Personal Development

This Is the Work

Originally published as a TinyLetter

“Mommmmyyyyy!” I hear my four-year-old wailing from his bedroom.

It’s the fourth time he’s called me in there, and the clock reads 10:35 p.m. It’s a weeknight, and I want to scream. All I ask after a long day is to drink a glass of wine and watch a half hour of Bachelor Winter Games before I inevitably fall asleep on the couch. A friend has just shared with me an article called “Study Confirms Putting Kids to Bed Earlier Is Better for Mom’s Mental Health,” and to this I say LOLOLOLOL.

As I go to tuck in my son and reassure him for the zillionth time that there are solid brick walls between him and the darkness outside, I remind myself that this is not a waste of time. Instead, “This is the work.”

I’ve had to repeat this mantra more than usual lately. The kids have had colds and have been clingy and fussy. The baby has wanted to be in my arms at all times, not understanding that this prevents me from washing her clothes, cleaning the kitchen, or doing much of anything else.

“This is the work,” I remind myself again.

These interruptions feel frustrating, like detours from whatever I want to be doing at the moment. And they are. But they’re also the actual, boots-on-the-ground work of parenting, not just a distraction to push past to get to the real stuff. I want my son to feel safe and learn to sleep better. I want to comfort my daughter when she’s sick. The minutes and hours I put in now are an investment in an outcome that’s important to me: happy, healthy kids.

This philosophy applies to creative work, as well. This TinyLetter has been sitting in my drafts since last fall, and I keep trying to get it right, changing out the anecdotes and tweaking the phrasing like I’m trying on hats.  I’m still not quite happy with it. But I keep plugging away, because one of my 18 for ’18 goals is to write a post biweekly. Even when it’s not quite working, this is the work.

The darkness outside won’t hurt you. Shh, baby, sleep. Type / delete / repeat. This is the work. This is the work. This is the work. A mantra to repeat often, as many times as it takes to get you where you want to go.


what’s fueling me

Elizabeth Gilbert recently lost her beloved partner, Rayya Elias, and posted this video of Rayya singing at the top of her lungs to the Doobie Brothers, full of joy in the midst of her suffering.

Amy Purdy’s story on Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations podcast gave me chills. Amy lost both of her legs to bacterial meningitis at age 19, but she has gone on to be a Paralympic snowboarder, model and actress, nonprofit founder, author, and competitor on Dancing with the Stars (I watched her in utter awe). She is a reminder that so many of our obstacles are internal, and there’s nothing really stopping us except for our own fear. I can’t wait to watch her TEDx talk, Living Beyond Limits.

18 for ’18

Originally published as a TinyLetter
I love a fresh start. Even opening a fresh page in my notebook at work or closing the many tabs open in my browser is a hopeful act, a chance to do a little better than before.

Gretchen Rubin, happiness researcher and one of my greatest role models, calls this “the strategy of the clean slate“:

The slate may be wiped clean by a change in personal relationships: marriage, divorce, a new baby, a new puppy, a break-up, a new friend, a death. Or the slate may be wiped clean by a change in surroundings: a new apartment, a new city, even rearranged furniture. Or some major aspect of life may change: a new job, a new school, a new doctor.

The New Year is the Super Bowl of fresh starts. I like to do a Year in Review in my journal — even a few bullets about the progress I’ve made — and then an activity envisioning what I want for the new year. I’ve done vision collages, outlined resolutions in Google Docs, and chosen a one-word resolution for the year.

This year I tried “18 for ’18,”which Gretchen and her sister, Liz, have been talking about on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast. You write down 18 things you want to do in 2018, big or small, fun or not so fun but good for your well-being.

Here are my 18 for ’18:

  1. Stay current on news, from local to international, to know the headlines-plus.
  2. Work a little exercise into each day, even dancing to one song.
  3. Hang the pictures.
  4. Buy black dress pants that fit.
  5. Go on a date night with Darren at least once a month.
  6. Arrive five minutes early.
  7. Publish the book.
  8. Launch the podcast.
  9. Write a TinyLetter biweekly.
  10. Get rid of clothes that I haven’t worn in a year.
  11. Clean out the kids’ toys.
  12. Reinstate weekly lunch at home with Darren to connect with each other, pay bills, etc.
  13. Make time for joy every day: play guitar, dance, or sing.
  14. Meditate or journal for five minutes at least 3x/week.
  15. Make an emergency kit.
  16. Write a will.
  17. Spend 20 focused minutes a day following the kids’ lead in play.
  18. Connect with my parents and sister at least once a week.

