In Defense of Sad Songs

About a year ago, I was at the theatre with Andrew and a couple of friends waiting for Cabaret to begin. I was the only one in our group who had seen the show before, and I was pumped; I adore Cabaret. Given the content and what I knew of our friends’ preferences, I warned everyone that it was a sad show, and a tad dark. 

My friend turned to me, her smile evaporating into a grave expression. “Sadder than Les Mis?”

I laughed for a long time, and tried to imagine a sadness scale that peaked at a musical infused with the hope of redemption; I couldn’t begin to fathom such a perspective, but was absolutely delighted for her. 

“Yes, sadder than Les Mis,” I choked out. “A lot sadder than Les Mis.”

More conversation ensued, and at some point my friend asked, “Why do you like Cabaret if it’s so sad?”

“I like a lot of sad shows, and sad songs in general.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Really? Why?”

Why indeed? It wasn’t the first time someone had raised an eyebrow over my preference for sad songs, but it was the first time someone directly asked my why. At the time, I had no idea how to answer her. I stumbled through a piece-meal explanation, and ultimately, I came up empty-handed. But the question lingered in my mind, and has buzzed around my brain ever since. This is my attempt at unearthing a thorough—albeit belated—response.

——

My friend was not completely off-base when she said Les Mis is sad.

If I have it right, I was eight or nine years old when I saw Les Miserables on stage for the first time. Our family had a deep-rooted obsession with the story, particularly on my dad’s side of the family, so taking an eight-year-old to see a production with prostitutes in it was perfectly rational. After all, we already played the soundtrack on repeat at home, and regularly wore out the VHS of the 10th Anniversary concert edition. 

So I went to the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis, and sat perched in my seat with my feet tucked up under me for a better view. I hardly dared to breathe lest I interrupt the story unfolding on stage. When it was over, rumor has it that I turned to my mom and asked, “Can we watch it again?” As if it was a VHS tape with a rewind function. 

Even before I was old enough to understand the complicated adult themes explored in Les Miserables, I was drawn to the music, and specifically to Eponine and Fantine. Something about those women and their pain sent an arrow of truth into my tiny, innocent little heart. I felt understood, known, and heard, even though I had no idea why. Their ballads full of longing and sadness confirmed something inside me, a question buried in myself that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. All I knew is that the affirmation felt good, and thus I clung to the music of Les Mis as if it were a part of my very self.

— — 

As a child of the 90s, I was caught up in the boy band fever that characterized the decade. Later on, I claimed allegiance to the Backstreet Boys, but my first boy band crush was Taylor, the middle brother of Hanson. What a devoted fan I was! I saw Hanson in concert, wore out VHS tapes that catalogued their musical journey, and listened to the CDs religiously. And you know what? I stand by that preference as a solid one. How often do pop singers write their own music AND play their own instruments?

There was something more compelling about Hanson than the cute boys and upbeat tunes. Yes, “Mmbop” was catchy as hell, but it wasn’t my favorite of Hanson’s songs. Instead, alone in my room, I played “Weird” on repeat. Looking at the lyrics now, it’s astonishing how much truth was packed into lyrics written by teenage boys:

Isn't it hard
Standing in the rain?
You're on the verge of going crazy and your heart's in pain
No one can hear, but you're screaming so loud
You feel like you're all alone in a faceless crowd
Isn't it strange how we all get a little bit weird sometimes?

Sitting on the side
Waiting for a sign
Hoping that my luck will change
Reaching for a hand that can understand
Someone who feels the same

When you live in a cookie-cutter world, being different is a sin
So you don't stand out
But you don't fit in
Weird, whoa, oh

Yes, the lyrics are drenched in teenage angst. But they also speak to the common human experience of longing to connect, to be seen and accepted as we are. That is a desire that lives in hearts of all ages, regardless of musical preference, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not. 

At age 10, I couldn’t name that hole in my heart. But I knew Hanson’s lyrics were calling out to the empty space, and for that, they earned my undying devotion until I moved on to my next phase.

—— 

Music and theatre were natural outlets for me as an emotional, over-achieving adolescent. I auditioned for roles in community theatre productions as well as school shows, and I committed myself fully to every cast and role. I felt known in the theatre scene, delighted to be a part of a zany family that shared a common passion. We pretended to be someone else on stage together, and conveyed stories that ranged from absurd to frivolous to heartfelt.

One summer in high school, I attended a theatre camp at Indiana University. For a week, we had workshops in acting, movement, and musical theatre led by students and faculty at IU. We slept in the campus dorms, rehearsed in the common areas in our spare time, and gushed about our dream roles. My memories of that week are fond, brimming with energy, drama, and junk food. 

Our final performance capped off the weel with a series of scenes and presentations for our friends and family. There were comedic and dramatic scenes, monologues, and musical theatre excerpts. Hell, they cast me as Elphaba in a scene from Wicked! You might expect that to have been my crowning moment, but it wasn’t. Instead, I relished the movement presentation, a choreographed routine set to “Evaporated” by Ben Folds Five. It wasn’t a dance, per se. It was more an opportunity to immerse oneself in the heart of a song, to enhance the message of the lyrics through movement and acting.

Here I stand, sad and free
I can't cry, I can't see
What I've done
Oh, God, what have I done?

Don't you know I'm numb, man? No I can't feel a thing at all
'Cause it's all smiles and business these days and I'm indifferent to the loss

And I've faith that there’s a soul somewhere that's leading me around
I wonder if she knows which way is down

Here I stand, sad and free
And I can't cry and I can't see
What I've done
Oh, God, what have I done?

And I poured my heart out
I poured my heart out
It evaporated, see

Blind man on a canyon's edge of a panoramic scene
Or maybe I'm a kite that's flying high and random dangling a string
Or slumped over in a vacant room, head on a stranger's knee
I'm sure back home they think I've lost my mind

Here I stand, sad and free
I can't cry and I can't see
What I've done
Oh, God, what have I done?

We rehearsed that movement routine over, and over, and over leading up to the final presentation, and I never tired of it. I never tired of the song, of pouring my experiences and emotions out into the world with a freaking fantastic, heart-wrenching song as the medium. I savored the moments in rehearsal or on stage with my fellow actors, relishing the unity as their emotions mingled with my own, and knowing that we were connected in our longing. It was pure magic, and if I could step into a rehearsal room with them right now and do it again, I would be able to recall every step. 

— — 

My junior year of high school was one of my best, but as it came to a close, I wrestled with the reality that I would be left behind. Almost all of my friends were seniors, and I was being abandoned, restrained from the growth and freedom I so desired, only to be held back in a juvenile prison, a waiting room for my future to begin. My friends were off to college in various states. My boyfriend was graduating and moving out of town with the rest of them. Half of my choir friends would be gone, and I feared all of these friends would leave without knowing the full measure of my love for them. The ache felt trapped in my chest, and I finally released it through a reliable channel: I wrote. In that case, I wrote a song.

The first draft of the song poured out of me in one sitting, like a dam bursting. I fine-tuned the details for weeks, but it was mostly finished from the moment it hit the page. The compulsion to communicate how desperately I wanted to go with them, to honor their relational impact on my life…it was too strong to resist. The emotions could not be contained by my body, so the music was born.

The song wasn’t an award-winner, but it served its purpose. I invited the seniors to my open mic performance at the end of the school year and made sure they knew it was important they attend. I sang my song, and I cried through the end of it:

I know that you must go, my friends
Your time here is running out
Soon, you’ll start on a great journey
Go the distance on an unknown route
And though I’ll thank God for each one of you every waking day
It’s so hard to say…goodbye.

Though in time you will be gone, and I will remain
Here you’ll always stay, yes you’ll always stay inside.

I remember one friend’s response in particular. Her eyes were wide as she hugged me, surprised and awed that someone felt that much for her. She was astonished by the depth of sadness I expressed, and the high value I placed on our friendship. She cried. I cried. We connected at a level that I had no other way to facilitate, and I felt a sweet catharsis in the confidence that my friends knew. They would leave, yes, but they would leave having seen me, and having known me fully, with my heart open wide for them to read. 

— — 

My undergraduate years were a low point in my life, a period of darkness and confusion that I hesitate to recollect. I was lost, depressed, dealing with undiagnosed anxiety, and I was a slave to my own foolish decisions. There were many times when I felt so lonely and lost that I couldn’t begin to find a way to ask for help. I couldn’t find the energy, the words, or even a general direction to crawl in.

I would wander the campus at night, find a secluded spot to sit, and cry. I didn’t know who I wanted to find me; I only knew that I desperately needed to be found. With a heavy heart, I sat on shadowy benches or at the top of a fire escape, and I waited for a nameless someone who never came. The lyrics of “Grey Street” by Dave Matthews Band were my only companion, the voice that spoke into my pain and said, Yes, I know. It wasn’t enough to make everything better, but it was better than feeling utter hopelessness and anonymity.

There's an emptiness inside her
And she'd do anything to fill it in
And though it's red blood bleeding from her now
It’s more like cold blue ice in her heart
She feels like kicking out all the windows
And setting fire to this life
She would change everything about her
Using colors bold and bright
But all the colors mix together
To grey
And it breaks her heart
It breaks her heart
To grey

——

My longest dating relationship pre-husband ended in my junior year of college. We’d dated for several years, spanning crucial formative years for me as a teen becoming a young adult. I had no idea who I was without that young man in my life, or how to move forward and find myself in his absence. 

After we broke up, I spent the next summer working as a tour guide at my college. The Admissions office was located in a large building, down the hall from an auditorium. That auditorium sat several hundred people, but was rarely in use during the day, especially during the summer. And there was a grand piano on the stage.

On my lunch break, or even on a longer bathroom break when the day was dragging, I would creep into the shadowy auditorium. Soft light filtered in through stained glass windows along the sides of the room. I crept down the center aisle, just far enough to crane my neck out and see if the light was on in the balcony sound booth. If I saw the light on, I retreated immediately, my heart racing in fear of being caught. But more often than not, the light was off, and the auditorium was vacant and welcoming.

The grand piano on the stage called to me without ceasing. As soon as I knew I was alone, I raced down the aisle and up the steps to the stage. To this day, I still have no idea if I was breaking any rules by playing that piano. They didn’t lock the key cover, and they could have. Other pianos on campus had locks like that. The absence of a lock was the only permission I needed. 

Now that I think about it, I’ve never claimed to be stealthy or subtle. The room wasn’t sound proof, and thus the music must have poured into the hallway. The light booth guy probably caught me in there on multiple occasions, and let me stay and play my song out of quiet heroism. Maybe he listened to me sing. Maybe he’d lost someone, too.

I don’t remember learning the song, the lyrics, or the chords. All I remember is sneaking into the auditorium and sending my voice out into the empty space. Daily, for an entire summer, I sang the same song without variation.

I don't know if our fate's already sealed
This day's a spinning circus on a wheel
And I'm ill with the thought of your kiss
Coffee-laced, intoxicating on her lips

Shut it out
I've got no claim on you now
I’m not allowed
To wear your freedom down, no

Is there a chance, a fragment of light
At the end of the tunnel, a reason to fight?
Is there a chance you may change your mind
Or are we ashes and wine?

And I'll tear myself away
If that’s what you need
Then there’s nothing left to say

But… is there a chance, a fragment of light
At the end of the tunnel, a reason to fight?
Is there a chance you may change your mind
Or are we ashes…
Reduced to ashes…
Are we just ashes…?

I never wanted to stop singing that song, even though it was painful to do so. At some point it got easier to sit down and release the words, a ritual. Eventually, much farther along than I’d care to admit, I was surprised to realize that I’d stopped sneaking into the auditorium. One day, I woke up and didn’t need the song anymore. Lyrics carried me through a summer, and then released me into the next part of my journey with well wishes and a healed heart. 

—— 

Andrew snuck into my life like a ninja; neither one of us remembers meeting the other. We got to know one another from a distance for quite awhile, and then started dating. After a few months, I broke up with him because I wasn’t ready for him yet. A few months later, we were friends, and then we became good friends. About a year after our first round of dating, I humbled myself and told him I changed my mind. I asked him to give us another shot. By the grace of God, he said yes.

One of the defining moments in my relationship with Andrew happened that second time around in our dating journey. We were sitting on the couch in his condo, just talking. He’d asked me a question about physical intimacy, about whether or not there were any triggers from my past that he might not anticipate, any otherwise-innocent words or actions he should avoid to protect my heart. What a man I have! 

