The Work of Building Fences

It was quite a weekend.

Otto and friend

Otto and friend

On Saturday, I attended an “energetic boundaries” workshop up in Sebastopol, a beautiful little town about an hour north of here. Now, I know what you East-coast types are thinking: a what? 

I must admit that when my friend An Honest Mom invited me, I had to pause. I’m capable of all kinds of “woo-woo,” but on the other hand, it sounded a little nutty. But when I looked back over some of the events of this past year, some stickiness that’s been troubling me in my life and relationships, I realized that my boundaries could use some work. There’s the way I say yes to everything, and the way I worry all the time about what other people are thinking and doing and feeling (sound familiar, anyone?). And there’s the way I let other people’s opinions and thoughts invade my space and my psyche to the point that I kind of lose myself. These are patterns I’ve been in for years and years; many of us are in these patterns. I hoped that an energetic boundaries workshop might help me shift some of this, so I signed up and went.

I’m always hoping for miracles, and yet, it turns out, miracles are for other people.* Nonetheless it was a great day of experimenting with ways to get really clear about who I am and who other people are— and not to confuse the two.

Bubble. Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Bubble. Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Most significantly, I realized, on the drive up to Sebastopol, that the boundary between my writing and what other people think about my writing is so thin it’s like the membrane of a bubble. A few days earlier, I’d found myself in a conversation about my writing that I did not have any desire to be in. A friend was, in essence, giving me advice I had never asked for and frankly did not want. It filled me with a kind of slow-burning and quiet rage—and later, disappointment in myself for letting that happen. But these kinds of interactions have been happening to me for years. It’s a little too easy for me to hear a question like “what’s going on with your memoir?” and start equivocating and rationalizing and dealing with a whole cadre of internal feelings to the effect of you, Susie, suck, you suck, you suck. And so, en route to the workshop (I like to get started early!), it occurred to me in a fit of nascent practicality: I do not have to talk about my memoir if I do not want to. And it is okay to say that!

(Hey, friends! Yeah, don’t ask me about my memoir right now. Some stuff is in the works; I’ll let you know when it gets published. Thanks.)

And yet, and yet—somehow I’ve been believing all these years that it’s not okay to say no. Not just to obligations, but to sharing information. Private people? They mystify me. I seem to think that when someone asks me a personal question that I have to answer it. That when I reveal something, I have to reveal everything. My writing, it turns out, despite being personal in nature, is also deeply personal TO ME, and there are very few people with whom I’m comfortable sharing the heartache and joys of that enterprise. And yet, when someone asks, there I go, blurting out the whole shebang, then wondering why people feel like it’s okay to give me unsolicited advice. Wondering why I feel so damn violated and angry.

The workshop did not solve all these problems, of course (see above, on miracles), but it did help me to articulate some of this. And it helped me to see, at least, the ways that I worry all the time about other people at the expense of myself. Not just my kid, but also B, whom I was tracking the entire day in Sebastopol: what’s he doing? Is he mad that I’m gone all day? Is L okay? Has he located the hot dogs I told him were in the fridge? And in the midst of the workshop, in what felt like the most uncomfortable and intense moment of the day: am I invading the other participants’ energetic space? Do they like me? Am I totally annoying? Should I change my behavior in some way? It reminded me of the friend who had made me uncomfortable the week before with her questions about my work: was I so worried about her safety and comfort that I ventured into territory I did not want to be in?

I think I did.

And so, reader, resolved: not to do that anymore. Or at least, to notice, to remember that I am allowed—no, required!—to protect myself from other people and to be autonomous. And to say no. How liberating!

But here’s the funny irony of last weekend. We got a tortoise. 

He arrived on Friday night, and our initial excitement was palpable. L was in heaven; B called him “Buddy,” as in, “Oh hi, Buddy, hi Otto,” in a cute voice you’d use for a kid, proving once again that my husband has the world’s greatest capacity to love of anyone I’ve ever known (Otto is a reptile with a brain the size of a peanut; he is the least cuddly creature on earth). But when I got home from my workshop on Saturday afternoon, I learned that Otto had spent most of the day roaming the yard, eating chard, pooping, and stressing out the neighbors, because he’d broken through his makeshift barrier.

And so whereas on Saturday I worked on my metaphorical fence, on Sunday, in the sweltering heat, I worked on a physical fence to contain the newest member of our family.

Something about this felt like a delightful kismet—and a reminder. Because Otto the Tortoise is testing both the physical boundaries of our yard and also my energetic ones. From my studio I have a clear view of his pen, and it’s all but impossible not to look out the window every five seconds to see whether he’s moved from his nighttime hibernation spot yet, or whether he’s still pacing against the walls of the enclosure trying desperately to get out. I’m not sure what the lesson is, here, but I know it’s something about letting go. About remembering the circle of rocks I drew around myself on Saturday as a physical representation of the space I’m allowed to take up on this earth. About not worrying so much about other people/reptiles.

