Monday, September 18, 2006

Zen Lessons

I think one of the most difficult things to achieve in our profession is not fame or glory, but peace. We spend hours and days and years alone with our own worst critics--ourselves. The never-ending criticism, relentless pushing, and brutal honesty take a toil on our psyches. So when others seem to achieve success, it’s only natural to feel the turmoil of despair and twinges of (gasp!) jealousy.

And to deny that is lying. Beneath the insecurity, artists are egotistical. We have to be. There is a certain brashness to what we do—deep down we believe that what we are writing and creating is worth the attention of others. That what we are trying to say is something unique and worth communicating. So when one witnesses the attention, praise and adoration of another's book, while their own is forgotten-- there's a fear that perhaps it's because the other book is better and more special. And then the aforementioned ego comes into play, rears its ugly head; and the insecure artist begins to make comparative lists, ticking off stickers and posters and publicity campaigns as measurements of quality.

Because it is a hard, hard lesson to learn that someone else’s success does nothing to take away from our own. It’s a lesson that I’m still learning. Sometimes when I see an older couple happy together, I feel a bitterness wash over me as I think my husband, because of his unstable health, and I may never reach that. But that bitterness has to be quickly checked because the person it hurts the most is me. It's similar to when we get upset when others get special treatment or acclaim. Our despair only hurts ourselves.

In the book Zen Shorts, when a rude woman is carried over a puddle by an old monk and she doesn't even thank him, the monk's companion broods about it for a long time until the monk says:

"I set the woman down hours ago," the older monk replied.
"Why are you still carrying her?"

And that message is one to take to heart. Maybe if we ungrit our teeth while congratulating others, let go of the comparisons and stop carrying our dejection, we can find some peace. And maybe it’ll even be something close to zen.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your post! It's a good reminder. Years ago at a conference during an author panel of a writer's group comprised of some authors who were well-know and gaining popularity and attention and the others less so, someone from the audience asked if members ever felt jealous of one another. One wise writer responded with something like - I try to remind myself that if I am feeling jealous and wish to be that person, that I'd have to take on that person's entire life - including a less that perfect marriage, or sick child, or financial trouble or whatever else is going on. The success/fame/fortune is only one aspect of that person's life.

I must must must get ZEN SHORTS! Thank you!
debbi michiko florence

alvinaling said...

Hi Debbi! Aren't you glad you get blogger in China now?

Thanks for this beautiful post, Grace--ZEN SHORTS is one of my all-time favorite books. EVERYONE should buy it! It's a good reminder of how to deal with everything toxic in your life. Ha--yesterday I got stuck watching an Americas Next Top Model Marathon, and one girl was complaining to another girl, fixated on why a third girl was still in the competition, and that she wished she would be kicked off, and the other girl said, "I need to focus on myself right now and what I need to do, not on what another girl is doing." Well, guess who won?

Wow, didn't think I'd be learning life lessons from American's Next Top Model. Especially when another wannabe model was quoted as saying, "Elephants and Dinosaurs are from the same family" or something inane like that.

Anna Alter said...

I like that point about taking on someone else's entire life, that is an interesting way to look at jealousy, takes the sting of it away a little. In the grand scheme of things I think we'd all rather choose the lives that we have, for better or worse!

Agyw said...

Grace, when I came to the boards, I probably spilled a great deal of my guts (Leibowitz: that's as pretty as it sounds!). THE hardest thing for me has been giving myself permission to pursue this avenue. Hard to find the legitimacy (I'm pretty much over that now, but it was HUGE for the first three years of learning what I needed to become a children's writer/illustrator, I simply felt UNWORTHY).

What I came to is that my experiences, some of the horrendously awful (and some self-imposed stupid) ARE what qualifies me for what I choose to do. I realized most people with my issues don't have voice, it's not where their life leads. This blunted much despite, and has gone a great long way to move me along the path.

What's this have to do with your post (it does read like I should have posted under Meghan's What qualifies me... thread). But it's the same. Writing and illustrating are not only egotistically brash pursuits, but personal on molecular level. Even seemingly simple, frothy projects are what they are because it's the creator determining it. To me, these two things are different sides to the same coin. Debi's point about taking on the life of the person you're jealous about, is absolute truth. It's those things that determine what we create.

I adore Zen Shorts. It's such a gentle, wise book. I had a bout of jealousy this year, but it was a strange thing, and usually what eats me. I'm not jealous of the people I care about, per se. What had happened, we'd moved (IT'S BEAUTIFUL HERE, after five and a half years in a place that felt like a black hole) and my family had much to recover. From children in hospitals, to finally dealing with my mother's death.

It seemed like everyone I knew had book contracts. I didn't even have anything worthy of submitting, and was totally stalled on my Annie book. And then Ann died, it was crucible time. I rarely have those feelings of jealousy, so I usually have to look within to find out what I'm lacking to get to where I want to be. In my case, it was rearranging somethings in my personal life (The Tipping Point, helped so much on so many levels), and I had to find the tools to tell Annie's story. It was amazing how for two years, I couldn't move on this story, but immediately after Ann's passing, there was all kind of momentum, from being allowed into her childhood home, finding relatives who had other aspects about my friend, including a biography in Ann's words, and the Historical Societies coming on board. It was eerie, actually. I know darned well, if I can't interest someone in this work, the topic itself will pique someone and someone better able to tell or illustrate will come forth. I would be disappointed, but I feel it's much bigger than me, and just because I feel I'm the best, doesn't mean that I am the best to tell the tale.

Now I'm all jumbled. Sorry for the wordiness, Grace, but I tell you, success has always frightened me more than failure. It did make a great impression on me, making plans to hang with Linda Sue at NYC (I ended up not able to go, because of finances), and she won the Newbery. For me, it's always been about the work. I want to create a book that does touch someone someway, whether it's inspiring language, giving a voice, or showing something different about the human experience. I don't know about the other stuff (not the buckarinos, can always use that, but I've known too many wealthy people, just means you have better toys, and it's easier to hide from the things one should take care of to make a spirit whole and healthy).

Finding what it IS that you're jealous of, is it the accolades, really, I love to meet people, but I dread it when they have expectations of me. Something people WILL do, if you're successful. Okay, time to shut up. More words,to put down, should go finish my article and blog my poor blog. You struck a chord.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite writings on this topic is the chapter on Jealousy in Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott). It never fails to make me laugh and to help me take myself less seriously.


Anonymous said...

This from John Green's An Abundance of Katherines.

"If the future is forever, then it will swallow us all another 2,400 years, even Socrates, the most well-known genius of that century might be forgotten. The future will swallow us all up - there is no level of fame or genius that can get you out of that fate.The infinite future makes that kind of mattering impossible.

But here is another way. There are stories....And he found himself thinking that maybe stories don't just make us matter to each other - maybe they're also the only way to the infinite mattering he'd been after for so long.

...Even if it's a dumb story, telling it changes other people just the slightest little bit, just as living the story changes me. An infinitesimal change, And that infinitesimal change ripples outward, from one person's story to the larger story. I will get forgotten, the the stories will ripple through the future forever. I contribute to the infinite story. And so we all matter - maybe less than a lot, but always more than none."