In response, I laughed. “You couldn’t sink low enough, you’re too good a person. Just don’t, I don’t know…don’t lock me in a bathroom and make me do anything I don’t want to do. We should be good, then!” 

I laughed again.

His face fell, and his eyes widened. “Someone did that to you?”

My brow furrowed, but I nodded. 

Tears filled his eyes. 

Andrew is not a crier. I can easily recall the few occasions when he has cried, but none of those moments touched my heart as this one did. He cried over a passing mention of my sexual abuse history, a detail that was minor to me and easy to dismiss. He communicated anger that someone would treat me that way, of course, but mostly he shared a profound experience of grief. His sadness mirrored mine, and nobody had ever responded that way before. I looked at him and saw someone who knew me, a kind, gentle man who understood and cared for my heart. In a way, he sang a sad song, one I thought nobody knew the lyrics for except me. He saw how much my past hurt me, and his heart said “Yes, beloved, I know.” 

— — 

Our first year of marriage was hijacked by some really awful external crap; everything but our marriage blew up in our faces. The biggest bomb that was dropped in our lives was a friendship that turned manipulative, and then spiritually abusive. We were submerged in that toxicity for about a year. Afterwards, we tried to pick up the pieces, but we didn’t have the energy. We were in survival mode, and it was miserable.

Because someone had used the beautiful, perfect Word of God as a weapon against me, going to church was hard. We tried going anyway. I sat in the service while people sang songs of praise, clapping their hands and dancing for joy. Particularly at that church, I did not belong. There was little if no emphasis on the broken people in the room, or opportunities for lament built into the structure of the service. It was deeply isolating, being heartbroken and wounded in a sea of smiling people. Being there wasn’t helpful. Sometimes I cried through the entire service, so we stopped attending altogether.

Outside of church, left to my own devices, I found the song I was hungering for. ”Jesus I My Cross Have Taken” became my daily plea. On a regular impulse, I would grab my guitar and choke out the hymn through tears, a groaning prayer that I knew the Spirit would complete on my behalf. It was all I could do to push through the first verses, acknowledge the promise of suffering for followers of Christ, and look ahead to the restoration and healing that I knew God would deliver some day. 

Jesus, I my cross have taken, 
All to leave and follow Thee. 
Destitute, despised, forsaken, 
Thou from hence my all shall be. 
Perish every fond ambition, 
All I’ve sought or hoped or known. 
Yet how rich is my condition! 
God and heaven are still my own.

Let the world despise and leave me, 
They have left my Savior, too. 
Human hearts and looks deceive me; 
Thou art not, like them, untrue. 
O while Thou dost smile upon me, 
God of wisdom, love, and might, 
Foes may hate and friends disown me, 
Show Thy face and all is bright.

Man may trouble and distress me, 
’will but drive me to Thy breast. 
Life with trials hard may press me; 
Heaven will bring me sweeter rest. 
Oh, ’is not in grief to harm me
While Thy love is left to me; 
Oh, ’were not in joy to charm me, 
Were that joy unmixed with Thee.

Go, then, earthly fame and treasure, 
Come disaster, scorn and pain
In Thy service, pain is pleasure, 
With Thy favor, loss is gain
I have called Thee Abba Father, 
I have stayed my heart on Thee
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather; 
All must work for good to me.

Soul, then know thy full salvation
Rise o’er sin and fear and care
Joy to find in every station, 
Something still to do or bear. 
Think what Spirit dwells within thee, 
Think what Father’s smiles are thine, 
Think that Jesus died to win thee, 
Child of heaven, canst thou repine?

Haste thee on from grace to glory, 
Armed by faith, and winged by prayer. 
Heaven’’ eternal days before thee, 
God’’ own hand shall guide us there. 
Soon shall close thy earthly mission, 
Soon shall pass thy pilgrim days, 
Hope shall change to glad fruition, 
Faith to sight, and prayer to praise.

In the midst of brokenness, confusion, anger, complex-PTSD, and spiritual doubt, I found the joy that only the Lord can give. God gifted that joy to me in a way He knew I would be able to receive, even when I was so pissed at Him that I refused to pray or even “let him in the door.” For almost a year, God let me be. He kept a respectful distance and sent a gift by mail, a sad hymn that He knew I needed. I clung to the song, and it carried me through.

— — 

I like sad songs because they are honest. There is something unifying and right in collectively acknowledging our pain, our sadness, our longing and our disappointments. I defend sad songs because I am hungry for the acceptance of emotional honesty in our world, and especially in our church.

There is a poisonous trend in our culture that has influenced the culture of the church;  that trend suggests we must be happy, and anything other than happiness and plastered-on gratitude is wrong. Psychologist Susan David describes this as a cultural value of relentless positivity. Her Ted Talk titled “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” is fifteen minutes of gut-punching truth about how toxic our rigid approach to emotion truly is. We’ve characterized valid, normal emotions like sadness and grief as bad! It’s one thing for the secular culture to promote this lie, that we must be happy or we are bad. It is another thing entirely to see that lie infecting the church. 

The Christian Church is a body of individuals who follow Jesus and claim Him as Savior. The Bible is the Word of God, and the compass of the church. And what does that Bible tell us? Jesus suffered. Jesus wept. Jesus blessed those who mourn. The Psalms are full of longing and heartache, danger and profound pain. I mean, there is an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations, people! As in lament, “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” We are promised that as Christians, we will experience pain and suffering, that we will bear the cross of Christ in this lifetime. Why is the church not leading the way in creating space for people to lament? Why are there so few songs about fear, sadness, pain, loss, regret, anger, and doubt? Why do hurting people feel isolated and exposed when they step in the door of a church?

I mean no offense to any of my friends, or any particular churches I’ve attended. There are good steps being taken in the right direction toward emotional honesty and courageous vulnerability. But it is simply not enough, and it is still too rare for someone to answer “How are you?” with a truthful response on a Sunday morning. 

As Susan David mentions in her talk, I’m not anti-happiness!  I celebrate the sunny days and laugh with my loved ones. I praise God for the innumerable blessings in my life, and the joy that cannot be taken from me. But enjoying happiness isn’t a reason to negate the valid and important moments of weeping, aching, and grieving. 

Musicians and songwriters have poured their hearts out so that people like me can find consolation when nobody else knows what to say, or how to help. I defend sad songs because they honor the life-giving connection that is established when we share the heaviness of our pain with one another, through our art, our friendship, or our wordless, comforting presence. In today’s world, I will accept that gift of togetherness in the midst of pain, and I will cherish it openly, no matter how unfashionable that may be. 

7 Tips to Survive a Group Writing Critique

In January, I started attending a Meetup group for area writers. It's the bomb, and the group has quickly become an important tool and monthly boost for me as I continue to grow as a writer.

Last week, I participated in my first group writing critique. Broken into two groups, twenty people spoke one-by-one about my submission and told me everything that was wrong with my writing. Each individual critiqued my story live, in front of me, and in front of everyone else present. 

Leading up to that night, I was scared out of my mind. My previous experience with writing critiques was pretty much nonexistent prior to joining this group, and while I knew I would receive helpful feedback, I also knew that the process would be overwhelming for me. Anxiety and verbal processing do not mix well with this sort of exercise!

Now that I'm on the other side of the critique, I can celebrate my own courage in submitting at all, as well as my composure throughout the evening. Seriously, maintaining my composure was a victory worth noting. There were some challenging moments--more on those below!--and I believe I managed to maintain most of my dignity despite some awkward comments. Huzzah!

Overall, I learned a lot from the critique experience, and in this post I share some tips for any of you who may be considering a group critique submission in your own writing journey. 

7 Tips to Survive a Group Writing Critique

#1: Participate Before You Submit

Before I submitted my own piece, I attended four Meetups and participated in all four critiques as a reader. In doing so, I got a good sense of what to expect in terms of both process and people.

I had four opportunities to hear the rules, and to see how closely people followed them. From participating as a reader, I knew I would be sitting in a circle of individuals in a tight space, and that I would feel exposed as a result. I knew that some people would offer more constructive and helpful criticism than others. In particular, I knew there was one individual who would be unhelpful in his critique, regardless of his intentions. I knew I could expect him to offer unnecessarily harsh personal comments instead of constructive, respectful criticism. And I was ready for him.

Because I attended and knew what to expect, there were fewer surprises. I had more capacity to listen and take notes, and was less blind-sided by the logistics. 

#2: Provide Context

Though the rules may vary, you will generally have an opportunity to introduce your work. This is your golden opportunity to describe your piece, define your audience, and ask for what you need. Explain the intended impact, and name any concerns you have that you'd like the critique participants to address. For example, if you're worried that your main character is boring, say so!

As a part of this context, you need to know the intended audience for your submitted piece. This helps for a number of reasons, and quite frankly, you should know this long before you submit! If a piece is ready for group critique, it should be in good enough condition for you to describe the ideal reader. Have a sense of age/demographic/genre for your piece. Know and name that audience as you introduce your piece. 

You might even find it helpful to categorize your experience with writing, or your level of comfort with the critique process. For example, after introducing my story I added, "Also, FYI this is my first critique, and I'm scared." Vulnerable? Yes. Helpful? Probably. In most cases, I believe I got critiques that were tailored to my experience as a writer and were easy to digest at this point in my career. I would say that 95% of the participants respected that context and adjusted accordingly. 

In the future, I look forward to sitting down with my critique group, explaining my piece, and saying "Lay it on me! This is a solid draft. I know what I'm doing and I want all the constructive feedback you can give me. Do your worst." Until then, there's no harm in saying that I'm new to this and need the "big problems" identified more than the less severe nit-picked offenses. 

#3: Capture the Comments

This goes without saying, but for the sake of appropriate and thorough preparation, be ready to take notes! You can sort through the individual comments later, but be sure to capture all that is said. Bring a laptop, write notes by hand, capture audio (with the group's permission), or whatever works for you. Regardless of the medium, come prepared, and make sure you have what you need to get all the details down. 

If you're like me and are freaked out by the prospect of submitting for critique, taking notes is a particularly helpful tool for you. The act of taking notes allows you to disconnect emotionally from the process. You have a job to do, so you can focus on transcribing notes instead of letting the comments sink in too much. By taking notes, you might even protect yourself from overanalyzing what is said, or taking unhelpful comments too personally.

On top of that, you walk away with a good record of the group's feedback which you can reference after the critique is over, when the adrenaline has settled. 

#4: Look for Common Threads

Twenty individuals served up a LOT of feedback during my critique sessions, and it was a little overwhelming to sort through, even when I was home with my notes. To help analyze and organize the feedback for application, I found it helpful to look for common threads. What was consistently named as an issue, by multiple participants? Sure, one line of the text may not have registered for one or two readers. A reference flew over somebody's head. But the majority response is what you want to focus on, especially when considering comments from participants within your "ideal reader" demographic.

Depending on the quality of your critique group and the specific feedback you get, some of these common threads might be drawn for you. During the conversation, pay attention as participants build upon one another's perspectives.

For example, a member of one group noted that several people expressed varying levels of responses to the emotional tone of my story. He accurately diagnosed the issue by pointing to the lack of situational context at the beginning of the piece--that was a gap that I left for the audience to fill in, but the gap didn't serve me well because the responses were so varied. By providing more context up front, I could more effectively contain and direct the reader's response to the character's emotions, thus eliminating the varying concerns that participants expressed about the emotional range of the story. 

If nobody is drawing these connections for you, that's ok! Look for them as you read through your notes. What threads can be tied between comments that fall into the same category, even if they might not be presented from the same perspective? What is the root of the obstacles your readers butt up against? Find the common threads, and note those as the most prevalent issues. 

#5: Celebrate Your Strengths

One of the most beneficial outcomes of my experience is that I know I'm doing some things right! Having never shared my writing for critique before, it was difficult to gauge my own abilities.

Through the critique process, I learned that I have a good grasp of humor and voice. I learned that I have some solid pacing instincts, and naturally incorporate devices that serve the story well in terms of theme and pacing. I learned that the quality of my writing is good enough that people weren't hung up on grammatical issues and mechanics. Finally, and surprisingly, I learned that I can write about sensitive and divisive subjects like faith without alienating readers of different viewpoints. 

