Writing with Fierce Self-Compassion, by Guest Blogger, Gina Simmons, PhD

A wonder woman dollAs a psychotherapist and coach, I’m accustomed to helping others work through psychological blocks and emotional struggles. When it comes to my writing life, I struggle with my own share of worries, insecurities and inner conflicts. My running inner monologue while writing goes something like this:

Who are you kidding with that cliché? Stop it with the freaking psychobabble! Don’t you remember anything about subject verb agreement? Okay, you’re onto something now, but remember when you thought you had something before and when you looked at it the next day you wanted to puke it was so bad and you doubted your judgment because you really thought it held promise when it really truly stank?

It takes courage to write. The brutal inner critic, (I call mine Gerta, a cross between a shaming church lady and a crack whore) does a number on my creativity and flow. This beat, beat, beat of a pulsing need to write, comes into direct conflict with Gerta the church lady crack whore, making me feel wicked and jittery and audacious for even trying to write.

Sometimes I have to hold my precious little writing heart in compassionate hands, and let it safely beat away surrounded by love and Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookies. I comfort my exposed writing heart with these self-compassionate phrases:

  • May you be peaceful.
  • May you write with ease.
  • May you trust your own voice.
  • May you find joy in the work.

You see, my inner critic is a clever gal. She won’t believe it if I tell myself, “it’s really great! You’re really great! You’re so special! Oprah’s going to love this!” All those attempts to defibrillate my self-esteem just make my insecurity grow like a horror movie blob. I can’t trust all that grandiosity. But self-compassion isn’t about self-esteem, or telling myself taradiddles, or pretty lies. Self-compassion lets me recognize the pain in my struggle to write, and it lets me live in love (and cookies) till I can get something written.

But sometimes that self-compassion has to have some teeth to it, some fierceness, to break through all of the inner and outer obstacles blocking creative work. I’m reminded of the fierce compassion of Wonder Woman, as directed by Patty Jenkins in the recent story of Diana’s origin. Wonder Woman moves with fierce determination, unapologetic, unwavering, devoid of self-consciousness, focused only on her objective, to help humanity. Diana does not equivocate. She filters out, as irrelevant noise, the sexist judgements, stares, glares and clothing criticisms of her onlookers. What remains is her compassionate commitment to a cause greater than self. That focused fierceness, when I can channel it, allows me to prioritize my writing. I can get out of my ego and remember I’m writing this book to help people. So if my sentences aren’t beautiful enough to walk the red carpet of awards season, who cares? It’s irrelevant. What matters is getting those ideas in good enough shape to communicate something meaningful and helpful. Coddling my little precious writing heart with self-compassion, beats out self-esteem and the critic every time. Well most of the time. When I remember to do it.

 

a photo of Gina Simmons, PhD

Gina sings, plays guitar, ukulele and bass (not all at once), with her husband. She has a private psychotherapy practice, providing corporate training, executive coaching and career guidance services. She and her husband raised three kids who, sadly, decided to grow up and move out. Now she gets to babysit her grand dog Rocky, a rat terrier pup found abandoned in the trash, who fought off two coyotes, and whose life story would make a great memoir.  

She’s blogged for Forbes, Women in Crime ink, and pens her own blog, Manage Anger Daily.

Quote: “Life is a near death experience.” George Carlin

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/wonder-woman-superhero-strong-1016324/

Would Shakespeare Tweet? #Maybe, by Guest Blogger, Lisa Whalen

PART I.

Bubba the cat hiding under a bookshelf“Bubba embodies my Thursday mindset,” I posted to Facebook a few weeks ago, along with this picture.

But I lied.

I should have posted, “Bubba embodies my social media mindset.” Even as I giggled at my cat’s antics—batting a toy mouse beneath the bookcase and then contorting to dig it out—I, too, wrestled with a pest: Twitter.

To Tweet, or not to Tweet, that was the question. Every time it arose, I wanted to crawl in beside Bubba and stay there. I batted at the question and then contorted to dig out the answer I desired. Twitter, it seemed to me, was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It popped into my head every time my students and I discussed Othello’s famous line: “Chaos is come again.”

Facebook caters to an introvert’s craving for a cocoon. Its privacy settings insulate against scrutiny’s glare and trolls’ vitriol. I can tuck my online community’s edges tight as a drum around my form. But Twitter throws open the blankets. It lays out a feast of introvert fears: brief exchanges with strangers, a worldwide audience, a continuous feed. Character limits. Hashtags.

So, there it was. I didn’t want to join Twitter. Then I shouldn’t. Right?

Wrong.

  I want to be a published author. I’d like to see the memoir I spent more than two years writing and revising on a shelf next to frothing cappuccino machines at Barnes & Noble and suggested as a “you might also like . . .” by Amazon. Then I want to write another book. And another.

A memoirist hunting publication stalks skittish prey. Everyone in the industry advises crafting a name-brand and constructing a social media platform upon which to hoist it. Then, maybe, an agent will consent to reading a few manuscript pages.

