Tuesday, October 16, 2012


I majored in English in collegeI have always loved stories.  I can't even remember now what my period of interest wasmaybe 19th century English &  French literature?  That sounds reasonable.  I read a fair number of novels, plays and...poetry.  Yes, I fondly recall a seminar in French symbolist & surrealist poetry.

Homework was reading poetry, and I remember how first I'd just read an assigned poem.  Then I'd go back & look up all the words I didn't know or understand and translate it.  Then I'd read my crude translation to try to understand the sense of the individual words and the vision of the poem.  Read it again trying to internalize the meaning of the words as I read them.  Read it again out loud to hear the language.  It took hours to read a few lines of text on a page!

While I was wrestling with this class, I remember going to some event and chatting to two somewhat inebriated English graduate students and explaining that really, I just didn't get all the hoopla about poetry.  And having them earnestly explain that poetry was it.  The pinnacle. The point.  The Ultimate in the pantheon of literature....

I didn't buy it.  I figure they just liked to lord it over us lowly undergraduates & needed to pick something obscure and difficult (indeed often impenetrable) and pretend they understood the secret language, and others lacked the refined ear and were not worthy of the key to unlock this treasure.  ENC (Emperor's New Clothes) I thought.  Nothing there.

Flash forward several years.  Had broken up with my college/post college boyfriend, moved to New York, gotten a job.  But  I was still connected with our collective friends when I found out from other sources that he was getting married to a woman who had banned all of his former friends (our friends) as a pre-condition.  He had to give them all up for her, and he did.

I  felt compelled to write to him.  It couldn't be any kind of lengthy explanation of my disappointment in his actions: his willingness to betray long term friends to satisfy an utterly inappropriate perception of threat.  To roll over and allow for such bad behavior.  To not stand up for himself.  To be so utterly lacking in integrity. No.  No explanations.

It had to be brief--no more than 3 sentences.  Expressive. Dignified.  Ruthless.

I wrestled with words.  Wrote and rewrote.  Crafted my note. Every word had to have resonance, had to have it's own integrity and then when juxtaposed to another, and another, create a new and nuanced meaning.  I flashed back to my conversation on Poetry and realized...

Poetry is it.

It is the challenge of packing the world in a thimble, of making each word do double, triple duty or more.  Of creating a multifaceted object that you can turn and turn again, see through it, see yourself in it, see other dimensions within it.  Within yourself.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The burden of specialness

Did you catch the David McCullough Jr (son of) "You are not special" graduation speech?

In some follow up interviews he speaks about his goals in taking his position that resonated with me:  the burden of specialness.

Watching friends whoperhaps compensating for the lack of desired adulation from their own parentslavish their offspring with encouragement and praise, and are resentful towards anyone (teachers, employers, friends) who are critical.

Their goal is to inspire and empower their children.  But these aspirational goals, this barrage of belief their progeny's exceptionalness, is a heavy burden.

It can make every success a failure, because it can never be remarkable enough.  If there ever is something exceptional, then really, it's just what is expectednothing remarkable about that!  It makes failure unacceptable, a betrayal of their parent's faith, something to hide, to be ashamed of.  Not good.

For all those who were dumped on and discouraged in their formative years, rethink your resentments.  If you were strong enough, motivated enough to defy assumptions, to fight for  your own dreams, than every step was a triumph.  The desire to "show" others how wrong they were about you may have lead you to excell in remarkable ways.  Your victories are your own, fought for and won in the teeth of opposition.

Perhaps it is logical to think that it would be easier to achieve success if those barriers were eliminated, but the barriers are what buids and ensures the strength and the motivation to succeed. The challenges we face and overcome in the race to win are the cause of our success. Not what prevents success.

Consider it in physical termsno one trains successfully to win a race by having their coach move the finish line closer to the start. 

The word "burden" reminds me of Pilgrim's Progress, read many years ago.  Our burdens can indeed sink us into the Slough of Despond.  And a positive burden can be just as heavy as a negative one.

Let them go and find your own path....

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What Is It About Virginity?

No, not just that kind.  I'm thinking of all kinds of firsts, any first.

While virginity in other areas don't get nearly the play that sexual innocence/experience gets (why is that?), many firsts are paradigm-altering experiences.

In youth, life starts with non-stop firsts.  Everything is a firstfirst breath, first cry, first word, first smile, first tooth, first food, first step.  Of course the proportions change over timefrom 100% firsts in those intial hours, dropping to a still demanding percentage of firsts Vs familiar: first school, first friend, first fight, first love, first job, and so on.

As we explore, experiment and stake out our ground, we often build a life around the familiar, shrinking that percentage of demanding firsts we have to experience.  We've found our sweet spot, our comfort zone, our wheelhouse.

Yes, we understand our job as parents and mentors: we must push children, students, trainees to expand their horizons, open their eyes and minds to a world of possibilities, but hey, we've BTDT (Been There, Done That).  We don't need to do it again.  It's exhausting, time consuming, scary, disappointing, uncomfortable.  Something we encourage others to do, extolling the benefits of remaining open to new ideas, continuous learning, etc.

