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Dancing with Bears

The other night, I stayed up too late reading Jonathan Franzen‘s The Discomfort Zone, a book I both devoured and savored. His writing is that delicious. I wanted to stuff myself silly as well as nibble each nuance, taking pleasure in each small flavor and the way they ingeniously worked together to create something much, much more substantial.

When I finally closed the book, it was after 2 AM, and I spent the rest of the mostly sleepless night mired in something close to despair. Much as Franzen’s writing inspires me, it also stirs up a whiney anguish and hopelessness: The guy can write circles around me, what’s the use? Why do I bother writing at all when there are voices that are infinitely more articulate and infuriatingly more precise than my own?

His writing is inspiring, but ironically what it often inspires is a kind of resignation. I love Jonathan Franzen. But at 3… 4… and then 5 AM… I loathed him, too.

In the light of day, when I’m rested and reasonable and caffeinated, such loathing and diffidence seems absurd. I know it. But it’s the same ugly insecurity that caused me, in fifth grade, to throw a spelling bee in the first round because I was certain I couldn’t possibly be the best speller in the room—and then watched from the audience while words I could easily spell felled contestant after contestant.

There was a kind of irritating passivity at work, too, ironically rooted in a ferocious competitiveness that I tried hard not to acknowledge: It was simply easier not to try. It was easier to choose to sit down, on my own terms, rather than work myself up and feel the burn of competition in my gut, only to risk the devastation of a loss.

Last week, I visited the sculptor Jim Sardonis in his studio in Barre, Vermont. “Studio” is too glamorous a word for it—his workspace is actually a huge, dimly lit granite mill, dominated at one end by an upright giant circular wet-saw blade, as big as a backyard trampoline, working its way, back and forth, through a chunk of stone the size of a Chevy. It was a sunny 70 degrees outside, but inside it was chilly, dark and damp. If it were quiet, it would feel exactly like a polar bear cave. I half expected to see fish jumping in the cascade of water around the wet-saw blade.

Which is fitting, because Jim was unveiling his newest project—in fact, a granite sculpture of a polar bear mother with her three scrambling cubs wrestling around her. Next month, the bear will be settled on the lawn in front of our town library. But for now, Jim says, he has more work to do, finishing the surface of Mama’s rump, shaping her head and expression, and carving bits off of a cub or an eye or a paw, tweaking here and there, until he’s satisfied.

The bear before us was maybe four feet high and 6 1/2 feet long, and weighs 2 1/2 tons, which is significantly heavier than an actual female polar bear, but roughly the same length and height as the real thing. Although, Jim cautioned, this isn’t an exact replica; it’s not carved to copy precisely the dimensions of an actual bear. He visited the stuffed bear at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and took plenty of photos and measurements. But, he says, this bear is based more on the picture in his mind’s eye. In other words, this bear is his interpretation, his version of a mother bear and her cubs at play. It may appear to authentically depict an actual bear, Jim says, but it’s not meant to.

“This bear,” Jim says, “is more….” And he jacks up his arms like a strong man and puffs out his chest to indicate rounder, fluffier, more roly-poly. In other words, Jim’s bear is more… well, bearish.

Bearish and powerful and evocative. In the way that art is—and a stuffed museum bear is not.

On the ride back to Boston, my friend and traveling companion, also named Jim, recalled the artist’s description of how he created his bear. It reminded him, he said, of James Wood’s description of how writer Richard Price captures the essence of inner-city speech in his dialogue, all the while inventing something different, and inherently more beautiful.

In other words, Price is less a stenographer of inner city slang and metaphor and more a sculptor of it. He takes regular speech and cliché and mashes, reshapes, and hones it. What he carves out feels authentic and real, but is actually more evocative, fuller and rounder, not unlike Jim Sardonis’s polar bear. Price’s dialogue doesn’t really exist in the inner city, just like Jim’s bear doesn’t really exist in the wild.

In a way, it’s what we all do, isn’t it? Whether our canvas is a block of granite, an empty page, a chunk of wood, a brief of the creative or non-creative kind, a spreadsheet, a campaign, a classroom, a child, a customer, or whatever canvas we reflect our life on via the prism of our worldview: We all imbue it all with our own ideas, we innovate, we invent anew. Constantly. Our mind creates its version of reality: authentic, real, full and round. We shape our world in our own terms.

What would our loss be if Richard Price didn’t think he could depict street language more authentically by creating his own—oddly, more real—version? What if Jim Sardonis didn’t think he could improve on, for God’s sake, nature?