If I hadn't participated in the critique, I would never have known these things for sure! It is affirming and encouraging to have these strengths noted, and to have that opportunity to celebrate my "wins" as a writer. 

Writing in itself is fraught with opportunities for self-criticism and self-doubt. We read what we wrote yesterday and feel like banging our heads against the wall because it's so terrible! So even if you only get a small number of positive comments, or maybe there's only one thing you do well, I invite you to marinate in that reality for a few minutes. Celebrate what you got right, and delight in the fact that you are not starting from square one!

#6: Disregard the Haters

As I was preparing for my first critique experience, I was nervous as hell. One of my dear writer friends offered a bit of advice that was tremendously helpful: "It's easy to critique somebody else's work and tear it to shreds. It's much harder to produce that work, much less share it, so you have already succeeded by writing and submitting!"

While you might be tempted to call that advice sentimental, it is also entirely true. We live in a critical, self-centered culture that has been raised on internet comment sections. People are downright careless and disrespectful online, and that attitude occasionally translates in a live critique. From one perspective, I see why. The framework is set up for it; as a critique participant, you literally have permission to openly and thoroughly criticize someone's work. Why wouldn't some people run with that permission?

But it's also true that writing is profoundly personal. In my case, the piece was extra personal; I submitted an autobiographical essay about a challenging day when I was fed up and emotionally wrecked (based on a previous blog post). I introduced the piece as being 100% true, and about me. I set up the context and hoped that people would respect it.

For the most part, everyone did. But there was that one individual I knew would take it too far, and even though I expected some negativity, his comments caught me off guard. To be fair, I believe his intentions were good and that he simply does not understand how to critique effectively and respectfully. Whatever his motives, without accurately naming the problem or providing a constructive comment, he stated that my 'character' (AKA me!) was completely dislikable because she was a brat and had the emotional range of a 9 year-old. Ouch!

Yes, that was a pretty major burn. But it was also laughably unprofessional and useless as a critique. I don't know what inspired him to frame his critique so personally and harshly, but I made a solid effort to disregard his comments entirely. I redacted his comments in my notes and highlighted more constructive, related comments from other participants. Thanks to the other feedback I received, I identified the underlying issue that his comments were rooted in without having to linger on his specific wording.

As with many things in your writing journey, take what is helpful and leave what is not. Your work is not defined by the haters, and there is no value in lingering on that 'feedback.' Instead, focus on what you can actually do to improve, and on the comments that were presented in the appropriate spirit of constructive criticism!

#7: Identify Growth Opportunities

After the sweating and note-taking is behind you, you come home--blessedly alone!-- with your mountain of notes. You sort through the stack of comments and pull out common themes. At that point, it's time to translate those major points into growth opportunities.

Yes, by all means edit your submission according to the critique feedback! Fix the problems, and improve the piece. But what can you take away from these comments that will translate across the full spectrum of your work? What are the overarching "bad habits" you've developed, and what is submission-specific? 

From my critique, I learned several valuable lessons that apply beyond the scope of my submitted story:

  • I learned that autobiographical writing is particularly prone to gaps on the page -- because the entire experience is in my head to begin with, it's easier to leave out crucial context or information.
  • I learned to avoid text devices that frustrate the reader, like blocks of all-caps text rants.
  • I learned to provide the appropriate context so that I have more control over the reader's response.
  • I learned that it is dangerously easy to offend people regardless of my best intentions, and that I need to amp up my caution or prepare for some backlash.
  • I learned that I utilize good storytelling devices, but don't necessarily carry those through the full piece. I have a tendency to let those devices fall away, and do not maximize their effectiveness as a result. 

That's a good amount of feedback that I can apply to my future work, and those are just the highlights!

----

Yes, critique groups can be scary, but if you can find one that has some ground rules and captures a good variety of perspectives, the feedback is invaluable for you as a writer. I invite you to take the plunge and share your writing for critique. Use the tips above to get you ready for the experience, but believe that you will walk away with some fruit for your efforts.

Trust me...if I can do it, I promise you can get through it, too! 

The Power of Having 'My People'

April has been a bit of a bust, friends.

My most recent post was published on April 6 (three weeks ago -- yikes!), and on April 7, the following morning, a giant SUV pulled out into the middle of the road to turn left. We were chugging along minding our own business, talking about where to plant the flowers we'd just purchased from the Butterfly House. We were going about 40 MPH, and the SUV driver didn't look to see us coming.  

It was absolutely horrifying. I was driving. The air bags deployed, and the car smelled like it was about to explode. Andrew was a pillar of strength and stability. He took control of the situation, got me out of the car, spoke with the police, and conversed with the irrationally angry guilty party. Meanwhile, I mostly sat on the side of the road shaking and crying. A few angelic strangers stopped and held my hand for a minute, assuring me that everything was going to be fine, and that it was perfectly acceptable to be rattled after something like that. (Bless you, strangers, wherever you are!)

Mercifully, Andrew and I walked away with no major injuries. We've definitely experienced some whiplash/muscular discomfort, and I had a first degree burn and bruising on my forearm from the airbag. But we walked away, and it could have been a heck of a lot worse than that. 

Nonetheless, car accidents are followed by a MOUNTAIN of grown-up stuff. I spent gobs of time on the phone with various insurance representatives, trying to get everything sorted out. The other party's insurance company was not cooperating with us. It took almost a week to learn that my car was indeed totaled, and that we would be getting a total loss payout. It took two weeks for me to get a rental car, for a variety of reasons. Finally, we had to involve our own insurance to get everything taken care of on our behalf.

And still, we have yet to close everything out and purchase a new vehicle. The process has been exhausting and time-consuming, and it is super hard not to silently curse the random stranger who pulled out in front of us without looking, inciting this avalanche of crap that landed squarely on my to-do list.

But the biggest 'damage' revealed itself more slowly. It wasn't until later that I realized I was dealing with a variety of PTSD symptoms, and my writing routine was completely shot. I've had trouble sleeping, and couldn't seem to find the motivation to get back into my routine. My anxiety has been off the charts, and I just haven't had the energy or the capacity to pick myself back up again. 

Enter 'my people.' Oh, how wonderful it is to have 'my people!'

I attend a writers' meet-up once a month, and we had our April meeting earlier this week. The impact on my motivation and capacity was instantaneous. 

I spent one hour discussing a writing topic with a group of forty writers, then spent another hour with them in small critique groups. And that was it-- that was all I needed. Energy is contagious. I left feeling known, resourced, encouraged, and motivated. I even spent a few minutes in the parking lot with some of my new writing buddies, who convinced me to be brave and submit a piece for critiques next month.

And you know what? I did it. The following morning, I got up, did an hour of edits, and submitted the story for critique. I chose to willingly subject myself to live, public criticism, y'all. They are going to sit there with my story in their hands and tell me everything that's wrong with it. I can't say that I'm looking forward to it, but I'm super proud of myself for the decision to enter into that process willingly, arguably sooner than I really need to. That is worth celebrating.

No, the writing group did not make my PTSD evaporate into thin air. But they did give me a boost to get back in the saddle and write. In addition to the story submission, I've been able to work on the second draft of my novel, and I'm sitting here writing this blog post with a smile on my face. The sun in shining, the spring breeze is drifting in through the open window in my office, and I feel much better than I have at any point in the last three weeks.

We are not meant to pursue our interests alone. Even for something as individual and private as writing, it is so helpful to have people who get it and understand the process. Without having close relationships with any of them, really, my fellow writers managed to give me a boost and help me out of my rough patch. I can end the month well, and move into May with renewed purpose and restored motivation.

This is a short entry today, but worth stating regardless. To my people: thank you. You know who you are, and I am beyond grateful for you.

To everyone else: if you don't already have them, be brave and go find your people. In addition to the obvious benefits of friendship and resources, shared-interest people possess a power to encourage and motivate you to a degree that will, quite frankly, blow your mind. Find your people, and hang on to them. The fruit is absolutely worth the search effort. 

Transforming Grace

I started attending a local Bible study in December. The study itself has been great, but the social experience has been more than a little mixed. My discomfort has several roots, including the fact that every other woman in my group has children. Also, most of them live in West County, and they find it odd that I can name several tasty restaurants or worthy attractions within the city limits.

But the most significant factor is an experience I've had countless times during the past six years. This isn't the first time I've found myself in a small group of women who converted to Christianity at age 5, and have grown up in a bubble of legalistic faith.

A couple years ago in a similar group of women, a young southern wife was telling her story. "I wasn't a bad girl or anything like that! I wasn't partying, or running around with boys having sex, or drowning in that extreme kind of sin."

It's been years, and it still makes my skin crawl to recall her words. It was that exact moment when I determined I would never tell my story in front of that group. Honestly, I felt perfectly, 100% justified in keeping my testimony to myself. And I continued to feel that way in similar situations, for years.

Even early on, when I was a new believer and felt compelled to share God's work in my life, my closest Christian friends discouraged it. My story wasn't "clean" enough for public consumption, and it was best to save it for appropriate audiences, they said. Mainly, that meant reserving my story for isolated groups of Christian women. Otherwise, sharing my story would be unsuitable. 

But the truth is, my story isn't mine. Every moment of my life, every twist in the road, every mercy I've received, and every horrible decision I've made fall under the goodness and sovereignty of God. My life is His story, and I have an obligation to obediently praise His name for bringing me out of darkness, into the light. It doesn't matter if the story is uncomfortable to share, or if someone takes offense that I've walked my unique path. God is glorified when we proclaim His divine work in our lives, and that is what I feel compelled to do today. I pray that God's work in my life is a blessing to you, and that you are awed by the goodness and magnitude of God's great love for us as you read. 

***

I grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis with a wonderful family. My mom stayed at home with my older brother and me until we were in our teens. Though my dad traveled often for his job, my parents made family time a priority. We ate dinner together almost every evening. Most of our extended family lived in the area as well, so large family gatherings were common occurrences. I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandparents, and I have since come to see them as the Christian foundation of our family. 

My parents took us to church from infancy on, albeit to a church which was less than thrilling as a child. It was a small Disciples of Christ church with an older, traditional congregation, and my memories of it are not particularly fond. I remember wearing a lacy dress, sitting in an uncomfortable pew, and doodling on my program in an effort to stay awake. Nonetheless, I attended Sunday school, ate a lot of gummy worms, and was privy to many felt-board Bible stories. It wasn't a bad spiritual foundation by any means. 

When I was eleven, a leadership change at our church resulted in a major split, and our family found ourselves at a completely different church home. The new church was a massive contemporary nondenominational warehouse, and to a pre-teen girl, it was heaven on earth. With a congregation in the thousands, there were hundreds of kids at church each week, and a stellar youth ministry program. In addition to all of that, I was allowed to wear jeans on a Sunday morning. It was paradise. 

Unfortunately, the aspects of church that excited me the most had nothing to do with God. Sundays and Wednesdays were social events, places to see and be seen. I was active in small groups, the worship band, and youth retreats, but my heart was not focused on God. Though I knew all of the answers on paper and considered myself to be quite spiritual, I had no grasp of the gospel, or my need for salvation. I performed well in school and in all of my extracurricular activities, and was hopelessly full of myself. I was simply going through the motions of faith without any understanding of my own brokenness. 

When I was 13, I went on my first date alone with a boy. The experience of being pursued by a cute guy was a thrilling discovery for me, and I dove into the world of dating. Around that same time, I was severely burned by friends in my church, and the damage was bad enough that I never went back. My parents, having since become disillusioned by failings of the church, did not push me to attend on my own. I was grateful for that. With no history of a personal relationship with God in my life, any interest in Christianity faded quickly, and I ran full-speed into the arms of young, foolish, unbelieving men.

I've already written extensively about my history of sexual and emotional abuse, so I won't rehash that here. Suffice it to say that I had poor taste in men, and I had no sense of what it meant to be cared for and cherished in a romantic relationship. I don't hold anyone at fault for that period of my life, and I don't think it's necessary to assign blame. In fact, I think it was a mercy that God orchestrated those circumstances, and I believe He let me walk through that decade-long period in my life out of love. Just as He always does, He knew what I needed. He allowed me to make my choices, and to fully understand that there was no hope or salvation for me in the affection of mortal men. If I had the choice, I would not change any of it, because I would not risk any of the good that followed. 

And so I dated, dated, and dated. When I got bored or disinterested in a boyfriend, I moved on to another that was more promising. Yes, some of those young men were abusive, but some of them weren't. I broke a lot of hearts, and I'm not proud of that. 

