August: On the Clarion Staircase.

In my husband’s and my conversations about various attempts at achievement and self-improvement, we talk about something I’ve dubbed the Clarion Staircase Effect.  I’ll explain why in a minute, but first I’ll give you the most recent example.

I’ve been studying Russian for going on five months now, using a textbook, various apps, and twice-weekly meetings with a Skype tutor. This is the fourth foreign language that I’ve studied with any seriousness, and I normally excel at it.  I mention this not to be immodest, but to explain why it was frustrating to me, after five months, to still feel as though I were doing math problems in my head when I tried to speak in Russian, rather than having even the beginnings of a fluid “feel” for the language.  Every week I would study, and every week I would show up at lessons with my tutor and absolutely flounder. The only phrases in Russian that came to me fluidly were “I don’t understand” and “I don’t remember the word,” and those only from overuse.

It wasn’t until last week that I realized my tutor was, intentionally or unintentionally, creating the Clarion Staircase Effect in the escalating content of our sessions.

You probably begin to understand what I mean, but I’ll explain explicitly anyhow.

When I attended Clarion in the summer of 2009, I was terribly out of shape.  I’d been more or less a shut-in for a couple of years before that due to mental health issues, and although I’d spent a few months pre-Claroin doing daily walks around the neighborhood to lift myself from a purely sedentary state to something more approaching human, I wasn’t prepared for the fact that every morning for six weeks I’d have to walk up to a classroom on the fourth floor.  I was also pregnant.

The first day of class, I was sweaty and gasping for air, heart pounding, worried for the health of my unborn child.  But by about week four, when I got to the top of the staircase I was… sweaty and gasping for air, heart pounding, worried for the health of my unborn child.

“This is so frustrating,” I confided to a classmate in week four as I sank miserably into a chair.  “I figured after nearly five weeks of daily cardio this would be at least a little bit easier.  And yet here I am, still gasping like a fish, just like the first day.”

“But have you noticed,” said my classmate, “that now you climb the stairs in about half the time?”

Oh.

I do this to myself chronically.  I set a Difficulty Level for a task in my head, and subconsciously I adjust the task so that it meets the expected difficulty level, rather than doing it the same way I did before and enjoying the pleasure of watching the difficulty drop.  This perpetual bar-raising is a wonderful way to get better at things, but it’s not a great way to feel good about yourself.  So sometimes I have to remind myself, if I don’t seem to be improving at a task, it may be that my standards are moving ahead of my capability like a carrot on a stick.

Writing the Arcadia Project series has been like that, too.  I keep asking myself why first drafts never get any easier, despite my confidence.  And then I remember that every book I write has a larger number of threads I’m trying to tie together, higher stakes, and more complicated networks of relationships.  I’m not satisfied with simply repeating what I’ve done before.  Every time I sit down to write a book, I want to push myself to the point just before giving up, because that way I know I’m growing as a writer.  The minute it starts to feel easy, I know I’m cheating myself out of an opportunity to grow.

What about you?  Do you do this to yourself?  Have you been doing it and not realizing it?  Or are you the sane type who lets yourself enjoy the fruits of your own self-improvement by setting yourself tasks you couldn’t have managed two years ago, but can now accomplish with ease?

Mailbox: Seven Decades

Thanks to my putting my mailing address “out there” prominently for anyone to find, I’ve begun to receive such truly remarkable letters on a regular basis that I think I’m going to have to make blogging about them a semiregular activity.  For a while I was contented with occasionally tweeting that I had received something that touched me, but then I received a letter from a 60+ year old woman in Idaho, and I realized that 140 characters wasn’t going to cover it.  I don’t have her permission to use her name, and don’t know how to contact her online, but I’ve asked permission in my reply to her letter, and so I’ll possibly edit this post later with a bit more about her.

I was intrigued before I even opened the card; it had a haunting photograph of misty trees pasted to the outside, created, I can only presume, by the author of the letter, as it was titled beneath: ” ‘ECHO’ – for Mishell Baker “.

This woman wrote a letter to thank me for having written Borderline, and somehow, it seemed, to thank me for simply existing.  It sounds strange, doesn’t it?  Excessive?  Except that this woman, better than anyone, must have known how valuable it is for me to receive reassurance that it’s okay for me to take up space.  She knew this because, like me, she has borderline personality disorder.  And somehow, miraculously, without the new tools we have to identify and manage the condition, she has survived into a seventh decade.

I’m not certain if she realizes how miraculous that is.  I fact I’m sure she doesn’t, given that she had written to me to congratulate me on something she considered a tremendous achievement.  All I did was write a book.  This woman has somehow not only survived past sixty without ever finding an understanding therapist, but also managed to find some kind of peace, after many harrowing decades that she only delicately alludes to:

“…after a long lifetime of moving around in hope of outrunning all that ailed me, I have finally grown roots and stayed put these last seventeen years; able to…make some real progress in the construction of self.”

