Banal. Lacking Insight.

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In the spring semester of 1988, I signed up for a creative writing class in poetry. I remember the year and the season because a friend had died in a car crash the previous December. I remember the class because of the professor’s comments on one the poems, about the death of my friend, that I turned in as part of my midterm assignment.

“Banal.”

“Lacking insight.”

Thirty years later, I wish I remembered his name as clearly as I remember his marginalia, so I could properly curse him.

I stopped going to class, forgot to drop it, and failed it. There were multiple reasons—depression, illness, money problems—but “banal” and “lacking insight” didn’t help.

Several years later, I started frequenting a coffee house that hosted regular poetry readings.  Listening to poems that ranged from godawful to brilliant inspired me to try again. Some poems came into my head fully formed, others required an enormous amount of work. One that I wrote for a friend’s wedding took almost twenty hours over the course of three weeks to write. I was never prolific. I averaged perhaps a poem every two weeks, until August of 1998, when I wrote this one:

Sunset

Day opens her veins into an
Unforgiving sky absorbs the last drops of
Light seeps scarlet stains into
Dirty smokestack gauze oozes across the
Horizon slowly betrays day’s trust to
Night seeps into my eyes

With the exception of greeting card epigrams, I haven’t written a poem since.

“Sunset” revealed more about my mental state than I was comfortable with confronting. I’d only intended to experiment with enjambment, but this is a poem informed by clinical depression and a rapidly necrotizing marriage. I didn’t want to risk more material like this bubbling up from my subconscious.

In time, I convinced myself that I actually couldn’t write poetry. I dismissed the fact that I’d written dozens of poems, had one published, and had given readings that were well received. I told myself that the successful poems were flukes.

My poetry was banal. Lacking insight.

I even told people that I didn’t like poetry, which was patent horsefeathers. I threw away the paper copies, and now I only have seven from that period. Eight, if you count a limerick about a man who had carnal relations with chickens.

And so I have not written poetry for almost twenty years. Earlier this month, though, I started thinking about trying again. Some thoughts and ideas are better expressed in verse, and besides, I feel incomplete as a writer without being able to write poetry. I asked Carolyn to get me a copy of a book I used to have:  A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, by Mary Kinzie. I’ve started to read it, but I’m already stumped on an assignment from the preface. Paralyzed, almost.

What if it’s terrible? What if it’s banal? Lacking insight?

It probably will be, as rusty as I am. But I have to limber up somehow. I’ll write as many crappy poems as I have to in order to find my voice again, and start writing good ones.

 

How may I be of service?

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I have always had an impulse to help people. As a child, I would always volunteer to help, whether it was around the house, or at school helping the teacher, or at school helping my classmates when they struggled with their studies. It didn’t even matter whether or not I liked the person who needed help.

I’d sometimes volunteer even at the expense of getting my own chores or tasks done. I remember helping a boy in my neighborhood finish up yard chores so he wouldn’t get in trouble with his father. Later, I was grounded for not mowing my own yard. Because of course he didn’t come over and help me with my chores.

I learned never to do anything for him again, but I still overextended myself time and again with others. I was the guy who would volunteer to help run your thing, get your stuff, or collaborate on your project. Often, I volunteered to do things that, on second thought, I really didn’t want to do at all. One example was my service on the board of the local chapter of the American Society for Quality.

Early in my Quality Assurance career, my boss encouraged me to get involved in a professional organization that would help my career, and I attended an ASQ meeting to check it out. During the meeting, they mentioned that they needed someone to serve as Historian for the chapter. After the meeting, I volunteered.

I was not even a member yet.

I joined the next day, and served as Historian for the chapter for about a year. After a few months, it became clear that I’d made a mistake. The organization, both local and national, was heavily geared toward quality in manufacturing. Software was an afterthought. I didn’t gain much in the way of professional development, and as a board member, I felt obligated to attend every meeting whether I wanted to or not.

Fortunately, I had the sense to decline the offer to step into the Secretary position when it became available. I resigned from the board, and stopped going to meetings that I wasn’t getting any value out of.

My impulse to help was one of the reasons I was so strongly drawn to the Scrum Master role when my company adopted Scrum. Being a “servant leader” is all about helping and empowering others.

