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How we name things

I know a lot of people who are writers and reporters, and recently I’ve been hearing them say things like, “It’s easy churning out copy for this client” or “I can churn this project out in a day, how much should I charge?”

I’m sure I’ve used that phrase myself, especially as regards work that I don’t particularly love doing (“I churned out January’s budget report this morning”). But on hearing it reiterated so many times in the past week or so, I started to think about what the phrase says about the people who are pursuing work as writers, who are trying to master the craft and earn their daily bread by the words they write. Using the phrase “churning out” to stand in for “writing” devalues what they’re doing not just in their own minds but in the minds of people who are listening to them talk. I don’t want to hire someone to churn anything out (except maybe butter). I’m not even sure I want to have a conversation about craft with someone who uses that phrase to symbolize the work they do.

When you pass a negative judgment like this on your own work, you’re asking others to see it in the same light you do. A good exercise is to consider the value that you bring to your trade and not denigrate it in your own mind.

How you do something is as important as what you do. How you think about what you do is critical to your ability to succeed at it.

Birth and rebirth

A friend of mine who is forty-something recently had a baby. This is the third child she has welcomed into her life; the other two are school-aged. I met her for coffee recently, and had the chance to hug her sweet new baby and marvel at how calm and relaxed the new mama was. My friend is always a fairly laid-back person, but this time motherhood seemed to make her particularly tranquil. I was – and am – very happy for her. I know there will be plenty of challenges ahead for her and her family, but this seems to be exactly what she wants for this time in her life. It was one of those rare moments when you feel like things really do work out just the way they’re supposed to.

This doesn’t mean I want to have another child myself (despite my daughter’s assurances that it would be a lot of fun!!! if I had a baby). Just that I can see how fulfilling this might be to someone entering the second half of her life.

When one of my sisters was this age, she became a grandmother (making me a great-aunt, thank you very much). I couldn’t help but smile at the different choices women make in their lives – the different choices that woman can make in their lives now that they have more control over them than probably at any other time in the past.

When your second act can include becoming a mother or a grandmother (or potentially both), anything is possible.

The Three Most Important Things

A few years ago, freshly divorced and trying to make a living as freelance writer, I found myself overwhelmed by the demands of my new life. My daughter, who has multiple disabilities, was then three years old and unable to be in childcare – none of the programs would take her. An erratic babysitter I couldn’t often afford was all I had when I needed a few hours’ break. All I ever did, it seemed, was take care of my daughter all day, then work all night, then start the cycle over again the next morning.

I didn’t have many resources – if I’d had resources I wouldn’t have been so stressed! So I wasn’t sure what I was going to do to change things. Then I remembered a quote from a famous writer who once said that when she was a single mother raising her daughters and feeling overwhelmed, she sat down and made a list of all the things she had to do, from paying the phone bill to raising her daughters to be happy, courageous adults. Then she made a list of the three most important things in her life and that’s what she spent her time doing. The rest could wait.

So I followed suit. I made a list of the three most important things in my life. I came up with 1. my friends/family; 2. my writing; and 3. my personal emotional/spiritual well-being. Within each category, I devised a list of what was worth doing and what wasn’t. So for example under “family/friends,” spending time with my daughter was worth doing; spending time with the annoying friend who always made me feel bad was not. Within “writing,” work that paid well and was mostly trouble-free was worth doing. Work that touched my soul was worth doing. Work that didn’t pay well and didn’t touch my soul wasn’t worth doing. Within “personal emotional/spiritual well-being,” learning Zen concepts and meditating was important; attending time-intensive martial arts tournaments . . . not so much.

As simple as that, my life was back on track. Every time I sat down to a task, it had to pass the “Three Most Important Things” test. If it wasn’t one of the three most important things, then it didn’t get done. I just crossed it off. The friends who weren’t really friends faded away. The uninteresting, poorly paying work found other homes. Unrewarding volunteer work got tossed. I started being picky about how I spent my time. If I could maintain a relationship with a once-a-month phone call, then that’s what I did, and I didn’t kick myself for not being able to do more. When organizations I cared about asked for my help, I set clear limits – one fundraiser per year, for example. If that wasn’t good enough, well, then they could just cross me off their list of volunteers entirely.

I realized that I was finally valuing myself and my time and learning to say no. Having the list backed up the “no.” It gave me focus and purpose. It made me stronger. It also meant I got more sleep.

It’s still easy for me to fall into the old patterns. But now I remember to look at what I’m doing and if it isn’t on the “Three Most Important Things” list I reconsider. I knew I was finally winning my battle against living other people’s agendas when I started answering requests for my time and energy with, “I’m sorry, that’s not a priority for me right now. Best wishes, though!”

The last time I said it, I hung up the phone and realized my daughter had been listening to the whole conversation. And it felt good to know that I was teaching her what had taken me so long to learn: the only way to truly live the life you want is to do what matters to you and forget the rest.

Seeing where the road leads

When I decided a few years ago to seriously pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a novelist, I knew it would take a lot of time and effort and a certain amount of sacrifice. Those were all acceptable choices to me, considering what I hoped to gain at the end of it. What I didn’t quite realize was how patient I was going to have to be about the roads I had to go down to get to wherever I was going.

