In many artist circles we are obsessively focused on talent. Who is more talented than who. What less talented artist achieved more fame and notoriety than another more talented artist. Becoming older, I realize the importance of other factors. Hard work is an easy one, but a commitment to completion, a willingness to put your work out there, the discipline to submit to your work, however “imperfect” you believe it to be—those skills are harder to identify and master.
I think when we see someone achieve something great, we think perhaps they mustered up more magic, more effort, more support. We never think about what they may have subtracted from the equation to allow them to succeed. I am currently riding a wave of productivity that I do not attribute to talent. Have I worked on my talent? Certainly. I’ve been writing fiction for many, many years. I’ve started and joined writing workshops, I attended the six-week Clarion West workshop for spec fic writers, and I put in the hours—writing and editing story after story, submitting over and over again. At a certain point, though, I stopped asking how I can be a better writer, and started asking how can I get my work out into the world. How can I give a platform to the artistic voice that I have developed and nurtured?
I finally realized that working on the writing is only part of the equation. For many years I was living out the belief that I would have a book when my writing was “ready.” As I worked and worked and worked toward a book, I got tired of hearing myself complain about what I hadn’t done (written a novel). My collection of short stories grew out of my realization that I was disrespecting and ignoring the work I had done. I spent so many years focused on creating more work, “better” work, longer works, that I almost missed out on publishing a book containing work that already existed!
When I made the decision to appreciate my work, I got a collection of short stories published that has given me the momentum and inertia to keep moving forward with my work. I put myself in service of the collection and in doing so, created an identity and a trajectory that I want to keep up with. It was like creating my own tailwind! Today, I am in the throes of rewriting a novel that I completed in 2006. Since then my perspective on what it means to write a novel has completely transformed.
I realize that a writing career doesn’t begin with writing a book. Writing a book is an expression of being a writer. I understand that I’m not writing a novel to define myself or unlock my secret writer future. I’m writing this novel to live out loud as a writer. I’m writing this novel to feel what it means for me—a working mother—to write. I’m writing this novel to learn who I am as a writer and to listen hard to the voice within who is telling me the stories she wants to tell.
After a certain point, pursuit becomes pointless (and tiring). It’s not always about making yourself stronger, faster, leaner, harder, more focused. Sometimes it’s about relaxing into yourself and saying , “How can I better be who I am?”—How can I better be the writer I am? The person I am?
In an essay my father recently wrote about himself, he talks about the idea of who we are and who we can be:
“A baby has to learn that the self is not someone else, not the mother whom you love to snuggle up to; not the blanket, the red-striped ball, the stuffed animal, the bottle, none of that is you.
Not all the pictures that are presented to us of what we ought to be or what we desire to be; not the movie actors with whom we are smitten, or of whom we are jealous or envious, or whatever; not the entertainment stars, the musicians and athletes. Moreover, if you are not actually them, they are not you. That social equation is axiomatic, you are not someone else and someone else is not you. And here, of course is where it gets tricky, because here is where desire enters the equation and the capitalist manipulation of our minds in America. In America we are taught we can be anyone we want to be. And that is just not true. Sure, we can be/come a lot of things but not ‘anything’ we desire, especially given how our desires are so easily manipulated….”
The thing that we can best be, that we are uniquely equipped to be, is ourselves. As the parade of success floats by us through the media and word of mouth, it can be almost impossible to determine what success means for us… and where to find our personal path to success is. I remember in my dark, unproductive years when I complained to my father that I couldn’t write. He told me that of course it was difficult, I was parenting a young child. “Just be a mother right now,” he said. “You can write later.”
I did not recognize the wisdom in those words. I wanted my writing career to continue its upward trajectory. At the time, my inability to write was physically painful. But CEO Ursula Burns suggests that was because I was trying to force a type of productivity that was impossible. “It’s a ‘fool’s journey’ to try to achieve perfect balance between one’s professional and personal lives, Burns says. Instead, she suggests women get comfortable with the idea of taking “your entire life to find balance. You should have balance, on average, over time—not in a day or in a month.”
For the artist, this means releasing the self from external expectations of productivity. It means being true to the impulses that are alive within at any given time. It is a tightrope dance—being as productive as possible under whatever conditions life hands to you. The ability and willingness to identify what’s possible under different conditions requires maturity and wisdom.
For our own sanity we are called to understand, really understand down in our bones that, that life and artistry is not a race. We must learn how to embrace everything we do as an important part of the construction of who we are. We must recognize that we will achieve our goals faster by being the person we want to be than by doing the things we think will take us where we want to go.
The crux of fulfillment is becoming one with yourself. With maturity and surrender you can learn listen to the internal cues and the micro-messages around you to uncover your boundless limitless self—your true self. With maturity and surrender, you c an accept that you can’t be whoever you want to be (you can only be yourself), but you will feel the magic of knowing that the act of truly being yourself opens the doors on what you can achieve. It is up to each of us to study self: to ask and answer, refine and redefine, quest to know our own depths and abilities and use that awareness to become the highest iteration of ourselves.
I’ll end with a segment from an article profiling super athlete Kilian Jornet Burgada:
“What are you running after? I asked Jornet. Having beaten men, do you now want to challenge the mountains? He gently corrected me. You don’t beat the mountains. You go when they permit, he said. The speed records and “firsts” aren’t important except for motivation, he insisted…. “The important thing is not to catch something,” said Jornet…. What matters in life is the pursuit, and everything we learn along the way. “The important thing,” he said, “is moving.”
Just as Jornet says you don’t beat the mountains, you can’t beat life. You go where life permits. When I say life, I don’t mean others, I don’t mean society, I don’t mean family, I don’t mean rules, I mean life—that amorphous, ever-present space that we live in. Life has rises and falls, hills and valleys—you can’t define those, avoid them, or decide when they occur. You can only pursue your truest expression through it all. For me that means, I can’t force life to submit to my attempts to write. I can’t try to cram through a writing career by having a book. I can only submit to the process of writing a book–whatever that means at that moment in time. When conditions change, I must change. The more I fully submit to my personal rhythms, methods, perspectives, the more able I am to create artistic products in the world. It’s a mental switch that has come with maturity, and I am grateful to be able to say, I am moving, at last.
Be well. Be love[d].
Kiini Ibura Salaam
======= BOOK REPORT =======
This past Sunday I participated in Bold As Love magazine’s Sundays at The Sackett reading series. It was a lovely and uber-affirming afternoon. There I heard work from a writer who is new to me–Camille Goodison; heard new work from a writer I know well—Farai Chideya; and was reacquainted with Merlina, a sci fi woman if there ever was one, from the treasure trove of Liza Jessie Peterson’s characters.
The reading series is committed to writers presenting works-in-progress—which is a call to just be yourself if I’ve ever heard one. This was difficult for me because the reading featured speculative fiction but my current novel is not speculative. I had to wrestle my concerns about what kind of writer I am to the ground to return to this novel. Those concerns are not internal, they reflect the external labels of the marketplace. The truth of who I am is a writer who writes across genres; I am interstitial!
By the time the reading rolled around, magic had magically cropped up in my novel! First, I choked my ownself up reading “Debris” from my collection. Then I read the chapter from my novel in which the magic is introduced. This novel is literally in progress, and consequently not fully formed. It is so new that it hasn’t yet reached its end. Psychologically, it’s difficult to read something that doesn’t yet have a complete arc, however the audience’s warm and eager reception helped to tell the work: come on out and play—you’ve got readers ready to receive you. Soon come, everyone. Soon come!
Photos from the event: