Thanksgiving on a Small Scale

The holidays were a Big Deal when I was a kid. My grandparents went all out–baking and cooking a giant feast for the entire family–and we’d come from all over, driving hours or flying in just to spend a few hours gathered around that table groaning with food.

A Thanksgiving turkey, roasted to perfection. A choice between mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes (so naturally you had to do a little of both). Sausage balls and something my grandmother called “dressing”, which was a sort of fried stuffing. Yeast rolls fresh from the oven and dripping with butter. Green beans cooked for hours with bacon and onion until they melted in your mouth. Succotash. Creamed corn. Streamed ‘greens’, which might be spinach one year and mustard greens the next. Cornbread made with buttermilk and fried in an iron skillet until the edges turned crispy. Ham biscuits (both regular and country) on sweet Hawaiian rolls.

And the desserts! At least two cakes–usually a pound cake or sour cream cake and a coconut one, too. Three pies–either pecan or lemon chess and a French silk chocolate pie. Sweet potato pie was another common choice, though I preferred pumpkin myself.

We’d stuff ourselves to bursting, and then the kids would play games (or go see a movie when we were older) while the men watched football and the women packed the food so that everyone could take some with them and sat in the kitchen talking. When the sun began to sink in the sky, we’d load up the car and drive home, replete with food and taking enough leftovers with us to last us at least another week.

We’d repeat the entire cycle again in December, only there would be the added excitement of Christmas gifts and my grandmother’s much-loved decorations to look forward to as well. The magic of pulling up to her house and seeing the brightly lit tree glowing in the window is the hallmark of my Christmases Past.

I loved these visits–they stand out as bright memories in my childhood.

I found out many years later that my mother loathed these gatherings with the power of a thousand burning suns and resented the family tradition that insisted we go every year. When my grandparents died, the huge family gatherings died with them. My mother hated cooking and was of the opinion that holidays shouldn’t be about food or giving gifts. Holiday gatherings became stilted affairs in which we either ate out (which caused a chorus of complaints) or I attempted to make my grandmother’s traditional dishes (which also caused a chorus of complaints). My grandmother’s cooking was a hard act to follow. I tried to hang on to the old recipes, but my mother gave away the cookbook that contained most of them.

After my father’s death, all pretense of gathering for Thanksgiving stopped. My mother began taking part in a big community feast operated by her church each Thanksgiving. They opened the doors to the town and invited everyone to come. The church ladies outdid themselves preparing their very best desserts, and the church paid a caterer to bring in platters of turkey and all the fixings. For three years I went down to the church with my mother to help serve the community–and for three years, my mother forbade me to fix a plate and sit down with everyone else. It didn’t matter that every other member of the congregation, including the minister and his family, was taking part in the feast. As far as my mother was concerned, the food was for the ‘poor people’ and I didn’t need to eat any of it. 

Finally, I quoted 1 Timothy 5:18 at her: For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.

After that, she snippily informed me I no longer had to come down to the church on Thanksgiving Day.

As a single person, it was hard to get excited about the holidays. I frequently was expected to work anyway. I stopped cooking the family favorites, especially after the loss of the cookbook. Thanksgiving (and to a certain degree, Christmas as well) became just another day.

When I first got married, I made an effort to go back to lavish Thanksgiving meals, but truth be told, I’m not that great a cook. Work remained unforgiving when it came to scheduling, and the thought of all that preparation for a meal that would be eaten in less than twenty minutes seemed too much. My husband’s kids were teenagers when we met–now they’ve gone off to college and have their own plans. So why bother, right?

The truth of the matter, for the first time in a long time, I find myself thinking differently about the coming holiday. The last couple of years have been rough, but our family seems to be moving into a better place right now. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I find myself wanting to make a little more effort than usual for Thanksgiving this week. Because the truth is, I am thankful. I’m thankful our family has reached a kind of resting spot on a steep uphill climb. I’m thankful for a roof over our heads and jobs that (mostly) pay the bills. Everyone is in reasonably good health at the moment, and life is pretty darn okay. My life partner is also my best friend, and I am thankful every day for that.

And that seems worth honoring by baking a few pies.

I Dream of Strong Heroines

Let me start off this post by saying you know what I mean when I say “strong heroines”. I realize it’s not the best term: a heroine, by definition, is someone we look up to and seek to emulate. “Strong” as a descriptor seems both redundant and lazy somehow. When I say I’ve always been attracted to strong heroines–I mean the female characters that star in their own stories, who pull me into their adventures and make me long for their strength, their no-nonsense attitudes, their ability to Get The Job Done. 

They are smart, tough, and competent. They are all beautiful in their own way, as varied as their own backgrounds. They kick-ass. They make me want to be better than I am, to reach my full potential and more.

Growing up, it wasn’t always easy to find heroines in my preferred books and stories. Women frequently played a secondary–sometimes even tertiary–role in murder mysteries or sci-fiction. They were often love interests at best, and victims at worst. Television programs frequently featured a Heroine of the Week, a guest actress to play the part of the woman who is placed in jeopardy (all too-often by refusing the advice and help of the male hero) so that she can be conveniently rescued by said hero. I confess, I ate up these shows in the eighties. Not because I identified with the female characters in them, but because I identified with the men. Many of the shows I adored back then, I find uncomfortable to re-watch today. Men had the best roles, the best lines, got to do the fun things. I accepted that it was men who went on adventures and the women largely stayed home. Eowyn aside, the Fellowship of the Ring was a boys club.

But when I found a heroine I could admire, I grabbed on with both hands, even if the source material was a little problematic. Lessa from Dragonflight. Princess Leia. Harriet Vane from the Lord Peter Wimsey books. I wanted to be Laura Holt from Remington Steele. I devoured the Honor Harrington books by David Weber. Sam Carter in Stargate might have been ‘one of the boys’ but she was the scientist that was smarter than everyone else on team SG-1.

I cheered when Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella outsmarted the gypsies in this scene from Ever After.

 

It was simply brilliant–as was the scene at the end when the Prince rushes up as she’s leaving the castle. When she asks him why he’s there, he confesses he’s come to rescue her–only she’s already rescued herself.

This trend of loving powerful heroines continues today. I fell hard for Elsa in Frozen. I am a HUGE Peggy Carter fan (hence the T-shirt above). I love Phryne Fisher so much that I supported the crowdfunding for Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears. I love these ladies for their strength, their beauty, their abilities. I wish I had their confidence, their competence, their resilience. 

I am sadly aware I fall far short of their standards.

Recently, I’ve had a bit of a health scare. It’s rattled me hard, and while my condition is imminently treatable, I’m still in adjusting to both the medication and the notion that I need medication. More than anything, there is a disconnect between accepting that this is my new normal when it doesn’t fit with my mental image of who I am. It’s not part of a kick-ass heroine’s backstory.

Or is it?

