On Mantras, Mondays, Gym Friends and Feelings

The problem with Monday morning spin class is that it’s difficult to talk.

Lest you’re unclear, what motivates my regular gym habit (as much as the need to offset particular passions for almond croissants and malty beer, and the happy accident that I genuinely like exercise) is, in a word: gossip.

Probably you are clear that I take pleasure in few things more than turning my personal problems into entertainment. For you, lofty readers, I attempt to deliver stuff that is polished, (sadly, sometimes tragically) censored, hopefully sense-making. The gals at the Blaisdell Y get the dirt: the raw play-by-plays and (occasionally) juicy bits.

And while the late-30 and early-40-something moms have a pretty hefty appetite for vicarious Single Gal Tales, it’s not a one-way street. Last week I found myself doing bicep curls next to a woman who I’ve seen outside a sports bra a grand total of one time (we ran into each other at the co-op), whilst getting the update on her marital counseling.

“I just had this big breakthrough about the way I approach intimacy!” she said.

I turned to her, breathlessly hoisting a purple pair of twelve-pound weights.

“You mean physical intimacy?”

She nodded.

I looked out at the gym, a blur of neon and blondish braids, and smiled. “I fucking love boot camp,” I said.

But back to Monday spin class, where, this week, I was on a bike beside my friend K. K is closer to my age, and for the year that we’ve known each other we’ve regularly floated the desire to meet for a drink. Maybe someday we will, but already she knows my life better than most close friends.

I had promised her a story, but the fetal-position nature of cycling was preventing much chat.

“I’m dying to hear the rest!” she said.

“I’ll tell you after,” I assured her. “If you want. But, you know, you can already guess how it ends.”

This is the part where I would recite my relentlessly reliable dating pattern, if not for that I’m pretty sure you know it too.

Okay fine, quick refresher: man pursues me. I take interest in said man because he’s (circle as many as may apply): stylish/intelligent/tall/builds things/reads poems/DJs/loves NPR/plays music/is bearded/writes absurdist horoscopes. 1.5-3.5 dates later, aforementioned man realizes that I am incapable of playing games/being casual, remembers whatever issue made him single in the first place (again, circle any): commitment-phobia/emotional scars/arrested emotional development/existential attachment to someone else. He panics. Flees. I am shocked, but also not. (Because: really?? And because: yup.)

I’ve been trying to come up with mantras–a genre in which, it turns out, I am pathetically unskilled. A sampling:

It’s his loss.
You know what you want.
If he doesn’t contact you he’s an idiot, and you hate idiots.
He’s not even your type.
(What is your type again?)
Stop comparing yourself. 

A contributed the standby: You dodged a bullet. 

A new Minneapolis friend, this gem: When boys blow, they really blow, hard. 

But, heavens. I need something, at this rate, to help me through these Dating Moments, as we may as well call them. (It fits, a bit too well..) Because no matter how many times they hit, they still really suck.
*
In response to this recent essay that I hopefully managed to get on your screen, a friend in California wrote to laud me for being so in touch with my feelings:
It’s impressive to me, she wrote. I don’t think most people can do that.
Thanks! I wrote back. It’s called Years of Revision :)
It’s true: one reason literary nonfiction takes me (and many others) so long to get any good is that it takes time, and discipline–basically, work–to sort out how the hell you feel/felt about an experience you want to render.Finding the right words can often feel like the easy part. It’s not that I’m any better at being in touch with my emotions than anyone else; I just happen to (be trying to) make it my career.
I thought of her words yesterday as I drove a South Minneapolis route that I used to take regularly, a little over a year ago, when I was living with N. He’d shown up in my dream the other night–after I went to sleep feeling sad and sour about my latest prospect’s exit.”It’s a signal,” my friend (a different) K said, when I told her the next day over lunch of soup and crepes. “A reminder that you know what you want, and being alone is better than settling.”Driving from my old library to the gym, I thought of my California friend’s comment. I thought of it because, I realized, when I was with N, I didn’t know what I wanted. More than that, I didn’t know what I felt. I was so afraid to find the truth, festering just barely beneath life’s daily layers, that I didn’t let myself look. The truth wasn’t that I was unhappy, or that N was anything but an extraordinarily good, loving, supportive partner. The truth was that I knew we weren’t right.

