Saturday, March 29, 2008

Write with passion to overcome fear

If an author is not passionate about his or her book or story, people will not be passionate about reading it.  All my favorite books were written by authors with a purpose and a passion for a cause. Khaled Hosseini’s passion for the plight of Afghanistan and compassion for Afghani women  fill his book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and take the reader into the hearts, minds, and  emotional upheaval of the characters. He makes the reader care about them on a gut level. 

Barbara Kingsolver in each of her books, has a cause—and a passion for it—that is conveyed by the characters who lead the author and then us through the African jungle, the Cherokee nation, the Appalachian hills and valleys. In Prodigal Summer, we care about Deanna and the animal predators she wants to protect, about the dying mother, her children, the young widow, and each of the other characters as we learn what it is that drives them to be who they are. 

Marcus Stevens has us caring not only about a young white girl in love with an Indian, but also, the history of the Cheyenne girl whose body is accidentally exhumed in Useful Girl.  

In Jana McBurney-Lin’s My Half of the Sky, we empathize with the young Chinese woman whose life is controlled and mismanaged by her father who arranges a marriage in order to pay off gambling debts that threaten to get him killed.  Millions of books by authors who care about the plight of his or her characters, allow the reader to share their passions and convictions vicariously.

If you grew up in an age and similar culture as I did, you probably achieved the ability to mask and subdue emotions. Keep it all inside. Don’t let anyone see how you feel. Don’t cry. Don’t get mad! Be nice. Always. No matter how you feel. Never ever hurt anyone’s feelings. Feelings? Feelings became so taboo for me, that I grew up without the tools needed to identify any kind of emotion. And without emotion, it was very difficult to know what I wanted, or even who I was. As I grew older, I learned that it was easier for me to get in touch with how I felt about anything, and to express those feelings by writing, than it was by speaking. I was so afraid of emotion, that the more I felt, the less I could speak. The stronger the emotion, the more mute I became. That caused some very embarrassing situations. 

The first date I ever had was to  a hay ride put on by the FHA. Girls had to ask boys. I had a terrible, almost painful crush on a very cute boy in my class named Tad. I admired him from afar, never speaking two words to him. My older brother, determined to “help” me, insisted that I just call the guy and ask if he would go with me. “What’s the worst he can say?”  He initiated the call for me, and as soon as he had Tad on the line, stuck the phone to my ear. I gulped and somehow muttered the question. “Will you go to the FHA hayride with me?”  To my horror, he said, “Yes.” 

I was in no way prepared to deal with this situation. Fear paralyzed my vocal cords for the whole evening. Tad tried to start a few conversations. I wanted to answer but terror kept me from responding with more that a nod, a head-shake, a squeeze of the hand or a hug. Oh, yes. I wasn’t afraid to put my arms around him and hold on tight in a desperate effort to say, I’m sorry I can’t talk, but please love me anyway. 

It was our only date. I still idolized him from afar, knowing I had blown any chance that he would ever want to go out with me again. A few years later, I was informed that a car crash had taken his life. To this day I don’t understand my reaction. I giggled, an embarrassed and uncontrollable giggle. I was sad, shocked——and I laughed——an example of the confused emotional state I lived in then. 

I can think of dozens of other face-burning, spine-crawling, wishing-to-disappear-through-the-cracks-in-the-floor moments throughout my lifetime that resulted from my inability to say the right thing at the right time. The more I admired people, the harder it was to speak to them. The more I hated something, the more I avoided any subject that might require me to speak of it. The sadder I felt, the more I isolated myself. And if I couldn’t physically hide, I mentally withdrew, escaping behind a wall in my mind where no one could peek. 

Written words became a vehicle for me to explore the wilderness of my confused inner life. Words on paper took me places forbidden to my tongue. Through poetry and prose, I could begin to taste and try the suppressed emotions that haunted me. I could begin to find out what I valued; what disturbed me, what was important to me, and what was not. Why do I like to write fiction? I think it’s because a fictional character can take the passions and convictions and emotions that I hold deeply, and portray them in a real and meaningful way— a way in which I am still not capable of verbalizing orally, or fully understanding beyond the written page.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Overcoming fear

When overwhelmed with projects needing attention, and discouraged from not seeing the results one wants, it's easy to feel discouraged. Maybe more than discouraged—depressed and immobilized. When that happens, STOP. Take a look at where you are versus where you want to be. What do you need to do to get there? It could be a new outlook, a change of pace, and an inspiration that you are not going to get sitting in front of the computer monitor, thinking, "what's the use?" Get to the root of the problem; the real cause of the inability to function.   (Please note that I am talking to myself. I don't know if other writers and/or publishers have the same experience, but I do, at times, and breaking out of it is a joyous experience.) 

