Can You Ever BeReal on Social Media?

Hello, dear internet friends,

This week, I wrapped up edits on my book’s next chapter about the intersection of celebrities, social media, and identity. (A topic worthy of its own full book, but I hope I did it justice!) I had a lot of fun working on this one. I find pop culture to be an endlessly rich subject matter for all it has to say about us. It’s our shared dialogue. An overarching narrative full of rich themes and fascinating characters that we all take part in shaping through what we buy, watch, listen to, and talk about—and who we make a star.

It was so interesting to walk through the iterations of young female celebrities in my lifetime, from the glossy, well-choreographed pop stars of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, to the bedazzled-pink paparazzi craze of Paris Hilton, to the flashy, fame-focused Kardashians, to now. The era of the internet creator, where suburban Connecticut high schooler Charli D’Amelio—playing the role of our modern Cinderella—went from filming TikTok videos that embarrassed her older sister to promoting her custom Dunkin’ Donuts drink to millions of followers.

What surprised me during my research—though it really shouldn’t have—was how many articles placed Charli in a frame of authenticity or relatability. Certainly, in contrast to the Kardashians before them, the D’Amelio family as a whole comes across as humbler, politer, and more grounded. Charli is likable, but I wouldn’t say she’s relatable; she’s aspirational. Just as Paris Hilton represented an ideal of excess in the reality-TV-saturated early 2000s, Charli exemplifies celebrity in the 2020s: optimally suited to go viral on the internet and make it look natural.

“Authenticity” is the guiding undercurrent of the most popular social media platforms today. The heavily filtered selfies of early Instagram have given way to blurry “candid” shots. TikTok feels like the Internet finally turning in on itself, trying to Do All The Things, All At Once. What if you meme-ified your closest relationship to the current trending song? Perhaps due to the virality that keeps it running—and constantly raises the stakes—it’s the platform where the boundaries for what’s appropriate to share have most dissolved. Many times I’ve used it, I’ve scrolled into a shockingly intimate piece of a stranger’s life and been left with the unresolvable unease of knowing what someone is going through but not them. I don’t “like” it.

Then there’s BeReal. The buzzy new app that may not last but has caused enough of a stir that Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are copying it. The stated purpose—for those who haven’t been exposed yet—is “to discover who your friends really are in their daily life.” Users are given a different two-minute window each day to post photos taken simultaneously from their front and back cameras. If you don’t post, you can’t see your friends’ posts. If you post late, your friends will be notified. The number of times you retook your photos is also visible to your friends.

Being “real” is enforced.

I haven’t used the app myself because I don’t want to post, so I don’t know what it’s like experientially. I understand that the norms of a given platform sometimes morph it away from what the designers intended. Still, the concept reads like a parody of our attempts to create—or perform—authenticity online.

You can’t make people be real. Online or off. Maybe we should stop trying.

All of this has finally broken the spell of social media for me. I’ve long been aware of its problems, of course, but I wanted to believe that not altering or filtering your photos was enough. That as long as you didn’t lie or manipulate the truth in what you posted about your life, it was okay. No room for harm.

I’m not holding onto those hopes anymore.

I don’t know how you step on the stage of social media and not perform a little. No matter what app you use—BeReal included—you get metrics on how well you do. How “likable” you are. (You can hide like counts on your posts or those in your feed on Facebook and Instagram, but you still get the likes.) The more I’ve thought about it, it disturbs me that I intuitively know what “content” of my life is most appealing to the algorithm or audience. It has little to do with what’s meaningful for me to share.

Maybe you can’t envision someone envying your life, because you’re not a social media celebrity living in the same white-walled California home they all seem to have. I think of another me in an alternate universe whose life unfolded a little differently. Maybe she’s a couple steps behind or had one less stroke of good luck. What would she make of me, or rather, my posts? And I already struggle sometimes with comparing myself to some imaginary me who had the foresight to do everything just right.

Why make it harder on myself? Why add more ghosts to the room?

I think many of us feel exasperated with at least some aspects of social media, and yet we keep going. It’s hard to log off completely and not feel like you’re missing out, socially or otherwise. I know I wouldn’t have as many blog readers if I didn’t use social media, and I’m grateful for the connections and conversations that sharing my work has inspired.

All this to say, I can’t see the full path ahead, but I’m walking anyway. Taking the apps off my phone to remove the temptation to check them every quiet moment. Deciding to continue sharing my writing but leave my life where it belongs from now own.

Stepping off the stage. For me. For you. For us.

xoxo

Marie

The Lips Are Everywhere

Hello, dear internet friends,

I don’t remember when I first started looking for them, but once I did, found myself surrounded. They were everywhere. 

Those lips. When did everyone get those lips?