Few things are more painful for me to admit to myself than that: how much I was able to distance myself from how I truly felt.

And amidst the disappointment and frustration, that is one piece of comfort and calm: that, at least, I know how I feel. That I’m (most mornings) living honestly, and with the kind of (attempted) self-understanding I denied myself not many months ago.

It’s not a mantra, exactly, but it’s something. And I’m holding on.

On Imposter Syndrome, Coffee Rocks, And Being a Resident Artist

“I mean, I’m not going to knock on your door and ask you to show me your paintings or stories!”

Across from me, the Most Genial Man in New Mexico laughed. A painter from Memphis sat to my left; both of us wriggled in our seats. I muttered: “Maybe you should…”

We chuckled, nervously.

“No really,” the man continued, explaining how the woman who began the foundation didn’t just want artists to come and create, but also to provide them respite from their normal, urban lives.

“If you want to sleep for three months,” he said, “that’s totally fine.”

I didn’t say: Maybe for you! But I thought it.

The last, and only other time I attended an artists’ residency, I had a concrete goal: to write a new draft of my book manuscript. I had five weeks, and I used every minute (well, every minute that I wasn’t falling in love with N…) to get the thing done.

This time, I have three months, and my objectives are less concrete. When I applied, I assumed I’d be editing that book manuscript, still. I might. But at the moment it’s on pause. And so: I find myself with a cute little casita of my own, a lot of time, no obligations, and, evidently, an expectation no greater than a solid nap.

I am vastly grateful: for the charming space surrounded by tall cottonwoods, for the picnic table outside and the snowy mountains jutting along the horizon and the rock crystals that, for one dollar, a nearby coffee shop suggests you put in your coffee to aid with walking an unknown (presumably internal?) path.

And perhaps most of all, I am grateful to sit across from an exceptionally nice man (no superlative can really suffice) who makes me mint tea, looks me in the eye, and regards me as part of a community of artists–all selected on the basis of their work to come to this beautiful place, and do whatever.

Imposter syndrome. It’s the feeling I never had the words for until graduate school, when my advisor explained it.

“Every writer suffers from it,” he announced, his voice flat. “I still do.”

All artists are are beset with twin compulsions: to relentlessly expose ourselves, our intimate, deeply personal (regardless of subject matter) work to the world; and then, to relentlessly worry that it isn’t good. That we aren’t good.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that no amount of validation can convince us not only that something we’ve made is decent, but that we, personally, are worthy of acclaim–even that we are worthy of being dubbed an “artist.”

“If any writer is going places, it is Laura Van Den Berg.” That was Publishers Weekly in 2013. When asked by The Rumpus whether she ever felt she’d made it as a writer, she said, first “Not even remotely,” and then, something I’m sure I’ve heard other writers say: “I’m only as good as the next project. I’m only as good as the next book.”

Don’t get me wrong, there are moments: that split second right after someone sends you a nice email, or you get something published, or three hundred people hit “like” on your beloved blog post…oh wait, that never happens.

But anyway, those moments come, and then they go. And that is okay. Many writers say this insecurity is what drives them, that the need to constantly prove ourselves is what compels us to keep going.

But there is the danger that we give up: that those moments come fewer and farther between (as, for periods of time, they inevitably do), that we spend so much time doubting that we let ourselves believe the internal cynic, and we stop.

And so, while I would like to think that I will do more in these next three months than sleep, I appreciate that the value in this experience is so much more than what I might make, and so much more than the inspiration or rest I might get: simply being acknowledged, somewhat formally, by someone who is not my grandmother or my roommate or my grad school peer, that I am, indeed, a writer.

So far I have been passing the days walking around town. Reading books. Doing some yoga. Getting to know the other residents: a varied group of artists that could make the New Jersey turnpike interesting, much less a town where no one blinks at Coffee Rocks and half the (white) population has dreadlocks. And writing: mostly fiction and poetry that I’m pretty sure are unreadable.

At first, I felt something like panic: I have three months to write! I should be drafting another book! Not dabbling in genres in which I am completely worthless!

And who knows what’ll end up happening between now and April, when I go home. It’s a lot of time. But what I’m realizing is that what matters even more than what I do here is what happens when I do get home–rejuvenated, inspired, reeking of patchouli, and, hopefully, resolved to keep writing.