The Best Year of Your Writing Life

My friend Mariam—whom I’ve met only once in person but who feels like someone I’ve known since childhood—shared a social media post* last year on her birthday that began like this:

I’ve had the very best year of my life.

Reading that sentence then, as it does now, gave me chills.

She continued:

For brief moments, I got to peek behind the curtains of this thing I do called life and was invited to go deeper by throwing off the shackles of ideas, opinions, and preferences I may have about the way this thing goes.

It is beautiful and it will more beautiful and then it will be more beautiful and then it will be more beautiful. And, that’s all there is left for my living.

I’m going to live my year ahead in a personal way, in a BIG way, with the most kindness and love that I can possibly muster in every single moment.

All is well, all is well, all manner of things shall be well. This is my life. I love you.

Photo by Mark Strobl, "2011 04 10 Treedom XII watching Taunus in the spring" (CC BY 2.0)
Photo by Mark Strobl, “2011 04 10 Treedom XII watching Taunus in the spring” (CC BY 2.0)

For days, weeks, months afterward, I thought about Mariam and her words. I was lightened by the happiness I felt for her and intrigued by what seemed such a big change in her life. And I wondered: What would have to happen—or, more to the point, what would I have to do/think/change/be—to have the same experience?

As 2017 began, I made no grand resolutions, yet the idea of the best year of one’s life knocked quietly but firmly on every door of my inner space with an insistence I could not ignore. I’m still figuring out what exactly it means, but I do know two things for sure that I’m guessing are also true for many others:

  1. My writing life is inseparable from the rest of my life. When words are a part of my days, everything else is better; when they are missing, life feels incomplete. At the same time, personal growth supports and helps to prioritize creativity.
  2. Whatever changes I need to make are as much about what I think and how I react inside as about what anyone sees on the outside. This quest is not about public accomplishment. It is about lived experience.

So, thanks to Mariam, and after a couple of false starts, I’ve settled on a new combination of blog name and tagline that finally feels just right and provides focus for the next several months:

If not now, when?
Make this the best year of your writing life

[Note May 8, 2017: As you’ll see, the website name and tagline are back to something simpler, but the sentiment remains.]

To that end, I’ll be posting more frequently with resources, ideas, and my own experiences (such as what I’m learning about starting a small publishing company, the upcoming publication of Family Stories from the Attic, and a visit in a couple of weeks to the London Book Fair). I do hope you join in, comment, and share your own thoughts and journeys.

Like me, you may wonder if such lofty aspirations are a waste of time and energy. Who do we think we are, anyway? How can one reconcile a mindfulness approach of acceptance with a pressing desire for more?

Those are the kinds of questions I hope to untangle, but one response comes from Mariam’s most recent birthday message, twelve months after her words above. What did she post this year?

I totally killed it! I got SO personal & pushed myself into uncomfortable corners in the past year. I said no thank you, when I meant it, and I said yes thank you, even when it seemed irrational. I got it right, and I got it wrong. I told people to come closer, and I drew boundaries when circumstances weren’t for me.

I got better at taking care of myself. I got better at empowering others to do the same by not enabling or rescuing circumstances that are not my business.

My human game was upleveled big time by the end of this year. The challenge & the imperative to live in an authentic, happy, & peaceful way takes more courage, and the observable reality of being aligned with that is clearer than ever.

The year ahead I’m getting personal about my body, my human suit. I’m going on the journey for unimaginable health & adventure in my body. This is going to be so good.

This is indeed going to be good, dear readers and writers. If not now, when?

* Thank you to Mariam for permission to use her words here.

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(Your) Words Matter: If not now, when?

“How would you see yourself as being an architect of change in your own life? It might be at your dinner table, it might be out in the world, but that’s a core question to bring to the surface at this time in our country.” ~ Susan David

What follows is a bit of free-wheeling train of thought about reading, writing, and making sense of what to do when we don’t know where to start, with some links to posts and articles I’ve enjoyed in recent days.

Photo: Denise Krebs, 2012-259 A Writing Six-Word Story, (CC BY 2.0)

If not now, when?

“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” ~ Hillel the Elder

Until preparing this post, I never knew where the phrase “If not now, when?” came from, or even that it did have a specific origin. Were I better acquainted with Judaism, I would have known that it is part of a longer quotation by Hillel the Elder, a Jewish leader from Babylon who lived during the reign of King Herod.

