Monday, November 26, 2007

Giving power away and taking it back

I had an interesting experience recently that has had me thinking about power—to whom do I give power over me and why.

I gave a talk recently in which I mentioned that I am considering a fiction book project about World War II spies in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). It’s just an idea I am considering, due to a recent interest in World War II history, the Holocaust and personal accounts. It’s a heavy topic and I don’t know if I’ll pursue anything to do with it. But it’s an idea that has stuck with me for a while now, and I have learned to pay attention to ideas that stick with me.

After this talk, a gentleman approached me and asked why I was pursuing the topic of OSS spies. I explained to him that the idea came to me after seeing an exhibit about Virginia Hall, one of the most famous OSS spies, at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago. He proceeded to tell me about Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of “Tarzan of the Apes” and other fantastical books, and how Burroughs had tried many unsuccessful ventures before writing “Tarzan.” After the success of “Tarzan” and some of his subsequent books, the gentleman explained, Burroughs wanted to write something serious about the real world. I don’t know what this was, but the gentleman told me it failed miserably, and so Burroughs learned that he was better off sticking with writing about the worlds in his own mind. He closed by saying I should take a lesson from this.

I was taken aback by this exchange. I’m sure this man did not intend to be insulting, but he was, in fact, telling me I shouldn’t bother to try writing about something like the OSS. This really stuck in my craw. Who was he, a total stranger who knew nothing about me, to say that I can’t handle such a topic? And was the underlying message that I was silly and stupid, or just silly to think I could take on such a subject? I was speechless and just let the man walk away.

This conversation was the only blip in a perfect day of talking with people who loved books and cared about writers. I left the event feeling quite wonderful, except for this one conversation. It kept coming back to me, making me feel angry and a little bad about myself—for not saying something back. Worse yet, I started to doubt my own abilities. How horrible is that, to doubt your abilities and lose your confidence based on the comments of a total stranger?

The more I’ve thought about this, I’ve come to realize that I gave this stranger power over me. I let him erode my confidence. I let him make me doubt my abilities. I gave his opinion, his words, value. That is my doing, not his. And in truth, he probably meant to be helpful, not hurtful.

It’s so easy to let other people’s words and opinions shape how we feel about ourselves. But I believe that only I can shape how I feel about myself. Only I can make me feel bad about myself. Only I can lose my self confidence. Only I can doubt my abilities. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

And so, I have decided not to give that stranger that power. I am still reading books about the OSS and look forward to seeing what comes of it. Maybe something great will come of it, and maybe not. But I would rather be open to the possibility than defeat myself before I even begin.

Your Creative Kick in the Butt: Think about who has power over how you feel about yourself. Then do the hard part and think about why you have given them that power. Because you have given it to them.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

What's your secret life?

How do you react to this question: What’s your dream for yourself?

Do you feel:

A. Embarrassed, because this is way too personal a question.
B. Angry, because it’s none of my business.
C. Sad, because no one has ever asked before.
D. Happy, because you’ve been dying for someone to ask and now you get to talk about it.
E. Confused and a little embarrassed, because what’s the point?
F. Calm, because you know the answer and know what to do about it.

It’s important that you know the answer to this question. Let me repeat that: It’s important that you know the answer to this question. And take heart—very few people know the answer and know what to do about it.

If you have an inkling, great. If the answer is staring you in the face, great. If you have no idea, no problem. No matter where you are in the process, try this exercise from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron:

Write down five secret lives you’d love to live. It can be anything—possible or completely impossible.

Here’s mine. In my secret lives, I am:

A ballerina.
A world-class orchestra conductor.
A bestselling author (you can help with this one, you know :).
The drum major for a professional drum and bugle corps.
A dog trainer, a la Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan.

Now, the only thing I am pursuing on this list is the bestselling author life, because that is actually my dream for myself. But the others represent other parts of myself—the part that grew up taking dance and just loved ballet so much; the part that played the clarinet in band for years; the part that was the drum major for the high school marching band; and the part that loves dogs and would love to be with them all day long.

I’m not going to attempt all of these things. But I can connect with those parts of myself that crave these things by maybe going to the ballet or the symphony this year, or spending more time with my dogs, or listening to a CD of John Philip Sousa. All of those activities reconnect me to the deepest parts of myself in tangible, meaningful ways. And that, in turn, makes my life fuller and my writing better.

If you know your dream, this exercise will help feed your creativity and motivation on the path toward making that dream come true. If you don’t know your dream or you're unsure of it, this exercise will help you discover it.

Here’s your Creative Kick in the Butt: After you write down your five secret lives, write a page about at least one of them. Explore why it’s on your list. And don’t worry if you can write or not—this is just for you. Babble on and see what bubbles up. You might be surprised by what you learn.