What if they too thought that it was easier not to try? What if they thought it was easier to choose to sit down, rather than work themselves up?

I write it here so I can remember the lesson I learned in fifth grade—the bit of perspective I still struggle to retain: Only I can make my bear full and round; only I know that it’s round enough.

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50 Responses to Dancing with Bears

  1. Mukund Mohan says:

    Better to have loved and been rejected than not loved at all. :)

    Its a matter of looking at the right (or wrong) comparisons. I look at your writing and keep asking myself the same question – why do I bother to write?

    Then I remember because I enjoy it and its fun for me. Regardless of how painful it is for my audience. :)

    Great work, dont give up writing BTW.

  2. Mukund Mohan says:

    Better to have loved and been rejected than not loved at all. :)

    Its a matter of looking at the right (or wrong) comparisons. I look at your writing and keep asking myself the same question – why do I bother to write?

    Then I remember because I enjoy it and its fun for me. Regardless of how painful it is for my audience. :)

    Great work, dont give up writing BTW.

  3. Connie Reece says:

    I think all writers must have the same voice in their head: “You’re nothing but a hack compared to So-and-So …” Beautifully written, Ann. Embarrassed to say I recognized myself in your story of throwing the spelling bee.

  4. Connie Reece says:

    I think all writers must have the same voice in their head: “You’re nothing but a hack compared to So-and-So …” Beautifully written, Ann. Embarrassed to say I recognized myself in your story of throwing the spelling bee.

  5. Comparing oneself to an author one admires can be a humbling experience to say the least – to take it further and imagine a limited capacity to one’s creative talent is human, but cruel. The author is like the artist, and only they know when an object is complete, not according to some worldly comparative artistic standard of higher niveau, but to one’s own satisfaction and liking – when intuition takes over the driver’s seat from logical analysis, and tells you – all is beautiful and well.

  6. Comparing oneself to an author one admires can be a humbling experience to say the least – to take it further and imagine a limited capacity to one’s creative talent is human, but cruel. The author is like the artist, and only they know when an object is complete, not according to some worldly comparative artistic standard of higher niveau, but to one’s own satisfaction and liking – when intuition takes over the driver’s seat from logical analysis, and tells you – all is beautiful and well.

  7. Toby says:

    .. so I think why should I pull up one more virtual page to tap mundane thoughts when Ann Handley’s writing is crisp, funny, insightful and continues to remind me of my own humanity. Then I remember her words .. my attempts at creativity are part of my reality and growth. Thank you again dear Ann.

  8. Toby says:

    .. so I think why should I pull up one more virtual page to tap mundane thoughts when Ann Handley’s writing is crisp, funny, insightful and continues to remind me of my own humanity. Then I remember her words .. my attempts at creativity are part of my reality and growth. Thank you again dear Ann.

  9. Not everything I write is going to be profound.

    Once I get past that roadblock, I’ll be fine. Thanks for sharing the story.

  10. Not everything I write is going to be profound.

    Once I get past that roadblock, I’ll be fine. Thanks for sharing the story.

  11. Throwing a spelling bee provides you with an amusing, if poignant, memory. Throwing your stories and words out here provides us with a pleasant glimpse into your memories and insights. Which, btw, may be far more important than perfectly-crafted words.

    How many supermodel-types obsess over their imperfections, and secretly convince themselves that they are actually ugly? There’s always someone we perceive to be better than us.

    Sometimes, I admit, I just want to throw my blogging/writing/involvement overboard and give up. Yet who are we to imply that we have no value?? So-and-so may be “better”, but he or she is not me! Or Ann…

  12. Throwing a spelling bee provides you with an amusing, if poignant, memory. Throwing your stories and words out here provides us with a pleasant glimpse into your memories and insights. Which, btw, may be far more important than perfectly-crafted words.

    How many supermodel-types obsess over their imperfections, and secretly convince themselves that they are actually ugly? There’s always someone we perceive to be better than us.

    Sometimes, I admit, I just want to throw my blogging/writing/involvement overboard and give up. Yet who are we to imply that we have no value?? So-and-so may be “better”, but he or she is not me! Or Ann…

  13. Sean says:

    Hey Ann,

    I had a wonderful chat with a Ms. Michelle Perras the other night and she mentioned that “Craft would save the world.”

    It hearkened me back to Ursula Franklin’s amazing book taken from her lecture on “The Real World of Technology”.

    And here I sit the next morning reading your touching tale of craft realized and avoided. I too have avoided my craft at a younger age. To the point that I couldn’t go and see a play or movie as it was too “painful.” So I would let my friends go off alone while I avoided my passion.

