criticism

How bullying made me a better writer

Most kids joke that their favorite subject in school is recess or lunch. Those were the times I dreaded the most. Classmates spitting gum in my hair; getting called ugly/ fatty/ freakazoid; kids running from me, afraid they would catch ‘Tracy germs.’ I ate lunch in the bathroom whenever I could sneak by the lunch attendants who seemed more preoccupied with keeping us all in one raucous room rather than ensuring that no one was getting hurt or bullied.

While I would never wish that treatment on any young child, as an adult it’s easy to notice the bright side of the past. The truth is something positive did come from that time. I truly believe that my skills as a writer were formed during the isolation and depression of bullying.

  1. It made me more observant.
    If I wasn’t bullied, I was ignored. At these times I could watch my peers; studying their gestures, their words, and their behaviors . I thought if I studied them hard enough, I would learn how to become popular. Of course that didn’t work, but I did learn how to be quiet and absorb the information around me, and put that into my writing.
  2. It taught me the art of revision.
    As a kid, I was terrible with come backs. As soon as someone dissed me, I froze up and English became like a second language to me. This made the kids laugh even more. While trying to fall asleep I would go over the insults kids hurled at me that day and come up with all the clever responses I should have said. Writing gives you the ability to sit with a cluster of words and sculpt them as much as you want until they finally resemble your elusive thoughts.  Writing gave me the ability to use my words, an ability I didn’t have on the playground.
  3. It turned me into a reader.

    In order to become a good writer, you must read. This is the best way to absorb effective structure, beautiful prose, potent vocabulary, and great ideas. I was slow to reading, in fact I didn’t start reading until 3rd grade, but once I was able to decipher those inky pages I couldn’t get enough. I escaped into the world of books. If my reality was full of play dates and giggles, I probably wouldn’t have read so much.

  4. It taught me the complexity of humanity.
    The best authors make you sympathize with people who do bad things. In order to achieve this, the author needs to have incredible understanding as to why a person would behave that way, and, most of all, she must be able to forgive that character. It took me a long time to forgive my classmates for their treatment, but eventually I was able to understand why they did it. They were scared little kids afraid that if they didn’t pick on the scapegoat they would become the scapegoat. They had siblings or parents who bullied them and they took that out on me. They thought it was a harmless joke. When my best friend arrived at our school in fifth grade, I asked her if she knew how to talk because she was so quiet. Years later she told me how much that comment hurt her, but at the time I didn’t know any better. Whatever the reason for bullying, I don’t believe that kids are evil, they were complex.
  5. It helped me handle rejection.
    Getting a letter saying “unfortunately we cannot represent you at this time,” doesn’t feel like rejection compared to what the boys used to say on my school bus. I remember one time the kids teased a boy, saying that we were boyfriend and girlfriend, at which point he pretended to throw up. His retching was so convincing that the bus driver pulled over to see if he was okay. Kids would kick the empty seat over if they saw me coming to sit next to them, or they would beg my teacher to be partnered with someone else. That was a kind of rejection that puts all future rejection in perspective.

I spent years pitying myself as the victim, not understanding what I did to warrant that kind of treatment. The truth is it doesn’t matter. Bad things happen. If we choose to let those times teach us rather than beat us, we are stronger and better for it.

Give me your brutal first impressions

I’ve been hard at work making the website for Brutal First Impressions, and I finally have something to show for it! I’m eager to hear what you think of it. If you have a chance, can you look at this site and tell me what you think?

  • What do you think of the photos?
  • Do you see any typos? Weird wording?
  • How are the prices and descriptions?
  • Is the font difficult to read?
  • Is the blog funny?
  • Is this the kind of thing you would share?

For now, this is just a sneak peak for my amazing readers so please don’t share the site yet (don’t worry there will be plenty of time to share it in the future).

Feel free to buy one of the services as well!

You can send me feedback either as a comment in this blog, on the contact page of the site, or at Tracy@brutalfirstimpressions.com.

I Have Gone Insane: Brutal First Impressions

Me next to my sign in Central Park.

Me next to my sign in Central Park.

On the subway ride to Central Park, I clutched my sign and bit my lip. “I can’t believe I’m really doing this,” I said to my husband. My heartbeat was pounding in my ears.

I made my way through Central Park, searching for the perfect spot: one with lots of foot traffic but still quiet, and I set up my sign and hat. I took a deep breath and prayed that no one would beat me up. Immediately people stopped and stared. Then the cameras came out. I started panicking that I would soon be ridiculed on the internet like the typewriting hipster.

