Following Your Bliss
(From a speech at Writing on the Sound - 1998)
Ten years ago I never would have dreamed I would be here, talking to a group of people in this
beautiful little town. In fact, ten years ago, I never would have dreamed I'd
enjoy public speaking. Public speaking! I used to be the type of person who got
the shakes just thinking about getting up in front of a crowd. But all that's
changed. I'm a writer now, and let me tell you, it's been quite a 180 degree
How many of you came here expecting me to speak about the exciting
life of a writer? I hate to burst any bubbles, but most of a writer's time is
spent in libraries or locked in an office with four cups of coffee and a
computer. Not exactly thrilling subject matter. The most exciting part of my day
to day is the picture of Pierce Brosnan I have taped to my computer
Now I will be happy to answer any of your questions about my
occupation after this presentation. But what I'd really like to share with you
today is why I became a writer, what made me decide to face my fears, what helped
me become a best-selling author and a happier human being. With hope, some of you
may leave here today to reassess your own life and make it better.
me begin by telling you a story. A story about my dark and stormy past.
In the late 80s, I was an unhappy drone. I had a dependable husband and two
children, a part-time job, a new house, and very little gray hair. Life should
have been good, right? Yet I was miserable! There I was, sitting in my family
room sighing and folding laundry and half-watching a program on PBS--a series
about man and myth by Joseph Campbell. That Sunday afternoon, Joseph Campbell
said something that struck me deeply--one of those truths that hit you right
He said, "You have to follow your bliss."
Follow your bliss.
Such a simple statement. But such a wide-ranging concept. Follow your bliss, he
said, and success and happiness will come to you. God knew I could have used some
success and happiness. I stared at his image on the television screen as the
obvious truth washed over me. His words were like rain on the desert of my life,
like light in the darkness of my unhappiness and frustration. Why was I
I had lost track of myself.
I don't know about you, but
when I was in my 30s, I tried to be all things to all people: a dutiful wife, a
diligent homemaker, a good mother, a valued employee, and an active member of
society. I worked part-time at a university, volunteered at school, entertained
family members in our new big house in the suburbs, and kept a garden and sewed
my own clothes to save money.
But was I happy? Was I satisfied? Was I
truly available to my husband and children? No. I was miserable. My marriage had
become a series of emotionally-draining silences because I had married a man who
would never be my friend, my days were consumed by an unending string of duties
that I performed without joy, and I had no real heart to give to my children.
When I drove home at night after work, all I could think about was how I could
escape. Yet I couldn't understand why I was miserable. From the outside my life
seemed okay. No great tragedies. Why wasn't it enough?
I had lost my
bliss. You see, I had tried so hard to nurture everyone else, to be the image of
what I thought I should be as a wife and mother, that I had completely forgotten
to nurture myself. My spirit was slowly shriveling, I was frumpy and sullen. My
joy in life was gone. I had lost the sense of being my own person with my own
star to steer toward.
So when I heard Joseph Campbell say, "Follow your
bliss," I sat back and took stock of my world. I was shocked to discover the lack
of bliss in every facet of my life. I was shocked by my lack of direction and my
lack of true participation. My life was so full of maintenance and duty and
feelings of helplessness, that I could only react to things, never mind plan for
the future. Besides I didn't want to think about the future--I couldn't bear to
think my life would be more of the same old problems and
These discoveries shocked me into embarking on a journey
of self-evaluation. I read a lot of books. I talked a lot to other women. I asked
myself tough questions and forced myself to answer them. What did I want to
accomplish in life? What was important to me? What did I want deep down in my
heart? If I didn't have it, whose fault was it? What did I want to be known
As a comparison, I considered the people I admired: artists, writers,
explorers, musicians, and spiritual pilgrims. Every one of them had accomplished
something with their lives. They each had a focus, a challenge, and they followed
their bliss. As a result--and even though it might not have been their
intention--they changed the world by touching the hearts and minds of other
people, such as myself.
I realized that the people I admired were
celebrated for their bliss. Not for their spotless bathrooms. Not for their
cocktail parties or their crown roasts of pork. Not even for the hundreds of
times they'd taken out the garbage. They were celebrated for the work they
produced and the trails they blazed out of sheer zeal. Not because they thought
they should do these things, not because society had made them think they would
be a better person for it, and not because they would impress their husband or
Aunt Martha if they plunged into the wilds of Africa. No. They followed their
dreams come hell or high water for no one but themselves.
Hmm. That sounds
selfish, doesn't it? Following your bliss sounds far too self-indulgent, doesn't
it? I mean, what if you decided to shut your door every Tuesday and announce,
"This is my painting day. I'm not available until 9 pm." Sounds cruel, doesn't
it? Even antisocial. Not something a nice woman or a good mother would do. That's
exactly what I thought.
But you know what? During all the years I was
trying to do everything for everyone, I wasn't a nice woman anymore. I took
another look at the way I was living and realized I wasn't a good mother either.
I begrudged people everything because I was doing all the grunt work and no one
appreciated it. I hated what my life had become and it showed. There was a
tension in my home and in my behavior that made it tough to be around me. Was
making myself available at all times a good thing? Was sacrificing my search for
bliss doing anyone any good? Not a bit!
So I decided to change my life. I
decided to take Joseph Campbell's advice.