    Wonderful article, Ann!

  14. Sean says:

    Hey Ann,

    I had a wonderful chat with a Ms. Michelle Perras the other night and she mentioned that “Craft would save the world.”

    It hearkened me back to Ursula Franklin’s amazing book taken from her lecture on “The Real World of Technology”.

    And here I sit the next morning reading your touching tale of craft realized and avoided. I too have avoided my craft at a younger age. To the point that I couldn’t go and see a play or movie as it was too “painful.” So I would let my friends go off alone while I avoided my passion.

    Wonderful article, Ann!

  15. Ann Handley says:

    I know I waded into some murky water here… but I’m heartened to know I’m not the only one who wrestles with this…. uh… bear.

    Sean: I *totally* get that… as effed up as that kind of thinking is, I get it….

  16. Ann Handley says:

    I know I waded into some murky water here… but I’m heartened to know I’m not the only one who wrestles with this…. uh… bear.

    Sean: I *totally* get that… as effed up as that kind of thinking is, I get it….

  17. Dan Schawbel says:

    Anything that is “easier” won’t yield as much results. You get out of life what you put in and if you focus your energy on becoming better, even if it’s competitive, then there will be a greater payoff.

  18. Dan Schawbel says:

    Anything that is “easier” won’t yield as much results. You get out of life what you put in and if you focus your energy on becoming better, even if it’s competitive, then there will be a greater payoff.

  19. I’m lucky, I think — or perhaps an arrogant sonuvabitch — because I tend to have the opposite experience. The more I thrill to someone’s work, the more I feel the tug of my laptop; I can hardly get through a paragraph of Joan Didion because she makes me want to go and write. Ditto for great dialogue at a movie; my mind wanders to something I’m working on, and I lose focus just when I should be paying attention.

    Your discussion of Richard Price reminds me a little of Mario Puzo, who didn’t know from the mafia, but created a world in The Godfather that actual mafioso embraced as their own. Cool when that happens.

  20. I’m lucky, I think — or perhaps an arrogant sonuvabitch — because I tend to have the opposite experience. The more I thrill to someone’s work, the more I feel the tug of my laptop; I can hardly get through a paragraph of Joan Didion because she makes me want to go and write. Ditto for great dialogue at a movie; my mind wanders to something I’m working on, and I lose focus just when I should be paying attention.

    Your discussion of Richard Price reminds me a little of Mario Puzo, who didn’t know from the mafia, but created a world in The Godfather that actual mafioso embraced as their own. Cool when that happens.

  21. Ann, thank you for this great discussion. Well written, as usual.

    Steve, I think you bring up a good point about super models and other women who base their self esteem on their comparative beauty. An interesting reminder of how eating disorders are born.

    Having spent a chunk of my adult life overseas working in different languages, I have learned to be kind to myself with regards to my self-expression and can get wowed by others without feeling less myself.

  22. Ann, thank you for this great discussion. Well written, as usual.

    Steve, I think you bring up a good point about super models and other women who base their self esteem on their comparative beauty. An interesting reminder of how eating disorders are born.

    Having spent a chunk of my adult life overseas working in different languages, I have learned to be kind to myself with regards to my self-expression and can get wowed by others without feeling less myself.

  23. Ann Handley says:

    Christian – Well, perhaps you ARE an arrogant sonuvabitch (!), but I doubt it. In fact, I don’t think we are unlike. Like I said, when I’m rested and reasonable and caffeinated, such loathing seems absurd. I am inspired by the likes of Franzen and Didion (yes! “Where I Was From” is one of my favorites). But when I’m tired or otherwise vulnerable (like when I was young), I can easily get mired in this negative kind of thinking…. I wrote this, in part, to exorcise it.

  24. Ann Handley says:

    Christian – Well, perhaps you ARE an arrogant sonuvabitch (!), but I doubt it. In fact, I don’t think we are unlike. Like I said, when I’m rested and reasonable and caffeinated, such loathing seems absurd. I am inspired by the likes of Franzen and Didion (yes! “Where I Was From” is one of my favorites). But when I’m tired or otherwise vulnerable (like when I was young), I can easily get mired in this negative kind of thinking…. I wrote this, in part, to exorcise it.

  25. I think it is all too easy to compare ourselves to others and wonder whether we really measure up. However, each of us our own, unique voice that no one else can duplicate, and that is what makes each of us special.

