Monday, December 15, 2008

My Sugar is Raw

The inaugural blog on The Spinster Chronicles has been met with a mix of criticism and praise. Those who have read my blogs from previous venues have probably come to expect the uncensored, candid nature in which I write, while newcomers have simply said, “nice piece of writing.” The criticism so far has been from people that feel personally attacked by what I’ve written, which I knew going into this was a possibility. There are two things I want to say about writing.

The first is this: In order to write well, you must write about what you know about.

I’ve kept a journal since I was 11 years old. The journals evolved into years of crappy poetry throughout high school, and when I left for Italy as an exchange student the summer after I graduated, they became a way for me to console myself. During those first few months living in a foreign country, in a house with complete strangers that I could not understand, I found a retreat within my journal where my emotions, fears and thoughts hung on the page as proof that I was making it through another day. As things got better, the journal evolved yet again and became a time capsule for the life I started to live so passionately. I realized that living abroad was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that I would never be able to recreate the nuances and small moments that made it so special. Sure I would always remember going to Venice, or experiencing my first Christmas away from home, but it was the smaller things I wanted to capture. Moments like laughing with my friend Roberta the day she realized I had no idea how to use an European public bathroom (i.e. A hole in the floor you must squat over). Or the magic I felt when I heard myself sharing a dialog with someone in full Italian...realizing that I was hearing and understanding a string of words in a foreign language and responding with my own words and phrases in a full-blown fluent conversation.

The journal became a hybrid of a scrapbook and an autobiography, capturing my life each day. It layered factual descriptions of trips taken and sights seen, with the emotional fall-out of missing home, and the sentiments of a young love brewing on the shores of Lake Como. One page is decorated with leaves from the running path that wove its way through the foothills of the Alps, glued there as souvenirs for simple breaths on a crisp day. Other pages are stark white with only a few scrolling thoughts penned in fine-point Sharpie off in the corner. The journal became so much more than just a place to dump thoughts. It became a textured commentary of the woman I was becoming, and the one that I wanted to be.

I came home from Italy with four completed notebooks, each one with contents that outgrew the confines of the tightly woven spine, spewing all of my mundane treasures outside of the book like a pirate’s chest overflowing with gold coins and rare gems. So valuable were these books to me, that I purchased a fire-proof box to keep them in.

Throughout college, I continued to document my life as if one day it might be an interesting tale for someone to stumble upon. There are times when I imagine this “someone” being my daughter, or grand-daughter, or even great grand-daughter. Someone who might want to see a little of themselves in their ancestors from way back in 2002. It is that idea that inspires me to be so very raw when I write. I’m writing about what I know about. My life. I am not an expert in anything, or a famous person with a book deal, or a person with a tale of drug addiction, sexual abuse, or living in the wild for years by myself. I am an average person who enjoys writing about average things. I want to perfect the syntax of the Average Joe. The common denominator of the human experience. Who am I to write about all of this? What is it that I think I know about?

I know about status meetings that happen on Tuesday mornings.

I know about road construction on the highway I have to drive on every day.

I’m an expert at waiting in line at the grocery store behind someone writing a check and feeling myself age in the process.

I happen to be somewhat talented at getting mascara smudges on my face.

For years now, I have been practicing the art of being obsessive compulsive over the placement of my remote control on the coffee table.

My point is that I know about nothing of great importance, really...but I’ve become pretty good at capturing an environment, a moment in time, a scene in the filmstrip of everyday life. I cannot write fiction. I have tried. My computer is where Chapter Ones come to die. No matter how much I try to put my life experience behind a fictional tale with characters “based on” me or my life, I cannot generate anything that feels organic. I think I find so much to say about the actual world around me, that I don’t feel the need to try and write about a fictional world somewhere deep in my creative psyche.

The second thing I want to say about writing, is that it is a craft, and in my opinion, a kind of art.

Given that, it is meant to be moving in some way. One of my favorite quotes about art is from the show Six Feet Under , when Olivier the pretentious art teacher expounded that good art should literally make people vomit. I couldn’t agree more. A safe piece of writing is one that will please all audiences, apologize for how it might hurt, and play nice for everyone. In this day and age, it will be mindful of race, color, sex, religion, class and vernacular. It will stay inside the lines so to not come off offensive to anyone. It will never make you vomit, but it will never move you either. Few people will connect with a piece of writing that wasn’t allowed to have the teeth it needed to pierce someone’s soul.

