Travelling Goldilocks

When I was a child I lay in bed at night wondering when the bad people would come and murder my parents, or take me away, or bomb my house. These fears, I believe, were the result of an over active imagination and going to the movies with my parents; I was an only child for ten years and my parents enjoyed watching films, so I’d go with them, often falling asleep on my father’s lap. They favoured war movies, stories of heroes from the Second World War, a war that lasted through most of their adolescence. In addition, my mother listened to the radio so I heard news bulletins about Czechoslovakia, Korea, and the Bay of Pigs crisis. Us Baby Boomers grew up knowing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for an imaginative, well-read child who spent most of her time with adults, it was easy to imagine the worst because the worst had happened in the decade before her birth. 

Alone in my bed, my anxieties would get the better of me. I’d start to weep, call my parents, and tell them my fears. They did their best to soothe me, ‘Don’t be silly,’ they’d say, ‘you’re safe with us. No one is going to hurt you. Go to sleep and stop worrying about nothing.’ My parents never wanted to make things worse, my night fears worried them, but words like ‘silly’ and ‘nothing’ facilitate anxiety instead of quenching it. I grew up ignoring my anxieties and berating myself for having them. Instead of being properly addressed, my unwelcome, unhelpful worries were fed with ‘what if?’, ‘look out,’ ‘take care’, ‘this will never work’ and ‘I’m afraid to…’.

Teaching revealed one way to cope; responsibility for the well-being and education of, initially, young children and later, adults, turned me into a manager and organiser. I learnt how to anticipate, plan for and manage contingencies. I developed, at least professionally, a range of strategies that helped me control any situation. Addressing the insidious ‘what ifs?’ became proof of my skills and an indication that I took my job and responsibilities seriously.

Personally, however, my anxieties were a liability. Firm management, detailed organisation and making sure everything goes as planned is not easy where children and family are concerned and my need for control lead to bitter conflicts.

And so, my ‘default program’ became an innate, distrustful wariness. Predators lurked on every street corner, the trappings of civilisation such as road rules, regulations concerning food, personal hygiene, and travel, to name a few, seemed like illusions designed to negate my fears, not address them.

As I age, particularly given the potentially dire state of the world, my anxiety is getting worse. A decade ago I stepped outside my comfort zone and thrived, but now I feel less inclined to do so. I recognise my methods of coping no longer work so I meditate and use mindful breathing, rational thinking and writing to help me cope.

These skills are crucial because, in the next couple of days, I am leaping out of my comfort zone and heading, with my partner, to Europe on my first major trip overseas. We’re visiting five countries in seven weeks and while this prospect is thrilling, the little girl in me wants to cower beneath her blankets and stay put.

But cowering is something I’ve done most my life. I’ve embraced the known, stuck with what is safe and celebrated the familiar and remained where I have a degree of control.

When I was researching and writing my memoir, I drew heavily on a story my parents read to me when I was three years old. I knew Goldilocks and the Three Bears by heart. If my mother changed the wording I’d correct her. As part of my doctorate I wrote a research paper that accompanied my memoir, ‘Reading Goldilocks’. I wrote that Goldilocks, ‘is a feisty, assertive, determined, [and] resourceful’ child because she refused to let an unanswered door get in her way. This aspect of Goldilocks helped me explore and embrace my skills and identity as a writer.

I have decided, therefore, to take Goldilocks with me, metaphorically at least, to Europe. If anyone knows how to walk away from what’s known and secure, it’s Goldilocks. Together we will dispel the anxiety that has hounded my preparations for this trip; we will stray far from home, enter forests made of steel and concrete or trees and glades. Yes, we will encounter a bear or two. Some beds will be too hard and while I hope we won’t break any chairs, I will want my porridge gluten free. Goldilocks and I will have a companion, my partner, to walk the trails with us. The three of us will do our best to make this trip ‘just right,’ and if we are menaced by an occasional grumpy bear we will be okay; Goldilocks knows how to safely leap from a window.

