Today's post comes to us from Kathleen Murray, a former Midwest girl, now living in Virginia. Her life and work has taken her all over the U.S., and overseas in London and Beijing. She's worked as a CPA, a magazine and newspaper reporter, an editor, journalism instructor, Chinese language assistant and a volunteer probation officer. She makes her living as a writer now, has recently been the "crazy sports mom," and also spends time as a volunteer, helping ex-offenders find employment. She blogs at OUT AND EMPLOYED, which is where I'm at today. Kathy's with us in my stead to share her thoughts on how she sees the Expressive voice as an inspiration, though, she says, it's not always hers that's doing the talking:
I’m so excited to be guest blogger here at BIKE WITH JACKIE. I love Jackie’s message about becoming your Best self by tapping into your Inner strength, listening to your own Killer instinct and especially learning to use your Expressive voice.
Although I have ongoing work to do in all four areas, I decided to focus on the last one because, as a writer, it’s basically the source of my livelihood. Without a voice, you don’t get too far in this business. And even if you have a good one, if you don’t trust it, there are so many things that can knock you off course, or shut you down – the vagaries of publishing, bad editors, constricting writing requirements, blog trolls, cruel comments, unflattering feedback, the distraction of social media, what’s in, what’s out…you name it.
I’ve probably fallen victim to all of these at one time or another. But my biggest inhibitions have come from within. That little weasel of self-doubt can be relentless. Over time, however, I’ve found a way around this that’s almost sure fire. When I’m looking for inspiration, I seek out other voices.
And no, not the crazy ones in my head, saying, Drop the act and back away from the keyboard, your writing stinks. I’m talking about other people’s voices – conversations from lives that may have nothing to do with mine, but everything to do with what’s going on in the wider world.
GETTING OUT OF YOUR HEAD
Now some people do this naturally. They’re always out and about talking to anyone about anything. If you’re one of these folks, I envy you, truly. My tendency is to hole up alone with my laptop and try to figure it out myself. But I’ve learned over time that getting out of my head and into someone else’s is often the antidote to the worst of writing slumps – as well as life slumps, in general. And the more different the person is from me, the better.
I suppose some of this is due to my roots as a newspaper reporter, where at least in the old days, if you didn’t have someone talking to you, you didn’t have a story. But it really came to light when I lived overseas. Despite all the generalizations about pampered expats, you can’t live comfortably in another country unless you get out and learn about the natives – even in London, where they speak the same language. So I threw myself out there and tried to get everyone’s story: my quirky British neighbors; the homeless Oxford grad who spoke the Queen’s English but slept in a church graveyard; a family of gypsies who lived in trailers near our house and ran the bank holiday fun fairs; and a Bosnian nanny who fled her country when her boyfriend was killed in the war. She brought that conflict home to me in a way nothing else did when she said, “Sarajevo was a modern city, just like here, we were multicultural, we hosted the Olympics, we were college-educated, and look what happened to us.”
OVERCOMING LANGUAGE BARRIERS
In China, the language barrier made it more challenging initially. But even after I’d learned to speak Mandarin, there were plenty of other listening skills I needed to hone in order to really understand the people I met. For one, I had to get much better at reading body language or cultural cues, such as, the fact that the Chinese woman talking with me was laughing didn’t mean I was funny. Rather, it meant I had embarrassed her. But once I caught on, the material kept coming.
My work in both places reflected these efforts. I completed the draft of one novel and started another. I felt my writing was more honest, alive. Now I suppose you can say, "Well, of course you did, you were living in foreign countries where everything seems exotic." And in Beijing, a trip to buy groceries was an adventure. I thought that too for awhile. Especially after I returned to the U.S. and found myself uninspired. I wrote a couple of essays I never sold on topics like spoiled rich kids begging for money outside the local supermarket so they could send their sports teams to tournaments. And my fiction writing stalled as well. To make money I agreed to co-author an accounting book with my father, which not only took me back to a profession I’d loathed but also made me remember why, in excruciatingly dull detail.
When I saw the ad asking for volunteers to teach at the local jail, I hesitated at first. I’d worked as a volunteer probation officer twice before, but back then I hadn’t had kids. Not to mention my writing life, my supposed profession, seemed to be going nowhere. But there was a part of me that was curious, a part of me that remembered how much I’d enjoyed working with this population before, and a part of me that was, frankly, so desperate to escape my own worries that even sitting in a jail sounded appealing.
That was more than two years ago. I realized almost at once that I’d made the right decision. I enjoy working with the offenders, most of whom deeply regret their mistakes and long to start over. At times I feel that some of what I’m doing might be helpful, though I realize I’m getting so much more from the people I “teach” than I’m giving them. I remember one week in particular where I was frustrated by some neighborhood goings on – something about my middle son’s academics, overbearing parents and the cutthroat competition in Northern Virginia, blah, blah, blah. I went to teach my class. Afterwards, one of the women, a two-time felon, was lamenting how worried she was about her daughter. The girl was 11, my son’s age, and the girl was trying to get in trouble so she could get sent to jail to be with her mother.
“You know what she asked me on the phone,” the woman said to me, "She said, 'Ma, what’s the difference between a ‘ho and a prostitute?' I told her that a prostitute is someone who has sex with lots of guys because she gets paid, while a ‘ho just does it because she likes sex. I told my daughter, 'Baby, you ain’t gonna be neither.' But with me in here, what can I do?”
It was eye-opening and humbling and heartbreaking. It was also something I would never have learned reading. Or trolling the internet. Or even talking with my friends. I could only have learned it by pushing outside my comfort zone and experiencing another person’s point of view. I had to feel it to write it. That’s what inspired me to start my blog OUT AND EMPLOYED. That’s what inspired me to take up one of my novel drafts again.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel This Side of Paradise, his main character Amory Blaine has led a life of debauched self-absorption. When he realizes this, he laments, “All I know is me.”
I’ve never wanted to be saying the same thing. I’d rather my writing reflect some of the people I’ve met and connected with along the way. I want my life to reflect that as well. But to do that means listening to the world outside. In order to keep my Expressive voice, I’ve learned I have to use it - asking questions, stretching myself and connecting with other people’s lives.
How about you?