I Didn’t Meet My Goal, and That’s Okay

As we approach the end of the year–and the end of the decade–I’m starting to see a lot of posts where people are assessing what they’ve accomplished over the past year, as well as the last ten years.

I have to confess, I hate the year-end introspection and feeling the need to look back at my year and assess my accomplishments, or lack thereof. I always have. But I guess with the close of the decade, the introspection has started earlier and seems a bit more brutal this time around.

There’s the 2009 vs 2019 meme, where people post photos of themselves ten years apart. Most of the images I see are practically indistinguishable from each other. My 2019 image, however, is as different from my 2009 photo as Old Yoda vs Baby Yoda. In fact, I posted those images instead of my own. The past decade has been a little rough on me, and the mileage is visible on my face.

Then there’s the thing going around Twitter where someone has stated, “There is only one month left in the decade. What have YOU accomplished?” While I’m sure the OP meant for it to be an uplifting experience (judging by the response to their own Tweet), I know many people have found this tweet circulating on their timeline to be very stressful. I’ve seen calls for a different conversation, as well as people reminding others that if surviving the last decade is all you’ve managed by way of achievement, that’s accomplishment enough. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this when I write my own introspective year-end, decade-end post at the end of this month. Suffice to say, however, this particular Twitter discussion has left many people feeling like they don’t have enough to show for the last decade.

Not to mention, November has just ended, and as such, there are lot of people out there talking about their NaNo projects. Some are sharing their shiny “Winner!” buttons. Others are disappointed in themselves for falling short of their target. I’m hearing a lot of people saying they ‘failed NaNo’ and it is for this very reason I no longer officially participate in NaNo myself. Remember that challenge I mentioned hosting by Silence Your Inner Critic? We divided ourselves into Genre Teams and logged in our group word counts each week. I was going gangbusters until I hit a plot snag and I knew I had to work it out before moving forward. Doing so caused me to revise four major scenes, reducing my word count up to that point. I ended up offering only a measly thousand or so words to the final count. Now, was it better than not participating at all? Probably, but I felt as though I’d let my team down. And yet I still clocked in 30 K words this month, a tidy amount for someone who has struggled to write more than 2 K a week for a while now.

Today on Facebook, I ran into more than one post where the OP bewailed the fact they hadn’t met target goals on the number of books to read within the month (or year). And that’s when it hit me: why does everything have to be a competition?

Goals are all fine and well. Nice targets to shoot for, but it’s not the end of the world if we don’t hit them. I used to compete my horses, not because I had dreams of being a local champion, but because competing at a horse show gave me some structure and guidelines for the riding I did at home. I wanted to learn how to do more things with my horses, and showing them was a way to do that. But if all I’d wanted to do was putz around the farm at a walk, that would have been okay, too. What matters is why you set the goal and what you learned from aiming at it.

We’ve gotten in a bad habit of thinking that if we don’t come in first place, our efforts are meaningless. Believe me, if I’d made it to the Olympics with my mare, I wouldn’t have hung my head in shame because we came in 33rd or something. But it’s only the winners that get the endorsement contracts, it’s only the winners whose names we remember. And sadly, at least in this country, there seems to be a tendency to belittle anyone who doesn’t win gold.

The thing is, everyone at the Olympics worked their asses off to be there. They gave it their best to be there. That’s not something to be ashamed of.

So I’m celebrating the fact I wrote 30 K in November, even though I didn’t hit the NaNo 50 K mark. I don’t care if you read one book in 2019 or 1,000 books, at least you read something. And maybe I don’t have the cute adorableness of a Baby Yoda anymore, but Old Yoda was pretty kick-ass too. As for the decade, and 2019, we survived it, baby.

Don’t let anyone make you feel as though you aren’t a winner because you didn’t hit the bullseye.

As long as you’re a survivor, you can take another crack at that target again.

If I Stop Riding, am I still a Horsewoman?

I’m at one of those crossroads most people come to at a certain point in their lives. Especially if you’re an athlete and do some kind of sport. There comes a time when you look at this activity you’ve done your whole life and wonder if it’s time to quit.