A few months ago, I had the idea of starting a business called Brutal First Impressions. Most of us surround ourselves with people who wouldn’t want to hurt our feelings. While this can be good for our egos, it can also hinder our growth, and we can become comfortable with habits that might be off-putting for others. I figured that for a small price, I could be the one to tell it like it is: put on some deodorant, that shirt is terrible, you talk too much when you’re nervous…that kind of thing. But first I wanted to gain some experience. Why not try it out in Central Park!

The first guys to try it out.

The first guys to try it out.

I set the price at $5. At first, the people walking by would take pictures and laugh, saying, “that’s the best idea ever!” but they weren’t paying me for it. As soon as I lowered it to $1, people started lining up.

I asked each participant for their name, a handshake and a smile. Then I would ask them to take a few steps back and walk towards me, and then turn around slowly. At that point I would critique everything that I saw.

Here is some general advice I had to give almost everyone:

  • Make eye contact when you shake hands
  • Show your teeth when you smile
  • Keep your chin up when you walk

I couldn’t believe how many people needed that advice, and as soon as I said it and they tried it out, they seemed like new people.

2012-10-31 22.28.02It wasn’t easy being mean. A crowd would typically form around whomever I was critiquing and I could tell that they wanted to see tears. At one point I told a guy he had dandruff, and his friends practically cheered. I told another guy that he needed to pluck his uni-brow. When the crowd ohhed and ahhed at this, I asked to see a show of hands for who thought he should pluck his eyebrows. Almost everyone raised their hands. When I wasn’t mean, people would start heckling me saying, “Come on, this is supposed to be brutal.”

2012-10-31 22.23.04The whole time I was doing this I kept expecting someone to ask me my qualifications. I had my response all figured out: I’m classically trained in art and literature so I have a discerning eye and a critical mind. I learned how to evaluate presentation styles from my years as a teacher and teacher trainer. But the only person who asked for my qualifications immediately answered for me: “You’re a woman. Women know how to criticize.”

I was surprised that people were really interested in my story. At one point I had four guys sitting on the bench next to me asking my life story (ladies, this is a great way to pick up men if you’re interested). Everyone wanted to know how I got the idea and how much money I was making. So here’s the grand total…for 3 hours of sitting in the park, meeting interesting people, I made $43. I definitely want to try this again. I think I could make a lot more if I get better at working the crowd.

Originally, I wanted to do this because I thought it could help people present themselves better. At the end of the day I realized that I helped in a different way. I got people to laugh and not take themselves so seriously. I got people taking pictures and saying “only in New York.” I figured someone’s going to go back home and talk about the crazy lady they saw in Central Park. As an aspiring writer, I feel great that I gave someone a good story.

Should I advertise?

Main building at the Maryland Institute Colleg...

Main building at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I studied art at Maryland Institute College of Art, the biggest insult you could say about an artist was that s/he was “too commercial.” The thought of someone actually getting paid for their handwork and creativity seemed to contradict the very nature of art. We were all supposed to starve and wallow in obscurity for the next fifty years. The only acceptable way to become famous was postmortem.

Seven years out of college (oy has it really been that long!), I’m amazed by my friends who have found work that involves some sort of creativity. It doesn’t matter that they’re making art for commercial sake, in fact, it seems even more incredible that they are making good money expressing themselves.  My classmates are making jewelry, designing video games, and photographing models for national magazines. I look back on our snobby, self-righteous younger-selves and wonder how we could ever be so judgmental of people who love art but don’t want to be homeless.

Recently I’ve been approached by a few companies who want to advertise on my blog. When I originally started the HeSoProject, I was so ignorant about the entire blogging process that I figured I would write a few posts, and then live off the advertisement money. Ha! If these companies had approached me back then I would have said yes in a heartbeat. Now, two years into it, I’m slightly hesitant. The HeSoProject is my baby, and I don’t want to dilute it with distracting, false messages. (Currently WordPress puts up ads at the bottom of some posts, but that doesn’t really bother me because it’s part of the free service.)

My inner-college student is yelling “don’t sell out,” but my dwindling bank account is a little louder. Do you, my awesome reader, have any thoughts on the matter?

Mini Memoir Monday

Starting today, I will post short memoirs on Monday. Since I like alliteration, this new feature is called Mini Memoir Monday! I hope you enjoy:

When I was a kid, summer meant long days at camp Pathunka where I ate soggy cold peanut butter sandwiches and perfected the art of macramé. The highlight of day camp was our weekly visit to the Scarsdale public swimming pool. That’s when I first saw her.

Pamela Anderson as C.J. Parker.

