Feeling Guilty over Joy When the World is on Fire

photp by Ashutosh Sonwani pexels.com

TW for frightening world news events and the despair they cause. (I promise I’ll make it better, though)

 

 

I have a new book coming out this week, and I gotta tell you.

Most days it feels wrong to talk about it.

I’m not the only one. I think when you take the natural reticence many authors have about self-promotion and add it to the fact most days, the world news is a dumpster fire, it’s difficult to feel right about promoting something as trivial as a new book, or celebrating any event in your life. What if you line up a bunch of timed social media releases, and they hit your timeline on the same day of some horrific event? I don’t know about you, but something like that makes me cringe inside. If that happened, I’d rush off and delete the rest of any planned posts and downplay my book news.

And yet, as of the first of this month, there have been more mass shootings in the US than there have been days in the year. It’s fair to say it’s nigh unto impossible to avoid releasing your doves of happy news on a day when nothing bad has happened. Not a day goes by when we don’t learn of fresh horror: be it rampant, unchecked government corruption (honestly, there are too many stories to link here), the acceleration of climate change, the news that the same insecticides killing the bees are also affecting songbirds, another dozen stories on racial injustice, or whatever hits the news that day. With today’s social media, it’s easier than ever to connect to world events, whether or not the reporting is accurate.

Recently, I wrote a blog post about a reporter who attended a romance conference under false pretenses in order to blast the industry and those who work in it. A point this so-called journalist kept making was that these authors came together to “peddle their soft porn” while “the Amazon burns.” Essentially, she compared romance authors to Nero fiddling while Rome burned (another case of history being written by the victors).

The article by this journalist seeking a free weekend away from her kids enraged many romance readers and writers alike. And for me, it pointed out one glaring hole in her argument about the frivolousness and uselessness of romance stories: as long as the Amazon burns, ANYTHING someone takes pleasure in counts as a selfish waste of time. That includes taking your kids to Little League, being excited about a new job, sharing your vacation pictures online, or seeing the latest blockbuster movie. By this standard, there should be no sports fans, no knitting groups, no book clubs. Why bother getting a new puppy or kitten; we’re all going to die.

Problem is, that holds true regardless if the end is 20 minutes or 200 years from now. Sneering at romance is simply more acceptable than belittling diehard football fans.

Face it, “the Amazon burns” is the perfect metaphor for human civilization as a whole right now. Moderating climate change should be our greatest priority, but that requires a whole chain of events, including putting people in power who believe in science and prioritize global concerns instead of lining their pockets. To take pleasure in the little things in life isn’t a repudiation of making things better in the world.

It helps.

It reminds us the world is worth saving, that people are worth saving. That there are good things in this world, worth sharing with others.

On a more practical level, our social media interconnectedness, while great for sharing things, can also make us more anxious and depressed. And for many, reading is a stress-reducing activity as powerful, if not more so, than meditation. I know this to be true. Without even realizing it, I stumbled upon this a few years ago. I work long hours at a high-stress job, and while I’ve always been a big reader, I desperately needed to spend my 20 minute lunch break with a book each day. If I’m behind my book, don’t talk to me. Don’t expect me to answer work-related questions. I’m the taxi driver sitting at the wheel with the OFF DUTY sign engaged. That twenty minutes absorbed in a story is twenty minutes in which my brain has disengaged from a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety. And I can take a deep breath and come back to slog through the rest of the day’s problems.

The truth is, regardless of whether the world is on fire, we still have to go to work, raise our kids, take care of our elderly parents, deal with relationship issues or that cancer diagnosis, decide if we should take the promotion that moves us across country, and mow the lawn. We still have to live our lives and living without joy is no way to live at all.

So I say, revel in your vacation photos to the Grand Tetons. Celebrate your daughter’s win at the science fair or your son’s award in the local talent contest. Post your puppy pictures and make someone smile. Learn to crochet. Share images of that crafting project you finally completed. Go out to that anniversary dinner. Laugh with friends over a movie. Live-Tweet your favorite TV show or the book you’re reading.

And don’t be afraid to promote your art. It might be exactly the thing that helps someone get through their day.

Social Media Do’s and Don’ts: Sometimes You Should Just Shut Up

This past weekend, I made a bone-headed move.

A Big Name Author I follow on Twitter bravely shared the fact she was starting new medication and that she had a lot of anxiety about doing so.

With all the best intentions in the world, I jumped into her Twitter stream to share my experiences with the same medication. My hope was to prepare her for potential side effects. See, a few years back, before I figured out that even a small amount of caffeine would send my blood pressure skyrocketing into the stratosphere, an urgent care doctor decided I was having panic attacks and put me on Ativan.

Unfamiliar with the medication, I asked if there were any restrictions taking it. I was told it might make me sleepy and it may be better to take it at night. On Wednesday evening, I took my first dose. On Thursday, I went to work as usual, taking another dose that night. On Friday, one of my co-workers called me at home–highly unusual. She called because she thought I seemed strange and out of it at work the day before. We talked on the phone for a half hour.

To this day, I don’t remember any of the conversation we had.

Also on Friday, I drove through a red light. When I realized what I’d done, I merely shrugged. And took the next dose.

Saturday evening, my husband and I watched a movie with a slightly sad scene in it. I burst into hiccupping, stuttering sobs, and punched him in the shoulder as I told him he was never allowed to pick the movies again. I also took the next dose. On Sunday, I could not find the barrettes I used to pull back my hair, and I came THIS CLOSE to chopping off all my hair with a pair of pinking shears. I’m not joking. A few minutes later, the young cat picked a fight with the old cat and I came THIS CLOSE to booting him outside–and we lived close to a busy interstate at the time.

My desire to kick my 100% indoor cat that I’d raised from a kitten out of the house into traffic finally brought me up short. Only then did it occur to me to wonder if the medication could possibly be affecting me. I stopped taking it, and the next day contacted my regular doctor, who had a fit when she heard the milligram strength of the dose I’d been taking. 

“That’s four times the starting dose I would have put you on!”