I have friends who were competitive ice dancers when I met them twelve years ago. They’ve found another passion now and have hung up their skates. They’re happy and still enjoying their new-found hobby, one that doesn’t entail getting up before dawn and driving hours to the only available ice rink for a grueling session in the bitter cold. One that is less brutal to their bodies. Their knees thank them too.

I had a friend who has been a runner as long as I can remember tell me recently that she’s giving it up. Between the plantar fasciitis and torn Achilles tendon, she no longer feels that this is the something she can continue doing. She’s giving yoga at try, and hoping she can make peace with her injuries.

Even my husband, who lives, eats, and breathes soccer has decided in the past year to get certified as a referee. The role of the ref is still an active one, but not as punishing as playing the game itself. He’s still playing as well, but repeated injuries have taken their toll and I think this is how he is planning to transition.

As for me, I’m facing a tough choice in the next couple of months. I need to consider retiring my mare. While we gave up competition years ago, her arthritis is reaching a point where I question whether it makes sense for me to continue riding her. Truth is, we’re both at a certain level of gimpyness that it’s not out of the question that I may be projecting my own issues onto her. But the bottom line is I’m rapidly approaching a point in my life when I may no longer ride horses. It’s not just that my mare deserves to live out the rest of her days in peace eating grass like the horses in the final scene of Black Beauty. Riding is taking its toll on me physically, too.

Oh, I could find another horse to ride if I wanted. Buying a horse doesn’t make a ton of sense: it’s a huge investment and I’m no spring chicken. But there are lots of horses for lease out there, horses that perhaps can no longer compete but can certainly putter around the farm the way I’ve been doing. Horses that someone would gladly loan me simply to get some help paying for their care.

But retiring one horse and picking up with another isn’t like replacing a worn out bicycle with a newer model. Horses are as individual as dogs or children. My mare and I are so attuned, all I have to do is think what I want her to do, and she does it. A subtle shift in weight will make her down transition. Pick up the reins and she’ll start trotting. If I started over with another horse, I’d have to learn the idiosyncrasies of that creature, and no horse, no matter how bombproof, no matter how well-trained, is 100% safe.

The realization that I could get hurt–seriously hurt–has been a creeping concern over the last few years, cracks in the foundation letting water seep into my confidence. I’m no longer the teenager who biked five miles a day after school and mucked stalls just so I could ride the green-broke horses at the only riding stable near me. I’m not the girl in her twenties who would ride any horse any time the opportunity arose, no matter how rank, no matter how evil. I’m not the woman in her thirties who bred her ideal competition horse, raised her from a foal, and competed in the sport for crazy people known as eventing.

Somewhere along the way, as I’ve developed increasing medical issues, my loss of faith in my own body has translated itself into a fear of getting hurt when I ride. There are days when I’m my old confident self, and I ride through a buck without blinking an eye. There are other days when I anticipate trouble during the entire ride–and my horse feels like a lit powder keg beneath me. There are other days when I have a good ride, but can barely move a few hours later. I’ve lived with chronic pain for years. Riding has hurt ever since that bad car accident. I didn’t let it stop me twenty years ago, even when my doctors thought I should quit. But I have to tell you, everything hurts these days, and riding makes it much, much worse. Also, I don’t want my decision to stop riding be as a result of breaking my collarbone–or worse.

From the moment I read Black Beauty as a six-year-old, I sold my soul to have horses in my life. My parents used to joke that they didn’t need an alarm clock, they only needed to put a pony in the backyard and I’d be up at the crack of dawn every day. They kept promising me that pony, along with the mystical farm they’d one day own and the dogs they’d breed. I find it ironic how these were dreams they had for themselves that never materialized, but I went out and got them for my own. All of it. Farm, horses, dogs. (Cats too, since I was forbidden to have any growing up.)

It came with a price though. I made a conscious decision to have horses instead of a life that would let me travel, or live in a major city where I could earn more money. I bought my first horse off a slaughter truck for $800 and spent the equivalent of a SUV payment each month to keep him. I took jobs in rural places so I could keep my horses. The ‘dream’ farm takes more of my time and money than I’d care to admit. Was it worth it? I like to think so. My dad never got his farm, even though he made more than enough money to have that dream life. During the years I spent as his caretaker, the horses were the only things that kept me going at times. The reason for leaving the house, for getting outside, for connecting with nature. It fed my soul.

