This is my punishment

The Stocks, by Steve Knight

A skilled and generous writer and teacher, John Vorhaus, sent me his soon-to-be-published book (How to Live Life) for me to read and spread the word about. I’d really been looking forward to this book, because he’s funny, and in his more recent essays for Writer Unboxed, he’s brought some moving truths, not just about writing but about life. Which is my favorite way to receive truth: wrapped up in something that makes me smile. I’m all disarmed from the smiling and then WHAMMO. Truth.

cover of how to live life, by John VorhausVorhaus was a workshop leader at the Writer Unboxed UnConference I went to last November. He led the session on Failing Big (my notes for it are 1/3 of the way down the page here) and what he said there finally kicked me out of the disappointment spiral I’d been wallowing in for a couple of years. He also taught me how to play poker (a kind of poker I can’t remember the name of anymore, which is rather par for the course — in our first conversation he teased me for not knowing the make of car I’d just driven halfway across the country). He’s funny in person and he’s funny in writing and I knew that this life advice book would make me smile. And it did.

But even before breaking into Hollywood, I knew that teaching something was a great way to learn it. I’ve used this strategy many times in my life to increase my understanding of songwriting, poker, comedy, creativity, sailing (that was dangerous), archery (that was worse) and more. I have come to believe that an inspired learner makes a good teacher. So that’s the real source of my authority, such as it is: my gape-mouthed wonder at the fact of my existence, and my desire to know it more fully.

This book, then, is an intensely selfish exercise.

But I don’t think it’s all that pretentious, not really. No more than life itself is pretentious. I mean, here we are in the midst of this incredible, unbelievable experience, and something tells us that it should be even more incredible and more unbelievable. We should be… I don’t know… painting pictures, writing poems, staring at the stars, communing with God, digging life’s mysteries, getting down to the isness of it all.

I love that attitude (particularly because this is a non-religiously-affiliated book, but there’s room in here for people, like me, who are communers with God). But then he did something that made me feel crabby and rebellious: he left spaces for me to write my responses to the questions he was asking. Many spaces. Many questions.

Make a list.

You’ll hear me say that a lot, make a list. I’m a huge fan of lists because lists…

Let us create without consequence
Give us hard data we can use right away
Are emotionally neutral; they don’t judge
Yield much information for little effort
Put things where we can see them 

This was not going to be a book that was both funny and deep and that I could enjoy reading and adding to the general thoughts in my mind. This book was going to make me actually do the work. I know myself. I know my process. I know that I have to write things down to truly work through them. Which is why I didn’t want to.

So, as punishment, I’m going to do it here, in public.

[Just so you know, I did absolutely everything else possible before doing this: the laundry, the household filing and bill paying, the dinner making, the nagging of children, the ferrying of children, the buying of toner, the returning of the video (yes, we are pleasantly old fashioned enough to still rent DVDs sometimes). I did filing, people.]

1. What wouldn’t I do if I had six months to live:

  • clean my house
  • cut down on beer or cookies
  • play so much online Boggle
  • go to “mandatory” mass parent meetings at school

2. There was a question about externalizing motivation to help one overcome inertia. I’ve tried some — I like Jerry Seinfeld’s method of X-ing off each day he’s written, and seeing the line of Xs motivates him to keep the line going. That works okay. For awhile. I think I need another person to hold me to a timeline. I’ve been working on a collaborative project and we have meetings, and I need to have things done for our meetings, and I do them. I don’t get stuck in freak-out mode or find other things to do. Like filing.

At this point, Vorhaus brings out some big guns: the centrality of acceptance to this process of growth.

Acceptance is called for here, the sense that whatever emotions we experience are fine, completely allowable, totally cool, no matter what they are. Without acceptance, we are afraid to approach ourselves. With it, we can appraise ourselves openly and honestly, without freaking out. …

I see me, and it’s all okay. 

Just to be clear, acceptance doesn’t mean surrender. To accept means to process information with emotional neutrality. Acceptance provides an objective perspective where nothing is made worse by the editorial judgment that this really sucks. 

How wonderful to be free from the feeling of this really sucks. You can be. It’s a choice you get to make. Simply seek to acquire the habit of saying, and thinking, “I accept.”

3. Pick something on your list above and dive deeper — if you tell yourself nasty things about yourself because of that thing, try to push past them with acceptance.

  • I wouldn’t play so much online Boggle because it doesn’t add anything to my life — it doesn’t add connection or knowledge or feed my imagination. I’m hiding and anesthetizing. If I had 6 mos to live, I’d dive in, I wouldn’t space out so much. I like the word games, I really do. There is a real satisfaction to them. But I go for the easy rush and choose it way too often and then don’t do things I actually like better.

4. “Got any questions you’d like to ask yourself? Just ask. Just answer. Explore. Don’t judge.”

  • Why do I keep falling into mindless activity? I used to be a horrible slob. Impressively messy. Every fall, when one mouse would come into our house, it would come to my teenage bedroom because there were so many piles of things for it to hide into. As I got older, I liked it when I made things clean and neat, but didn’t care to do the daily practices to keep things that way. And then I had children. There was so much chaos and overwhelm in my mind and in my life that I couldn’t stand a chaotic home environment, and presto: I am now very neat. So I know I can go from non-effort to regular-effort. Why won’t I do so for the practices I care so much about (writing, prayer, dance)? It’s like I’m still in teenage-mode: occasional and impressive outbursts followed by accidental ignoring followed by guilty ignoring. That is a question I imagine it’ll take me this entire book to figure out. So I’m not going to try now.

5. Name some things you know you want, but rarely dare to say out loud.

  • I never, ever, ever say this out loud, but I’d like to drop a little weight to make dancing easier.
  • I want people to read my books.
  • I want to be a better mother.

THERE. That’s chapter one. I’m not saying I’m going to blog my way through every chapter of the book. In fact, I won’t. But I will finish the book and I’ll make my lists and I’ll report back to you. I’d thought that declaring my word of the year to be PRACTICE meant that I’d improve my practices. Instead, it’s shaping up to be about exploring why I resist doing just that. Which may be more helpful in the long run.




Spread the word:

One thought on “This is my punishment

  1. Natalie, thank you so much for engaging with my book in the spirit with which it was written. I hope you continue to find it not a master, but a servant, of your purpose. -jv

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