What would you do for a living if you weren’t afraid of anything?

This was written for the online course Elizabeth Gilbert’s Creativity Workshop.

What would I do for a living if I was not afraid of anything?

Well, the things I am afraid of right now are internal and external. I am afraid I am not good enough for a creative career, afraid that it will destroy what I love about writing or singing if I had to depend on them to make a living. I wouldn’t be able to just write or sing the things I want.

I am afraid of capitalism. I am afraid of what it does to my soul – and my time.

I am afraid that I only get maybe one more chance to retrain and make a decent living from something. I am afraid of not having a middle-class lifestyle, of not being able to take my children back to my home country regularly to see their family, of not being able to be present or help my family out financially when my parents are older and need care. I am afraid of not being able to take time off work, or not being able to walk out of a job I hate because I have no safety net. I am afraid of not being mobile, not being able to relax. I am afraid I could retrain as a bibliotherapist or a librarian or a yoga teacher and still be tired all the time, still be ill, and I’d be even poorer and lower-paid than if I’d just stuck with my current work and tried to manage the time I spend at a desk better.

If I was no longer afraid of these things, it would be because we had had some kind of profound social and economic transformation that revolutionised our relationship to time – to paid labour and emotional labour and creative labour. For the purposes of this exercise, I do not accept that I have somehow become incredibly wealthy and am personally freed from worrying about my financial security, but everyone has the opportunity now to spend time doing a mixture of the work that they love and the necessary work for the upkeep of the community they live in. I would wake up in the morning, write my morning pages and practise yoga and meditation. Then I would have breakfast with my partner and afterwards we would spend some time working on creative projects – I would write, he would do the things he is passionate about. We would do this for a few hours in the morning, then go and have lunch with some friends, or they would come to us. If it was a nice day, we might go for a walk and then after lunch would be ‘community time’. We would work in the community garden, or build something, or clean the streets or whatever we were assigned to. In the evenings, there would be events sometimes – talks or concerts, rehearsals or shows. Other times, we would be at home, chilling out, relaxing, visiting with friends.

I would write and I would lead reading and discussion groups. I would sing, alone and in choirs. I would not have been battered by an education system that – even though I thrived in it – left me with little internal motivation for things, no internal locus of control. Nor by an economic system that devalues the arts and humanities, devalues relationships and the work of caring, devalues wordcraft unless it is to sell something. I can be so much more than this. We can be so much more than this.

A letter to my inner editor, before NaNoWriMo 2016

My dearest hyperactive inner editor,

I love you. You’re amazing. You’re so incredibly smart and so well attuned to good style. You have an eye for detail and an empathy with the reader that makes you so skilled at weeding out sentences that don’t work, spotting information that could be better structured, using punctuation to support the meaning and flow of a text. You can even follow ridiculous rules from Chicago that don’t make any sense (page numbers anyone?). Best of all, hyperactive inner editor, with these skills, you are keeping us fed, and housed, and clothed. After six years of struggling, of hustling, of trying to piece together enough money to keep body and soul together in an expensive city – a bit of freelancing here, a small scholarship there, a random side job at the university here, subletting our room to a friend and living somewhere cheaper for a summer there – after all this, your skills have finally got us an actual job. A job that pays our health insurance. A job with nice colleagues, who we are learning a lot from. A job that is part-time, which has given us so much extra time to take singing lessons, to read, to do yoga, to rest, to study the language of this country we now live in. After six years of studying for a PhD and hustling for money, this is such a relief – a little oasis of security with some spare time to put time into these other activities that make us feel human again (redressing the balance after the pendulum swung so much towards work and career and survival – did I know the difference between those three?) and giving us time to figure out what’s next. And what I suspect might be next, hyperactive inner editor, is going to be more opportunities for you to shine.

So, thank you. Thank you, hyperactive inner editor for everything you do. Hell, you’re so great at what you do that you convinced my employer to give us a job even though we were technically overqualified for it, even though it was the first job we applied for in this new country and we flung together the application in no time while recovering from the PhD (I think the two deadlines were within 15 days of each other) and starting an intensive language course. Go you. Hyperactive inner editor, you rock. You have marketable skills and you’re good at what you do. Keep going. Keep taking us forward.

I need to ask you a favour, though, hyperactive inner editor. The thing is, you don’t need to edit everything immediately, and sometimes you can jump in a bit too soon, when I’m not quite ready for you. I know we had this conversation several times during the PhD, and I promised you that once I’d got the words down on paper (virtually!), you could step in and revise. And remember? Remember when I let you split my favourite chapter into two, even though I could no longer open it with the vignette I wanted to, because it worked better as two chapters? Remember when you took the politics chapter from an unholy mess to a presentable chapter with an actual argument, two days before hand-in, on the bloody train? So even though I sometimes ask you to wait, I do need you later. It’s just that in order for there to be something for you to edit and revise, I need to write it first.

It’s been a while since we’ve written fiction, and I don’t know how much you ever got your teeth into what I wrote before. I don’t know if I got anything to the stage where there was much revising to be done. I do know, though, that we’re very out of practice right now, and a lot of what I’m writing is bad. Bad writing. Bad words. Guff. And if there’s one thing you hate, hyperactive inner editor, it’s bad writing. And I get it. So do I. I hate reading bad writing. I hate seeing that editors have let through bad writing. I hate that academics can get away with so much bad writing, even though I also understand why it’s our job as academics to push through the writing and get to the argument, and how the pressure to write good English excludes non-anglophone scholars who should be judged on the merit of their ideas, not the privilege of their birthplace or education. But I need to try writing fiction. I need to see what happens. I promise you – I promise you – that once I have a whole bunch of words down on the page, you can have your moment to shine. But I need to ask you to just step back and let me write badly first.

