Even if today weren’t my friend Dar’s birthday, I would be thinking about her anyway. She has taught me more than almost anyone else about what it means to be an artist. One of her many gifts was introducing me to Julia Cameron’s wonderful book called The Artist’s Way which I read and “did” from 1995 up until Lila was born.
Cameron’s main thesis is that as writers and artists, our worst enemy is the inner critic we all have to some extent in our heads when we sit down to write or paint or play guitar or whatever. “That’s been done before,” the critic says. “Oh my God, how BORING! No one’s going to want to read that.” “Can’t you draw inside the lines?” “Anyone can write a song with just three chords! Spice it up!” “Wow, you really haven’t gotten any better on the guitar in twenty years. Should you really be exposing yourself to an audience?” Just for instance.
To bypass the inner critic, Cameron suggests, firstly, a practice of daily pages. Write three pages a day no matter what, she teaches. What you write can be, to paraphrase her friend and colleague Natalie Goldberg, “the worst crap in America.” Think of it as brain drain. You need to get it out before you can get to the good stuff. And sometimes you will surprise yourself by coming up with little gems, or even full poems, letters, ideas, character sketches. But that’s never the point. The point is to write, and to let yourself and your inner writer (and inner critic) know that you mean business.
I took Three Pages on as my daily practice during my years living in a 16 passenger Dodge Ram Van with six other people, traveling around the country playing rock rooms four nights a week. My routine: wake up around 8, run for a half-hour no matter where we were, no matter what the weather, shower, pack, climb into the first bench seat in the van by 10am, and while Katryna or Dave or our guitar player drove, I would sink into my composition book and write my three pages. No matter where we were, no matter what the weather (in fact, on the top of each entry, I wrote the date on the right and the city we were in on the left).
After a few years, I began to think I wanted to write a novel. A few years after that, I started it, writing, as I had conditioned myself to do, at the same time every day (10am). A year later, out of the blue, a publisher from Scholastic Books called our manager, Patty, and asked if I would like to write a novel for them, based on one of my songs. By that time I had joined a weekly writing group and began writing in the evening as well. I wrote the novel at the workshop and at 10am, along with whatever songs I was working on. But I continued, through it all, to write first thing in the morning (whenever that happened to be) with my three pages of brain drain.
All this stopped when Lila was born. “First thing in the morning” became more and more vague. Sometimes it was 5am, sometimes 7, but it always consisted of Lila waking us up to nurse and be played with, and not of writing. I tried to fit my three pages in at other times, and did pretty well with that off and on. By the time I was pregnant with Johnny, Lila was in a more clearly delineated sleeping routine and I began my practice again, but since he was born, it’s all I can do to write five lines in my five-year diary (which Dar gave me as a birthday present a few years ago; I took it as tacit permission to give up the Julia Cameron method, as well as an initiation into motherhood.) And, as I have written here, I made the decision to spend my discretionary time running for 20 minutes in the morning instead of writing (no matter the weather, etc).
Which brings me back to this blog. When I started this in 2004, I had no idea what a blog was. So I just wrote what was going on with me, which at the time was an intense spiritual search and the decision to become a life coach. I posted frequently, though not daily, and I posted long (2000+words) pieces that were more like editorials or essays than diary entries. My sister Katryna said they were too long for her to read (which I now understand: she had a three year old and a newborn) and that I should make them shorter. But I just couldn’t. The perfectionist in me wanted them polished and ready to send off to the editorial page of the New York Times at a moment’s notice.
And then I came to the decision which I wrote about here, the decision to take part of the two daily precious babysitter hours––hours which are mine, hours during which I used to be coaching clients––to connect with the part of me that is an artist, and to that end, to write about the experience in a public way. And I wanted to write to other mothers out there: mothers who were also artists and musicians; mothers who weren’t, but who could relate to the feeling of losing oneself to the art of mothering; mothers who wanted to retain a foothold on their past life. Moreover, I knew at the outset that there was no way I could write a daily polished five-page essay, and I also didn’t want to. I now do read other’s blogs, and I have to say, I prefer the short little pieces, the photos, the links. I am way too busy to read a five-page essay, so why should my readers?
