My Writing Journey

A Lesson from Patrick Rothfuss

For the last five weeks or so, I haven't been able to write. 

Okay, technically I've written a little. One day last week, I did a freewriting session to dump out all the crap in my brain. And after that, on Saturday morning, I made a list of blog posts I could write to reflect on my upcoming 30th birthday. I scribbled out a few to-do lists, shot off some emails, and did my usual writing on the client side.

Still, I haven't really been able to write. I haven't touched my novel draft, or my short story in-progress. I haven't sat down and brainstormed new ideas.

But that's not the worst part.

Five weeks isn't an alarmingly long period of time to having trouble writing. We've had some things going on...family health stuff, routine disruptions. Life happens, you know? But I didn't see it that way. Instead, I stared at myself in the mirror and came to the daily conclusion that I can't do this. I am failing. And it's never going to get better.

I accepted the fact that I wasn't writing, and adopted it as a rule of life. And that conclusion left me feeling--on top of everything else I was feeling--like a complete waste of space.

Then today happened. 

I hopped over to Goodreads to add a book to my "Want to Read" shelf. While I was there, a blog post from Patrick Rothfuss caught my eye.

Now, if you don't know who Patrick Rothfuss is, you should. He has written an astonishingly beautiful fantasy series that is in-progress: The Kingkiller Chronicles. The first two books are published along with a novella (#2.5). If you haven't read Patrick's work, I dare you to go get the first book (The Name of the Wind) and tell me it isn't well-written. You might not dig the genre or specifics or whatever, but it is an indisputable fact that Patrick Rothfuss knows how to write. The series is one of my favorites, and like many other readers, I eagerly await the day when he brings the trilogy to a close. 

Anyway, on to the blog post. I don't typically read Patrick's blog (or anyone else's really), but this one caught my eye. It's titled "A blog, if only barely," and in it, Patrick talks about why he hasn't been posting much. He shares feelings of exhaustion, busy-ness, and a lack of motivation. He talks about how lonely he is, how dark his moods have been, and how discouraging it is to feel like he doesn't have anything good to say. 

I read the post with wide eyes. It was like living the lyrics to "Killing Me Softly," minus the crippling fear of exposure.

Instead, I felt relief.

Of course it sucks that Patrick is in a bad place--I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone. But I was relieved because this amazing, inspired author whose work I respect is in a familiar place. He described something like the valley that I've been in this summer, and even with Patrick's massive reader base, he's still willing to write and put himself out there. He's willing to talk about the dark crap, even if it feels useless to do so. 

Patrick's words were exactly the kick in the pants I needed to write this blog post.

A few days ago, I was crying in the dining room, trying to explain how I'm feeling to Andrew. I told him I hate socializing right now, because I have nothing to say. People ask "How are you?" and the only honest answer is unacceptable in 99% of social settings. They ask "How's your writing going?" and I just want to crawl under the table and die. Outside of my dearest, inner-circle friends, I can't respond to "How are you?" with the truth.

Even now, with this lesson from Patrick Rothfuss at heart, I wouldn't answer the question honestly in most social settings. A dinner party is no place to dump my problems on the table, especially not with just anyone. I may be in a valley, but I still don't want to be a party pooper.

But my blog...well, it's mine. This is my space, and the only people who read this blog do it because they choose to. They know the content can get real, and they enter in anyway.

So on my blog, at least for today, I am choosing to tell the truth.

Things are pretty shitty. I haven't been writing. My overall self-esteem is in the toilet, and that's extending outside of my professional life. I drew out a literal Venn Diagram of potential mental health concerns that are contributing to my total absence of motivation, productivity, and self-esteem. I frequently stare at the computer screen, paralyzed by this false but prevailing catch-22: it doesn't matter if I write, yet it doesn't matter if I don't write. I know that concept is a lie, but it paralyzes me even so. 

I'm working on all of this. I'm actively seeking solutions for the mess that's going on in my heart and mind. But I think the most important thing to say right now is that things are bad. But I choose to sit here and write about it anyway, even though it's awkward and exposing.

This may seem to you (and me) like a small victory, but I'm still calling it a win. Thank you for reading. Thank you for all of the times you've told me that my writing matters, that I matter. You wonderful people are helping to sustain me in this season, and I could not be more thankful. 

One of the not-really-writing things that I wrote in the last week was a Facebook status on primary election day. It said, "Your voices matter." I can't help but grin just thinking of it! How ridiculous and mind-boggling is it that I can value everyone else's voices, but fail to appropriately value my own?

Cheers to the catharsis of speaking truth, my friends, even when the truth is less than shiny. And an extra special shoutout to Patrick Rothfuss for modeling vulnerability when the words are dark, and yet still worth sharing. And cheers to you, Patrick. May life get a little less crappy for us both, hopefully soon. 

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. 

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:

giphy.gif

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!

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. 

-------

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

The Gospel at Work: Writing Without Fear

Every month or two, I try to designate a blog post to pausing and exploring the current state-of-the-union in my writing journey: how it’s going, what I’m learning, what I’m struggling with, and what concepts are at the forefront of my thoughts. I do this largely for myself and for the insights revealed in the process of creating such an update, but I also do this for other writers that might be tuning in. Often, these posts are narrow in focus, and the content is primarily relevant for people who call themselves writers.