I hope you will follow us on our journey; I plan to share our adventure here on Elixir because, as Thomas Moore has written,

Standing in a doorway, you are forced into the imagination, wondering what you will find on the other side. It is a place full of expectant fantasy […] Anything of moment takes place in these intercises.

By stepping over my threshold and sharing it with you, I hope we can embrace the benefits of being mindful, and learn to live in the moment instead of suffering from illusions born of our fear.

Thomas Moore, ‘Neither Here Nor There’, Parabola, 25.1 (2000), 34-39 (p. 34).

 

On Momentum, Saying ‘No’ and Self-Belief

In the last three years I have spent November marking final assignments and completing numerous end of semester tasks. This year my November is, or was, free and I am participating in NaNoWriMo.

I have to admit, however, this month long word belch feels a little … is déclassé the word I’m looking for? After all, anyone I  know who has written a novel didn’t write it in a month.  

On the other hand I risk sounding like the kind of snob I occasionally met at Grad school; writers who turned up their noses at the very idea of a write-in with a weird acronym.

Just after deciding to take part in NaNoWriMo 2016 I read SuddenlyJamie’s inspirational blog post and, heartened by her balanced and sensible approach to the November madness, I plunged right in.

How have I gone so far? I’ve written 13,689 words in the last eight days, a little over the recommended daily average for a 50,000 word novel. Apart from taking a break on Sunday, and struggling to regain my momentum on Monday, the experience has been worth it. I admit to having trouble trusting the quality of the words but I understand that’s partly what NaNoWriMo is about; getting the words on the screen or the page and editing later. So far I’ve resisted the voice in my head saying, ‘You need a comma there. Oh, no, you’re not going to let THAT word stay are you? Good heavens, a ten year old could write a better sentence.’

I also wonder if I have the persistence to maintain my current word rate and the self belief necessary to compete the 50,000 word challenge and then craft, edit and polish the entire novel (a total of 75,000 words, once I add the 25,000 I wrote over two years ago). My biggest concern, however, is will I be able to say ‘No,’ to requests on my time?

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Stephanie Krist

The kind of momentum required for something like NaNoWriMo is as much about self belief as time. I may not reach my goal of 50,000 words but that doesn’t mean I will fail. If I stop because I have a ‘my brain feels like wet straw,’ day or because I agree to requests that draw me away from my computer, I will fail; I will no longer be true to the idea of myself as a woman who writes.

I did not decide to participate in NaNoWriMo because I want, on the 30th November, a completed first ‘discovery draft’ of a novel. My participation is an act of faith in myself.

Are you taking part in this year’s NaNoWriMo? How do you gather and maintain the momentum needed to complete your daily word count? How do you maintain self belief?  How will you feel if you don’t meet your goal? (Would you like a writing buddy?)

THERAPEUTIC WRITING AND SELF-BELIEF

This week I want to reflect on the connection between therapeutic writing and believing in one’s ability to do well. It is difficult for a practised writer to trust her talent, skills and judgement: writing is a singular occupation involving solitary stretches of time in front of a computer or blank page. Drafting, writing, revising, editing and proofreading a story is a painstaking affair and writing a novel can seem like a marathon. Inexperienced writers who write as a way of healing are trying to deal with a trauma, or physical or mental health problems. This alone can undermine their self-belief and indicates that writing to heal may not be the best way to deal with deeply seated problems, especially if the writer has no one to guide or support them.

Given, however, last week’s events in France, Beirut and other parts of the world, I wonder if a blog about self-belief is relevant or appropriate. After much thought I concluded that those who inflict the worst kind of pain and trauma on others possess an extreme, unrealistic and entrenched form of belief in themselves and in their cause. I have decided, therefore, that self-belief is a continuum; on one hand it is used to ordain heinous behaviour, on the other it can be used to authorise creative, nurturing and loving acts that enrich all humanity.

Because many people struggle to believe in their worth and can be mentally and emotionally crippled by its shortage, let’s start with poor self-belief, or as my mother used to call it, a lack of ‘aplomb’.

