What you must not ever do

You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility of your life.
— Mary Oliver

Oh, easy to write, Mary Oliver.

Tough to do!

I am a sucker for quotes about "living your best life." Even if they are on bumper stickers. 

These last few months I feel like I've been struggling with this be-lighthearted/be-accountable framework. Two months ago I finished the first draft of my book (Woot! Woot!) Then once the euphoria settled down, I got busy planning the next phase of work: 1) plug up some research gaps in my book, and 2) focus on how to market myself as an author. I'm taking a virtual 3-month marketing course to guide me.

But the book's not done!  Why would I be marketing now?

Because in today's age of jillions of books being published (tons of self-published as well as those through traditional publishers) -- if I hope to be read -- it would help to figure out who my potential reader is now, and find out what's important to her/him, and to begin to show up where they are.

So, I've been experimenting with things like:

  • Reading books in my historical fiction genre and posting reviews of them in Goodreads and Amazon and Library Thing websites.

  • Following, liking and sharing/retweeting other women's fiction authors on social media

  • Tweeting and hash-tagging topics that align with my book's message like #progress and #inspiringwomen 

  • Teaching a how-to tactical workshop on "jump-starting your art" at my former employer

To be honest, this last idea, sharing steps on how to follow the creative yen that pulls at you, felt pretty far afield of marketing my book. I mentioned it briefly in my last newsletter. The workshop was all about the process of getting started. My book was just a frame of reference. And, frankly, I wondered whether I was credible. I mean, the book's not done yet. Does that make my title of "author" a sham?

Still, I just liked the idea: Sharing a story with others of how to pursue the art that tugs at them. 

Taking a step to being true to yourself.

So, when I drove down the highway to teach the workshop, I'd stamped down the "you're an impostor" demons enough to be cheerful. Traffic was light, the sky a bright clear blue. Thank goodness that day was "business casual" -- I'd recently gleefully donated away my suits and heels. And after a late dash to a Fed-Ex print shop the night before (my printer quit working), I had colorful handouts in my bag. I'd practiced a little; I'd controlled as much as I could.

Now what was left was completely unknown: Would my story connect with the 10 people that signed up? Would the journey I've followed to be a writer be relevant to them?  Would one hour be the right amount of time? 

(Would I be boring?)

I find the conference room, and women and men begin arriving. There's been a last-minute flurry of sign-ups: 14 hurry into the room, plus four more call in to a conference line. Gulp. I have just enough handouts! There's a little bustling of introductions, then we settle in. "Let's get started," I say, "Would each of you share the creative thing that pulls at you? Why are you here? What art are you trying to jump-start?"

A beat or two of silence.

Then the magic begins.

Imagine sharing an idea you've barely given yourself permission to think, let alone, say aloud. At first, the voices are self-conscious: "I have a knack for scrap-booking. Making cards" and "I paint with oil, like to draw with charcoal." Whispers. "I love design -- gardening and interior design." A throat clears, "I've had this screenplay in my head." Words spill out jumbled together, "Theater and dance and photography." A glance up, just enough for eye contact, "I love woodworking." 

A few people use words of identity --  "I am a singer" and "I am a writer" -- they've crossed the threshold of doing their craft and now look to keep going.  A few are at the very beginning, "I've always liked photography."

Ah, and so right away I learn the hour is not about me. The content takes on a unique life to each person because the steps I share are like water to the unique seeds of each individual's deeply rooted creative expression. I needn't have worried about being authentic. The authenticity lies within each workshop participant and the steps they choose that make sense to them.

We laugh. Lightheartedness lifts the room. It's so joyful. It's as though fragile ideas are forming into skeletons and with each step in the process, a little more sinew and muscle and blood forms. It is really fun.

And it is really hard. Each individual in that room and on the conference line has demanding careers and an absorbing family life and lots of life obligations. My hope was that just seeing a path forward to do their art -- opening up the possibility, whether they choose to walk it now, or later -- is a step forward in itself.

Wow, the hour flew by. 

