Weekend Reading
April 25, 2021

Weekend Reading | The Full Helping

At some point this year I realized that I was reading too much self-help. As constructive as all of the books, articles, and podcasts I was consuming were, at least in theory, the accumulation of advice was starting to stress me out.

I made that decision in December, just in time to avoid the “new year, new you” rhetoric. But I’ve dipped my toes back into the self-help genre this week. This time, the wisdom I’m looking for has nothing to do with running my business or my life. I’m having the recipe developer’s equivalent of writer’s block, and I’ll take any help I can get.

I revisited The Writing Life and Still Writing, which are both favorites. But as I was rereading them I found that they’re too focused on writing in particular to apply to my current situation, which is all about making food, not at all about putting words to paper.

Then I remembered that I’d heard about The War of Art on a podcast, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to check that it out.

The War of Art is interesting. The author, Steven Pressfield, wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance, as well as A Man at Arms, Gates of Fire, The Lion’s Gate, and a number of other novels with martial themes. Pressfield served in the US Marine Corps, and even aside from its title, The War of Art is littered with military metaphors. Pressfield claims that the Marine Corps “teaches you how to be miserable.” And the capacity to endure misery, he says, is invaluable for a working artist.

I don’t think I’ve experienced true creative misery. But I can’t argue with the fact that creative work, if you do it long enough, will inevitably involve isolation, rejection, scarcity of inspiration, and self-doubt. All of these states can be pretty miserable, depending on the day.

The central argument of Pressfield’s book is that an artist’s worst enemy is resistance. Resistance, he says, is “the enemy within.” He goes on to describe it as the force that makes us want to quit. It’s our innate tendency to get discouraged, to sink into inertia, to avoid doing the very things that are most essential for our growth and self-actualization.

I don’t like Pressfield’s treatment of mental health, but I did see some truth in the connections he later makes between depression and resistance. Among its many varieties of suffering, depression keeps me from creating. I hate looking back on a depressive period and thinking about all of the work that didn’t get done, the recipes and ideas I wanted to get out of my head and into the world, but couldn’t.

Pressfield alleges that the only way to combat resistance is to show up and be disciplined. He recommends working a certain number of hours each day, every day, and prioritizing the time however necessary. Whether those are productive working hours or not doesn’t matter, he says; you might write one page or twenty. Dedication and consistency will create conditions that make creative plenty possible in the long run.

This reminded me of my ashtanga practice, which is on my mind because I’m now one week away from being reunited with my yoga community. I’ve learned that intensity and duration matter much less than consistency. I’ve stopped caring how strong I feel or how long I practice in the morning; in quarantine, my practice has often been short and weary. What matters is that I show up and do the thing.

Showing up daily is what creates space for breakthroughs. They happen infrequently, but when they do, it’s because I’ve continued to do something—anything—each day. Even and especially when I’m tired, discouraged, or tempted to skip.

The topic of practice, whether on or off the yoga mat, is dear to me. It’s the framework that I used to understand my anorexia recovery, a process that felt all too impossible whenever I tried to think about it as a whole. I got through it by telling myself that I only had to survive one more day in recovery; if I needed to resort to a disordered behavior tomorrow, I could. But it was my job to get through the day as a recovered person.

By making this vow to myself each morning, I made it through the whole arc of recovery. I outgrew the self-destructive impulses, learned to live without them. New, self-compassionate habits ultimately sprung up and took their place.

I’ve applied that same approach—making an agreement with myself to get through hard things one day at a time—to other mental health struggles, including depression.

Practice isn’t as sexy a concept as breakthroughs or epiphanies. So often, we want growth to feel like a great moment of insight, followed by enduring clarity. But my experience has been that growth rarely happens this way. More often, it’s a matter of quiet, daily effort, and small wins. It builds on itself slowly, and progress can be hard to discern along the way.

The other thing about practice is that it doesn’t guarantee a particular outcome. You might practice in the hopes of improving, or simply to remain adept at something. But practice doesn’t always lead to commercial success or external validation. Practice teaches you to savor a process, to embrace labor for its own sake.

This brings to mind Krishna’s famous words to Arjuna on the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita (a book that Pressfield references). “You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work.”

Stephen Cope describes this moment as “one of the most brilliant discoveries in the ancient yoga tradition: the power of non-attachment. Give yourself entirely to your work, yes. But let go of the outcome. Be alike in success and defeat.” The Great Work of Your Life is one of my favorite books about finding one’s vocation, and I love Cope’s interpretation.

Part of my drama with recipe writer’s block is the fact that I’ve gotten too hung up on my failures, too easily discouraged by things that don’t turn out. I’m overly fixated on getting things right, not focused enough on cooking for its own sake. I do what I do because making food that I love to eat is one of the great joys of my life. Sharing recipes is an extension of that joy, but it isn’t the point.

So. I think the takeaway here is that I need to cook. Tonight, tomorrow, and the following day. What I make might be delicious, and it might be terrible. The act of making will be the thing that counts, the path that leads me home.

I’m starting with a pot of soup this evening.