Today’s post is an exception, and I believe the subject is relevant whether you call yourself a writer or not. Why? Because we all get scared sometimes, and the concept that I’ve been wrestling with and mulling over in my writing journey is fear

The more I look, the more I see fear at the root of problems in my writing and personal life. Technically speaking, my writing process is fantastic in the present season, and that’s how I generally respond when people ask how it’s going. My work-in-progress is somewhere around 30,000 words, the discovery approach continues to provide creative freedom and space, and I’m getting words on the page consistently. The story is fun, I like how the characters and plot are developing, and I’m having a good time watching it unfold.

But my complete writing journey is so much broader and complex than a work-in-progress status. The big picture encompasses the why of writing, the purpose in sitting down and stringing words together, and the vehicles through which those words are shared. More and more, I find myself feeling compelled to write non-fiction, to tell personal stories that are vulnerable and challenging, and to tell those stories honestly. When I explore these subjects as writing exercises, I dive into them with such intense focus that I lose track of time as well as my basic human needs, like water and bathroom breaks. I reach a stopping point, shake my head a little, and look around with a dazed look on my face, having entirely forgotten my surroundings for an hour or two. Sometimes I’m even a little winded, like I forgot to breathe often enough while I was writing.

For those of you who don’t write, it’s worth noting that this sort of head space is pure writing gold. The work is fueled by intuition, and it produces an uninterrupted stream of thought that is untainted by tandem concerns or distractions. Most importantly, perhaps, the intense focus drives out any and all fear that is often present in writing. 

As fearless as the writing itself can be, the compulsion to write more non-fiction is absolutely terrifying. The thought ignites a long list of anxiety-ridden questions, all rooted in various fears:

What happens to my work-in-progress if I spend more time on non-fiction?

Will I ever finish a novel?

Am I hurting my marketability by pursuing multiple genres? How will I get an agent?

What if I make a full switch to non-fiction? Am I being fickle, or is this the right move?

How will my loved ones respond if I continue to explore challenging topics like abuse?

Will the non-fiction topics that I’m compelled to explore require too much courage, beyond my capacity to be vulnerable?

And so it continues. When I see laundry lists of questions forming as above, I try to stop, take a step back, and breathe. What am I freaking out about, and what question do I need to resolve? 

In this case, that leads me to the following conclusion: I’m freaking out because I don’t know what I should write. So why, exactly, do I write?

This is the point in the conversation where God steps in. If the thread of faith irritates you as you keep up with my blog, I understand—trust me. When I was in college, I lived with three Christian roommates, but wasn’t a Christian myself yet. I was super turned off and frustrated by the fact that every single conversation with my roomies always ended up coming back to God. The books scattered around the apartment were the most obvious sign of the problem: on every coffee table or available horizontal space, I saw titles like “Jesus and Dating,” “Jesus and Friendship,” and “Jesus and Work.” It was like living in a Christian bookstore, and as a non-Christian, that was frustrating as hell. I told my roommates how I felt, and asked them to consolidate into piles, at least, for my sake. It was my apartment too, and I didn’t appreciate the visual and conversational nudges suggesting that I was a heathen in my own home!

So I totally get it if you’re throwing your hands up in the air and thinking to yourself, “Man, she’s talking about God again? Why do I even read this blog?” I don’t blame you for feeling that way, and I know from experience how isolating the mention of God or Jesus can be in conversation. But I invite you to read anyway, to take away what works for you, and explore the ideas even if they’re foreign or frustrating. If you hate the mention of God, reach out and let’s have a conversation about it instead of allowing our differences to put space between us. My goal is never to isolate or alienate non-Christians, but simply to write truthfully, without filters or fear. I’d wager that it’s about as uncomfortable for me as it is for the listener when I know I’m talking about God with someone who doesn’t believe in God. (More on that particular fear in a minute!) 

The truth is that the radical impact of the gospel on my life is so pervasive that I physically cannot separate it from my professional endeavors—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are interwoven into every aspect of my life, whether that reality is convenient or not.

That brings me back to my previous question—why do I write? There are a bunch of reasons that could motivate someone to write: to make a living, to sell books, to share stories, to inspire, to explore concepts, to learn, to grow, to observe, to comment, to challenge, to heal. As I write, many of these options are motivating factors. But as a Christian, I have to constantly align my own choices and direction in life with the Word of God. According to the Bible, everything that I say, think, or do should be directed toward the glory and praise of God. My writing is no exception. So every time I write, no matter what I write about, the act of writing is an invitation to worship, and to give all of the glory and praise to God. 

Of course, that can be achieved through fiction or non-fiction. C.S. Lewis certainly glorified God in The Chronicles of Narnia, just as much as Brennan Manning did in Ruthless Trust and The Ragamuffin Gospel. There are many more subtle examples, too, but the genre or vehicle for praise is not the problem. The problem, in my case, is fear

There is a great deal of fear involved in writing at all, and in tossing one’s thoughts out into the digital abyss for all to see. But the fear increases as the writing gets more exposing, or countercultural. So writing about hard issues like anxiety, spiritual abuse, loneliness, and sexual assault in the context of Christianity is about as scary as it gets. 

