What to Do When You Have Too Many Good Ideas

a large lightbulbThere was a pivotal moment in my writing life when suddenly I gained confidence in my words. I went from having one I-don’t-know-maybe-this-is-kind-of-a-good idea to having constant oh-my-gosh-I-think-this-is-the-next-great idea(s). It’s like uncovering buried treasure; most of it is gold coins that are exciting yet equal in merit, and a few of them are shiny, precious gemstones you want to hide for fear everyone will steal them away from you.

Now, of those precious gemstones, you get to covet and nurture just one. At least, that’s what seems to be the consensus from the pros on how to get a good (or great) book written. So what do you do with all those other gems?

If you’ve read Big Magic, you know about Elizabeth Gilbert’s “you snooze, you lose” theory: if you sit on an idea for too long, it’s not going to wait for you. It’s going to float back up into the ether and find someone else worthy of its presence.

Depressing, right?!

But working on two (or more) books at a time is overwhelming, even just to think about.

And then there’s the inevitable pitfall of any writing endeavor: fleeting inspiration. At some point, no matter how much you love your idea, the self-doubt creeps in—or worse, writer’s block.  And then those other gems looks shiny and new compared to your current smudged and scratched gem.

Nurturing More than One Idea

So how do you reconcile all these factors without giving up on your current project, ending up with several uncompleted projects, or biting off more than you can chew?

First, I think it’s important to commit to that first project wholeheartedly. As long as it’s working, as long as you believe in it, as long as it was the project that felt most right to bring forth into the world—even if in this very moment you are having doubts—then you need to finish it.

That being said, the psychology of writing is no walk in the park. At best it’s a long, wandering hike through a mountainous forest whose many paths are overgrown with tree roots and muddy impasses. The point is, there are going to be days or weeks—or even months—where you just can’t work on that main project. Be it writer’s block, lack of inspiration, or a roadblock you need to work through just by thinking instead of putting words on the page, that day will come. And when it does, these other gems get their moment to shine.

I’m not talking about jumping ship.

I’m talking about nurturing.

Your idea can’t go to someone else if you continue to pay it attention once in a while.

Giving Your Ideas Loving Attention

Depending on the project, this could be as simple as research; reading a specific book, doing an interview, or online searches for a topic. This could also mean beginning an outline to work through plot or developing characters. The distinction is that you are not jumping head first into a second endeavor while the first is still trying to make its way into the world. You are simply setting aside some headspace or free time to let that gem know it’s still important to you.

It could be once a week, once a month, or even once a year. But this second (or third, or fourth) idea becomes a security blanket, writer’s block therapy, or a spark of inspiration so that you may continue on your path of getting the first project done. And then, when you do, that next project already has a sprouting seed from which you can work.

And the best part? The cycle can continue indefinitely!

 

Melissa Bloom is a writer, writing coach, and certified yoga instructor who is passionate about exploring the connection between productivity and wellness. As the founder and director of the Mindful Writer, Melissa has developed targeted writing tools and techniques that help people develop a sustainable writing practice to accomplish their writing goals without burning out. Melissa has a background in film, animation, and creative writing. She travels often, learns daily, and attends workshops, trainings, and conferences in a continued effort to hone the crafts of writing and living well.

5 Times to Ask for Help

a picture of a beat up truck in mudWriting is a solitary pursuit much of the time. While this keeps me pretty happy most of the time (not having to depend on anyone, being alone with my thoughts, having no one to answer to), sometimes it can be a real drag. Sometimes I need to reach out and ask for help, which can be difficult. But when I get to these points, I do:

  1. When Inspiration leaves

Sometimes inspiration can be fickle. It flits through the window late one summer evening, only to trudge out the door the minute I turn my back. That idea that sounded amazing yesterday? Yeah, that was just a rock. And now I’m worried that it’s becoming a stone around my neck and Ill drown any second (I have a flair for drama.). So I reach out. Find someone. Breathe. The truth is, inspiration is probably still there. My inner critic probably just beat the crap out of it when I wasn’t looking, like Cinderella’s stepsisters. Now it’s hiding like a wild animal, and I need some help coaxing it back out again. So what would you do to recapture a frightened animal? You’d ask for help! So call a friend. Tell them you had an idea and you think it sucks. Talk it through. If they’re your friend, they’ll help you bring it back out from the shadows, make any necessary repairs to it, and release it back into the wild of your imagination.