Perhaps my definition of what makes a kick-ass heroine needs to evolve. Maybe she isn’t the woman who takes out the bad guys with a single punch, or patches a Stargate on the fly, or delivers a snappy one-liner while saving the world.

Maybe she’s the woman who works ten to twelve hour shifts, only to come home and take care of her family. Maybe she’s the cornerstone in a multi-generational household, the one that everyone looks to in order to make things right. Perhaps the very fact she’s still here, still trying, and still alive is a major achievement in itself.

Maybe she’s the one who speaks up even though her voice is shaking. The one who says, “No, that isn’t right.”

Being a kick-ass heroine isn’t just looking good in a catsuit, or solving multi-dimensional math equations while piloting a starship, or discussing with wit and erudition the dead body in the library. It’s both harder and easier than that.

It’s standing up for what you believe in, even when the rest of the world thinks you’re stupid for doing so.

There are more of us out there than you think. You’re more kick-ass than you think. Be your own hero.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Those of you who follow me on Instagram know I have a thing for mushrooms. Not to eat (I think I read too many murder mysteries where the victims were taken out with the local mushrooms) but to photograph. There is something magical about them–not only their variety and color, but also how rapidly they can grow–seemingly overnight!

My mushroom photo collection is extensive, and I delight in spying some delicate fungal growth hiding beneath fallen leaves or nestled in pine needles during my morning dog walks.

Just the other day, I took these side by side images–both probably Aminita species, which contain some of the most toxic mushrooms known. My fingers are in the frame for scale. The first image is of a typical mushroom growing in my yard right now. The second is one I found growing beneath the horse trailer. I’ve never seen one so large before! And I swear, it wasn’t there a few days ago…

I can’t do justice to the second mushroom, as it was hidden up under the horse trailer. But trust me when I say it was bigger than a NERF football!

 

 

 

But while I admire mushrooms in the wild, I confess I am less enthralled with them when they are continually popping up in my fenced yard. It goes back to reading all those British murder mysteries as an impressionable teenager and the likelihood these particular shrumes are Aminita species. Mushrooms in that family account for 50% of all mushroom-related deaths in people and most of them in dogs.

With all the heavy rains we’ve had here, the mushrooms are literally growing overnight. For the last couple of days, I’ve been pulling up mushrooms as I find them in the area where the dogs play, and I’ve been getting at least five pounds a day, I kid you not.

I’ve also had to induce vomiting in one of my dogs, after catching him gnoshing on a mushroom before I could stop him. So under the principle of better safe than sorry, I pull them up.

But their prolific nature has me paranoid now. Every afternoon I head out to the yard with a garbage bag and a set of plastic gloves to pull up mushrooms. They hide under leaf litter. They prefer shade and wet mulchy dirt. They love rotten logs and deep grass. And so I scan the area, digging them up as I go, trying to get as much of the root as possible. Just when I’m convinced I’ve located all the ones there are to find that day, I spy another one: sometimes a bright button of color mimicking the fallen leaves, sometimes a dull brown nearly impossible to distinguish from the surrounding soil.

I love autumn. October is my absolute favorite time of year. I love how the light changes in spectrum from white to gold as it slants through the trees on an autumn afternoon. I love how it lights up the grass from within, making it glow. I love the first hint of frost in the morning air, and that whiff of wood smoke, too. I love the sound of dead leaves scurrying across a sidewalk or crunching underfoot. Nothing makes me happier than pulling out my chunky sweaters in maroon and gold, or pulling on my favorite pair of boots. Give me a book, a blanket, and a cup of hot cocoa, and I’m a happy camper. Autumn is a gallop across fields of drying grass while the mountains all around burst into color. It’s watching the dogs frisk with glee on the morning walk because of the nip in the air. It’s smiling as you hear the honk of migrating geese, and look up to see them fly in V formation overhead.

But darn it, it’s also when the mushrooms proliferate like mad. And until we get a hard frost, I’m going to be removing them from the yard.

(T-Rex for scale…)

Celebrate ALL the Wins–Especially the Little Ones

Last year I planted a crepe myrtle tree in my yard. For those unfamiliar with them, this is what they look like in bloom, coming in a wide assortment of colors. I thought it would make a nice splash of color in the the spring.

It died.

Now, I’m not all that surprised. Not because my gardening skills are on par with my cooking skills, which is to say the smoke detector gets a workout in our house. Not because trees and bushes have a high mortality rate in the first year. Not because it was a hot,dry summer.

No. I wasn’t surprised because there was so much death in my life in 2017, I began to feel like a trainee for the Grim Reaper. I lost a lot: three human family members, three furry family members, and my very first horse–the one I bought as a teenager and hid his existence from my parents until I could prove I was capable of paying for him. The one I’d had for thirty years.

Most of these deaths were not unexpected. Old age and cancer both tend to give you lots of warning. It was just bad luck that the timing made all of them come together in the same year.

It was more than just the deaths, though that was bad enough. I also lost my belief that we as Americans were, for the most part, decent, honest people who stood up for the little guy and did the right thing. A belief fostered in part by such comics as this one, where Superman encourages students to embrace diversity. (There’s another, more modern image somewhere of Captain America supporting the same–only the crowd he’s depicted with is actually diverse–sadly, I can’t find it right now. I suspect it was fan art) I lost my faith in our government as an agent for the commonwealth. I lost hope that we’d ever have fair elections again, or that we’d be able to stop a breathtakingly corrupt administration from converting our democracy to an autocracy. Sure, corruption existed in politics before now. But the sheer scale of what’s happening now worldwide is all too reminiscent of the rise of fascism in the 1930s. And we all know how that turned out.

Somewhere along the way, I lost myself to depression. I found it challenging to go on social media. I didn’t have the mental energy to comment on people’s posts. Every day, the news continues to be terrifying and disheartening, which didn’t help. I developed unhealthy coping mechanisms. I gained weight. I was still functional, but just barely. So no, losing one crepe myrtle among all of this wasn’t even a blip on the radar. The only reason I share any of this for background to the point of this post.

Recently, a thing has been going around my Twitter timeline in which someone posted something to the effect of “we’re nine months in to 2018–what have you accomplished?” People RT the original tweet, adding what they’ve achieved as part of the sharing.

I have very mixed feelings about this sort of thing. I am not trying to disparage the person who posted it–I just can’t help but feel on some level, subconsciously or not, by the very nature of social media, this kind of thing turns into a brag/competition thread. There is nothing wrong with bragging, mind you. Hell, I think far too often most of us diminish rather than celebrate our victories. But this kind of post falls into the the same category of year-end retrospective posts for me: a means of comparing yourself to others and finding, once again, you’ve fallen short.

In part because if you haven’t lost 50 pounds, gotten married, won the lottery, run a marathon, taken a dream vacation, landed an agent, had a NYT bestseller, won a major literary award, etc. etc. then you haven’t accomplished enough. And I have to tell you, when I look back over the past nine months and look at what I’ve achieved, compared to everyone else out there, I DO come up short.