Because there, I suspect, is where miracles happen.

SOON THEN

But miracles are for other people.

Here things right themselves and it grows humid again

and though we’ve stopped watering the garden—

earth crumbles at the base of an eggplant—

still, it feeds us. Who declared a weed a weed? What if God

is a criminal? You say: if God made hands, God made ghosts.

Hands would run right through ghosts.

Ghost speared by hand, hand surrounded by ghost,

both feeling just a slight warmth, a gentle rocking,

like a love poem, or a sense of soon, then.

© Susie Meserve, 2016

 

Hey! If you love this post, please click “like” below! And thanks, as ever, for sharing via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or anywhere else you think it should live. If you’d like to learn about the energetic boundaries workshop, message me over on the Contact page and I’ll put you in touch with Aimee M. Thanks.

Giveaway: FREE Spot in My Workshop!

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Writer mom doing some “movement” with a monkey on her back

We have a winner, folks! Congratulations to Erin, who will be joining the workshop for free.

There are still spots available, and the “bring a friend, each get $10 off” offer still stands.

My friend An Honest Mom is doing a giveaway! And the giveaway? A free spot in the March 19 writing and movement workshop I’m co-teaching with a friend. If you’re not yet sick of hearing about it, and I hope you aren’t, because I’m so excited about it and it’s gonna be good—head on over to An Honest Mom’s blog for the details of how you can win a free spot in the workshop (and the kind benefactor who wants to help out a local writer/aspiring writer who’d like to go but can’t afford it).

Here’s the link!

 

 

Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story: Or, Faith

**Note! Special offer for writers interested in my Saturday, March 19 workshop Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story in Oakland (1:00-3:45 p.m. at Flying Studios at 4308 Telegraph Ave.) Bring a friend, both of you get $10 off the workshop fee. Email me through the contact page on this blog or contact Sandra at sandrakstringer@gmail.com to register.**

I’m really excited about this upcoming workshop I’m teaching with my friend Sandra Stringer on March 19th in Oakland: Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story: A Writing and Movement Workshop for Writers.

FlyerFinalREDUXI’m excited because I’ve been ruminating a lot on the nature of fear, and how it prevents us from doing good creative work. Truthfully, I feel like the thing that hinders me is more like procrastination, and grading papers, and parenting, but nonetheless I think it’s all of a piece: I get tense in my body and in my mind because of work, social, and familial obligations, and I worry that I won’t get everything done, so I act frantic, and then I don’t carve out enough space to write, and then I feel bad, and then I can’t work because I feel bad, and then…

Sound familiar? 

Anyway, it goes something like that, and I’m excited to do a workshop where we simply slow down for a couple of hours, let the body do its thing (e.g., release), and see what happens. I realize, in fact, that I’ve been craving this kind of time to just be still for several weeks. This is always a busy time of year; the papers-to-grade seem never-ending, spring break is fast approaching, somehow we’re supposed to plan for summer already (!), and we’ve had family visiting and more family coming. (I love seeing them all, so much, and it also means that I lose some writing time.)

So it should be a good afternoon.

In preparation for the workshop, I’ve been reading the famous book The Artist’s Way, which I’ve heard of for years but never picked up. The book is full of interesting practical ideas and an overarching theory that some would probably find a little too much: this notion that, to be an artist, writer, or creative person generally you need to put your faith in some kind of higher power. It’s all a bit 12-steppy, and yet, and yet—there is something about it that really resonates with me. Julia Cameron, the author, talks about the divine plan and how creativity works through us, like God working through us, and how, in a sense, you just need to make yourself receptive and then do the work and then, poof, it will all work out: you will become a creative and successful person. If you’re not religious, it might sound crazy (and I am not, so at first it was a little alarming for me), but it echoes notions of creativity that seem to be finding me everywhere these days: in this terrific Radiolab episode featuring Elizabeth Gilbert, and in a TED talk she did a few years back, both of which, when I first listened, absolutely blew my mind.

In a nutshell, Gilbert suggests that creativity is something outside of us, that creativity finds us, like a muse, or a little floating angel, as long as we’re open and receptive to it. There is something very anti-Puritanical about this notion! I, personally, was raised to work hard and not to expect too much. But for Gilbert, and Cameron, there is this belief that if you’re a good and dogged creative person, if you put the words on the page again and again and again, the universe will reward you with little gifts: a first chapter, a beautiful painting, the faith to keep going.

Whether you believe it or not, it’s kind of comforting, wouldn’t you say? It reminds me, actually, of my decision to name my chapbook Faith a few years back. I was obsessed with the word; it cropped up for me in everything I wrote. I think my entire notion of “faith” at that time centered around the belief that the words would keep coming, that things would work out if I kept at it. And in a way, I guess that’s what Julia Cameron and Elizabeth Gilbert are trying to say.

