Service or Self?
This week on Ask Me Anything we take a question from Sheri Kleintop. She asks …
In your book, The War of Art, the focus is recognizing and facing Resistance head on. Throughout the ages, women such as Gorgo, Jackie Kennedy and women in every household across the globe have (had) an obligation to nurture, serve and protect their children and spouses. While in the midst of our life of details, how can one go about honoring our obligations while also fighting to maintain our own identity and long term dreams? As a divorced mother, teacher and advocate for our military, service above self has always been my creed.
Steve: I think that’s another great question. This is sort of the ethos of women: ‘service above self’ and nurturing others and taking care of others. Obviously that’s true, and there’s a lot of satisfaction from that, but if you’re going to be an artist, if you have a dream to write a book or to make a movie or a web series or whatever it is, you’ve got to be selfish at some point. You have to carve out, like you were saying Shawn, an hour or whatever it is and just be an asshole. Say ‘no’ to everybody, including the kids, unless your daughter falls off the top of the roof and crashed her head open. It’s like your teenage daughter will put up a sign on her door ‘No Entry – Keep Out – No Visitors’. Right? That’s what you have to do too. I think a lot of times women are so into the nurturing mom and the giving, loving concept of what a woman should be that, they don’t . . . It’s very hard to make the leap and say “I’m worth taking time for my own stuff,” but you are. If we were to try to talk to LeBron James. We just want to have a cup of coffee with LeBron James or Mick Jagger or Jay-Z or something like that. Do you think we would have a prayer in the world of getting into them? No chance. Right? They have 30 people whose job it is just to keep people like us away from them. Right? I don’t care if you’re a single mom that’s just trying to write a novel for the first time or stories about your family or whatever it is, your time is just as legitimate as LeBron James or Mick Jagger’s or Jay-Z’s and you have absolutely the same right to put up a wall of steel and do your work behind that wall for that period of time. I know it’s hard to do that, but I give you permission to do that. I wish I had the name of the lady that wrote this because it sounds great.
Shawn: Here’s a little story to follow up on that Steve, which is really kind of funny. A couple of years ago, Steve and I met Seth Godin at an event, at a book signing event. And, I don’t know, about three months later, I emailed Seth and I said, “Hey, I’ve got this idea. Can I come up and talk to you about it?” And, probably because he liked you so much Steve, he said “Yea, okay. Come on up.” But, he said specifically, “I can give you from 11:15 until 11:45. If you come at 11:30, that means we only have 15 minutes. If you come at 11, you’re going to wait 15 minutes.” So it’s just like “Oh boy, is this guy a blow hard.” But then I got there and he had so much going on, that he stopped at 11:15 and he walked out, he shook my hand and he rushed me into another room, he sat down and he said, “What can I help you with?” We talked for a half an hour, and when the half an hour was over, he said, “It was great to see you. I’ve got to go now,” and he left.
Steve: That’s a great story. I never heard that from you.
Shawn: And I took so much, I got more out of just watching him behave than anything that we really talked about. So that is really, really a very important thing, and especially and I think you’re so right Steve about moms and women who are doing a million different things for other people. There’s a tendency sometimes, I wouldn’t say that they martyr themselves, but they may go over and say “Oh, I do, I do, I do and I never get what I want.” So you owe it to yourself and you owe it to your family to say “Hey, you know what? I’m closing my door. I need an hour. Good-bye. If you’ve got a problem, go find dad.” And, that is so important and legitimate. That’s really good advice.
Steve, this is spot on. Until a woman recognizes her right to take time for herself and her dreams, she will find herself being pulled between the needs of her kids, spouse, job and friends, all backed by a culture that rewards her for nurturing others on demand and all too often points an accusing finger when she decides to get “selfish” with some of her time. It takes guts and, if she is in a relationship, a supportive partner. The paradox of taking time for her art is that she will be a better mom, spouse and friend because people who honor themselves don’t let resentment fester in their lives. A friend of mine has a sign she posts on her home office door: “If it doesn’t involve blood, broken bones or fire, do not knock.”
Mary, I love that sign. I’m gonna put it on MY door too.
Single mother and sole supporter of my son, artist, writer, and teacher. I have brought my son up to help with our household. I have a very simple lifestyle and have consciously reduced drama and distractions to clear room for writing. I do not obsess about other people’s affairs, my appearance, the future or the past. I do obsess about:
creating strong stories and strong images – and being alert to learning from every thing that happens to me. Mind you, I’m 60 – so this didn’t happen overnight and it happened over the corpses of some illusions I had. I have learned to stay home and work on my stuff because when I do, I don’t want to be anywhere else.