But I came across one comment on the Twitter thread, which said, “I’m still alive.” And you know what? That is a mighty accomplishment indeed. It made me think about the things I’ve done in the last nine months a little differently.

So here’s my list of achievements for 2018:

  1. I’m still alive.
  2. I learned to make and like green smoothies, the thought of which used to make me gag.
  3. I’ve come to appreciate my body as is, with all its flaws, and know I need to take better care of it.
  4. I’m starting to reconnect with the things I love, things I’d shut out during my depression. I’d lost so much I was afraid to love anything else–and the scary thing is this wasn’t a conscious decision–I just withdrew my engagement. Even when I needed it the most.
  5. I recognize I probably need professional help to manage my depression. 
  6. I’ve started meditating.
  7. I’ve started playing brain games on Luminosity.
  8. I wrote and published a book. People are leaving enthusiastic reviews, which is nice.
  9. I’m playing around with fanfiction again because it makes me happy and life is too damn short not to take your happiness where you can find it.
  10. I’m still alive.

Some of these may not seem like very big accomplishments, but they are bigger than you know, especially the self-acceptance part. And I repeated “I’m still alive” twice because we don’t often give ourselves enough credit for toughing it out through bad times.

This past week, while preparing for some major renovations at the house, I discovered a small determined leafing of what I thought was a dead tree.

What do you know? That crepe myrtle is still alive.

I’m moving to a safer, better place so it can grow. Where I can keep a eye on it, and shelter it from bugs, storms, and the relentless heat. Where it can thrive. Perhaps that’s my biggest accomplishment for 2018 so far.

Some Things are Worth Saving…

I got back from a fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime vacation at the beginning of the month, only to fall into the excitement and busyness of promoting a new book release. Somehow, the days have flown by and August is halfway over.

Normally this would fill me with cheer because I loathe summer, August is one of the hottest and muggiest months around here, and September usually contains at least a hint of autumn in the air. But the rapidity with which August is passing serves only to remind me that our major house renovations are due to start soon–and that means putting most of the house in storage and living out of boxes for the months the house is torn apart.

I’m both looking forward to it and dreading it as well.

I thought I was ready, but was caught off guard when the tree guys called to say they were coming two weeks early. That meant I had to catch the feral cats and put them in their cat condos right away, no easy task. I can pet these guys, and medicate them if they’ll eat it in food, but that’s about it. There’s no picking them up. My vet comes to the house and jabs them with rabies while they’re eating tuna. So I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to catch them. It took about an hour with me tempting them with tuna and tossing it into open cat carriers. I finally stuffed them in and got them safely installed in their cat condos–four by six foot enclosures that we built complete with hiding boxes. There’s a little door I can open to put food and water inside, and scoop litter boxes. It’s going to be their home for the next four months or longer–you know how renovations go.

Two of the cats have settled in very nicely. They are eating, drinking, napping on their little beds, and using the litterboxes. The third is totally freaked out. Barely eating, peeing in the floor instead of the litter box, hiding all the time. I feel terrible, and yet I  know that if I hadn’t caught him, as soon as we began cutting the trees down around the house (where the cats hang out and sleep all day in the summer), he’d have taken off into the woods and started crossing the road again. I only hope he’ll settle in soon.

All of which made me realize I had to get cracking on the house–sorting what clothes we’d need for the rest of the summer, fall, and well into winter–as well as packing up as much as possible to go into storage.

I’ve written about my plans to ‘clean up my act’ before, and it’s always easy to announce plans–the follow-through is harder. Especially when most of us work ridiculous hours and come home practically weeping with exhaustion to another whole list of Things That Must Get Done. I fully intended to do the Marie Kondo method of tidying up, of sorting my belongings into what I love and what I don’t–and being ruthless about ridding myself of what I don’t love–but I’ve run out of time. I started out dumping clothing, DVDS, and books that I’m never going to use at again wholesale into boxes to take to Goodwill–but somehow, no matter how much I threw out, there was always more left. More and more when I asked myself, “Do I really love this?” the answer was no. And yet my will to rid myself of it grew weaker. Was it because of the extra step of taking it to Goodwill? Or because I wasn’t 100% sure if I loved it enough to keep it or not. I’m not sure. I think it’s mostly that I ran out of time to be so precise.

We keep a lot of things out of inertia. It’s just too much effort to get rid of them. And sometimes we keep things out of guilt at the notion of throwing them out. I have boxes of old photographs of people I don’t know that I inherited from my mother, who inherited them from my grandmother. No one alive is left to tell me who these people are and what their stories were. If I had the time, I might digitize them and throw out the originals. But I don’t even have time to digitize my own photos. I find myself quite capable of dumping them all in a trash bag with scarcely a wince.

Clothing has been a little easier. Once I was late for work and out of clean clothes, and I grabbed a pair of black slacks out of the drawer. They went up as far as my knees and no further–and then I couldn’t get them off. I flopped around on the floor like a fish, cursing and wrenching fabric in an attempt to shed myself of the Saran Wrap clinging to my legs. Ripping the pants off, I huffed angrily as I peered at the label. It read size four. “Who the hell put size four pants in my drawer?” The answer, of course, was me. Sometime in my impossibly slim youth. So yeah, it’s easier to look at clothing and know I’ll never get into that item again, or that it’s so ugly, I have no qualms dropping it into the Goodwill stack. But there are graphic T shirts, with frayed collars and fading print, that I can’t bear to part with. Bleach stained, chewed on by the puppy, barely legible–and yet I still hang onto them because of the memories associated with them. The Fab Five Guys from Queer Eye would not be happy.

Same thing when I start to examine the pictures I have hanging on my walls. Some are family images–easy call to keep those. Others are paintings and drawings I’ve collected over the years, moving them with me from one house to another for decades. I find myself questioning do I really want to put the water color of the Shetland sheepdog (found in an antique store in Maine many moons ago) back up in the newly remodeled house? But if I dump it at a thrift store, will it just end up in the trash? It’s hard looking at things that had meaning for you at one time, and wondering if they still hold meaning for you today. Perhaps it’s time for new things to hang on my walls. I suspect there will be some purging, but there will be some retention out of sheer sentimentality as well.

At first, I was pretty good when it came to the books. We have over a thousand print books in the house (I stopped counting at that point, and we easily have double that amount). Spilling out of the available book cases, they’re stacked on nearly every available surface. Clearly there are some we’ll never read again. And the joy of giving away books is not only that someone else will have the pleasure of reading them, but you will have room for MORE BOOKS. It’s a win-win all around!

But after stripping out the majority of the ‘I’ll never read this again’ stuff, I found myself struggling to purge beyond that. While I might never read The Complete Works of Saki again, I probably will want to read the one about the person being reincarnated as an otter, and I share The Brogue with all my horse-loving friends. Ditto Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and those nature books by my heroine, Jane Goodall. Photography books that I seldom open, but might want to some day. And honestly, am I ever going to read beloved favorites from my childhood again?