Here are a few of the comments I received later:

"I thought that the workshop was inspiring...The biggest goal that I have for my family is to find more time for joy. It's funny how things like that tend to slip when you're busy with the daily grind."  

"It really lit a fire under me as well has motivated me even more to perfect my craft. I went home and told my husband about how much I enjoyed your work shop and had a whole discussion surrounding your statement, 'I wish I'd had the courage to live true to myself, not the life others expected of me.' "


I'm grateful for these thoughts, but in getting back to how this whole experience got started... was the workshop a worthwhile marketing strategy for my book? Well, I...

  • Made 1:1 personal connections with others who now know about my book - Win!

  • Feel grateful for the progress I've made so far on the book - Win!

  • Have three more invitations to do similar workshops in the future - Win!

  • Recognize I am not a "sham" 

Big win.

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Never mind the baby will be in Flagstaff -- he'll be a Cardinals fan! Meanwhile I try on my first "Fabulous Grandma" t-shirt...you bet I am.

How I'm Writing the Book
Filling in Research Details - Found a cool new book on our trip to Washington DC's National Gallery, The Vincent Van Gogh Atlas. It's full of info bits. For instance, since the time period is the late 1800's I'd wondered whether it was OK for my protagonist, Jo, to send a letter and receive a response in just a few days. Turns out because of the telegraph and rapidly growing train network in some cities (like Paris where she lives) the postman made as many as four deliveries a day! 
Trave
Books on Strong Women by Female Authors - Please, please pick up Teri Case's, In the Doghouse. Perfect summer reading. A dog is the main character and he is trying his dogged-hardest to patch up a human romance. Behind this silly premise and funny story is a gifted storyteller's warm wisdom about loss, family and love. (The dog is a dude; his human is a woman who ultimately finds her own strength.)

Would you share your summer reading recommendation with me?

Personal Stuff
Last week my husband and I took off to visit our Son and Daughter and their Significant Spouses (I first wrote, "Significant Others," but that phrase --  "Others" -- makes them sound like aliens, right?!)  Our visit to our Son was a flight to Flagstaff to attend a baby shower for soon-to-appear First Grandson. The other was a 24-hour Daughter birthday-blur drive to Kansas City and back. We DO NOT SEE THEM ENOUGH, so each visit is super fun.

Also...since the drive to KC is 3-1/2 hours each way, I brought along the hard-copy of my manuscript to thumb through and make sure I'm capturing all my research questions. Thirteen chapters to KC; 13 chapters back. At the end of reading and making the last of my margin notes, I closed the 4-inch binder and said to my Husband, "You know. I think this is a pretty good story!" It's been awhile since I actually read it page-to-page. 

By the way, if your interest is piqued on taking the marketing course, Dan Blank's Mastermind, registration is now open for the July - September time-frame. 

Let me say goodbye for now with another lovely quote from poet Mary Oliver. 

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Wildly,

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What to cut and what to keep

I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil. 
-Truman Capote

I read that novelist Truman Capote worked only from lying down on a couch, writing and revising by marking up his pages with a pen. He'd start out with a cup of coffee by his side in the morning. Then switch out the coffee cup for a glass of sherry in the afternoon, and end the day with a martini. 

He was a prolific novelist, screenwriter, short-story writer, and playwright. Breakfast at Tiffany's and the nonfiction In Cold Blood are among his well-known works. Surprising to think he wrote them all on his back like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. 

I'm revising now; maybe I should try that.

Perhaps lying down would actually settle me enough to focus.

Here it is the end of April -- it feels like one blink and the days on the calendar whipped up a froth and now the suds are settling down and it's a month later already. April's slipping away with a big sucking noise.

I have MEANT to do so many things. Start on the revision, rethink my marketing, read and review more books. Instead my desk is a mess of iterative notes and lists and calendars and intentions and hashtags and spreadsheets.

Yes, shockingly to this English-major mind, a SPREADSHEET has reared its little digit head. Because now that the first draft of the manuscript is done I've entered a new phase. The Stage of Reason: logic and structure and analysis and fact-checking.  I've gone through all 26 chapters of the manuscript to note details I want to verify. Imagine 396 rows on an Excel spreadsheet filled with phrases like, "Were Montmartre's streets cobblestone or dirt?"

