Letter to a friend, with a poem at the end

Dear …

I thought of you just now. I am sitting in this renovated 13th-century Italian convent between Rome and Florence, a short walk up from the train station, and your face  drifted into view. There were a lot of people here for ten days but they all left on the train today. I suppose suddenly being alone was one reason I thought of you. There had been little time to really think. Now I am alone.

I wanted to tell you some things, just being truthful, not wanting anything specific or immediate from you, but not wanting to offend you either with my bald frankness, which I realize has sometimes seemed uncivilized or cruel. As you may know, I was raised by people who spoke sharply to each other as a rule, and to us kids, with the understanding that sharp words were intellectual love and honesty. We spoke to each other with such words and it was not seen as cruelty or even bad manners. It was a point of pride. We knew what we meant.

But my wife has taught me many things in the 20-odd years we have been married. I have come to see how being too honest too quickly can seem cruel. In the spirit of that honesty, though, I will say up front that I do want something from you. Of course we all want things from each other all the time. But sometimes wanting something can cast doubt on the sincerity of what we are saying: Why are you telling me this now? You must want something from me.

Let me do this in my way. I just want to be honest, more honest than I would be if we were face to face. I want to say that I thought of you and believe it or not I felt gratitude. The word “gratitude” is in trouble these days from reckless overuse. It hardly means anything. There is even a restaurant near where I live called “Cafe Gratitude.” But I do want to say I am grateful, meaning conscious of having received much from you.

It is hot here in Castiglion Fiorentino today, hotter than we expected it to be in June. Another workshop starts in two days. People will begin arriving tomorrow. So I have only a little time. This lack of time may be one reason I got to thinking about all the people, like you, whom I’ve been able to meet and write with over the last eight years. You know, we always say in these workshops, “Let’s reflect back what we remember, what sticks with us.” I remember many things about you but some of those things have blended into a composite picture.

Here is something I wrote in the workshop yesterday, on the last day, which I thought I would send to you, which in a personal way sums up where I’m at, what it’s like to be me today. I share this because I have seen, over the years, what happens when people keep coming to these workshops. We go deeper and we get better at being able to capture a moment, where we’re at.

We’re not all big amazing genius type writers and I don’t give a damn about that, frankly. I feel that writing in this way, in a group, has given my writing something else, a home separate from the world of publication. Writing that is published has one kind of home, a big, public home where many shoppers come and go, and people can pick it up and make judgments about it, or dismiss it or do whatever they want with it. Here, though, in the group, it is like we are writing in someone’s home, and everyone is more attuned to the personal implications of each piece, and how we are affected by what is said and not said.

So I have the world that I write for publicly, and this world, where I write things and share them immediately, like just-baked biscuits. They get consumed fresh and that is that and we move on. That’s what I give a damn about: the feeling of having a home for my creative practice.

There are probably reasons that I am more comfortable sharing in a group than publishing, or at least as comfortable, and maybe we will talk about them at another time. But for now, I wanted to share with you this, a just-written piece, not agonized over, not polished but fresh and perhaps revealing in ways that I am not aware of, but which I don’t mind … while I have a moment, before the next nine-day workshop begins:

 

Is this a turning point?
Am I at a turning point?
How the hell would I know?
I know my history.

I remember running as a kind of change.
The only way I knew to change was to run.
Every word seems full of other meanings.
Are we in the dark or have we found a fertile garden?
Everything is ripe with more meaning than is wanted.

I know that in the past I turned and ran. Rant.
Plots have turning points. Plots are also graves.
The turning point. Remember that movie? It was
About ballet. Oh well. A plot is a grave and a
Turn is a spin and a point is an infinitesimal idea.

I learned that in geometry. Are we getting off the subject?
Welcome to the stream I dip my toe in.

Wood smoke. Bird cries. This endless thing.
Looking for a turning point, a radius. I wish I
could be witty. Is this a turning point? I have always
run. Now I try to pivot.

So I say to the therapist that I later fired,
I hate my house. He says, you hate your house?
He didn’t say anything about the house as metaphor.

Can I take a different road? Can I live in Italy?
What I came to San Francisco for now is gone.

I’m thinking about a wire transfer. Is that part of the turning?
I love the words that things are made of: wire, and transfer,
The things that money are made of, the keystrokes, the clatter,
the random number generator and who tracks, who sees, the
random numbers generated? This intrigues me as I wonder
If I am turning.

Could I simplify? Wood smoke like visiting Grandma Ann.

Now all these feelings start to come up. Why do we say come up
And not arrive, or fall down? Why do they come up? Are they
Being held down? I guess so. Duh. That’s how we do it, that’s our
Metier, our special Nordic genius for drinking and shutting up.

Shutting up and shutting down the
things that would come up or out; ever
think of that? We shut up but there is an object too that is then imprisoned.
=================

And then I’m sure there is more. But what I wanted to share with you was that. And I said I wanted something and yes, I do. I want these workshops, when we come back to San Francisco, to be big and full of joy. I want you to come. I want you to make time in your life for these workshops, so you will share these things with me. I want them to be big, like celebrations. I want you to feel free to dig deep and be respected. I want the house to be full of your spirit once again.

