I get distracted by the Internet when I try to write

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 30, 2008

Every time I start to do my assignment, I find myself surfing the Web instead!


Dear Cary,

I am taking a creative nonfiction writing course, and I’m supposed to be working on a piece about what I ate for breakfast. The problem is, every time I sit down at the computer to work, I start compulsively reading the election coverage online, sometimes spending two hours or more on variations on the same five articles. I am ashamed of my lack of self-control in this area. It is really unusual for me, because in my normal life I am a very capable person. I am a stay-at-home mom of two boys, ages 8 and 6, with a great marriage. I keep a neat house, get the kids to school on time, and fix organic, gourmet meals. But in this one area, this writing class, I can’t seem to do the task in front of me.

I have always been a terrific student. I have a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and until I got married, I always figured I would finish my Ph.D. and work in research or teach somewhere. Instead, I decided I wanted to be home with my kids and fix up our house. I learned to garden and bake pies, and basically dug my heels into domestic life. It suits me, as I am basically an introvert who likes to take care of people. I am happy here, but I see my kids growing up and not needing me as much, and rather than stifle them with overattentiveness, I decided to take some classes and get a hobby, as they say. The sewing class is going great; I’ve made a skirt and might work on curtains next week. But the writing class, the one I really care about, has me totally stumped. I can’t seem to stop myself from clicking on the Google news page. Cary, is this self-sabotage, or simply escapism? What should I do? I’ve read that all writers need a lot of time to just sit and stare, but the Internet news is just wearing out my brain to the point where I can’t work at all.

I’m afraid that I am not allowing myself to do the one thing I’d be really good at, maybe for fear of failure, or just because it seems too selfish. My mother worked at a high-powered job throughout my childhood, and my parents were divorced, so I have issues about being ignored as a kid. I swore that I would be the mom who made cookies and was always there when you needed her. The problem is, my kids don’t seem to care one way or another, since they’ve never known any different. Cary, I feel sometimes like a doormat or a dishrag, like I am wasting all of my potential, and no matter how many Terence Conran house books I read or Julia Child cookbooks I memorize, I am still not getting what I need.

I think I need this writing thing way more than I will admit to myself. So, how do I let myself just do it, without all of the distractions? On the other hand, am I just kidding myself with this fantasy that I might have great untapped potential? Maybe I should just accept the choices I’ve made and be happy planting tomatoes.

Stumped

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Dear Stumped,

There are certain things you’re just going to have to assume from the outset. Assume that your writing is important. Assume that you have the right to do it and that it’s necessary and important. Assume that something has happened in your life such that you must attend to certain moral, aesthetic and philosophical needs, or that you have reached a certain passage, or phase, or that you have been blessed, contacted by aliens, touched by God, whatever works, however you want to put it. Something has happened. You have received a call. Assume whatever you need to assume in order to answer the call.

That is what I would suggest.

For that’s what it is: It is a call. It might not be clear exactly what it is yet. But something is calling you and you have to answer the call. It might be frightening to answer — it might be asking you to face certain fears about your own competence and value. It may be asking you to take up a challenge. But I believe that whatever it is you are trying to accomplish, it is best to begin with your own motivation and your own desire, and work from that place, rather than concentrate on the phenomenon of distractions and try to eliminate them. You will find more energy in focusing on your objective than in focusing on defeating the distractions. Now, it’s true, as a tactical matter, I often have to turn off my browser. I have to sit in silence. I have to find places and techniques. But the main thing is to find the deep emotional or spiritual hunger that fuels our creativity. Assume that this is important and you will find it easier to take the necessary steps. And as I said, you may be called to difficulty, to facing fears.

In facing your fears, I advise this: Guard against contemporary assumptions about cultural value, particularly our assumptions about what it means to be a writer. You are trained in anthropology. So look at our culture as an anthropologist would look at it. Notice the beliefs we express about writing and writers. Observe how we revere certain writers and vilify others. Notice that we seem to harbor some primitive belief in writing as a magical act; notice how we behave toward certain writers as though they were shamans or gods or priests; notice how as we do this we also devalue our own native abilities and thus become consumers rather than producers. Notice how we devalue our own desires to write, buying into such notions that only a select few are called to do this holy and sacred thing. See how undemocratic that is. Notice how much hogwash we are wading through. Keep all this in mind as you begin to write.

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Also pay attention to what conditions allow you to write and what conditions hinder your writing. Where can you go to write? Can you park your car on a lakeside, sip a cappuccino and write? Can you take a trip and write? Can you sit in an attic room and write? How much time can you put aside to write? Can you use a timer? Have you tried free-writing? Is it possible that the nonfiction class you are taking does not offer productive methods? For instance, if you were simply told to go home and write about what you had for breakfast, it might be that such a thing does not work for you. I do not know if I could write about what I had for breakfast. I might feel compelled to think about it too much. Maybe if you started with, “Today for breakfast I had …” then words might follow. You might end up writing, “Today for breakfast I had a fucking hard time of it.” Or “Today for breakfast I had none of your fucking oatmeal.” I don’t know. You might find things arising that you did not expect. It is fun to see what words come. You might find anger and pain arising first. That is often the case. It may be that you do not want anger and pain to arise. That might be why you are not writing at all. If so, you may be helped by the support of a group. You might look around in your area and see if there are any groups that follow the writing process movement, or the Amherst Writers and Artists method.