Pamela Anderson as C.J. Parker. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clad in a high-cut red bathing suit reminiscent of the Baywatch babes, she was the most popular lifeguard at the pool. The other lifeguards flocked to her side. Teenage boys pretended to drown in front of her station just to catch a glimpse of her lips on the whistle. Deep brown tan, blonde beach waves, and curves galore, she was the peak summer’s bounty. But I never focused on those qualities. I fixated on her jiggly thighs.

That’s right, with each flip-flop step she took, a thin layer of fat would dance across her toned muscles. It was absolutely mesmerizing, and I viewed this as the most beautiful sign of femininity. I squeezed my own interminably firm eight-year-old thighs and prayed that one day I too would have beautiful, jiggly thighs.

I think about this lifeguard every summer when I break out the shorts and curse myself for not doing enough squats. ‘Careful what you wish for’ I joke, as I squeeze my interminably soft 28-year-old thighs. It only took me 20 years to realize that it was her confidence that made every part of her, from the blonde waves to the jiggly thighs, beautiful.  I try to remember this when I walk down the street, hoping that there’s a little girl out there who will see my perceived flaws as the most beautiful thing about me.

 

Modern medicine makes me sad

When I returned from Mozambique, I started experiencing chronic stomach-aches. I went to a gastroenterologist, and without doing any tests, or logging any of the food I ate, he prescribed antidepressants along with 3 other prescriptions.

When I went to an orthopedist for some knees pain I was experiencing, he again prescribed me with antidepressants, and explained that they can often relieve joint pain.

When I went to a sleep clinic, they too prescribed antidepressants.

prescription pad

prescription pad (Photo credit: calvinnivlac)

After the third prescription I started to get annoyed. I wondered if I was walking into these appointments with a huge cloud over my head. Or if I was breaking down sobbing without realizing it, but I knew that I was just going over the physical problems. It seems like antidepressants are just the go to drug for doctors nowadays.

Before I go further, I have nothing against antidepressants, and I think they can be very helpful when dealing with depression, but not stomach-aches, joint pain, and sleeping problems. Especially when it seems like it’s being prescribed as the first resort and not the last resort, and we don’t even know the long-term side effects of taking these pills for extended periods.

I’ve done a bit of research, and it turns out women are prescribed antidepressants twice as often as men. The Woman’s Campaign group found, “One in three of the women polled had taken antidepressants during her lifetime. More than half of these were not offered any alternatives to drugs. And a quarter were left on the drugs for more than a year without having their prescriptions reviewed.” The American Psychological Association says that women are twice as likely to be clinically depressed than men, but could it be that doctors just think that any ailment a woman has is caused by depression?

With all these doctors prescribing me antidepressants I can’t help but feel like I’m in the Victorian age, and the kind doctor is giving me something for my fits of hysteria.

Just to give you an update on my hysteria: I no longer have stomach problems because I’ve carefully monitored my eating habits and figured out the foods that upset my stomach. I no longer have knee problems because I do some simple exercises every day that help strengthen the muscles around me knee, and I no longer have sleeping problems because I practice better sleeping habits. All these improvements without a single pill!

I don’t just blame doctors for being too eager to write out a prescription. I think the majority of patients want a quick fix. They would love a pill to solve all their problems so they can continue living unconscious lifestyles. The problem needs to be addressed on both sides of the exam table.

Disposable creativity

“Many of us wish we were more creative. many of us sense we are more creative, but unable to effectively tap that creativity. Our dreams elude us. Our lives feel somehow flat. Often, we have great ideas, wonderful dreams, but are unable to actualize them for ourselves. Sometimes we have specific creative longings we would love to be able to fulfill – learning to play the piano, painting, taking an acting class, or writing. Someimes our goal is more diffuse. We hunger for what might be called creative living – an expanded sense of creativity in our business lives, in sharing with our children, our spouse, our friends.”

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way (pg.5)

If you haven’t read The Artist’s Way yet, for gosh sake just click on this link and buy it already. Every creative person I know attributes the growth of their creativity to this book. I’m not over-exaggerating. And if you’ve been following the HeSo project for a while now, you’ll remember that when I interviewed Lisa Bourque, a fabulous life coach, she said the book changed her life.

It is Julia Cameron’s opinion that everyone has the potential to be creative and that creativity is a like a muscle that grows the more you use it. Creativity is not just for the arts; it can be used to improve your outlook on life, the way you problem solve, or handle your relationships.

One of her famous exercises is “the morning pages.” The first thing you do every morning is fill three pages of paper. There’s really no wrong way of doing this. If you have nothing to say you can fill the pages with a grocery list.

