Legacy, and Lack Thereof

A day ago, a friend asked me, “what is your biggest fear?”

I can’t typically answer that. When it comes to existential questions that want quantitative answers – what’s my [insert comparative word here] [insert mental or emotional process or list here]? – I’m not your gal. I’m a navel gazer, sure, but kind of a stupid one, with a tragically short memory. If some revelation about my own inner workings happens to stick, it’s by miracle of luck and timing, or it’s because I’ve repeated the same behavior enough times that even I’m annoyed by it.

So the question yesterday brought me up short. What I’m afraid of changes by the day. Afraid of the stuff I can’t see, just outside of my peripheral vision. Afraid I missed out on life by being such a careful teenager, so easily swayed by other people’s worry. Afraid I’m wasting my life. Afraid of pain. Not, oddly, afraid of death. Afraid enough not to poke my fingers in a light socket, I guess, but the impending eventuality of my own death at some unknown hour doesn’t bug me. (Edit: Actually, it does. Just… it’s complicated.)

For the first time, though, when asked a question that required me to quantify something so unformed, an answer appeared. It’s not new. Remember what I said earlier, about me and remembering personal revelations. I’ve had the same thought a few times, floated in and then out again, trailing nebulous terror.

I’m afraid of disappearing. Of leaving nothing behind. Of dying without professionally publishing a word.

It’s a pretty human thing to be afraid of. We elevate and cherish the legacies of other people. We tape quotes to our cabinet doors; make purses out of our favorite book covers; read biographies of actors and politicians and writers dead before we were born.

I have no children, and I plan to have no children. I’ll be a broken line in the family tree – an offshoot line; a period instead of a comma. My progeny will have to be something else.

For a long time, I’ve been a background coach for other writers, while I struggle with my own novels. I write, but nothing fruitful. Nothing finished. I’m a writer, not the author of.

In high school, I was blessed to have an English teacher who encouraged me to write fiction. Every year I took her class, I participated in a regional short fiction contest. We sweated at it time and again, editing, proofing and polishing a submission. And every year? Second place. Second place. Second place.

That’s what I’m afraid of. That’s my biggest fear. Living and dying with nothing but a veritable dump heap of out-of-date posters, several terrabytes of PSD files on someone else’s server, a handful of second place high school fiction, and an empty space where a book should have been.

So having recognized that, I’m going to fill the void. Put a book on the shelf. It feels like I spent the last few years fighting. The internal critic, the internal editor, the internal coward, the eternal procrastinator. I’m exhausted and I’m out of patience with it all, but it feels like maybe the writer’s stepped up. The writer in me is tired of wrestling with them, ready instead to flip them the bird and move on.

Whatever it takes this year, I’m finishing a book.

Parenting My Thirtysomething Self

I’d like to think of myself as an adult. An adult that buys anything with unicorns plastered on it and believes in ghosts, yes; but an adult. When it comes to anything that requires effort, discomfort, self sacrifice, commitment or responsibility; however, that adult persona wields about as much real influence as the mother of a tired toddler in the middle of a supermarket.

Go to the gym? You mean we have to do this AGAIN? A year into this I’m still overweight and my knees hurt and I don’t wanna.

Write? How is it that with all this technology I STILL can’t vomit my thoughts straight onto my laptop? I haven’t had a minute to myself all day and my work is crap and Netflix has documentaries on sushi and I don’t wanna.

Paint? My studio is six blocks away and it’s cold and the walk is cold and it’s lonely and I suck and I don’t wanna.

Get up on time for work? My bed is soft and warm and I’m sick of smiling at people when I don’t feel like it and I don’t wanna.

See what I mean? I’m not kidding myself here – getting my selfish, self-absorbed asshole self to do things that are tough doesn’t require responsibility or commitment or whatever other buzzwords my adult delusions want to throw at it. I have to parent this mulish idiot. Sometimes that’s reminding myself of the consequences – if I don’t scoop the litterbox the cat will just shrug and do her business on the library carpet. Sometimes it’s reminding myself of the positive outcome – if I write today, I’ll feel better; I like how easy it is to go up the stairs and that’s because of the gym.

