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On Auditioning New Beliefs

Beliefs are funny things to me. When I was younger, beliefs were like flags on the moon, poles in the sand, ways to stake out your self in the world: I believe this, therefore I am. You can believe in God; you can believe in karma; you can believe in divine retribution, feminism, positive thinking, social justice, attachment parenting, crystal healing, astrology, creationism. Sometimes you inherit beliefs; sometimes you come to adopt them. But they form part of your identity.

As I get older, though, I find part of the process of growing up and (hopefully) wiser is unearthing the beliefs you didn’t even realize you have, those unconscious yet deeply rooted mental assumptions that help you interpret the world. A lot of these hidden beliefs — at least in my experience — satellite themselves around areas like sex, love and money — you know, those chthonic, shadowy areas where compulsions and contradictions lodge themselves. Which, of course, makes them even more fascinating to me, these areas being so taboo and shrouded in a kind of dark silence in our culture. The areas hold beliefs like: Men will hurt me. I can’t trust women. If they really get to know me, they’ll think I’m a fraud. Being rich makes me a terrible person. I don’t deserve this money, this happiness, this stability. I can’t trust anyone. People let me down. People suck. Happiness is an illusion, or for chumps.

Often these are beliefs we would never voice or agree with consciously, but when you look at the pattern of behavior — especially behavior or decisions you can’t understand with yourself, and you have to craft the most convoluted explanations to justify them to yourself and your friends — you realize these unconscious beliefs are what’s guiding your behavior.

It takes a lot of work to even see these beliefs, much less root them out and then change them. You could say it’s the work of a lifetime, really, and I’m sure people spend hours of reflection and therapy to do it, especially when you’re working with really intense areas of life and psyche. I think part of the process of getting wiser is realizing these kind of beliefs are more elastic and pliable than you think — though softening them can be brutally hard work.

But beliefs and assumptions underlie less loaded areas of life, and it’s a little more fun to play with them here. Like beliefs about something like fashion: I can’t wear pink; I’m not a prints person; black is for goths; older women can’t wear skirts above the knee; only neutrals can be chic. It’s sort of fun to challenge these periodically, and a pleasure to experiment with expanding your own boundaries — and it’s why half of my underwear drawer is crazy pink-based patterns, which is not something people would often guess about me. But there you go!

Lately I have been thinking over certain assumptions I’ve made about writing in particular, like what a “successful” writing session should look like, or how to write a novel. Some of these are borne by personal experience or given to me by instruction or education, like the idea that “real writers” write everyday, or write in the morning, or write for 2-3 hour blocks of uninterrupted yet caffeinated time. But of course people change and grow all the time, and shouldn’t we test these beliefs every now and then? And even if these beliefs are “true,” wouldn’t your conviction in them be stronger by testing them out again?

So I’ve been experimenting with new things in terms of writing that go against my ingrained beliefs on the craft. The first step: look at my behavior and try to root out what beliefs were motivating them. Like, some days I would scrap writing for myself altogether because I didn’t have a “quality block” of time for it…which only made me feel guilty deep down for skipping the day. Sure, a block would be ideal, w=but who often leads an ideal life, day in and day out? So I decided to challenge that recently, and audition the belief that “20 minutes is enough.” The result is, well, more writing and less guilt.

Another writing belief of mine to challenge a novel had to be drafted in a certain way. People assume novels are written chronically, and for the most part, I’ve been taught to write that way, even in draft form. But lately I’ve been working on just major scenes and turning points first, and it feels more fun and energetic. Words are flowing, characters are developing, worlds are building, and the result is just a lot more pleasure, not to mention a lot less time sitting there staring at the screen, wondering how I was going to get myself to the next interesting part.

And finally, I’m challenging my own internal notion that my creativity/writing energy is limited. I labored under the idea that there was only so much I could write a day, and if I wrote too much and too widely, I’d burn out. This belief affected me in that it created weird resentments and guilts: I’d feel angsty because I had to write so much for my job and couldn’t focus on my fiction. Or I’d feel weird about blogging when I felt like I should work on my novel, or vice versa.

Of course, there are only so many hours. But time, though related, is different from energy. But what if I played around with the idea that there’s more than enough energy for the novelizing, blogging and work-related writing. So I decided to fuck it all and write everything when I felt like it, and just pretend like I would never burn out as a writer.

I do find that writing begats more writing — especially if I don’t limit it to just a block of 2-3 hours of supposed quality time and feel good about writing in snatches here and there. Quality creative time isn’t related to duration, but the ability to focus and imagine vividly and clearly, so 20 minutes of clear focus is better than an hour of unfocused time. And part of creating that unimpeded focused yet keen mindset is, ironically, removing the weirdly outdated, subconscious emotional and mental noise that unchallenged beliefs and assumptions give you.