So yesterday, someone commented (anonymously) on a previous post that my blog has devolved into a bad diary or collection of Twitter updates. They also said they were sick of hearing about how I sniff my kids’ necks. The comment, in fact, eerily echoed my own inner critic. When I first read it, my whole body flushed with shame and I felt sick and miserable, because there’s almost nothing I hate more than being criticized. I felt the way I used to feel in school when a teacher would give me a grade lower than an A. I immediately hit “reject” after reading the comment once, and said to myself, “That’s it. I’m not writing the blog anymore. I have too many other projects anyway.” Which is true. I am supposed to be writing this proposal for the family music book Katryna and I want to publish, and I have songs to write for HooteNanny 9, and I am in the middle of writing another song for our adult show. I have kids to raise, taxes to pay, diapers to wash, seedlings to grow, etc. etc. as you all know. Also, of course, I figure if one person is annoyed with the quality of my writing, I should stop immediately, because surely that person is voicing everyone’s opinion. And then a part of me wanted to title my next piece:
“I Sniff My Kids’ Necks And Defy You, Anonymous Critic! I Will Post Everyday, Even If All I Post Is: I SNIFFED MY KIDS’ NECKS TODAY! TAKE THAT!”
Fortunately, I am running a writing retreat today. I have twelve women in my house, and it’s my job to show them why it’s important to battle that inner critic who says everything we write is trash. Writing a blog is about being willing to listen to that inner critic personified outside of our own heads in the form of “comments.” So through the magic of the internet and the serendipitous fact that I’d kept another window open on my browser, the comment was not lost and I decided to publish it. You can read it for yourself here.
The truth is, part of me thinks that the critic is right: it’s true that I’ve been skimping on this blog, just like it’s true that I’ve been taking shortcuts in almost every area of my life now that I have kids. But when I made the commitment in March to post daily, it was with the understanding that this would mean the quality might go down, in much the same way that NaNoWriMo and FAWM are all about quantity over quality (or at least that’s always been my interpretation of it.) I wanted to walk my walk and not just talk my talk, and so I have tried my best to show up every single day with some kind of a post, even if it meant that some of the posts really were bullet points of my day. And because I have done this, I have reconnected with my muse in a deeply satisfying way. I remember, daily, that I am a writer, even if an occasionally Twitterish one.
But another part of me doesn’t care what anyone thinks and just loves my blog the way it is. In fact, just now I went back and read the offending post and enjoyed it tremendously. I love looking back on past posts and seeing the photos I took or the clips I found. Self-indulgent? You bet. Don’t like it? That’s fabulous! There’s a whole blogosphere out there, and you will absolutely find another voice you love. To be true to my work, I have to write for myself. If it reaches another person, that’s beautiful. If it doesn’t, at least I will have kept my writing muscles exercised another day.
And isn’t that the deal with parenthood too? Aren’t there days when we are absolutely trying our best and our best isn’t good enough? And I really mean “not good enough.” Many of us have spent years looking back resentfully at some aspect of parenting that was inflicted upon us as a result of our own parent’s exhaustion which we interpreted as a lack of love. I don’t like the fact that there are days when my daughter watches more than 2 hours of TV, and I don’t think that’s great parenting, and I want to do better. But on some days, that’s just all I can do for her. Other days, I am present and loving, and usually I notice a correlation between my state and the state of my children. But not always.
It is similar with writing. Some days, I show up to the page full of inspiration, dancing with the muse; other days, no matter how well-rested I am, how full my well, nothing “good” comes out. So far, as I have written, my experience with parenting––if you are going to compare parenting to any other activity we do in the world that invites comparison––is that all the things I used to do well, I now do…less well. I have learned that I have to accept that I will disappoint people, or my perfectionism will kill me. It will kill me, it will kill my writing and it will steal away my attention from the miracles that are occurring in my house on a daily basis.
I am a thin-skinned person. I take criticism very poorly. To combat this, I practice Tonglen, and I try to ask, when I am smarting, “How can this piece of criticism be my teacher right now?” As I said, when I first took in the anonymous critic’s words, I felt immediate, physical shame. But now, 24 hours later and some serious Tonglen practice, I feel grateful. Thank you, anonymous critic, for challenging me. Thank you for caring enough to read my blog in the first place. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have dug in and written this piece, which is probably 2000+ words, and which I got to read aloud to my retreatants and which I will use in the future in writing workshops as an example of how not to let anonymous critics stop you from writing daily. I am sorry for disappointing you, and I wish you well, whether you continue to visit this blog or not. And now, I have to stop writing so I can sniff my kids’ necks.