Platform? I’m no Taylor Swift. I can’t draw a fraction of the interest she generates by tweeting a single snake GIF.

I vacillated. I asked a mentor for advice. Then I channeled Bubba.

When I adopted Bubba from the Animal Humane Society, he was a literal fraidy-cat. If I lifted my hand to pet him, he flinched. If I unstuck a Post-It Note from its pad, he ducked beneath the couch. If I opened a grocery bag to collect our recyclables, he bounded upstairs to hide in my closet. But shown the patience to adjust on his own terms, Bubba evolved to become the stuffed-mouse-hunting predator I know today.

So I followed Bubba’s example. I wriggled out from under the bookcase and joined Twitter.

Stay tuned to discover what I learned next month . . .

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderLisa Whalen has an M.A. in creative and critical writing and a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota. When not teaching, she spends as much time as possible with animals, especially cats, dogs, and horses. Then she writes about them. For more information—and pictures of Lisa’s favorite animals—check out her blog, Writing Unbridledor find her on Twitter @LisaIrishWhalen, Facebook (lisawhalen4hs), or her website: lisawhalen4hs.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

 

Photo courtesy of Lisa Whalen

The Life Saving Properties of the Hallmark Christmas Movie

A coulle ice skating while holding handsI met my first Hallmark Christmas movie in November of last year. It was far from love at first sight. I was staying with my friend Laurie in Atlanta. Back then, I was traveling every other week for work and she was kind enough to host me for most of my visits. We’d settled into our nightly routine, after dinner, climbing the stairs to the TV room with either a large glass of red wine or a mug of decaf in hand.

It had been a rough month. The elections had just passed. Work was absolutely insane. My family was going through a lot. My body and my brain were exhausted from the constant travel, the stress, and the drama.

We each settled into our overstuffed armchairs, propped our feet up on ottomons and turned on the TV. We made a full pass through our usual stations, HGTV, the Food Network, DIY, BBC, and the major networks and found nothing of interest. I watched as Laurie stopped on the Hallmark Channel on the channel guide.

I looked over my shoulder at her with one eyebrow up.

“Seriously?”

“You’ve never seen a Hallmark Christmas movie?” Her North Carolina drawl made her sound even more incredulous.

“You say that like I’ve committed some sort of Christmas crime.”

“I’m just surprised. Are you up for trying it?”

“I’d like to insert the ‘cheesy exit clause.’ If this gets ridiculous, we’ll change it, right?”

“Deal. I’ll warn you, we’re definitely not going to get any smarter watching one of these, but oh my word, they are fun!”

We settled on Christmas Incorporated, a story about an attractive, perpetual bachelor, William, who lives in New York city and inherits his father’s toy factory in a small town in New Hampshire. He is tasked with shutting it down. Riley, the female lead, enters the story when she lands a job as a personal assistant to the rich, bad boy, possible-factory-closer in a case of mistaken identity.

The movie had just started and I’d already rolled my eyes so many times, it was like I was trying to do some sort of yoga eye-therapy.  After I was done rolling my eyes at the possibility of a toy factory existing in rural New Hampshire, I rolled my eyes again at the circumstances under which Riley is hired. Even the most mediocre of HR departments wouldn’t offer a job to the wrong “Riley” (because there are a ton of female Rileys running around applying to be personal assistants—insert third eye roll).

The Hallmark Christmas movie was not making a good impression so far, but with few other options, I hunkered down, took a swig of wine, and half watched while I attempted to answer the emails my boss loved to send after his fourth bourbon every night after 8 p.m.

In the movie, Riley convinces Will to visit the town prior to shutting down the factory. There are lots of red plaids, twinkling white lights, and fresh baked cookies. Riley falls into her boss’ arms as they ice skate. They decide to decorate Christmas trees together as a very G-rated sexual tension builds between them. All of the townspeople are very kind and offer lots of unsolicited relationship advice.

I stopped answering work emails on my phone and watched as Riley and Will went with Santa to deliver toys.  I almost cheered when Will decides not to shut down the toy factory and my eyes watered when Riley and Will kiss for the first time just before the movie ends.

“So, what’d you think?”

“Oh my god, I loved it.”

“Wanna watch another one?”

“Hell yes.”

It was almost identical to the first one. Girl meets boy. They have the hots for each other (in a very Disney kind of way). They visit a small town in which everyone wears perfectly matching hats, mittens and scarves. The couple does some sort of Christmas decorating interspersed with an ice skating scene or a flirtatious snowball fight where the girl “accidentally” lands in the boy’s arms. The couple is delirously swooning over one another until they have a miscommunication and all is lost. Enter elderly person who drops a wisdom bomb. The clouds part and the couple then has a conversation no dating couple has ever had in the history of dating about how much they love each other and then they kiss as the snow falls and the camera zooms out. I love them. I watch one movie, after the next, after the next.

The beauty of these movies is in their predictable happy endings. And sometimes, I need a little happy. The stress of the holidays. The sadness of missing my mom, Captain Christmas. Something to escape from the politics, the violence, and the fear that seems to have become so pervasive.

