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

A Puzzling Note on Revising — By Nancy Villalobos, Guest Blogger for The Feisty Writer

a bunch of puzzle piecesJamie and Pablo are bent low over a round table in my Transitional Kindergarten class. The pieces of a complicated cardboard puzzle are spread all over the table. They’ve finished the border (because that is my Number One Rule for puzzles) and have progressed to most of the center and large chunks of the corners. Only a few spaces remain in the sky. Working quietly, the boys check their pieces for shape and color, rotating them in the air, trying to find a matching empty space inside the border.

But then the boys come upon a tricky one. They take turns pushing and pounding until the recalcitrant bit has been mashed into a spot. Their quick satisfied grins dissolve into confused and disappointed frowns as they stare at the result.

Straightening up and getting a longer view, they expel a simultaneous sigh. With the perspective of distance, they see how their triumphantly hammered-in piece does not really fit the picture. The color and the shape are close, but not quite. There’s a better place, one where that piece will fit perfectly, exactly completing the scene. With determined fingers, they pry it out and look again at the panorama on the table.

“This piece was in the box, right?”

“So it belongs somewhere in this puzzle.”

“Let’s put it over here, so we don’t lose it, and keep working.”

“Okay.” There is a pause. “Why is it so hard?”

Other children come around and offer to help. A group forms, and the children work together. The puzzle advances. With a glance at the clock (the classroom deadline enforcer), I come over and guide them to finish before the bell rings.

Jamie and Pablo are five-year-olds and not (yet) writers, but if you are a writer in the throes of revising a completed manuscript, you can feel their pain. Likewise, you can appreciate the advice and encouragement of fellow scribblers and the firm guiding hand of a writing coach.

I’ve been doing this revising for a while now. Thank goodness for my writing groups. Thank goodness for Marni Freedman, my guru

It’s still not clear to me the difference between ‘rewriting’ and ‘revising,’ but at this point, it’s all the same ball of wax for me. I take the chapters from the latest draft and consider every scene, every point of the narrative arc, each word of dialogue. And often I see where I have hammered something into the wrong place. It’s the right color, just the wrong shape. Like Jamie and Pablo, I pry it out and put it aside until my search for the perfect spot is rewarded.

But sometimes, unlike the boys, I lose pieces—whole chapters and long paragraphs. That’s when I look under the box, sift through collections of nearly discarded hard copies, rifle the dusty filing cabinets of my mind. And sometimes, I find a treasure there—a missing piece the exact shape and color of the hole in my manuscript. Then the puzzle of my writing begins to fall into place. Enough of my discouragement evaporates that I can sit down again and pound out that latest revision, because now I can see clearly where it’s going, and I think maybe I can do this, after all.

In the classroom, I always knew I could learn as much from the children as I could teach them. I just didn’t expect such a valuable lesson in revising, perspective, and perseverance to come from two five-year-olds who don’t know how to read.

 

Headshot of author

ABOUT 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.

 

Puzzle Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

Jackhammer — By Michelle Saint Germain, Guest Blogger for The Feisty Writer

a man jackhammering concreteI walked across the cul-de-sac to the single story house across from us.  I stepped past the demolished driveway, over the walkway reduced to rubble, and up to the front door.  I rang the bell, twice.  I wasn’t sure if the occupants would hear it over the noise of the jackhammers.

A good-looking guy in his late 20s answered the door.  As he stepped out of the house down to the dirt where the stoop had been, he introduced himself.

“Hi, I’m Mitch.”

Someone shouted from inside, “Honey, close the door!”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, pulling the front door shut behind him.

“Hi, I’m Michelle,” I said.

“Rachel?” he asked, over the noise from the construction.

“Michelle,” I said louder.

“Okay, gotcha.”

“When will this construction be over do you think?”

Mitch hesitated.  “I’m not sure.”

“I’m asking because,” and here I take a breath, “I’m a writer.  This jackhammering has been going on for at least a week.  Over there on the second floor,” I waved in the direction of my house, “is my office.  I can’t open the windows, and even with the windows shut the noise is deafening.”

“Well, it’s the best way to excavate all this,” Matt said as he swept his hand across the front of his large, pie-shaped lot.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if I knew when it would stop,” I said.  “In fact, it did seem to have stopped for a day or two, but then it started up again.”

“Oh, at first we just planned to do the walkway and the front step, but then we added the driveway.  Then we decided to put in new landscaping, and that meant a new sprinkler system, too.  Anyhow, what do you want them to do, use shovels?”

“Couldn’t you get one of those little Bobcat excavation things, whatchamacallits, backhoes?”

“I don’t know; I’d have to ask the foreman.”  Mitch frowned.

“Can’t you at least let me know, is it going to be another day, another week, or what?”

“Do you think we like this?” Mitch said, changing to a more aggressive response.

Don’t tell me how bad you have it, I thought.

“We have a three-week old baby.”

Poor timing.

“Well, if you could just let me know when you think this crew will be finished, I’d appreciate it,” I replied.

Mitch looked left and right, as if he didn’t want to be overheard giving away state secrets.  “Don’t quote me on this, but we’re hoping to pour concrete next Friday.”

Today was Saturday.  At least another four days of teeth-rattling noise.

“Ok, thanks,” I said, turning to go.

“Bye,” Mitch said as he went inside.

As I walked back to my house, I realized that for the first time I had uttered those words:  I am a writer.  I picked up my step, noticing the bright blue sky, and wished I could whistle.

photo of the authorAbout Michelle: After a 35-year career in university teaching, I decided to try my hand at creative non-fiction. It’s been a tough switch but after three years I feel I’m making good progress.  My other activities include riding my bicycle about 50 miles a week; working out in the gym, swimming, and yoga; and taking my new puppy, Kiah, on long walks.  I working on a memoir about overcoming a lifetime of depression and I’ve taken up meditation to help me sort things out.  At age 69, I look forward to the years I have left to be filled with peace and harmony.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/construction-jackhammer-equipment-679973/