Can you do that? I know it goes against everything you believe. Maybe you could try and treat me with the compassion you treat the authors you correspond with? Believe that I’m doing the best I can. Trust that, once it’s time, I will listen to your advice and you can bring your excising, revising, comma-inserting expertise to make my raw novel one that someone might want to read. Because, hyperactive inner editor, this might be raw, it might be ‘bad’, but it’s real. I’m committing to writing 50,000 words in November, and they might be bad words. They might be terrible words. They might be the ugliest, most repetitive, most sentimental prose you have ever read. But they need to be out there. Because they come from inside me. From my emotional core. The things I care deeply about, the feelings I have, my love for my characters, for places, the things that make me angry. And good writing needs this emotional driving force, as much as it needs your excellent sense for style. The novels that we love, we love because they speak to us, they make us care, they make us sad, they make us angry, they make us disappointed when we feel that they’re nearly over. I need you to support this, not to stop it in its tracks. Can you do that? Because my god, hyperactive inner editor, you have had all the validation – all the validation – from doing that PhD and from doing this job and being the part of us that brings in an income. So I’m letting you take November off. You must be exhausted. Go and sit on the beach and drink margaritas and swim and read whatever you read for fun (style guides?) and flirt with some tanned, sexy inner editors of your preferred gender(s). Go for long walks. Do whatever you want to do. Let the rest of us carry the weight – the feelings, the opinions, the emotions, the passions. We need the practice and you deserve a rest. And I promise, when you get back, you can look at those 50,000 words with your critical, analytical eye and you can make them into something we wouldn’t be ashamed to show other people.

Thank you for everything you do.

Staying within the lines

This is what I spent part of this afternoon doing:

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I’ve not got into the adult colouring thing yet, but I was looking for inspiration for an “Artist Date” for week two of the Artist’s Way. My first idea had been to go dancing – inspired by one of this week’s exercises, where I listed 20 things I loved doing and the date when I last did them. Many of them were relatively recent, but other than at weddings, I haven’t danced for years. I once went to salsa classes when they had them in the little town where I live at the time, and then when the classes moved and I had to travel to the nearby city, I stopped. But I had enjoyed it, so I tried to find a beginners’ class for this week. However, it seems that in my current city, you have to sign up for a beginners’ course that lasts three or four weeks and starts at the start of each month. Well done, self, for having this idea in the second week of April. So I have signed up for one at the start of May, but I wanted to go, like, yesterday, and now it isn’t the cool spontaneous artist’s date I wanted but a thing I have planned into my schedule.

My second idea was to take my fancy camera out for a little walk and take some photos of plants, but the light was lousy and the weather forecast was threatening rain, so I had to find something else.

I had already mentally struggled with this part of the programme – the idea being that you’re supposed to take yourself (or, more specifically, your inner artist child) on a weekly date to do something that “fills the well” or allows you to play or pushes you outside of your comfort zone a bit. I had found a couple of good lists online that had plenty of inspiration. Some of the ideas were things I do ordinarily – going for a run or meditating. I decided it was more in the spirit of the exercise to do something out of my usual routine. Others, while I could see they were satisfying and would potentially lead the way to a less cluttered, more creative life – sorting through your books, decluttering part of your house – seemed too much like things I could easily parse into pre-move “useful work”, which again seemed like I wouldn’t be approaching it in the right spirit. I struggle with allowing myself to play or do things that don’t have a goal or aren’t part of a plan.

So I decided to colour something in. It seemed relaxing, was suitably different from what I might normally do without being intimidating (making a sculpture from things in my recycling box, anyone?), and required me to walk to the stationery shop and buy some pencils, so I would also get a bit of fresh air and exercise. After some deliberation, I bought a set of 12 for €11.99 instead of 24 for €23.99, thinking 12 was already more coloured pencils than I already had, and I could always buy more if I wanted to in future. I chose to colour in a mandala, as I like patterns and geometrical shapes.

I wouldn’t say it has profoundly changed me or anything but I can definitely see the appeal of colouring in. I’m glad I did a tactile version of this, on paper, instead of using the iPad app I have also downloaded. It brought up a lot of memories – mostly of being told things like “colour within the lines” and “don’t leave any white spaces” and “only move the pencil in one direction”, to which I replied, “I am 32 years old and I will colour however I damn well please.” It was fun to play with the colours and I wished I’d bought a box with some better pinks. And I displayed my creation on the fridge afterwards.

In other Artist’s Way news, I have done morning pages every day so far this week (my week, for the purposes of this programme, starts on Monday) and have heard from some online friends that the book gets more religious as it goes on, and they gave up around week six as they couldn’t take the spiritual stuff any more. I am being a bit more cautious about recommending it to literally everyone I speak to, because some people have had really bad experiences with religion or wouldn’t find a way to work around it in this book, and I myself might struggle later on. I am kind of at the point with my depression where I will try anything even if my old self would have thought it too “woo”, but you never know.

Quote of the week

Given all that women are expected to live with – the leers that start when we’ve barely begun puberty, the harassment, the violence we survive or are constantly on guard for – I can’t help but wonder what it all has done to us. Not just to how women experience the world, but how we experience ourselves.

I started to ask myself: Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women? I’ve been unable to come up with a satisfactory answer, but I did realize that I’ve long been mourning this version of myself that never existed.

From chapter 1 of Sex Object by Jessica Valenti.