When I was twelve, I went to my mother and showed her the shabbiness of my riding gear. “I need a new hard hat and boots. I’ve outgrown my riding habit.”

“I’d like to know when you’re going to outgrow this horse habit,” my mother snapped. “It’s terribly expensive.”

“Gee, Mom.” I spoke with Shirley Temple’s innocence. “I don’t think it’s any more expensive than a cocaine habit.”

She put me in the car and took me straight to the tack store.

Yes, I was a bit of a smart-ass, but I suspect my love of horses kept me out of trouble as a teenager. It kept me moving when depression made me want to fold up and lie in a dark room. It kept me physical when my job demanded all my time and energy. I am a horsewoman. It’s part of my identity. To consider giving that up feels like closing a door, not only on a major portion of my life, but who I am as a person as well.

As recently as April 2019, Queen Elizabeth was photographed riding a horse at Windsor Castle, just weeks away from her 93rd birthday. I remind myself that for most of her life, she was able to ride almost daily if she liked, and that she has a whole team of people keep her horses trained and exercised to be as quiet as possible. But it goes to show that my question of whether or not I should keep riding is entirely up to me.

Even if I choose not to ride any longer, nothing will change my lifelong love of these magnificent creatures. Regardless of whether I hang up my bridle or not, I am, and always will be a horsewoman.

 

To NaNo or Not NaNo: Either Way, It’s Okay

Before I began writing this post, I checked my blog for previous mentions of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Turns out, I have a lot to say on the subject–every November since I started this blog! Most of my posts lean toward why NaNo isn’t a good fit for me. That hasn’t changed, but I’m becoming more comfortable with my decision NOT to do NaNo. 

Most writers are introverts, loving the time we spend alone with our creations, but even the most introverted creator is likely to feel the tug of wanting to participate when there is SO MUCH chatter about NaNoWriMo. People discussing their progress, posting their word counts, sharing their journey and expertise… November abounds with excellent writing information and it’s hard not to feel left out if you decide not to participate in NaNo.

I’m here to tell you not participating is okay.

So is participating and meeting the goal of 50 K words in 30 days.

So is participating and then failing to meet your goals.

It’s all okay.

Because writing is hard work, and the process isn’t the same for everyone, and you shouldn’t force yourself to meet an arbitrary goal if the process doesn’t work for you or if life gets in the way.

Chuck Wendig recently wrote a fabulous post, For National Novel Writing Month, Two Vital Reminders, which reminded me why participation isn’t a good fit for me, yet inspired others to go for it.

For me, it boils down to two things: the NaNo format is inherently contradictory to how I write and the pressure of meeting a specific daily word count is paralyzing to me.

That doesn’t mean I’m not going to take advantage of all the workshops, advice, and information flowing out there.

Here’s an excellent Twitter thread by C.L. Polk, the author of Witchmark (2019 finalist for a Nebula, Aurora, and Lambda Award) on where you should be at certain points in your story. It’s terrific NaNo advice but applicable to any story regardless of how quickly you’re writing it.

That’s the kind of thing I enjoy finding during NaNo time.

This year, I’ve decided to join in the Future, Fantasy, and Paranormal’s Silence Your Inner Critic challenge. This is a low-key challenge in which we’re divided into teams based on what kind of story we’re working on and each week we post our word counts to the team. I figure this will keep me working toward my goals without putting too much pressure on me to write. As any participation in the challenge is better than no participation, it’s a win-win for everyone!

I’m Team Shifter! 

What are you doing for November? NaNo? Nothing? Or some different challenge, even one of your own making? I want to know!

The Difficulty–and Importance–of Resurrecting Good Habits

A few years ago, I used to take a 30-40 minute walk on a near-daily basis. It was rare for me to miss a day, even when it was bitterly cold. The thing most likely to deter me was extreme heat and humidity (which we get more often than not now). Even then, I made it out there most days.

