Friday, March 22, 2013

Is It My Mid-Life Crisis Yet?

How do you know you are in the throes of a mid-life crisis? Age can be something of an indicator, but it’s not as though you can really gauge your midway point. Is it thirty? Thirty-five? Forty?

Being the proactive sort of gal I am, I began really putting some thought into how my mid-life crisis was going to go when I turned thirty. I mean, how often are you handed a big, fat excuse to act completely irrationally while you are an adult? If you squander this one, you have to wait until your dotage for another opportunity, and by that time, you may not give a damn anymore. Best to strike while the iron is hot.

I didn’t plan the event, but I was on the lookout. Periodically, I checked myself for unexplained impulses to purchase sports cars. There was a twinge or two, I’ll admit; those new Dodge Chargers are pretty hot. But for the most part, my irrational urges were fleeting and resistible, so I just kept waiting. Yes, I left my job, but that had more to do with my children’s special needs than any overwhelming need to cling to my fading youth. The years came and went, until I found myself at forty without any sports cars or other signs of temporary insanity.

In my line of work, I talk to a lot of writers. Authors are essentially storytellers, and so over the course of swapping tales with my colleagues, I discovered something that surprised me. Despite my diligent self-awareness, I seem to have missed my mid-life crisis. Looking back, it’s an obvious thing. Frankly, it is embarrassing that my powers of discernment and observation are so weak that I could overlook the signs.

All hell was breaking loose and my kids needed me and I was always one cup of coffee shy of a total nervous breakdown when I decided to be a stay-at-home mom. Maybe that is a good enough excuse for my oversight. In any case, the facts speak for themselves. I left my paralegal job. Not long afterwards, I found myself working as personal assistant to a professional medium/clairvoyant/life coach. It was through this work that I experienced ghost tours, séances, house cleansings, grief counseling, and missing person searches and was exposed to a variety of spiritual paths and ideas. I even picked up some pointers and practical tools for small business owners and entrepreneurs. I was writing, as well. Then I found myself meeting other writers in a Skype-based writing circle. Some of the women I met founded their own publishing house, and I edited their first novel as a favor. This turned into my current “day job” as their lead editor. I started blogging. My doctor helped me quit smoking for good, and I had my first really spectacular car accident. I buried my last grandparent and my mother-in-law. I got my first tattoo on my fortieth birthday and finally found the courage to tell my parents that I couldn’t follow the religion in which they’d raised me. I was published for the first time. I began speaking out against injustice instead of keeping silent, and I became an advocate for myself, too. I rediscovered old loves and rekindled my interest in the arts and began to learn again. I remembered how to live again.

All of this happened between 2010 and 2013. Three years. Was it my mid-life crisis? I’ll admit that “crisis” would have been an apt description at certain moments over that period of time. Change is never easy, and some of the challenges I had to confront were serious and painful.

One of the thoughts that shook me out of my stupor back in 2010 was an upsetting one: every time I described myself, I used the past tense. How could someone still in her thirties have so little in her life that every sentence began “I used to…”? I used to sing. I used to dance. I used to write. I used to paint. I used to explore. I used to go to concerts. I used to go to the theatre. I used to. But not anymore.

One of the things you’re supposed to learn from your mid-life crisis is how to let go of youth and embrace your future. It’s a tough transition. What I discovered about myself was that in letting go of my youth, I’d let go of who I was, leaving myself nothing with which to build a future. So I didn’t buy a sports car or run off with a pool boy named Rico. Instead, I became myself again. If I needed “permission” to make these changes, chalking it up to my mid-life crisis was as good an excuse as any. Whether it was legitimate or not, I’m certainly not going to apologize for it now.

I don’t know if this is really my mid-life crisis, but it’s been an interesting ride so far.

Monday, March 11, 2013

By Any Other Name?

Recently, someone asked if it was strange for me when people address me by my pen name. My answer was “no.” There are a couple reasons for this, the first being that I chose that pen name at the tender age of ten, so I’ve had thirty years to get used to the idea. The second reason is that I haven’t gone by my real name for years. For some unknown reason, I feel the urge to tell the story behind this.

Back in 1987, when the Earth was still cooling and mutant shoulder pads were threatening to take over the universe, I was becoming fast friends with a wonderful person who remains my closest friend to this day, despite our many attempts to throttle each other. When we met, I was in possession of a library book entitled The Maverick Guide to Australia. This book began, predictably, with the definition of “maverick,” which is, according to Merriam-Webster’s handy online dictionary, “an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party.” My friend thought that this was an excellent description of my fundamental personality, and a nickname was born.

Being at that time teenage girls, we had frequent bouts of laziness, and a three-syllable nickname quickly became onerous. It was shortened to Mavvy, and then Mav. When she was angry with me, my friend would even give me her version of the motherly middle-naming: Maverick Dammit.

Throughout high school, I was introduced to more and more new friends by this nickname. It had become my identity so, when I went away to college, I continued to introduce myself as Mavvy. By the time I married, the only people still using my real name were my parents. I decided that it would not work for getting a job, so I did use my real name with employers and co-workers, but even they were aware of the nickname from meeting my husband at office parties and my compulsion to over-share.