Oh, here is something else: Part of writing seems to involve rebellion. One challenges the gods; one steals fire; one dares to create; one plays Prometheus. I note that you say you have been a good student. Good students do what they are told. Writers do what they are not told; they have to tell rather than be told, so a bit of rebellion is involved. Being a good student might be holding you back. Being a bad student might be better. It is fun to be a bad student for once. Be a bad student by disobeying the teacher. Try giving the teacher what she does not want. Try being bad. Try writing badly. Just put a mess of words down.

Let it go.

In other words, in order to overcome this habit of distractions, I recommend that you focus first on becoming who you are as a writer, and that you embark on a journey. I recommend that you enact a long-term plan, not just to start writing but to become a writer in the world. Join the worldwide community of writers.
Writing brings great rewards. It makes us happier. It entertains us. It allows us to know others in a unique way. It manifests what is hidden or unexpressed. This makes our lives deeper and more interesting. So, to paraphrase Baudelaire, get writing! Whether by wine, by poetry or by virtue, no matter! But get writing!

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I’m 22 and stuck! How do I break out?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, NOV 22, 2009

I think I’m a writer, but fear paralyzes me


Dear Cary,

I feel paralyzed and stuck in a rut. I recently graduated from college without a clear path and a hazy focus at best; I am lost and confused and can recognize that I self-sabotage any efforts to find my path and start my journey. I truly seem to be my own worst enemy yet I am clueless how to escape this vicious cycle.

Since a young age I have deeply desired to be an “artist”; though my true passion is music, it seems my natural ability lies in storytelling. Despite my limited attempts at creative writing, I have received quite a bit of praise and encouragement from my teachers and peers. Yet I feel guilty for wanting to pursue such, what I believe to be, a narcissistic path — that of the artist. I also have an interest in pursuing psychology, which is clearly the more acceptable path according to society and my parents, but only as a fallback. I think I would be selling myself short by not giving writing a try, yet I feel ashamed wanting to apply to an MFA program.

My immense fear of failure affects me in many aspects of my life. I rarely, if ever, take chances. If I do not feel I am in a safe and welcoming environment or if I am not positive I can succeed, I simply do not try. In regards to romantic relationships, I push people away and often am too afraid of rejection to go on a second date. I long for love, but I do not allow myself the chance to experience it. Similarly with my writing, every now and then I can get a few hours of productive work in, in which I feel open and excited, yet afterward I am consumed with self-condemnation.

I seem unable to make a decision by myself. I am always asking permission, whether it is from my parents or my friends. I rarely do what I want, so often preoccupied by what others will think, expect and want from me.

Whenever I appear to be on a streak of positive thinking and proactive habits, I find myself struck down by my own head. I am terrorized by an endless loop of destructive thoughts in which I tell myself I’m a fool to think I could ever be a successful writer, that I’m a spoiled brat for wanting to do so, that no one could ever love me.

When I am not working at my soulless and demeaning job as a waitress, I busy myself with television and the Internet. When I run out of shows to watch and blogs to read, I am filled with a sense of terminal dread and panic, a gnawing sense of avoiding something, but I can’t seem to face it. I feel the clock ticking, ticking, yet I lay frozen in my bed, staring at the ceiling.

Only alcohol seems to free me of my inhibitions. I drink pretty regularly to open myself, to afford a few hours of simple pleasure, yet the alcohol just as often turns on me, resulting in weepy self-pity or a nostalgic, heady swoon for the recent past if not for memories that never existed except in my imagination.

I so desperately want to upstart my life. I want to experience this world as much as I can — love deeply and fully, express myself, live without wondering “what if?” But something inside me is preventing me from change and so clearly doesn’t want me to find inner peace, yet I don’t know what it is. How do I move from here?

Dazed and Confused

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Dear Dazed,

I sense that you are on the cusp of letting go of your adolescent dependence on fitting in and belonging, and you need a great challenge that will propel you over the canyon. Its depth terrifies you as you peek into it and see how high you are. You think of how groundless you will be when you step off the cliff. But you need to step off the cliff. Your soul cries out for the unknown. You need nature and danger. You need something outside yourself that is not ego-related, that is not your guilt-ridden ego trying to perfect a beautiful image to be admired by others; you need the wild self not ruled by need for approval; you need a skin that is unknown; you need the growling bear of your inner truth, your soul erupting, trying to be born. What dread beast is this?

You must find out.

