I have a confession to make, and it's a little embarrassing.
I haven't worked on my novel-in-progress at all this year.
It's not that I've not been writing. I've been doing blog posts (here and at my new site, The Stronger Pull). I sent a "postcard" for my birthday via my mailing list. (Not a subscriber? Sign up here!) I write in my journal almost every day. And, about two weeks ago, I started writing something, nonfiction, that got me excited. What's more, I've been writing it longhand. Sometimes it's important to listen when an idea screams for your attention, even if it's at the expense of temporarily ignoring others.
But that novel manuscript, the one I started over the summer? Nope, not this year. Not yet, anyway.
I can tell you a bunch of reasons--excuses, perhaps--that explain why. One is that after three-plus years, I'm still learning how to manage my time as a married person. Another is that I haven't practiced what I preach: make writing time non-negotiable.
Another still is preoccupation. Last fall, my husband and I made the difficult decision to sell our house in Maine and move back to Billings. We were disappointed that things didn't work out in Maine as we'd hoped, especially since we love our home and surroundings so much. We put our house on the market and, after the holidays and many showings, finally connected with a buyer. Now, with an official move date (end of March/beginning of April), packing the house and making preparations has become a priority. This is the second time in two years we've been through this.
But perhaps the most significant reason/excuse is psychological, and it's the most difficult one to overcome: fear.
It's become hard, this writing thing. Like picking up the guitar after you haven't played it in years, or getting back on the basketball court after you've been out with an injury all season. You're out of practice. Out of shape. You've lost your groove. You've lost your confidence. You start to have doubts: what if I don't or can't get my mojo back? What if I've already been forgotten? What if I had my one chance, and now it's over? What if I'm just plain not good at it anymore, and never will be again?
Any athlete or musician will tell you to just do it, like the slogan says. Get back on the court. Back on stage. Back into the arena. Back on the page. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again. As Jen Sincero, author of the Badass books says: "If you run from your fears, they will follow you. If you run straight at your fears, they will get the hell out of your way. Fears hate it when you do that."
It's time to make a beeline at them. Stop making excuses and start making a plan. Make time. Make progress.
After all, I've done this before. I know the way.
I'm gonna be 50 years old next week.
Like, I still remember when my dad turned 50.
And besides, didn't I just turn 40 last year?
Turning 40 was such a milestone. I absolutely loved it. My debut novel, Faking It, had just catapulted up the Kindle charts, selling an asinine 22,000 units in three days. I had also just become a certified Reiki Master-Teacher, something I'd been wanting to do for at least ten years prior. I was living in North Carolina, teaching full time, and working on my third novel. I had good friends, good colleagues, and a good coffeeshop to hang out in.
And it was only going to get better. By the end of 2010, I'd gotten a publishing contract, met Aaron Sorkin (one of my writing heroes), and bought the car I'd wanted since I was a kid: a Volkswagen Beetle. It was the kickoff to a decade that was going to bring even more surprises, successes, and dreams come true.
In short, 40 was fabulous.
When the main character of my novel Adulation, Sunny Smith, turned 40, her friends goaded her into making a "40 for 40" list--forty things she wanted to accomplish the year she turned 40. no doubt I'd made a list of my own--it's a very me thing to do--and I likely ticked many of the items off if not that year, then in subsequent years.
So here we are, ten years later, and the decade ended very differently and unexpectedly from where it began. Had you told me then that I'd be living in midcoast Maine, married, and in the throes of midlife transition, my jaw would've dropped. The transition part has especially flummoxed me. I have to keep reminding myself that it's normal, that we're hardwired at this age to feel these feelings and question who we are now and what we want to be when we grow up.
But just because it's normal doesn't mean it's comfortable. And yet, that's one of the lesson's I'm learning--or rather, re-learning. This transition is about allowing myself to be vulnerable again, especially while I'm feeling like I'm in the tall grass and not sure where it's going to take me.
Maybe a 50 for 50 list can be a roadmap. Or maybe it can just be a fun thing to do. Although coming up with 50 things is a bit of a challenge, I admit.
Some of the things on my list are too personal to share. (I'm not willing to be that vulnerable.) But here's a little tease, in no particular order, of a few, even if they are so ridiculously typical of me:
Also on the list is to have a celebration with my twin brother. Sadly, we won't be able to celebrate the day together. And I checked another item off early, two weeks ago, when I went to Atlanta to finally meet a very special friend in person (a mere technicality) and some fellow Duranies for some fun.