Deep down, I think that’s when you know a belief — no matter where in life — is no longer serving you — when it’s blocking you with guilt, unhappiness, resentment and fear. That’s when you know it’s time to play around with something else better. I can do that with writing or fashion fairly easily — and of course, it’s the work of a lifetime in other areas of life. But worth it, I think, because who doesn’t want to be free of guilt, resentment and other emotional headless horsemen?

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Posted by Kat Asharya in Creativity + Writing, Soul + Wisdom on October 31st, 2014 | No Comments »

Six Semi-Related Thoughts on Reading, Writing, Thinking, Wisdom vs. Information and Other Random Topics

From street kitten to literary felineSometimes when you’re blocked as a blogger, the key is to simply blog. Maybe not publish, but just write and see what happens. Sometimes I’m convinced blocks happen because you want to write about subjects you perhaps don’t often write about in a particular space. But something — self-judgment, overwhelm, lack of confidence, low energy, life — gets in the way. And when you don’t obey your inner prime directive, well, nothing comes out — everything gets blocked.

(It reminds me of a useful metaphor I once read somewhere self-help-ish, about how both positive and negative emotions come out of the same “faucet,” and trying to repress the icky stuff and not deal with it also blocks the good stuff as well. Maybe there’s a writing/creative corollary as well?)

So anyway: one of these things I’d like to write more about is writing itself, but the idea of shaping a mass of thoughts into a cohesive long-form piece of writing kind of sucks the energy out of me right now. Let’s just lower the bar a little and present a “related list,” no? This is just a “state of the union” kind of things I have been mulling over about writing, publishing and creativity in general.

+ Sometimes I really miss writing more critically/whatever-y/essaylike about stuff like music, movies, books and all that. Sometimes I do that a little, here, but it doesn’t feel quite right for this space and I’m tired to trying to figure out a way to make everything fit. Sometimes I think of starting a new Web “thing” — because I LOVE to start new things, it’s a cardinal sign astrology thing, maybe — but then I think, “Does the Internet really need another opinionated person clogging up bandwidth with whatever?”

+ This of course is tied to my general Internet/online/social media exhaustion to begin with. I feel bad, but I don’t read blogs as much as I used to. I don’t really check into Facebook. (Sorry to people whose birthdays I missed on there, I’m terrible at FB!) I feel like all I get from the Internet is information, bits and pieces that just drift through my life and easily drift out of it, like an early winter snowstorm, replaced by the latest meme or byte — and it doesn’t feel like real knowledge or wisdom anymore. I don’t have a real, sustained engagement or relationship with it. I think about that a lot, sometimes — what kind of intellect is possible if you do all your thinking, writing and researching via the Internet?

+ I do think a lot about how something starts as information, becomes knowledge and perhaps transitions into genuine wisdom and discernment: a kind of life cycle of intelligence, perhaps, and I do think about how the medium and audience and “market” (ugh at that word) affects that process. And when you write a blog or website, what role you/it plays in that process. Which is to say, sometimes I wonder if writing a blog in general is a futile thing if I genuinely want to contribute in some way to something quality in this realm.

+ I also think about making a zine again. Like a real zine. I made one as a special giftie for peeps who bought my book, and it was fun to make something that I knew would literally exist in material reality. I do so much writing for the Internet, both professionally and personally, that it is a fascinating exercise to write something that you know will only exist outside the electronic ether. And perhaps I am nostalgic for the time when I wrote a “perzine” and felt that wide-open expanse of possibility within that format — you could write on anything, in whatever format, and while the audience wasn’t as wide, they were more engaged perhaps. Or maybe that’s just me flattering myself, I don’t know, or I’m projecting my own type of engagement upon different media. (On a basic level, I tend to remember books and ideas better when I read them on paper.) Anyway: sometimes I think it would be fun to do a zine again, to create a physical object full of writing. I sort of miss photocopying, too, collating, stapling, mailing…

+ I have been writing a lot of short stories recently, but fall means novel-writing, so I’m gearing up for that soon. I stumbled upon the first act of a novel I started a few years ago, read it and realized, “Wow, this idea is fascinating and, above all, kind of that sustainable tension between fun and challenging.” Reading it was like reading something someone else wrote — I’d forgotten I’d written it, in a strange way. Which is in some way the most delicious sensation you can have as a writer, when words you wrote are somehow outside of yourself and you’re like, “Dang, who write this? Me?!” Of course, you can have that feeling in both a good and bad way, and often both at the same time.