If you need a little pick me up this holiday season, might I suggest a very innocent rendezvous with a Hallmark Christmas movie?

 

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/575095/

Big Canvas by Elizabeth Eshoo, Feisty Guest Blogger

I stood back from the massive white canvas hanging on the wall before me and began to weep. I wondered, which is more intimidating: a blank canvas or the blank page? I was struggling with both. Where do I begin to paint the picture of my life?

I was about to start the fourth painting of this daylong workshop. Just before I began weeping, I’d felt rejuvenated by each picture I painted. I thought I was ready to tackle a bigger canvas since the first three paintings were on smaller, manageable pieces of paper. But now, as I stood before this massive wall of white, I welled up with emotion, my gut tightened, and tears flowed down my cheeks like raindrops during a mountain downpour. I motioned to my best friend, Pam, to come over for guidance. She was my instructor for this intuitive painting workshop in Boulder, Colorado. I’d flown here from San Diego for exactly this moment. I knew this was coming, this pain, and this blockage, this feeling of fear, uncertainty, and incompetence. Vulnerability draped over me like a lead apron, weighing me down and rendering my arms useless.

The phrase, ”big canvas” popped into my head as I recalled the words my writing instructor uttered one night after reading the second draft of my memoir during a manuscript critique session. My story deals with big places: New York City, Africa, People magazine, and Costa Rica as well as broad themes like personal transformation, self-discovery, courage, risk-taking, inner strength, and finding fulfillment. Now on the third draft, I am still struggling with how to distill the largeness of my story into manageable bite-sized morsels that my readers will be able to digest and hopefully, to savor without being overwhelmed.

The writing of my story requires telling secrets, not just mine but also my family’s. Growing up as the good girl in a conventional, upper-middle-class suburban family, I was groomed to have polite manners from the womb. So telling secrets is not in my nature. We didn’t talk about my mother’s drunken behavior. We lived in denial and by a code of silence. We never even questioned my mother during the sober light of day about why, when the clock struck five, she was magnetically drawn to her nightly elixir, instead of to us, her three little girls.

Facing the blank page requires remembering the pain and processing it, feeling emotions I thought I’d left behind. Reliving awful childhood memories and realizing, nothing much has changed since then. My mother drank a lot back then, and fifty years later, she’s still at it.

The largeness of the canvas before me made me feel small and overwhelmed. The empty pages of my childhood chapters keep me silent and powerless.

“Where do you feel the hurt?” Pam asked me as I stared forward, avoiding eye contact with her.

“My stomach. No, my heart, right here,” I said as I pointed to the middle of my chest.

“Start there,” she said.

I walked over to the table in the middle of the art studio and stared at a colorful collection of tempera paints. I shut down my thinking brain and let my intuition take over as I poured an array of colors onto my palette: blood red, Pepto-Bismol pink, a fiery orange, and one that looked like melted gold. I surveyed the assortment of painting tools stuffed into glass jars and plastic yogurt containers; brushes of every size and dimension, sponges, scrapers, even toilet bowl brushes with plastic handles. I chose a smooth handled wide brush and walked back to the long white horizontal canvas. It was at least nine feet in length and about three feet high. I stared it down while attempting to take a deep, nourishing breath, but my chest was tight, so a shallow inhale was all I could manage.

I began in the middle of the canvas with a big broad stroke and painted a blood red heart. I used repetitive motions, switching up paints, layering color, and creating zigzag textures with the scraper. When I felt done I moved to the right side of the paper and laid down more paint, again playing with texture and color. The painting felt lopsided to me as I stared at the empty left side of the canvas, but I continued laying down red, pink, and orange paint on the right side, using a robotic motion with my brush, over and over again. The layers of color were like drafts of my story, each layer of paint felt like a rewrite of that troublesome first chapter. I moved the brush and the paint over and around, up and down, round and round, each stroke feeling like it still wasn’t right.
Judgment. This was a judgment-free workshop, but there it was, my inner critic, rearing its ugly head, telling me it wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t perfect, not yet. I put a big black “X” through it all. There…take that, manuscript!

I walked back to the paint table and squirted more blood red paint onto my palette. I grabbed the toilet brush and dipped it into the paint and with a big violent motion, threw it across the canvas–a pitching motion that splattered the red paint across the canvas and onto the wall and floor and nearby bookshelves as well. Most of it landed on the blank left side of the canvas. Splashes of red paint stained the glimmering white paper. I dipped a new brush into the gold paint and threw it like a baseball at the wall. It landed straight through the heart in the middle of the painting, just like an arrow. I stepped back from the canvas and gasped, as though the sharp tip of an arrow pierced my own heart, my knees buckled and I fell to the floor. I felt the wounds of so much buried pain.

I looked up at the golden arrow on the painting, and I couldn’t help but think it was magically guided there. My chest expanded, and I was able to take a deeper breath. I got up from the floor and walked closer to the wall. For the first time all day, I looked at the canvas with compassion. I liked it and smiled. I chose another brush and painted over the black “X” with pink. It wasn’t to cover up the big black “x” as though hiding a mistake. It felt more like a healing gesture. Like I was taking back the reins, steering this masterpiece back on course.