In college, I hit my low point. Hundreds of miles from home, I acknowledged and owned my atheism, and walked through life with no divine guidance or hope. I was studying a major I didn't want to pursue as a career, wrestling with perfectionism and anxiety, and I was deeply depressed. I partied some to escape my emptiness, but mostly I just ached. I had no idea how to fix the hole that I felt in my soul, but I knew something was meant to be there. I assumed that hole was a place for Mr. Right, and so I kept searching for him. 

During my junior and senior year of college, I started dating someone seriously. My new boyfriend seemed nice enough; he was always saying things like, "We never have to do anything you're not comfortable with," or "You don't have to do XYZ until you're ready." I told him about my history of abuse, and he seemed to take an interest and be somewhat sympathetic. My bar was low, so that was good enough for me. 

Everything would've been great, except for the fact that he was simultaneously expressing dissatisfaction in our physical relationship, and suggesting that he might break up with me because of it. Talk about mixed messages.

By then it was 2011. I was depressed, my self-worth was deep into the negatives, and I had no idea who I was. I had graduated college earlier that year, and had no idea what I wanted to do with myself professionally. My boyfriend was communicating more and more often that he was dissatisfied with our physical relationship, and I was afraid to lose him. I was afraid to be alone.

During that time, I lived with 3 Christian women. I was the token house atheist, and we made jokes about it. I asked them to consolidate their belongings because I felt like I was living in a Christian book store, but for the most part, faith wasn't a huge source of conflict. As an observer, I watched them live together as believers, and love one another through difficult conversations. I heard them speak grace into each other's lives, and watched them depend on Jesus. It was appealing, but also intimidating and isolating. They lived together in a way that seemed exposing, vulnerable, and yet profoundly fulfilling. But I was not part of their circle, and that fed my loneliness. 

Late in 2011, I was at the end of my rope. My boyfriend was depressed as well, though he would never admit it, and I fell back into the lesson that I learned years ago: it was my job to make him happy. So I gave myself over to him completely, an act I'd somehow managed to avoid in all of my years of dating and sexual abuse. 

I wept in a pit of emptiness and guilt. In that moment, I realized that I did in fact believe in God, because I knew He would be furious with me for what I'd done. I knowingly committed one of the most 'severe' sins according to the church, and I was ashamed. I was bound for condemnation and the fires of hell, and there was no hope for me at all.

In the midst of my assumptions and shame, Jesus spoke grace into my heart. 

I remember it vividly. I sensed that Jesus was present in the room with me, and He was weeping. I hadn't expected Him to weep--I'd expected Him to shake His finger at me, and condemn me for eternity. Maybe yell a little. But my sense of His compassion and grief was overwhelming. I felt Jesus speak directly into my heart: "I would never ask this of you, child. This is not what love is." And my heart broke.

For awhile, I thought I was a little crazy. It wasn't an overnight, immediate fall-on-my-knees experience. But Jesus's words of grace and compassion had left a permanent imprint on my heart, and I did not forget them. I broke up with my boyfriend weeks later, for no better reason than that I knew I needed to let him go.

Soon after that, I woke up on a Sunday morning with a deep sense of confidence and urgency to go about my day in a certain way. I called in sick to my second part-time job, though I was perfectly healthy, and I was absolutely confident it was okay. I spent the day visiting with my roommates, and asked to go to church with them that evening. They were delighted, and we carpooled to church together.

The sermon was nothing profound, to tell you the truth. It was a December sermon on materialism, appropriate for the holiday season. But I heard the gospel clearly, and that night, I finally fell to my knees. I understood that I had no hope apart from God, that I was irreversibly broken apart from the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. I gave my heart over to Him, and admitted that I needed Him desperately. I acknowledged that in His wisdom and mysterious love, He was more qualified to lead my life than I was. 

I haven't been the same since. The change in me was astonishing, and though some patterns and habits lingered, my old self died away to be replaced by someone entirely new. My roommates gave me books to read, and I started attending church regularly. I started to get glimpses of God's great love for me, and I hungered to learn more. I felt a softening in my heart toward others, and a joy that could not be dampened by any obstacle or injury.

It wasn't a smooth road, by any means. It was difficult for some of my closest friends to believe and accept the change in me, even the Christian ones. Many relationships were lost, and to this day those relationships remain damaged. I grieve that, but also understand why it happened. Evidently, it's common for people to have trouble maintaining existing relationships when they convert, because it is truly a complete personal transformation. Why should I expect to live the life I led before, when I have no desire--or ability-- to return to that life?

***

My first Christian dating relationship was an absolute train wreck. I was smitten, because we both loved Jesus and therefore must be soulmates. Oh, how naive I was! He told me he wanted to marry me three months in, and I foolishly believed him. Soon after, he broke up with me, and I descended into full-blown despair.

God always knows what I need, and He definitely knew that I needed to have my heart broken by a believer. It wasn't really about the guy himself. We were horribly mismatched, and he later grew a mustache which left me with absolutely no regrets. In truth, it was about my own obsession with finding Mr. Right, and the weight I assigned to a dating relationship. God used that breakup to expose the deep idolatry of romance in my heart, and to break the patterns of my old life.

It was a painful, long process, but it worked. God healed a part of me that I didn't even know was broken. He told me that I was enough, and that I didn't need a man to justify or define myself. He showed me that I belonged to Him, and that in Him, I had everything I would ever need. Is marriage a tremendous blessing? Absolutely. But it is not essential. Grace is the true foundation of my identity, and the well from which I drink daily. Jesus is my sustenance and hope, the only hope that cannot be taken away from me. 

I've learned a lot over the past 6 years. God has turned over rocks in my heart and exposed festering sin that I never knew I possessed. He has lovingly allowed me to go through trials, that I might grow nearer to Him and walk the path He has laid out for my life. 

The blessings and fruit of His work are innumerable, but nonetheless, the highlights are worth naming:

  • God brought me the (earthly) love of my life, and a loving marriage that I'd almost given up hope of finding. He uses Andrew's presence to heal, challenge, and nurture my soul. He brought me a steady, loyal man to ground me in my roller coaster craziness. He gave us a friendship that awes me, and that continually surprises me in its depth and delightfulness. Apart from grace, Andrew is the best gift I've ever been given, and I am often surprised and completely shocked by the fact that we get to enjoy one another for the rest of our lives. 
  • God allowed me to go through a long season of suffering and spiritual abuse, exposing my idolatry of the local church, and also leading me directly to my current profession. I never would have found this work on my own, and never would have had the courage to choose it for myself. But I am more professionally content than I have ever been, and I rejoice daily that I'm able to do work that I love. 
  • God used that same season of suffering and complex-PTSD to restore my image of Him, and give me a greater understanding of the depth and mystery of His love for me. He healed wounds that I never thought would close, and continues to restore relationships that were broken. The fruit of that suffering hasn't stopped revealing itself, and I stand in awe of God's ability to use sin and suffering for His good. 

These are only the highlights, but God moves daily. He lovingly rebukes me in my selfishness, and draws me back to Him. He sustains me in challenging moments, difficult conversations, and dark days. And He daily feeds me with the knowledge of heaven, that anything I endure in this life will pale in comparison to the glory of His kingdom. 

***

I remember reading a book soon after I became a believer. I don't remember the title or author, which is probably for the best, because I would publicly shame the heck out of those authors right now if I did. But I do know that it was a book written for young women who desired to dive into their faith.

I was sitting in the lunch room at Opera Theatre, reading a chapter on sexual morality. I'll never forget reading the words on the page that stunned and outraged me:

"You should not have sex before marriage, because in doing so, you reduce the value and impact of your testimony. By breaking this command, you make yourself less believable as you share your faith, and more of a hypocrite."

I threw the book across the room, and eventually threw it in the trash. I considered burning it, but didn't want to put forth the effort. Sure, sex before marriage isn't part of God's plan. But that didn't make the book's claims any less false. Mercifully, God revealed that false teaching in real time, preventing me from drowning in shame because of a lie.

But what is the truth, then?

Sin--no matter how ugly or shameful--is not a barrier to sharing the gospel. It is an invitation to fall at God's feet, and to praise His name for His mysterious grace and forgiveness. 

For the unbelievers: If you have something in your life that you are ashamed of, something that lives in the dark shadows of your soul, I want you to hear me. I want you to know that God doesn't find you dirty or broken, but that He loves you in the midst of that sin. He has already covered every mistake you've made--and every mistake you will make--with the atoning death of Jesus. You do not have to be a slave to shame or guilt, but can walk freely in the light of Christ, knowing that God sees Jesus's perfect record when He looks at you. I invite you to give your life over to the God of love and grace, who sent His Son to die that He might bring us back to relationship with Him. 

For the believers: Remember that we are all the chief of sinners. Do not slip into the habit of ranking sin, or disqualifying someone because their version of brokenness is different than your own. Watch your words, and love everyone as the brothers and sisters we have come to be in the kingdom of God. Preach grace, not condemnation or judgment. Leave the burden of condemnation to our good and perfect God. Instead, outdo one another in love, especially with people you have difficulty understanding. 

"But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Corinthians 2:9-10

5 Ways You're Bombing the Job Interview

Last week, one of my clients gave me a call. I helped him with his resume a few months back, and hadn't heard from him recently.

When I picked up the phone, he said something that was absolute music to my ears:

"I have a phone interview coming up. I've had a handful of other interviews with no results, so I'm guessing that I'm doing something wrong. I think I need some interview coaching."

Oh, how refreshing to see someone acknowledging his own potential shortcomings in the job interview process!

In my experience, most people don't respond this way. Instead, they complain all day long about the irritations of a job search: people won't call them back, they don't know the status of an application, the recruiter asked a bunch of insane questions, a hiring manager caught them off guard and didn't give them time to prepare for the interview....you get the gist. 

Yes--candidates are often treated poorly in the hiring process. It is a tragic reality of the current job market. 65% of job seekers rarely--or never--receive notice of their application status. Candidates are often left in the dark, slowly losing hope about an opportunity, and that stinks. 

But despite the frustrations of the application and interview process, the candidate is still responsible for his or her part of the experience. If you're getting called in for interviews and aren't getting any responses after the fact, guess what? You can only blame the recruiters and hiring managers so many times before a pattern starts to emerge. More likely than not, there is something that you're doing in the interview that is ruining your viability as a candidate. 

For a lot of people, this is not an easy fact to accept, and doing the work required to practice interview skills and admit your weaknesses is exposing. I mean, who relishes the idea of practicing a job interview while someone takes detailed notes about everything they're doing wrong?

But examining your own interview skills, identifying weaknesses, and practicing to improve interview performance are all in your best interest as a candidate. The more you practice (the right way!), the more likely you are to shake those bad habits and nail future interviews. So, if you're bombing interviews consistently, here are a few of the biggest and most common mistakes you might be making.

#1: Failing to be likable.

Your nonverbal communication has a gigantic impact on how you're received in an interview. This is wildly unfair, and honestly not beneficial as a hiring tactic. There are lots of people out there who bomb this part of the interview who would also make stellar, loyal employees for the positions they're applying for. But alas, here we are. You have 45 minutes to prove that you are likable, whether that's fair or not. 

"Likability" covers a wide range of habits, and sounds like it would be a subjective thing to pinpoint. In some ways, that's true--every individual hiring manager has preferences. But in a broader sense, there is a standard set of components that add up to general likability: 

  • Smiling
  • Making eye contact
  • Laughing at a joke, or cracking one yourself
  • Dressing appropriately
  • Speaking clearly
  • Resisting fidgeting
  • Leaning in to the conversation
  • Keeping arms open, as opposed to closed/crossed

The result of failing to meet even one of these items can be completely devastating for your candidacy. 67% of bosses say that failure to make eye contact is a common interview mistake. They specifically call it a mistake, meaning you messed up the interview because you didn't make eye contact. 

Clothing could destroy your chances for the job, even if you nailed every other component of the interview! 65% of bosses say that clothes could be the deciding factor between two similar candidates. Remember, the interview outfit is the only outfit your hiring manager will see you wear. You have one chance, so you better make sure it's sending the right message.

All of these little habits and choices are minor in the greater picture of your overall value as an employee. But in the interview, every piece matters. Why risk losing a job opportunity over something as simple as smiling? Practice is the best way to avoid such an unnecessary disappointment.

