I want to tell you about an idea that failed. Er, got abandoned. OK, OK: an idea which I abandoned.
I don’t know about you, but I found that the longer our confinement period got, the more courses and challenges I got offered. And I confess I fell prey to a few.
I mean, I love that sense of accomplishment and the unexpected revelations that come from diligent attention to one thing for a steady period of time. But the risk, particularly for a recovering dieter who's uneasy trusting her own inner guide and often looking around for some kind of Authority, is that sometimes what looks like healthy motivation is in fact a cleverly-disguised project founded on an idea that I'm not enough as I am.
Which is why I was susceptible, during the confinement period, to such propositions cluttering my mailbox. Online work groups, meditation gatherings, tapping challenges. Thirty days of ballet. Financial health in 15 minutes a day. You CAN write a book proposal! (You KNOW you want to write a book proposal.) Each compelling, harmless in and of themselves, and no doubt really useful. I can find ten minutes every day for this, right?
After gathering the wits to finally say No to a particularly tantalizing 1-month course, to which I was personally offered a steep discount (they wanted me! ... I think), I was again lured to another.
This one seemed special: aligned with my own writing goals; clear structure; ambitious; no-nonsense. It assured I’d find ways to build my readership. It suggested offhandedly, tantalizingly, that I’d very likely start to make a bit of money along the way.
Dammit I was seduced, and I bit. It was summer; most of my teaching had been cancelled. We’d be traveling, but no worries, I reasoned: I could get up early and carve out some time. So I signed up for the temporary* free** membership, and I set off on my journey.
The project, offered by an outfit called Ninja Writers, is to Blog Your Own Book (or more cleverly, BYOB). It was simple: In July, you choose a topic, consider your reader, clarify your subtopics, figure out how to reach people, plan out 31 days of blog posts, and ramp up your writing. For every day of August, you write a post and you publish it. In September you take everything you’ve done and build it into a book. Then in October, voilà, you publish, in whatever format you choose.
|Laura Rodig Pizarro|
I started by clarifying my topic carefully, considering my ideal reader, as our guide suggested. I dug around and chose one I loved and was already exploring. I had recently started what was becoming a series, portraits of women artists, whom I’d been discovering through an amazing resource in Paris, AWARE, the Archive of Women Artists, Research, and Exhibitions.
My plan was to introduce a new artist each day. I would show my own portraits, plus examples of each artist’s work. At the end of each week I'd do a round-up of useful resources for further research.
Our guide kept telling us you have to have a way to capture your audience, calling it an “opt-in” where people get something in return if they subscribe. So I thought, I could do a giveaway! When people subscribed, I’d put their name in a hat and the end of 31 days I’d draw a winner, who could choose whichever portrait they wanted and I’d mail it to them.
My plan checked all the boxes. I’d been wanting to combine writing and my own artwork more in my blog. AND clean up my mailing list and reach more readers. How? Pshaw, I’d figure out how later. For now, omigod, it seemed perfect.
Let us pause, just for a moment, for a confession. In the past, I have been known to create a “single” goal which is in fact many goals masquerading as one. In a way, I’ve even set myself up for failure by creating complicated, complex goals that are hard to sustain let alone complete. Goals like that put me at high risk for decision-making fatigue — they sometimes seem like more organizing than doing. Which can make quitting easier to justify. And then I wonder why I can’t do it. And then my inner critic has a field day, reminding me why I suck. Not, I admit, the most sustainable model.
Anyway, I started mapping my project and breaking it down into sections. I decided I’d begin with Maria Helen Vieiera da Silva, the Portuguese abstract painter and the first that had caught my eye. I’d move on to Pat Steir, whom I was familiar with but maybe never fully appreciated, and in whose portrait I’d begun to integrate background. Next would be Etel Adnan, whose work spoke to me first; I’d tried to integrate her style and work into the portrait itself.
By now, we’re in the third week of July and I’m noticing that I’ve stopped hearing from our guide. I realize it was never really clear how often we should expect to; but it’s become more and more sporadic and now she’s kind-of disappeared, just when things are heating up. Where was she when I needed her support?
A metaphor came to me: Imagine lines of a poem, each on a separate strip of paper, and your job is to assemble them into a full, coherent piece. Every piece is a critical part of the full poem. The thing is, you don’t know how long it is exactly, nor how to begin to make poetic sense of all those individual lines. Plus, they’ve all been scrunched up into little balls thrown at you at once, landing all over the place. And there’s a timer, ticking away ominously. That’s kinda how I felt.
I began finally to admit that my idea was maybe too complex. Writing about women artists, OK. Thirty-one days in a row of publishing, tough but not impossible. But the illustrations, they often take their own time, and sometimes they don’t work out.
Maybe, I acknowledged, artwork and writing was going to be a bit of a lot to chew, even in August. With travel, I had an hour max to spend most days. I did some math, and reasoned that I could either do one new portrait every other day, or spend a weekend doing a whole pile. I’ll be fine, I assured myself, brushing concerns aside. Just a bit more smart planning. Anyway, this is what it’s like to be a real writer! Are you committed, or aren’t you?