Somewhere in a previous blog post, I made a passing comment about the moment that I became a believer, and said something like “I’ll never be able to do that story justice.” That’s a bunch of crap, of course. God will use my story no matter how poorly I tell it! The reality is that I’m absolutely terrified to make the attempt, and to put the story out in the open. In addition to worrying about the responses from my friends and family, I find myself worrying about the responses of the general public, and especially my non-Christian friends.

What if I alienate my non-Christian friends, whom I love and want to stay in relationship with?

What if I lose clients because they’re turned off by the spiritual-lean of my blog content?

What if my stories and experiences are lost in the sea of false-Christianity running rampant in our culture today, especially in light of the political climate and the regular (false) Biblical claims from the alt-right?

Fear, fear, and more fear

What do I do with that mountain of anxiety? Fortunately, the Bible has a few things to say on the subject of fear. The word ‘fear’ itself appears more than 500 times in the KJV, and depending on how you count ‘em and which translation you use, the command “do not fear,” “fear not,” or “do not be afraid” appears between 112 and 365+ times. Great, fine, thanks God. But letting go of fear is easier said than done!

However, that’s exactly what the gospel achieves for us—the ability to cast out fear and trust fully in the sacrifice of Jesus, through the love of God the Father. There is no fear or worry that stands up in the face of the gospel, because Jesus has conquered everything from shame to death itself. 

My favorite reference for this is Matthew 6:25-34, mostly because I think Jesus is being hilarious. When I read those verses, I translate them in my mind to something like, “Yo! The Father feeds the birds, and they’re smart enough not to worry about whether or not he’ll follow through. Chill out. God’s got you.” 

In my long list of “What ifs” and fears about writing, there is no single concern that can stand up in light of the gospel. Yes, I’m afraid of what people will think. Yes, I’m afraid of being put to shame. Yes, I’m afraid of losing friends and alienating neighbors. Yes, I’m afraid that I will hurt someone’s feelings. But none of these negate the promises of God, or the sacrifice of Jesus.

So as I feel compelled to write more non-fiction, I’m going to write more non-fiction and let God worry about the rest. I’m going to write vulnerably, as honestly as I can, and share my experiences. I’m going to talk about hard subjects like anxiety, loneliness, and abuse, because they are relevant to so many hurting people out there, and they resonate in the deep, hidden centers of our selves. I’m going to talk about these things, because these topics need to be discussed more often in the name of healing and hope. I will share, because it is Biblical to name our failings, our weaknesses, and our fears, and to learn to rely more fully on the power and person of Jesus. 

This is where I am in my journey. I don’t know exactly where it all leads, and I don’t plan to set my fiction work down altogether; my compulsion is simply to invite other topics and projects into the mix. For now, I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m learning to lean on the promises of God, to be fearless as I share the full truth of what He has done—and is currently doing—in my life, for His glory and my good. God’s glory is more important than my comfort, no matter how exposed I feel in the process. 

In this blog, you can expect to see more mention of my relationship with God, and issues of spirituality explored. If that bothers you, I’ll remind you once more that my writing is completely intertwined with my faith; they are inseparable, forever blended together to create the ‘new me’ that lives in the power of Christ (Colossions 3). Let’s get together and talk about it, and above all, let’s not let our differences get in the way of our relationships. There’s quite enough divisiveness and “us vs. them” in our world already. I invite you to dig into the icky awkward stuff with me, and to see what happens when we don’t run away from the hard topics—an honest look at faith and spirituality included! 

Looking Back and Dreaming Forward: Year-End Musings

Happy New Year, friends! Hopefully your end-of-year festivities and holiday celebrations were full of good food and awesome people. Andrew and I celebrated the change of year by binge-watching TV and blowing through record-breaking amounts of Kleenex. Pretty sure we were in bed by 10:30. 

Germs aside, I love the end of the year. The close of a year and beginning of the next year is this wonderful, natural transition point in life, and a gift-wrapped opportunity to reflect and dream. I totally nerd out over this stuff...poor Andrew has to go through similar conversations with me at any major milestone like birthdays, our wedding anniversary, the anniversary of our first date, etc. He's a trooper.

The close of the calendar year though...that's the ultimate transition point, a literal page turn. I love an excuse to look back and dream forward, and have spent a lot of time already thinking about my personal and professional 2017, and dreams for the upcoming year. 

Looking Back: Celebrating 2017

When I look back on 2017, there is a lot to celebrate, and that's 1) surprising and 2) awesome. The good stuff is surprising because 2016 was so shoddy, and I'm still sort of in awe of the contrast between the two years. In my reflections, I came out with a few big points:

#1 - I started a business that I love.

That's not a small thing, now that I think about it! It's tempting to get bogged down in the "weirdness" of what I do, and the super negative and unhelpful comments that people often give in response to my work. But in hindsight, it's easy to see what a blessing my profession is.

Writing fiction for me is still a joy, and adding the client-facing side of my work has really brought a beautiful balance to my professional life. I served lots of awesome people in 2017, and have a 100% satisfaction rate with my clients. That's definitely something worth celebrating!