Here's the thing, though. While drafting this blog, a package arrived for me. It was a present from my best friend (who is also turning 50 this year): the Fab Five in Funko Pop form. She also included a bad of Lindor milk chocolate truffles, and a glittery gold card that beautifully captured the sentiment and set the tone for what I want 50 to be all about. This is a year of re-purposing. Taking one familiar form and making it into something kind of different, but still playful and fun and adventurous and authentic. Taking joy and using it to light the way out of the tall grass. And taking your friends and loved ones with you, because they've always been a part of the journey.
I think maybe, just maybe, 50 will turn out to be pretty fab too.
On December 27, one month before my 50th birthday, Showtime aired a documentary called There’s Something You Should Know about the life and career of Duran Duran spanning 40 years. Of course, as a fan for 36 of those 40 years, naturally I watched with nostalgia and enthusiasm as it brought back happy memories and made me psyched for my friend David O’s party celebrating the one-year anniversary of his podcast (and, in some ways, a new movement) called “The D Side,” which I’m attending in Atlanta on January 10, 2020. And although it’s a given that Duran Duran is going to inspire me in one form or another every time I listen to or watch something involving them, I didn’t expect the impact of this bit of reflection and advice from front-man Simon Le Bon that seemed directed specifically to and for me:
“The first time it [commercial failure] happens, it’s really scary because you thought you would carry on forever. ... And the next time it happens, it’s not so bad, and the *next* time it happens, it’s not so bad. And then you get to a point where you just relax and think, ‘You know what? Let’s just do what we do. Do we believe in the music we make? Yes, we do. Can we go in and write new stuff? Have you still got stuff inside of you that you want to say? Yes, I have. Yes, we can.’ Then you do it.”
When he spoke that first truth, I sat and nodded with recognition and validation, flashing back to two years ago when the cloud of success I’d been floating on turned into a brick and plummeted to the ground. In fact, I’d spent the better part of 2019 finally dealing with the pain and the grief of the crash. And since then, subsequent bricks have dropped. But as Simon continued, I felt as if he was putting an arm around me, assuring me it was going to get better. And by the time he said “Then you do it,” a wave of calm crested over me, and I knew exactly what and how I wanted to live for 2020 in terms of being a writer and a published author: Let’s just do what we do.
Do I believe in the books that I make? Yes, I do.
Can I go in and write new stuff? Have I still got stuff inside of me that I want to say?
Yes, I have. Yes, I can.
One thing about Duran Duran that has always impressed and inspired and motivated me was their singular, directed vision. They had a definite chief aim. They didn’t just aspire to become a successful pop band; rather, they intended it. They made plans. They believed in themselves and their music and their style and their look. They wanted to be “the band to dance to when the bomb drops,” and they played (while we danced) as if they were, as if there was no other choice. And in the span of 40 years and fourteen (soon to be fifteen) albums, they refused to play it safe; they set the trends rather than chase them; they continued to believe in themselves, even when their clouds turned into bricks. They never wavered from their vision. They never looked for fallback jobs, never cowered from their critics, and never got stuck pining for their glory days. They moved forward, one foot in the other, even when it seemed as if no one was dancing anymore. As if the bomb had already dropped.
In late 2010, and by age 50, Duran Duran had made and released All You Need is Now, an album that pretty much defined the first half of my forties. Heck, if they could do that at 50, then what could I do at age 50 with a singular, directed vision? What could I do if I believed in myself and the stuff inside me? What could I do if I just relaxed and said “You know what? Let’s just do what we do”?
I could make something really special. I could make something that dances rather than chases. I could make magic.
This is the note I needed to end 2019 and begin 2020 on. This was something I needed to know.
This is where I am and where I’m going. Because here’s the thing about bricks: when they drop to the ground, they can become roads. You can even dance on them.
Well, here I am again. Wanting to write a blog post, wanting to keep a blog going with some degree of consistency, and still not knowing what to write about, or how to “tie it all together” with being a novelist and an author.
I let procrastination get in the way. Again. I let inertia get in the way. Again. I let indecision get in the way. Again.
So why do I keep coming back? Why do I keep trying? Why do I keep wanting to “get it right” this time?
Well, quite frankly, because I love to write.
I love to write, and I want to keep doing it any way I can. And this time, instead of wanting to reach the masses, I want to connect with one reader at a time.