Still, I observed a wave of stress.
The mailing list was another beast I didn’t yet know how to tame. Should I create a newsletter, and if so would that require a subscription upgrade? Or would I use another server? Should I migrate the blog to my website? What does that even mean?? I needed some answers before launch date. I looked at the clock and saw that, lo, it was still ticking.
Another stress wave, little bit bigger this time, more panicky.
What if I didn’t finish? What if I promised something and never delivered? I’ve read so many blog posts saying “we’re back!” or “part 1 of 5”, and then radio silence on the part of the writer.
By now, the final week of July, I begin to really flirt with the idea of just hanging up the towel. I’m writing and planning diligently, but I can’t see this thing being ready. I haven’t told my anyone about it much, rationalizing perhaps that it would be ‘fun’ to keep it secretive and reveal it with a big taDA! But actually, I could really use some encouragement. Still our sporadic guide is nowhere to be seen and the information she’s sending us in inconsistent intervals is dizzying.
Finally, I bargain, postponing the “launch” a few days and feel myself relax again. I’ll start August third, give myself a little breathing room. Then I change it to six days a week. A few days later, the urge to quit it all, and just take a really long nap, is almost irresistable. Aren’t I on holiday, for pete’s sake?
|at least someone's on holiday.|
Finally, in a brief parting of the clouds, I remember inquiry.
There I was, traveling along, and I hit a bump I couldn’t get over. I tried to push harder, but more force wasn’t the answer.
My usual approach would be to wonder what’s wrong with me that I can’t do this? Where am I somehow wrong and at fault? Or my quote-unquote helpful inner critic would offer some brilliant insight, telling me in so many words: You lazy bum, get off your hiney and keep at it. You’re clearly not a real writer/artist/etc if you can’t get tough when the going gets tough.
But (thank the gods) things have changed, and we’re all about self-compassion around here. Especially when it counts and when it’s hardest. We’re not into ruining our life just because an idea — someone else’s brilliant idea — isn’t taking hold in its current form.
So I dropped the success/failure discussion, the false notion that more discipline is what leads to change, and applied my tools of compassionate investigation.
(Really, sometimes I think this blog is just a place where I digest the lessons of a few teachers, monks, and poets, including Tara Mohr — who introduced me to this tool.)
This profound approach is — get this — morally neutral. Have any two words sounded more beautiful? For this former member-of-an-organized-religion, together they are a revelation. Just saying them clears the way for action.
I stopped assuming there was something wrong with me. Instead, I asked myself, where’s the obstacle, the error in the equation? After all, I knew I still really liked the idea.
Then I sweetened my language even more. Honey, I said. What’s the issue here, and what do you need to move past it?
I remembered, first, that in creating goals, it’s helpful when it is a gift, rather than a should. I recalled Tara’s metaphor, of building a sturdy-enough support structure so that the journey there feels like water flowing downhill. I, by contrast, was on a steep climb up a mountainside, marching pleasurelessly toward my obligation.
|Salou Raouda Choucair|
The second thing I remembered was to build projects based around our own individual strengths that are already present, rather than adhering to someone else’s template.
While it was certainly useful in bits, the entire mold didn’t fit. And then, I was basing my notion of success or failure to reach my goal based on someone else's idea of what works.
Thirdly, I noticed how alone I felt. I needed someone to check in with, a partner, someone who could see the future for me and provide encouragement, without comparison or competition. A boost when I stumble, or get sidetracked or overwhelmed. I thought it would be there; but I also hadn’t set it up for myself.
So where did that leave me? Because the thing about compassionate investigation is, there’s listening, but there’s also acting on the answer.
Was it time to totally let it go?
Not uncoincidentally, I listened to a favorite podcast yesterday which talked about perfectionism, and for perfectionists or those among us who think we are impostors, it’s often either succeed or completely fail, very black-and-white.
I thought about that. Maybe it’s not a question of success or failure. Maybe, rather than drop the whole thing, I could learn a few lessons from it, and redefine it with sturdier architecture in place.
With — there it is again — moral neutrality, plus an understanding that it’s an ongoing process.
First, I could work with my strengths to create a plan that serves me. I didn't need to try to operate on someone else’s — especially someone I’ve never met — creative schedule.
It’s a big question, isn’t it? When reality strikes and I can’t take it but I don’t want to leave it either, how do I stick with my intention? That seems like the place — when I don’t know what to do — where I can resist turning my frustration upon myself (or someone else); open; and really learn something.
For starters, I’m publishing this post. Not the 31 posts I’d originally hoped for but, ironically, the result of 31 days of digesting this process, the reality of what happened.
And it’s still about the portraits, and these extraordinary women artists. I finished a new one yesterday, of the artistic explorer Marisa Merz —