Monday, January 3, 2011

Making Old New Again

Over the last three years, I've made it a tradition to post a New Year's story.  I intended to post one this year--recently beginning a vignette with this goal in mind--only to discover that I didn't have the heart to complete it.

I've been feeling this a lot lately, regarding writing.  And, strangely enough, I'm not feeling it as a negative development.  I like writing; I mean to keep at it.  But I cannot stake my happiness on the fickle waves of inspiration and word count. Or on validation's thin ice.  I've recently been experiencing a more precious, if less exercised, peace of mind.  I'm knee-deep in novels again, and reading as much poetry as I can get my hands on, thanks to a Christmas bounty from my husband.  Motherhood feels more than ever like a gift to me, in spite of the daily trials.  I've even organized the house a bit.  And while it may be argued that contentment is the death knell of creativity, I prefer to think of it as a slow drip of sustenance into the overly heated pot.  Quiet minds need not be still; they run true and deep enough.

I wrote Plum Blossoms in Paris in a bit of a bubble.  I didn't share that novel with others for quite some time.  I understand that this insulation is anathema to most contemporary writers' processes.  And I can see how that give-and-take with readers and other writers secures their larger goals.  Yet, even while I've been an obliging beta-reader for many, a purity of vision is still, for me, an essential part of a writer's worth and self-expression.  It's what separates art from craft.  That time of my life was a sacred education.

I've been sheepish to argue this perspective in the past.  I recognize it sounds self-aggrandizing and preachy.  But I want to know when I put something out there that, in spite of its influences--and with all of its summits and fault lines--it's still mine at the end of the day. That's my true goal now, in lieu of more ambitious, commercial aims. And that old bubble feels worth slipping into again.  For all that I've gained since Murmurs' launch in 2007, I've lost some of those sweet and honest pleasures.  I don't write as much for the characters anymore; I write with the concurrent hope of eliciting a reaction.  I'm sure that this is normal--we all like to be petted and praised.  But I can't help but wonder where it leads.  Or maybe I know too well.

My little book's publication was a thrill, if also a disappointment, as most realized dreams turn out to be.  I found myself caring too much what people thought of it...or what they thought of me.  I experienced the discomfiting contradiction of not wanting people to read what I'd worked so hard to put out--going so far as to apologize for its relative immaturity--and yet feeling hurt when many who mattered to me chose not to read the book.  I checked my Amazon sales rank with the frequency of a lab rat pushing for its pellet.  I promoted myself, with the helpful generosity of so many of you, like a dutiful, if doubting, author.  Meanwhile, my ego felt a kid run amok, constantly hunting for the next scrap of validation, the next great, or small, distraction.

Which brings me to Facebook and Twitter.  Man, those places can be easy and fun.  Even when not actively participating, the passive voyeurism is delicious.  I have frittered away countless hours checking people's tweets and status updates.  I've free-stroked to the flow of banter, drama and good cheer.  Not being an extravert, social media feels like a safe harbor for connecting with people, while still maintaining that desired distance.  But I also firmly believe that--for me again--these places can dilute my focus on work and family, priming that age-old restlessness for instant gratification and attention.  Did someone re-tweet my little poem?  Was that last comment clever enough?  Embarrassing to admit--well, sure--but true.  If I had a greater talent for self-discipline and moderation, I'm sure it would be a different story.  As it is, I don't want to have something cute my kid says immediately triggering the thought: is this Facebook-worthy?

I don't know.  Maybe the greatest act of narcissism is to take yourself too seriously.  To endlessly dissect and confess these motivations and actions, in the belief that there's some future reward for self-awareness, regret, and its more mature sister: growth.  I'm ridiculously lucky to be able to wrestle over such airy matters.  And the truth is, I'm far from feeling like I have it all figured out.  These qualms have been with me for some time, but they are mine alone.  I would not presume to know which fuels propel others' dreams and happinesses.  So many of you are brilliant and funny and good.  If I had my way, you'd all be published or feted, the world taking proper note of your talent, vision and work.  I've smiled at your skill and I've prized your friendships.  I'm glad you're out there.

So. The practical outcome of all this rambling is that I'm detaching myself from the computer in some meaningful ways.  I'm deactivating my Facebook account (not deleting it; let's not get crazy here), ignoring Twitter and Google Reader, and putting the much-neglected blog on indefinite hiatus.  I know--big whoop, right?  This kind of proclamation has become a common, and often comically short-lived, refrain as people struggle to find the right balance between an internet life and, you know, that other one.  Recording it here is really for my benefit.  It's the permission slip for a solitary field trip.  And it's the click of the door behind me, so that I might really hear and mind it.  

In spite of my New Year's tradition, I've never held much stock in making resolutions.  To me, the start of a new year feels like an artificial line in the sand.  Change and evolution happen through an accident of steps and missteps, and rarely with any single, mythic leap of faith.  But it is the new year.  And right now, I have a lot of faith.  In my family, in my deep gratitude for our good fortune, and in the patience to pursue happiness in a sustainable way I might also be proud of.

Happy New Year.  I hope 2011 is just what you make of it.