Listen to this story
I. On Jealousy
“So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.”
―William Shakespeare, Hamlet
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt, This is My Story
There’s a story I like to tell about the moment my life hit a major creative crossroads in 2004.
At the time, I was 28 years old, stuck in an unhappy marriage, unfulfilled in a PR job at my alma mater, ashamed of the burgeoning career I threw away after fancy stints at the Washington Post and the Village Voice, consumed with trying to promote my husband’s band — which he never wanted me to do in the first place, so that worked out really well — and perhaps most pathetic of all, obsessed with Googling peers who were my age but far more successful.
It was a great recipe for self-loathing and paralysis. The guaranteed one, I think.
Search. Read. Hate myself. Repeat.
This was my routine. This was my workout. This was the place where I deserved to be: on the sidelines, watching and falling farther behind with every keystroke.
My self-hatred — and my certainty that I deserved said self-hatred — was my new favorite hobby.
So, what was that guy up to now? Oh, he’s on TV regularly. What’s that one girl doing? A star reporter at the most prestigious newspaper in the country. Yeah, that makes sense. What about…? Oh, of course. A major book deal.
I couldn’t not scratch the itch, could I? That would mean assuming control of my destiny, which is a heavy burden indeed. Because if I were to try — I mean really try — and I still couldn’t achieve all these great things I saw others achieving, then I would be the only one to blame. Wasn’t it safer to not try at all? I could control envy. I could control hate. I could control resentment.
Daily, like clockwork, I would sit in my little grey cubicle with my neatly-buttered bagel and my bitter corporate coffee and, as if on autopilot, furtively tuck aside whatever press release needed editing that day. Exhibiting the same secrecy and shame as if I were about to watch porn on my work computer, I prepared to begin my ritual of digital self-flagellation.
Over time, my paralysis and fear just felt right. A suitable punishment for every mistake I’d made, every mistake I had not realized I’d made, every mistake I might one day make.
What I didn’t realize then was that I was battling an invincible foe, a monster of my own creation. What had begun as a healthy inner creative critic had long since metamorphosed into an insatiable, sadistic beast. It had free reign over everything I typed, thought, and did. It was in charge, not me. It told me I sucked. It knew every bad choice I’d ever made. Every wrong word I had written. Every blustering embarrassment and overreach. It knew I was a failure. It told me that all the time.
Then one day, perhaps in a fit of fleeting grace, my fingers hesitated before deciding on which name to type. Which peer to compare myself to that particular day.
On a whim, I typed in someone new.
There it was. The results felt familiar and foreign and strange.
I began to see what I had been so afraid to look at all this time: myself.
II. On “Imposter Complex”
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
In 1997, I graduated early from Northwestern University’s journalism school to embark upon the career opportunity of a lifetime after landing a coveted internship in the long-revered Style section at the Washington Post. “Numbers-wise,” my gang of interns was told in a small conference room filled with top editorial brass, “this internship is more competitive than getting into Harvard Medical School.”
It was at this exact moment that the healthy and occasionally motivating seedlings of stress and desire to do a good job blossomed into a raging, debilitating imposter complex that left me almost unable to see straight.
See, I knew I was the “gamble” intern. Someone with better experience had likely dropped out at the last minute; an editor read my writing, laughed at some line, shrugged and said, “Why the fuck not, let’s see what happens with this chick.” Until then, I barely had any daily newspaper experience, let alone the skill set required to flourish and thrive in the most famous features section in the country.
This mindset was my first mistake.
The brash, pure, unwarranted confidence of my youth that I had displayed in my writing during college — essentially in all the clips that had gotten me the internship in the first place — I subconsciously set aside, slowly suffocating and eventually mercy-killing because I wanted to do things “right.”
Professional writers don’t have fun. They don’t go on tangents that feel like risks but then everybody gets that one precise detail that no one else has really crystallized before. No, they are too professional for all that.
So I resolved: No time for youthful cockiness here. Instead, I decided to make things as miserable for myself as possible. If I constantly used the terror of humiliation and failure as motivators, there was no way I couldn’t succeed.
My writing during this time read like there were several guns to my head, with the shrieking admonition, “Impress everyone, motherfucker! Justify your existence!” They have a term for this in TV writers’ rooms: “sweaty.” I suppose the “flop” is implied. There was a labored quality to every sentence I wrote, a desperation to show that I was worth it, that I deserved to be there.
My very first story was about some guy who was really into cemetery preservation. After interviewing him on a Friday, I returned to the apartment in Arlington I was renting from some woman who was living off settlement money from a childhood carnival accident. I didn’t make small talk. I didn’t have fun. I didn’t go out with friends. I didn’t call anyone. I just shut down so I could allot as much time as possible to fully stressing out.
The brash cockiness of youth is an extremely precious thing. It’s a special kind of fuel that tells you your voice matters.
I spent the rest of the weekend sitting at my computer staring at the blinking cursor, obsessively writing and rewriting the first few sentences over and over. (I can still recite that lede by heart. Not because it was great. Because it was so fucking tortured.)
