Becoming the Living Poet

Archive for November 2009

Many, many eons ago (OK it wasn’t that long ago, it was over the summer) I entered the Art of Nonconformity’s Unconventional Writing Contest. I wrote about the contest on this blog and told my readers that whether I won or lost they would get to read my entry. Well, I lost and never got around to posting my entry until now. Given how I’ve been squirming over feeling like an outsider lately, now seemed like a good time to revisit the post. Hope you enjoy it:


There are no certainties, even grammatical ones… only that which bears the imprint of our choice, our taste, our uncertainty, our desire, and our weakness can be beautiful. ~ Marcel Proust

It seems a little odd to confess this in a post for a blog called The Art of Nonconformity, but I have to say it if any of the words that follow are going to ring true:

I never wanted to be a nonconformist.

I wanted to be a normal person with normal values living a gloriously successful and yet undeniably normal life.

I wanted this long before I had bothered to define what it meant to be normal. (I still haven’t been able to define it really. Something about being the beneficiary of media images that laud your lifestyle choices and possessing an implicit understanding that by and large you are just like everyone else and that’s awesome.)

The path to normality is of course, the opposite of what this blog ordinarily discusses: conformity.

I was never very passionate in my courtship of conformity, but court it I did for a time.

I did it because I thought it was the mature and responsible thing to do. I did it because I thought living a life that my family could be proud of and my acquaintances could understand was the path to true adulthood.

But luckily, rather than fall into this marriage of convenience, I met another love: authenticity.

I passionately desired to learn who I was, define my own values, and live a life authentic to those values.

Still, for many years the concept of nonconformity did not sit well with me, because as Proust alluded, the beauty of nonconformity is its uncertainty. For me, as for many people, that uncertainty felt frightening. I suppose in that capacity I am normal. Where I deviated from the norm was in how I responded to that fear. I refused to allow my fears to create artificial limitations on the life I could lead.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward, it is not a compliment to say it is brave. ~ Mark Twain

If you are a reluctant nonconformist following these steps will allow you to minimize the painful aspects of nonconformity so that you can skip to the fun parts:

For the Reluctant Nonconformist: 6 Steps To Accepting Your Nonconformity

1. Acknowledge that you have a lot to learn.

Because you have made the decision not to conform to societal standards of the good life, no one can teach you anything, right?


If you’re going to go off into the wilderness and forge your own path, you need to know more about the lay of the land, not less.

But what, you may wonder, is it that you need to learn?

The most important thing you need to learn is that there is a world outside the one you daily encounter where people live differently, believe different things, and find satisfaction living lives you’ve
never imagined were possible.

Read, travel, talk to new people – do whatever you need to do to realize that the ways of living you’ve been taught are just one option among many.

2. Make a habit of questioning everything.

Now that you’ve exposed yourself to as much new knowledge and experiences as you can digest, bone up on critical thinking skills and begin formulating your own opinions on the things you read and hear.

The vast majority of people tend to unconsciously doubt their own opinions when they differ from those of the majority. Psychology studies have shown this to be true even when people try to interpret unambiguous sensory information.

Nonconformists tend to have a reputation for questioning authority. That can be important too, but more important is the ability to question your own assumptions. If you haven’t questioned yourself on
the reasons you hold certain beliefs, how do you know you didn’t acquire them simply because they were being chanted by the crowd before you knew enough to question them?

3. Recognize that criticism only tells you the value system of the criticizer.

One of the most difficult skills for any nonconformist to learn is how to deal with criticism. Chris Guilebeau already addressed the topic of critics in his post, How To Respond To Critics. One aspect of criticism that Guilebeau didn’t address was how to determine whether or not a piece of criticism is valid.

First of all, remember that even the best advice is never universally applicable. Approach a piece of criticism as you would an advice article in a magazine you picked up at the dentist’s office. Advice articles are
written by human beings who have their own particular biases and based on those biases make assumptions about what goals their readers find desirable.