You must take the journey to the underworld. It is not a metaphor. You must get outside yourself and encounter some dangers and some strangeness. (Isn’t it sad that adults today, trying to protect their children from anything alien, have them chant “Stranger Danger”? Isn’t that emblematic of our sickening obsession with the pristine and antiseptic?)

This is what I understand today about our necessary progress out of adolescence into adulthood: We must face confusion and surrender to it. We must face the unknown and grapple with it. We must go into nature and experience its alien embrace. We must lie down on the earth and allow our cruder nature to be held.

So go somewhere. Maybe you need to sit in a bus station in a quiet dusty town where no one knows you and wait for the bus to take you farther away from everything you know. Maybe you need to sit under the stars in the middle of the night, or sit in your room in the middle of the night, empty your mind of ego and allow the voices of the world to speak to you. If you sit quietly and listen, if you allow yourself simply to see what appears before you, then you will begin to find your way. The night may tell you strange, unbelievable things. It may tell you things that don’t seem suitable to you. That’s exactly the point. You need the strange and alien voice of nature and the world to leaven your stagnating and suffocating soul.

At the same time that I speak in these poetic terms, know that this action is empirically necessary; it is not hocus-pocus. It is emotionally and spiritually necessary. Our culture’s language for such things is depleted, so it is no surprise that we laugh at the idea. Our cultural forms of adulthood are corrupted and geared to the continuation of military and industrial power. So it is hard to find the confidence and support you need for this time-tested journey out of adolescence.

Yet you must go into mystery and struggle. It is right there in front of you. You are right on the cusp of it. Your agonies are proof of this. Your agonies arise because you are fighting your own growth. The world is calling you. The world is telling you to grow.

The world is alive and wise and full of grace and power and savage beauty. Open yourself to it. Lie on the ground and open your legs to the sky. Lie in the sand on the ocean and let the waves cover you. Stare deep into the immensity of lost time and slow light traveling on a slow train across the cosmos. See the bigness of it. Find a tree and sit before it and ask it where to go. Do these things. Put yourself in the world. The world will answer you.

If you are to be an artist, what you learn and gain through this will be what you offer, what you craft. What you take from this will be your gift to the world.

There is no need to be cynical. Nor is there time to be cynical. You and I both know how much stupid crap there is in the world. Do not allow it to make you cynical about your own miraculous being. The crap in the world is about power and control and wealth and status; as such, it is an outgrowth of fear, the ego’s silly fear of dissolution and nonexistence; the crap in the world is not the world’s essence; it is our fear-filled distortion. Surely moguls and hustlers fill the streets and boardrooms; surely the bullshit machine of need hammers at us day and night to buy more, to keep these fearful moguls in trade; surely there is plenty of crap in the world. But the world is not crap. The world is glorious. The world is an out-and-out miracle. The world is yours. The world is calling to you.

Creep out into the night on your hands and knees and look around. Listen to the leaves snoring away their chlorophyl dreams in the night, waiting for the recharging dawn. Listen to the congregation of dew collecting in its pews. Listen to the whispering stars. This is your world. Let it strike you dumb with awe. Let it speak to you. Let it guide you. Do what it says. It will take you where you need to go.

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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

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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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Stolen words

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Cary’s classic column from

My boss uses what I write in e-mails as his own. What should I do about it?


Dear Cary,

I’m an in-house copywriter/creative director with a small technical company, working for a boss whose communications skills, to put it delicately, are not his greatest asset. Lately I learned he’s been passing off my writing (not ad or brochure copy, just conversational e-mails on internal issues) as his own. I’ll write him a note on a topic, and later on that same note will land in my in box as part of a forwarded e-mail conversation chain — only now the note has his name on it. It’s happened several times that I know of.

I’ve always thought of him as a fundamentally decent fellow, and I sense he does this more for expediency’s sake (“Why bother rewriting this opinion that I share, when I’ve got this version sitting here?”) than to lay claim to my thoughts and words. Still, they are my thoughts and words, and I worry that by keeping my name out of these conversations he’s limiting my ability to benefit from people’s reactions to my ideas. Besides, I’m a writer: Even within the quasi-professional forum of interoffice e-mails, it feels like plagiarism.

Am I overreacting? And if not, should I confront him?

Accidental Ghostwriter

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ghostwriter,

Here are some suggestions: Stop giving your boss great lines that he can use and call his own. Do your job on the brochures and the official stuff, but stop giving him stuff for free. If there are people you want to impress with your ideas, send your ideas directly to those people. Or if there’s a discussion you’re having with your boss and you can predict that it’s going to widen to include others, if you suspect he’s going to steal your material, suggest that that you include those people to whom he’s likely to send your material. Ask, what other interested stakeholders are there? You know, act like you care.

Either suggest they be included, or just cc them as though you thought that was the normal thing to do, since you know they’re interested parties.

Don’t be telling your boss not to cop your copy. He won’t get it. He’ll just think you’re being a pain.

