” . . . or you write a book and while you write it you are ashamed for every one must think you a silly or a crazy one and yet you write it and you are ashamed, you know you will be laughed at or pitied by every one and you have a queer feeling and you are not very certain and you go on writing. Then someone says yes to it, to something you are liking, or doing or making and then never again can you have completely such a feeling of being afraid and ashamed that you had then when you were writing or liking the thing and not any one had said yes about the thing.” –Gertrude Stein
I just had a wonderful conversation with someone who said yes to my goals. She is successful in her own right and she gave me some great advice. I know it is great advice because it is advice that Angie has been giving me for years, advice that makes sense and it practical and doesn’t require anything impossible. And yet because this person said it to me, I got all fired up and ready to go. She said, make a plan. Even if it is a bad plan, it will be something to go back to when things aren’t going well or when you don’t know what to do.
A long time ago, when I first wanted to write a novel and I had no idea how to begin, my wise and wonderful sister Nanou asked me to think about how I’d accomplished other things in my at-the-time realatively short life. Well, I’d accomplished other things by a contorted method of examining every option I could think of it excruciating detail until I finally plunged in one direction. It was torturous. She said, “It sounds as though you do a lot of mapping and planning, and that this leads you to take action.” This was more than kind, but in any case, it set me in a direction that worked quite well for me, indeed.
Now it is time for me to make a new road map for a new project. I won’t say too much about it right now, except that it builds on the great online community that has been growing out of the courses I am currently teaching in novel writing and (upcoming) revision.
Around the time that David Foster Wallace killed himself, Terri Gross replayed a part of an interview she did with him some years back. He seemed so scared to step outside of the generational cynicism that dogged him and yet so trapped and frustrated inside it. The conversation reminded me exactly of my graduate school days, the fear I’d had of being sentimental. It’s a terrible place to be, though, because life packs some serious wallops, and pretty soon you don’t know how to address all the feelings you are having that turn out to be common and human, because common + human = sentimental, and sentimental has somehow become the worst thing of all to be.
Of course, the sentimentality that is problematic is a more glib approach to feelings, a desire to tap into emotion without earning it, to push the reader somewhere instead of taking her there. And it’s a tough line to walk, no doubt about it.
But the people who are succeeding–on a variety of fronts–are optimistic, organized, and aware. I am thinking of this woman I talked to this morning who has made herself into a successful wealth manager, but also of Jamie and Laura who have shepherded their baby son Simon through a harrowing ordeal of months in a hospital.
In order to be optimistic, organized and aware, you have to risk sentimentality, you have to risk the muck of human feeling and the dangers of communicating it, to yourself and to others.
I know that out of the exhaustion and surprise of becoming a parent, I really had to earn those feelings that are most frequently described as “automatic” or “maternal instinct.” I had to develop a conscious relationship to those feelings through getting to know these two beings who’d been placed in my hands. Now that they are with me in abundance, I revel in the joy of them. I don’t worry if it is cliched to think my kids are as gorgous and brilliant as anybody on earth; I do notice the texture of it and the specificity of them: Charlie’s joy in saying, “No” in his rumbling baby voice. “No! No!” Leo’s intent focus as he stacks blocks higher than his own height. Charlie’s witty repartee, as when it is time for good-night songs and he knows what is coming: “Rowrowrowrowrow.” Leo’s process of deciding which car seat he wants this time, heaving himself out of one and into the other, rolling back and forth between them.
See? These are small miracles for me and likely impress you very little. That’s okay. I am saying yes to my sons and yes to my own hard-earned maternal adoration and yes to my big plans. I am saying yes to the risk of sentimentality in the exploration of human connection. Our pediatricians have a handout that suggests that you give your kids ten yesses for every no, that when you say no, you automatically owe them ten yesses. I think I’ll try that with myself for a while . . .