+ I really do think people underestimate and misunderstand the role of “fun” and play when it comes to writing, especially long-term projects. This was an insight I came to late during my MFA program, and I really wish I had learned it much earlier on — I would’ve saved myself a lot of time, money and heartache, perhaps. I could write and make very serious, weighty, dramatic stories in a short format — a short film, a short screenplay, a short story. I could experiment with dense, intellectual ideas, both in form and subject, in short formats. But when it came to longer work, I found writing that intensely sad, fragmented post-colonial family saga, for instance, to be a horribly awful experience, both for me to write and perhaps for others to read. The material colored my existence, made me sad and pessimistic and writing became a chore in a way it normally is not for me.

Sometimes I believe that how you feel about the process of writing is just as important as how you feel about what you write about — and how you feel as you write it, perhaps. (I’m convinced that feelings about self, life, whatever seep into writing in this effable way, which sometimes makes it hard for me to finish work these days by lauded, “good” writers I’m convinced are total douchebag assholes, simply because the ineffable asshole vibes somehow waft off the page.) Anyway, I wish someone had told me early in my MFA program, “Sure, experiment with that crazy intense story for a few shorts, but when you buckle down to making real sustained work, write something you enjoy on some level.” But of course, I think this is different for everyone. There are some people who create as a kind of catharsis, a therapy, an outlet for pain and trauma and simple suffering of mere human existence, and they need to write crazy, intense stuff to get something out and God bless them for that. I think those writers are so compelling and dazzling in their honesty and courage. I guess I don’t write from that space, though: my demons are small fry, really. I write because it’s fun for me, because I like being transported, and I like the potential companionship that a good story provides. But it’s nice to know the space you’re coming from.

+ Anyway, writing about writing gets tiresome after while, so I’m going to wrap this up and get home and make some soup and tea. Because sometimes there is nothing better than soup and tea after a nice intense writing session, after all.

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Posted by Kat Asharya in Creativity + Writing on October 12th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

Static and Silence

So, I’ve had a bit of blogger’s block. It’s hard to get back into the blogging mindset once you’ve not done it for awhile. Where do you begin? Do you simply recap what’s been going on and why you’ve been silent? Does it really matter? Is that the sound of crickets chirping and my own voice echoing in the empty canyons? Hello? Bonjour?

Blogger’s block is different from the typical writer’s block. I’ve actually never suffered from writer’s block, knock on wood — I write for a living, so I’ve learned you can’t be precious and perfectionist, at first you just have to let go and do it. But blogging is a different beast. Blogging has no end, no final shape it resolves towards. It is an ongoing commitment to a kind of public thinking and expressing. It’s easy to burn out with it. But in this case, it wasn’t burnout — it was just life being its crazy, misshapen self, and me hunkering down in survival mode, just trying to get through bouts of depression, shock, expansion, transition.

Compound it with the fact that I’m not an “in media res” kind of writer. I really admire people who can blog and write their way through huge life crises and transitions: I myself, I realize, cannot. I can’t commit anything to words on a screen or paper for public consumption until I’ve gotten a bead on the experience, eked out some wisdom and insight and shape and contour from it. And, of course, when it comes to Major Life Stuff, there are other people and their privacy involved. I guess I’ll never be a super-confessional writer in that way, at least not until I know the ending of the story. Until the story ends, in fact.

So, let’s just say the past summer has been highly eventful. There are times when you make life happen; there are also times when life happens to you. As much as we want to believe and act as if we are mistresses and masters of our own destinies and authors of our stories — sometimes life really does take unexpected turns. Life, death, birth, rebirth, “cycle of existence” kind of shit on a real-life and metaphorical level: that was my summer of 2014. And many of its twists were huge surprises, or out of my control. But that happens; that’s life. I suppose it’s what the Buddhists mean when they say life is suffering. We suffer in part because all our best-laid plans blow up in our faces, and we realize, no, not everything is under our control.

And in the middle of it all, I stopped writing — I stopped writing in my journal, online, to friends via e-mail. I only had enough writing juju for my job, and well, I need my job to live, eat and survive, so it took priority. I didn’t possess the kind of inside-and-out perspective writing sometimes requires. I couldn’t narrate my own experience; I could only somehow try to make my way through it as best as I could without the aid of words and thought, my once trusty allies. This summer, I realized, was the longest I’ve ever gone without writing for myself. This summer was also the farthest away I’ve ever felt from myself, if that makes sense. I couldn’t even take a picture for Instagram. Creativity was always one of the gifts I’ve relied on in life to anchor a sense of identity, continuity and harmony — and it seemed to leave me.

Don’t worry — everything is good and fine, but it’s taken awhile to adjust to everything: new life circumstances, situations, expanding identities. I laugh at my intentions for this year that I set on New Year’s: I wanted a really quiet, calm, peaceful kind of year after a few years of not-so-quietness. Ha! At this point, I will settle for equanimity in the face of everything. Hopefully, though, I’m getting my writing legs back — like sea legs, but a bit more psychically necessary.

