Will likes to tease that I'm his anti-muse. Will sings and plays guitar. Before we met he wrote many songs of unrequited love and loss and yearning. But since we hooked up he's so goddamned happy his creative fruits have dried up. It seems a shitty life is the fertilizer from which creative endeavors grow.
But that's not true. Will doesn't write as many songs now that he's a happily married thirty-two year old with a wonderful kid, a great job, and a comfortable home as he did when he was a teenager experiencing heartbreak and the groundless feeling of growing up. But the songs he does write now are sublime. Full, rich, nicely nuanced, mature. A few months ago his mom lent us her electric piano. Will's teaching himself how to play. He has a music background - his parents met in college when his mom was a music major and voice minor and his dad was a voice major and music minor. He started playing violin in elementary school and picked up the guitar by middle school. When I met him he'd just turned twenty-one. On our first date he burned me a copy of his self-recorded debut album, which he named "Black Man in San Francisco" because of a discussion we'd had earlier in the evening about how I'd always felt like I'd been reincarnated and that in my previous existence I'd been a black man in San Francisco.
Not only is Will now teaching himself how to play the piano, he's filling out a song he wrote about a year ago on the guitar. The piano arrangements enrich the song. It's powerful. I get goosebumps when he's practicing. I'm so lucky to live with a person of such great artistic talent.
I'm creative too, but in a different way. I love music but I don't understand it enough to play an instrument myself and I'm too shy about my voice to sing anywhere other than in the car with my six-year-old. Although I gotta say, too bad for you I'm so shy about singing in public because Katie's and my rendition of "Feel So Different" by Sinead O'Connor is pretty cool if I say so myself.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change
Courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
I am not like I was before
I thought that nothing would change me
I was not listening anymore
still you continued to affect me
I was not thinking anymore
although I said I still was
I'd said "I don't want anymore"
because of bad experience
but now I feel so different
I feel so different
I feel so different
I have not seen freedom before
and I did not expect to
don't let me forget now I'm here
help me to help you to behold you
I started off with many friends
and we spent a long time talking
I thought they meant every word they said
but like everyone else they were stalling
and now they seem so different
they seem so different
they seem so different
I should have hatred for you
but I do not have any
and I have always loved you
oh you have taught me plenty
the whole time I'd never seen
all you had spread before me
the whole time I'd never seen
that all I'd need was inside me
now I feel so different
I feel so different
I feel so different
I love to sing in the car but I'm no performer. My creative outlet is writing. When I was a young child, before I knew how to form letters and words, I drew. I was never interested in how good a picture looked but more interested in what message it conveyed. I drew stories. When I got older, I played with Barbies in a similar way, creating story lines for the dolls that were on par with the soap operas playing on TV in the background during summer vacation.
I gave up playing Barbies by the time I was thirteen. We'd moved to a new school district and I was too embarrassed to play with dolls with my new friends. It was at this time that I began to pay closer attention to good literature. I'd always been a reader. Curious George and I Can't Said the Ant were my favorite books when I was young. I moved on to Beverly Cleary's Ramona series, then Judy Blume, who I adored. Starring Sally J. Friedman As Herself was my favorite book in upper elementary school. I read it over and over.
In seventh grade, at my new school where I had no close friends, we were assigned to read S.E. Hinton's book, The Outsiders. I read it in one night and burst into tears when it was over, a pattern that I still follow today with my favorite books. I remember becoming obsessed with the fact that S.E. Hinton had written this book when she was only sixteen. I decided to give up my dream of quitting school, running off to England and joining Duran Duran as a backup singer, which is probably a good idea since I didn't like to leave my bedroom and I refused to sing in front of other people. Instead, I decided I wanted to be a novelist like S.E. Hinton.
I did not finish writing my first novel in time to publish it at age sixteen like Hinton. So, on my sixteenth birthday I tweaked my plan. I would publish it by age 26 (like Alice Walker). Then I turned 26 and still there was no novel. So I decided I'd publish it by age 34 (like Harper Lee). When 34 came and went and no novel had come forth, I decided maybe I should tweak the plan further by renaming the career goal the more generic "writer" so I can count my personal essays (and now my blog) as writing. It was then I decided my goal would be to publish something of book length by the age of 66 (like Frank McCourt).
You might ask, what's with all this comparing yourself to others crap? I know. I'm really bad about that. I think it comes from being the youngest sibling of five brilliant, funny, creative people and feeling compelled to live up to their standards. At least it feels good to blame it on a side-effect of birth order, something I have no control over, so I don't need to bother myself further with worry over it.