#2. Bashing your current or previous employer.

I know. You hate your boss, you hate the company that you work for, and they treat you like scum on the bottom of your shoe. They expect you to work 15 hour days, log on at 10 PM, and work all weekend. They've taken away your favorite projects, and given them to someone incompetent because that guy played basketball with your boss 15 years ago. I don't doubt it at all--poor work culture is the most common reason that my clients give for wanting to make a move. 

But the interview is not, not, NOT the place to complain about your boss. Or your previous boss! Or the culture of your current employer. Think about it. If you're willing to sit there in a formal job interview and discredit your employer, why should your potential employer doubt that you would do the same for them? You instantly become a liability for the company's reputation, and they will NOT want to hire you. 

On top of that, your bitterness is unattractive and concerning. Your inability to let it go and maintain some level of professionalism is a huge red flag for how you will behave in the work environment. How will they expect you to behave if the workload increases for a season, or you get stressed?

Though your intention may be to explain a situation or discredit your unjust employer, the only person you're really discrediting is yourself. Instead of harping on the crappy culture at your current office, focus on what you're looking for and what you hope the new job will offer. Save your rant sessions for private, informal conversations with family and friends.

#3. Showing your cards.

Yes, there is absolutely such a thing as being too honest in a job interview! This can play out in a couple of ways, both of which can be devastating for your interview performance.

The first is desperation. No matter how badly you need the job, it is NOT in your best interest to beg for it. Don't talk about how badly you need the job. Don't offer to work for a lower salary. Don't say that you will do anything to get out of your current job! As soon as you do this, you weaken your position as a candidate. Even if they do like you and end up hiring you, you have thrown away all of your negotiating cards, because they know you'll take the job no matter what. 

The other way that this plays out is by emphasizing or blatantly stating your "true" career goals. Let's say you're interviewing for a lateral move into a sales role. You hate sales. You'll take the sales job to get your foot in the door at a good company, but you still want to move into a management position as quickly as possible. 

They're going to ask about your career goals in the interview, one way or another. They're going to ask why you want to work there, and why this specific job. You will be shooting yourself in the foot if you communicate that the job you really want is not the job you're applying for. Don't get me wrong--there's no harm in saying that you have management aspirations, and want to know about the traditional career path for that role in the company. But you definitely don't want to communicate that you have little interest in the job they're hiring for. Bad news--they want someone to stay in that job for a while. If you don't prove that you really want the job, they're going to give it to someone who does.

This leads nicely into #4. 

#4. Not doing your homework. 

Hiring managers want to bring on candidates who are enthusiastic, interested, and motivated. In order to demonstrate that you actually want the job, you have to do a little homework in advance.

Get to know the company. Talk to people who work there, and get a feel for the culture. Read articles about current issues facing the specific company, or the larger industry. In doing so, you will be able to speak knowledgeably in the interview, while also demonstrating your interest in this specific opportunity.

If you fail to do your homework, you also will fail in developing a list of specific, thoughtful questions. You should always have questions prepared for the interviewer, but they should not be general questions applicable for any job at any company. Get specific. Demonstrate that you are a serious candidate, while also gaining information that will help you determine your own level of interest in the company.

These advance efforts take a little time, but they will certainly be noticed, and will increase your value as a potential employee. 

#5. Winging it.

Even if you're super outgoing, friendly, and good on your feet, preparing for an interview is in your best interest. No two interviews are exactly alike, and it's easy to be caught off guard by a curveball question, especially if you're nervous. 

This is particularly useful as you prepare for behavioral interview questions. These are the questions that generally start with "Tell me about a time when..." and ask you to reference specific anecdotes from your work history. It's impossible to prepare for every potential question that someone might ask you in an interview, but you can still prepare well. Review your experience, and practice giving a concise version of a few select anecdotes. Choose some examples that highlight your strengths, as well as your ability to overcome obstacles or learn from your failures. 

The more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel in an interview. But it's best not to practice alone with nothing but a blank wall across from you. Enlist the help of a friend or loved one, or consider video-taping your own responses as you practice. If you feel like you need more help, interview coaching is always an option. 

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If you'd like more resources on interview strategies and tips, check out this post on how to address the salary question in an interview, or hop over to the Job Seekers FAQ page

Happy interviewing, my friends. Don't forget to smile! 

Life in the Gray

I'm not a big fan of winter. More specifically, I detest the darkness that winter brings. 

Yes, it is technically spring as of Tuesday. Yes, daylight savings happened. But you know what? My experiential spring is not here yet. March thru mid-April is this pesky transitional period that makes me want to curl up in a ball and hibernate all over again. The temperatures are rising, but not consistently. The sun comes out occasionally, and when it does, it is glorious. But more often than not, the forecast looks like this:

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Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing, my friends. Winter wasn't too bad this year, but as usual, the gray of early spring has caught me by surprise. And it's not a good surprise. 

For the past couple of weeks, we've fallen into a routine. Andrew comes home from work, and asks me about my day. I shrug, because it was fine but not great. He asks what's wrong, and I shrug again. "Nothing really. I just miss the sun." Yes, I literally say that. Then we decide to snuggle on the couch and watch The Office because the show is funny, and neither of us feels like doing a whole lot more than that after a full day of work. 

I get out of bed. I serve my clients. I write. I eat. But for this brief time of year, it is a mechanical sort of existence. A pause in the hallway, an intermission between acts. The sun is coming back--I know that cognitively--but that fact alone is not enough to pierce the gloom. Early spring is a halfway happy, a lackluster shade of gray.

***

I've been attending a weekly bible study since December, which has been a positive experience for the most part. I enjoy the daily time in scripture, and the fruit that comes from consistently hearing from God. Daily study is a game changer, but I wouldn't stick to it as well without the structure provided by the class.

We're studying Romans, with frequent references to other parts of the Bible, and most of it has been so, so good for my soul. The gospel is good--why wouldn't it feel amazing to remind myself of that daily? But along with that goodness, I've found myself clouded by the gray in-between, the "gaps" I perceive that, if filled, would allow the Bible to read more like a how-to manual.

Proverbs is filled with warnings about types of friends to avoid, and when we should say no to a relationship. Yet verses throughout scripture call us to love one another, to bear one another's burdens, to forgive, to be sacrificial. Where is the line between being a godly friend, and having biblical boundaries? There is no definitive answer given, no authoritative black and white. 

Then we arrived at Romans 12. "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them." The commands and intentions are clear--as Christians, we are not to be neutral or passive in loving our enemies, but actively good. That's peachy when I need to be kind to someone who cuts me off in traffic, or I need to forgive a stranger for her unkind remark about my profession as a creative. 

But praying for your enemies is an eye-popping, mind-boggling request when God asks you to pray for your abusers.

God commands me to be "for him," to let go of angry speeches that I've rehearsed in case I run into him at a grocery store. Neutrality isn't enough.

Oh, how silly of me to think I'd mastered my bitterness and conquered my anger! "I've forgiven him," I'd say. In loving response, I imagine God chuckled to Himself, then brought me to Romans 12. He always knows me better than I know myself. 

I tried praying for my most recent abuser, and it brought me to my knees. I found myself weeping in this tension of acknowledging his behavior as evil, but knowing that he was no more tainted by sin than I am. I caught a brief glimpse of our equal need for Jesus, and while it was cathartic, it was also exhausting. I had to pry my fingers away from my beloved anger to get there. 

Confronting evil in a broken world brings me right into the heart of the gray. This world is the waiting room for our eternal, true home. I know it's coming, but it's not here yet. What to do while I wait leaves me feeling clouded, and more than a little frustrated with the gray. I ache for the glorious light of God's presence. But it simply isn't time yet.

***

There is a conversation I'd been avoiding with Andrew since the day we were married. A topic I've mentioned, but fiercely refused to discuss for two and a half years, possibly even longer, dating back to our engagement. I dreaded the conversation with a bleakness that words could never express. But I also knew we needed to have it, mostly for my sake, so we put a block of time on the calendar and prepared accordingly.

On Sunday, we talked about death. We talked about what we want to happen if we're seriously ill or wounded, especially if we're not able to make decisions for ourselves. We talked about our bodies, and what we want to happen to them when we're gone. We talked about each other's well being, and what we would hope for one another in the event that one of us died and left the other behind.

I started crying approximately 30 seconds into the conversation.

Andrew smiled gently, and asked if we should have the conversation another time. "Oh no," I said. "I'm going to cry no matter when we have this conversation. We might as well do it now."

Imagining Andrew's death is one of my primary sources of anxiety. It is a difficult fear to combat, because you know what? He could die today. He could die next week, or next year. He probably won't, but there is absolutely no way for me to know that for certain. It isn't necessarily a fear that lives at the forefront of my mind, or one that prevents me from staying present in my life.

Instead, the anxiety lurks under the surface of my consciousness, rising up like a shark when I least expect it. I glance at the clock, and it's 4:30 PM. Andrew is typically home by now, but I haven't heard from him. What if he's in a car accident, bleeding out on the shoulder of a highway somewhere? I shake my head, and I move on. The fear recedes into the depths of my self, where I can't see it or touch it. But it's there, and I know it will come back.

Anxiety feeds on the gray, the unknowable and the unanswerable. The questions that have no answers. More accurately, perhaps, anxiety feeds on the questions for which the world has no answers. 

***

Like the gray of winter hinting the return of the sun, the unanswerable and the unknowable grays can point to a coming dawn. No, the fullness of spring isn't here yet. But it's coming, and I can see the signs of it. Flower buds poke up out of the mulch, trumpeting the forthcoming warmth. On days like yesterday, the sunshine is so startling and restorative that I can't help but tear up, close my eyes, and drink it in with my arms outstretched.

Finally. Yes. I needed this. 

It is the same experience when I sit in stillness, letting the full truth of God's sovereignty and faithfulness fill my soul. The ambiguous questions are still pesky, but at last, they have answers. Not just any answers...good answers! Answers that invite sunlight into my heart, scattering the clouds effortlessly. 

What should I do about....

Trust me. I am good.

What if something bad happens...

Trust me. I am good.

What if I never...

Trust me. I am good. 

The gray of winter lingers far longer than I would prefer, and the season feels interminable. But my perception doesn't change the fact that the sun is coming. While I wait, I cling to the scattered, precious rays of warmth, knowing that there are blissfully sunny days ahead.  

Reflections on a First Draft

In case it wasn't clear from the title of this post, I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY NOVEL!! It wrapped up on Wednesday around 49,000 words. 

For those of you who aren't writers, this is a big deal. There aren't a lot of milestones in the writing journey. Most days, I think to myself, "Oh. I put my butt in my chair and I typed something. That's progress, right?" There aren't many 'big wins' until you hit the major checkpoints, and a finished initial draft is the first one of those checkpoints in my writing process. 

As if that weren't enough to celebrate, I finished the draft the day before International Women's Day! In hindsight, I sort of wish I'd dragged it out for another day, to land on the actual holiday. Think of the raw feminine satisfaction! Regardless, I'm proud to be a woman, a professional, and a writer, especially this week. (Side note -- I'm offering a discount on services for women in celebration of International Women's day. Check it out if you're interested.) 

My work-in-progress is the second novel for which I've completed a first draft. The first was a practice novel, something deeply personal and therapeutic that I will likely never edit, or at least will leave untouched for many years. So this current novel is extra special, because it's the first project that will advance to a second draft right away. 

There was definitely a not-so-great moment on Wednesday after I'd finished the draft, celebrated via text and social media, and consumed a perfectly justified number of self-congratulatory Oreos. (It was also National Oreo Day this week. Why wouldn't I?)

My not-so-great realization moment looked a little something like this:

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Yep--that was me realizing that editing is next.

The writing process is never-ending; this is something I had yet to learn until this week, because my first novel was tucked away in a drawer immediately after the first draft was completed. Check and done, yo! On to the next big idea.

To be completely honest, this reality about the writing and editing process makes finishing a first draft pretty darn anticlimactic. I've reached a milestone, but there's still a long road ahead before the project is truly done. I'm working to frame this as encouraging rather than depressing--I have ample opportunity to do work that I love: polishing and pruning. Over the next several months, I'll be working to embrace myself as an empowered, critical, nitpicking superhero. 