  1. When I Don’t Know Enough

I know someone who is writing a script about competitive roller skating. Yep, you read that right. When she told me about this idea, I felt my heart beat faster with excitement. It was a fantastic idea! And then as a knot grew in my stomach, I became grateful that it wasn’t my idea or my project. Because I already knew I knew nothing about it. Knowing nothing (or not enough) can be death to momentum. You find yourself, staring at a blank page, wondering what the difference is between an Asian Swallow and an American Swallow, and why it’s important to your character, and how that shapes your plot, and why you wrote a swallow into your book in the first place. Why did you have to get all fancy and call it a swallow in the first place? Why couldn’t you just be normal and say it was a fucking bird?! Stop. Breathe. Reach out. If you don’t have a friend who knows about birds, try the Google machine. Try a zoo. Or a university. Or another book! Just try to find more information. You may decide the difference is not important, freeing you up to write whatever you want. Or you may learn that there are marked differences, which will affect your story in new and exciting ways. Either way, knowledge has given you the permission and the ability to move forward.

  1. When My Character Gives Me the Silent Treatment

Now and then, my protagonist stops talking. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t like the clothes I gave them, or if they’re too ugly or too short, but they just stop telling me what they want to say and do. And I feel like I’m dead to them, which is a horrifying place to be. If you find yourself here, call your buddy. What would they do if said story circumstance happened to them? What would another person they know do? Or how would they react? Talk about your character as if they are real (because really, aren’t they??) and work with someone else to talk through their problems. It’s like gossip, but without the harmful side effects.

  1. When I’m Tired

Sometimes I type a word and think, “What’s the damn point? No one’s going to read this crap anyway.” This is the height of self-deprecating crap that indicates I’m tired and cranky. I may be writing words, but I’m not feeling them. I’m drained, and I feel like I’m spinning my wheels. So, when your farm truck gets stuck in the mud up to the rims (or deeper), and you’re not going anywhere, and mud is just spewing in every direction, what do you do? Well, you don’t keep spinning. You go have a beer. I’d have bourbon. But the point is, find someone and unwind. Unburden yourself while the mud congeals and dries. When you come back to the truck, you may just see a new solution as if you’re looking at the problem with new eyes. Only then can you get unstuck.

  1. When I’m Almost Done

This is a two-fold time. It’s time to start celebrating, and time to double down on the seriousness of what I’m doing. Why do people always hang out at mile 25 of the marathon instead of mile 1 to cheer? Because that’s the hardest mile. It’s the place when people need the most encouragement. Their bodies are about to give out, they’re shaking and wobbly, and seeing that cheerleader yelling away and clapping is the ultimate transfer of energy. So find it. Use it. Finish, and celebrate.

PHOTO CREDIT: https://pixabay.com/

Photo credit: pixabay/925282/

Imposter Syndrome, by Danielle Baldwin

A sign that says "fraud."Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome? Scientific American describes it as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity or fraudulence, despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

It’s most commonly associated with the workplace, but as writers, I’d argue it’s just as prevalent, if not more so, in the arts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat in front of my computer and thought to myself, “Who am I kidding? I’m not a writer,” while I squished around in my self-doubt.

Valerie Young, an expert on the subject of imposter syndrome, identified five imposter subgroups. She created them to apply to the work persona, but I think each of these rings true for writers. I’ve created the writer version of each subgroup below. Which one of these do you associate with?

