scary. things (part.two.)

scary. things (part.two.)

“Let’s go around and everyone say their name, where they’re from, why they’re here.”

“I’m Becca, I’m here by accident, I thought I was taking a writing class and I’m absolutely terrified to be here.” 

“Great!” 

 

It’s astonishing how quickly you get comfortable with a group of strangers when you’re all thrust into the same uncomfortable situation. The writing class I’d signed up for a month ago was cancelled due to low enrollment, and the center had called me a week prior, asking if I’d like to take another class that was at the same time on the same days, but would be improv in the morning, and writing in the afternoon. I said No the first three times the admission’s person asked. But at the last minute, right before hanging up, I’d blurted, “Wait! Okay I’ll do that one. The improv/writing one!” I figured 1.5 days of writing instruction was better than none at all. And hey, maybe I could just be late to the improv mornings, or make up some excuse to only come in the afternoon. After all, I’d already booked and paid for the hotel and train ride. I’d been looking forward to this. But there was no way in hell I was interested in doing improv.

By the time I realized, on the first day of class, that I’d been accidentally put into a third class option–the all day improv class–I’d already emotionally bonded with my five fellow hostages and couldn’t imagine starting over the next day with brand new people who hadn’t traversed my awkward dance activity with me. Hadn’t encouraged me through a round of gibberish. I’d already learned important aspects of my fellow weirdos and I didn’t feel right saying, “Um, excuse me Second City people… I think there’s been a mistake. Please put me in the other class where I’m going to have to bond with new people who already bonded with their own people.”

There was some legitimate panic. I’m not an actress. I can’t even lie very well. I was making the decision to stay in this class so far out of any comfortable activity I’d ever decided to take up, but I was terrified to do it.

One of the first things our improv teacher for the weekend told us was, “You are all going to be okay.” I’d be lying if I said I believed him when he said this. I was pretty sure that if there was such a thing as dying of embarrassment or discomfort, even if no one had died of that yet, I would be the first person in history it would happen to. Medical people for years to come would study it, the Becca Syndrome. Poor lady died in the middle of a black and green film room that was inexplicably air-conditioned in the middle of fucking winter in Chicago while trying to come up with a new, funny way to portray the sad side of a fish market. The textbooks would offer a little picture of me in the corner in black and white, looking, myself, like a dead fish too petrified to move. Medical students reading about my tragic demise would laugh to cover up their own insecurities, the worries they had about their own mortality when facing uncomfortable situations in their sought-after profession. What if an elderly person or a baby pooped on them? What if a really ill person pre-quarantine spewed blood all over their face? What if they were asked a hard question during medical rounds that they couldn’t answer or were asked to perform a procedure that, done wrong, would surely kill the patient? Would they die of Becca Syndrome?!?

Luckily, Sean, our instructor, was right and everything was okay. We all made it through the three days without any of us dying. There were two or three times I thought, this would be a good time to burst into tears, but luckily, I was able to refrain from doing that as well.

So, in the absence of a desire to move classes, and with a newfound sense of camaraderie with my classmates, I stayed. I decided to see how this all works, this improv bit. How do people get onstage and somehow, coherently create one scene together on the fly. How is this sausage link made. How do people become so comfortable with themselves onstage. Maybe you had to be born with certain criteria that I lacked and always would… but maybe there were tricks you could learn. Maybe by being here, I would learn how to let go a little. It was worth a shot, anyway.

 

 

scary.things. (part.one.)

scary.things. (part.one.)

There’s an old saying about how no one wants to see how the sausage is actually made. To be honest, it sounds pretty wise to me, to keep your nose out of such things. I’ve heard rumors about what goes into sausage, and the very idea of tubular meat kind of makes me wretch to begin with. So on first consideration, I am inclined to agree: don’t get too nosy about the creation of things you love.

On second consideration, I am reminded that not everything is as disgusting as sausage. I am reminded of watching my cousin’s dance recitals as a kid, and watching my daughter’s dance rehearsals when she was little. When you sit and watch an advanced dancer doing a move that looks effortless to you, listen. Stop every single thing you are doing and just listen.

Listen very carefully.

As she is spinning in a way that seems to defy everything you know about physics, and looks as if she were just born to be able to do it… listen.

What you will likely hear–and I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am–is a smattering of polite clapping from most of the people in the audience. Some oooohs and aaaaaaahs about how pretty the graceful execution of this move is. Some sighing, whispering about how beautiful that looks and how lucky this beautiful person is to have been born a certain way to be able to do such a thing.

And then.

AND THEN.