I’m a singer — but I drift from waitress job to waitress job

 I don’t know how to settle down. But I’m almost 30 and don’t want to waste my life!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 3, 2008

Dear Cary,

I’ve written to so many advice columnists and no one ever answers. I am plagued by problems — for years. In general, what the hell is the deal with me? I was so blithe and great and happy in childhood — but ever since I was, oh, 15, things have gone downhill, and I’m just about 29 now.

After high school, I moved away to go to college, but I quit after two years because I wasn’t really happy. I wanted to be a singer, as I had since I was 5, and I was doing some singing. But in general I felt unhappy, there was something lacking, and also I was in a relationship I wanted to get away from. So I quit school and moved away. In my new location, I sang a bit, got into another relationship, really wanted to get out of it, and moved away again. In my new location, I sang more, met another man, moved away with him, definitely had to leave, and — yes, moved away again. That was when I moved back in with my parents. I waitressed, moved to a new place, waitressed and sang there, then decided to finish school and did, but hated it the whole time. The school was lacking academically and was in a podunk town– where I met a new man, moved in with him, and then, about a year later, yes, moved away. Now I am living with my parents again and feeling quite at a loss.

I always dreamed of great things in life. But I’m going to be 30 and I’ve done nothing — nothing to be able to say, “Hey, I’ve made it!” In short, I’ve made nothing for myself (except learning the hard way whom not to fall in love with). I’m waitressing again, and yes, singing (in a tiny show where I make $75 a week and wear a rubber cone head — don’t ask). I think I’ll stop moving — I’ve wanted to for years. (Though I will move out of my parents’ house.) But just what the hell should I do? I’ve moved around since childhood — four years is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, and one year is the longest I’ve ever held a job. There are so many things I am interested in — writing, editing, singing, dancing — but career-wise, my résumé is just a long list of waitressing and oddities.

Where I am now is the closest thing I have to a childhood home, and I have family here (my parents only live here half the year), and so I feel I might stick here. So sometimes I think I am finally ready to do “my life” and make something out of it, besides a mess. But other times I am very scared to think of the future — I don’t want to be forever drifting. I want a fulfilling career, a husband and family. But how to start? What am I to do? I am so bored waitressing and I have about three friends spread over the U.S. due to me being neither here nor there but always taken up with a tumultuous relationship with a man.

Tell me — where shall I start and while I’m waiting for roots to grow, how can I not be so bored?

Chronically Waiting, Dreaming and Scheming for a Life That Is Passing Me By

P.S. I have thought about performing musicals on a cruise ship but I need to build something for the future, not just another temporary excitement!

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Dear Chronically Waiting,

So you’ve written to lots of advice columnists and nobody ever writes back? Well, I’ll write back. I’ll write back because there are certain things you need to know that no one tells you, things I have learned the hard way, things that are simple but can take a lifetime. You don’t have a lifetime.

So here is the deal in a nutshell: Your actions have put you in the spot you’re in. I’m not blaming you. I’m just directing your attention to the correct area. It’s time to change your actions. How do you do that? You adopt a different set of criteria for making decisions.

You left college after two years because you weren’t happy. “Happy” was a criterion for leaving college. That will have to change. “Happy” is not a criterion anymore. “Required for the next step” is a your new criterion.

For the next five years I suggest you do only those things that are required to take you to the next step. It will be hard to change but it is doable and simple and it will give you a much better shot at being happy.

Where do you start? You start by clarifying the goal toward which you are going to struggle for the next five years. I suggest creating a goal that is obtainable through hard work and that is measurable. I would say your goal right now should be to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft.

You may want to be a star. You may think that should be your goal. But I don’t think so. I think your goal should be to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft. The desire to be a star may be a vision that motivates you. You may benefit from visualizing yourself as a star. But for a goal you need something that is under your control. Proficiency and excellence in your craft is something you can actually attain. It may sometimes precede stardom, but it is never a guarantee of stardom. There is no guarantee of stardom. But there are guaranteed milestones of proficiency and excellence that are obtainable.

So let’s say that your No. 1 goal in life is now to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft of singing and acting. That’s very simple. How is that done? It’s done through education and hard work.

If you adopt this one goal, your decisions can all flow from this one premise: Your purpose is to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft. What do you do? Whatever you have to do in order to attain proficiency and excellence in your craft, that’s what you do.

How? You take voice lessons and acting lessons. You build your network of fellow singers and actors. You locate yourself in the best place possible for getting that kind of education, experience and contacts.

What place is that?

Well, there’s no doubt that Los Angeles and New York are the best places to go if you already have the skills. But where are the best places to learn these skills? Not necessarily Los Angeles and New York.

I’m not saying categorically that you should go back to school for a B.A. in performance. But I’m saying you want to gain the hard facts and take concrete actions. Maybe you look and find the best teacher and that teacher is in one of these towns with a top-rated drama and voice program. The talent tends to cluster. So you might move to a town with one of the top-rated schools. It’s this kind of thinking that I’m suggesting.