By “everyone,” I actually mean almost no one. A tiny subset of the population, but a highly visible one: female celebrities on the spectrum from “popular in one corner of the internet” to “so famous her absence at award shows is noted.” Even if you only casually engage with pop culture, you’ve seen The Lips: artificially puffy and even top-to-bottom. Strikingly similar to a certain cosmetic brand’s imagery.

The prevalence of The Lips—presumably achieved via injectable lip fillers, which celebs are varying degrees of forthcoming about using—has been building for years. I wonder if they’ve reached their peak of popularity and within a year or so won’t be “in style” anymore. I hope so, but I also think they’re just the easy-to-spot tip of the iceberg. For me, their undeniability has been a gateway to realizing how common cosmetic procedures, including much subtler ones, must be amongst celebrities.

Maybe you already knew that. But it wasn’t until this year that I really saw it.

Months ago, I came across a body+soul article about actress and advocate Jameela Jamil. It drew attention to one of Jamil’s Instagram posts. In response to a Vanity Fair article about how the Kardashians “reshaped the beauty industry,” she called for transparency about the cosmetic procedures they’ve had done. (They’ve admitted to some things and denied many others.) What stuck with me was part of the quote at the end of the article from a previous interview with Jamil:

“I think it’s important to investigate why maybe we want the Botox or the nose job or the boob job, etc, and make sure that we are genuinely doing that for ourselves. It’s really hard to unpack why we make those decisions in the first place.”

Genuinely doing that for ourselves. That’s the part that stood out to me. For context, this was not about the Kardashians; the broader statement was that what you do with your appearance doesn’t define if you’re a feminist or not. I appreciate that Jamil immediately noted how “hard to unpack” such a choice would be. But the question I keep asking myself is: if you make a significant change to your natural features to match current beauty standards, how could it every truly be just “for yourself”?

For comparison, I’ve been thinking all the different things people do with their hair. Grow it out, shave it, dye it pink, braid it. The options are many and varied, as are the meanings—personal or cultural—attached to them. On the other hand, when it comes to altering facial features—be it with cosmetic procedures, photo filters, or makeup, as the Seventeen article I mentioned last month suggested—those changes tend to go in a one direction. Lips fuller. Nose slimmer. Eyes wider. The ubiquity of the beauty ideal washes out appreciation for individual difference and covers up its complex interactions with gender, class, culture, and race. For example, in a 2017 essay for gal-dem, writer and creator Jess Lawrence discussed how she and other black girls like her experienced discrimination regarding their fuller lips while growing up.  In contrast, the enhanced lips of many white celebrities today are viewed as “trendy” and admired.   

I’ve wanted to write about this topic for months but have always stopped short. In part, I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. Somewhere along the way—I believe from women’s media websites, and maybe some public figures—I got the sense that the dominant sentiment about cosmetic procedures from ostensibly female-uplifting sources was: If it makes you happy, go for it. It’s your right! Through that frame, questioning such choices sounds like discrediting one’s right to bodily autonomy. In her book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, writer Jia Tolentino argued that mainstream feminism “has put such a premium on individual success, so much emphasis on individual choice, that it is seen as unfeminist to criticize anything that a woman chooses to make herself more successful—even in situations… in which women’s choices are constrained and dictated both by social expectations and by the arbitrary dividends of beauty work…”

The problem is that the individual appearance-related decisions of public figures do not only affect them. This is especially true when celebrities directly profit off people’s desires to look like them—why Jamil has been calling out the Kardashians for years—which increasingly feels like a core part of modern fame. The market for celebrity skincare and makeup lines is seemingly boundless. You can be a young TikTok star or an older A-list actor and incorporate one into your brand.

Kylie Jenner’s popular “lip kits” appear to be the archetype for key facets of this moment in pop culture. Her makeup brand is inextricably linked to her cosmetically altered face. In May 2015, after much public speculation about her significantly fuller lips, she admitted to having gotten lip filler. She was still a teenager. A couple weeks before, she tweeted, “I’m not here to try & encourage people/young girls to look like me or to think this is the way they should look.” Six months later, she released her first lip kits, a matte liquid lipstick and pencil duo. The boxes featured a graphic similar to her own lips, similar to The Lips seen everywhere now. They sold out in less than a minute. She continued to expand her range of lip kits, which felt like the center of the makeup universe at the time.

I got two of them.

I can’t control anyone else’s behavior, nor would I ever dream to. But there is power my own. You don’t have to have a worldwide platform to have influence. In this article, beauty culture critic Jessica DeFino expertly laid out the ways in which we are all an integral and influential part of the system. We can’t fully pass the blame to celebrities or some amorphous entity like “media” or “society.” As she says, “When we participate in toxic beauty culture, we perpetuate toxic beauty culture.” The flipside is that we can also make active choices to “divest” from the impossible beauty standards that hurt all of us (celebrities included).

