Are You a Heart with Brains?

You're full of doubt because you're full of revolution.

So I call my people—my students, my clients—the “Hearts with Brains.” I will explain. But first let me tell you how I finally found them:

I started my writing workshops in Brooklyn back in 2003, on a whim, after I moved into a more-expensive apartment and needed to figure out how to cover the rent. It was an innocent beginning—I had no idea where it would lead. Putting myself out there like this was a big leap for me to take: I’m shy, and I’d really rather hide in the house than have a whole lot of conversations with strangers on the phone about how I can help them write a book.

And I had no idea who would come, or if anyone would come at all. I had no marketing background, absolutely no understanding of how to run a business. I was a writer! I knew all about creativity! I even had a masters degree in actual Creativity. Yes. I got it in San Francisco. So I had no way of knowing what an amazing thing would happen: that through a little Craigslist ad (and a few flyers in Park Slope) I would find my people.

What I wrote in the very first Craigslist ad was that my classes would be fun. That they were based in intuition, not criticism. That you have to engage the creativity part, the right brain that is not practical or logical or ego-driven, in order to get to the good stuff. That, in class, once we got on a roll with that, we would be using really amazing, effective, practical editorial tools so that you didn’t delude yourself into proudly presenting the world with its longest most annoying millennial beat poem.

I wrote that we are obsessed, as a culture, with the left brain. With what is achievement-oriented and seems productive and unassailably logical and smart and strategic and rational and presentable. And that this insane chokehold of achieving and planning and safety and control is death to the juicy delicious moments of having your writing pour through you and onto the page.

My people get this. My people struggle with this. I struggle with it. Daily. Are you kidding me? I pretty much had to take a year off from my life because my workaholism got out of control. I have had to “let go and let god,” and do any number of other appalling but effective things to deal with my own addiction to work, achievement, and to-do lists.

I am happy to report I’ve healed and am confident that I won’t ever burn out in quite so universal a way again. Work addiction looks to me now like what it is: a death sentence. That wasn’t true before—I was so in it I couldn’t even see it. But now—I get it: rest is the most important thing, just like not drinking is the most important thing for an alcoholic.

My own heart wanted rest so badly it commandeered my body into rebellion. My brain—up until the point where I was so exhausted my face was twitching—said: probably three more hours of work after dinner. It even said: who needs to eat dinner?

My own story is one of a heart with brains.

My heart really, really, really wanted to find my people and create all this amazing stuff with them. My brain had no idea about all that, and said: just submit your novel to publishers and hope something works out and you end up something like Zadie Smith. But my heart knew: literary cocktail parties are not my scene. Not remotely. Even if they’re kind of “indie.” The whole thing is too based in criticism, posturing, one-upsmanship, I’d generally rather go huff some glue.

My heart knew there was no “literary community” out there that was what I really needed. My heart knew we’d already looked for that in many, many workshops and universities and readings and conferences.

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Successful Writers Are Entrepreneurs

How badly does the world really need another book? How badly do you need a life with enough time, meaning, and money?

Everybody wants to write a book. Writers who have published a book on any subject will tell you that they get more emails about how to get published than they do about the actual content of their work. Most published writers have at least one uncle/neighbor/ex-boyfriend who is currently querying agents.

There is this big, fat fantasy that writing the book and getting it published will make it so you don’t have to work ever again. Not even so much, you know, on the actual writing part, really.

And in the fantasy, the writing is not actually work, it’s just sort of happy typing away happily in your Architectural Digest-featured home-office waiting for your husband astronaut Mike Dexter to bring the ginormous peony bouquet your publisher flew in for you from Japan, just cause it’s Tuesday.

(Ummm. . . . I’m not sure if that’s my fantasy or Liz Lemon’s? But bear with me—)

Anyway: to those of us who have been in the trenches surrounding the publishing industry, we know how very, very far from reality this is. We know that book advances are shrinking, that substantive fiction has been sitting in drawers for years and years, that publishers don’t really want to sign you on unless you have a sizable blog following and email list and general, you know, “platform.”

Yet this fantasy persists—maybe deeply hidden in the hearts of those of us who are jaded and remember the days when people could occasionally get $250,000 for a first book of short stories.

