On a mission (statement)

Recently I met with a career coach. My intention was to see how my (rather unorthodox) skills and experience might translate into the “real” world and a “real” job. Well, you know that saying, “Physician, heal thyself”? My session with her was a clear example of how we can be blind to our own needs even while helping others.

Although she used different terminology and visual examples, the ways she suggested I figure out what I wanted to do when I grow up was practically the same as what I have my clients do with journaling techniques. In one word: visualization.

After our session I went home and go out my journal and wrote what was, in Journal to the Self parlance, a Perspective. That is, I wrote about my ideal day, my ideal life — I visualized myself already living the life I wanted. When you give yourself permission to imagine in this way, you allow for things not probable, but possible.

First, after you have acknowledged the things about your current life and career that are not what you want, you can dream about how those things would look different. You can ignore the realities of your present life and the supposed inevitabilities of future bills and car break downs and frozen pipes, and, if one is of an artistic bent like me, the “starving artist” syndrome must also be pushed aside.

This wasn’t a difficult exercise for me; I know exactly what my ideal life looks like. On paper I’m great at ignoring “realities” and “probabilities.” (I say “on paper” because in my real life, the one in which I am married to an idealist dreamer-type, I have to be the realist, you know the one who considers that we might actually need plates to eat off when we go camping or that moving across the country requires careful planning and lots of boxes, not just a truck in which to throw all your belongings in a big pile… )

Yup, on paper and in my head my perfect life trips along happily without toothaches or empty oil tanks or kids home from school due to snow for the fourth time in two weeks, bored and fighting and apathetic of my looming deadlines.

And it was on this paper that it became clear the “real” job I’ve been pursuing isn’t what I really want, but rather a desperate attempt to squeeze myself into a box, the only box I could see as a potential paycheck-producing one. On paper, the grim realization dawned that my most passion-driven, authentic life has no (immediate) guaranteed financial advantage. Crap.

However, one other thing rang out loud and clear as my words flowed across the paper: I had a mission.

Now, I thought I already had established this a long time ago. I knew that I wanted to help others find their authentic life through writing (see, it says that in the header of this blog). What I didn’t realize was that I was being too vague and that I hadn’t yet established a niche or focused in on what I know best.

I have presented journaling and expressive writing workshops and talks to business women, teen moms, tween girls, teachers, guidance counselors, stressed people, spiritual-seekers, and aspiring writers. I have written thousands upon thousands of words for my local paper about my city’s people, events, and businesses. But my personal life, my experiences, my graduate research, and above all, my own wounds all point to my greatest strength and deepest passion: Finding Voice through Writing.

I knew this but yet I have skirted around it, creating workshops of a more general nature, pursuing work that I thought I “should,” and landing myself a freelance job writing about things I care about but aren’t my expertise or passion, and for which I do a lot of brain-wearying head-writing instead of my beloved heart-writing.

The upshot of all this is, while I still don’t know my next exact step(s), I know I must keep writing, researching, and facilitating. And now I can focus — focus on the exact path I want to be on. When an opportunity arises I can ask myself if it fits my personal mission and as time and finances allow I will be able to let those things go which don’t.

And as coaches and inspirational speakers love to tell us, it is when, and only when, we focus on what we are called to do — which is usually, painfully where our own deepest wounds lie — that the people who need us and the money will find us.

So, here, dear readers, is my personal mission (most likely to get tweaked as time goes on):

To help the silenced heal their voice through story, creating new narratives to live by.

Now to stay open to the opportunities wherein I can be the most helpful and find the most meaning and fulfillment… and money; can’t ignore that very basic necessity of life!

For more information on writing mission statements, please read my Examiner article.

Writing Practice: The roles my journal plays

(I originally wrote this post, with the title, “Writing Practice: How I learned to use my words,” for the Transformative Language Arts blog’s series highlighting TLA practices.)

journal-with-lockWriting is my life. Day in, day out, I am writing—four weekly columns, magazine articles, and my journal—or I am helping others get their own words down. And I am living this life today because I began practicing at twelve years old.

At twelve I started recording my life in a turquoise diary with a lock. At 22, I became addicted to writing stream-of-consciousness style thanks to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages. At 32, I began passing onto others through workshops the incredible benefits of writing I had experienced. At 42, I am a published writer.

