“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else
is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Most of us spend our entire lives in one body (at least I don’t think any full body transplants have been successful so far).
Day after day after day, for as far back as we can go, we have been us (and, see, right there, a few people grunted, “Don’t remind me!“). For many people being you is one of the hardest things.
Some of us might not even remember ever truly being ourselves.
I find that mind-boggling and understandable at the same time.
I’m in the final stages (he types with fingers crossed – which explains any typos) of revising the manuscript for my Middle Grade novel, The Short Bus. It’s exciting and a bit daunting because the next stage is submitting the manuscript, which is sort of like teleporting into a new school during lunch and trying to find a table where you might belong.
Nobody knows you!
Unless they happened to come across that unfortunate video your kid sister posted of you tripping . . . down the bleachers . . . during the Homecoming Football Game at your last school (btw, some of these anecdotes are purely fictional, others quite real, though I shall not say which is which, except to say that one was totally made up – I fell during a basketball game, while I was playing, but that’s another story).
Okay, I realize it’s hard to imagine, but I used to be a bit dorky. You know, when I was a kid
If I channel my inner-dork, now, as an adult, it’s purely intentional, but back in the day I may have been more Potsy than the Fonz, more Lenny than Carmine, more Bullwinkle than Rocky. I suppose that’s one reason I can relate to misfits. You know, being one and all.
“We contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman
On the basketball court, previous example aside, I did a pretty good job of being myself. When I was out there on the court, running like a three-legged gazelle, I would lose myself in the moment. All the hyper-drive energy pulsing through me was suddenly channeled, dedicated to one purpose.
The rest of the time, I was sort of this conflicted, amorphous kid. I was a good student, but no academic; funny, but shy (I was the one-liner whisperer, aka the instigator who saw the humor in most things and sparked chuckles in my classmates from the wings); an athlete without being, well, super-athletic . . . you get the picture.
I share this because, as I’ve been putting the finishing touches on Xero’s story, I recently had an epiphany. I had set out to write a novel about the most ordinary boy in the world – a boy so ordinary, in fact, that he doesn’t really fit in – a boy bent on getting people to see him for his one good thing, even though he hasn’t yet discovered for himself what that one thing might be.
Yeah. It dawned on me the other day. Xero is me!
Damn! Talk about taking the air out of the tires. Turns out, from my perspective, one of the things Xero is good at, and maybe a little obsessed with, is seeing things for what they are, seeing people from who they are. And he wants to get other people to do that as well.
In a way, that’s why I write.
To hold a particular character or event or situation up under the light and to say, hey, let’s look at this from other angles. The special effects for those cool Matrix movies, and so many others since, relied on setting up cameras completely around something and shooting it from every angle, then putting those images together.
But how often do we not do that when it comes to viewing other people?
How often do we really not do that when it comes to viewing ourselves?
The Short Bus is about identity.
And I’m not going to delve into the psychology behind who we are or how we get that way, at least not here, nor into the external or the genetic variables at play. But I will say that I for one have taken awhile to figure out who I am.
Students often complain about having to take English year after year after year. The truth is, they still usually have a long way to go when it comes to being proficient, but we spend even more time working on being ourselves only much of that time we end up being someone else. Sometimes intentionally, though often quite accidentally.
Sometimes we don’t even realize how far we’ve drifted from the person we once were. From the person we started as in this “one wild and precious” life.
There are myriad influences behind that. And we certainly can’t control all of them (we can’t, really, control a tiny fraction of them). But here’s one thing we can do, right now, in this moment.
Stop. Really, stop. And answer one question.
If today was day one. And you could do anything (quite literally anything) that you are passionate about doing without having to worry about income or stability or what other people think. What would you do?
For some, the answer will come immediately. For others, the initial response is, yeah, but we don’t live in a fantasy world. Those people have learned to not even consider the possibility.
For others who might fit somewhere in between, you might think, I know what I’d like to do, but . . . The key isn’t thinking we live in a fantasy world. It’s actually the opposite. It’s identifying that core what if value or passion that you have, and recognizing the world for what it is, full of obstacles . . . and opportunities . . .
It’s about trying to navigate the former and to take advantage of the latter while giving yourself permission to try that one thing. To just try.
That is what I wish for you. Today. This week.
I got some good responses from last week’s writing prompt, so I’ll share another below. You can apply it to yourself (whether you are a writer or not, an artist or not) or you can apply it toward a character, a narrator, a speaker (for writing or for visual art).
One thing I learned this week from Xero, unexpectedly, is that for all the time I have spent in my life trying to get other people to see things more fully for what they are (including myself), I have often forgotten to slow down, to actually stop and look at myself from every angle. I have forgotten to do that to me.
Our identities are complex. They tend to be always in flux, to some degree, changing shape and dimension depending on the context.
How often, though, do we spend time not even looking at who were are and spend it instead, trying to project the image of who we think we should be?
Here’s to being a somewhat nerdy, awkwardly athletic, passionately introverted, friendly, shy, kind, empathetic, occasionally blithering, blundering, bighearted, borderline dork (intentionally and unintentionally), oh yeah, and a writer.
I wonder if that isn’t the driving force behind so many “selfies” these days – a desire to get people to see an aspect of who we are.
Speaking of self-perception, here’s an interesting video on how people sometimes see themselves.
I. You return to the home of your childhood (you’re in town – for a
family reunion, class reunion, or for some event like a wedding, birth,
death – and you find out that house is suddenly for sale . . . and you
go look at it).
II. While there, you remember where you kept your secret stash and you
instinctively check it out, not expecting anything to still be there. But
you find a box hidden you had forgotten about – a collection taking you
to back to one of the things you loved to do as a child (collecting rocks
as a young archeologist; or matchbox cars when you were an imaginary
racer; maybe they’re news-clippings or photographs of you as a cheerleader
or as an eight-year-old fashion designer or a backyard caped-crusader
or a rock star).
III. You take the box of memories with you. Not long after
you get back to your current home, you have a day completely and
utterly to yourself (everyone is gone for one day).
IV. You take out the box. You stir through the memories.
V. You check one more time to make sure you’re alone. And then . . .
A) Write a scene as action (use as much descriptive detail as possible to show us)
in which you take part in the activity you loved either as you did in childhood
or as you would today (if that’s different). You can also draw or paint
a scene if you’d prefer.
Write a scene as dialogue where someone confides in you (or in your character/narrator/speaker) that they have a childhood love they had put aside, but now want to pursue again. Your intention is to be open to whatever shape the dialogue takes without trying to steer it. Be open to any emotions or words or images that you experience.
“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” – Joseph Campbell
Rachel Rickert is a twenty-something art student in New York City who is chasing her dream. According to Rachel, “When I am painting is the only time I feel I am truly living in the moment.” Rachel’s painting, “Lost Dreams Run Scared,” is the latest arrival at Other Cool Birds.
I admire Rachel for her talent (and she has a lot), but even more for recognizing that part of herself and for listening. For being true to the person she is in a world “constantly trying to make you something else.”