Give me Liberty!

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I recently attended a writing workshop sponsored in New York City – my annual effort at professional development.  It was a great day.  I met other writers, many of whom are also seeking to land an agent, desperate as I am to find someone else to validate their dreams of authorship.  It felt like group therapy, talking to all these other people who are walking the same path, encountering the same hurdles, worrying the same questions on the finer points of query letter etiquette.  

The seminars were really useful too; I jotted down pages of notes on everything from social media management to revision techniques, and, of course, on finding the elusive agent. Speaking of whom, the workshop had several agents on-hand, spending their Saturday leading the seminars and fielding pitch after pitch from hopeful authors (like yours truly) willing to pay $30 for 10 minutes of the agent’s one-on-one time (instead of just querying them for free – more on this in a future post.) 

Three weeks on, I’ve gotten a kind but entirely unhelpful rejection from one of the agents I spoke with, and I’m still waiting in the usual interminable purgatory for the other agent I met.  But while I’ve been waiting, I’ve struck up a number of new online friendships with some of the authors I chatted with at the workshop.  One of these new writer friends began venting about the fact she hadn’t heard back from the agents she queried after ONE WEEK.  

Now, I’m not a fan of the way this whole find-an-agent system works.  It seems overwhelming to the agents and unnecessarily anxiety- and depression-inducing on the author.  But I get that this is the system that we have, a direct result of supply outstripping demand, and that agents are humans too. Having just surrendered a Saturday away from their friends and family to field the same questions they’ve probably heard 100,000 times before, they may need another couple (dozen) of weekends to get around to actually reading what we were all only too happy to send them within minutes of getting their nods.  I mean, everyone deserves a weekend.  

I tried my best to convey this to my new writer friend, but I could feel her resentment dripping off my screen, impervious to my attempts at humanism.  That’s the problem with resentment, though.  It’s a cumulative condition, built a hair’s width at a time, until you’ve got a wretched, snarling beast on your hands. 

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Your “Why” for Sports


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I was text-fishing for ideas for this week’s blog post, and one friend texted back: “the pressure some parents put on kids to overachieve at EVERYTHING”. I put that on the list of possible topics. Then, I had a parking lot experience with another mom I’d never met, which I have found, can be some of the most honest, desperate, thirty second conversations.

I was leaving swimming lessons with my youngest. He’s a little overconfident in the water and I thought the lessons may keep us from drowning this summer. Anyway, I’m about to get in my car, but there’s a mom with her car door open next to mine. She’s telling a little person, “Please stop throwing this.” She hands something back and shuts the door, noticing me.

“Sorry, we finished class half an hour ago and I’m just now getting into my car!” I can’t help but laugh. I say, “I’m laughing because I remember.”

From there, she starts to ask me questions about swim lessons. My son is going every day for one week. She laments that they only have once-a-week classes for her son. I ask, “How old is he?” as I finally peek into her car.

“He’s almost one.”

Okay, so then I understood why she was freaking out. He’s her first. She doesn’t want to screw up. She doesn’t want to miss out or have him miss out.

She went on to tell me that grandma was going to pay for extra lessons if she wanted them. At this point I really just wanted to drive this frantic woman home and bake her a giant batch of brownies. She was so stressed about swimming lessons. For her one-year-old. And I get it. I remember.

I say, “Does he like the water?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’re all set.”

 And she was so relieved.  

She seemed like a super-competent, smart lady, but she needed to hear from me, a perfect stranger who could be an ax murderer and the worst mom ever, that she wasn’t messing up. And who knows how long she was relieved. She might have gone right back to worrying as she drove away.

My mind kept coming back to her and my friend’s text. What is it that is driving so many parents to have this intense FOMU – Fear of Messing Up. I know parents of all generations had fears and desires for their children’s future, but I feel like it’s at a new level thanks to social media, stacks of parenting books (I have them all), and the myriad of athletic and academic opportunities our kids have.

I think the FOMU feeds the focus parents have on their kids achieving in everything. For example: 

If Joey don’t make this team, he won’t be on the right path to make the next level club team and he’ll miss out on skills, and he’ll never be able to make the high school team, so there’s no way he’ll ever get a scholarship, and…and…and…he has to make this team! We have to get Joey a few private lessons! We won’t be good parents if we don’t do this for him.