On top of that, you will hear every single dancer who is watching, either from the seats, or from backstage, old and young, current or has-been, going out of their freaking minds with cheers and applause for their fellow dancer. Because they know–they know–in a way no one else watching can really know, how hard it is to pull off this flawless-looking spin or jump. They saw all the times the dancer doubted herself, or fell. They know what it feels like, themselves, to fall or doubt or be helplessly sloppy. They know that dancer likely has cracked, bleeding toes hidden by their dainty ballet flats. They watched as each week, each day, the move improved. They cheered and supported and know every single ingredient that went into this move that maybe only takes a few seconds to perform, that most of the audience will likely forget about a day from now.

That loud cheering is love for the process. That loud cheering is pure, unadulterated knowledge of how this particular move was created and worked into reality. It’s recognition: I See You. Not just this beautiful end result, but every sacrifice you made up to this point. Every hard and scary thought or feeling you fought with trying to get here.

Obviously not all of us are going to be dancers. We’ve all wrestled with our own creative endeavors, though. We’ve all decided to try our hand at something hard and/or scary. We’ve all had our own sausage situations where we wondered, “Why in the hell did I want to see how to do that?!?” Sometimes these situations happen by accident.

It may come as no surprise to you by now, if you’ve read my blog for any amount of time, that I am drawn to comical writing. Unexpected laughter is by far the best, when you don’t see the punchline coming. When you didn’t realize you were in the middle of a joke at all. When one minute you’re so upset you’re crying and then you get hit with something so unexpectedly twisted and humorous you can’t help but laugh. Because of this, I made the impulsive decision about a month ago, to sign myself up for a writing course at The Second City. That’s where all the greats go. I wanted to see how they did it. I wanted to hear, if only for a few days, what went into the sausage that was sketch comedy.

And, because my own life is a sitcom in and of itself, and because the universe heard me about this whole “you love the unexpected” plot twist idea… I wound up in a 3-Day intensive improv class. At The Second City.

Scared shitless.

(…to be continued…)

 

 

be.still.

be.still.

Since the beginning of our learning about personal motivations and behaviors, we’re taught about the fight or flight response to threats, fear, trauma. We’ve all heard it. Some of us are fighters, some of us are flight-risks. Some of us swing back and forth between the two like it’s our own personal extreme sport, always experimenting with new ways to untangle ourselves from things that are uncomfortable at best, threatening at worst.

There are obviously times when fleeing is the best option. House on fire? That extra adrenaline pump into your veins might help you get your ass out of harm’s way. Giant grizzly bear tearing down the trail you’re jogging? Might want to learn, quickly, how to scale any nearby tree.

On the other hand, sometimes fighting your way out of a situation–or confronting the source of stress or conflict–is the best way forward. Fleeing is going to make it worse, or make your blood pressure explode your eyeball. Fight, fight, fight until you get closure.

And that’s it. Those are the two choices we’re given to deal with those moments that seem inescapable, unbearably imminent. The moments that make your pulse pound and your gut clench.

But sometimes you can’t outrun a thing. Sometimes you can’t fight it or wish it away or ignore it. When I was in the throes of grief, mourning the loss of my mother, and trying to fight my way around it, and failing, over and over again, thinking if I just cried hard enough or went to sleep long enough or got drunk enough, I could get away from this terrible feeling. I could make it go away. Then one day I remember hearing–well, maybe not hearing, more like feeling–the words: Be Still.

That was it.

Be Still.

Just Stop.

Sometimes the flailing is what makes it hurt worse, makes you sink faster, makes you unable to see the footholds around you, makes the water too choppy to navigate.

When you’re little, your parents tell you while you’re out in a crowded shopping mall, or Disney World, or Wal-Mart on a Sunday night: “If you get lost and can’t find us, stay in one spot.” If you keep moving, you’re too hard to find. If you keep moving, searching for the relief of being found again, you’re actually being counter-productive.

Sometimes the best thing–the only thing–you can do, is to be still and let the hurt come. Sit there and feel it, get to know it, figure out how to carry it around with you until it’s not as noticeable anymore. Befriend the pain.

Stop your flailing and fighting and running.

Be still.

 

 

stop.touching.

A writer friend and I have a joke (that maybe isn’t really a joke) about how, when we’re too happy, we can’t write anything worth reading. For us, there seems to be some kind of lock in our brains that is only wrenched free by pain or complicated emotions. And it’s not like we’re unique in this regard. Think of all of your favorite songs and books and stories. Sure, maybe some of them are happy. But I’d wager a guess that most of what we think of as the best in literature and music has at least a hint of sadness, loss, grief, pain.

Why does our brain hold onto pain so readily? Even in memories? My earliest memory is of baking cookies with my mother in our tiny kitchen in the first house I ever lived in. I remember her scraping the cookies off the cookie tray and setting them on the cooling rack. As she placed the last one on the rack she said, “Don’t touch that tray, it’s very hot.” I don’t remember not believing her. I don’t remember being angry at her, or wanting to prove something to her. I don’t know what the thought process in my noodle-brain was, all I know is that I reached out immediately and slapped my hand, palm-flat, right on the tray and then proceeded to scream my freaking head off.