The Perfectionist

You can never complete a piece because you can’t decide whether or not to keep a comma in the third sentence. Comma in. Comma out. Comma in. Comma out. Taps fingers on desk. Looks up comma usage for the fourth time online. Comma in. Comma out.

We all want our work to be the best it can be. If you’re on your 9th draft, go ahead and fight with that comma. If in you’re in your first few, here’s what you should imagine: a loud voice coming from the Universe who says, “No one f*&^ing cares about your comma. Finish the damn piece and get on with it. And by the way, I think you’re amazing. Clooney would have totally married you if he hadn’t meet Amal.” Your Universe voice may close that conversation differently than mine, but you get the idea.

Superwoman/man

Convinced you’re a phony among your writing peers? You decide to overcome it by sheer grit. You spend hours grinding out content and leave claw marks on your desk whenever anyone tries to pull you away for anything other the bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Will Smith tells a story about persistence, But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right?”

No one wants to pry your cold, dead hands from your keyboard. While writing is important, so are your family and friends. Your pets. Life outside of the screen and keyboard. Your book will be there when you get back. It won’t run away. So chill out. Do something fun. Your life away from the page will make the lives you create on the page that much richer.

The Natural Genius

The natural genius, according to Young, bases their success on their abilities and not on their efforts. It’s the opposite of Superwoman. So let’s say you go to your read and critique group. There’s one member who always brings beautiful work, week after week. You look at her work. You look at your own. The doubt creeps in. You look down at your first draft and picture the flies circling it because it suddenly looks like a pile of shit.

I’ve written before about the fact that first drafts are always crappy—but crappy with a cape. Too often we look around at beautiful pieces of work and compare our writing, negatively, to the talent we see on the page. In some cases, it’s because we haven’t been behind that writer’s curtain to watch them wrestle with their words. Or to see them completely overhaul four different drafts of the same piece before we see it in group. Other writers simply have more mastery. I read “The Bright Hour” by Nina Riggs and was so awed, I almost hucked my manuscript in the trash. Better to use other people’s writing as a guide and a learning tool, not as a way to discredit your own work.

Rugged Individualist

You have no idea how to fix your character arc that isn’t quite arcing, but you just sit at your desk by the hour. Staring at the screen. At your dog. At the squirrel outside your window. You’re past the point of working it out on your own, because you’re too close to it. But there you sit. Not asking for help. Because then people would know that you’re not a “real writer” because a “real writer” would know how to fix the issue.

I have three words of advice. Get. Over. Yourself. There is not one person on this planet with all the answers. Not one. And yes, there is glory and valor and satisfaction in working stuff out on your own, but sometimes you’re just wasting your own valuable writing time. Ask a writer friend. Post in a forum. Do anything, but know you don’t have to go it alone.

The Expert

You feel like you’ve tricked your read and critique group leader into accepting you. You think your story won an award based on sheer luck. You obsess about the fact you don’t have an MFA, or that you started writing later in life, or that you haven’t ever taken a formal writing class. You wonder if everyone can tell you don’t have all the writing credentials you “should” have.

Yes, more experience is always helpful. We should all aspire to be lifetime learners.  But you know who changed the course of history without having all the fancy titles and degrees? Abe Lincoln. Anne Frank. Susan B. Anthony. Bill Gates. Plenty of famous writers who never studied writing. Harper Lee. Kurt Vonnegut. JK Rowling. Barbara Kingsolver.

All of us feel like imposters some time. Even writers who have been at this for most of their lives. So the next time you hear that voice in your mind, your inner critic telling you you’re not good enough, that you really are an imposter, take a deep breath. Settle into your writing chair. Tell your critic to shut his or her pie hole. And write.

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/2695269/

Journey to the Cottage–A Guided Meditation to Start the New Year

the word, breathe, in a bunch of leavesI’d like you to settle down on the edge of your chair and close your eyes. Begin to consciously relax . . . Relax the muscles of your face. Take a deep breath, in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth. Scan your body for any tension. Are your shoulders hunched?

