Tag Archives: identity

On Spending Time

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There should be a Writers Anonymous club: “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, and it’s been three weeks since I handed someone a half-baked draft for feedback.”

See, I suffer from something I like to call Supportive Audience Deficiency (SAD). I get SAD when I spend hours crafting beautiful words, flowing sentences, and snappy dialogue and have nobody to assure me it’s all worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’ve misdiagnosed myself—maybe instead of SAD I’ve got egocentrism problems. I’ve had the argument with myself before:

“I just want someone to reassure me that I’m not wasting my life.”

“You mean you want someone to compliment you.”

“No, I mean if this isn’t going to work out, I want someone to tell me now, before I waste my life on it.”

Wouldn’t life be easier if everything came with a clear designation? “This will take five hours a week and be vital in the long run,” or “This will take seven hours a week and be enjoyable, though you may regret it from time to time.”

Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. For years, my best alternative has been to hand someone a draft and judge by positive or negative feedback whether it’s worth the hours I might spend revising it.

And now I’m realising that I’ve gone about this all wrong. Life isn’t a budget to be balanced. Art isn’t a carefully calculated investment risk.

So I’m turning my back on the worrying and the second-guessing and the needing to know the outcome before I invest in the process. I’m doing what I love right now and letting the long run take care of itself. Instead of letting SAD symptoms dampen my enthusiasm, I’m enjoying the moments as they pass, living my life as it happens instead of waiting for the future.

Maybe the piece I’ve spent years on will never be read—so what? I enjoyed the process. I wrote for myself, not for some hypothetical audience years down the road. As I wrote, I learned self-discipline. I got to know myself better, faced dark parts of my own nature, confronted big questions, and did not surface with all the big answers. I let my imagination run wild and I lived in a new world created entirely at the crossroads of language and ideas. All of this may never be measurably relevant to my career, but it is immeasurably relevant to my being.

The most meaningful things in life may never give quantifiable returns on my time and effort, but perhaps that makes them more valuable, not less. I am shaped by the interests I pursue, the people I encounter, the ideas I entertain. I am formed by minuscule everyday experiences, not by some intangible ledger counting my time down to a bottom line. Every moment, I am growing and becoming. The most significant return on my time is not measured by what I do, what opportunities I have, or where I end up, but by who I am.

And for that, I need no supportive audience. I know the answer without asking—it is always worth my while to be.


What I Am Is White

“God made me white for a reason.”

She said it as I was sipping chai, as we discussed relationships and cultures and the difficulties of listening to people’s stories instead of fixing them. She’s an old friend who works with university students on a mostly-Latino campus, a blue-eyed white girl who grew up on the Mexican border, who looks, perhaps, German, but feels most comfortable around Hispanics.

It would’ve been easier if God had made her brown instead of white, if she hadn’t been a different colour in a town where whites are the marginalised minority. It would be easier if she matched the students she loves, if her affinity for Latinos were visibly explicable at a glance.

It would’ve been easier if God had made me brown, too.

As a child, with no conception of the difficulties minorities face, with the naïve innocence of a sheltered and privileged middle-class white girl, I knew before I was old enough to read that I wished my skin were something darker.

As a white girl growing up in Panama, I desperately wished to look more like everyone else, to stop the old ladies staring on the streets, the teenagers proudly airing their English in the form of catcalls, the girls at camp pointing to my untanned stomach and expounding on how white I was.

Thats me—the conspicuously white girl in the middle.

Thats me—the conspicuously white girl in the middle.

As a university student, discussing racial reconciliation, minority issues, and social justice, I developed yet a deeper awareness of my skin colour. The more I learned about systematic injustice, the more I longed to be free of the incriminating whiteness that put me in the “privileged” category and removed me from the struggles of those around me.

My desire to be a different colour changed from an adolescent’s wish to fit in to a young adult’s guilt over society’s wrongs.

Being white became an incurable flaw. I felt that by being white I somehow lost my right to an opinion, lost my ability to empathise, lost whatever it is that allows people to be grateful for their blessings without apologising for them.

I did not choose to be white, but I chose to regret it.

And now here sat my friend, sure that God had made her white for a reason.

And there I sat, accepting the idea, yet fighting back against the logic that said if she were white for a reason, so must I be. And the idea would not leave me. A reason—what reason?

Maybe I’m white to give a voice to the voiceless—to speak for the underprivileged in a society where my privilege lets me be heard.