You may find it impossible to sit long enough and concentrate long enough to make the right plans. There may be more work involved in doing this. Some of this work may involve understanding what happened when you were 15. You were happy and then something happened. Sometimes things happen in adolescence and we form patterns of behavior as a result and we don’t find out until years later how that happened. We underestimate the power of these events somehow; we believe that we are able to make the right decisions but those decisions keep putting us in a bad spot. So in order to make this orderly shift, you may have to enlist the help of others. That would make sense.

Want to know a secret? I can hardly do anything on my own. Actually, I now have three professionals helping me cope with life. Three! One of these people is paid for by the city, as one of its programs to help small businesses. One is paid by my health insurance through my employer. And one of them I pay out of my pocket. OK, I’m kind of a basket case, but I’m just saying, there’s nothing wrong with going out into the world and asking for help. It’s all worth it.

Want to know another secret? I want to be a singer, too. I used to be in a punk/new wave band. You want to hear me sing a punk song? I’m pretty bad! Tell you what. If you will promise me that you will go and start working seriously on your craft, I will send you — no, better yet, I will place on the Web for all to hear — a song that I wrote and sang in the early 1980s and, well, OK, that’s just the deal I’m offering. Because you need some kind of “accountability buddy.” You need somebody to be accountable to who won’t let you slide.

So you write to me and let me know what you’re doing, and then I will do this. I will place myself on the line, so that we have some accountability, you and me. So we have a deal.

I’m almost at my deadline now so I have to wrap up. But I want to say that the beauty of changing your life in this way, wrapping it around a purpose, is that your life begins to have a demonstrable shape. Someone asks, well, what brings you to Evanston, Ill.? And you say, well, I’m trying to become the best singer I can possibly be, and they have the best teachers here.

Having a goal makes your life a story. What is a story? It’s somebody who wants something and tries to get it. It’s what the person wanted and how he or she went about trying to get it. So you make your life a story. Then everything falls into place.

It’s not as easy as it looks. It’s not easy to change your life. It’s not easy to do things differently. But it can be done.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My boyfriend is my boss

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 23, 2009

I’m getting sick of being “the editor’s girlfriend”


Dear Cary,

I’m a college student and a reporter for my university’s paper. I’m a good writer — my work has shown up in publications beyond the university, and since arriving here I’ve established myself as “one to watch” in the English department. I really don’t intend to sound cocky, but I’m not affected with false modesty. I have a lot to learn, but I know I have a knack for this.

I’m in a fairly new relationship of about three months, with a boyfriend who so far has been entirely wonderful. We’re both ambitious types with busy schedules and social lives, but we make the time. I think it has been a revelation to both of us just how extraordinary it is to have another person who is truly in your corner.

Here’s the problem — he’s my boss. He’s two years older and is the editor of the school newspaper, while I’m a staff writer. We met outside of the newspaper, and other people are in charge of how much I get paid and where my articles run. We’ve had several serious discussions about ethics, during which we emphasized that I’d never, ever ask him to do me any professional favors, and he would never give me any sort of special treatment. The relationship is more public than I’d like at such an early stage — we’ve both gotten long personal lectures on ethics from the head of the journalism department, and how he heard about us is anyone’s guess.

The thing that bothers me is not the ethical question — I feel like we’re managing that. It’s that I’m entirely fed up with being “the editor’s girlfriend” and not defined as a reporter in my own right. I have never, ever been the kind of woman who would be defined by a relationship — it is extremely important to me that I be defined by my own actions and my own work.

I’ve been doing good work at the paper, and I’m likely to be getting a promotion in the next couple of semesters. But I’m so, so sick of having to hear jokes about my sex life every time one of my stories runs in a prominent place in the paper or I pick up a particularly coveted assignment.

These aren’t serious allegations — the newspaper staff knows that it is not my boyfriend who makes these decisions, and people from outside the staff are only kidding. My friends say to laugh it off, but the fact is that those small successes are things that I earned through a lot of hard work, and the suggestion that I’m somehow trading sexual favors for good assignments truly offends me. I worry that the staff will take me less seriously and that this could endanger my future at the paper.

I know that having a happy relationship and a successful career are not mutually exclusive, but I feel like I’m too young to be dealing with such a minefield. I don’t even know whom to talk to about this — my boyfriend and I are handling it as best we can, but I don’t know how to tell him that although I’m pretty attached to being his girlfriend, I’m getting damn tired of being “the editor’s girlfriend.” I’m not giving up on my work, or on my relationship, I just need to figure out how to reconcile the two.

Her Own Girl Friday

Dear Girl Friday,

I suggest you try to be a little lighthearted about this. Imagine strutting around campus wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m sleeping with my boss and enjoying it. You got a problem with that?”
Picture yourself walking amid these yahoos with your head held high. Imagine striking them down with wit and glamour and sophistication. Imagine shutting them up and putting them in their place.

Do you feel better?

Keep going with this. Conjure up an image that makes you feel powerful and proud. Make it vivid and real. Draw some cartoons or make a collage. Create the image of the superhero you are. Inhabit her skin. Name this woman. Give her special powers. Keep her image close to you. Appeal to her for strength and guidance.

And know this: Sexism pervades our culture. The assumption that a woman’s achievements stem from her value as a domestic, sexual and romantic companion rather than as a skilled worker is evidence of that sexism.

