We writers are an ambitious lot. We write books, blogs, and articles. We build platforms, read voraciously, navigate rocky inner and outer terrain, and invest huge amounts of time, energy, and money into our work. We are passionate. Some of us take jobs to support our families and our writing habit. Hours slip away while we toil at our craft. This is all fine—until it isn’t.
Many of us believe happiness and satisfaction will be ours when we achieve a certain writing goal. I don’t know about you, but soon after I achieve one writing goal, another pops up and takes its place. I’ve noticed this pattern in other areas of my life as well. A desire arises in my mind, which is fine, but then I attach and cling to it, and suddenly, without realizing it, my desire has turned into a craving that has control over me. I start working harder and harder to satisfy an unidentifiable hunger. I’m at its mercy.
The only way out of this predicament is to respect my desire, to act upon it, but then to detach from the result. This may sound easy, but it’s been brutally hard to master, especially when I unwittingly fuse my self-worth with my achievements. One thing has nothing to do with the other. Self-worth isn’t something that has to be earned. It’s inherent. We are all worthy. Our value has nothing to do with what we do, nor how well we do it. I understand this—mentally. As ideas. But grasping concepts is not the same thing as putting them into practice.
My striving is like a rat on a wheel. It’s unending. Like the rat, I sometimes go way too fast, and spin myself into a tizzy. At that point, all I want to do is get the hell off, stroll down a tree-lined boulevard, and release myself from the cage of my own making.
Freedom from striving comes when I let go of outcomes. It comes when I realize my job is to show up, do my work, resist the urge to judge it or myself, and fling myself, heart-first, into the wind. The challenge is to lean in, to trust that the universe supports me whether I fly or plunge. Though most of us would rather soar than collapse, both are worthwhile experiences. It’s what we think about them that gets people into trouble. In my meditation practice, I surf this strife as a neutral observer of my thoughts. This cultivates awareness. The Ancient Greek aphorism, “know thyself,” matters. It makes a difference.
Contrary to what I learned growing up, happiness and satisfaction reside within. They too are inherent to all humans, and not contingent upon getting or achieving. Striving for something or someone may bring momentary joy, but it’s a mistake to think something out there will ever bring genuine happiness.
When I get really honest about it, what fuels my striving is the misbelief that I’m not good enough. Wiggling in that can of worms are fears of letting people down, of being an imposter, of not measuring up. When I meet myself in this place, I flood myself with as much love and compassion as possible. I visualize my mother holding me, her baby, in her arms. I imagine the love I felt radiating from her. I didn’t do a thing to earn her love. It was just there. And this love is a gift I must continue to give myself. It’s the only sustenance my hunger requires.
So I step off the treadmill. Soak in a warm tub. Tenderly touch my own cheek. Imagine the places and times in my life I’ve felt cherished, call to mind those people, thoughts, and feelings. Bathe in them, too. Inhale their sweetness along with the scent of French lavender. And then I place my hand over my belly, and breathe.
How about you? What does your striving look like? What’s lurking underneath it? How do you to quell it? I’d love to hear from you.
A few weeks ago I received an email from Jack Grapes, my old writing teacher and mentor, who published my poetry book in 2008. Jack is a well-known and beloved literary figure in Los Angeles who has been teaching for over four decades. His email promoted an upcoming writing workshop offered by a former student of his. I wonder if he’d do the same for me? I thought, in the midst of putting together my fall writing classes.
The next day I put “email Jack” on my to-do list. It didn’t get done. The following day I wrote it again. Usually when I carry over an action item from one day to the next, it gets crossed off my list on the second day. Not this time. For a week the directive to “email Jack” appeared on my list—but it wasn’t getting done. Why is this so hard? I wondered. I knew Jack loved me. I knew he respected my work. Still, asking him to do something for me felt monumental, though I wasn’t sure why.
A week later, feeling uneasy, I forced myself to just do it! Ten minutes after I hit the send button I heard back from him. “I’d be happy to do that,” he responded.
A few days later, after sharing this story with Tracey Brown, my life coach, she asked, “So why was it so hard to write that email?”