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Five Ways to Work Your Creative Goals into Summer with the Kids

image via Pinterest 

Parents: the clock is running out on the school year and whatever schedule you’ve been able to cobble together to support your creative goals. Hopefully, you’ve got lots of camps lined up for the kiddos that will keep them busy without breaking the bank, but if not (like me), don’t worry! We’ll get through this together! And here’s how…

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

1 – Create while they sleep. Before they wake, after they go to bed, while they  nap – that’s your sacred creative time. You’d be surprised how much you can get accomplished with even an hour a day set aside, if you commit to that hour at least five days a week. Pro tip: my kid is an early riser. So we bought him one of those alarm clocks that change color when it’s ok for him to be up, and set it for 7 a.m. He’s almost always up before the clock turns green, but now knows not to put a pinkie outside his room until the “green light says go.” I, meanwhile, set my alarm for 6 a.m. daily and voila! There’s my hour a day.

2 – Establish a routine for your family that includes your creative time.  If you’ve got little littles, you’ll need help from a partner or older child on this one, but by the time your kiddo is four, s/he should be able to self-entertain for at least an hour. I get that this can be challenging to figure out, but once it’s part of the routine, you’ll marvel at what you can get done – and it’ll feel good to have your family acknowledge that this is something YOU need, especially after tending to their needs the rest of the day. Pro tip: I tack this hour on to my early morning creative time, to get almost two solid hours of work time every day. When my child first emerges, I make sure he’s got something to eat and something to do, and then go back to working until 8 a.m. Cheater tip: Use screen time. I know this is controversial but here’s how I have made my peace with it – it’s usually the only screen time he gets all day. On weekdays, he’s restricted to educational games and shows. Do I feel better about the world on days when he ignores his screen in favor of coloring or some other project? Yup, sure do – but I’m over feeling guilty about using technology to create space in our house. After all, technology is supposed to work for us, and believe you me, this technology is being employed in service of a greater good!

image via Pinterest
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Daring Greatly in Writing


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Publishing and the writing industry can wear you down. Make you want to rock in the fetal position. It’s a constant test of patience and perseverance. So, whenever I can find a source of encouragement – anything that keeps me from setting my current manuscript on fire – I know I have to share it!

I stumbled upon Brené Brown’s Netflix special while folding some never-ending piles of laundry and I loved it!  (The special, not the laundry folding.) The special is titled Brené Brown: The Call to Courage and you can see some of the trailer here. A bit from her online bio…

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington –Brown Endowed Chair. She’s spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She is the author of five #1 New York Times bestsellers: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and Dare to Lead.

If you have not seen her Netflix special or her TedTalk, please go watch them now. We’ll wait…

Okay, maybe you don’t have time to watch now. I’ll fill you in a little. In her Netflix special, Brené explains where she got the inspiration and title for her book Daring Greatly. To her horror, her 2010 TedTalk had gone viral and, against her better judgement, she read the comments online, which, of course, were a dumpster fire of cruelty and criticism. She tells the story – and she’s hilarious – of how she was numbing her feelings with screen time and peanut butter when she stumbled upon this quote from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:T

It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,
or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly; who errs,
who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows great enthusiasms,
the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly,
so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls
who neither know victory nor defeat.”
-Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

Brené Brown goes on to encourage us to choose courage over comfort, knowing that criticism and failure are inevitable. I thought about how that idea and this quote could be applied to our creative pursuits, specifically writing.

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The post-project blues

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For those of you who know me, or who have been following this blog for a while, you know I tend toward Type A-ness. I’m generally upbeat, high-energy (obnoxiously so when over-sugared/caffeinated), and goal-oriented. I don’t suffer from low esteem, nor do I tend toward mood swings (hold on, had to check with my hubby on that…he confirms that I’m generally low volatility). So why, in the wake of finally finishing 18 months’ worth of work (that I thought would take 12), having achieved my goal of wrestling my latest manuscript into sufficient shape to begin the submissions process, do I feel so…adrift? 

Believe it or not, I’m 100% sure this malaise has nothing to do with fear of the impending rejections. In fact, the receipt of my first rejection this week actually sort of made me feel better. It was the crossing of a threshold that at least indicates progress, like passing a mile marker on the highway. Only I still feel like I cruised past it doing 30 mph on the highway I normally zoom down. After two weeks of what can best be described as achievement apathy (goals are still being set and met, but without any of the zing), I hit the internet to find out if this experience is a thing or if it’s just me. 

