Writing 101: Sacred and Simple

The more I write, the more I am taken with it, the magic of the word. Turn the wrist and your word is a clear brook. Flick, and you have a blade, or a balm. To be able to put out one, two, three words for a title and draw people in; convince them to pause in their hurried steps and step inside, there is a power in that. They pull up a seat, and some linger and chat. Some cry a little; other times they walk out still laughing because it was the room of your childhood they had entered and they remembered. The window to your marriage you’d opened and they know. It was your messy soul they inhabited briefly, experienced from the inside out and they blushed a little. It was their one-minute confessional before they drew the door back out to the light.

There is something religious about writing for me. It calls for devotion, affection, discipline, even bloody sacrifice. And it’s redemptive, every word sacred. If you pile on the descriptors, especially those adjectives and adverbs you are so fond of, you reveal a lack of faith in the rest of your words, either in the potency of language or your own ability to cherry-pick its offerings. Your line must not be vivid enough, else why do you need four modifiers in a breath? Could you find one or two that do the job? I am full of faith. Let’s try this together.

The mountains were draped by black curtains of ominous storm clouds, portentous of trouble over marshy waters.

Sorry this is not sexy. But I am so grateful for the mercy of the missing adverb I want to cry.

For starters, we have the imagery of darkness replaying itself in the draped, black, curtains. Then the picture of something brewing duplicated in ominous, storm, portentous, trouble. As if the two ideas weren’t redundant enough, they are so similar as to feed each other (black and storm, for instance, serving both the gloom and imminence).

Let me illustrate how I see the writing process with a metaphor that is a religion all its own for many. In basketball, the three-pointer is one of the most impressive shots of course, made farthest from the basket. The ball, which we can liken to the word, spurns distance, flying with grace, muscle, surety. This is writing, the art of nailing it. The three-pointer holds an interesting success rate of about 35% in the NBA. The best players in America make it only a third of the time.

So an autopsy of our overclouded sentence reveals the problem wasn’t so much a superfluity of adjectives or even of ideas. That was merely the symptom of either an impotence toward a clear purpose or even a deeper mistrust in the authority of the word. I say it was a spiritual death. I usually build from the bone of meaning, combining nouns and verbs that I hope are crisp, to relatable metaphors, rather than slather on the fat and spice from the start. If I can use a noun that’s picturesque or compelling enough, I hold back the adjective (just redemption, which I’d considered embellishing above). And when I want more, I go with the least possible number of modifiers unless I am inflecting other elements of communication. So in measuring my words like a child in wartime rationing her meal, it isn’t just economy I’m after but also meaning, style, tone, and depth. Conveying all these elements as efficiently as one can is simplicity. I am not saying you can’t describe the morning in three adjectives. Sharon Olds with her many trippy, hypothermic descriptives has had me in knots barely able to get through her pain-saturated poems. But let’s respect this thing we call language. That is the sacred.

Obviously I am talking to people who want to raise the bar on their writing. We have a huge pet aisle here on WordPress and if you mean only to keep up the anecdotes about your dog, you don’t have to hamstring yourself. But if you want to be writing better, be sharper on the page than you were four years ago, don’t give yourself cheap praise. Question your choices and their motives. Whether you’re writing a travel journal, history, fiction, or poetry, ask yourself if every word is necessary because each one is doing its own thing, contributing something fresh to your picture. Fancy dribbling isn’t what scores your game.

If you have a better way – and the shelves are lined with authors who do – by all means have at it. But first, ask any man. A hint of perfume and he leans in. Assault me with it in the elevator, and uh, excuse me. I think I’ll take the stairs. The sin of gluttony abounds in all the arts. There is such a thing as too much salt in your sauce, too much red on the canvas, too much bling with that outfit, too much fills on the drums. Black clouds sat over the mountain.

Oh, but what’s that? You don’t believe me. You think I’m a blogging Grinch who’s out to steal your Christmas or keep you from your ebook sell-out. You think I didn’t catch that adverb in your clutch. Fine. I’ll leave you to your opinion of fine writing. But if you think me a pious know-it-all, at least close the curtains and on your way out, please remember the shoes you should’ve removed. Yes, thank you. In all fairness, no one made you enter my sacred ground.

[Poetry] is for me Eucharistic. You take somebody else’s suffering, their passion into your body and…you’re transformed by it, you’re made more tender, or more human. You’re more alive to your fellow human beings. I could literally read a poem and lift my head from the page and look out and my heart would just be softer. I think it kept me alive for a long time.