It took me a while to get to the heart of the matter: shame. I discovered that deep down I felt embarrassed and ashamed to ask for what I wanted. I felt my request might seem needy, or inappropriate somehow. And from there, the sorry, old, “I’m-not-good-enough” voice, a close sibling to I’m-not-worthy-and-therefore-don’t-deserve-this voice, found its toehold and sprang into action, hoping I’d take the bait and fall. Once I realized my reluctance to ask hadn’t sprung from a fear that he’d say no, but rather, from this feeling of unworthiness to even ask, I knew I’d had enough!
How many times had I been reluctant to make a request of someone I perceived to be more established, successful, or powerful than me? How often had I felt like I didn’t have the right to “bother” or “intrude upon” them? How many times had I reproached myself, saying I shouldn’t need to ask for help? How many times had I berated myself, saying “You should have your shit together—and not need anyone else—especially when it comes to your career!” Talk about “shoulding” all over yourself! I was done feeling crappy.
For years I believed that one of the things writers needed most to succeed was chutzpah. Google defines this Yiddish word as “shameless audacity.” Synonyms are nerve, boldness, and temerity. Hispanics use the word “cojones,” or balls. I used to think writers needed balls of steel. Had my dilemma with Jack been a reminder that I needed to grow a pair? Or toughen up the metaphorical ones I had?
And then it hit me: instead of bigger balls, instead of fighting, I needed to drop down into myself, to connect with that place where absolute tenderness and faith in myself and others resides. The key, I realized, was to be shameless in the sense of understanding that we are all worthy and there’s nothing wrong with asking for what we want. There’s no shame in it; in fact, it’s a blessing. None of us lives alone on this planet. We are part of a community, a web of loving, supportive relationships. We all give and take all the time; these are reciprocal energies. Regardless of our professional accomplishments (or perceived lack thereof), no one is inferior or superior to anyone else. Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “Remember that no one is better than you, but that you are better than no one.”
In order to ask for what we want, we have to know what we want. Sometimes this is clear. Other times we have only inklings and intuitions. Either way, it pays to listen and act upon our desires. Listening is right up there with loving. “The only reason to do anything is for love,” Ron Hulnick, my Spiritual Psychology teacher and President of The University of Santa Monica, once told me. And this starts with loving ourselves. And trusting our worthiness.
Have you found it hard to ask for what you want? What stops you? How do you feel about approaching the many people—agents, editors, publishers, colleagues, etc.—you must interact with throughout the course of your writing career and your life? I know there’s a deep well of wisdom out there on this subject! Please share it.
It’s easy to race from one writing goal to another without stopping to acknowledge a job well done. After all, there’s always more work to do. But it’s important, at times, to pause and relish your achievements, to let them sink in. Otherwise life becomes a state of urgent, perpetual striving.
In the past, my M.O. has been to move full steam ahead. But lately I’ve learned how to rein in the racing horses of my mind. To be present and still and to honor milestones. I reached a major one a few weeks ago when I completed my memoir, RAW: A Midlife Quest for Health and Happiness.
Five years ago when I started writing my memoir, Tracey Brown, my life coach, tried to impress upon me the importance of self-validation, which comes from within. Part of this self-approval process involved learning how to celebrate myself and not expecting someone else to do that for me. This involved taking responsibility for my own satisfaction and joy and recognizing and rewarding my own achievements. At first this felt uncomfortable and I resisted the idea, which felt self-centered, even selfish. But Tracey persisted with this life-affirming, joy-inducing lesson.
With Tracey’s support, upon completion of the first part of my memoir, I treated myself to a trip to the desert, which restored, delighted, and rejuvenated me. I loved it. I don’t recall what I did to celebrate completing part two, but I decided that when I finished writing the third and last part of my memoir I’d take myself to a raw food spa in Malaysia. I let myself have this dream, partly because finishing my memoir felt so far away and seemed like it might never happen.
On August 1, I sent my manuscript to my writing coach and editor, Brooke Warner, and knew it was time to celebrate. However, for a number of personal reasons, a trip to Malaysia doesn’t make sense right now. Still, I wanted to mark the occasion in a way that felt significant, but I had no idea what that might look like. When I spoke to Tracey about it, I resisted every idea that surfaced. I felt embarrassed celebrating myself. I felt self-indulgent and materialistic. Besides, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, especially as I anticipate future editing and publicity costs.
“It’s not about money,” Tracey said. “You can find meaningful ways to acknowledge this milestone that are within your budget.” She also gently nudged me out of scarcity consciousness by reminding me that money isn’t fixed. “You have more coming,” she said. “Trust your radar. Ask yourself, ‘How can I honor myself in light of this milestone?’”
I took her question into my meditation practice. The first image that materialized in my mind’s eye was flowers. So I did something I’ve never done before: I had flowers delivered to my home from me. I also bought myself a card that said, “Congratulations,” and wrote myself a love letter in my journal. I took a day off work and poked around my favorite shops—and discovered a few new ones. I bought myself an Indian shawl, lavender with gold threads, to use as an altar cloth, where I meditate and write in my journal. And I’m in the process of having three thin bands of gold—yellow, white, and rose—made to wear as stacking rings, symbols for body, mind, and spirit, the three sections of my book. I hope these rings will remind me of my commitment to love and honor my relationship with my body, mind, and spirit. I hope looking at them will call to mind the fine work I’ve done, my perseverance, dedication to craft, and my love for writing—and life. This feels self-honoring. This brings me joy, as well as moments of pause, which transport me back to the present moment, where life unfolds. I am here. Now. Filled with gratitude.
How do you celebrate your writing accomplishments? I’d love to hear from you.
Slow down. Make time in your busy life to turn inward for answers. You are not a headless chicken; you are a reservoir of wisdom. Dip into your own well. Take time each day to make a meaningful connection with yourself first, and then with others.
Be where you are. Learn how to be more present in your life. Trust that you have everything you need and that things are unfolding perfectly in their own time. Replace desperate striving with deliberate actions that are in alignment with your values. Know what you value.
Have fun. Do things because you enjoy doing them. Sure, there are things you have to do. But much of what you think you “have to” do may only be “have-to” in your own mind. Distinguish between the two.
Decide what stories you’re going to believe. Most of us, without realizing it, tell ourselves a heap of lies. A common one is I’m not good enough. This is ridiculous. We’re all doing the best we can with the gifts we’ve been given. I came upon this quote recently: “As you grow, you will see that the idea of needing to earn worth and value is as irrelevant as needing to earn the air you breathe.” I don’t remember where I read this. I think my spiritual psychology teachers, Ron and Mary Hulnick, may have said it.
Another lie people get suckered into believing is that they’ll be happy when xyz happens. Fill in the blank. But when that dreamed-of thing or event happens, your impossible-to-please ego reaches for another goal to obsess over, keeping happiness just out of reach. Instead of falling into this trap, try choosing happiness—for no reason. If that’s too challenging, try adding some altitude to your attitude. The best way to do this is to look around and be grateful for what’s good. Count your blessings. Ask yourself what you might you do differently if your mind wasn’t hoodwinked into believing its own crippling narratives. Learn to see sparks of light in dark storms.
Let go of your ego. Let it drift up into thin air; refuse to be ruled by it. As the needs of your ego dissipate you’ll be free to let go of other things as well: the need to be or look a certain way; your concerns about what others think of you; stuff you no longer need that’s cluttering your home; habits and behaviors that drag you down; inner critics who spew crap into your ear that you adopt as your defining truth. Refuse to believe criticisms such as, No one will care what I have to say, or What right do I have to express myself? Pull the covers off inner chatter that hisses, Don’t be a show off. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t make waves. Hide.
Loosen your grasp on worry, which, according to the film Thanks for Sharing, is nothing but “a mediation on shit.” You can do better. Return to the present moment. Worrying about the future will not help you prepare for it. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re worrying about the future. Stop. Come back to this moment. Right here. Right now.
Remember to put first things first. Sometimes when I go on social media sites, I can’t believe the noise. And I feel like I don’t want to contribute to the racket—to the endless cyber chatter. But then I realize I feel that way because I’m attempting to participate in a larger conversation before I’ve checked in with myself. This brings me back to where I began: slow down and check in with yourself. Listening to your inner wisdom is the best preparation I know for surfing life’s waves and weathering its storms. Balance, like so many other aspects that affect our happiness, comes from within.
How do you find happiness as a writer? And as a human being? I’d love to hear from you. Please share your wisdom.
A couple weeks ago I watched daily video interviews with coaches, speakers, therapists, and social media gurus on a free online summit called “Write Because it Matters,” hosted by Dawn Montefusco.
Some of what I saw inspired me. It was great to see fellow coaches getting themselves out there and sharing their messages. It gave me ideas about building my business and platform, and inspired me to roll up my sleeves and dig into the second-to-last chapter of my memoir, which I’d been avoiding.
