Empathy’s Sharp Little Teeth

When I was little, we listened to the radio all the time. Does anyone do that anymore? I mean, in their houses? It seems like nowadays with iPods and iPhones and Pandora, nobody listens to the radio anymore except maybe in the car and at the doctor’s office where they always seem to play the kind of music that was new back when people listened to the radio all the time.

Anyway, when I listened to music, it changed me. Listening to the Beatles sing “Run For Your Life,” I would feel that I was doing exactly that – running through the house, staring wildly behind me at the ghost of John Lennon who would rather see me dead. I would shake my head, trying to erase the image of someone chasing me, trying to hurt me. If the music happened to be in a minor key, I would inevitably cry. I think that my parents ascribed my tears or frenzy or euphoria to something going on in my life, but that was never true. My “Run For Your Life” frenzy lasted exactly two minutes and twenty-five seconds.

Music isn’t the only thing that changes me. Right now, I’m reading Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World, and it’s having the same unfortunate effect. As the characters sink further into desperation and hopelessness, I feel that my own life is somehow slipping out of control, although when I take a step back, nothing could be further from the truth. Financially, I’m not teetering on the brink with a mountain of debts and a questionable career path. Personally, I’m not the sort to indulge my fantasies of throttling random children I don’t like. And, most importantly, my relationship with my spouse is not based on a mistaken notion of the person I suppose my spouse to be based on my own needs and insecurities. The book has gaping plot holes that make me downright angry (do they have no bail bondsmen in Wisconsin?), but I am sucked in anyway.

And yet, I realize that my dreams are increasingly frantic. My business dealings leave me feeling out of my depth and worried that things aren’t happening the way they should because there’s something I’m not doing. I tend to see only that I have a whole lot of irons in the fire and not the fact that I have many capable, willing friends and associates to help me tend them.

When I talked to my therapist, she said that of course I feel overwhelmed. That I demand more of myself than is perhaps reasonable. When I told her about my need to not only do many things, but to do each of them perfectly, she laughed at the notion. When I shared my feelings of frustration that I have so many ideas crowding in my brain that I can’t capture them all or act on most of them because I can’t write them down fast enough, she was nearly bug-eyed.

But the worst? The absolute killer that will send me under my bed in a fœtal position for a week? Hearing from my real, actual friends about real actual problems they’re experiencing in their real, actual lives that I can’t do anything about. That doesn’t come with any music, I can’t argue that it’s not believable, or that I don’t have to care.

I feel like letting the world in just hurts. It hurts my heart, it hurts the other people in my life who have to deal with me freaking out for no reason they can see or understand. I wish I knew what to do. I really do.

See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me

“Don’t see me!”

My 6-year-old nephew holds his hands over his face. He’s angry because I teased him, and his punishment is to withhold himself from me. “Don’t see me.”

I admire my nephew for being able to be angry. For being able to look at someone who’s an authority figure over him and say that he’s angry and that they deserve punishment. I admire him because he can do something I can’t. When I’m confronted with authority, I can’t express anger. In fact, I can’t even feel it.

I used to work for a large company. My boss was very social and the two of us split the work of our department up between us – she schmoozed her superiors and made PowerPoint presentations, I did the actual tasks. She regularly told me that if I didn’t like working there, I could quit.  That I, a glorified marcomm dork in a job that paid over $100k a year and came with great benefits, could just waltz out of that office and find another job. In tech writing. During a recession.

I had frequent discussions with my boss about the source of our disconnect, but she never saw it as a disconnect. She saw our inability to work together as something I did on purpose, as though I was a different person outside of work – one who loved social gatherings, cats, and knitting – and just chose to be introverted, sarcastic and OCD at work to piss her off.

In these confrontations, she would tell me that my task execution was fine, but she hated everything else about me. I didn’t come to work early enough – she got up at 5 so she could be at work by 7. I didn’t stay at work long enough – she never left before 5:30. I didn’t interact enough with people from other departments – she scheduled meetings and lunches and get-togethers with other departments. I didn’t act happy enough – she acted like every day was a birthday party. Every word she spoke had the same meaning: Why can’t you be more like me?

She’s not the only person in my life who has excoriated me for being the person I am. My parents, my teachers, every authority figure in my life took me to task at some point for not being more social, for not being more cheerful, for not being more extroverted.

There was never a way to express my frustration with adults. As a child, I didn’t know words like “introvert” or “circumspect,” so I didn’t have any way to defend myself. I couldn’t explain that I hated big crowds. That being dragged to parties with people I didn’t know made me anxious and exhausted. That my bad moods weren’t just me being willful, but because I was overstimulated and unable to escape. And without a defense for my bad behavior, I was guilty as charged.

When you’re little, it’s easy to feel hopeless and sad because the adults around you don’t understand you. It’s commonly thought that the reason children in the “terrible twos” are so cranky all the time is that their reasoning ability outstrips their ability to communicate, leading to frustration. What happens when that inability follows you throughout your whole life? What happens when it’s not your ability to communicate that’s lacking, but the willingness of those around you to listen?

It takes a sense of power to feel angry. To express anger, a person has to start with the belief that they’ll be understood by the person they’re talking to. But when you’ve been misunderstood your whole life, you don’t have that. Anger gives you courage; to take away anger is to dis-courage.

I moved away from my family and quit that job, but I still struggle when it comes to feeling that I have the right to be the person that I am without explanation or justification. I struggle with the feeling that I could pour out a sea of words, and they would never be enough, because what I need isn’t for people to listen to me.

What I need is for them to see me.

The High Cost of Writing

I know lots of people who can write anywhere. They go to coffee shops, libraries, they get up at four in the morning and write at their kitchen tables. I know other people who have some theoretical set of conditions under which they can write, but they can’t articulate what they are and can only point out what they are not. As in “I can’t write in my apartment. It’s not the right space.”

I don’t really have either problem. There’s writing I can do anywhere, and I do. I’ve had days where I’ve cranked out 10,000 words and still had time to do fun stuff afterward. Lately, though, getting time and space to write has been hard.

When I wrote a piece about a musician, I sang all the time. When I wrote about a woman who leaves her parents’ home to have an affair with a married man, I fought with my parents. I’m not the sort of person who has to go out and do something before she can write about it, but I do tend to take on the emotions of my characters.

It’s taken the occasional toll on my marriage. You see, my husband loves me. He loves me in that “can’t watch me suffering without trying to make me feel better” way. He also works from home, just like I do, and occasionally, he needs to ask me something or tell me something or show me something. Knowing that he could come walking in any second makes it difficult to really lose myself in writing scenes that require some extremes of emotion. If I’m writing anger, I’ll yell at him. If I’m writing a sex scene, I probably won’t get much more writing done.

The piece I’m writing now is full of self-doubt, loneliness, longing and fear. On Monday, I took advantage of being alone in the house for five hours to get some work done. I put on the playlist that I reserve for the project I’m working on, I re-read the stuff I had already written, and I thought about what had to happen next. And then, I began to cry. I kept blowing my nose and wiping my face with my handkerchief, but within fifteen minutes, it was soaked. So I got another. And another. My shoulders were shaking, my breath hitching in my chest, my lips were getting chapped from the hanky. Every once in a while, I had to stop typing because I had to put my head down on my desk and howl. Then, back to typing.

After a couple of hours, I had finished three thousand words. I had a whacking headache, my face was red and swollen, I had run out of clean handkerchiefs and I was exhausted. My family came home, but it was hard to enjoy their company. For all my exhaustion, I couldn’t fall asleep, though. Being over-emotional does that to me.

It wasn’t until the next day, after a wasted morning of trying to work but not being able to concentrate on much, that I gave in an napped. And when I say “gave in and napped,” I mean “passed out on the couch in my office.”

I admonish myself for not writing as often as I should, but if every couple of hours of productivity costs me a day of down time, I think I should be a little easier on myself.

Aspirations, Witnesses, Prognosticators: My AWP Experience

This year was my first experience at AWP, although last year I remember everyone asking each other “Are you going? Are you going?” In the halls of your local MFA program, it’s like asking if you’re going to see God appearing at the Hollywood bowl where he’ll be interviewed by Richard Dawkins, who will then receive his just and appropriate punishment.

I went because I’m the editor in chief of a literary magazine, although I haven’t been to a writer’s conference in many years. Even before I started grad school, I knew that I had grown out of the kind of conferences offered in consumer publications like Writer’s Digest. I was tired of the same advice, the same invocations of Joseph Campbell and Anne Lamott, tired of writers of lackluster popular fiction using themselves as shining examples of craft in a thinly-disguised bid to sell a few more books to students eager to learn. There is no one more gullible than the unpublished writer.

I don’t know whether the crowd (11,000 absolutely qualifies as “crowd”) was any different than at those events, but I was. Years of writing, reading, learning, and working in the writing world have taken me out of that crowd and into the smaller, more select group of those for whom the shine has worn off. I walked the book fair floor and talked with other publication editors, commiserating about our editorial woes. I remarked on the disconnect between the perception of the crowd and the perception of the presenters and panelists. For instance, in four different panels, a question from the audience included the presumption that there’s no market for short stories. On the other hand, I’m hearing from publishers that short stories are enjoying a resurgence – e-readers provide a perfect channel for shorter fiction.