Good news! It’s not just me! Or even just my generation. A 1987 article from the New York Times on “post-writum depression” describes all my symptoms and let me know I’m in good company with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Judith Krantz, and Danielle Steele. Psychology Today calls it the post-adrenaline blues and posits my present low could be chemically-based – a drop in the adrenaline that fueled me through those final revisions and frantic synopsis drafts. My body could actually be in withdrawal, like an addict, but craving the stuff I was creating through my own internal pressure – which means that given enough time, I will naturally rebalance. 

I suspect a part of what is going on is good old-fashioned grief. Huffpost calls it the post-book blues – that horrible aching loneliness when you hit the end of the book where you fell in love with a character, or characters, or sometimes even a whole world (here’s looking at you, Hogwarts).  Popular Science published a great article validating the mourning of the loss of a fictional character just last month. Which I have to admit, made me feel better about my tendency to take a day or two off from reading anything more than a magazine article in the wake of a powerful book. It stands to reason that grief is stronger for characters you’ve created and gotten to know on a very personal level. If I needed a few days to get over “A Gentleman in Moscow,” I’m going to need to cut myself some slack on getting past thinking about what my main characters would be doing right now, if I hadn’t just closed the book on them.

For me, though, to move from the relationship I’ve developed with these characters over the last year and a half into the next relationship feels like serial dating, and I’m not yet ready for the rebound. 

So how much time do you give yourself when you’re grieving the end of the intense relationship you’ve had with the characters you created? Stephen Pressfield advocates jumping straight into the next project to keep your momentum going. I’m sure there’s good sense in that, and clearly it works for him. For me, though, to move from the relationship I’ve developed with these characters over the last year and a half into the next relationship feels like serial dating, and I’m not yet ready for the rebound. 

The research shows I’m not alone in this either. I was thrilled to find this article by writer / writing coach Lauren Sapala, and this one on Writer Unboxed by Jeane Kisacky. Still, I was left wondering what to do about it. Not writing feels wasteful. But I can’t seem to bend my will to starting another project yet. Even doing the small projects, the ones that I’ve been saying I’d get to for a while (as Kisacky mentions doing) doesn’t seem to help me feel much better. So I took to social media to see what others writers do. Some of you likely saw my questions there, and if you took the time to answer, then thank you! It means a lot to have community I can reach out to at times like this. 

According to my highly unofficial poll, very few other women writers jump straight into the next project (sorry guys, I polled an all female writers’ group). Most respondents said they take Kisacky’s route and work on some smaller projects for a while. A few indicated they take a week or so to catch up on the life they missed while they were writing, a la author Amy Wallace.  All of which is good news for me, since I’m combining a bit of both approaches: trying to reacquaint myself with regular exercise while also trying my hand at some shorter stories and article submissions I kept saying I’d get to once the pressure of the novel was off my shoulders.

Discovering that this experience is so common that it has names has helped me feel at peace with where I’m at. But the amazing part of this has been the re-discovery that I’m not alone. Even though I sit here by myself on this side of the screen, so many of you out there are with me. And knowing that we’re here for each other has helped more than anything else. Thank you, All!

Photo by Ángel López on Unsplash

-Thea

Thank you, Thea, for all of your awesome research – as usual. I now have a bunch more articles to go read! I think it makes sense that we need some time before jumping into an entirely new world, especially after the blood, sweat, and tears we poured into the previous world!  I remember being very impatient when I finished my first manuscript. I was tapping my toes waiting for the next story to show up. (Preferably outlined and with fully-developed characters.) I remember writing snippets of inner dialogue for different characters in a spiral notebook, waiting for one of them to hand me a story! In the meantime, I guess I did many of the things Thea mentioned above, like catching up on life stuff and working on smaller projects that had been set aside. I imagine a lot of writers are nodding their heads while reading this and saying “Yes!” Thanks, Thea, for reminding us we are all in this together and experiencing so many of the same reactions!

-Julie

Welcome to Wit’s End!

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When I’m frantically trying to brainstorm a blog topic, I usually think about the conversations I’ve had over the last few weeks. Sometimes there’s a theme. As I reflected on my conversations with parents in passing and while sitting on bleachers, I realized a lot of us are ultra-frustrated with our kids right now. Maybe it’s the prolonged cabin fever we’ve got going on here in the Midwest. (When will we ever have two days of sunshine in a row?!!) Whatever the cause, our kids seem to be on our…very…last…nerve.