Being a Scrum Master ultimately made me realize the folly of being too generous with my support. I recognized that the “leader” portion of servant-leader meant helping people to learn to solve their own problems.

 

Image by Fran Priestly.

 

The curious case of the holy laughter

Recently, I wrote about how I faked speaking in tongues when I was a member of a Pentecostal church, and how that experience led me to question my faith, and ultimately led me to reject religion altogether. But that wasn’t an overnight event. It took me quite some time to even arrive at the conclusion that everyone who claimed to be “spirit filled” was as big a fraud as I was. For months after, I assumed that something was wrong with me, that my walk with god was in some way so flawed that he would not give me the gift I craved so much. In fact, I attended that church for a few months after my faked spirit baptism, until I witnessed something that made the pieces start to fall into place: holy laughter.

Holy laughter is a phenomenon in which someone laughs spontaneously during church meetings, often hysterically so. In this incident, a woman in the choir began not only to laugh hysterically, but convulsively, rocking back and forth. Mascara tears streamed down her face. She would double over at the waist, then suddenly straighten up like one of those drinking bird toys. It went on throughout the hymn, subsiding only when the pastor took the lectern for the first reading. Later, after the service, it was all anyone could talk about, how the holy spirit had come over this woman.

And I wondered, how could the holy spirit have come over this woman? She was one of the most petty, cruel, and self-centered people I’ve ever known. Yet she spoke in tongues frequently, had on more than one occasion been “slain in the spirit” during services, and now had drawn everyone’s attention with this so-called holy laughter.

She was a fraud. Everyone had to be aware of it. Everyone had to know what kind of person she was, yet she was up in front of the whole congregation, whooping and shouting. And no one said, “Excuse me, but that’s an act.”

It made me feel better about myself. I wasn’t the only fraud; I was merely the only one willing to admit it to himself.

 

 

Never too late

Over on his “Living!” blog, Sam (no relation) has a post called “Don’t let your age decide your fate.”

 

I laughed when I saw the title, because I was thinking about the same topic last night, from a different direction. Sam writes from his perspective as a Millenial, while I’m a middle-aged Gen-Xer. He’s reacting to news stories that talk about the limitations Millenials face. I’m thinking about the artificial limitations that seem like a part of being middle-aged.

More specifically, I’m talking about the perception that it’s “too late” to start learning something new, or to strike out on a new path.

In your youth, you’re told “you can do anything,” but I never beleived it. (Except for one brief period.) Now, at fifty, it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking that it’s too late to try something new.

This is especially pernicious for me, because when I was younger, I often told myself I was too young to accomplish some of the things I wanted to try. Wait until you’ve got a few more years experience before you try to start a business, I told myself, and never tried. I’d start a novel with some heavy themes but run aground on the shoals of, You’re a little young to be writing about that, aren’t you?

So I waited. Stayed in a job I didn’t like for fifteen years, and would probably still be at if I hadn’t been laid off three years ago. Wrote fiction, but didn’t take any chances, played it safe, and didn’t grow as a writer very much at all.

And now that I’m fifty, my inner critic is going to flip the switch to, “You were never anything special, and you’re getting a little long in the tooth to start now.

Nuts to that.

Blogging: a personal history

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Yesterday’s post was my 100th since starting this blog almost six years ago.

That’s right. It took me five years and ten months to post 100 blog entries. I wrote almost half of them in the last twelve months, and more than half of this year’s posts have been published in the past four weeks.

Pardon me, I get excited about metrics.

My desire to write a blog goes back almost to the beginnings of the term “blog” itself. I started my first blog in 1999, shortly after my divorce. I used a personal web page from my provider, and it was so obscure that wayback machine doesn’t even have it archived. I hadn’t even heard of Blogger at that point, and WordPress was years away, so it was a static page, hand-coded using HTML 4. For feedback, I provided an email link.

I wrote mostly about liberal politics, but I might as well have been posting random words from the dictionary for all the attention it got. No one read me. I had no idea how to draw readers. The one and only time I got a response was on September 12, 2001, after I wrote a post critical of the sentiment that one must not disagree with the President after the September 11 attacks. Someone emailed me to call me a traitor, and offered to kick my ass.

I suppose I should have been afraid, but I was actually thrilled. Someone had read me! Someone I didn’t even know!

