The Doubt Demon vs The Muse

Vintage typewriter close-up - Memoir, concept of history

The other day, I saw a comment online from a woman who said that she had finally figured out how to make space in her life to write. Now that she’s writing, she has a new demon to face. It’s the voice that keeps asking her, “Why are you writing? Who is going to read this? Who is going to care?” I thought to myself, “Huh, so that guy visits other people, too.” Seriously, how does this doubt demon find the time?

I am now about halfway through a second draft of my book, so I’ve had a lot of experience with the doubt demon. Throughout most of my process, I’d been lucky enough to have other voices, too. They said things like, “You need to write this. Even if no one reads this, the act of writing itself is important and useful.” Instead of silencing the doubt demon, I nurtured that encouraging voice. Maybe that voice is The Muse? I don’t know. I tried to make that voice grow stronger and that worked for me.

That worked for me until I started soliciting feedback on my memoir and someone people asked, “Why am I reading this?” They manifested my most fearful voice into physical reality and that totally sucked. Those comments made the doubt demon’s voice louder than The Muse’s voice for a short time.

Shortly after that, I ran into an interview with the famous memoirist Cheryl Strayed. In it, she says that memoir is most often criticized for being narcissistic. It’s not just the writer who asks, “Why should anyone care?” It’s also the critics. So then, Strayed explains that people recognize their own story in other people’s stories and that makes them care. That’s great. This revelation is especially wonderful for people who are afraid of being too mundane, but it swung me in a different direction.

Several months ago, I listened to a Magic Lessons Podcast (I don’t remember which one, but you should probably just listen to them all, anyway) and the discussion was about how when we first sit down to write our own stories, we always think to ourselves, “My story is too boring.” Then, when we’re done writing, we worry that our story isn’t boring enough.

That’s where I am now. Now, the doubt demon asks, “Why should anyone care about someone who is so weird? How do I become relatable? How can we dull this up a little bit? How can I shrink so people don’t notice how alien I really am?”

My experience with the doubt demon is that it doesn’t exist unless it has something to doubt. It’s the voice of fear and fear only speaks up when it thinks something’s at risk. If something is at risk, then that means we’re trying for something. So, maybe hearing that voice isn’t a reason to go into despair, but it’s an indication that we’re on to something. We’re trying for something.

My Muse voice has shifted, too. Now its saying, “You’re writing this because it needs to be said.” Somehow, when my doubt demon got fiercer, The Muse got bigger, too. A few days later, I saw that dozens of people had responded to that one woman’s comment about her voice of doubt. All of them were encouraging. They manifested her most encouraging voice into physical reality. Maybe that’s what happens when our desire to move forward gets strong enough. It finds a way.

Homesickness

It’s now been a little over a year since I moved to Japan. The year has simultaneously crawled and flown. If someone told me that I’ve only been in Japan for a month, I might believe them. That’s how unfamiliar it still feels to me sometimes.

For the first time in decades, I’m beginning to understand what it means to have a sense of place and a sense of displacement from that place. Back when I was 11 years old, I’d moved from my native state of California to Wisconsin. Displacement had become my way of being. For a long time, I didn’t even know what it felt like to not feel displaced.

I guess that feeling must have dissipated in Philadelphia because now I’m relearning homesickness. I’d lived in Philadelphia for 13 years. I haven’t lived in any other place longer.

A few days ago, I was listening to a podcast interview with Salley Vickers (no relation) about the book Miss Garnet’s Angel. While talking about why she’d set the book in Venice, she’d said something like, “Some days, I have woken up and thought to myself that the only thing that would make me feel better would be to go to Venice.”

Before leaving Philadelphia, I would have had no idea what she’d meant by that.

I miss a lot of specific things in Philadelphia, like West Philly Ethiopian food, all sorts of vegan junk food, hiking the Wissahickon, walking the Schuykhill River trail while watching the various university crew teams practice, certain yoga studios, my dance studio, and on and on. Philadelphia has an endless supply of beautiful places. Obviously, I miss my friends more than anything.

Taken from between the houses on Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia. Elfreth’s Alley is the US’s oldest continuously inhabited residential street. If you look closely at the large version, you can see a cat standing on the corner.

Taken from between two houses on Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia. Elfreth’s Alley is the US’s oldest continuously inhabited residential street. If you look closely at the large version, you can see a cat standing on the corner.

However, my homesickness is less about missing specific things and, luckily, the internet provides me with some contact with my friends. My homesickness is more about having a sense of continuity and familiarity. It’s about feeling like my physical location is contributing to my sense of home. Living in Philadelphia, it had taken me a really long time to feel like it contributed to my sense of home. I wasn’t even sure it did until my physical location changed.

The other day, I taught a yoga class here in Japan. Not only had I not taught yoga for over a year, it had nearly been a year since I’d even done yoga. It’s been a rough year for me and I’ve sacrificed a lot of activities to keep my head above water.