You know what else exists in our society? Morons. The world beyond your college gates is a nightmare of hulking, mouth-breathing morons. Morons even run newspapers. So be ready. You’re going to be encountering a lot of sexist morons.

So that’s the sociological part of this.

The other part is psychological: By mixing creativity, sexuality and power, you run the risk of incurring deep psychological wounds if things go wrong. By hooking up with your boss, however much you trust him, you have placed your fate in the hands of someone who may damage you, even if he doesn’t mean to.

That is my opinion, but I assume that it is also a fear of yours. If you sense that you are in dangerous territory emotionally, I would agree that you are.

Stuff can happen in such a relationship to shape the rest of your life. Sometimes people make decisions in such circumstances that last for decades. “Oh, he told me I’d be happier if I wasn’t writing, so I quit.” You know, crazy stuff.

How power, sexuality and creativity combine to damage the psyche is complicated. Let’s assume that our emotional responses are rooted in invisible structures formed very early. As a baby, you must be loved unconditionally. You are helpless. You have no vocational skills. You are just a cute, wiggling bundle that eats and shits and throws up and makes noise. You are not a cowboy or a princess. You must be loved and cared for unconditionally. We get older and develop skills, but underneath, our need to be loved unconditionally persists even after we develop great skills and charm and form adult relationships. One area where this need for unconditional acceptance seems to persist most deeply is in the area of creativity. Why is this so?

Could it be because creativity is our one way back to that primal state?

That would be my guess. Betrayal of this creative self reaches beyond personality self into some realm of existential pain and fear that is difficult to find access to. So if you are exposing this fragile, unprotected, raw creative pre-verbal self — the one that cannot protect itself but must be cared for unconditionally — to the upheavals of romantic and sexual relationship, you are in frightening territory. If for instance you were to break up you might feel unconsciously it was because you were not a good reporter. That may sound stupid. But these decisions, we do not make consciously. They are made by this pre-verbal, emotional self that reacts to rejection as if it were an existential threat. So I assume you feel concerned and confused for good reason. You are exposing your psyche to risks that you might not consciously understand.

What can you do? For one thing, you can begin getting assignments outside the school. You can strike out on your own so that there is no question in anyone’s mind how you did it. And  I would suggest, if possible, that you find some ally, a therapist or counselor or older friend, and go through this with that person, checking in frequently, discussing this, asking for protection, watching for ways that you have placed your fragile creativity in danger. If you are in self-doubt, ask yourself why. If you feel like quitting, interrogate your feelings. Honor them but interrogate them. It might be this frightened child who wants to quit. Beware. It’s complex. Keep moving forward.

p.s. You know that Yeats poems that ends, “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”? What a lovely and moving poem that is.

I quit being a musician because I couldn’t play without drinking

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Cary’s classic column from

Now my life is all screwed up and nothing works.


Dear Cary,
I turn 31 in a couple of weeks, and I feel like I’m unable to get my life together. I thought I would’ve had things sorted out by now, but I don’t. I don’t feel a whole lot more on top of things than I did 10 years ago.

I was a professional musician for five years after college but gave that up because I couldn’t perform without drugs and alcohol to loosen me up. After giving up music I became a school teacher, but I burned out after three years of teaching in a very rough urban school. Then, I moved into a supervisory position with an educational not-for-profit. The commute to this job is awful, and I’ve decided I need to move on. However, with each successive career change I feel like I’m moving sideways at best, and I’m having a very hard time getting excited about any new career path.

I would like to follow a dream, but having failed at my greatest dream, I’ve lost the confidence to entertain another one. Part of the problem is I have a tremendous ego — I was a gifted first-born who never learned how to handle not being the best — and am terrified of failure. Music, writing, chess, teaching — these have been my great loves, but not being guaranteed recognition spoils the enjoyment I get from them. I know this is irrational and childish, but it’s a barrier I can’t seem to overcome. I’m going to therapy, I do yoga, I’ve tried meditation … but none of these get me past the terror I feel at doing something and not being wonderful at it. My pattern these days is to halfheartedly take up some new creative pursuit every few months and squeeze it into my off-time, then abandon it as soon as it gets difficult.

It seems like striving doesn’t suit me. Sometimes I think I should give up striving altogether, to give up wanting anything in the way of achievement. Sounds Zen, in a depressive sort of way. But who would I be without this perpetual struggle to balance my creative impulses with time spent at work? Who would I be if I didn’t care about being smart or creative? My therapist suggests I not give up my creative pursuits, but resolve what is blocking me from experiencing joy through them (how I’m supposed to do this is unclear); my girlfriend suggests I find something different to strive for (she recommends love and intimacy).

Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking about the ways in which I’ve failed at life, and my dignity is foundering. I’m starting to feel like a loser and a coward, am depressed a lot of the time, and am slowly turning into a pothead and alcoholic. My siblings, who look up to me, are worried about my behavior and have suggested I try antidepressant medication. (My entire family, with the exception of myself, have been on medication at some point in their lives, my parents consistently since the ’80s. I’ve resisted it because I’m scared of what it might do to me, and because I fear I’ll miss out on a “deeper” life lesson if I’m doped up and not in touch with the pain I’m feeling. Meanwhile, I get slightly drunk or high almost every day. I know, I know.) My friends and family are confused about why I don’t seem to have done much with my life, and I am tired of feeling like I’ve wasted my potential by remaining embroiled in a childhood drama I seem powerless to escape. The drama is: Mom and Dad will only love you if you’re the best, and so the only way you can prove to them that you’re not subject to their approval is by being mediocre. I seem to approach almost everything I do with expectations so high that there’s no chance I could ever fulfill them.

One thing that’s going right in my life is my relationship with my girlfriend. She knows what I’m struggling with and takes the good with the bad. Long-term romantic intimacy has been difficult for me, and so I feel blessed to have found someone who is smart, attractive and not on a mission to change me. That said, I know my depression is taxing for her.

Any suggestions? Should I try medication? Is there another way of looking at this I haven’t thought about?

Slowly Driving Myself Nuts

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Dear Slowly Driving Myself Nuts,

You and I are a lot alike, actually. So I have to say this: I don’t believe that you can’t play music without alcohol and drugs. Listen: You were a professional musician for five years after college. You did it for five years. Five years!

I’m sure drugs and alcohol helped you in some ways. You probably felt less anxiety before performing when you used them. Perhaps you felt freer and less self-conscious while performing. But drugs and alcohol probably also interfered with your musical accuracy, your stamina and intonation, your ability to remember tunes, your ability to hear and balance your sound and to craft your performance.

I just don’t believe that you can’t perform without alcohol and drugs. I think it’s one of those untrue beliefs that gets in your head and screws you up. If being a working musician is your dream, then that’s the thing you need to get back to. Otherwise it will haunt you the rest of your life and you will go on trying cures without success — because you will be working against your authentic self.

I have also been a performing musician, although I was never able to make a living at it. My brother, however, is a professional musician and has been for most of his years. We both used to drink. We both had to quit drinking. I am no longer a performing musician but my brother makes a good living at it.

You can play music and not drink is what I’m saying. There are ways to do it. If it’s your dream, you have to find a way to do it. It requires sacrifices.

What my brother does is live a simple life. He gets enough rest and exercise. He takes care of his voice. And on the job he pays attention to the audience and to the club personnel. He can do that because he isn’t drinking.

He’s made sacrifices to be a working musician. He would like to raise a family but a musician’s life did not allow for that. It could still happen. But he’s dedicated himself to his music and that has meant living frugally and carefully. The life of a musician isn’t for everybody. But it’s not about being a genius so much as it is about getting control over your routine and learning to manage professional relationships.

As for me, at 31 I chose beer over music. We were called the Repeat Offenders and we practiced in a Turk Street basement rehearsal space in San Francisco’s Tenderloin across from a punk club called the Sound of Music. I remember coming to rehearsal with a six-pack of tall Budweisers. Here I had a group of brilliant musicians who loved me and whom I loved. I looked at the band, looked at the six-pack, and chose the six-pack. That’s how bad I had gotten. I couldn’t tell the difference between human genius and a six-pack of beer.

I was drinking for two reasons. One, I had alcoholic tendencies. I responded to alcohol abnormally. But two, I had not developed the artistic skill required to contain my feelings and direct them into expressive form. My feelings frightened me. I had a narrow emotional range — I could do rage and I could do joy. That was it. I could not handle the middle feelings.

Damn. So how did I end up back in my own past? What’s going on here? I do not want to remember this even now. Well, OK, so it is painful. That’s the key right there: knowing it’s painful and looking at it anyway. It’s this or drinking. It’s this or failure.

So what happened with me? Well, boring as it is to retell, I became a full-blown alcoholic and got sober at 35.

In getting sober I decided that pain was better than failure. Living with anxiety was better than dying in the gutter.

There was no guarantee that if I stopped drinking I would find success and happiness. But there was a chance I would not die puking. If I kept drinking, I had no chance. It was no chance vs. slim chance. I took the slim chance. I’m glad it got as bad as it did, because otherwise I might have trudged along in a fog of maintenance drinking and moderate delusion. As it was I hit bottom and rearranged my whole deal.

But you don’t need to hit bottom completely to change.

Here is what you could do: You could stop drinking and stop smoking pot today. You could just stop and live with whatever comes up.

So why not do that? Why not just give up and admit it’s not working. You know it’s not working. The truth is that you are a musician. That is the truth of your life. As long as you are fighting against that essential truth, of course you’re going to have to medicate. But you could just quit drinking and using and be a musician.

All kinds of feelings will come up, of course. But they won’t kill you.

There are things you can do to get by. Instead of trying to medicate the fear, try just walking around with the fear. Try going to the store with the fear. Just bring it with you, like a puppy or a small child. Going around sober is like that. It’s a little more trouble, because you bring all this stuff with you. But … how can I put this? Well, it’s like it’s your stuff. Like you see parents trying to ignore their kids in the store. That’s your kid. That’s your stuff. It slows you down but it’s yours. You have to take care of it.