My husband and I went to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood over Thanksgiving weekend, the film based on journalist Tom Junod’s Esquire feature on the late Fred Rogers, or, as many of us knew him, Mr. Rogers. I remember reading that piece years ago, when I was still teaching college freshman writing, and assigning it to my students. I remember tearing up when I read it, and tearing up even when discussing it with my students. One thing that has always stuck with me was learning that when Mr. Rogers faced the camera and began talking, he never imagined talking to lots of children, but rather just one child. And even now, as a forty-nine-year-old, when I watch those episodes, I still feel as if he is talking to me. Not the child in me, but me. It was about connection. It was about communion. It was about the space between him and me. Still is, right now, every time I see him on the screen. He is as alive to me in that moment as he once was.
The older I get, the more I want to have this same relationship with a reader. Many times I’ll come across advice for writers along the lines of this: figure out who your ideal reader is. Read the analytics of your Facebook page or your website, look at who most replies to your tweets and read their profiles and news feed. Figure out where they live and shop and what other books they read besides yours. And then make up a sort of avatar. Give that ideal reader a name and an age and a job and a marital status, etc. And then write for that avatar.
It’s not necessarily bad advice. It’s just never worked for me.
What has worked for me, especially when I’m not even trying, is writing for someone I already know. Sometimes he’s male. Sometimes female. Some are closer to me than others. Some I’m no longer in touch with. Just about every book is different. But my favorite letters from readers are the ones who somehow innately sensed this connection and responded with “I felt as if you wrote this book just for me.”
And, I don’t mind telling you, there’s another reader I write for: me.
Because one of the first and perhaps best pieces of writing I ever received was this: Write the book you want to read.
Or the blog post. Or the letter. Or the Facebook post. Or tweet. Or perhaps, coming soon, the podcast I want to listen to (hint hint?).
Because it turns out that is a very intimate relationship as well. And it seems every time I stray from that and try to post things on Instagram that will generate a lot of “likes” (or, as it’s known in the best practices circle, “epic content,” whatever the hell that is) or come up with a bestselling idea as opposed to an idea that I really love, I seem to get results counter to what I aimed for.
Which is something else I’ve been thinking about that Mr. Rogers taught me. After seeing the movie (and please, give yourself that gift this season if you haven’t yet, and watch last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, while you’re at it), I dove into YouTube and found all kinds of interviews and commencement speeches he gave. During a conversation with Charlie Rose, he talked about the importance of parents doing what they love and are passionate about with or in front of their children. He spoke about how many parents wrote to tell him that their children wanted to play the cello after seeing Yo-Yo Ma on the Neighborhood because they responded to the energy of Yo-Yo Ma’s passion. And how, when a guest sculptor visited a nursery school and worked with clay in front of the children for a semester (didn’t teach them how, just did it), the kids’ own clay creations were more inventive and imaginative than any other semester.
No doubt there are times when writing is a labor. It can be arduous, even stressful at times, especially when there’s a deadline or a grade or royalties on the line. But I have never, ever wanted writing to be something to dread. I have never connected with writers who talk about the dread, the work, the slog. This year, when I took a sabbatical from writing, one of the reasons I did so was because it had stopped being fun. And that was one reason why I had become so sad. Because I’d never wanted writing to be anything less than joyful. Even during the labor.
Day by day, I’ve been reconnecting to the joy. And it feels very much like a Mr. Rogers moment, when he looks at the camera—at me—and sings “It’s You I Like.” We’re singing it to each other, writing and me.
So yes, I’ll keep trying to do this thing. Consistently. Engagingly. Joyfully. Because it’s writing I like. And because it’s you I like.
While reading Be the Gateway: A Practical guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience, Dan Blank reminded me of something I often told my students in the college classroom:
People don’t buy things; they buy experiences.
Put another way, “they buy the feeling that things give them.”
For example, if you’re a Gen-Xer, think about the experience of a Sony Walkman when you were a teenager. Or what the slogan “I want my MTV” was really about—certainly not only having access to a cable channel. In more modern times, what makes someone buy a Toyota Prius as opposed to another car? What makes someone prefer an iPhone to a Galaxy? Or a Kindle e-reader to another device?
We can apply this to fandom as well. What makes some people Star Wars fans and others Star Trek fans? Or fans of classic rock as opposed to new wave? What experience does any particular film, or television series, or band, give them? How does it make them feel to follow a particular sports team?
I often talked with students about this in the context of writing and persuasion. When applying the rhetorical appeals—to credibility of character, to emotion, to reason—how does one sell an experience as opposed to a product or an idea? What narrative can you create that the consumer/fan will then adopt?
Books are boundless experiences. What is the reading experience you want to have with any particular book or author? How do their stories make you feel? What personal stories do you bring to your reading experience? What how has it changed after you’ve read a particular book, be it fiction or non?
Dan Blank posits this: “When you understand the narratives your ideal audience seeks, you know how to engage those people.”
