The Slow and Certain Heartbreak of Playing It Safe
Have you ever read a book at the exact right moment in your life? This just happened to me.
The book: Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Leadby Tara Mohr. Full disclosure: I went to college with Tara. I didn't know her during my undergraduate years, but we have connected since and I'm grateful we have. A couple months ago, we met for lunch downtown. We talked and talked and ate yummy food and exchanged books; I gave her a copy of my recently-published novel The Ramblers and she gave me a copy of her Playing Big. On the way back uptown, I began to read it and was immediately hooked, but life is life and for some reason the book got sucked into the ever-mounting bedside stack and I didn't pick it up until this week. I finished it this morning and now I am sitting at a brand new Starbucks near my daughter's musical theater camp and I have so much to say. I'm revved.
The book is about many things, but ultimately centers around the powerful thesis that many modern women, many brilliant modern women, are playing small in their personal and professional lives. The book is both a theoretical exploration of why and a practical guide to how we can stop doing this. Tara writes from a place of wisdom and wonder, compassion and firmness, from a vantage of personal experience and professional expertise. If you are a woman and are curious about how to overcome and work with fear, how to transcend deeply entrenched good-girl and good-student habits and mores, and how to move toward a life that is more fulfilling and better integrated with your personal goals and desires, I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. Buy it. Read it. You will be so grateful you did.
Okay, enough of the sell. What I am startled by is how this book affected me, how it woke me up to some vital truths. One of those truths:
I have been playing it safe.
I have withheld my opinions on, and questions about, certain things, important things, out of fear that I will offend others, embarrass myself, or become less likable.
I have been writing recently for praise and approval instead of for self-expression and service. (This: soul-sucking.)
I have been hiding out in various ways - behind sweet, filtered, glorious Instagram pictures of my family and city and vocation and home, in tiny or tall glasses of wine that bring a twisting shame, by writing fiction when I'm beginning to realize that my heart yearns to write the truth.
I have been sad and exhausted and resentful at times because I've spent months simultaneously promoting a novel and accompanying my mom to chemo treatments. (Mom is thankfully now in remission, which is amazing news, but it has been a hard time.)
I have been feeling guilty and quiet because I am the poster-child of white privilege. The events in the world have rattled me and I feel angry and despondent and want to do something and say something, but I don't know how or even if I'm allowed to. I would like to figure this out. One thing I did that felt right: I talked to my nine-year-old about the police shootings and the massacre in Dallas. I answered her questions as best I could. I saw curiosity and emotion and flickers of understanding and outrage in her eyes. This was something. A step.
I have been confused about what I want to write next. I have so many ideas, have written so many pages even, but something isn't clicking and I'm realizing that this itself is meaningful. After reading Tara's book, I'm curious about my own wheel-spinning and resistance and whiteboarding (a fascinating idea she explores). I'm beginning to think that part of it is that I've been playing it safe instead of doing what I most want to do.
What do I want to do?
I want to tell the truth. I want to connect with others by telling the truth. I want to help other people see the truth and tell it in their own lives. Truth about what?
Loss. The loss of Dad eight years ago shredded me, but it also made me who I am today. I can only see this now, with the benefit of time and distance. Before Dad got sick, I was one person and after, another. Before: I was a bit full of myself, insecure, well-meaning and kind, but also quite aimless, blind to my privilege, out of touch. Not a bad person, no, but I hadn't been shaken up by life yet; I took a lot for granted, too much maybe. After: Scared shitless, aware of my own mortality and the beauty of the turning world, full of fiery ambition to become a good writer, a good mother, wife, sister, daughter, to live fully and well, to see and savor my moments. Only when Dad got sick did I pull my manuscript of my first novel out and go to work polishing it. I wrote query letters to agents from the linoleum floor of his hospital room. Dad finished reading my manuscript a few weeks before he died and I'm still not sure what he thought of it, but I don't think he loved it (Spinoza and Kant were more his jam). The first thing I ever published: his death announcement in the New York Times. Two weeks after he was gone, I signed with my first literary agent. A couple months later: My first book deal. I can say without equivocation that losing my father made me a writer. This is a complicated truth for me, something I am still processing. What if the most terrible thing that has happened to you is also, viewed from a different angle, the best? Loss is part of who I am, how I view the world. I'm a different species of mother (and I would argue a better one) because I'm aware (too aware?) of the fragility of life. I need to talk about this, write about it.