It's hard to settle down. I mean is fact-checking really writing? The restlessness has been like an undercurrent flowing against me, an invisible resistance making it challenging to move forward and progress.   

And it's come out of nowhere. A big dip down from the euphoric high I felt completing the first draft.

Here's what I think: After so many months of a tight routine of focus to get the story down, when I finally finished and mentally let loose, a flood of pent-up thought rushed forward. Many of the voices are negative: Who are you to think you can write a book? Look at all the other people around who have published dozens of books. You've started too late. You don't know enough. No one knows who you are. No one will care.

Have you ever felt like this, an impostor?

Other mental voices needle that I'm not doing enough: I should update my website. I should gather essays and create a digital giveaway. I should post more online. I should become a speaker. I should update my photos. I should find more collaborators. I should, should, should.

Have you ever felt like this, paralyzed with so many next-actions you can't choose one?

Clearly, something had to give. And, finally, it was this week that I think I broke through the mess into a way forward to silence the negative, spinning thoughts. Two cool sources gave me the perspective to connect the dots. 

  • Love vs. Commerce.  I heard a podcast interview with Brian Heiler, a guy who runs a thriving online community dedicated to 1970's toys and pop culture. His motive is love not money, and in the interview (by Dan Blank), he observes how art and commerce have gotten mashed together so that often collectors get obsessed with what an item is worth, keep it in pristine condition and close it up behind cellophane, and end of obscuring the joy the item. TV shows on finding treasure in abandoned storage units or getting a pawn shop to estimate the worth of an old keepsake have created a culture where value is all about the bucks. The message is that commercial success is the yardstick for true value. So, by taking in this message, a frenzy to build an audience of potential readers or to attract thousands of social-media followers clouded the reason I'm doing this. 

My purpose for writing the book -- the joy and love for crafting an important story -- is shoved aside and forgotten. No wonder I felt like an impostor. 

  • Live True to Yourself. The second nudge on this topic came from a blog post on Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware, who worked for many years in palliative care, most often with people expected to die.  In 2009 she wrote the first article on this topic (others have come along since.) Gathered from her conversations with those she was caring for, she shared the five most frequent regrets from people who knew they were dying. The most common regret struck a chord with me: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. 

This is how Bonnie explained it: "This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made."

Reading this statement quieted my spinning demons. I am not in a race; I am pursuing a choice that feels true to myself. Yes, I can improve my website and change my communications, etc., etc.,  but these can be an outcome of the love I have, not an obligation to my marketing sense.

I am calmer.

I hope the restlessness is gone, but, in a way, I'm grateful. The distraction and anxiety forced me to keep searching and listening for what I needed to hear. That's what revision is, right? Deciding what to cut away and what to keep.

I'm keeping the love.

Signs of spring... a pink snowfall after an April shower and the opening of baseball season. (This is a poster soon-to-be-hung in the Baby's room -- YES -- see below!)

Signs of spring... a pink snowfall after an April shower and the opening of baseball season. (This is a poster soon-to-be-hung in the Baby's room -- YES -- see below!)

How I'm Writing the Book
 Filling in the Gaps: My goal is to finish fact-checking and making little corrections from my book coach by Memorial Day. This will prepare me to do a proper manuscript audit to figure out what I need to cut out since the book's a little long. Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. I hope you find your way to A Matter of Chance by Julie Maloney. It is a beautiful, heart-rending tale of a daughter's kidnapping, and the vivid, intense, close-to-crazy experience inside Maddy, the mom's head. The whole time I imagined, "If it was me..." with all the anguish of never, never, never giving up hope for a vanished daughter. Police detectives. Russian Mafia. New York streets. Exquisitely desperate. 

Personal Stuff
My Son and Wife are expecting a BABY! End of July. I told my Husband that instead of "Nana" or "Grandma" I want to be called "Lolly" so he could be "Pop." So our Son can say to the Baby, "Lolly Pop is coming!" Ha! (My Husband is not amused.) A final word from Capote: 

The brain may take advice, but not the heart.  