Maybe I’m white to teach my soul humility—to learn to be gracious with myself and others when so much of our identity is involuntary and immutable.

Maybe I’m white to instil empathy in my heart—to help me see the perspectives of those around me and share their causes when I have nothing to gain.

Maybe…

…days later, I have a dozen potential reasons and no solid conclusions, and maybe that’s the way it should be.

There could be a hundred reasons or none, and in the end, perhaps it all boils down to this: That each of us should live a life dedicated to loving, supporting, and serving others, no matter our skin colour—that each of us is in some way privileged and in some way lacking—that we should fight injustice, right wrongs, and embrace differences—that as we face ourselves honestly, we must acknowledge what we are, but never apologise for it.

And for whatever reason, what I am is white.

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Blank Page Phobia

Photo cred: Flickr user Matt Roberts

If there’s a trope in the writer world more cliche than “It was a dark and stormy night…” it’s the terror of the blank page.

We all face it—the emptiness like a white-out blizzard that might swallow us and numb us until the terror turns to frozen death—the fear we try not to acknowledge, hiding behind funny writer jokes and declarations of how much we adore creating worlds out of graphemes.

I face it when I sit down to the first daunting word of an assignment and when I open a document for a new story. I face it two paragraphs in, when the rest of the page stretches like the wilderness at the crumbled end of an abandoned sidewalk. I face it when I open a new blog post like this one and wonder yet again if I have anything to write that’s worth posting.

The world is full of shouting voices. The internet is a veritable sea of people waving their arms and shouting, “Over here! Hey! I’m right here!” and “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” And somewhere, in the midst of that, in a world where 6.7 million people blog on blogging sites alone and and somewhere between 600 thousand and a million books are published each year in just the US—somewhere, buried in the noise and the chaos, each of us hopes to be heard.

Photo cred: Flickr user steve

That blank-page-phobia isn’t really about coming up with the right words. It isn’t “What if I have nothing to say?”

It’s “What if nobody cares?”

Our greatest fear isn’t of being silent, but of being silenced.

We fear obscurity. We fear redundancy. We fear the “so what?” factor—that the words we feel to be so intimately a part of us will be met with apathy if we open them to the world.

We are portrayed time and again as a selfish culture—all of us, whether as a country or as a generation—but the truth is that we don’t shout for attention because we’re narcissists. We shout because we’re desperately lonely. In a world where all of us plead for attention, most of our voices mingle into unintelligible noise.

As writers, we’re told to churn out material constantly. The most oft-repeated advice I’ve heard is, “Write every day.” Write because practice makes perfect. Write because the more pieces you put out, the more likely one or two of them will float to the top of the pile and gain notice.

Write. Write. Write.

And I stare at the blank page and tell myself to write, and a small voice inside me whispers, “But what if nobody reads it?”

So today, I give you and me permission not to write.

To set the blank page aside and listen to one or two of the other voices screaming into the void. Today, let’s take the time to let some other lonely soul know that their voice is heard—that their words are not white noise—that the confessions of their heart are not redundant, not worthless.

And then, when we’ve done that, I give you and me permission to write.

To craft sentences and select words and make typos and finish—or not finish. To publish—or to not publish. I give us permission to write because we are writers and because the craft itself is a worthwhile endeavour. And I give us permission to love our writing even if nobody else reads it, to set our words aside if they do not contribute to the clamour of voices—or to lay our souls before the world, knowing that the act itself is meaningful, no matter the result.

Because none of us is silent. None of us is obscure. None of us is redundant. No matter how many voices drown us out, each of us matters.

Photo cred: Flickr user Amy Palko


On Adulting

“I’m an adult, but more like an adult cat,” explains the meme. “Someone should probably take care of me, but I can sorta make it on my own.”

“I cannot adult today,” another declares.

I chime in most mornings with, “Do I have to be a human?”

There’s a whole generation of us hitting this stage—too old to pretend not to be anymore, but not really sure how to successfully adult. We navigate the dark alleys of taxes, leases, and school loans on sheer survival instinct, but we’d rather be napping in a sunny spot with some more adult-like adult preparing dinner for us. We still binge-watch Nicktoons, but now we do it in between jobs, and we feel kinda stressed about it.

Where is that magical adulthood threshold? we wonder. When will I stop feeling like a kid playing dress-up?