~ Mary Karr, 2011 Writers’ Symposium by the Sea

Thirty Years Later

I don’t know why people seek out fortune tellers. Why would you want to know the heartaches that lie ahead, the assurance that life will take your spouse and body and dreams?

He will be with his family tonight, Doctor, when he goes home, the deathless man says. Why should I tell him that tomorrow he is going to die? So that, on his last night with his family, he will mourn himself?…Suddenness. His life, as he is living it – well, and with love, with friends – and then suddenness. Believe me, Doctor, if your life ends in suddenness you will be glad it did, and if it does not you will wish it had.

Not me, I say. I do not do things, as you say, suddenly. I prepare, I think, I explain.
~ The one quotable text from Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife I can’t recommend

We hope, with foreknowledge, to hedge our bets, if only mentally. We like to imagine that we can avert, if not preempt, the undesirable – in the least, prepare ourselves and explain it. But the suffering is bad enough. Do we really need to expect it, too? And the glad blessings? Will their surety really help us live differently? Halfway up the California mountain thirty years later, I look down at the girl I left behind on the other side of the country. I wish I could promise her the thousand joys she dare not believe, the love in unexpected places, friends and a mess of food around her table. I wish I could teach her to nurture herself, admonish her away from her follies. But far and past, she is out of my hands. And she is so frustratingly, so helplessly her. She won’t do it any other way.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Life hangs by a prayer but you take so much for granted in your unhappiness. You have community and, for all their sins, parents who cherish you.

Stupid girl. You don’t listen. You need to take better care of yourself. You eat too much ice cream. You can fool others and even yourself, but not your body. One day you will have to learn to eat, sleep, live all over again. These brick apartments suffocate you but one day you’ll mark your own path. You always do. You will drive through a painting of Montana mountain and sky, and survey the gleaming Pacific. There are many, many good people ready at the crossroads of your life to look out for you. I am sorry that life will become so unyielding you will stop singing for 10 years.

There’s a man waiting to find you. He wants to build you a new life and provide all you need. You don’t know the cost and gift of marriage. The walk down the aisle is just expensive trimming. Though he’ll disappoint you many times over, it’s that he chooses you everyday. You will squeeze and crush the heart he left in your hand. And in his eyes you will still be enough.

You will experience the power and genius of God. You will feel fingers and toes in your womb, touching you from the inside. Those hands and feet will one day come to refresh your grave, mark the place of your memory. She was here. You will put your baby to your breast in the rocking chair, seat of the highest office in the world. You will sing again. Sacrifice is a privilege, because it means a purpose greater than yourself. But you will embitter your child too, as your parents did you. The love of parents, our broken inheritance.

One day the lights will go out in your home and you will read to your men by candlelight. They will love the inflections of your voice.

I didn’t think people could change but you are proof. I’m proud of you! You will grow less rigid, softer with others, having learned how foolish you can be. Wisdom works backward. Your life will be a desert’s bloom, well tolerant of drought. And before the sun has set on your dreams, right here on the edge of this switchback, you will learn it is safe to stop hurting. Learn that you are more than your fears, more than your boy, more than your most unworthy moments, more than your achievements.

The loyalty of friends, the forgiveness of family, You will be wanted and needed – your gifts of grace. And the words. You will claim your place in a virtual world, a very real world, and somehow in all your struggles and humanness, make many people laugh and think. You will matter. Will it take 30 years for you to know it is All Right to breathe, to smile, to trust that life is worth it?

You’ve done well, my dear. Closing the wrong doors to love, choosing the right one. You will bring a beautiful, thoughtful boy into this world. And though life has knocked you flat beyond counting, you keep climbing. We will look each other in the eyes and I will tell you everything when you reach me.

 

Men and Women: Another Difference

I deserve flak from my female cohorts. As a young adult, I never got the I-AM-WOMAN-HEAR-ME-ROAR hullabaloo. Why Oprah and devotees, TV shows, and pop culture rattled on about the woman with all the balls up in the air, exhausted in the attempt to satisfy diverse roles. Then I got married.

And became a mother.

The breadth of the tasks in my day-to-day, not to mention the depth, is such that I actually forget a lot of what I do. It is a great much, the littlest things one tends to as a mom.

I tore out a page of our calendar for you. I usually do more lessons, and doctor visits obviously are not a regular affair. But this day was typical in the way it packed one activity right into the next:

Breakfast
Dental checkup 45 minutes away
Lunch
Groceries
Brief playdate
Return: traffic
Martial arts
Math lesson
Dinner
DisHeS
Laundry
Prep for husband’s lunch next day

It was 6:40 when I was able to sit. Come to the computer and catch my breath – for eight minutes before showering Tennyson and tucking him in. In the past, I’ve gone on to cook two, three meals ahead for the little Foodie, find my way to the end of the dish pile, and clean the kitchen. This year, I’ve let myself write.