All year, though, it was a constant battle to believe in my work and trust that I was doing the right thing. Even though I was actively serving people and making a difference in their professional and personal lives, I struggled to fight off the messages of the world regarding 'traditional success.' 

Fortunately, I have a rockstar husband who encourages and supports me with persistence and patience.

For Christmas each year, Andrew and I theme our gifts for each other. It's fun and helps us with ideas, so we've made it a tradition. The themes are secret, so I didn't know what Andrew was up to until Christmas morning. He started by giving me a card he made with little layered notes, each note corresponding to a gift.

Every single note was an affirmation or encouragement about my professional pursuits, and the impact of my work.

20171225_102247.jpg

Yes, I cried like a baby. Yes, my husband is freaking incredible. To top it all off, the trunk of the tree pulled out to reveal the words "Change Their Minds and Change the World." That note corresponded with a Wonder Woman that Andrew cross-stitched for me.

By hand.

I didn't even know he knew how to cross-stitch. 

20171225_102110 (1).jpg

Andrew reminded me of something that is super easy to forget -- my work is valuable, it suits me, and it is worth celebrating. Also, apparently I'm Wonder Woman in his eyes, which is freaking incredible!

Which leads me to my next big win from 2017.

#2 - My husband is a selfless, patient, compassionate superhero.

I mean, see above, but also a lot of other great stuff happened!

Blogging in 2017 was a little annoying because I SO BADLY wanted to write openly about Andrew's professional situation. He was my ever-present pro-bono client that desperately needed to move into a different work environment, but couldn't even start looking for a new opportunity until July. He endured a rough culture and exhausting job for about a year so that 1) I could continue to do what I love and 2) we would have a steady income to purchase a house and qualify for financing. 

In July, he kicked his job search into high gear, and we both worked hard to get him into a better situation. He finally started at an awesome new company in November, but all year he continued to be patient, selfless, and committed to leading our family well. In addition, in looking back on 2017 I get to celebrate the incredible lift in his spirit that occurred immediately with the job change. Now in addition to having a selfless, patient, loving man, I also have a super happy man, and that is definitely worth celebrating! 

20171208_093101.jpg

Even in the midst of our germs and exhaustion over the holiday season, we've had a lot of fun because so many aspects of our circumstances are simply better. I'm thankful to have a partner to walk through life with, and someone to laugh a lot with when the pressure finally eases up. 

#3 - I healed spiritually.

Again, 2016 was a pretty stupid year, and a lot of that had to do with spiritual abuse and the aftermath of those experiences. With time, spiritual direction, and the merciful, gentle leading of God, 2017 brought a lot of healing, and a desire to turn back to my loving Father. 

For the first time in ages, I'm picking up my Bible consistently and seeing the fruit that comes from the Word of God. I have a right image of God, which was pretty messed up from the previous year. As He leads me, I find that I am more confident in who He is, the plans He has for my life, and my identity in Jesus. Above all, this is the 2017 "win" most worth celebrating. It is transformational, and I could not be more grateful that I am so far from where I was at the end of 2016. Praise God!

Dreaming Forward: Anticipating 2018

I tend to be super type-A and productivity-focused when I think about goal-setting. It's tempting to approach this "resolution season" in such a way--to focus on what needs to change, and how to get it done efficiently and effective. That's good, of course! I have professional goals that fall into that category and aren't listed below.

But I think it's also important to pause and dream

Here's where I landed for 2018, with both personal and professional implications.

#1 - Prioritize my relationship with God over literally everything else.

After seeing the fruit of this recent season, what I desire the most for 2018 is to stay in the Word and learn to lean fully on God. This influences how I plan my day, design my schedule, and make decisions, and it's honestly pretty different from how I've operated previously. I have no doubt that this will have a huge impact on my life, and on my capacity and desire to serve others. 

On top of that, I have a feeling that God will continue to speak into my professional identity, and to affirm that I'm on the right track. I am definitely on board with a more accurate foundation for my identity in 2018!

#2 - Get in a groove.

Andrew and I had a pretty chaotic 2016, and still a lot of changes in 2017 with job transitions and the new house. One of our mutual goals for 2018 is to get in a groove, settle in to some normalcy, and hopefully even get bored on occasion. 

Initially, I thought I was biologically allergic to routine. The constraints of a schedule felt restrictive and automatically made me want to rebel (human nature, anyone?). "I need my freedom! I'm a creative! Impulse is life, yo!"

But as I've developed a schedule and routine out of necessity for self-employment, I've seen how beneficial it is to have rhythms in my daily life. My best days are the 'typical' days with a normal schedule--I get up, I eat, I do yoga, plan the day, and am generally joyfully productive. Routine, it turns out, can be freeing, and also really good medicine for my anxiety. I hope to foster more of these rhythms in 2018. 

The same goes for life outside of work. Andrew and I both find we can breathe easier when we have some planned date nights, and rhythms in our weekly routines. We literally are aiming for a rotating monthly date night schedule this year--he plans one, I plan one, we go out for a good meal, and we stay in and cook together. Repeat, repeat, repeat. There is still space for spontaneity, but also a lot of pressure relieved by not starting from scratch each week. 

#3 - Have a lot of fun.