Pay attention in this moment to the feeling of the ground beneath your feet, to the feeling of your buttocks on the edge of the chair. Take another couple deep breaths, feeling the rise of your belly in and out as you breathe . . .

Now take a moment to bring to mind a word or phrase that evokes within you the feeling of awe. It could be something like Truth or Love or God or Sunsets. The only precaution is to not choose a word that has any negative baggage associated with it.

Mentally see that word resting in the center of your chest, warming you, protecting you, inspiring you as we go on this journey.

And now, I’d like you to imagine that you are standing on the sidewalk of a busy city street. It’s full of shops and businesses, and you can see crowds of people hurrying from one place to another, wearing suits, carrying briefcases. You hear the sounds of high heels and polished boots clicking on the pavement. In the distance a child is crying, a dog barking. Traffic is rushing by. Someone is honking his or her horn. And while you are standing on the street in all of the rush and energy, amidst the cacophony of a busy city, of life, you decide to take a walk away from the hustle and bustle.

You begin walking down a side street and slowly the sounds of the downtown area begin to recede somewhat. You notice for a moment that you feel slightly more relaxed. You feel your shoulders drop and you breathe a little deeper, a little easier.

You keep walking until you reach the edge of town. At the edge of town you notice there is small dirt road to one side, a country lane of sorts, lined with Jacaranda trees. You admire for a moment their beautiful purple flowers.

You set off down this country lane and as the sounds of the city continue to fade, you begin to notice other sights and sounds. You hear birds chirping nearby and trees rustling in the slight breeze; you notice the sound of a river rushing nearby. You see a rabbit scamper across the road and squirrel dash up a tree. A hawk circles overhead.

You keep walking down the lane a little slower now. At the end, the lane opens up into a beautiful grassy field. In the center of the field is small stone cottage. To the left of the cottage is a towering Oak tree offering a bit of shade. And to the right is a trellis covered in climbing fragrant jasmine. Not too far away from the trellis a stream meanders by.  You stop for a moment and look at the cottage. It evokes something deep within you.  A feeling of curiosity, of anticipation creeps in. It looks so enticing sitting there. You wonder what is inside. You wonder what it would be like to live there. You approach the door with some reverence. The wooden door is beautifully carved with intricate floral scrolls, but you notice it doesn’t appear to have a handle or knob. Instead there is an odd contraption that you don’t recognize, and the word “Release” appears on the door. You are not sure what to make of that, but there does not appear to be an obvious way to open that door.

Your attention is drawn to the side where a bench sits next to the little stream. You make your way over to the bench and sit in the warm sun and light breeze, listening for a moment to the sounds of the babbling brook next to you, taking in the scenery all about. You take off your shoes and wriggle your toes in the fresh grass.

At your feet is a basket filled with twigs and leaves. There is a note pinned to the basket. You pick up the note and read, “Release these into the stream; accept all that is, and a Way will open.” You pick up the first leaf and notice it is inscribed with the word “Shoulds.” You think of all the “shoulds” you carry with you daily. “I should be doing the laundry.” “I should be nicer to so and so.” “I should eat less and exercise more.” “I should meditate.” And with a sudden appreciation of the burden of all your shoulds, you toss the leaf into the river and watch it flow away.

You pick up another leaf and on it is written “Shouldn’t.” “I shouldn’t be wasting my day here doing nothing,” you might think. “I shouldn’t put off writing.” But you feel the weight of the shouldn’ts too, and you toss the leaf in. You pick up a twig and on it is written “Worry.” You think about all the different worries that inadvertently consume you. You might be worried there is not enough time to do what you want to do. You might be worried that you have let someone down. You might be worried about hurting somebody. You take a deep breath and toss that twig into the stream too. Right now, in this moment, there is nothing you need to worry about. Worry is only a distraction.