That said, this draft is still a tremendous victory for me, and the culmination of a process that was wildly different than writing my first novel. In true nerd form, I took this as an opportunity to reflect and see what I've learned from writing this draft over the last four months. Here's what I came up with.

1. Discovery writing is my jam.

When I wrote my first novel, I outlined and planned to my heart's content. I'm about as Type A as it gets, and I was absolutely certain that Brandon Sanderson and I were writing process soulmates. How could I be wrong?

But when I started writing an interim project that I ended up tabling, I realized a few things. First, the outline was evaporating my creative energy. I had zero sense of control over the creative process, and had almost no motivation to write. There were a number of other issues, including the fact that the project was just too complex for my skill level right now. So I set it aside, and moved on to something more doable. 

For this new project, I wanted to achieve two major goals: write an urban fantasy, so I don't have to worry about world building just yet, and give discovery writing a chance. For the non-writing readers out there, discovery writing is the end of the spectrum opposite outlining. Instead of planning out the details of the setting, plot, and character arcs for the story, discovery writers just dive in and let the story go where it goes. Outliners do more work upfront, and discovery writers do a lot of cleaning up after the draft is written.

I didn't expect this to work for me as well as it did, but holy crap, people! Discovery writing this novel was incredibly freeing. I felt creatively empowered, motivated, and pumped to sit down and write most days. That's a big deal, and I will absolutely be hanging on to that process moving forward.

2. Routine rules.

In the name of self-employed discipline and focus, my day is scheduled out in specific blocks of time. I have my morning routine, allow myself some time to run errands if needed, and tackle client work before doing any other writing or business work. My writing block starts at 1:30 PM, every day of the week.

And you know what? Something about that consistent daily start time really, really works. Occasionally, I tried to start writing earlier in the day, but 99% of the time my body was like, "WHOA! Not ready. Try me again at 1:30 PM." And when that time did come around each afternoon, my instincts naturally settled in to writing mode. It was glorious--imperfect, but definitely fruitful.

For the sake of getting words on the page and training my body to write consistently, I'll continue to maintain a daily writing routine moving forward.  

3. All writing is good progress.

Every day, my goal was to get words on the page. It didn't matter how many words I added to the draft, and it didn't matter how ridiculously bad the quality of the writing was. I knew if I chipped away at the story, eventually, it would turn into a completed first draft. And it did.

But I definitely struggle to believe that on some days. It's easy to try to get it right the first time, to agonize over the right word or phrasing. First drafts aren't meant to be polished, though. And having words on the page gave me momentum, even if they were the wrong words. It is much easier to work from something than from nothing, even if that something needs a lot of work later on.

4. I can actually do this!

This might seem silly, but this draft is the one that gives me the confidence to keep writing! My first novel was therapeutic in nature, and the focus wasn't intentional, solid storytelling. So I wasn't confident that I would jump into something totally different and be able to commit to the process. 

But I did it! I wrote 49,000 words, and I'm excited to mold that mound of clay into something identifiable and beautiful. Finishing this draft taught me that I can finish a book, and I can actually be a writer of speculative fiction. Huzzah! 

----

It's been a crazy journey thus far, and I know it's only beginning. Thank you so much for reading -- thank you for caring about my work, and for listening to the thoughts that I throw out there into the digital universe. I can't tell you how much it means when you let me know you're following the blog, or tell me that you're genuinely excited to read my book some day. It's a lot easier to write when I know there are already willing readers out there, ready to give my book a chance. Thank you for your encouragement and support -- it means much more than I can effectively convey! 

To all the women out there, Happy International Women's Day! Rock your strengths with confidence, and keep moving toward your goals. You are worthy, talented, intelligent, and valuable, and I believe in your ability to succeed. Go conquer the world!

When Your Career Doesn't Fit

Being in a career that you hate is the absolute worst. I get it--I've been there. On top of my personal experience, I find that many of my clients feel stuck in careers that just don't fit their unique skillsets and personalities. They are 100% sure that they don't like what they're doing, but they also don't know what career would be better to move into, so they feel even more stuck.

Feeling trapped--with no light at the end of the tunnel--is a serious downer, and a pervasive problem that is worth solving.

While there are obviously lots of contributing factors to discontentment in the workplace including office culture, management styles, working conditions, and much more, career choice itself can certainly be the problem. In this case, I'm talking to those of you who might like your boss, but don't like your job. You like your coworkers, but have no interest in the work itself.

A lot of us got pushed into making a career decision during our undergrad, long before we blossomed into fully-functioning adults, and we find ourselves stuck on that trajectory, years later.  When clients bring up this topic in our conversations, I generally say something like this: "I'm not a licensed career counselor, but I am passionate about professional identity, individual gifts, and career transition. I geek out over personality assessments. If you're up for it, let's chat and see what we can come up with."

I enter into this conversation with others--formally and informally, personally and professionally--because I know the discomfort of being in the wrong profession. It took me years to figure out that I was wired to work at home and run my own business, and now that I'm finally in a career that aligns with who I am as a person, I'm blown away by the positive impact on my life! It's been radically life-changing, and I never dreamed I could be this satisfied with my career. I never thought I would want to work, but I almost always feel energized and ready to go! Why wouldn't I want to share that experience with others, and see if we can unearth a career that will provide the same freedom and peace in their unique professional journeys? 

In light of all this, I decided to create this post as a practical guide for the career-haters out there. For those of you who feel stuck in your career (not job--career!), let's dive right in. I'll cover two truths to keep in mind, as well as three steps to take in order to make that big career change. 

2 Important Truths to Keep in Mind

1. You're Not Alone

If you found yourself reading the intro to this post and nodding (or crying) along, the first thing I want you to know is that it's not just you. You are absolutely not alone in hating your job.

Believe it or not, you're actually in the majority! 

A recent Gallup poll suggests that 70% of Americans are disengaged and discontent at work. 7 out of 10, people! That's a whole lot of unhappy employees. While I theoretically knew that a lot of people didn't like their jobs, I never felt like I was part of any sort of majority. I looked around and saw people who could be content in the same office, who were much more professionally satisfied than I was. I felt like I was missing something that everyone else seemed to innately understand, and it was overwhelmingly isolating.

Whether they're sitting next to you or not, however, it's clear that a lot of people out there are looking for something better, too. So don't believe the lie that it's just you!

2. You're Not Stuck

For the career-hater, it's tempting to feel hopeless, because there doesn't seem to be a way out. Family obligations, financial restraints, and the huge time investment associated with changing careers--not just jobs, but industries--feels like too great a distance to leap. There just doesn't seem to be a way to the other side without going bankrupt, or disappointing loved ones. Why bother?

While some career transitions are harder than others to make, this is simply not true. You're not stuck! There are a lot of options available to you, especially when you're not sure what you want to do next. And when you do find the career you want to move into, there are options available to you to make the change a reality. It's just a matter of how much you're willing to invest in the process, how patient you're willing to be, and what you're willing to sacrifice to land a position in a career that fits.  

So how exactly do you bridge that gap and make it happen? Where do you even begin? 

3 Steps to a Better Career Fit

1. Get to know yourself.

If you're feeling like your career isn't a good fit for you, the first step is to stop nitpicking the career you know you hate, and instead, look in the mirror. Get to know yourself. How are you wired? What realities about your personality, skill set, and values inform your career preferences? What makes you tick? 

There are several ways to go about this step of self exploration. I'll briefly hash out 3 of my favorite methods here. 

Assessments

I am a self-declared assessment nerd. While they certainly don't tell the whole picture of who you are as a person, assessments can provide some valuable insight into the overarching trends of what makes you, well, you. There are a bunch of assessments out there, varying wildly in terms of quality and accuracy, but the big buckets that you want to assess and explore are personality, values, and behavioral style. 

If you don't feel like sifting through the massive pile of web-based assessments on your own, here is a solid sampling of the five assessments I recommend taking. The first three assessments are free, and the last two are paid tests:

If you can swing it, take all five assessments. Spread the assessments out over a period of a couple of weeks. Take your time, read the directions carefully, and answer honestly.

When you have all of your results in hand, comb through the results carefully. Highlight the descriptions that are spot-on as they apply to you, ignore the stuff that isn't accurate at all, and notice trends that are repeated across multiple sections in a test report, and especially across multiple assessments.

What have you learned about yourself? How do these concepts apply in the workplace? Start to put together the pieces, and see what you come up with. 

Job History Exercise

This is one of my favorite exercises for career direction, and has been one of the most fruitful in my personal experience. My dad actually suggested this activity years ago, when I was feeling especially lost in terms of my career. The exercise was a game changer for me, and I hope it is helpful for you as well.

Write down every job you've ever had, all the way back to your high school days or first part-time gig. Depending on your situation, it might be good to include volunteer experiences as well, or involvement in extracurricular activities.

For every job or activity on the list, answer the following questions:

  • What was your favorite thing about the job? What did you enjoy the most? What energized you?
  • What were you most proud of in that role? What project, result, or client interaction makes you smile the most?
  • What do you miss doing? What do you wish you could do all over again?

After you've answered these questions for every job, look at your complete list of highlights. What trends do you see? Are there obvious themes or careers that are closely related to the tasks and projects you've highlighted? See where this path leads you, and take some time to explore the new opportunities that you identify along the way.

Survey Friends and Family

Sometimes we can't see ourselves as clearly as the people who love us most. Asking friends and family for feedback might provide some helpful insight as you study yourself. This suggestion comes with a big caution flag, however, because some of your family and friends might not be helpful in speaking into your strengths. In fact, in some cases the 'advice' from loved ones might be downright harmful. To mitigate against any unhelpful responses, I recommend coming up with a list of 5-7 people you trust the most and feel safest with. Include people from different seasons of your life, in different roles. Make sure every person on that list is really 'for' you. Do they celebrate with you when you win? Do they grieve with you when you're dealing with a loss? 

When you have your list, ask those individuals if they'd be willing to speak into your professional identity and unique personal characteristics. If they're willing to help, provide them with a list of questions, and ask them to consider them carefully. Here are a few ideas to get you going, but feel free to add your own based on what you want to pinpoint or understand about yourself:

  • When have we been talking, and the conversation caused me to lean in, talk faster, become increasingly animated? What topic(s) seemed to draw me out?
  • What dreams have I mentioned in passing to you, that I (or others) may have brushed off as silly or impossible?
  • When have you seen me be really proud or satisfied with my own work or achievements? 
  • Where do you think I thrive? Excel?
  • From what you've observed, what do you think I'm uniquely wired to achieve? Where do I naturally perform well?

Collect this feedback from your friends or family, and see what stands out. Trust your gut--take what is helpful, leave what is not. What surprises you? What sparks your interest?

----

By the end of your self-reflection period, the goal is to arrive at a list of possible careers that incorporate the elements of self that you've unearthed. You've taken the time to explore who you are, and now you have some ideas about what might be a good career move for you. How do you choose from the short list? How do you even know you're on the right track? 

2. Test the Waters

"The grass is always greener on the other side" is a nugget of wisdom brimming with relevance for your career journey. Don't leap into something new on a whim, just because it theoretically sounds better; of course it sounds better! You don't know anything about the industry yet, and only see the shiny fun stuff. But career changes are a big deal. Slow down, and safely explore your options before you decide to make a full transition.

There are several ways to explore a career without actually changing careers. Perhaps you can identify a volunteer opportunity inside of the new industry. Get your feet wet in work relevant to the jobs you're considering, and get a peek behind the curtain, so to speak. See what surprises you, what interests you, what concerns you.

Another option is to set up some informational interviews or job shadowing with people in your target industry. If you have a friend or colleague who can make a networking introduction for you, that is certainly best, but cold calls aren't out of the picture, necessarily. As long as your motivation is truly to learn and get a feel for the career (NOT sniff around for job openings), it's likely that the professionals in that industry will be open to helping you out in some capacity. Ask challenging questions, like, "What is the worst part about working in this industry? What challenges do you meet in this job consistently? What trends do you see in your field? Where do you expect this field to be in 10 years? 20 years? What do you think it takes to enjoy this work, and succeed in the field?"

If the industry you're considering is really different from everything you've done historically, consider taking some courses in the subject area. For example, if you've worked a 9 to 5 your whole life and are thinking about being a full-time gardener instead, find a free online class in botany or horticulture. Does the subject matter interest you, or are you bored out of your mind? Does the class inspire you to dive deeper and learn more? 

