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Don't play what's there, play what's not there.
-Miles Davis

Last Saturday night Juan and I perched on a balcony above a musical tempest of smooth fusion from the Yellowjackets jazz quartet. 

Although the Jazz at the Bistro club offers lots of tables around the stage, we’ve grown to like sitting above the performers. We catch the little gestures, the nods and shifts that precede the change-up in music when the saxophonist hands over riff rights to the keyboardist, and when the keyboardist, anticipating his own crescendo, shares a look with the drummer who agreeably splashes the transition with a cymbal crash. 

Spontaneous, responsive, alert — their smooth give-and-take the result of the hours and days and weeks — actually years — of practicing and shaping their music together. So much so that this morning an impression of them is still here - the notes rippling in my mind —  and their faces too. The unconscious smiles, the patient watching, the closed eyes while their fingers moved not by dictation but quick-witted inspiration. 

Over the course of their 90-minute performance each musician had moments in the spotlight as well as fusing into the group sound. It looked comfortable to be a part of that group, but not easy. 

You can’t sit on your butt and hide in a group like that. 

You gotta move.

I've learned this.

I remember last fall I was anxiously fretting about the fact that I was not writing. I felt stuck. After about a year of blogging memoir-type essays and sending out a weekly email, I’d sputtered out and stopped in September. Doubt crippled my momentum. It felt so difficult to restart — what would I write and why would someone read it?

My goal to be a writer felt lost. All through the fall I struggled with feeling like a failure. 

Then in December a glimmer of a thought came to me. I remember recalling that overused quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” 

What had I been doing? Repeating the same negative thoughts. Riding an endless merry-go-round of self-doubt. 

"Stop!" I thought, "Knock it off!" 

Then, "Do something!"

So I joined a group. 

It is a virtual group; in fact, the participants live across the country and overseas. Offered by creative professional coach Dan Blank, the original program, called Mastermind, was a 3-month virtual class offered to people who wanted to advance their profession, or aspiration, as writers or artists. Each weekday Dan would record about a 10-minute video on various topics on being a creative professional. We were connected in the digital group space called Slack where we each had our own channel to post questions and leave comments as well as have digital conversations with the group. 

Did I qualify as a "creative professional?" 

I signed up anyway. 

My commitment: To show up. 

So it's been about nine months now (I re-upped a few times). During those months I broke my arm so could only type left-handed, traveled to China and got Internet-blocked, chose my book topic on Johanna Van Gogh, researched comparative authors of historical fiction, restarted this blog, found local writers and the Saturday Writers community in St. Louis, decided to retire from my professional marketing job at year end, traveled to Amsterdam and Paris for some on-the-ground research, and gathered lots of tips on publishing, editing, the craft of writing...it's a universe. I learn one thing only to turn a corner and realize there's another galaxy out there.

Of course, the very best part has been getting to know other creative people in these classes, and the unique, inspiring pursuit each is making to fulfill her (and his) creative dream.

Over the past nine months there have been some key ideas that helped keep me moving. These might apply to you too:

  • You are what you do. I claim to be a writer. A writer writes. Stop waffling. So now, in addition to the weekly blog, I journal for 30 minutes each day and have started a regular 15-minute "timed" writing, in which I write fast, no editing, on my book.
  • Experiment with small steps. At one point Dan wrote, "The first step (or next step) doesn't have to be perfect. It simply needs to be a step. It can be an experiment. It doesn't have to be a commitment you never back away from. Take small steps each week."
  • Find others. Writing may be a solitary sport but a local community of like-minded people, other writers and artists, can be a support network of learning and empathy and information. My goal is to continuously expand these contacts.
  • Double-down. What am I half-baking? What would it look like if I wasn't? 

My mission statement in these blogs has been to share stories of perseverance through challenges, and how this connects us to what matters, and each other. This story of my last nine months may be a little tame as a story of perseverance (especially in comparison to the September 11 blog of an escape!), but I figure the journey's barely begun. At least I'm moving. 

Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Plot Party: Thanks to the generosity of six friends willing to give their time I ran an experiment last week called a Plot Party. I tested an idea to run a collaborative group to dig into what readers of historical fiction especially like (and don't like!), how they select books and whether they like collaborating on creating their own plots. Based on their feedback I've made some adjustments and will try another one on October 10. My goal is to understand the preferences of historical fiction readers more deeply in order to get closer to that audience.

If you are interested and live in St. Louis, are a regular reader of historical fiction (books about a period at least 50 years ago) and are active on social media - let me know soon. Space is limited -- I'd love to have you join.

Suspending the Mastermind Class: Earlier in the year the second 3-month class I took was called "Be the Gateway" and the most recent one was "Mastermind Pro." The next class has a great name and approach, "The Creative Shift," for those who are looking to make that intentional move into a full-time creative career, or to take their current creative work to a new level. I made the difficult decision not to renew. I will miss the Mastermind but have decided to use these next three months to double-down on the previous lessons learned and concentrate on ending my current job strong before retiring at the end of December. 

And thanks to the accountability of this weekly blog, I have to keep moving.

Let me end with another quote from jazz innovator Miles Davis:

I'm always thinking about creating. My future starts when I wake up every morning... 
Every day I find something creative to do with my life.

Let's play!