Shoot for the moon and land in the stars, right? Because visible is memorable, I’m going to print them out and post them on the fridge. Then I can give myself stickers (literal gold stars) when I stick to my goals. It’s silly, but it totally works for me.

What are your 18 for ’18? Hit reply and tell me.


what’s fueling me

 

When I found out that my dear friend Chris Balme was dating the sister of indie artist Kina Grannis, I couldn’t get over how cool that was. When he married her over the holidays, and Kina not only wrote a song about their love story but featured their wedding footage in her new video, I lost my fangirling mind. It makes me so happy that Chris has found a love for the ages. Watch the video for “I Found You.” You may need some Kleenex — you’ve been warned.

Darren and I have jumped aboard the Instant Pot bandwagon, and it’s fantastic. Granted, he’s the one who does 90 percent of the cooking, so I’ve only observed the magic so far, but it’s made tender collard greens and potatoes fit for mashing, red lentil stew with kale and sausage, and chili in no time. It’s true that it should be called the “Hands-Off Pot” because it takes a while to come up to pressure and back down again, but it’s much more efficient than the slow cooker we used to use every week.

The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide by Jenna Fischer is both hilarious and creatively encouraging. I love her stories about eight years of struggle and rejection in Hollywood before landing the role of Pam on The Office, and her advice about getting good at your craft and not giving up. It’s inspiring not just for actors, but for writers and other artists, too.

Christmas Cheer 2017

Originally published as a TinyLetter

As a child, I felt more and more excited as the holidays approached. Strings of lights twinkling around town, tins of cookies, Christmas carols, presents, time off school…what’s not to love?

Now that I’m an adult, I realize how hard the grown-ups, especially Mom and Dad, must have worked to make the holidays magical for me. All of those presents don’t thoughtfully pick out themselves! I wrote about this feeling a few Christmases ago, when the weight of so many obligations had all but crushed my Christmas spirit.

This year when one of my preset radio stations started playing all Christmas music, all the time, it wasn’t excitement that I felt. It was dread. Instead of singing along to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” like I wanted to, all I could think about was my long To-Do list unspooling like a scroll.

When I told Darren about this, he said, “That’s not acceptable to me. What can we do to change that?”

In my world, any new undertaking calls for a Google Doc, so I created one called “Christmas Cheer 2017″ (yes, tongue-in-cheek) and started unloading the To-Do’s rattling around in my brain: Bake cookies. Shoot Christmas cards. Buy presents. I was hoping that making a To-Do list would clear my mind and put the “happy” back in the holidays.

Well, it’s now midway through December, and I’ve succeeded in not being a stress ball. But I haven’t ever gone back to the list. I turns out that it wasn’t the To-Do list that’s made this holiday season more pleasant; it was the To-Don’t list: the things that I cut out or simplified that took the pressure off.

Darren designed a Christmas card with some of our favorite photos from this year, so we didn’t need to shoot new ones, and the printer sent it out. I made a one-stop shop at Shutterfly to personalize gifts for the whole family (looking at photos boosts happiness). I’m going to bake the simpler Christmas cookies and save the labor-intensive ones for my family get-together, when we can make a day of it. I bought a tabletop Christmas tree while grocery shopping at Kroger, and we decorated it as a family with carols in the background (Bing Crosby made me smile this time).

Project Christmas Cheer 2017 is working. It’s not that I’m gritting my teeth and getting through the Christmas season; I’m just cutting out everything that doesn’t matter to me so I can focus on what does.