I did love the talk about writers promoting themselves. The best thing I heard was in a panel that talked about the need to cultivate relationships with bookstores and libraries, to make good use of social media, to connect with one’s fan base. As an introvert, the thought of having to cultivate a lot of friendships that may be useful but would certainly drain any energy I would need for writing was depressing. Until someone got up and said “Don’t do ALL OF IT!” The biggest thing was to be a nice person. Promote your friends and colleagues. Be genuinely happy for and supportive of their work. Heck – I’m doing that.

There were also a million people talking vaguely and gloomily about the future of publishing, but each sad pronouncement began with the claim that more books are being published than ever before. More books, more independent publishers, more channels through which a writer can reach readers…not sure where the crisis lies.

Actually, I am. Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap. That is to say, 90% of the writing that would be collectively produced by the people gathered in that room is unreadable. Given the state of submissions to the magazine for which I work, it’s true. But there doesn’t seem to be anything standing in the way of those people who have put in the time and effort to get beyond the crap phase.

I had a good time at AWP. I met some really nice people, I talked to a lot of my peers in publishing and I had a lot of crappy drinks with lovely people. Most importantly for me, though, was that I figured out how to get even more out of next year’s conference.

Film #10: Fruitvale

The Pirate and I had tickets to the Grand Jury Prize winner for the Dramatic competition, and the winner this year was the film Fruitvale, about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, an African-American man who was shot by BART officers at the Fruitvale station on New Year’s Day 2008.

If we had actually gone to the film, it would just be starting now, and we’d be sitting in the dark of the balcony at the Eccles Theatre holding hands and staring ahead into the darkness. Except that, the last time I went to a film in the Eccles Theater, day before yesterday, I stared into the darkness, and the darkness entered my eyes and my heart and hurt me.

I live in the United States. I’m a graduate-school educated, above-average-earning woman born of a mixed-race family. I’ve experienced a whole lot of ugliness in my lifetime, and I’ve heard firsthand accounts of a whole lot more. I don’t need to be told again and again that people of color are wonderful, human, flawed, vital, important people at the centers of their own social circles. Nobody should need to be told that, because all human beings are those things.

I also don’t need to be told that people of color are routinely discriminated against, brutalized, stripped of their rights and their dignity, systematically excluded and otherwise made to feel less in our society. I’ve lived with that too, and understand how profoundly that affects people in every facet of their lives.

I know a few people who use social media primarily as a conduit for forwarding platitudes. Endless pictures of cute animals with endearing sayings, proverbs, and quotes from people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t discount anything that those men might have said, but I don’t have patience for people who are willing to quote their words to others, but ignore them in their own lives. They’re the same to me as all those folks who go to church on Sunday and act like assholes the rest of the time.

In the same way I don’t need to keep having Gandhi quoted at me, I don’t need to be reminded of the plight of people of color. It’s not that I stop caring – just the opposite.  Because I can’t stop caring, it rubs me emotionally raw and hurts me more than it does some other people.

The upshot is that I hope whoever got our tickets (we walked over to Eccles about an hour and a half before the film was to start and sold our tickets to one of the many guys hanging around outside the theater asking for them) enjoys and appreciates the film. I hope it makes them think about how they are in life and what they could be doing to foster more peaceful discussion and less fear and mistrust. I hope that they start looking at every person they pass in the street as a human being as worthy of love and respect as themselves.

Travel Day

I’m en route today from my mountain lair to another mountain lair – Salt Lake City, thence to Park City, Utah. The Pirate and I are heading to Sundance.

The thing I hate most about travel is that it never goes the way I think it will. I always think that I’ll be able to sit down on the plane and concentrate on getting some work done, but that never happens. I can’t concentrate with other people around me, and I always end up feeling self conscious, as though people are looking at me and thinking “Look at that woman, pretending to work.”

This is where introversion most bites me in the ass. Being an introvert means that I live inside my own head, and in my own head, I’m freaked out all the time about everything I ever do, say or think. Will I be able to make this left turn? Will my credit card be accepted? Will I be able to find a parking spot? Will I get into a grizzly accident? These are fair concerns, but I am always able to make the left turn, my credit card is always accepted, I always find parking, and I’ve never been in a grizzly accident. I have no basis for the worry, but worry I do.