So I give you a glimpse of my week to share a rendition of a pretty amazing show we have going in our home.

LoungeOne day I walked into the master where I found Husband pacing. Out streamed from his mouth an uncharacteristically impressive list of To-Dos he had drawn up for the day. “…and I have to do oil change and detail the car and replace the tires pick up the timbau from Riverside mow the lawn get ready for Samba…”

*Pause*
*Slow exhale*

“I think….I’ll naaap.”

And he sank himself into the lounger with the grace of a deflating hot air balloon on landing.

Once I had picked my jaw up off the floor and my bug eyes had resumed their Asian size, I kicked him out, his laughter trailing him. The thing is, he’d meant it. The man really was going to take a siesta. It wasn’t just at my stunned bafflement but for the delight in the sweet change of plans that he’d crowed. It is beyond me. My husband is beyond me. Men are beyond me. If mothers so casually replaced obligations with sleep or every impulse, the human race would go extinct.

My Obituary

When she was young, she lived on her last dollar and books and dreams.
She worked as though her life depended on it.

She watched and smiled, said yes I’ll marry you.
She died and birthed her boy.

She played her heart on that piano and her husband heard
and loved her again.

She questioned, ate disbelief. She wept.
She prayed and prayed. She received.

She slow danced with ideas

She was frail, a leaf the wind turned over, and
a rock you couldn’t move for the convictions.

She sang blues and hymns and dreams.
She struggled to get off ground some days, and
wrote her way into clouds and drank their rain.

She asked God for one more day because she erred, wounded, and grieved.
She loved deeply. She didn’t love enough.

She hoped her life was enough.

 

Comments all yours if you’d like to write your own here.

The Secret to Happiness

A friend of mine who suffered immensely caring for her ailing parents found herself an orphan in her 20s. She was left with such an inheritance that she could – by her own admission – stay in her room and live on take-out the rest of her life. Meaning, she was set. My friend was free to live not to work. To work not to live. The obligation of employment did not weigh on her life, and she was free to dream whatever she dared with the means to transform it to reality.

She continues to live with the guilt.

Because, she says, it is her parents’ money she is sitting on, not something she herself earned. No matter that she worked hard all her life in school, that she made it in the world of finance as an Ivy league graduate. When life served her comfort on a silver platter and swept clear her runway, she sunk into depression.

Her response back then was profoundly intriguing to me as I looked on while flailing for a financial foothold, after I had managed to study and make it into the world of designer clothes and country club dining. My life before and after this season was one hazardous patch of thin ice. I grew up watching my parents scrounge and sweat, and life without money struggles was a most curious fantasy. It happened to some but surely would pass me over. But the bitterness of the little girl became gratitude; in my newfound Christian faith, I realized that with so little I had nothing to lose. And provisions came my way in the most timely moments. I was about to shop for wardrobe to interview for head of the Gifted and Talented Program when my mother fell ill. I rushed back home to New York three hours away to be tied to her in the hospital until the eve of the big day. I was going to set out as unprepared as I could be when Mom sheepishly told me she couldn’t resist picking up a suit tossed outside a ritzy building on Lexington Avenue before I came. She had spotted it, good as it looked, on her way out after a long day of babysitting. Fit me perfectly and though I walked into my important meeting late, having gotten lost in the rain, I got the job over the women who looked the part of the upper-middle class community. I felt like Cinderella, though I’m not sure she was a bookworm. The assistant superintendent of the district put to me a grammar question the Caucasian candidates couldn’t answer. I know. Some of you are smiling. See? Learn your grammar. When later that year I told my principal the tale of the castaway suit, she remembered the way I’d walked in that day, said I looked sharp. She never would’ve known. But Cinderella did have to leave the ball.

When I left the district, there I was again – savings now depleted and too sick to work on my 30th birthday. Money can’t buy happiness but it sure pays the bills and puts food in your mouth. I know what it is to teeter on a tightrope without a net. One semester in college I sold my guitar so I could eat. The black hand of powerlessness slips a mask over your head and breathing becomes difficult. Now, you’d think it’s freedom on the other side of poverty, on the wide green grass of options. But even there you can become strapped – in fact, paralyzed. And instead of joy, you might find despair.

In his book and TED Talk, Barry Schwartz sheds light on what he calls the paradox of choice.

