… I’m proud of. Listing these out is an exercise Julia Cameron recommends in her book The Right to Write. My writing group tackled it last week. As my fellow writer and blogger Andrea Badgley was reading Cameron’s instructions aloud, I thought: no problem! This will be easy! And fun! Things I’m proud of will certainly make me feel good about myself. Whee!
I numbered from one to fifty in my notebook.
And freaked out. The following is a Whitman sampler of my thoughts in the nanoseconds before I forced myself to start writing: I have done nothing. Getting married and having children was a mistake, I’ll leave nothing behind when I die. Wait, I’ll leave my children. So perhaps they were a good idea. Unless bad luck strikes and one or, god forbid, both of them die before me. Could happen. 16 y.o. is on track to get his license. Sweet holy mother of everything. That would be terrible. What have I done, what have I done, what have I done? I’ve not written a book. I can barely keep up with my blog! I am getting old, it’s getting too late. ALL IS LOST: I can see the burning lifeboat analogy of my life surrounding me and [spoiler alert] that hand at the end is a dying man’s fantasy.
At which point I managed to come up with a few tangible bits and pressed on; remembering Cameron’s admonition that these can be small or large things, I included my five-layer orange mandarin cake and the soft spot I hold for animals.
This exercise took us about 15 minutes. Then it was time to share. I’d not planned on sharing, and said so very quickly. But when my fellow scribblers shared their fifty things, I was both humbled and inspired.
What various paths we’ve taken, and how many of our footsteps have left behind a wee violet or sprig of evergreen. I shared my list last, and my voice was shakier than I’d have liked and I did not make eye contact with anyone while I read, but I managed to say all my fifty things out loud. Even the ones that I was embarrassed about (I am, narcissistically, proud of my sense of style in the wardrobe area. I experience what my “pure” self tells me is, essentially, sinful pleasure out of choosing my outfits).
Why was that exercise so hard? The feminists might say women have been taught not to take credit. Enh. Maybe that’s part of it. I think it has more to do with the inherent challenge of being the “active witness” to our lives and the world around us, as Cameron says this exercise forces us to do. It was scary to think that marriage and kids might have been a mistake. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but regardless: this is my situation. It’s a situation of privilege and luxury, relative to the rest of the planet’s population and I am grateful, every day. But acknowledging my privilege doesn’t absolve me of my responsibilities, nor does it erase my own human neuroses, or brokenness or whatever-word-works-for-you.
I think it was hard because looking closely and without judgment at what’s in front of us isn’t easy. Starting this process by passing judgment on what we are proud of — and being real about even those aspects of ourselves that might be less-than-selfless (I mean, clothes, really? C’mon!) but that gives us a recognizable flush of pride — that takes a bit of guts. Guts are a necessary part of being the type of writer I aspire to.
Write down your particulars. No one else has to see them or hear them or know about them. But we must be able to at least see and acknowledge our own particulars if we are to have a hope of connecting with each other. Or, as James Joyce said (and not surprisingly, said better): In the particular is the universal.
My individual life may be small, and yes, it is hilarious and perhaps petty that I am proud of my ability to match colors, but I am aiming for the Universal. Far as I have seen, it’s what makes the merry-go-round ride worth it.
I did that exercise! I didn’t make it to 50 by a long shot. In fact, even though The Artist’s Way changed my life in ways I could not have predicted, The Right to Write did not do much for me and I dropped it. So good for you! But I had a dream the other night that is going to be a short story. And my individual life is as big as my mind which is huge! That is the Universal we both have aimed for no?
Woo hoo on the dream -> short story and YES to life = size of mind = potentially infinite. There’s all sorts of philosophical implications therein, which I, frankly, find mildly disturbing to contemplate outside of “story” but I completely agree …