So I was wonderingwhat makes it hard to try something new?

And I realized that when you are a virgin/newbie approaching any new situation, you maintain a constant 360º scan of the situation, holding all potential options (given the lack of prior experience) open and possible.  Depending on your personality (some types listed below) or level of experience in related areas, your need to maintain a high-gain assessment of all information may vary, but the constant data flow can be significant and challenging to process.

Powering that constant scan consumes energyyou are not only trying to assess all the possibilities, but may (if more compulsive, or if this is a value-laden or important first) do some scenario building off of that 360 degrees of possibility, increasing the amount of information that has to stay active and running on your "screen."

When that 360º energy-intensive radar goes on for anyone who feels compelled to think ahead, it is tiring.  However if we are frequently trying new things, we can get used to it.  Like daily exercise, our mental muscles adjust and accommodate.  But for those who aren't in shape, the learning curve of newness can feel very daunting, a steep hill to climb.  We may give up, forgetting how quickly that initial learning curve can pass with minimal experience, narrowing that 360º circle into an ever smaller and more focused slice of the pie, enabling us to rapidly eliminate and jettison inappropriate options or scenarios.

Learning can be a heady experience, as we offload unecessary information that has been cluttering our mind, like cleaning house.

In general, I have observed three broad attitudes/approachesperhaps you have experienced others...

The Laissez Faire:  So if you're not so compulsive or caring, and something new comes up, you might not switch into high gear.  You're in the "Whatever" school that believes in minimum-to-no-effort and deal with it (or abandon it) if things blow up. Relatively low increased energy required for approaching something new.

The Go For Its: Another mindset falls in the toss-it-in-the-air-and-See-If-It-Sticks (SIIS) school.  Simultaneously adventurous and lazy, this group is afraid to pre-think much, as that may lead to a never-ending list of what-ifs that would require additional research, effort and more thinking, which might result in inaction and depression.  For them, there's often some kind of mental mechanism that kicks in while they are dithering which launches them into the challenge willy-nilly.  They, closing their eyes, take the leap and deal real-time with the possible consequences of unthought-through actions. Energy only required if things go awry!

I Am, Therefore I Think: The third group are the pre-thinkers, sometimes so good at their job that no action is ever able to be taken!  The wide spectrum of this group can range from the thoughtful plan-aheader to the truly obsessive I-must-think-of-everything-or-else-there-will-be-a-break-in-the-Force-and-the-world-will-end. Required energy can be medium, to high...to off the charts. For the extremists in this segment, seemingly "simple" tasks or decisions can be overwhelming.  To illustrate this, consider taking a small number, say 2, but then saying you have to think of it to the tenth power.  The complexity increases exponentially.

Of course, there's always the straightforward fear of looking like an idiot, which is always a disincentive to trying something new.  Get over it. Try something new. Don't expect yourself to be perfect from the start.

Embrace failure, for without it, there is no learning. And remember that something not working out the way you had planned ("failure") may be a door that opens a new direction, insight, opportunity.


Isabel Swift (learning to knit…)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

If you haven't read it yet, you should….

I’ve just finished re-reading Deborah Tannen’s early work (1990), You Just Don’t Understand.  She’s a linguistic professor who has published some bestselling titles (That’s Not What I MeantTalking 9-5).  I’d read it ages ago, when it first came out & found it both interesting and helpful.  Rereading it offered new insights.

If you’re a romance reader or writer, I expect you’ve heard the comment, “The whole story was just based on a misunderstanding! A five minute conversation would have cleared everything up on page two…!” 

Well, spending five minutes with YJDU will clarify that communication between the sexes is rife with misunderstanding.   That males and females—from the very beginning—bring quite different assumptions to conversations (both speaking and listening) and those assumptions can create significant misinterpretation, misunderstanding, frustration, anger, unhappiness, alienation and disappointment.  A better understanding of the underlying assumptions on both sides can really help realign expectations and diminish misinterpretation.  Additionally, the stories and research offer reassurance that you are not alone in your confusion, hurt, and frustration.

Before I became a romance editor and made my living on the differences between the sexes, I remember having a conversation with the father of a woman who had finally announced her engagement to her long-time partner.  The couple hadn’t gotten married because their respective families didn’t approve of the relationships due to their being from different races or religions (can’t recall the issue). 

The parent was earnestly explaining to me that he wasn’t racist (or whatever) but that building a successful marriage was so hard, and if the two parties came from totally different cultures, different upbringings, different experiences, that it would be that much harder to find the common ground needed to create a strong partnership.

As I listened, I sympathized—all his concerns were valid.  And then I looked him in the eye and said, you know, I have never heard such a compelling treatise on the benefits of homosexual marriage.  I mean with heterosexual relationships, you are asking people of the opposite sex to figure out a way to live together.  Not easy!  There’s a reason it’s called the opposite sex….