If we want to start something new, a blog post, poem or film script, we may find our inner voice maliciously foretells our downfall; ‘We,’ (for the inner voice is, above all else, concerned with self-defence), ‘are setting ourselves up to fail,’ it hisses. ‘This has been written before, we are not up to it, we are sure to look stupid.’ Most of the time the inner voice is not ours; it is a voice from the past, a teacher, perhaps, or a well-meaning but misguided friend. Sometimes it is even a parent who wants to protect us or, sadly, convince us that improving our lot is pointless. Focussing on our weaknesses, dwelling on past failures, and feeling worn down by adversity all contribute to diminished self-confidence, and low self-confidence shreds any self-belief we may have mustered. The problem is, writing is hard work and when we encounter difficulties we agree with the inner voice; ‘I knew I was hopeless at writing’, we think. ‘What could I possibly say on the topic, it has all been said before; I’m sure to fail if I keep going, so it is better to stop now.’

Those who enjoy an excess of self-belief follow, no matter their religion, race or culture, a determinedly righteous path: they brook no contradictions; believe their perspective of the world remains unquestioned; and foster an unassailable self-confidence. When this is taken to extremes, it is hard to agree with Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

No one consents to abuse or violence. When, however, those of us who struggle with self-belief are confronted with another’s excessive self-belief, we can blame ourselves when threatened. This is exactly what abusers and terrorists want.

Is it possible to improve self-belief? Australian writer Russ Harris has an interesting answer to this question. In The Confidence Gap, he defines confidence as ‘a feeling of certainty or assurance’ and ‘an act of trust and reliance’. Harris points out that most of us make the mistake of assuming we must feel confident before we dive in and trying to achieve our goals. The truth, however, is just the opposite.

I encountered a similar idea in March 2009 when I participated in a seminar run by Hugh Kearns, co-founder, with Maria Gardiner, of ThinkWell™ . Drawing on the latest research into cognitive behaviour therapy and education, Hugh and Maria conduct seminars and workshops in achieving one’s potential. Because they aim their workshops at medical practitioners, academics and PhD students, I was able to attend two of their seminars. Hugh Kearns and Russ Harris’ ideas are similar, but their focus is different; Harris examines confidence, Kearns examines motivation. Most people believe motivation must precede action; in order to do something we need to be motivated to do it. In 2009, like most of my fellow post graduates, I believed I had to be motivated before I could write anything. But, as with confidence, the opposite is true; Kearns encourages students to write for at least ten minutes, even when they are not motivated to do so. The idea is, as I recorded in my workshop notes, action leads to motivation, which then leads to more action. Kearns’ workshops helped me complete my dissertation and now, whenever I struggle to write this blog, or a short story I tell myself to write for ten minutes. It worked this week and I trust that, should the need arise, it will work next week as well.

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Self-belief and confidence are tricky concepts. Having too little means life, other people and our past can frustrate or thwart our dreams. Sometimes we overcome these barriers and feel good. When we can’t, we feel bad and blame ourselves for not being motivated, confident or determined enough. This is something I have battled most of my life but in the last few years I feel I have conquered the problem: maybe it is my age; maybe it is completing a PhD; maybe I grew tired of giving myself, and others, a hard time because I could not muster the necessary self-belief I thought I needed to write. Whatever the reason, my writing now comes first. Anything else has to fit in around it. Is this self-belief as an unassailable, self-righteous, unquestioned absolute? I hope not, but what am I prepared to do to keep writing?

I think the message is balance and remaining aware of where I am on the continuum. I will do my best not to hurt another creature, human or otherwise, but I must take those precious ten minutes (and the hours that, invariably, follow), uninterrupted and undiminished by fears and a malevolent inner voice. Action, I have learned, leads to motivation and more action, which leads to confidence and perhaps that is how I can help make the world a better place.

Where are you on the self-belief continuum? What do you think of the idea that action leads to motivation and to confidence? What do you do when it is time to write but you feel unmotivated? What are you prepared to do in order to keep writing?