Unfortunately, that was about it in terms of audience engagement. I eventually moved to Blogger and embedded LiveJournal into it, but all the action was within LiveJournal. Eventually, I shut down the blog. Without an audience, why bother?

The desire persisted, though, and I made half-hearted attempts a couple of times. I tried blogging about Scrum, but I felt like I didn’t know enough to write about it. I’d lost interest in writing about politics, because increasing polarization meant I was only talking to people who already largely agreed with me. I didn’t feel like anyone was interested in reading about my life in general.

Now I’m blogging every day but I’m still not sure what I’m doing. When I started the daily blog challenge four weeks ago, I thought I’d write mostly about agile software development. But when I get home each night, work is the last thing I want to think about. My posts about my experience in a Pentecostal church were well-received, so maybe I should write more about that topic. It would be good fodder for the novel I plan to write next, and maybe exploring that part of my past will be good for my psyche.

The Big Mistake

Transferring away from Mercer University was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made.

I attended Mercer for four quarters beginning in the fall of 1985, after falling in love with the place in eleventh grade. I went into my first quarter with unreasonably high expectations, but somehow reality proved far better than my hopes, and it only got better over the course of the rest of the year. I was the happiest I’d ever been in my life there.

It couldn’t last. My mother had never been thrilled with me going away to school. She had wanted me to stay at home and go to UCF, and she never stopped pressuring me to come home. Mostly, that took the form of talking about how expensive Mercer was. I was being selfish. It was an enormous burden on my father. Eventually, I caved.

Not entirely. I wouldn’t go to UCF under any circumstances. I was planning a theater major at that point. Both Florida State University and University of South Florida had good theater programs, but I didn’t want to go to FSU, either. Too many of my high school classmates had gone to FSU—primarly the ones I disliked.

USF was enormous compared to Mercer, and I felt lost. I didn’t fit in with the chapter of my fraternity. I struggled to make friends outside of the fraternity. When the girl I had loved since tenth grade broke my heart, I had no one to lean on. The cherry on top was that I hated the theater program, so my ostensible reason for going there no longer applied.

I fell into a deep depression. I’d suffered from depression before, but never this profound. Food tasted like sand. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t laugh. I got by that first semester, but my grades went into free fall after that. When my GPA dropped so low that the school put me on probation, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pull it back up in time, and I dropped out.

If I had stayed at Mercer, I still would have had my heart broken, and I still would have been depressed, but being surrounded by good friends in a place I loved would have helped me recover. And without that profound depression, I wouldn’t have fallen into the clutches of the toxic faith that devoured the next six years of my life.

Pardon me

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Yesterday, I wrote about my experience as a member of a Pentecostal church when I was in my twenties. I struggled to write it, and I struggled with publishing it.

The first reason I struggled was that I would be publically acknowledging something about myself that has been a source of shame to me for a long time. How did someone who was once thoroughly skeptical of fundamentalist Christianity get caught up in a Pentecostal church to the point where he would pretend to speak in tongues? That’s a topic that would take more than a few hundred words to explore. For now, what’s important is that it was very difficult to make this embarrassing episode in my life a matter for public consumption.

The second reason I struggled was that I was sure that it would offend some people. When I posted a link to the piece on both Twitter and Facebook, I added this note:

 

As I write this post, I have no idea if I was right or not. I haven’t logged onto Facebook, haven’t looked at my Twitter notifications.

I felt as though I had to take the risk, anyway. Fear of giving offense is the inner critic’s backup attack vector when, “You suck” stops working:

  • Your mother won’t like being presented in that light.
  • Your father will be so disappointed in you.
  • What will your family think?
  • What if your boss/potential employer/customers sees that?
  • You’re going to lose friends over this.

It sounds so reasonable, but once you give in to the impulse to self-censor, it grows. Today, you can’t write about religion. Tomorrow, politics. Soon your own memoirs are off-limits, and eventually, there is no topic you can write about.

I’m just starting to find my voice again, so I refused to shut myself down.

I had another reason to find the courage to publish the piece. I often counsel other writers to overcome their fear. How could I have any credibility if I couldn’t do the same thing? I had to show the same willingness to be vulnerable, the same courage to speak my mind that I advise others to develop.

Now, having finished this entry, I’m going to check in on social media and see if anyone hates my guts yet.