It wasn’t easy. I work long hours, and in the short time between getting home and going to bed, I have to feed all the livestock, cook and eat dinner, do the routine chores, and hopefully get a little writing done. A daily walk wasn’t virtuous on my part–it was necessary. I had a big high-drive dog who needed the daily exercise to keep him sane enough to wait until my day off to take him for a longer hike. The only way I’d get it done was to walk in the door and go straight to his leash–if I didn’t do it right away on getting home, the chances were much slimmer I’d take him out for the length of time he needed. Especially, after dinner, when exhaustion would kick in. But I made it work because it was necessary.

Fast forward two years: my beloved but difficult dog Sampson succumbed to cancer, and Remington, my current big dog, though young is made of less intense stuff. Remy is also even more heat intolerant than I am, which is saying something. Then back in January, I injured my foot, which exacerbated an old knee problem, and the next thing I knew, I was no longer walking every day. By the time the foot/knee problem improved, I’d gotten out of the habit. I’d gained weight and my fitness was down as well. Now it was the hottest part of the summer and it was just easier to throw the ball for the dog in the shaded yard where he could jump in and out of the water trough at will than it was to force myself to do that daily walk again.

Likewise minding my food choices. See, I have a mild form of acne rosacea, which has gotten progressively worse with age. In my case, while stress is a player, food is definitely a trigger for me. Which means many of the foods I could get away with eating when I was younger are no longer an option. And yet, sometimes I forget that. No, scratch that. Sometimes I choose to ignore the truth. It’s especially hard for me around the holiday season. For me, the worse triggers are cinnamon (sob), cheese (double sob), and wine (bawling now), but also tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes (anything from the nightshade family), vinegar, and citrus. I recently discovered that people with acne rosacea frequently have hypertension too (which makes sense, as rosacea is a vascular problem), which means I’ve had to take wine off the list permanently. Along with caffeine, it sends my blood pressure into the stratosphere. I also seem to be sensitive to gluten and peanut butter, staples of my diet for most of my life. No cheese, no snickerdoodles or apple pie, no wine, no coffee, no chocolate (yep, there’s caffeine there) no bread, no pasta, no peanut butter? Is there really anything left? Anything left I want to eat that is?

Recently on a trip with friends, I choose to ignore my ‘rules’. After all, I’d broken them over and over again without major penalties, right? Only the combined effect of abusing so many rules at once was two days of feeling like crap while I had a major rosacea and hypertensive flare, which left me unable to enjoy my time with my friends. In response, I made a strict effort to eat according to the rules as I knew them, limiting myself largely to roasted chicken and massive salads (no dressing, limited tomatoes) for the rest of my trip.

What I discovered was not only did I calm my current BP and rosacea flare, but I felt better than I’d felt for a while. It made me realize that all that “cheating”, while it hadn’t erupted into an outright flare, was keeping me from feeling my best. From wanting to take the dogs on evening walks. From wanting to do anything more than flop on the couch when I got home from work. Even from writing. Because let me tell you, when you feel like crap, it’s much much harder to be creative.

You know what else is hard? Picking back up your good habits when you’ve fallen off the “habit” wagon. Just like exercise (or writing), practicing a good habit is a muscle that gets stronger with use and weaker with disuse. And when you’re already tired and not feeling well, finding the fortitude to stick to the changes that will make you feel better again isn’t easy. I come back to this point again and again in life: the realization that my current (minor) health issues now must dictate my eating choices, something I’ve resisted mightily ever since I was diagnosed. I drum my heels and wail in protest like a two year old, and yet the only one I’m hurting in all this is me.

I also know without a doubt that if I don’t start, I’ll lose even more ground than I already have. With fitness, with my health, with my writing… and even though I don’t feel as though I have the time to chip away at making these habits part of my life again (seriously, by the time you walk the dogs, and go shopping to keep fresh food in the house, or food prep in advance, and don’t forget that yoga/meditation/prayer–30 minutes here and there adds up to hours you must carve out of your daily schedule), if I want to see change in my life, I have to be the one to make changes.