You might also review just what you were hired for. Did you get a job description? Did anybody ever tell you what your job was? There is probably some expectation that you provide “other written materials.” These e-mails could be considered other written materials. You just want credit for it, right? So I’d find some way to let others know where it’s coming from — like, by cc’ing them before your boss steals your stuff.

And I would beware of your own personal motives that are tripping you up, too. Hey, I know about this: You want to do a great job of writing e-mails because that’s what you are. After all, you’re a writer. So you could be tricking yourself into giving your stuff away because you’re so damned good and you can’t help it, and you can’t help trying to impress your boss. I know what it’s like to be a writer. It doesn’t matter who the audience is. You’re still going to sweat over a few sentences until they’re perfect.

Bosses in non-media companies are so weird. They have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. They are just so weird. How do they even get through the day without being able to communicate?

Who knows. But they do. I guess they do it by hiring people like you.

Don’t pick a fight with him, but don’t be a sap!

WhatHappenedNextCall

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Our person of the week: Terry Sue Harms

Back in 2008, I had the good fortune to be introduced to Cary Tennis.  I was trying to make sense of a novel length story I had been working on for two years.  I was self-conscious and insecure about what I had produced, and those insecurities were all but squeezing the life out of my creativity.  I didn’t believe I qualified as a writer, but a story came to me with such compelling force that I couldn’t not write it.  Without having any grand plan for what I was doing, I followed the story that played out in my mind like a movie; I wrote down what I saw, what the characters were saying, and how they felt.  The words just kept coming until I had the working draft that I gave to Cary for editorial assistance.

While he was reading my novel, he suggested that I acquaint myself with Pat Schneider and The Amherst Writers and Artist Method.  As soon as I read Schneider’s “Five Essential Affirmations,” I knew Cary could be trusted with my writing.  The Amherst Method’s philosophy affirms that all writers have a creative voice that cannot be silenced by social standing or academic status, and mentoring can be done without stifling the writer’s unique voice or creative inclinations.  It boldly proclaims that if one writes, then that one is a writer!  Hallelujah!  The writer in me broke out in a happy dance.  I didn’t have to somehow prove that I was worthy of the title; my thoughts on the printed page proved I was a writer.

PearlsCover_smallWith Cary’s trained eye, ear, and supportive input, I began to hear and validate my own creative impulses; I stopped doubting my right to say what I needed to say, and I was able to move forward and write the novel, Pearls My Mother Wore, to a satisfying conclusion.  It was during the first Creative Getaway at Marconi Center that I was able to go off by myself and complete a critical chapter in the novel.  The experience of writing by myself while among such a strong and supportive writing community and in such a relaxing and gorgeous setting was magical.

With assistance from Cary and Norma Tennis, I self-published Pearls My Mother Wore at the end of 2009.  Once the manuscript was as polished as I could make it, I hired Norma to put a professional touch on the book’s layout.  My husband and I designed the cover.  I got to set the selling price and pick the publication date.  It was such an all-around positive experience that I’m now working on a second book.  This next one is a memoir about my absent father, a man I’ve never met or spoken to, how I found him, and how I let him go.

Let the revolutionary self speak

by Kyoko Ide

Revolution. I feel such resistance towards it. Why?

I feel fear, I get tense, I feel like I have to find the right, proper words and expressions that wouldn’t offend anybody, so that my revolutionary self wouldn’t get criticized. But that’s not revolutionary at all. How come I feel like I have to protect myself and guard myself when I try to let my revolutionary self speak?

I have been always cautious not to offend anybody: Don’t offend anybody. Read the air. Read the atmosphere. Read other people’s minds. Keep the harmony. Don’t stick out. Tie your hair. Wear your uniform. (The ruler in the teacher’s hand that measured the length of the hem of my skirt.)

Keep your head down. Don’t speak up when your grandma speaks; she doesn’t want to be bothered by little kids; you have no right to speak up at the dinner table, you should just listen and nod quietly.

My mom told me she regretted that she didn’t let me speak up at the dinner table.

“Why didn’t I let you speak up? You were little and you had so many original, creative, incredible things to say, and I forced you to shut yourself up, because I feared your grandmother. I didn’t want to upset her. But who cares? Why didn’t I let you speak up? I should’ve let you speak up. I should’ve told your grandmother, ‘Excuse me, but now my daughter is speaking, could you shut your mouth and listen to her, please?'”

Why have I been silent? Why did I not say anything? What for? What was I afraid of? Where has been my revolutionary self? Why has she been so silent? Why has she been hiding? Why was she smiling, when she wasn’t smiling at all inside? Why did I keep silent?

My grandma’s dead. Then my mom’s dead. The teachers are gone. My father is old. What am I afraid of? Why do I have to keep my head down?

Where’s my revolutionary self — that wants to scream? That wants to stand up. That wants to walk ahead. That wants to turn the light on. That wants to pour the water and wash it all out. That wants to swipe it all. That wants to open her eyes and look them straight into the eyes.