Over-worked moms or dads: turn the TV off and teach the kids to become independent by helping with the chores. If you don’t value your creativity, your kids won’t really know you – or their own.
Wow. Twyla, your point that “if you don’t value your creativity, your kids won’t know you” hit home with me.
My boys are 8 & 10 years old. My husband is gone 50% of the time traveling internationally. I am struggling against feelings of guilt if I step back from the level of engagement I’ve always had in my kids’ lives. I’ve volunteered in their classrooms, hosted play dates, coached their teams, and I know all these engagements are valuable. However, as they get older, it’s less necessary.
I’ve laid a solid foundation for them. I’ve been yearning to return to my own, full self. Your phrase has given me a new perspective on this. I need to live more of who I am meant to be for my own benefit, of course. But when that mother guilt rears its ugly head, I can remind myself I am also doing this so they can know me.
Thanks for your insights.
Add a degree of difficulty: the woman is also disabled, but still has kids, husband, house.
I still managed to carve out a piece of time to write. Some days. And finished my first novel (which I shall go back to some day) while handling three very bright homeschoolers. The job went – there was no rescuing it from the disability.
Now that the last one is in college (and almost finished – hurrah!), I take to my computer and block 5 hours before anything, and the second novel is coming along. Disability also took my brain, so if I don’t write first thing, there is no brain left to write with later in the day.
You can if you really want to.
Off to face Resistance and win.
I fight resistance tooth and nail, and even for a husband, father, contractor, manager, co-worker, homeowner, landlord, neighbor, son and brother like me, this is absolutely true:
“….you’ve got to be selfish at some point. You have to carve out….an hour or whatever it is and just be an asshole.”
My good wife says so to my face almost verbatim. I know it’s because she loves me, but I think it’s also because she’s sick of my whining and just wants me to finish the damn thing.
Or maybe she simply knows that I’m not really as important at everything else as I think I am.
I wrote five traditionally published novels while homeschooling two kids. The novels got starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, etc. My kids aren’t screwed up, and I’m still writing.
So I’ve earned some wisdom balancing writing with domestic life.
Steve and Shawn are right about women needing to get selfish–but selfish in the right way. I couldn’t survive without writing but I also know no book can compare with my family. There’s a wonderful poem by WH Auden in which a singer brings down the house by holding a certain note — which also ruins his voice forever.
Balance is key.
The schedule that worked for me is similar to Shawn’s method — carving out time in the early morning hours. At one point, with a book due each year for four years running, I was getting up at 3 or 4 am. Sounds extreme, right? But it worked for me. My amazing hubby put the kids to bed so I could sleep from 8 pm onward. My husband also made a sign and hung it on my office door. It read: Do Not Open This Door Until 7 a.m.!!
That gave me 3-4 solid writing hours a day. I didn’t waste them surfing the Net or playing Solitaire. I worked my tail off. After my writing was done, I fully enjoyed my kids and husband. If I got a break later in the day when the kids played Legos or could do school work on their own, I caught a nap.
One unforeseen benefit to this whole thing was that my kids became very self-directed teenagers. So don’t feel guilty about not being able to do everything for them — in the long run, less really might be more.
And don’t let other women “should” on you. I got a ton of that crap. You know yourself and your family best. Sit down with your husband and kids, listen to their needs and concerns, create a plan that works for everyone. Then the rest of the world can take a hike, especially those “should” people. They’re more screwed up than you will ever know.
Lastly, don’t bitch and complain about your schedule, don’t whine. It just wastes precious energy. Writing is damn hard work, deal with it. You’re taking on the challenge; you will get stronger for it. Whenever you feel defeated, read Steve’s “The Art of War.” That little book was my Pilgrim’s Progress.
You’re only going around once in this life. Don’t die howling with regret.
Was just posting a comment when you posted yours. I’d love to hear how “balance” was achieved. I often think it will be easier than it is. It seems balance, in itself is a continually open dialogue and tweaking process. I love the partnership you had with your husband. oh so important! 🙂
Darren, we tend to see “balance” as a nous–more static than dynamic. But it’s also a verb and that’s the version I’m referring to. Life and writing requires continual readjustments. Kids get sick, husband gets sick, guests coming to stay, holidays upon us, etc, etc.
