Wednesday, February 15, 2017

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: When We Falter, We Pick Ourselves Up

by Sara Lippmann

“You should only listen to yourself, that’s your only job, really, as an artist, even if you are completely wrong, that’s what an artist does, listen to one’s self.”

Gael Garcia Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle
If you haven’t seen Mozart in the Jungle, I recommend it for its pure, escapist pleasure, a frivolous if fleeting distraction from the dreadful new daily hell we call life. Gael Garcia Bernal plays an impassioned, unconventional maestro. (Need I say more?) Watch for his face alone, for the whole electric cast, for music that stirs the heart. Watch because laughter – even, especially, in times like these – is a necessary relief. Who can resist a fraught maestro/protégé relationship where lines are blurred and crossed? Watch because the camera loves them. Because although it won’t alter our dismal reality a stitch, the show just might give you good dreams.

The young oboist, says, “I should have listened to you.”

Watch for this mentorship, contained in a simple act of grace: “You should only listen to yourself, that’s your only job, really, as an artist.”

I’ve not always had the best luck with mentors. (An essay for another day, perhaps.) Still, I keep seeking. But more than anything or anyone: We must listen to ourselves. Follow our gut, trust our instinct, even if we don’t understand it, even if it may steer us wrong, because that is our job: to plunge head first, without a safety net, in reckless pursuit of story. Sound precious? Maybe. Who cares. To tell it as we feel it, as we hear it, think it. To ignore what anyone else wants or how we might be perceived – to push away the boatloads of bullshit – to trick ourselves, or do it anyway, despite all the garbage, at least, for a while.

And when we falter we are to pick ourselves up and keep going. Fight on, claw through it, and do not succumb to despair. We know this, deep in the bones.


And yet. Of course, there is interference. Outside opinions may worm its way into our ears. External voices can become internalized, so that suddenly, there are many – so many amped up, competing voices – all we hear is a noisy mess. We may even supplant another’s voice for our own.

Or worse: we forget how to shut up and listen to ourselves in the first place.

I’ve been there. Over the years I have felt needy, desperate. Eager to please. I have overlooked red flags. Sought the quick fix, sacrificed integrity. I have pandered to other people’s notions and dwelled on marketplace. I have caved to pressures, deleting my most honest work. Every self-pitying, self-indulgent thought, I’ve had it. I’m not proud of this, but there is no end to my shame. I’ve felt angry, alone, afraid. I have even questioned my motives, my heart, my fundamental need for telling.

Maybe this sounds familiar.

With the swarm buzzing around me, saying: You have nothing to say. What’s the point? What’s wrong with you? Who do you think you are? No one hears you. And if no one hears you, is there even a sound? I have sat in the dark. Thrust my head under the pillow.

And when the crescendo builds to an undecipherable scream, I have given myself over to it, letting myself be swallowed. I have stopped writing entirely. Sometimes for long stretches.

But my story doesn’t end there.

Eventually, I begin again.

This is my pattern. It is an endless cycle. And so on, etc.

A longer project takes time. A longer project – with no end in sight – requires a different kind of listening. With stories, maybe I can focus intensely for a spell, and find the exit; whereas now, the listening demands are more sustained, but also spread out over time. Months for some, years for others, years and years for me.

What am I doing again?

I’m in the hole. Miles from my comfort zone, from any familiar territory, any ground I can trust. I stay quiet and listen, but my voice is often muffled down here in the tunnel, knee deep in muck. I feel around in the dark, stumble, fall. I keep falling. I’m not sure where I’ll end up. Even if I knew, there’d be no guarantee.

Press on or turn back? I’m wracked with uncertainty. This summer I attended a conference, seeking solidarity, in a classroom, with others on a similar journey. My teacher took one look at me, wet-eyed and nail-bitten, and called me “tortured.” The whole thing was embarrassing: to be 41 years old and seeking what?

A smiley face on the page, a gold star.

Thanks to her fourth grade teacher, my daughter can tell you: Praise gets you nowhere.

No one can give you conviction. Chutzpah. Leap of faith.

To his credit, my teacher offered me this, which I’ll butcher. Hold onto it, he said. That thing you’ve got – your voice, your substance, your story – with two cupped hands as if catching water. Protect it.

If you don’t protect it, if you don’t keep the conduit clear between heart and gut, the music becomes distorted, the message fractured, frayed. I know.

I tell my own students.

Hopefully, we have someone in our corner: if not a mentor, then a family member, a loved one, a spouse, a partner, pet frog, a friend or colleague or writing buddy, a faithful first reader because writing can be isolating. But support is less about empty praise, and more about amplifying your own unique voice. The mentor is the megaphone rooting: Yes, you can. Believe in yourself. That, alone, is what you have. Trust that intuition. Do the work. There is no shortcut. Screw the rest. The days we spend are lonely, the blank page often grim. There will be whopping missteps. Self-doubt may never goes away. It’s what keeps me honest. The best we can do as teachers and peers and decent human beings is tell our dear ones, with love: your creative music, it’s all already there, inside you. Hold it up like a conch. Listen to no one else.

Father's day appeared in the Lit n Image and was a Wigleaf Top 50 2011


Oh daddy we mommies watch you through the sprinklers’ rainbow mist, thumbing iPhones—who’s the daddy? Not a single daddy or a Sunday daddy but an everyday daddy, a daddy kept by those runty three who climb muscled calves as if you were a jungle gym. We trace your river veins, sweat sliding down the gullet of your cheekbones and into a tickler at your chin. Christ, it is hot on the playground. While you chat up the nannies we sip our sangria from biodegradable cups. Daddy, your children chant, pick me up daddy take me for a ride daddy toss me a ball daddy spin me like a prize: daddy daddy daddy daddy whoops. Your kids are eating mud again. Pica, daddy? They aren’t triplets, your one-two-three, but they are close enough to wonder how they all came from one mother. Really, who has the time? Your wife must make bank. Your son is climbing the chain link, barefoot. Your daughter has fallen off the monkey bars—daddy!—but you’re there, quarterbacking your toddler in order to seize your daughter by the arm. A gasp escapes from the bench where we sit in our Bermuda shorts, stroller mommies with enormous hooded sun shields. Did you see that? We whisper down in a game of telephone, our eyes wide as kiddie pools, he could’ve yanked it out of the socket, dislocated her shoulder, if my husband ever, someone should call child services. Only she is fine. It’s your third one who’s stuck on the fence, a kitten calling from a tree, daddy that means you. We leap, offering woozy breasts—puffy, eager hands. We inhale your smell, and you look at us, grateful and indifferent as you pass along offspring. When your son skitters, scraping his shins, mommies are prepared. Wipes and Band-Aids and lollipops and antiseptic, what does your wife do? We don’t ask but study the pop of your glutes as you crouch before your son and tell him—what doesn’t break us makes us stronger. Meanwhile your other children have adopted us like city pigeons, pecking into bags of cheddar bunnies. Doesn’t your daddy feed you? We giggle, we blow noses, we hand out bubbles and sidewalk chalk; we spot a red bandanna blooming from your back pocket. Breathless are the mommies who wait for the playdate where you take us home to gag us and cinch up our beating wrists.


Sara Lippmann's story collection, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in Burrow Press Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Midnight BreakfastMr. Beller's Neighborhood Fiction Southeast and elsewhere. She teaches with Ditmas Writing Workshops and lives in Brooklyn. For more, see

No comments: