This is the Best Season of Your Life

My husband often talks about the “get-through’s” versus the “get-to’s.”  For several years now, January has been a get-through for me.

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Growing up in Los Angeles I don’t remember dreading January the way I do now. I see it looming after the holidays, the curse of “winter without Christmas” as the White Witch says in Narnia. Perhaps my years in Maine hatched my dislike of January – depressed by how much winter lay ahead. Knowing that the forsythia would bloom elsewhere many weeks before it would finally enflame our thawing world.

Perhaps it’s just that as I get older, January signals more sand through the hourglass.

Back in Maine, I learned quickly the best way to get through January was to sprinkle it with get-to’s – a yoga challenge, a writing workshop, theater tickets, planting paper whites, a new book club, a room makeover, a new hairstyle. The whole idea was to distract myself long enough that I almost didn’t notice January. I wanted to make it fly by until bam! spring was just around the corner.

This year, I made my usual plans. Yesterday was Day 1 of my yoga studio’s annual 30-day challenge. Today, I begin a new essay class – three essays I’ve had in mind already percolating.

So often it’s the goal that gets me through – the finished essay, Day 30 of the yoga challenge, the paper whites in full bloom. But as I began my morning meditation today, guided as I often am by Tara Brach, I found myself content to dwell in rather than escape today. Day 1 felt like as much of a gift as Day 30.  Just before the meditation ended the thought rose: what if today was a get-to rather than a get-through? And then as if in answer to my question, the meditation ended with this verse by Wu-Men:

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,

a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.

If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,

this is the best season of your life.

Fail Better

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It’s not even 10:00 a.m. but I’ve cried twice already. Face-wetting, gulping sobs in the quiet of the house. Dogs sniffing at my knee – their eyes asking “You, okay?”

How to explain that it’s just the beauty of the trash truck rumbling up the street that got me. The man in his bright orange cap gracefully hopping on and off, gliding on his way.

The second cry due to this morning’s books (an old one – Elizabeth Tallent’s Time with Children and a new one Mary Oliver’s Upstream). How did I not know ‘til now that a pond could be “pewter” rather than green or gray or blue? How did I not know that the bark of an apple tree could be “olive”?  And then I’m weeping again with the urgency of the White Rabbit checking his pocket watch. I’m late. I’m late.  Or as a friend used to finish that refrain: “I’m in a rabbit stew.”

How will I ever learn all I need to know in time? Become as good a writer as I yearn to be.

As master of crime fiction Val McDermid told Lit Hub in a recent interview, “One sits down with ambition, knowing in this little part of your head that you will not realize all that you want to achieve with this book. Every book in that sense is a failure. So you adopt the Samuel Beckett thing: ‘Fail better.’”

The page calls. Hurry, hurry. 

Heeding Mary Oliver's Advice

My cottage at Hedgebrook

My cottage at Hedgebrook

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

 Mary Oliver, Upstream “Of Power and Time”

Three years ago this week, I had the luxury of 10 days at Hedgebrook, a writer’s retreat for women on Whidbey Island off the Seattle coast. My blissful schedule was to roll out of bed in my own little cottage, make coffee, carry my cup back to bed and write for several hours. Now that was perfect.

Yet the golden ticket for me is knowing that showing up for my writing doesn’t have to be perfect.

If you hear the call, answer it my friends. Get up early. Stay up late. Take a class. Apply for a retreat or residency. Stick with those who encourage you. Squeeze your art in before the conference calls, the meetings, the deadlines and all the other money work. 

Just begin, return. No one can answer but you.

4 Ways I'm Dealing with the Overwhelm

Old Friends, Perspective, Loving Kindness, Giving

Old Friends, Perspective, Loving Kindness, Giving

Old Friends – Each day, I'm making a point to reach out to an old friend, a colleague I haven’t worked with in a while, or a faraway family member to say I’m grateful we are in each other’s lives. Picking people is half the fun. Getting their responses is even better.

Perspective – My yoga mat is a great bestower of perspective. Throughout the day I'm trying to stay outside the information fray long enough to return with a fresh mind, ready to learn with discernment.

Loving Kindness – Prayer and meditation is the ultimate life preserver I give to myself and hope to cast to others. Here is one of many Tara Brach meditations I find helpful.

Money Where My Mouth Is – Giving as generously as I can makes me feel less out of control of issues I care about. For me, that means donating to causes focused on thriving girls and women; civil rights; the arts; and education. I also really enjoy giving directly to people in need in my community. 

Two Recent Mornings

On my best days I do not waste the juiciest part of the morning – the first three hours after waking. Pausing only to make that first cup of coffee, I avoid conversation, email, and scrolling feeds. On these mornings I work from bed – whether writing an essay or brand messaging for a client. When I claim this time to sink deeply into the work, my day is made for all the hours that will follow. Give me those first three hours. After that I am yours.

Morning 1

4:00 a.m. coyote song out my window at an author retreat in Phoenix. I’m gleeful because I’ve risen early enough to develop and write the core narrative for a client’s campaign. Something about writing it out on the resort notepaper allows me to sneak up on this project that has been intimidating me. Later, as I shower and rush to the first workshop of the day, I feel utterly free to enjoy the retreat. I already know the manifesto I’ve written for my client works – something they enthusiastically confirm when I present it the following week.

Morning 2

At home in Maryland this week, working on getting back into my personal writing rhythms after being focused on client work for the last several weeks.  