You can do it, though. Like you, I had some support. I didn’t “white-knuckle it” exactly. I got plenty of support. But all that support did not magically remove my anxiety and fear. Basically I allowed myself to feel the anxiety and fear, to be a little bit nuts, a little out of control, not such a high achiever, not so perfect, a little uncharming and uncool. I made a bet that in the long term it would even out and things would stabilize.

And I had to find some love for myself, dude. So the bit about your relationship with your parents, I relate to that. Somehow you have to give yourself what they didn’t give you. You step in as the adult and say, OK, man, I know you are suffering here, and I give you permission to be only yourself! You move that relationship out of the past, which you can’t change, and into your present, your inner life, your symbolic life so you can change it.

Try that. Just step in there as the adult figure and give yourself what you need. You are the only one who can provide that now. Your parents are not ever going to do it. You have to move that whole struggle into your own sphere of influence.

For instance, in my own case, I now have to parent my dad — literally but also figuratively. I have to help the actual dad. But internally, I also have to create for myself the decisive, clearheaded man I once needed him to be. He is never going to give me that. I have to create a decisive, clearheaded persona to guide me in the present so that, in a sense, I become my own father.

We have to become for ourselves the parents we need. In your case, you need to become for yourself a parent who says, “My son, even if you didn’t have an ounce of talent or brilliance I’d still love you without reservation till the end of my days.”

So maybe you say that to yourself when you’re getting a little iffy. Maybe you go into the bathroom and look at yourself in the mirror and you say this. You say OK, boy, even if you didn’t have an ounce of talent or brilliance you would still be my boy, and I’d still love you without reservation till the end of my days.

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I used to love … What?

So here is another thing. Seth Myers is interviewing Joe Hill and I am watching from my perch high and far away on my mysterious island of emotional distance and contempt  and it is as if the older I get the more godlike I am because there is nothing that surprises me and I cannot be seduced by the son of Stephen King and I am charmed by nothing; I have attained the weary omniscience of a god  for whom all is repetition and slender variation; watching pop culture now is like watching a waterfall: the same silver mesmerizing stream, beautiful yet unchanging,  soothing yet loveless; I observe without allegiance. It is just a waterfall.

There used to be allegiance. I used to fall in love with bands. I fell in love with The Clash.

Before Joe Hill was on Kerry Washington was on and in between them was Michael C. Hall. So Kerry Washington is a star on Scandal but you knew that. You knew that but I did not because as I say pop culture has marched on like a silent army of robotic simulacra outside my tenth-floor loft window in an ur-New York City apartment in an imaginary graphic novel that is being read by a character played by me in a black leather chair by the red brick wall of his tenth floor loft window while the TV is on. I remember being in the vortex of slavish pop culture erudition, the mindless brilliance and repetition that the liminal soul state between 12 and 18 requires, that I have hung over the edge of the waterfall and watched band after band slide into warm liquid obscurity, that now older but no more knowing I am riffing now that’s all, on stage in the hot light in the roar of a bored indifferent crowd I strut with my top hat and cane, begging you to watch and begging you to see my code, crack the mystery of my eggshell, warm up to me, tell me a bedtime story.

Snorting speed to stay up all night entering calendar events in the computer of the San Francisco Weekly in the early 1980s: Now that was the big pop culture thrill: Knowing every single venue and every single show. For what? To feel the vicarious thrill. To possibly be cool by proxy. Enough. Horseshit. A bogus thing. But wait. Have you been there too? Do you also know the dizzy wakeup call when you’re watching a new talkshowhost and you don’t even know who the former talkshowhost was and you realize it’s been 10 years?

How 10 years can go by. How all your young friends look old. How you can’t believe children are allowed to be bank tellers.

When will I fall in love with a song or a book again? Perhaps never. Perhaps now it will just be an endless succession of amusing repetitions, authors enacting and reenacting a regal ceremony and me, locked in a sterile 10th floor room with my words, fewer and fewer, rolling them around on my desk, looking for a new combination. Me no better than you: both of us working with scarce few tools, seeing what we can do in the time allotted, like on Top Chef or the Apprentice.

 

My crazy creative acts don’t add up

Write for Advice

Dear Cary –

My creative doubts have been simmering like a mild poison in my heart and mind for years and I’m starting to hate myself. I need to do something about it.

Nine years ago I was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. By age 31 I had accidentally become a loudmouth, performance-arty, punk-rocky type person. I say accidentally because as a dull-witted, privileged, Southern Californian white girl, I wouldn’t have chosen that life. I wouldn’t have believed myself capable of thriving on the grungy, diversified, kaleidoscopic roller coaster that is (was?) New York City.

I was a quiet adolescent with vague aspirations of becoming a marine biologist, though I had no aptitude for science and was a poor student; I just liked Sea World and wanted to ride around on the whales. Then in high school I found the drama kids, in college I majored in theater and went on to get an MFA in acting; even though acting is an impractical profession, the path was well defined. I went on auditions, tried to land an agent, took head shots and even started a theatre company of my own. But I wanted to run wild and so I did.

I raced around New York on my bicycle doing naked performance art in dive bars, having sex with random creatives and cursing loudly into microphones. I would do anything as long as I considered it to be “arty.” I wasn’t accomplishing anything real, though — nothing I could point to and say, “If only I’d kept doing ‘xyz’ I could have made it.”