And it was in my journal that I set a path for this future. I envisioned a life filled with words and using words I laid a road in that direction.

I remember sitting in my cubicle at the bank where I was a Trust Account Assistant or scribbling in my journal at the coffee shop during my lunch break imagining the day I’d be sitting at my own desk, writing in front of a big sunny window. I didn’t know what I’d be writing; I just knew my fingers and my heart ached to churn out words, not crunch numbers.

In my twenties, I tapped out the beginnings of an historical fiction novel and a mind-numbing autobiography on a dinosaur of a word-processor whose sheer size overwhelmed my small antique desk. Meanwhile, each morning I was turning out pages upon pages of handwritten drivel.

Back then, if anyone asked, I would say I was a writer. To the inevitable next question of “Oh, what?,” I’d respond sheepishly, “Mostly just a journal right now.”

What I didn’t realize then, as I penned on its pages my fears, excitements, dreams, it wasn’t just a journal, it was a journey. A journey towards my future.

Or as Natalie Goldberg would say, I was practicing. Writing practice. I was learning to write—and, more importantly, to become myself. Having no audience but myself, I was learning to write and be from a place of intuition and inner truth.

Like meditation, prayer, yoga, running, etc., it was a practice of self-care that helped calm, heal, and energize, so that with greater confidence and understanding I might face the world knowing who I am and what I wanted for myself. By practicing to see and accept my own foibles and paradoxes, I was learning to interact with others with more empathy and emotional maturity. I was learning the need for safe and sacred space in which to write one’s own truth. I was learning how to help others write theirs.

Checking in with myself on an almost daily basis—How am I feeling? What do I want to be doing? What could that dream have meant?—I was also learning to be observant. Then, by honing the skill of observing the personal, the minutiae of my life, my experiences, my feelings, and weaving them into a more universal story, I was learning to become a better public writer.

Today, whether it’s to write an article, help a client get writing, navigate the hills and valleys of everyday life, or envision my next future dream, I always feel more capable when I have practiced and processed my life and emotions through the free-flowing, free-of-judgment words of my journal.

***

Here are a few of the specific roles my journal practices:

Best Friend. It is always there to lend an ear to my concerns and hopes regardless of whether I require its services at 6AM before the kids get up looking for breakfast and a lost sock, at 10:30PM when I need to process the day before I call it a night, or at 3AM after waking from a bad dream.

Therapist. More than even a best friend could, my journal helps me through difficult situations—helping me be more self-aware and accepting. I ask myself hard questions about how I’m feeling, why I might be reacting a certain way; the paradoxes, the biases, the conflicting emotions. I try to always be truthful with myself and accept the answers that flow onto the page. I dig deep and unpeel the onion that is the emotional body: the memories, the triggers, the yearnings.

Personal Secretary. Being self-employed and working from home I am constantly juggling my schedule and brain space. When the inside of my head resembles the starting line of a marathon, my journal helps me sort through it all, to see what needs to split from the pack and take the lead, and what needs to sit it out for a while.

Creative Partner. When I was writing my memoir and thesis during graduate school, many essays and vignettes began in my journal, where, without the pressure of “perfection,” the words (and memories) would start to flow. When I couldn’t quite see the connection between some concepts I would take them to my journal, write through my confusion, ask myself questions until it clicked. Or, when faced with a particularly difficult memory, I would write it out first, let the tears, anger, hurt flow into the safe pages of my journal before I wrote the more emotionally-controlled piece for school. These days I use the journal to generate ideas for new workshops or consider themes and threads for my articles and blog posts.

A Path to Publication, part 12: When the silence descends

manda4Silence. My yearning for it is as strong as my need for sleep. At least eight hours of sleep and almost as much silence. Otherwise, don’t expect too much from me.

Today I have silence. For an entire day. It’s a different kind of silence than I experience weekly once the kids are off to school and I sit in my office to write my articles. It’s a silence where I get to think and write what I need to. For me.

The last time I wrote a post here, it was high summer and my children were away visiting family. I lived in daily, sometimes empty, silence for many weeks. It was wondrous. It was enlightening. Rejuvenating. Inspiring.