The name sounded familiar: my first introduction to him was in a book I indexed titled Aphrodite and the Rabbis, in which the author, Burton L. Visotzky, refers to Hillel as “the rabbis’ George Washington,” a kind of founding father of modern Judaism (the Jewish campus organization Hillel International is named for him). He is known for his charity, humility, and compassion for the less fortunate.

The maxim “If I am not for myself…” is rich with notions of duality, identity, purpose, and meaning. Another of Hillel’s sayings is “Do not say ‘When I free myself of my concerns, I will study’ for perhaps you will never free yourself.”

If we change just one word, it becomes “Do not say ‘When I free myself of my concerns, I will study write‘ for perhaps you will never free yourself.” Take the time to chew on that. Not only do we often wait to have the time to study or write or be, a wait that can be indefinite. More important, we might be approaching the issue backward. Perhaps only through studying or writing or actively being, will we free ourselves. (See also Modern Lessons from Hillel at NPR.)

Tiny Tweaks and Everyday Heroes

In Maria Shriver’s interview with Susan David (author of Emotional Agility), titled “Embrace Authenticity: How to Break Free from the Tyranny of Positivity.” David encourages us “to hear the heartbeat of our own why”:

We live in a world where everyone is telling us what to think, how to look, how to feel. There’s fascinating research showing that we are subject to social contagion, where we start subtly picking up the behaviors of others. We go into an elevator, everyone’s looking at their phones, so we take out ours.

Especially for highly sensitive people, living in an atmosphere of high anxiety can mean we are continually picking up on and wrestling with others’ emotions. In turn, we are less connected, both to ourselves and others. More distracted. Tenser. Less responsive. Simply being aware of this dynamic is a good first step. Once we have a better sense of who we are and who we want to be and why, we can make choices that support those values, even if it is, as writer Pam Parker explains in her blog post, we choose just “One Damn Thing“:

Again, from Susan David:

[It’s] tiny tweaks: the tiny tweak of “I love this person—but every time they come home from work I hardly get up from my computer to even say hello to them,” or “I want to be a present parent and yet I’m on my phone at the dinner table.”

Make a small change. We can take a habit that we’ve already got and piggyback onto that habit in ways that are values-aligned. You put your keys into a particular drawer? Put your cell phone into the drawer, as well, so that you have a conversation with your child where you aren’t on the phone. Read more

Viktor Frankl wrote, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me.” Or, to use the terminology of psychologist Philip Zimbardo, we can choose to respond by being an everyday hero in our own life in even the smallest of ways, including the heroic journey of a creative life.

(Your) Words Matter

On the “Who am I” page of her website, UK writer Aliya Mughal shares the following:

I’ve built my life around words. Why? Because words matter. Clarity of thought and the beauty of expression lend quality and vision to everything in life.

Her post “The power of words in an age of anxiety” is a powerful argument for the value of fiction and poetry—especially during times when we feel too anxious or depressed or frazzled to exchange this world for another—and “why reading is such an indispensable pastime in those moments when reality lets us down.”

Milwaukee writer Jocelyn Lee adopts a similar approach using nonfiction. When she is “discombobulated” by news and opinions and life, she reads ten pages a day from self-chosen subject areas:

I noticed that by adopting this practice, I have better conversations, sleep relatively peaceful, I gain new found optimism, I am more mindful, a little smarter, and acquire the energy I need to concentrate on those things which matter. One of which is working on my own novelRead more

Now more than ever we can embrace words, whether reading or writing, in the service of freedom and purpose, and not just when we write to persuade. Sarah Kendzior, an expert on authoritarianism, wrote an important essay in November about being our own light when life grows dark (even if you don’t agree with her politically, her argument about personal freedom applies to everyone):

Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.

We need to listen for, hear, and heed our own unique voice. Kendzior reminds us that no one can “take away who you truly are”:

[Y]ou need to be your own light. Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave – and it is often hard to be brave – be kind.

But most of all, never lose sight of who you are and what you value. Read more

What does this mean for ordinary people like you and me? We can embrace this moment, this time, however fractured and uncertain we feel, as an opportunity to figure out who we really are. If we are writers or artists of any kind who have never truly committed to a creative life, then we need to be that person. Now. Today. One or one hundred or one thousand words at a time. That’s how we not only persist but thrive.

Dear Neglected Blog

During the past seven years, I’ve used blogging to motivate and entertain myself, to share other blogs and resources, to think out loud, to meet readers and writers. I know it goes against rules of personal branding, but I treat my blog as I did my childhood bedroom—changing the furniture arrangement when I’m bored, sewing new curtains, repainting the walls, decluttering now and then.

2017 feels like a time to return to some serious blogging, with a renewed focus and plan, starting with a new tagline: Writing my way to meaning.

Meaning is, after all, the role that writing plays in my life, in at least a couple of ways. First, the act of writing itself brings meaning to my days. Whether it is writing a blog post or poem, short story or essay, for publication or not, I end my day better and fall asleep more satisfied if I have written. It took me most of my life to figure that out—that meeting specific writing goals are not, in the long-term, as important to me as the act and process of writing itself. Writing is an aspect of finding authenticity: when I write, I am more myself.

Second, writing is and has always been my go-to way to find meaning, to understand better the world and my place in it, to discover a purpose. In my particular search for meaning, writing works better than talking, better than reading, much better than thinking alone—as useful as those activities are. When I’m feeling particularly flummoxed by life, I am probably not writing much (it took me a long time to figure that out, as well).

A fun fact: this is the 735th published post here. Of those, these three have the most all-time views:

Finally, I plan to use blogging in 2017 as a way to push through the natural second-guessing and self-doubt that plague most if not all writers at least some of the time. Once I get in the habit of talking myself out of writing—of allowing silent hesitations and uncertainties to call the shots as I type a sentence and then letter by letter delete it—I can quickly grind to a stop for an unbelievably long time. After all, there are so many reasons not to write:

a) The topic is not original.
b) The topic is boring.
c) I’m not sure of what I think.
d) Readers will roll their eyes.
e) Who else cares besides me, anyway?
f) I’m not smart/skilled/worthy enough to put my words before readers.
g) All of the above.

Goodness, I’m deflated just typing out that inner dialogue!

However, the good news is that when I return to the habit of writing through those doubts and hitting PUBLISH anyway, the thoughts lose their power and diminish, and the momentum of writing can return. As the authors of The Confidence Code remind us: “Nothing builds confidence like taking action.”

So, dear neglected blog, I promise to pay attention to you in 2017, knowing that you will repay me many times over.

What role does blogging play in your life?

Is 2017 the year for you to attend to a neglected blog?

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Writers: Stop pretending to yourselves to be anything but what you are

Why do we write?

It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot and one I’ve asked here before. I always come back to the same answer:

I write because life is more meaningful when I do.

As August begins—and on a Monday (!), which adds an extra oomph to the feeling of starting anew—we can pay attention this month to how we feel 1) when we write, 2) when we have written, and, perhaps most important, 2) when we have not written. This summer I’m working on strengthening my commitment to a life spent writing, with a goal to write 500 new words per day, and here’s what I’m finding: On those days when I don’t write, I go to bed feeling worse than on the days when I do, regardless of what else happens during the day.

Photo credit: Denise Krebs, 2012-259 A Writing Six-Word Story, (CC BY 2.0)
Photo credit: Denise Krebs,2012-259 A Writing Six-Word Story, (CC BY 2.0)

This is the part that has surprised me the most: the feeling of well-being (or lack thereof) has nothing to do with what I’ve written, what genre or topic, whether it is for publication or just for myself, or even whether what I wrote was any good. It depends only on accepting the challenge of the blank page. Somehow the very act of writing makes me feel more myself, more authentic, more grounded, and better able to tackle the rest of what life offers.

J. K. Rowling offers a clue as to why this may be the case in her 2008 Harvard Commencement speech (video at end of post):

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” ~ J. K. Rowling [emphasis added]

In order to grasp fully Rowling’s decision at that point in her life, we need to allow our imaginations to go back in time before the world had heard the words “Harry Potter” (difficult, I know). When she committed herself to writing as a way to be who she was and to do work that mattered to her, it was not with the guarantee or perhaps even dream that she would create a cast of characters and books that would define a generation. That wasn’t the point at all—the success was only a byproduct. The turning point was that she fully accepted that she was born to be a writer and changed her life to be more in line with that realization.

What will it take for us to stop pretending to be anything but who we are, and to start directing energy into what really matters to us? What does that mean for your daily life?

The topic for Wednesday’s post will be social media, especially the idea of taking a social media sabbatical. Until then, I’d love to hear why you write.