I know this is cryptic. I don’t mean to be mysterious — half the struggle is trying to figure out just what to say, and what exactly feels good to speak upon where I can offer some semblance of insight. Once I get going again and figure out what’s comfortable and okay for me to reveal and write about, hopefully things will become more clear. But for now, it’s time to stop wondering if this is good enough or just enough, and hit Publish and call it a night.

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Posted by Kat Asharya in Soul + Wisdom on September 30th, 2014 | 4 Comments »

Against Busyness

I have been reading Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work and Play When You Have No Time recently, and enjoying it thoroughly. It is one of those books that looks like one thing but is almost another: it looks like a productivity/business/personal development book on the surface, but it is also a rich cultural history of time, leisure and what constitutes a good life.

There’s so much to recommend about it: it’s sharply written, well-researched, and does a phenomenal job of tracing how these “natural” ideas about time and productivity are deeply tied to gender, economics and other factors in social context. I’m really enjoying it thoroughly, to the point where I kind of don’t want to return it to my local library! It’s a real smartypants read, but very accessible and non-academic.

But this isn’t a smartypants review of it. Because, as I was reading it, I noticed my underlying emotional reaction and realized it was: Boy, am I so happy I don’t relate to this book! Which was weird, and worthy of deconstruction.

It was kind of embarrassing thing to realize. Schulte writes a lot about herself in the book, in a good way — her harried juggling of her work as a reporter for the Washington Post, her marriage, her childrearing, her householding. But it wasn’t that I didn’t relate to her role overload — I have plenty to do and lots of projects, relationships, and priorities to manage. It was that I realized: I’m not that frenzied anymore. I don’t periodically announce, “I’m so busy!” like I used to when I was living in New York.

If you read the book, you know how insanely profane such a statement is. No matter who you are or what you do, you must be busy. Or, you just aren’t important, a successful human being. If you aren’t busy, you are lame, a slacker, not fulfilling your potential. And reading Overwhelmed, I felt maybe there was something a little wrong with me. And then I opened my hippie productivity planner and tried to find a list to make. (List-making makes me feel very important to myself.) It was a bit of a crisis, oddly: am I not fulfilling my human potential? Am I wasting precious time? Am I a loser?

But then I backtracked, slowed down, stopped the shame spiral. Not-busyness for me, I realized, is the end result of many major shifts and decisions, some of which I’ve covered here. My notions of success have changed; my desire to have different kind of relationships as well. Changing my approach to finances and prosperity played a role in keeping me less busy. It wasn’t a deliberate move, but slowly I reconfigured my life towards a less frenetic, jam-packed existence.

I’ve always been deeply interested in our experiences of time, and have written about kairos time (the way we “lose” time when we’re immersed in something we love doing) vs. chronos time (the sense of time represented by stopwatches, deadlines). I guess you can say I’ve made more of an effort to shift my life to privilege kairos time: time that hasn’t been sliced up by distraction or obligation or competing priorities. I’ve refused well-paying jobs that demanded 60-70 hours workweeks, for example. I moved from New York, which reduced my expenses considerably and gives me more flexibility in the type of work I take. I don’t work in film anymore, or any job that requires significant “face time” on someone else’s schedule. I’m very privileged to be able to be in a position to make these decisions, but it wasn’t like I had it right away — I chipped away at it slowly, incrementally. And this affects my finances, my social network and my opportunities. But it also gives me swathes of beautifully open kairos time. Reading Schulte’s book makes me realize what a rare approach this is. Or perhaps not rare, but not framed in these notions of kairos vs. chronos.

(You may think “Big deal!” but kairos time is vitally important to our happiness and perhaps to our progress overall. Kairos is where we invent stories, innovations, works of art. Our brains need kairos time to fully rest and revitalize — just grabbing a quarter-hour of rest here and there won’t truly relax you. Schulte makes the sharp observation that socially, historically, and culturally, institutions and individuals have privileged men’s kairos time over women’s — she has loads of historical and statistical information in Overwhelmed, and makes a strong case for time as a feminist issue.)

Ironically, as I was reading Overwhelmed, I actually did consult my planner and agenda a lot less than usual. Partly because it’s kind of senioritis season and a lot of major projects and work stuff wrapped up, but maybe, after reading so much about the toxic effects of our cultural elevation of busyness, I was just more well-aware of the larger imperative to fill our lives to the brim with perfectionism, over-achievement and fueling acquisition. I wanted the mental space to think about what’s important — after all, no one’s eulogy or obituary will ever read, “And you know what else was so awesome about this person? They were so busy!” And so I closed the book when I was done and felt relieved. If I don’t directly relate to Overwhelmed, I must be doing something right!

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Posted by Kat Asharya in Soul + Wisdom on May 28th, 2014 | No Comments »

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