And how do I break out of it? In trying to pinpoint the moment of Epiphany in recent days, I realize it started with an e-mail I read about fear blocking the way to accomplishment. As I worked through that fear, I experienced the building excitement that comes from believing in oneself. 

"Fear, it paralyzes us. It keeps us from doing the things we dream about. It prevents us from sharing our gifts," said Janet Attwood, author of The Passion Test.  Hmm. Me, Afraid? Well, yes, there is one thing I have always been afraid of. One thing that I have worked hard to overcome. It is the fear of success....No, really. It's a close kin to the fear of failure, probably disguised as such. But why should I fear failure? Through various incidents in my past as a child, some trauma as a teen, and a long and mentally oppressive relationship as an adult, I was conditioned to believe that failure was my lot, and I grew comfortable in that role. 

I was an incorrigible tomboy, growing up. I had no fear of bears, snakes, spiders, or risky adventures. I have, however, for as long as I can remember, had an overwhelming, paralyzing, debilitating fear of speaking in public or even conversing with people I didn't know well. (Especially talking to the male classmates that I really liked.) I was afraid to make phone calls. I was afraid to ask or answer questions in class. I could not without extreme pain, panic, and illness get up in front of an audience. Why? It's hard to analyze, let alone explain, but I believe it is a fear of success. A fear of breaking out of the internally held beliefs and the voices in my head that scold, "You'll make a fool of yourself. You cannot succeed. Do you really think anyone wants to listen to you?" And the most pervasive, "Who do you think you are?" in that scornful accusing tone.  So over and over I proved those voices right. 

In recent years, I've taken steps to prove them wrong. It isn't easy. But gets easier as time goes by, easier with each risk taken, easier when I realize that the fear that keeps me prisoner is unfounded. Then I realize that the biggest fear comes from the question, not "what if I fail?" but "what if I succeed?" There is a certain security in the expectation of failure. If I don't expect myself to succeed in certain areas, I am exempt from responsibility. "Everyone knows I can't do that."  But what if I can? Then I must. I have a responsibility. Now that's scary! 

I have presented seminars and school visits, have read passages from my book to audiences enough that I know that I can. But the old ghost of fear hovers nearby, always ready to take advantage of any personal or financial setback or any other cause for discouragement. How quickly the Old Ghost moves in and takes over, once again paralyzing me, preventing any effort to take back control of my life. He whispers, "Who do you think you are? You know you can't expect success. You are a failure." And I settle back into the familiar zone of inactivity and despair; my good intentions naturally failing, and loathing myself at the end of the day. So, upon reading Janet Attwood's e-mail, I looked at what the Old Ghost of Fear was preventing me from doing. The answer? Things that are very important to me. I have book ideas that need written. I have books written that need published. I have books published that need promotion. 

"But you don't have money to do any of it." 

I have the ability to make money. I have skills and knowledge that I can share. 

"No way!" Old Ghost shouts, "Who do you think you are?" (You see how strong those old, erroneous beliefs are?) 

Yes, they are erroneous. I have proven I can. Just as I proved I could climb the highest tree, jump off the highest point of the roof of the machine shed into the snow, pick up the longest snake, or, without anything to hang onto, attempt to ride a 1000 pound bull. (If you wonder, ask me for my poem about that.) —just as I proved I could do those things when I was a child, just as I completely overcame my fear of the dark by walking through it night after night when I was 11,  so I have proven that I can overcome this "fear of success" as an adult. Yet, because of Old Ghost's persistence, it seems I have to keep proving it over and over. 

"Who do I think I am?" I think I am the lady who wrote and published the books that thousands of children love to read. I think I am the lady of whom students in my seminars and school visits spoke so highly, saying my classes were both enjoyable and helpful. I think I am the poet who perched in front of an audience in front of a Chatauqua, last night. and confidently read her old poems; the one who received many compliments afterward. I think, that like everyone else in the world, I was born with certain gifts; potential talents, and with a purpose for being here. I really shouldn't have to rehearse these accomplishments, which, to those without fear must seem simple, in order to hush the ghost of fear so I can get some work done. Yet, I guess it's okay to think and talk about them, if that's what it takes to send Old Ghost away. 