Photo credit Paul Inkles

And yet, whether we see it or not, slowly, step by step, we wander (mostly on accident) from the playground to the workplace, from ninth grade homeroom to college graduation.

I’ve started noticing those steps.

One happened yesterday when I went to the doctor’s office all by myself. One happened two years ago when I signed my own lease and paid rent on a house all summer. One happened three years ago when I did my taxes myself for the first time; four years ago when I bought an iron; five years ago when I dealt with a fender-bender alone.

And I realise at last that there is no threshold.

There will not be the morning when I wake up and think, Ah, yes, now I’m an adult. I will not magically feel prepared or suddenly know how to navigate the world.

I will become a functional adult the way I became a functional kindergartener or a functional teenager—one tiny step at a time, so gradually I don’t notice, and mostly on accident.

Adult life, it turns out, isn’t so much different from the sixth-grade playground or the tenth-grade hallway.

I’ll make mistakes, probably walk into the wrong bathroom a time or two, lose my pencil sharpener, take notes on the wrong chapter, and recover. There will be drama and misunderstandings, laughter and in-jokes, and I will probably never stop watching cartoons or reading YA fiction.

Adulthood, I begin to understand, is not about the things you lose along the way; it isn’t about stopping eating ice-cream by the pint, giving up dumb bus games, or ending late-night giggles with friends. It’s about the things you gain along the way; it’s about taking responsibility, learning to walk alone, balancing real life and make-believe.

There is no adulthood threshold. And, really, as long as I go to work in the morning and do my taxes on time and make my own doctor’s appointments, why should I quit playing dress-up?

Photo credit Lauren A W


Remembering Why I Write

“Sometimes I think I should quit writing and do something simple, like neurosurgery.”

I give this answer from time to time when people ask about my writing or when I’m faced with a insurmountable writers block. Sometimes I say “rocket science” or “quantum physics” instead of “neurosurgery,” but the gist remains the same.

It gets a laugh out of people. More importantly, it deflects attention and saves me from admitting I feel inadequate.

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This never happened before I became a writing major. Back in high school, I remember constant excitement as I switched between drafts, writing whatever caught my fancy at any given moment. I could ramble for hours about my ideas, and I proudly finished draft after draft and filed them away for revisions. Publishing hovered in the future somewhere, waiting for the day I had edited something to my satisfaction and found an agent, or whatever it was you had to do to get published. I didn’t know. I was happy and confident.

Now I’m a writing major. Professors expound on the near impossibility of getting published and preach the importance of racking up bylines—any bylines, in any genre—because nobody will take an unpublished author seriously. My files are stuffed with scrapped drafts, “need five more revisions” novels, and short stories with long rejection notes.

My files are also filled with publications—but not as many as I’ve learnt to need. More people read my writing now than ever before in my life, but I’m less content than ever before. I’ve been taught I need more, always more. And someone else always has more impressive numbers or more exciting bylines than I do.

This week, a couple people wrote to tell me they appreciated my writing, and suddenly I saw my life in perspective. I don’t write for faceless numbers. I write for people—people I care about.

I write because words are a gift I want to pass on. Because other writers gave voice to my own fears and dreams. Because if I can touch one person’s life in even the minutest way—if I can bring about a single smile or let a single person know they’re significant—I’ve accomplished my purpose.

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Writing isn’t about getting published or developing a fan base. It’s not about being the best or having the most bylines. Writing is about loving words and sharing ideas, working out impossible dreams and inspiring conversation. My writing is an extension of me, not the other way around, and that’s a vital difference. I define my work. My work does not define me.

I write for the joy of the language.

So this post is for the artists who crave recognition: someone sees you. Even if it’s one person, you serve a purpose. Your efforts are valuable if you inspire a single new thought, even if the new thought is your own.

It’s for the writers who face rejection slips: your words matter. Remember why you write.

Don’t write for a byline. Write for the joy of the language.

 


Lessons From Failing NaNoWriMo

November ended last week, and my word count is 23,421.

See anything off about that number? Like, maybe, that the goal was 50k and I’m under half that?

Also, are you remembering that I’ve written twice about doing NaNo and how to write a novel in a month?

It’s time to follow up on those—because 23,421 words is the closest I’ve ever gotten to “winning” at NaNo, and I don’t regret that. I think I learn more from “losing” every year than I would from winning.

I learn that writing is not one word after another, but a hundred words after a hundred others, doubting each one but forcing it out anyway.