    You have inspired so many, Ann. Thank you for opening yourself to us and sharing where you came from.

  26. I think it is all too easy to compare ourselves to others and wonder whether we really measure up. However, each of us our own, unique voice that no one else can duplicate, and that is what makes each of us special.

    You have inspired so many, Ann. Thank you for opening yourself to us and sharing where you came from.

  27. Tinu says:

    Ann, I go through this SO often, but ironically not with my writing (it’s the one area I’m confident about. I’m no Hemingway, but I’m damned good in my genre.)

    Where I have this issue is professionally. I’m like, man, how come x wrote about this and got so much attention, i said that last week… or how come people love my y article, there’s 8 billlion typos in it – oh the shame!

    I’m going to think about the bear though, next time. Only I can know, that’s true. And that would make a good story for a company name…

  28. Tinu says:

    Ann, I go through this SO often, but ironically not with my writing (it’s the one area I’m confident about. I’m no Hemingway, but I’m damned good in my genre.)

    Where I have this issue is professionally. I’m like, man, how come x wrote about this and got so much attention, i said that last week… or how come people love my y article, there’s 8 billlion typos in it – oh the shame!

    I’m going to think about the bear though, next time. Only I can know, that’s true. And that would make a good story for a company name…

  29. Jeff Reid says:

    So, as you read Franzen, you see the characters in “the movie in your mind”. And if the studios ever made a movie, what actors could play those roles? “The Discomfort Zone” and Franzen’s other novels are listed at storycasting.com where you can tinker with being a virtual casting director. It’s fun to play around, get some feedback from other people, sometimes just clarify what people look like from another reader’s point of view.

  30. Jeff Reid says:

    So, as you read Franzen, you see the characters in “the movie in your mind”. And if the studios ever made a movie, what actors could play those roles? “The Discomfort Zone” and Franzen’s other novels are listed at storycasting.com where you can tinker with being a virtual casting director. It’s fun to play around, get some feedback from other people, sometimes just clarify what people look like from another reader’s point of view.

  31. Mack Collier says:

    I think what we ALL do is, we try to imitate the other writer’s VOICE to a degree. I do it as well, I will read something by another writer that I just love, then without even realizing it, I will find myself adopting their tone and style, because I fool myself into thinking that if it works for them, it will work for them.

    It won’t. Their voice isn’t my voice and my voice isn’t their’s. We all have to find and speak with our own cadence. And the world will be a much better and more interesting place, if we can.

  32. Mack Collier says:

    I think what we ALL do is, we try to imitate the other writer’s VOICE to a degree. I do it as well, I will read something by another writer that I just love, then without even realizing it, I will find myself adopting their tone and style, because I fool myself into thinking that if it works for them, it will work for them.

    It won’t. Their voice isn’t my voice and my voice isn’t their’s. We all have to find and speak with our own cadence. And the world will be a much better and more interesting place, if we can.

  33. I’ve got a new tagline, baby!

    Christian Gulliksen
    Arrogant Sonuvabitch ™

    So, basically, is it fair to say that you’ll look more favorably (read: with green-eyed jealousy) on the brilliance that is my writing if I deliver late at night? I’d rather not send you into a spiral of despair that wouldn’t exist in the morning, but if it makes me look better…I guess I can handle the guilt :) Because I’m an Arrogant Sonuvabitch ™

  34. I’ve got a new tagline, baby!

    Christian Gulliksen
    Arrogant Sonuvabitch ™

    So, basically, is it fair to say that you’ll look more favorably (read: with green-eyed jealousy) on the brilliance that is my writing if I deliver late at night? I’d rather not send you into a spiral of despair that wouldn’t exist in the morning, but if it makes me look better…I guess I can handle the guilt :) Because I’m an Arrogant Sonuvabitch ™

  35. Julie says:

    Wow! I love reading the slants everyone puts on what they’ve read… What it highlights and brings out for them… Even a new tagline! What a wonderful lot we all are.!! And you bring us to that place… Wow. Thanks Ann.
    xx

  36. Julie says:

    Wow! I love reading the slants everyone puts on what they’ve read… What it highlights and brings out for them… Even a new tagline! What a wonderful lot we all are.!! And you bring us to that place… Wow. Thanks Ann.
    xx

  37. Karen Swim says:

    Ann, you uttered words that were in my heart. I too was that little girl who struggled with competitiveness but threw things on my own terms. Like you I often have that mix of inspiration and self loathing and it appears by the comments that so many of us do. You are a wonderful writer and you have shaped this piece in a way no one else can.