I put my paints and tools down, wiped the rainbow of colors off my hands and onto my smock and scrutinized the canvas. The red heart centered the painting; the golden arrow sparkled; the heavy layers of color on the right side drew my attention but so did the sparseness of the left with its dramatic spattering of blood-red paint.

I realized I’d painted my manuscript. The right side of the painting was heavy with effort–so many revisions of the African adventure part of my story. The middle panel held the heart with the golden arrow slung through the middle–the romance at the center of my tale. And the left side of the canvas was the beginning of my manuscript–still empty save for the hint of the blood-letting of secrets yet to come.

Pam appeared by my side and asked, “Are you done?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then sign it.”

I picked up a slender, long-handled wooden paintbrush, dipped the bristles into the paint and proudly signed it with big, gold letters. I stood back to admire my creation. I felt like I had overcome something by facing this big blank canvas and attacking it, then making peace with it. Replacing the sting of my own harsh judgment with self-acceptance.

It’s been a few years since that workshop. The blank page looms large before now.

Big canvas.

How do I begin to write the story of my life?

Where does it hurt?

My heart.

Start there…

 

a photo of author, Elizabeth EshooElizabeth is currently working on behalf of the Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego County as an advocate, speaker, and fundraiser. Formerly an award-winning advertising executive with Sports Illustrated, People and Life magazines, a life-changing climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro steered her towards a new path, working in conservation and education in Costa Rica, Baja, and the Galapagos Islands. Along the way, she discovered writing and is currently finalizing her memoir, Beyond the Peak with Marni Freedman’s Thursday group. An excerpt from her memoir, Masai in the Mirror was performed on stage as part of the 2016 San Diego Writers’ Ink Memoir Showcase and will be published in the upcoming San Diego Memoir Writers Association anthology.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Eshoo and Amaury Salas on Unsplash

 

 

The Ups and Downs of NaNoWriMo by Danielle Baldwin

an archery target with grass in the backgroundNovember is National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. During November, participants are encouraged to write an entire 50,000-word novel in thirty days. With just shy of 400,000 people participating last year, it’s become more and more popular.

November, as described by most writing coaches, is also every writer’s favorite freak out month. Inevitably, writers that participate in NaNoWriMo feel the pressure to churn out word count. This often leads to a crappy first draft. Not normal crappy first drafts that all of us write. Like super crappy—think crappy but with a cape. On December 1st, writers sit down to look at their 50,000-word novel and experience a NaNoWriMo hangover. The late-night caffeine-infused writing sessions that fueled their 50,000-word bender felt good at the time. But then they open their draft to find it isn’t organized. It’s full of character inconsistencies, odd word choices, and flat writing. The prospect of fixing these 50,000 words is overwhelming, but the thought of tossing it is equally inconceivable. Depression sets in and writing coaches spend weeks trying to shake their writers out of a funk.

Despite all of this, NaNoWriMo is still a great idea. That’s right, despite your lasting mental image of NaNoWriMo as a flying poop emoji, there are a lot of benefits to participation. Here are a few good reasons:

Discipline and Focus

We’ve all heard that it takes 21 days to make a habit.  As it turns out, it actually takes 60+ days. Considering I can be weaker willed when it comes to writing, I still hang on to that 21-day myth.

While scientifically speaking I may not be building a new habit (or breaking one for that matter), I am making a routine, and once I build a routine, I’m far more likely to stick to it.

Everyone has different writing habits that work for them. There is no magical key to success. With that said, the majority of “successful” writers will tell you that you need to write every day. I’ll share an example:

A few years ago, I heard Salman Rushdie speak. As often happens during the Q&A session, someone stood up and warbled the question, “What advice do you have for budding writers?”

Rushdie tented his eyes with his hands so he could see the young man standing with the microphone in the audience of 800 people from his spot on the stage.

“Well,” he said, “being a writer is all about your time in the chair.”
The young man nodded vigorously.

“So the more time you spend in the chair, the more writing you’ll get done.”

More bobblehead nodding action from the man at the microphone. He continued to stare at Rushdie, not yet satisfied.

Rushdie realized the young man was still standing. He sighed and reached over to sip water from his glass on the stool next to him. The room was quiet. He cleared his throat and leaned into the microphone.

“So my best advice to you, young man, is to sit the f@#$ down.”

And there you have it. Why participate in Nanowrimo? Because it gets you in the habit of sitting the f@#$ down every day.

SMART Goals

I know the goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in a month. I’d encourage you to start by throwing that goal right out the window.

A SMART goal is one that is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based. To craft a smart goal, the key is in the “r” for realistic. Setting a word count goal does NOT need to be based on the 50,000 goal for NaNoWriMo. Figure out what your average word count is per hour and set your goals accordingly.

