Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Myth of the Perfect Summer


We expect so much from summer, don't we? Long, lazy, sunny days. Laid-back gatherings with family and friends. Time to both relax and check off all those items on the to-do list. Rain on our gardens but not our parades. Travel that is rejuvenating and also energizing. Music festivals and food truck festivals and Renaissance festivals and Irish festivals and wine festivals and...

Summer brings all those wonderful things, and more. But summer is nobody's patsy, and she has some tricks up her sleeve to make sure we don't get too comfortable. Mosquitoes, ticks, snakes, hailstorms, raucous neighbors, egg-frying heat, allergies, sunburns, houseguests that linger, and weeds. Oh, my heavens, the weeds. On a larger scale, many parts of the world are prone to extreme summer weather events that can be physically, emotionally, and financially exhausting.

Working parents must make arrangements to keep their school-aged children safe and supervised over summer break. Their stay-at-home counterparts feel obligated to fill the days with fun, enriching activities. Then there are the social media factors--Instagram and Facebook photos of exotic vacations, fabulous meals, and frosty cocktails that can make friends and followers feel as if they somehow missed the pleasure cruise. And let's not even get into the abominable concept of the "beach body."

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Creatively, summer can be hit-and-miss. I have writer friends who are quite productive during the warmer months, but many of us who have extra writing time on our hands sit and watch those very same hands struggle to produce...something. Anything.

If you sometimes feel that you're off your game during the summer, you're not alone. Summer Onset Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SO SAD, Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder, or Summer Depression) is a real thing. Some psychologists suggest a biological influence, with an excess of melatonin causing a decrease in serotonin. Others researchers point to a myriad of stressors that are magnified during the summer months: disrupted sleep, exercise, and diet; financial pressure; body image issues; and heat intolerance, to name a few.

Even though I don't have SO SAD (SO GROUCHY, maybe), I was relieved to read about it, because the middle of August and the impending back-to-school season is the time when I usually start kicking myself for all things I didn't accomplish. But this year, I'm going to give myself permission to accept that summer isn't perfect. And neither am I.

If you're north of the equator, how is your summer going?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

See You in August!

I have such a hard time being productive in late July that I decided to just go with it and take the last week of the month off. I will see you again in August and wish you all health and happiness until then!


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Ditching the Hitchhiker

See the source imageGreetings from my writer's virtual road trip! I'm pleased to report that I reached my first stop, which was to complete the first draft of a speculative fiction manuscript I've had knocking about in my head for a very long time. I'm a slow and not very prolific writer, so managing to accumulate nearly 80,000 words of what my critique group has promised me is not total garbage feels like a big deal. So I spent a day or two congratulating myself.

Then the hitchhiker showed up. It played out something like this:
(twenty-something female wearing white t-shirt and jean cutoffs slides into passenger seat)
Hitchhiker: Hey, you mind if I ride along?
Me: (by nature, almost pathologically polite) Sure, if you want to. There's room.
HH: Where are we going?
Me: I'm figuring that out. I just finished the first draft of a manuscript--
HH: Cool! Tell me about it.
Me: (suddenly self-conscious) Uh, it's a sequel to a novel I wrote a while back. It takes place in a near-future Earth setting, after fires...burned...a bunch of stuff. (shuts mouth before rambling nonsensically about aliens and/or unicorns, neither of which appear in said manuscript)
HH: (brushes neon-pink bangs out of eyes) Okaaay... So, is the first book published?
Me: No.
HH: (raises pierced eyebrow) You spent months of your life writing a sequel to a book that's not even published yet?
Me: (dabs sweat from upper lip) I guess so.
HH: Why?
Me: I wanted to see if I could do the story justice.
HH: (takes a long drink of her Mountain Dew Big Gulp) So, writing is a hobby for you?
Me: Not exactly. I mean, I'd like for it to be more than that. But it's a tough business. And a lot of us who write fiction accept that we don't it for the money.
HH: Pffft. Tell that to Stephen King.
Me: (forces a smile) He's kind of a special case.
HH: And JK Rowling. And James Patterson. And Jodi--
Me: I get it. And I do have a published novel. I'm just not very good at selling books.
HH: You have a kid in college, right? And another one soon to be?
Me: (not at all surprised that she somehow knows this) Yes.
HH: Don't you think it's time to give up this writing thing and get a real job?
Me: Maybe. (bumps head on steering wheel while trying to curl up in fetal position)

This is the mental space I've been in for a week or so. Fun stuff, right? The good news is, now that I'm older and hopefully wiser, it's slightly easier for me to shrug off the negativity and see the situation with a less critical eye. Gaining perspective is helpful, too. Have you ever looked out the rear window during a road trip--after a long, gradual incline, for example--and been amazed at how far you've come without even realizing it?

