived-for thing will never happen. Let it go. Move on to something else. Don’t surrender at the first sign of trouble, don’t be a quitter, but consider all the facts.

When we read the articles that say most of us give up just before we achieve success, we need to understand that no one can know that. There is no certain way to know if success was just about to come after the next effort. At some point, we have to accept that we are not going to be ballerinas. Our ankles are too thick. No amount of practice is going to change that physical fact. There are realities that we cannot change. Instead of beating the crap out of ourselves for being failures, we can decide not to buy that model of success.

As a writer, I can’t measure success in terms of copies sold and royalties earned. If I do that, I’m a failure. Every writer has to decide where the borderland of success lies, and I admit that for me, it’s in the validation of publication. For Diane di Prima, it was “simply to have lived and done the work.” I’ve always loved that. I believe it. There’s tremendous satisfaction in the writing, in the act of doing. It’s a success all by itself.

We’d all like to have more money, pots of it please and thank you, but that is not the only way to measure success. In fact, for almost everyone, it just can’t happen. Making money isn’t my gift. Corporate success isn’t my dream. An intersection of dream and gift might get us somewhere. And therein, mayhap, is the rub, as Hamlet might say. So few of us identify the gift and learn what it can do. We try to layer someone else’s idea of success over our own lives, and it just doesn’t work. We’d all be better off, individually and collectively, if we knew what we’re good at and what to do with it. If something isn’t working, stop doing it–that isn’t failure: it’s awakening.

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What Happens To Us When We Don’t Write

The great and noted Irish writer Edna O’Brien said this week that if she found out today that she couldn’t write anymore, she’d die tomorrow. I don’t think she means that she’d take matters into her own hands. I think she just means that it would be the end of her. There’d be nothing so dramatic as a heart that suddenly stops beating. But, it is a heart sickness.

Any of us who has a passion for something will become heartsick if we can’t do it. And if we’re being honest, most of us are probably heartsick most of the time. The day-to-day drudging, the demands of whatever, sucks up all the energy, all the imagination, all the time. It happens slowly enough that we don’t really notice. We just get tireder and tireder. Sicker and sicker. Sadder and sadder.

When I cannot write because I’m so busy making a living, I begin to tell myself that I’m not really a writer after all. I tell myself that if I were really a writer, I would pop off tomorrow from despair. Ergo, it matters not that I am not writing. It’s a sick thing that the mind can do to a person.

But when I manage to shove everything else, with some force and violence, out of my way, and begin to coax and plead with the words to come back, I begin to feel my heart healing. When I can keep at it, I begin to wish I could feel like that all the time. I remember that it is possible to feel productive and happy and solid. It happens when I do the thing I do.

I’m not so arrogant as to say that I was born to write. But I know that writing is my thing that I do. The planets align for me when I do it. We should all do what makes our planets align.

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University English

It would seem bleeding obvious, but apparently it isn’t, that the people who teach university English courses should be people with degrees. More than one. If a course offers university credit, the way for that course to be credible is to have an instructor with credentials. If the only credentials a person has are a couple of well-received novels, then that person should be teaching creative writing, at most.

Today, U of T English faculty members are falling all over themselves to voice their dismay at recent comments uttered out of the mouth of David Gilmour, novelist, who teaches literature courses. They should be falling all over themselves. He announced in an interview that he won’t teach any writers who are not straight white males. That leaves out a lot of writers. I bet you thought we were over that approach to literature. Well, this is what happens when people get jobs doing things they don’t know how to do, are not qualified to do.

Meanwhile, there are people in this country, armed with a PhD in English, scrabbling for a job, just one course, even. English departments have brought this embarrassing PR mess on themselves. What did they think would happen? Those courses have been taught by a person who doesn’t know what the point of an English course might be. English courses are all about critical thinking. U of T’s Victoria College went for some flash and prestige by having an acclaimed author on the job, and that big idea has now reached its logical conclusion.

Really, Mr. Gilmour isn’t the problem. The problem is the people who gave him the gig. They should have known he doesn’t understand. They should have had more respect for their own profession. They should have known that they needed to hire a PhD. There are loads of them looking for work. How are departments looking their grad students in the face?