I don’t use face-altering filters when I post on social media. In the last couple years, I stopped wearing foundation—with the exception of my wedding—because I realized it made me feel worse about how my skin actually looks.  I also understand that how I spend my time and money matters. I wouldn’t purchase a Kylie lip kit again, given what it represents to me now. But I don’t say that to shame my past self, and I wouldn’t shame anyone else for their choices, either.

Beauty culture is tangled web. Teasing apart the threads of truth that will carry us out can feel near impossible at times. But the level of perfection demanded by beauty standards won’t be required in our escape. We just have to do our best to really see each other through it all. And look out for each other.  

xoxo

Marie

The Jackson Pollock Manicure

Hello, my dear internet friends.

Last month, I told you that I’d started editing “How to Be a Girl,” the chapter in my book on teen magazines. On Monday, I finished my edits (for now!) and sent it off to my workshop group for feedback. I was so excited that I set up my Spice Girls dolls to celebrate (which you can also enjoy here). That chapter was a challenge—trying to sift through stacks of magazines to find the best thematic examples, deciding where to land to capture how they’re still relevant—but even when it was hard, it was fun. It never ceases to amaze me that, even when I sit down to write about a topic I think I know like the back of my hand, I always learn something new along the way.

During my magazine scavenging, I came across an editorial called “Art of Makeup” in an issue of Seventeen from my junior year of high school. It featured four “looks” inspired by classic painters, from eye shadow blended in the vibrant colors of Georgia O’Keeffe to splatter-paint nail art a la Jackson Pollock. Which I tried. I don’t remember the actual attempt; I must not have been successful, otherwise I would have done it over and over and never forgotten. But that’s when I started wearing black nail polish. I thought it was cool. Maybe even edgy, one of the many personal-style descriptors I learned from Seventeen. Of course, I Marie-ified it (and in turn, removed any potential edge) by covering it with silver holographic glitter. It was fun. It was a good time.

That anecdote doesn’t mean much on its own, I’ll admit. But coming out of the particular environment of looks-based messaging I’ve been wading through over the last couple months, it definitely stands out. Teen magazines often spoke in the language of your appearance being a project, your body an object with many parts in need of maintenance, repair, or upgrade. That Seventeen was a makeover-themed issue. The first image in the “Beauty” section was—honestly?—haunting. The article was entitled “Look Like a Model!” Unsurprisingly, the face of a runway model was featured, but her actual appearance in the main image was somewhat obscured, covered in arrows, dashes, and instructions. A template for all the ways one’s face could be fixed. “Shade Jawline” was written along the arrow down her chin. “Contour cheeks.” “Fill in lips.”

I would love for such an image to sound severely outdated. But I know that it doesn’t. Magazines spoke confidently under the assumption that you knew that your hair/skin/body/brows needed work and understood why that was important. (Generally: attention. Often, more specifically: male attention.) The implicit importance of “fix-it” work is still written into media and advertising. It’s programmed into the social media filters that distort your features in… well, all the ways Seventeen was suggesting you could with makeup.

But what about the Jackson Pollock manicure? In the sadly not-distant universe of a teen magazine promoting white eyeshadow as a means for visually editing your nose, the suggestion to emulate an iconic artist’s work on the tiny canvas of your fingernail seems delightfully absurd. And absurd delights are my soft spot in life. (Cherry cola Oreos with Pop Rocks in the middle. My cat entering deep sleep atop a crying-while-laughing emoji bean bag.) What I really mean to say is, the concept and attached memory feel both nonserious and joyful. And what might that be like? To treat physical presentation as a totally nonserious avenue for joy?

Which feels like the right question, or rather the right direction to head. The vulnerable truth underneath is that, for all the ways I’ve disentangled my day-to-day actions from the fix-it mindset of beauty and diet culture, I’m not perfectly immune. That stuff is sneaky. “Problems” get invented so “solutions” can be sold. And that rhetoric can infiltrate—or imitate—our self-talk. That’s where I get stuck sometimes. Because man, it sounds so real. But I know it’s not me.

I’ve become more aware of that little critical voice lately, and it’s something I want to change. I don’t exactly know how, but the great thing is, I don’t exactly have to. Looking back on all the ways I’ve transformed my relationship to my body, I see that as long as I knew the general destination, I was able to practice my way there. With food, I knew I wanted to listen to my body instead of subscribing to arbitrary rules, so I kept practicing until doing so became second nature. I now truly enjoy exercise because I factor how I feel into every decision around it.  And so, I no longer want the appearance-project mentality to feel like it has any validity, so I will figure out how to make choices that actively invalidate it.

Probably, where I’ll land will look a lot like where I’m at now—a daily preference for comfort via elastic waistbands and my one-step hair-styling routine (it’s a scrunchie)—just with a bit more intention. But I’ve also been wondering if occasionally doing something a little bit fun and frivolous could serve as a reminder: If my appearance-related decisions are anything beyond practical, they should simply be fun. And rarely do any of them need to feel all that serious.