Not your average resolution, huh? Honestly, I love this goal for 2018--I love the idea of intentionally playing, and making the most out of the time we have.

This was initially kicked off by plans for our next big international trip. Back in December, we tinkered around with our credit card rewards and loyalty points, and were shocked to find that we could get round-trip tickets for next fall for just $100 in fees. WHOA. AWESOME!!! We just returned from our European river cruise in November, so I had no idea we'd be able to plan something again so soon. Because of that, France/Switzerland is already in the works, along with a few other small domestic trips.

I hope 2018 is like the honeymoon year we never had. In many ways, I feel like we've gotten some of that back in 2017, but I have no problem stretching the good times out into a second year now that we're finally feeling settled! 

----

If you've gotten to this point, kudos. I appreciate you giving a darn about my 2017 and 2018 musings, and I hope you have some things to celebrate in your own lives, too. If you feel yourself getting overly legalistic or to-do-listy about your 2018 plans, I invite you to step back and dream a little with me. What do you hope for this year? What desires do you have for the next 12 months? Go ahead, I won't tell anyone...dream forward!

The Freedom to Choose

The holidays always prove to be a busy season, and this year is no exception thus far. After returning from our river cruise in Europe, I was sick for more than a week. Then we traveled to Indy for Thanksgiving, and I got to enjoy a week-long visit with my family. I came back home feeling well-fed, rested, energized, and ready to work.

Unfortunately, while I was away, I came to an unsettling realization about my current work-in-progress: I had to start over. Yes, all the way over. 

Writing the project had been challenging, more so than I expected, especially the further that I went into the story. While I was away, I realized the problem: my main character was too far removed from the action of the story. My current project is a love letter of sorts to Jim Butcher and The Dresden Files, but I wrote my own main character to be a reporter--not a magician, like Harry Dresden. As a result, the pace felt slow, and I found it difficult to get my heroine believably engaged in the action of the story. 

Reluctantly, I sat down on Tuesday afternoon and made a pros/cons list about starting over. The pro side won overwhelmingly, and I started a draft of a new Chapter 1. Fortunately, the writing has been quick and smooth as a result, and I seem to have accurately identified the problem. But I had to step back and make that decision in order to move forward.

Working from home and being my own boss creates a stream of decisions that I have to make, choices that guide my day, and determine the fruit of my efforts:

When my alarm goes off at 6:20 AM and I technically have no appointments to be up for, will I dismiss the alarm, or get my butt out of bed on time? 

When I do eventually get my butt out of bed, how will I start my day? Will I immediately check the news, which almost always puts my in a sour mood? Will I make myself a hot mug of tea, eat a good breakfast, and do a little morning yoga to wake up my body and mind gently? 

Will I prioritize time with God and the Word so that I am firmly planted in the truth of the gospel, and my identity as a daughter of the King? Or will I rush into my to-do list, frantically trying to tick as many boxes as I can before I have to be in the writing chair at 1:30 PM? 

When I get moving, will I let the dirty dishes, dusty floors, errands, or home improvement projects take priority over my own work? Will I choose to value myself professionally, to value the words that I write, or flee to the immediate gratification of more immediately 'productive' activities?

When I set the new window treatments down in the kitchen, break something, strip the screw for the mounting hardware and subsequently cry all over the clean dishes in the right side of the sink, how will I respond? Will I acknowledge the choices that led me to this moment, and the choices I'm actively making in my response? 

Will I step back, breathe, smile in the knowledge of grace and an eternity in heaven, and thank God that I don't have to have a perfect day, a perfect home, or a perfect manuscript?

When I make the wrong choices and do all the wrong items on my list, will I decide to actively redirect my day and get my butt into the writing chair anyway?

Yesterday was a bad day. It was bad all the way through the kitchen incident where I broke a food storage container, and cried on the clean dishes. It took me all the way until 3:35 PM to take a deep breath, and take a hard look at the day I'd just lived out:

I didn't set myself up for success in the morning.
I made some unfortunate choices about how to spend my time, and ran around like a basket case trying to get things done.
I didn't eat enough food, the rookiest move of all. Hangry people are never happy people.
After several spectacular failures, I still decided to pursue another house project involving power tools and balance, in a storm of raging emotions.

But at 3:35 PM, I made a choice to step back and slow down. I put the power tools away and opened my Bible. I focused my sights on heaven, and got an appropriate and accurate perspective on my life. I reminded myself of the magnificent, mysterious blessing of grace. Because God showed me how, I forgave myself.

I chose to have a better day.

 When life gets frustrating or chaotic, it's so easy to sit back, scream at the heavens, and forget how much control we have in our own circumstances. There is freedom in the decisions that we are able to make for ourselves each day. Even if I make those choices imperfectly, I still have the ability to choose. 

The holidays seem like an ideal time of year to remember that. I can choose to focus on the right messages this season. I can choose family and relationship over busy-ness and material junk. I can choose to do my work, even when it feels like I should be doing a million other items on my list instead. 

And I can choose to have a good day. I invite you to do the same, my friends. 

Why Fantasy?