Essentially, I poisoned my own spark.
What no one tells you is that all that brash cockiness of youth is an extremely precious thing. It’s a special kind of fuel that tells you your voice matters. It’s this beautiful, pure, often limited resource that emboldens and strengthens your creativity — yes, even when you’re making an asshole of yourself by writing like you are the first person to ever experience heartache on the planet — because it allows you to create at the height of your potential. Talented young writers don’t need to read books about “flow.” They don’t know any other way.
That kind of untouched innocence brings with it a certain lightness. What is there to fear? It’s a fun journey with joy bouncing around at every corner, rocketing you from here to there to eternity. You’re never going to die. But when the decay of crippling doubt starts to gnaw away at you, the change is palpable. Every word starts to read like an apology or a hesitating, faltering suggestion, or an overthought cluster-fuck of ideas, offered forth with the confidence of severe vocal fry. I deserve to… write?
III. On Joy, and the Conspicuous Absence Thereof
“If one has failed to develop curiosity and interest in the early years, it is a good idea to acquire them now, before it is too late to improve the quality of life. To do so is fairly easy in principle, but more difficult in practice. Yet it is sure worth trying. The first step is to develop the habit of doing whatever needs to be done with concentrated attention, with skill rather than inertia. Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art. The next step is to transfer some psychic energy each day from tasks that we don’t like doing, or from passive leisure, into something we never did before, or something we enjoy doing but don’t do often enough because it seems too much trouble. There are literally millions of potentially interesting things in the world to see, to do, to learn about. But they don’t become actually interesting until we devote attention to them.”
―Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life
In 1998, I joined the Des Moines Register at a time when the industry as a whole was beginning to feel the rumblings of a legacy infrastructure wobbling at its very core.
Now to be sure, there is your basic late 1990s-era newspaper demoralization. And then there is highly organizationally-specific love-triangle and corporate-ownership-fueled demoralization.
The Des Moines Register was most definitely the latter.
Gannett, which owns USA Today, owned the Register. Notes I received on my writing included insights such as, “Don’t use a four-syllable word; we don’t want our readers to work too much.”
While I learned from and loved the majority of people I worked with there, I couldn’t escape how miserable I was every day.
It is sad when you grow to hate the thing that you love.
When you begin to hate one of the very few things in life you love the most, it is far better to protect whatever that thing is so that you do not resent it entirely.
For me that is writing.
So I committed the venial sin. I left newspapers.
IV. On Receiving What You Think You Want, and Realizing You Never Really Stopped to Consider What That Was In the First Place
“If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”
As the odometer of the 20th Century clicked over into a new millennium, I reinvented my life completely, moving from Des Moines to Chicago and getting a 9–5 office job working in PR for Northwestern’s medical school. Writing was now a way to pay the bills. I churned out stories on autopilot. There was no heart to risk breaking now.
In Chicago, my office-job days were so chaos-free, I could stumble along, half tuned-in to my surroundings. Every once in a while I would try to concentrate and observe how I was actually feeling. Could I tell the difference between what it was like to experience life versus reporting on it? The challenge felt nearly impossible. Because emotions meant checking back in, and that seemed far too dangerous a prospect.
Now, I wrote grant and research news. I edited the student handbook. I published exhaustively glowing profiles on doctors and recent alumni. All in all, a truly fantastic gig. Because I did not give a shit. No tears were spilled over anything I wrote. No feelings were really there at all. My writing had all the verve of a medical flatline. Consistent, reliable, and unwavering.
On the upside, I had an actual personal life.
Now, I went to parties and didn’t just drink myself into a stupor every night with fellow reporters, although to be honest that was always way more fun. Now, I did things like see live music. And I had so much more time to obsess over my then-boyfriend — who, until that point, had spent half of our relationship living in a different city than me.
And obsess I did. Finally, he gave up and agreed to marry me.
Right before the economy came crashing down in 2001, I got a new job working for Northwestern in fundraising and acting as the voice of the president.
Now, I had a big office, a nice salary, and a sinking realization that I felt dead inside. But I’ve never been very good with admitting that I might have made a wrong turn somewhere along the way. Instead, I find, it’s better to double down on bad decisions to make it really impossible to ever leave them behind.
I even had a line when people would ask about the change from journalism to PR. “Well, I used to spend my time breaking things down. And now I spend my time building things up!” It was a good line.
V. On Resistance and Surrender
“Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.”
―Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles
So eventually, I made a decision: I was going to give up. Not on life, per se. But on me. My career. My dreams to live life as a creative. My identity as a professional writer. My desire to one day write a book — a memoir, even.
Still, I was afraid of meeting resistance. That my deepest, most authentic self might be the most difficult to tame. The part that hated giving up even more than it hated the pain of feeling wrong or bad or not perfect.
To ensure I had a concrete and time-consuming goal I could focus on in making this departure from me a reality, I set a plan in motion to leave writing behind forever.