And sometimes it’s just flat-out, unmitigated bribery.

Go to the gym for thirty minutes and you can spend time in the locker room hot tub. Write for thirty minutes and you can have that cupcake you’re lusting after in the fridge. Get up and shower quickly enough and you’ll have time to play a couple levels of Juice Jam. You can scroll through Pinterest for kitten pictures and misty country mornings for an hour if the inspiration will move you back into the story you’re revising. Get up out of your office chair and walk to the end of the hall and you can refill your coffee. Drink half of that liter of water and you can have another cup of coffee. Drive to the grocery store by yourself and you can get a lemon poundcake slice at Starbucks afterward. Call the doctor when your social anxiety has made you put the phone down eight times, and you can disappear into episodes of Chronicles of Shannara for as long as you want.

It works most of the time. It works because I’m still a messy animal with an animal brain that responds to the biological reward system like a champ. I can talk about the beauty of the creative process and the deep love I have of writing and design but I don’t come to those processes easily or willingly 85% of the time. It annoys me that it takes the promise of a huge McDonald’s iced tea to get me the fuck off the couch and to the art studio, but I know the gears get rusty and stuck and need the lubricant of bribery to get moving – but once they move, they’ll spin baby, spin.

Strangely, shifting my perspective to seeing my stubborn self as a child I have to parent has softened the way I treat myself. I’m not as harshly critical. When I’m irrational, instead of ordering myself to stop being irrational, I can shrug, find some amusement in my own stupidity, and work myself through the root of it without feeling guilty. We expect children to behave in ways we find ridiculous and unproductive, but we frequently don’t have such forgiveness for our own silly selves. Parenting myself is equal parts acceptance and hope: acceptance of my ridiculous behavior, and hope that next time I’ll come to the work with fewer promises of cookies and Bubble Shooter. It means not beating myself up for my failures – because I’ll be honest with you, sometimes all the threats and the promises of treats later just don’t work – and it means trying again later.

This doesn’t mean I’m allowed to scribble on walls (without permission) or throw tantrums on the floor of a department store when I can’t indulge in a pretty necklace. This means I’m allowed to feel the impulse and move through it with empathy. More often than not, we speak to ourselves with words we wouldn’t use even on an annoying stranger. Being nasty to myself doesn’t work, but the promise of a hot soak with a Lush bath bomb? Yep. Like a charm.

I’m no saint. I’m not a reliable creature of habit either. But I guess, so long as that freaking bucket of iced tea from the McDonald’s Drive-Through window still holds enough appeal to get my laptop open, I stand a chance of getting stuff done.

Nostalgia

Yesterday, a friend and I shared a long, rainy-day conversation about childhood. It was the sort of conversation I look back on with equal measures of hope and apprehension; did I do this right? Was I really listening? Did I say anything wrong? No matter what’s happened in later years, I acknowledge that the years I spent in the three-bedroom red rancher with my family were good ones. I coasted with a sense of permanence and safety, unconsciously certain that the little timber-lined neighborhood and its inhabitants would always be there.

If you’re lucky, reality is content to wait a few blocks northwest by the highway, until you take the right turn yourself and batter into it with a car full of boxes. Or maybe I wasn’t lucky; maybe those safe years left me unprepared. Maybe it doesn’t matter. They happened, here I am, with no love for small farm towns but a powerful attachment to Care Bears, tomato gardens, homemade pizza, and – the catalyst for the aforementioned rainy-day conversation – vinyl records.

My mother has an impressive collection of vinyl albums, purchased until the price and availability of vinyls became too challenging. When I was small, the turntable made a fixture in the living room, topping the silver-chrome layer cake of a stereo system. I was too short to set the needle, but I could make requests and Mom would fish the black platters from their sleeves: The Jets, The Bay City Rollers, The BeeGees, The Police. I knew the yellow cover of a ‘zany hits’ compilation album; my maternal DJ eventually put an embargo on “Snoopy Vs The Red Baron,” for everyone’s sake.