Needless to say, not only did I stop taking the Ativan, but I also figured out that caffeine was the culprit, and though cutting out coffee and soda cold turkey was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, my BP went back to normal when I did.

I still refer to that time as my “Britney Spears Weekend,” and I don’t mean that unkindly. Medications can have powerful, unforeseen effects.

Recently, due to a ridiculous series of tragic events, the subject of putting me back on Ativan came up again. Naturally, I resisted the idea. But it turned out that a quarter of the original dose works quite well for me when I occasionally need it.

And that was the point I’d intended to make to the Big Name Author, namely, work with your doctor, make sure you get the dose right, and trust your gut if something seems wrong. So, while I’m out walking the dogs, I typed in a shortened version of what I shared here. When I finished the third tweet, I suddenly realized what an awful thing I’d done. For someone anxious about trying a new medication, my story was the WORST thing they could possibly hear! Dope slapping myself all the while, I deleted my thread.

Sometimes you just have to know when to shut up.

I think that’s harder these days than it used to be. We’re so connected now via social media, and so many sites request our input I believe we’ve all been groomed to think our opinions are of paramount value, right or wrong. From Amazon to Yelp, from our dentists to the local hardware store, we’re constantly bombarded with messages reminding us to leave a comment, a review, our input. I don’t think this is a bad thing overall, but I  do think it makes it hard to remember sometimes we haven’t been asked. That our experience isn’t necessarily the end-all and be-all of someone else’s existence.

I’ve been trying to keep this in mind as I interact online these days. Sometimes I get it wrong. What helps is if I keep my mouth shut and listen for a change.

But hey, when I ask you for your opinion at the end of this post here, I mean it. I really want to hear what your experience has been!

 

Dealing with Writer’s Block: Creativity Thrives in the Quiet Places

I’m in the process of final edits on my current project with a tight deadline, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with the manuscript lately. To the exclusion of just about everything else, I might add. No long walks with the dogs. No taking photographs on my rambles. Not riding the horse or swimming or anything. I sure as heck am not cleaning the house!

Just me and the manuscript, day after day. I’m in the final stages of polishing—looking for typos and making sure I have my ellipsis with consistent spacing throughout—that sort of thing. No major changes.

Yesterday we got a cool breeze rolling in, another hint of fall to come, and I decided to ride for an hour just to clear my head and move some muscles.

Shortly into my ride, as I was trotting around the arena in a circle, I had a eureka moment about the final scene in my book. Something that by changing, I could deepen the connection between the main protagonists and honor the fact that real character change doesn’t happen overnight. It was a great moment, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the draft and make the changes.

I love these moments, but as I finished my ride, it occurred to me I’ve been having less and less of them lately.

It’s really not that hard to see why. Fifteen years ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take a phone with me on a dog walk. Ten years ago, when I began writing again, the phone stayed in my back pocket while I climbed hills and crossed creeks behind my dogs. Five years ago, when I began writing intending to publish, the phone was in my hand, but mostly to take pictures. But two things have happened in the last couple of years that give me pause. The first is an injury has sidelined me for months from many of my former activities. I haven’t been walking in ages because of plantar fasciitis, and then a knee injury.

The second is more insidious. I’m always looking at my social media feeds.

I used to watch my dogs at play, or take pictures of cool mushrooms, or close my eyes to the sun on my face and listen to birdsong.

Now I endlessly scroll, react, comment, or RT. Most of the time, to be honest, I’m in a state of rage over what I read. Not good for my mental health, but not good for writing, either.

In the book, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, the author speaks of the importance of freeing the creative power within you. Of releasing the imagination to go on rambles of its own. She describes how talking 5-6 mile walks does this for her, but only if she exists in the present during those walks. If she heads out on them with the intent of either plotting a story or performing “exercise”, the ideas don’t come. I recently read that Tolkien plotted out large bits of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on similar rambles with his dogs.

But it doesn’t have to be a long, physical activity. The Queen of Mysteries, Agatha Christie, once said she got her best ideas while doing the dishes. I find this to be true myself. Some of my best ideas–my eureka moments–come while I’m doing mindless tasks, such as cleaning stalls. And Ueland herself describes “little bombs of revelation” that go off when doing other things: sewing or carpentry, whittling or playing golf, and yes, dreamily washing the dishes.

The problem is, we have less and less time to free our minds to wander these days.  Something constantly demands our attention. We have tendonitis from constantly scolling and a crick in our necks from looking down at our phones. And that wonderful, lovely brainstorming time, those little bombs of revelation? Well, they aren’t happening nearly as often because our brains are never quiet enough to meander freely. And I’m coming at this as an adult who didn’t grow up with a smartphone plugged into my ear. I can’t imagine how much harder it’s going to be for the people behind us to find that sweet spot of creative revelation. It’s not just so you can get those little bombs going off either. If you’re blocked on your current project, I believe letting your mind out to play is one of the best ways to get around whatever hurdle is blocking you.

I’m reminded of an article I once read about a bomb-sniffing dog who got burned out on the job because his handler used to take him to the golf course on the weekends and have him find missing golf balls. The handler mistakenly thought the dog was having fun doing this simple activity, but what he didn’t realize was the dog took finding golf balls as seriously as hunting out explosives, and the poor dog was effectively working seven days a week as a result.

So I plan to incorporate more ‘free time’ into my brain’s activity each week. I challenge you to do the same. Find “your moment of Zen” by whatever means necessary. If music takes you there, make a playlist and run it on repeat. Pick back up some of the activities you’ve set aside so you can grind out your stories. Stop grinding and let your brain out to play.

You’ll be glad you did.

The World May Be Burning but Romance Saves Lives

photp by Daria from pexels

Like many in Romancelandia this morning, I woke to hear about the hatchet piece done on NYT bestselling author, Nalini Signh, by someone named Vicki Anderson for New Zealand’s Stuff magazine. I won’t link to the post. Suffice to say, not only is the overall tone condescending about the romance industry and community, but the best part is Ms. Anderson attended the romance conference she skewered as a paid guest of Nalini Singh.

Yes, you read that right. Ms. Anderson entered a $1500 all-expenses-paid scholarship contest held by Ms. Singh so that two recipients could attend the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference. 

After opening with a scathing commentary on how the participants of the conference are discussing “beautiful jiggling breasts” and “manly bulging thighs” while “the Amazon burns”, Ms. Anderson then blasts the romance industry further by sneering with the voice of literary purists, describing romance authors as laughing all the way to the bank as they peddle their soft porn.

At this point, I have to ask Ms. Anderson: who hurt you, baby?

In all fairness, I, too, have said E. L. James is laughing all the way to the bank, but my tone was more of envy than scorn. Ms. Anderson has nothing but scorn for the genre, though she admits to liking many of the people she met at the conference, including the lovely Ms. Singh. She also admits that attending the conference basically amounted to a free weekend away from the kids, so whoo-hoo! Let’s go.

As she describes her weekend experiences, you can tell the conversations and the people are making a difference to Ms. Anderson. Her descriptions become less arch, her attempt to be witty, cutting, and clever as a store-brand Dorothy Parker fades as she becomes more involved with her subject. But as the weekend draws to a close, she has to go back to her real life, and her bitterness and cynicism resurface.

It would have made for a better, if still unethical, article for Ms. Anderson to say how the experience of attending the conference changed her mind about romance stories. That she now understood the joy that brings romance writers together, that as a community, we believe in hope. I might have forgiven her dismissive and belittling manner if she’d come to that kind of conclusion, but she did not. She finished her post with a reminder that the Amazon still burns.

I can see where she might be bitter and disillusioned. I’m angry too.

I’m livid that the wealthiest people in this world aren’t content with what they have, and must grab more to the detriment of us all. I’m furious that people can willfully deny climate change, and that we’re escalating to an unsustainable world habitat that will destroy societies and take us back to the Stone Age—if we survive at all. Daily I despair over the irreplaceable loss of species, and how toxic algal blooms that can kill your dog are becoming more widespread, how arctic ice is melting, and extreme weather events will only become more common, and how these end-game climate changes are likely to take place in my lifetime, to say nothing of the mess we’re leaving behind for our children. Perhaps that’s also why Ms. Anderson is so mad.

But I have to ask, why is her sneering disdain reserved for romance writers? Why not mock the scores of people who sit fixated in front of television sets or packed into stadiums this weekend to watch football or soccer? Why not rail at the parents taking their kids to Little League, or the theater-goers piling in to see the latest blockbuster?

Because making fun of romance isn’t new, and oh by the way, Ms. Anderson, your misogyny is showing too. And if you’re so bent about the fires being set in the Amazon, fires that the President Bolsonaro of Brazil refused financial aid to battle, tell me, what are you doing about the Amazon? Didn’t you just get $1500? How much of that went to fire relief?

For some time now, I’ve been writing about the struggle to find your creativity in a world that seems hopeless, and how I take refuge from the news in comfort reads. At the recent RWA conference in NYC (the American version of what Ms. Anderson attended in NZ), keynote speaker and author Jennifer L. Armentrout told the audience flatly that “I am here to tell you, 100%, you have saved someone’s life.” Today, authors and readers have filled my timeline with statements of how reading—and romances in particular—has saved them in dark times.

Readers share the series that got them through chemotherapy or that terrible divorce. Books that helped them survive crushing depression, when it was all they could do to get out of bed. The books that gave them temporary respite from their lives as caretakers to the elderly, or suffering from chronic pain, or a job that sucked the life out of them. Please tell me how reading a romance is somehow a stupid waste of time, an activity to be mocked, but being obsessed with Game of Thrones or a video game is not? (I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with things either. Hey, man. Whatever gets you through the day…)

I went through a spell a while back when I read a book every 2-3 days. For months, this was the only way I got through the day without panic attacks or taking a fistful of pills. I tried meditation apps, counseling, binging-watching The Nanny (do NOT judge me!), but reading made the most difference to my mental health. The only thing that stopped the loop of anxiety and depression.

I call my representatives in Congress to urge them to do the right thing, even though my voice shakes. I attend marches, despite my extreme fear of mass shooters and crowds in general. I donate to causes I believe in. Most days I have to choose: do I send something to the candidate I support, or help out a friend’s GoFundMe for medical bills?

Ms. Anderson’s take on reading and writing romance is akin to my boss thinking I’m not a hard enough worker because I read a book during my 20 minute lunch break, despite the fact I’m putting in a 10-12 hour workday. It’s like telling a soldier they should never try to take their minds off the battle ahead, or a climber Mt. Everest must be scaled in a single day, forget acclimating to the thinner air or taking shelter when a storm blows up.

I’ve said it many times, but while I dream of hitting bestseller status, I don’t write for that reason. I write because life is pretty crappy most days, and we get inundated with horrible news on a daily basis. I write because spending a few hours in my own universe every day, one where I can make sure the good guys win and the heroine gets her happy ending, keeps me sane. I share my stories because if I can take even one person out of their crappy existence for a few hours—to make them forget their chronic pain, their financial woes, their mean boss, their dying family member, the fact the world is a dumpster fire and we’re all going to die—even for a brief time, then I’ve done my job as a storyteller.

When I think about why this is, and why writing stories with happily-ever-after endings MATTER, damn it, I can think of no better way of putting it than this statement by a very good friend of mine:

We build instead of destroy.

Maybe you should think about that, Ms. Anderson.

 

 

A Hint of Fall

Anyone who knows me knows I hate summer.

I’m an autumn girl all the way. Give me the crackle of dead leaves scuffling along the sidewalk underfoot. The morning air as cool and crisp as that first bite of a juicy red apple. A touch of frost rimming the blades of grass. Boots, sweaters, and cups of frothy hot chocolate. Long walks in the woods as the trees drape the mountains in shades of red, orange, and gold. Autumn is all things pumpkin, and baking pies, and galloping your horse across an open field surrounded by the glorious change of leaves all around.

But I get ahead of myself.