Please remind me of this next week if I have a meltdown next week during “Spirit Days” at Evan’s school. (Why, God, WHY?!)


what’s fueling me

I printed a few copies of the Reschool Yourself manuscript on CreateSpace, and it was a beautiful moment to lift it out of the box and into the world as a real book. I have a few trusted “beta readers” who are helping me tighten it up, and they’ve been sending me photos of “Reschool Yourself in the wild.” My sister, Gill, sent me this from a cafe in Barcelona:


My sister-in-law, Meghan, sent me this one, cozy in her PJs with a fittingly inspirational mug:


I put my book on the shelf among the ones written by talented women I admire. It’s good for my soul.

Forget “All or Nothing”

remote_web

Darren and I joke about my tendency to approach life with “all the arrows.” The reference comes from the trigger finger that I have with the TV remote. When I’m fast-forwarding through commercials on our DVR, I’m inclined to ramp up to five arrows, top speed. Darren usually opts for three arrows, so he doesn’t overshoot and have to backtrack. I, on the other hand, lean more toward maximum intensity than a happy medium.

In the same way, I want to do things to the best of my ability. If I write, I want to absorb myself in writing for hours. If I exercise, I want to commit to a regular workout schedule, and I want to sweat.

The problem is that having a child — especially one who has never slept much — leaves me so little time to myself that an “all or nothing” approach to my hobbies usually translates to “nothing.” Since Evan was born, and especially since he became an active toddler, I’ve rarely had time to exercise, read, write, and play music to the level I want to. I used to do Zumba twice a week and read books before bed. Now I’m lucky to catch a Zumba class once per month, and I’m so tired at the end of the day that I usually just watch Jimmy Fallon’s monologue and scroll through Facebook on my phone before I crash. At times, I’ve felt like pieces of me have gone missing, that I’ve lost touch with the things that make me who I am.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that if I want to do the things I love, I’ll have to do them in small doses and incorporate them into life with a small child. Lately Evan has taken a liking to music, so in the evenings I’ll play the guitar and sing, and he’ll beat on a little drum his grandma gave him (using a plastic maraca and a salad server as drumsticks, naturally). I may be singing the ABC song and “If You’re Happy and You Know it” over and over, but it feels good just to be playing music again.

I take the stairs at work because it’s usually the only exercise I get aside from lugging around Evan’s 26-pound frame (and also because I find elevators to be super awkward). Over the weekend, I dusted off Jillian Michaels’ The 30-Day Shred DVD and managed to do the 20-minute workout twice. That’s more exercise than I’ve done in a very long time, and something that I can make happen at least once a week. Another option is an app called Seven that works all of your major muscle groups in seven minutes. I don’t use it very often because seven minutes doesn’t feel like enough, but seven minutes is better than zero minutes.

I’ve come to understand that during this phase of my life, I have to steal moments for myself, and that means letting go of my “all the arrows” M.O. It may take me months to finish reading a book, and years to finish writing one, but I’m learning to accept that doing a little of the things I love is better than not doing them at all.

Photo: Phil Long

Gather Your Inspiration Before You Write

 

leaves

One of the scariest things about writing is staring at a blank page. I don’t know what to write, I think. Or, Where do I start?

I was feeling that way when I sat down to write this blog post. I knew that I’d had a mental list of topics that I wanted to blog about, but suddenly I couldn’t call up a single one of them.

Then I remembered the strategy that I’d used to help my students get past writer’s block when I was teaching an after-school creative writing class. Some of my seventh- and eighth-graders found it easy to put pen to paper, but several others would consistently struggle with what to write.

A veteran Language Arts teacher had given me a copy of If You Want to Teach Kids How to Write…You’ve Gotta Have This Book! The author, Marjorie Frank, said that the mistake that well-meaning teachers often make is asking kids to sit at their desks and respond to a prompt like, “Write a poem about fall.” They’re puzzled when the kids just sit there.

The missing piece, says Frank, is giving kids the sensory experience of fall. She recommends taking students outside the classroom to smell the crisp autumn air, watch the yellow and red leaves dance on the breeze, and snap fallen branches in their hands.

After I did this with my students, we sat on the grass with a large sheet of butcher paper and a marker, brainstorming fall words. Cool. Crackling. Bare. Damp earth. Afternoon shadows. We jotted them all down. Then we wrote our fall poems, surrounded by nature instead of classroom walls, and not one of us had trouble doing it.