Where is she? She is here. She has been hiding way too long. And she says: “Basta. I’ve had enough.” I’ve been listening and listening and listening and not saying anything. Nodding. Smiling. “Yes, yes.” “Sì, sì.” “Ho capito.” “Hai ragione.” “Sugoi desune.”

How wonderful! Basta, basta. I have something to say, too. I have a lot to say. I want to speak up. In any language. In Japanese. In my dialect. In English. In Italiano. Whatever.

I learned and learned and learned the languages; now I should actually use them. Stop nodding. Say something. Just say it. Say it loud. Don’t be silent.

I’m alive now. I won’t be alive forever. Death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain. I’ve got to say something.

Let us speak. Let us all speak. Let my sister speak, who is so afraid to speak. Let my friend speak, with her voice that is so free when she’s speaking to me. We have been speaking behind the walls. In the tiny Skype windows. In the car, when we were sure nobody was listening. In the kitchen, when the kids and the husband were not there. Behind the closed door, after we made sure it was locked, looking at the clock.

Let us be free from the darkness, the dense air that doesn’t circulate, the bad lighting, and the cold floor. Let us open the windows, unlock the door, turn the knob and open wide the door, let the air come in, let us swim in the sunshine. Let us say it all out loud. Let us show who we are.


[Note: This Voices from the Workshop World first-draft text was produced live in Cary Tennis’s Online International writing workshop. The goal of this Voices series is to showcase the literary productions that arise from these online Amherst Writers and Artists workshops, which are designed to maximize verbal creativity in order to free the expressive energy of all the world’s people.–Cary Tennis]

My lover shot himself

 

Write for Advice

Dear Cary,

In my early twenties, I went to graduate school to study English literature.  I was deeply passionate about the written word and knew from the moment that I could read that I wanted to devote my life to this pursuit.  Idealistic, I felt like providence had led me to that moment in my life, and I was ready to enter the academic and literary world where I would finally “belong.”  Instead, I was met with a small circle of individuals who had greater desires for tenure than the actual sharing of knowledge and appreciation of language.  The program was more clinical than I needed it to be.  I was miserable in that environment and left graduate school early feeling confused and betrayed by the system that I had worked so hard to enter.

After leaving, I sank into a deep depression, only partly cured by a new relationship.  I met a poet and fell for him quickly, all my passion for language being channeled toward him instead.  I loved his poetry and the emotions that he conveyed with words.  I felt fulfilled through my relationship with him (although it was a tumultuous one) and was inspired to write as we shared the same creative spirit.  It was a long-distance relationship though, and he cheated with a woman he then married only a few months later. 

In mourning that relationship, I met another writer who picked me up off the floor more times than I care to admit.  I hate to sum him up as just a “writer” too, because he was everything to me.  He had the same acute sensitivity to the world that I do. Every pain I ever felt echoed the same inside of him.  We took turns spinning into depression and then giving/accepting consolation.  We fell in love with each other’s words over and over again.  Even his emails were art to me.  He was the most precious part of my life and I trusted him implicitly (although his love of story telling often led to superior forms of embellishment). 

He shot himself in the head almost four years ago. 

I miss him.

All of this is to say that I do not know what to do with myself. I feel like I have writer’s block of the mouth and pen.  I shy away from everyone and anything that I used to gravitate to because I feel so wounded by it all (whatever “it” is).  I don’t know how to connect with people anymore.  I don’t know how to write anymore.  I feel so profoundly but have no outlet.  I am disappointed in life, do not know how to go on without my partner even after several years, and do not know how to find others like me or make myself understood by those that are different.  I am not under the impression that life should be happy all the time.  However, I would like the ability to experience just a little bit of it every once in a while.  Sometimes.

What should I do to get out of this current un-life?  How do I find others with the same sensitivity to the world that can relate to me and I them?  What do I need to do to feel inspired to write again?

Thank you for being there,

Despairing Former Writer

 

Cary Tennis Online Writing Workshop

 

Dear Despairing Former Writer,

How do we recover from loss? We do it slowly. I am not surprised that you are still recovering from this traumatic loss, or series of losses — the loss of your graduate school dream, the loss of your intimate partner, the loss of your own creative practice.

As a first step, I suggest that you see someone trained in the treatment of depression and ask, candidly, if you appear to be depressed. If the answer is yes, then spend some time working with a therapist who is trained in the treatment of depression, sorting things out, getting help and support. I know what depression is like, and I know it can be treated and life can get better, and I also know the numbness and hopelessness and sense of worthlessness that come with depression.

At least find out. If you aren’t depressed, it will be good to have an expert opinion to that effect. You may just be grieving.

Either way, write through this pain. If you have not tried doing morning pages, as suggested in the book The Artist’s Way, try that. It is a good way to habituate oneself to daily writing after a period of inactivity. You do not need to feel inspired to write in order to write. You need only to write. Strangely enough, the writing will cause the inspiration, not the other way around.

May I share something with you? I, too, sought the companionship of fellow lovers of literature in graduate school and I, too, despaired and left, after learning mainly how to drink in bars.

