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Lean In, Sometimes

Throughout my childhood, my parents emphasized the importance of pursuing a meaningful life. Dinner discussions often centered on social injustice and those fighting to make the world a better place. As a child, I never thought about what I wanted to be, but I thought a lot about what I wanted to do. As sappy as it sounds, I hoped to change the world.
- Sheryl Sandberg, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead"

I read Sheryl Sandberg's "call to battle" memoir awhile ago. It has taken me time to process the mixed emotions her book, co written with Nell Scovell, raised in my thinking. I am a midlife feminist and older than Sandberg, so much of what she has to say (and liberally quotes throughout her book) is old hat. Inequalities in pay, in support available to single parent families, in shared domestic duties in double income families, in the availability of decent childcare, maternity leave policies, balancing the child-bearing years with promotion ladders... All very familiar. And frankly, after all these post-Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem decades, disheartening to admit such issues continue to burden the plate of the working woman in America.

Sandberg grew up, as she says, wanting to make a difference. Not to be, but to do. Others have pointed out, and Sandberg herself admits, it is easy to say "give your ambitions a full go" if your family also has the financial resources to deploy meeting the twin demands of childcare and running a household. A good deal of Sandberg's story comes across as lucky girl cheerleading. "Heh, don't envy me, be me!" Women are always choosing how to change the world - a pot roast at a time (Julia Child), refining radium (Marie Curie), writing a child's first book (Beatrix Potter), rallying a nation in dire straits (Margaret Thatcher), and on the list goes. Artists, scientists, teachers. Women who work at life within the circumstances they are dealt. That Sandberg leveraged a stable advantaged upbringing and education (Harvard) into a position in the ranks of corporate leadership should not amaze. Nor do most of us hem and haw over whether to leave one stellar job for another. Sometimes what is big is changing a nursing shift from day to night to sit at the breakfast table with your preschool child and make school lunch. To those to whom much is given, much is expected, as the saying goes.

The real nugget of trouble exposed by Sandberg's book is her acknowledgment embracing "the committed career" remains relevant for the twenty-first century woman. As it was twenty, forty, sixty years ago, a meaningful home life/parenting commitment still butts heads with the high demand promotion years in a successful career. Women are still splitting themselves in pieces to cover the bases. To have children while they are still fertile and somehow put in the necessary after hours to make partner. To make ends meet as a single parent and build a family life in the limited hours of the day. While some may feel accomplished in some areas, none feel satisfied in all. Sandberg's children are still too young to let her know how it's working out for them; she remains happily buffered by abundant personal resources from the exigencies in the average woman's life that shift choice from the personal to the essential.

I believe women should give themselves as wholly as possible to what they believe in, to the lives they intend to lead, to the families and careers they desire to build. I just know from my experience and that of my mentors and friends that such choices rarely easily cohabitate. Commitments demand attention from women, as Mary Catherine Bateson wrote in her seminal work, "Composing a Life," sequentially. We move through phases of life and phases of work that intuitively correspond to our reality as women. There may be phases of single childlessness when we earn educations and build careers, a period or two where family - from children to aging parents - take precedence. We dodge and weave our way through choices and commitments, composing a life unique as a necklace of handcrafted beads, each bead something of ourselves then and when.

The real value in Sandberg's book for me was her rallying cry to continue what generations of women before us began - the push for true economic equality between the sexes. Until expectations for men and women and career versus family are crafted on equal terms, we create liabilities and roadblocks for both sexes in seeking fulfilling lives as individuals and in families. "Lean In" is not so much the takeaway for me from Sandberg's book as the subtle importance of "freedom of choice." Until every woman has the education, support, and resources needed to build the life she wants, we have work to do.

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Why Write?

The story chooses you, the image comes and then the emotional frame. You don't have a choice about writing the story. There's a filter at work which says this is or is not a story...I think a story ideally comes to the writer; the writer shouldn't be casting the net out, searching for something to write about.
- Raymond Carver

In any work that is truly creative, I believe, the writer cannot be omniscient about the effects that he proposes to produce. The suspense of a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist, who is intensely curious about what will happen to the hero.
- Mary McCarthy

We do not write in order to be understood, we write in order to understand.
- C. Day-Lewis

The period in which a writer awaits review of a work in the pre-publication stages is nearly unbearable. What has been until this moment completely within your control - your story, characters, the work and its process - what has been a private endeavor, full of angst and determination, faces it's first critical review in the publishing venue. Someone else will now determine whether your beloved project moves ahead, or stalls. So you wait. And in waiting the devils take root in your soul. Was it ready? Why would anyone read this anyway? Wait, can I get it back? To be honest, for every success or failed effort I have had in my writing life, I still do not know any more what makes a story succeed than not. As Raymond Carver put it - the story chooses you. And then you do your best by it.