My eyes fill with tears just reading this.  Can you even imagine?  To be a woman in her forties, carrying around (what I can only imagine must be) a string of broken relationships and abandoned careers, and to still have the courage to try again, to settle somewhere and begin the process of finding out who you are?  This woman attributed courage to me, but only I think because, as someone with BPD, she found it hard to recognize such a good quality in herself.  People with BPD are prone to idealizing others and belittling their own accomplishments (as well as the accomplishments of anyone foolish enough to love them).

It’s hard for me to express what it meant to receive this letter.  I never imagined that anything I might write or say, could move a person more than twenty years my senior to thank me.  If I ever nurtured fantasies of illuminating readers or changing their lives for the better, I always imagined lost souls in their teens or twenties who hadn’t yet reaped the benefit of surviving long enough to pick up a few tricks that pass for wisdom.

I don’t even remember now exactly what I replied to her, but I hope I said something to make it worth the effort she took in reaching out to me.

If you’d like to reach out, you may do so at 4960 W Washington Blvd; PO Box 78760; Los Angeles, CA 90016.

July: On Perspective.

My trip to the Pacific Northwest in May was amazing.  Laura Anne Gilman acted as my hostess in Seattle, seeing to my every whim for two solid days and giving me extended tours of the area before SFWA treated me to dinner and provided me a lovely audience to read to.  Then I took a train to Portland, where the SFWA folks there made sure I had a ride to the event, I got treated to dinner again, and a stranger came up to me exclaiming, “I’m a huge fan!”

I got so much Celebrity Treatment that the trip would have been enough to precariously overbalance my ego — if I hadn’t been to a massive Las Vegas convention just a few weeks before, where not only had no one heard of me, but many weren’t sure exactly what my genre was all about.

In some bodies of water, you’re a big fish.  In others, you’re plankton.

~

My father used to tell me his strategy for dealing with road rage when he was caught in a traffic jam.  “I just imagine,” he said, “that I’m rising above the car, higher and higher, until I can see every single car that’s stuck there on that road, all the people inside who are all frustrated, all believing that where they’re headed is the most pressing, important thing in the world.”  This image has always stuck with me.  Whenever I get too unpleasantly caught up in the right here, right now, I imagine pulling back.  I try to imagine what my situation would look like from a helicopter.  From an airplane.  From the International Space Station.  While we don’t like to be told by other people that we are making too much of something, it’s a very calming realization to arrive at on your own, and visualizations like this are how I get there.

But of course, we can’t live our lives at maximum wide-angle every minute.  Pull back far enough, and literally everything you do is meaningless.  We’ve seen a few dudes throughout history get hung up on this idea and write volumes about it, and they’re not wrong, but they’re also not right.  Meaning is, by its nature, contextual.  So to say an act is “meaningless” raises the question “to whom?”  To the Universe?  Sure.  To someone you personally care about?  Maybe not.  If something is meaningful to you, it is still meaningful.  Whether you use a telephoto or a wide angle lens — or a microscope, or a telescope! – the thing you’re taking a picture of does not actually change.  All that changes is the portion of it you choose to see.

~

So how do you decide which lens to use?  In my experience, the sanest course is to switch them out.  Just as my adventures in Las Vegas and the Pacific Northwest showed me two versions of myself – the Nobody and the Celebrity – changing up your perspective can show you new angles on almost anything in your life.  Your spouse is an impossible trial, and a saint.  Your home is a dump, and a palace.  Your job is an adventure, and a bore.  We can never hold the entirety of a person or a situation in our minds at once; the human brain just doesn’t have the processing power.  So moving around, touching different parts of the proverbial elephant, is the closest we can come to understanding Truth.  Get too settled into one perspective and you become the guy in the story stubbornly holding onto the elephant’s tail and insisting that the animal resembles a rope.

Vladimir Nabokov said, “You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite successions of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable.”

If we can’t attain reality, what is the point?  To me, it’s the journey.  The exhilarating sense of intellectual motion toward understanding.  Experience everything you can; read about the things you can’t.  Read about the same thing from three different viewpoints.  Talk to your opposition until you begin to understand where they’re coming from.  The moment you think you understand something, true ignorance begins, because there is nothing in this world – not a pebble, not a word, not a gesture – that is small enough that a human mind can fully contain it.

If you want to be an excellent writer, or even a fully alive and awake human being, my advice is to make of yourself a giant human question mark, as children are.  Challenge yourself constantly; don’t get too comfortable.  Life is a moving target, and if you keep your aim still, you are likely to miss it.