Give yourself a green light

It takes a lot more courage to green light yourself than to wait for someone else's yes.
-Brooke Warner

I like this idea: to go forward, or to "green light" yourself, especially in the face of disillusionment and when you think initially people are set up to help you, but, in fact, they become obstacles to what you want or believe. I'd like to share how there's some of this idea in my book after I give you the backstory on where I heard "green light."

I listened to Brooke (author and founder of She Writes Press) in a TED talk. She spoke about how she became disillusioned with the traditional publishing company she worked for a few years ago. As an executive editor, her job was to select and acquire good books for publication. When the company she worked for was acquired by a parent corporation, standards completely shifted -- she was to look for books from authors that were already famous and/or knew celebrities that vouched for them.

Gone - looking for books with an important message

Gone - looking for books of excellent literary writing quality

Gone - looking for books with big ideas

Instead, new standards that had nothing to do with book quality, became her criteria for selecting books to publish. For example, whether the author is media-ready, physically attractive, or has an existing star-quality brand were the measures she had to follow at this traditional publishing company.

Disillusionment takes time, but eventually, Brooke left.  She founded a company, She Writes Press, in order to provide a publishing avenue for authors of the type of quality books she'd had to reject. Where doors had been shut, she chose to create an opening. 

I saw a parallel in this story to the barriers my protagonist, Johanna, would have faced by the cultural establishment in her time.

Paris in the late 19th century had its gatekeepers of culture and art too. I've written about the Academie des Beaux Artes in an earlier post. Run by the Ecole des Beaux-Artes, an arts academy that trained how to paint in the style of the Old Masters, it was the "establishment." For artists, the Academie's seal of approval meant validation. Their prize? An invitation to hang paintings in their annual Paris Salon exhibition, which attracted tens of thousands of visitors, giving the artists exposure to potential patrons and art buyers. 

The Paris Salon was the standard-bearer. If you didn't fit their mold as an artist, you were not invited in (similar to Brooke's experience with her traditional publisher).

So what did excluded artists do? Just as Brooke eventually founded her own press, artists began to create their own societies and to host their own art shows. For instance, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro formed a loose exhibiting group of 10 artists. For the payment of 60 francs each artist member could hang two works in a self-organized exhibition. To get a jump on the establishment, they scheduled their first show two weeks before the Paris Salon — ha!

Now, this was in 1874, more than a decade before Johanna will have inherited Van Gogh's paintings. The rebels will still be nascent, but the idea of them, the alliances Johanna can make to help her, are seeded in the Paris streets, especially Montmartre. Today, Montmartre is in the center of Paris, but during Johanna's time it was on the outskirts of the city - the perfect inexpensive living, and natural gathering place, for up-and-coming artists.

Johanna has a crack in the culture to help her. Yet, there is no one to give Johanna a green light to promote Vincent's work. He was not validated by the Paris Salon, by the art trade or even by other artists. 

She is on her own in finding validation for Vincent’s work and for herself. How many people, to her face and behind her back, criticized her decision to stand behind Vincent’s work? Countless people over the years, no doubt, including those who loved her.  In the end, she will need to find her own reasons. 

Where does legitimacy come from? I agree with Brooke's quote. In the end, not from external validators. Fame, celebrity and brand are not the highest measures of a person’s worth. The only place legitimacy comes from is within. You must grant it to yourself. You must not wait. You must take it. And here’s the good news: With independence comes flexibility and freedom and permission to allow your own individuality and unique vision to pour out of you. 

You are the green light that counts. 

For Johanna and Brooke the followers came, but they had to make the first move. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Changing Blog Frequency: I've been pondering the purpose of this blog a lot over these past few months. I'm going to keep writing it, but pull back a little from the weekly cadence. I need to start doubling-down on my book's first draft.  Craft needs to be my focus and I'm finding that the blog competes with the book. So, the project manager inside me is rising up and re-figuring out new rules for prioritizing how I'm spending my time. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: Since I'm writing a book about a strong female protagonist, I thought I'd take a tip from friend Candy and start sharing some referrals of similar books. One of my favorites, The Lake House, by Kate Morton is a multi-layered mystery with several female protagonists -- elegant Eleanor, novelist Alice and a tenacious detective Sadie -- that circle around the disappearance of a little boy. The book flips back and forward through time dropping hints and sending the reader down mis-turns until finally unraveling the answer. I am in awe of how Morton spun this rich story together. 

All’s quiet on the wedding front. I’ve been looking up NYC museums to scout out the Van Goghs there (Guggenheim has Starry Night!). My friend, Joyce, and I are headed to the Big Apple next week for Three Days in NYC planned around theater, museums and foodie grazing - already I know three days won’t be enough.

A quick epilogue: What happened to the Paris Salon? It became unwieldy. It couldn't handle the demand. What had started out as a manageable number of submissions, 375 in 1800, grew to 4,000 by mid-century. By the end of the century, when Van Gogh was in Paris, the number had accelerated. The Paris Salon showed more than 7,000 works in 1879. The works hung from floor to ceiling, no white space around the paintings as we are used to in museums today. So, in an effort not to be lost in the clutter, artists began to submit larger and larger works in hopes of standing out.  Increasing visibility and fitting-in becoming the goals over individual inspiration and the Salon ultimately imploded.

