How to Write While Triggered

a man in a suit reaching toward the red nuclear buttonI’m triggered, and I have good reason to be: the state of our world. Need I say more?

My curled, stiff trigger fingers can’t type, and even if they could, my words are frozen in my brain by my powerlessness. By the fear of what could become of us and the wheels of darkness that are already in motion. By the sadness rising in my throat as I watch it unfold. And the guilt pounding in my temples for not doing more to stop it.

When I am triggered like this, my writing comes screeching to a halt. But I can’t allow this. Because my writing is connected to the wellness of my mind, body, and soul. To stop writing now, when the world desperately needs the power of our words, would be admitting defeat to the evil rising around us. And if our world is a contest, this is not one I am willing to forfeit.

So how do I get back to a place where I can create? Where I can produce work that is not filled with rage or fear or hopelessness? At this juncture, how do I yield writing that is both heartfelt and engaging, while also staying aware of my mission and true to my humanity?

I have scraped together a few tips here. My hope is, when you find yourself blocked due to stressful circumstances, be they in your family, in your body, or in your politics, these tools will help you, too, find a way back to your pen.

  1. Meditation. You’ve heard this a thousand times, but in my opinion, it can not be said enough. Meditation is free, it’s easy, and it works. This guided meditation by Feisty guest blogger Kimberly Joy (also featured today) deals with this very thing—allowing meditation to help you create distance between your trauma and your words so you can write your story. Remember, it can take up to six months to feel the initial effects of meditation so don’t give up. Never give up. On any of this.
  2. Read something that inspires you. Make it a sure thing. Pick a piece highly recommended by a friend in your favorite genre. Or something written by someone you admire. The point is, when all else fails, bury your head in a book that will bring you joy. My guess is your head spent a lot of time bent over pages as a kid, not blinking, tearing the bindings of your favorite series. Being child-like during times of stress is always liberating to the pen.
  3. Go to the place where your best ideas come. Whether you’re on a nature walk or stepping toe to heel in a tight circle in your living room, blowing bubbles in the shower or while surfing, jabberjaw-ing about ideas with a buddy or sitting in silence at your favorite museum, identify the setting where many of your ideas land, and spend time there. My best ideas arrive when I’m driving. I wouldn’t think that would be my place of enlightenment, but alas, it is. On episode 22 of the Masters of Scale podcast, Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkdIn, talks to Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, about How to Find Your Big Idea. Turns out her ideas come in the car, too. So although she lives a few minutes from the Spanx headquarters, she wakes up an hour early and does what her friends call a “fake commute,” driving around Atlanta, giving ideas permission to enter. Sara Blakely is an entrepreneur, but I think writers and entrepreneurs depend on a few of the same things—fierce creativity and even more ferocious bravery. To stay inspired for this ferocity, setting matters. So be in your place.
  4. Redirect your thoughts. Meditation helps with this but if you can’t do that, simply do this. Acknowledge that your thoughts are not you and that, in fact, they are both separate and directable by you. In the beginning, this may feel hard. But like most things, it takes practice and more practice. Once you have it down, choose to direct your thoughts toward creative, productive pursuits.
  5. Write cat poems. Maybe this sounds like it doesn’t apply. Give me a sec, and I’ll explain. I have a thing for my cats. They are a bottomless well of cuteness and entertainment to my family and me. You can exchange the word “cat” for “dog” if that fits better. Or “horse.” Or “pig.” Anway, recently, with pen stuck like glue, I was compelled to write a cat poem. Then I posted it on Twitter. Twitter has limited characters and, for me, an even more limited audience. This makes it a perfect place to write publicly about the crazy beasts that make me smile. And it was fun! And easy. Maybe you don’t want to tweet animal poems. My point is less that and more this: push your boundaries. Try something new. Find what brings you joy and write about it somewhere. Publicly, privately, it doesn’t matter. Just write. Whatever, whenever, however you can. Don’t abandon your words. Our world needs your voice to create necessary change, now more than ever.

 

Photo Credit: pixabay.com-3038098/

Back to the Source of Feistiness

Feistiness, a woman leaping into the airWhen I was a child, the greatest accolade my mother could give someone was to say they were “feisty.”  Of all other qualities, feistiness was most revered.

Those who others might describe as difficult, she termed “feisty,” an admirable quality that might allow one to forgive the snarky manner in which they expressed an action or opinion.

Feisty Origins

Perhaps her appreciation for feistiness stems from her childhood when she lived in occupied Holland during World World II. Her family hid Jews, and her mother worked for the underground. Survival itself took a particular brand of plucky courage in the face of despair and oppression. Or maybe it was because one of the Jews they hid ended up becoming her stepfather—a man who regularly tormented her. As she grew up, she daily faced the choice: be feisty in his face or wither on his overbearing unkind vine.

Whatever the reason, as I grew up I regularly witnessed an appreciation for “feistiness.” My mom and dad (who’ve been together over fifty years) were noisy arguers. My Dad, a brilliant engineer, would attempt to bowl my mother over with infallible logic.  But she would get feisty and hold her own.

Still as Feisty Today

This fiery spunk serves my mom well these days.  Somehow, at age 78, she has an abundance of determination, courage, and energy.  She has pulled from internal resources we never knew she had to take over everything in the household—things that for the previous 58 years of their marriage my father did—from finances to decision-making, to driving—while still maintaining all her other household duties, such as cooking and cleaning.  

She cheerfully (with periodic tearful albeit feisty breakdowns) does all this, while simultaneously taking on and putting them both on a rigorous anti-Alzheimer’s protocol, which includes following a completely new diet, ordering and keeping track of an abundance of brain supplements, dedication to regular exercise and a host of other guidelines.  

Her plucky determination is paying off. Instead of watching my dad steadily decline as is the wont with Alzheimer’s patients, in the five months since she started the Bredesen protocol, we have noticed a gradual improvement in my father with only occasional glitches, like when he tried to make toast in the Nespresso machine.

“Rick,” she’ll call out relentlessly. “Get up! Sitting is the new smoking. You must stay active!”  

My dad, despite their propensity to bicker, has always loved her spunk. “You’re beautiful,” he tells her all the time these days.

Etymology of Feisty

My feisty mom might quiver in her boots if she ever looked up the origin of “feisty.” Ironically, etymologically, feisty is related to the German word fyst or fist, which means breaking wind—i.e., farting, something she considers to be the most grievous social faux pas.

Some, like my brother and sister-in-law, laugh and bond over farting, but not my mom.  If she ever inadvertently does so, she quickly sucks in her breath with an audible “oh!” and, eyebrows raised, brings a dainty hand to her mouth, as a look of utter horror and embarrassment crosses her face.  

Feistiness, in her book, is within her personal control, in no way related to an involuntary breaking of wind.

I am not so sure.

I agree, however, that feistiness, like farting in public, has the potential to be offensive.  

For while being feisty can show an enviable courageous, independent spirit that inspires others, it can also come off as touchy or quarrelsome and evolve to a propensity to be overly opinionated and aggressive; in short, it can be empty posturing. These qualities can aggravate instead of alleviating suffering.

Awareness

As an awareness practitioner (with a propensity for feistiness) in the polarizing climate of today’s culture, I have been trained to pay attention to my thoughts, words, and actions. I have been encouraged to consider my own conditioning and to ask myself from time to time whether my positively conditioned “go-getting sass” has inadvertently led me to become judgmental, close-minded and thin-skinned.  Have I staked out a position based on a presumption that I know something better than someone else? Have I left myself unwilling to see things from a different perspective—to hold my own line—rather than open my heart to someone else’s point of view? Have I failed to see that I am projecting what I fear most about myself onto others?

In other words, has my feistiness become nothing more than a series of unconscious and conditioned fear-based responses?

A Healthy Feistiness?

Checking in from time to time like this brings me back to the heart of feistiness. It makes me appreciate that feistiness at its best (and I think my mother would agree) is not calculated positioning. It is much less controlled and more alive than that. It’s a bold but natural and healthy response to the world—a kind of explosion of determined energy belying the efforts of others or circumstances to squash our spirit. It is, in fact (much to my mother’s chagrin) probably closer to farting than we might hope—an expression of something indomitable from within us that escapes outside of our control.  

Healthy feistiness is less like spouting hot air and more like breaking wind.

So, Feisty ones, do be mindful and check in with yourself from time to time to make sure your feistiness has not morphed into something empty or static and inflexible, but otherwise:

Go Forth. Be courageous and spunky in the face of oppression. And, if you inadvertently fart in public—if your words make a silent unpopular stink—take heart. That can’t always be helped and, in fact, is the very source of feistiness.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/achieve-fluent-adventure-barrier-1822503/

Why Write?

a man on a mountaini holding his arm up while the sun is settingWhen struggling with a first draft, rewrite, edit, or final polish, do you ever ask yourself, why do I write? Why must I put myself through this excruciating exercise that I don’t have the time or energy for? I do. Sometimes writing feels Sisyphean, the interminable project-boulder keeps rolling back, nearly squishing me, and the moment I’m confirmed un-dead commands me in a Simon Cowell voice to DO IT BETTER.

How easily I forget the joy writing brings, the satisfaction, the peace. Which is why, during times like these, I must remind myself to ask this ever-important follow-up question: why did I start writing? This teases out the truth—it untangles the act of writing from the web of “things that make me busy” and reclaims its position at the forefront of “things that make me sane,” also known as, “self-care.”