Image result for straight road
Even with perspective, I haven't been able to completely ditch the hitchhiker. But now at least she's taking a nap in the back seat, giving me some peace and quiet for figuring out my route ahead.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Declaring Independence

(Today's post appears in the book Write Away, A Year of Musings and Motivations for Writers, which I co-authored with Kerrie Flanagan.)

Happy Independence Day, everyone. Though July 4th marks the celebration of an American holiday, independence, as we’ve seen in such dramatic examples this year, is an idea that has no geographic or political boundaries. Independence inspires revolution and builds nations, but it works on a smaller scale, too. Fledglings seek independence from the nest. Kids seek independence from their parents. Cats seek independence from everyone.

In the spirit of the day, let’s all take a moment to declare independence from something that’s holding us back in our writing lives. Perhaps you belong to a critique group which doesn’t meet your needs, but you’re reluctant to call it quits because they’re such nice people—and the snacks are delicious. Or maybe you need to put a little distance between yourself and social media. It’s fun, and it can be useful, but it can also be a huge distraction. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m willing to bet that whatever your long-lost friend from third grade is doing these days, it’s not as important as your work-in-progress.

Today, I’m declaring independence from the word ‘never.’ I have nothing against the word itself—it’s a fine word that can have great dramatic effect. One of my favorite examples comes from the movie Batman Begins. The stately Wayne Manor, besieged by a gang of vigilantes, is burning. Bruce Wayne is trapped. After loyal butler Alfred (whose last name, by the way, is Pennyworth) dodges flaming debris to help rescue his billionaire boss, Bruce asks, “You still haven’t given up on me?”And Alfred replies, “Never.” Because Alfred is played by Michael Caine, it sounds like “Nev-ah.” Which makes it even better.

But many writers use ‘never’ in self-defeating ways. We say we’ll never finish our novels, never get published, never make any money, never get our big break. Used thusly, ‘never’ becomes a heavy anchor around the neck, and who has the desire or strength to carry that around all day? So I’m going to try and use ‘never’ only in contexts that I’m certain are true (e.g. I’ll never be 5’7” tall) or affirming (e.g. never give up). Take notice, all you negative nevers. I’m kicking you to the curb.

As for my old nemesis, chocolate, well, that truly is a case of never say never.

From what will you declare your independence today?

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

I'm Not Lost...I Just Don't Know Where I'm Going

I know that last time, I wrote about staycations, so forgive me if this post feels contradictory and/or redundant. But summer is road trip season, which has me reflecting on how fun it is to pack up the car and go exploring, despite my horrible sense of direction. Even with GPS and all the phone navigation apps, I can and do get lost. I read a news story a few years ago about a group of tourists who drove into the ocean because their GPS told them to, and I could completely relate.

Image result for Colorado Road Map Detailed

For me, there are two ways of feeling lost: not knowing where I am, and not knowing where I’m going. Sometimes they coincide, but not always. Last week, I realized that I’m aware of where I am and what’s keeping me busy, but I’m really not sure which direction I need to be heading. I’m feeling lost in a different sense. The “what am I doing with my life?” sense.

Partly this comes from being overcommitted. You know, when you’re busy with a hundred different things and feel like you’re not doing any of them justice? It’s very destabilizing and is starting to make me stressed-out and grouchy. So, I decided I should take myself on a metaphorical summer road trip and was amazed at how framing my problem in this way immediately made me feel more in control.

First, I need to map my route. I’ll spare you the boring details, but this basically entails breaking down my summer writing goals into a series of achievable steps. That’s not so hard, right? Add in a couple of side trips and stay flexible for detours, and barring any major breakdowns, I will be much farther along than if I stay put where I am, spinning my wheels.

Next, I should decide what to take. In addition to my own works-in-progress, I'll throw in a couple of novels I’ve been wanting to read, a memoir written by a friend, and a complete compilation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Wine, sure. (Sangria, maybe, as it is 98°F at my house today.) Chocolate, of course. And, hopefully, equal parts creativity and problem-solving.

Now, what not to bring. That matters, too. Taking a parka to Las Vegas in July, for example, is wasted effort and space. So, I'm sorry, social media. You don’t make the cut. I’ll check in once in a while so you know I'm alive and well, but you aren’t going to ride shotgun with me, sidetracking my mental energy. Same for you, online news outlets. Mindless scrolling through articles that somehow change every day but don’t change at all is not the best use of my time right now. It will all be there when I get back.

The point of this “trip” is to get my writing squared away, so it doesn’t matter than I won’t get much farther than my driveway. As my new blogger friend Karen of Profound Journey put it, writing is more an inner journey than an outer one. (Honestly, go visit Karen's blog if you haven't already. She will inspire you for all kinds of journeys!) 