I’ve been thinking about this in regards to my novels and the connections and engagement I want my writing to make with my readers moving forward, and I’ve been challenged by that statement. Do I understand their narratives?
In other words, what is the experience of an Elisa Lorello book? What do I want it to be? What are readers bringing to the purchase and the reading of an Elisa Lorello book? What do they want to feel? What is their story?
I’ve often struggled to pinpoint the “ideal reader.” My approach to audience has always been self-centered in nature: I write the books I want to read. So often what I write comes from whatever emotional place I am in at the time. For example, when I was contracted to write Pasta Wars, I had just gone through a sort of breakup, and it had brought up some deep-seated rejections. I needed to heal, but I also needed to laugh. Thus, I’d set out to emphasize the comedy in “romantic comedy.” I also love stories like Chocolat or Like Water for Chocolate, in which connections between food and emotion are explored. I’m a picky eater, but I want the foodie experience! Thus, I created the experience of food and eating as a love affair.
Recently I wrote in my revised author bio that all of my books, in one form or another, explore the idea of living authentically. I further wrote to a friend that “I’ve set a new intention: for my novels, writing, etc. to be a gateway for readers to experience their own aliveness and authenticity.” More superficially, I would add that I want them to laugh, and even to become verklempt. I want them to fall in love, be it with the characters, the story, or something featured in the story, like a Junior’s cheesecake or a New England town. Or perhaps even with the writing itself. But I wonder: is that what my readers want?
I don’t have the answer to that question at this time. But I want to spend the next few months finding out. In the meantime, I can tell you what the experience of writing my latest first draft has been—it’s been a challenge at times, like getting back on the horse, so to speak. It’s been emotionally therapeutic at other times. Most of all, it’s been fun. I look forward to the next phase: revision.
If my memory is correct, I started my first blog back in 2007 or 2008, when blogs were a gateway to social media and recognition. I didn’t know what I wanted it to be at the time, or whom I wanted it to be for. I mostly wrote about writing and rhetoric, but shortly into it even I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow it.
Flash-forward to last week: while revising my author bio, I included a Donald Murray quote “As we read someone else’s story, we write our own” in the draft. It had been a long time since I’d used the quote, and I wanted to make sure I’d gotten it verbatim, so I Googled it.
The first two hits turned out to be from two blog posts I’d written in those early days, back before I’d even had an author website and I was using Blogspot.
I read the posts for the first time in ten years, and thought, Hey, that’s not bad. I scrolled and read a few more. It was like meeting an old friend, seeing where she’d been and where she is now. She’d grown a lot.
Blogging has always been a strange beast for fiction writers. Over the years we’ve been told to “build a platform,” “create epic content,” and “get your writing noticed,” all before you sell your first novel. The pressure increased when it came to social media content. It’s a lot easier to focus when you’re a nonfiction writer specializing in a particular subject. But for fiction writers, content—especially blog content—has always been a head scratcher. What was a fiction writer going to blog about that would make readers want to buy their books? “Write short fiction,” they’d say. “Write in the voice of your characters.” “Write about subjects related to your novels.” “Write about the writing process.” “Write about other books.” “Feature other writers.” “Write autobiographically.” “Make it all about you.” “Don’t make it all about you.”
And so on.
Don’t even get me started on how to make it “epic.”
But that elusive they never seem to talk about making a connection with readers for the sake of…well, making a connection. There’s always something else riding on that connection.
As time went on, I tried to clarify my purpose and audience. It was for writers. No, it was for readers. No, it’s for readers and writers. No, it’s for readers of books like mine. No, it’s just an occasional update for readers of my books. No, it’s just a vehicle for when I have something to say that’s longer and more in-depth than a Facebook post.
I never quite got it. But I always wanted to.
Then, a couple of years ago, I started a new blog on a new site as an extension of my sourcebook The Writer’s Habit. The idea was to start The Writer’s Habit Academy, complete with online courses, specialized coaching, and developmental editing.
I’m going to be completely honest and show my ass here: despite my coming up with a lofty “why” (“to foster a love and passion for writing in others,” or something like that), the home truth was this: I wanted to make money.
I had dollar signs in my eyes, and little else, despite the denial I was in.
In my defense, my own writing career was falling apart. My monthly royalty checks, which had once been in the high four-figures and sometimes even five, were quickly dwindling to a far from sustainable amount. I was in panic mode. And few people see straight when they’re in panic mode, especially when they don’t realize they’re in panic mode.