Sometimes the pages become very negative and your “censor” comes out. Your censor is that voice in your head that tells you everything you do is garbage. Julia suggests that it’s better to let the censor out on these pages so it gets exhausted and won’t distract you when you want to do something more creative and challenging. It sounds silly but when I dabbled with the morning pages before, it really did help me feel more free and confident when I was working on my creative writing later on in the day.

My boyfriend has been doing these morning pages for over a year now (way to go Mike!) The pages have taken many twists and turns for him. They started off as an outlet for his censor, then they became an outlet for his story telling, and now he’s using that time to compose music – something that he’s always wanted to do. Sometimes what we always want to do is the hardest thing to do because we give it so much weight. We think, to do that something poorly would be worse than not doing it at all. By using the morning pages to compose he’s getting the practice he needs without the debilitating pressure to produce something “good.”

Lately I’ve been feeling like there’s a void in my life. The BeddyBye project felt very exciting and creative at first, but now as I’m talking to safety commissioners, manufacturers, and parenting associations (I’ll write more about this later) I’ve entered the more taxing, stressful part of the project. I write a lot for this blog, but it’s not the same as creative writing, something I’ve loved doing since childhood (I remember writing stories about how I was born on Mars and raised by apes. I made photocopies and tried to sell them to the kids on my block. I guess I invented vanity publishing!). So I decided to instill some creativity back into my life and embrace the morning pages again.

I started this past Friday. In the morning, before breakfast I spent 30 minutes writing a short story. I used The Writer’s Toolbox for inspiration. The Author, Jamie Cat Callan, offers a bunch of suggestions for first lines. I picked a random one and started writing. The opening line was: “Dad gave me a wink, like we were pals or something.” I ended up writing about a daughter finding out that her parents have had an open marriage for her entire life and she’s just now meeting her father’s girlfriend of 16 years. I don’t know where that idea came from, and for the life of me I would never have thought it up if I just sat at my computer and tried to come up with a story.

The exercise helps you to see that everyone has a wealth of untapped imagination inside them and you just need a safe place to let it out. Knowing that I didn’t need to complete the story, and that it didn’t need to be part of something greater was liberating. It’s what I like to call disposable creativity. I know that sounds terrible, especially in our green-conscience society, but looking at creativity like it’s a finite resource is not productive. I’ve been in many writing classes where people hold on to stories that aren’t working, and I think it’s because they’re scared they won’t be able to come up with anything else, when that’s simply not true.

Today was my fourth day of morning pages and I’m going to continue for at least 17 more days (research shows it only takes 21 days to form a habit). Does anyone else want to join me? It doesn’t need to be writing, you can start every morning strumming a song on the guitar, drawing a picture, or dancing. The point is to start every day off in a creative, non-judgmental fashion. I guarantee you’ll feel more creative and excited for the rest of the day! If you join the challenge send me some of your work or your reflections and I’ll add it to the blog!

Getting over fear

A wise man once said, (I´m paraphrasing here) ¨If you´re afraid of being poor, walk around for a day in threadbare clothes and only drink water and eat a crust of bread. At the end, say to yourself, is this what I´ve been so afraid of?¨

How many times have you done something that you were really afraid of and then laughed at yourself because it really wasn´t hard at all? It´s insane how much we let fear control our lives. If you think of all the things you´ve ever wanted to do, and then asked yourself why you didn´t do it the answer is probably fear.

Here are the three fears that have inhibited me the most:

Fear of poverty

Fear of criticism

Fear of being alone

In the past, I have prioritzed avoiding these fears over fully embracing life . For instance, I didn´t like my last job, but I worked there for three years because I made lots of money, and I wouldn´t have to face the fear of being poor. I have kept my mouth shut when I had something important to say, because I was afraid that I would sound stupid. I didn´t even want to have a blog because I was so afraid of exposing my terrible spelling and grammar to the world. Gasp what would they say! Since I´ve been in Spain, the computer I´ve been using doesn´t have spell check set up for English, so I have certainly had to get over my fear of criticism to write these posts. In High School and College I befriended people  who I didn´t like or respect because I didn´t want to sit alone.

Before coming here I decided to face the fear of being alone head on. First of all I came here alone. Besides for the first day, I have had every lunch and dinner by myself. Don´t worry I´m making friends, but I made a conscious decision to grow comfortable with being alone. Before, even just the thought of eating alone in a restaurant  would have made my skin crawl. In the past if I went to a restaurant with a friend and they got up to go to the bathroom, I would immediately feel like everyone was looking at me, and thinking oh poor girl, she has no friends.