 

5 Ways I’m Recommitting to my Creative-Work-Life

The last year hasn’t been easy – my first publisher went belly up and I had to find a new one for my book. An essay I thought was some of my best work was rejected from a publication I aspired to. I was behind on client projects. And then my son’s first year at college did not go as planned.

On my Creative Work Life blog I describe my daily attempt at “Thriving at the challenging intersection of earning a living, making your art, and having time left over” for loving and living. From my current vantage point, my madcap “about me” page strikes me as equal parts whistling in the dark, ego and naiveté.  The underlying message is: “I got this.”

Sweet people, I don’t got this.

Yet I now feel more energized than I have for at least a year -- maybe longer. Indeed, I feel resilient.

Here’s what has helped (caveat: progress not perfection)

  • Unplugging (Six-week social media break, deleting Facebook and Instagram phone apps, desktop antisocial program in four-hour chunks)
  • Learning (Acknowledging my successes but trying to avoid an entitled sense of expertise. Freeing myself to be a beginner.)
  • Attending (In the past, I have too often let myself off the hook because “I deserve a rest." Taking care of myself is great but I’m finding better self care in tending to my responsibilities before they get out of hand. Example: On the plane home from client meetings I’d love nothing more than to watch a movie but it’s more effective for me and the project if I write my recap immediately.)
  • Serving (The moment I turn my attention to being of service is the moment I forget about how the world sees me and can focus on how I can contribute to the project at hand and to making life a little lighter for others.)
  • Showing Up (Whether it’s in my parenting, my writing, my work, or the world in general, I really want to show up even when I don’t know how it will all turn out. Easier said than done. I could keep writing the way I have been for the last few years and still be successful but I want more. I could succumb to project overwhelm again but exhaustion and resentment are not far behind. I could keep insisting on my version of what I think my son should do but sometimes showing up is letting go. I could not make that call to my Congressman but if not me, who?)

My clients seem happier than ever with my latest projects and I’m having fun again doing the work. My son is thriving. My book will now be published by an even better publisher. That essay I worked so hard on found an awesome home and even more visibility than it might have otherwise. And this weekend I’ll put my beginner’s mind to work in a Tin House intensive workshop – the first of several learning opportunities I’ve scheduled.

I still don't have it all figured out and in many ways hope I never do. What's more important to me is that I am re-inspired by the Creative Work Life.

 

Grit and Grace (How I’ll Get Through)

Last week, I spent four days in the company of women. Rising to coyote song, taking in bright blue desert skies, each day I hunkered down to the business of being an author.

My first book is coming out next year. This was a chance to learn from veteran publisher Brooke Warner. Brooke, who launched She Writes Press after rising to leadership at North Atlantic Books and Seal Press, blew me away with her vision of this press specializing in women authors.

The success of the press in just five short years is breathtaking – traditional distribution; establishing SWP as a favorite among booksellers like Barnes and Noble; NYT reviews; foreign, film and television rights. Early next year, SheWrites.com and the Press will launch new initiatives set to continue shaping and innovating opportunities for writers and readers.

Two days after returning from the retreat emboldened by the brilliance of women (keynote Rebecca Skloot and SheWrites.com founder Kamy Wycoff are notable examples) I donned my pantsuit and my #imwithher button and settled in for a historic victory – the celebration of a more just and fair world.

As we all know, that’s not what happened. And yes, I wanted to pull the covers over my head and weep – not because my side lost but because of the damage I fear to individual lives, to progress, and to our country and its founding ideals.

A text from a friend kept me from withdrawing and turning my social media profile photos black. She wrote, “I’m in shock and fear . . . I need your wisdom?”

My wisdom?

It knocked me back to think anyone might look to me when the going got tough.

The truth is we’re all looking to each other for hope and strength. I pride myself on being a survivor and an optimist – someone who does not shrink away from truth and responsibility. As a consultant, my daily job is to inspire young people to be and make the change they want to see in the world. Now, more than ever is the time to walk my talk. Here’s what I’m doing:

Going high when it’s tempting to go low: “We are Americans first. We're patriots first. We all want what’s best for this country." Comforting others: Jessica Lahey’s message to her kids Getting busy: Organizations to support and engage your energies Supporting women-only spaces: It’s no coincidence that the first woman to come close to breaking the glass ceiling of the U.S. Presidency went to a women’s college. As the graduate of a women’s college, the mentee of several breakthrough women leaders, and the beneficiary of women-only writers resources I’m more convince than ever that if the future is going to be female we need to support and create these opportunities. Getting physical: Whether it’s walking like my friend Jenny or taking refuge on my yoga mat, getting out of my head and into my body keeps me grateful to be alive no matter what.

On my way to the She Writes retreat I wore a necklace with the words “grit” and “grace” to ward off ego and welcome generosity into my thoughts and actions.

I need only look to Hillary Clinton herself to show me what true grit and grace can look like.

 

 

Now or Never? 9 Writers Share Their 2016 Goals

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One of the best things turning 50 did for me was to light a fire under my behind. At 47, 48, 49 I could see the big five-oh coming. Whether it was true or not, I took to heart the phrase “now or never.” That attitude has made my last few years my best as a writer.

Even though I’d been writing all my life and earned my living that way, I’d been making what Julia Cameron calls creative U-Turns since my twenties. Whether my creative path got hard (rejection from lit mags) or exciting (agent interested in my novel) I responded by quitting. In 2011, I stopped doing that.

Still, the last few Januarys have brought with them an anxious mix of trepidation and possibility: Would this be the year I finished my book? Would this be the year I got a publishing deal? With its post-Christmas blues and gray days, last January felt especially hard. Like an ill-fitting suit of clothes binding under the armpits and scratchy at the neck.

This is the first January I haven’t felt angsty and melancholy and the only thing I can attribute it to is that 2015 was the year I finished my book and got a publishing deal. And 2016 is the year my memoir, I’m the One Who Got Away, will be published. Perhaps last January was my worst ever because I knew I was so close to finishing and perhaps selling the book that some part of me worried I’d quit again.

I know enough from other writers that publishing a book doesn’t always live up to one’s hopes and dreams. But right now, I feel a sense of rightness in my creative world that I haven’t felt before. I’m standing on the other side of now or never and pausing to breathe it in. There will be the next thing and the next leap, but this one will always be behind me.

My writing goals for this year are softer than last year’s “Finish my book!” I have new essays planned and the whisper of a next book in mind. Pondering the coming year, made me curious how some of my writer friends – journalists, essayists, memoirists, and novelists among them – are meeting 2016’s possibilities. I’m inspired by them all. Maybe a better way to think now or never is what am I waiting for? Whatever your creative goals, wishing you the courage to make the leap in 2016.

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Elizabeth Mosier Over the years, while juggling writing with other employment and raising kids, I’ve measured my progress in hours spent with my butt in the chair, and in projects finished and published. Such goal setting has helped me produce a large body of work—and has given me an aching right arm, strained from typing on a laptop. 

After a summer of physical therapy, I bought a Fit Bit to recalibrate my sense of what makes for a successful day. Trying to better balance mental and physical activity, I’ve become acutely aware that writing prolifically conflicts directly with living healthfully. This realization has made me wonder, too, if too much focus and discipline can wear out my mind.

This year, while I strive to take ten thousand steps every day, I’ll also seek literary fitness through work that encourages movement—in my thinking, in my subject matter, and in my writing style.

For every answer I seek by writing an article, I will be alert to other questions I might pose, to find the universal in the personal. For every time I page through my journal to harvest meaning from the past, I will venture out to gather new material: book a trip, attend a lecture, or browse artwork in a gallery. For every essay I commit to the page, I’ll seek a conversation with someone who doesn’t think like me, to freshen and sharpen my own writing voice.

In other words, I seek the writing equivalent of balance between puttering around the house and taking a long, meandering walk. Both kinds of writing—like both kinds of steps—count, and both are necessary to my writing practice. 

Timothy Burgess I'm hoping to finish the first draft of my second Liam Sol novel, California Son, by the end of February. I'm three quarters of the way through, but there's a lot to work out--so far, three of my characters have been murdered and I still have no idea who the killer is. Yes, the writing process is indeed a mystery.

Anita Darcel Taylor My 2016 goal is to sit for four hours each Saturday and Sunday playing with words, writing sentences and paragraphs that are winding and interesting, maybe even fun to follow until I’ve come to the end of the story being told. It takes reading and dreaming, sitting and channeling, listening and sometimes dangling out into great experimentation. I have prepared my space. I will welcome myself.

Juli Fraga Write Freely – Quieting my 'inner editor' and 'critic' so that the heart of my words make their way onto the page. ·  Read more – I want to finish "The Situation and the Story" by Vivian Gornick before the end of January. · Less is more – In 2016, I want to spend time working on a couple of essays instead of writing shorter articles. I would love to combine my profession of psychologist + writer to stretch and write a more scientific piece- where social psychology meets the essay.

Estelle Erasmus · To continue to have my essays published in high credibility publications ·      To expand my editing/writing coaching business · To curate wonderful writers, and produce books.

Aron Moe Macarow Building more confidence in my writing and creating relationships with new outlets so that I can explore new styles (memoir!) and alternate beats (Judaism/religion coverage!) is my top goal for 2016. This first year of creative work has been an unexpected blessing, but I have no firm idea what beats I most enjoy covering and what type of writing I most enjoy producing. I want to shake off the feeling that I'm a fake professional writer because I don’t come from a journalism background and really explore this new career in the coming year, even though the prospect is scary.

Paul Eberly By year’s end, I want to complete a 1200 (or so) page first draft of my novel. I want to return to my blog. I don't have a nine-to-five, so there’s no blessed reason that I can’t write four hours a day and practice guitar four hours a day, and at least five days a week, that’s what I want to do. I want to mostly resist the incredible amount of good TV that exists now, as it interferes with my reading!

Diane Cameron I've recently been wrestling with how to make writing a priority in a life with a big “day job.” I did OK in 2015 but the last month showed me that I need to say no more often to things that are not advancing my writing goals – even if some of the opportunities are writing related. A conversation with another woman who also incorporates (I gave up using the word "balance") writing/art/business/family/health helped me to see what my focus will be for 2016.