The point of this 'trial period' is to confirm your interest, and narrow down your short list. Admit you're wrong when an industry isn't actually good for you, and move on to the next career on your list. When you find something that stands out above the rest, it's time to move on to the final step.  

3. Invest in the transition.

Career transitions aren't going to happen overnight. You have to be patient, and be willing to make the change at an appropriate pace. That doesn't mean you're just sitting around passively, though! There's a lot to do as you invest in the process of changing careers. Here are a few things you can do to make the transition happen:

Network.

Okay, so you shuddered at the mention of the word 'network.' That's fair! Most people despise the concept with a passion. But it is still a beneficial practice, and one that doesn't have to make you beat your head against a wall. Try to have a positive perspective on this one, for your own sake.

LinkedIn is your friend here -- figure out what connections you have to your new industry/potential employers, and ask your existing friends or colleagues to make an introduction on your behalf. Have coffee with strangers. Go to industry-specific events. Put yourself out there a little bit! A future blog post on networking will dig into this more deeply, but for a full-blown career change, you're probably going to need an internal referral for someone to take a chance on you. In order to find a solid internal referral, you have to network. Period. 

Pursue training as-needed, but don't make assumptions.

A lot of my clients say things like, "I guess I need an MBA now," or "But I really don't want to go back to school!" In some cases, yes--they really do have to go back to school. You can't be a doctor without the degree. But in a lot of other cases, a traditional degree might not be necessary. Is the degree you assume you need preferred, or actually required? Can you supplement your existing education with something other than a traditional degree? 

Maybe you need some specific skills for your new career--let's say you want to get into mobile app design, but have no coding experience. Your first inclination might be to go back to school for a Computer Science degree. BUT instead, if you did a search for any free or reduced-cost bridge programs in your new industry, you'd find LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization providing FREE classes and job-transition support for careers in technology. They have classes in St. Louis, my friends! They actually put people in jobs. Good jobs. It's a no-brainer! And this is not the only bridge program out there. Explore the possibility before you shell out the cash for a full university degree.

Maybe your desired career utilizes a specific type of software, and a lot of companies consistently use the same program across the board. Take Salesforce, for example, a popular CRM platform in sales and marketing. Did you know that Salesforce offers free online certification? Why not amp up your relevant skills by pursuing your Salesforce certification, while you apply for new jobs in your field? If nothing else, it's a great resume and interview talking point that demonstrates your commitment to making the career change. 

The opportunities here are tremendous. Look for professional associations certifications, apprenticeship programs, bridge programs, training courses, etc. before you commit to a more traditional college degree. Think of the time, money, and sanity you could save in the process! 

Update your resume.

Your resume might be perfect for your current industry, but you have to look at it from a totally new perspective if you're planning to switch careers. Each position in your job history needs to be re-examined, and re-framed according to the context of new job opportunities. 

If you're moving out of sales into social work, nobody is going to care (as much) about your sales results data. They want to see a commitment to people, an emphasis on relationship, and a willingness to work hard. You might find that your resume bullet points need to be "flip-flopped," or re-written altogether. This will help people reviewing your resume as they look over your application--if you don't do this work in advance, you're bound to get tossed aside after a resume screener ponders aloud, "Why is this person applying for this job, anyway?"

Make your intentions clear. Tailor your resume to speak the language of your desired industry, not the career you're leaving behind. 

Consider 'stepping stone' roles. 

If you're making a really big change, you might want to consider doing it in stages. This is especially true if you're looking to move into a competitive company, the ones on the "Best Places to Work" list. Let's say you're a contract manager at Purina, and you're looking to make a transition. You've done your homework, you've narrowed down your list, and you know you really want to land a training and orientation job at World Wide Technology. That's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and you won't settle for less. It's great that you know what you want--but unfortunately, you have no direct training experience, and everybody on the planet wants to work at World Wide Technology. 

Instead, you could consider applying for a management role within your current department at Purina. Get some training experience. Ask your supervisor for some training responsibilities within your existing role--whatever you can swing, make it happen. Put yourself in a position to be more qualified when your dream jobs opens up. You could also apply for a contract management role inside World Wide Technology, with some management responsibility. Then, it's much easier to make an internal transfer to a different department for that 'dream' training role. 

"But that will take forever!" you say. Yep. Like I said, it isn't going to happen overnight! But that doesn't mean it's impossible. Are you willing to work for a new career, even if it might take some time to get there?

That brings me to the interim. The waiting period when you're still sitting in the career you hate, while you're dreaming of the job you think you'll love.

End well. 

Your current work matters. Your current job performance matters. You're still working for your most recent referring supervisor, my friends. You do not want to give them a reason to discredit you in the referral process. Instead, harness your existing workplace relationships (secretly, of course!) to improve your experience as you wait. Ask for new opportunities that relate to the new field. Request a schedule shift so you can attend a class. Do whatever you can to maximize your opportunities within the bounds of your current work environment. 

It's not necessarily going to be easy, but a career that suits you is still possible. Wait actively. Look forward purposefully. Engage in the process, knowing that it is an imperfect journey.

If you ever doubt that it's worth it, or forget exactly what it is you're aiming for, come back here, and I'll remind you. It is a fantastic experience to be in a job that suits me as a person. The results are life-changing, and every day, I know the journey was worth it

The Spiritual Danger in Grumbling

I don't know about you, but if there was such a thing, I could definitely earn an Olympic gold medal for grumbling. Top of the podium, my friends. I would leave my competitors in the dust. 

Complaining is a trap that I fall into often, and one that I've let slide over the years. Everyone does it. Life is broken and annoying. What's the big deal if I voice a few frustrations, or let the stream of grumbling flow in mind?

Driving is a great example of this. I've never had much patience on the road, but since I began working at home about than a year and a half ago, my tolerance for traffic has reduced drastically. I rarely find myself in rush hour traffic since I have no commute, and when I do go out during the day, light traffic is a tremendous annoyance.

I was driving last night when Andrew and I went out for an impromptu Valentine's date. Up until yesterday, we proclaimed our self-righteous defiance of the holiday with confidence: Valentine's Day is one of the most commercialized holidays out there! Love should be a daily act, not something that you can tick off one day of the year with flowers or chocolates! Ugh! Disgust!

Nonetheless, I found myself putting on my favorite red blouse, smearing on some red lipstick, and feeling like we should go see a movie at the very least. I mean, it was discount night at St. Louis Cinemas! Why wouldn't we go out? Hypocrisy at its finest, my friends. Perhaps Valentine's Day is just another day to love with intention, and the calendar reminder doesn't hurt.

Anyway, I was behind the wheel to and from our date, and I found myself speaking aloud toward other driver's in a not-so-nice fashion, pretty much constantly. I'm not used to having Andrew in the car with me that often, and his presence made me more aware of my frustrated ranting. 

I don't like you at all, what are you doing?! Why are you in the left lane and going 5 under? The left lane is the fast lane! Why is everybody driving like an idiot? 

My awareness of my grumbling was heightened by the fact that I'd listened to a sermon earlier that day on, you guessed it, grumbling. The experience in the car caused me to stop and think, Whoa. Am I really falling into this trap that often, and that easily?

I follow a wonderful blog called Practical Theology for Women written by Wendy Alsup. Her most recent post hit my inbox yesterday, and it was a discussion of sin in the midst of suffering. Wendy is dealing with a cancer diagnosis, among other things, and she talked about how a sermon from her previous church in Seattle provided some helpful insight into the biblical perspective on grumbling.

The sermon is from 2009, but is still available on Grace Church Seattle's website here, if you're interested. In this talk, John Haralson does a fantastic job of walking through Philippians 2 and talking about the Bible's warning against grumbling.

I listened to this sermon while I took a walk yesterday, and it was a big ol' smack in the face about the recent state of my heart. It was a warning, and for the first time I took it as seriously as it was meant to be received. 

There were a few major takeaways that I gleaned from the sermon, and I'll walk through them now. Hopefully these will be beneficial for you as you examine your own heart.

#1 - Grumbling is a surreptitious danger that can quietly wreck your faith. 

The most fascinating and eye-opening part of the sermon was the argument that God warns against grumbling because it can wreck your faith. I hadn't considered grumbling to be as serious as many of the other sins the Bible warns against--what was the big deal?

But the end point of grumbling is the conclusion that something is wrong, and because of that, God is not good. 

Think about that for a minute. I'll use the traffic scenario above as a common, more frivolous example, but the logic still applies. My stream of thought in the car can quickly transition from frustration at the drivers around me, to doubting the sovereignty and goodness of God. Look at this stream of thought, pulled straight from my own experience:

Man, everybody is driving like a moron today! Ugh!
Why am I hitting every single light on the way? That's so unfair. I don't always hit them, and I happen to hit them NOW, when I'm running late?
God, you could make these lights green, but You're not doing it. WHY?

Bam. Grumbling about traffic somehow meanders its way down to "Is God really good? If He is, why isn't He intervening?" 

At this point, you may be thinking, "Traffic, really? That's what you're complaining about?" Fair point! Let's talk about something more significant, a "lack" that can be more accurately categorized as suffering.

I've mentioned previously that I went through a long season of spiritual abuse, which led me to suffer from complex-PTSD for a season. All of this began about 3 days after Andrew and me returned from our honeymoon, and it was a long, agonizing haul. I spent a lot of time ignoring God altogether, but eventually I started incorporating God into my anger about the events that came to pass.

My pretty-much-daily train of thought looked something like this: 

Why did that abusive person have to be a part of my life? Why did this abuse have to wreck my time as an employee at the church, which seemed to be an incredible fit for me? Why am I not seeing justice for the wrong done? God, you put him there! You set him in the middle of my life and you let him wreck it, RIGHT after my honeymoon! My first year of marriage is characterized by survival and tears and anger instead of what it could have been. You've robbed me of a gift that I've waited and waited for, and you're not doing anything about it to make it right. You can't be good. You just can't be. You laughed while you dropped a bomb on our lives, at the very beginning of our marriage. Why? 

Do you see the progression woven into those thoughts? Something is awful, and God's not doing anything about it, therefore God can't be good. That's some serious damage to my faith, right there! My entire image of God was uprooted, and theologically incorrect. I truly believed that God was cackling maniacally while he pushed a big red button and dropped a bomb on our lives. I believed that, and it all started when I grumbled about the hand life had dealt me. 

So what do we do with that warning, and an understanding of the danger in grumbling? Again, John Haralson does a great job of addressing this in his sermon, but my second major takeaway was the practical, Biblical response to "lack" in our lives:

#2 - Lament is Biblical, and we are invited to command God to make things right.

This one was a little mind-blowing for me. So often, we respond to lack in our lives by trying to either 1) grumble as described above or 2) bury the discontentment in gratitude. I'm definitely guilty of the latter as well, and I'm guessing you've experienced it at some point in your own life, directly or indirectly: "Oh, yeah, things are bad, but they could by much worse. I have a lot to be thankful for. There are hungry kids out there, and people dying from terminal illness. I should be thankful to not having it as bad as they do. I'm blessed. God will use the bad stuff, and everything will be fine. "

Haralson points out that this approach is not a biblical response to suffering, and felt like doing a cartwheel when I heard him say so. Independent of suffering, sure! We're absolutely commanded to be grateful, and to praise God for the gifts He's given us. But the Book of Psalms alone is Biblical proof that we are meant to have a different response to suffering and discontentment.

40% of Psalms are psalms of lament. (Don't even get me started on this source's argument that churches aren't proportionally representing lament in their song selections. Totally different issue that makes my blood boil!) I already knew that lament was a prominent topic in the Bible, but what I hadn't considered was the specific language and posture that David used in his laments.

Let's take Psalm 59 for example. The very first line in this psalm, the FIRST thing that David says, is "Deliver me from my enemies." David straight-up commands God to take a messed up situation, and make it right. And David does this over, and over, and over again throughout Psalms.

That's our example. So how does that apply to real-life situations, the here and now?

When I think about my spiritual abuse and the ripple effects that continue to negatively impact our lives, this is how I would translate my "lack" into a lament to God:

God, that period of abuse messed up a lot of things in our lives. Years later, we still feel the pains of that season, and we still wrestle with its impact on our lives. DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT! Make it right. Heal my own heart, so I don't fall into anger or bitterness. Heal Andrew. Show us how to trust you again. You are God, and you are the one who has to step in to fix what is broken in our world.