I come by my dislike of summer honestly. Growing up in the South, summer means mosquitoes the size of tractors, which all seem to know the instant I step outside the house. Ticks. Copperheads. Air too thick to breathe. Sunburn. Poison ivy. Clothes that become damp the moment you exit an air-conditioned room. My mother hated air conditioning and relegated it to one room only–I used to lie in the hallway at the edge of the closed door and whimper at the small draft of relief that wafted out from beneath it.

At night, my sister and I shared a room with an oscillating fan. The huge metal fan swung slowly from side to side as we lay panting for breath in our twin beds, holding out for the blissful 20 seconds when the air passed over us. I had asthma and allergies as a child, so breathing at night was an issue. I remember once my sister crawling out of bed to sneak to my side. Leaning down, she whispered, “If you don’t stop breathing so loud, I will kill you.”

Yeah. Yay for summer.

My mother also had strong feelings about the amount of skin her children were allowed to expose–sensible, given we all burned and blistered at the drop of a hat. But that meant long sleeves, long pants, and large floppy hats even when it was 100 degrees out. Wearing T-shirts over our swim suits because they didn’t make sunscreen strong enough to protect us back then. Add to that my poor vision, and summers by the lake or pool weren’t all the fun for me, as I had to leave my glasses on my towel. As an adult, between the mosquitoes and the sunburn risk, I still avoid tank tops, shorts, and sandals. It’s too ingrained at this point.

So believe me when I say that I live for that first day–usually in September–when the temperatures dip 20 degrees F. That day when the humidity breaks and it’s actually pleasant to be outside. The dogs stop panting in the shade and become playful again. It doesn’t last, this brief promise of cooler weather to come. It’s a tease, a reminder that eventually summer ends. Most times, the temperatures shoot back up again, and sadly, “summer” is lasting longer and longer, outstaying its welcome, as far as I’m concerned. Autumn, the time I jokingly refer to as my Holy Season, is scarcely more than a few weeks now. October, my favorite month, starts out hot more often than not, as the leaves turn brown and the light spectrum shifts from gold to winter white. November’s rains, with gloomy skies and naked trees, comes all to quickly.

This past weekend, we had a glimpse of the change of seasons to come. A break in the 90 degree F+ heat and humidity, a breath of fresh air. I rode the horse, and thought about taking the dogs for a run in the woods, but the day got away from me. I regret that now. Part of the problem with having so little free time is I have to pick and choose how to spend it. I’ve got a book on deadline I’m trying to finish, and I managed to complete 1500 words on a new story. But that meant skipping the hike with the dogs in the woods and doing something closer to home. The nice weather is supposed to linger another day or so.

I plan to enjoy it.

What’s your favorite time of the year and why? I want to know!

Sometimes Less is More

Except for a few short breaks, I’ve been at the keyboard for the last 12 hours now.

I fed the animals and took the dogs out for potty breaks. I fixed a series of healthy snacks–if you count cheese and crackers, cookies, buttered toast, and apple pie as ‘healthy’. There was an intense break when I stormed around the yelling that the ziplock bag with all the chargers HAD to be in the house because I’d used the phone charger since my return from RWA (I found it under a pile of clean clothes from the trip). But starting at 8 am, I had my butt in the chair, determined to finish the edits I’d been working on for the last week. I had to get them done—I have a deadline.

I also wanted to get them done by 3 pm because that’s when the online writing course I’m taking had its next session. I haven’t been keeping up with either of the online courses I’m currently taking because, yeah, edits, but I had high hopes of  getting caught up if I just worked hard enough.

At 3:05 pm, I discovered the document I’d been working on all morning had phrases in it I thought I’d deleted the day before. That’s when it hit me: that little glitch I’d experienced the night before, when the elderly laptop suddenly closed the file I was working on? Yeah, when I recovered the file, it was an old version. I’d lost all my edits and there was no way to recover them.

Bad words were said. Tears were shed. And I came this close to chucking the whole thing. Not just the draft, but the whole shebang. The writing, the marketing, the constant push to do better, the entire demoralizing, nerve-wracking, frustrating process. I was ready to quit.

I felt as though I’d wasted the entire week, the evenings clacking away at the keyboard after work, the hours not walking the dogs, or riding the horse. The house uncleaned, the laundry undone. Heck, I still haven’t finished unpacking from our remodel and it’s been nearly six months. I could have been doing that instead of working on a book that only a handful of people will ever read. (Yeah, I was that down)

The good news is I didn’t chuck the draft, though I was sorely tempted. I had too much invested in it. I’ve been working on this story since before my mother died over a year ago. I have a cover I adore. And I like these characters a lot. They deserve to have their story told. I want to share their story with you.

So instead of participating in my online class, I went back to the keyboard and worked on restoring as much of the edits as I could remember. I worked for another five hours before deciding to stop for the evening. I tried to get as much done as I could today because working piecemeal around my day job makes everything harder. The edits went better than I’d expected, and with luck, I can get them done in the next few days.

But I learned a few things along the way.

First: I don’t really need to take any online courses right now. I’m up to my eyeballs in courses, books, articles, and videos I don’t have time to read or watch. They’re lined up on my shelves, stuffed in my inbox, and languishing on my hard drive. I’ve been shelling out money to learn more about the business of writing in all its forms, hoping against hope I’ll somehow find the magic formula that will make me an awesome writer AND bring my stories to international attention at the same time… while I think this is all important and necessary if I want this ever to be more than an expensive (exasperating, frustrating, and depressing) hobby, I also have to write the stories in the first place. So maybe the smartest thing for me to do right now is contact the class moderators and explain I need to drop out.

Second: I don’t run well on a steady diet of sugar and carbs. Seriously. I need more green things in my diet. Ditto with getting up and moving around from time to time.

Third: I was on fire to assimilate and implement the knowledge I received at RWA, but like Rome, my writing career won’t be built in a day. A lot of what I learned at RWA simply isn’t applicable to me at my current stage of my career. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever use that information, or that I won’t even begin using some of it now. But I can’t start putting up walls if I haven’t laid the foundation yet.

Fourth: I wasn’t a very nice person today. I hissed and struck like an irritable rattlesnake, blowing up over stupid things and then losing my cool when I discovered the glitch. I know I’m stressed by my work, the state of the world, and all the personal things I’ve gone through in the last couple of years, but the writing is supposed to be the fun part. The part that brings joy into my life I can then share with others.

I don’t want to be this person. The person snarling and snapping at everyone around them because I don’t have enough time or energy to do the things I think need to be done.

Fifth: I have to let some things go. I can’t do everything I want or need to do in a given 24 hours. I need to re-evaluate and prioritize, making way for the stuff I really want to do. Do a Marie Kondo on my life, but the mental and emotional aspects of it. If it doesn’t bring me joy, let it go.

So I will drop out of the coursework. I’ve got enough material to keep me occupied for a very long time, so no more new stuff until I’ve made a dent in what I already have. I’ll finish the edits. I’ll go back to doing self-care stuff—meditation, listening to music, taking the dogs for long walks in the woods (okay, when it’s cooler…). I will spend LESS TIME ON SOCIAL MEDIA. I will go back to the heart of why I do this: the writing itself.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll discover my better self again. The one who is kind, compassionate, and fun to be around. Not just the person my dogs think I am, but the one they deserve. Let’s hope so, at any rate.

Why Editors are like Riding Instructors

Recently, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, I wound up with a story with an incomplete edit. Anyone in the writing business knows how hard it is to find a good editor at the best of times. When you’re in the middle of fording the river, it’s a terrible time to switch horses. But it couldn’t be helped.

I tried to explain the difficulties to a friend of mine. “It’s like trying to find a new hairdresser right before a major event. You don’t know if you’ll get a genius or a disaster.”

I could see I hadn’t convinced her. And then it came to me. The perfect analogy. “It’s like finding another riding instructor.”

As a horsewoman herself, she instantly got it.

I’ve written in the past about the similarities to writing and riding horses, so it should come as no surprise I find editing and riding instruction comparable activities, too. There is a lot of commonality between the two roles.

A good riding instructor assesses your skill level and does her best to make sure you understand the basics of horsemanship before putting you in a situation where you might get hurt. (What you do on your own time without her knowledge is on you) Good riding instructors are skilled at reading their students. They are firm because making mistakes could kill you. They know when someone needs encouragement and praise. They are quick to dole out correction when someone makes a bone-headed move. They know when to push a student to the next level and when to stop someone before they jeopardize themselves and the horses they ride. The best instructors can do this without demoralizing or belittling their students, all while pointing out bad habits and little errors that will keep you from winning in the show ring. They also realistically assess your level of talent, dedication, and the ability of your mount, and try not to over-face you. The goal is to keep you safe, and make you and your horse the best possible team you can be.

Likewise, a good editor will pick up on those habitual phrases you use and correct your SPAG. They’ll praise your writing’s strengths and point out its weaknesses. They’ll drill the basics into until you can perform them in your sleep—until you automatically correct your own draft before sending it in to them for editing. And if you’re not ready for “competition”, they’ll tell you. They’ll also tell you when it’s time to move up in the ranks and push yourself harder. The goal is to help you make your story the best possible story it can be.

The relationship between a writer and editor, or student and riding instructor, is a special one. The person giving the expert advice is in a position of power. A thoughtless or overly harsh criticism can to do great harm. What works for one paired team might not work for another. Sometimes the only thing that keeps a person plugging away after crushing criticism is a deep abiding love for the thing they desire: be it riding horses or writing stories.

I’ve had riding instructors tell me I had no business being on a horse—and for a while, I believed them. I’ve ridden with an Olympic coach—and had him consider me and my backyard nag beneath his notice. I’ve also successfully competed with my slaughter-house mount and won reserve champion with the highest test score of the event. It took me many years and many instructors to find the right one for me. It wasn’t easy. Just because you find the right person doesn’t mean that relationship is all rainbows and flowers, either. There are times when I get deeply frustrated with my instructor, but you know what? Most of the time she’s right.

There are a lot of reasons why you might need a new editor. Maybe you’ve outgrown the one you started with, or their life circumstances have changed and they can no longer work with you. Maybe you tried someone’s services and recognize they aren’t a good fit for you. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are to train a horse. Trust your instincts and do what is best for you. Find the person whose advice resonates for you. If you disagree, ask yourself why? Are you resisting sound advice because it’s hard taking your writing to the next level or because that advice is wrong for you and your story?

Because in the end, it’s just you and that half-ton beast galloping down to that double oxer. The instructor might have given you the tools to get to the obstacle, but you’re the one jumping it.

We’re All a Little Bit Weird, and That’s Okay

I came very close to deleting this post. I’d gotten 3/4 of the way through it, only to have a lightning strike take out the transformer near our home. By the time the power came back, not only was it quite late (and I’d pretty much missed the #MondayBlogs window) but I also had second thoughts about the content. But then I read something online about the Us vs Them mentality, and it made me decide to finish the blog and publish it anyway.

You see, for some time now, I’ve suspected the need to categorize people into Us and Them is something deeply ingrained in human nature. When you think about it, survival pressure has probably selected for those of us who have the ability to organize ourselves in communities, since those who live in groups have increased survival rates. But the flip side of this benefit is the tendency to see everyone that is not Us as Them. It’s as though we’re constantly playing a game of “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” only the consequences of saying “You don’t belong” has gone far beyond kids sorting themselves into Jocks and Nerds. That process itself is not innocuous either: there are real consequences to bullying and being ostracized. But that’s just one end of a spectrum that includes racism, homophobia, misogyny, sports team rivalry, and more.

In the past, not being part of a tribe could get you killed–but the process of sorting you into a tribe can be an anxious one. I think J.K. Rowling got it right when she depicted the competition and tension between Houses at Hogwarts, and the concern Harry had about being sorted into the ‘right’ house.