The answer is probably not. But there was never any question of keeping or purging these books. They definitely fall into the category of things I love. And that’s the interesting thing about Marie Kondo’s tidying up method. It doesn’t matter if you use the things you keep–you just have to love them.

Easy-peasy. They are keepers.

 

Lessons Learned on a Mountain Trail

Recently, I had the opportunity to join my husband for a trip out to the Grand Tetons. He had to fly out West for a conference, and decided since he was out there to meander through the desert and up to Jackson Hole. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see a part of the country I’d never visited before, so I begged for time off work and flew out to join him.

The week I spent out there was fabulous. No matter where we turned, we were faced with jaw-dropping scenery like this:

I mean, seriously. We found ourselves laughing at times because of the sheer beauty of what was before us. Honestly, after coming back from a tough couple of years of loss, any time away would have been good for my mental health, but this? Just breathtaking.

As the week went on, I began taking note of my feelings, determined to hang on to the lessons I learned and bring them home with me as a buffer against the weariness that has weighed me down for so long.

Slow down. Tune out. Reconnect with nature.

Before life got so crazy, I used to go hiking every week. Spending time in the woods was vital to my well-being. But somewhere along the way, I replaced walking in the woods with the dogs with walking around the neighborhood or just throwing a ball in the yard. Yes, it is time-consuming to pack everyone up in the car and drive to one of the local hiking trails. And yes, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” really is a thing. While in Wyoming, we noticed that almost no one ran air-conditioning, even though the day time temps were almost as hot as back home. The difference is in the Appalachian mountains in the summer time, it can be in the upper sixties at 9 am, but you’re still drenched in sweat because it is so humid. So, if I want to be outside here at home, I’m either going to have to get up early or wait until the fall to pick up my hiking habit again. But pick it up, I will.

Because of the remoteness of our hikes, we frequently didn’t have cell service. I have to say, being forced offline was one of the best things that could have happened to me this past week, despite the fact I have a new book release this coming Tuesday. I spent a few minutes each evening online to catch up with emails and things related to the book launch, and then I walked out the door and left all of that behind.

I realize I’m speaking from a place of privilege here. To shut out the news of world events for a week is a luxury not everyone can afford. Finding the balance between staying informed (which usually means staying angry) and being able to do something about it is something I struggle with. Because I can seldom actively participate in things, I tend to share information and donate to causes when I can. But staying connected with social media means I’m frequently in a state of upset and anxiety. After spending a hour watching a moose and her calf feeding in the marshes surrounding a river, calmness draped around me like a warm blanket on a chilly night. I realized then I don’t need to be constantly bombarded with bad news. It doesn’t make me a more effective activist. Just a stressed one.

So I’m going to spend less time online. Hopefully, I’ll spend more time doing the things I enjoy, such a photography, hiking with the dogs, and yes, writing. I’m going to concentrate on changing the things that are within my power to affect, and let the rest go.

You don’t have to see everything.

This was another big lesson learned. We only had a week–there was SO much we wanted to see and do. We stopped at various visitor centers and asked people where we should go and what we should make a point of seeing, and it quickly became apparent we couldn’t take it all in. Not even if we had more than the 6 days allotted to us. We were so close to Yellowstone, we decided to spend a couple of days there as well, only after the first day of driving from geyser to geyser, stopping at overlooks and waterfalls for the view, we decided not to go back to Yellowstone a second day. There was so much to see and do in the Grand Teton National Park that we didn’t need the extra driving. We also wanted to spend more time with each place we visited, instead of pulling up to an overlook, admiring the view for thirty seconds or so, and then jumping back in the car to drive to the next landmark. We wanted to get in the forest, not just view it from the car in passing.

Seeing less allowed us to see more.

Plan, but don’t be wedded to it.

We wanted to see wildlife, and after talking to the park rangers and volunteers (all of whom were so friendly and helpful) we realized we were going to have to get up early to beat the heat or else go back out just before dark. But we were successful! On this trip, we saw elk, bison, moose, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, whistling marmots, ground squirrels galore, pika, foxes, coyotes, a black bear, and even a weasel carrying dinner across the road.

Birds too! Magpies, crested jays, trumpeter swans, merganzers, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, a golden eagle, the tiniest hummingbird ever, sandpipers, redwing blackbirds, sage grouse, and more. The mountain bluebirds are such an intense color, much like the bluebirds back home–and yet they were different too. It was fun seeing species in the wild that I’d only ever read about before. But if we hadn’t planned for it, I doubt we would have seen nearly as much. We saw moose almost every day–and some people we spoke to never saw any.

But we didn’t always stick to the plan. Sometimes we had a destination picked out for the day, and a conversation with a fellow tourist changed our minds. We’d originally planned to spend two days in Yellowstone, but at the last minute decided to stay in the Grand Tetons instead, where we ended up taking a ferry across Jenny Lake and hiking up to an alpine meadow in the middle of Cascade Canyon. I wouldn’t have missed this view for the world.

As we were hiking this trail, it seemed to go up and up with no end in sight. We knew the trail made a big loop, one farther than we had time to do that day, so we asked someone coming down if there was a natural turning point somewhere.

Our fellow hiker shrugged. “You turn around when you feel like it.”

That seemed like the quintessential Jackson Hole answer. 🙂

Communication is everything.

I’m fortunate that my husband and I see eye to eye on many things (including what movies to watch, which is a blessing, let me tell you!). But when you’re hiking several thousand feet higher in altitude than you’re used to doing and you’re not exactly in shape, you need to be able to tell your partner when you need a break. We began listening to our bodies–able to hear them for first time in a long time in the vast silence around us. We knew we needed food and water when we began developing headaches.We took breaks in the shade and watched streams burble at our feet until we felt rested. We were upfront with each other about what we could manage and what we didn’t want to do–and that made bailing on Yellowstone a second day much easier. I can’t tell you how important it is to have the kind of relationship where you can be so open and honest with each other. I probably would have found joy on this trip no matter who I went with–but taking it with my husband made it one of the best vacations in my life.

Change your priorities.

This one was a bit of a rude wake-up call, to be honest. I don’t normally wear shorts, but after a day of wearing jeans when it was nearly 90 degrees, I pulled out the dark navy pair I’d brought with me, to wear with a blue t-shirt. At one point, I asked a couple on the trail to take a pic of my husband and I–and I was shocked when I saw myself looking like giant blueberry.

I knew I’d gained weight. The scale and the clothes don’t lie. The past couple of years have been emotionally and mentally challenging, with a great deal of personal loss. I’ve been battling depression and anxiety–and I don’t tolerate medications well. But I seldom look in a full-length mirror at home and I’d half-convinced myself it wasn’t so bad.