Cut away!

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Hey, partner!

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. 
-Duke Ellington

Oh, wow, two days. Only two more days of work! Unbelievable.

I am swinging between anticipation (freedom!) and trepidation (what will retirement be like?)

The workaholic in me is wringing her hands... will I be bored? Waste my time? I know of other retirees that have struggled with finding a new routine and being happy when their jobs ended. 

Will I procrastinate on my self-promises like cleaning out the storage room, tossing all the mate-less socks, or starting a new workout routine? All are waiting in the wings for "as soon as I retire." 

I've started to think fondly about the revolving-door entrance to my company's building: "Just a few more days of entering here." 

Ha!

This past week I had lunch with a friend I met 22 years ago when I began my first job in the company's equity research area. Chris and I bonded quickly. Behind our titles of supervisory analyst (Chris) and editor of the client newsletter (me) we were both moms, about 10 years older than the majority of the either single or childless research analysts. We could laugh at how our younger colleagues would marvel at our calm in the office. "An emergency is not the fax machine breaking, " we'd agree. "A real emergency is taking the kids to the ER!" 

Over the years our career trajectories took us in different directions. Exchanging stories over lunch Chris reminded me about past conversations when she'd pull up a chair in my cubicle, I'd swing my chair around to face her and we'd talk about our passions. Chris loved volleyball. She went on to coach each of her three kids who all continued with the sport in college, especially her daughter who played internationally as a professional. 

Chris reminded me that I used to talk about writing a book. "I did?" "All the time."

What happened? Somehow, over the years, the dream kept getting pushed to the back of the line. The intellectual and emotional pull of work with its unending gauntlet of planning and projects and politics kept up a constant pressure. Family life roller-coastered. I marveled at my sister's career as a teacher with its miraculous summer breaks. There never seemed to be the mental room to push back against others' expectations in order to find the space to imagine something else. 

And I enjoyed my work. It was engrossing and challenging until a few years ago, when, imperceptibly at first, my interest began to ebb. I started to think about experimenting outside of my job. 

It was 11-1/2 months ago when I took a small step. Earlier in the year self-doubt had brought my writing to a skidding halt. But, in December, I remember thinking, "I can't expect anything to change unless I do something different." So I signed up for a 3-month virtual class dedicated to how to be a creative professional -- whether in writing, music or art.  Each day we'd connect via the virtual meeting platform, Slack, on a daily topic and learn from each other -- how people approached their days, removed obstacles and took practical steps. From January to March I was mostly a listener.

In April - I re-upped for another three months and during this period swallowed my doubts and re-started my blog, telling myself I need to do (write) what I say I want to be (a writer). I decided to do a public 100-day Challenge to write for 30 minutes/day and post proof on Instagram. I bought a selfie stick. 

In our Slack group when I shared the story of Johanna van Gogh and how it was her persistence that brought Van Gogh's art to worldwide recognition and how I wanted to find a story "like that" to write, one of the members cheerfully wrote, "Or you could write that one!" 

I could write that one. 

In July I re-upped for another three months of the virtual class, finished the 100-day Challenge (here's the video) and traveled to Amsterdam and Paris, two of the settings for the book. I started reading and researching about the period of time when Vincent van Gogh lived and the significant people that crossed his path. Images and context for the late 19th century period began to play in my mind - the book started to become more real.

Corporate executive by day; writer by night. With each step my identity felt like it was ever-so-gradually shifting. 

In September I held a "Plot Party," a focus group with historical fiction readers to learn more about what draws them to a good story. In late October, I signed up for a writing "sprint" -- could I sustain writing over a longer period than my usual 30 minutes? At the end of the 2-1/2 days, the intense class left me exhausted and clearer than ever on how hard writing a good book will be. 

Yet, the challenging feedback I received for each of my submissions also felt strangely encouraging. It is a new world of intellectual and creative challenge. 

Two things kept me going: 1) small steps and 2) accountability to others. Day-to-day living is a headwind; self-doubt can feel like a gale force. Against such pressure, big moves were impossible. But a small step - that I could take. This led to another step and another.