I, too, have lived through bouts of depression. I have gotten help both professional and nonprofessional. What I cling to, and what I keeps me on this side of the suicide line, here with the living and not over the cliff with the suicides, is knowing that things will get better and that the steps I take will slowly help. In the bad times, in the down times, I do things to get through the day.

Writing will sometimes get you through the day. This morning I have been writing about my father, who had literary dreams but did not finish things, and how sad that was for me as a boy to watch, and how I have at times repeated my father’s pattern. And I have been thinking how painful it is to want to do better than one’s father, and the conflict that can bring, and how after leaving the family and all its particular horrors one wishes to find one’s genial tribe, and how there are many false tribes that will disappoint you, and how one’s true tribe are not found where you think they would be found — not necessarily in the graduate English department but out on the lawn smoking pot or working in mailrooms or as cab drivers, or devoutly following a calling.

In seeking our tribe we are often drawn to the ones who burn the brightest and promise the most. But do the ones who burn the brightest really have what we need, or are we just drawn to them because they burn so brightly? It seems to me it is often those who burn the brightest who let you down the hardest. Having fallen for this writer, having lost him so traumatically, you must be wary now of any trust, and not know how to distinguish between the dazzlers and the true friends. You may be wary that the ones who will dazzle you will also break your heart but not know who else to turn to. This is sure: Your heart cannot stand to be broken again. You need someone to be good and strong and kind to you. You do not need another romance with death.

Let me ask you this: Is there anyone among your close friends that you can totally rely on? Is there anyone you can lean on? Someone who loves you unconditionally? Family, a friend, a fellow lover of literature, a woman friend, someone? You need someone, not a lover, but a friend, not necessarily a brilliant person but a loyal person. Maybe a therapist would play that role; that is often the unexpected beauty of therapy, that we are able to fall in a kind of love with someone in an unproblematic way, for our own good, to reawaken our own capacity for love. This person need not understand your aesthetic complexities. You just need someone you can lean on.

I will tell you a little about my own recent experience of depression. First, some bad things happened, so it wasn’t like depression came out of nowhere; bad things happened both medically and socially. So when I sought treatment for depression, the professionals’ first thought was that I was socially isolated and needed IPT — InterPersonal Therapy. It then became apparent that I had some deeper issues that needed a psychodynamic approach. But out of that psychodynamic approach finally came the strength for me to essentially do IPT — to repair my social network. So now I am answering the telephone and responding to emails. I am cherishing the friends I have. I am reaching out. That is helping. Also I am working methodically on my literary craft. That, too, is helping. And I participate in 12-step meetings. That, too, is helping.

Maybe you still need to grieve this loss completely. I’m not sure, frankly, how one does that. I suppose that for each person it is personal. But there is some good to be had by saying it out loud: I need to grieve. I am grieving. Out of that comes acceptance of the melancholy, the heaviness and slowness. One can say, I am feeling heavy and slow with grief still. That does not mean there is something wrong with me, just that something terrible happened.

Something terrible happened. You are not over it yet. Eventually you will be.

Ask a professional about depression. Strengthen your social network. Identify people who are there for you. Lean on them. And write your way through it, too, not trying to be brilliant, but trying to tell the truth.

WhatHappenedNextCall

 



Jan Rosamond

Our person of the week: Jan Rosamond

Happy New Year! After slowing down for the holidays, Cary and I are back working at full speed. The “Featured Person of the Week” is back, as are more columns and creative writing from Cary.

A note: because many commenters have mentioned that they would like the ability to edit their comments after they post them, we’ve changed our method of posting comments. You now need to log in to our site to post a comment, as this is the only way out site will let you make edits after posting. I hope you won’t find this extra step too cumbersome. Please keep the comments coming!

Have a great week!

 

We first met Jan at our writing retreat at Marconi Conference Center. Since that time, Jan has embarked on a “self-funded, self-directed, multi-media inner research project” called Dharma Town. Dharma Town is intended as a sangha-building resource for practitioners of Insight, Mindfulness and Metta Meditation in the St. Louis area. For the past 2 years she’s been writing every weekday on Dharma Town Times, where she posts her reflections on all-things-dharma.

Below is Jan’s unique take on the Creative Getaway:

I’ve been to several of Cary’s Creative Getaways…the first one he ever held and then the second, and the third one, too, I think…and they were all wonderful, joyous, inspiring and quite amazingly productive…but the one I remember the most was the one where the Bear showed up. Not a real, live bear, of course. Not exactly.