I used to believe it took 21 days to create a new habit, good or bad, and honestly, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It’s not even a month. Anyone can manage 21 days. But the truth of the matter is this is a misleading conception: It takes a minimum of 21 days to effectively instill a habit. It can take up to 90 days of regular (ie daily) engagement to make a habit stick.

At first glance, that seems discouraging, I know. After all, I’ve been telling myself I need to get my act in gear for years now. I’ll try for a few weeks–sometimes, depending on how hectic my life is only a few days. Invariably, I slide. But really, the only difference is time. We’ve been taught by too many advertising campaigns to Expect Results in 2 Weeks or Less! It’s just not true, whether we’re trying to institute new habits or return to old ones. No matter what we want to do, whether it’s to change our eating habits or get back into some form of regular activity, or learn a new craft, or improve your current skills–the key is regular practice of the thing in question. So really, the long time course to creating a habit is a good thing. It means I can keep trying and not give up.

I took this photo today and it made me so happy. 🙂

November will soon be upon us, and I know many will dive into NaNoWriMo as a result. Not me, I know that particular pressure isn’t one I need in my life right now. However, I fully intend to take advantage of all the great articles and conversations surrounding NaNo, and hope to make daily writing another one of those habits I pick back up again.

Today, I started with throwing out some of the trigger foods I know are problematic for me. Others, like the unopened jars of peanut butter, I’ll donate to food banks. I also took the dogs for a nice long walk in the woods, and though I’m a little stiff tonight, I managed without the pain I feared the activity would trigger. I ate a relatively healthy dinner too. Now I’m going to sit down with the WIP.

You don’t have to run a half marathon, go on a radical diet, or force 10 K words out of yourself in a single afternoon to call it progress. Slow, steady, and regular wins the habit-making race.

A Good Story vs Good Writing

I learned to love books at a very young age. My mother and grandmother both read to me, and the time spent in their laps, following the words on the page, soon taught me how to interpret those words on my own. Growing up in a house full of books, I was never at a loss for something to read. By the time I was six, I was reading books on the sixth grade level. From loving books, it was only a short step to wanting to tell my own stories.

And I did. I wrote stories similar to those I’d read about things I loved, illustrating them with laboriously colored drawings as well. Well into my teens, going to a library was an exciting event. The Scholastic Book Fair was the best day of the school year. To this day, my idea of a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon is to go to a bookstore.

But somewhere along the line, I gave up on my dream of becoming a writer as something impossible for the average storyteller to achieve. By the time I left college, I was focused first on my career, and later juggling a family with being a professional. I wrote short stories for fun every now and then, but they were few and far between.

Then one day, I discovered online fanfiction archives. Suddenly I realized there were thousands of people just like me who loved to tell stories about their favorite characters. I became obsessed with fandom, cranking out story after story. After a lifetime of suppressing my creativity, the stories poured out of me in a flood. I wrote for the sheer joy of it and the fun of interacting with like-minded fans. For years I read nothing but fanfic, completely immersed in the delights of finding stories that were tailor made for me.

I never let the fact I was a neophyte storyteller stop me. I wasn’t swayed by the fact there were far better writers in my fandoms. I was in love with my characters, and that joy carried me through any confidence of crisis.

The confidence I learned in fandom gave me the courage to try my hand at original fiction after a lifetime of doubting it was possible to become a writer. It just so happened that this was about the same time when e-readers suddenly made publishing within the reach of a lot of people, and small presses were eager to take a chance on new authors. When I made the transition to writing original stories, I continued writing fanfiction at first, but gradually I began leaving fandom behind. My shows went off the air, and I had trouble finding other shows I wanted to write in. More importantly, however, I became invested in my original characters. I only had so much time to write and it seemed stupid to “waste” good ideas on fanfic when they lent themselves to the original stories bubbling inside of me.

But as I’ve said before, when you’re learning a skill set, every time you move up a level, the work gets harder. There’s less fun, especially when you know things should be done in a specific way and what you did before no longer passes muster. These days I’m working with critique partners and tough editors who push me to write cleaner prose and with more efficient style. Don’t get me wrong; I love the input from these sources. I’m a better writer now than when I started ten years ago.