I think there is nothing more profound than realizing the moment you tap into another person’s soul. Whether it’s falling in love or bonding with someone through similar experiences or just finding some inexplicable, intangible alignment with another person’s fabric, it is an awesome thing to realize you are at one with something inside of someone else. We can find this through music, or through our sense of touch, and by talking to each other and learning of our similar paths or goals. But here is the secret to finding it at all: it requires raw emotion.

So much of who we are and how we feel is broadcast to the world in an edited fashion. Consider your soul is nestled somewhere within, not so far from your heart. It is mere inches from the outside world in its raw form, yet any attempt to communicate its contents generally yields some “user friendly” version of what you’re really feeling. We avoid conflict. We are polite. We lie. We sugarcoat. We say what we think people want to hear. We are seldom raw.

Writing is an intimate medium. Its very nature asks us to invite someone else’s words into ourselves where they fall through our brains like pachinko balls tumbling through an array of pins. Some just fall to the bottom with no effect, but some hit the jackpot and totally inspire you. This is writing at its greatest. This is writing that is art. Writing that is worth reading.

How lucky am I, to have realized over the years that I can continue to be raw in my writing and find people here reading these words, finding meaning in them. Pausing for thought. Some people smile, some vomit. This is my writing, and I cannot do it any other way.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

New Decade, New Blog.

I read somewhere that your twenties were all about messing up and that your thirties were the years when you started to get your act together. This was never something I subscribed to having graduated from college at 22 with a job in advertising already lined up for me. I was convinced that I already had my act together and that this particular "pearl of wisdom" was for the lazier, party-time minded crop of twenty-somethings that weren't mapping out the milestones of their adult lives the way I had been doing since I was 16.

I'm now 29, just a little over a month away from my 30th birthday. In the wake of my arrival to this all-important third decade of my life, I have left a job in advertising working on a major salad dressing account; completed internships in publishing akin to The Devil Wears Prada (I thought I was done with advertising and wanted to be a writer instead); acquired an entry-level editorial job at a Hasidic Jewish publishing company where I wrote about blood diamonds and the brilliant cut; moved out of the city for a small-town publishing job where I worked for a pair of dysfunctional, lesbian psychos and wrote about forklifts; and then finally took up a stint in the family business where I realized there was no way I could work with my father in a professional capacity. I now work at an advertising agency (ironic) where I love my job and can picture myself staying put for the first time in my professional life.

Peppered amid my circus of work experience, were several dead-end relationships including a string of first dates with a member of the IRA, a long-term relationship with a computer hacker, an on-again/off-again relationship with a pot-smoking personal trainer who lived with his mom, and brief relationships with one guy from every faction of the American military minus the Airforce and the Navy. I've dated engineers and artists, Europeans and best friends. As if all of that wasn't enough, I also made it through two years with a wonderful man I was ready to marry, but alas, it just wasn't right and I broke the engagement.

In my twenties, I have lived in London, New York City, with my parents in the very rural countryside of upstate New York, alone in an apartment in Cazenovia, NY, with my ex-fiance in a house in Syracuse, and back to living alone in an apartment. While I've missed milestones like marriage and having my first baby, I've instead acquired fluency in the Italian language, an Ironman finish, and enjoy a second part-time job as a well-regarded fitness instructor teaching two spin classes a week at Gold's Gym.

It goes without saying that the course I had neatly charted for myself at the age of 22 is nothing like the road I actually traveled over the past nine years. Nine years, each one unfolding like the next installment of Harry Potter. What in the world will Spinster Lisa find herself meddling in next? Unlike Harry Potter though, I do not have any magic to help me along here. Just good old fashioned sarcasm and a sense of humor.

My rock has always been training for triathlon and writing about this wad of time that is apparently my life. I am generally pretty happy with who I am, but sometimes I find myself in situations that force me to compare myself to the "society ideal" of a woman. Enter "the baby shower."

Just in this past week, I've attended two baby showers. Two. Being at a baby shower makes me feel like somebody is tying me to a chair and holding me prisoner until I provide an explanation as to why I haven't gotten my act together yet to find a husband and start thinking about the creation of a nuclear family?

One of the showers was for a girlfriend of mine from high school. All of my friends from high school are married and having babies now. Most of them are teachers, though a couple are stay-at-home moms. Whenever I roll onto the scene at one of these events, I immediately feel anxiety over the fact that I probably have nothing to talk about with anyone.