With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. I’ll give you one very dramatic example. A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard. And what she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down two percent. You offer 50 funds and 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, and then tomorrow. So paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices. That’s one effect [of the power of choice].

Another is the escalation of expectations. This hit me when I went to replace my jeans. The shopkeeper said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, you want tapered, blah blah blah …” My jaw dropped, and after I recovered, I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” I spent an hour trying on all these damn jeans, and I walked out of the store — truth! — with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse. Why with all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had no particular expectations when they only came in one flavor. When they came in 100 flavors, damn it, one of them should’ve been perfect. And what I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect. And so I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing in comparison to what I expected. Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results.

The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in – we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation – the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof. The secret to happiness is low expectations.

Finally, one consequence of buying a bad-fitting pair of jeans when there is only one kind to buy is that when you are dissatisfied and you ask why, who’s responsible, the answer is clear: the world is responsible. What could you do? When there are hundreds of different styles of jeans available and you buy one that is disappointing, and you ask why, who’s responsible? It is equally clear that the answer to the question is you. You could have done better. With a hundred different kinds of jeans on display, there is no excuse for failure. And so when people make decisions, even though the results are good, they feel disappointed about them; they blame themselves.

Clinical depression has exploded in the industrial world in the last generation. I believe a significant contributor is that people have experiences that are disappointing because their standards are so high, and then when they have to explain these experiences to themselves, they think they’re at fault. And so we do better in general, objectively, and we feel worse. There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that that more choice is better than some choice. There’s some magical amount. I don’t know what it is. I’m pretty confident that we have long since passed the point where options improve our welfare.

He knows me. I hate Walmart. I don’t care about the prices. Store’s just too big and I lose precious time looking for what I want. There are few things I loathe more than shopping for jeans, which is why I’ve stuck with my two pairs the last ten years. This is what likely happened to my orphan friend: she became overwhelmed at the gala of options she had stumbled into. We pine and claim we could’ve done better if we’d been dealt a kinder hand. Loaded with all the resources anyone could hope for; money, time, smarts, education, she stared at the dark mirror. How could she best use her talents, make an impact, do justice to her parents’ gift of sacrifice? She was stripped of excuses. What if her choice wasn’t good enough? Oh, the burden of getting it right.

Notice the themes written on the mighty dollar. Happiness, guilt, blame, worry. There are more, too, in this new series on money that our guest writers have been waiting to help roll out. Look out for our oldies, thoughts on class and belonging and identity. You might see yourself in the stories. Here we go!

Sleep in the Wind

I vault the sky – blue is a trite fancy —
the expanse, the clear color of longing

The horizon gives way
to empyreal heights
and delicious air, my face
to the eye of the sun

Is it calling or indulgence to ride
the wings of one’s own prayers?

I could sleep in the wind.

I hold onto this incarnation of
dreams but the sun revives me
from slumber on a pillow of dirt
and the sweet draught of
yesterday still in my throat,

I try not to disturb my broken wing.

whitebird3

The Measure of a Woman

I don’t remember my mother ever having the cold or flu. She must’ve had her share, especially in the sharp New York winter. She remains healthy in my memory because she never took a day off, never took a nap, never complained. Not even when the needle flew off the Singer and disappeared into her finger. Between the waitressing years in New York, Mom sewed for the giant garment industry that Latino and Asian immigrants pinned their hopes on in the 70s and 80s. The heaps of cut fabric she brought home in the metal shopping cart, they literally called homework. It enabled her to raise her kids and stay involved in my early schooling. Mom did everything fast. She would feed polyester rectangles through the machine and recruit me and my little brother to flip them into shirt collars. At two cents a piece, time was the enemy. She ate a lot of dust.

The older I grow, the smaller I feel in the shadow of my mother’s sacrificial silence. I grew up exasperated with Mom, but her threshold of patience in marriage and motherhood was a lot higher than mine. I am not only a verbal woman, I am a vocal wife. Thanks in part to the freedom of speech this beloved Land of the Free so fiercely protects, the culture of rights I am privileged to claim citizenship in. Thanks in part to a man who works to give me all I need and ask for. And most absolutely in part to my nature which still begs tempering. My counselor helped me trace my emotional defensive offense to the years of living under a sense that my needs could not be met. I had to take care of a lot of things in the home, which at times included my parents. My anger is really fear. As helpful as this insight has been, it’s no ticket out of jail. I need to be humble. Need to love. I worship a God who exchanged his rights for a cross.