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Orwell is in a Constant Spin

The other day, I read an Irish Times article titled, “English Language is Literally Spiralling Exponentially out of the Control of Pedants.”  I had a lovely laugh at its cleverness. The long-term misuse of “literally” and the emerging misuse of “exponentially” are among the many, many things that drive me, a proud pedant, into a spin. I can only imagine what poor George Orwell is doing in his grave. Spinning himself into a fine dust, that’s what.

The article’s author, Donald Clarke, observed that “a word now seems to mean what a lot of people think it means.” That is to say, that people think they know what a word means, and they use it to mean that, but it doesn’t. “Exponentially” does not mean “quite a bit” or “pretty fast.” It is a very specific kind of increase, but the word is being rendered meaningless (except in algebra class), by the crowd that got their hands on amazing, awesome, and incredible. I am a pedant, when it comes to words, and pedant does not mean “unimaginative,” as I have seen it defined. It means strict. The thing is that I love a neologism or a fresh use as much as anyone. New use and fresh use are not misuse.

Disrespect and party are not verbs. They’re nouns. Bring and take are not interchangeable, and neither are floor and ground or roof and ceiling. These words have specific meanings, and here’s one reason why it matters. People will say that others know what they mean, so what difference does it make. Well, it’s because they only think they know what it means. If neither side of an exchange knows what a word means, how can either one be sure that they both mean the same thing by it? Words are very dependable things, but people are not, so when they fling out an “exponentially” to make themselves look informed, they embarrass themselves because people who really do know what it means and how to use it see right through the facade. Communication requires as a starting point that all sides agree on using language a certain way.

The other day, I heard a judge on a cooking competition say that there was a “discourse” between the two components of a dish. But she was making a complaint. She meant “discord.” “Discourse,” in that context, would have been a positive thing. It would have suggested a conversation or interaction, but she wanted a word that suggested a disconnection. I was embarrassed for her. Don’t use a word if you don’t know what it means, and be bothered to find out what it means! How hard is that? I once had a college-level student (and I am not making this up) who was astonished when I told her to look a word up in the dictionary. She did not know that a dictionary has definitions in it. I swear. College-level.

This isn’t about the evolution of language. Words are alive, and sometimes, definitions do evolve and new words emerge. But the current vocabulary disempowers the words it flings around. If everything is amazing, then nothing is. In fact, when someone says something was amazing, I know it wasn’t. I have invoked Orwell here because of his cogent essay “Politics and the English Language.” In 1946, he wrote, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.” Amen, George.

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Keeping Things in Circulation

Along with staying in both new and familiar places, my plan for my recent travels was to listen. It wasn’t easy just to take time to be somewhere and not be working madly on something, and I had to keep reminding myself that my task was listening. Everywhere I went was worthy of that kind of attention, and it was really helpful to grant permission to notice and appreciate and nothing else. I can’t really say nothing else, because I did think about work in terms of new ideas, but that didn’t interfere with the listening. It was all quite restorative.

While I was away, my book-length poem, The Hungry Grass, was accepted for publication, which will happen next year, and the fact that the meeting was held while I was in the very place in which the poem is set came as a sign of validation. It reinforced for me that my writing is a worthwhile undertaking, that I’m right to do it. I know it can be important to write even if no one else will ever read a word, but for me, there are career and professional considerations as well. I won’t go into the personal need to be read. That acceptance letter had more than one effect.

I had been thinking about what to write next, and the acceptance made that decision seem more pressing. Until the manuscript was placed for publication it was still in progress, in a way. So, I thought about the next big project, and I managed to do that with greater calm than I have before. There are two, maybe three projects, that I’ll be working on over the next year or two. One is something that I had allowed to languish, and its back with some enthusiasm. I’m really looking forward to getting back at it. That’s one effect.

Another effect of the news is that I came home with a renewed energy for submitting poems to poetry journals. I used to be exceedingly businesslike about keeping things in circulation, but I’d gotten lazy about it. As I write, all of my remaining unpublished poems are once again out in the world seeking placement. I feel happy about that. It’s so full of possibility.

Of course, it’s full of danger, too–the risk of submitting work is that the work might be rejected. That always makes me sad, but the more I appear in print, the less power those rejection slips have over me. That alone is an excellent reason to keep sending things to editors. My mother used to say that water draws water. Publication draws publication.