I like strategies. I like boxes. I decided I would make a nice life for myself as an English teacher. I began attending grad-school information sessions, seeking out alumni and gathering references, studying extensively for weeks on end with practice tests, taking the GREs, passing the Illinois Test of Academic Proficiency, and ultimately applying to and getting accepted to Northwestern’s masters in education program. And just like that, I had a dazzling new goal on which to focus, instead of ever having to look at myself. I was going to have a respectable job and a new identity. I might even get some plants.
It felt as close to perfect as a means of forgetting myself as possible: A shiny-new, utterly respectable life. Neatly laid out in multi-year chunks, complete with the 75 to 85 percent tuition discount Northwestern afforded employees. Very practical on my part!
Subconsciously, though, I was struggling.
Perhaps most telling of all was the fact that the initial classes I signed up for were not related to teaching or education but were instead a last-gasp fulfillment of the many empty creative arts pre-reqs on my transcript.
VI. On Entering a Cave, Fighting a Monster, and Realizing It Is You
“Atonement (at-one-ment) consists in no more than the abandonment of the self-generated double monster — the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id). But this requires an abandonment of the attachment to ego itself, and that is what is difficult.”
— Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
The first course I signed up for was classic English lit.
It was a sweltering Chicago summer as my studies began. As we read and reread not only The Scarlet Letter but also The Scarlet Letter’s many relevant original historical texts in a stifling classroom with a broken-down air conditioner in the corner and a dirty smeared chalkboard front and center, all I could think about was that one scene in Election where Matthew Broderick’s character is trapped in his own personal circle of “legislative-executive-judicial” ad infinitum hell.
(A very special aside: For all of you actual teachers out there, I realize that this scene is not only a cruel caricature of education but also that, in fact, any personal success I’ve had as a writer in my career is thanks to you. My failure to become one stems from the fact that I was missing that absolutely essential ingredient that makes for an outstanding teacher: passion. Instead, my motivations came from a place of fear and fantasy. I had this idyllic projection of how teaching would instantly confer upon me some safe, unimpeachable status in the world while simultaneously protecting me: from ever having to face another editor, another deadline, another rejection. No more creative pain or risk. Such a self-serving M.O. does not exactly Teacher of the Year make.)
Thankfully, I also signed up for one other course: “Storytelling.” If you asked me, I could not tell you at all what the weather was like that first day, or what was hanging on the classroom walls. That’s what happens when you are transported.
I found the person I didn’t even realize had gotten lost along the way.
Taught by the legendary theatre professor Rives Collins, this storytelling course was technically intended to satisfy the empty public speaking requirement on my transcript. Quite non-technically, it ended up satisfying something empty inside of me.
I began to find myself in that class. I found the person I didn’t even realize had gotten lost along the way, who had become too scared of her own shadow to dare try and fail and who could only focus on pleasing and achieving, which is a death sentence for any form of creativity.
We learned breathing exercises. We learned how to play. I started to gain confidence, even. I knew I had great personal stories to tell, but I didn’t have the resolve to finish them, to realize that the pain I felt in writing some of them was only a feeling, not a living organism that would consume me entirely.
Our first assignment? Write a first-person story from our lives.
The assignment might as well have been: Pick up your sword, enter the cave, and do battle.
VII. On Finding Your Compass
“The best way out is always through.”
— Robert Frost
I knew what story I had to finally tell. But time and again, I had failed.
A very defining part of my life is the fact that my dad is a blind combat vet. I usually say that I grew up with war. I saw its face every day, both literally and figuratively. Not only did my father lose his sight in Vietnam, he suffers from extensive PTSD and a frontal head injury, the result of being shot by two AK-47 rounds to the face. His mood swings and anger are severe. To me, Vietnam is not a war. It is my father.
When I was 14, I first tried to give a talk about him in my history class.
My ambitious plan was to tell my dad’s story of survival while holding up jarring pictures from the war that I had meticulously selected from the public library. When it actually came time to speak, though, as I stood in front of the classroom with all of the students’ eyes upon me, I simply fell apart.
For almost 10 minutes, I just stood blankly, struck dumb while the Edie Brickell song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” played on the boombox next to me. Unable to choke out any of my prepared words, I nervously rifled through and held up various scenes of carnage and war. The class watched me, half-sympathetic and half-mortified by my plight as I appeared frozen and beyond help, unable to control the tears rolling down my face.
Seven years later, during my post-college internship at the Washington Post, I tried once more. I managed to successfully pitch the brilliant editor Gene Weingarten, who gave me permission to work on a piece about my father outside the scope of my normal assignments.
So every night, I would stay late, sometimes until 3 a.m., conducting awkward, fumbling interviews with both my father and the head surgeon who put him back together. During one of these late-night calls, the surgeon abruptly chided me as my father listened in on the other end of the line.
“Jerry,” he said with barely concealed contempt, “your daughter seems to have developed a rather ghoulish interest in your injury.”
Ashamed, I gave up on writing the story. Now, I knew the opportunity had come once more. And this time, I had the notes to do it.