As a speculative fiction writer, I get this one a lot. Sure, it doesn’t come as a blatant question, clearly and confidently asked by the curious outsider. That would be a welcome deviation from the norm. Instead, the question generally comes up like this:

Narrow-Minded Stranger: So what do you do for a living?
Me: Well, I spend a lot of my time writing.
Narrow-Minded Stranger: Is that so? What do you write?
Me: Novels, primarily. 
Narrow-Minded Stranger: How…interesting. What genre?
Me: Umm… well, I write speculative fiction, primarily. So fantasy and sci-fi, which is what I’ve always loved to read.
Narrow-Minded Stranger: Uh huh. That’s…interesting. Well…nice to meet you, take care, bye! 

In cases like this, the implied question is not “Why fantasy?”, but rather “Why in the world would you bother to write about that nonsense? Are you an adult, or aren’t you? Dragons and unicorns aren’t real. GET A REAL JOB, weirdo.”  

Of course, most people don’t say that outright—I sort of wish they would. At least we could have a conversation, if they’re willing to directly express their confusion! But either way, the question is plain on their faces. If I had to estimate, I’d guess that writing this genre—by choice—is perplexing to 90% of the people I meet in casual conversation settings. Perhaps I often find myself in unusually biased rooms, but more often than not, when I get to the point in the conversation where I mention my genre, people look at me like the weird uncle of the writing world that nobody wants to admit they’re related to. 

I’ll resist the temptation to rant about the inherent value of writing in general, and why fiction matters. If you’re reading this blog, you probably don’t need to hear that argument, anyway. But I do think it’s worth taking some time to discuss my specific desire to write fantasy, as opposed to other genres of fiction.

Because this is the way my brain works, I’ve broken my thoughts down into three segments: Well of Infinite Possibility, Soul-Satisfying Victories, and Visions of What C(Sh)ould Be. 

Well of Infinite Possibility

One of the most obvious benefits of fantasy—though some argue this is a drawback—is the well of infinite possibility that is inherent to the genre. Fantasy writers get to break all of the rules, as long as they do so in a believable way. Magic, imagined in various forms, becomes a natural, readily-accepted thread of the environment. Animals can talk, and fantastic creatures can exist alongside humans like us. 

Let’s take a moment to sit back and explore some of these categories of ‘reality’ that are at least partially confined in other (non-speculative) genres:

-laws of gravity
-species of plants and animals
-existence of non-human, sentient beings
-geography, climate, and weather patterns
-atmospheric conditions
-languages
-cultural customs and norms
-solar system
-natural resources
-laws of physics and nature

And that is just a sampling from the top of my head! It quickly becomes apparent that there is a great creative expanse available to the fantasy writer. Our minds are not restricted by the world that we reside in—we can create entirely new worlds! 

 Fantasy Landscape by mrainbowwj on DeviantArt

Fantasy Landscape by mrainbowwj on DeviantArt

The ability to stretch the bounds of what is already known to us in our world is 1) exquisitely freeing from a creative standpoint and 2) great practice for our interaction with the “real world.” As we delve into the creation and exploration of worlds where anything at all is possible and plausible (at least at the beginning), then we develop a habit of thinking outside the box in the world around us. Creative problem solving skills increase, and we become accustomed to seeing challenges and obstacles from a fresh, innovative perspective. 

Soul-Satisfying Victories

Consider a common outline of fantasy fiction: a mostly unremarkable individual endures trials, injuries, adverse weather conditions, relational betrayal, abuse, hunger, thirst, self-doubt, and/or self-reliance until they reach the end of the road and find a way to defeat the villain, often with the help of some trusted friends. 

At its heart, I believe fantasy captures our attention because it is a battle between good and evil — it fuels our hunger to defeat our own demons, and come out on the other side victorious. 

While drafting this post, I came across an absolutely phenomenal explanation of this concept from an article in The Atlantic written by Joe Fassler

“The whole modernist-realist tradition is about the self observing the world around you—sensing how other it is, how alien it is, how different it is to what’s going on inside you. In fantasy, that gets turned inside out. The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them.”  

Which one of us, if given the opportunity, wouldn’t love to physically separate ourselves from our own demons—our pride, envy, self-loathing, self-righteousness, anger, bitterness, FEAR—and triumphantly stab it through the heart with a gleaming, magically-bedazzled sword? Fantasy takes the internal battles that we are fighting on a daily basis, and thrusts them into the realm of tangibility, where we can touch those enemies, and name them, and identify their weaknesses. 

I completely agree with Fassler’s statement above—fantasy is anything but escapism. Sure, nestling down to explore a new world is satisfying, and we don’t have to directly think about our never-ending to-do list while we read. But for all practical purposes, most fantasy stories center on a real, relatable person: a person much like you or me, with problems, relationships, questions, fears, doubts, and competing priorities. They are average people, interacting with remarkable places and things. And as we journey with them, we have an opportunity to seek out our own dragons, and to find that unlikely but feasible moment to strike our death-blow to the dragon's heart. 

Fantasy says “Yes, you can. You can conquer big, fire-breathing obstacles and achieve impossible goals.” And honestly, we could all probably stand to hear that a little more often in our daily lives. 

Visions of What C(Sh)ould Be

Above all, for me, fantasy fills the gaps in a world that is full of wounds—the world is not as it should be, and fantasy shows me what it might look like if the world were righted. 

