(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 turn!
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 monitor.
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. So let 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 here.
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 frustrated?
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 dissatisfactions.
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 for?
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 succeed.
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 over security.
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 her?"
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 our sisters.
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 love.
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