I dug through boxes upon boxes of files until I found the 20 single-spaced pages from those interviews. This time, with a new kind of resolve, I saw the story all the way to the end.
When I finally spoke in front of my class, the tears were flowing from their eyes — and mine.
Something profound happened in that moment.
I rediscovered my voice as a writer. I rediscovered my love of writing. I maybe even rediscovered my love of myself.
VIII. On Self-Determination, Possibility, and Realizing You Are the Driver, You Have Always Been the Driver, and You Can Change the Destination
“Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”
―Louise Hay, You Can Heal Your Life
Entire new galaxies open up when you grant yourself even the tiniest additional bit of faith.
Maybe, I thought, I’m not done with the creative life.
Maybe I still have something to say. Maybe, I have a lot.
The decisions came rapid-fire once I opened myself to the elixir of possibility.
After I told the story of my father, the pilot light was flickering inside my soul. Anything seemed possible. And I asked myself for the first time in a long time a question that really ought to be asked all the time, as many times as you can, until your compass finally starts pointing in the direction that will lead you home.
What did I ever want to do with my life?
Because it sure as hell wasn’t being an English teacher in an unhappy marriage.
The answers came fast and furious and inspiring. I felt electric. Writing. Performing. Comedy.
Maybe even one day, I could write that book. The options started to seem endless when I stopped listening to my internal critic that only knew one word: “NO.” (Anne Lamott has a great visualization technique for the process of dealing with your inner censors, incidentally. She suggests imagining these negative voices as irritating little mice that you can pick up one by one and place in a container that you set aside so they can fight it out amongst themselves — and leave you out of it entirely.)
The decisions came rapid-fire once I opened myself to the elixir of possibility.
I was going to start writing regularly for myself and others again.
I was going to stop giving up on my dreams.
And yeah, I was going to drop out of the master’s program for good.
IX. On Gathering Up The Splinters Of Your Soul, Scooping Them Back Up Inside Yourself, and Tending Lovingly to Them Until They Fuse Together Once More
“Creativity — like human life itself — begins in darkness.”
— Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
What could I do now that my future wasn’t restricted? Now that my days weren’t spent solely focused on naked incapacitating jealousy? The answer: Anything I wanted.
I began to take the realm of inspiration, and wonder, as serious business.
When you experience that first little spark of joy revitalizing your soul, you start to realize that you are the one who created it — and more is infinitely possible.
Colors seemed brighter. Music made me dance again. And week after week, my local public library became my new best friend. This is how I stumbled upon that creativity classic for the ages, The Artist’s Way. I first saw it listed as a resource in the back of Max Adams’ The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide. The author wrote that, as silly as it sounded, this book helped a lot of people she knew who were simply burned out. Sold.
As I tore through this creativity bible, I couldn’t get enough.
Sometimes it really does help to have a saccharine cheerleader in the form of a self-help book telling you to do things like “take yourself out on an artist’s date.” But, by far, the most life-changing takeaway was author Julia Cameron’s explanation of how to develop the discipline of writing daily “morning pages.”
What exactly are morning pages? Well, essentially, three pages of stream-of-consciousness journaling, that is unedited, written without stopping, the very first thing in the morning. Not on a computer. Longhand. Three pages. Not four. Not two. Three. (Although I will be real with you: Doing it on a computer is still better than not doing at all. The website 750words.com was created for exactly that purpose.)
I committed to my pages, even as I found it incredibly difficult at first. As I started to write, my mind flitted from anxiety to anxiety, from concern to concern. But I realized, the more I regularly practiced writing them, the experience was like starting to get in shape to do a marathon. I felt myself forcing my brain and my heart to look at what was actually inside of me.
Was I truly happy? What the hell was I? It was just between me and the pages. No one else had to know.
As I began to write, I remembered the excitement that comes with feeling ownership of your words.
I hadn’t felt that in years.
X. On Reframing
“Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence — like a gift — by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”
― Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential
After I quit the master’s program, I began seeing my day job as exactly that. It was not me. It was a job. And anything was possible. I didn’t know what tomorrow might bring. I didn’t have to know. I could see myself as an adventurer with untold possibility rather than a shipwrecked lost cause, nurturing only her deepest held regrets and bitterest jealousy.
It’s amazing what listening to yourself can do.
For me, I could finally break free from a lot of toxic patterns I didn’t realize I had the power to break all along. Like my Googling habit.
I was starting to call myself on my own bullshit, and it felt thrilling, profound.
Because as much as my itchy internet trigger finger still wanted to type in the names of my peers so I could beat myself up at what a loser I was, I started to see clearly the mental prison I had unwittingly trapped myself inside.
All this time I felt blinded by everyone else’s status. But I was the one who afforded them that status. I saw them as players. But me? No, no, no, no. Energizing questions of personal agency began to rise up. I was starting to call myself on my own bullshit and it felt thrilling, profound.
What if my peers’ success wasn’t an indictment, but an inspiration?
What if I was exactly like all these people I saw thriving?
What if the main thing holding me back was… me?