Writing comes more easily once you’ve gathered inspiration. It’s like running hot water over the seal of a tightly closed jar to loosen the lid. Instead of jumping into the work of writing without being properly inspired first, we can actively do something to inspire ourselves, so we have something to say and the desire to say it.

For me, gathering inspiration starts with reading work so good that I wish I’d written it myself, like this:

“Venice seems like a wonderful city in which to die a slow and alcoholic death, or to lose a loved one, or to lose the murder weapon with which the loved one was lost in the first place.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

“Mom had grown up in the desert. She loved the dry, crackling heat, the way the sky at sunset looked like a sheet on fire, and the overwhelming emptiness and severity of all that open land that had once been a huge ocean bed.” – Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle

“Know your weaknesses. For example, I have what can be described as ‘dead shark eyes.’ But if I try too hard to look alert, I look batshit crazy, like the runaway bride. If a bout of ‘creepy face’ sets in, the trick is to look away from the camera between shots and turn back only when necessary. This also limits how much of your soul the camera can steal.” – Tina Fey, Bossypants, on posing for portraits

I love Liz Gilbert’s playful use of language, Jeanette Walls’ rich imagery, and Tina Fey’s ability to make me laugh out loud in a bookstore with her self-deprecating descriptions (“dead shark eyes” just kills me).

The only thing more motivating than reading a delightful passage by the writers I admire most is reading one that I am proud to have written myself. When I feel blocked, I have to remind myself that I, too, am capable of good writing. I go back to some of the pieces on the blog where I’ve been able to say exactly what I want to, and I say to myself, Look, right here. See? You’ve done it before — you can do it again!

When I’m writing about the Reschool Yourself project, reading my own work also gets me back into the sensory experience of reliving my school days: the lively sounds of children playing at recess, the smell of cooked vegetables in the cafeteria, and the smooth feeling of a tetherball against my fingertips. Once I immerse myself in the vivid details again, I feel energized and ready to put them into words.

My last step is laying the groundwork for Future Melia to avoid writer’s block. When I’ve put myself into a creative mindset, I take a few moments to transfer my long-running mental list of blog post topics into a physical one, and I bullet out a few scenes in the Reschool Yourself book that I want to write. That way, the next time I find myself paralyzed by that blank page, I can look at the bits of inspiration that I’ve already gathered and get fired up write once again.

Leave a comment: How do you gather inspiration to write?

Flickr image by Stanly Zimny

Celebrating Victories and Gratitudes

champagne

When my 17-month-old son unlocks a new achievement, his father and I clap and cheer like mad. Right now he is learning to put things back in order after he untidies them. He has also recently started pointing to his ears, nose, hands, and so on when we ask him to. Each time he does, Darren and I explode in smiles and raucous applause.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we celebrated our own victories with even a small fraction of that enthusiasm?

It’s not like I haven’t had any wins of my own this week. I remembered to order and wrap a baby shower gift in advance of the shower and then show up for it. I had a very productive Sunday that included brunch, errands, and pizza with friends — and managed to keep my son from melting down along the way. I’m approaching another victory right this minute, as I finish my seventh blog post this week for the Your Turn Challenge.

But am I filled with elation and pride at these small but meaningful achievements? Hardly.

They tend to get swept away largely unnoticed — because I just move right on to the next task demanding my attention, or because I don’t allow myself to count them as victories at all. Instead of patting myself on the back for a job well done, I think, OK, what’s next? or That wasn’t so hard. Why didn’t you do it a long time ago?

I hope that all of us who completed the Your Turn Challenge can take a moment to sincerely congratulate ourselves on our collective win. With all of the commitments and distractions in our lives, it’s not easy to post every day, even for just one week. Most nights, I started writing after my son was in bed and finished all of the writing, editing, submitting, and social media sharing just before I went to bed myself. I’m ending the week feeling even more tired than usual. But it was important to prove to myself that I could follow through on this writing commitment and build the momentum I need to finish my book. I’m proud of myself for succeeding.

