Tuesday, January 30, 2018


This post is so familiar that it sounds dumb, but it's worth looking at one more time.

Old obsessions about whether one is “good enough” at whatever one is doing has roots going back to earning grades in school and before that to the basic human learning project: walking, talking, getting what one needs.  Given what we know scientifically now about how much first ideas get imprinted as “reality” and are nearly impossible to overcome, it’s not surprising that our expectations of ourselves are unrealistic, even destructive.  It takes a lot of "not good enough" to learn to stand without clinging to the furniture.  So it's hard for an adult personto bring up to consciousness what is realistic, possible, and desirable, maybe for the purpose of choosing new goals but maybe even for the discarding of old standards and recognition of what was achieved without thinking about goals.

An obvious variable is the size of the pool your froginess lives in.  Being a noted Montana Writer is one thing, choosing something much bigger or much smaller means considerable change to adapt to the national scene or global issues and may leave one's previous fans behind. To abandon writing “for” one’s own socio-economic or educational group by reaching out to a different audience will radically change one’s standards and subjects.  It will mean a different sort of intermediary (editor or agent) and maybe a change of instrument — maybe from bound books to smartphone, from paper to electronic.

It’s not just a matter of marketing, but also the kind of alliances and feedbacks, the sources of encouragement and positive criticism as well as cautions, and the ways “backstage” one can supply those things to others.  Marketing does need to consider who the consumers are and how big and flush that pool might be.  Right now the pool of women with an appetite for escapist novels is huge, but they don’t have a lot of money, time or storage.  Therefore, ebooks shine.  If you don’t write that sort of thing or market that way, “failure” of skills is hardly the problem.

Some venues are not pools but rushing rivers.  Political, scientific, and other fields, even those requiring complex researched knowledge, move along quickly.  Today’s major insight is tomorrow’s old discarded stuff.  The time investment necessary is a limitation, which means money both for living until the payoff and for going to places, talking to people, searching archives.  Budget constraints are not the same as lack of skills.

Returning to the first premise about worthiness, are those standards what was chosen or is it residual, maybe set out by people in the past who are no longer relevant.  Maybe they’re dead people, like ancient Greeks.  Maybe they’re family people who imposed their values or demanded success that will make THEM look good.  To find these things one might need a therapist or at least a legal pad and enough time to draw webs, maps, names and relationships.  This is especially true if the early, semi-buried forces conflict:  one says the most important factor is correctness, standards, and the other says what counts is innovation, the startling.

The force can be strong when it’s from people you love, even if they’re dead.  Maybe more so then.  You’ll need that Gestalt two chair strategy of sitting in one, imagining the other person opposite and talking to them — then switching chairs and speaking for that other person.  What did they want for themselves?  Where did they get their ideas?  What has changed in the world since they gave you advice? Was there still some small voice saying, "You're good enough!"

Maybe your ideas about the entitlements provided by love have changed.  This is where my line of thought began.  Devoted enabler that I was, putting off my own goals in order to support the work of a “genius” husband, just how good did he have to be to justify my effort and self-denial?  An old woman said to me (when I was still young), "Scriver was good, but not THAT good!  He was no Charlie Russell."  I suspect that the Charlie Russell who was so good was a figment of her imagination created by advertising.

Then in the ministry I repeated the pattern:  just how totally did I have to devote myself to a denomination to be a truly worthy minister?  In both cases, the terms of reward, the value systems, changed out from under me.  Plainly, there was not love coming my way, so why should I — to be crude — put out?  At this point some people have extra-curricular affairs, which is a cheap fix attached to a lot of expensive destruction.

Effort of clues, truth and analysis — imagine the TV series detectives creating the wall of clues scribbled on post-its — has a payoff in the end:  skills and knowledge that are part of oneself, not located in the situation at all.  Their loss, my knowledge gain.  

Maybe the problem is not the fact of the dynamics, but in the ideas of virtue and how to measure it.  What counts?  Sales?  Inspiration? Praise from Charlie Rose?  (Charlie Who?  He's over.)  Satisfaction of creation according to one’s own standards?  But what if part of one’s character structure is always that dissatisfaction with one’s own work?  As if loss of that dissatisfaction is somehow a loss of motivation, a caving-in to limitations. 

Sometimes the “chair” opposite me is a pew full of parishioners from the past.  Once I said in a sermon about accepting limitations -- that I would have loved to be a ballet dancer or an opera singer, but that wasn’t physically possible.  The congregation all laughed merrily and I was surprised that I teared up a little.  It WAS ridiculous.  But suppose I’d analyzed it, suppose I looked for the reason I wanted to be those things.  

Ballet and opera are extraordinary performance skills, not unlike preaching, but differently physically based and requiring many hours of training, practise and discipline.  They are often historically justified — one responds to what is traditional, to some degree even in defiance, like “Drake Lake,” the all-male version of the white ballet template.  Agnes de Mille did something a little different.  Stocky and strong, not at all sylph-like, she choreographed ballets for cowgirls.  But most people think preaching is a "gift," a talent that is God-given, so it won't matter how good you are -- it won't belong to you.

I’ve gone to blogging, which for a manuscript preacher is hardly any jump at all.  Sequential, personally informed, responding to a regular schedule, reaching for depth — the weak link is not knowing who is in the “pews.”  The great joy is the surprise of discovering that persons of true comprehension are out there.

When I started writing small stories about Blackfeet, I gave some to my mother, showing off.  Her verdict was “I didn’t expect to think much of them but I ended up quite affected.”  All I heard was that she didn’t expect much. I put those stories on prairiemaryblog.wordpress.com, separate from the “serious” writing on prairiemary.blogspot.com.  Why the separation?  Am I thinking about a separation between fiction and serious discourse?  But I often put the fiction on prairiemary first, then shift it to wordpress which is considered a more sophisticated provider.  Actually, I don’t like it because it has too many bells and whistles, which steals energy from the actual content.  

But maybe it’s also because a certain contingent of people, some enrolled and some not, will attack fiction politically.  They don’t read wordpress blogs, so it’s safe storage.  Good enough.

But what if you want to be amazingly brilliant, world-changing insightful, satisfying every past helper?  What can go wrong with the attempt?  I'm asking.

1 comment:

Davidson Loehr said...
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