But there was also information and conversation that didn’t resonate with me, such as Montefusco’s conviction that “Books ‘should’ be written in ninety days.” I don’t agree with this at all. Some stories take time. For example, I had to work intermittently on my memoir, RAW: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness, when five family members died over three years. The events I lived through became part of my story. That never would have happened if I’d hammered out a draft in ninety days.
I’ve been a writing teacher and coach for over a decade so I understand the importance of giving the unconscious mind free reign while composing. I also appreciate the power of deadlines, but there are many ways to write a book. Our task as creative beings and writers is to get out of our own way, and to allow what wants to come through us to do so—in whatever ways it needs to come. We are not always in control of that process. My students, clients, and I have grown when we’ve surrendered our agendas, our egos, and our ambition to our deeper wisdom. This is the intelligence we trust not only to guide what we write, but also how we write. Sometimes slowing down—in writing and in life—is what’s needed.
Many of my clients are successful professionals—attorneys, therapists, and entrepreneurs—with demanding workloads. And families. While some people have the time, space, and desire to crank out a book, others don’t. This doesn’t mean they’re doing it wrong, or that they “should” be working differently. The only magic formula for writing books—if there is one—is for each writer to know herself well enough to know what works for her.
And this is the key to navigating the chaos of the experts. Know that you are the expert of your work and of your process. In my writing classes, when a student’s work is being discussed, I tell that writer to sit back, take a breath, and jot down who is saying what about their work. I ask them to record rather than respond to what’s being said, and to listen. Later, in the privacy of their workspace, they can evaluate the comments, taking into consideration who said what. I ask them to consider what feels true for them on a visceral level. It’s their story. There’s no right or wrong answer. The trick is to slow down, to get quiet enough to hear your own voice—and trust it!
This process requires a clear intention and conscious effort, especially in a world bombarded with newsletters, emails, ads, texts, social media, conferences, classes, and more. I don’t know about you, but the busier, faster, and louder the world becomes out there, the greater my need for peace, clarity, and calm in here.
Any time you hear an expert wield the “should” word, pause. Ask yourself, “Is this true? Does this feel authentic? Is this a thought I want to invest my belief dollars in?” We are all in choice about our beliefs, whether we’re conscious of that or not. Part of our work as creative writers is to turn inward for truth. It’s fine to enlist the help of teachers and guides, but choose them wisely. Not everyone will uplift and inspire you, though you may still learn from them. If you treat these interactions the same way my students handle critiques, you’ll know on a gut level what’s useful and what’s not—and you won’t give away your power, especially when you remember that no one is the architect of your story, and your life, but you.
One guest I watched on the “Write Because it Matters” Summit was Kevin Knebl, a speaker, author, and coach who procrastinated delivering a first book to McGraw-Hill, and ended up writing it sequestered in a hotel room over forty-eight hours. That’s one way to meet a deadline, but not the one I’d choose. The best part of his interview, aside from his down-to-earth effervescence, was this comment: “Small activities repeated over time produce massive results.” Writers, take the time you need. Beware of rushing, which some people do to avoid feeling. Most agents will tell you their best advise is “Don’t rush.” Your work needs to stand out and be polished. Give it the care it deserves. Give yourself the care you deserve. Don’t be in a hurry. I’m not suggesting you drag your feet and throw yourself a procrastination pity party—I’m asking you to respect your process.
In writing and in life, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. The key is to take what you like—what resonates, what feels true, and what uplifts you—and leave the rest. This requires discrimination, focus, self-awareness, and a willingness to be your own expert.
I attended my first AWP conference and book fair this year, where I feasted on literary and writing business delicacies, along with over 12,000 other attendees. After reviewing over 550 offerings, I selected fourteen panels, which I attended over three days. It was a treat to see SWP Publisher Brooke Warner speak on the panel: “A New Girl’s Network: Lessons From The Movement of Equal Voice,” and SWP editor and Grammergency blogger Annie Tucker, who spoke on the panel, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting A Redline.”
There were many other inspiring and instructive panels, but the very first one I attended—“Book Launch Confidential: Marketing Made Smarter, Not Harder”—covered important topics I’d like to share here. What follows was gleaned from my notes on this session and represent the ideas of panelists Lynne Griffin, Michelle Toth, Eve Bridburg, and Michael Blanding, members of GrubStreet’s Book Launch Lab, a team of writing professionals in Boston, dedicated to bringing community and joy (yep, joy!) to the business of writing.
