Are You Finished?

At the beginning of this summer I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Ireland as part of my master’s program. I spent most of those two weeks in writing classes, learning about the craft and business of being a writer.

Each day for two hours or so, I sat down with a little group of fellow students and our mentor, and we workshopped each other’s writing. Workshopping, for writers, is always an inspirational and terrifying experience. It usually consists of sharing a story or a piece of one, and giving your colleagues free reign to say whatever they think of it. Thankfully, my classmates are kind people, but it’s still a fragile experience. While you end up learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t work in your writing, you are putting a piece of your life on a literal table to be dissected. Hours spent thinking, feeling, remembering, and writing are all boiled down to a few sheets of paper that can be marked up and crossed out, and it’s easy to feel judged as a person when the work is the actual thing being judged.

Workshopping, though, is a part of being a writer. Even if you never have a formal sit-down in a room somewhere on the campus of an Irish university (though I definitely recommend it), every writer has to send their work to someone at some point. It might be a friend, a teacher, an editor, or a publisher. In all of these situations, the work will be judged, and you have to learn to chant I’mnotbeingjudged I’mnotbeingjudged in your head the whole time.

For most creative pursuits, the principle is the same: the artist must separate herself from the work in order to take constructive criticism, and to offer constructive criticism herself. You can only grow as a writer if you learn to look at your work objectively.

When the day came for me to share my short story with the workshop, I selected a piece that was several years in the making, and had been written and re-written a few times. I liked the story; I felt confident about it, and that’s really rare for me, let me tell you. The workshop went well, with some good discussions and suggestions from the class, and afterward we had a coffee break.

Usually after a workshop, I stuff all the copies of my work, copies with the scrawled notes and opinions of other people, the teacher, and myself, into a folder. I forget about them for a few months, until I feel strong enough to look back and start working on the errors.

During the coffee break, our mentor, a celebrated Irish writer in her sixties, took me aside. She had a few thoughts about our workshop, and we chatted. Then she asked me,

“Now tell me, is the story finished?”

I felt ill-equipped to answer. “What?”

“Do you feel satisfied that the story is finished?”

“Um…” The truth was, I did. Despite some minor things the class had pointed out, I felt like the story was finished. But I didn’t feel like I had the right to say such a thing. Please tell me, celebrated Irish writer; you’re the expert.

But I answered truthfully. “Yes, I do.”

“Ah, good.” She smiled, satisfied, and we finished our coffee break.

It was a simple question, but it turned my perception on writing and workshopping and the endless cycles of editing on its head. So often in my experience as a writer, I’ve turned to whatever workshop I’m dealing with (formal or informal) to validate whether I’m a good writer or not. I come prepared to feel the burn of judgement, to feel foolish for saying this or that. The little morsels of “I really liked this part” and “you did that well” give me comfort. But at the end I still stuff my work in a folder, feeling rather inadequate, promising myself I’ll work on it later, when I’m ready.

Sometimes, yes, the work is trash. Sometimes other people are smarter than me, and find things to improve in my work. More often than not, actually. But the fact remains that I am still the writer, and as the writer I retain the right to be finished. I retain the right to open the door for suggestions, let a few in, and then shut the door and say, “The discussion has been closed. Thank you for your comments; your insight is very important to us.”

This is a tricky balance, because you don’t want to be too puffed up with the pride of creativity. You don’t want to be that person in a workshop that says, “Well joke’s on you idiots; this here is a finished story! Suck it!” But you don’t want to be a fearful quivering sap either.

I’m learning to go with my gut on these things. I can usually tell I need to pay attention to a constructive criticism when it stings, when it resonates with some deep sense inside of me that says, “Yes, they’re right; that was a bad idea.” Sometimes whole stories feel that way.

But there are times when a suggestion is made for my work, and a very tiny, calm voice in my head says, “No. I disagree.” This voice has thought about it, and is making a level-headed decision, with no hysterics or emotional pain. That’s the voice of the authority-bearing artist, and that’s the voice I can trust.

So for the aforementioned story, I made a few minor changes, and then I put it in a new folder on my computer: “Finished Work.” It was weird to see it so blatantly put. It seemed audacious.