Back to Brooke for a last word...

Don’t sit around waiting for someone else to say yes to your dreams.

What do you need to green light? 



The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our lives is change.
-Dan Gilbert


We're only a few days into the new year... 

…and I got stuck already. 

We’re only a few days into the new year and it feels like I should be going back to work any day now. I am gradually adopting a new retirement routine but, honestly, it feels more like I’m on vacation. 

Work demands used to crowd into my thoughts as soon as I woke up. Into this vacuum now has flooded lots of miscellaneous, un-prioritized stuff. For instance, no one mentioned that when you stop working all the unkempt corners of the house, hidden behind closet doors and inside dresser drawers, will rear up, exclaiming, “Look at me! Take care of me!”

We’re only a few days into the new year.

I got stuck on the plot outline for my book. I had been dutifully working on a story arc (a series of cause-and-effect incidents that propel the story’s action forward) for Johanna van Gogh and how she eventually promotes Vincent van Gogh’s work after he dies. 

I have the major milestones, of course, like Johanna meeting Theo (her future husband, Vincent’s brother) and Theo dying (when Johanna faces a decision about whether to return to her parents or strike out on her own - not an easy choice for a 19th century woman), but there are many other decision points in her story. 

I put a large poster board in my office. I’ve been jotting plot ideas onto post-it notes and adding them to the board, moving them around. I know that Johanna will need to explain the motivation behind her decisions. For example, the story needs to answer the question of why she thanklessly promoted Van Gogh’s work for 15 years without much success? Was this because of values she was taught as a little girl or an experience in meeting Vincent or something else?

What external events do I select for her? What challenges does she face that moves the action forward? 

Then it struck me. 

I shouldn’t map out the external events first; it’s her internal journey that’s the trajectory. Once this is penciled in, the accompanying external events serve as either an influence into, or outcome of, what she’s thinking.

It dawned on me that this is why I’ve been stuck: I was uncertain of the WHY behind her actions. Without this, my ideas felt too random and disconnected. 

A clue came from my professional marketing study of generations. Generational research claims our values come from two major influences in roughly the first 20 years of our lives: The primary guiding light of our first 10 years is family -- what you learn and soak up from your immediate home life. Major influence in the second 10-year span comes from outside your family -- your peers and society. 

This framework helps. In response, I'm sketching out what family values Johanna absorbed as a young girl, and then, as an adolescent/young adult, what societal factors would be an influence. These can be reasons she makes decisions and how she feels. 

In the 19th century, as a member of the rising middle class, Johanna is up against some big headwinds:

  • Women are put on a pedestal; but the trade-off is that they must be willing to accept a lower social standing -- no involvement in commerce or politics. New urbanization has caused a division between the roles women and men played. When life was rural, a married couple worked side-by-side. With urbanization, when men left to go to work, women gradually took on the role as guardian of the household, especially its moral values. 
  • Women can not own property. If they have earnings, a father or husband controls it. They can not go into business without a husband's permission or get credit without a male co-signer.
  • A woman can become educated to a degree in subjects such as music or languages; yet, her true learning is in topics such as deportment (walking with a book on your head to have a straight spine) or moral education (reading the Bible aloud) -- all designed to land a husband. 

Looking back through history's lens in my research I've found a few individual women who beat these expectations. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 - 1861), the greatest female poet of the 19th century, is one who came up with a creative solution. 

The oldest in a family of 12 children, Elizabeth was expected to follow the pattern of other young women: learn how to organize servants, go on morning social calls and look after elderly family members. She'd begun to scribble poems as a child and wrote constantly. When Elizabeth turned 15, she became an invalid, consumed by an illness for which doctors could find no cause. Perhaps she talked herself into the ailment, at any rate, she spent her days bedridden or sitting by a window. By being removed from the normal running of the household, she was able to continue to write and publish poetry. 

When she was 38, her poetry caught the attention of Robert Browning, also a poet. He started a correspondence and eventually asked her to elope. Remarkably, she found the sudden strength to sneak out, get married and move to Italy with Browning -- and then continued to write poetry.

Invalidism gave Elizabeth the socially acceptable way to have the freedom to follow her passion, sort-of a 19th century hack.  

When passion calls, Johanna, too, will have to find the internal strength to hack the system. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Writer Habit: The new habit I’m trying to form is to write or research the book for at least 2 hours/day. Though I’d begun sporadically in December, I’ve started the clock on January 1 to see how many days in a row I can be consistent. 

Books I'm Reading:  I finished The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass and loved it. It's about how to write so that the reader connects emotionally to the story — I’ll be sharing specific ideas with you over time. I also read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. It’s a moving story based on true events from the early 1900s when orphaned children were sent to the Midwest to join new families. The story is of two young women and their search for family. I related the helplessness of the children -- they were not in control of their lives -- to how and when Johanna would feel helpless and not in control of her life. Meanwhile, I've started The Paris Wife by Paula McLain and am still reading Peter Wohlleben's fascinating book, The Inner Life of Animals. 