This process begins with what the Launch Lab refers to as the “Logic Model.” They encourage writers with books coming out to create a marketing plan unique to themselves and their goals, both personally and professionally. In order to do this, they suggest writers get clear about why they write by drafting a focused, intentional mission statement. Questions to help you with this process are: What do you want to accomplish with your writing? Why are you producing books? What do you want to offer, and to whom?
After you’ve clarified why you write, the Launch Lab team asks you to define success for yourself and your writing career. Success doesn’t come in one-size-fits-all. What might success look like if you dispensed with somebody else’s vision of it, which you may have bought into without realizing? Define success on your own terms; honor your authentic self. To do this, explore these questions: How do I want to spend my time? What activities enrich my life? Take an energy inventory. Ask yourself which activities give you energy and which ones deplete you. Also, ask yourself how you will know if you are successful. Define specific goals for your book. Success can be measured in qualitative terms, which are emotional, and may show up as enjoyment, connections, recognition, and learning. It can also be measured in quantitative terms, which bring tangible results, such as books sales, columns, future book deals, job opportunities, reviews, and distribution.
After you’ve explored your mission and defined success, you’re ready to begin your book launch campaign. To start this process, make an honest self-assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. What activities align with your mission statement? Which ones are congruent with your definition of success? Which tasks do you enjoy? If you hate blogging, don’t do it. If you love Twitter, tweet away. If public speaking tickles your fancy, book as many gigs as possible. If teaching brings you alive, do that. Don’t try to do it all—because you can’t. It’s impossible. Pick and choose what’s consistent with your values, dreams, and goals. Know yourself. Just as we can’t be all things to all people in our lives, we can’t follow every expert’s advice about how to promote our books. This is what it means to work smarter, not harder.
In a world where many of us function at a frantic pace, it makes sense to slow down and proceed with self-awareness and intention. It’s easy, as writers forced to wear many hats, to lose sight of what’s important. We are writers first. According to the GrubStreet gang, creative writing matters because it “explores and documents the human condition and creates meaning in the lives of those who practice it. The act of writing can change both ourselves and the world.” This is the promise. Maybe this is why over 12,000 people showed up at AWP’s 2016 conference. The fact that over 550 offerings were presented to attendees speaks to the busyness of our world. Clarity and simplicity, in the midst of all this, is ours for the taking. It’s up to us to back away, turn within, know what’s true, and plan our book launch campaign from a place of self-knowledge, confidence, and connection.
How do you work smarter not harder? Or have you been trekking the tedious path? I’d love to hear book launch stories of all kinds. Was your launch joyful? Gut-wrenching? Are you planning a launch? What are you anticipating or dreading? Please share your wisdom.
Spring is in the air and I’m a clutter-busting goddess, brilliant at cleaning out my closet and dresser drawers. When I add something new to my wardrobe, I get rid of something old. Marie Kondo would marvel at my ability to clear space, not only in the bedroom, but in the kitchen and living areas as well. Simplicity, clarity, serenity—and inspiration—I want them all!
I am much more reticent, however, when it comes to throwing away paper, especially old calendars, diaries, journals, letters, cards, memorabilia, photographs, and newspaper clippings.
I’m in charge of our family archives, which I keep in cabinets in my garage. These files are brimming with stories, mine as well as my ancestors’, going back a hundred years. I’ve got my share of yellowed papers and crumbling newspaper articles. I’ve got eighty-four love letters written between my maternal grandparents, photos of my mom crowned Mrs. Long Island 1965, at New York’s World Fair, wedding and death certificates, expired passports, daguerreotype photographs, and much, much more. My collection might smell musty and appear to others to be junk, but I wouldn’t—and can’t—part with any of it.