Time marches on. My parents updated the stereo to one with an eight-disc CD changer and no turntable; the old one relegated to the basement. I discovered a record store in a nearby city; my first purchase was Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits. I sat in the basement with the old record player, writing fiction in a yellow notebook, to be transcribed later on the brick of a Compaq Presario laptop. Then the old stereo heaved its last sighs and died, and our vinyl collection sat silent for years. Nobody sold new turntables then, at least nobody in reach of a tiny rural Illinois girl.

Shortly before I graduated from college, we got a new player. This one stood alone, linked into the entertainment center that now dominated the basement wall where the old stereo once lived. My record collection now included REO Speedwagon and Journey, but I burrowed away into a life online, writing characters that played violins and built homes with Drowish jewelers in fictional text-based roleplay worlds. I started my first job and two years later moved out, leaving my records at home. I wouldn’t own a turntable for another ten years, during which time my family crumbled and my life exploded into chaos. I’m not kidding or dramatizing; I actually had brain surgery at one point here.

There’s a chasm between me and that rosy childhood today. The memories of what it’s like to feel safe and permanent are across the way, reachable only in glimpses over the reality of a shattered family and the gaping blackness of mortality. It’s hard to feel safe when you know, really know, that you’re going to die. It’s hard to feel permanent when the roots of you were yanked from the ground on the way home from a movie. When you answered your brother’s phone call and heard that your sixty-something father was gone, having packed his belongings into his pickup and waited until a convenient moment alone to abandon you. When, in the messy year that followed, extended family dropped away from you like fighter jets, barrel-rolling out of formation, and you understood for the first time that anyone could leave at any time with no justification or warning.

But the records? They still play.

The yellow-jacketed vinyl exists, replete with cartoons of Snoopy and a woman in a too-small polka dot bikini. I have a turntable again, and new records have joined the old: Fleet Foxes, Billie Holliday, Bing Crosby, The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Mumford & Sons. And when I put on the needle, I have a thin line back to that sense of safety and permanence. It’s an illusion, gossamer and golden. I think that’s what ‘nostalgia’ is – a thin tissue imprint of a feeling swabbed out by experience and time. We can’t have it back forever, because it was never real in the first place. We can only visit it; let it filter our vision for the time it takes to drink a mug of tea and fold open an old yearbook; play a Doors tape; visit a childhood schoolyard.

Or, play a Billy Joel record.

2 Books to Get You Away From Netflix, and Back to Work

When I was at the start of consciously developing my writing – beyond fifth grade short novellas about my life as a puppy or Cinderella re-imagined with lions – I read every book on writing I could find. I read how-to writing books on everything from character and plot development to romance and mystery novel formulas. I read books on how to get published, although I think that was putting the cart a bit before the horse. Books on short story writing, on poetry, on autobiographies, historical fiction; I devoured them and currently? Remember none of them. I don’t recall ever putting any of their advice to practice, either. The reality of writing is that for many of us, it becomes exponentially more difficult when we attempt to follow someone else’s recipe card. The authors of these how-to-write recipes may be able to make their metaphorical casseroles work with crumbled potato chips on top – but that doesn’t mean your metaphorical casseroles will fail with buttered breadcrumbs instead.

The best thing a writer can do, second only to doing the actual work as often as they can, is read. Read other writers, both inside and outside our field of work. Reach for novels specifically because they’re not in our favorite genre; reach for an autobiography or other nonfiction and change gears completely. Experiencing other people’s voices, widely and voraciously, is a great way to develop our own voices. How-to writing books can help inform that voice and offer advice to help develop it, but no book is perfect and no book can teach us how to write just by reading it.

All that said, I do have two favorite stand-by advice books. These are light on the how-to and heavy on the ‘here-try-this.’ The authors are excited and impassioned by the craft and it shows on the page. One I use to broaden my scope, when I’m stuck in repetitive patterns of thought and writing habit. The other I use to tighten and add detail to ideas I have that are too broad to work with. They’re tools, no different than a good quality whisk. They can’t do the work alone, but added to your ingenuity, creativity and effort, they can help you take a flat and goopy piece of writing and fluff it into a sturdy, luscious meringue.