So, I will get on the plane and worry that there will not be enough space to stow my stuff. Then I will worry that the person in front of me will put their seat back. It’s stupid worrying about that, because one should only worry if something is a possibility, not if that thing is a certainty. Then I’ll worry that, while I’m engaged in reading something that requires my close attention, my husband will hear or read something amusing that he’ll want to share with me. Then I’ll worry that the flight attendant will want to know what I want to drink, whether I want a mylar bag containing the battered remains of three tiny pretzels or whether I wish to give up my trash to her. Tomato juice, no, and please take it. Maybe I’ll make a sign and stick it in my ear where she’ll be able to read it.

It’s occurring to me that perhaps what I need to be a better traveler is gin. And that 9am in California is 5pm in London – a lovely time for gin.

Do I Know You?

One of the lovely things about the Internet is its ability to bring actual friends closer. Who among us has not gotten back in touch with a long-lost friend or relative through Facebook?

I kind of love Facebook, for all its faults. I know all of my Facebook friends in real life, so it allows me, a person who lives in the middle of the woods and doesn’t attend a lot of social functions, to keep up a conversation with people and think that I’m just as social as they are.

I also like LinkedIn, the Facebook for people with jobs. The problem is that I don’t think people quite get the difference between the two. When originally conceived, LinkedIn was a way for people to endorse friends and co-workers they knew and trusted. The idea was that you would link up with all the people you’ve worked with that you would recommend. Friends of yours who don’t know one another could find each other, with you as intermediary, and know that you endorse them both.

Except that everyone is so brainwashed by the numbers game of Facebook, where the goal is apparently to get as many friends as the application will allow, and then force them to play Farmville with you. LinkedIn doesn’t have Farmville, but because they recognize that nobody understands how to be discriminating anymore and will “connect” with absolutely anybody, they’ve now started asking people to “endorse” their friends. Basically, you click on a person’s picture and a list of random nouns and adjectives come up. If you think they apply to your friend, you click the button and your friend gets an email saying that you’ve endorsed them. It must be new, because people I haven’t worked with in half a decade are suddenly endorsing me, as though I’ve just come to their attention again, like they were all at a party and my name came up.

But back to the numbers game, I keep getting invitations to connect from people I’ve never heard of. People who live in the same county as me. People who worked for the same company as me at some time, but not at a time when I worked there. People who know people who’ve worked with me in a similar field. I always feel a little mean about not accepting their invitations to connect, but I’m more about quality than quantity. My feeling was validated the day I got an invitation to connect with someone I’ve never heard of whose skill is tech writing but whose current job is listed as “Unempolyed at home.” sigh 

I’m never going to connect with you, endorse you, etc. if I’ve never even met you. That’s true on the Internet, but I’m realizing that real-world instances of this haven’t gone away. Today’s mail brought a hand-addressed letter from a neighbor who must live just a few houses over, but in this neighborhood that can be half a mile away. This woman writes me twice a year or so to solicit money for the March of Dimes, sending me a pre-printed card with her actual signature and a handwritten note that usually says something like “please help us out!” I kind of resent that fact that this woman lives within easy walking distance of my house, but in nearly nine years, she has never once knocked on my door to introduce herself, or invited me to her house for a cup of tea.

I’m all for connections. I love being able to remind people I know that they’re important to me and that I care about them. But I’ll be damned if I’ll let someone exploit proximity, electronic or physical, to get me to like them, connect with them, or donate to them.

What Does a Fist Know of a Hand?

It’s December. Christmas has just passed, and in a few days, it will be a new year. I started this post on December 3rd, and am only just finishing and posting it. That’s how my life has been for the past few weeks.The magazine for which I’m the editor in chief (it’s called Lunch Ticket, and we’ve got four Pushcart-nominated pieces that you should absolutely read), published on December 3rd, my first patent has been filed, and I’ve been working on the stuff I had to do for school, and three days ago, I had a whole bunch of surgery.

There have been days when I was up until three in the morning in tears, trying to do work that I was completely sure would be sent back to me, not marked with a failing grade, but packaged with a letter bomb and a note that I did not deserve to live. I am nothing if not grandiose in my neurosis. I’ve also had days where I’m in such deep denial of it all that I just play game after game of Plants vs. Zombies as though I have nothing else to do.

The upshot is that there are times when I actually get caught up on things and have some breathing  space, and the first thing that happens is that I begin to cry. For so many years, I have been so stressed every second of every day that on those few occasions when the stress lifts, I break down entirely.  How did this happen? It’s possible that I was just born this way. Being sensitive to noise, light, the emotions of other people in  way that makes daily life a challenge means that situations that are enjoyable for most people (parties, family gatherings, concerts, movies, etc.) are still enjoyable, but exhausting.