I prefer weekly goals. This gives me some flexibility. So instead of saying “I’m going to write 1,000 words per day,” you can set your goal at 7,000 words for the week (or whatever works for you). Some days you’re going to come home after a long day of work to a broken refrigerator, dog puke on the carpet, and your longest-winded neighbor trapping you at your mailbox with a diatribe about people speeding in the neighborhood. When you’ve extracted yourself thirty minutes later, sitting down for an hour or two to write feels impossible. So don’t. Sit down for 45 minutes. Maybe half an hour. Fifteen minutes if you’re dying, but you know what? It’s 100 more words than you would have gotten normally. Or 200, or 500. And you can still make it up on another day when you’ve got more time and energy to put towards your writing.

Build Your Writing Tribe

NaNoWriMo is well organized. In addition to a website to track your progress and earn badges, there are pop up groups across town you can join to write in solidarity. I’ve even been a part of virtual groups where we wrote via Google Hangouts.

NaNoWriMo meet-ups, both in person and virtual, are a great way to build your writing tribe. If you haven’t had the opportunity to sit in a room with a bunch of other writers and write, I highly recommend it. These are your people. They understand the pain of sitting down and getting words on the page. Their encouragement feels real because they know the pitfalls. You’re also less likely to jack around on social media. You’re part of a writing collective, and it feels amazing.

So don’t give up on NaNoWriMo just yet. While you may not write a 50,000-word novel, you may finish the one that you’ve been working on, bang out some great short stories, or even try your hand at poetry. Good luck and happy writing.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/472932/

From Honeymoon to Falling Pianos: Recover Your Writing Self by Lisa Whalen, Feisty Guest Blogger

Two grey kittens on a pianoAhh, home. I dump my purse, laptop bag, and suitcase on the kitchen tile, then pause to take it in: the soft light, the absence of strangers invading my personal space, the quiet—well, except for Bubba meowing a lecture about never leaving him again.

Bliss.

Then a piano lands on me.

OK, not really. But that’s how it felt returning from a writing conference that coincided with my first visit to New York City.

I’d spent four days discussing a shared passion with writers so talented I should have been intimidated but found myself spellbound instead. Our Midtown Manhattan location sprinkled fairy dust, too. Dancers sprawled on hallway rugs and stretched as they waited to audition for Hamilton. Children with rouged faces grasped headshots in their sweaty palms. A woman with a clipboard ushered TV sitcom hopefuls into an alcove, where they paced, mumbled lines, and eyeballed the 15-foot ceiling in search of cues. Vocal scales and instrumental arpeggios crept from neighboring rooms to accompany our workshops. The very air inspired. Not even a missed connection on the flight home dampened my enthusiasm. I filled a notebook with poetic phrases. I jotted to-do lists for submitting completed essays. I brimmed with ideas. I buzzed with ambition.

Then I crashed. A single glance from inside the back door was all it took. My husband’s breakfast dishes lay in the sink, a remnant of his rush to leave for work. Bubba’s litterbox needed scooping. Ungraded student essays beckoned from a desktop. The bedside clock blinked a reminder that tomorrow’s classes, mere hours away, required preparation. And the suitcase beside me bulged with dirty laundry. Oh, yeah. Real life.

When would I write? How would I clear my head enough to formulate pitches or compose query letters? What of my submission to-do list? My shoulders sagged. Resentment flared. Despair howled in my chest. I wanted to snarl “Bah Humbug,” to close my eyes and let the ghost of New York past lead me back. But I couldn’t. So now what?

Perhaps you’ve been there, too: sling-shot from a honeymoon with your writer self into the brick wall of bigamous reality. How do you crawl from beneath the piano, brush its ivory dust from your sleeves, and dive back into a complicated writer-life relationship?

I managed, though not without struggles. Here’s what I learned:

  • Grieve the honeymoon’s end. Really. Let yourself be disappointed and resentful. Wallow in self-pity. Compare life’s drear to the conference’s crystalline sparkle. But set a timer. And when it dings, kiss the pity goodbye.
  • Confide it. Just hearing from two like-minded people who experienced similar culture shock upon reentry helped immensely. It reminded me, “This, too, shall pass.”
  • Pet your cat. Or dog. Go for a walk. Do something tactile or physical. After sitting at the computer, then in a car, train, or airplane for days, your body is screaming for an outlet. (Plus, no creature on earth is happier to see you than your pet. The ego boost does wonders.) Moving is good for the body, sure, but also for the brain and mood.
  • Drink coffee. Enough said.
  • Start with the easy stuff. Whether it’s washing clothes sweaty and smelling of diesel from New York streets or turning in the required post-travel HR form at work, complete a few quick tasks right away. It’s amazing how much less daunting catch-up appears when you can point to a few items that are already fait accompli.
  • Triage. Conference enthusiasm is invaluable but not infinite. Capitalize on it. Do only the critical life tasks, then set aside everything else and write for as long as you can get away with it—or until that unique brand of rocket fuel peters out. You can catch up on vacuuming and grocery shopping later.
  • Channel the muse. When I couldn’t shake post-conference blahs as quickly I wanted, I wrote about them (as you can see). Turning unproductive whining into a (potentially) productive publishing credit also turned around my mood.
  • Get reconnected. Text your sibling or best friend, even if just to say you’re bummed. Reestablishing your roots reminds you of why you chose to settle where you did (instead of in New York) and why that’s a good thing. Because it is. There’s something good about every place. Ask, what makes home, home? Then write about it.
  • Practice gratitude. I charge myself with finding one new thing to be grateful for every day. As hokey as it sounds, it helps, especially when I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself. Remembering the window washer dangling from 42nd-floor scaffolding in New York made me grateful to have a job that allowed my feet to remain planted firmly on the ground. Fall color turning the I-694 corridor into an impressionist canvas changed my perception of a dreaded commute.
  • Dive in. At some point, the conference high will ebb, and writing will become difficult again. There’s nothing to do but cowgirl up and get to work.
  • Reward yourself. Writing is difficult after all, so congratulate yourself for doing it. Pour a glass of wine for every 1000 words. Watch an hour of Netflix for each complete essay submitted.