So, is black glitter nail polish the answer?

Not for everything.

But is it fun?

Oh, absolutely.

xoxo

Marie

Still fun, even missing one. 🤷‍♀️ Nail polish by Holo Taco. Photo by me. 🙂

Articles referenced:

  • Gallegos, D. (2007, January). Art of makeup. Seventeen, 66(1), 88-97.
  • Gallegos, D. (2007, January). Look like a model! Seventeen, 66(1), 32-33.

274 Ways to Miss You

Hello, my dear Internet friends,

This month, I started the process of editing a chapter of my book called “How to Be a Girl.” This one is about teen magazines and my complicated relationship with them. It’s due for some TLC, as I cut it from the last version of the book. I thought it wasn’t relevant anymore since most teen magazines are no longer in print. But the truth is, I can’t fully tell my story of growing up girl without talking about them. Plus, while they don’t appear on newsstands anymore, some of the classic ones, like Teen Vogue, are still publishing online content. Also, I think the “need” that those publications met still exists but is being addressed by other means. I think there’s a solid case to be made for influencers being the new teen magazines. Perhaps I’ll explore that in another month’s post… or the updated chapter!

I don’t read magazines anymore, so in gearing up to work on the chapter, I decided to take a trip to Barnes & Noble to see what was even available these days. I was delighted to see that their magazine section was as big—and full—as it ever had been. There weren’t any teen magazines, but there was a strong “Women’s Interest” section. I grabbed a few of the titles I subscribed to in my twenties—Marie Claire, Elle, and Cosmopolitan—and took them over to a table at the edge of the café to skim through.

I decided to start with the favorite of my early twenties, Seventeen’s saucy older sister Cosmopolitan. As soon as I picked it up, the strangest feeling came over me. Nostalgia, sort of, or something in that neighborhood. I was hit with the memory of how exciting it used to feel to sit down with a new magazine. But I could only step into the shadow of that feeling. There was an emotional place between those pages that I could never access again. I simultaneously longed to go there and recognized that it was probably for the best that I couldn’t.

Cosmopolitan magazine surrounded by four issues of Seventeen magazine
The Cosmo in question with her (older) younger sisters.

Pretty complicated feelings for a shiny, disposable publication that some may have only passing thoughts about when they see it in a checkout line.  But it would be hard to overstate the influence of magazines on my life, the way they are woven into my story of becoming an adult, a writer… me. The first check I ever wrote was for a subscription to Seventeen. My first experience seeing my words in print was when I served as a “V.I.T.” (Very Important Teen) Editor for Teen magazine in high school. And for many years, one of my most tried-and-true methods of relaxation was sitting down with a Diet Coke and the latest issue of Seventeen, Cosmo, or one of their brightly colored peers.

But magazines are who they are. And their problems are hard to overlook. As another step in getting prepped to edit my book chapter, I took home all the magazines I saved in my childhood bedroom (two plastic tubs full). As I skimmed through years of Seventeen, I was struck by how supernaturally poreless the featured faces were. How many Ways To Look Pretty were offered. How expensive it would be to follow through on those offers.

But what troubles me most about magazines is also what I miss the most. Magazines feel like a fresh start. And I’m a sucker for a fresh start. Some of their brand-new essence comes from the fact that they regenerate every month. I was always excited to get a new issue in the mail and take in its flashy, pristine cover, not yet crinkled by use. But for me, and probably not just me, their fresh-start feeling also came from the insidious sense that there was a prettier, more likeable, all-around better me hidden between the pages. With every cover, every how-to article, and every fashion spread, magazines build an ideal girl or woman. Each month presents a new chance to find her. To become her. In an earlier chapter of my book, I wrote about how I used to feel like “there was a better me living a prettier life elsewhere.” I don’t solely blame or attribute that mindset to magazines. But we certainly spoke the same language. We reinforced each other’s beliefs. But it cost one of us more.

I set aside an hour this weekend to sit down and read that new Cosmo. (Yes, I brought her home with me.) I tried to approximate how I would have done so in the past. I got a cold drink (iced coffee over Diet Coke this time), propped myself up in a comfy spot, and started from the cover, reading front to back, not skipping a single article. Like the old days.

At first, I was highly tuned into the critical analysis lens of my current mind. When did the clothes get so expensive? Who is the woman who buys $380 sunglasses and wants a recipe for turning leftover pizza crusts into croutons? But I read more than I planned to—finding myself drawn back in after stepping away—and the more I did, the more that voice started to fade. I didn’t fold page corners to bookmark hairstyles or makeup looks to try, like I used to. I didn’t rip out Maddie Ziegler’s pictures to hang on my closet door between glow-in-the-dark stars, as I might have circa 2005. But I have to admit, I was having fun. It was strange how comfortable it was. It was easy even though it didn’t feel the same.  