For a time, I was writing down victories and gratitudes like these in my journal every night before bed. It was a wonderful habit. Even on the toughest days, I could recognize that I’d made progress on a several fronts and was grateful for at least a few things that had happened.

A quick and easy way to share victories and gratitudes is at the dinner table. Last night, after our son had run us ragged and we were eating a late dinner of pasta and red wine, Darren asked me what victories and gratitudes I’d had that day.

I was in such a low-energy state that I was quiet for a few moments while I wracked my brain for examples. “Well,” I said, “We found a pet sitter.” Twirling my pasta on my fork, I thought some more. “We had a nice, long walk in the sun. We also caught up with a lot of our friends at the baby shower.” I smiled through my fatigue. It felt good to end the day recognizing its high notes.

Darren and I sometimes celebrate small successes with a high five, like when we get in and out of the supermarket smoothly, or clear the yard of leaves. When I remember to do it, I’ll pause after a little victory and just sit and smile to myself for a moment. Whatever works for you — a happy dance or a round of applause, for example — you deserve to recognize your wins, every single one of them, no matter how small.

So let’s raise a glass to all of us who have completed the My Turn Challenge this week. Congratulations to us on a job well done. Cheers!

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by melkon.

 

Remembering to Take Your Own Advice

Pants

There’s a sketch called “Pants” that I’ve always loved from the early 90s comedy show The State.

A young Michael Ian Black sidles up to a woman in the library and attempts to hit on her. Disgusted, she rejects him on sight.

Ben Garant is reading at a nearby table and says, “Hey buddy, you want some advice? If you want to meet women, you should start wearing pants.” The camera zooms out to show Black wearing tighty whities with his collared shirt and sweater.

Black says, “Pants, eh? Thanks! I’ll try it.” He marches off to the pants store. Through much trial and error, the saleswoman, Kerri Kenney, helps him find his very first pair of pants. He marches back into the library, impresses the woman who had rejected him, and walks out with her on his arm.

Garant watches them leave. He says, “That’s OK for him, but I’m still alone!”

Kenney approaches him and says, “Why don’t you try taking some of your own advice?” The camera zooms out to show Garant wearing skimpy gold bikini briefs.

“I think I will!” he says. He takes Kenney’s arm, and they head off to find him some pants of his own.

I love this sketch because of the random humor that’s a trademark of the comedy troupe behind the show (if you don’t know them from The State, you’ll know them from Reno 911!). I also love it because the line, “Why don’t you try taking some of your own advice?” is, well, great advice.

I’m an empathetic person, and I like to think that I give advice that helps people move forward when they’re having a hard time. Usually, I’ve been there and can share what helped me through it all.

It’s much more difficult, however, to give myself the same compassionate advice when I’m the one having a hard time.

Here’s the kind of conversation that I’ve had with a friend more than once:

Friend: I’m so overwhelmed right now. I feel like I’m failing at everything.

Me: You have a lot on your plate, and you’re doing as much as you can possibly do! Look at all the successes you’ve had lately (names examples). That really doesn’t look like failure to me.  

But when I’m overwhelmed and feel like I’m failing? This is what I think to myself: Why are you such a mess? Get your shit together already. 

It’s like I have a gigantic blind spot to all of my own little victories — and also to the advice that I’m able to share with other people. When I read old entries on this very blog, I’m reminded of the strategies that I’ve used to be kinder to myself, like “Stop ‘Should-ing,'” and I think, “Hey, that’s a great idea. Maybe I’ll try that.” How easily I forget.

Not long ago, shortly after I’d posted about silencing the Thought Bullies, those abusive thoughts came to me in the early morning hours, as they so often do. I remembered the words I’d written, about the advice that I’d give a friend if she was anxious and called me in the middle of the night: Cut yourself some slack. You did the best you could with what you had at the time. 

I said those words silently to myself. I really meant them. And you know what? I calmed down and went back to sleep.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes about having this type of conversation with herself in Eat, Pray, Love. While she’s in Italy, otherwise enjoying its food and language and beauty, her old nemeses Depression and Loneliness track her down there. She begins to panic and reaches for the private notebook that she keeps for emergencies like these:

I open it up. I find the first blank page. I write:
“I need your help.”
Then I wait. After a little while, a response comes, in my own handwriting:
I’m right here. What can I do for you?