Then, it was not enough to have the dream and take the steps without letting others know what I was doing. It helped to be accountable to people outside of myself.

So here we are.

Twenty-two years. It's taken 22 years to come full circle.

Time to write this book. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Books I'm Reading:  I've started The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. It's a reference guide on writing techniques for connecting with readers emotionally. In late January I'll attend a writer's workshop with Maass so thought I'd begin to prepare. In addition, I've also started author Peter Wohlleben's book, The Inner Life of Animals. Based on research the book demonstrates that animals think, feel and know much more than we tend to give them credit for.(Finally! A book to unlock the mystery of Natasha, our cat!)

Resources: Dan Blank is the professional coach who offers the 3-month classes via Slack. He has three new programs beginning January 1. The writing sprint I took at the end of October will be repeated in January by Jennie Nash and her team of book coaches. Lovely author Teri Case gave me the cheerful push to adopt Johanna as my protagonist. Check out Teri's book, Tiger Drive, coming out in February. 

That's it for this week. Other than journaling every day for 30 minutes my book has slid into low gear while I'm winding up work and taking care of holiday stuff. 

Let me end with Duke Ellington again:

A goal is a dream with a finish line.

Thank you, Jamie -- accountability partner! --  I'm standing by to be one for you.

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Cha-cha-changes

Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming
-David Bowie

In the mastermind class I've been taking for creative professionals our coach, Dan Blank, shared a video last week. It's called How to Lose Weight in Four Easy Steps. The title sounds like a typical vapid sales pitch but about 20 seconds in there’s a surprise. If you’d like, check it out —  however, BEWARE: THIS VIDEO IS “R” RATED for profanity and more. It's about seven minutes long.

I’m not giving anything away to tell you that set right in the middle of what appears to be an unimaginative promo, an abrupt, captivating little story pops up. Sucker-punched by an unexpected turn of events, the main character is sent down a new path. It reminded me of the experience of a friend of mine named Margaret.

The path that led to her big change started out with a similar, unexpected moment.

"This time is different!"

Margaret is mad. “Again,” she fumes, “Again she insults me!”

Margaret flips her signature waist-long, chestnut hair with an impressive toss. Her usual unflappable demeanor is shaken. She is known as a quiet listener with a beautiful face that tends to give little away of what she’s thinking. That is, until her eyes flash. Today they are high-beam headlights.

“This time I’ll show her!”

Margaret is one of those people that you feel you can always count on. Her unruffled composure is a practiced skill bred through years as a key administrative assistant calmly juggling the support of a rising senior executive. When Margaret arrived in the division where I worked a few years ago, her reputation of competence had preceded her. 

This is the second time Margaret's calm is cracked.

A year earlier, Margaret had felt a similar rush of rage. So stinging, the words from a co-worker had hung in the air, as though hovering like a separate life form in front of her. “People like you,” she’d said to Margaret, “People like you are the problem.”

“What??"

Angrily, the co-worker continued, “We’re all paying more for our benefits every year. We should deny health insurance to people…like you.”

Margaret is stunned. Mortified. 

But not surprised.

In childhood Margaret had grown up on a diet of foods we now know are not the healthiest but when she was a kid and teenager, didn’t know the difference. Fast food was affordable; sweets and desserts were typical snacks and regular parts of every meal. In her 20s, Margaret had starved herself of calories in order to punishingly lose weight but gradually, with marriage and kids and a busy life, the weight had returned, and then some. 

Of course, she wasn’t happy about it. She had tried lots of weight-loss schemes — she’d watched her mom struggle with obesity and try dozens of diet fads over the years too — but the weight had always come back. Ashamed, Margaret kept to herself, allowing few people to get to know the “real” Margaret, behind her body image. 

Her weight had climbed to 310 pounds.

When Margaret had stared back at the co-worker blaming her for the rise in health-care costs, a chorus of familiar voices rung out in her thoughts, “You have no discipline. You have no control. You are a failure.” She'd wanted to hide. 

But here’s where her typical reaction shifted ever so slightly.

