It was then I got the first inkling that I might have some trouble with emotional vulnerability. I would reach down into myself trying to read an emotional scene, and it was just not there. I would feel almost repulsed by the process. As a result, I failed utterly. Comedy, however, was easy. I'm hardly the first to observe that it's easy to hide oneself in humor.
I switched majors and even colleges, got a degree in political science and headed to law school. But problems with emotional vulnerability don't just go away, and they've been the source of most of my life's angst. Most of you who know me are aware that the practice of law is not my great calling, and often feels dry and confining, despite my skill at it. It makes me a good living, however, and allows me to work with my father and brother and a number of other funny, smart people, an opportunity I value deeply. And it allows me to engage in my creative pursuits, which have always felt like my first home.
But you also know that I've resisted putting my creative work out there into the current, submitting it to the world for evaluation and opinion. This has been the great conundrum of my life. I want to do this work so badly, and yet have so long lacked the will to make myself that terribly, terribly vulnerable. I created a body of work I'm fairly proud of, but I did it anonymously. Anonymity was the only thing that allowed me to take that risk of vulnerability.
Now, this has improved a great deal in the last two or so years, with the convergence of a number of events in my life. I entered and emerged from what Hugo Schwyzer refers to as the "terrible and wonderful crucible of divorce." I'm now in a relationship with a man who understands fearing vulnerability just enough himself that we've been able to create a space where, despite our occasional failures, we doggedly continue to build trust and openness. And, of course, I've spent a long time in the office of a very good therapist.
This week, something interesting happened. I've been reading Jon Katz's books and blogs for several years now, and he relentlessly implores his readers, and himself, to "live your life" and to put your work out there, and see where it goes. I'm a fan of his Bedlam Farm blog on Facebook. He's written a new book, a work of fiction this time after several memoirs about the farm and its various animal denizens. The book was recently released, and the other day he posted the first "negative" review, from the Washington Post. I clicked through, read the review, and posted the following comment:
I haven't read "Rose in a Storm" yet, and so I'm in no position to speak to the entire review. But I did notice this: "Katz's occasional forays into doggie mysticism clash oddly with the matter-of-fact narration."This apparently struck Jon quite a bit. The tension in his work between the rational and the mystical was quite noticeable to me, and I even wrote about it here after reading A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life.* So I was a bit surprised that my observation was unique or new. But it's easy to see things about others, and not so easy to see them about ourselves.
I've always noticed that ...-- tension? -- dichotomy? in your work, though I don't view it as odd, or "clashing." Rather, it's part of the texture of your work. For example, you'll warn against the temptation to anthropomorphize just before you yield to it yourself in some small way or another. I see it as a recognition of and attempt to grapple with contradiction, with complexity. It's one of the things I like about your writing. So in this way, the review makes me want to read the new book to see how that plays out in your fiction. I'm not sure a "good" review would have had the same effect. So I'm thankful for this one.
Jon and I exchanged a few messages about the ideas I expressed and he wrote a post about them here. Although there are several layers to this onion -- and the one that struck Jon, the tension between rationality and mysticism, is one about which I have a great deal yet to say -- here is the passage that struck me with respect to what I've been confessing in this post:
You hole up writing something very personal and interior, then send it out into the world for other people to look at, accept or reject, and mull. They call it putting it out there.Here is a person who has written nineteen books and innumerable blog posts, who has braved forums with angry border collie owners who think he does it all wrong, who has shared hundreds of photographs from the time he just began to shoot, and I have "outed" him as a "crazy mystic," a part of himself that he had not, before now, owned and recognized.
As I read this, I thought of my constant exhortations to remember that dogs are just animals, and not to turn them into something else. This from a man who sat up at the top of the hill reading St. Augustine to his dogs in the middle of winter. And who in his darkest hours sang “You light up my life” to a Lab puppy in the middle of one freezing night after another. I have claimed the rational side of self in recent years, but never owned up to the other. I consider myself outed. You got me, Jennifer, nailed it. I am a crazy mystic – who else leaves his family and runs off to a farm in middle-age to find himself with a bunch of dogs, sheep and donkeys?
And I'm too chicken to write under my own name?
I wrote him on facebook:
Jon, I have to note something else. In many ways, by "outing" you, I've outed myself. I've written and photographed a lot anonymously (read: safely) but it's always been a struggle to put that creative work into the stream under my own name and let it be carried where it will go. Your frequent admonitions to do just that have motivated me a great deal.
You have put so much of yourself out there, on display, for others. Having "outed" you, I no longer have an excuse to refrain from taking the risk of doing so myself. In that way, I deeply appreciate this conversation for my own reasons.
It's fascinating, to me, how a chance Facebook interaction can produce insights so helpful to both parties. Jon thanked me for my insights, and for respecting and understanding his work.
And I thank him for deftly yet unknowingly removing the excuses from someone who badly needed them removed. By outing him, I have outed myself. And I'll continue to do so, to try to be as honest as I can, to put my work out there, and to cultivate curiosity about where it goes, instead of trying to control its destination.
And this post is the first installment of that continuing project.
*If you read that link, please note that, after exchanging several messages with Jon, I no longer wonder whether we'd get along if we "knew" each other. That question has been resolved favorably. I wonder if what I was reading in Jon's work at the time reflected some of my own rough edges that I had yet to confront, but was destined to in the coming year. Perhaps.