Am I in the Kool-Aid?

by ERIC MAYRHOFER, fiction reader

I had to attend a new employee orientation recently. Having started almost nine months ago, though, I’m not new to the job. That would be like a pregnant lady with her big balloon belly and a whole nursery painted and furnished going to her partner, as if for the first time, and saying, “I’m expecting, can you even?!” Nothing about this scenario is a surprise at this point. Almost a year in, I have a pretty good idea of what I signed up for. Call me new-ish instead.

When I attended, I was surprised. In other jobs I’ve had, orientation has been a no-frills, no-fun affair. Sign here, you agree to this, thus, and such; and did you know we have matching? In other words, I’m used to HR sweeping all the boring paperwork under the umbrella of “orientation” and stupid-1245103_1920saving the jugs of culture Kool-Aid for a little meeting here, an after-hours outing there, an email reminder about the non-negotiable corporate values that make you cock your head and say, “They made those up with Scrabble tiles, didn’t they?” This was weird, though. There wasn’t any paperwork to sign. Not anywhere. It was Kool-Aid concentrate, a day-long session all about the corporate culture, the historic traditions upon which my organization is built, and how I and my people, the tribe of the New or Gently Used, could participate in it.

Then, partway through the day, as if to add to my disconcerted feeling, a colleague approached a podium to speak about the organization’s mission, and said, “As an employee, you have to ask yourself: ‘Am I in?’”

The question struck me on a level I didn’t expect. My need to create is something that I always carry with me, and which I interrogate myself about often. Are you doing enough to be a writer? Are you? That’s why, when my colleague posed that question, I immediately associated it with my writing.

explosion-600477_1920The thing is, I want my fiction to be as surprising as my Kool-Aid day at the office. I want to start out with an ordinary story idea, hold it like an ordinary wine glass in the sun, and crack it. I want to find a shard that doesn’t look like anything else. I want to refract a light through it. I want to see the demented rainbow on the other side, and make that my story.

That can be frightening, though. Sometimes I sit down to write, and five pages in I start thinking, Is this the right adjective? If I don’t explain this eight times, will readers get it? This format is strangling my voice. It’s strangling me. It’s like I’m wearing a glittery feather boa, and I kept walking, and it got stuck in a door, and now it’s strangling me. My editor brain takes over, and rationalizes against an idea that had previously lit me up inside. Fear motivates that. Fear that I’m not good enough, or that I’m going to fail to realize the potential of an idea I love.

I may be striving for originality, but my insecurities are not.

The danger of following that thinking, I’ve found, is stagnation. Not long ago, for example, I took one idea and created six different beginnings of stories—just beginnings! No middles, no stabs at an ending—because I was too uncertain with any of them to move forward. Soon after, though, I had that Kool-Aid day, and that person said I had to ask myself, “Am I in?” It took me back to something a writing professor told me in my undergrad days. He said, “You just keep going to the next sentence, the next word, even. You keep going until you have a story to work with, and then you keep going from there.”

Together in my head, this all means that I have to commit when writing, and that commitment is multifaceted. First, I have to trust that when I pick up my strange idea, whatever shiny boa I sling around my neck, that what I’ve thought of is worth pursuing, and won’t turn on me. Second, I have to accept that what I pursue isn’t great all the time, but with work can lead to something better. strauss-spring-1458012_1920Third, I have to realize that even commitment to craft isn’t constant. There will always be little lapses, small panics—Am I doing this the right way? Am I doing enough to be a writer? If I keep going forward with trust, though, and commit to seeing my ideas through, I will always be able to say, “I’m in,” in the creative sense, whenever I lift my hands to write.

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