Until I saw the picture. For a split-second, a horrible wave of self-disgust rolled over me. No more photos! OMG, how could I have let myself go like that? I almost let it affect my enjoyment of the moment–until I reminded myself that, giant blueberry or not, I’d climbed three miles to reach that canyon. That was no small achievement. And while I definitely need to lose weight and get back in shape again, it’s no longer because I want to look ‘attractive’. It’s because I want to keep doing the things I love when I’m an old lady. 

A few years ago, seeing that picture might well have destroyed my entire vacation. Well, I’ve lived through worse, and being 25 pounds overweight isn’t the end of the world. Neither is getting wrinkles, or thinning hair, or any of the other signs of aging that I’ve long hated. This is the body acceptance I can get behind: accept what is without hate, but don’t accept what you can and should change.

For me, that means cleaning up my diet. To find better coping mechanisms for my stress besides a bowl of ice cream. To reward myself with other things besides food. As I jump back into the work week tomorrow, I know this will be a tough lesson to hang onto–but I think it’s the most important one of all.

The Greatest Threat to Your Creativity Isn’t What You Think It Is

All my life, I’ve been a daydreamer. So much so, my parents despaired of my ever being functional in society. There were even times when I decided that daydreaming was bad for me, and counterproductive to my goals in life, and that I should do my darnedest to quit. To stop inserting myself into my favorite books, shows, and movies, having grand adventures throughout the day as I went about my daily tasks.

I was never successful at eradicating this behavior, and eventually I embraced it for what it was: a rich fermentation vat of ideas that would bubble and simmer until they produced a story of my own, something original and unique to me. I’ve always been a writer at heart.

The good news is I managed to be a productive member of society despite the relative ease with which I could drop into another universe. I discovered online fanfiction archives, wrote over a million words of fanfic, and then began writing my own original stories. In my fandom days, I wrote the equivalent of a novella a month. The words just flowed out of me. The transition to original fiction wasn’t without its bumps in the road, and my productivity slowed down as the stakes became higher. Without a built-in audience, world-building and character development had to be stronger. It wasn’t sufficient to have beta readers–you need betas, critique partners, and a good editor if you want to turn out quality work. You can’t just throw down words and have everyone applaud because they love your pairing and they’d leave kudos on a story where your characters read from the back of a cereal box. Writing for fun is lovely, but the more you write, the greater the drive becomes to do better than the last story. You begin seeing where you failed, and how your craft doesn’t measure up to your favorite artists. You can either quit at this point, or buckle down and do the hard work. But hard work takes time.

So I just assumed my new glacial pace of story production was pretty normal. After all, I have a stressful day job and a home life that’s heavy on commitments. Some of the people turning out a book every month are actually writing teams, which makes me feel a bit better about only getting out one or two stories a year. 

But the other day, a realization struck me like a bolt of lightning out of a cloudless blue sky.

I don’t daydream any more.

Could that be why my production is way down?

I used to play scenes from potential stories in my head at every free moment–outlandish, outrageous self-insert scenes to occupy my mind as I walked the dogs, or did some sort of mindless task (like the dishes, or folding clothes), or commuting to work, or just before I fell asleep at night. I’d replay the scenes over and over, polishing the dialog, perfecting the action, trimming the worst of the excesses, eventually removing myself as the heroine and replacing the lead with one of my characters. When I sat down to write, the scene was right there before me–I only had to smooth off the rough spots and blend it into the story I wanted to tell. Even better, if I was stuck on something, entering that day-dreamy state of mind often allowed me to untangle a thorny plot problem, causing me to suddenly shout “Eureka!” and grab the nearest pen.

But I don’t do that any more.

My daily commute, which used to be over an hour, is now less than 15 minutes most days. While I’m delighted to get two hours of my life back every day, I actually made good use of that time when I was driving by plotting and daydreaming about my stories. I rarely listen to music these days, as I mostly did so when driving. Music has the power to send me to that dreamer’s state more quickly than almost anything else, and without the pleasant background noise, I find it hard to get in the zone. But I rarely have the time to just sit and listen to music the way I did when commuting.

Getting a good night’s sleep is tough for me these days as well, so I usually read until I fall asleep instead of daydreaming. To be honest, I’m almost afraid to let my mind ‘go’ when I’m trying to fall asleep because instead of exciting adventures or romantic encounters, my brain is most likely to circle at the base of the Anxiety Tree, worrying at problems out of my control for the moment. So yeah, I’d rather lose myself in reading.

Worst, now when I’m walking the dogs, I’ve got the phone in my hand, checking my social media sites. That used to be a BIG source of my plotting time–I’d enter the theta brainwave zone and happily organize plots, scenes, and time lines while getting some much-needed exercise for both me and the dogs.

But now that phone is out and I’m checking to see what fresh outrage is occurring on Twitter.

I used to be the sort of person who carried a book with them everywhere, so if I had to wait somewhere, I could happily read. Reading served as fuel for my own story ideas, creating a lovely cycle of creativity. Now I scroll through timelines. An obsessive thumbing of bite sized pieces of information that frequently has a negative impact on my mental well-being.

The other night, my husband and I were out at dinner, and after we’d placed our orders and caught up with each other’s day, somehow we both drifted into scrolling on our phones. If this is something a middle-aged person that addictive to a middle-aged person, I fear for the minds of our kids. I really do.

I’m not saying don’t be informed. We need to be informed. We need to share information: about natural disasters, government atrocities, mass shootings, lost pets, you name it. We also need to share the good things: our wins, both big and small, the things that encourage us and make us smile, that give us hope when all hope is dying. But we shouldn’t let the constant NOISE of information drown out our creative voice.

We’re told we as creative types must maintain a presence on social media, and I believe this to be true. But I think our utter dependence on our phones to keep us occupied AT ALL TIMES is extremely detrimental to the creative mindset.

Blonde girl with retro camera

I recently read an article that said taking photos of a trip makes your brain forget the memories of the trip itself, and while that appalls me (because I love taking pictures), I can understand it too. Because you’re ‘capturing the moment’ on your device, your brain doesn’t feel the need to do so in the same detail. Think about it: do you remember phone numbers anymore? I don’t. I know where to find someone’s contact information on my cell phone, but I’d be out of luck if I had to call someone if my phone was damaged or the battery was dead. (NTS: make a list of important phone numbers and keep it in your car)

So while I see the need to keep feeding content to my audience, wouldn’t the better use of my time be to write actual, real content instead of snapshots of the boring life of a middle-aged woman? I can answer that one myself: yes.

And while I’m still going to take photographs, it won’t be the first thing I do when I arrive somewhere new. I’m going to take a deep breath and appreciate the scenery. I’m going to memorize what the air smells like, and what sounds I hear, and how I feel at that moment before I pull out my camera.