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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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Life is a Story

Does this quote make you think of anyone?

It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly
that we are not the same afterwards, even unto our names. 

-Yann Martel, Life of Pi

This quote brought to mind a story I heard recently from a chance acquaintance I’ll call Fiona (not her real name). We’d hit it off because we both are working on writing a book. She told me her story over a cup of coffee about how a mundane encounter a few years ago ended up profoundly enriching her life.  

The way Fiona describes her experience starts with a summer afternoon that was terribly sticky-hot and humid. She’d been asked to meet an older man and his adult daughter at a local community center. The air conditioner whirred loudly but she couldn’t feel any movement of air. With it’s dull linoleum floors and slightly battered armchairs, worn down to threads on the armrests, the main reception area felt sad and oppressive. 

The man and his daughter were late. 

Or, maybe the oppression wasn’t entirely about the weather, but the job at hand. Fiona had volunteered for Story Catcher, a free service for hospice patients to record their life stories. She’d longed to be a published writer and when she retired had happily enrolled in the organization, thinking it was writing group. Instead, she was a scribe for other people’s stories. 

It’s now a quarter past the hour. The heat is bringing on a headache.

It’s not as though Fiona hadn’t tried to author a book. Years earlier she’d written a painful memoir. Her parents had been tragically killed in a car accident when she and her brother were in grade school. Abruptly uprooted, the kids ended up moving to another state to live with an uncle unprepared to raise two young children. No one thought to pack up pictures or family momentos; the recollection of their earlier childhood was scattered and disjointed. 

Fiona found that writing the memoir brought some comfort to her troubled memories but just as she was ready to self-publish it, her brother rescinded his permission to tell their story, the remembrances too tender and private. 

Ever since, Fiona had felt unsettled, her past unresolved. She held onto the idea that writing could help her move forward.

There is a shuffling down the corridor and, looking up, Fiona sees a wheelchair round the hallway corner with an older man being pushed forward hurriedly by a disheveled woman. “Fiona?” she calls out, pushing aside damp hair from her face.

“Yes, and you must be the McGregors,” Fiona says.

“Don’t bother!” the older man calls out, “I’m not telling any damn stories,” as they wheel closer. “Oh, dad,” the woman sighs. 

Fiona told me that at that point she was tempted to leave. Her headache had gotten worse; she was feeling like she was wasting her time and, here, this gentleman was glaring at her and didn’t want to cooperate. Torn between respect for his wishes and the duty of completing her task, she wavered. Not another afternoon of someone else’s stories. She closed her eyes. 

Then, like a whisper, an inner voice said, “Stay.”

Fiona opened her eyes. The man glowered at her. “Why don’t we just talk,” she suggested. “Could we start with you telling me a little about yourself?"

“Why don’t YOU tell me about yourself,” he responded.

“OK, my name is Fiona. I lived near here as a little girl.”

“Where?”

“My parents had a house at the corner of Trevi and Triton. But they died when I was little, over 50 years ago, so I moved to Pennsylvania.”

The man peered at her for a long moment. “Trevi and Triton. Is your name Smith?” 

Fiona nods, surprised. 

“I knew your parents."

And so, over the next few hours instead of the gentleman recording his life story, he tells Fiona hers. He had been a close friend of her father’s; his wife and Fiona’s mother had been backdoor friends, their children running freely back and forth between houses. The older man’s daughter remembered Fiona too. Together, they filled in gaps of Fiona’s memory and added new accounts of a family life with loving parents. 

The car accident had been a heartbreaking rupture to their lives too. “We always wondered how you were getting on, honey.” 

Fiona has now written her book, a romance novel, and is at the stage of working with an editor. Over the past few years Fiona and her brother have reconnected with these former neighbors. “That meeting was meant to be!” she laughs.

I loved this wonderful story. My goal right now is to write true stories about how perseverance over challenges can connect us to what matters and to each other. Fiona’s story is a beautiful illustration of this and I’m grateful she shared it with me. 

Steps I’ve Taken to Write a Book
Instagram posting of writing 30 minutes/day: Can’t wait to finish up my 100-day challenge on Instagram. I am planning on posting a small hoop-la when I get there! It’s a little unnerving to have taken so many selfies.

Mastermind writing course:  TODAY— JUNE 26 -- IS THE DEADLINE TO SIGN UP FOR THE NEXT GATEWAY MASTERMIND. Here is the link for more info on this 3-month course. This is a virtual class taught by Dan Blank. I’ve signed up again because even though I feel my time is stretched it’s providing a discipline and structure to work on craft and identify an ideal audience for my creative work. 

Books I’m reading:  I just finished reading June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. The novel tells two side-by-side stories, 60 years apart, that gradually unravels family secrets and the horrific events that brought them about. The spellbinding setting is a majestic dilapidated Victorian mansion, neglected over time in a small town in Ohio, and the family’s former home. The main character Cassie feels suspended in time, lethargic, until she is forced to defend an unexpected inheritance from an unknown relative. Her pursuit to find out more about this family connection leads her to discover answers about her own life. Now that I’ve whipped my way through it, I’m going back over it to see Miranda’s careful construction of time and place. 

Let me close with another quote from Life of Pi: 

The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? 
And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?
Doesn't that make life a story? 

Yes, I think it does!

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