A funny thing starts to happen when you´re alone for so long.  Instead of feeling like everyone´s looking at you, you start to look at everyone else. I have become more observant. I noticed how the old men here have made an art out of stirring their coffee. They slip their spoons in and out of the cup very slowly, and they do this for 20 minutes or so. It´s almost like a meditation. I noticed how people touch their wine glasses differently when they´re talking to someone they like. I can predict if a couple´s going to have sex or a fight after dinner just by the way they drink their wine!

To be perfectly honest I don´t like being alone. I miss talking to my boyfriend/friends/family. I miss having common references and inside jokes. But I have met interesting people who I probably never would have met if I was with a friend. And I´ve had time to get lost in the streets and do exactly what I want to do. At the end of every meal I´ve made of point of saying, ¨Is this what I´ve been afraid of?¨

The point is as soon as you face your fears they can no longer control you.  If you´re in a relationship with someone who isn´t right for you maybe you should spend the day alone and then ask yourself, ¨Is this what I´ve been afraid of?¨ Sometimes when we face what we fear the most it´s better than what we´ve been accepting in the past.

So as a challenge, I ask you to do what scares you the most. Don´t go skydiving today. I´m talking about emotional fears. Face your emotional fears and then ask yourself, ¨Is this what I´ve been afraid of?¨If you can laugh after asking yourself that question then it´s time to start changing.

The importance of being vulnerable

You can decide how a conversation will go. Seems obvious, but as a recovering introvert, I have slowly realized this fact. I never thought I had the power to control a conversation, I usually just add on to a subject someone else brings up. But since I am at a school, meeting lots of new people, I have had the opportunity to answer the same questions over and over again. Surprise suprise the more information I volunteer, the more interesting the conversation gets.

Everyone asks me what I do for a living (actually first they ask me if I´m in college which is really flattering, but then it just reminds me of how old I´m getting). At first I was answering,

¨I just quite my job.¨

And their  natural response would be, ¨What do you plan to do next?¨ And I would say, ¨I´m not sure, just looking around.¨

I figured if they were really interested they would ask further. Or I will tell them more when we get closer. Afterall, they´re strangers – they don´t really care.

Writing this blog has helped me realize that strangers really do care. I can´t believe how many strangers have subscribed, or sent me comments (I really appreciate it, by the way (and I really appreciate my friends subscribing too!)). And the reason why people are interested is because I´m sharing something interesting. If I had a blog that said ¨ I quit my job and I´m not sure what I´ll do next,¨ (insert shrug here) there wouldn´t be much to relate to.

This where I did my reflection before writing this post. The Casa del Sal

So recently when people ask me what I do for a living I answer, ¨I quit my job because it wasn´t making me happy and I wasn´t living up to my potential. Now I´m taking some time to reflect on what I want to do with my time on earth. How can I contribute to society, but also make my happiness a priority.¨ Well you can´t believe the difference that makes. People´s eyes just widen. They´ve been given so many hooks. The conversation has been layed out.

This felt like a risky thing to say at first. What if they shrug their shoulders and say, ¨well that´s nice,¨and move on to someone else? Or they can roll their eyes and say,  You must think you´re real special. Just get a job and pay your bills.¨ But no one says this. Usually they tell me how they completly understand what I´m going through. Then all of a sudden complete strangers are sharing with me about how they are unhappy with their job, but they are afraid of quiting, or how they were unhappy but were afraid to start over again, but they´re so glad they did.

I find that the more I share the more other´s feel comfortable sharing their fears, regrets and life lessons.  I always  hated small talk, but that´s because I was the one making it boring. You don´t have to play small when small talking.

The other night I sat down with an older woman from England. We struggled with small talk for a bit, finding that we really had nothing in common, but then she asked me what I do for a living. I gave her my new and improved response. Suddenly her eyes lit up. ¨I went through exactly the same thing after my divorce.¨ She then told me how she worked in HR for years, but after she got divorced she quit her job and had lots of time to do some self-reflection. That´s when she realized how much she liked art, and she began taking continuing education classes in art, until she got her masters, and now she has a studio, and is a quite successful sculptress. She told me she wished she had taken that break to look at her life when she was younger because she felt that she wasted years just going through the motions.

Me at the aqueduct of Segovia. Hope this wall never comes down!

In a matter of minutes we realized how similar we are, and I really appreciated hearing an older perspective on what I´m going through and hearing her afirmation of the HeSo project. None of this would have happened if I just shrugged my shoulders and said ¨I´m not sure what I´m doing next.¨ I´m giving the same information, but now I´m revealing my emotions about it, and that makes all the difference.

If you´re making small talk today I encourage you to share more than you normally would. You´ll be surprised how quickly the walls  come down!