I can’t leave my phone at home when I am out and about because I need to be available 24/7. But I can choose not to take it out when I’m walking the dogs, or bringing the horses in from the pasture, or waiting in line at the DMV. I’ve deleted most of my social media. I’ve gone back to carrying a book or an e-reader. I’m making a point to listen to more music–turning off commercial radio and just playing the songs I want to hear. Because it doesn’t matter how much content I feed an audience if there isn’t a book to go with it eventually.

And you know what? I’ve started daydreaming again. Without any attempt on my part to make it happen. I just had to open the window to let it in.

 

Ten Things Writers Need to Stop Telling Themselves

More than any other group of people, writers should get the power of words.

Words move people to stand behind a leader. To willingly go into battle, knowing death is likely. To fight to protect the weak and innocent.

Words make us laugh, bring us to tears, and the best, the most powerful words, are engraved on our hearts. We quote them when we need strength, or to show love, or evoke sympathy.

So why do we as writers so often neglect the power of words when it comes to our own work, our own self–esteem?

It’s not just writers. I’d hazard to say it’s a widespread problem–perhaps a little more so among women than men. It’s not that men don’t internally belittle themselves, but I believe many more women are raised to verbally–and publicly–abuse themselves than not. Call it what you like. An appealing ‘humility’ or whatever. The truth of the matter is many of us constantly run ourselves down and we are scarcely aware that we’re doing it.

Lately, I’ve been running into all kinds of conversations, blog posts, and Twitter threads about the power of words and why in particular, we as writers shouldn’t denigrate our work and abilities, lest the repetition of our negative words becomes the truth. I understand this concept, but like knowing I should eat vegetables and choosing pizza instead, positive affirmations are difficult for me.

I grew up in a religious household. Many religions drum into you your lack of worthiness as part of your need to be redeemed. Most religions are patriarchal in nature, which adds an additional layer of unworthiness if you happen to be female. My family was also full of over-achievers. Doctors, nurses, psychologists, pastors… if you weren’t giving back to society in some way, you weren’t worthy. Standards were often impossibly out of reach. If I brought home less than straight A’s from school, I was under-performing to the family standard. If I got straight A’s, well, anyone could get straight A’s at a public school.

So reading books like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was encouraged. But even as I read it, a burning resentment smoldered inside. Thinking positively wouldn’t get you out of a bad situation. It wasn’t going to cure chronic illness, or make you smarter, prettier, more talented. I read the book and rejected the message.

Same with the body positivity movement. No, I’m not saying the movement is wrong. I think it’s high time we rejected the fashion industry’s standard of beauty (artfully enhanced by Photoshop, which means not even their own standard-bearers live up to the hype). We should all embrace the notion that women come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and physical ability–and not erase the less-than-impossibly perfect because they somehow don’t measure up.

But that concept of equality that I will grant to everyone else comes harder to me. Why? Because I don’t believe it. Not as it applies to me.

I’ve been hearing negative commentary about my looks, my intelligence, and my abilities my entire life. It’s still ongoing today: from my family, my co-workers, the man on the street, society as a whole. I have a book of ‘positive affirmations’ that is practically empty because I can’t think of anything to put in it that won’t make me roll my eyes and snort.

I get up in the morning and note the dark circles under my eyes and how my hair is thinning. I curl a lip at the roll of fat around my waist. I point out how unattractive I am, and how I should do something about it when I’m not so flat-out exhausted. I frequently say things like “I’m too old for this crap”, meaning “I’m at a point in my life where I should be treated better than this” but all my brain hears is I’m too old.

So I join a body positivity group, but drop out because I can’t complete the exercises. I routinely say things to myself I’d never say to a friend–not even a stranger, for that matter. I know better. But like Steve Martin’s character in Roxanne, I’ve perfected the art of running myself down so well, I take the wind out of anyone else’s ability to do so.

When Katie Masters (are you following Katie? If not, you should) posted on Twitter about not belittling your own work because doing so would make it true, I tried very hard to internalize her advice. I’m really struggling with that right now–on top of the never-ending loop of negativity that tells me I’m too old, too fat, unattractive, not sexy enough, not smart enough–I also bemoan the fact my writing is Not Good Enough. It’s not terrible. But it’s no where near where I’d like it to be. When I read stories by people who are hitting it out of the park, even as I clutch them to my chest because of the magic they evoke, I’m crushed because I’m not in the same league. Hell, I’m not even in the same country.

See, I’m doing it again.

And likewise, Neil Gaiman has said some wonderful things about writing, impostor syndrome, and comparing yourself to others. But when I went looking for a specific quote to share here, I fell down a rabbit hole of impossibly excellent quotes, which might just turn out to be a blog post all of its own. But suffice to say, enough people out there that I like and respect have been telling me to stop undermining my work. There’s a difference between self-deprecation and self-denigration and I think too many of us choose the latter thinking it’s the former.

Ironically, what finally made me see what I was doing was harmful was the far right. Um, yes. You heard me correctly.

See, they get the power of words. Make them illegal aliens, not people seeking asylum through legitimate channels. Call them rapists, drug dealers, terrorists, animals. Make them less than human, something you don’t want in your neighborhood, and you will turn a blind eye when they are rounded up and placed in concentration camps. 

It works because on some level, the people who believe these things want to believe them. It fits their internal narrative.

But one thing I’ve learned as a writer is we have the power to change our own stories.

So here are some things I’m going to stop telling myself. I hope you’ll stop saying them to yourself as well.