Last, but definitely not least, register for another conference. If you can’t find or afford one that meets your needs, create your own. Gather friends, type an agenda, pack some snacks, wear comfortable clothes, and hole up in a space unassociated with Real Life: a public library conference room, a tent in the woods, a lakeside gazebo. The conference helped you develop mental muscle memory; you just have to reactivate it.

And remember, wherever you hold your conference, you’ll always have the most effective writing tool: you.

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderLisa Whalen has an M.A. in creative and critical writing and a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota. When not teaching, she spends as much time as possible with animals, especially cats, dogs, and horses. Then she writes about them. For more information—and pictures of Lisa’s favorite animals—find her on Facebook as lisawhalen4hs or visit her website: lisawhalen4hs.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

Photo Credit: pixabay.com/1845787 and Lisa Whalen

Rant by Nancy Villalobos, Feisty Writer Guest Blogger

side view of a human skullWhat were you feeling?

What was your emotional response to that?

Show more of your emotion.

The other writers in my Read and Critique group pounded away on this theme after I read from my memoir the latest revision of an experience that occurred more than fifty years ago. When I was in Lima, Peru as a 20-year-old international student, I’d gotten locked in the cathedral that holds Pizarro’s tomb. I thought that was a pretty interesting vignette, even mildly humorous.

I had written it exactly as it happened. I described the day, the surroundings, the interior of the church. I described the way I’d taken a long time to find the tomb and what it looked like and then the realization I was locked in. I finished up with my escape at the hands of a disgruntled priest with a bit of translated dialogue. I even closed the piece (really a chapter) with a foreshadowing of the obstacle that had arisen in the rest of my life, the subject of the next chapter. I’d done a defensible job of relating the events of the day. I didn’t know what else to say without making something up. I hadn’t felt like crying or laughing or screaming. I’d just wanted out of the church so I could get to my class on time.

My friends avoided my gaze, unhappy at not being able to applaud my efforts.

“But what were you feeling?”

Enthusiasm drained out of my pores and pooled around my unemotional feet.

Digging deep into my memory after I got home, I kept coming up empty. They expected me to feel something, but what?

The more I thought about it, the only emotional response I felt was anger at the beloved members of my group. Why did they keep harping on this? It happened in 1965, and I really couldn’t remember feeling anything.

What did they want me to feel? Joy? No. An intense spiritual awakening? No. Fear? Nope. Panic? Not really. Despair? Seriously? Anger? Not then.

My list of emotions I hadn’t felt grew. I began an imaginary conversation with that group of very stubborn people who only wanted to make me a better writer but who refused to accept that what I had felt at the time of the event was NOTHING. Why was that so hard to get?

Listen, I would say to them, the only thing I wanted on that day in Lima was to find the tomb of Pizarro. I wanted to see if that skeleton was really there and I wanted to see what it looked like. Period.

And right then my imaginary conversation petered out.

Because…I had really WANTED to find that tomb. It was almost like a quest—Harrison Ford in his battered hat. So, I must have felt ANTICIPATION. And I knew the skeleton was in that church, so I must have felt the EXCITEMENT about seeing it, and I must have had the EXPECTATION of fulfilling my quest. And because I’d never seen a relic, I must have been filled with CURIOSITY. And when I finally found the tomb, and it wasn’t what I’d expected, I must have felt at least mild DISAPPOINTMENT. And when I realized that I’d been locked in, I must have felt FRUSTRATION and CONCERN ABOUT BEING LATE. At the very end, I must have felt CHAGRIN at not having paid attention to my surroundings after the doors were locked. And then I remembered walking out of the church feeling pretty STUPID.

Damn! This was working.

I peeped at my pages again. Yes, I could add an adjective here, another line of dialogue there, a tighter or looser description, move this phrase to the end of the sentence, add a final paragraph with a takeaway—something the reader could relate to. And, in the end, a tiny little phrase rang like a timid bell in the recesses of my writer’s brain: I’d been telling about my experience, but when I’d been able to resuscitate my emotional state, I was able to show.