I thought about it some more. It’s not like these people I felt so jealous of were born with some permission I didn’t have. No one gave them some secret license to work their asses off, figure out where opportunities might lie, decide to never be helpless, work their asses off some more, try, fail, try, fail, repeat several more times, and then, eventually, maybe succeed — when success is probably not even the point. The act of creating, of enjoying the journey along the way — that’s the point.
I realized that if they could do it, so could I.
All they had done that I hadn’t was make a decision: They decided they were worthy of pursuing what they wanted.
(That is an absolutely vital word right there, by the way: Decision. It’s the secret to all of free will. Realizing that you have a choice, now and always. Even when you don’t have one because of the most dire circumstances, you still have a choice in how you react to the situation. No one can ever control your mind.)
This, right then and there, was my Kierkegaardian moment of truth: I was the only one who could determine my story. And morning pages were helping me write it.
XI. On Finding Tools and Loving Yourself Enough to Use Them
“Be willing to paint or write badly while your ego yelps resistance. Your bad writing may be the syntactical breakdown necessary for a shift in your style. Your lousy painting may be pointing you in a new direction. Art needs time to incubate, to sprawl a little, to be ungainly and misshapen and finally emerge as itself. The ego hates this fact. The ego wants instant gratification and the addictive hit of an acknowledged win.”
— Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
Whenever I give my pitch on morning pages to another writer who confesses to me the embarrassing, specific details of their own personal circle of hell, I get straight to the point. When, what, where, how, and most importantly, exactly why they work.
Writing morning pages kick your inner-censor in the teeth
Instead of waiting for the absolute perfect words to come to you — and procrastinating until they do — you force yourself to just… write.
And then something weird and cool and exciting happens: You start to enjoy the writing, all those words and turns of phrases and little jokes and epiphanies and to-do lists and story ideas and realizations spilling out.
Nervous? Well, consider: If you wanted, you could, technically, write over and over again for three pages, “I don’t know what to write,” if that’s all that comes up in your brain. No one dies. Everything’s okay. It helps you get over yourself.
Then you see it very clearly: The perfection that exists within all that imperfection.
Over time, perfectionism will be defeated
Perfectionism can’t survive unless it is fed with the oxygen of indulgence and paranoia and irrationality. Morning pages cuts these enablers off at their source. Let yourself see how all over the place and glorious so much of writing is — including the messy chronicling of your humanity and life and dreams and ambitions.
Like the control freak who is forced to scribble all over the first blank page of a notebook to get out of that stultifying fear of “messing up,” on the next few pages — now that the worst has happened — the brain is freed up to breathe.
Because truthfully, the world doesn’t end just because you’ve written some dumb bullshit. And when you see that, you write some more. And then some more. Hell, you may even start writing your book without realizing what you are doing.
It’s amazing what happens when you get out of your own way.
Morning pages are an outlet for uncluttering our brains
There’s scientific research about epiphanies based in functional MRI studies that reveal how insights can occur when the brain is intensely activated — and then given a chance to rest and just breathe. This is where the connections begin to happen. I found the same experience with morning pages. Intense activation, and afterward: a-ha moment after a-ha moment.
Like: I don’t want to be married. A-ha! I can write again if I want to. A-ha! I can do comedy if I want. A-ha! The world is mine — and my life is not over or predetermined in my twenties. A-ha, a-ha, a-ha!
As I was deciding to end my marriage, I also got more in touch with my body. I stopped filling up all my grief and rage and hopelessness with food. I started to drop weight and have more energy, too. After a year of doing morning pages, I lost 60 pounds.
Perfectionism can’t survive unless it is fed with the oxygen of indulgence and paranoia and irrationality.
And… to be perfectly candid with you, after a few years of not doing morning pages, I’ve gained nearly all of those pounds back. However, in the course of writing this piece, I’ve started doing the pages again, and amazingly enough, they are working their magic once more.
Everything feels more conscious, including eating and wanting to love your body again, because you don’t have to numb out all those emotions with food.
The exercise is a warm-up
I’m a pretty quick writer now. I did not used to be this way. I’m a quick writer because of morning pages. Filling those puppies up provided a liquidity to writing that made it seem like no big deal. Don’t overthink it. Write it. Have fucking fun. The opposite of how I was during my internship at the Washington Post.
Many times in writing and storytelling and comedy, what comes to the top is what you want to say. It can even be how you discover what the big idea is in the first place. Uninterrupted writing provides that gun-to-your-head, share-your-best-anecdote at the cocktail party truth.
In actual long-form writing, obviously, rewrites and line-editing are crucial.
But seriously, dude. How the fuck are you even going to get to that point when you have no words to begin with to rework and labor over and massage?
I also believe that from-the-gut conversational writing has a lyrical, hypnotic quality to it — a raw truth — that overwrought writing does not. It flows. It is, often, the very state of flow.
You start to remember art’s purpose: To help us get through life in the first place.
I could never say this better than Neil Gaiman could so I’m going to quote Neil Gaiman.
[W]hen things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art. Make it on the good days too.