During that time I worked on my memoir manuscript to send it off to an agent who had requested it (see previous posts). Other than these blog posts and those in my journal, I didn’t write copiously during that time, I’d even taken some time off from my weekly newspaper columns. All my creative energy was thrown into editing, which I thoroughly enjoy.

But since that time, when I hit send and watched (in my mind) the .pdf snapshot of my life shooting through cyberspace to an office, and hopefully appreciative agent in New York City, a new silence has descended.

In August my children returned, and I reveled in their energy, yes, even in their noise. For a while. When they went back to school, I, thankfully, once again fell deeply into the softness of a quiet house, the calmness of  solitude, and into the love of writing. And I was writing almost every day, producing 3,000 words a week for my columns, and who knows how many more scribbled in my journal.

But I wasn’t writing what I wanted to write. Besides in my journal where I anguished and cried and pep-rallied my way through a difficult personal situation, I began to feel my voice was silenced. Of course, my writing voice came through in every article I wrote; every turn of phrase, every angle, every theme was mine and a reflection of my authentic self, but it wasn’t quite right. Writing had become my job. I was doing it for a paycheck. Deadlines were almost daily, interviews frequent, and topic brainstorming endless. I had lost the joy. It felt as if I was talking a lot without saying a word.

The busy-ness of my freelance life took over from everything else. This blog became silent, and the urge to write after my deadlines were met was gone.

It has been almost five months since I sent off my manuscript, and I didn’t hear a word — silence. And that’s OK (well, it’s not exactly OK, at least a “no, thank you” note would have nice). It’s mostly OK because I feel freed up to move on. And move on not necessarily with that piece of work. It called me over the summer and I responded with a passion that wouldn’t let me quit despite the emotional chaos of those few weeks (in fact, it probably helped get me through it), and now I feel satiated for a while.

It’s like last year when I became obsessed with making mandalas. manda1I knew I needed to do something meditative to pull me and my mind from my ever-open laptop. Over a period of three months I made over 100 mandalas, one or two a day, and I loved every second of it.

Then I stopped. Just stopped. I was done. And that was OK.

I’ve been a singer since childhood — solos, small groups, choirs, voice lessons — and I continued until my first child was born. After that my singing activity was sporadic at best. And that was OK.

I was an avid artist from my senior year of high school through college and a little beyond. Then I started writing and it took over my imagination and my life. And that was OK, too. Very OK.

I always knew I would get back to singing (I have) and to my art (more than mandalas) which I will when the time is right. I feel similarly about my book right now. Like the mandalas, which served a valuable purpose when I needed them, working on my book was necessary at that time. I don’t feel the drive for now, and that too is OK.

What worries me — as in, it is causing me discontentment with my good fortune of having such stable freelance work — is that something is beginning to bubble in my depths. Something else needs to be written. I’m not sure what it is, I get only a vague glimmer of it once in a while. I try to get it to focus in my mind, but it won’t.

I also re-experience the joy of writing once in a while when I decide to write one of my columns free from the constraints of interviews and profiles and event promotions. It is when I write these pieces that I remember why I love to write, and it verifies that I have more to give, more to experience, more to say. That I need to free myself from the confines of freelance work. That I need my “talking” to say something more authentic and more — dare I say? — important.

Ideas and questions I discovered during graduate school and am learning in life right now need further exploration as only writing can do; things that need to be shared and offered to others to (hopefully) help them on their own journey. I need to do more but I can’t quite grab hold of what it is and how I might do it.

So, in the unexpected silence of today while my family is off playing in the snow, I ponder the silence of words not written, the silence that is caused when what one really wants and needs to say is not said.

But acknowledgement is a first step. Yes, I know I have more to say, but it might not quite be the right time to say it. But it will be. And so, that is OK.

A Path to Publication, part 11: Yeah, what IS your book about?

For the past week I have been frantically editing my manuscript, molding it word by sentence by paragraph into a shape that looks remotely like something the agent who requested it will like. Of course, that is an impossible task, because to what she will ultimately say yes or no, is as beyond my control as the weather. So, I just have to be happy with it. Ha.

One of the projects I set myself before I began editing, however, was to run my “story” through some tests: asking it questions and analyzing the answers, making sure we are on the same page.

The following questions to ask your story are from a presentation by author Jo Knowles at the most recent conference of the League of Vermont Writers.