I wrote short stories, sang and played guitar, acted in plays and did standup comedy and I am not being overly critical of my abilities when I say that unless something unusual happened like it did for some of the lesser bands that hung out at CBGB’s, my antics weren’t going to get me what I really wanted which was to be a part of the professional rather than amateur conversation by making the art that only I can make. I prayed that the group of misfits I was surrounded by would achieve a Studio 54 level of significance, if only in retrospect, so that my showboating would turn out to be meaningful. I can see now that artists like Amanda Palmer, Taylor Mac or Kathleen Hanna are actually doing what I thought I was doing, but wasn’t. Anyway.

I was also lonely and I yearned for romantic love so when I met my husband — the true love of my life, also a standup comic, musician and actor — it felt like hitting the jackpot. I became shy and lost my taste for exhibitionism and decided to drop out of my punk rock band and focus on writing. I grew quieter and I liked it.

I worked as a secretary and eventually became a flight attendant. We got married and both started to feel chewed up by the New York grind. We bought a house in the desert where my parents live and we love it out here. Neither of us misses big-city life.

I quit flying and became a secretary again, wrote five incomprehensible novels and created a silly/offensive cartoon and blog.

But then I started to feel hidden in a bad way. It seemed none of the people around me understood that I had more to offer than the ability to arrive on time and fill out expense reports. I felt sad and droopy, like a bird with wild, colorful feathers wearing a drab, slouchy grey sweatsuit with stains on it.

I didn’t know how to handle this feeling, but I wanted to take action so I swore that I was going to work as hard as I could on my latest novel. I was going to write my way out of the ugly, grey sweats and let the world see my feathers again. I quit my job and for a year I’ve been living off of my savings trying to do whatever it takes to finish the fucking thing.

But I hate it. The novel — writing it has been just … bad. Not bad like “Keep at it and you’ll get better!” bad, but bad like “Why do this when every single day writing feels like a dead, empty, cold, fishy void?” Right now I’m working now on my third rewrite (rewrite as in I’m rewriting the whole thing from scratch) and I just don’t care. My feathers are as droopy as ever. They’re wilting and I think they might be starting to fall out. The novel is meaningless. I am disgusted with myself, but I swore I’d finish it.

I feel like I’ve wasted all of my energy and enthusiasm and now I’m going to be 40 and I have absolutely nothing to show for my artistic ambitions. I’m not a marine biologist, I’m not a punk-rock theatre skank, I’m not a novelist, I’m not a secretary or a flight attendant.

Today I spent the afternoon contemplating getting a degree in digital media arts at the local community college. It seems like a practical thing to do, but is it? Is it just more of the same? Who’s to say I won’t hate that too?

I’ve tried teaching yoga for a year and I really, really hate teaching yoga. I hate secretarial work. I hate writing novels. I’ve tried and failed at a crafty Etsy endeavor. I enjoy painting and drawing but can’t fathom what makes the visual art world tick and while I can pursue it as a hobby, I feel that a hobby doesn’t achieve my goal of exposing my feathers. I want to dig deep, get serious and contribute something artistic in the next (knock wood) forty years. I don’t know what I want to do only that I don’t want to be a nurse or an actress or anything that I can point to in a college catalogue. I don’t have or want children. All I’ve ever cared about was art but I can’t seem to make any.

I want more out of life, but it seems that I am an asshole who doesn’t like anything and can’t do anything well. I should also say that I am very fortunate to have a great husband and great parents who love me and I know how lucky I am.

Can you please tell me if I sound like an asshole? I’m so tone deaf that I don’t even know if these concerns are meaningful or just the dissatisfied whining of someone who’s been given way too much, encouraged way too much and should just find a way to stop complaining and be a secretary. Help.

With much love and appreciation for what you do,

Like a bird in a sweatsuit

OnlineWorkshopAug6

Hey there Bird,

It’s OK for you to move from one thing to another. It’s natural for you. That’s where your energy is.

You are a wanderer. You are gathering wisdom from experience.

The problem is that when you look at what you have accomplished it seems like an incoherent mess. So you feel like a failure. You are not a failure. You are at the beginning of something. You are an artist in the early stages of accomplishment. There is a large, life-defining project awaiting you but you don’t know for sure what it is yet. That’s OK. You are working toward it.

What you need is a pattern of working for the next few years that will allow you to keep doing these seemingly disparate activities while also finishing pieces, and all the while keeping an eye on the unifying whole. I suggest using a loop as a pattern.

Envision a circuit. Picture a studio with several projects in various stages of completion. Or maybe it is not a studio but an open field. Maybe it is the desert. Whatever comes to mind. Line up your various pieces and ideas out there: Your performance-art work, your writing, your punk band, your painting, your jobs. Make a path that links them and walk that path. Go to the project that speaks to you at the time, but water them all. Attend to them all. At times, you may simply go and contemplate a project. That is OK. Your attention is like water. It is like love. It keeps the project breathing while it awaits your hands.