Essentially, morning pages provide an amazing “container” to enable creation. The practice helps capture patterns and connections that might be darting around in your brain too fast and furious to otherwise lasso. When you realize this secret, what you find is this: It’s the secret to so many other secrets! Like high-concept. And finding the game.
It’s amazing, by the way, how violently some people react to the idea of carving out 20 minutes a day to do morning pages.
And when I talk about “some people,” I’ll include myself at the top of that list.
There are so many days when I would rather give a 20-minute soliloquy about why I don’t have time to do morning pages rather than just do them.
I had one extremely toxic friend who called me when I first started the practice to berate me about how indulgent I was being, and how she didn’t have that luxury. Which was interesting, because she certainly had 20 minutes to verbally go off on what a piece of shit I was. Truly, never underestimate what others (and oftentimes you, yourself) will do to invalidate the validity of awakening your creative voice. It’s a very threatening concept.
Because if you show that rejecting stasis is possible, well then, suddenly you’re in charge of your own fate, aren’t you? That’s a terrifying prospect for many people whose entire identity is rooted in why everything would have turned out differently… if only, if only. Stop saying “if only.” Write it instead. Honestly, write anything you like in your morning pages, just don’t censor it or hold back.
That’s yourself that you are reading.
XII. On Capturing Dreams
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
The physical act of writing has a strange way of manifesting magic into reality.
As the world began to open up to me, I started snatching dreams and desires mid-thought and capturing them before they drifted away into doubt and nothingness.
For the longest time I had always wanted to do comedy. I made awkward attempts in my college dorm that came off more like me reading from a list of observations.
But now… well now, why not?
I scribbled down the idea, then went online to find open mics and classes I could take at Second City. It didn’t matter if it all led nowhere. That’s the joy of finding joy within the process of creation.
XIII. On the Unshackling of Shame
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
My favorite class at Second City was with a woman named Mary Scruggs.
Mary taught an advanced comedy writing course. On my first day, we all had to go around and introduce ourselves and, when it was my turn, I inadvertently backslid into my long-established pattern of self-hatred. So I did what I always did. I apologized.
“Well I used to have kind of a hot career when I was younger in newspapers but now I have a job where I’m filling in as the director of donor relations for Northwestern so I just kind of keep rich people up to date on their named professorships and endowments and stuff like that.”
I looked down and my cheeks burned hot.
I still fretted over how absolutely uncool and sensible-sweater-dress my job was. It wasn’t even corporate evil chic. I was just a writer for where I went to college. Here my university expected me to go on and do great things, and now I had some staff job working with them, sucking up to millionaires to try to keep the funds flowing. Every day was an orgasm of hyperbole: CUTTING-EDGE PROFESSORSHIPS. STATE-OF-THE-ART INTERDISCIPLINARY COLLABORATION.
But Mary stopped me. She had a giant smile. This was no indulgence.
“Mandy,” she said. “That is so cool! I don’t know anybody else who has a job like that. Think about all the experiences you have that no one else does! I mean, no one else is the interim director of donor relations at Northwestern and has all these other experiences at newspapers. That’s awesome!”
Energetically, my entire state changed.
Mary gave me the approval I was having such a hard time consistently giving myself, and it helped me so much to be able to love myself, my career, and every step along the way. Maybe I could even stop berating myself for mistakes I had made that in reality were molding me into who I was becoming.
Mary was also right about the job being a really cool gig. It was only because of that job (which in retrospect, was terrific) that I learned how to speak to the rich and powerful, how to employ the art of persuasion, how to be constantly demonstrating value and gratitude and how to respect and accommodate the unbelievable insanity of a powerful person’s schedule. Had I stayed in newspapers I never would have gained the skills that helped me so much later on. What Mary gave me was the ability to believe in myself and my life.
She gave me permission to know that it all added up. That I added up.
Mary passed away far too young several years back. In a bit of synchronicity that still gives me chills, I was in the middle of purchasing a Second City course for a shy young man as a gift the very morning after she died.
I hadn’t been on the Second City website in years, and there it was, clear as day. Mary Scruggs had just passed in the night at the age of 46. I gasped, cried, called many friends who also knew her, messaged the new director of donor relations at Northwestern to ensure that condolences were sent to the family, and emailed a friend who worked on The Colbert Report — because Mary had gotten her start with Stephen years ago. To this day, I think of her as an angel in my life.
Because of Mary, I made a crucial leap in no longer walking around with radioactive shame and painfully unfunny self-deprecation (because honestly, it’s only funny if you don’t actually hate yourself). My framework — and my ability to frame — shifted. I could write for myself again. I could even create a blog with my own voice. Fuck needing the prestige of having it come through the “vessel” of a job that society had agreed upon as the correct showcasing of talents.
I could just use and believe in my talents. Life didn’t have to be a clawing resume fest, as if I were constantly trying to squeeze in Spanish Club along with 20 other extracurriculars to make college recruiters think I was something special.
I could just know. I could enjoy the journey instead.