Sometimes it takes an emotional response to critique to elicit the emotional response to an event.

 

Headshot of authorABOUT NANCY: When not revising her memoir, sending out query letters, and building her blog queue, Nancy loves being on Nana duty with Lucas, her newest grandson, attending Cavalier King Charles Spaniel meet-ups with her Tri-color Coco, or traveling with family and friends. Her writing has been featured in the Memoir Writers Showcase. Her memoir, Peru, My Other Country, chronicles her twenty years there as an American married to a Peruvian in the midst of revolution, earthquakes, and her husband’s untimely death, until an extortion call during the Shining Path terrorist movement forced her to choose where her loyalties lay: in her adopted country or in the land of her birth.

Photo Credit: pixabay.com-476740

 

My New Narrative by Danielle Baldwin

A group holding their hands in solidarity in the center of a circle“Hi, I’m Danielle. I work in new business and strategy,” I would say, balancing my tiny spear of Swedish meatballs in one hand while I extended the other at a networking event. The person I was introducing myself to would nod, acknowledging my role, recognizing the large company I worked for. We’d sip cheap red wine and talk about our industry. I felt confident in my place in the world and in my “story” as a corporate executive.

I never introduced myself as a writer. It was a subplot to the “story of Danielle,” written into casual conversations about hobbies, somewhere between “brussels sprouts connoisseur” and “die-hard dog person.”

Two weeks ago, I attended a small business expo. This was my first time introducing myself as a writer in a professional setting. I felt shaky, worried that as I uttered the words, someone might laugh. They might tilt their head, the way my dog Nala does when she hears a sound she doesn’t recognize. Would people recognize me as a writer when it was hard enough for me to recognize myself?

Fear pushed aside, I pulled my shoulders back and for several hours of networking, introduced myself as a writer. Generally speaking, I heard these three responses over the course of the event:

  1. “Ohhhhh, that’s interesting,” they’d say, eyes sweeping the horizon for an escape route, looking as though they’d just swallowed a live chicken. As we continued our conversation in halting phrases, one of their body parts would begin to bounce or twitch. They’d see “someone they know” at the farthest corner of the room, and were gone so fast I was surprised they didn’t leave smoke trails.
  2. “That’s so cool, I write, too! I’ve got a great idea for a book, it’s about this guy who’s a sloth keeper on a frozen planet…(fast forward several minutes) do you do any ghostwriting?” Their eyes bright and I’d smile, mentally taking inventory of my own partially edited manuscript, all my unwritten blogs posts, the deadline for an article, which I was now counting down in hours instead of days. Our conversation would pitter-patter back and forth, until they realized I was not going to write their book for them, and then they were off to refill their drink.
  3. “Interesting. What kind of writing do you do and what are you currently working on?” A book person, I’d think to myself, thank you, Jesus. I’d list the different types of freelance projects I have in the works and mention I’m in the process of editing my manuscript.

“What type of manuscript? Fiction?” they’d ask.

“No, memoir actually,” I’d say.

Here is where the conversation would hit a pivotal moment and I’d watch them curiously, knowing our casual chatter would abruptly end or shift to a deeper level of dialogue.

If it started with an awkward silence, then I knew the rest of the conversation was going to flop around like a dying fish on a dock. They would avoid asking me questions about my project or joke about how I’m neither old enough nor have the life experience to write a memoir. I’d laugh and ask them a question about their line of work, watching the worry lines between their eyebrows soften, and knew the conversation was not veering anywhere near writing again—not memoir, not freelance, not writing of any kind.

Those who were brave maintained eye contact and asked about the subject matter of my memoir. When I’d tell them it is a story about motherhood and my journey through the fertility process while losing my mom to cancer, I’d carefully watch their face, high-fiving them in my mind for hanging on for the ride. To the man (or woman), they’d smile, and I’d let out the breath I was holding in. Then we’d talk about the challenge they’d had having kids or about how hard it is when your parents are aging, or about writing, or something else entirely. These were the folks who asked me for my business card and gave me theirs in return.

This was a chance for me to learn how to tell my new narrative. Without fear. Without judgment. And while it may take me some time to get used to it, I like this new story, and I’m excited to tell it.

 

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Writing Full Time—Living the Dream? By Danielle Baldwin, the Newest Feisty Writer

A Smith-Corona typewriter

When I was six, I spent every Sunday morning sitting at the kitchen table with my mom. She would hover over the New York Times crossword puzzle, pencil poised as the smoke from her Kent Kings pulled lazily into the air. Some days I’d help, pushing my cereal bowl to the side to man the thesaurus and dictionary to help her look up words. Other mornings, I would pound away on her portable blue Smith Corona typewriter, crafting a story about flying giraffes or kung fu fighting squirrels.  I knew from those early years, swimming around in the words, splashing them onto the page, that I wanted to be a writer.

It was a dream I pursued through high school and college, one fiction or poetry workshop after the next. But when graduation came, so did a flood of fear; that I wasn’t good enough, that I couldn’t make a living doing what I loved. So instead of pursuing a career in writing, I got a “real job.”