To Loosen Things Up:
Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg

Author’s website | Amazon

Natalie doesn’t believe in Writer’s Block, and neither do I. This book is a chunk of fresh focaccia – thin but a dense, chewy, and buttery delicious read. She weaves concepts of zen meditation and anecdotes from her life into short chapters that make for quick reading. This book was part of my curriculum when I took my first creative writing college course. I devoured it in a week before class even started, and held onto it when the rest of my texts went back to the bookstore. I look at Natalie as my private cheer coach, as the stereotypical trainer at the edge of the boxing ring ready to hand me a towel and a water bottle, splash my face, knead my shoulders and then shove me hard back out into the fray. I go to her when my writing feels stoppered up, or when my internal editor is making me binge episodes of The Crown instead of going to the page. If Natalie is good at one thing, it’s encouraging your wildest mind. Writing Down the Bones is a great resource to get your writing process started (or re-started); it assumes you’re here to get to work and it offers practical advice to get there. Natalie keeps me writing at coffee shops and kitchen tables instead of losing writing time searching for the perfect pens or the perfect writing desk. She offers suggested exercises at the end of chapters to get the reader off that stool at the corner of the boxing ring; to face down your internal editor and spit in their critical eye. She encourages setting up daily timed writing to build a healthy habit. But – for me – the best thing about this book is its insistence on not looking back as you go, and not judging yourself for your work. The time for editing is after the work exists. Write your first thoughts wildly, dig deep into your topics and write from where you are and don’t be afraid of what you want to write. It’s harder than ever to write fearlessly, and fear is stifling. If you’re struggling with getting words on the page, or fighting an internal editor that just won’t shut the heck up, this book might be of use to you. It’s blessedly short, so you can run through a chapter, and – shoulders thus kneaded – get back to your work.

To Tighten Things Up:
The Plot Thickens, by Noah Lukeman

Author’s website | Amazon

Character development. Ugh. Some of us are good at it, and some of us; well. We try. We try really hard. When I’m making characters, I run hot and cold – too broad, or too myopic. Characters run on one trait alone, or on too many, with no particular reason for stringing them together other than “I’m presently interested in x topic.” Or, I develop one side of their life but the rest – their family, their education, their health, their job – remains a mystery while they’re off fighting the good fight or raising unicorns or whatever it is they do.

Noah’s book is jam-packed with tools to get you on the road to good, rich characters. Again, think of this book like a set of good lugwrenches, or a stick blender with multiple heads – it can’t do the work for you but it can help you make better, smoother stuff. Noah’s got years under his belt as a literary agent. He’s read a lot of novels that never made it past the slush pile, and this book is the result of that reading. It’s divided up into sections – The Inner Life, The Outer Life, etc. – and instead of giving me suggestions, he gives me questions. I’m a constant listmaker, and so if I’m stumped on a character or having a bad case of Blank Page Anxiety, I pull out this book and start answering questions about the work. It’s not a be-all, end-all book on characters, either. Sometimes doing something as simple as completing one of Noah’s character questionnaires will spur me off on a tangent that I needed, but my ferret mind was avoiding.

The other fabulous thing this book does is offer good working examples. In his section on building conflict, Noah does what I love most about this book: he offers pop media examples. You’ll find references to classic and blockbuster movies when he talks about character and plot conflict. You can easily look up the examples he gives and check them out yourself, which I adore. I’m a fan of picking apart the works I love to see why an element worked well and caught my attention. Plus, Noah’s voice in this book is so conversational. He’s not trying to impress you, but get you back to your work as soon and as productively as possible. I pick it up when I’m intimidated by a character or when I can tell my scope for a novel idea is getting unapproachable. Like Writing Down the Bones, it’s a relatively short read with nice, easily digestible chapters that don’t require previous chapters for context. You can pick up this book anywhere, look up what you need right now, put it down again and get back to work.

Which, in the end, should be the point of any good writing tool.

Light

I live as much as I can in the half light.

I can’t think straight in bright rooms and on clear sunny days. I can’t sleep in complete darkness. The day leaves afterimages on my tired eyes, which play havoc with my PTSD.