My mother now insists that it is silly for me to continue to use the nickname, since a 40-year-old married mother of two could not possibly be a maverick. I think she misunderstands the truth that lies behind the name and the reason why I still use it.

I am not attempting to prove to the world that I am different, edgier, rebellious, or ostentatiously counter-culture. I’m not really trying to prove anything.

The nickname fits my identity because I have never fit in and am able to feel the blessing of it. It is me because I have never been able to subjugate my true self to the will or expectation of others, no matter how much pressure was put on me to do so. I am simply myself, and any attempt on my part to stray from that truth results in abysmal failure. In other words, I completely lack the ability to be anything other than genuine.

As I have mentioned in other blog posts, being on the outside can be an asset for a creative person. It allows me to have a unique perspective of the world and the people in it. I understand human beings in converse proportion to my ability to interact with them without awkwardness. Being an outsider has also made it possible for me to relate to my autistic son. He can tell me honestly about how he sees the world around him, and he knows that I will understand. His little brother, who has something of a reputation for hilarious eccentricity amongst my Facebook friends, is also an unbridled individualist. I believe that one of my jobs as their mother is to protect those identities and teach them to embrace who they are, try to do good in the world, and never let anyone take away their joy.

My mother has a hard time grappling with a lot of the choices I make, so it is not particularly surprising that she doesn’t understand why an old childhood nickname still overshadows the name she picked for me. That’s okay; I know enough of her story to appreciate why she has the perspective she does. But in our society as a whole, we allow other people to label us too often. Labels such as gender, race, sexuality, build, socioeconomic status, and even hair color put each of us into categories that don’t necessarily reflect who we really are as individuals.

I did not choose my nickname, but it was chosen for me by someone who understood me and knew my heart. I chose my pen name for myself. When I married, I chose to take my husband’s last name. One day, my children may come home and tell me they now want to be called Colander and Catharsis.

All I care about is that, when they’re both grown and off living their lives, they will only care about the labels they choose for themselves and the ones that are offered to them out of love by those who really know their hearts. I already know those hearts are good, and that's all I need to know. Everything else is just names.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

How Important Is It?

There are a staggering number of “aspiring” authors in the world. This isn’t news to anyone. And now that self-publication has begun to veer away from the stigma of the vanity press and has moved toward commercial and artistic legitimacy, one might think that aspiration would quickly shift to accomplishment. However, this is not so. There is still a feeling in the writing world that you are not a “real” author until you’ve gotten an agent and signed a multi-part contract with one of the Big Six, and there are still scores of writers who never do actually finish writing that novel. Both scenarios are really symptoms of the way we approach the idea of being an author.

Although your Aunt Muriel thinks you are wonderful and that anyone who criticizes your writing is just a big meanie-pants, the fact remains that publishing involves evaluation and criticism from people who don’t care what Aunt Muriel thinks. There is some obligation to at least attempt to produce quality work. And it’s hard. It’s time-consuming, unglamorous, frustrating, discouraging, and sometimes even humiliating. If you don’t put in the work because you’d rather believe Aunt Muriel when she says it’s perfect in its first draft, then you are in for a rude awakening.  Think about your day job – you know; the one you’d love to quit. Do you approach your writing in the same way as that other job? Are you as conscious of schedule, standards, and professionalism when you pull out your novel at night? Or is it your form of recreation?

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with writing just for fun. But if that’s what you’re doing, then you have no need to worry about getting published one day. You can just let it all hang out. And that’s wonderful. I still do that kind of writing from time to time myself.

But if this is what you want for your life – to have people (who haven’t changed your diaper) read your book and enjoy it – then you need to get to work. So many people have a mental picture of the full-time professional writer, ensconced in a mahogany-paneled study and sitting at a venerable old table, furiously writing absolutely brilliant prose. That’s not how it works. The writer must sit down and write, even when the characters aren’t cooperating, the plot has become unmanageable, or the right words have fled.

My day job is editing, which poses its own set of logistical issues that I won’t bore you with. Despite whatever other responsibilities I have, I cannot lose sight of my will to write. It takes a long time and many frustrating revisions and even some soul-searching, but in the end it is worth doing because sharing my stories and characters with other people – both strangers and aunts – is important to me.

If you are an “aspiring” author, what will it take to wipe that word out of your vocabulary? Are you willing to rewrite until you’ve lost count of the number of drafts you’ve produced? Are you willing to sit down and read style books and grammar tutorials and actually take to heart what they tell you? Are you willing to double-check words and phrases in the dictionary or encyclopedia to make sure you’re not talking out your ass? Are you willing to let someone else look at your manuscript and tell you where it still needs work?

At the end of the day, there is no such thing as an “aspiring” author. If you want it badly enough, if it’s a labor of love, and if you would work just as hard at it even if you knew it would never be published, you’re an author in my eyes – published or not. The real question you need to ask yourself is: “How important is it?” No one but you can make you a true author. Not even your Aunt Muriel.

Be sure to check out my short story, My Apple Tree, available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and many other vendors. Additional information and links are provided on the "Links" page of this blog.