Cary had given us a prompt which asked us to let that part of ourselves that is afraid to write—write. He said to let it say whatever it wanted to say. Which sounded a little too “woo-woo” for me, but then I got started and I found myself writing the words: “You don’t trust me, you don’t believe in me, you don’t feed me.” And then: “You put me on display—like a bear on a chain—and you expect me to dance for you, but you don’t own me.” And then it was like the power of whatever it was that I had been afraid of for so long took over and these words just poured out:

“I’m a bear. I’m a huge, smelly, filthy bear. I have sharp, yellow, slobbery teeth. Don’t try to pretty me up. I have wounds that oozed. I have festering sores. But my eyes are clear and my great, soft belly is the color of ripe peach. Let me be what I am. Let me breath and drool. Let me claw through the garbage and break things. Let me roam and let me stumble in the dark. Let me stink the place up.”

Then I wrote: “You’re scaring me.” And then: “I know. Let me scare you.”  

But the thing is, I wasn’t afraid. I was energized. And since then, I’ve never been afraid to write.

Cary Tennis writing retreat in Chester Connecticut

 



Cary’s column for the new year: The world is a beggar rooting in your backpack

Dear reader,

The following column first appeared Tuesday, February 15, 2011. As always, if you would like advice, please write to advice@carytennis.com. Happy New Year!

Dear Cary,

I feel somewhat guilty even writing to you; you seem to have excellent insight into many people’s problems, and should you choose to answer my letter, would someone more desperately in need not have their letter answered? I am probably writing this (as I suspect many who write to you are) more to get my thoughts down than anything. In any event, I think that your thoughts would be incredibly valuable to me.

I’m 25, I have a master’s degree, a fantastic job (in an albeit less than fantastic geographic area) and I’m doing work that I like with people I enjoy. On top of that, I’ve a family that supports me in everything I do. I am single, though I’m mostly OK with that at this point in my life.

The problem is that I’m terrified of getting stuck. I don’t want this job to be my career. I don’t want this town to be my home. I don’t want to wake up and realize I’m 40 years old and haven’t really done anything.

I feel a fierce sense of urgency calling me to create something, to do or make something meaningful, to the point where I can’t sleep. I just can’t seem to find the outlet.

I’m not an artist. I have never felt (nor do I now) compelled by the visual arts. I used to be a musician, but I haven’t touched my instrument in years.

I feel like writing could be the trick. I’m not one for fiction. Though I do read it, I don’t believe I understand people well enough to have any idea where to begin creating a character.

I could write nonfiction (I suppose anyone can write nonfiction), but I have no idea how one gets a start in that racket. And even then, I have no idea if that’s the outlet I’m looking for, it’s just the most plausible one so far.

I just feel like something is bottled up inside of me. The phrase that comes first to mind is “creative energy” though I fear it’s been there so long it is turning into something more noxious.

It’s affecting my life in negative ways. I used to be an incredibly jovial person … I haven’t been for some time now. I have less interest in other people. I just want to figure out what it is I need to do.

Thanks for listening,

Hoping for Insight

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Dear Hoping for Insight,

Change the way you listen to this urge. Try to hear it as a request, not as a desire. It is a request from outside you for something you may be carrying. The world doesn’t know what you are carrying. Or maybe it doesn’t know quite how to ask for it. But it wants something from you.

Consider this: The world approaches you like an ugly beggar and begins pawing through your backpack. So you resist. The world wants something. It just doesn’t have a very nice way of going about it. It grabs for things you think are sacred. You resist. It grabs for things you think are worthless. You resist. You say, that’s worthless, you don’t want that. But the world keeps pawing through your backpack.

You may or may not have what the world is asking for. So you say, Back off, world. Here, let me produce in an orderly fashion the things that are in my backpack and let’s find out which thing you want.

You start producing what is in your backpack. Is it this that you want? That?

The world does not speak your language. It makes gestures.

You have to understand the world. It might not want what you think it should want. In my case, for instance, I persist in believing that I know what the world should want but what the world has asked me to do is to be a good copy editor so I have been a good copy editor. For a while the world asked me to be a rock journalist and before that a musician, but then the world got tired of seeing me do those things. I was only mildly interesting to the world in those roles. Then it turns out there is an opening for something unexpected. The world says here, be an advice columnist. I’m like, WTF? But I have learned to be of service. I could say I’d been wasting my life. Or I could say I’d been preparing.

We wait for openings. We spend our lives in the wings. But if we make ourselves available, we are sometimes shoved out onto the stage.

We make ourselves available. We learn the skills we may need if an opening occurs. We cannot force the world to open. We wait our turn. Sometimes we think we are ready but we don’t look ready to the world. It says, I don’t think you’re ready yet. We say, You have no idea how ready I am but the world already is not even listening to us; it has turned its attention elsewhere and the moment is gone so we go back to our endless preparations.

The world can be fickle and hard to understand. We’re like that, too, are we not? We think we will be interested in something but when we get it home it isn’t as interesting as we expected it to be. We try things. The world tries things. It takes us to the store and says, here, try this on. No, that’s not it. How about that? It can get tiring but we’re not the one with the credit card.