There is nothing wrong with that prayer. It is 100% theologically sound. I will say, though, that it's incomplete, because David always ends with an assurance of God's goodness and faithfulness. So after the above, I might close with this:

God, you delivered us through that season of suffering. You preserved our brand-new marriage, when the abuse and pain could have crushed us. You have used the junk of the last couple of years to produce fruit in our marriage, and in my professional life. I trust you to act again now. I trust that you will not abandon us, that You are a good and faithful God. I come to you in the name of your son Jesus, who continues to intercede on my behalf at your right hand. 

Bam. It's honestly earth-shattering for me, even as I write it out now, even though the Bible is packed with examples of this type of prayer! Even though it's laid out plain as day for me in scripture, I haven't ever consistently adhered to this posture of lament as I talk with God about the "lack" in my life.

Adhering to this model, however, has already proven to be cathartic and life-giving for my soul. I feel a release in giving my burdens to God, while also feeling energized and hopeful in remembering his past faithfulness, and trusting Him to follow through. The fruit is good, my friends. I invite you to explore your own posture in discussing your pain with God, and to approach Him as a good and generous Father who will always hear you. 

5 Things You Should Understand About Self-Employment

I debated about whether or not I should write this post. The title and content inherently scream 'rant,' and that's truly not my jam. I don't want to eat up blog space with that sort of negative content, whining about whatever is bugging me the most in any given moment. There's plenty of that to go around already. 

But feelings aside, it is objectively true that I run into a lot of professional obstacles because people simply don't understand what it's like to be self-employed, especially as a creative. In an effort to educate, be vulnerable, and explain some of my most frequent professional and personal decisions, I created the list that follows.

From my experience as a self-employed writer and career communication coach, these are the 5 most important and misunderstood realities of self-employment. These are the the most abused characteristics of my professional life, the things I so wish I could get you to grasp in our daily interactions as friends, family members, acquaintances, or strangers. I hope that the items listed will challenge your existing perspective on self-employed professionals, and help to improve your relationships with others who share my professional status.  

5 Things You Should Understand About Self-Employment

 Photo by  Laura Ockel  on  Unsplash

Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

 

1. Routine is vital, especially for creative work. 

Being self-employed requires a great deal of self-discipline. I am CEO and worker bee, Marketing Director and Writer, HR Director and Finance Director. I am personally responsible for balancing every single aspect of my work, and as a result, I wear a bunch of different--and competing--hats on a daily basis.

On top of that, creative work has its own set of rules, and there are unique challenges that come along with it. The capacity for creative work comes from a different internal space than more straightforward tasks like running data in a spreadsheet, or drafting emails. The effort to produce creative work requires a crap-ton of intellectual and emotional fuel, especially at the beginning of a writing session. This was earth-shattering for me at the beginning of my writing journey. I was totally caught off-guard by the fact that creative work takes so much fuel. 

Both of these issues--multiple hats and the nature of creative energy--are most easily managed by a consistent daily routine. I work from home, and am surrounded by my personal to-do list every time I get up to use the restroom or get a snack from the kitchen. I see errands that need to be run, and laundry that needs to be washed. Routine keeps me focused, productive, and more empowered to separate my professional and personal responsibilities. 

When I wake up, I put on my CEO hat and tackle strategy for big-bucket priorities. For the next couple of hours, I put on my Consultant hat, making sure my clients' needs are met with excellence. If client work is slow, I put on my Marketing Director hat to develop communication plans, blog about my services, and share success stories. I do what I can to identify new clients, and reach out to new people whom I believe I can provide a meaningful service for.

After lunch, every single day, I put on my Writer hat. As much as I want to fight it because the work is challenging and vulnerable, I sit my butt in my office chair and make myself write. And at that time, every day, by body recognizes that it's time to write. The creative mind 'wakes up' and responds naturally. When I start writing at the same time every day, the hardest part is over, and the words flow freely. Some days are better than others, but the consistency of sitting down to write at the same time every day is huge. 

Disruptions that seem minor--like a doctor's appointment at 1:30 PM--are anything but minor. Trying to write at a different time of day is like trying to push a semi truck uphill, by myself. The next day, when I have no disruptions, my body is not in its usual rhythm. It requires a great deal more effort to get the creative wheels turning, to 'reset the machine,' so to speak. 

That effect is multiplied for larger routine disruptions like vacations. Being away for several days creates an avalanche of mental clutter that I have to clear out upon my return. On top of the time spent away from my desk, I lose a significant percentage of my returning productive time because it takes so much effort to reset the clock. It's true that commitments like doctor's appointments and vacations are inherently good things--of course they are! But that doesn't change the impact that these appointments have, so it is absolutely fair to name them as disruptions for my professional routine. 

2. Professional self-worth is a constant challenge.

The world sends me constant messages that my work is invalid because I haven't sold a book yet, or don't make a certain amount of money each year. We'll explore that more in Item #4. But on top of that, there are little voices in my head while I serve my clients or work on my novel, whispering lies about my professional identity:

You have nothing important to say.
You aren't really helping anyone.

You will never finish this book.
You have no idea what you're doing.
Nobody will ever buy this.
You are a terrible writer.
You are wasting your time. 

This is daily, people. Independent of anything you might say or do, I am already doubting my own professional self-worth. I have to fight the lies every day, and remind myself that the work I'm doing has a significant impact on the people I serve. I have to remind myself that writing touches lives in a way that is beautiful, and profoundly mysterious. It is a constant, uphill battle.  

As hard as it is to admit, your requests for me to ditch work for a few hours, or hop on an airplane and leave for a few days aren't helping. These requests imply, however unintentionally, that my job isn't a real job, and that it isn't as valid or valuable as someone else's. I can pick up and leave whenever I want. Yes, it is technically true that there is flexibility in my situation. But is it right to stop working whenever I want, just because I technically can? Isn't it good to pursue work that matters, to commit myself professionally, to hold myself to a certain number of work days each year like everyone else? 

This leads me right into my third point. 

3. I am at the top of everyone's daytime help list.

This is absolutely the hardest point for me to share with you, because I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I WANT TO HELP! I hope you'll keep that in mind as I explain.

I get a constant stream of completely legitimate requests for my time, ranging from a couple of hours to a full day. I am at the top of everyone's list, because I am flexible, technically available most of the time, and I don't have young children at home.

These requests span a variety of needs:

  • Babysitting
  • Rides to the airport
  • Hanging out at your house to meet contractors or deliveries
  • Dropping you off at the auto shop, then taking you home, then bringing you back later
  • Providing emotional support on a hard day

Well-meaning friends often ask me for my time during the day, frequently for a commitment spanning half a day of work including travel time. As I mentioned above, the hardest part is that I WANT TO HELP! The requests are coming from you, after all--a friend, a loved one, someone I desire to support and serve. But I also have a job, and these requests do--however unintentionally--imply that my work is less important than your current need. Where do I draw the line? At what point do I say 'no' to protect my professional self-worth, and when do I set my work aside to serve others? 

This is a balancing act that I have yet to master. I have no idea how to get it down to a system without feeling like a selfish jerk most of the time. But for now, until I figure it out, I practice saying 'no' a lot. I say 'no' because I get too many of these requests, and I just can't manage them all. I say 'no' because routine is vital, and professional self-worth is a daily challenge. You may see a massive blank-spot in my schedule because I'm not accountable to a traditional supervisor, but that isn't the case. I'm accountable to myself, and to my work, just as much as anyone else is. My husband goes to an office every day and works his tail off so that I can stay home and do what I love. I have a responsibility to him, too, to honor his sacrifice and not waste the opportunity he gives me every day.

The best advice I can give you is to be specific--give me all of the details when you ask for my help, including the specific time range, why you need help, and what you expect of me. In the case of an emergency or extenuating circumstance, I'm more likely to say yes. But you have to tell me that's the case in order for me to know. I am not a mind reader, and I cannot meet every need that comes my way. 

Don't stop asking for help because you've read this, but don't assume I'll say yes because I work from home, either. Identify some other people to rotate through when you have a daytime, weekday need. Maybe acknowledge that my work matters, and that you realize you're asking me to give up something more than just time.

Above all, know that I care about you and your families, even when I say 'no.'

4. Success isn't measured by annual salary.

On occasion, people literally laugh when I tell them what I do. Others are more subtle in their disapproval and skepticism. I've had people follow up with, "Are you successful?" This is code for "But do you make money, and if so, how much?" I mean, think about that for a second! Imagine meeting someone at a cocktail party. You ask what she does, and she says she's an accountant. Is your follow-up going to be "Okay, but how much money do you make?" How do you think that would feel, on her end? Would you consider that approach to be polite, or respectful of her as a professional?

I know that many people don't understand the reality of creative work, or the value of it at all. I understand that many people are accustomed to working a 9-5, getting a regular paycheck with benefits, and having a certain number of PTO days. Everything is neat, orderly, and data-centric. My work is admittedly different, but that does not make it less valuable. There is no valid reason to be suspicious or disapproving of my profession as a creative. 

It all comes down to how we, as a culture, define and measure success. If you measure success by your paycheck, I'm so, so sorry. That is a narrow, shallow definition of success that leaves your professional self-worth and success dependent on the economic success of your employer. Instead, I try to define success more broadly--by the impact that I have on individual lives with my clients, and the future impact of the stories I write. I measure hours, effort, client satisfaction, and words on the page. 

You may not believe me to be successful--fair enough. But I would ask that you consider why you feel that way. What is it that makes you so determined to measure someone's professional value in dollar signs? What truths do you believe about yourself, about the people around you? I invite you to explore your own perception of identity, and at the very least, to assume the best when you do not understand someone else's job. Ask questions, and be curious. 

5. My work is just as challenging as yours, every day. 

Though the schedule and individual components are radically different, self-employment is just as challenging as a 9-5. These challenges are consistently present, and they are 100% real. 

Here's a quick summary of my greatest professional challenges, with some reiterations of the points above:

Self-Discipline
Doing my job every day, even though nobody is making me do it. When I'm tired, getting up early with no external accountability or appointments. Putting words on the page every day, even though I might never sell a book. 

Boundaries
Saying 'no' to laundry and errands, and 'yes' to my work. Sticking to a schedule, because my work is valuable. Saying 'no' to friends during the day, because eventually I have to get something done. Working a full day, even if my husband comes home early from work.

Isolation
Being alone most of the time, especially during the winter. Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder with the realities of working from home. Finding ways to be social and counter loneliness, without dramatically sacrificing my work time. 

Creative Energy
Understanding the realities of creative work, and how that energy is best fostered. Giving my creative mind what it needs in order to succeed. Being satisfied with 3 hours of creative work, because it takes a lot of fuel to make it happen. Balancing the reality of creativity with my desire to get a project done. Being patient as I learn to understand my creative self.

Self-Worth
Refusing to believe that I am defined by dollar signs. Daily affirming that my work is valuable, no matter what the world says. Charging a fair rate for my coaching services, and having the guts to charge friends or family members. 

Inconsistent Work Flow
Managing busy seasons of multiple clients, and adjusting to slower seasons. Identifying new clients, and maintaining a routine despite seasonal fluctuations. Setting goals when I can't predict how many clients I'll actually have. Budgeting for an unknown amount of work. 

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. There are challenges I'm not even aware of, or items I've forgotten to mention. The point isn't the specifics of each challenge, even--it's the fact that these challenges exist, and that they are significant. I'm not lazy, and I'm not sitting at home every day watching Netflix, even though I'm regularly tempted and able to do so. 

My work is not a playground. Yes, my work is fun, and I love what I do! But it's still work, and it's still broken, just like more traditional jobs. 

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I hope these points are illuminating for you. I hope you learned something, and that you came away with an understanding of self-employment that you didn't have previously. That said, this is absolutely not universally applicable to every self-employed person in the world! Don't assume that my perspective is the same as someone's else's. Instead, ask questions, get to know your self-employed friends, and challenge your own assumptions about their work.

Above all, let your self-employed friends--especially the creatives--know how much you value their work. Remind them know that their work matters, and that it's freaking awesome that they get to pursue something like fiction, photography, or dance. We need to hear it. We need to know that there are people out there who don't think we're foolish dreamers, wasting time and wasting space. 

We need people who are willing to read this blog post all the way through, who care enough to ask questions. Thanks for making it this far, my friend! If you have any follow-up thoughts or concerns, let me know in the comments below, or reach out directly