A couple of years ago when I turned forty and my brother died I got back into therapy. I began seeing a therapist when I was eleven, and continued seeing a long string of therapists throughout my early adulthood. I never felt a strong connection to any of them, though, so I'd always quit and tell myself I can manage better on my own. But when I found myself unable to get out of bed without vomiting and it wasn't due to any virus, just malaise, I got back into therapy. I wanted something different though. I talked to one therapist on the phone and after giving me an assessment he suggested I try Dialectical Behavior Therapy. I tried it for a few months and then quit when I felt ready to go it alone again. I didn't like the group therapy part of it - I found myself getting sucked in to the others' trauma and becoming more depressed and overwhelmed with anxiety the further they shared their sad stories. I didn't have the energy to give to others at the time. I needed all my mental health energy reserves for myself.
But what I did love about DBT is the Buddhist component of it. The middle way. The nonjudgment. The distress tolerance. The ambiguity. The idea that you can hold two conflicting thoughts inside your head and be aware of them without judgment and without avoidance. These ideas have been very helpful in my personal wellness journey.
I recently started reading Buddhist nun Pema Chodron's book Living Beautifully: With Uncertainty and Change. Chodron says people get stuck and suffer when they haven't learned how to ride the waves of uncertainty. When they have a fixed identity or plan. When things don't work out, when we don't get what we want, anxiety arises and we turn to our favorite coping mechanisms to shift our thoughts back to the familiar. To something we think we can count on in an ever-changing world. Food, drugs, alcohol, television, the Internet, work - whatever keeps us distracted from being fully aware.
Mom and I used to sit on the front porch and play the movie star initials' game. Mom would say, "J.S." and I'd guess which celebrity she was thinking of. She'd call me out of my bedroom when I was doing homework to watch TV with her. Awards shows thrill her - Oscars, Tonys, anything glitzy with lots of celebrities. Mom used to encourage me to write romance novels instead of heavy pieces of introspection because they'd sell better. But fame and monetary recognition are not as important to me as artistic expression. Mom's focus is outward, external. My focus is inward, internal.
That's why I love blogging. I can share what I want when I want to. As much or as little as I feel is appropriate. I don't need a big corporate publishing house to say whether or not my writing is valid. I can self-publish and let my readers decide for themselves.
An Internet friend recently shared Amanda Fucking Palmer's amazing Ted Talk, "The Art of Asking":
My favorite quote is this one:
"For most of human history, musicians, artists, they've been part of the community, connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the Internet and the content that we're freely able to share on it are taking us back. It's about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough."
My husband and his buddy JJ are my favorite musical duo and yet they're not even in a band together. JJ and his family come over periodically. We smoke and drink and eat. Our kids play together. Will and JJ jam. I've been moved more by these two guys I love and know personally, playing music inside my living room, than I ever have been at a big-name rock concert I paid big bucks to see.
I'm not saying people who make a lot of money off their art are wrong for doing it. I'm just saying that good art doesn't need a price tag.
I recognize that fact in other artists, but I'm still struggling with it myself. I love to sing but I'm too embarrassed to sing in front of other people because my voice is not as good as Adele's. So what? Comparing myself to one of the most gifted singers on the planet won't make me happy. Singing along with my non-judging six-year-old in the car makes me happy.
I'm not Adele. I'm not Frank McCourt. I'm not Harper Lee. I'm not Alice Walker. I'm not S.E. Hinton. I'm Becky Carleton. I'm a writer. I'm a singer. On my blog. In my car. The way I like it. I don't have to do things the way others do them. I can do it my way. Great. Now I sound like Frank Fucking Sinatra.
Human beings used to sit around the fire and sing and play music and tell stories and dance. On a warm night in late summer it's fun to go camping and get back in touch with our inner tribal selves. But when the weather outside isn't conducive to camping, the Internet allows us to partake in a similar type of artistic sharing: smaller, intimate, more personal. The Internet allows us to invite people over to sit on our front porch, to sing and jam and share stories, even if we physically live far away.
Since I watched that Amanda Palmer video, I'm excited about writing a novel again. I feel less panicky when I'm aware that there is not just one way to do something. I don't have to find an agent and a publisher. I can self-publish. When I thought about self-publishing before, I didn't know how I could do that since I'm broke. There's no way I could come up with enough money to publish my own novel. But here's an idea: ask for it. If I were a musician I could lay my case out for tips. This is the same thing.
I finally understand what's been holding me back from working on the second novel stored inside my head: I've been worried I won't be able to find a publisher for it, just like my first manuscript sitting unpublished in my desk drawer. So, what if I start out writing the second novel with the intent of self-publishing it? Then I can get it done when I want to, on my own timeline, at my own pace. I can enjoy it. It can be all mine. I don't have to worry about what others will think of it. I won't have to worry about selling myself to an agent or writing another goddamned query letter. I hate those fucking things. And then, when I'm ready to self-publish it, I can create a Kickstarter campaign to raise money from family and friends and fans of my blog to publish it.
But stop. There I go again. Planning instead of writing. It's good to know I have varied paths on my journey to publishing. But for now, I'll focus on the moment. Instead of worrying about the intricacies of how I'll get it published, I'm going to focus on writing it.