The world may not want what you think is your greatest talent. So we learn that we are not the best judge of what we have to offer. We learn that if we simply adopt a posture of service, the world will let us know. It will let us know by hiring or firing us, by injuring us or instilling us with energy, by dropping us off on desolate roads, by throwing us in with vagabonds and truckers, by arranging for us to attend Harvard, by managing the weather to delay the flight to Cincinnati so we meet someone pretty and unexpectedly candid who guides us to a lepidopterist. Or to a chiropractor. Who knows.

Shift your perspective. You’re not running the show.

What we express does not originate inside us. What we express we pass on. We borrow. We are conduits. This yearning, this is not from inside you. It is your response to an invitation. Or you might say it is a pressure differential rooted externally. The world is trying to pull something out of you. Let the world pull this thing out of you. Let the world act on you.

The future is unknowable. If it’s in the right direction, that’s often good enough.

If there are lights on the horizon that attract you, start walking toward them.

© Copyright Salon Media Group

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We stood at the turning point: Brian Herrera and the beauty of change

What our friend Brian Herrera wrote today about his experience at the Creative Getaway at Marconi spurred some thoughts of my own which I’d like to share — with people who’ve had this experience and with people who perhaps do not know about the Amherst Writers and Artists method or the creative getaways Norma and I have put on at Marconi Conference Center since 2008.

Actually, I have a lot to say so I’ll post this in two or three parts. The first part, for today, is this: Brian’s post reminded me how much the AWA process can work as a catalyst at a crucial turning point in someone’s life. People get spurred on to make courageous changes and then they write books. They get degrees. They get jobs at Princeton.

Which means that they move on.

So let me tell you about my own kind of mixed-up psychology, or my personal emotional baggage: I am always trying to reconstruct my family. So if you come within my field of gravity, I will assign you a part in my imaginary family, as a brother or sister or uncle or aunt or parental figure. And then when someone whom I have assigned a place in my imaginary family makes a sudden move toward growth and change, my impulse is to say, Wait, hold on, you have to stay in the family!

Also, as a business, we can get hung up on having “repeat customers.” It makes it easier for us financially if everybody just comes every time. As producers of the event, Norma and I are focused on repeating it as an event, making it happen again and again. Yet the essence of it is about change: people using the AWA method to speak their truth, making changes in their lives and moving on.

There are some words in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that are relevant here: “Half-measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point.”

People come to the creative getaway because they are standing at the turning point. They have tried half-measures, acknowledging as portion of the writer self, for instance, feeding it enough to keep it from dying but mainly in life attending to what is practical and pressing and immediate, while continuously thinking that one day perhaps we’ll get around to seeing what this writing thing is all about, and this niggling, half-ignored voice of the writer will get its due. One day. Sometime.

Keep on like that and then suddenly you’re 80. So we say come, now, while the impulse is fresh, begin a dialog with the writer self in you, and make the changes you need to make.

But how does that relate to the production of story? One might ask, where is the craft in all this? Where is the practical application? How is this going to help me be a writer?

I say, paradoxically, that abandoning for the moment all concern about craft is the route to finding our true story, for story is about revelation. Story is not about craft. Craft is a vehicle. Story is about facing desperate moments. So in coming to Marconi, or Chester, or Melrose, or Santa Barbara, or Amsterdam, or Tuscany, one may be treating oneself, but one is also mining one’s own desperation for that kernel of truth that is the only story that matters.

Story comes from personal truth in conflict with the world. One recognizes what is real, what is right, what must be done, and sets about changing, upsetting the apple cart, creating tension. Poetry, too, comes of conflict — confronting the barriers of language itself, twisting it to fit what is otherwise inexpressible.

So coming to Marconi to explore one’s relationship to the writing self is also about finding the story that writing self is best suited to write. Conversely, when we are stuck we are not only avoiding the situation, we are avoiding the story. The story begins when we acknowledge the situation and start dealing with it — as Brian did.

Thanks Brian, for reminding me what is the essential function and goodness of the AWA method.

The point is that if you “stand at the turning point,” if you are at the fulcrum of change and ready to set a new angle of trajectory, this may be what you need. And then, if this is what you need, then our job is to make it possible for you to do it.

It takes a little trust — trust of oneself, and also trust in external things coming together. In Brian’s case, for instance, there was the long-agonized-over dissertation. There was also the fact that it was his birthday; and his partner was supporting him in the decision. And a little bit of money had come into his hands that made it make sense to do it. All those things came together.

In other cases it may be just the soul crying out, saying, It’s time to do this. This is what you need, even if it does not appear to be the practical thing. Life is like that sometimes. We have to make a leap of faith.

My job is to be there and make the event happen. If now, having read this, you recognize that you are at some kind of turning point, then please let me know and we will see what we can do to accommodate you.

Oh, and feel free to phone me on impulse. 415 308-5685. You don’t need to have your whole plan figured out. You don’t have to be sure you’re coming. Call if you just want to talk about the possibility of it. I love to talk. All this emailing makes me miss talking on the phone. I don’t have things all figured out so I don’t see why you should.

p.s. Say Hello to Brian on Facebook!

 

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