You don’t have to stay with one project until it’s entirely finished. You can move from thing to thing. But line the things up so that as you are moving around, you are moving in a circuit of your creations. Each time you come back to the next thing, it’s at a stage where you can work on it and move it forward. In that way, you can finish things and keep them moving forward. You will eventually finish certain things. Others may languish for years. That is OK. Finish what you can finish. Just don’t turn away from anything in despair. It all has meaning.

At the same time, while you do this, in your spare time, study form.

Concentrate on mastering the basics of any form you work in. The novel, for instance: Master the elemental truths of the novel as a form. Go back to basics. Take a look at what the novelist Jane Smiley did when she got stuck. She read 100 novels and asked herself, what are these things? How do they work? What defines them? She wrote 100 Ways of Looking at the Novel. She got down to basics and defined what a novel is at its most elemental. It is “a lengthy written prose narrative with a protagonist.” That’s all. But that’s a lot. The implications of that small statement are immense.

So learn as much as you can about form. Use what you learn to make your pieces cohere.

I sense that you are an extravert, a courageous and in-your-face kind of person, probably an ESFP with an unusually strong intuitive side. It’s vitally important for you to be alive in the moment and impassioned, and you want to share this passion with others. Also, you are physical, tactile. That is your sensing preference. So you need to be doing the stuff. You do your thinking by doing. That’s OK. Because you have a strong intuitive sense (you are probably on the cusp of sensing/intuitive) you can envision and take in nonmaterial ideas.

Creative people are often unbalanced in our talents. We can take steps to moderate our tendency not to finish things. That is one main reason why I created Finishing School — to help those of us who are impassioned and live in the moment but also want to make lasting work. By creating a structure in which we can be just as crazy as we like, we get things finished.

For some people, often those of the “J” persuasion, finishing is the driving motive. For others, the “P’s” among us, the process is the driving motive. For folks like you and me, in the moment of working, it doesn’t matter to us that much whether we finish. Later it does, though. And it matters a great deal to the world, to our audience. So we come upon the dividing point where the creative person must choose between selfishness and service. If we just want to fuck around then we can fuck around and we enjoy it but we are of no use to anyone else. They can’t understand what we are saying because we are not finishing our statements. So we have to supplement our weaker, anarchic, process-oriented, in-the-moment-and-fuck-the-results side. We have to consciously build a structure that ensures we end up finishing things in spite of our tendencies to wander off mid-song.

This requires both finesse and faith.

Since your strong side is the inspiration side, concentrate on building up your conceptual side. This may take a little bit of make-believe; that is, you may have to conjure up a story about each work that is not perhaps entirely literally true. It is a hypothesis that can guide you in making decisions. Ask, What is this piece? What is its thesis? If you are racing around New York on a bicycle doing naked performance art in dive bars, what is the thesis statement of this activity? What might it be? What is the conceptual framework? Might it be a critique of bourgeoise society? Might it be a celebration of the Dionysian? Might it be about being a woman, or unleashing the power of the body? Try to think in terms of a thesis so that you can make decisions about what goes in and what stays out, and so you can decide when the piece is finished. If you know what the thesis is, then you can say the work is finished when it adequately states the thesis.

You may say, well, people should understand the work anyway, in all its inscrutability. Well, maybe they should. But they won’t. Not unless you give them some framework in which to “understand” it. Now, of course, “understand” is in quotes because it is only a rough equivalent of what actually happens when people apperceive a work; it is the cognitive, expressible side. The other, ineffable side is there too. The mystery doesn’t disappear just because we conceive the work within a hypothesis.

Creating a thesis for a work also provides a basis for deciding various crucial elements. For instance: Do I want to smear bicycle chain grease on my nipples or not? Would that add to the meaning or detract? Would it create a richer pattern or would it seem random? Would it be sexually exploitive of yourself as a woman? And speaking of being sexually exploitive, why nipples? Why not on your face, as a warrior? Or on your biceps?

Another way to deal with these apparently incommensurate forays into various art forms is to conceive of your life as the actual project, or canvas. In that sense, what unifies these various activities? They spring from one unique consciousness; together, they define a person. So ask what are the major themes of your life and how do these activities express those themes? Wandering? Seeking? Rebellion? Break down those themes into their constituents and find correspondences. For instance, where has wandering been synonymous with rebellion? When has rebellion provided answers to what you were seeking? See if you can draw lines — it may help to do this visually — between these themes; look for equivalences and synonymous relationships, and also for the contradictions: Where has rebellion led to confinement? Where has seeking led to emptiness and wandering to stasis? These dualities constitute another ordering principle by which you can bring these various artistic endeavors into a conceptual whole.

That whole is your life.

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Back from Esalen, the Sun Magazine “Into the Fire” conference

Rooming with Sy Safransky. We got to talk under the stars Friday night about this and that. Talking with Sy it’s never about this and that but it’s always kinda about this and that which makes it akin to the lightly ordered musings you find in the magazine. Writers giving workshops included poet Chris Burks, whose performances and performance-art-type gifts — a stone, a bell — were just what the heady, headless, heedless group of up-in-the-air poets, fiction writers, memoirists and journalists needed. Nice. A stone. A bell. Thanks, Chris. And Alison Luterman, and Pat MacEnulty, and …