A critical part of my archives consists of my own calendars and journals. I’ve been keeping calendars since1973. I was thirteen that year, and intent on keeping track of my world. I started with a small, hallmark monthly pocket calendar I carried in my purse. I wrote things like, “choir rehearsal,” “dance concert,” “sleepover Jenny’s,” “Shop with Grandma Mimi,” and “break up with Eddie,” which I wrote one evening after I’d done it. I wrote in pencil so that when plans changed, I could easily erase my entry, and so that each small box that represented my day contained an accurate record of what I’d done. As I grew older, my calendars changed. They expanded into weekly calendars, and then shrank down to wall calendars, displaying dancers from Alvin Alley and Pilobolus, as well as prints by Ansel Adams, Vincent Van Gogh, and Georgia O’Keefe. They expanded again into weekly calendars with inspirational quotes, and eventually made their way onto my computer. The size or form of the calendar didn’t matter. One thing stayed the same: my calendars were mini, at-a-glance journals of my life.
I began journal writing in 1979, on the brink of adulthood. My early journals are filled with flowery language, way too many adjectives and adverbs, and the voice of an insecure though earnest young woman trying to impress. I cringe when I read those diaries today. Even so, my heart is filled with love for that girl, and profound gratitude for the gift she left me in the form of her writing. She left me my life—as it was—as I could never have remembered it. My old writing teacher, Jack Grapes, used to say, “God is in the details,” and these old relics are holy, insomuch as they capture the details of seminal times and places in my life.
My calendars and journals have been invaluable tools to me in the writing of my memoir. They’ve helped me keep track of time; my calendars tell me when important incidents occurred and my journals provide details about what went on, who said what, and how I felt.
I’ve had this urge to scribble for as long as I can remember. My grandmother carried a bulging, rubber-banded notebook in her purse. She referred to it as her brains. “Wait,” she’d say digging into her huge pocketbook, “I need to consult my brains.” I may have written in my journal in order to prove something—getting something “in writing” meant it was official or legitimate. It meant you had proof. For years, I needed validation of all kinds. I also needed a way to figure things out. A place where I could hear myself think, where I could listen, where my thoughts mattered. I needed to meet, discover, and know myself. This is how and why journal writing took root in my life. It became an intellectual and spiritual practice—and has kept me honest as a writer.
There have been many difficult weeks when I couldn’t work on my memoir, when I’d scribble in my journal instead, only to discover months later that what I’d written in my journal belonged in my memoir, though I couldn’t see it at the time. I never understood when I was writing in my journal and judging it as crap how important those entries would become later on. I wrote because I had to. Writing was, and still is, my way of processing life, my way of understanding who I am and why I’m here.
If you’re reading this and thinking it’s a shame you haven’t been keeping your calendars and journals, fret not. It’s never too late to begin these practices, both of which support creative writing.
It’s also not too late to cultivate your own archives. Organize primary source materials. Create a filing system that works. Know what you’ve got in your collection, and know how to easily find it.
And if you have been doing this for decades, like me, or whether you’re interested in getting started, tell me about it. Do you have archives? How are they organized? How do you use primary source materials with your writing? Please share your practices and wisdom!
Huge numbers of people show at jobs every day that they’re less than thrilled to be working. Some of us may be in that camp. Some not. But most creative writers, regardless of other jobs they have or work they do, are lucky to engage in work they love. Writing is a passion. We may not always love what we do, but writing is something we have to do. The late Scott Dinsmore, creator of Live Your Legend, asked, “What’s the work you cannot not do?” What’s the work that even when you’re not doing it you think you should be? What’s the work that when you put it off it keeps nudging you? What’s the work that really matters to you? Most writers would respond to these questions with a single word: “writing!”
So we’re doing what we love, which is a big first step toward living your dreams, and yet the writing life is rough. There’s much we can’t control. Recently, a student emailed me this quote on persistence by novelist Denise Pattiz Bogard:
“I’ve been getting lots of congrats on my book. And yes, I am proud of The Middle Step. But I believe I’m most proud of my persistence. Since age 20 I’ve dreamed of being a novelist. In my 40s I went back to school and got a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I wrote a novel, After Elise, obtained an agent, got some interest but no contract offer. The book went into the desk drawer and I wrote another book, got a new agent, rewrote the book, rewrote the book, rewrote the book. It had four titles, two agents, multiple passes. The main character had three names. New characters appeared in subsequent drafts. Middle chapters were dropped or added. I never gave up. And that’s what I’m most proud of. So now I can tell all my writer friends and writer students: believe in your work, be willing to go back to it and improve, and don’t give up on your dreams.”