MomKitchenI don’t have the patience and gentleness for my son that Mom had for me. How dare I draw myself up to her small frame in these comfortable shoes that cost more than what she ever spent on her own tired feet? It wasn’t just waitressing that her legs ached from. She stood hours in the kitchen over the traditional side dishes that every meal called for. Did you know Korean food is misogynistic? When I dug up this picture of Mom, I was surprised at the poor quality of the photo. It had stuck in my head as a beautiful shot, one of my favorite of hers, because it shows her radiant slaving away in a hole with no ventilation in a tiny apartment. And then my grandmothers had it even harder. No appliances to keep up with the laundry for a family of eight or nine. My mother’s father passed away when Mom was three, leaving Grandma to flee on foot with six children when the communist North invaded Seoul three years later. My mother became the youngest in the family when her brother, three years old, died en route from the pneumonia they could not treat in the winter flight. They buried him on the road and this and the rest my Grandma endured with silent heartache and grace. If unassuming, unreserved sacrifice is the measure of greatness, does greatness diminish with each generation? Or is it just me? I am probably the weakest link in my line. Of course I don’t believe all women before me were noble, and I know of many among Mom’s generation who even abandoned their own. I’m talking of the times and culture. Even though I have my hearty share of struggles, my days aren’t heavy with the desperation I sensed in Mom when I was a child. The small matter of war aside, she and the women before her had to make their way through resistance just to procure the basics. Korea was poorer then, immigrant life tougher than the country that shut no door on me as I grew up. Living seemed to have required more fortitude. There are things I do better than Mom did. Like many of us, I determined to be a different parent. But my savvy turns out to be simply a matter of knowledge and opportunity – from the education my mother paid for with her very self. I had set out to do better but I now see every success of mine is the dream she chased.

Carry You In The Rain

Your toe broke through the sole of your shoe. I didn’t want you stepping on the cold, wet ground. I put you on my back – my boy almost seven – and had trouble walking. A friend of mine was with us and we peeped our head into some restaurants, more like run-down bars, for a new shoe. We left the row of shops and stood on a threshold, facing the pavement. I cradled you.

I would carry you in the rain.

You grew a few years smaller in my arms. As I asked my friend to cover your face with your blue jacket, you slipped into bed with me, pulled me out into the fresh, dry morning. The first thing you asked was what I’d dreamt.

Last week you mused, “I wonder what’s inside the sun, Umma. I want to see.” You expressed this so imploringly. Should I not have told you that you will burn? Should I have left you to dream impossible dreams? Did I kill your wondering?

The other day you took car tracks bereft of the remote and car, and turned them into a runway for your plane. The delight on your face when the plane took off. And Daddy and I had wanted to get rid of the tracks. You blow me away. Life blows you away.

I forget why I keep you close, teach you at home. To free you to stand on your slab of questions and ingenuity, ready to run into the sun. I know that this side of dreams, there’ll be no carrying you in the rain.

 

sunbig

 

Get Over Your Bad Self. It’s Not About You.

We walk around self-absorbed.

He wasn’t very responsive over lunch. What’s gotten into him?
I’ve been so sick. I expected her to show more concern. How insensitive.
She’s kept away from my family and made me feel judged. How rude.
I won’t say what I really feel because he would think less of me.

We need to get over our self.

Our life is all about us, but their lives are not. Remember, as soon as we step outside and start interfacing with others, we have two people talking about the same thing from his own perspective, experiences, biases. Let’s look at the way this autobiographical listening plays out when we feel slighted or offended.

He just mumbled during lunch? Maybe he had a headache. Or a fight with his wife. More than one blogger who has emailed me has wondered why I didn’t get back to them right away. If they knew what I juggle, and the challenges I don’t write about (Wayfarer’s voice climbing)! I assure you I do more than my best to get back to readers on email and their site. And I suggest you don’t follow me through the filter of expectations based on the number of likes you leave me. I attribute part of my growth to the loyalty I show my awesome readers, but on weeks like these I just can’t keep up. I’m sorry some of you will fall through the cracks. If you think I’m talking right at you, well, how’s that for self-consciousness – though my head’s too full to be seeing names at the moment. One other thing. If you haven’t noticed, I boast an extraordinarily intelligent readership. Yours isn’t the only blog I want to visit.

Wish I tolerated alcohol. I’ll be nice again, next post.

Back to our All About Me list. Maybe your illness is too much for her because it replays Mom’s battle with cancer. Or she’d wanted to show more support but has been sick herself. What if some bad news had come her way? Think about the things that get a rise out of you or cause you to withdraw. These triggers tap buried wounds, insecurity, or pride which like to feed one another. Though I’ve attracted plenty of them over the years, I don’t do very well around needy people, those with fragile egos. Though my childhood could’ve been a lot happier, I was well grounded in parental affirmation. I need to be more compassionate toward those whose wounds from childhood still drive them to behave in ways that exasperate me.