Writing happens in the filtered gray gloom of the library research stacks, and in the dusk of an evening bedroom. I write in the morning, when I’ve had enough coffee. In the fall, in the stormlight of September and November. The Golden Hour – a brief time period in the evening adored by photographers everywhere – is a signal to my exhausted brain that now, it can take a fifteen-minute break from vigilance.

I work in a fluorescent jungle. I’ve asked for a lid on my cubicle. They thought I was joking.

Something is different; however, in the respective brain processes for design work and writing. Something about design pulls me forward, outside and past my anxiety and my stray thoughts. Would it betray me too much a hipster to reference Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transparent eyeball here?

Too bad.

I read Emerson’s essay Nature in junior high school, sandwiched between The Most Dangerous Game and excerpts from A Separate Peace. The essay, in turn, sandwiched in among my memories; compressed until all the good nutritious filling oozed together to a paste. To one turn of phrase: transparent eyeball; an entity devoid of self but for the work and the observation of the work. Professionals sometimes call it flow.

And writer me, reaching for words in the half light, would give a lot for flow. I sidle around this anxiety, my ferret mind alert and squirming with worries.

Writing used to be easier. But the flipside of all this is a new notice of light. My brain went rogue in the middle of an August afternoon. A year later, struggling to juggle another adrenaline rush and a thought process like a high-strung horse, I noticed the light. August afternoon light is the worst thing in the world, with its sharp edged cold shadows and dry sunbaked yellows. It’s horrid, when you’re me, with a blood-blurred, time-fogged memory as certain as a frightened horse. Demons lurk in the cool blue shadows sliding away from a midwestern August town.

It’s odd to think about how I hate August now, after twenty-odd years of ambivalence. Schoolkid me saw it alternately as another month of freedom, and the start of summer’s end. Me today, knuckles white on the wheel, sees mortality slouched against the hot brick of a Main Street convenience store. If I die, it’s probably gonna be in August.

November is better. Daylight Savings Time shifts the light, changing the shapes of the shadows I see from behind the wheel. More often, I catch the sun through canopies of glowing leaves. These are the last weeks of fall – but the ginkgo and the sugar maple have clung to their gilt scarves as if just for this. The bright yellow fans flicker like snow, pushed out of their branches at last by the impatient wind. I was born in June, but my soul remembers November first, with its long dry blues, streaks of orange and flashes of gold.

It’s in this time of year when my anxiety-soaked brain rests. The great sweeps of storms have gone, the barometer and thermometer march a slow descent to frost and snow. I can peel my whitened knuckles from the steering wheel, take a softer grip on all things, and savor the waning light.

6 Best Podcasts for Writer’s Block

If you’re like me, writer’s block is like the chip aisle at the grocery store. You had no plans to be here, you know you’d be better off not being here, and yet somehow, here you are. Of course, if you’re like me, you may well be standing here perusing those cans of Pringles (“Whose definition of ‘loaded baked potato’ does this flavor adhere to?”) and Funyuns (“Pretty sure these are made out of fiberglass shards. And deliciousness.”) BECAUSE of your writer’s block. Believe me, I get it. I’ve regret-eaten a bag of high-salt feelings because I couldn’t get words on the page more than once. If you made a pie chart of my writing habits, the ‘eating my feelings’ wedge is roughly the same size as the ‘tumblr’ and ‘discouraged napping’ wedges combined.

But you have writer’s block. Instead of Pringles, you’d rather chew into your daily wordcount. Below is a list of crunchy, mentally nutritious podcasts to snack on when the blinking of your cursor seems openly mocking. These podcasts are mostly short, 100% free and can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, Podbay, and most podcatching apps as well as on their native websites.

1. The Journeyman Writer Podcast

Official Website

Put on by Alastair Stephens (with frequent guest appearances by Lani Diane Rich) of Storywonk, The Journeyman Writer is a podcast under 10 minutes about all things writing. Alastair’s topics run the gamut and are frequently guided by questions received from other writers, about characterization, plot development, developing good writing habits, inspiration, and more. This podcast hits the very top of the list because it makes me WANT to write whenever I listen, even if I’ve been in a long slump – maybe it has something to do with Alastair’s encouraging “Go write!” that wraps up each installment. The Journeyman Writer has a healthy backlog of episodes available for the new listener, and new podcasts come out a couple times a week.