Happy Sunday, friends. Here are some recipes and reads.

Recipes

I love a good vegan stuffed pepper.

Eager to dive into Shanika’s creamy sweet potato pasta.

Onion steaks are such a cool idea.

I love the looks of these crispy bean tacos!

These lemon blueberry cheesecake bars are just the thing for sunnier, warmer days ahead.

Reads

1. This New York Times article about languishing has made the rounds, but it’s worth a read if you haven’t peeked at it yet.

2. Speaking of languishing, I think pandemic life has been giving me more fatigue with decision making than usual. Here’s a quick look at why making decisions can be so tiring.

3. The experience of being non-binary in a sex-segregated sports world.

4. Teaching high school poetry in the age of Zoom.

5. Finally, Emma Gilchrist’s essay on genetic mapping and peering into her origins is complex and beautiful. I love her last graf:

In the meantime, here’s what I know for sure: I have three fathers who love me. One is my true dad—the man who raised me and has always told me “the more people who love you the better.” One has the softest heart and shares my experience of being adopted. And one feels like a soulmate even though we’ve never met.

The more people who love you the better. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Have a peaceful evening, everyone. I’ll keep you posted on the practice!

xo

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    4 Comments
  1. The academic and social-emotional program at my oldest kid’s school is rooted in trauma-informed practice. I’ve grown close with the school’s social worker and we recently had a conversation about this approach in which she commented on the importance of, “structure before content, and not just for the kids, for the parents and families too”. It got me thinking about how much I struggled this past winter and how I began to come out of it. I’ve dealt with anxiety, particularly medical anxiety, since I was young, however, in mid-December I had my first panic attack. Though I sought medical help, for the next two months I was a shell of myself and could not climb out of the ditch. Work and teaching helped some, but each day felt endless. In February for my 41st birthday, I decided I would learn a new instrument. As a lifelong musician, I could have easily taught myself the basics, however, I scheduled a weekly lesson for accountability’s sake. Unsurprisingly, I not only learned to play, I slowly started crawling out of that ditch. It’s strange to look back at this two-month period that looks like no other time in my life. I fear it will return, but have so much gratitude that it wasn’t permanent.
    Thanks for listening. Wishing you the structure you need to get past this block and whatever else it may provide in the meantime.

  2. This is me right now. The past 2 1/2 years have felt like a giant slog through recipe development and creative endeavors. I was a professional baker who dreams of starting my own business, whether that be online or in-person. Between being pregnant, nursing, now pregnant with my second and depression, anxiety, eating disorder battles, my brain has had no space to contemplate creative projects, let alone deal with the neverending fails that are emerging from my oven. I have thought about throwing in the towel many times. But somehow I keep baking another loaf that doesn’t meet my expectations. I keep jotting down an errant idea as it flits into and out of my head. I haven’t been able to embrace the process yet, but one-day-at-a-time I may be able to muster.

  3. Hey Gina

    I’ve been following your blog, via emails of your Weekend Readings, for probably over two years now. I just read the wonderful piece by Emma Gilchrist, particularly because I was intrigued by the last paragraph you quoted. Somethings I myself also believe strongly and tell my children, whom we have also adopted. I’ve struggled with mental health problems most of my adult life, but I never give up trying and get back on my feet every time. I’ve somehow felt a connection to you, and just wanted to let you know I do appreciate your conscious, ongoing effort to be a better version of yourself. All lives are difficult, but some are simply more than others! Still, very much worthwhile. Please just hang in there, and keep doing what you’ve been doing! Lots of love (the more people who love you, the better!)

  4. I loved this post, Gena, and your conversation around practising and working without being attached to the outcome. I can completely relate to this from a writing perspective. After my second novel was published in 2010, I spent ten years working on a third manuscript, one that I kept writing and rewriting somehow could but never, ever finish, because every draft I wrote seemed to me to ‘fail’ in some way.
    Meanwhile, I watched other writing friends and peers write and publish several novels during those ten years. Some of those novels sold well and/or received literary acclaim, and some didn’t. Yet I envied these peers of mine for what I perceived as their talent and their artistic abilities, without ever seeing that — though of course they ARE talented artists — what really made the difference between them and me was that they went on working, went on showing up, went on producing, went on risking failure, without allowing themselves to be attached to the outcome of their efforts.
    I do finally see how important that is now. A couple of years ago, I finally let go of my attachment to the outcome of my own writing and finished that manuscript I’d been working on for so long. And I showed it to people, though I was terrified of their feedback, and I submitted it to my agent.
    I have no idea if it will ever get published, but that’s not the point, really. I learned so much from just making myself actually WRITE THAT NOVEL that the process became both a reward and an achievement in itself.
    I think sometimes it’s difficult to accept that creative processes — such as cooking, writing, and so on — often involve pain. Doing something creative often involves confronting our own inner demons and our fears of failure. It involves being willing to sit with ourselves, no matter how painful that is (I find it very painful). It involves persisting.
    Sorry about the length of my comment here, but I find such resonance in your post today :).
    Keep persisting, Gena. It’s worth it, I swear.
    Rebecca xo

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