Key to all that is to remain flexible AND tenacious. The sports guys say “look long.” Don’t get consumed by what’s in front of you. Keep your focus on your long-term goal and how you can work within the current situation to get there. If I overslept, for instance, I wrote in my car while waiting for my son’s lacrosse practice.
GIve yourself a daily word goal, then aim for it. Some days you’ll manage more, some days less.
But remember: The tortoise won the race, slow and steady. 🙂
*NOUN* I was saying NOUN. And I’m not even sleep-deprived today.
And…the book is, of course, “The War of Art.”
Note to self: Do not post comments while waiting in the carpool lane.
This was a good reminder for me on this Monday.
I especially resonated with this quote –
“There’s a tendency sometimes, I wouldn’t say that they martyr themselves, but they may go over and say “Oh, I do, I do, I do and I never get what I want.” So you owe it to yourself and you owe it to your family to say “Hey, you know what? I’m closing my door. I need an hour. Good-bye. If you’ve got a problem, go find dad.” And, that is so important and legitimate. That’s really good advice.”
There is something mystical in the art of spending time on the things that give you life. From that place of life one can work from a place of strength and be a stronger blessing to those around us.
I wonder: There are seasons to everything. Sometimes there may be a season of hard, focused work as one fights through Resistance and does the work required of them. However, as driven people, I wonder if that is sometimes taken too far? It would be interesting to hear what some of the indicators are when someone takes too much time form tehir other legitimate responsibilities. I wonder – does Resistance sometimes “trick us” with our very passions and dreams and over inflate them so that our life around us also becomes caustic. Is too much of a good thing still good? Just pondering….but I agree with the post, but resistance is a tricky animal with me….Always trying to catch me somehow. 🙂
You raise a great point, about taking it too far. Perhaps having a schedule for writing (or painting, or whatever) and not succumbing to the temptation to do either more or less than that can help corral the urge to let that activity take over.
Great point, Darren. I can tell you that sometimes I only figure out where my limit is by overshooting it. Ugh. Some hard lessons that way. But I’ve also learned to take the lesson and leave the pain behind.
For instance, I once bought into the “quality time” idea– that it was the quality that mattered not the quantity. Now I call BS on that. You can’t expect quality time without first putting in the quantity. That’s how kids and people are wired. And since you’re only going to have kids for a short season, don’t miss it by limiting time with them. That’s one big reason why I get stuff done early, so I can be fully present in my family’s life.
But as Steve’s book points out, Resistance is a wily opponent. It can trick you into thinking all kinds of things. Best way to tell if you’re on track is producing work and still seeing peace and joy in the people around you. IMHO.
I have had this conversation with many women writers, with and without children. Mommy/women guilt as a form of resistance is very real phenomena. I like to think that I am setting a great example for my daughter by sitting down and doing “the work.” She sees first hand, what goes into writing and producing films. Last year, I worked part time at an extremely demanding non for profit, my mom was being treated for cancer, picked my daughter up from school every day, took her to after school activities, and finished my film. It wasn’t easy, but it can be done.
I think it’s an attitude adjustment for women. As a wife/mom/employee/volunteer, etc. I don’t think you “have to be an asshole” like you said (though it made me laugh). I believe you’re a better wife/mom/employee/volunteer when you honor creative dreams. It’s not either/or…you can do both. Just whichever you’re doing at any given moment, give that your FULL FOCUS.
This is such great advice! Kids learn how to be happy by watching us be happy — and it’s just as much about how we treat ourselves as how we treat them, though I’m not the first person to make that observation.
The best thing I ever did for our daughter, according to her, was find work I love. You should see her eyes light up, for example, when I’m prepping the talk show.
She didn’t grow up feeling guilty about the giant hole she’d leave when she went to college. She left a giant hole, all right, but she loves knowing I’m doing even more of what I loved before “mom” got added to my resume.
This is great, Maureen, because the other side — how it seems from the kids’ side — is just as important. To learn to respect their mother’s closed door is very important. Would you break in thoughtlessly on your kid? Of course not. It’s not beyond a child’s capacity (or a husband’s) to understand that. And to realize that you, the mother, are happier, healthier, and more fun to be around when you DO have your own space and time, however limited.
Thank you Steven and Shawn for your responses to my question. Your books The War of Art and Turning Pro have been of great value to me. I created a vision board which also helps to keep me moving forward. Steven, you pegged it; my teenage daughter does have a “keep out please especially if you’re 10 and under” sign on her door!
