Friday, May 8, 2015

Famished

***trigger warning: child sexual abuse***

Three things converged this week, making me think that the Universe is trying to tell me something.
  1. The documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck finally came out and IT WAS AMAZING, just as I imagined. 
  2. I finished reading Anne Lamott's brilliantly funny and honest and NECESSARY book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
  3. I changed jobs at the public library where I've worked my entire adulthood. After twenty-two years of working in adult services, I'm now a Youth Information Specialist. Does this mean it's time for my second childhood?
These three things have nudged me over the cliff of indecision. I've changing my mind about something big. I no longer want to be famous.

I can't remember the exact time I decided that I wanted to be famous, but it was sometime during my awful teenage years. Most likely while locked inside my bedroom, lying in bed crying, having just read the last page of a book or watched the credits roll on a movie or heard the scratch of the needle coming to the end of an album. 

I want to write books like that.
I want to star in films like that.
I want to sing songs like that.

As an isolated and angry misfit, my best friends were fictional characters. And their creators. I imagined I'd grow up, write a book, act in a film, release an album, and then I'd become friends with all the other creative artists and celebrities I admired. I'd have finally found my people. My tribe. I would feel like I belong to something bigger than myself. Something important and immortal. Sure, I'd die like everybody else some day, but my words would live on through the ages.

When I quit working full-time at the library nearly four years ago, I decided to spend my extra time at home, writing. I had an idea for a book. My brother, Pat, had died a few months earlier. Supporting him through his illness and watching him die sucked the life from me. I'm prone to clinical depression anyway, so when my brother died it hit me good and hard. I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't eat. I couldn't care for my child. I couldn't enjoy my husband or my friends or anyone. 

Leave me alone. This is what I need.

The only thing that got me out of bed was writing. 

By July 2011 I had written a full length manuscript of an autobiographical novel about my brother's death. I talked it over with my husband, and my doctor (it was actually her idea). The plan was this: I'd take a part-time job, 24 hours a week, at the library. I'd use the other sixteen hours a week to tidy up my manuscript and pitch it to some literary agents.

I laugh now when I think back on it. Will and I sitting in our basement talking it over. Surely I should be able to find an agent within about six months or so. From then on out, it's riches and fame for me!

As Anne Lamott quips in Bird by Bird ,“If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.”

Actually, for me, it wasn't about the riches. I think it was about the riches a teeny, tiny bit for my husband Will. I think he'd love it if I sold a book and made six figures and we could finally paint his 1956 Chevy pickup truck that sits in our driveway. Maybe even put a working engine in it. Or buy some more gear for his music. Not really riches, per se, but, you know, nice things. I think he'd also love it if I sold a book and made six figures so he could cut back his hours at work to focus more on his own creative pursuits. Fair enough.

For me it was not about riches. Sure, I'd love to pay off the mortgage to our little 935 square foot house so we'd live more worry-free. I'd like to pay off my student loans. I'd like to be able to get my muffler fixed, and maybe have someone install one of those big bathtubs with bubble jets in our house. I'd allow myself that luxury. But I'm not too fancy. Even if I did sell a book, you'd never find me on the back cover dripping in jewels and wearing fashionable clothes.

For me, it was less about the riches and more about the fame. I crave attention. I love to write because it makes me feel good inside. I also love to write because people tell me I'm good at it. I crave praise like a preschooler holding a stick-figure drawing up to your face.

Look what I made!

It doesn't take a lot of psychological insight to understand that I crave attention because it's difficult to come by when you're the youngest sibling of a big bunch of creative geniuses. Seriously. It's really hard to feel good about yourself when all your brothers and sisters have already had the good ideas long before it was your turn at the family talent show. Imagine being the baby sister of Dorothy Parker, or Andy Warhol, or John Lennon. I mean, shit. I had no chance.

I think that's why I became a writer instead of a visual artist or actor. I can observe all the creative geniuses around me and use them in my stories. My sister Kit once got me this awesome t-shirt that says, "You realize this will end up in my blog, right?" 



So back in July 2011 when I set out to sell my first manuscript, I COULD NOT WAIT for the wild rumpus of praise and fame to begin.

It never did.

So, you know. Big ole change of plans.

I still write. I won't give that up. It's just that I'm no longer actively searching for an agent. It distracts me from the real purpose of writing: sharing stories, telling secrets, setting myself free. I've discovered that I love to write for writing's sake. It's exciting to see what comes out of the tips of my fingers as I sit back and let my broccoli take over. (That's an Anne Lamott reference. If you have not read Bird by Bird yet, stop right now and go read that book.) I love to share my writing on my blog because it gets me modest attention, from mostly friends and family, the best kind of attention, but also because of the crazy amazing feeling I get when someone messages me that they read one of my posts and it made their life better in some small but meaningful way. Helping other people makes me feel better about myself. When I can combine writing for myself and then sharing it with others who find meaning in it--wowza. That's the best feeling a writer can have. Paid or unpaid. Famous or underground. I don't need fame for that.

