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.

The Story Had To Be Told: On Writing The Christmas Rose

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday, I published my short story, The Christmas Rose. It’s been less than 24 hours since I shared it with my readers, and I wanted to answer a few questions about why I wrote it.

Q: The story is pretty long — almost 8,000 words. Most people aren’t reading pieces that take more than a few minutes to read. Why didn’t you cut it down to under 5,000 words?

A. It is one of the longer shorts that I’ve written. Most are around 3,000 words. I’ve been trained well by the competitions and requirements of the print journals where I submit most of my work. I knew this piece was going directly to the web and to an eBook format, so I worried less about the length.

There’s another reason, though. First and foremost, the story had to be told, and I couldn’t hold any part of it back to fit a generic reader’s tolerance for a sustained reading. In other words, it doesn’t fit into the criteria of a social media read (that’s one of the reasons why I created a PDF of the manuscript so readers could download it and read it at their leisure).

Q: Aren’t you afraid that it won’t get more widely distributed then? It seems like the length is a real roadblock to it taking off.

A: Then so be it. I know the formula of what makes things go “viral” in today’s fast-paced world. Maybe this is an “anti-viral” piece. I’ve stopped caring about that. I’m going to be 50 years old in a few months, and I have a lot of stories to share before I go. I’ve stopped worrying about what works in this immediate world. If my story is 50 words or 500,000 words long, then that’s what it is. I’ll let my present and future readers decide what they want to do with it.

Q: How long were you working on this story?

A: Not terribly long at all. The basic premise came to me about 3 weeks ago that “believing” in something, like Christmas or Santa Claus, is not just for kids. We have a responsibility to continue our efforts to believe in our power to change the world — whether that is the “world” in our local town or community, or an entire nation or nations.

In the middle of writing the piece, we took a trip down to 34th Street to look at the lights in Hamden in Baltimore City. We never made it because a flash mob shut the streets down as they sung “Silent Night.” I thought that was the greatest thing to happen. Shut everything down with music. Stop driving by the world and take a few minutes to celebrate the beauty with friends and strangers alike. Wonderful stuff.

Here’s the video that was released from that special night:

After I wrote the first draft, I knew there was very little I wanted to revise. It’s a Christmas story, all right, but it’s so much more about what we can do for others. Our nation is in a stressful place right now. We can focus on the pain, or we can focus on acts of kindness for all that can begin a genuine and long-lasting healing.

Q: Is any of it real?

A: None of it and all of it. Luther’s Village is a micro version of historic Lutherville; Hunter’s Valley is Hunt Valley. Emily Starling is an extension of the kind elders I knew in my neighborhood in Loch Raven and Towson who gave so selflessly to others.

Q: What about the Christmas Rose?

A: The Christmas rose itself (Helleborus niger) is not very “rose-traditional” looking. And, more importantly, it is poisonous. I loved the story behind the flower, but using this exact plant for my story just wouldn’t work. The hybridization of flowers happens all the time; it is not unrealistic to believe that Emily was able to create a hybrid that would be safe and offer a nice fragrance.

I think planting and giving flowers is the greatest gift we can give to others, both for now and for the future. I’ve always enjoyed the stories about the hope flowers bring. It doesn’t take much to bring a little color and hope to others, does it?

Q: How can I read “The Christmas Rose”?

A: You can read it online HERE.

You can also download the eBook (PDF) to enjoy on your phone or tablet: Christmas Rose Story.

Thanks, readers, for reading and, possibly, sharing my story of The Christmas Rose with others. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

as always………………………….rvw

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