Another twig bears the words “wants and needs” and you think about all the things you want or think you need to do or have in order to be content and you realize that you can be content right here, right now with no further embellishment. So you toss that into the creek too.  At the bottom of the basket is a small forked branch bearing on one limb the word “Fear” and on the other the word “Shame.” You understand that fear and shame also hold you back. Maybe you fear that you are not good enough, or that you are unworthy or incapable or inadequate.  Maybe you fear failure or perhaps success. Perhaps you carry some inescapable feeling of shame. Whatever you feel ashamed about, whatever you feel, in this moment with a touch of childlike abandon, you take a chance and release the last branch into the river.

As you let it go and watch it drift down the moving water, you feel a kind of lightness in your being. You are free for the moment of the voices of self-hate and self-doubt.  You feel a hint of curiosity—what’s next? You wonder. Then a sound captures your attention, and you turn to see that the contraption on the door of the cottage is swirling.  The door swings open. A warm light glows from inside. A hint of a smile crosses your face. You get up from the bench and step inside the cottage.

The cottage is a beautiful little candlelit library with soft chairs to each side and a writing desk in the middle. On the desk is a steaming mug of tea. As you move toward the desk you see a book lying there as well. A sense of anticipation and happiness spreads from within, and you smile as you see it is your favorite kind of book. There is something just right about it. The kind of book you can curl up with. Is it by my favorite author you wonder? I like that writer. I trust that writer. You pick it up feeling for a moment the weight of it in your hands, caressing it a little. You open up the book and you find all the pages are blank except for one word on the top of the first page.  That word is your word—your awe word. In the stillness of that cottage, all shoulds and shouldn’ts, worries, needs, fear and shame released, book in hand, you experience a profound feeling of appreciation and acceptance of your own life, your own journey. You feel your own essence alive in that space and in a moment of brilliant clarity reflect: I am a writer. I have something to say that no one else can say in quite the same way. My voice is unique.

I am inherently perfect just the way I am, you realize.

You sit for a moment in gratitude, feeling your breath move easily through your body. In through your nose, down your throat, filling your belly and out again. Breathe in . . . breathe out.  You place your hands on your chest and breathe in again deeply and then exhale, and with the exhale you feel your awe word; you feel your own unencumbered Self resonate in the center of your chest.

 

Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

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/

David Foster Wallace

a person writing into a notebookI’m going there—quoting a writer I admire enormously, who I can’t hope to replicate, who falls into the group of male, helplessly gifted, entitled by birth-status, educational opportunities, and that thing I seek—the early recognition and assumption of greatness in literature. The teenage boy who walks into the university hall knowing he is one of the good ones. Maybe great ones.

He could say without cringing, giggling or looking at the ground, I am a writer.

I am jealous. There. It’s probably already clear, but I missed that trip down early acknowledgment lane. This must now fall under whining. So, I dig Wallace, Franzen, Mary Karr (interesting that I feel the need to clarify her first name when she broke new ground, too), Atwood, Hemmingway and all those classic English writers, as well as Keri Hulme and Janet Frame (two of New Zealand’s finest—check them out; my first literary idols after Enid Blyton). All the time thinking, there’s no bloody way I could write like that.

But, after reading Infinite Jest again, I can’t forget Wallace’s fearless leap into himself, his voice. He is wildly, passionately, his own writer, which is also all I can be. It’s all you can be.

So that’s what I’m doing. Throwing myself into my own voice. Oh, and working feverishly, manically, like those other writers that will make it. More than anything, I think they are obsessed workhorses with a shit ton of grit.

DFW said, “By the end of [my] undergraduate education, [I] was committed to fiction; he told David Lipsky, ‘Writing [The Broom of the System], I felt like I was using 97 percent of me, whereas philosophy was using 50 percent’”. -Wikipedia

That’s how I feel, too. Thanks, David. RIP.