Five Reasons We Write

If you, too, ask yourself why you started writing, I bet you’ll come back to one of these five reasons:

  • To make sense of something. Writing is one of the few ways to work out the tests we face and the choices we make, hopefully landing us on the positives in a sea of negatives.
  • To heal. Some of us heal by sharing our burden in hopes that people facing similar battles will feel less alone. We yearn to provide a balm for the next person in this struggle, in hopes their pain can be mitigated. In this way, writing is generous. And generosity heals both the writer and the reader.
  • To share a unique perspective. Maybe you saw a side of something that no one else had the opportunity to see. And maybe it bugs you that people are drawing conclusions without having the full story. This type of writing, though it may feel like a duty, also provides healing.
  • To provide a legacy. I wish my grandparents had written their stories; I’m so curious about their lives. I for one want to leave at least part of my history behind, from my perspective, for future curious progeny.
  • Because you don’t have a choice. Your story communicates to you in clear ways that it must be told, and you are the teller. Physical symptoms make it impossible not to write and tell you with certainty—your calling is not optional.

These reasons are distinct but also connected by their healing power, whether it be the healing of ourselves, our loved ones, our community, or humanity. And the best side-effect of the reasons our craft has hold of us—they force us to honor ourselves. Writing is our form of self-care, how we keep ourselves sane and show ourselves love. And when we do this, when we grant stories life, we also bestow an immense favor upon our world. We show, by example, that self-love comes first and then, with the energy that writing our truth breathes into us, our words have the opportunity to create change, soothe, heal, and share our love for humanity.

 

 Photo by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash

Tear Down Walls

A naked man lying on the floor We memoir writers are always questioning ourselves about how we use words and the presentation of believable events. We have a role to play in being midwives to our own and others’ stories. In writing memoirs the struggle with telling our truths, just the pain of doing it, can be like the most intense primal scream. Merely knowing the truth can hurt as much as childbirth, and sharing it? The fear of sharing some things has made me shake to my core. I am not alone, I know. 

It’s a privilege to live in a time and community when being in a writing group encourages us to give voice to parts of ourselves we may have kept protected for decades. We have come out as survivors from abuse, severe emotional challenges, mental illness, failures, traumas, adventures. And this is why we writers have a special duty to speak out now. We know the pain of keeping things hidden and unexamined, the fear of examining them, the relief of writing, sharing, trusting the editing, and finally the incredible thrill of saying our truth artfully and having it received. We take each other seriously. We listen. We think. We question. These processes make us experts at something vitally needed in our cultural moment

For centuries in Europe a special status was reserved for some of the writers and thinkers of the times. Durer, the master German artist, created odes to “Melencholia,” a questioning of the value of life—a whole-hearted, full-throated despair as profound as those Old Testament prophets who proclaimed society’s mistakes and the imminent wrath of God.

The French call a lighter version “ennui,” describing emptiness, a boredom with life. In the 60’s we spoke of “alienation” and the archetypal “angry young man,” which characterized a lot of 20th century male writers and poets.  And now American society is faced with a dilemma. Have we unwittingly allowed the blurring of useful, even precious, questioning, as many writers struggle to like life during challenging times and have anguished throughout history—with darker questioning, even criminal tendencies, or the propensity to commit mass murder? 

I bring this up because our stream-of-consciousness leader has spewed out a notion that might catch on. After years of destigmatizing mental health issues and making them, finally, safe to talk about, he appears to be advocating for more mental health institutions that separate the crazies out—presumably from normal folk, like he sees himself. Normal. So normal. 

While the White House carriers on a dysfunctional love/hate affair with the press, we should remember it isn’t just reporters who bring these truths to light. It is us, fellow writers. We chronicle, tell the truth, and share, with courage, our reality. We must. It is our duty to contribute our kind of experience, the experience of allowing air, sunlight and breath into the wounds of the past—it is part of the cultural solution. We need to show others how to stop walling off painful experiences because we memoir writers have learned to look deeper—behind the Stepford Wives expressions masking our true human selves—to the healing power of airing the struggles that made us who we are. 

Yes, I’m saying it, dear writers. What we do is a revolutionary act. Each act of telling our truth tears down the wall of lies and pretense a little more.  Let’s tell it damn well. Let’s build a monument of our truth. Each piece we write, each book we publish, each poem, each play, each true word is part of that big beautiful whole.

 

photo of K.M. McNeel

K.M. McNeel holds degrees from Vanderbilt University, Trinity University, and Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, London.  In the 1990s and 2000s, she was known for her interventionist art collaboration with the Natural History Museum of Oxford, England.  She is currently working on a solo performance, her memoir of her time working as a communications officer traveling for charities, and a mystery novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lead Photo by Žygimantas Dukauskas on Unsplash

Author photo courtesy of K.M. McNeel

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

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

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/

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

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