She has a dialogue with herself in that notebook, then goes on to say:

I’ve been surprised to find that I can almost always access that voice, too, no matter how black my anguish may be. Even during the worst of suffering, that calm, compassionate, affectionate and indefinitely wise voice (who is maybe me, or maybe not exactly me) is always available for a conversation on paper at any time of day or night.

That night in Italy, she writes this to herself:

I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long, I will stay with you…There’s nothing you can ever do to lose my love. I will protect you until you die, and after your death I will still protect you. I am stronger than Depression and I am braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me.

Finally, she drifts off to sleep holding the notebook that contains her own encouraging words.

All of us carry this “best self” with us all the time. It’s the one that comes out when our dearest friends need our counsel, and it’s the one that we owe it to ourselves to summon when we’re the ones who are struggling. Why should everyone but us benefit from the wisdom that we’re handing out like candy? Let’s try taking some of our own advice, shall we?

The next time I give encouragement to a friend, I’m going to listen carefully to the words that I say to her, and file them away — maybe in my own private notebook — so I can repeat them to myself.

Leave a Comment: What’s some good advice that you’ve given a friend and could benefit from yourself?

Becoming a Real Writer

writer

During my late twenties, I earned my living for two years as a freelance writer. For the next two years, I supplemented my modest nonprofit salary with copywriting, blogging, and writing for social media. Throughout this period, I was also starting to draft the manuscript for the Reschool Yourself book. And still, although I spent most of my waking hours writing and was being paid for my work, I felt a little pretentious telling people that I was a writer.

The next question that people would ask, out of genuine curiosity, was usually, “Oh! What do you write?” I’m sure it would have been more interesting for them to hear that I’d written a New York Times bestseller and was just about to embark on a nationwide book tour. Instead, I told them what it was that I really did: write feature stories for a few local magazines and newspapers, and marketing copy for small businesses. Although I may have let them down a little, at least I could chip away at the gilded mystique of The Writer.

One day I was struggling with a long-form narrative feature that I was writing for the Jackson Free Press. My husband was a freelance graphic designer at the time, and we both worked from home. I came over to his desk and said, “I don’t know why people think writing is so glamorous. It’s really hard.”

He said, “That’s why writers drink a lot.” Touché.

I’ve felt that I can’t call myself a “real” writer until my book has been picked up by a mainstream publisher and I become a household name. Well, that’s a bunch of nonsense.

I think you’re a real writer when you lift the romantic veil from writing and experience the real work of it. Most of us can’t retreat to wood-paneled studies or lakeside cabins to write for days at a time, for example. I’m lucky if I can squeeze in a couple of hours at night after my toddler goes to bed. I sit cross-legged on my living room couch with my laptop, drowning out the FX show my husband is watching by blaring Latin music through my headphones. It’s surely not what people picture when they think of a writer at work, but there it is.

Writing is a solitary and often tedious task. It takes discipline and persistence if you want to get anywhere with it. One of my favorite pieces of advice on writing comes from Richard Rhodes, in his book How to Write: Advice and Reflections:

I worked in the Hallmark public relations department for a man named Conrad Knickerbocker, the public relations manager, who had already begun publishing book reviews and fiction. After I got to know Knick a little, I asked him timidly how you become a writer. … He said, “Rhodes, you apply ass to chair.” I call that solid-gold advice the Knickerbocker Rule.

I think you become a real writer when you receive your first rejection notice — or when someone invites you to write a piece for publication, and you put every effort into writing it, and it never sees the light of day. This has happened to me twice, and both times I have been confounded by how editors can get a writer’s hopes up, have her do the work, and then reward her with radio silence. A friend of mine posted on Facebook that she knew she was a real writer when her e-book received its first bad review on Amazon.