It was a perfectly good day. I was baking cookies (I loved cookies!) with my mom, and then I went and ruined it by purposely burning the shit out of my hand after being told not to do that very thing. Just to see what it felt like, maybe. Just to see if what my mom thought of as hot would be the same thing I thought of as hot. Maybe I was unsure if we all perceived reality the same way, maybe I wanted to have a frame of reference for when my mom said something in that stern voice again in the future.

Maybe I was just an asshole kid trying to make her mom mad.

I told this story to my writer friend one day, after he explained that, sometimes the trouble I find myself in is a result of me saying things in real life that would make great lines of dialogue in stories, but probably shouldn’t be said to real people in certain situations. I try it out to see the reaction. The “writer in me” can’t help herself, God love her. She just keeps saying and doing things to see what it feels like, to evoke some sort of emotion, to be able to write again. Maybe I’ll never get over this whole, touch it just to see if it’s as hot as everyone says bit. Maybe I’ll never tire of trying on personalities and borrowing others’ emotions so that I can spin them all into sad stories.  Maybe I’m still an asshole.

 

 

just.go.

just.go.

I can’t turn on Instagram without being bombarded with pictures of people at the gym, or people who are getting ready to go to the gym, or people taking pictures of themselves to prove that eating healthy is WORKING!!!

I can’t turn on Facebook without seeing how much fun everyone is having with their families. Each step of every person’s day.

I can’t get on Twitter without comparing myself to the other hundreds of thousands of writers on Twitter talking about how many pages they wrote that day, or what story of theirs was just picked up.

I can’t turn on a fitness app without it telling me how far my friends ran that day. Or how much weight they’ve lost. Or what they’re eating.

I can’t get on LinkedIn without an enormous newsfeed of articles telling me how to live my life, or quantifying every single aspect of my day for “optimal success.”

Every single part of our day can be quantified and dissected and shared with the public.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it can make you feel like nothing you do actually matters unless you’re snapshotting it, wrapping it up in a little bow, and presenting it to people who may or may not even give a shit.

Yesterday, I went out for a run (yeah, yeah, I know I talk about running too much). We live in a new town and I’m still getting my bearings. Which, I freely admit, takes me much longer than the average person. I have found a park to run at, but after a couple of laps through the trail, I was bored and restless with that. Couldn’t focus, wanted to quit. I’d seen all this before, I’ve run all this before.

So, I circled around and went out on the road. Now, if you know anything about the way I plan things, you will know that last phrase is funny and makes no sense because I don’t plan things. When I would run in my last town, I never knew where I was going or how long I’d be gone. I would just go. I’d remember my route, which roads I went down, how long I was on each one before turning onto the next, and when I got home, I’d put that all into the little Route Creator app and see the distance I’d actually gone.

This is a little harder to do when you are in a new place and you haven’t really learned all the street names, and some of them don’t have sidewalks, and some of them run into a person’s driveway unexpectedly and you have to backtrack and then a giant dog runs after you, scaring the shit out of you, because you haven’t learned which neighbors let their giant goddamned dogs out without a leash, yet.

About halfway around town I started thinking, “I’m never going to remember where I went, which roads I went down… there are no landmarks–before, I would jog my memory by saying things like, ‘Oh right, I went by the Harris’ house, then went by Shewnakers’… ‘ –maybe I should just call it a day and go home because I won’t be able to get credit for this.”

And then I stopped. And laughed. Because how fucked up is it that we all think like that now? If our fitbit isn’t charged up we can’t go running yet because we won’t get credit for our steps. If we didn’t track our meals today, well shit might as well eat whatever we want for dinner because we forgot to put everything in and get credit for it, anyway! If we didn’t take that gym selfie, no one will know we went to the gym! The universe won’t let us have credit for that, either!

I put my headphones back in, I took off down the road–I can’t begin to tell you the name of it–and I ran until I was too tired to run anymore. I have no idea how long I went, I don’t care. Remember when we all did things because we wanted to and we never expected credit for it? Remember when we believed that doing things–whatever the things!–mattered even if no one knew about them? Remember when you just lived in the moment and took notice of the little things around you–your neighbors’ meticulous garden, the beautiful church down the street, the bunny sleeping in someone’s yard, the dandelions blowing in the wind, the rose bushes blooming, the dog playing with a child at the park–instead of watching street signs go by so you could make sure you know exactly how far you went? 

Because I have news for you: Your legs are gonna be the same amount of sore whether you quantify that shit or not.

get.lost.

get.lost.

I’ve written previously about my proclivity for getting lost. Unlike some people, this doesn’t cause me too much anxiety, I just factor Getting Lost Time into my commute. My friends are no longer surprised when I’m late, or have some zany story by the time I finally do reach my destination. Just a month ago, one of my friends stood outside his new apartment, calling me five minutes before I was supposed to arrive, because he knew he was going to have navigate my dumb ass around his neighborhood so I could find him.

