On Authenticity and Taking Things Personally

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.

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I’ve been having some rather candid conversations with fellow writers and non-writers in Towson and around town about the importance of authentic writing, both in polished pieces that we submit for publication and in less-polished posts that we share via social media. Repeatedly, the same troubling concern rises to the primary focus of these discussions: we do not wish to offend, yet we know that, invariably, we will.

Offend whom, you ask?

There’s a book that I refer to often. It’s called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The message is simple and can be found in most “good book” manuals, from the bible to the cub scout handbook. But the simplicity with which this book is written makes the agreements themselves accessible.

One of the four agreements is this:  never take anything personally.

Good advice for both readers and writers, I think, when the latter is doing his job authentically.

On the reader’s end, authentic writing from a son, a father, a spouse, a friend, a colleague can be terribly enlightening, but often it brings contradictions to that “role” that the writer has played with that reader over, perhaps, many years. It took me a very long time to see my parents as individuals; they shared only a fraction of their true personalities to us when we were children. By no means did they not live authentically; I believe that, on many levels, they did, especially Mom. But I didn’t care about any of that; I didn’t know any of that even existed, to be honest with you.

It did exist, though. Despite my every attempt to keep them in their roles as Mom and Dad, much to my astonishment, they were Eileen and Charles, individuals, to the rest of the world.

I imagine it is the same for you, in some manner.

For those of us who do not write for publication beyond social media, it’s not as big a deal, I think. There are fewer chances for us to bare our true souls, put them on the stage for all to see in black and white. But for writers and non-writers alike, we find convenient ways to practice a “don’t ask, don’t tell” lifestyle where we keep our authentic selves from emerging.

We’re good. We play the game and, for the most part, choose our translucent masks from the jar by the door, where they mingle a little shyly with the others of varying thickness. We even find ourselves believing that we are the mask. It shows up in our actions, our words, our beliefs. We buy into these pop-fad crises of global warming and rush to buy our hybrid cars suddenly to save the earth. We are made to feel so good, our egos soothed by our acts, doing our part, living the good, right life.

I don’t mean to mock or offend. I don’t. If anything, I am writing these words in my own reflection. This is my belief about myself and my attempts to be real, authentic, genuine; it’s not about any one of you. It’s what I feel, what I think, what I believe. When we look for hybrid choices when purchasing a new car, we applaud each other for our efforts. Then, in the next breath, we want to know if you are free for an early-spring barbecue next Thursday. These are our choices that we make. This is our place in this world, right here, right now.

I do not mean to offend. I mean to tell you what I think. Please, do not take it personally.

Writers do this as well. We anticipate criticism that we will most assuredly take personally, and then censor our writing to make our audience members nod their head in agreement. That’s what we’re after, isn’t it? Approval? We sacrifice authenticity for approval. We sacrifice genuine honesty to protect the ones we love and to preserve the images they hold of us, near and dear to their hearts.

God bless us all for our efforts. I mean that.

That’s not authentic, though. As writers, we’re faced with this dilemma on a daily basis. My blog is public. But my blog entries are personal. Do I wish to be conservative? Refrain from posting opinions that might offend? Censor my thoughts and censor who I am to save the ones I love from potential hurt because they choose to take my words personally?

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We can’t help it, I know. It’s what we do all day long. We are trained away from seeing and sharing all things with love; we grow suspicious, concerned, filtering all that comes in, and all that goes out.

We are becoming the first generation of artificial intelligence (AI) life forms, higher-level thinking zombies, if you will, who walk through their days and surf in their nights playing the lifelong game of PC-Perfect individuals, never wishing to offend, never wishing to misunderstand.

So many of us wish to do neither. And yet, we do, and in so doing we feel terribly sad that our efforts to live and write with genuine authenticity have somehow missed their mark.

Never take anything personally.

I know. I see myself doing it even now. It’s hard. So hard, when you know that your audience sees you in so many different roles: teacher, husband, father, friend, colleague. They bring those filters to my words and gasp, shake their heads, and maybe even do a little re-read to make sure they got it all right the first time.

