My Higher Power is a trickster sort of god. While I’d much prefer a Mr. Rodgers sort, the kind of deity who is always thoughtful, considerate and sensitive, I’ve accepted the idea that mine is a laughing hyena that follows me around for amusement’s sake, and nips at my ass whenever I take myself too seriously, which is most of the time.
Last fall I was engaged in my very favorite activity, attending a writers’ retreat with a gang of writing buddies I’ve been hanging with for years. This occasion was bittersweet, as our mentor/guru/priestess/teacher Liz Engstrom had just informed us this would be her last time overseeing our mob of unruly storytellers. I’ve been attending Liz’s short story writing weekends for at least fifteen years, twice a year. Always energizing, inspiring, and most importantly for me, confidence building, the challenge to create a short story in 24 hours in the company of other writers has always been a source of great fun, and dare I say it, pride.
And here we were, facing the grand finale. I endeavored to write my best damn story yet.
Blame melancholy, life stresses, distractions of all sorts, but to my growing horror, I discovered after writing 3,000 words that my story sucked, that there was no end in sight, and that I couldn’t pull that mess out of the fire. I twisted with anxiety. How ironic (and embarrassing) would it be if I became the first person ever not to finish a story on this, the last hurrah?
I’ll admit greater things were weighing on my mind, but the focus of my growing despondency was my inability to concentrate and finish that best damn story yet.
Finally, around noon on Saturday (stories due at 7:00 that night) I went for a stroll. Sure, I’d pulled disaster from the ashes before, starting a new story late Saturday morning and ending up with something decent. But decent wasn’t good enough! I wanted to go out with a bang, leaving my fellow writers gasping in awe! (I can hear them snickering now).
I had to face the fact that I simply wasn’t able to focus. I’m infamous for finishing not only one, but two and once even three stories in 24 hours. Oh, the bitterness, the agony of defeat as I imagined my so-called friends laughing at my misery.
During my walk, I thankfully remembered that I have a program of recovery and I applied it to my writing dilemma. Here I was, in the gorgeous Oregon woods beside the McKenzie River, with my favorite people all around me, doing what I love best (even when I hate it), writing. I decided to relax, enjoy the moment, be in the “Now” and savor the day. I returned to the cabin, took a pinprick little idea and splattered it out across my laptop, typing furiously. Set in a fantasy world, I pulled a protagonist from the ether and dubbed him Ulli. At least I had something.
And secretly, I thought it was kind of good.
That night, we gathered to read the stories out loud. I read my little pinprick (although pretty good) story and breathed a sigh of relief. I was not a complete failure. And then… then our wise mentor/guru/priestess/teacher looked at me kindly, smiled her impish smile, and said, “I had a hard time paying attention, because Ulli in Hawaiian means “penis”.
You can of course imagine the laughter. Yes, I admit, it was funny.
As the night went on (and it went on pretty late) Ulli became the go-to joke, the punch line to every amusing comment and entertaining antidote. I smiled brightly, clenching my teeth. And as I sat there, surrounded by friends who’ve all been there, who’ve all suffered for their art, it dawned on me; Ulli was a little gift from my higher power. Remember the hyena trickster god? Well, if there was ever a lesson in not taking oneself so damn seriously, this was it. And I can honestly say I was proud to have provided my friends with such great comic fodder. And no, I haven’t changed the name of my protagonist in that story, because no matter how hard the process gets, no matter how many rejections roll in and how many stories wither on the vine,
I’ll always have Ulli.