This was Dinsmore’s message too. Not only shouldn’t you give up on your dreams, the world needs people actively making their dreams come true. Imagine what the world might look and feel like if the majority of people loved their work? Think how that would change the overall energy of people everywhere. Dinsmore said it would be revolutionary. And the revolution has begun! More and more people are refusing to settle for autopilot lives and are instead seeking authenticity. There are clear-cut ways to go about living a unique and meaningful life. Proven techniques, which improve the quality of your life and your writing. Here are several that I’ve experimented with myself:
Become a Self-Expert. Know yourself. What do you value? Make a list. Focus on what’s most important to you in life. Then make sure you’re living your values, acting in accordance with what matters to you. Self-expression and creativity are among my top values, so when a few days go by and I’m not engaged in creative work, like writing, I know there’s room for course correction, and I do whatever’s necessary to get back on track.
Do The Impossible. We tend to focus on our limitations instead of possibilities. I once applied for a residency at Scripps College, thinking there wasn’t any way I’d get it. I told myself I was writing the application for myself. I asked myself, If I could do anything I wanted to do here, what would it be? I let myself dream, making things up as I went along. I didn’t think my plan was really possible, but I acted as if it was. I felt like I was pretending—again, making things up—and I kept asking myself, If this was possible, what would I do? My willingness to lean into the possibility actually created it—I got the residency!
Take Leaps of Faith. This is exactly what I did while I crafted my residency proposal. When I received the call telling me my proposal had been selected, I thought, Holy shit, now I actually have to do this, which required an even bigger leap of faith. It was one thing to craft a dream on paper, and another to execute it. Great things happen when we step to the edge of our comfort zone and jump. The need for perfection prevents us from doing this; it shrinks our world. Let me just get in there and playin this mess is a more helpful thought than I have to do this really well. And it makes sense that when we push our boundaries—in life and with our writing—we enlarge our world.
Surround Yourself with People Who Are Doing What You Want To Do. It’s a huge advantage to be around people who support and believe in you. But the next step is seeking out people who are doing what you aspire to do. Writers can’t afford to be loners. Those days are long gone. Reach out. Cultivate friendships with birds that sport the color feathers you’d like to don. Learn from them. Share your knowledge. Help each other grow.
Give Yourself an Automatic “A” in Life. You’re beyond good enough. You’ve received the coveted “A.” Now relax. You don’t need to prove anything to anybody, not even to yourself. When you’re called to write, it’s your Soul talking. You can’t go wrong saying “yes” to your Soul. Say it. Again and again. Every day. Every hour if you must. Just keep saying “yes.” Fling yourself into what you love. This is your path, your lesson, and your sacred opportunity. It’s also what makes dreams come true.
Have you experimented with any of these strategies or others? What’s helped you to stay focused and move forward in the direction of your dreams? I’d love to hear from you.
1. The Thing Itself. As an artist and writer I strive to capture or communicate meaningful aspects of my life experience. Sometimes I do this well, and sometimes I fall short of my mark. But I try—and try again—knowing it’s a worthy endeavor. It helps when I remember that life is the thing itself. Since my writing attempts to pay homage to life, it makes sense to pay close attention to life. I do this by trying, as much as possible, to savor the moment, and to remind myself that life is more precious than writing. This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to get sucked into tormented writer drama. I do this when I worry I’m not doing enough or that what I’m doing isn’t good enough. Or that I’m not good enough. What a sorry, stale—and false!—tale this is.
2. If It’s Not Good, Why Keep It? This question applies to the physical things around me, such as unwanted gifts and clutter in my closet, but its deeper meaning has to do with my attitude, which stems from my thinking. Habits are hard to break, especially habits of the mind, many of which we’re unaware of. Habits of mind are slippery because we often unconsciously identify with our thoughts. We think they’re real. We think they represent an objective truth when they’re just ideas. Stories. This is okay when the tales are constructive and positive, but when they take a sharp turn toward darkness, when we make up horror stories and fill our minds with worry, we sabotage ourselves and our writing. This is a pattern I’m ready to release this year.
3. Take Refuge in the Sangha. Sangha is a Sanskrit word that means “association,” “assembly,” “company,” or “community.” Buddhists use this word to refer to their monastic community of ordained monks and nuns. It helps when I know I’m not alone, when I reach out to family, friends, and writers in my various communities. When I allow myself to receive and give support. It’s harder for me to receive assistance than to give it, so I have to nudge myself to reach out and receive what is offered. Doing so, however, is what keeps us nourished and inspired.
