On listening to teenagers

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This weekend I had the chance to hear a sixteen-year-old harpist play a Mozart concerto on two harps—playing one with his left hand and the other with his right, the type of tour de force you know he learned how to do not because someday a handful of people sitting on some wooden benches would applaud him but because he wanted to learn how to do it for the sake of learning how to do it.

How do you develop the internal motivation to want to learn to do something like this? I can guarantee you it’s not by competing in the traditional way that we hold so dear in this society. There’s always a meme going around Facebook about how people shouldn’t get medals just for participating, goldarn it, and in my day we had to win to get a medal! Yeah yeah and you learned how to be Pavlov’s dog, so here’s a tasty treat for you.

If you only try because you want to win a medal, you are externally motivated. No medal, no more trying. Does that sound like the key to mastery, happiness, or even success? Of course not. Participating is how you get better. Most of us aren’t innately talented so we’re going to suck at the things we do for a long long time. We have to be motivated to get better by something other than medals because someone who is not us is going to win them.

At some point an idea or a product or a book either achieves commercial success or it doesn’t, and while we like to think the best X wins (whether it is a man, a machine, or a purpose), if you have experienced life for more than, say, six years, you know better than this, or you ought to, anyway. Commercial success (“winning” as we traditionally define it) may have something to do with quality and expertise, but it also has a lot to do with timing and luck and knowing the right people and having the right personality and deflating the football at just the right moment.

So you can’t have that as your goal, or you can but it’s sort of self-defeating. You can’t control having luck, and you can’t control having timing. You can’t even control your personality all that much (ask me how I know). It makes more sense to focus on the craft, on the thing you can control, through practice and work and education and caring every day for the rest of your life, whether or not you get a medal for it.

Intrinsic motivation can be helped when someone pats you on the back and says, “You tried really hard” because it’s the trying that matters. Really. Really really really, no matter how much those Facebook memes bitch about it.
Don’t be Pavlov’s dog. Be the sixteen year old who can play a Mozart concerto on two harps just because he wanted to learn how to do it.
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And don’t forget that Travels with Jessica, my collection of stories about being on the road with my kiddo, is available here.

On using a knife and fork

Jessica’s last day of school is really just a last morning of school, so when I pick her up, the whole day stretches ahead of us.

“How about lunch in Lawrence?” I say.

“Yes.” She is without hesitation. Jessica is a girl who likes lunch. “Where?”

“Let’s go to Encore,” I say. “They have those bento boxes at lunchtime. I love eating my meal out of little compartments.”

She shakes her head. When we arrive at the restaurant, she does not order a bento box; she orders a regular meal.

“Junior year is done!” I marvel. “You’re officially a senior now.”

“Can you believe it?” she says, like a ritual response. I have been saying, “I can’t believe you’re going to be a senior” for about three months now.

“No, I cannot.”

Our meals come. She hesitates, then picks up her knife and her fork. I bite down on the offer I am about to make. She cuts her meal into pieces without any help.

It is the first time in her life that she has ever been able to do this. Usually there comes a time when the need to use both hands at once defeats her, when her shoulders sag and I pick up the knife without a comment. But not today. When she is finished, she is proud and relieved. I know I need to say something because it is a big deal, but it has to be the right thing. She knows that other people could manage this when they were five years old. But she is not other people.

And she knows that in a few years the disease she has might steal away this small triumph and I will be back to cutting her meals up for her. No victory, whatever the cost, is permanent. But that does not mean they are pointless or we should not celebrate them.

“Good work,” I say, and she smiles.

Just yesterday I sat on the front porch, a notebook balanced on my knees, wondering why I am still trying to learn to write, thinking of all the people who do it so much better than I do. I will never achieve what they have achieved and why—at my age!—do I even bother? I am not even talking about praise and reward. I am talking about craft. What if I had not decided that I would be a writer when I was five years old? What if I had chosen another road, and found the thing I am better suited for? I would be a lot less frustrated, I can tell you that.

But drinking my jasmine tea across the table from my daughter, I know the truth is that we are each on our own journeys. The suffering comes when we think our journey should be like someone else’s.