A few years ago, someone returned my kindness with a persistent cold shoulder. My husband saw that she felt she didn’t measure up to me. She later confessed her sense of inadequacy under my shadow. I was baffled. Who ever said she had to mother like me? We are mothers in our own way, give our child what no one else can. She was 35 and still hadn’t picked a lane on who she was. Every time we talked things out the drawn-out wrestling match found me wiping the emotional vomit of her past off my face. My last words to her were one of peace and genuine well-wishing but for the sake of my health I had to cut off ties. There is probably a little delusionary confidence to this but I usually don’t take things personally. When this woman looked at me, it was not through a magnifying lens but a movie screen where I was just one character among thousands traipsing across the screen – many from her past. And the star of the film was not me, but her grand self.

To recognize we’re part of a bigger drama doesn’t justify our wrong. You well may have offended Jenny. But even though you really owe an apology, her response will likely still trace back to dormant issues – because Terry next to her would’ve laughed off your quip. In issues that spring from abandonment or abuse, the debt remains greater than perpetrator or victim usually can handle. But understanding that our parents or lover acted out of the dysfunction and poor parenting he, she inherited releases the steam valve so we don’t keep cooking in our anger. I’m not talking about exonerating those who commit heinous crimes.

Wrapping up our angst-ridden list. What about what people think of you? Oh, you swear they will think funny of you for what you did or wore? You really have to keep in good standing with John? Do you think your coworkers will remember your project three years from now? Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less (C.S. Lewis). And trust me. You are on people’s minds a lot less than you think you are. Know why?

They’re busy worrying about what others think of them.

Greatness, Part 5: Praise, Smarts, and the Myth of Self-Esteem

A friend sent me an enlightening, provocative New York Magazine article on how praising kids for being smart often backfires and ends up straitjacketing them to fear of failure. It spoke to me not only as a parent of a boy fairly fresh on the path of formal education, but as the studious girl whose achievements were marked by a curious mix of confidence and anxiety. The ten-year string of studies on the effects of praise spearheaded by psychologist Carol Dweck at Columbia (now at Stanford) University also shed light on the aspects of overachieving I have been exploring here: persistence, assurance, motivation, talent. I will extract the key points on “the inverse power of praise,” and while I usually don’t refer readers to anything but short articles or video, this ones well worth the time.

A sizable portion of gifted students, the very ones who grew up hearing they are smart, apparently lack confidence and will keep to the safer road of doable tasks rather than set out for the hill that promises challenge.

According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart…The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short. But recent landmark studies make the case that labeling kids just this way might actually cause them to underperform.

In one of her ground-breaking experiments with 400 New York fifth graders, Dweck took the students out of the classroom one at a time for an IQ test in the form of puzzles that pretty much guaranteed success. The students were divided into two random groups, one praised at the end for the kids’ intelligence, the other for effort. The children then chose a test for the second round. They were told that they’d learn a lot from the one that was more difficult. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The ‘smart’ kids took the cop-out. Why did this happen? When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes. And that’s what the fifth graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

In a following round, students were offered no choice. The test actually designed for kids two grades higher set them up for failure. A marked difference in response lay between the groups. The ones who were initially praised for their effort assumed they had not worked hard enough and went on to tackle the puzzles vigorously. Many actually commented that it was their favorite test. The kids who had been praised for their smarts sunk into obvious misery. Of course they took their failure to mean they really were not bright after all.

Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can controlEmphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls – the very brightest girls especially.

One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is their unflagging confidence and trust in my abilities. It was in my working years that I saw just how deep their affirmation rooted me in the self-assurance people sensed of me even when I was growing up. I was praised for being smart before the days of memory, but I also was an assiduous student who suffered migraines for taking elementary school so seriously. My mother not only vouched for my intellect, but urged me to work as hard as I could. I remember the time I cried in apology when she demanded to know why I had brought home only a 98% on the test. Today, she has nothing but remorse for the years she faked pride for disappointment to push me to my uttermost.

Dweck slowly began to make sense of my confusing dance with ambition. Through all the praise from family, friends, and teachers, fear of failure –  the devil on my shoulder – goaded me with the pitchfork to double-check all homework instructions with my friend who really was smart. I distrusted myself. Just before a piano recital in the junior high orchestra, my fingers would freeze both in temperature and mobility. I didn’t answer a call-back on the first audition for the sophomore musical in high school. I rejected the role before anyone could reject me. When my Latin and Linguistics professors later encouraged me to pursue a PhD, I rued having fooled them into thinking I was so capable. My mother wondered in exasperation why I volleyed every career suggestion with “it’s too hard.”  I set my standards so high that I couldn’t meet them.

