Choosing the path

When I began training in martial arts, it meant a whole new life for me. It meant I gave up smoking and cut back on drinking and watched what I ate and worked out every night. All of these were good things and I felt positive about them. It was just that sometimes I missed the old life. I missed loafing around in the evenings instead of working out. I missed scarfing down a huge tub of buttered popcorn while watching the matinee. All this being good to myself was sometimes, frankly, a little restrictive. I’d sling my gear bag over my shoulder on my way to train, and I’d lock the front door, thinking how much fun it would be just to put my feet up, pop open a wine cooler, and chat with friends.

This tendency to look back on the way my life used to be and to wax nostalgic about it nearly derailed my martial arts training before it got off the ground.

I related this challenge to one of the black belts early in my training, and she looked at me and said, “Stop looking back.”

Just that. Made perfect sense to me. I had chosen a new path, and it was time to look forward, to see where it was leading me, instead of focusing on where it was taking me from.

The same holds true for writers. Once you’ve chosen the path–you’ve committed to being a writer and you have a plan for making it come true–don’t look back. Don’t think about how much easier it was before you started devoting your evenings to writing. Think only about how the time spent writing is rewarding and enjoyable now and will yield even greater rewards for you in the future.

In other words, choose the path, then concentrate on the present and let the past go.

Q&A with . . .

Q&A With . . . .

Linda Formichelli is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire. She’s the co-author of The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success, and co-founder of the Renegade Writer blog (http://www.therenegadewriter.com/).

She also just turned 40 and adopted a baby! So I asked her to tell us a little about the changes in her life.

Me: You’re an established freelancer who has been writing magazine articles and books since 1997. What has changed the most in the industry since you started?

Linda: I think things are tougher these days. Magazines I’d written for with few revisions in the past are now editing by committee and asking for multiple rewrites. I don’t think that my writing has gotten worse since 1997, so I suspect that it’s the magazines that have changed. But at the same time, there are more opportunities than ever with online magazines, blogs, etc.

Me: You recently shook up your life by adopting a baby. What prompted you to make that decision?

Linda: Eric [Linda’s husband] and i were adamantly anti-kid for many years, but we said that if we ever changed our minds, we would adopt. In 2007, on Christmas, I suddenly decided that it was the right time, and I asked Eric if he thought so too. He did, so the next day we called an adoption home study agency we found online and started the process, and the social worker there referred us to an adoption lawyer.

Me: Your adoption process seems to have gone smoothly. Are there any special steps you took that you think made a difference?

Linda: We were lucky that the adoption was a positive experience from start to finish…especially because we jumped in without doing any research. I think it helped that we just trusted that everything would turn out okay. We knew that if the adoption we were working on fell through, there would be another one, and that we would end up with the right baby for us. Also, we were very lucky that we were connected with a wonderful birthmom who was very serious about making an adoption plan for her baby.

Me: What is the most unexpected thing you’ve discovered about being a new mom?

Linda: I have an anxiety disorder, and I just assumed that when we had a baby, I would experience panic attacks from the sheer stress. But I’ve found stores of calm I never knew I had. Everything just feels so right, and I haven’t been nervous at all. I feel like I’m a competent mom.

Me: Your son is still a baby, so I’m sure it will change, but how are you juggling work and child care responsibilities? What’s working well and what do you wish were working better?

Linda: My husband is also a freelancer, so we trade off: When I have an interview or need to write an article, Eric takes care of Traver, and when he needs to work I take over. It’s easy now, though, because Traver mostly sleeps. I know it will become more difficult as Traver gets older.

The story of your life

Many years ago, when my daughter was born with a rare genetic disorder, her neurologist learned that I was a writer and asked if I would keep a journal of my experiences, something he could share with other families on a like journey, making the hard decisions that parents of badly ill children sometimes have to make.

When I began the journal, I knew that the only way it would really help other parents would be if I were completely honest. If I pretended I never had a day where I didn’t think about ending it all, then I wasn’t giving the full story. If I was going to include the joy, then I needed to include the pain, all the messy parts people tend to gloss over because they don’t want to sound discouraging.

But it is brutally hard to watch a tiny child suffer, and it’s patronizing to say “Everything is going to be all right.” Because very often it isn’t.

So I vowed I would be honest. I would say all the bad things, even about me, the tantrums I threw, the icy silences, the whimpering self-pity.

And yet. I didn’t really want other parents to read about me and think I was the worst excuse for a mother they’d ever met. But I had vowed to be honest about everything. This meant I had to be a better mother than I thought possible so that I could tell the truth and still be able to stand myself. I had to think about what mother I would be: the victim of unfair circumstances and cruel fate, or the determined advocate for my daughter? The shrill Type A who was never satisfied, or the patient mama who took joy in her daughter’s first step, even if it was two years late? The creative woman who made do with what she had and showed her daughter likewise, or the bitter shrew who railed against everything her life lacked?

Sometimes I failed. A lot of times I failed. But often, more often than I would have thought, I was the mother I wanted to be, the mother I could be proud of being. That was when I began to understand the true power of story in my life . . . our lives. By telling the story of who I was, I was able to become the person I wanted to be.

What story will you write about your life? With your life?

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.