Happy Birthday, Dar!

posted April 19, 2009

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.

The Comments

Join the Conversation. Post with kindness.

  1. Hey, I wasn’t going to leave this as a comment, cause I usually don’t comment on stuff, but to offset “anonymous” from the other day, I wanted to let you know that (i) I really liked your Eat the Document reference that you squeezed in the other day and (ii) I like reading your blog. I look forward to it. My life is also hectic and often frustrating and reading your blog makes me a lot calmer. Please don’t stop writing as long as you want to keep doing so.
    -Brooke Alkon

  2. For the record, I love reading about your experiences being a mother. I’m a fairly new mom myself, and while I’ve always loved your music, it’s been a great pleasure to find you have interesting and helpful thoughts for this phase of my life too. I’m glad you’re writing more often now! I’ll admit sometimes the posts are too long for me, but that’s my problem, not yours. So keep writing.

  3. I always love hearing about you sniffying milk-crusty necks and cleaning poopy diapers at stores and rushing to the emergency room and slowly purging and cleaning the house. Some people will identify, some people will long for a life like yours and some will be grossed out. Rabid fans never really like it when the artist changes things or has babies. And then there are those of us who really love you.

  4. He N.–
    Well, I probably fall somewhere in the middle of the fans and critics: I really liked the transition from your highly-polished essays (that I felt sometimes talked down to me and weren’t as real, as raw as the memoir-type writing I tend to like) to the daily blogs filled with questions and angst and flaws and crystal wisdom. I too practice J. Cameron’s “brain drain” journaling when I can; and…and…I don’t usually want to read other people’s brain drain! It’s similar to the way I feel about Tori Amos: some of her songs are so brilliant, and some seem like unedited journal entries to me. Some folks love that. I don’t happen to. The bottom line is: It’s YOUR blog. Do with it what you will. And…you are writing to be read, or you wouldn’t be publishing the blog (or so it seems to me; perhaps I’m wrong?). IS there a responsibility to the reader b/c of that? What I probably like mnost these days, Nerissa, is that you no longer try to have a tidy ending for these pieces. The best creative nonfiction ends somewhere very different than it began and cannot usually be summed up in some neat conclusion–D. Sedaris is my fave example of this. My personal preference would be to still read entries that are shorter and published often, but that mostly seem like more than one would jot down quickly in a diary…but what matters is what you (Nerissa) want and what you are hoping for in and with this blog. You may not even know yet–maybe we are witmessing your meanderings to your next developmental phase as an artist. Thank you for letting us in on how you used the criticism as an opportunity to be brave, to be transparent, to show compassion for that inner (and outer) critic, and to be gentle with yourself without resorting to fleeing or giving up! There’s always a gift in everything–we just have to decide it’s there dig deep to find it.
    Blessings, Kim
    P.S. You rarely print “controversial” comments–thanks for allowing this discussion with and among your readers to happen!

  5. I am so glad you write more often –even if it is about sniffing your children’s necks. It’s interesting to me, as a Nields fan from as long ago as 1994 when I saw you for the first time at the Earlville Opera House in NY State, even to now, living in Minneapolis and having not seen you since your Old Town School of Folk Music sometime in 2004 or so? Or maybe it was at Schuba’s in Chicago (when I used to live there)? Regardless, as a Nields fan and now as a mom myself of a nine month old, I am so excited to read whatever you write. So keep writing! It’s great!

  6. Hi Nerissa–
    Thanks for the blog! You wrote here about the days when you would run every morning when you were on tour. I remember (I think) a newsletter you sent out once referring to that as part of your anorexia and that you had destroyed your knees. Every so often you’ve made a quick reference in your blog to having an eating disorder. Now you say you’re running every day again, and that you lost the baby weight, but–you’ve never really written (at least, in your blog) about your experience with an eating disorder. I’m wondering why not? I know I’d like to read more about it, and especially because you are focusing so much of your work on issues for girls, women, mothers…and, you are raising a daughter and I imagine worry about passing it on to her. (There’s new research that shows that some people may have a genetic predisposition to anorexia/bulimia–have you read about this?)… I hope it’s not b/c it has resurfaced, but in any case hope all is going well. And I hope you’ll choose to write more about it some time. It’s so rampant in our society, and few artists talk about it publicly in more than just a passing way.
    Beverly M.

  7. Hi Beverly,

    Well, this is strange. I just posted a piece called “Barbie” and then came back to moderate the comments and found yours. I think it speaks to the points you make. Thanks for reading!


  8. Personally, I think the guy who left the controversial “anonymous” comment from the other day was a real jerk. I am not a parent myself, but I don’t see why s/he was so grossed about your sniffing your kids’ necks. (Now, if you had said you sniffed your kids’ butts; THEN his/her comment might have been justified. But I doubt very much that you would do that, let alone write about it.) Keep writing your blog and write about what feels right for YOU and don’t worry about what that one jerk out there think. You will never get the entire world to love you or agree with you. emember, millions of people loved Abraham Lincoln, JFK, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and most of all, Jesus Christ; yet there was at least one person who hated each of these men enough to kill him. Yet that in no way minimizes the love that so many people had and still have for each of these men. So, to paraphase Lincoln, you can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Try to ignore the people who you can never please, and keep writing (unless, of course, it contains references to butt-sniffing).

  9. Wow, that was serendipitous, Nerissa! Guess we’re picking up the quantum wavelegnths…I do want to respectfully say that I have read your blog since it started and have notices little body “digs” in it often enough that they stick out to me–even in the recent one where you said something about people commenting on the lack of clutter in your house is even better than them asking you if you’ve lost weight! Often our truths come out in our jokes…at least in my experience. It saddened me to read that, to see (and I am still prey to it too) that the body which has grown two HUMAN BEINGS (how amazing) is still of more value to you at a lighter weight–and that you don’t see this as part of the eating d/o history. I really felt that when I read the Time/$/Calories piece, too…Forgive me if this is too personal, but once a writer puts something out there, I think it’s somewhat public property, for better or worse. You communicated to me as a reader that our bodies as women are better at our smaller weights–pre-baby, premenopause, pre-illness, prewomanhood. That I need to not eat that mango unless I can burn the same number of calories (that was the saddest moment in that blog entry to me). I felt worse about myself after the “joke” about the clutter v. weight loss comment, and I don’t have an anorexia history but I did grow up in this culture which tells me to look like Jennifer Aniston or else. I have a 15-lb. weight gain from a thyroid problem that I can’t shake, and if I don’t come to terms with the fact that this just IS right now, it will kill my spirit. Lots of women are dealing with much bigger gains, I know. And I guess it hurts more to read unconscious comments like that coming from a writer like yourself whose life was threatened by those cultural messages. Anyway, that’s why I’d like to see a piece of writing about this from you–not just “I’m all better” but, “how does this still affect me?” And I’m sorry again, but if you don’t even see that you’d been doing this in your blog, don’t you think that there may be ways you’re still communicating it to your kids? Not saying you hate your body in front of one’s kids is very different than celebrating it–and bodies of all kinds of sizes and shapes–in an authentic and consistent way. My mom never taught me how to really love my body; I wish she had. It goes a long way towards inoculating kids against the cultural forces they’ll face outside the home.

  10. Keep writing. I appreciate that you do publically what some of us try to do privately.
    Keep writing about your children and your motherhood. There is little that offers more potential reward.
    “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
    Thank you for sharing.

  11. It’s your blog- you can write whatever you want. If that person doesn’t like it, well then they don’t have to read it.

    I think you are an amazing, talented, extraordinary woman!

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