Never before, though, have we lived such transparent lives for all our communities to see us so vividly. We’re all making choices, however conscious (or not) those choices may be. Some are retreating, staying low, under the public radar and wrapping themselves around popular causes to insulate them from the dangers of authentic living. It’s a genuine and noble drive, for sure. Still, there’s not much awareness happening at this level; rather, there is much awareness happening for everything but who they truly are as individuals.

I say this with love, and with personal experience. I think we all immerse ourselves into projects that protect us from baring our souls and living authentically. It’s the ultimate shield that gives us personal assurance that we need not walk unclothed into that good night; there is much to be done, indeed, and to think of ourselves and our own authenticity is, well, selfish.

There’s no way I can hide my tears in recognizing this reality.

We’ve had our arts programs stripped out of our schools, we have our students practicing the art of hoop writing with perfecting the tricky craft of composing standardized statements that fit ever neatly in digitized pop-up boxes. We are regurgitating numbers and facts and formulas and processes at lightning speeds so that school systems can boast when the annual reports are published in the morning papers: We are in the XXth Percentile; we have many reasons to celebrate. So many other schools did horribly worse. Hoorah for us.

We are not celebrating the successes of our individual students in their desperate attempts to hold on to their individuality; instead, we celebrate that — collectively — we play a better game of jump rope than half the other schools on our block.

But when they graduate, those expert jump-ropers, what do they know of authenticity? Of individuality?

Perhaps that is why so many of them flock wildly to Facebook and other forms of social media for a little breathing room, a little sanity where they can be a little dangerous with their words, say what’s really on their minds, and feel like they’re living authentically in a bead of water that rests precariously on a dewy leaf, overlooking the rushing waters of domestication and conformity.

The problem, of course, is that when we do that, we assume that such posts are attacks against us or against our beliefs, and we find ourselves taking things personally to an entirely new and dangerous level.

The current presidential campaigns from the remaining six contenders — four republicans and two democrats — are stirring more divisive rhetoric in social media, in print, and on television. When one speaks out against a particular candidate, others are easily offended and trigger an emotional exchange that leads to hurt feelings, anger, unfollowings, and even unfriendings.  Even in our authenticity, we offend. We let it get personal. We think it’s about us.

But it’s not. None of it.

We’re all doing our best to navigate through these days of stress, tension, and transition. None of it’s easy, and all we are doing is making it worse.

Look, I know it’s hard. We both need to work on it, Reader and Writer. But maybe, just maybe, if each of us comes to the page with a little sensibility, doing our best to take none of this personally, then maybe, perchance, we will not have offended the other.

And then, just maybe, if we are fortunate enough, our authenticity will lead to clarity; our clarity will lead to collaboration; our collaboration will lead to solutions.

Just maybe.

But first, we need to take nothing personally. Even if our presidential candidates are struggling to do this themselves, we can set the example for others –and most importantly, for our younger generations who need a better model.

It’s Time For Us To Get (Really) Acquainted

cropped-rvw-autumn-road.jpgHi.

I read a piece this weekend by a former student of mine and now fellow writer/author. Amanda, like a few others I know, is really digging deep and writing authentically (here’s the piece I’m talking about).

She made me turn the mirror on myself and see if I practice what I preach in my writing, or if I am one of those e-Posers, creating a false image of who I really am.

After thinking about it for the last 24 hours, I’ve come to this conclusion: I’m walking the thin fence, and I wobble a little to the left, a little to the right, a little too often.

What does that mean exactly? Well, to be honest…

What I Am Noticing

I believe everything that I write, everything that I preach, everything that I share. My mantras on love, kindness, wellness, and spirituality are all sincere — not just for you, but for me as well. All of that stuff is true.

