“Focus on your writing and you’ll find joy”
This morning I got an email announcing the three finalists for a literary award I applied for. I wasn’t one of them. It was an award for a short story collection, and I was hoping that Friends of the Library would win. Or at least be a finalist. When I read the credentials of the three finalists, my heart fell. I’m not in their league, and I felt very small as I read about their other successes. I was doing that thing that I recently read several successful and smart people say not to do.
Like this Facebook post last week, quoting one of my literary heroes:
“Focus on your writing and you’ll find joy. Focus on success or rewards from outside yourself and there will never be enough.”- Beth Ann Fennelly, November 12, 2010, speaking at the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi.
Here’s an excerpt from my current read (first book of 2020), I’m Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan. Tim is a journalist who was assigned an interview with “Mr. Rogers” and their initial meeting turned into a rich friendship. Tim writes early in the book of his visit to Rogers’ office:
“Easily missed in the cluttered space were three gold statues, Day Emmy Awards that were stacked haphazardly stop a filing cabinet like neglected bookends. ‘I don’t know how to talk of it,’ Fred said when I asked him about the awards. ‘If it’s the outside stuff that’s going to nourish you . . .’”
Mr. Rogers knew that it wasn’t the “outside stuff” that would truly nourish him.
Over a period of years before Fred’s death, he and Tim exchanged letters, and Fred signed most of them IPOY—“I’m Proud of You.” Tim called those the IPOY letters.
#oneword365 = JOY
Recently I posted on Instagram and Facebook that I have chosen JOY as my #oneword365 for 2020. I know, on some level, that JOY isn’t going to come from awards, from people and events outside myself. But this is a lesson that I’ve been trying to learn my whole life. I’ve been trying to learn it since my grandfather molested me when I was five. I’ve been trying to learn it since my mother constantly told me I was fat or my hair didn’t look good. I’ve been trying to learn it since several men who were in positions of authority over me made me feel that my worth came from some place other than inside myself.
Joy is different than pleasure or excitement . . . .
Another recent Facebook post (sorry if you already read it there) reminds me of where this JOY must come from, from another of my literary heroes:
“Joy, it is, which I’ve never known before, only pleasure or excitement. Joy is a different thing, because its focus exists outside the self—delight in something external, not satisfaction of some inner craving…. My new ascetic struggle is to accommodate joy as part of my literary enterprise, but I still tend to be a gloomy and serotonin-challenged bitch.” – Mary Karr speaking at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, July 14, 2010, and reading from her book LIT. Mary is another of my literary heroes, and her words continue to have a big impact on my life and my work. I love this picture of her with her Diet Coke. She quit drinking years before I did, and now I get why she always has a Diet Coke in her hand.
Rilke on not looking outward . . .
In the midst of struggling with what to write in this post, I picked up a favorite volume off one of the bookshelves I walked past in the hallway between my office and my bedroom yesterday, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, opened to a random page, and read these words:
“Go within and scale the depths of your being from which you very life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to the question, whether you must write. . . . For the creative artist must be a world of his own and must find everything within himself. . . . You could greatly interfere with that process if you look outward and expect to obtain answers from the outside—answers which only your innermost feeling in your quietest hour can perhaps give you.”—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
You will never find it . . . .
Looking outward for validation—that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. I just read this post about my #oneword365 for 2019—which was CONTENTMENT—and guess what? I’m still struggling with much of the same crap! I understand why I do this, and the author who expressed this best of any others I’ve read was Robert Goolrick, who was molested by his father when he was a young boy. I heard him speak at Square Books in Oxford ten years ago, when he was reading from and signing his memoir The End of the World As We Know It:
“If you don’t receive love from the ones who are meant to love you, you will never stop looking for it, like an amputee who never stops missing his leg, like the ex-smoker who wants a cigarette after lunch fifteen years later. It sounds trite. It’s true.
“You will look for it in objects that you buy without want. You will look for it in faces you do not desire. You will look for it in expensive hotel rooms, in the careful attentiveness of the men and women who change the sheets every day, who bring you pots of tea and thinly sliced lemon and treat you with false deference….You will look for it in shopgirls and the kind of sad and splendid men who sell you clothing You will look for it and you will never find it. You will not find a trace.”
I am so ready to quit looking for it. I looked for it in the praises of my mother which never came when I was a child (but showed up once as a gift when she was 82 and had Alzheimer’s and told me for the first time I can remember that I had “always been good at art”). For many years I looked for it in the bottom of a bottle of vodka. I have looked for it in decades of struggles to be thin and beautiful. I have looked for it in beautiful clothes and expensive houses. I am still looking for it in what feels like an endless longing for awards for my literary work. For validation that I am enough.
As I write this post I have just returned home from a delightful three-hour lunch with three dear friends. We talked about scads of things—some serious, some hilarious. We laughed. We looked up links to random things on our smart phones and shared them with each other. Two of these women are actually my oldest Goddaughters. I sponsored them when they became Orthodox back in the early 1990s. As we left the restaurant we all hugged each other, and when I said, “I love you” to my Goddaughters, they both told me what should have been, what should forever be enough. They both said, “I love you.”