  38. Karen Swim says:

    Ann, you uttered words that were in my heart. I too was that little girl who struggled with competitiveness but threw things on my own terms. Like you I often have that mix of inspiration and self loathing and it appears by the comments that so many of us do. You are a wonderful writer and you have shaped this piece in a way no one else can.

  39. Shelley says:

    Weird timing, Ann… I was just looking through my collection of favorite quotes yesterday. Two of them:

    Our admiration of fine writing will always be in proportion to its real difficulty and its apparent ease.
    -Charles Caleb Colton, author and clergyman (1780-1832)

    A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
    -Thomas Mann, novelist, Nobel laureate (1875-1955)

  40. Shelley says:

    Weird timing, Ann… I was just looking through my collection of favorite quotes yesterday. Two of them:

    Our admiration of fine writing will always be in proportion to its real difficulty and its apparent ease.
    -Charles Caleb Colton, author and clergyman (1780-1832)

    A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
    -Thomas Mann, novelist, Nobel laureate (1875-1955)

  41. Dusan Vrban says:

    I cannot imagine how we would communicate here if many people before us haven’t had what it takes to make their bear round and full and invented electricity.

  42. Dusan Vrban says:

    I cannot imagine how we would communicate here if many people before us haven’t had what it takes to make their bear round and full and invented electricity.

  43. Alan Wolk says:

    I know that little girl well Ann. I was the boy who didn’t see why I should stick with basketball if there were going to be people who were better than me. Who didn’t see why I should bother to keep writing short stories if they weren’t going to be published in the New Yorker.

    It wasn’t until last year that I really internalized the fact that all the people getting out on words I could easily spell didn’t have some secret formula. They just put themselves out there and risked failure. But mostly they just put themselves out there.

    Which is the beauty of the internet- the need to stop worrying about gatekeepers and letting the audience find us.

    Somehow I think, that to psyches like ours, there’s something far more appealing about that.

  44. Alan Wolk says:

    I know that little girl well Ann. I was the boy who didn’t see why I should stick with basketball if there were going to be people who were better than me. Who didn’t see why I should bother to keep writing short stories if they weren’t going to be published in the New Yorker.

    It wasn’t until last year that I really internalized the fact that all the people getting out on words I could easily spell didn’t have some secret formula. They just put themselves out there and risked failure. But mostly they just put themselves out there.

    Which is the beauty of the internet- the need to stop worrying about gatekeepers and letting the audience find us.

    Somehow I think, that to psyches like ours, there’s something far more appealing about that.

  45. Angela says:

    I felt that way after reading “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” And oddly, sometimes I feel that way after reading “Dooce.”

  46. Angela says:

    I felt that way after reading “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” And oddly, sometimes I feel that way after reading “Dooce.”

  47. This is totally how I feel when I read anything by Julie Hecht, David Sedaris, Erma Bombeck, Richard Russo or Roy Blount Jr..

    Roy Blount Jr. in responding to a letter I wrote to him almost 15 years ago, did give me some great advice, stating , “If you can’t but not write, then you’re a writer.” (Sure that letter was also telling me he could not marry me on David Letterman as I had hoped, but still, it’s good advice.)

    E.B. White gave him that advice in a letter years before when Blount wrote to him asking him to read some of his stuff. (Blount did not ask E.B. White to marry him though.) :>)

    So I think the key is to just keep writing. Keep writing, because you are already a great writer by virtue of continuously doing it despite all odds.

  48. This is totally how I feel when I read anything by Julie Hecht, David Sedaris, Erma Bombeck, Richard Russo or Roy Blount Jr..

    Roy Blount Jr. in responding to a letter I wrote to him almost 15 years ago, did give me some great advice, stating , “If you can’t but not write, then you’re a writer.” (Sure that letter was also telling me he could not marry me on David Letterman as I had hoped, but still, it’s good advice.)

    E.B. White gave him that advice in a letter years before when Blount wrote to him asking him to read some of his stuff. (Blount did not ask E.B. White to marry him though.) :>)

    So I think the key is to just keep writing. Keep writing, because you are already a great writer by virtue of continuously doing it despite all odds.

  49. Pingback: I Suspect Everyone Else Is Smarter, Better-Looking, Taller, Cooler, Cuter, Has Newer and Shinier Objects than I Do (and Is More Modest)

  50. Pingback: I Suspect Everyone Else Is Smarter, Better-Looking, Taller, Cooler, Cuter, Has Newer and Shinier Objects than I Do (and Is More Modest)

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