Yes, when you think about building a strong partnership between two people who are different sexes, have totally different bodies, bring different assumptions, expectations and world view, have different conversational styles (in some ways a different language), and were raised differently, it’s clear heterosexual marriage is not easy.  That challenge has fueled countless stories, poems, songs and is often one of the central challenges of our lives.

It’s not easy to understand the opposite sex, but YJDU does give some helpful insights.  Tannen opens with a perspective that had a lot of resonance for me: that all conversation has two diametrically opposed goals.

One is to connect, to reach out, to feel a bond with another, to feel part of the greater whole of humankind.

The other is the desire to maintain your sense of self, your autonomy, your uniqueness, your individuality and separateness.

Tannen indicates (my interpretation) that these simultaneous and opposite goals are present in every conversational interaction for both men and women.  But she notes that men often have a slight default to autonomy in that 180 degree spread.  And that women often have a slight default to connection.  And that slight difference can and often does create a significant communication gap between the sexes.

If you think about it, much of “politeness” (which can vary significantly in different cultures) has been created to enable people to communicate and connect in a non-threatening way.  To enable others to feel ‘safe’ in connecting, reassured that they are not being asked to lose their autonomy or sense of self.

Romances are all about the puzzle of how to be both an individual and be part of a team.  And many address the challenge of having the woman need to nurture her sense of self, validate her right to her own individuality and needs in order to balance her natural tendency to compromise for others.  And additionally presenting the flip side: of having the man appreciate that there are appropriate and necessary compromises that he must make to be part of a team, and to learn to appreciate the unique gifts that that connection will bring.

So if you haven't read it yet, check it out.  And vive la différence!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Charting the points

A highly rational friend recently noted with some surprise that sometimes just saying a problem out loud helped him figure it out.

And why was that?

Have you ever been struggling with something, felt a lack of clarity on which direction to go in, or even understand how you felt about an issue?

Have you written about it in an email, a letter, a journal and gotten an insight from the act of writing? Or talked to someone about it, and gotten a better perspective, even though the person you were talking to hadn't said anything? Or even just bounced something out loud into an empty room, and found an answer rebound back to you?

I expect many have. Most likely everyone has just accepted that experience as being just a strange exercise that for unknown reasons simply seems to works.

But for my rational friend, achieving that insight through those means was a surprise. For him, there hadn't seemed to be any point in talking or writing about the same information or questions that were in his head—what difference would it make? The information was already in his head, it wouldn't change from being said out loud or written down. So it got me thinking—well, why does it help?

And I came up with this analogy:

Do you remember math problems where you would be given a sequence of numbers and asked to figure out what the next number in the sequence was supposed to be? Well, the more numbers you were given in the sequence, the clearer the underlying formula was. So if you were only given one number, correctly guessing the next would be impossible—too many options. If you were given two numbers, then your chances were better, but still had a very high level of uncertainty.

For example 2 doesn't give you much to go on. 2, 4, gives you a lot more, but not enough. The sequence could be 2,4,6 or 2,4,8. So with three data points, you can be far more confident of perceiving a pattern, making an assumption, getting clarity.

So my theory is that when you have a problem/issue in your head, that's one data point. But when you say it out loud, so you are knowing it, thinking it, saying it and hearing it, or additionally writing it and reading it, you are adding more data points and increasing your ability to make a more accurate assumption, to chart a more solid course. And agreed, some of these point only offer a tiny bit of new information--a slightly richer or more detailed appreciation, a new perspective, but it's something; it helps.

In one of those Malcolm Gladwell books, he talks about how you can have a group of two or three friends, but if it expands to four or five, the group often falls apart. He noted that one more person isn't just an addition of one, but for everyone in the group, so the increase is exponential. Everyone is managing not only their own relationship to each person in the group, but observing & incorporating each permutation of every element of each member of the group.

So if you have a group of three, A, B, C, you need to maintain awareness of the relationships between A/B, A/C, B/A, C/A, B/C, C/B and ABC. If you add D, it goes from 7 separate relationships to 16 (A/B, A/C, A/D, B/A, B/C, B/D, C/A, C/B, C/D, D/A, D/B, D/C, ABC, ABD, BCD, ACD). Yes, OK, I may not have all the math right, but you get the point.

The more points you can chart or the more ways you allow your brain and intuition to process information, the better it will be able to build a viable theory, or chart a hypothetical direction to consider.

Also, it's very hard to lie to yourself when you are writing in a journal. Much easier to wrap yourself in denial and not go there if it's just in your head, or even talking. And in fairness, sometimes you don't even know you are lying to yourself until you write something down. Reading it, you think...well, no, that's not quite right, and start thinking about what is actually true.

It is helpful to get an external perspective on things—that's why editors were invented. But if you don't have an editor or critique group, or a boss or anyone to be a sounding board, try putting it out there & using yourself.

You'll have a point. Maybe more than one....

Get your sextant out!

Isabel Swift