  • My new book, "Never Leave Your Dead: War, Trauma and Redemption" will be published in May. I need to create the marketing plan and start now to get speaking engagements in place. (Please invite me!) What I learned the hard way on the last book: selling a book takes a lot of time and energy and I need to leave plenty of time to get the new book out there. And to remember that marketing a book is also "writing". It's the writer’s job.
  • Commit to regular blogging: Twice a week would be ideal but once a week is mandatory. My blogs (Women in Recovery and Love in the Time of Cancer) are where I test new material and shape my voice on these topics.  Blogging helps me to feel "read" when traditional outlets: newspapers, journals and book publishers are not saying yes. When I blog I know I’m still a writer.
  • Begin the next book. I have a file bursting with snippets, clippings, scribbled notes that are now accruing around my love of clothes and my work as a spiritual director. I want to start shaping that material and figuring out what kind of public life it might have. But that work comes slowly and after getting "Never Leave Your Dead" into the world. I seem to always believe I can do it all at once. Part of me likes believing I have eight arms and three heads, but alas--two arms and one head is my reality.
  • For the sake of those arms--and legs and head. This is also my year for Yoga Teacher Training--to keep mind and body together. And to give myself a nice physical challenge to balance all the hours at my desk

Shabnam Samuel Submit at least two essays a month.  ·  Complete my "Entrepreneur Training for Success" workbook by March 2016.  ·  Finish writing my memoir with a goal to publish in 2016.

 

 

 

“Got-ta Write! Got-ta Write! Got-ta Write!”

Gene Kelly in "Gotta Dance" number from Singing in the Rain.

Gene Kelly in "Gotta Dance" number from Singing in the Rain.

It happens like this: I finish an essay, a book chapter, a whole book for goodness sake and I’m sated. The need to write has been fulfilled. Now I can turn to life’s other obligations: client meetings, project deadlines, laundry, servicing the car, doctor’s appointments, preparation for the holidays. I’ve staved off these responsibilities while I finished whatever creative project I had cooking. But after about three days, maybe as long as five, I become restless, cranky.

When I was a teen I articulated this angstiness as, “I can’t stand myself.” Not that I didn’t like myself. Rather, I felt a need to escape the skin in which I was living. That's how I feel when I don't write.

Like a runner who's been sitting too long – itchy to feel the pavement or trail beneath her feet –I don’t feel right in the world if it's been more than a few days since I've felt the terrain of the page beneath me. My recovering addict friends call this feeling “squirrelly.”

Here’s the problem: those obligations I held at bay while finishing my most recent creative project? They’re not going anywhere. Particularly the demands of my day job. How can I be at my best for clients when I feel so restless yet don't have time to dig in and write?

Like signing up with a personal trainer, my solution is to plug into a writing class or group that will give me my daily jolt of unfettered creativity without sucking up all the creative juice I need for my clients.

Three sources I love:

Saundra Goldman’s Continuous Practice (Just show up to your journal for 20 minutes a day, write and post a photo of your pages to acknowledge your commitment).

Jena Schwartz’s writing prompts (Jena has an amazing gift. Her prompts and the context she gives to set your imagination turning are in a class by themselves. I use her self-paced prompts when I don’t have time to be part of a group, but her online groups are even more nourishing.)

The HerStories Project online classes (A week-by-week curriculum that can be just the right treat to keep you in touch with your writing self when other duties call. Generous, expert teachers, and fantastic peer writers. A truly valuable network to be part of.)

Throughout the last year, each of these resources has given me the structure to satisfy my daily need to write without requiring an overwhelming commitment. Each has energized me, fueling rather than depleting my creativity for my client projects. And when the work deadlines pass, I've gleaned from each beginnings of pieces I’ve gone on to publish.

The second part of Dorothy Parker’s much-quoted line -- “I hate writing, I love having written"-- is what I've always related to. I actually love writing and having written. My love for having written is not because I feel virtuous afterwards or because the torture is over. Rather it’s because my thirst has at last been slaked.

 

 

Climbing Off the Ladder: Community vs. Competition

Whether someone else said “community vs. competition” or the phrase simply popped into my head one day during a yoga class, I can’t say for sure. The tension between the two struck me when I first started practicing at a new studio. I was the outsider comparing the lithe bodies around me to what I felt inside – frustration, struggle, and a desire to give up. Yet community vs. competition has continued to be my mantra. Years into my practice when I’m tempted to think, “Look at me! Look how high my leg is!” this mantra is more important than ever.

High rung or low, if I’m on a competitive ladder I’m isolated. And isolation is a spirit killer. Isolation whispers, “guard your image.” Isolation carps “why her, not me.”

Social media makes it easy to compare one’s insides to others’ outsides. Easy to tally another writer’s publication credits and awards. Easy to think that beautiful family viewed through the screen is gliding through life. The irony is such thinking – driven by a thirst for a bigger life – actually contracts one’s possibilities.

I’m reminded of my grade-school teachers who urged during a test, “keep your eyes on your own paper.” Getting caught up in what someone else is doing keeps me from the hard work that must be done on my own pages, my own mat, or in my own family. The good news is when I keep my eyes on my work, my cup runneth over. Generosity for others pours out. I delight in their successes.

Such camaraderie has not come naturally. I’ve learned it. I marvel at friends and colleagues who seem to have been born with exceedingly generous hearts. Their example is a beacon to me when smallness could sow its ugly seeds.

My mother recently took her first writing workshop. She worried that this might upset me because writing is “my” thing.  But I encouraged her. After the first class, she reported back that many in her workshop were surprised her daughter had supported her writing “so lovingly.” When I asked why they were surprised, she said, “Apparently, that’s not what mothers and daughters do.”