XIV. On Picking Yourself
“[T]he engineers concluded they could not make that deadline… [Steve] Jobs did not get angry; instead he spoke in cold, somber tones… ‘I’m going to ship the code a week from Monday, with your names on it.’… Once again, Jobs’s reality distortion field pushed them to do what they thought impossible… Real artists ship, Jobs had declared, and now the Macintosh team had.”
— Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson
“The lizard brain is the reason you’re afraid, the reason you don’t do all the art you can, the reason you don’t ship when you can. The lizard brain is the source of the resistance.”
— Seth Godin, Linchpin
Have you ever wondered why others are succeeding instead of you?
It’s because they know. And the only reason they know? Because they decide to invest in themselves.
Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is — everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know, if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.
I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.
Or consider this manifesto from entrepreneur Seth Godin called “Pick Yourself.” It’s from his book The Icarus Deception about choosing to choose yourself:
You want the authority to create, to be noticed, and to make a difference? You’re waiting for permission to stand up and speak up and ship?
Sorry, there’s no authority left.
Oprah has left the building. She can’t choose you to be on her show because her show is gone.
YouTube wants you to have your own show now, but they’re not going to call you.
Dick Clark has left the building. He’s not going to be able to get you a record deal or a TV gig because he and his show are long gone. iTunes and a hundred other outlets want you to have your own gig, but they’re not going to call you, either.
Neither is Rodney Dangerfield or the head of programming at Comedy Central. Marc Maron didn’t wait to be cast on Saturday Night Live — he started his own podcast and earned a million listeners.
Our cultural instinct is to wait to get picked. To seek out the permission, authority, and safety that come from a publisher or a talk-show host or even a blogger who says “I pick you.”
Once you reject that impulse and realize that no one is going to select you — that Prince Charming has chosen another house in his search for Cinderella — then you can actually get to work.
The myth that the CEO is going to discover you and nurture you and ask you to join her for lunch is just that, a Hollywood myth.
Once you understand that there are problems waiting to be solved, once you realize that you have all the tools and all the permission you need, then opportunities to contribute abound.
The opportunity is not to have your résumé picked from the pile but to make the pile irrelevant by leading without having to be asked.
When we take responsibility and eagerly give credit, doors open. When we grab a microphone and speak up, we’re a step closer to doing the work we’re able to do.
Most of all, when we buckle down, confront the lizard brain, and ship our best work, we’re becoming the artists we’re capable of becoming.
No one is going to pick you. Pick yourself.
XV. On Not Being an Asshole
“The grandiose person is never really free; first because he is excessively dependent on admiration from others, and second, because his self-respect is dependent on qualities, functions, and achievements that can suddenly fail.”
— Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child
Now I am going to briefly speak to those who live in fear, as I did for so long, of incorporating too much self-love or self-esteem and suddenly becoming a giant asshole.
The question I usually get from those who listen to me tell this story is a kind of waving of the hands and concerned rebuttal, “But don’t you think… having too much confidence can turn you into a jerk?”
What I say to that is this: If you are already a pompous, arrogant narcissist to begin with, obviously you don’t need any of these “own your shit” tips — and you almost always have zero idea that you are that guy.
But for anyone who lives in fear of being That Guy who’s too cocky to bear listening to without squinting, you can rest assured: YOU WILL NEVER BE THAT GUY. Just the fact that you worry about being that guy is your built-in stopgap. Instead, move the dial far, far over to give yourself the fighting, self-confident chance you deserve.
Because if you make the choice to see yourself as a player — if you choose yourself instead of waiting to be picked — you will be.
That means being willing to stop playing the games that can be found in The Drama of the Gifted Child, a book about the after-effects of growing up with narcissistic parents, and incidentally, a favorite of Al Gore’s. One of those destructive games is the perfectionism of being afraid you won’t measure up, leading you to do self-sabotaging things like cramming for a test the night before, and then when you get a B or C instead of an A, you can have the “out” of saying, “Well I just crammed for it, and I didn’t really try.” Because how mortifying to actually try and give it your all — and then fail? That would make you a failure, right?
No. Fucking. Way.
I think the big secret that no one tells you about life is that no one just suddenly bestows opportunities and titles and states of being upon you. No one says, “Ta-da! You’re a successful writer now.”
This is not going to one day happen unless you see yourself that way first.
Until you have the internal belief system in place that you are what you want to be (yes, even a doctor — albeit with the temperament that you are a future doctor) and become your best advocate, it will be very hard to make the leap to becoming what you want to become.
Instead of listening to that doubt, I (silently) responded, “Hey doubt, thank you for sharing.”
So, shake off the cobwebs of shame and doubt and self-hatred. If you have these afflictions, all they’re doing is holding you back — unless that’s what you feel comfortable with, then sure, keep doing exactly what you’ve been doing all along, which will lead you to the same place it always has. And I get it.
Certainty can be a very comfortable state.