As soon as I went back to yoga, I realized that there is more than one way to keep one’s head above water. Instead of floating with my nose barely above the surface and hoping for no waves, I can swim. Doing yoga, even if it does require more energy, is swimming, not floating.

If a yoga flow could be considered a place, then I’ve been living there for 16 years. Going through my series of familiar poses, I found myself in downward dog, staring at my mat for the thousandth time and something inside of my was triggered.  I know this place.

Over this past year, I’ve done downward dog a bunch of times, not because I was doing yoga, but because it’s an amazing calf stretch.  Out of context, I didn’t recognize it as anything other than a calf stretch.  Within the series, inside of the yoga flow, I went into downdog within a context that means something to me.  What is place, after all, except where your body resides in space?

I’d also not realized that I’d been homesick until recently.  It just hit me all at once. Because I’d grown up hiding the sensation of homesickness from myself, I had automatically hid it from myself, again. Now that I’ve discovered it, I’m grateful. Missing something means that we have had something worth being missed. I couldn’t be happier about that.

By the way, for anyone interested, I have started a another blog that is book reviews only.

Compliance Does Not Equal Safety

A couple of months ago, I came across Dorothea Lange’s censored photographs from the Japanese internment camps and it hit me in a way that I didn’t expect.  The idea of oppression changed for me a little bit.  Had I been alive at the time, I would have personally been in those camps.

I’ve always found racism infuriating, but this added an element of fear to the whole thing.  I imagine that it’s the same kind of fear that most African-Americans live with on a daily basis.  Except for them, it’s turned up to 11, since most of the stuff they fear still happens today.

Of course, I’ve experienced racism in the United States, but being asked, “Where are you from?” over and over again with the absolute clear intention of othering me doesn’t quite have the same impact as unjust imprisonment.

I’m not the only one who is a little more scared these days.  The other day, while walking in a Tokyo city park, an elderly Japanese woman approached me and my husband.

“Can I ask you a question?”  She asked in perfect English.
“Yes,” we said.
“What country are you from?” She asked.
“We’re Americans,” we said.  This seemed to spark something in her.  It could have been anger or excitement, I couldn’t tell.  She pulled out a clipboard and showed it to us.

“Will you sign this?”  It was a petition asking the United States to refrain from using nuclear weapons.  I took a closer look at this woman and realized that she probably knows, first hand, what a nuclear bomb does to a city.

As the woman walked away, my first thought was, “this is a sign of the times.”  I’m sure that she got no joy out of spending her Sunday afternoon searching for Americans so she could get a petition signed, but that’s the kind of fear that people are living with these days.

In 1942, The LA Times wrote, “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched—so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents—grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.”  Since I’ve been alive, the mainstream message to Asians is that we should align ourselves with white people against brown people.  They tell us we’re in favor (for now), and we wouldn’t want those tides to turn, would we?  If minorities are kept separated, then our power can’t be combined.

It’s a tool for disempowerment by convincing us that it’s safer to be compliant.  This is an extension of the argument that causing trouble over “politics” is a shameful, even punishable thing.

Saying the words, “it’s just politics” is a lot easier when you think your life won’t be affected politics.  However, I suspect that it’s not going to be long before it’s no longer “just politics” for anyone, unless you happen to be a white Christian cis straight (or closeted) male millionaire.

Politics is the reason atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.  Politics would have been put me in an internment camp.  Politics caused the Holocaust.  Politics has sent people to war and tortured prisoners.  If you aren’t going to stand up against destructive political policies, then are you going to stand up for anything?

When I see people shame others for “overreacting to politics,” I hear, “It’s more important for me to not be inconvenienced than it is for people to have their health, families, livelihoods, and lives protected.”

It also sounds to me like a whine, “It’s not fair that I’m losing social currency for being a selfish jerk!”  But, that’s the whole point of social currency.  Being a jerk costs you social currency because most people don’t want a society full of selfish jerks.

I really wonder about the people who are so afraid of discomfort that their main goal is to bully other people into silence.  I wonder about their personal relationships and their friendships.  I wonder what they think about the people they love.  Do they refuse to hear them, too?  How does that work out?

I’ve always found that intimacy and understanding is created when we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable with each other.  It happens in that moment when we’re in conflict and we want nothing more than to not hear what the other person has to say, but we hear it, anyway.  Those are the moments when are our relationships become strong, rewarding, and loyal.

I believe that as humans, we are adapted to crave safety.  We feel the most safe when we feel belonging.  We get feelings of belonging from connection.  Connection does not mean ignoring the pain of others.  It doesn’t mean telling people to not feel horror or fear because of serious injustice.  It comes from listening to people’s feelings and understanding why they believe that conflict is necessary.

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