I hope, in my way, to bring some of that wisdom to the workshop the 19th.

Enough philosophizing for today; I need to go get some work done.

But I hope to see some of you at my workshop on the 19th, and, as ever, I’d be terrifically grateful if you spread the word to anyone else you know who might be interested. Note the special offer for bringing a friend! ($10 off for both of you.)

Faithfully,

Susie

Mastering the Book Proposal

Recently I had the good (ahem) fortune of writing a book proposal, a document I’d avoided for years because it simply didn’t seem necessary. My book was done; I’d been sending it around without one, so why the need? But when I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, an agent I’m interested in working with—along with a former book editor-cum-entrepreneur whose advice I trust—said in no uncertain terms that every memoirist needs a robust (read: 100-page) book proposal. I realized that if only for the very practical reason that if I wanted to query this agent I’d need a book proposal, that I had to write one, daunting as it was.

Daunting.

Daunting.

The tricky thing about a book proposal is that it calls on a completely different part of your brain than the one you use to write your book. You hope the book-writing part uses the creative, spontaneous, brilliantly fresh part of your brain; the book proposal requires something more like an MBA. Here is the book market, you need to say. Here is how I fit into it. Here is how my book improves upon and contributes to the many voices already writing memoir, anxiety, romance. And here is why I’m the best person to write this very book. You also need to learn to talk about your book and why you’ve written it in a way that suggests confidence, poise, and drive, plus no small measure of self-aggrandizement.

My first draft was a disaster. I followed a template to the letter of the law, in the process confounding an editor I’d hired. In my chapter summaries (oh yes: you need a roughly 1-page summary of every chapter in your book, which in my case is 20+ chapters long) she couldn’t find the theme of the book; she didn’t understand what the climax of the story was or how anxiety even fit in. Since anxiety is supposed to be the very bottom building block, the most important thing, I knew this was a major problem. And while the editor didn’t have much negative to say about my 12-page Marketing and Publicity section, it was killing me: I spent hours coming up with a list of blogs and publications and connections and opportunities, but somehow this all felt folksy, redundant; that it didn’t really describe how I plan to market and promote my own book. Did I really need to state that I planned to Tweet about it? I mean, duh, right?

Luckily, a writer friend to the rescue. She let me look at her book proposal. And then I found a few others, remembered that an old college buddy had, years ago, sent me his. Reading these through, I realized that the most salient point of a book proposal is that, while in an actual book you have pages upon pages to allow themes to marinate, in a book proposal you have mere sentences to make yourself understood. You have to hammer home your points in a way that a busy agent or book publisher, skimming your proposal, can easily grasp. So I rewrote and rewrote those chapter summaries, emphasizing the two main threads of the book—making peace with fear, and love as acceptance, if you’re wondering—in every single one. And in the Overview section, I strove for an almost-painful clarity: the theme of the book is this, I said. The most important takeaway is this. Finally, instead of concentrating all my industry-speak into that one Marketing & Publicity section, it occurred to me to sprinkle it throughout, and to use the “About the Author” section to tout my accomplishments (man, that’s an uncomfortable phrase to write) and emphasize the ways this book fits into a larger scheme of me as a writer.

The surprising thing about writing this book proposal was not facing the discomfort of shamefully selling myself, though that did give me pause, but rather how damn useful it was. Being forced to write a sentence like “the themes of the book are X, Y, and Z” helped me to reflect on, well, the themes of the book. It allowed me to go back and look at the book and ask myself whether those themes were in fact clear (and if not, to take one last moment to make them clear). Similarly, writing the “Comp Titles” section—where you compare and contrast your book to others in the same genre—allowed me to really envision where my book sits on the shelf at the library. It allowed me to come up with catch-phrases to describe the genre and what I’m trying to do. It gave me the opportunity to think of ten books that I really, really like and describe how my book complements them. Finally, the book proposal was a great opportunity to talk a little about anxiety, to throw some statistics around, to say what I know and very much believe to be true: that Americans are more anxious than ever, that anxiety has become a huge part of our national identity, that more people need to be reading and writing about it. Because I truly believe that.

Last week, with very little fanfare but a nice oomph of satisfaction, I sent out that book proposal. I’m now in that awful period where you wait and wait and wait. But it actually doesn’t feel so awful, I think because I’m really happy that I finished that book proposal and feel good about it. If nothing else, writing it helped me to really put the cap on the pen that has been this long, long writing project. If nothing else, I gave it a very good shot.

Resources That May be Helpful if You Are Writing a Book Proposal:

Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal

The 8 Essential Elements of a Non-Fiction Book Proposal

How to Sell Your Memoir by Brooke Warner