P.S. He also expressed a desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction” that could help readers “become less alone inside”” -Wikipedia

So, here’s to being passionately ourselves on paper (forgive my industrial revolution era foibles), and in life. I’m working on my grudges but hell, they inform who I am. If I didn’t have deep-seated issues with the patriarchy, I might have given in to the dark side (read: done what others thought I should have done) and gotten a job as a mid-level sales manager a long time ago and stayed there.

 

Photo by Calum MacAulay on Unsplash

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

 

 

3 Tricks to Keep Your Climax Climactic

Disco ball in black and whiteNot that type of climax, sheesh! This is a writing blog. These tricks are for fiction writers but are helpful to keep in mind for all of us who put words on a page.

1) This is my favorite climax trick, and it comes straight from the amazing John Vorhaus: take a situation that could happen in real life and kick it up a notch. We writers are already good at this one, right? We play out what-if scenarios a lot. Some might say too much, but  I would argue that this is who we are and why we’re good at what we do, so naysay elsewhere! Now then, where were we? Oh yes—take the gift of playing out scenarios and tweak it a smidge—what could almost happen if? This is fiction, so push your climax just outside of the reality box. Take off its acrylic sweater and help it plug in the garage sale disco ball that clicks every time it spins past 9:00. Now dance with it!

2) Go somewhere. What is the setting for your story? Can you switch it up for your pinnacle scene? Move your readers in every sense at this juncture; take them on a journey in more than one way. As your main character is changing on the inside, describe a new locale on the outside. Move us, ground us, shake, and serve.

3) Don’t get stuck on expectations. You’ve made it this far! You’re almost there! While writing my climax, I felt suffocated by the pressure of the first 90% of the book. What if this part sucks? Isn’t this the most important part? What if it’s not as good as the rest of the story and the whole thing unravels and the ending is terrible? Stick the thumb back in the mouth of your inner critic. Pro tip—put peanut butter on the thumb first, so she has a harder time removing it. Then write. Still stuck? Do this exercise: describe the climax scenes in the last five fiction books you’ve read. Can you? I couldn’t. Because the climax is less important than its name implies. What matters is your protagonist and how (s)he/it makes your readers feel. About the world, about themselves, about everything. A compelling central character is what matters most. Just make sure the climax rings true to this unforgettable character you’ve created. Or rather, just outside of true (see trick #1). Then, switch up the setting (see trick #2). And write it.

Now go! Your disco ball awaits.

 

Photo Credit: Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

 

Something Special

solo female piloting a helicopter“I thought you were going to do something more with your life.” He stops himself, this friend and classmate I haven’t seen in 20 years.  “I mean, I know you’re an amazing mum and done some cool things. But, you know, I thought you were one of the ones that were going somewhere special.”

He means it as a compliment. It hits me like a close-range shotgun shell in the chest. Because I believed what he believed about me when I was 16, too.

He’s a pilot for my nation’s airline, and we’ve just spent four hours going over how hard it was for him to get in that first officer seat. How he floundered in those formative years we shared in the back end of rural-ville. Both of us aching to get out of there, filled with ideas and notions that got us nowhere fast in an ag-centric town, lacking the role models to make the leap our deeper natures knew was possible. “Why don’t you grow up to write and paint and be closer to your higher self,” said no one.

We’re both drunk at this point, so I forgive him this low blow (not to mention there’s nothing like seeing a cute boy turned into a good-looking man without the painful in between). Next morning, after he leaves, and through my IPA of a headache, it hits me that I’m my own best role model. The work I’m doing now. The writing, the scribbling and filling composition books and pretty little journals is a solo journey. Belief in the art, in the making of the art, and that I am the right person for the job, for society, for my own sanity. It’s a tall order. Sustaining the belief that choosing words and creating stories that just won’t sit down in the bleachers of my brain is a necessary part of my journey.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com-983979/

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