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A Metaphor of Stone Fences

Even as the morning was happening, I knew it was a metaphor, and by the time it was over, I experienced such a euphoria at my accomplishment that I stopped in at the church and lit a candle. It all started when I set out to walk to Synge’s Chair, the spot on the north end of Inis Meain where J.M. Synge used to sit and contemplate. It’s a beautiful spot for a writerly person.

On my last visit here, I was told it’s possible to walk all around the edge of the island, and I decided to set out, but I didn’t get committed until later. This is a very rocky place, without enough soil to support trees and only rare bushes. On my right, as I proceeded counter-clockwise (another metaphor, now that I think on it), there was a high barrier of piled rocks, so that while I could hear the ocean, I couldn’t see it. I stumbled and tripped and teetered over shards and stones and occasional bits of grasses until I came to a stone fence, which I climbed over. I did that about six times.

As I searched for footholds, I pointed out to myself that maybe I shouldn’t do that, that it was foolhardy and didn’t I know my age. I replied that in that case, this was probably the only time I would ever do it. So I kept on. I started composing my apology to the search and rescue people who were going to have to come out and find me after I sprained an ankle or broke a hip. All the time, I could hear the ocean and sometimes I could see the spray. I wasn’t wearing a watch.

And then, I came to the end of the high barrier and could see the ocean. I could also see the flat stone platform that circles the coast on the sea-side of that barrier. And I thought to myself of course I did it the hard way.  I always do it the hard way. It happens without even trying. I have a gift for it. But, for my own mad reasons, I didn’t turn back, didn’t give up. And I felt such relief when I got to a bit of road and the walking got so easy, even though it was all uphill. When I got to the spine of the island and could see the dun, I began to feel elation. I felt a euphoria of accomplishment, and parched as I was, I took a few minutes to light the candle as a gesture to the universe before heading home. I’d been gone three hours.

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All That Energy

Every ounce of writerly energy I have went into the two major projects I had to finish before the end of this month. One of them was finished at the end of January, and the other was finished at two o’clock on Tuesday. There’s been no other writing, no time or words to spare for any other purpose. It’s difficult to push that hard for that long and then stop. I have a terrible impulse to find something else to throw myself into right away. I’ve had this feeling before.

When I finished my PhD, it took me about two years to realize that I could be permitted to take a day here and there without working. Apparently, this tendency has something to do with psychic machinery which seeks to recreate the recent experience. So, I’m having to take a bit of time to resist because if I don’t, how will I ever open up the space to allow thoughts and ideas to come of their volition and in their own time. I want to be able to hear them coming, like Rilke did.

Whatever it is that comes next, I want it to be something that offers itself rather than something I lunge at just because I feel a need to be doing. I’m trying to learn that the waiting is part of the doing, and that’s very new to me. It’s hard to think of doing nothing as doing something. I’ve been writing to make a living for the past few months, and that’s creative, too. I enjoy it, and it has its lessons, too. But I am  waiting for something that is mine, as the long poem was mine, to ask me to write it. It won’t do that unless I quiet myself enough for it to emerge.

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Writers and Taxes

I am convinced that no writers should do their own taxes. It can’t possibly work out to our benefit. For a few years, I tried, because an accountant costs. I’d fill in all the boxes and end up owing some outrageous amount that I didn’t have anyway. How could that be right, I’d think, living right on the poverty line, at best. Then, I tried using the taxation software, but it has no brain. It can discern nothing. Just because I entered something on one line, did not mean that it would deduce that I should get a deduction on some other line. Tax forms are entirely biased against right-brain people.

Numbers happen on the left side of the brain. I think there’s a plot against artists. I think it’s sinister. The revenue people do not look over my tax return and see everything I miss deducting. They only look for things I miscalculate that would mean a larger payment. Come on. A person living at the poverty line or lower has to pay every year at the end of April? So, I started paying an accountant to sort out the meaning of all my bits of paper. She takes them seriously. She doesn’t laugh aloud at any of them. She’s worth every cent because I know that, whether I get a refund or have to pay, it would be way worse for me if I still tried to handle it myself. It’s a bonus that my income isn’t so pitiful as it was.