When I first settled down to this pursuit, I finished a mystery that I’d started some time before. I love reading mysteries, so it makes sense that that would be the genre I’d choose to write in. I sent the finished manuscript off, and it eventually connected with an agent who liked it but thought that a certain aspect of the book needed work. The two main characters were former lovers who had to learn to work together to solve the problem. My agent didn’t find the romantic element of the book believable.

Well, what can I say? I’m not a romantic person. At least, that was the belief I had about myself and my writing. So I talked to a few friends and finally a romance writer colleague said to me, “You need to write a cabin romance.” Two people, obstacles, happily ever after. She thought that if I did that, then I would be better able to describe what love feels like and how it looks, how two people in love interact with each other, all of that.

Writing a romance had never been on my to-do list. In fact, if there is such a thing as a not-to-do list, that would have been on it. But I didn’t have any other agents knocking on my door, and this agent wasn’t going to sign me until I fixed the problem, so I sat down and wrote a short romance. 50,000 words later, I’d figured out how to write about attraction and fear of rejection and attachment and happily ever after. What surprised me was how much I enjoyed the entire process. It stretched my skills, trying to figure out how to maintain tension in the plot when everyone knows how it turns out, and it was challenging to learn to control my voice so that it didn’t take over the narrative.

After I was done, I took what I’d learned and rewrote the mystery. The agent loved the revision, signed me, shopped the manuscript and then — cue the dramatic flourish — nothing happened. The mystery didn’t sell.

But the romance did.

It still makes me smile to think about that. Being accustomed to getting paid for my words, I didn’t want to just write 50,000 of them and stick them away in a drawer somewhere, so I submitted the mansucript to a romance publisher. I was offered a contract and the book came out in 2008 under a pen name.

I can’t control very much of what happens in publishing, but I can open myself up to exploring opportunities and possibilities and seeing what happens next.

On Being Busy

A few months ago, I was giving a talk at a writers’ group on how to stay motivated to write even when faced with rejection and other challenges. During the Q&A session afterward, several of the writers asked about finding time to write.

There are many questions that I don’t know the answer to, such as “Why is the sky blue?” “Where can I find the time to write?” is one of those questions. I have no idea where you’re going to find the time to write. I only know that if it matters to you, you will.

But I didn’t give that answer, not wishing to appear ungracious. I said a few of the usual bromides: don’t watch so much television, schedule your writing time as if it were an appointment, choose your own priorities. Most of the people just wanted reaffirmation that they could privilege their writing, allow it to be more important than dusting the coffee table, and I was happy to oblige. But as usual there was one writer in the crowd who absolutely could not find the time to write today, this week or even for the next several months. Absolutely not.

I asked if she thought there was any way she could even spare even a few minutes a day to do some journaling — any kind of writing that would keep her creative habit going. But there was absolutely no way. She had a job, and kids, and a husband, and some after-work events and family commitments and so on and so forth.

I said, “Okay.” And shrugged. You win, I wanted to tell her. But take a good look at what you win before getting all excited about it.

I am not the first person to point out that as a species we are all so in love with our busy-ness competition that we lose sight of the fact that winning it generally means we don’t have any idea of what’s really important in our lives. We just rush around and rush around, letting other people with other agendas tell us how to live.

I’m betting you, like me, spotted the flaw in the writer’s argument about being too busy to write. If she was too busy to write, and writing is important to her, what was she doing listening to me talk? She could have been using that time to write.

But very often we don’t see the obvious because we’re so busy (ha ha) making our circumstances fit our beliefs. We believe we’re too busy to write (or to pick up men or to learn Sanskrit), and we make that belief come true without even thinking about it.

If there’s something important you want, claim it. Don’t let your ego and your untested beliefs get in your way.

Finding a Teacher

A blogger I follow — Laura Young at No Safe Distance — recently posted on the importance of carefully choosing role models. This got me to thinking about all of the teachers I’ve had over the years who’ve helped me to understand how to accomplish various goals. They’ve also helped me see the reality of various goals I’ve set for myself. When I actually talk with successful novelists, for example, it helps me see that there’s nothing magical about their lives, so I don’t expect to somehow be transformed into a carefree, happy-go-lucky charmer if my next novel makes the New York Times Bestseller List. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like it to happen. I just know that the reality is, I will still have to deal with rejection, editors who change jobs, royalties that take a while to arrive and all of the other usual challenges of the writing life.

I’ve found teachers in various ways over the years. Here are some suggestions for how you might find yours:

Consider who in your life right now might be a good teacher for you as a writer. If you have someone in mind, consider yourself an apprentice. It doesn’t need to be a formal relationship. You could offer to buy the teacher lunch if he or she will give you some pointers about writing.

If no one pops to mind, then keep yourself open to finding a teacher. Don’t force the issue, but do pursue opportunities that you may have disregarded before. For example, take a writing class at a nearby college or arts center. Attend a writers’ workshop. Join a writers’ organization and participate in local meetings. Go online and take part in writers’ listservs and bulletin boards. Hit the library and find books by writers you admire, and books about writing that can guide you. Let others around you know that you’re open to finding a teacher or mentor who can help you shape your writing and your writing career.

What are some ways you’ve found a teacher?