  1. I’m Not Good Enough. Here’s the thing, everyone has someone they look up to as better than them. Better parents, better writer, better friend, lover, person. There are people who are prettier, smarter, and more talented. All you can do is be the best you there is. That’s all that’s required of you. And it is a heckuva lot easier to do that if you stop beating yourself up at the same time. You may not be as good as “them”, but everyone is at a different point on the same path and no one else walked it the same way you’ve done. Cut yourself some slack–and keep walking.
  2. I’m not productive enough. What the hell does that even mean? Productive enough for what? To build a following? To make a killing on KU? Are you a writer? Do you put words down in the format of your choice? Then you’re productive enough.
  3. I’m not successful enough. Frankly, this is garbage thinking. If you go into writing because you want to be rich and famous, honey, there are easier ways of doing that. What are your criteria for success? A bestseller ribbon? Winning awards? Being featured in Oprah’s book club? Making a gazillion dollars? Your definition of success should be dependent on the stage where you are right now. Sometimes that means simply putting words–any words–to paper. Sometimes that means self-publishing a story that got rejected. Sometimes it means putting the rejected story in a drawer and coming back to it in a year or so to see what it needs to fix it. Sure, you’re going to keep moving the bar higher. Just don’t place it at unrealistic heights that discourage you from even trying.
  4. My writing sucks. Does it really? No, seriously, is it the worst thing you’ve ever read or are you just being hard on yourself? Have you eaten today? Taken a shower? Walked the dog? STEP AWAY FROM THE KEYBOARD. Take a break and do something else. Because you know this isn’t really true. You may not be as good as you’d like to be, but there are people out there who like your work, who (oddly enough) think you’re a good writer and they wish they could write like you do. I know, there’s no accounting for taste, but if you truly sucked, no one would like your stories. So just don’t even go there.
  5. I’ll never _____________. It doesn’t matter what you put here. Top the bestseller list? Win a prestigious award? Make enough money writing to quit the Evil Day Job? It’s both easy and true to say, “Not with that attitude you won’t” but the question you should be asking yourself is “Does it matter if I don’t?” If you have none of those things now, how will your life materially change if you never achieve those goals? Spoiler alert: it won’t. So are you going to let that stop you from writing?
  6. That one bad review is somehow more accurate than the fifty glowing ones I received. Ouch. Bad reviews hurt. But if the comments in a snarky review are outliers, then let it go. If you’re hearing the same things over and over again from beta readers, critique groups, editors (all of which should have assessed your work before you publish it), and readers, then that should be a heads up that you’ve done something wrong and you need to change it. But when you get that nasty gif-laden review that seems to come out of nowhere, keep this in mind: there are only two reasons why someone leaves that kind of review. Either they have a following because they are the Simon Cowell of reviewers–and therefore their fans hang on every gif with glee to see someone else be destroyed–or they want to make you feel so bad you quit writing. Are you going to let some soul-sucking vampire make you give up on your dream of telling stories? No? Then ignore this kind of review. Don’t read it. Don’t acknowledge it. Don’t let it have any power over you.
  7. My stories will never change the world. Oh cupcake, you don’t know that. Sure, on the whole, I would hazard to say most stories don’t change the world–at least, not in ways that we can see. Maybe there will never be theme-parks where kids of all ages dress up as characters from your stories and buy story-themed items, but I wouldn’t let that get you down. The vast majority of stories written won’t be read thirty, forty, fifty years or more down the line either. But your story can change the life of the one person reading it today. Maybe you gave them hope or laughter on a day they needed it most. Maybe you snuck in a little enlightenment and made them see things in a different manner than they had before. Maybe you represented ‘self’ to the reader who’d never before recognized themselves in a story. Don’t discount that. Most world changing events–for good or bad–happen in incremental steps over time.
  8. Everyone on social media seems to be doing so much better than me. Ugh. If you’re going to sit around comparing yourself to others on SM, just turn it off for a while. Keep in mind, SM is where people either tend to post about the best, the worst, or the most mundane in their lives. I don’t know about you, but I seldom feel envy at seeing pictures of what someone had for dinner–so let’s cross those out. That leaves the I won the lottery-went to the Bahamas-became a bestseller-lost thirty pounds without trying crowd vs the my life is SO bad you’ll never be able to top it crowd. Remember, those people going through stuff both good and bad are merely at different points on the path as you. You’re seeing a snapshot into their lives that doesn’t reflect anything else that might be going on. And the person with the new cover art/new release/award-winning story might be YOU next week, month, or year. Celebrate wins with your friends. Comfort if there are losses. But if you can’t stop comparing yourself, then walk away from SM for a while–put that time into writing the next story.
  9. My stories don’t matter. This is another version of ‘won’t change the world’ but on a smaller level. So I ask you, is it necessary for them to matter? There is nothing wrong with telling a story for the sheer entertainment value of telling a story. Don’t sell that short. It’s worth more than you think it is. 
  10. I’ll never be as good as so-and-so. This may well be true. On the other hand, I bet that author has someone they feel the same way about as well. Recently someone listed one of my couples among their top favorite pairing–along with my ALL TIME FAVORITE pairing in the same genre. No joke. I’d never been as flattered in my entire life. Never in a million years would I have put my characters on the same page–but someone else did. So maybe we aren’t the best judge of our work.

What it boils down to is this: words matter. The words we tell ourselves on a regular basis matter a lot. If we’ve spent a lifetime running ourselves down, we’re not going to change that soundtrack easily–the grooves have worn deep. But in order to change we MUST stop playing the old soundtrack. We must challenge lies whenever we hear them–be it from ourselves, our families, or people in positions of power over us. We must stop accepting negative feedback as being the only right message simply because it’s the message we believe.

I really struggle even saying things like, “that’s not so bad.” Believe me, I know how hard it is to reprogram your thinking. But I’m going to give myself a month of NOT running myself down. Of stopping the negative feedback loop whenever I hear it playing and countering the conditioning by telling myself positive things about myself that I believe every day. I think if I start with things that won’t make me snort coffee out of my nose, then I can progress to things I want to believe.

I challenge everyone reading this to do the same–and come back here in a month and let me know what changes you are seeing in your life. Let’s do this together.

 

Managing Time–and Guilt–as a Writer

I’ve definitely been struggling lately. Work stuff, home stuff, world stuff–it feels like it’s all piling on at once. Time management is definitely an issue. So is feeling guilty when I can’t do everything on my list. The guilt worsens when I see myself making the same mistakes over and over again. When I waste a day in terms of productivity because I’m so burned out I can’t muster the strength do anything–not even something I enjoy. Everything is a choice between things that must or should get done. If I take the dogs for a long hike, then I can’t go horseback riding. If I try to do both, I can kissing writing goodbye for the day. But the dogs need a daily walk and the horse must be ridden regularly or it’s not safe. Decisions, decisions.

Likewise, I’m feeling guilty right now because I won a terrific marketing package while participating in NaNoProMo this past May–a $300 value–as I won an all-access pass to a marketing group. But I’m already working with another service that I’m struggling to find the time to participate in. I know that videos are all the rage now, but I don’t have 45 minutes to absorb information I could process faster in a post. It’s a fantastic opportunity to gain valuable marketing tips that I’m freaking out over because I don’t have the time to participate.

So I can watch a marketing video or blow off steam watching a little TV. Giving up TV isn’t that big a deal–I rarely watch more than 3-4 hours a week as it is now. But watching a marketing video every day versus writing? It’s a no-brainer. The writing takes precedence. It is, after all, the reason why marketing is even necessary. I’m learning I need to have a bigger back list before I sink much more into marketing and advertising.

Marketing versus social media? Aren’t they the same? Not really. Social media is where you make connections, not the place where you constantly toot your own horn. When you have the connections, people naturally want to share your news about a book release or a sale. But too often social media becomes my way to ‘unwind’ after a stressful day at work. I can spend hours circling from one platform to another reading and commenting. Is it a waste of time? Yes and no. I’m probably making some connections. But when the husband and I are both sitting in a restaurant checking out social media instead of talking to each other–there’s a problem with this picture.

So I’ve narrowed it down: writing should be the priority when I have available time. Marketing is important, but I’m not going to allow myself to feel guilty about prioritizing writing the next story over doing coursework. It will still be waiting for me when I get to it. Maybe my route to success will be slower as a result, but I can’t make myself crazy over this. I refuse to feel guilty for not making the most of this opportunity.