Even the people who criticize you in good faith (which may not be the majority) are doing so through the lens of their own value system. Before applying someone else’s critical statement to your own life, think about what the statement says about the values and motives of the speaker. Decide whether the speaker’s assumptions about what your priorities should be are close enough to what your priorities actually
are for the criticism to be useful.

Only tiniest fraction of the criticisms you will receive in your lifetime, the ones that make sense in terms of your own values and goals, should be allowed have any concrete effect on your actions.

4. Realize that your happiness is not dependent on others being happy for you.

As a nonconformist, you will spend a great deal of time either walking away from critics or attempting to explain yourself with only marginal success. This makes perfect sense once you realize that the main
reason people criticize is because they don’t understand.

Put yourself in the critic’s shoes for a second. How could they understand? Few people have lived the life you’re living or attempting to live, and if others are living that life, your critic certainly hasn’t met any of those kinds of people.

The most fearful critics will often be the most vocal, looking you straight in the eye you and telling you that your kind of life is selfish, immoral, irresponsible, or unnatural. How can you be happy living a life like that? How could your life have gone so wrong? They will ask with condescending concern.

It isn’t just fear of uncertainty that keeps people from straying from the pothole-ridden path of a ‘normal’ life. It’s the inability to imagine a life could be happy that others would not automatically identify as happy.

Sometimes you’ll have to do it alone, but make a point of celebrating your happiness. Give yourself credit for accomplishing the goals that matter to you even if no one else recognizes them as valuable.

Remember that normal people who pity freaks seldom realize that the freaks pity them back.

5. Surround yourself with other nonconformists.

Deciding you’re a nonconformist doesn’t mean you’re the one exception to John Donne’s assertion that no man is an island. You don’t have to be an island to live by your own values. In fact, it’s harder if you try to be. Even though you may feel misunderstood a lot of the time; the world is not against you.

There are a lot of nonconformists out there, many more than you’ve been lead to believe, and they often forge lasting bonds of friendship with one another on the basis of mutual respect for one another’s

In the ‘real’ world you can usually find nonconformists by going to gatherings for people who share your interests and seeking out the people who are completely obsessed with the thing they’re interested
in. In this society it is odd to have an all-consuming passion for something after you leave childhood. If someone has maintained one; then that person is probably a nonconformist.

On the internet it’s easier to find places where nonconformists congregate. I’ve had good luck finding nonconformists at Freak Revolution and The Fluent Self, but there are thousands upon thousands of cyber ‘tribes’ out there.

6. Be prepared to surprise yourself.

The best and the hardest part of being a nonconformist is that you have no idea what the life you’re creating entirely from scratch without a recipe is going to look like.

You can have goals and make plans, but if your only guide is your own values, desires, and preferences; then your plan will inevitably change as you do. After you become more certain of who you are and what you want, and gradually begin to feel less constrained by what others think of you and what sitcoms and advertisements tell you your life should look like, you could end up anywhere.

If you think that’s a good thing; then you’re well on your way to being happy in the nonconformist lifestyle you have chosen.


I haven’t been blogging here lately. I could say the reason was because I was so so so busy, but it’d be a lie. The real reason I haven’t been blogging is that I’ve been crippled by perfectionism, self doubt, and fear of exposure. I’ve been afraid of what I might say.

I think my biggest secret has been how full of fear I am at pretty much every moment. I’m afraid I’m making the wrong life choices. I’m afraid I’m making the right life choices but that I’m too inept, slow, or cowardly to make them turn out as well as they could. I worry that I’m not that great a poet and not so hot a content writer either. I worry that I am a fraud and that everyone will find out at any moment.

In short I’m a first year MFA. I haven’t done things perfectly, and I’m not going to write this blog perfectly, but that’s OK.

The words on my about page pretty much say it all:

“Becoming the Living Poet is about honestly acknowledging the psychological and financial barriers to being a poet and confronting them with mindfulness, authenticity, and, on a good day, maybe even a little grace.”

I’m been anxiety-ridden and weakened by depression, but I’m still on the road to becoming a living poet.

Ready, set, go!