I've long considered, discussed, and intended to schedule more workshops and seminars. It's even been on by "tudu" list. For far too long, I've avoided doing so. Why? Because Old Ghost whispered, and, unconsciously, I listened. Well, Old Ghost, back off. Realizing what you are up to has allowed me to show you a thing or two. I am not only going to host a workshop, I am going to write a workbook to go with it so that participants can take it home with them and use the exercises again and again, so that they can get the benefit of any lessons we don't have adequate time to cover in class. Take that, Old Ghost. This is just the first of many. With the proceeds, I can better promote the books I have. I can finance the illustration and printing of the books I still need to publish. With this renewed confidence, I can write more, and take on and complete more projects. 

Best of all, with Old Ghost's lies once again rejected, I am no longer prevented from sharing with others the innate talents I never used to allow myself to experience, let alone admit I possess. 

Friday, March 7, 2008

Spreading joy with kindness/ a tribute to my brother on his birthday

As I completed the cryptogram for today, I thought of my "little" brother. Today is his birthday, and this quote from Washington Irving describes him very well. "A kind heart is a fountain of gladness, making everything in its vicinity freshen into smiles." 

This is an apt description Larry Muirhead, who is 59 years old today, the youngest in a family of six children. 59? It hardly seems possible. His eternal optimism, adventurous spirit, kind and generous heart, and ever-ready sense of humor make him seem much younger. Yet, he often reveals the wisdom of a much older man. 

A kind heart, indeed. If Larry hears that someone needs help, maybe something heavy that needs moved, a piece of machinery broken down, or a major farming or ranching job scheduled at his brother's place, he will show up, unannounced, with his pickup truck, tools, and muscle power, ready to pitch in and get the job done. He may unexpectedly drop off a load of firewood to a sister who hasn't had a chance to get out and gather her own. He may come by to haul off a load of shingles tossed down from a re-roofing of another sibling's house. 

Whenever and where ever we see him, his bright smile warms our hearts. Together with his wife, Sharon, who is the epitome of kind-heartedness and generosity, they will bring food to the bereaved, fix a meal and share it with the lonely, invite a friend or loved one to share one of their many "road trips" to explore the wonders of the world they live in. 

The proud grandfather of twin girls, Larry dotes on the toddlers with nurturing kindness, showing them the wonders of their world, teaching them new skills, and protecting them from harm. He sets a worthy example in optimism, appreciation, and goodness for old and young alike. 

I was almost seven when Larry was born, and I was thrilled to have this beautiful baby in my life. Now, 59 years later, I realize, more than ever, what a gift to humankind was brought into the world that day, and I'm thankful. 

Larry, you freshen my life with smiles every time I hear from you, receive a picture of new places you've seen, new poses of your granddaughters, and each time I remember all the good times we have shared. I look forward to many more years of the same. 

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Words are tools

Words are our tools, we writers like to say; 
The tools of our trade as we labor every day. 
And certainly that's true, as far as the saying goes,
But we have no monopoly, as everybody knows. 

Not just necessary tools are all the precious words
for the erudite authors and the loquacious nerds,
But necessary, really, to let human life persist,
For without any words, even thoughts cannot exist.
   (Janet Muirhead Hill, 2008)

Words are essential tools indeed. I have a grandson with verbal apraxia, which is a motor speech disorder characterized by inability to plan and produce the specific series of movements of the tongue, lips, jaw, and palate necessary for intelligible speech. The same problems can occur in adults as a result of stroke or other brain injury, but childhood apraxia is present at birth. There is evidence that it is genetic, though the exact cause has not been found. 

Apraxia is terribly frustrating for the affected child, because they're often highly intelligent. They know what they want to say, but cannot communicate it. Uncorrected, it will remain a problem, some sources say, for a lifetime. My grandson, with speech therapy, has made great improvement and no longer suffers from the esteem-crushing defeat he used to feel when he could not make himself understood. I mention this as an example of  how important our words are to life and happiness. 

What if we had no words at all? What if we didn't even know what we wanted to say; had never heard a human voice or any model for expressing thoughts vocally? I recently caught a TV documentary on feral children. Studies show that those who have little or no human contact or interaction in their first few years of life lose the capability to learn to speak. And without speech, they are unable to function independently in society. 

Except for the limited few mentioned above, we all use words everyday. What is important to our personal identity and self-worth is how we choose to use them. Are our words a true reflection of what we believe? Or are they used to deceive and manipulate? Do our words, as John Gardner suggests they should, improve the human situation? Looking at it that way, we see our responsibility to choose words carefully, but even more important, to speak, and not remain silent when we have something to say. As Henry David Thoreau said, "Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe."  

I sincerely invite your comments.