But those same critical voices, the ones that tell me to eliminate adverbs and cut out unnecessary verbiage, and strive for active constructions in my writing are the same voices that often leave me staring at a blinking cursor for hours at a time, struggling to create a sentence that won’t embarrass me. I find myself massaging the same text over and over again because my natural style is wordy and breezy and it needs a fair amount of editing to be presentable to the public at large.

It’s a bit like taking a pony out for a gallop across an open field once you know all the pitfalls and dangers of doing so. When you know about the rabbit holes, and you think about how breaking an arm will mess up your life, it makes it a bit harder to simply clap your heels against your pony’s flanks and let her take the bit in her teeth and run.

Back when I was learning to ride in group lessons at a barn, once a year when we trooped into the arena, we were told it was Broom Polo Day. Instead of trotting sedately around the ring, following one another in line as we popped over a little cross rail or practiced our equitation, we were handed brooms and directed to chase down a large rubber ball, smacking it between goal posts that had been arranged at either end of the arena.

It was insane. We became fiends as we clung to our ponies necks, throwing ourselves into a vicious melee, bouncing our ponies off each other as we crowded in for a hit. We chased the ball from one end of the arena to the other, howling like demons. The ponies got into it too, running flat out at our direction, spinning on a dime to make a course change, letting us hang off their sides as we swung down for a stinging hit. I suspect never in a million years would we be allowed to play Broom Polo these days, but back then we loved it. And the best part was we never knew when Broom Polo Day would appear. One day we were practicing our positions, remembering to keep our heels down and shoulders back, and the next, for one glorious hour a year, we rode like we were Centaurs–at one with the horse. It was a sneaky way of teaching us riding wasn’t always about looking pretty.

This past weekend, instead of struggling with the barely started WIP that already needed to have a plot hole fixed, I accepted the plea of a friend to pinch hit in a fandom fest. Though rusty as hell and not convinced I could even portray the characters I loved so that a fan would recognize them, I sat down at the laptop to pound out the required word count for the fest, only to end up with twelve times as many words as I needed. I won’t say it was effortless, but it might as well have been compared to the difficulty I’ve had writing lately.

What was the difference?

I was having fun. It was Broom Polo Day, but for writing.

And it taught me something very important. Sometimes it’s okay just to play. To throw off the restrictions of rules and “this is what you should do” and just let ‘er rip. And no, I’m not going to go back to reading and writing fanfic the way I did at the height of my obsession. But I will remember sometimes you need to focus on telling the story first before you worry about how well you’re telling that story. That the first draft is galloping toward the ball and smacking it with glee across the arena. It’s the second, third, and fourth drafts that let us look pretty while sending that ball through the goal posts.

So my advice to myself in these coming weeks? It’s okay to bang the story out sometimes without paying as much attention to the rules. Sometimes it’s the best way to get back in the groove when you’ve lost your mojo. Don’t be afraid to have a little fun and ride like a demon. You can always go back to sitting up and pretty when the time comes.

Walking the Fine Line of Burnout

Let me start off by saying first of all, this is not meant to be a whiny post about how I wish I could quit my Evil Day Job and spend all my time writing books (although I do). Nor is it a contest to see whose job sucks the most. Since I’m writing this post, chances are I’ll think it’s mine, no matter what you say. 🙂

It’s a post about walking that fine line between being able to do your job to the best of your ability and burnout–and what to do about it.

See, I think most of us are closer to burnout than we think. It’s almost a given these days. Who hasn’t heard of the newly minted lawyer or the medical resident who is worked to the bone as some sort of rite of passage, putting in over a hundred hours a week into a job that demands nothing less because they think that’s how it’s done. That’s how you advance, become partner, a senior staffer, move up in management. That one day you’ll have the corner office and the healthy paycheck and you’ll be able to catch up on sleep or your kid’s recitals or afford that really awesome vacation.