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I learn that writing takes time, which I scratch out of the walls of my schedule, stretching seconds like stiff muscles and borrowing minutes from tomorrow, next week, next month. It’s a sacrifice—to appease the writing gods, like some pagan ritual, I sacrifice my sleep, my energy, sometimes my sanity.

I learn that 50k is not a number, but a place. Not, as I thought, a palace for worthy writers place at the end of a torturous pathway, but instead a hut partway up the mountain, treacherous in itself because it tempts weary writers to sleep instead of finishing the journey.

I learn that each writer is different. Like runners who excel at different events, writers are unique, each most productive in a different setting—and “productive” is itself an arbitrary word whose meaning changes for each writer in each season. There are the sprinters, fuelled by enthusiasm, who write the first half of the novel before week one ends. There are the marathoners who put one word after the other, consistent, steady, who don’t look flashy but will reach the finish line as others drop out. And there are those who will never cross a finish line to cheers but will keep moving, not for the win or the applause, but for the love of the process.

I learn that something effective for someone else may be ineffective for me. Despite all the advice in the world, only your words can carry you from prologue to epilogue—one letter after anther, a cluster of curves and lines and then a space, and then another cluster of curves and lines.

And I learn that my purpose is not to follow great writers’ footprints and hope I end up in the same place, but to make my own footprints; not to reach some glorious peak, but to see the tiny glories around me with each step. My purpose is not to be one of the great authors—my purpose is to be me. A different me with every step, but still, in the end, me.

As long as I’m still me, one word after another, whether I write 10k or 50k, I win.

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That Time I Shaved My Head

My father jokes endlessly about his lack of hair, so when I texted him this photo a week ago, the caption was obvious: “Look, daddy—we’re twins!”

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Last year, everyone on campus knew me by sight as “that girl with dreadlocks.” I guess now I’m “that bald girl.” It’s surprising how much of your identity is wrapped up in your hair. Surprising how you don’t notice till it’s gone.

Before the clippers hit my head, it seemed like a grand adventure—I would do something different and discover whether or not anyone can really look like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. But as a friend guided the vibrating clippers across my head in that first irrevocable pass, I squinched my eyes shut and squeaked, “What if I have an ugly head?”

A year ago, I bribed my housemates with cookies to help comb my hair into dreadlocks. When they said, “What if we ruin your hair?” I replied that I would cut it off. “It’s hair,” I reminded them. “It comes back.”

A week ago, when I bribed a friend with tea to shave my hair off, I realised I had no backup plan.

I found out how much I hide behind my hair.

When I dreadlocked it, I discovered the dubious joys of a hairstyle that people feel free to mention. Like a dog or a baby, somehow dreadlocks open you up to the scrutiny and criticism of strangers. People passing in Starbucks or on the sidewalk would ask how long I’d had locks or how hard they were to maintain. They’d ask to touch them.

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And humans weren’t the only fascinated ones.

Now, as I ran a hand over my newly-shorn scalp, I saw my face in the mirror. My eyes, my nose, my mouth. My sort of sticky-outy ears. Nothing to soften them. Just my face.

I couldn’t maintain eye contact with the stranger in the mirror.

The freedom to comment on my dreadlocks didn’t extend to my shaved head. Even friends looked and then looked away. Strangers avoided meeting my eyes.

Last year, everyone asked why I locked my hair; last week, nobody asked why I shaved my head.

I haven’t sorted out reasons. I’m still processing how I feel about the uncomfortable glances and the squirming refusals of some friends to feel my scalp when other friends say, “Touch her head!” I have guesses but no answers as to why my head is somehow different from my hair.

What I do know is that having no hair is scary.

Those first few days, I wore the kind of makeup I usually reserve for fancy-shmancy events. I’ve been choosing my clothes and jewellery with extreme care. It’s taken me a week (and a quarter inch of fuzzy new hair) to get comfortable enough with my own face to let it stand on its own without brushing on bronzer and adding sparkly shadows around my eyes. It turns out I know my hair better than I know my face—I’m surprised every time I see my own features in a mirror or a window.

I won’t be shaving my head clean every week or anything like that, but having a chance to get to know myself without something that I’ve literally and figuratively hidden behind for most of my life…I think it’s a valuable experience. In some odd, undefinable way, I think I’m better for having tried this.

But I can’t lie—I’m looking forward to having hair again.


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