But it also felt good to tell myself I had finished something, to tell myself and the rest of the world that I had worked hard and done well and would work no further. It felt good to think that no matter how ill-received the story might be in the future, that going back and changing it was not an option. From now on, if people didn’t like it, it was a matter of their opinion, and not of my own shortcomings as an artist.

I’m still getting used to this feeling. It’s still frighteningly presumptuous to me. But that artist’s voice still rings in my heart, the one that politely disagrees with my doubts and tells me, “This is finished.”

 

 

Too Fine a Point

I always assumed I hated real pencils.

I remember long days in high school, spending all this time trying to sharpen my pencils into a fine point, hearing the shh shh shh of the pencil sharpener shaving away thin layers of wood and graphite. Then finally, the perfect point. Then pressing against it to test its strength, and snap. Broken. Or even worse, broken deep in the pencil shaft, gouging out a piece of wood with it. Ribbons of shavings stuffed into the pencil sharpener, the quickly dulling blade, fine flakes of graphite staining my hands gray, pencils growing shorter and shorter until they were the same length as my fingers.

I quickly switched to mechanical pencils. Finally, a point that was always sharp, and all you had to do was click click. I scavenged the best mechanical pencils I could find; I hoarded them. My favorite was the Mother of All Mechanical Pencils, with a retractable eraser you could screw up and down like lipstick.

Jenny, my best friend, has always loved real pencils. When she told me about her affection, I sighed in longing. I wished I could love pencils as she did. But all the promises they made of simplicity, practicality, and a certain quotidian charm, had proven empty to me.

But then Jenny got me a collection of lovely floral pencils from the Target dollar section. And you can’t not love something your best friend gets you from the Target dollar section. The pencils came pre-sharpened, which was a boon. I used them, and fell in love with them, and when the points finally dulled so much that they were useless even for underlining in books, the thought of going back to mechanicals was one I couldn’t bear. I had grown to love the feel of solid wood and graphite in my hand, and the flimsy plastic of a mechanical pencil can’t compare to it.

So, committed to the idea of loving these pencils, I bought a pencil sharpener for them. I figured, if it’s a new pencil sharpener, perhaps it won’t be like before. I had great optimism and began sharpening. But soon the old pattern emerged. Shh shh shh. Shh shh shh. Wiggle wiggle. Snap. Damn.

Once again, I had pencils as long as my fingers. But at least they were floral. At least they looked pretty in the pencil cup on my desk. We moved house, and I took the useless pencils in their pretty pencil cup with my desk and set them up in a new space. Every so often I looked at them ruefully.

Finally, one day I couldn’t take it any longer. I went searching through the new house, which we share with other people with belongings unbeknownst to me, for a forgotten and unused pencil sharpener that might magically help my ailing floral pencils. I found one, teal blue and gray. It was stuffed with ribbons of wood shavings, the blades caked with graphite. I took it apart and scraped off years of pencil sharpenings with a letter opener. I put it back together again.

I also found a single pencil with a tiny gaping hole where the lead should be. The sight was one I had obviously seen before. It sent shivers down my spine. But the pencil itself, I realized, was a Dixon Ticonderoga #2. And in case you didn’t know, Dixon Ticonderoga #2s are the best pencils forged by human hands. I was first introduced to them back in grade school when I took a standardized test at the public school. No homeschool or Christian school, which were the scope of my educational experience, ever had the resources to invest in Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. Only a public school, with government funding, could ever afford such a luxury.

But now I had one, in my hands, free for the taking, along with a teal and gray pencil sharpener. I sharpened the Dixon Ticonderoga #2, and the shavings slid off the pencil like slices of butter. The perfect point.

I took my loot to my desk and sharpened my floral pencils. One by one, the perfect point.

Now I have four pencils in use, and I occasionally line them up to behold their beauty. They have bewitched me, body and soul.

I realize this might all sound rather over the top. I realize not everyone is as excited with the nuances of office supplies as me. But my pencil issues taught me something, as office supplies can do. Things aren’t always as perfect as we’d like, be they people, situations, or pencil points. But that doesn’t mean the thing itself is wrong; sometimes it merely takes time, practice, and a new mindset to sharpen those things into what we’re searching after. The important thing, I’ve found, is to not give up.

