Change Your Perspective, Change Your Life


A few years ago, someone remarked to me how different his sons were. Both were early teens, both brown-haired, smart, athletic, both members of the basketball team. But when they played basketball, the oldest—I’ll call him Daniel—would score a bunch of points and also miss a shot or two, yet afterward, Daniel would talk about the shots he did not make, how he messed up, what he should have done. He didn’t mention all the great shots, the highs of the game, the wins. He remembered the misses. 

The other son—I’ll call him Mike—would score one or two points out of all the shots he made, but afterward, he would talk about those one or two fantastic shots, the best ones, and never mention the misses. He remembered how good it had felt to do something so well. He remembered, not the lows, but the highs.

And who do you think was happier? It’s not hard to guess.

When I heard this story, I thought about which kind of person I was, and I knew immediately: I was a Daniel, the one who focuses on the misses. And what I thought next was: I want to be like Mike, the one who focuses on the wins.

That’s not to say there is something inherently wrong with each son’s way of behaving. Both boys were probably trying their hardest. One could argue that Daniel, focused on the failures, might have a better chance of making improvements by dissecting the misses. Sure, reflection and analyzation are good, but what I do is focus more on what should have been—even what might have been—instead of relishing the best parts of what is.

I have been thinking a lot about this story over the last few months, as I’ve faced my own ups and downs, some tries and wins and losses. I have had to ask myself what kind of person I want to be. I have had to ask myself how I want to live.

Recently I was visiting my hometown in Ohio, which is located in a part of the state particularly prone to grey from November through March. When I moved to the South many years ago and experienced my first sunny winter, I revelled in the light. But this year, for the first time, while out on a walk in Ohio, I looked up at the grey winter sky, and I thought about how I had never noticed its complexities before: the swirls of color, the changing texture, the marbled dark mixed with white. I had spent so many years hating the grey that I had missed out on its loveliness, its elegance. How easy it would be to see only the bleak and sad things in the world. How easy to miss the beautiful and the good.

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions. I do try and make changes, just not necessarily starting on January first. It’s been months now that I find myself more and more determined to focus on the positive. I hope it isn’t a goal for only 2018 but for life. 

This blog originally appeared in the Johnson City Press on January 14, 2018. 

In case you missed it . . . The Southern Literary Review spotlighted me in an author interview, and the Dayton Daily News listed The Going and Goodbye as a 2017 favorite nonfiction book. Read about all this here.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Going and Goodbye by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood

The Going and Goodbye

by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood

Giveaway ends January 26, 2018.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

A List of Favorites, Richard Wilbur, the Importance of Memory, and Rejection

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Christmas came early for me this year: I am so grateful and humbled that my memoir made it into the Dayton Daily News list of 2017 favorite nonfiction books. Thank you, Vick Mickunas.

The other big gift: I had the great privilege of reflecting on writing memoir and rejection and a whole host of other things when the editor of Southern Literary Review interviewed me. He started out asking me about Richard Wilbur, and if you haven't read any of Wilbur's poems, I'll link to my favorite of his here: "The Writer."

This poem has a long history in my life, and I chose the poem's end as the epigraph to my memoir. This was a choice I made long ago, before the memoir was even complete. Here is what the editor, Allen Mendenhall, asked me, and my answer.

AM: Shuly, thanks for this interview about your memoir, The Going and Goodbye. I want to start by asking you about the epigraph by Richard Wilbur, in part because he passed away just about the time your book was released. I find that intriguing because you quote him on the subject of life and death, which you grapple with in the book.

SC: I was lucky enough to meet Richard Wilbur when he came to my undergraduate university not long after he had served as poet laureate. Because I was one of the editors of the literary magazine, I had the privilege of having lunch and spending some hours with him, along with other students. A few years later, while in graduate school for journalism, I took some poetry writing classes as a way to get through my journalism degree (not that the journalism program was bad—I just longed to be studying creative writing). In one poetry class, my professor, David Citino, asked that we all memorize and recite a poem, and I chose “The Writer,” which is where the epigraph comes from. To this day, I cherish the poem for what it did for me then—help propel me through a master’s degree I didn’t love but that served me well—but also for the story the poem tells: of someone needing to write in order to, in essence, live.

AM: Could you live without writing? 

SC: Yes, but I think I would suffer now without writing. It has helped me grapple with and understand a great many things in life, and it has served as a steady companion. That being said, I can imagine that it’s possible that one day I won’t turn to it anymore. I journaled from when I was a child until about ten years ago—journaling was a constant in my life. One day I just stopped for no apparent reason, and I haven’t journaled since. I think things can run their course.

AM: As I read your book, I felt a tugging, aching longing for people and places of my past, even as the story was yours. With every gain in life, it seems, there’s a corresponding loss, just as there’s a loss with every gain. Most of these involve relationships, romantic or otherwise, and the remarkable way in which our emotional state at any given moment is bound up in the feelings and desires of others. 