What would you pack for your metaphorical road trip? What would you leave behind?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Taking a Writer's Staycation

Travel is great for writers. The more you see and experience, the more it informs your writing. But successful travel, especially with a family, depends heavily on the convergence of many factors, including work schedules, finances, school programs and projects, dog kennels, cat sitters, and how long it has been since someone in the household last threw up. It’s a miracle anyone goes anywhere. Especially if an airport is involved. (Thanks, TSA.)

Well, you think, drumming your itchy writer fingers on the table, the alternative to traveling is staying home, and what’s fun and inspiring about that? My answer is: nothing. Please go directly to YouTube and spend the next 7 ½ hours watching instructional videos for making decorative door wreaths out of the junk in your recycle bin.

If you didn’t take the bait, congratulations! You are a true writer and/or your recycle bin is empty. So I will share a little secret: you can find plenty to write about without jetting off to Reykjavik. In fact, I once spent the better part of three years doing one new thing in my hometown every week. It was a great way to renew my enthusiasm for my community, and it gave me lots of material.

If you’re interested in mining your location for inspirational nuggets, I have a few tips:

Research. Go to your local tourism website and print out a list of the top ten activities. Now, wad that into a ball and throw it on the floor for your cat to play with. Instead, pick up a real newspaper and a couple of those ubiquitous free arts and culture publications. Make a list of possible activities that will challenge you to stretch your imagination and comfort zone. If you’re anxious about going solo, find a willing friend/spouse/child to accompany you.

Ditch your car. No, don’t actually drive into a ditch. (Writers…so literal.)  Leave it behind and walk, which helps exercise both your body and your amazing powers of observation. Bring a notepad and camera (my preference) or use a smart phone to document your adventures. Pictures and notes are indispensable memory joggers when you finally quit procrastinating (ok, maybe that’s just me) and sit down to write.

Follow your nose. Venture into establishments you’ve never visited, and talk to people you encounter as you go out and about. Different neighborhoods, whether ethnic or not, often have vastly different vibes, especially in urban settings. Take advantage of the variety available in your area. Feel free to eat, drink, and be merry, all in the name of investigation.

Always mind your surroundings. Ra’s al Ghul’s advice to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins applies to all of us. Your safety is paramount, so don’t stray so far off the beaten path that you end up somewhere you shouldn’t be. If you really want to get nitty-gritty, schedule a ride-along with your local PD.

Now, get out there and find your inspiration! 

What tips would you add for infusing your writing with local flavor?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Lessons from a Mop

Image result for Steam MopI thought I'd give myself a week off from blogging after the A to Z challenge, and all of a sudden, it's been two weeks and counting. That's May for you!

Here's a not-very-interesting fact about me: one of my least favorite domestic tasks is cleaning the floors. I detest the whole "scrubbing on hands and knees" bit, and wrangling with a mop and bucket is only marginally better. Even the no-rinse cleaners seem to leave some residue behind, which my bare feet constantly try to detect and analyze. (Because apparently my feet don't have anything better to think about.)

Last week, I finally gave in and bought a steam mop, which uses only hot water to clean and sanitize. After I finished the floors in record time, with zero sticky feet, I held the mop tenderly in my arms and asked where it had been all my life.

The point of this tale of domestic drudgery is that it got me to thinking about the concept of working smarter, not harder. That familiar phrase is one of those business-speak platitudes I've largely ignored because I like to think I'm special and above such things. But now, thanks to my new best friend Moppy, I'm looking at my life and wondering how else I can work smarter, not harder.

(For the record, I do not believe that smart and hard are mutually exclusive. I suppose we should all endeavor to work smarter AND harder. But I'm not sure a mop can help me with that.)

So, I did what any diligent modern person does, and I googled "work smarter, not harder." Dozens of tips popped up. Many of them were familiar to me and might be to you, as well. Delegate. Follow up. Stay off the internet. Get a good night's sleep. Restrict how many times you check email. Understand the value of your time.

But a few jumped out at me as a bit more original and more pertinent to my lifestyle:

Make a "to-don't" list for things you shouldn't waste time on. I love this tip, which is credited to Tom Peters, because, for me, seeing something written down is much more effective than my usual nagging mental loop.

Carry a notebook and pen, because you never know when inspiration will strike. Hey, if it was good enough for Thomas Edison, it's good enough for me. Plus, I won't waste a lot of mental energy trying to remember all the ideas I forgot.

Be quick but don't hurry. This comes from famed UCLA coach John Wooden. It resonated with me because I know that when I'm doing something at a comfortably quick pace, I'm efficient and energetic. When I have to hurry, however, I feel a little frantic and get sloppy.

Establish opening and closing rituals for your work day. Give your brain consistent cues to tell it when to start work...and when to quit work and sneak off to watch The Handmaid's Tale.

Spend ten minutes a day laughing out loud. Laughter reduces stress hormones and increases oxygen to the brain, both of which do wonders for productivity.

All in all, these are easy things I can incorporate into my life, but I'm still open to suggestions. How do you work smarter, not harder?