For the novel writer, the process of building a book is ultimately a zero sum game. The novel is difficult to condense to the equivalent of an abbreviated film treatment or proposal. There is no way to "float" a story - it must be written, nailed down, breathed to life. The novel has a crazy organic originality that must be seen to be believed. Organic, yet divergent interior paths within the writing process become a sober burden for the novelist. What if your beautiful idea failed in execution? Choosing poorly amongst your possible choices of character, landscape, plot or word smithing? A novel cannot be easily recast. Each sentence leads down a path that creates its own next sentence, change of relationship, plot point or conflict. Characters evolve on the page. If a story collapses, it may or may not be capable of resuscitation.

As much as I fear and dread this phase toward publication, I have great respect for the review process. As the writer I certainly lack perspective - I have lived inside the story, grown familiar with my characters, forgiven them their weaknesses, encouraged them to bust out on the page. Only a cool clear head can truly assess the cumulative power of what is there. Is the story boring? Thrilling? Moving? Does it lag here or there? This early critique determines the viability of editing intervention. What more is needed, and where? The very thing readers ultimately appreciate is a well-edited book.

As I wait through this process, restlessly banging around my office doing all the ridiculous tasks side-railed during the writing of this novel, feel kindly towards me, won't you? Of course I hope the response is an enthusiastic thumbs up, but the risks are high: I love that complicated runt of the publication world, the character novel. Without spy rings, explosions, gun battles, or fantasy landscapes, the words must work truly hard indeed. Literary worth is hard to define, but we know it when we read it. It's a hard bar for me to reach, honestly. Always has been. Still, every writer writes for the reader - for that fleeting, shared private dialog about an idea that matters to us both. If I did my job right, one day perhaps I'll hear back from you.

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The Final Period

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.
- W. Somerset Maugham

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner's pick, a woodcarver's gouge, a surgeon's probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.
- Annie Dillard

I work constantly within the shadow of failure. For every novel hat makes it to my publisher's desk, there are at least five or six that died on the way.
-Gail Godwin

Tuesday I put the final period on a manuscript that has been five years in the making. It was a moment of great satisfaction and gratitude. You begin a novel with an idea, discover what you have to say writing the first draft, and then revise to ensure you've said what you intend. As Annie Dillard observed, writing leads deep into new territory. It is an organic, evolving discovery. Working "in flow," writers translate thought onto the page as it comes without critique or big picture thinking - that enters later. Drafts are time-consuming, solitary, and often miss the mark. (Drafting on a computer is risky in its own special way. Yesterday my blog on this subject evaporated, victim of a random software log-out error. Any recollection of what I wrote, gone.) Flow produces raw material, but editing skills shape story. Creativity requires both vision and control.

Before I became a published working writer, the completion of a manuscript brought me to my knees in tears. That final period marked an inner vision brought into being through disciplined work and a driving faith/ambition. "Butt in chair," as the saying goes. Then I learned completion of a work is an essential, but oddly minor element in getting that book into a reader's hands. What happens after I send my word-perfect darling to my agent for professional market and story evaluation, after it goes out for readings by (hopefully) interested acquisition editors, after it lands in the hands of public relations and distribution experts and book reviewers, falls entirely out of my hands. Books are commodities, subject to trends, news timeliness, celebrity hooks, the whole gamut of what sells something when. Writers, like journalists, photographers, artists and others, are today's "content providers." Making something good does not make it necessary.

Despite this reality, the magic of creativity resides in each and every design, book, or print we put out there. Tuesday when I placed that final period, computer cursor blinking steadily, patiently on the page, I experienced the familiar surge of emotion - tempered by experience. The observation by Gail Godwin that for every book that reaches her publisher several others expired on the way is every writer's truth. Revisions are books lost in process, themes hammered out, language refined, defined, condensed into only what needs to be on the page. If there are rules for novel writing as Maugham laments, no one knows what they are. That's part of the fun - and the risk. The artist reaching out to a frenetic distracted world.

Do I think this novel will survive the journey to publication? I don't know. I have a good feeling about it. I'll be sure to let you know.

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The Whole Self

Pebbles of the San Juan

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me - a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic - or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew:
I can.
- Denise Levertov

I think we try so hard to be perfect, we miss life.

What if we let ourselves stop the pendulum swing of self-critique? The swing from "Nailed it!" to "You loser..."? Allowed our souls to find center - to neither push nor desist, but just hold space for awhile, and in that sacred space find permission to be, to try, to perhaps change our minds, or give it a shot and fail, gently settle in with ordinary happiness? None of these daily human emotional and mental experiences are the antithesis to success: perfectionism is. In the pursuit of what is "perfect" is the negation of all that is not. A huge eraser we drag across life. And when we devalue our smallest efforts, be they sufficient or barely forward motion, we devalue the essence of our human nature - which is to strive. Humans are not born perfect, they are born to evolve. To understand, to take action, to plan, to expand, to be joyful. Life is not a target. There is no bulls-eye that says, Bingo! Got it. Life is about process, about being present in your own skin. Accepting that however, or wherever, you may be today on the spectrum of your goals, it's good enough. It's you.

Let today be a day of presence. Welcome yourself in. After all, you're pretty special - and you always have been. Pretty sure you will be tomorrow.
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