                The bickering, the fighting, the teasing. The million little things that quickly add up and make us want to pull out our hair. We can’t control their actions – we can only control our own reactions. And sometimes those are less than stellar. How are we supposed to change our reactions to make the situation better for everyone?

                When we get to this point of ultra-frustration, I know we need a new system or fresh approach.  This time, I decided to try an exercise I had heard about from another mom.  I’ve been meaning to try it for a few years and in March I finally did! Yay for better-late-than-never me!


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                The point of the exercise is to create one helpful goal for your child. Grab a beverage of choice and a pen and paper…

  1. Write down all of the behaviors that are making you nuts. If you have a spouse or partner, have them do the same, but no peeking at each other’s papers.
  2. Read off your lists to each other.

It might look like this:

  • never asks to be excused from the table
  • hits little brother
  • “forgets” to make his bed.

(And if you’re like me, the list goes on a bit further.)

Continue reading “Welcome to Wit’s End!”

Hope and Grief, Connection and Creativity: An Interview with Cara Martinisi

Cara Martinisi is a writer, advocate, certified grief counselor, and mom to three little boys, one in heaven and two on Earth. She lost her 6-year-old son in a tragic accident in 2014. She blogs about her journey, sharing with others the beauty and wisdom she and her family have found in the pain they experience. Visit her blog at Christian’s Red Balloon and her new foundation Love From Heaven to support grieving families. You can also connect on Twitter at Grief’s Guiding Light @lightofgrief.

Cara, you have a beautiful blog about dealing with the loss of a child, and you’ve published other articles in a variety of blogs (including this one) besides. What is it like trying to capture your experience, your emotions, in words? 

Self-expression in words has always come easy to me. In fact many times, I find myself narrating situations in my own head as they are unfolding. The physical act of writing is soothing. I love the way pen and pencil feel on paper. As my emotions leave my body and the pen glides along the page, a certain sense of calm overcomes me.

There are some emotions that are more difficult than others to put into words. When I have trouble finding words that fit my emotions, I turn to meditation. Often this works, but not always.

Photo by Aung Soe Min on Unsplash

After Christian passed away, my ability to read was gone. The concentration and focus needed to delve into books had vanished. It pained me. It was over a year before I could pick up a book again. Now I read even more ferociously than before. The more I read, the more I am able to express myself. Reading, all different kinds of texts, has proven to be a wonderful compliment to my writing.

Were you a writer before 2014, or did the need to write arise out of your experiences? 

I have always considered myself a writer. English was my favorite subject in high school and my major in college. While many students bemoan paper writing, I enjoyed it. My confidence never paved the way for me to believe that I was good enough to do much more than write school papers. Although I was employed as a Deputy Managing Editor at The Economist, it felt as though it was more my attention to punctuation and detail that landed me my job.

After we lost Christian, writing was my way to carry on his memory. I would post a photograph, accompanied with a blurb about him, each day. At one time photography was a large creative outlet for me. That outlet seems to have dimmed since losing Christian, while writing is taking center stage now.

Grief is a powerful emotion.  Does it serve as a motivator or demotivator for you? 

Grief is an intensely powerful emotion. Most of the time it serves as a motivator for me. Many blog posts are derived from my own real time emotions surrounding grief. It truly helps me to keep the blog flowing, as emotions are always flowing. Grief will always be a part of me. With time and growth, my relationship to it changes, but it will always be there.

There are days, and sometimes more than one strung together, when grief is a demotivator. When these dark days descend upon me, fewer than in the past thankfully, it is difficult to do anything that brings joy. There are times when focusing is difficult. Eventually the fog lifts and I find myself returning to writing.

What did you hope to achieve when you started the blog, Christian’s Red Balloon?

My goals have always centered around helping others. It is all about healing. The hope has been to help others heal as well as to continue walking my own healing journey. I have received messages from grieving parents, those who have experienced grief in the past, as well as people who have just walked through tough times telling me that my writing is relate-able and helpful. While I am aware that my blog speaks most poignantly to grieving parents, I am also aware that none of us escape the world without running into some trouble.

It has been over a year that I have been writing my blog and it has become abundantly clear that a strong message is hope. Hope for those grieving, hope for those who are sick, hope for those who are experiencing tough times. We cannot control what comes our way in life, only our reactions. We need to move through the pain, the troubles that arise, and find light. For that is the only way to live again after you have been burned by the fire.