Alcohol. This continues to be a thing for me. Probably because I have overthought it and made it one. The truth is that I have had periods of terribly unhealthy drinking in my past. College. Law school. Early motherhood. Times of wild, worrisome excess, even blackouts, self-loathing and shame. Simply: I was on a bad path. And then I got off it. I took a year off from drinking. I saw the world through a new window. I felt peace and learned tons about myself. I wrote about it. And then I went back to drinking. I have been back and forth - as those of you who read my stuff know - but never have I returned to that awful spot I was in. Not even remotely close. And what I am seeing now? This is something! I caught myself. I must be careful, yes, and quite (I believe we all must be with alcohol as it is an addictive substance) and this is what I am doing, being careful, in my own intriguing and sometimes utterly maddening way, but I must figure this out for myself. I must banish perfectionism and realize that this does not need to be about black and white, all or nothing. Maybe, for me, for many of us, it must be about self-awareness and presence and making my life one that I do not want to numb out and escape. What I want: to bring this conversation to the center. There are SO MANY of us who fall in the precarious middle of the spectrum, who are not addicted to alcohol but who do fear its effects and worry sometimes, people who are not unable to give up drinking, but who are maybe (for complicated and compelling reasons) unwilling to. I am more curious than ever about this topic, about why so few people are exploring the vast middle ground, about why it figures and features so prominently in my own existential narrative. Drinking has been part of my identity and my family's; my grandfather drank moonshine with Hemingway. This is interesting and worth exploring and I want to talk about it. What I don't want: to be a role model. I do not profess to have this - or any one thing - figured out. I want to feel my way through this, to learn - and perhaps write about feeling my way through it, my lessons - in a way that is open-minded, personal to me, but never do I want to come across as giving advice.
Privilege: Ugh. I don't know what to say about this one but around this topic, I feel the need to be most careful, to play it safest. Why? I don't know. It scares me, but that also leads me to believe that there is interesting ground here. I will be the first to admit that I have had incredible opportunities, educational and otherwise, in my life so far. I have had the freedom to pursue my passion for writing without worrying about repaying law school loans. We are living in Manhattan and sending our three daughters to the wonderful private school I attended as a kid. All of this is true and I'm grateful beyond measure and I wonder sometimes what effect any of this has on how I see the world and how I'm seen. Some of my most biting reviews of The Ramblers hinge on the fact that there is so much privilege at the center of the narrative. These reviews hurt me and I now see why; there is truth there. My characters, though they have heartache and are truly struggling in their lives, are ultimately deeply privileged people. I'm not sure I saw this so clearly when I began writing the book and bringing these characters to life. Maybe I was too sequestered in my Ivory Tower, 1% world to appreciate that their struggles and pain, while legitimate and defining and real, were also rooted in privilege (complicated, but undeniable) that not many know or enjoy. And yet. I love my characters. I love the book. I'm so proud of it and I believe, more than ever, in its message: We must allow ourselves to ramble in life, to stumble and swerve our way toward happiness and meaning. I realize that this is exactly what I'm doing - with these fast-flying words, with the books I'm writing and dreaming of writing, with the questions I'm asking and even avoiding - I'm finding my way. I also realize that all of this talk - about happiness, about purpose, about hiding and seeking, playing it safe and speaking up - is itself privileged talk. If we are worried about survival, we are not talking about this stuff.
Perfectionism: At some point along the way, I became a raging perfectionist. I'm not sure when it happened. I have distinct memories of struggling in school, of being in the "low" reading and math groups, but I also remember being untroubled by these things. And then something clicked for me and I took off academically and maybe this is when I became addicted to praise and approval? Oh did I love getting A's and scoring that winning goal in the homecoming soccer game. Achievement. Applause. Accolades. Yes, please. But adulthood is a different kind of space, isn't it? There are no gold stars. Things are murkier. There is no room for perfection. We cannot parent perfectly. We cannot be perfect partners and friends and children and writers and citizens of the world. There are no ready rules or roadmaps; no one kind-faced teacher at the front of the classroom to smile and say Good job or You are on the right track!For me, and I suspect many of us, perfectionism continues to be a real problem, a robust road block. If we are continually striving for some illusory perfect self and perfect life, we will be miserable. (Again, perfectionism is itself a badge of privilege. I see this.)
Anna Quindlen said, "The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself." Sitting here, at Starbucks, in a sea of New York City strangers, I read her words again and again and I smile into my screen. Beginning the work of becoming yourself. This is what I'm doing. This is what these words today are. They are a big old fuck you to the fear that's been holding me back (which includes the fear of using profanity), to the good-girl, heartbreaking act of playing it safe. These words are a messy ode to telling the truth. Telling the truth in a way that is not reckless, but thoughtful. I believe this is possible.
These words? They are the beginning of something for me. The seeds. I don't know yet what that something is, but that's okay.
Have you been playing it safe in your own life? Are there things you would like to talk about or write about or do, but are too afraid?