To describe my metamorphosis in thinking would warrant a separate post. In brief: after teaching in the public schools, I ended up consulting a Harvard professor for a possible PhD track in language, literacy, and culture, and sat in on her doctoral class. I was 27 when I took part in that fun discussion, just before deciding on life under California’s sun. It’s doubtful I would’ve been admitted to the venerable institution, but the life-changing shift in confidence that came about largely at the encouragement of the last principal I worked with was an unlocking inside. Slim chance, but why not dream — and try? It seems what had locked me in the first place was likely the praise over my innate ability that had attended my youth. But when trepidation gives way to boldness, amazing things can happen. Because this release came so late for me, I am fascinated by people who dream bigger than the life they’ve known. My uncertainties in myself did not arise from low self-esteem. I always had a strong sense of self. The article describes how that great emperor of modern psychology, the credence of self-esteem, was found to have no clothes on.

From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything – from sex to career advancement…results often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 The Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature…Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standard…Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves)…Baumeister said his findings were ‘the biggest disappointment of [his] career.’

I groaned to be told in graduate school and teacher professional training sessions to shower the touchy-feely you’re-so-wonderful-what-do-you-feel-today approbation all over my students. How a society, let alone a marriage, can expect to survive the sacred right of every person to nurse his, her individuality and feelings above else confounds me. (How telling that the sun does not orbit the earth.) I absolutely believe in the inherent worth of every individual, and that no child should feel unloved or unworthy – because there is no higher glory than that we bear the very image of God. Self-esteem champions who haven’t quit this page by now will differ vastly in their response to this statement of faith but wherever we draw our security from, to keep on point: giving kids credit for smarts they did not earn is to build their self-esteem on sand. Once they find themselves struggling in a more demanding setting, they “surmise they’ve been dumb all along. Their grades never recover because the likely key to their recovery – increasing effort – they view as just further proof of their failure.”

The ability to respond to repeat failure by exerting more effort – instead of simply giving up – is a trait well studied in psychology…persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain…While putting people through MRI scans…this switch [lit] up regularly in some. On others, barely at all…The key is intermittent reinforcement…The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear. We could be priming our kids for a chemical addiction to constant reward with bribes or effusive praise that’s misdirected, hijacking their capacity to work toward goals. The greats whose accomplishments we’ve been discussing apparently have a different brain. But the beauty of intelligence is its organic adaptability. I love how Dweck’s researchers produced improved math scores from low-achieving math students: the adults simply taught the kids that the brain is a muscle and exercising it makes us smarter.

The Little Man

The Little Man

Within eight weeks, my six-year-old has memorized over 350 facts across the subjects of science, history, Latin and English grammar, math, and geography – some in the form of long sentences. At this pace, he will go on to grow his knowledge base through the years ahead. I worried on Day 1 that I was overloading him. “What are the seven types of biomes? Grasslands, deserts, scrublands, tundra, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, tropical rainforests.” Aye yaya. Since then, I’ve discovered the brain of children expands like Mary Poppin’s bag. The more you require it to hold, the more it gladly will. With a modest estimate of 100,000 students worldwide on this Classical curriculum, my son is no exception and smarts can’t really take the credit. It’s work. And we make it fun. But there’s no getting around daily application. How do I encourage his success? The article describes the kinds of praise that do make for effective encouragement: whether it’s the number of times a hockey player checked his opponent or improved concentration on a task; sincere, specific feedback that provides repeatable strategies which move one forward profitably. I’ve replaced much of the “you’re so smart” with express pleasure at effort and minilessons on the capacity of the mind.

We all love commendation, and exchange plenty of it as bloggers. In light of the research, I find my own response to kudos on the blog this year interestingly apt. I’ve said that with more talent, I could afford to work less hard. After decades of reading and writing, I only now feel like a writer. Despite the modest publishings, it’s taken me 40 years to pen my thoughts with a deep satisfaction that I have communicated my purpose. It is the pains and time I take to get it down just so that keep me on sure course. Faith in my aptitude? No. And it’s not a timorous dissent. My work may not make the ranks of the literary pantheon. But with joy, great care, and dreams I answer my calling as writer – standards higher than ever.