Whether my “community” is my mother, thirty other yogis breathing beside me, or the scores of writers with whom I connect on a weekly basis – I’ve learned not to make life a sharp-elbowed competition. There’s enough good stuff to go around. In fact, there’s more when we’re all in it together. From helpful critique to publication and agent leads to career-making breaks, I’ve seen that first hand in my writing communities.

I have two dogs – a doe-eyed black lab and a needy Chihuahua-Beagle mix. I’d love to say I’m always the graceful, self-contained lab instead of the needy little guy who noses his way in, wanting equal head pats when the lab gets attention. But the truth is, I’m both.

What I know for sure is that when I work hard at what I love, I win no matter what. But I’ve also found that my hard work has led to days when it’s my turn to shine and I can bask in the pats. Other days, it’s my turn to sit back, applaud, and dole out the love. Grace comes in being grateful for both. 

C'mon, Give Us a Smile

My latest essay for The Mid is a blend of my work and memoir writing lives.

For about a year now, I've been practicing smiling, turning the corners of my mouth up as I drive alone in my car or sit writing at my desk. No toothy grin, but what Tara Brach, the psychologist and proponent of Buddhist meditation, calls the Buddha smile.

The assignment to practice smiling came from a friend who's a media trainer. I do my fair share of presentations and public speaking as a marketing consultant, and though I'd gotten past my fear some time ago, lately my nerves were getting the better of me. I asked my friend to give me some coaching, and at the end of our first session, she said, "You need to smile more."

Having heard these words many times before, at first they cut me unreasonably. [Read the rest on The Mid.]

Why Was I Crying?

When I sent the first draft of a new essay to a friend, she said, "I don't think it's about why you and your kids watched all the Harry Potter movies before your daughter went to college. I think it's about why you were crying after yoga."

I think it's about both and that became clear with each draft. I love the personal essay form because it allows me to venture into the experience of my life as an explorer discovering what it is I want to say -- what I actually think rather than what I think I think. Each draft carries me deeper until I finally land -- often in a place I never expected. The ah-ha for me in writing this piece is this: 

"Ours is a good story, a successful story and my gratitude swells for that. Yet like the first time we read Harry Potter, nestled together, not knowing how it would end, anticipating all that would come next, turning the pages ever faster – hurry, hurry, hurry – my heart sometimes aches because the joy of having our story before us is done."

 

You can read "Hurry Home: Harry Potter, My Children and Me" on The Mid -- a new website I've had a crush on for a while. It's about "life in the messy middle."  

 

Celebrating My Independence

My mother likes to recall a weekend over a decade ago when I sat on the purple couch in her living room and decided to start my business.

She says, “You were perched on the corner of the couch. You began to talk about schools needing to better research what they are and what they offer to pinpoint particular students for better fit.  You had ideas about how they should examine themselves to really know what they were about and how to write about that. You thought you could make a business doing it.”

What I remember is a pressing need to make money after two years in graduate school. I was 39 and had two small children and a husband who’d been shouldering the burden of supporting our family while I earned my degree.

Sometimes, I imagine because I started my business with no capital and no formal business plan, I started with nothing. Just an idea, some talent, some contacts, and the willingness to work hard. But the truth is, I started with everything: education, my mother’s self-made success as a role model, and a partner who supports my dreams and ambitions. 

I’ve now worked with over 60 schools, colleges, and universities – telling their stories, helping them find the right students, helping them find donors to support their missions. Yes, there is much that needs to be fixed in higher education today, but I wouldn’t trade my clients for any others. I still think education is the golden ticket to a better life.

My husband likes to say, “You’re livin’ the dream” because today my business thrives and I’ve also been able to become the writer I longed to be when I was earning my MFA in creative writing. It would be easy to think I accomplished these goals by myself. But it’s just not true.

Today I celebrate all the people who help make my “independence” possible: my husband, my mother, my creative partners, my clients, my publisher and the publications and sites who print my work.

I celebrate the freedoms I have that have made it possible to be the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college. I celebrate the fact that I could take an idea and little else and turn it into a successful business. I celebrate this amazing country where despite so much work that needs to be done is still a place where the right to pursue happiness is built in. Today, I celebrate my freedom and the work I can do to help ensure such freedom is open to all.

The Looking Good Disease

I don’t know about you but I have the looking good disease – an affliction that's less about my reflection in the mirror than it is about what you think of me. You – fellow writer publishing essays and novels. You – parent raising teens. You – person on your yoga mat next to me. You – clients, colleagues and competitors in my professional sphere.

I’ve come a long way from childhood days when fears of doing the wrong thing kept me from raising my hand if I wasn’t sure of the answer. Over the last 20 years, I’ve learned that your opinion of me really isn’t my business. I’ve learned to enjoy the people around me as my community – not my competition.

A few tools keep my looking good disease in remission – consistent prayer, sitting meditation, writing meditation, and yoga. As if by magic, when I do these things regularly I am nicer, happier, and lighter. I am more able to accomplish my goals of raising kind and capable children; publishing my creative writing; and delighting my clients.

But the looking good disease is insidious. Last week that became very clear.

I expect myself to look good in my practices – perverting the whole idea of “practice.” Not going to yoga for a few days makes me less inclined to go because I worry that I’ve lost strength or flexibility. What will the teacher think of me? It’s a downward spiral from there.

I enjoy social media and posting photos of my life, which often revolves around work, writing, and yoga. The problem with this is that if I’m not careful what you see rather than what I do begins to matter.