2. The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor

Official Website

The Writer’s Almanac is a short, daily podcast narrated by Prairie Home Companion favorite Garrison Keillor (who just retired this year). This podcast features a daily poem and tidbits about authors and poets born on that day. Maybe it’s the magic of Keillor’s mellow voice, or the truly stellar and diverse poetry selections, but this one wakes up my writer’s brain. It helps me calm and focus, especially if I’ve been struggling fruitlessly against a vicious internal editor. Like The Journeyman Writer, The Writer’s Almanac has a truly vast library of episodes to choose from. Search for a poet you like or just start at a random month.

3. The Moth

Official Website

From its website: “Since its launch in 1997, The Moth has presented thousands of stories told live and without notes. Moth shows are renowned for the great range of human experience they showcase. Each show starts with a theme, and the storytellers explore it, often in unexpected ways.” The Moth is a podcast with a typically longer format, but you can listen to individual stories on the website, and compilation episodes frequently feature breaks between performers so you can cut down how long you’re away from your work. The Moth is about the human voice in a big way. The storytellers of The Moth are frequently the person who directly experienced or witnessed the story unfold – and you have no video of them, no visual cues. So in a way, listening to The Moth is a good way to learn how voice can distinguish a character. Listen to someone’s story and think about how you responded to them based on their word choices, their voice quality, and the way they narrated their own experience.

4. The News from Lake Wobegon (from A Prairie Home Companion)

Official Prairie Home Companion Website (with links to retrieve just this segment)

While all of PHC is fabulous, I specifically focus on Lake Wobegon because of the narrative prose and length. The News from Lake Wobegon segment is 10-15 minutes and relayed in a chummy storyteller fashion by Garrison Keillor (I know, I love him, sorry not sorry). It’s a perspective switch; as if you’re sitting down with Jim Qwilleran at a cafe counter in Pickaxe for a little beautifully editorialized insider town gossip. The voice is fluid and poetic, frequently funny and occasionally lyrical. Yes, you can be lyrical about ice fisherman and the dating life of a small town Minnesota pastor.

5. Radiolab

Official Website

From their own website: “Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” That sounds pretty hipster, and it is, but Radiolab (in my opinion) takes itself just seriously enough while still maintaining a good flow and conversational tone. Their format is what I like best: NPR-style editing that integrates audio from external interviews into the primary broadcast; not just the interviewee’s own words but sometimes birdsong, traffic, crowd noise, etc. Radiolab paints rich sensory pictures with audio while talking about unfamiliar concepts, cultures, and events. Each episode is themed and broken into more manageable parts; the hard part is stopping and going back to your page!

6. Podcastle

Official Website

Podcastle features short fantasy fiction from a wide variety of authors. They periodically take submissions, and also curate short fiction from award-winning writers in the fantasy genre. What you get here is a big, diverse selection of narrative voices and story concepts, but beware – Podcastle fiction can run long and take a big chunk of your day, plus not all of the work may be to your taste. I like to listen to Podcastle work when I’m too wrought up to write and just need a distraction and an engagement of my writer brain. The work published here is frequently challenging and never run-of-the-mill. If your tastes run more towards Science Fiction, try Escape Pod. For horror, consider Pseudopod.

 

What are some of your favorite resources for combating writer’s block?

Scrambling For Words

I don’t know what to write. I’m here, in this great open space, and I feel claustrophobic because the words won’t come to my whistle.

I’m surrounded by greatness. By bloggers with concise words and a clear goal and helpful things to say. And here I am, groping after words, quivering at the curb while I wait for the great gust of wind to fill me and push me on down the street. I don’t know what to write. I feel fake, without history or emotional weight, like the ‘quilt’ on my bed that I am sitting on. It’s not really a quilt; it’s a top sheet printed to look somewhat like a quilt. It has a layer of batting and a bottom sheet and it’s been sewed together with a machine’s precise curves and it’s very… autumnal.