The book advance is now a mainstream Cinderella tale. This fantasy is not limited to literary people or people who love to read—but we’ve still got it, in the “lottery” corner of our brain. But the book advance’s overtake of Lottery Corner is bigger than that—in fact it is so core to our culture right now that writing a book that happens to become a huge bestseller is actually in many cases the replacement for the “and I married Prince Charming” ending in chick lit.

And it is even more total bullshit now than it was back in the nineties when the spawn of Candace Bushnell started pushing this particular flavor of crack.

I honestly believe that this same common fantasy, with an after-market hifalutin sheen of literariness, is fueling most MFA writing programs. And there are dozens of these. And people often pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to these.

In most cases, MFA programs are big fat cash cows for universities. (Not where I went, btw, where everyone who gets in has their tuition covered equally. This is possibly the best financial decision I’ve made in my life.) The degree does not qualify you for any sort of actual employment whatsoever! And the classes themselves are generally kind of sucky, with a few amazing teachers thrown in here and there for good measure.

It’s not that people involved in MFA programs don’t care about the writing. About literature. About voice, truth, art. They do.

It’s just that there is not much of an honest discussion of how to fund the writing/literature/voice/truth/art.

Such a total removal from reality creates a giant thought vaccuum around money and survival, in which it is impossible for the book advance fantasy not to move on in and set up shop.

The book advance fantasy is pretty much to writers exactly the same thing as the Prince Charming fantasy is to women’s finances: a big fat lie that is the most likely thing to leave you totally broke as you are approaching retirement.

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People-pleasing = Total Exhaustion.

When your primary motivation is to avoid offending or upsetting, at any cost.

People-pleasing is so icky that it was only by promising a newsletter about it to my students that I got myself to write about it at all. It’s painful because it’s so slippery and so at the core of most of my own struggles with writing and also with most of my students’.

It’s embarrassing because it is manipulative and really quite gross, when you look at it head-on. Over time, it really screws with your relationships as well.

That term, “people-pleasing,” is smarmy enough to induce an immediate internal “ick,” no? I know there is a whole crew of my students reading this who have informed me that they hate the word “moist” and I bet they hate “people-pleasing” just as much. It’s one of those words I’d just as easily avoid having anything to do with. Sort of like margarine or Olestra or Hooters or “Excellence!”.

First off, I think we need to change the terminology to something like “turning-your-heart-and-your-face-into-dogmeat-by-ignoring-yourself.” No? Well okay. I will keep working on that. But the word for this pervasive, tricky habit should incite alarm in the same way as, say, the phrases “secret frosting binge” or “just a little tiny meth addiction.”

For now, however, this word is what we’ve got to work with for the habit that is probably the core reason my classes are full of women.

It’s a girl thing, in large part, this people-pleasing. Estrogen is running the show for much of our lives, and estrogen is extremely concerned with staying connected and being pleasing to others. Estrogen is ancient and powerful, more powerful than willpower. Or feminism.  Estrogen wires us to be concerned with other people’s needs and feelings before we even think about our own. This is how we survived for millions of years: there was a purpose to it.

Guys are wired, on the other hand, and often encouraged, to go for what they actually need. Guys sometimes omit or lie to keep the peace, but they aren’t driven by their DNA plus trained from birth to worry about how everyone perceives them.

In women, people-pleasing is epidemic. Alison Armstrong, an incredible relationship expert based in LA, explains it as an evolutionary adaptation that is core to who women are. As the physically weaker, therefore dependent sex, we survived those difficult caveman eons by being pleasing and making sure we stayed connected to both women and men.

If we’re really nice to everyone, the logic goes, and a tiger is attacking, we’ll be valued enough for some strong cave-dude to protect us. We are wired to connect and to make sure NOBODY IS MAD AT US. So that we get enough berries and bison meat to eat.

The key is: our brains go into an automatic, people-pleasing panic when we sense that there are limited resources.

Fast forward tens of thousands of years, and people-pleasing is reinforced culturally through body image and Botox and photoshop to a degree that goes way beyond what our DNA evolved for. It’s the same instinct: get the guy. Get the McMansionCave with the good school district. Have the beautiful children who will reproduce our DNA successfully. But now, this involves a lot more complexity—and a lot more credit card debt.

“People-pleasing” is that thing where you don’t worry about (or don’t even know) what you feel and what you need to do to take care of yourself. Instead, what you prioritize is figuring out what the other person feels and what they want from you. Your primary motivation is to avoid offending or upsetting them.

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