Topics of conversation range from the best way to clean Cheerios puke off the wall, to what should be done with children's bangs. Occasionally some dialog about a Swiffer or a vacuum will come up (in this case it was the sexy Dirt Devil hand-vac that looks like a lava lamp) and I find myself sighing with relief because I can totally talk Swiffer for hours (that isn't sarcasm, I'm a cleaning freak). Sometimes my married mommy friends will ask me how things are going, because typically we're all too busy to get together and we fall out of touch. So I tell them about triathlon training, or the gym, or something interesting about my job. If I'm feeling sassy, I'll throw in something anecdotal about my wacked love life, but for the most part my trying to talk about any of these things at great length is always cut short by another "guess what little Billy did the other day?" kind of story. Few of my stories can compete with the likes of someone's big toe moving for the first time.

At this particular shower, I was sitting with some of my friends who casually asked me how the "boy situation" was going (code for: I heard you broke your engagement, how about some details?). Another woman at our table was talking about her daughter's wedding plans. Having just paid off the non-refundable deposits for my "almost wedding," I steered clear of that conversation all together. Then there were some comments about how we're all turning 30 soon and how most of my friends have decided they are done having children! Meanwhile, I haven't even started, not that having a child is even something I'm sure I want to do. The point is that while I sit at these kinds of parties (baby showers and wedding showers), I start to realize that the only "expected" gathering of friends and family to support and celebrate a woman are for when she is either getting married or having a baby.

I wonder why society doesn't do anything to recognize the woman that is out there trying to be independent, kick ass at her career, or make the hard decision to break her engagement to a man she loves, but cannot marry. It seems ironic to me that if I had decided to marry my ex-fiance because it would be easier than being single again, I would be celebrated by society! Or how about the people that become pregnant because they believe a baby will fix their relationship? Those people get to have a baby shower and they are celebrated and rewarded with a society-inspired need to recognize these kinds of milestones.

Does a single woman making hard decisions and doing the right thing not deserve some recognition? Is a single woman moving out of a house and into an apartment not worthy of a new food processor, a blender, a set of silverware and some new bathroom towels? When I add up all of the money that I've spent over the years supporting my friends' weddings and babies, it is quite significant. Furthermore, at these gatherings you are usually expected to fill out your own Thank You card to make it easier for the person who is receiving all of the gifts to let you know that they are appreciative of your efforts. It just seems so contrived to me. I don't write this to say that I think my friends aren't truly thankful, I know that they are and they would be there for me if I asked them for anything...but my point is that society doesn't encourage that kind of support for people like me.

In fact, breaking my engagement has shown me the true colors of a lot of people and has made me feel like some kind of spinster witch. I think I would be more accepted in some circles if I had gone through with a wedding I didn't believe in 100 percent and then got a divorce a few years later.

One thing I know from my twenties, I am not a society-driven girl. I have never done anything because "that's what is done." I don't send Christmas cards...not because I'm the grinch, but because I reach out to people in other ways, in my own ways. I do not follow trends, because I find what works for me and do my own thing. I am a loner with several introspective hobbies. I want to be married one day, but I want that because of the bond it represents...the act of having found that one person that is your soul mate. Not because it's easier or it's "supposed to happen." Not because I want to spend days picking out the perfect cake and making groups of women miserable wearing dresses that don't fit in hideous colors.

Do I want a baby? I don't know. Right now I feel that I've got a lot more on my to-do list then creating another human. I want to do an Ironman again. I want to travel more and continue writing. Most of all, I want to stay true to myself which means I'll probably continue down some kind of tumultuous path in the eyes of society on my quest for "things that make me tick."

So I'm embracing these last few moments in my twenties and reflecting upon the haphazard mosaic of my own personal milestones over the past ten years. I don't know what 30 will bring or the years that will make up the next precious decade of my life, but I am done with feeling bad about where I am in life, or rather, where I'm not.

I've started weeding things out of my life that give me stress, that I've been investing in because I feel like I have to. Maybe that's what they mean when they say you start to get your act together in your thirties. Maybe you start to channel your energy into the things that truly matter to you, rather than wasting it on the things that don't, or the things you can't change.

In the spirit of rechanneling that energy, I'm embracing my spinsterness and sharing it here. Welcome to The Spinster Chronicles, a line-by-line account of all the ways I'm defying our society's expectations, and loving every minute of it.