The wobbles come in when we start talking about what I will call “selective posting.” Like Amanda writes, we’re all at least a little guilty of it, in some way. Right? We hold back the negatives that might cast a harsh light on our otherwise stellar lives. We keep in the backs of our minds our jobs, our family, our friends, our relationships. We are careful to walk that smooth line atop that fence, keeping our opinions in check, making sure that what we say, or write, or do does not become a misconstrued piece of evidence to jeopardize any aspect of our lives as we have crafted them.

In effect, though, we are becoming a mirrored image of the not-so-transparent people that we pose to be in our online worlds.

Do you get that? Do you see what is happening? In our effort to use social media to build ourselves up, we are actually using it to build nothing more than a superficial prototype of ourselves.

This is not who we are! And yet, the more we put in to that image, the less we can access that core of who we really are.

There’s another thing that happens, too: We spend a lot of time doing two things: logging in and logging out of the virtual world, and spending a lot of energy trying to get back to a place that we are losing touch with.

Thoreaus_quote_near_his_cabin_site,_Walden_PondThoreau called it the masses leading lives of quiet desperation. I think that, in this 21st century, Thoreau’s editor would change that to “…masses leading desperate lives of quiet superficiality.”

It’s sad, but it’s true. All it takes is a little mindfulness to slow it down long enough to step off the train and get reacquainted with who you really are.

Then hold on to that knowledge and never, ever surrender it.

What I Am Changing

Well, for starters, I’m going to use this space to be a bit more… uncut. My friend Steve has always liked these kinds of posts. He says that they are raw, real; something he can relate to. That’s what I want to share with you: more of the real side of me that isn’t always shown in a polished piece of writing. That begins now.

I’m also changing the frequency with which I write in this space. A good friend of mine, Jackie, writes a blog called the BaltimoreBlackWoman, and I find her words to be so encouraging and sincere as she embarks on this journey of online writing and publishing. Last month, she PM’d me and asked if everything was okay, as I had not been publishing much here at the Baltimore Writer. I assured her everything was fine, but it made me realize that I wasn’t seizing an opportunity to write more, share more, be authentic…more.

So that’s a big thing: Walking the walk while talking the talk. I want you to get to know me as a writer who freaks out about synthetics sucking all of the negative ions (and creativity) out of his soul, who charts methodically — obsessively — about every character’s nuances and every twist and turn of the story’s plot.

I want to share my more personal thoughts that are behind the polished pieces I write.

In essence, I want you to get to know me 3-dimensionally, where the struggles and challenges of living are made apparent in such a way that you can identify. That we can say we’re going through this thing called life together, holding hands, and taking our steps forward with courage and determination.

That we can say we knew each other more deeply than what was printed on the page, the screen, the tablet.

That we can say we appreciated the genuineness of our words, of our friendship, of our ideals.

That we can remember that we are not alone, that we are deeper than our social media avatar, that we are more loving, more gentle, more kind than we might have let on.

That we love, that we need to be loved, that we need to deliver love.

Those last few grafs sure sounded pretty plastic, I know. They sounded like the stuff I always publish, and maybe that’s the part of me that’s transparent. I believe in those things; I really do.

But what I believe in, just as much, is authenticity, through and through.

So there’s this:

I’m a writer runner, skipping over projects sometimes two at a time to get to the safer piece, usually without the deadlines, so that I can continue to feel productive. I am immensely deadline-driven, and I lose myself whenever possible in the non-structured wilderness of brainstorming, generating, and molding of ideas.

But for me to be successful, I have to stay close to the core of who I am. That’s a daily struggle as a writer. I have enough freelance gigs now that I can hop from story to story without feeling too guilty. Hey– I’m writing all the time; isn’t that what this life is all about?

Yes and, well, no.

The stuff I’m writing isn’t deep enough. I have to stay closer to the core, and more often, to really capture the words to express what I am thinking, feeling.

It’s not about hopping from deadline to deadline; in fact, it’s the complete opposite. It’s about crafting pieces deeply and then finding homes for them afterward.

It’s also about being genuine with myself, more often.

And that’s what you will be hearing from me, more often, here at The Baltimore Writer.