So good to hear, Maureen. Thanks for sharing the view from the other end of the road.
You as well!
I once asked my mom, who had eight kids in nine years, why she didn’t hire a babysitter more often just to give herself a break from the bedlam. “I don’t want to miss anything,” she said! It must really be a privilege, I decided, to watch someone grow up.
Just before I wrote my first book I perused the acknowledgments of many other books, where the authors all thanked their children for doing without Mom or Dad for — what? — sometimes years. And I thought, “No way. No book is worth missing my daughter’s childhood.”
So I did interviews while my husband played with Katie — we’re lucky in that we both work from home — and I wrote after she was asleep. As she grew up and into her own life, my work expanded to fill in the empty spaces.
She’s in college now, but her idea of a good time is holing up with Darrell and me for five weeks at a time like she did over winter break. We never get bored with each other. I can’t remember the last time we were even mildly annoyed with each other.
And suddenly I wonder if that’s because we’re reaping the benefits of living like Cheryl did — never quite closing that door completely. I have a burning desire to make a difference in the world, but I think the burning desire to really be there for Katie trumped it.
Not that you can’t do both, as many people are saying here.
Only recently, amazed at something else Katie pulled off, I realized maybe it doesn’t matter how far I get with the talk show or my writing. Maybe having anything to do at all with her being in the world is enough.
I agree, for the most part. I can’t quite bring myself to shut out the kids (or my husband), though. My studio has a pocket door. It’s seldom closed, and it’s never latched. My husband has his office upstairs, off our bedroom. His office door and our bedroom door are often locked, but he has a boss to report to, and his wages support us.
I think it’s very important for moms (especially homeschooling moms, like me) to do their own thing and let their kids see them doing their own thing. (As Maureen pointed out.) It sets an example that says, “Find what’s important to you and work at it.”
There are days when I’d like to accomplish more, in terms of art, writing, photography, reading, but I try to be patient with myself (and my limitations), and with my six kids. I’m thankful they don’t shut me out of their lives (even the three teens), but I believe that’s due, in large part, to the fact that I don’t shut them out of mine.
So this morning with a swirling mind, confused and frustrated at feeling lost, I prayed for God to help me with some direction. I then come upon this discussion; right on for me. I overcame a lot of obstacles and had a writing career. I then took time off to help raise a grandson and enjoy a move south, then, wham, just as I was trying to organize myself to writing again, my husband died. I have never been on my own, was 17 when I married, grew up with that man. Now I have to learnt navigate all the details of living, as well as help with the grandson and also caretake my elderly mother. I’ve begun coming up to write directly upon driving grandson to school. Write on anything. I’m trying to find what I want to do from here, where my passion lies. I’ll only find it if I am willing to commit to my own unique way of life. That means blocking out time. Difficult for me, but doable. I’m willing.
I would like to see Ms. Kleintop embrace her inner Harriet Tubman. She deserves it and so do her children. Sure, it’s very difficult for any of us to see through, to challenge, the cultural expectations of woman as servant to family and man as servant to job. But living our lives to the expectations of others is engaging in a form of voluntary servitude. To me, being of Service (with that capital S) means willingly and joyfully devoting my efforts to something bigger than myself, be it art, my community, or this planet. Of course it’s hard, and of course sometimes the work can be boring or dull. But the loving and voluntary commitment to Service is as good as it gets. It’s joy, it’s work, it’s love and it’s fun.
Nobody sets us free, that’s our job. Harriet didn’t sit around waiting for some official Emancipation Proclamation. She freed herself first, then helped free 300 others. Helped. They still had to risk their lives, still had to make that long walk north. Obligation is service without joy, so quit it. Really, just stop. It’s letting your self be used. Start doing what you love, and loving what you do. When you stop being a slave, work gets to be fun again. Kids get to be these weird and wonderful little energy forms rather than monstrous burdens. Even sweeping the floor is better when you do it because you want a clean floor, not because Mom or some Other told you to.
There are many north stars to freedom. Here’s mine: write hard, die free.
Wishing all of you the very best.
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Children don’t do what we tell them- they copy the way we are.
Thank you so much for Art of War. I am beginning a new journey to become the artist I have always wanted to be. Confronting resistance has been a confusing (because of my deep desire to devote myself to my task) and difficult journey. Your book summarizes so many things I’ve read in a simple no B.S. way.Then I read Gates of Fire which I couldn’t put down. The descriptions of training of oneself to confront fear hit home as well. I look forward to reading more, and doing more!
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