Knowing that many of my friends are also interested in writing, yoga and meditation, originally, this post was going to be about how I maintain these practices daily. But the truth is, I don’t. At least not in the way I would like or in the way pretty Instagram photos might make it seem. Last week, I intended to get on my mat, to write, and to meditate every day. What really happened was this:

2 days of yoga 

5 days of writing

1 day of meditation

1 day of none of the above

What really happened was a client and I went our separate ways. What really happened was one day I ate nothing but yogurt and candy. What really happened was an administrator from my son’s summer program hounded me for camp forms I had yet to turn in. What really happened was I had to back out of a commitment to participate in a four-day retreat and lead a workshop. I wasn’t looking too good to myself. Some of the plates I had spinning in the air – that I believe my daily practices make possible -- were falling around me.

I’d taken on too much and something had to give and no amount of practice was going to fix that. But here’s the thing: my limping along, crummy practices revealed to me where I’d gone wrong, where I needed to apologize, and where I needed to recommit even if I wasn’t going to look good doing it.

After a week of beating myself up for not showing up, I sat down to write and drafted a new essay. I dragged myself to yoga. Again and again, I learn that yes “continuous practice” is about showing up consistently, but it is also about returning when I have been inconsistent. The mind wanders in meditation because that’s what minds do. Coming back to the present moment is part of the practice.

Filled with post-yoga elation, I drove home, windows rolled down, singing along with Chrissie Hynde at the top of my lungs. I might not have looked pretty but life looked downright beautiful.

20 Things Making Me Happy Right Now

We may tire of listicles but personal lists are intriguing -- an automatic invitation to create your own. Christine Yu, author of the Love Life Surf blog, recently posted "Happy Thoughts," inspiring me. Being asked to consider what's making me happy right now is a call to come out and play and play is a great way to tap into unharnessed creativity. If you're like me making a list like this is a welcome "get to" in the midst of many "have to's."  Go on, make your own. Feel free to share here.

1.     Peonies.

2.     Eschewing my fancy jeans for Levis.

3.     Canal walks with my husband and our dogs.

4.     Having my daughter home from college.

5.     Big summer movies with my family. (Thumbs up for Jurassic World)

6.     Finding a summer program for my son that he’s really excited about.

7.     Anticipating an upcoming family vacation in Maine – where we used to live.

8.     Being able to add text to photos with the Phonto app.

9.     Connecting with my #continuouspractice community through our shared photos acknowledging the moments we take for ourselves to write each day.

10. Major purge with the Konmari “tidying” method.

11. Free guided meditations on Tara Brach’s site.

12. Truly engaging with people I meet in the street, shops, trains, coffee stands – looking them in the eye, giving them a smile.

13. Buying and reading books by my friends (Sarai Walker, Jordan Rosenfeld, Galit Breen, Mary Carroll-Hackett -- bottom left photo above)

14. Writing outside.

15.  Switching from hot to iced latte because SUMMER.

16. My amazing, amazing Booktrope/UPrush Imprint team. I’m so lucky!

17. Sunroof open, Spotify playlists courtesy of my daughter. On constant replay: Florence + The Machine and Jesca Hoop -- even if my heart belongs to The Black Keys.

18. New clients in NYC, which means more visits to see my mom.

19. My officemate of course (lower left photo above).

20. Anticipating heading to Los Angeles at the end of the month to lead a writing workshop.

Put Yourself in the Way of Opportunity

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Putting myself in the way of opportunity is exactly what I did for the last two weeks. Simply by signing up for one of Jena Schwartz’s online writing groups. I’d heard of Jena’s magical way of creating – through daily prompts – a safe space to go quickly and deeply into one’s writing. When she announced a new group called "One Story: 10 Facets" I signed up on the spot.

I’d been circling around an essay with several threads to it – an old story of a family member who drowned that I knew was connected to a new story I wanted to tell about my quest to be brave, my pride in my daughter’s chutzpah and my fear for her as well. The lyrics from Gwen Stefani’s “Just a Girl” pop into my head whenever I think about this essay.

Cause I'm just a girl, a little 'ol me
Well don't let me out of your sight
Oh I'm just a girl, all pretty and petite
So don't let me have any rights

I’d been wanting to make sense of what had been percolating and discover new facets of the story too. That’s just what happened through Jena’s group. Each morning I woke to a new prompt and was directed to write for 10 minutes on the prompt. Sometimes I wrote longer but sure enough by about day six, I knew what my essay was. I’d deepened it too thanks not only to Jena but to the ten or so other writers in the group who generously responded to my offerings each day as I did to theirs.

The real marvel is that despite a week of illness, three business trips including a major client presentation, I’d been able to simultaneously sustain my writing life for one reason: I’d signed up for the group.

I once worked with a school head whose catchphrase was, “Put yourself in the way of opportunity.” He was speaking to rising ninth graders trying to decide if they wanted to take the plunge, leave their neighborhood schools, and dive into one of the world’s best boarding schools.

But the phrase is applicable to us all. Half of keeping up my writing life amidst the demands of work and family and life in general is putting myself in situations where the work just gets done. Over the years that has meant signing up for a workshop at my local writer’s center, a class with The HerStories Project, or committing to 20 minutes of writing through #continuous practice. When I take these steps it’s as if I’ve bought a ticket, boarded the train, and am guaranteed to arrive at my destination (writing produced) almost automatically.