Back to Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist who delivered a TED talk called "The Psychology of Your Future Self," where I found these quotes.

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. 

We're only a few days into the new year...

Possibilities await!


Don't Discard

I found this quote while thinking about recently finishing my 100-day writing challenge. What follows is the first half of the quote; I'll end this blog with its punch line.

But the trouble is not as you think now,
that we have put up obstacles too high for you to jump...

It is that we have put up no obstacles at all.
-Isak Dinesen

This is what the 100-day challenge meant for me: an obstacle. 

Do you need an obstacle?

My aspiration to write is so annoying! It's gotten in the way of my routine and "right" activities, like family and career, and comfortable patterns, like getting up at a certain time in the morning. In order to break into something new, I needed to break familiar habits and search for new rituals. Setting up the obstacle of a public accountability to write seemed helpfully distressing.

So it's two weeks since finishing the Instagram 100-day Challenge of writing 30 minutes/day and I haven't missed a day. I feel a mental bounce from keeping a promise to myself. "Writers write. No excuses!” I had told myself. Isak Dinesen (pseudonym for Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa), also wrote, "When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself."

And that's what happened, and is happening.

This line of thought made me recall a TED talk by Austin businessman Steven Tomlinson, a story I've shared before. It has fresh relevancy now. 

You Don’t Need a Career, You Need a Calling
I first heard this story in a blog by Austin Kleon. Tomlinson starts his story when he was a student trying to sort through his interests and figure out what to pursue. Here is a portion of the account Kleon wrote about Tomlinson’s talk:

“[Tomlinson] told this story: he was going around trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with his life, so he decided to visit a professor named Will Spong, who had a reputation for being a no-nonsense hardass. Tomlinson went to his office and explained how he loved business, he loved theater, and he loved the seminary, and then he asked Spong to tell him which one he should choose to pursue. 

This is how Spong answered:

“’This is the stupidest question anyone has asked me. You’re telling me that there are three things you love and you want me to tell you which two to cut off…so you can limp along on the other one? This is not how things work. The advice I have for you is: don’t discard. Find a way to keep all three of these things in the mix. We’ll find out [what you should do for a living]. Right now, what you do is spend 2 hours a week whole-heartedly engaged in each of those 3 things. Let them talk to each other. Something will begin to happen in your life that is unique and powerful.’

“[Spong] went on to explain, ‘You don’t need a career, you need a calling. And right now, you’re listening.’” 

In the talk Tomlinson shares how he committed to that idea. Instead of singularly selecting one pursuit he decided to keep all the interests in play: business topics, playing in a band and attending a seminary. He committed at least a few hours each week to each one. Remarkably, instead of the dissimilar interests taking away from each other, gradually new connections emerged. His interests melded to form unique contributions that he was ideally suited to do. 

His biography includes traces of each interest: Among his accomplishments is that he is a founding master teacher at the Acton School of Business for Entrepreneurship. He is an adjunct professor of pastoral ministry at the Seminary of the Southwest. And finally he's an accomplished playwright and performer whose solo shows have won awards and been produced in Austin and off-Broadway. 

The potent mix of his interests created an alchemy only he could create. To me, the point is that he kept doing them, regularly, until in Dinesen's words, "...suddenly the work will finish itself." So, for me, the period of time jumpstarted by the 100-day challenge was, and is, a period of listening. No discarding, not yet. 

Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Research: I am sending this blog to you from Amsterdam! Juan and I are here until Friday and then will take the train to Paris. In both spots we will be checking out some Van Gogh info (OK, I will for sure; Juan may be in a cafe while I do it.) In particular, I'm interested in seeing the second largest collection of Van Gogh’s work in the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, about 50 miles outside of Amsterdam. (The largest collection is in the Van Gogh Museum.)  It will take a train, two bus rides and renting a bicycle (the museum is at the back side of a park) to get there. Or, Plan B is to book a private car and tour guide for the morning and be back in Amsterdam for lunch. You know which option Juan's chosen.

Website update: Thanks to Jamie’s good work my blogs are now on my website. I’ve had some requests for past stories and now they’re accessible. 

Finished reading The Blind Assassin - Note author Margaret Atwood's brilliant first sentence: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." The book is masterful in its intricacy, use of time and ambiguity of the narrator. There are two sisters in the book and Atwood keeps the reader guessing - which sister has the love affair, which one the baby? The end carried a stunning surprise. It's another example to me of taking the time to develop complete story lines about characters in advance of writing a book, so that the reader will enter and exit a character's life while weaving the plot. I felt as though Atwood held a composer's baton, artfully adding new musical scores, guiding the reader to a crescendo with wicked glee. My book club, the W4 (Wacky, Witty, Whimsical, Wicked, Wonderful, Wise -- we're flexible....) chose this book and we've decided to (re)read Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale next.  

Let me finish Dinesen's quote begun at the beginning of the blog: 

But the trouble is not as you think now,
that we have put up obstacles too high for you to jump...

It is that we have put up no obstacles at all.
The great strength is in you.

Of course!