If this sounds like romanticism, you’re tracking with me so far. Romanticism is definitely involved, and I will not deny my own tendency to idealize and romanticize the larger world around me, as well as my own unique circumstances and relationships. But beyond that, when we dig a little deeper, fantasy points to the source of romanticism: why do I want more than the world delivers? Why am I frequently disappointed, and the bar never feels like it is met? Why do I dream of unicorns and imaginary places and knights and adventures?

Because this world is broken, and it is not enough to satisfy the deepest, truest longings of my heart. 

My faith intersects with this conversation out of necessity, as opposed to intention or convenience—it is impossible for me to separate my beliefs from the romanticism that compels me to write and read fantasy. A Christian believes that the world is broken by sin, and that the world will be restored someday. We believe that sin separated us from God, and God, desiring to restore us back to him, sacrificed his only son Jesus—who died willingly for us—to draw us near to God. The story is in-progress, and we wait in eager anticipation for God’s full restoration of our world. In the meantime, we try to pull reflections of his kingdom down into a broken world.

If you haven’t read the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, it is a fictional, step-by-step window into the story of God’s interaction with our broken world, and his efforts to bring us home. Regardless of your beliefs, it is a compelling, inspired, masterfully-written story that is well worth your time. But the final chapter of that series is what captures my attention the most, and the final scene comes to mind immediately when I consider the fantasy question. 

In The Last Battle, the various individuals that we have journeyed alongside across the entire series find themselves together in a new, rich, radiant Narnia. They run without tiring, and swim up waterfalls; they are reunited with many of their dearest companions, and delight in the freedom and joy of a Narnia without darkness, without winter, without evil. Most of all, they bask in the warmth of Aslan’s presence, knowing that they will never be cast out or parted from him again. 

 Lucy and Aslan by DarkRone on DeviantArt

Lucy and Aslan by DarkRone on DeviantArt

I am drawn to fantasy because I know in the depths of my self that Lewis's new Narnia is anything but fictional—Aslan is going to make the world right, cast out the darkness forever, and bring me home. And so I immerse myself in these magical worlds, because they remind me every day that I’m not home yet. In a world full of pain and suffering and ugliness, this is one of the most sustaining truths that I can feed on internally: I am not home yet, but someday I will be. The kingdom of God is revealed in the magic and mystery and endless possibility of fantasy, pointing to a world without sin, death, guilt, or shame—a world where evil can be fully and indisputably conquered forever. 

——

Now that I have actually taken the time to sit down and lay out my arguments for my personal attraction to fantasy, and its inherent value as a genre, I realize that it would be a tad overwhelming for someone to actually ask the question directly—the explanation is not simple, straightforward, or shallow. Perhaps some people would listen, and perhaps after all of this, they would still walk away with wide eyes and crinkled noses. But even if every single person on the planet told me that this was a waste of time and a worthless pursuit, I know without a doubt that I am on the right track. No, it isn’t always easy to feel that way in the moment that someone is insulting my profession. But when I sit alone in a quiet room and weigh the value of fantasy apart from the opinions of the world, fantasy always wins. 

If you are a fantasy lover (reader or writer!), I hope you find an inherent, untouchable purpose in your love of the genre, an argument for pursuing your work that cannot be stolen away by any snobby, narrow-minded haters. Encounter unicorns. Journey to faraway lands. I will be beside you on the road, seeking out my own dragons to slay. Or for the Hobb fans — waiting in eager anticipation for the day that I can finally carve my dragon

Learning to Crawl: Why I'm Setting My WIP Aside

For those of you who don’t know, I started brainstorming and outlining a fantasy/sci-fi crossover series in March; the initial concept was incredibly compelling, and I was eager to get the story moving. Writing was delayed by our move this spring/summer, and naturally by my own procrastination tendencies, too.

But I finally started writing in mid-July. And since Day 1, it has been a major struggle. The draft is sitting at a standstill at about 17,000 words, and I have no desire to touch it. Every word feels like pulling teeth, and it took me a long time to figure out why.

For weeks, I thought this was just the normal process. My first novel was a breeze, because it was therapeutic and poured out of me in one massive wave. Perhaps this was just going to be the reality for my first “real” writing project—one that is simply a work of fiction, and nothing more.

Then I read Bird by Bird, which, if you haven’t read it, is a magnificent book for writers. Anne Lamott is well-acquainted with the angst of the writing process, and she served as good company for me in my misery while I forced out those first 17,000 words. 

Bird by Bird is full of helpful little tidbits and exercises that Lamott suggests—one of those is to sit down and write about your childhood. That’s too big a topic, of course, so she said, “just write about Christmas”; write down every little detail, smell, and sound from your typical childhood Christmas growing up. Don’t have an agenda; just see where it takes you.

One afternoon, tired of feeling unproductive and incompetent in regards to my WIP, I decided to try this unassuming little Christmas exercise. And in an hour, I’d written more than 5,000 words—more than double my average pace for drafting a WIP. I couldn’t believe how easily the thoughts came when I wrote about my own life and memories; it was as effortless as breathing. 