It was cheap. I wanted a quilt. I wanted a thing that reminded me of something made by hand, or by many hands. I forget that all of the pieces of this duvet were turned out under the hands of someone, that someone, a lot like me, designed the ‘quilt’ that was printed onto white fabric with orange and red and yellow and brown inks. Maybe someone in a Phillipino or a Thailand factory guided the sewing machine around and around over the top of it. This quilt has emotional weight, then, but I don’t know what it is.

I’m whining. I’m whining because I feel empty. When I whine, my sentences always include ‘I,’ as if I had some control over any of this. Me first, melodramatic me, knuckles to the forehead like a Greek tragedy, sighing about the torments of creative writing. The book says this is supposed to make me feel compassion, that writing from my pain will make me feel tender towards the concrete and the cracked grass blowing between the slabs of the sidewalk.

Instead I feel angry. I’m frustrated with the here and now, when I have three stories and two books waiting and all I can seem to churn out is more self-pitying crap. It’s not even good self-pitying crap. It’s not even kind of good. It’s not the wild-eyed wounded animal noises I flatter myself I can make when I’m struggling.

It’s just unadulterated crap. A ragbag of phrases and ideas that stuck, that raise their edges from the murk when I stir it all tonight in a stretch for 500 words on anything. This isn’t compassion, this is desperation and I’m marinating in it.

I don’t have any organized self-help words tonight, or cheerleading, or hope, or personal challenges, or any of the shit I’d like to post. Like some kind of pro-am novelist with Things to say and a burning, lurid prose in which to say them. I don’t have any of that. I just have all this pent-up frustration at not enough time and not enough good ideas and an internal editor with a sphincter clenched so tight it’s amazing I can write a sentence, let alone 500 words.

But hey, here I am at 512.

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Note to Self: Make Time

Fluffy gray kitten on the black and white keys of a piano.

Yo, self. Listen up.

Whatever the activity, if you want to get better at doing it, you have to make time regularly and do the thing. This applies to everything from cooking and archery to maille, writing, and art. I hear it applies to golf, but that shit still looks like equal parts luck and magic to me.

I hate making time. Unless your passion is a team sport, it can be a pretty solo act. Making time means being surrounded by social creatures who want a share of your time and saying “Sorry, I need to be alone right now to Do The Thing.” It’s giving up other activities because the thing you want to get better at requires more than an hour of your time.

Making time also requires that you get used to sucking on a regular basis. We don’t practice to remind ourselves that we’re brilliant at it. We practice because our failures are part of how we try new approaches, test theories, and perfect our craft. So great, on top of telling your significant other that you’ll be going to your studio at least three hours a week to paint, you have no guarantees that you’ll produce anything of quality in those hours. In fact, it’s highly likely that you won’t.

But you have to do it.

Not Doing The Thing will leave you at a point of stagnation. As a piano student of nine years, I’ve got a bitter shot of truth for you: there’s no guarantee your studio hours this week will make you ‘better.’ At least not in the quantifiable, justifying-this-to-my-spouse kind of way. But if you don’t go at all, the odds of improvement went to nil.

And if you do go, this week, next week, the week after and beyond – you absolutely will get better.