But what if you changed your state to this: You can be certain by trying new things that sometimes you will fail. But sometimes it will lead you to achieving the ultimate accomplishment of having had the guts to go for your dreams in the first place. Few people can say they’ve done that. If you detach from the outcome and the need for validation, the LIFE FORCE JUICE of creating and trying things (and yes, even spectacularly failing and falling on your face) will make you feel more alive than you’ve ever felt.
And, something will awaken inside of you.
XVI. On Taking Risks and “Daring Greatly”
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
Not long after I took Mary Scruggs’ course, I took another giant creative plunge. I started writing for myself again — online.
It was a hard step for me. Because I was still so embarrassed and ashamed because online didn’t have the prestige of print, and 12-year-olds were writing blogs about their cats, and oh here I was with real credits, except look at me now. Ah, the stench of failure.
What if people I had worked with in newspapers years ago decided to Google me? What would they think that the outlet I was writing for now was… Blogger?
But instead of listening to that doubt, I (silently) responded, “Hey doubt, thank you for sharing.” Then I listened to the smaller guidance that was starting to flourish within: I believed that I had something worthy to say.
So for the first time in a long time, as I wrote up an “About Me” description, I did something I hadn’t been able to do in years. I owned my credits. All of them. Instead of agonizing, I chose to laugh at the absurdity of it all and feel the agency of joy. I did it for pleasure.
That’s so cool, I heard Mary’s voice say in my head.
I realized the insanity of telling myself that I was some has-been. It was then that I realized: You’re only that if you think you are. Even when people are being dicks, you’re still only that if you think you are.
“Who are you?” I wrote in the header description on Blogger, pausing briefly: “A writer and comedian.” I came up with a name for the blog that made me laugh and hit save. Bloggy McBlogalot.
I called it out, baby.
“Why is this called Bloggy McBlogalot?” I wrote. “Because Chuckly McLaffabunch was taken.”
Confidently, I owned my credits: “Where has your work been published? The Washington Post, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, the Des Moines Register, and now Blogger.”
Not long after the blog’s creation, I had yet another terrible fight with my soon-to-be ex-husband. I proceeded to unpublish the entire thing. (It’s so effective to punish yourself and show how angry you are through self-sabotage, isn’t it?)
The very next day, a reader from India who had been reading along for weeks emailed me a beautiful note. Where had all my writing gone? He loved it. Please, he said, keep writing. I listened, and I did.
It wasn’t long after I created this blog that my biggest fear did actually come true. Because someone I went to school with did in fact Google me.
He worked at the New York Post as an editor.
And he offered me a job.
XVII. On Epiphanies
“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking”
― Albert Einstein
When I started at the New York Post in 2005, I really didn’t intend to venture too much into the world of comedy. I wanted to kill it at the job because I was nervous about meeting expectations and didn’t want any dangerous jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none distractions in play.
Even though in Chicago, I had steadily begun doing stand-up and improv, and even taking the occasional acting course. (Incidentally, it was an acting course that taught me more about writing than any writing course ever did. Like, you don’t say “I want a divorce.” You say “Pass the peas.” But the intention is one of anger. You say “I want a divorce” by saying “Pass the peas.”)
You have to be willing to tolerate the discomfort of believing in yourself.
More than anything, now that I was in New York at this big dream job, I didn’t want to blow my shot. So I decided: No comedy.
But my morning pages had other plans.
One day as I was writing in my journal on the subway into work, I had this idea. What if I pitched a story about all the different comedy rooms in the city? It would be a legitimate assignment for the primary concern of the job, and it would also be a great way to get to know the scene in New York. And, that’s exactly what happened.
Then the same editor who hired me kept assigning me comedy stories. Then I got asked to enter New York’s Funniest Reporter contest, and I won.
Ultimately, this entire story — all of these realizations, all of this daring to believe in myself — is how I went from that PR job in that unhappy marriage where I secretly watched clips of The Daily Show all day long to sitting in Jimmy Fallon’s office as one of three finalists for a writing job and having Jimmy tell me, “You’re here because we love your packet.”
I didn’t get that job in the end (a hilarious writer from UCB did, and he deserved it), but it helped lead me to an even better job at xoJane. Which led me to the “Unwifeable” column at New York magazine. Which led me to writing Unwifeable the book. A real-life book. I finally wrote one. One that I’m incredibly proud of, even.
It’s also how I ended up signing a deal with the TV production company 51 Minds, which led to me pitching to networks and filming a TV pilot presentation. The pilot did not get picked up, but I learned how the TV creation process works, which is something that I’m in the middle of again after writing Unwifeable.
I can’t emphasize enough: All of this would have been impossible if I had not changed the very cellular framework in which I saw myself. Such gigantic changes would have been impossible if I had continued to constantly critique myself as being a poser, an imposter, a failure, and any other ego-driven put-down (or even doing subconscious self-sabotage that is so easy to fall into, like being late or not giving myself enough time to prepare or partying too hard).
Instead, I allowed myself to succumb to the unthinkable: I was actually trying.
There’s the rub. You have to be willing to tolerate the discomfort of believing in yourself.
UNWIFEABLE is now available at unwifeablebook.com.