Last night, I was driving to a gig at a venue I’d actually been to before, and still somehow, I was able to get lost out in rural Midwest America. The sky was overcast, just bruised to hell with rainclouds and a sad-looking horizon warning of shitty weather. I wasn’t in a bad mood, per se, but the sky wasn’t making me particularly jubilant, either.

Another thing not making super excited about the commute, is that many of the roads aren’t marked where I was driving. Also, halfway there,  my GPS stopped talking to me. Also, even if it hadn’t, history predicts I still would’ve missed that road I was supposed to turn on. Also, when the GPS did  start talking to me again, it kept telling me TURN RIGHT over and over again when there was not a damn road in sight for miles and I really didn’t want some farmer to shoot me for driving through his field.

So I just kept driving straight into gray skies, looking for a place to turn around.

When I did find a place to turn, I had to immediately pull over (you can do that on old country roads, because no one else is on them) because the sky that had been behind me this entire time, was insane. It felt like God had finally gotten fed up with all us wannabe artists down here and was saying, “Look, that’s cute. But I can do this better than you. Here you go, enjoy.”

It felt wrong to take a picture, like I was stealing someone else’s work. Or like there was no way in hell the picture would ever live up to the real thing, so it was sacrilegious to create this mockery out of the sky.

I mean, I did it anyway. But the pictures really don’t do it justice.

For a little while I just sat there. I’d built enough Getting Lost Time in, I wasn’t going to be late. And when I drove back the way I came, I got to watch the brilliant sky the entire way.

Maybe sometimes you get lost so you can arrive at your destination from an angle with a more appealing view.

 

do.that.

do.that.

I used to go to bars and while the band was playing, the singer singing, I’d think, “I could do that. Why aren’t I doing that? I could do that.”

And so I did that.

Today, after trying to write a freaking novel–just finish one damn novel–for the better part of the last 3.5 years, I went to a book reading by an author who had already finished her novel. In fact, she’d finished more than one novel. She was articulate and intelligent, charming and well-spoken. As she sat in her stool on the little stage, answering question after question as graciously as possible, even when one idiot in the back asked her, “Why should we learn about math? Math is stupid and we’re just here to have fun and it’s idiotic to have to learn about it?” I thought…

“I could not do this.”

Right now, my friend Emma, who lives across the pond and is my biggest writing cheerleader in the world, is reading this thinking, “BECCA YOU CAN DO THIS!” and maybe cussing at me a little bit. She was the one who saw the advertisement for this event (yes, from the UK, someone this event landed in her orbit before mine) and sent me a message, “This anywhere close to you?”

I will fully admit that part of the reason I even went to this event was out of a small amount of guilt I knew I’d feel if I didn’t go and she asked me, “So. Did you go?!?”

Also, the fact that someone across the globe saw this event, thought of me, my geography, and sent it to me was maybe something I considered a sign. Add in the fact that it was being moderated by a literary magazine I’ve been stalking (and am currently submitting stories to) and yeah, I figured maybe the universe wanted me to go.

But maybe the universe has the wrong girl. I don’t have a fellowship from some fancy school. I can’t take six months off to travel around a foreign country for “research.” I don’t have three hours a day to devote completely to my writing in a room I can consider my office. I have two kids, a full-time job, a husband, and a band (because, if you remember the first part of this… I really DID DO THAT).

Towards the end of the Q&A session, someone asked, “So how long did it take you to write this book?”

The author laughed. Said she hated this question. “It took a long time, people never like my answer. I’m slow.”

I rolled my eyes. My idea of slow is nothing like anyone else’s idea of slow.  I thought to myself, “She’s going to say it took her 18 months, or at most, 2 years, and I’m going to puke. Right here in this conference room, I’m going to puke all over myself. Or maybe I’ll just burst into tears and run out of here like a crazy person.”

She said, “It took me five years. I started a first draft, finished it with the main character being totally different. And after I finished it, I had to start all the way over and change everything.”

I bought the damn book and waited in line for her to sign it.

When I got up to her I said, “I’m really glad you said it took five years to finish this. I thought you were going to say something like two years and I was going to cry.”

She laughed. “Are you a writer?”

“Aspiring.”

“It definitely takes longer. Especially if you have other things going on?”

“Like two kids and a full-time job and a husband?”

“Yeah, like that. Who should I make this out to?”

I told her my name. She started writing.

“One of my friends took ten years to write her last book,” she said.

“Donna Tartt only writes a book a decade, I think.”

She smiled and handed me back my book. “Exactly. It takes time.”

I thanked her. Waited til I got out to the car to open it up and see what she wrote.

 

For Rebecca, 

Good luck with your novel – take your time!

Okay, okay EMMA.

Maybe I can do that.