Only it’s never enough, is it? Because (at least in the US), our workplaces demand more and more from us every year, expecting us to get more done with less support staff, improve the bottom line with fewer rewards. Accept a “promotion” that is largely a title for doing the work we’re already performing. Forcing senior, experienced employees out because they can hire two new graduates for what they have to pay the veteran employee. I recently overheard employees at my local grocery discussing how everyone’s hours have been slashed to just under full time so the national chain can avoid paying benefits like health insurance. At the same time, the company is replacing cashiers with automated systems for checkout, and eating the cost of shoplifting instead of keeping the live people on staff.

And we accept it because we’re scared we’ll be the next on the chopping block.

I live in a rural area where work is hard to come by. I have a mortgage and bills to pay, which as I age, increasingly includes medical bills. I’m lucky to have a FT job which contributes significantly to the household economy. I know this. And at the same time, I resent the degree to which the job owns me.

I resent putting in 10 hour days and having that never be enough. I resent the advent of mobile technology making you accessible to your employer 24/7 with demands you fix something or take care of something on what should be your down time. Twenty years ago, my employer would have paid my health insurance in full as a perk of the job. Now I’m expected to contribute $400/month out of my paycheck every month to retain coverage.

I resent coming home at the end of a long day irritable and fried, unable to interact pleasantly with those I love. By the time I get to the house, I’m too tired to make reasonable decisions about what to have for dinner, let alone find the energy to work on the current story. I don’t like the person I am right now. And yet I scarcely know how to change.

It’s a little thing, but one of the dictates of my workplace is that management gives me the next day’s assignments before I’m finished the current day’s work so I can review them in advance. They take this one step further in that I receive the workload for the day after my day off as well. The end result is my inbox is never empty. I never get to check off the day’s assignments as complete because there is always more sitting in my inbox.

Small wonder I dream about work as though I’ve never left, nightmares in which I look out the office window to see long lines of people waiting to be seen, like the lines outside Best Buy before a Black Friday sale. I never get to say I’m done for the day.

For a while now, I’ve been saying I’m on the edge of burnout, because in my head, “burned out” is a state of non-functionality, where you are incapable of doing your job, one step away from a nervous breakdown. Not willing to declare myself a charred cinder, I admit to being close just the same. And I have to admit there are days when the idea of a nervous breakdown sounds good if it means weeks spent in an asylum with nothing better to do than stare at the ceiling.

But I’m starting to think the gradient toward burnout is more subtle than you’d suspect. Whatever it is, I think I’m nearly there.

But if I am, then what? I still have bills to pay. I can’t just lie on the couch and read books all day, though I’d dearly love to give that a shot for a few weeks.

Which was why I was glad to stumble across Burnout:The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. Various people on my social media feeds had been talking about it, and though I didn’t want to admit to actual burnout, I felt I was close enough to consider reading it.

I haven’t gotten very far into it yet, but I’m already of the opinion almost every woman I know could benefit from reading it. Not just those suffering from near burnout, either from work or their family lives, but also women struggling with PTSD, or relentless perfectionism, or just the demands that society seems to place on most of us. Men, too, with their struggle to meet society’s needs as well as those of their families, all while holding their emotions tightly in check.

According to the book, the biggest factors in burnout stem from never completing the cycle: as cavemen, if we were attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, we either survived the attack or we died. If we died, our stress was over. If we survived, there was a huge sense of relief and a celebration among our other cave-dwellers as  we shared our story of our exciting near-miss. The adrenaline spiked, our muscles expended the energy in our survival, and then it was over.

In modern society, it is never over. The saber-toothed tigers are always with us, snapping at our heels, demanding we run faster, jump higher to escape–only we never do. We nap fitfully on the ledge outside our caves, always ready to leap up and run again.

Small wonder we struggle with weight issues here in the US. Our adrenal glands are on maximum overload all the time. And how do we handle stress? We eat. It’s a physiologic drive for survival because we always feel under threat.

Frankly, I’m not sure how I can change things given I have so little say so in how management tells me to do my job. But change I must. I can’t keep dozing on the edge of my ledge, longing for the day when I’ll be able to rest knowing I am in a saber-toothed tiger-free zone.

So while I take most self-help books with a grain of salt, this one is resonating with me.

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.

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!