Get you a best friend who loves pencils. Get you a new sharpener. Enjoy and adapt to every stage. Keep searching. Keep sharpening.

 

Learning to be Spicy

I’ve always had a hard time speaking up. Maybe it was a conservative upbringing coupled with my naturally quiet nature. I prefer to go with the flow, stay quiet even if I’m suffering, let others have their way so I don’t have to make a scene.

People have told me I’m sweet and flexible, and I like to think I am (thanks guys). But more often than not, my reasons are less than noble. I’m not always sweet and flexible because I want to be; it’s often due to the fear of conflict that I keep my mouth shut.

My senior year of college, I was in a play, and our tradition in student theater was that each senior would get a notebook in which everyone would write a parting note or thought. The note from our director stuck out to me:

“I know there is a little spice in there with all the sweet,” she wrote. “Stay spicy.”

Those words have remained in my mind ever since, and I’ve tried to figure out what they mean to me. It’s hard, as a shy person, to feel okay with being spicy. It’s hard to be okay with the idea that people may not like your flavor.

I think the internet has magnified my fears in this area. The internet, of course, is a place where everyone speaks their mind, whether it’s well-thought or not, and on the internet people form mobs and crucify each other while, in the real world, eating breakfast or pooping. On the internet, if you give a moderately controversial opinion, or even worse, your raw and unfiltered opinion, you get a bunch of comments from people who are supposed to be your family and friends, who all say things to you with varying degrees of anger or encouragement. These people say things, to you and to each other, that people would rarely say out loud, making vast assumptions about your motivations, your level of education, and your overall character.

Interestingly, I’ve found that this feature of the internet bleeds into my physical conversations, in that I’m so used to seeing bombastic opinions, terrible rhetoric, and knee-jerk reactions that I assume a real-life conversation will contain those too. I might venture that, “Fall is my favorite season,” and I expect a “OH MY GOSH YOU STUPID PREPPY WHITE GIRL WITH YOUR BOOTS AND PUMPKIN SPICE LATTES WHEN WILL IT ALL END?” in return.

Of course, no one in real life says that. (If you do, shame on you. I wish an afterlife of Pumpkin Spice Latte Hell upon you. May you burn in 160 degrees Fahrenheit milk foam.) But the internet, which has succeeded in making so many people stupidly loud, has bullied me into staying quiet.

Of course, being too timid and people-pleasy has been a fault of mine for a while. As a shy and quiet teenager, I got used to coming up with excuses for what I didn’t want to do, because I was terrified of saying, “No.” I’m so busy with schoolwork. I have to watch my little brother. I wish I could, but I… can’t. Or, I went for a compromise: I can’t help with the whole thing, but I’ll help with some of it. When I didn’t want to do any of it.

A few weeks ago, I had an epiphany. Someone asked me if I would be willing to do a certain thing, and while, ironically, I actually did, I was so used to feeling pressured by my internal fears that I was trying to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t do the thing. And in that moment, I realized how ridiculous and self-sabotaging this was. My fear of speaking up had slowly eroded my sense of what I liked and didn’t like, what I wanted to do and didn’t want to do. I honestly didn’t know, because I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to choose.

I can say anything I want, I thought to myself. I’m an adult. I can say anything I damn well please. I don’t have to come up with an excuse. I can say yes, or I can say no. I can make a decision for myself, and whatever I say won’t be met with an OH MY GOSH YOU STUPID GIRL SHOW SOME RESPECT, because real people don’t say that. Or if they do, well, they have their own problems and I can just turn around and go home.

So in little ways, I’ve tried being more honest with myself. I take the chance and say the thing I think, instead of pretending I agree when I don’t. I take the chance and say what I’d really like to do, instead of pretending that everyone else’s plans sound good to me when they don’t. These decisions aren’t ones I make lightly, and they often cause me a lot of pain.