Sure, over these last two weeks there were moments when I thought, “I don’t have time for this.” But the flip side is waiting – waiting for the time when I'm “ready.” Such readiness is a mirage. This is the secret proved again and again in my writing life. It's an illusion that doesn't even tempt me anymore.

To put myself in the way of opportunity I don’t have to be ready. I just have to be willing. 

Brave Enough to Be Happy

Lately, I'm finding that whether I write about love, sex, mothering, yoga, travel, my professional or creative life it all comes down to this: Am I brave enough to choose happiness? I've just published a new essay on The Broad Side that was a tough one to get from my head and heart onto the page. It may seem like it's just about yoga, but it's about everything I care about in life and how this workaholic went in search of her bliss. The twist is that I did it without losing my professional edge. Here's a taste:

The Pose You Don't Want Is The One You Need

Yoga and me, we go way back—ten years to be exact. I started practicing after I began my own marketing business for colleges and universities. That year, my mother sat me down in a Starbucks and said she was worried that I was neglecting my family. She didn’t know I was also having three-day migraines and stomach problems that laid me out for a week. Those stress-induced bouts of sickness were my only break from the demands of my clients. As one university vice president—who’d taken to emailing me at 11:00 p.m., knowing I’d get right back to him—put it, “I’ve never met anyone so responsive.”

Back then, I needed my clients’ approval like I’d needed a gold star from my ballet teacher when I was five-years-old. Only the stakes were higher now. I’d set aside my novel writing aspirations to help support my family. My husband was in the middle of launching his own consulting firm. My kids were six and nine. The freelance side gig I’d started while earning my MFA in creative writing had momentarily become our sole support. As a fiction writer, I knew how to craft a story, and I’d cottoned onto a fresh way of reaching prospective students and donors that these universities had never considered. My work became my main creative outlet. Maybe my fiction wasn’t selling, but my stories for clients were going like hotcakes.

Seemingly overnight, I was in the enviable position of having more work than I knew what to do with. My solution was to do it all.

I trained my children not to interrupt me when I was on a conference call in my home office, snapping my fingers at them as they stood at the crack in the doorway dutifully waiting for me to finish.

Read the rest on The Broad Side

What The Girl In My Facebook Feed Needs to Hear

Photo credit: Todaymade.com

Photo credit: Todaymade.com

It’s one of those bursting mornings when I am filled with wisdom. At least I think I am. Everything is f-l-o-w-i-n-g. You know what I mean? Two essay ideas, three blog posts, almost done with the book, new piece coming out. I’m writing my morning pages, I’m reading, playing Words with Friends and in between I’m checking my Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

In one of the writers groups I’m in a writer poses the question: “How long does it take you to produce a good draft?” I am tempted to comment, “Well, some of the essays I’ve published (see what I did there published and essays with an “s.” – surely this will indicate to my fellow writers in the group that I know what I’m talking about) have been drafted – drafted mind you – in a day. Others, like the one that comes out this week I started in the year 2000.” And it’s not like it was sitting in a drawer and I just whipped it out recently and dusted it off. No, I have been working on this essay for a long time.

Um, that was 15 years ago.

Why did it take sooooo long? Am I really going to tell this girl – in an un-PC way I think “girl” because she looks like she is in her twenties, which means she is not much older than my daughter – am I really going to tell her it took me a decade and a half to write an essay? That’s too depressing, isn’t it? She doesn’t have fifteen years – or at least she doesn’t think she does – to complete the story before her, the living, breathing thing she is trying to make fly.

If I’d thought the story that’s finally making it into the world this week would take me fifteen years to write, wouldn’t I have given up?

Why can I draft one essaya good one too – in a day and another thing takes years? It’s true that sometimes the story just isn’t ready and maybe I need to know more, learn more. But it is also true that I am a better writer today than I used to be.

There are those awesome writers who’ve got it going on from the start. Many of them are my friends and I salute them. And there are those of us who just have to keep working at it. You keep writing and you get better. I remember when the amazing Alice Mattison, who I was fortunate enough to have as a teacher, said it took her a long time to get published.

“I don’t think it will take you that long though,” she said to me. Maybe she meant it. Maybe she just knew that’s what I needed to hear.

But you know what? It has taken a long time. At least longer than I wanted it to. And maybe that’s what I should say to the young person in my Facebook feed who wasn’t even alive when I starting trying to write: “It has taken me a long time but I don’t think it will take you that long.”

5 Ways I’m Beating the January Blues

“Always Winter, Never Christmas” is the spell the White Witch casts on Narnia. I'd never felt the weight of winter without Christmas until I moved to Camden, Maine and faced the dark long months following the sparkle of the holidays. In Maine, winter can stretch from January to June.

The only years when I didn’t feel a post-holiday letdown were when my son was born (January 5, 1998) and when I was in a low-residency graduate program with an early January residency. The key to beating my blues is something in January to look forward to.

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Last year, that something was a 30-day yoga challenge at my home studio Down Dog Yoga. Focusing on a daily goal kept me present to the gift of each day rather than simply white-knuckling it until Valentine’s Day. (Here is the post I wrote about it. ) Immersed in my yoga, January quickly turned to February. I kept the challenge of a daily consecutive practice going for over 100 days landing in April, my birthday month when I always feel a jolt of fresh excitement. The yoga challenge and my birthday inspired a new challenge – do one thing each week for the next year that I’d never done before.