I never left writing completely. I would steal loving glances at it on weekends, working on my manuscript, a short story, or even flash fiction. We’d meet in coffee shops, lock ourselves away in my home office. I’d attend writing retreats and conferences so we could spend more time together. I dreamed of being a writer full time.

So, at the end of last year, when my boss told me that my position was being eliminated, I was more ecstatic than sad. I could spend every waking moment working on my manuscript. This was my chance to become the writer that I’d always wanted to be!

The first few days after the holidays as a “full-time writer” went well. I was focused, energetic and eager to get to the page every morning. But as the days passed, my resolve wavered. Some days I would sit down at my desk, and it was just like days of old—I felt inspired, creative, the words flowed. Other days, I felt like taking a jackhammer to my keyboard.

While I made progress on the manuscript, I was surprised at how hard it was to stay focused.  I found every excuse I could not to sit down and write—laundry or dishes, an errand to be run, a phone call to make. One day, my procrastination efforts were so extreme that I chose to steam clean my furniture instead of sitting down at my computer.  Before losing my job, I could always fall back on a long list of excuses as to why the writing “couldn’t” get done, most of which involved a lack of time or brain capacity to do it. But now? There were no more excuses, and yet, there were some days that I had nothing on the page.

I learned some valuable lessons. Creative work, or really any type of work that happens outside of a traditional corporate environment feels different. The pace of my days changed from having every minute accounted for in meetings or deadlines to relatively open and unscheduled. To feel like I was still accomplishing something, it was important for me to build in some structure: writing dates with friends, accountability partners to keep me on track, and joining a professionally led read and critique group where I have pages due every other week.

I learned to have more patience with myself. There are times to work through your writing, to keep your butt in the chair and your fingers on your keyboard, and there are times to step away. I had to listen to my inner writing guide and learn which was which—to balance my need for a break, knowing I would come back with fresh eyes, with the guilt of walking away from my project.

And this new life still has stress, but it’s a different type of stress that comes from starting a new type of career, building a business around writing, and failing at things so that I can learn and grow. It has taken more time to adjust than I had thought and I still have my days of fear and doubt, just as I did when I was twenty-two, but overall as I sit at the kitchen table every morning with my laptop and my coffee, I’m incredibly grateful.

The Author, a lovely brunette, smiling

After spending twenty years in the corporate world, Danielle is transitioning into a more creative life, which alternately exhilarates and terrifies her. She spends her days working within the San Diego writing community and is honored to be the president of the San Diego Memoir Writers Association. Danielle received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Vanderbilt University and is currently working on her revisions to her memoir and blogging at her site at daniellebbaldwin.

PHOTO CREDIT: https://pixabay.com and Danielle Baldwin

Procrasti-baking and the Art of Focused Writing — By Vincentia Schroeter, Guest Blogger for The Feisty Writer

Sign that reads Procrasti-bakingI turn on my computer and tell myself to start writing at 2 pm. The clock says 1:51 pm. OOH, I have nine whole minutes to myself. I am chief editor of an international journal and my task today is to view two new papers. I have a wave of fear and dread, worrying that these new papers (one from Argentina and one from French-Canada) may require endless hours of painstakingly detailed and ant-like grammar fixes to be smoothly readable by an English-speaking audience.

I am one of those grammar girls who actually like to don the ant cape and examine every blade of grass, but it takes a while to get into the groove each time. So, for my nine minutes, I go to the kitchen and decide to bake banana bread, which ends up taking more than nine minutes, of course.

I have a note on my refrigerator that says “procrasti-baking.” It means baking as a way to procrastinate. I enjoyed making my bread, putting it in the oven for an hour and then getting back to writing.

In the spirit of true confessions, I have other delay tactics, and you probably do too. I check my phone way more than I need to and end up either dealing with some side issue, getting news updates, or looking at something entertaining. And then there are external distractions, like other people and their needs. One I recall with some guilt is writing an article on the importance of staying in tune with your baby, while my baby was in a carrier at my feet and began to cry. “Just let me finish this one paragraph,” I was thinking!

Tips for staying focused on writing:

  1. Turn off your phone
  2. Set a timer, 10 minutes if you really feel resistant, and those ten can expand once you get started.
  3. Set up and start: “A job half started is half done” (as my mother used to say)
  4. Work in a quiet environment, like the library. (Libraries do not have kitchens to procrasti-bake banana bread).
  5. Write about or express your resistance aloud.
  6. Join a writing support group or get coached by Marni Freedman, as she will fill you with confidence and keep you on track!

I have to go now. The timer went off, and I smell my banana bread with toasted almonds on top. At least this avoidance tactic has an upside: yummy food.

The author (a blond woman) with her banana bread

Vincentia Schroeter writes a weekly blog on communication tips at  vincentiaschroeterphd.com. Her upcoming book: Breaking Through: Communication Tools for Being Heard and Getting What You Want, is based on up-to-date neuroscience and modern-body psychotherapy. She was a practicing psychotherapist for 40 years.

Photo Credit: Vincentia Schroeter