Today, I got out my file folder and started sorting statements and receipts. I do not dread it. Adding up the category totals isn’t scary at all. And there’s a bonus: some of the receipts are like looking at pictures. Because part of my work involves travel, I look at the receipt for cheese from Sheridan’s in Galway and cannot help feeling wistful. Over cheese. As I do the currency conversion for the Belfast taxi receipt, I remember the trip to Milltown Cemetery and Bobby Sands’ grave. When I see the receipt for accommodation on Inis Meain, I can see the green door of Synge’s cottage out my window.

Accepting the truth that I cannot complete my tax return with anything like accuracy has meant that I can take a perverse pleasure in preparing my papers for the accountant. Perhaps I could write a poem for her. Or, at least, about my receipts and the memories they conjure.

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Going to Listen

Sometimes, my work ethic interferes with some other positive aspects of life. I find it difficult (impossible) not to feel guilty if I’m not producing something or doing something. I’m having to relearn the importance of “doing nothing” as a component of well-being. During my time as a graduate student, I worked every day for years. And years. About two years after I completed the PhD, I began to realize that I could give myself permission to take a day off.

For the last several years, I have been unable to go somewhere just to go there. As a continuation of the graduate experience, I tend to turn everything into work–can’t do it just to enjoy it, need to turn it into a project or a course. It isn’t healthy to look at a pleasure and think, “How can I turn this into work?” Justifying my existence is exhausting, always feeling that I had to have an active answer to “what are you doing.” My days were full of gerunds–finishing, writing, researching, developing.

Awhile ago, I related a story about staying in the Irish midlands for a few focussed weeks, but being stuck and not writing, becoming frustrated and anxious about time passing without results. In my creative paralysis, I went for a walk to the bog, mostly just to get away from all those unwritten lines and empty pages. Stomping along the road berating myself. I got to the edge of the bog and stood there staring at it, and eventually, I became aware of the breeze on my face, and I gradually became present. My head had been back in the cottage with the unwritten lines. I heard birds calling. I started to look around and saw all sorts of plants and grasses and little blossoms. It was a revelation.

I realized that I had been neglecting the sensory world. I was so excited because I had discovered why the lines were empty. It was because I didn’t know anything about the things that belonged in those lines. In order to make a world real, there must be breezes, grasses, sounds, colours, textures. There was a lot of research to do, to discover the natural world, the sensory world. It wasn’t an intellectual discovery. It was a sensory discovery. My surroundings told me.

The other day, I was telling my coffee companion that I’m nervous about the three weeks I have set aside for myself in June, going away for the first time with no specific project to pursue. That’s uncharted territory for me, and I don’t know how it will work. How do I justify the going? What am I going for? She reminded me of my epiphany in the bog. She said maybe I’m going to listen. I’m excited by that. That’s doing something. Why am I going? I’m going to listen.

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Hours in a Day

John Lennon said that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. My carefully drawn plan for a Spring program had life happen to it, so now, I need to find twice as many hours in a day. The question isn’t really “can I do it.” I can. I could fit every bit of that work into every day of that three weeks. I could. But that isn’t the whole of it. When we get stretched like that, something suffers.

Even if we don’t like to admit it, that’s the truth. Maybe it’s the quality of the work that suffers. Or the overall atmosphere in the office or house or group. Patience snaps. Tempers flare. Quality drops. Other people are affected. There’s a lot of writing and reading and thinking and listening to get done in that three weeks. There’s a limit to how much we can listen in a day, and I don’t want merely to look like I’m listening. I want to be listening. I want to be thinking. Maybe I should change my plan. And that’s a hard thing to do–let go of something that looks so good, in theory. It doesn’t matter how good it looks, if I can’t execute.

Lots of us overbook our time, and it’s just plain unhealthy and inefficient. Today, I am going to appear extremely inefficient because I am going to be staring into space, thinking. Occasionally, I’ll scribble something. Then, I’ll stare at that, and maybe I’ll scribble over it. Acts of creation are not impressive to watch. The act of creation is the idea, the plan. It takes a great deal of energy, and if it isn’t a solid plan, the reality won’t be solid, either. I can think on my feet, but I don’t want to spend three weeks juggling flaming sticks, especially if I’m tired. No good can come from that.

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