It was like how I imagine it might feel to drive down the familiar streets of a long-left-behind hometown. I may not feel like I belong anymore. I may not choose to live there (for good reason). But I was wrong to think I could never go back. I’ll always know the way. Because part of me will live forever where I left her.

It was weird and it was nice to visit. If only for one issue.

xoxo

Marie

The Stories That Make Our Lives

"Story is the vehicle we use to make sense of our lives in a world that often defies logic." - Jim Trelease
Jim Trelease’s website (original quote source material unknown)

Hello, my dear Internet friends,

I hope your summer is in full swing in the best way. And if you happen to be tuning in from the southern hemisphere, I’m sending you winter well-wishes!

In March, I wrote about challenging my expectations for myself (and life itself), “practicing my flexibility muscle, [and] balancing what I want in a given day with the reality of what’s presented.” In May, I reflected on the resistance I feel in the face of unexpected challenges and how “I have learned—am still learning—that instead of resisting, I need to embrace what is so I can decide what I want to do about it.” This month’s post feels like a natural progression from those two. Some chapters of life are apt for learning certain lessons or exploring particular themes—if we’re open to reading them that way.

This month, I’ve been reflecting on how crucial storytelling is to the way we experience the world and understand our lives. Our personal memories are often stored in narrative form. Our friendships are built on shared experiences, from the humorous tales we recount with glee to episodes of support in hard times, which stay written on our hearts even if we never speak them aloud. And when we go through something unexpected, we try to make sense of it through story.

Expectations can exist in our minds as stories. Scripts—or at the very least, loose outlines—for how we anticipate certain events or facets of our lives will go. I often don’t realize how attached I was to an imagined version of the future until life goes off-plot.

That upending of expectations can feel like loss. Loss of what we hoped for. Loss of control. We are the authors of our own stories, but we’re not the authors of the world (or other people). Story collision is bound to happen. Sometimes in a spectacularly serendipitous way. Sometimes in a painful one.

When that happens, where does it leave us? With a new story. Already lived through, but not yet shaped for memory. It may feel hard to hold at first. But once it’s in your hands, it’s yours. Yours to craft as only you can. What may have felt in the moment like a story of disappointment or self-doubt can become one of resilience and growth. Of love and connection. Or maybe you’ll write a story bighearted enough to hold all of it. Every shade of the experience coming together to form a mosaic. One that looks a lot like life as it really is. As Kathryn Schulz writes in her beautiful memoir Lost & Found, “We can’t get away from this constant amalgamation of feeling, can’t strain out the ostensible impurities in pursuit of some imaginary essence, and we shouldn’t want to if we could. The world in all its complexity calls on us to respond in kind, so that to be conflicted is not to be adulterated; it is to be complete.”

From one storyteller to another, I am simply encouraging you—as I’m encouraging myself—to be mindful of the narratives you “write” about your experiences, even if they never leave your own mind. Expand your story’s frame to capture the bigger picture. Treat each “character” with compassion (including yourself). Highlight the scenes of connection, meaningful details, and lessons learned that you want to carry with you.

Because one by one, your stories make your life. And you deserve one that’s been written with care.

xoxo

Marie

5 Quotes on Embracing the Flow of Life

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." - John Lennon
“Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” by John Lennon

Hello, my dear May flowers,

This month’s blog post is going to be reasonably short and sweet (at least in words from me). I felt I was due for another round of sharing the wise words of others. I really enjoy collecting quotes—and putting together fun graphics for sharing them!

The above quote is the first that jumped to mind as one I wanted to include. It’s a lyric from John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” which he wrote for his son. I first heard John’s version of this saying, but according to Quote Investigator, variations of the expression floated around before he published his song; the earliest known version is from Allen Saunders in 1957.

John’s lyric—or Allen’s expression—brought me back to what I wrote about in March: balancing my expectations for life and myself with the realities of what’s happening and what I need. Don’t get me wrong; I love making plans. If we truly had “personality islands” in our minds like those in Inside Out, one of mine would feature a calendar as the central statue, surrounded by a walking path of neon-colored sticky-note lists. But life is full of disruptions. Sometimes, to-do lists need to be rewritten. Plans need to be thrown out.

Resisting the flow of life is futile. That doesn’t mean I haven’t tried. When faced with an unexpected challenge, I can feel myself stiffen, as if maybe I can hold still long enough that the winds of change will blow past me. Of course, that never works. It wouldn’t work for any of life’s less pleasant but ultimately inescapable parts, from mistakes to uncomfortable emotions.

I have learned—am still learning—that instead of resisting, I need to embrace what is so I can decide what I want to do about it. Easier said than done, to be sure. That’s where these quotes come in (and come together). Each is a reminder to accept changes and challenges for what they are and, at times, what they offer.