Our Final Day and a Deal With God

I wonder if she woke feeling any different that day, if she’d had any telltale dreams. We women have our sixth sense about things. But she probably had no inkling that it was her last dawn, at least on this earth. It was a sudden heart attack. Who did she greet on the way out of her building? Who got the last of her smiling gift? Who gave her her last hug, reminded her that she was loved? Susan Irene Fox is not the first blogger I’d known to have passed – she is, actually, the fourth on WordPress – but her death hits close to home. She reached out to me, put me on her prayer list three years ago, in response to a difficult post I put out. I just revisited our emails, the comments and the guest post Single At Sixty she left on this blog, a brave, humble confession of loneliness and the peace she claimed. She was a kind, giving person, one who had nothing to prove but the truth that had transformed her life.

I think of people hungry for life who dance on the edge of death. Adrenaline junkies, athletes, addicts of all stripes who run to meet Goliath and nearly die so they can live again. I am not so brazen. I have felt a generosity upon my life, knowing the ground can slip from under me any moment. I imagine that Susan, had she known, would’ve wanted more time. More time to do the many little wonderful things we choose to leave undone: forgive, hold, kiss, dance, linger. For me, I feel a greater urgency in the writing as I wonder how many hours remain in my ledger. I could travel more, see more of people and the world to say I’ve lived, but I would be just a consumer in the enterprise. I would rather leave something behind, namely, more poetry, which though I am just a vapor will endure until the sun should die. That is a marvelous thought. My breath on the page, a legible love and memories – a great honor.

Honey, if my brain ever ends up sustained by a machine, if you don’t see the tears and recognition in my eyes, if I can’t make your amaranth and tell Tennyson to do his math, you have lost me already. It’ll be just a ghost of me on that bed and I want you to pull the plug. I don’t want to be extended beyond my time only to be a burden, not living, not dead, without my words. I pick my lane, the freeway stretching North. But in exchange for the Mexican wife you’ve said you would get, I ask for one final gift: my own little pine box. You are so good with your hands. I know, I know. I put you to work to the end. But you’ll be a free man after that. It should be perfectly within the rights of a man to dignify his wife with a final custom home and tuck her away in the mountains. While you’re at it, bury me with a book. I won’t be needing the Bible anymore. I’ll be in it, getting it 3D! It’s not like I can take this blog. How freaked out will my readers be if I wrote them from the Other Side? But I won’t disturb anyone here, buried with my nose in a book. I’ll pick it out and put it in the master where you can grab it easily in the whirlwind preparations.


Dear God,

It’s me again. Remember, I’m the one who sends back her plate when it’s not done right. And though I know the cooking will be just right for Goldilocks there, I’m also the one who’ll be bothering all your best writers and asking that you not room me with a fellow Type A, and don’t forget that I’ll be looking for Eve. What a MESS that girl’s got us all into! So how about we make a deal? Give me just twenty more years so I might hold my grandchildren and make sure their mother doesn’t feed them junk, and I will join you, no questions asked. You are juggling so much at the moment: our presidency, North Korea, the refugees, not to mention the missionaries who’ve been asking for you. Why don’t you take a break from my small affairs, drop me from your radar for a bit. A thousand years is like a day unto the Lord. Why, I’ll be there in no time. And one last thing. Please tell Susan I said hi and bye, that I miss her – and she doesn’t need to save me that seat.

 

 

 

Poets Are Strange

Poets are strange –
Why can’t they just call the spade
a spade? And what’s a rock but
rock: sandstone, shale from the tiredness
of weather? Coal and limestone, plant
and animal dross

— but nature wastes nothing.

Why do poets look for metaphors under
every rock, the walls that hold the creek, earth
that crumbled, forged resolute, and grew above
my grandmother’s rib, beat hard when she was
widowed with six children on the road

fleeing the Communists
fleeing the Communists
fleeing the Communists

and soldiers who ran out to drag their own
men screaming without their arm
back to the trenches in
too many battles and

and bald children in hospital beds who still
know how to laugh.

Why can’t poets be simple? They see
a crushing burial in heat and time:
marble, quartz, gneiss

— living, burnished beauty.

Poets. They think they can say it
better than
rock.

 

Men and Women: Oh, the Flu

She gargles the fire in her throat (upstairs),
makes lunch (downstairs),
dusts (both floors),
washes the sheets (downstairs),
reviews geography with her son (upstairs),
heats the castor pack (downstairs)
hacks into the waste bin,
does her saline wash (upstairs),
empties the trash bin (downstairs),
gets her boy more blankets (upstairs),
checks the soup (downstairs),
does the dishes,
runs over to the library (outside),
makes bone broth (downstairs)

 

He….well, he…pulls down the covers and does the hard work
of opening his mouth for the nice hot water and pills.