A quick Google search brings up dozens of examples of famous writers who were rejected before they found success, some of whom were told that they had no talent for writing. James Joyce. Louisa May Alcott. William Faulkner. Twelve publishing houses rejected J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter before one accepted it. Stephen King said in his memoir On Writing, “The nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.” I will bet that all of these people were writers before anyone knew their names.

I once interviewed an artist who was beginning to garner a lot of attention for his work. He had been touring graduate schools and had recently visited one of the most renowned in the country. He told me, “A lot of those art school kids are caught up in being artists. They think that an artist is something you are, instead of art being something you do.”

In the same way, becoming a real writer is less about being a writer than about actually doing the writing.

These days, I don’t tell people that I’m a writer because I don’t need to; I have another full-time job. But I’m still doing the writing. Right now I’m reworking the second part of my book, because unlike the first part, it didn’t have a cohesive thread pulling the reader forward. I’m taking out the boring and irrelevant parts and replacing them with new scenes. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not romantic, but it’s real, and I’m pretty sure it makes me a real writer.

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by davidturnbull.

Taking Heart from Reader Feedback

feedback

For me, one of the most rewarding parts of writing is getting feedback from readers. I remember catching the bug for this when I took a creative writing elective in high school. My classmates and I would move our desks into a circle and take turns reading our work aloud. When I got a laugh or a knowing nod in the places where I’d intended them, it meant more to me than any letter grade ever could.

I didn’t do much creative writing in the ten years between high school and the time that I started blogging about Reschool Yourself. When I began posting to the blog, it took me awhile to get comfortable with sharing my work again. I wanted to wordsmith every sentence to death, but I soon realized that this just isn’t the nature of blogging. Blogging is fast, it’s conversational, and it’s often raw.

What helped motivate me to ship my work quickly was receiving comments from readers right away. There was nothing better than knowing that what I wrote resonated with or inspired someone, or that I’d captured in words something that they’d experienced but hadn’t known exactly how to describe.

While I was doing the project, I remember writing a post called “Growing Pains” at one of my lowest points, when I was truly struggling. It was one of the most vulnerable pieces that I’d ever written, and I was a little worried that it would depress people. I was surprised when this post in particular seemed to strike a chord. Here are a few excerpts from comments that people left:

Oh, how I feel your pain. Hang in there, love.

Dear Heart! Take courage! You are doing a beautiful job.

Eerily, I know *exactly* how you’re feeling.

Knowing that people understood what I was going through and were there to support me through it all was incredibly therapeutic.

Other times, my stories about school prompted people to share their own in the comments. They talked about how awful P.E. classes were, and about the lasting impact their favorite teachers had left on them. They shared deeply personal memories, and I learned things that I hadn’t known about even my closest family and friends. When I wrote about returning to my middle school, my cousin Lynn wrote:

I. HATED. MIDDLE SCHOOL…I think I should do a reschool experience too just to feel loved in 7th grade and erase the bad memories.

It was especially rewarding when strangers came across my writing and felt that it spoke to them. A young woman named Bonnie from Smith College in Massachusetts wrote:

I just stumbled upon this site tonight, and let me tell you: it is EXACTLY what I needed to hear. I am about to enter my last year of undergrad, am feeling entirely stressed and misdirected and not connected to my work. And I feel like I’m missing something in my childhood and in my education – that playful creativity, as you mentioned. But do I still have to finish this year? I want to reschool myself!

All of the difficult moments of the project felt worthwhile when I read and responded to these comments. It filled me with happiness to have added something positive to people’s lives. I loved feeling connected to my fellow humans through our shared experiences.

Of course, reader feedback isn’t always warm and fuzzy (oh, how I wish it were!). I’m still a bit terrified to publish a book because of the inevitable negative reviews that any real writer receives. I’m scared that some people will dismiss the project as a silly stunt, and that they won’t think my writing is any good.

But when I look back at the sincere and thoughtful comments that people have left on my posts, I feel more confident that I can ignore the naysayers and focus on the people who find value in what I write.

It’s scary to put something so dear and personal to you as a piece of writing out into the world. But I’ve found that the potential reward, for both you and for the people that you can affect with your words, is well worth the risk.

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by dskley.