1. What is the book about?

2. Beneath that, what is it really about?

3. What does your character want?

4. Beneath that, what does he/she want?

5. What is your character afraid of?

6. Beneath that, what is he/she really afraid of?

7. What’s your W.O.W? (with credit to author Holly Black)

Want: What does your character want?

Obstacle: What do they have to overcome to get it?

Win: How do they achieve their goal and change in the process?

And this question, which seems so obvious but stumped me, came from an agent during my pitch session:

8. What’s the take-away?

These questions came from agent Katherine Sands during her presentation:

9. Why would *you* buy your book?

10. What makes it intriguing? What’s the juicy premise?

So, put your story, your article, your essay, your memoir to the test. There are no wrong answers, just — hopefully — some clarity and focus.

To read snippets of my memoir, click here. I will be adding more as this journey progresses.

A Path to Publication, pt 10: Kicking open the creaking door

credit: Joanna Tebbs Young

credit: Joanna Tebbs Young

At this past Saturday’s conference of the League of Vermont Writers, keynoter David Dobbs encouraged us to kick open every door that creaks. This metaphor has been a repeating one in my life lately and I have been knocking on several.

What I didn’t expect was for some of these doors to not only creak, but, in one case,  swing wide open.

On the Friday before this conference I had a meeting at my favorite coffee shop with the editor of the paper for which I am a freelance columnist. I walked into the cafe with one column in full swing and one due to come off a summer sabbatical, and walked out with two brand new columns to add to my weekly roster which I hadn’t expected. My planning calendar just got busy.

Where would this leave my book, I wondered? I’m not great at multi-tasking (despite my claims to the contrary and the forced necessity as a mother at being so) and writing fourteen columns a month, plus the occasional cover story, while revising a book seems a scheduling nightmare. (And then there’s the up-my-alley, possible door-opening part-time job I applied for… but that’s another question mark for another day.)

Then came the conference where I pitched my book to three agents. At this point I will offer some advice. If you ever attend a “pitch fest,” one of these occasions where you are given the opportunity to pitch to your book in person to an agent, be prepared to:

1. Know your pitch inside out and upside down.

2. Throw the pitch out the window and be able to conversationally tell said agent about said idea without rambling or sounding staid.

I was prepared for only one of these scenarios (#1) and consequently didn’t come across as convincingly or elegantly as I had hoped when I was suddenly faced with the “Let’s just chat” scenario. However, I received good news and was asked by two of the three to send some follow-up material.

So, here I am on Monday morning facing one wide open door (with three deadlines right on the other side of it) and one slightly open one which for years has been nailed shut, and which I could put off for lack of time or–as is more probable–out of fear.

But that would be foolish. I don’t know what this creaking door will reveal, it could slam shut again, but I won’t know until I push at it a little further. I will push forward and get my follow-up materials ready to send off, even though the thought of doing so makes me feel slightly ill (you know that feeling of nakedness after you’ve sent off the resume/thesis/design/etc., that knowing you may have just set yourself up for rejection? That.)

Better to have knocked and found the wrong door, than never to have knocked at all.

(Next up: Some great questions to ask yourself when writing. What IS this book about?!)

A Path to Publication: part 9: When life gives you lemons and you have no sugar

Ah, the writing life. You hear it all the time: it’s damn hard. There are cartoons and quotes all over the place about problems with which writers are well acquainted: procrastination, self-doubt, imposter syndrome, the high of inspiration turning to the agony of reality, too little time, too much wine, doubting friends, know-it-all strangers, writer’s block, no money, the internet…

Last week my “problem” was procrastination — fear of something or other. But this week I was ready to go! Something had shifted mentally (or emotionally) and I was excited to start the next step. I turned on my computer and…

HARD DISK FAILING! BACK UP NOW! (There might even have been sirens going off. Might as well have.)

If you choose not to back up hard disk, you may LOSE EVERYTHING between now and your next start up!

So, to cut short a long, boring story (the main character of which is my knight in shining… er, whatever IT guys wear… a shining polo shirt?: my dear friend who happens to be Mr. Tech Himself) I am without a computer, and to cut and paste large swaths of text on a tablet in some inferior word-processing system, seemed like an invitation for large clumps of my hair to jump right out of my scalp because I’d be pulling them out anyway.