For someone who not only plans, but plans to plan, I so often find myself unprepared for what life presents. You just can’t be ready for everything; you don’t get time to practice. Or, really, life is the practice. The test run and the big show, all at once.

What a strange design. How wonderful. How irresistible.

xoxo

Marie

"When you open yourself to the continually changing, impermanent, dynamic nature of your own being and of reality, you increase your capacity to love and care about other people and your capacity to not be afraid." - Pema Chödrön
Practicing Peace in Times of War by Pema Chödrön
"Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we're supposed to be and embracing who we are." - Brené Brown
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown
"Emotions either get in the way or get you on the way." - Mavis Mazhura
Navigating the Rapids and the Waves of Life: 10 Lessons for Managing Emotions for Success by Mavis Mazhura
"To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and, lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves." - Kathryn Schulz
Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz

What is a “Real” Writer?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Hello my April showers,

How is this month almost over already? It seems like just yesterday I was eating a coffee-shop Pop-Tart on my half-birthday (also known as April Fool’s Day), and now it’s nearly May Day. My days have been full, and the weeks have gone fast.

One way I’ve been spending my time this month is editing chapters of my book. I’m currently working on a chapter called “Labeled,” which was inspired by my senior year yearbook of the same title.  The chapter is broken into sections by different “labels” I identified with, sought out, or avoided. The chapter starts with an aspirational label of my middle and high school years: “popular.” It ends with one that has remained prominent in my adult life: “writer.”

As I was reading through a draft of the chapter, two words in that last section jumped out at me. “Real” writer. I had noted one way in which I believed I wasn’t like other “real” writers. After reading those words, I thought about how funny they sound. I mean, I really exist, don’t I? I’m not a figment of our collective imagination, so far as I know.

Of course, when I wrote those words, I wasn’t questioning my material existence. I was expressing the doubt I had felt about calling myself a writer. I’m clearly not the only one who has pondered their proximity to the “real writer” label. When I Googled “real writer” and “not a real writer,” a lot of relevant articles came up. Many of their titles were questions, asking what a real writer is and if or when you can call yourself one.

As I read through the articles and reflected on my own experiences, I compiled a list of possible barriers to entry for calling oneself a real writer. Unsurprisingly, this included external accomplishments like getting paid for your work or publishing a book. Some of the list items were qualitative, internal metrics, like diligence or passion. It was easy to find many ways people could qualify what it means a real writer… and in the process, disqualify themselves.

We could spend time fiddling with the “real writer” label, trying to define it in a way that feels more comfortable and less exclusive. Mercifully, most of the writers whose articles I read landed on a simple conclusion: if you write, then you’re a real writer. I agree. But what I’ve been turning over in my mind is not what being a real writer means, but why the term even exists in the minds of so many of us. What is the point of measuring the gap between ourselves and so-called “real writers”?

Maybe we’re trying to locate the point at which we can exhale. Where we can kick up our feet and say, Okay, I’ve made it. Writing can feel like an obstacle course of unknown length that we traverse mostly alone. So, it makes sense that we scan the horizon for a safe landing spot. A point of validation. A way to know for sure that it matters. Our hard work matters. We matter.

The craving to feel the value of your work is so understandable—and not just if you write, but if you build or teach or parent or anything else.

So, I understand why the term “real writer” exists in our minds. Still, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth for the way I have at times used it to invalidate where I’m at on my journey. At times, the way I’ve used it could be interchangeable with saying I’m not “good enough.” Not having something published yet, not perfectly adhering to a consistent routine… both signs I wasn’t a real writer (good enough).

Don’t get me wrong; having goals is wonderful. Trying to grow is great. Striving is awesome, but I’d hate for us to miss the becoming. The messy middle, when we’re putting in the work, however imperfectly. In so many ways, I think this is the main event. Not whatever we consider the finish line.

I know it would take the fun out of things, but sometimes I wish we could look at the present through the lens of hindsight. It would be so much easier to see the bigger picture and ourselves within it. The bright spots in the most challenging chapters. And how cool it really is to be on the way. Towards people we’ve yet to meet, goals we’ve yet to achieve, roles we’ve yet to grow into. Viewed from the other side, the stumbling path we traveled seems so much sweeter.

I was thinking back to a moment from the summer I was 17, when I had just started to pursue writing. I had big dreams for what I wanted to accomplish, and I really believed I could make them all come true.

I worked at Panera, and one night, the café was pretty quiet. I caught a glance of my reflection in the window. Me in my apron and baseball cap. I don’t know what struck me, but for a moment in time, I had one foot planted in the present and one in the future. I felt how cool it was to be the keeper of my dreams. The one to hold them close until I could release them to reality. Then I thought of my future self. Someday, when I was far down the road in my life as a writer, I would look back on this moment with fondness. I’d step back into the fizzy excitement of the journey beginning.