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Fighting the Summer Slide

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When Thea suggested I write a piece on planning for summer, similar to this one from last year, I was all for it until I sat down to write it and realized I had no idea what I was going to do with the kids this summer…

I want to write, I want them to have fun, and I still don’t want them to experience “summer slump”: the backward slide in academic gains from the previous school year. It’s important to me that they spend enough time using their brains over the summer so August back-to-school isn’t too painful. Things have changed, though. When they were younger, I had weekly themes and math manipulatives and stacks of picture books…I was in my element! Now that they are older, what does avoiding the summer slide look like? Here’s my first attempt at figuring that out.

READING

Yes, our library has an awesome summer reading program, but my youngest was the only one “into” it last year. The other guys read a lot, they just weren’t eager to sticker-chart their reading. I need a fresh take on reading this summer. I’m thinking I’ll have them give reviews for the books they read on video and then send the videos to their cousins or friends (just over my phone). They love making videos and it will be a way to .incorporate technology that doesn’t involve a game controller…because they can’t have screens until 4pm in the summer. Yes, there’s always initial resistance to this rule, but after a few days they get on board with it and they find other things to do during the day. We’ll probably have a weekly trip to the library to keep a fresh selection of books, too.

Free photo 2369068 © Yuriy Kaygorodov – Dreamstime.com

WRITING

For previous summers they all had a spiral notebook “journal” that they had to write in before they were allowed to go cause trouble in the neighborhood. Just like with the technology rule, there was always an initial protest, but after a few days, it became part of the routine. I have to make a change this summer, though. Camps start at 8am or 9am and we’re busy grabbing sports equipment and yelling at each other…there’s not really time for journaling before we have to be on the road. I think I’m going to move writing time to right before they’re allowed to do tech. Yes, one last hurdle before brain rot! I’m sure there will be protests, and perhaps rioting, but I bet they’ll write in order to play their favorite video games.

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Creativity: Mysteries, rituals, and the power of practice

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For the artist, the wellspring of ideas is like the Holy Grail: the elusive key to eternity, the stuff of legend. Creativity goes by many names: inspiration, invention, genius, The Muse. Where, though, does it come from? As writers, we’re obsessed by this question, desperate to derive a map to it, that we might come and drink from it as we desire, fearful that at any moment we may be cut off from it forever. 

As parents, you are confronted daily by the spontaneous creative explosions that are the norm for kids. What’s the only thing more creative than a bored child? A group of children. Hyped on sugar. 

I had a front stage pass to this innate, if raw, creative capability recently. When the play-date ended and I had a few minutes of quiet to work in my office, I sat staring at the cursor while it blinked at me. I had just been tossed about by a whirlwind of creative play, and yet found myself unable to articulate an idea, let alone a useable sentence for my Middle Grade fantasy-in-progress. (O! The irony!) Instead, my mind kept wandering not only to the question of where ideas come from, but to why it is it that kids and adults experience creativity so differently. 

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So I turned to Google. What could it tell me about the sources of creativity? Apparently, it doesn’t exist in any one part of the brain. According to professor of psychology Arne Dietrich, author of How Creativity Happens in the Brain, creativity taps into many different mental processes. And contrary to the old adage that ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ this 2016 Scientific American article from Tim Vernimmen posits that plenty may actually foster greater creativity. Very Maslowian. The other key factor? The degree to which we are interconnected as a society, at least according to psychologist Michael Muthukrishna. He’s supported by evolutionary biologist Joe Henrich, who (in the same paper) states, “History shows that inventions invariably build on earlier findings that are recombined and improved upon. Most of the things we use every day are inventions that no single human being could ever design within her lifetime.” 

So there are really no new ideas? Just new combinations of ideas? This sounds not only like it could be a quote from Audre Lorde or Mark Twain (which it very nearly is) but like we’re getting close to the idea of a universal mind, or “Over-soul” as Ralph Waldo Emmerson dubbed it. If you think this concept belongs purely with the Transcendentalists and psychologists (a la Carl Jung’s collective unconscious), then you might be interested to learn that eminent physicists David Bohm and Erwin Schrödinger (who won a Nobel prize) also support the theory that there is a single human consciousness which we only perceive as being individual.

I guess it could explain how multiple individuals, or even groups, can arrive at the same point of invention at the same time without communication: whether we’re talking cave paintings, pyramids, or plot lines. But why do kids seem to be able to tap into it so much more readily than those of us with a few more years under our belts?

It all basically boils down to consistently opening the door to invite the creative into our lives. The more often we open the door, the easier it swings on the hinges.

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