SC: One of the things I wrote in the book was that I like beginnings, before I’ve had to pick one thing over another—because with every decision, there is one thing that gets chosen and another that isn’t, sometimes many others. And those others have always been hard for me—I am capable of grieving deeply for them. It’s taken me a long time to realize that those choices might not have turned out as I used to imagine them. What’s that saying? Something about how unhappiness comes from focusing on what isn’t rather than what is. I believe that.

To read the rest of the interview at Southern Literary Review, click here.

Thanks, as always, to all of my blog subscribers. Two of you just subscribed in the last week—a warm welcome to you both. 

And I hope everyone reading this has a peaceful holiday season.


Imagine Them Reading Your Book

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In my last blog post, I mentioned an article I had recently gotten published in Brevity's Nonfiction Blog in which I talked about what to leave and what to leave out when writing memoir. It tells the story of two breakups and two reunions, but very different sorts. In case you missed it, here it is:

Imagine Them Reading Your Book

My uncle and I stopped speaking to each other almost a decade ago. I loved my uncle, and he loved me, but we had an argument that mushroomed into a cloud so thick neither of us could see through it—until years later, when he got sick, and his prognosis became too grim to keep on refusing to exchange words, especially kind ones. When we did finally speak, just after what would become his final surgery, neither one of us addressed the argument from years before. We knew it was time to put it behind us or else be left with regrets. We held hands, and that became more important than our tender but old hurts. 

My uncle died weeks later.

Years before I finished writing my memoir, The Going and Goodbye, I sat through panels and lectures on how to decide what to leave in and take out when writing about people in your life. Some authors advocated spilling it all, no matter the consequences. Others advocated for the play-it-safe side, allowing those represented in their memoir to read the manuscript before publication, sometimes even letting them decide what went into the final version.

In my first few memoir drafts, my uncle resided in several chapters. There was even a chapter about our argument: his past, my past, the places where our stories collided and burned. But some things felt too private to air to the world, and I worried about who might get hurt—namely, his family. Eventually, those chapters—and my uncle—were entirely taken out of the book, but there were other people I could not pluck out so easily. My memoir is about love and loss, and a former boyfriend and an ex-husband—whose relationships helped shape who I am today—were integral to my story. 

When I started writing my memoir, I had written down any memory that came into my head, even if it was ugly, unfortunate, unflattering. The fights, the breakups, the counseling sessions, all of it went into those early drafts. The anger, too, and especially the blame. Oh, the blame. I had plenty of that.

I revised my “final” manuscript three times. And in those iterations, a shift took place. I was learning to understand better the former boyfriend and ex-husband—not just their actions or inactions, but what they might have feared, how the things I did might have hurt them. I kept imagining what they would think if reading my book. Did I talk enough about my failures? Did I admit to my insecurities, my weaknesses, my mistakes? In the end, I hoped, if nothing else, I had been fair.

The day I signed my book contract, I thought perhaps I should find and give a heads up to my ex-husband. It had been eight years since we had communicated. I didn’t have to find the former boyfriend because years ago he asked me (very nicely) to never contact him again, and I promised him I never would. He is not the type of person to open a shut door, so it’s highly unlikely he will ever know about the book, but if he ever reads it, it’s okay. I have imagined it dozens of times already. The ex-husband, though, I had made no such promise of never contacting, and I decided I needed to track him down. Turns out, I didn’t have to. It was only a day or two later that I opened up my email inbox, and there was a message from him.

“Hi Shuly,” it began. “I found your blog and enjoyed reading your stories. It felt a little strange to find myself in a couple of your stories—it brought back some old memories. I'm happy to see that you are doing what you love. I hope you are well.”

Yes, I had written a few blog posts about our marriage, but they weren’t intimate the way the book was. And if they were strange to read for him, how was a memoir going to feel?

I wrote him back and told him about the book, offering to let him see it. He wanted to read the chapters that had him in it, so we made a deal: I would send a chapter and we would discuss it over email, and then I would send the next, and the next.

We began to pass memories back and forth: the salsa dancing at the Corinthian, the trip to Mexico, the move to North Carolina. We joked about things, too—something we had not done since our marriage. Not surprisingly, some of our memories differed. He didn’t always like the way he was portrayed. Always my question to him was, “But is it fair?” He said it was, for which I was very grateful. He never, not even once, asked me to change what I wrote. He never complained. We communicated more honestly about our relationship in those emails than we ever had sitting on the marriage counseling couch together, sinking into a too-soft and uncomfortable future neither one of us was sure could support us for the rest of our lives. In our emails, we offered respect and regret. Time is a great negotiator of forgiveness. It allowed us a greater perspective, and to speak without blame, to take ownership of our mistakes, and to remember the best parts of our relationship.

Fifteen years ago, after we split up, while I was still smarting from our breakup, he said he hoped one day we would be able to be friends and get coffee together, and I told him, probably not very nicely, that there was no way that was ever going to happen. But now, it feels a little like we have had that coffee—without the coffee. And when my ex-husband said he wanted to buy my book, to read the whole thing, it felt like the kind of success I wanted but never dared to imagine.

This article was originally published on August 30, 2017 on Brevity's Nonfiction Blog. To learn more about my memoir, The Going and Goodbye, click here.