More than ever, politics has become a polarizing issue here in the US, especially given the fact that people’s lives are at stake. It’s gone far beyond “this is what I believe” and entered into the “You want to kill me and mine” category. People are drawing lines in the sand and standing by their candidate no matter what. In fact, at a recent gathering of friends, we had to declare a ‘no politics’ rule. Not because I don’t think we could have discussed the current issues without coming to blows, but mostly because we’re all so sick of it and we were there to get away for a few days. But the subject of Us against Them came up, and it struck me that this mindset was so deeply rooted in all of us that probably the ONLY thing that would unite us as one people on this planet would be the threat of an alien invasion or the threat of another pandemic–which is a nightmare for another day.

Sometimes, in my fear of the hatred and hostility I see out there, I forget the value of having tribes. The importance of finding *your* tribe, the place where the people get you. The people with whom you can be your real self.

Last month I had the chance to attend a big sci-fi convention. It was the first time I’ve been able to go to one of these in at least ten years. My husband had to back out for work-related reasons, which almost made me cancel the trip myself. I rarely travel, and for me, a trip to the Big City means going into Raleigh. I tend to get overwhelmed by large crowds, too. But the tickets had been purchased and I was going to meet up with friends, so I decided to go after all. Most of my friends are as introverted as I am, so if I said I needed to take a break and go to my room, everyone would likely understand.

Most of the friends I was meeting were people I’d met before, but each of them brought friends of their own. Initially, I found myself somewhat nervous about meeting so many new people. Under those circumstances, I tend to talk too much, and then later, kick myself for things I said at the time. I replay my conversations, wincing at things I said, wishing I’d just kept my mouth shut.

But as the days went on, I noticed something–all of my friends had their own individual quirks. The truth is, we’re all a little bit weird, but in a good way. I started to relax. Lest you think I was congratulating myself for being the ‘normal’ person in a room full of odd ducks, that wasn’t the case at all. I was reassured that everyone there was as weird as I was–and this was okay. It made me realize my particular brand of weirdness would be recognized and accepted by my tribe.

The convention was held at a 4 star hotel–and the contrast between convention goers and the regular guests was noticeable. At one point I got into an elevator with a woman about my age–but we couldn’t have been more different. I was dressed in jeans and a fandom T shirt, my short blonde hair tipped with temporary purple dye. In contrast, the other guest wore a conservative suit and had her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun. She made a point of fixing her gaze on the elevator doors, ignoring my presence until she got out.

My con badge identified me as a convention-goer, but truthfully, the badge wasn’t necessary–my whole outfit screamed “FAN!” But for other convention attendees, the badge was an open invitation to start a conversation.

I followed an older gentleman down the corridor one morning. He was using a cane and moving slowly. I didn’t want to be rude and blow past him, so I adjusted my pace accordingly. When we got in the elevator, I noticed he was wearing a con badge. He turned to me and asked if this was my first con. I smiled and told him it was the first in many years. He said he was a new fan, having only recently discovered Stargate streaming on Amazon. He then told me he’d lost his wife the year before, and his son had taken it hard. My heart plummeted at his words. But then he shared that they’d begun watching the show together, and enjoyed it so much that he decided to see if there was a sci-fi convention they could attend. There were tears in my eyes when he confided his son was having a great time, and so was he.

Another encounter occurred when I was waiting in line. A gorgeous woman struck up a conversation with me. She’d noticed me waiting in the same lines, and began telling me how she and her boyfriend (who smiled and nodded as she spoke) had met over a shared love of geeky things. She said no one else understood her passion the way he did, and neither of them had been able to talk about their fandoms until they’d met. They’d traveled a great distance to come to the convention, and despite coming from widely divergent backgrounds, their bond over sci-fi was solid gold. While we were chatting, we broke off to admire a woman passing us who’d dyed her cornrows in the colors of the rainbow.

The last day of the con, I got up early and posed some action figures in front of a little fountain in the hotel lobby so i could take photographs of them. I sensed someone behind me watching, and I looked up with an apologetic “sorry.”

I needn’t have bothered. The guy was dressed in a military uniform from one of the TV shows. He grinned. “No, that’s so cool. Do you have any others at home?”

Er, yes. From Stargate. Doctor Who. Captain America. Wonder Woman. Even Jem and the Holograms. Sometimes I stage huge scenes mixing characters from various shows and movies…

Okay, I admit, it’s a little weird. But it’s fun, and I believe that play is good for all of us, but especially those of us who create. Play fuels imagination, and imagination begets creativity. You should try it sometime. The important part of the story here is that this random stranger didn’t think I was a total freak for carrying action figures with me and taking photos of them because he recognized me on some level as being part of his tribe.

I’ll be travelling to an even bigger convention in a bigger city soon:The Romance Writers Association Conference. It’s my first time attending. I’ll go, swallowing my nervousness, with the hopes of experiencing terrific conversations, meeting in person people I only know from online interactions, and soaking up knowledge and experience. I’ll exchange my Doctor Who T-shirt for my Romancelandia one, my Agent Carter tote for the one that says, “I love Mr. Darcy”, and decorate my bag with buttons that say things like “Writer’s Block: When Your Imaginary Friends Stop Talking to You.” I’ll wear the trappings of my tribe with pride because I want my tribe to recognize me.

It’s a big tribe, and I don’t imagine my presence or absence there will make much of a difference either way. I hope I don’t embarrass myself, the Country Mouse in the Big City. Either way, I’m going with the knowledge we’re all a little bit weird in our own ways, and that’s okay.

 

 

The Art of Loving Yourself

(TW for fatphobia and internalized hate)

 

I have a couple of special events coming up this summer and fall, and these days, that seems to send me into a flurry of self-evaluation and determination–once more–to lose that extra twenty pounds or so. Invariably, I decide on some program–be it keto, or Weight Watchers, or what have you, that I can manage for a few days before the reality of my chaotic life comes crashing down.

Between my recent birthday, shopping for a dress to wear to an awards banquet (in which I’m a finalist, so more pressure), and planning to go to the Romance Writer’s Association Conference for the first time at the end of this month, my drive to lose weight before X date is at an all-time high. Especially since I had a recent photo shoot, and the PT for my knee takes place in a room full of mirrors. Both left me depressed at the frumpy middle-aged woman I’ve become.