But the real crux of the issue is when I choose writing over being with my family. Over walking the dogs. Over riding the horse. Because as important as the writing is, these other things are not only time-sensitive (in that time is passing at a rapid rate whether I like it or not) but they are what makes life worth living.

These past few years I’ve struggled with depression, but also a growing sense of disconnectedness with the things that are most important to me. I think in part this was a natural reaction to having had so much personal loss–I’m the kind of person who will emotionally cocoon in situations like that. But I was doing it before all that loss too. Again and again, I was choosing time at the keyboard over time with the living, breathing things in my life. And I don’t want to keep making those mistakes.

So what’s a writer with a serious time crunch to do? It might not work for you, but I give myself two hours. If I can’t write something productive in that time frame, I stop and do something different. I walk the dogs, or read a book, or watch a movie with the family. I don’t keep staring at the keyboard–only to take a ‘quick peek’ at what’s going on at Facebook or Twitter that turns into a two-hour time sink.

I’m de-listing. I’m dropping newsletters I never open, and all those diet/exercise/informational updates I never implement. I’m bowing out of groups and cutting back on all my online activity except those platforms I actually enjoy.

I spend less time on social media in general. I exercise. I meditate. I do what it takes to get my brain focused on the here and now and not worrying about what might happen at work, or with the family, or with my country, or the world. Finding that inner peace unlocks the writing mojo for me–suddenly gnarly plot problems unravel and I can see where the story should go next. I’ve developed an idea for a new series with a new set of characters and I’m more excited about this than anything since my fandom days. Yes. That excited!

The hard part it is carving out time to write when you have so many other demands on your time. And not feeling guilty about it when you do. But as Yoda would say, “Do it you must.” Carve out that two hours or ten minutes or whatever works best for you. Give that moment utterly and completely to writing 100%. But if you’re not making progress–quit. Today I read a great quote by Steven Hawking and it’s applicable to writers too: “It’s no good getting furious if you get stuck. What I do is keep thinking about the problem but work on something else.”

Yes. This.

I’m going to continue learning what it takes to bring my stories to the notice of the reading public. But not at the expense of the writing itself. And yes, I’m going to continue writing. But not to the exclusion of living. Because I’m already looking at the last ten years with regret as to how I spent my time. I don’t want to compound that problem further.

Because we only have so much time to spend with those we love. Take joy where you can find it. That’s what fills our wells of creativity.

 

 

I Should Be Better at This By Now

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the key to success was persistence, likening improving as a writer to my experiences as a competitive rider–and how moving up through the ranks resulted in plummeting to the bottom of the heap until you mastered the new skill set at your current level.

I believe in persistence. I do. My favorite quote on the subject is by Calvin Coolidge:

But that having been said, sometimes it’s hard to battle through discouragement.

These past few years have been fraught with discouragement and loss. One of the many things I’ve had to accept is that my old competition horse had to be retired because she was no longer sound enough to ride. As such, I’ve been riding a friend’s mare so I can keep my hand in the game and she has a quiet horse to ride on the rare occasions she has the time to spend an afternoon at the barn. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, except that we ride in different disciplines, with completely different training styles, and at twenty years of age, Robin isn’t going to learn how to accept my commands. I’m going to have to learn how to communicate with her instead.

Riding a horse is riding a horse, right? Um, no. There are as many different ways to ride a horse as there are to drive a car, and just because you’re competent on the highway in a four-door sedan doesn’t mean you can go off-road in a four-wheel drive pickup, or drive through the streets of Milan in a Formula One racer, or take an eighteen-wheeler out on the interstate.

I used to compete in eventing. The mare I’m riding now is a hunter. While eventing includes show jumping, the training styles for the two sports is very different. I’m used to riding with contact–my hands in close communication with the bit at all times. Robin, the mare I’m riding now, is used to being given her head and only loosely guided around a course of fences. So when I ride her the way I’ve ridden every other horse for the last twenty years–with close contact with the bit–she gets pissy and hot. The more I try to rein her in, the more annoyed she becomes. She picks up speed, shakes her head, and threatens to buck. My instinctive reactions only make things worse. It’s like trying to drive as though I have an automatic when I should be manually shifting gears. The end results are ugly.

And frustrating. There are times when I feel like tossing my hands up in the air and calling it quits. This particular day, Robin had been gradually ramping up during the course of our ride. It felt like I was riding a powder keg and the fuse was lit and growing closer. The things I would normally do to balance and check a horse careening around the ring out of control were the wrong move for Robin, succeeding in winding her up even more. Letting go of her mouth and allowing her to run full tilt at obstacles was just counter-intuitive. 

I confess, I was completely discouraged. That’s when that deadly phrase entered my mind:  I should be better at this by now.

How many years have I been riding horses? Too long to share without revealing my advanced age. The very fact I’ve been riding since I was eleven years old weighed heavily in my self-disappointment. I should know how to correct this horse. I should instinctively know how to work with my current issues, understanding that I’m not going to teach an old horse new tricks. My failure was a double-whammy in the face of my experience.

At the same time, I was reminded of a scene from Young Sherlock Holmes–a 1985 Steven Spielberg movie that asked “What if Holmes and Watson had met as schoolboys?”

There’s a terrific scene in which Holmes and Watson are meeting for the first time, as Holmes is massacring a violin. As Watson enters, Holmes lifts the violin up to smash it on a chair. Watson stops him, and Holmes snarls, “I should be better at this by now.”

Watson asks, “How long have you been playing?”

“Three days!” Holmes snaps.

I think many of us are Holmes in this situation. Through the promise of instant gratification (“Lose 20 pounds in 14 days!”) we’ve been taught that if we can’t master something in 48 hours, we’re a failure. Likewise, success should come to us in a similar time frame.

We know that’s not the case, but we get suckered into believing it might be different for us just the same.

In my situation, having been riding horses for over 25 years, the notion I should be better at it seems valid. And yet I discount the fact the horse I’m riding has been trained to do things almost diametrically opposite from the way I’d normally ride.

I was nearly in tears that day I was trying to canter Robin safely around the arena. I was ready to give up. Not just riding Robin, but riding in general. For a horsewoman, that’s a bid deal. But I took a deep breath and decided to give riding counter-intuitively a go. I dropped the reins as I asked her to canter, freeing her head when that was the last thing I felt like I should do, and she went around the ring far more quietly than she’d done before.

When it comes to writing, we have to be willing to do the same thing. Give up our expectations. Take chances. Do something that goes against everything we’ve been taught or believe about the process. Every story is different. Every set of characters is different. We might think we should be better at this by now but complacency is the death of creativity. Instead of railing against the knowledge that what you’re doing isn’t working and becoming frustrated because you should ‘know better’, take this for what it is: a sharpening instinct that what you’re doing is wrong and needs to be fixed. And then fix it.

You’ll be glad you did.