I learned many things from from that experience, but arguably the most important takeaway is that for me, writing has to have part of my Self in it. I cannot isolate my Self from my work, even if the work is fictional. There has to be truth in it, and since I am a unique individual with one limited perspective on the world, I have to find some of that truth from my own direct experience. And unfortunately, I’d choked all of the Self and truth out of my work-in-progress.

Even with this revelatory experience, the problem of my WIP was only partially resolved. Sure, I could completely change the character sketch for my MC and put more of my Self into her. That might help, I suppose. But when it came right down to it, writing my WIP just felt hard. Like, I-have-no-freaking-idea-what-I’m-doing, hard. 

Then it hit me. 

Back in October of 2016, I thought it would be a great idea to participate in a 30-Day Yoga Challenge at a local studio I’d been frequenting. I was recently getting back into yoga, and loved it—so I thought to myself, why not aim for 30 yoga classes in 30 days, and possibly win a free annual membership in the process? Genius, right?

I scheduled out my classes, and was confident that I would make it to the finish line. Sure, it would be hard, but I could do it. Success is all about persistence, isn't it? Grit your teeth and get it done!

Imagine trying to run a marathon after walking 20 minutes a day, for maybe 2-3 days a week. That’s exactly what I was asking my body to do, and it was nowhere near ready. I think I made it about 7 days before I felt the pre-injury sensations in various joints, and fortunately, I was smart enough to scale my schedule back to a more manageable, healthy pace. 

That experience is directly applicable to writing, in my opinion. (Many will disagree with me, which is as it should be—what boring books we would write, if we all agreed about everything!) But diving in and writing a from-scratch speculative fiction trilogy as my first true fiction project is, quite frankly, over-ambitious. I’m asking myself to learn how to do everything at once: character development, dialogue, world-building, structure, themes, tone, you name it. Sure, I could write it down; but it wouldn’t be easy, and the product probably wouldn’t be particularly good.

At the heart, this is all about humility. I am not an expert, and it is foolish of me to pretend to be one. Instead, what can I do to work up to where I want to be? How can I become the writer I want to become? How can I figure out what sort of writer I’m able to become? 

This is the exciting part. 

I’m setting my WIP aside, for the time being, to pick up a new WIP — an urban fantasy, set in my city in modern times, inspired by a traditional fairy tale. The idea came to me earlier this week, and I’ve been chowing down on it ever since. But it gets even better!

I’m not doing any planning—at all. Zilch. Nada. No outline, no plan. Just plain-old discovery writing.

For those of you who haven’t heard the terms yet, there are two big buckets of preference for writing:

  • Discovery Writing (or “Pantsing,” as in “flying by the seat of your pants”)
    • Write first, wherever the characters take you
    • Clean it up later
  • Outlining
    • Prep first - figure out where you're going
    • Write the draft at least somewhat according to the plan

Many writers are a hybrid of the two, and some fall into one of the extremes. Writers of the internet love to advocate for and defend their preferences in comment sections, stating with absolute certainty that their method is the right one. And it probably feels that way—if you’re in your sweet spot, it feels good! Why wouldn’t you advocate for it?

But the reality is that everyone is different, and you have to determine what works for you. This has proven to be an important area to observe as I explore my own writing identity.

In other words, innate preference between discovery and outlining is a pretty big deal. 

As I wrote those agonizing 17,000 words of my outgoing WIP, I realized that I might have misdiagnosed myself as a writer. The planning and outlining process seemed to have sucked a lot of life out of the story, and what was left felt sterile and bland. Ah ha! I thought to myself. Perhaps I’m more of a pantser than I originally thought…

As I’ve worked on my new WIP this week, I've adopted a 100% discovery approach, and I’ve noticed that the process feels incredibly freeing; I’m still doing the work that I used to do upfront, but now I’m doing it simultaneously as I write the draft. And that feels efficient as heck, y’all. Sure, I have to stop periodically. But how can I waste prep that I’m not guessing at? I literally only stop to research or figure something out when I need to—never without reason, never in anticipation of what I might need down the road.

On top of that, I feel creatively liberated. The work feels fresh, full of possibility, and 100% pliable — even if I considered my initial outline flexible, it felt a little bit like a prison sentence. Now, I have room to explore, dart down unexpected side paths, and dig into my creative Self, which has far more to offer than I realized. 

The specific work that I have chosen to focus on is partially responsible for this feeling of liberation. Because I’m writing an urban fantasy in my city, in my own time, there is a LOT of stuff that I no longer have to worry about—access to technology, how long it takes to get from point A to point B, what is point A, how should I name point B, what do the people eat, what sort of vocabulary do they use, what does the education system look like, what natural resources are available for their clothing—the big bear of world-building is put to bed! 

Instead of crafting a new world, I can direct all of my focus on the characters, the dialogue, and the direction of the story. I have less to worry about, and fewer plates to juggle. In the immortal words of Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things; whole-ass one thing.” Ron would approve of my decision to back up and start small, I think.

So there it is—my meandering, nebulous path toward a better understanding of my writing identity. I am learning first to crawl, then walk, and then, when I’ve developed the stamina and muscle mass needed to make it through, finally work up to running my marathon, whether it be on a familiar or distant galaxy.

Thanks for sticking it out with me along the way!