Now the hard part of this bliss
following thing is coming to grips with yourself. In my case it wasn't pretty. I
had to admit that I was hiding behind the security of a husband. I had to admit
that I was putting off pursuing a "real life" because I was afraid of stepping
into the unknown with two children to support. I also had to admit that I was
terrified of failing, of not measuring up, of not having what it takes to
Still, I had to do something. So I sat down and made a list of
what I wanted in the best of all possible lives. Most importantly I wanted real
love in my life. Not the crippled marriage I had. Next, I waned to raise my
daughters to be strong and independent women. How could I do that without being
strong and independent myself? Thirdly, I wanted work that was a continual
challenge. And lastly, I wanted to live an honest life--both emotionally and
creatively, with the courage to go forward even it frightened me, even if I had
to go alone, even if it was difficult.
And it was difficult. But following
my bliss was the best decision I ever made. Ten years later, my life is vastly
different. As to my quest for real love, I've ended my marriage and have had
many adventures since my divorce, which have taught me more about myself, men,
and the human heart, than I ever would have known as a wife.
As to raising
my daughters, I've shown them that a woman can landscape a yard, fix a lawnmower,
change a solenoid in a dishwasher, and say, "No, I'm not ready," to a
boyfriend--even if a trip to Paris hangs in the balance. They are growing up
knowing that women can do anything men can do, that strong women choose integrity
As to the challenging work, I've kept my part-time job while
pursuing a career as a novelist. Since 1990, I've written two books a year and
have continually won awards for my books. Following my bliss has rewarded me with
fame, fortune, and a richness of experience I would have missed had I remained in
my old life. Writing has brought me new and fascinating friends, travels all over
the country, and much personal development. I've spoken to writers and readers,
presented classes and workshops, even held a conference on the internet, and had
lunch with my editor in downtown Manhattan. I've had fun doing research in
Charleston and Philadelphia, Mexico and Hawaii, investigating oyster hatcheries,
haunted Victorian mansions, and Native American graveyards, as well as taking
float plane trips into Canada. Pretty heady stuff for a shy and retiring girl
from a small town in Montana.
Am I busy? You bet. Am I busier than I was
before the decision to follow my bliss? Yes. But I'm busy following my bliss and
that's what makes all the difference. I'm in charge. I'm pursuing personal goals.
I'm no longer letting life "happen to me", and I have found a strength in myself
that I never knew was there.
If you start following your bliss, then I
guarantee you will see a change in your life. If you respect yourself and your
work, then and others will respect you. Think about it: no one respects a slave.
In fact, most of the tasks we do at home are taken for granted. So why be a slave
to these things? Know what's important to you and go after it with a vengeance.
You will be happier, more fulfilled, and your family will perceive you in a
totally different light.
When you follow your bliss and honestly listen to
your heart, you will be more present in life. When you honestly want to
participate, choose to--and with pleasure. When you need to work on your own
thing, choose to--and with joy. You can make that choice. You can train yourself
to say, "Thanks, but not today," and not feel guilty for saying no. If you are
following your bliss, you will come to realize that protecting your time and
honoring yourself and your work is all right. In fact, it's imperative.
Now I'm no raging feminist, but I have to admit that I've learned to take some of my cues
from men. Think about it. Who are the great writers, artists, world leaders and
explorers? Mostly men. Why? Because they're smarter and stronger? Hell no!
Because they don't get bogged down in the small stuff.
When your husband
whines, "Oh, honey, do we have to go to the Murphy's this weekend?", what do you
usually say? Something like, "We should, dear. It wouldn't be nice to back out.
It's an obligation."
Listen to your man and analyze the situation. Why do
you socialize with the Murphy's? Do you even like them? Do they truly enrich your
life? Do you really want to eat their seared ahi and drink their cheap
chardonnay? Perhaps not. And how many other obligations do you meet that are not
enriching or worthwhile? Ladies, just say no! (And don't feel guilty!)
Most men also put work before anything else. They have to. Their work is their
livelihood. That's why I do my writing before anything else in the day. It's so
easy to put off the hard stuff and promise yourself you'll do it later. At the
end of the day, you realize you've run errands and folded socks for 12 hours, and
the important stuff got shoved aside.
I've learned to prioritize and work
first. It's amazing how I can write for most of the day and still have time for
folding all those socks. On my writing days, I don't answer my phone. I let calls
go to voice mail. I don't schedule appointments or answer the door during that
time either. My writing time is sacred. It's important. Friends and relatives
either get trained to respect that fact or simply give up.
Many times when
I catch myself fretting over a situation, wondering if I'm being selfish or
self-sacrificing, I ask myself, "What would a man do?" It helps me keep on track.
Another test you might try if you don't want to live your life like a man, is to
ask yourself, "If this were my daughter asking me for advice, what would I say to
It's a real eye-opener to see how shabbily we treat ourselves, how
much we'll put up with or take on--things we would never ask of our children or
In this day and age, we can't afford to take on any more
obligations. We'll lose our minds! We can choose to say no and free up time for
bliss. And doesn't that sound nice?
It's funny, but people recognize a
person who is following their bliss. Sometimes they don't know what to call it.
They only know they enjoy being around that person. My children call me "a woman
of the future." Their friends hang around and talk to me instead of escaping to
the mall. My children are proud to tell people that I'm a writer. They never
mention the fact that I don't always cook dinner or that my kitchen is not
organized. Because those things just aren't important in the big scheme of
things. They know it and now I know it. But most importantly, I now ACCEPT it. I
know I can't be everything to everyone. But I CAN be someone to me and those I
Perhaps I will never attain all my goals. I might never remarry. I
might never write a best-selling mystery. My children might not finish college.
But I will still feel like a success, because no matter where I end up, I will
know I got there while pursuing my dreams, by following my heart. By living the
life of my own making and direction. And that's what I call bliss.
© 2003 Patricia Simpson