The first day the patient (the laptop) was on doctor (knight)-ordered best-rest it turned out fine. I had a pitch to prepare and never needing an excuse to write at the coffee shop, off I went with my always loyal, and never-warning! warning!-self-destructive notebook and pen to summon the gods of hookery (a.k.a. the art of creating a concise and catchy “elevator pitch” with which to hook an unsuspecting agent or editor.) (More on this later. I got some great tips from an Ad-Man, writerly friend of mine. He was in the business of hooking people into buying stuff they didn’t want a full 20 years after Don Draper was liquoring up his clients, so I don’t feel slimy taking his advice.)

However, day two came of not being able to do what I was now chomping at the bit to do (exactly because I couldn’t do it), and I had to face the fact that I was going to have to take a break (a break from doing nothing to do some more nothing). Can you say frustration? I can.

I don’t know what this all means. Maybe I’m meant to read some more from the pile of memoirs sitting on the table. Maybe I’m supposed to let the ideas percolate some more. Maybe I should just go shopping. All I know is I can’t move forward, not in a way I understand at this point, anyway. I just have to trust this book will “get born” when it’s good and ready.

Sometimes you just gotta stop. Sometimes there will be no lemonade unless you like it reeeeaaaal sour. Creativity cannot be forced. Book edits, on the other hand, can, and often are, unless your IT Knight tells you the quest must wait for another day while a new hard drive is on order.

Meanwhile, I have been working on my platform. So — shameless request coming up — if you feel so inclined, I have a goal on my Facebook page to get to 500 ‘likes’ by the time I pitch to two agents next weekend at a “Meet the Agents” event and writing conference. You can find me here: facebook.com/wisdomwithinink or just click ‘like’ over there to the right somewhere —> (or scroll down if you’re on your phone). Thank you!

A Path to Publication, part 8: When the Censors come a-knocking

image

You can invite them in for a moment, but then shoo them out saying: Thank You. Don’t let the door hit ya on the way out.

Today is not a good day as far as my book goes. Last week I finished one step of the editing process (re-reading and making notes) and could not seem to motivate myself to start the next step. I couldn’t even see straight enough to know what the next step actually was. I feel I’ve lost many hours of valuable work time that I can’t get back due to this crisis (as well as being a fabulous procrastinator, I’ve also excellent at blowing thing waaaaay out of proportion).

So, here I am on a Saturday morning of a holiday weekend in full-blown panic mode. It’s gorgeous outside, I have nothing on my schedule, there’s the farmer’s market I could be walking to and around, there’s a library bookstore a few towns over, there’s the dog to be walked. But here I am yelling at myself (silently but quite obnoxiously and bullyingly) that I SHOULD be working!

And that’s not all. You should hear the things my inner Censor is saying to me.

It’s too hard!
It’s a dumb idea!
No one will ever want to publish it!
You won’t get it done before your break (from my weekly columns) is up, then you’ll be screwed!
You’ll never get that pitch ready and memorized before July 19th (that’s when I am pitching to two agents at a “Meet the Agents” event.)
What are you? Crazy?! There’s no way they’ll like it!
You’ll be so terrible at pitching – they’ll reject you in the first 30 seconds.
Just forget the whole effin’ thing!
Who the hell are YOU?!

Nice, eh?

Well, Mr./Miss/Ms. Censor, I have a message for you:

Shut the F**K up! You’ve had your say and I politely listened, but now it is time for you to go back into your dark, slimy hole of negativity and fear and leave me alone!

It is now time — after I have walked the dog to the river, grabbed some locally-produced lunch at the farmer’s market, and purchased a stack of .25 books — to sit down and make a plan for the next steps of this process. I will work through them. And I will believe that, DESPITE my terror, my doubts, my lack of motivation, my supposed foolishness and arrogance that makes me think that I should/could put a book out into the world, that I CAN do this and that I have EVERY RIGHT to do so.

Yup, this isn’t so comfortable, living with a bully in your head that causes your stomach muscles to contract into tight, hard balls that continuously punch you in the gut from the inside, but I will go on knowing it is just FEAR with a bee in its bonnet. It can knock, maybe even come in for a visit, and just like with those door-to-door missionaries, you can listen politely to their tripe, then ask them to leave knowing you’ve got your own thing going on and that their beliefs have NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU.

Onward…