But I realize it’s an important thing to do, because this is what builds character and integrity: living according to your convictions, even when you want to take the path of least resistance, to keep quiet, to not cause a scene. I’m learning that the voice inside my head which tells me people will be angry, or react like they do on the internet, isn’t telling the whole truth. Because I can be a kind person, and still have convictions. I can disagree with others, and still have friends at the end of the day.

I can be sweet, and still a little spicy.

A List of Tooth Complaints

I have a recurring dream in which I have a loose tooth.

Damn, I think to myself. I’m too old for this. Okay; I’ll just take out this one tooth, and no one will notice.

So I wiggle the tooth, and little by little it becomes looser and looser, and then it falls out. Mission accomplished. Except, in a weird turn of events, the tooth isn’t the only thing that wants free of my jaw. There’s another loose tooth, and another, and then a piece of bone I can’t recognize, and then another, and suddenly all this bone and enamel has come from my mouth.

Damn, I think to myself. I never knew there was this much jaw in a jaw.

I wake up feeling hot and cold, my heart pounding. I feel my face, tapping my jaw to make sure it’s still solid, running my tongue over my teeth. All twenty-eight, still intact. I lay back down and replay the dream in my head, cringing at the memory, the feeling, of pulling teeth out of my jaw.

I don’t remember when this fear of dental injury first started, but in the past few years I’ve noticed I carry a certain squeamishness around teeth. Odontophobia, I’ve found it’s called. Maybe it’s due to a few things:

The time I was five and an older kid told me about how he’d knocked out his two front teeth on the handlebars of his bike. I remember cupping my hands over my mouth and thinking, that will never happen to me, you barbarian.

The time I was eight and a dentist extracted one of my baby teeth. The tooth died right in my mouth and wouldn’t budge to let the new teeth grow in. The tooth was gray. They gave me a tiny red plastic treasure chest to put it in. (That’s a terribly morbid thing to do to a child.)

The time I was fifteen and got braces (thank you dead gray tooth) and felt wire cutters just a little too close to my teeth for comfort.

The time I was seventeen and got the braces off, and they had to scrape cement off my teeth. (Scrape. Cement. Off my teeth.)

The time I was eighteen and I got all four of my wisdom teeth out, which were so impacted in my gums that I had to be drugged into a deep sleep while the oral surgeon cut them out, and I was in pain for a week and looked like a chipmunk for two, and they gave me all four wisdom teeth to take home in a sandwich bag. (That’s a terribly morbid thing to do to a college freshman.)

The time I confided to my best friend that my greatest fear is a razor somehow, magically, coming into contact with my teeth and… I don’t know, shaving them? And every time she mimes shaving her teeth like it’s some kind of joke just to bother me, and how my mouth tastes like vinegar every time, and how she’s not even miming it the way I really imagine and fear it, but I’m definitely not telling her how I really envision it, because best friends are terrible people when they know your greatest fear.

(It’s not a joke Jennifer!)

And then the dental hygienist wonders why I don’t floss enough. Haven’t my teeth been through enough, lady? Have mercy!

Clearly I have some deep-seated tooth trauma I need to take care of. And the funny thing is, I didn’t realize how much until I wrote out my list of tooth complaints just then. It’s funny how the stuff that bothers you, the memories and fears, lurk in your subconscious and only peek out from time to time, like when you have a weird dream about pulling bone from your jaw or when your best friend asks if you want to brush your teeth with a Venus razor. (Shut up Jennifer!)

This isn’t only true of teeth, either. There are several areas in my life where I’m coasting along, doing my own thing, and then a stray word from someone else or an unfamiliar circumstance or a random memory in my head sends me on a road of cringy anxiety.

Just this week I got to the bottom of tender subject that has been bothering me for months. I was talking to my husband, thinking out loud, and suddenly the list of complaints spilled out, and it led me, like a map, to the real root of the problem (root. teeth. hm).

It was awful and wonderful and painful and cathartic. Like pulling out a tooth, wiggling and wiggling and feeling sharp jabs of pain, then finally taking a deep breath and pulling. It hurts, a lot. But then the pain is worth it, because the pain has gotten you somewhere, and like that dead tooth from when I was eight, there’s now room to grow.

There’s room for a beautiful smile.

(I still don’t understand the red plastic treasure chest, though.)