She does not order dessert. She knows when to be satisfied. Maybe tomorrow. But right now, what she has done is enough.

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On why I have a grimoire

This is my grimoire:

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A grimoire is a book of spells, but when I call it a spell book, half the people think I’m talking about a dictionary.

A book of spells is like a cookbook, a collection of recipes, but “cookbook” just doesn’t do it for me, and is possibly misleading in case people think food is involved, which it is not, so therefore I call it a grimoire.

Now, I think we have previously established that I don’t believe in anything, so I’m not actually a witch, except perhaps in the colloquial sense of the word, although I would respect you more if you just went ahead and called me a bitch. But I digress.

I don’t use my grimoire to cast spells. I use it to help me remember what I already know about doing the work, which is a lot (I’ve been at this a very long time).

I started using a grimoire for my writing work when years ago I started work on a series. You know how writers and publishers have a series bible so that you don’t forget from one book to the next that your hero has blue eyes and failed algebra in seventh grade? Like that. I called mine a grimoire instead of a bible because I’m just a rebel.

Anyway, I included potential storylines and conflicts and such and I realized that everything I needed to know about the series was in the series grimoire. If I got stuck, I just opened up the grimoire and the answer would appear.

So I like to generalize from one thing to another, and it struck me that if it worked for a series, it would work for writing in general (and life itself, but that is another blog post). That is to say, I already know what I need to know about writing, I just forget it half the time, and then I have days like this:

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My grimoire is very personal so I’m not going to show you the inside. But I will tell you about what it contains. It contains what I know, or think I know, about writing. It’s divided into various categories based on what I know I will need. So, for example, I keep a list of accomplishments on one of the pages because every now and then I hyperventilate about how I am never going to do whatever it is I’m obsessing over, and the list helps me breathe again.

It has a little exercise I use for when I am working on a project that carries a lot of emotional weight, like my memoir, or some of my essays about Jessica (as opposed to other kinds of things I write about, such as what humanities graduates are doing with their degrees). I do a little meditation to segue into and out of emotionally difficult pieces so that my mind doesn’t get stuck in “oh those years were so hard” mode when I am supposed to be making dinner.

It has little stories about doing the work. So much of what we say about writing is captured in these jargon-y little adages like that Facebook meme, “You should be writing!” Well, sure, sometimes you need a simple reminder like that, but mostly you need to understand the nuances of your own work and your own process. My grimoire is like this wonderful little guidance system that says, “You have had this problem before, and here are some things that you tried, and here is how they worked.” That keeps me from feeling totally lost in the Sahara without a roadmap.

For example, I know by now that for every manuscript, there will be at least three times when I think the work is utter crap. But my grimoire will remind me that this is par for the course, and so instead of hitting delete, I go for a walk.

In this month alone, I hit the wall on three different projects. I couldn’t figure out how to make any of them be what I needed them to be. Often I need to just finish the book. It’s important to do the work despite feeling resistance sometimes. But I’d finished drafts of all three projects, and I was feeling less than enthusiastic about them, not just for a day or two but deep down in the bone. This wasn’t my usual “Oh this is crap” reaction that eventually goes away. This was a conviction that I was picking the trite answer every single time. But I didn’t know how to fix this. No amount of sitting there thinking would fix it.

But the grimoire reminded me, “Sometimes, you focus on getting the answer RIGHT NOW!!!! but a lot of the time the answer doesn’t come till later. Sometimes, you need to stop demanding the answer right now and give yourself time to work it out.” So I just stopped thinking about these projects, and I went to Mini College, and I decided that I would focus on helping Jessica with her art, and do my paying work and just have some fun. I drew some pictures and had dinner with a friend.

The solution to each of the three problems occurred to me when I stopped trying so hard, one in a slow, growing-on-me-over-the-course-of-a-week fashion, and one in a bang!-that’s-the-answer way, and the third in a gradual illumination as I was reading a completely unrelated textbook.

And that experience will also go in the grimoire.