4. What You Do Is Not Who You Are. For years, I trained as a dancer and believed that’s who and what I was: a dancer. Then I had a back injury and had to stop dancing. My life felt as if it had been derailed. If I’m not a dancer, who am I? I wondered. A part of me felt like I no longer existed—except that I did! In time I discovered that I was a writer, and I clung to that identity as fervently as I had to being a dancer. When my writing career didn’t take off the way I’d imagined it would, I realized something important: what I do is not who I am. I am much larger than that. And so are you!
5. Artistic Maturity. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that these past years have brought challenges. The good news is that my difficulties have summoned me into spiritual adulthood. I’ve been forced to grow up! I’m coming into my own as a mature woman. And I believe I’m also coming into my own as a mature writer, because I no longer need other people to validate my work, or tell me how great I am. I write because of what writing gives me, because of the ways in which it feeds me. I share my work with an open heart, knowing it will speak to some people and not others. I believe in myself and in my work. I’m prepared to do what it takes to usher my work into the world, and help it along on its path the way a parent sends a child off to college. I trust my work to find its tribe. I trust this process. I am learning to do my best and—this is the hard, but essential part—let go!
6. Stay Curious and Honor Your Values. Consider asking yourself questions, such as “Who do I want to be?” “How Do I want to show up?” “What fills my tank?” and “How can I be of service?” A service-oriented focus keeps me on track whether I’m writing, teaching, coaching, or going about the everyday business of my life. This perspective helps me remember that I’m not the center of the universe; I’m a speck—a divine one, but one of countless infinitesimal dots making up a complex, sacred, and exquisite mosaic!
What tips do you have for a happy new year? I’d love to hear them. Please share.
If you haven’t already done so, treat yourself to this gift: Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It’s full of wisdom and inspiration for writers and anyone living—or wanting to live—a creative life. The book champions creative living of all kinds, and is divided into six parts: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity.
Gilbert’s writing sparkles, soothes, and is guided by great stories. Her prose resonates deeply. But one chapter in particular, “Fear in High Heels,” hit me in the gut with its clarity and truth. I shared excerpts from this chapter with my students, and as I read to them, looks of recognition and awe illuminated their faces. I found myself wanting to share Gilbert’s words with all of the brilliant women in my life. I wanted to echo her message that contrary to the subtle and insidious teachings of our culture, women don’t have to be perfect to be loved or successful or worthy of their dreams. Just being here makes us worthy.
“Perfection is unachievable,” Gilbert says, and then quotes writer Rebecca Solnit, who adds, “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because perfection is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”
But Gilbert takes this thought a step further. “The Most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as a virtue.” A few lines later, she explains, “[People] wear their perfectionism like a badge of honor, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards.” And then she comes in for the kill: “Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I’m not good enough and I will never be good enough.’”
I never heard this stated so boldly, yet eloquently. Gilbert yanks the covers off perfectionism, and makes me want to kick off my shoes, dance around my living room, and then head for my study to prance all over the page. She makes a case for tinkering, for not taking yourself so seriously. She speaks of creating for the sheer joy of it.
Gilbert also says that perfectionism afflicts women more than men, pointing to “every single message society has ever sent us!” Where a man might go after a job he feels 41 percent qualified for, women tend to say things like, “I am 99.8 percent qualified for this task, but until I master that last smidgen of ability, I will hold myself back, just to be on the safe side.”
And she doesn’t stop there.
“We women,” she urges, “must break this habit in ourselves—and we are the only ones who can break it. We must understand that the drive for perfection is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it. (There are people out there who still consider Beethoven’s symphonies a little bit too, you know, loud.) At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is—if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart. Which is the entire point. Or should be.”
A glad and determined heart? Thank you, Elizabeth Gilbert! This is the point! How many of us work joyfully with a glad and determined heart? How many of us live this way? How many of us even believe this is possible? Gilbert suggests it’s not only possible, but inevitable, when we open up to the “Big Magic” that surrounds each and every one of us!
Do yourself a favor: read this book. Nourish yourself. Live the fullest expression of your creative life—now!
And please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences regarding perfectionism. It’s up to us to lay this demon down. It’s up to us to allow ourselves to be exactly where we are, as humans, creators, and artists ready to live radiant, expressive, and imperfect (real) lives!