Growing up, I never had to worry about my weight. In fact, I was so underweight that I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted. My dad referred to me as “a bag of bones and a hank of hair”, which felt like a bit of a nasty gibe. It wasn’t until after he passed that I discovered these were the lyrics to an old song, and meant in affection. Though I didn’t have weight issues, I had self-esteem issues just the same. Wild masses of untamed hair rioted over my head like kudzu growing out of control. Coke-bottle thick lenses in heavy glasses since I was eight years old (and I could never successfully wear contacts). A mouth like a gargoyle with teeth jutting out in all directions. I ended up having eight teeth pulled to make room for them all, but this wasn’t done until I was an adult, so for years, I refused to smile and talked behind my hand.

But I never thought twice about my weight. I didn’t even know what cellulite looked like until I hit my forties.

I was a bright kid, too. I never had to study in high school, and graduated with honors only to discover college was a very different deal altogether. College came as a rude awakening for me when I discovered I could no longer coast my way to A’s based on a good memory and a thirst for reading. I was forced to develop good study habits in order to get my degree. But I didn’t gain the ‘freshman twenty’, nor did I have to change my eating habits. In fact, I never gained an ounce until I became my parents’ caretakers, all while working FT, and caring for my own family. All of the sudden, the increased stress and the decreased physical activity caused my weight to balloon up.  And like the high school honors student, I didn’t have the skill set to deal with the changes.

Not to mention, the information out there was often inaccurate, frequently depended on a level of exercise and deprivation no one can maintain, and completely discounted a society that demands we do more on less time. Yes, I know there are people who successfully manage busy, stressful lives while maintaining good food choices and healthy activity, but face it, many of us are forced to choose between taking care of ourselves and the other demands in our lives. And even though logic dictates you should put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others, that’s not what happens for most women. We’re running around seeing that everyone else in our lives gets their oxygen mask safely in place first before we pass out from lack of O2.

I grew up in a house with a mother who had some very odd ideas about food. She didn’t believe in seasoning, and our meals consisted of a very narrow list of ingredients. It turns out she had acne rosacea, which can be triggered by certain foods and spices. I’ve since developed it as well, which has forced me to eliminate several things from a diet that leaned toward picky in the first place.

I think changing your eating habits is one of the most difficult things anyone can do. Giving up caffeine felt as challenging as how I think giving up heroin or opioids would be–complete with the withdrawal symptoms and the sudden, intense cravings years after you’ve kicked the habit. On a hot summer day, I can walk past a vending machine and visualize putting coins in the unit, hearing the rumble and clunk of the drink hitting the bottom drawer, and picture myself opening an ice-cold Pepsi with condensation running down the side of the can. I can still taste that first sip, even though I haven’t had a Pepsi in over five years now. I have to remind myself caffeine will kill me in order to prevent me from snagging a can. I’m fully convinced one day we’ll discover the soda companies have manipulated the caffeine to make them more addictive, much like the cigarette companies did.

I’ve always thought of myself as a strong person, but recently a torn meniscus has greatly curtailed my ability to do the things I used to do. I feel fragile. Useless. Old.

Worse, I’m pissed with my body for letting me down. I never used to have to think about it. I took it for granted. And now I can’t anymore. I’ve absolutely hated my body for the last five or so years now, and let me tell you, no one should have to live with that toxic energy aimed at them all the time. Not to mention all that hate has been focused on a body still giving me nearly everything I ask of it. I’m embarrassed that I’ve been so ungrateful for so long.

I’m embarrassed that I’ve been just as demanding, unforgiving, and toxic as some of my former bosses and family members when my body has done its best no matter what. I realize that just being able to say I never gave a thought to my weight or health before means I started at a privileged position at the beginning of the race. I’m ashamed I’ve been so angry at so little for so long.

I’ve tried positive affirmations in the past, but always, with each attempt, a snarky inner voice sneered at the things I told myself because I knew they weren’t true. My husband frequently calls me “beautiful” and “gorgeous” and I roll my eyes at him, or snap, “I don’t feel beautiful.”

But all that’s changed now.

A couple of revelations came one by one over the last few weeks, which led to my little epiphany.

  1. I can look at other people who have much higher BMIs than I do, and think how beautiful they are, or how great that cute outfit looks on them. Why can’t I do that with myself? Why am I so unforgiving and unkind to myself?
  2. I wouldn’t treat anyone or anything I care about with the level of animosity I routinely aim at myself. I’d intervene if I saw someone being treated the way I treat myself each and every day. I would not tolerate this level of abuse from anyone I knew, either. It must stop.
  3. The demand for perfection has never helped me achieve any of my goals. I’ve been punishing myself for not being “enough” my entire life and it hasn’t made my life better, either. If anything, it’s held me back. This applies to so much more than meeting society’s rigid (and impossible) standards of beauty. The desire for perfection in everything has hamstrung me from attempting so many things in life. It’s sucked the joy out of the things I have accomplished. Last summer I hiked up into the Cascade Canyon in the Grand Tetons. The scenery was breath-taking. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me. But what I remember most about that day was the photo someone took of me and my husband with the majestic mountains as a backdrop. I was wearing a blue top and shorts and I recall thinking when I saw the photo that I looked like a Giant Blueberry. It came close to spoiling not only the day but the entire trip for me. And yet that body that I disrespect so much carried me up that canyon trail. You’d think I’d give it a little credit for that.
  4. It’s hard for me to view a meal that is packed with veggies, nuts, cheese, and an egg as “bad” or “wrong” because it’s the wrong point count or contains too much fat, or it’s not what my caveman ancestors would have eaten. You should see what I usually eat for lunch! A snack pack such as I’ve described above beats the hell out of a hot dog and a packet of chips. With all my dietary restrictions, I’m going to have to find my own path to a healthier diet. And that’s okay. I might not lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks. I might not lose any weight at all. But if I’m healthier for cutting back on the sugar and carbs, or feel better because I’m not eating the foods that disagree with me or trigger reactions, that’s good enough.
  5. This thread on Courtney Milan’s Twitter account. It made me rethink the whole sneering-as-I-attempt-affirmations thing. Go read it, and take it to heart. So much truth there, including the myth of being ‘lazy’ and the risk of over-exercising, and how changes don’t always lead to weight loss but they lead to better mental health, and that is the best reason for making them. 