I imagine that someday, when I am 92, I will hand the grimoire over to some young thing, and see what she makes of it.

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From my editor at Crimson: Just a quick note today to say that we’ve got a special Summer Savings code we’d like you to extend to your family and friends for purchases at our new Crimson Store (www.adamsmediastore.com/crimson-romance). If they plug in code: FFSAVE at checkout (lower left side of page), they’ll save an extra 10% off our usual 30% off — so total savings of 40% off their order! The code will be good through summer’s end and expires on August 31, 2014.  (Everyone’s a friend.)

And remember, the buy 5, get the 6th free offer is always in effect as well. 

From me: You know there are easily 6 of my romances that you’ve never read, so check out Jessica Starre, Jenny Jacobs, and Alicia Thorne (though watch out for her. She can be a pain in the butt.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

On shifting your perspective

For a couple of years, I have been really frustrated with the fact that I wake up several times every night. Usually I go back to sleep pretty quickly, but other times I don’t. So this was a source of some annoyance, a thing I thought I needed to fix. (If you’ve been following along, you know I have a need to fix everything that comes along.)

Then I read a news article that explained how researchers had determined that people who are light sleepers (such as me) recall their dreams, whereas heavier sleepers do not.

Of course this makes sense but I had never recognized the connection before. I love my dreams! I love remembering my dreams! In fact, a yoga teacher once told me that if I did yoga regularly, I’d stop having dreams, so I stopped doing yoga. I’ve written entire novels based on compelling dreams I’ve had. (The Achilles Project and Children of the Wolves are just two examples.)

So I want to keep my dreams. Waking up a couple times a night seems like a fair exchange in order to get them. So I’ve stopped being frustrated by this fact. All it took was just making a connection and I shifted my perspective—just like that, no further effort required.

Have you ever experienced something like this, a moment where your understanding opened and a thing that had been a source of frustration just stopped being a source of frustration?

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Dojo Wisdom for Writers, second edition, now available on Amazon in print and ebook! (Nook and other ebook versions here)
Catch a Falling Star (by Jessica Starre) and The Matchmaker Meets Her Match (by Jenny Jacobs), two of my favorite novels.

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On your one big thing

I originally wrote this post over on Be Your Own Book Doctor, but I wanted to post it here because it has so much to do with what I’ve been posting about a lot here, on doing the work. The key is doing the right work:

As I know I’ve said, I get a lot of “I wish I could get as much done as you do!” comments. I am never quite sure how I should respond to these. The “I wish I could” is invariably followed by “but.” But I have a day job, but I have a kid, but I have a hobby.

I have these things, too, but that has never stopped me, or, rather, it has never stopped me for long. So when people say, “I wish …” my response is always, “You can!” And because I am a problem solver, I show them how.

But long experience has taught me that people aren’t really asking for my tips about how I don’t watch television, or how I have learned how not to check email every ten minutes when I’m working on an important project, or how every other weekend is unplugged at my house.

And I get it. I wish I were as slender as my friend Kelly, but I don’t actually want to give up my berry pie to get there. I just don’t. I know how Kelly has fought the war against the next size up, and it would require a lot of work that I am frankly uninterested in doing.   So when people say, “I wish I ….” I’m inclined to think it is about wishing, not about action plans.

But this would be a fairly pointless post if I were going to leave it at that. So I am, in fact, going to give you my very best tip, just in case you want it. And that tip is to find the one big thing that would make a difference and just do that.

The one big thing that if you did it, you would be a lot closer to where you want to be. It’s getting your retirement contributions deducted directly from your paychecks so you don’t have to think about it. It’s hiring a personal trainer to get your butt into action. It’s … turning off the television and spending that time on your WIP.

For me the one big thing is devoting the first two hours of the day to my writing. I don’t care what else is on the agenda, the first two hours of the day are for me to get the creative work done. The sky could be falling, and often is, and I still do the work every morning. Every damned morning.

What is your one big thing?

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My collection of travel stories, Travels with Jessica, is now available! Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here. And I’ve published my essay “For Jessica” as a small book. Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

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