Listening to Her Inner Voice: Holly H in Her Own Words

After attending the  DYL for Women workshop in San Francisco in November 2018, Holly Hirshfield was motivated to share her experience. Here she shares what she learned, in her own words: 

I came to Designing Your Life for Women to get a glimpse of my future. But the thing is, I actually knew my future all along. I just needed time to focus, get some encouragement, make a plan, and commit.

Mine is not an unusual story in San Francisco. I found a partner when I was well into adulthood, had babies, and dove deep into the chaotic joy of managing a family and career.  I went to yoga – because my back hurt if I didn’t. And I met up with girlfriends for the lifeline of laughter over a coffee, wine, sometimes a hike. Because I need my girlfriends to stay sane. But I gave up on something that’s been harder for me to squeeze into the schedule. Unfortunately, it’s something I love and something I need. I gave up on my writing.

For about ten years, since I took my last writing workshop and let my writing practice fade into the background, I’ve heard a small but clear voice. A mantra that’s run through my head for over a decade. It’s just one word, really: “write”. It’s a directive not a suggestion. And I’ve answered that call with any and all of the following: silence, frustration at how difficult it is to find time to write, self-criticism that I couldn’t get motivated to write, and bullying myself into thinking I had nothing to say. Anything to keep from actually writing. When I numb myself enough to not hear the call, it’s actually the worst. Because sometimes, for weeks at a time, I don’t hear any nagging voice. I just hear silence.

But I was determined to move into a new phase of my life after my youngest started Kindergarten. I’d quit my job the year before and I needed a next step. So there I was at Designing Your Life for Women. Asking myself, what question do I want to answer today? The practical side of me took over. I heard my parents telling me to be realistic about what my skills are. I felt defensive on behalf of my former career objectives. I’d been a teacher for 22 years.

And I’d learned so much about working in schools Why not just build on that? So I took the practical approach when we started to ideate during the workshop. I created a question about becoming a consultant in education. I want independence and autonomy so it’s a close fit. But I think consultant was code for writing. Just really bad code. And when my big poster sheet filled up with advice that amounted to “ start by becoming a teacher”, I was annoyed. Angry, even. Petulant, more likely. It’s kind of funny in retrospect. But in the moment, it made me want to cry. Because I know I can teach. I want to try something else.

So there I was. Half-way through the entire DYL seminar and people were telling me to be exactly what I was trying not to be. But why shouldn’t they? I hadn’t been honest about what I really want. I really want to write. And thank goodness for my two brainstorming partners later that first day who refused to let me go on with my nebulous ‘education consultant’ title. I had little time to put something on that next poster paper.

So I dispensed with any artful framing and wrote ‘education writer.’ Ultimately, I’d like to use some of that hard-won knowledge from my 22 years as an educator. And it gives me some focus as I move forward. Though I’m not discounting the idea of writing a sweeping tome of historical fiction.

Kathy circulated around the room as our trios brainstormed. “Write a blog post for DYL and I’ll post it”, she yelled as she passed by my group. Her encouragement pushed just the right button in me. “I can do that,” I yelled back. I had an objective. And a bit of confidence to write something and make it public. Later that night, though, I tackled my homework: sharing my odyssey plan with my partner.

Vulnerability nagged me when I told my husband about my idea of making writing my next big thing. In the millisecond it took for him to answer, I heard all the criticisms I’d foisted on myself: “Other people are better qualified. Writing doesn’t pay the bills. You’re not a very good writer.” But he didn’t hesitate. “Of course you should write,” he said. “You love writing and if you write about education, you’ll have years of great experience to share.” He may have felt he was stating the obvious. But I felt like he was acknowledging that I wasn’t becoming anything other than what I carried along inside me for years.

The writer, like my own north star, was there all along, voicing its guidance with that mantra. Now that I’m actually writing again, I still hear the voice. But instead of pleading and exhorting, the voice is cheerleading and celebrating every time I sit my butt at my laptop. It’s a good feeling.