So while I’m still stressed about what I’m going to wear to the RWA conference, I’m not going to stress about losing ‘enough weight’ before I go shopping. There isn’t time anyway, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is I go and have a great time, hopefully making some new friends and meeting in person friends I know online.

I’ve started thanking my body for giving me its best despite my neglect and abuse, and promising to do better by it.

And this morning, when my husband said, “Hey, Gorgeous”, instead of rolling my eyes, I gave him a hug and said,”Thank you.”

I think I’m finally understanding it when people say one of the great things about getting older is letting go of so many negative thoughts and feelings you believed to be true in the past. It’s very liberating.

 

The Law of Attraction: Be Careful What You Put Out There

I had a weird conversation with my sister the other day. I’d just been about to call her to let her know I’d be in NYC next month for the RWA Conference, as I have a book that’s a finalist in the 2019 Booksellers’ Best Awards. It was an unexpected honor, and I hadn’t planned on attending RWA this year, but that all changed when I got the call from the BBA. It’s been years since I’ve been to NYC, so after I booked my hotel and flight, I’d planned to call my sister and arrange to meet up with her.

Before I could contact her, however, she called me. She’d just gotten word she’s been transferred to her company’s office in Milan! She’s been studying Italian with the hope of getting this promotion and she was calling to let me know she’d just purchased a one-way ticket to Italy for the end of this month. She’ll no longer be living in NYC when I arrive.

We were both excited about our respective news. I’m delighted for her–she sounds so positive about this change in her life and more upbeat than I’ve heard her be in a long time. But when she offered her congratulations to me, I did my usual self-deprecation tap dance. It truly is an honor to be a finalist–in fact, I’m gobsmacked that I am! But I don’t anticipate winning this award. I’ve seen the competition, and it’s fierce.That in and of itself makes being a top three finalist even more of a big deal.

But my sister chastised me for saying so. “Don’t put that out there,” she said. To my surprise, she went on to say that good things were coming to both of us this year, something that had been confirmed by an astrologist.

My cynical, frequently bitter sister had consulted an astrologist? And believed what this person had told her? Apparently so. More than that, she appeared to be practicing the tenants of the Law of Attraction.

I’ve always had a little bit of a love-hate relationship with the concepts of the Law of Attraction. I read Normal Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking as a teenager, and remember thinking at the time there was an element of hokum to it. At the same time, I wanted to believe it. I wanted to believe I could change my life merely by envisioning the life I wanted.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, in a nutshell, the Law of Attraction borrows a little here and there from various religions and philosophies to state if you think very hard about what you want and infuse those thoughts with all the emotion you can generate for this desire, your will for this thing to happen will make it so. More or less.

So yeah, the notion I could bring everything I ever wanted into my life by fervently wishing it were so held great appeal.

But taken one step farther: I was terrified to believe in it. Because the flip side of the Law of Attraction and other tenants along those lines is that your negative thoughts bring negative energy into your life. Follow the logic to its completion and you get the implication that everything bad that happens to you, from a health crisis to a terrible car accident to losing a family member to cancer is your own fault. That takes no account of things beyond your control before you were even born, such as family genetics or being born in a certain country or into poverty.

Whenever bad things happen, you brought it into existence with your negative energy.

I’m a big believer in vision boards. I also believe in positive affirmations, once I get past the tendency to sneer at what feels like patting myself on the back with pretty compliments I don’t believe.That’s always been the sticking point between me and positive affirmations. If I’m rolling my eyes as I say them, do they really count?

The thing is, I know this works in reverse. See, most of us spend our lives playing a negative self-talk soundtrack on an endless loop–repeating things our parents, teachers, or friends told us about our personalities, character, or abilities. What society tells us about our appearance, our self-worth, and our place in this world. We do it without even being conscious of it, not realizing how it shapes our internal image of ourselves, or how it influences our choices. We’re not thin enough, pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, and all throughout our lives we play this mean little soundtrack as a constant reminder of our failings, as if we could ever forget them.

So if the negative affirmations work, why wouldn’t the positive ones?

Unfortunately, I have issues with books such as The Secret, or movies like What the Bleep Do We Know!? I have a problem with the implication that you can just pray your way into wealth (which really seems against the teachings of nearly every religion I can think of) or that through quantum mysticism you can alter the molecules in a glass of water, create world peace, or toss your antidepressant medication in the trash–something I’d never recommend doing without medical consultation and supervision.

I think there is great value in things such as vision boards (in fact, I shared a Tweet about them today). I like some of the things touted in The Secret, as long as you leave the mysticism out of it. Expressing daily gratitude for things has a way of making you realize you have more than you think you do. Vision boards are an excellent way of making you focus on what you really want. Positive affirmations can help offset a lifetime of negative self-talk. Trust me–you’re not going to turn into an ego-driven narcissist if you look in a mirror and say kind things to your body or give yourself a little credit for an achievement made or a milestone reached! I think it might be beneficial to envision a better working relationship between you and a toxic boss, or a difficult child, or a life partner, too.

Just leave out the whoo-whoo. Having negative thoughts isn’t going to bring misery crashing down on you. Nor is being realistic about life. You’re not going to visualize your way into a better job, successful writing career, better health, or whatever you most desire without putting the work in as well. I can sit at my desk and envision hitting the NYT Bestseller List, selling the movie rights, and retiring with my millions all I want–if I don’t park my butt in the chair and write, it can never happen.

But does that mean I’m going to rain on my sister’s parade?

No.

For the first time in a long time, I see her in a place of hope, looking forward to a better future. And you know what? It doesn’t hurt to keep a little hope for myself, either.