Friday, March 5, 2010

A Mason Jar Full of Mice Fixes Everything

There are quite a few people in my head.

I have already introduced you to a couple them:  The Headmistress of Expectations and Aunt Content.

But there are more - many, many more.   Clamoring away up there, all vying for my undivided attention.  It gets really loud.   

It's not like in the movie Sybil, where she literally has different people, different personalities that take turns at the helm.   These people are all me, dressed up in different uniforms, each with their own obstinate opinion, each with their own distinct voice.

Most days I just let them rattle around up there, bumping into each other, mumbling and grumbling away.   Every now and then one will speak up louder than the rest.    Lately it has been Cousin Can't, the one who tells me over and over that I think too much of myself, that my goals are unattainable, that I should just lie down and take a nap.     She's me, in a buttoned up suit and sensible shoes, wacking a ruler against her palm just waiting to give me a good swack.  

Things get complicated, though, when I sit down to write.

The kids are in bed, the house is quiet, I have a cup of hot tea steaming beside me, and I settle in to my comfy chair with my laptop, my head full of ideas.    The thing is, I'm not alone.    I can picture them up there, rushing to sit down at the long conference table in my head, all jockeying for the head spot.   

A quick mental role call:   they are all there.   Me in a superman cape, ready to take over the world.   Me in my pajamas, lazy and sulking because I'm missing my favorite television show.   The twelve year old me, who is scared of her own shadow.    The intellectual bespectacled me, cradling an armful of books and using lots of four syllable words.  Cousin Can't looks rather smug, she always knew I wouldn't amount to much.   And, of course, the Headmistress of Expectations, sharpening her pencil to make the list of all the ways I don't measure up.  Aunt Content is there, examining her nails, bored.   Me, me, me, me.  Too much ME.

Everyone speaks at once: you can't write a book, who do you think you are, look at this messy house, you didn't pay enough attention to your children today, what happened to all those dreams you had as a child, why can't you just be content with the way things are, you are lazy, you are chickenshit, you are doomed.   

I stare at the blank page, lost in all this noise, searching frantically for a mental gavel I can bang so I can just Shut. Them. Up.

I think I may be hopelessly, irretrievably stuck.  I think I'll never break away from my endless mental loop.  And then my writer blogger (and aptly named) friend Hope tells me about the book Bird by BirdInstructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, and I read this:
"Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up.   Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse.   Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar.   Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar.    And so on.   Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head.   Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won't do what they want - won't give them more money, won't be more successful, won't see them more often.   Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle.   Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices.   Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you.   Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft."
I don't know which I'm more grateful for: the fact that I'm not the only one with a head full of people, or the fact that now I have me a Mason Jar.  And it's full of mice.   

They are all in there, my mice-people, except for Aunt Content, who looks up from her nails, sees that she is alone, and says, "Finally.   Let's get to work."


  1. Oh how I love this. I JUST mentioned Bird by Bird on twitter and then saw your tweet. Seriously, we need to make more room in our brains for each other apparently :)

    I have these same people in my brain. I call them monkeys though because they jump from branch to branch so much, switching my thoughts from insecure to overly confident to scared to...hop hop. Ugh...

    I love the mason jar/mice analogy. Love it.

    Write on, lady. Write on. You have a gift, that's what this mouse has to say.

  2. Maybe we should get your monkeys and mice together and throw a party. Then you and I can sneak away for a little peace & quiet... :)

    I swear I didn't see your Tweet about Bird by Bird. Cause I'm pretty sure you already think I'm stalking you. It's not my fault. Blame the mice.

  3. I meant your monkeys and MY mice. Not thinking clearly... apparently someone escaped from the jar....

  4. I think Aunt Content would be fun to go out with for coffee. And I like to read her stuff.

  5. this is so helpful, thank you.

    I just hope I'm not one of those mice for my husband. :)

  6. OMG - it's Annie Lamott week! I just went to my first Baby on Bored writing class on Wednesday (hell yea!) and she asked us to bring a book that has a voice that inspires. I brought AL's 'Operating Instructions' book. It's genius.

    I've got another one for you. Have you read: "The War of Art" ?

    It's awesome. Taps the warrior energy, might help quiet down the mice.

  7. After I read your post, I went to Amazon to get the link for Operating Instructions, and look at that - Sweet Jane already mentioned it.
    For those who might not already know, Anne Lamott is in recovery. Of course, when I read it 7 years ago, I was not ready to admit I was an alcoholic. I was just glad to read about someone else who thought she was a crappy mom!

  8. I'm so buying a mason jar today! Thanks for another inspiring post Ellie.

  9. What a terrific post, Ellie. You've got such a useful way of explaining all of those different voices that war over who and how good you can be -- I'm going to adopt that one!
    Also, love, love, LOVE Anne Lamott and am going to pull out Bird by Bird when I got home tonight.