Neither version of me felt more valid. More real. Both seemed incredibly precious to me.

xoxo

Marie

A Few Blossoms of Light in March

Hello my spring blossoms,

Whew. What a month. I don’t know about yours, but my March somehow managed to both exceed expectations in the best way and present challenges I never could have anticipated. Such is life, huh?

For this month’s blog post, I wanted to share a few pieces of creative work that have resonated with me lately. After listening to the podcast episode below, I realized a theme was emerging. The things that have stood out to me most this month have asked me to challenge (or at least question) my expectations—of myself, of my time, of how life “should” go. They have asked me to slow my pace. To work with the present moment as it truly is, so as not to miss life as it happens.

For me, that has involved practicing my flexibility muscle, balancing what I want in a given day with the reality of what’s presented. Little hassles. Major stressors. Human limitations. I had a day where I was trying to get things done, but I was only half-awake. I didn’t sleep well the night before (some of the stress of recent challenges was catching up to me). Normally, I would try to coffee up and push through, but I questioned if a different approach might be better. I had room in my day to be flexible. Might I get more out of my time later if I took a break now?

So I did the unthinkable. I laid back on the couch, pulled my fuzzy pink blanket over me, and fell asleep. My fluffy gray cat was purring on me as my alarm went off. I still had plenty of time. I grabbed a coffee, put music on, and got back into things, more refreshed than I’d felt all day—or maybe longer.

If that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

I hope one of the pieces below gives you something helpful to carry into the next month. If anything (a song, an article, a podcast episode) has made your March, please feel free to share in the comments!

An article: “I trained myself to be less busy — and it dramatically improved my life” by David Sbarra, PhD for Vox

I came across this essay while searching for articles on an entirely unrelated subject, and I have read it multiple times since. I don’t think being busy is inherently a bad thing. I also understand that there are times in life when we may not be able to take anything off our (very full) plates. What Dr. Sbarra is really challenging is mindless busyness. Being busy for busy’s sake, and barreling through an overstuffed calendar because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. I think that even without removing anything from our schedules, we can check our pacing—and our expectations. Are we rushing through life, or are we living in it? Are we being reasonable in what we expect ourselves to get done?

A podcast episode: “Are Your Expectations Too High?” from The Science of Happiness

The Science of Happiness is hosted by psychologist Dacher Keltner, PhD and co-produced by PRX and UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

In the first part of this episode, Dr. Keltner talks to Julie Santos, who was born in Costa Rica and spent summers there growing up. When she visited just after graduating college, she observed how expectations—and an ability to celebrate anything that exceeds them—seem to be linked to happiness in the country’s culture. Her reflections have made me think, what if we all stopped to show gratitude when things rise above our expectations, even just a little? Could boring or stressful tasks feel less burdensome if we don’t expect to hurry through them?

A quote by Kurt Vonnegut

A while ago I watched a video of a lecutre by the late author Kurt Vonnegut. He shared an anecdote about his Uncle Alex, which he said he’d included in every lecture he’d ever given. He also shared it in one of his nonfiction books, A Man Without a Country:

. . . his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I have been following his advice. It’s a simple strategy—reminiscent of what Julie Santos observed people in Costa Rica doing—but so powerful as a happiness checkpoint, ensuring that we don’t miss the ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) joy that surrounds us.

xoxo

Marie

The Power of Self-Compassion

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Hello my sweet valentines,

I hope this month of love has been kind to you. I hope you’ve been able to spend time with people you care about and enjoy delicious treats (chocolate or not). I also hope you’ve given yourself love and kindness.

We all deserve to give ourselves the same support, care, and understanding that we show others. However, that can be easier said than done. We can so easily fall into the role of our own worst critic. One challenge we have is that we can easily observe our behaviors, which we can then judge through the harsh lens of hindsight. But our self-talk is harder to be aware of—let alone change—because so much of it is automatic.

Last month, I talked about using gratitude as a way to stay anchored in the present. One thing that distracts me from the now is negative self-talk. I can be very hard on myself. The heart of it often seems to be my desire to do right by others. Which is a lovely thing, of course! But values are meant to be guideposts for making choices in the present. They aren’t meant to be punitive. For me, self-doubt creeps in when I get stuck questioning my decisions over and over. Doing so becomes a painful cycle. The voice of self-doubt tells me that I can’t move on from the past and makes me distrust my ability to move forward.

I say “voice of self-doubt” because I am trying to . . . Well, I am trying to undermine its authority. I am trying to put a little more distance between that voice and me. I do not view or speak to others harshly, and I don’t believe that I deserve to be treated that way, either. That’s why I am working hard to give myself more self-compassion.

