There's a ghost from my past who visits me often. I'll call him Curtis. Curtis and I had a relationship during an impressionable period in my life. He introduced me to an expanded world of art, books, and music that proved to be a marvelous jumping-off point for me. His influence in other areas, however, has lasted in a way that I would rather it didn't.
More often than I care to admit, I still look at things from Curtis's perspective. This is too bad, because in the end, Curtis found me inadequate for his purposes. Curtis and I had the kind of relationship you hear about when two "creatives" get together. If one finds success and the other doesn't, things don't altogether work out. While I struggled to earn a living and find relevance as a writer, Curtis was hired by a newspaper as an editorial assistant, then moved on to critic and editor. I got and quit lame job after lame job. From my perspective, he got to do exactly what made him happy, for enough money to pay rent and buy beer. He followed his dreams and desires, and seemed to find opportunities everywhere.
I didn't. It was a frustrating exercise for me to analyze the reasons behind his success and my failure. He felt he deserved what he wanted, and didn't question the motivation to go for it. He took risks, was willing to look a fool, elbowed his way into things when necessary. The best reasons I could conjure for his easy sense of entitlement were that Curtis had supportive parents, a financial cushion through them, and had gone to an Ivy League school. He'd travelled. His parents travelled. He also had a lot of good dumb luck. This is the story I told myself.
I, however, had substantial barriers to being a real, paid writer. I was often depressed, chronically broke, and struggling mightily to break free from my family. I had a silly education from my four years at The Evergreen State College. I had not done internships, had not sought out extracurricular writing opportunities in college, and had not really learned any skills. I wasn't qualified to do anything. I had no support and no connections.
This is the story I told myself. I tried my best not to believe that there was any more going on in this scenario than my external circumstances. I was a good writer. I was just starting at a deficit and needed a lucky break.
This little story worked moderately well for me, most of the time. Every so often though, I broke down. It was too hard shoring myself up all the time, hoping that Curtis would not lose respect for me, hoping that my life would change somehow and I'd get out of the deep hole I was in. It was also pretty hard not to believe that I was just a fraud, a hobbyist, a hanger-on; in short, a loser.
Once, when Curtis hung up the phone after making plans to visit a friend in New York, I fell into a deep funk. We were at my apartment, and I'd been listening to his excited phone conversation with increasing bitterness. Once again, he was doing something interesting and glamorous, and I was still toiling over my little stories and drawings and striking out every time I tried to improve my life.
"You always get to do cool stuff," I blurted after he hung up the phone. He looked at me like I was nuts.
"I don't GET to do cool stuff," he replied with irritation. "I just DO cool stuff." From which I inferred, "So could you if you would get your head out of your ass."
"It's easier for you," I sniffed. "All the people you went to school with are doing interesting things. Your parents know people all over the place. They give you money for stuff like this. There is no way I could do what you're doing."
He looked like he was about to explode. "It's not all about money!" he said. "I see interesting things to do and I do them. Nothing's stopping you!"
A lot was stopping me. And reading Susan O'Doherty's new book, Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued; A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity has helped me see what it was.
My blockages have not so much been related to money, as Curtis suggested. They are, however, deeply rooted in the culture from which I sprang. I came up in a world of certain expectations for life. These were, more or less, (a) finish high school, (b) get a job, and (c) shut the fuck up. Getting by was the most you could hope for. It was foolish and even sinful to want anything else. If you were female, even more so. People in my family do not travel, pursue creative work, or go to college. I won't say it's a bad life for all my cousins who stayed, it's just a very particular life that doesn't lend itself to supporting dreamers, drifters and creative types like myself. To leave it, I had to reject everyone from home.
Still, their ideas about life followed me, especially the harder things got. Curtis would seem, on the surface, to have been a perfect influence for me, but he turned out to be a terrific snob and I turned out to be pathetic. I absorbed his disdain. He started wishing for a different kind of girlfriend.
I continued to not know how to do much but survive.
It's many years later. I am no longer stuck. Still, the very title of O'Doherty's book brought up such a wave of Curtis-like disgust that I had a hard time opening my mind to it at first. But through doing the exercises, I began to look at my past behaviors and habits of mind in this area with much more compassion than I had before. O'Doherty, a therapist, does such a good job of getting right down to what matters - the creative lives of women and our specific issues - with great compassion for what we are up against.
My therapist, Joan, once told me after I apologized for boring her with my dithering, "I'm never bored with you, Susie. I only try to understand." O'Doherty gives this impression, too, on nearly every page, about women who do creative work. She tries to help us see and understand.
I first wrote a review for this book in which I tried desperately to distance myself from the book's intended audience. "I am not one of you," I seemed to say. "I do not have your silly problems." If I needed to read a book like this, I must not be a real writer. I must be just another whiny female with too many excuses.
Oh, Curtis. Do shut up.
I have to thank O'Doherty for getting me to see that my drawn swords and plates of armor caused me to write a review that was not only dripping with bitterness, but was not a good read. I was trying too hard to protect myself to develop a thought.
In case you are interested in reading Getting Unstuck, doing the exercises, and comparing notes with me, I am going to post my written exercises in future installments of the blog. Please tell me about your progress! I recommend it to any female artist or writer who has an immediate distaste for the title, like I did, or for one who feels the mystery and mechanics of getting one's head out of one's ass have become overwhelming. As a companion, I recommend Pema Chodron's fantastic, funny recordings on a similar subject, also called Getting Unstuck. Download it, plug it in to listening device, and watch your experience on the bus become something altogether different.
And thanks for listening to my story about Curtis's ghost. It feels good to liberate it.