It may just be the way I’m wired but I love having a daily commitment to do something that makes me feel particularly alive. That way, no matter what is going on in my life – the pressure of work deadlines, family obligations, business travel, household chores – I know each day will also include a little sizzle just for me.

Sizzle in my world means self-care, adventure, and new ways to chase my curiosity and quench my desire to create. This January, I've devised five ways to give myself this kind of treat every day all month long. I invite you to join me for one or more of these challenges. Feel free to share your progress throughout the month in the comments section below!

1. 30-Day Yoga challenge: I’ve signed up at Down Dog Yoga once again but many studios offer these challenges. You can also DIY a challenge through online and podcast classes.

2. 4 Things You’ve Never Done Before: You don't have to commit to a whole year of doing new things. Why not try four for each week in January? Choose something fun that will be a treat for you. These do not have to be costly. I've learned how to do a headstand, gotten a pie in the face, walked a labyrinth. After I began my #52Things challenge Christine Ritenis@writerlyritenis started doing it too. She tweets at me each week to tell me what she’s doing. If you want the accountability or just the fun of sharing what you choose, feel free to do the same or share in the comments here. 

3. Daily Writing Practice: I write daily but with lots of business travel coming up and less time to write inevitable, I'm inspired to take Saundra Goldman up on her invitation to write daily and capture it in a photograph.  This is one aspect of Saundra's #continuouspractice project. (I'm choosing to write but as she says on her site, you can also meditate, draw, take feminist selfies - whatever you choose -- "The only conditions: no editing and no judgment. Set a number of days you want to commit to practice and show up.") 

4. 30 Days of Meditation: For many years I had a regular meditation practice but I’ve fallen out of it. I plan to start again this month with the Left Brain Buddha’s wonderful tips.

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5. Reading Ulysses, Infinite Jest, or Middlemarch: As a literature major and writer, I feel guilty for never having read these books. All three are on my 52 Things list. Pretty sure Ulysses will be my January pick. Nothing like a great book to hurry home to or catch up on during your lunch hour to make the days fly by.

And know this, you can always begin again. If you miss a day, be gentle with yourself. As one of my yoga teachers said last year even if you don’t complete the entire challenge you will no doubt have done more yoga than you would have if you’d never taken on the challenge. 

January is looking better already.

 

9 Questions for Writers (Originally Posed by Kristen M. Ploetz)

One thing I love about being a writer among writers is the common struggle we all share no matter where we are on our paths. Like a wonderful chain letter, Lindsey Mead answered the following questions on her beautiful blog A Design So Vast after Kristen M. Ploetz originally posed them on her blog and Nina Badzin answered them on hers. And so, I’m picking up the baton and inviting all you lovely writer friends to answer Kristen's "Nine Things I Wonder About Other Writers" here in the comments or on your own blogs and websites. With gratitude to Kristen, Nina, and Lindsey, here are my answers:

1. Do you share your work with your partner or spouse? Does it matter if it’s been published yet?

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I share with my husband when a piece is complete and submitted. I’m not looking for a close read or critique. In fact, I don’t really want his critique. I have other writer friends who I rely on for that. My purpose is to share an important part of my life and thinking with him. He’s a writer too so he understands. I read his work and critique only if asked.

2. How much of your family and/or closest “friends in real life first” read your stuff…let alone give you feedback about it?

My mother, husband, college-age daughter and a handful of my friends from college, graduate school, yoga and parenting circles regularly read my published essays and comment. I can count on my husband and a few writer friends to always read my blog too but I don’t post that often.

3. What do you do with the pieces that continually get rejected–post on your blog? Trash? When do you know it’s time to let it go?

I revise, rethink, remake until a piece is accepted. I’ve got one story that has been “in the drawer” for awhile after rejection but I know I’ll come back to it in some way. The novel I wrote a couple of years ago is “resting” – not sure if that one will ever rise again but it taught me I could complete a novel so it was worth it.

4. Are there pieces you write for one very specific place that, once rejected, you just let go of, or do you rework into something else?

I often write with two or three specific places in mind. So far that’s worked out.

5. What is your main source of reading-based inspiration (especially you essayists)? Blogs? Magazines? Journals? Anthologies? Book of essays by one writer?

It used to be collections like Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, Maps to Anywhere by Bernard Cooper, Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick, as well as the Lives column in The New York Times and Best American Essays.  Now I read a ton of personal essays online as well in The Rumpus; Full Grown People; Brain, Child; Creative Nonfiction; Cleaver Magazine; NYT Opinionator and Motherlode.

6. What tends to spark ideas more for you: what you see/hear in daily life or what you read?

Daily life but if I get stuck I might turn to the work of others to loosen me up and see new ways forward.

7. Who have you read in the past year or two that you feel is completely brilliant but so underappreciated?

What Happens Next? Matters of Life and Death by Douglas Bauer.  I got to work with Doug at Bennington. Some of the scenes from his novel The Book of Famous Iowans have stuck with me always. Reading this new memoir was amazing. I loved it so much and it helped me think about a structure for my own memoir.

8. Without listing anything written by Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, or Natalie Goldberg, what craft books are “must haves”?

Without a doubt Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House – it’s a must. Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

9. Have you ever regretted having something published? Was it because of the content or the actual writing style/syntax?

I’ve got a new essay coming out about writing about my kids and realizing that knowing who they are today – almost grown up – I would not have written some earlier essays.