Dr. Kristin Neff is a pioneering researcher and author on the subject. She describes self-compassion as being there for ourselves with kindness, care, and understanding when we are struggling, just as we would be for someone else. Specifically, she breaks down self-compassion into three components:

  • Self-Kindness: Being gentle and understanding with ourselves, as opposed to self-critical and punishing.  
  • Common Humanity: Recognizing that we aren’t alone in our struggles, as opposed to feeling uniquely inadequate.
  • Mindfulness: Being aware of and open to our thoughts and feelings, as opposed to ignoring them or getting consumed by them.

You can read more about self-compassion on Dr. Neff’s website here.

Lately, whenever I am feeling down, I stop to recognize what is bothering me and name what I’m feeling (sad, frustrated, anxious, etc.). Once I’ve done that, I try to see if there is any self-talk underneath the emotion that’s adding to the pain of it. Often, there is. Maybe I’m imagining an unrealistic negative outcome to a situation, making it feel more and more believable the more time I spend on it. Or maybe I’m making a negative assessment of myself or my abilities based on a challenge I’m facing. Whatever the thought, it typically falls into the category of self-doubt/self-criticism. Recognizing that opens the door for me to meet it with self-compassion.

What that looks like varies a bit on the situation. I can say something kind to myself, acknowledging the impact that a feeling or thought is having on me, even if I can’t change it right away. I can dismantle a judgment I’m making by recognizing that I’m holding myself to a standard I don’t really believe in (and wouldn’t expect anyone else to live up to). The most compassionate response can also be an action. Engaging in self-care, asking for help, or breaking a task down into more manageable chunks (with more reasonable expectations).

I’m not always able to move past a negative thought or feeling in the way I’d like to. Sometimes, I can’t really make sense of what’s going on in my mind.  And I can still be too hard on myself. But even so, finding ways to show myself compassion has felt like discovering a superpower. Being in the cycle of self-doubt feels like listening to a soundtrack that can’t be turned off. Learning how to not only turn it off but transform it into something else entirely has been really, really cool.

I am proud of myself.

Whatever it is you need today, I hope you can give it to yourself. I know you deserve it, and I hope you can see that, too.

xoxo

Marie

Starting the Year with Appreciation

Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

Happy 2022, my sweet Internet friends!

I love New Year’s. One of my traditions is to create a vision board, with visual reminders of what I would like to experience, accomplish, or feel during the year. I value the opportunity to approach the new year with a sense of intention. And in my mind, your “vision” for the year can be a work in progress. I haven’t finished my 2022 board yet!

Looking at my board, I can see how much I have to look forward to this year. At the heart of it all, though, I have one goal: to be present in each moment, as much as possible. To appreciate the big, exciting, moments, but also the ones that feel small or “skippable.”

My mind tends to wander off in all different directions: past, future, unlikely hypothetical scenarios. It’s not always a bad thing, but sometimes I don’t feel like I’m steering the ship. So I’ve been experimenting with different ways to help myself stay grounded in the now. I’ve been trying meditation. And about two weeks ago, I decided to start a gratitude practice. Or, as I’m calling it, my appreciation journal.

Merriam-Webster describes appreciation as “an ability to understand the worth, quality, or importance of something.” I think that’s just so perfect. I want to make a more conscious effort to acknowledge what is valuable in each day. So, before I go to bed, I’ve been filling out the following prompts in my journal:

  • I am grateful for . . .
  • I am proud of myself for . . .
  • I am looking forward to . . .

I’ve only completed nine entries so far—I don’t pressure myself to write if I’m not up for it!—but it’s already been a learning experience. Admittedly, the most challenging of the three is deciding what I’m proud of. I have a tendency to focus on what I could have done better, but I’m working on that.

Reflecting on the other two prompts, I’ve recognized that it’s easy to look forward to major events or feel grateful for out-of-the-ordinary acts of kindness. You don’t really need a journal to remind you. But on average days, there are so many things I look forward to without even noticing. My morning coffee. A phone call with a loved one. And the things I feel grateful for, as I’m wrapping up the day, could also be easily overlooked. A relaxing evening playing Animal Crossing. Someone showing me patience when I was feeling stressed.

This has made me realize how easy it is to generate more moments of joy on a day-to-day basis. Also, taking note of what you appreciate in your life breaks the cycle of overlooking the everyday good. In his essay entitled “Why Gratitude Is Good,” Dr. Robert Emmons, a leader in the scientific study on gratitude, explains, “I think gratitude allows us to participate more in life. We notice the positives more, and that magnifies the pleasures you get from life. Instead of adapting to goodness, we celebrate goodness.”

I know not everyone likes to write, but I think there are all kinds of way to make appreciation or gratitude a habit. You could make a goal to take a photo each day of something that brings you joy. Or, once a month, you could do something special for someone who brings value to your life. As a bonus, I would recommend checking out these resources on gratitude from Greater Good Magazine, where the above article from Dr. Emmons was published. They have interesting information on gratitude’s benefits and suggestions for how to practice your gratefulness.

Wishing you a moment of joy where you are right now. I am grateful for you.

xoxo

Marie