I Should…

  1. Not blame others when I don’t Do The Thing.
    Your significant other, your children, your pets are not responsible for you Doing The Thing. They aren’t responsible for getting out of your way or facilitating your space. If you didn’t Do The Thing today, it’s not their fault – don’t take it out on them.
  2. Start small.
    If you’re struggling to carve out that hour, try fifteen minutes instead. Hell, try five. Make sure you figure in your travel time, if you have to go somewhere else to practice. If you can fit in this much time, add another five, ten, fifteen minutes. If that works, add more. If not, do what you can. Feel accomplished for the work that you did do.
  3. Set a pattern and keep it.
    Do The Thing at as regular a time as you can. This will help your creativity to come when you whistle, but it also gives you a set time to mark as ‘yours,’ and schedule around.
  4. Learn how to say no.
    Time is the sacrifice you make for your passion. That may mean you can’t see the movie on premier night, can’t do that day trip this weekend, or have to say no to an impromptu drink with friends. Ultimately, the decision to say no is about your commitment to your craft. Remind yourself that you don’t need to feel guilty about occasionally saying no.
  5. Manage my time better.
    Unless you’ve wrestled that Time Turner away from Hermione Granger, there’s no way to magically add time to your day. You have a job, familial obligations, self care requirements to fulfill. Those things you may not have any control over. But when you have free time, manage it wisely. Sometimes, you’re going to walk six blocks chasing Pokemon. You totally should, it’s fun! But consider how much time you spend checking social media accounts. How many hours you blow feeding your herd of digital horses. How much time can you invest somewhere else?
  6. Learn how to say yes.
    When you’re not Doing The Thing, then commit 100% to Not Doing The Thing. It’s okay to binge three episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It’s okay to spend two hours playing Alpha Bear or Bubble Shooter. It’s okay to have dinner with your aunt, bake cookies with your spouse, go see a movie and not Do The Thing. Guilt and anxiety about not Doing The Thing will keep you from relaxing and fully enjoying what you’re doing. Remind yourself that you need downtime. You’ll come back fresh to Do The Thing another time.
  7. Practice ‘smart,’ not ‘hard.’
    An old adage from my piano teacher. Much of learning music can be simplified into recognizing patterns and chord structures, rather than reading every note on the staff. Once I understood the patterns, I could often intuit where the harmony would go next. What constitutes ‘smart’ practice is different for every discipline, but boils down to this: develop good habits that work for you. Read up on how folks in your discipline hone the craft. Figure out what learning style you connect with the most. What slows you down when you sit down to practice? Can you approach that another way?

Good luck, buddy. We’re in this together. I know you can do it.

Making A Start

First things first, as they say.

At the age of 18, I was one hell of a blogger. It may have been filled with personal drama, college woes, and high-pitched noises about sundry manga, but it happened daily. I was also writing fiction like a freakin’ freight train. If freight trains wrote fiction. Maybe they do? I’ve heard some things about the Island of Sodor.

Anyway, not so much now – on either count. And that’s the thing, the goal of this whole business. So here’s the deal: I’ll write a few hundred words on whatever strikes my fancy, and hope that the writing bug – whose bite I’ve grown increasingly immune to of late – will take hold again.

Hello, I’m Jen. I’m a writer.

(Psst. This is where you drone ‘Hello, Jen.’ We’re in this together now. Suffering as a team.)

I’m in my thirties, I’m a full time in-house graphic designer for an Iowa resort. What does that mean I do? That’s perfect fodder for another post. We’ll get there.

I’m an avid reader with a veritable swamp of books I haven’t gotten to. I’m an artist with a studio I don’t get to more than once a month.

Right now, I’m struggling with personal fitness, and that struggle is so freakin’ real. This blog will probably contain quite a bit of whining about food and resistance training and how twenty minutes on the elliptical kicks my ass.

I managed to win NaNoWriMo once! Come November, I may be diving into that time-consuming, glorious hell of self-depreciation. Last year wasn’t a win, but maybe this year will be.

I live with and manage situational anxiety and PTSD. Fodder for yet another blog post! I’m on a roll! Some days go better than others. Today’s a good day. Meditation and exercise are my buddies. My temperamental, elusive, exhausting buddies.

I have three cats. They’ll probably feature as well, because I mean what writer with cats doesn’t write about their cats eventually? I think it’s mind control. I’ve been conditioned by cats to bend to their will since birth.

I’m a teaphile. Teaophile? Whatever. Tea nerd. I love the stuff. I make custom blends. I have tea nerd friends. It’s pure caffeinated herby awesome.

I also love to cook. I’m vegetarian – well, striving for it anyway – which can be an adventure in the freakin’ pork capital of the USA. Some whining about that will probably feature eventually.

So here we are. Here’s to more frequent blogging! Here’s to maybe writing a book! Or at least finishing a first draft. We’ll start with low expectations of each other and see how that goes.

I like legal notepads, blue gel pens, and Scrivener. Glad to meet you! Hope you’ll stick around a while. ❤