Recommitting to the Goal, Again and Again

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Right now, I’m in the midst of the two biggest challenges that I’ve ever chosen to undertake. What they have in common is that there is no linear path to the destination. Instead, there is a roundabout route with detours, roadblocks, and occasional dead ends. And, of course, there’s no road map.

My first challenge is parenting my toddler son with patience and compassion.

For me, taking care of a newborn was a piece of cake compared with parenting a toddler. I would take the spit-up and dozens of diaper changes and feedings every two hours around the clock in a heartbeat if I could trade the irrational tantrums, the constant demands and interruptions, and the times that my toddler bites me on the leg repeatedly and laughs about it. To him, it’s a fun game.

The last item has me at the end of my rope. I’ve read that toddlers bite for a number of reasons: to relieve teething pain, to get a reaction, to seek attention, or even to show affection — not because they will grow up to be a Dexter Morgan-class psychopath one day. But still, when I am trying to cook dinner and have to ward off his little fangs in my leg again and again, I find myself getting furious and exasperated instead of giving him a firm but loving course correction.

A major reason that I handled a newborn with relative ease was that I was on maternity leave then; the only thing I was doing was parenting, and I could recoup any lost sleep during the day. Now I am working a full-time job outside of the house, then I start my second shift as a mom, and after that, my third shift as a writer. Every day, I am exhausted.

I’ve found that parenting is a series of daily victories and failures. Among today’s victories were making my son giggle by playing peekaboo, and reading him the same books several times in a row. Among today’s failures were handing him to his father when he was screaming for no discernible reason, and saying, “You deal with him. I just can’t right now.”

I hope to do better tomorrow. I fail, I learn, and I recommit to being a loving parent. I focus on the goal of teaching my son to be a kind, resilient, curious person, and doing whatever it takes to get there.

My second challenge is writing the Reschool Yourself book.

As incredibly difficult as I’m finding it to be the parent of a toddler, it’s been even more difficult for me to write a book. I wish that reading a whole lot of inspirational, female-protagonist memoirs translated neatly to producing one myself, but unfortunately that has not been the case. I wish that writing countless blog posts added up to writing a book, but it turns out that they’re completely different beasts. Blog posts are short and make a single point. Books have a plot and structure, characters and dialogue, and a narrative arc that keeps readers turning the pages. Their sheer word count is daunting.

The six years that I’ve been working on the book have been comprised of a series of peaks and valleys. I’ll get some inspiration that will put fuel in the tank, and then it will run out and I’ll be stuck again.

Seth Godin describes this phenomenon as “The Dip,” or “the long slog between starting and mastery.” He describes the excitement that we all feel at the beginning of a new project, and the inevitable letdown once the novelty wears off and the hard work begins. All of a sudden, things get real. When they hit a low point, that’s the Dip. Godin says that if the goal is not worth the effort — that is, you don’t really want it, or your hard work won’t ever pay off — you should strategically quit, and quit fast. But if it is worth the effort, then you’ll be in the minority of winners if you keep going through the Dip and come out on the other side. A key to succeeding, he says, is knowing that the Dip is there, and that you’re currently in the middle of it.

I’ve let the Dip stop me from finishing the book many times, but what’s more important is that I’ve eventually picked myself back up and recommitted to my goal. Each time, it’s difficult to overcome the pure inertia — the habit of not working on the book — and the self-loathing I feel for having failed once again. But I do it anyway. I will keep pushing through Dip after Dip and recommitting to my goal as many times as it takes to get the book done.

I am also trying to keep in mind a vision of what it will feel like to achieve my goal, to run my hands over the cool, smooth covers of my book and to hear readers say that my words made a difference in their lives. The comments that people leave on my blog posts give me little glimpses of this feeling, and they refuel my tank when it’s running low.

To recap, what I’ve learned from being in the midst of these two tough challenges: Envision how you’ll feel once you achieve your goal. Know that you’ll hit peaks and valleys along the way, possibly more times than you can count. Celebrate your smallest of successes, forgive yourself for even your biggest failures, and recommit to your goal as many times as it takes. I’ll be right there with you.

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by keltickleton.