Searching for fame left my soul feeling famished. Part of the problem is that I like to write about horribly depressing topics. I like to write about what you're not supposed to talk about. I like to write about things that make you feel uncomfortable. Not exactly best-seller material. So it was an uphill battle, trying to convince a literary agent to sign me on, to help find a publisher for my manuscript about a woman whose brother, who had long ago sexually abused her, just drank himself to death and how she struggles with whether or not she should share the secret of this abuse, something that would free her soul while tarnishing his.

Yeah, I know. Who wants to read that? Even I got sick of reading the manuscript after a few tries. I shoved it into the back of my desk and decided to try it from another angle.

Memoir. I wrote a full-length manuscript about my brother, who had long ago sexually abused me, and how he'd just drunk himself to death and I struggled with whether or not I should share the secret of this abuse, something that would free my soul while tarnishing his.

It didn't sell either. Geez. I thought anybody could publish a memoir these days.

Then I started to think about what I was doing. I had written this confessional story of family abuse and dysfunction with the goal of getting it published and becoming rich and famous. Gross. How icky is that? What kind of person tries to sell her story to a publisher to make money off her pain? So I gave up and started posting my stories on my blog. I get paid about $.01 per day, so it's not gonna get Will's truck painted any time soon, but I have full control over what stories I share.

As a blogger, I came out of the closet as a sexual abuse survivor, a gay Christian, and as someone who struggles with mental illness. It was scary at first. But scary and exhilarating at the same time, like riding your first roller coaster. You feel like you might die, but then when you don't, you feel more alive than ever. I was finally able to share secrets that lifted me out of my depressive bed. I let people see my life from my point of view. 

Look, I'm definitely crazy , but I matter.

I just want to love and to be loved. Why is it so hard?

Hey, look at me! I made it! I survived.

And then they respond. My readers.

I feel that way, too!

Your story reminds me of mine...

I thought I was the only one who felt that way.

My blog has brought me riches and fame in ways I never new possible. It's unpaid labor and the fame it garners is quiet and respectful, mostly private messages or public comments thanking me for my honesty and my courage to talk about uncomfortable, but universal, things. It's just the right fit for me.

Watching the Kurt Cobain documentary this week made me realize that the dream of being famous I once had is a dream I've outgrown. I have a more settled, balanced, at-peace adult life. I have support. I no longer feel like I need the whole world to love me. Just the people in my own little word, my husband, my daughter, my friends, my blog readers. I wish Cobain had lived long enough to find that kind of peace for himself.

In the film Cobain is portrayed as a young, sad, misfit who kills himself when he can't handle life despite the riches and fame his genius art has brought him. His friends, his loved ones, his child. None of them could save him. None of them could bring him peace. He was the only one who could do that. And I understand how difficult it is to find peace within while living in this world. As Cobain's sister Kim says in the film, thank God I didn't get that Genius Brain.

I'd add, thank God I didn't become famous. 

Then, after watching the Cobain documentary, I read these words in Lamott's book, Bird by Bird:
"...when this book of mine came out, the one that did pretty well...I found myself stoned on all the attention, and then lost and derailed, needing a new fix every couple of days and otherwise going into withdrawal. My insides became completely uninhabitable, as if I'd wandered into a penny arcade with lots of bells ringing and lights flashing and lots of junk food, and I'd been there too long. I wanted peace, peace and quiet, but at the same time I didn't want to leave. I was like one of those bad boys in 'Pinocchio' who flock to the island of pleasure and grow donkey ears. I knew my soul was sick and that I needed spiritual advice, and I knew also that this advice shouldn't be terribly sophisticated. So I went to see the pastor of my son's preschool. 
"...I said that I was all over the place, up and down, scattered, high, withdrawing, lost, and in the midst of it all trying to find some elusive sense of serenity. 'The world can't give that serenity,' he said. 'The world can't give us peace. We can only find it in our hearts.' 
"'I hate that,' I said. 
"'I know. But the good news is that by the same token, the world can't take it away.'"
Fame would do me in. What was I thinking? When I was a misfit teenager, I really thought if I could trick everyone in the world into loving me I'd finally feel good about myself. Turns out, I was wrong. I had to find a way to feel good about myself by myself.

And I did find a way. I feel good about myself when I'm helping other people. Especially shorties. I discovered how much I love to work with children. Children are the best kinds of people. Honest. Emotional. Intuitive. They haven't been around long enough to understand all your culturally indoctrinated neurotic bullshit. They just think you're funny and silly and they want you to read them a story and sing them a song. Maybe break out some crayons and paper from time to time. Simple as that.

So this new job I have--guess what I get to do? I get to read stories to kiddos. I get to teach these children that they are important. Their curious minds are special and worthy of my attention. My new position at the library, as a Youth Information Specialist, is just the right fit for me at this time in my life. I've discovered something that feels even better than getting attention. Giving it.