I have always wondered what it’s like to think about an upcoming social event with happy anticipation of meeting other people, of finding oneself in a crowd, of making new friends. I have always wished that I could be the sort of person who, when she relaxed, had that melty feeling where the muscles stop being tense and the mind empties itself. I’ve always been a tightly clenched fist who dreamed of being just a hand.

Mother’s Little Helper

Today was day two at grad school. At 9am, I showed up for the first lecture, and I stayed in the same room through 5 lectures, 1 debriefing (which I led), 1 orientation (which I also led), and four readings – 10 hours total. Looking back at my posts about my first residency, I know that I was tired, but I also see that I was so tail-waggingly enthusiastic about everything I experienced. During my second residency in June, I was a little more cynical, a little more weary, but still awake and moving through my days effectively.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. The three of you who’ve read my blog for a while know that I’ve been on and off medication for quite some time. I’ve been taking Adderall for a while. At least, I was taking it for my first and second residencies. It allowed me to handle the otherwise-difficult task of interacting over extended periods of time with lots and lots of people.

When I’m not in grad school, my life is quite sheltered. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I literally do not leave the house. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I pick my kid up from school and deliver her to a karate class while I go to a nearby coffee shop, put on headphones, and do work. Most weekends, I either visit my mother or stay home and see no one. Being in the company of a new person stresses me out, but I had no idea how much it stressed me out until I came to residency this time.

About three months ago, I fired my psychiatrist. There are certain professional standards to which I hold people, he failed to meet them, I am no longer his patient. But that meant that I stopped my meds cold turkey. It didn’t make a tremendous difference until I came back to residency.

Adderall is normally used to treat ADD. It allows ADD sufferers to stay still and pay attention for extended periods of time. Coming back this time, I didn’t have a problem paying attention to the lectures, which range from 20 minutes to 2.5 hours. But I have found that the longer I am on campus, interacting with people, the more exhausted and emotional I become. Friday, the first full day of classes, I came back from school at about 6:30 feeling exhausted and weirdly emotional. Today, it was worse. By 3pm, my head was beginning to pound. By 5pm, I was dizzy. But 6pm, I was staring at the back of a man sitting two rows ahead of me. From the back, he looked eerily like my dear friend Cliff Brooks and all I could think about was how much I would rather be in San Francisco hanging out with Cliff. I caught myself starting to cry and hoped nobody noticed me daubing my eyes while a fellow student read his supernatural adventure story. By the time I left, I was shaking, tears streamed down my face and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make the 5-minute drive back to the hotel without passing out.

This is what happens when I hang out with people I like.  

When I got back to my hotel, I called my family. I told my daughter that what would make me feel better would be to smell her and my husband’s smell again – bury my nose in their necks and breathe them in until I felt okay again. We decided that next residency, I’m going to have to bring one of each of their shirts with me, just to get me through. I talked to both of them until I felt that I could move around without weeping.

I may need to get a new therapist when I get home. This can’t be healthy.

Back in the Saddle Again

I’m back in Southern California for the third of what will be five residencies for grad school.

For the first half of the day, I felt like a different person! I was walking down the halls greeting all my old friends and smiling and saying hi to new folks. I got hugs from the faculty and walked around feeling like the grandest tiger in the jungle. At the end of the day came the opening night dinner where the head of the program was going to announce the launch of the second edition of Lunch Ticket, the MFA program’s literary journal (for which I am editor-in-chief), and I wanted to be there for the announcement, since I thought it would look bad if I didn’t show up, especially since I’d been talking the journal up to everyone I talked to all day.

But then came the part where I had to pay for it all. By the time I finished dinner, I was so exhausted I wanted to cry. I drove back to my hotel and talked to my family (always a balm) and just sat in my chair and spaced out for a while. If it weren’t dark and a not-great neighborhood, I would have gone for a long walk somewhere. I feel exhausted. I would love to take tomorrow off, and tomorrow’s only day 2.

I heard an  amazing talk from agent Peter Riva about the state of the publishing industry, where he talked about the fact that in the 30s and 40s, people bought books because they were excited about the author – Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. Then came the days of the big publishers and people bought books because they were excited about things that came from Harper Collins or Knopf. Now we’re back to people following authors, so authors need to take responsibility for getting their names in front of people’s eyes and keeping them there. He talked about what to expect from a good agent, and what to expect from a publisher. I’m looking forward to the second part of his talk tomorrow morning!

Then came the presentation for those of us who will be writing our critical papers this term. It was all about distilling your question into something researchable and how to write it in a way that’s engaging. I decided a month ago that I will be turning my critical paper into a TED talk that I will present after my graduation. I’ve set out a heck of a path for myself.

I’m finished with my paperwork for the day. I’m hitting the hay. I wish I was home.