See also

The Purpose of Your Writing Life

Grandma’s Ball of String

The following flash non-fiction essay was first published in the December 2015 issue of HippocampusThis version includes a few links and photographs of my grandmother. And, yes, the header photo is the ball of string.

String Theory

The ball of string fits reassuringly in my hand, smaller than a softball but just bigger than a baseball. Its perfect sphericity seems impossible against my palm, testament to the care and diligence with which it was wound.

For a long time after I brought it home from my grandmother’s kitchen, where it had been stored in a coffee can in a low cupboard drawer, the orb sat as a kind of museum piece on a bookshelf in my house. The string itself is aged, not quite yellow but certainly not white, smoother than one might expect, and tied together in pieces of about two feet with knots so secure that only magic could pry them apart. I have looked in every hardware store I pass for string of the exact diameter and strength and texture, without success.

Grandma, born in 1902 and the youngest of 10 children, is the girl with the white bow in her hair
Grandma, born 1902 and the youngest of 10 children, is the girl with the white bow in her hair. Her father left his New York state home just shy of his 16th birthday to fight in the Civil War.

In recent years I have begun to use the ball with college students in a classroom creativity activity that requires exactly one yard of string. Each time I cut three feet of string, I am struck that my grandmother would have added her final piece long before any of these students were born. Will I ever get to its center?

Do I want to?

Grandma, late 1920s
Grandma, late 1920s

Grandma Louise raised four children on a farm and ranch in Todd County, South Dakota, the third poorest county in the United States per capita income, with a population density of six residents per square mile. My parents lived on the same farm, so I spent much of my early years at Grandma’s compact, white, two-story house, especially after the birth of my brother when I was two. He was colicky, my mother was depressed, and it was good for all involved for my chatty, impulsive self to be out from underfoot.

Tucked near the center of my being are long, delicious, formative hours watching Grandma roll dough for cinnamon rolls and wipe the flour from her hands onto her ever-present faded, calico apron that slipped over her head and tied loosely in a bow at the small of her back. From her I learned how to embroider dish towels and crochet potholders and iron men’s handkerchiefs. Together we listened to a radio program called Kitchen-Klatter, during which I would be shushed several times as I impatiently waited for it to end.

Yours truly, with Grandma and Grandpa
Yours truly, with Grandma and Grandpa

While rarely idle, she would have never described herself as “too busy.” She was a farmer’s wife, accustomed to waiting for bread dough to rise and cookies to bake, for crops to sprout, cattle to fatten, alfalfa to dry and wheat to ripen. For children and grandchildren to grow up.

Office of War Information poster, 1943.
Office of War Information poster, 1943.

A member of the “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” generation, Grandma repurposed long before repurposing was a thing (logophiles take note: the word “repurpose” was coined in 1984). The women of my youth never remodeled for the sake of remodeling nor bought anything new before the old was useless. Threadbare work shirts that could no longer protect from the sun willed their buttons to the button jar, their fabric to rags and quilts. Gravy turned any leftovers into feasts. Even dryer lint was transformed into stuffing for pincushions.

String was repurposed perhaps more than anything else. In an era before cellophane tape or plastic bags, grocers wrapped food in brown paper and string for its journey home. Parcels to be mailed were similarly packaged, as were holiday gifts. As I use my grandmother’s string one yard at a time, my appreciation swells for the simple and useful and for the cumulative significance of time. I imagine her unwrapping each package in her measured way, pulling the string taut to remove any kinks, knotting it expertly to the waiting naked end, then rewrapping the new addition tightly before returning it to the coffee can. Later she would cut new pieces to bind turkey legs or secure climbing bean plants to poles or show children how to play Cat’s Cradle or Jacob’s Ladder or telephone with tin cans. Then another package, another measure of string, and it all would start again.

In String Theory, everything—planets, trees, human beings, computers, energy—is ultimately the same at its core, a simple, one-dimensional, vibrating thread that unifies the universe. I cup my ball of string in my hands—hands that look with each passing year more and more like my grandmother’s, age spots and all—and the theory of everything slowly unfolds.

Do you write about family papers and other historical records, or know someone who does? A new anthology of family narratives currently is calling for submissions of creative nonfiction, essays, and poetry based on family diaries, letters, and other artifacts. Click here for more information. Deadline: September 1, 2016.