by Karen DeBonis
I’ll soon have my second Covid vaccine, and I’m already making my TJ Maxx shopping list, planning lunch dates with equally-immunized friends, and looking at flights to…anywhere. One thing I dread about venturing out in the world again, though, is running into acquaintances who may ask, “So, how’s that book coming along?”
Perhaps I had run into these casual friends in pre-Covid days when I declared my manuscript accomplit. Perhaps last year, they saw a social media post where I shared my excitement and trepidation about querying literary agents. Or, they might know me from 20 years ago, when I first started writing my memoir.
My short answer would be, “It’s coming along.” (For my long answer, keep reading.)
Last December, I sat hunched over my laptop at my dining room table, glowering at sentences and paragraphs that would not gel. I was attempting to write a piece for this site—the award-winning, chock-full-of-wisdom Writers in the Storm blog—and it was clear to me I was an imposter. It was clear, at least to me, that I did not belong.
What could I, an emerging author, possibly offer to readers that the many seasoned, published authors who write here could not say a hundred times better? What could I possibly add to the conversation when I didn’t know what the heck I was doing?
Before chucking my laptop out the window, I reached out to Jenny Hansen to ask her to remind me why, exactly, she had invited me to write here.
As usual, Jenny knew just what to say:
“I firmly believe that your perspective of ‘becoming’ is extraordinarily valuable.”
It was like sitting in the pre-dawn quiet and awakening to the realization of birds chirping. I didn’t connect the dots yet, but I had already identified for myself the worth of “becoming.” And I didn’t know it yet, but “becoming” would be integral to my emerging author brand.
Jenny’s words were so powerful, I posted them on my “bulletin board.”
The focus of my memoir and most of my writing is the destructive consequences of people-pleasing. In 2016, when I tiptoed into the public spaces of blogging and social media, I noticed that most people who use hashtags like #peoplepleasing, #peoplepleaser. and #peoplepleasernomore were therapists or life coaches. If I posted that I lacked the wherewithal to ask the grocery store bagger to put the tomatoes on top, a half-dozen people replied with suggestions on how to do it next time, or to ask me how I felt about the outcome, or what I could have done differently.
I believe we all need a place to vent and express ourselves without someone trying to solve our problem. The intent of my social media posts was to say, “Look how silly I’m being. Can you relate?” It’s the same reason we post “life’s a bi***" photos of spilled coffee, flat tires, and cats dragging toilet paper throughout the house. Do you feel my pain? we want to know. Often, a “yes” gives us permission to smile and get back on the day's merry-go-round.
When I share a personal story of vulnerability on my website or on social media my intent is to be heard, not to be fixed. I can call my therapist for that. And when the roles are reversed—when I read a personal story by a kindred spirit—their vulnerability gives me a lens through which to view my own behavior, which heightens my self-understanding.
In her book, The Disease to Please (truly the bible of people-pleasing), the late Harriet B. Braiker, Ph.D. writes, “Sometimes we can see in others what we can’t see clearly in ourselves.”
Society endorses the value of having arrived with thousands of books, articles, and posts espousing helpful (and sometimes unhelpful) ways to accomplish X, Y, or Z. But the value in becoming is the support we provide our traveling companions as we move toward our common destination. Support from the trenches feels different—more immediate, more real—than advice coming from those already there.
Clearly we all need advice from experts. I need all the advice I can get, and I take advantage of every webinar, article, and post that is relevant to my writing and stage of becoming.
In February, I made a long-overdue decision to update my website. I hired a web designer to do the heavy IT lifting, but I had to decide the content and write the copy. And I had to figure out what my site was all about.
In our strategy calls, we talked through messaging. My web guru suggested common headings like “Ten ways to…” and “Five steps to….” None of it felt right. Although I’d started to recover from my disease to please, I still relapsed, and I wasn’t ready to impart “how-to” wisdom.
Plus, I’d discovered when I posted embarrassing failures—like not texting my friend to see if she got the gift I’d left in her mailbox because I didn’t want to bug her—people reached out to me privately to share their own weak moments. They knew I wouldn't judge them. How could I when I still walked in their shoes?
In her best-selling book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown says, “If you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
Being in the arena—being a work in process—was the gem I had to offer. And because I had shown up online day after day when I had a success to share—for example, telling my hairstylist that, no, I could not move my appointment up—followers could imagine themselves having success, too.
My website needed to convey that I was approachable, that I understood, that I was in the process of fighting my way out of the arena, but I wasn’t there yet. I wasn’t ready to proselytize on “how-to” overcome people-pleasing, but I was an expert in “how I grew more assertive."
That’s when I realized becoming is an end in itself.
The phrase “becoming emboldened” popped into my head seemingly from nowhere, but really, it was Jenny’s comment, right there on my bulletin board, coming to life. It was early morning birdsong all over again.
Someday, I’ll arrive at a place where assertiveness comes more easily to me, and I’ll know I have arrived. I’ll need to update my website and change my taglines, and I might even write a “how-to” book. For now, becoming fulfills me.
Someday, I’ll look forward to running into acquaintances, hoping they’ll ask about my book so I can reply with those three coveted words: It is published. I know I’ll have arrived as an author.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to show up here from time to time, embracing all I have to learn, and all I have to share in the process of becoming.
Where are you in the process of becoming and when will you know you’ve arrived? Please share your thoughts down in the comments.
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Karen began writing twenty years ago after her eleven-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Those early pages are now a real-life medical mystery about a mother who must overcome her toxic agreeability if she's to save herself and her son. The manuscript is currently available for representation.
A happy empty-nester with her husband of thirty-nine years, Karen lives and writes in upstate New York. You can find out more about her journey at www.KarenDeBonis.com.
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