Replaying the woman’s comment over and over in her head, Margaret became more and more irritated with its insensitivity. She struggled with mental arguments ranging from self-pity to insult to shame. Confronted with the cruel words she began facing thoughts and feelings she’d shoved aside and allowed to rest, unaddressed, for years.

What does it look like to be truly healthy — inside and out? Who am I? Who do I want to be?

She realized she ate more when she was anxious and struggling with depression. She’d grown up reaching for candy to feel better. What would it take to sustain being healthy through emotionally low times? Digging deeper for insight she found empathy for others. ”Everyone has problems; they’re just not always easy to see.” And with a shock she realized her undisciplined eating felt like she’d been dishonoring the life she’d been given.

The self-examination inched her forward toward a new view of who she could be. 

So now, about a year later, just before rounding the corner of a hallway, Margaret has heard laughter. She happily hurries forward but then slows, hearing the co-worker’s voice who had insulted her before. Margaret turns to backtrack, avoiding the woman as usual, when she stops in her tracks. Clearly, the sharp-tongue carries down the hall, “We’ll call it the Biggest Loser Contest. It starts on Monday. I’m making the rules. Don’t worry. Everyone’s in!” 

Again, her words hung in the air.

Monday arrives. Margaret has spent the weekend ruminating on the conversation she’d overheard. She has decided: She is ready. She can become public about the goal to lose weight and be willing to come out from this oppressive mental burden. Although she has tried unsuccessfully before to lose the pounds she is ready to try again. With the help of people she works with it could even be fun. 

Monday arrives! In anticipation and a little nervous, Margaret's prepared with a casual response, "Biggest Loser? Great idea! Sure, this will be fun!"

The morning drags by. She overhears a little chatter and ribbing about a "biggest loser." The afternoon hours crawl. Nothing. The clock hands climb to five o'clock. Nothing.

She is not invited to compete. Unbelievably, she is not asked to join in. Slowly, her disappointment turns to anger, “I’ll show her!”

She is ready to act. She starts with nutrition -- "I had to learn how to eat" -- and checked library books out on healthy eating. She stops eating processed foods and drinking soda. 

With no extra money for a gym membership, she decides, "I'm going to start walking." The first day she goes out with her children and walks about three blocks. "My youngest was skipping and dancing down the street. I thought I was going to die." 

Margaret keeps reading and learning. She brings strawberries to work as a snack instead of candy. She discovers fruits she's never tried...blueberries. Despite her husband's protests, she changes up meals at home, adding lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, and serves herself smaller portions. 

Every day she walks. Then she jogs a little, rides a bike. She buys a yoga mat and a book on exercise to customize routines for herself. 

And as the pounds start to come off, her discipline and determination grow. Though sometimes it's a struggle, the consistency is paying off. Time passes, nearly imperceptibly change is happening. One day Margaret steps on the scale: she has dropped half her weight.

Sounds like being the Biggest Winner to me.

Margaret could probably relate to this and I'm not giving anything away by sharing a line from the How to Lose Weight... video. At one point the narrator says, "Change takes time, but time is all it takes."

It's so tempting to think that change can come with a quick fix, a quick win. But for a change to be lasting, and to shift a course that's been years in the making, it takes perseverance. Margaret knows; her weight loss occurred seven years ago. 

"Of course, I still struggle," Margaret says today. "but I am passionate about living a healthy lifestyle." So passionate that she started a blog and website to help others make changes. It's called Destination Discipline.

My mission is to share stores of perseverance through challenges, and how this connects us to what matters, and each other. I think Margaret's story illustrates this. 

Steps I’ve Taken to Write a Book
Instagram posting of writing 30 minutes/day: Day 92 today. Stay tuned for something fun.

Mastermind writing course:  The new one starts today too. 

Books I'm reading:  I've just started Margaret Atwood's, The Blind Assassin. It's won numerous awards, including the Man Booker Award in 2000. The narrative is doing a little time jumping and I'm a little confused but have faith it will all come together. 

Let me close with a final thought from Bowie on change,

I don't know where I'm going from here, but I promise it won't be boring.

Deal!

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