It’s not that the blog was a bad idea. It’s that it was, in hindsight, inauthentic. I’d taken an online course (one that, to steal a term from Dan Blank, could be described as a “best practices” course) from someone who’d made a lot of money as the result of blogging. To look back and read those posts now, most of them feel contrived, trying too hard to get Likes, Follows, Clicks, Shares, and move up on the Google search chain. Incidentally, the most popular post was the most genuine: a tribute to Judy Blume.
I’d had grand plans for that blog, and the business it would catapult. What I didn’t expect (but what makes perfect sense now) was that I would burn out practically before I even started. My intention of posting once a week quickly turned into once every other week followed by once a month, and I found myself dreading the task every three weeks. Where I’d thought I’d have a trove of topics to choose from, I found myself scrambling to write something of interest, something that would fit into “The Five Best Writing Tips” kind of mold.
And then I discovered an even more harsh truth: I didn’t really want to teach writing anymore. At least, not as a small business.
So then I tried to revive what I call my author blog, the one on my website, and once again did so for the purpose of trying desperately to find something that would catch fire and, more importantly (or so I thought), convert to book sales: A Year of Nora Ephron series (I think that fizzled out after three posts). Cover reveals. Giveaway announcements. I tried to post regularly. I tried to write with purpose. I tried and tried and tried. But nothing stuck.
It had all been a massive letdown. I felt like a complete failure. I felt foolish for having been taken in by this course, and ashamed of the truth of why I’d allowed myself to be taken in. I felt rudderless. Being a writer and a teacher had defined me for the better part of fifteen years, if not longer. But I couldn’t even sustain a damn blog. My livelihood was disappearing right before my eyes, and I couldn’t save it.
And then, at the beginning of this year, I took an indefinite sabbatical from the whole thing—writing, publishing, teaching, promoting, you name it. I suspended my mailing list. I took a social media break. I dropped out.
And I went to pieces.
In short, I fell into depression. I was grieving not only the loss of my career and livelihood and all its successes, but also, and especially, the loss of my joy for it. None of it had been fun for a good two years. I confronted the fear that it had only been fun because it had been successful.
Could I ever love it again if I never made another dime from it? Did I want to be an author if it wasn’t sustainable?
With time, therapy, and a part-time job at an independent movie theater, I began to climb out of my funk. And as I confronted these fears and losses and made peace with them, I found myself reconnecting to something I’d lost in all that panic: connection.
It’s easy, especially when you’re at the peak of success, to forget that there are human beings behind those Likes, Follows, Click Rates, Sales, and Shares. It’s easy to become so blinded and pressured by the analytics that you forget what made them:
One reader at a time.
One reader who read a book I had written and loved it. Was inspired by it. Laughed. Cried. Loaned it to a friend. Recommended it to their book club. Wrote a review. Shared it on social media. Took the time to let me know personally what it meant to them.
That’s what I loved. That’s what had inspired me. That’s what made it fun. That I could do it for as long as I did as a full-time, sustainable job was a dream come true. And I’m not going to lie: I still want to do so. But I’m no longer terrified of not being able to.
Last week, I completed the first draft of a novel. Like all first drafts, it needs a lot of work. It needs focus and direction. It needs pacing. It needs depth. It needs fleshing out of ideas and characters and the story itself. As Andi says to Devin in Faking It, “There’s so much here that’s not yet on the page.” The possibilities that live within the flaws.
What makes this first draft a big deal, however, is because just a few short months ago, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to write another book. I wasn’t sure I’d even have another idea, one that nagged at me until it was born.
Moreover, I liked it.
And that’s the way I’m feeling overall these days. I’m reviving my newsletter. Updating my website and author bio. Posting on Instagram. I’m conversing more. And I’m not doing it for dollars. I’m doing it because it’s fun again. I’m doing it because I want to make connections again.
One reader at a time. Even if it’s only one.
So I guess you could say my sabbatical is over.
And yes, as I write this, I’m having that blogging itch again of wanting to say, This time it’s gonna be different. I’m going to blog every week and it’s going to be great. It’s going to have authentic purpose and audience and, most of all, consistency. I’m going to be committed, dammit. One post per week. It’ll be awesome. And its purpose won’t be lofty, and it won’t be self-serving, and it won’t be for the purposes of platform or conversion or affiliate marketing or anything I’ve ever tried to conform it to. It will be for the sole purpose of connection and conversation. From me to you, and between me and you. And not you, “ideal reader” or “target audience” or “potential book buyer.”
Because I love you. Because I love it. Because it’s fun.
Remember in You’ve Got Mail, when Frank asks Kathleen if there’s someone else in her life and she answers, “No. But there is the dream of someone else”?
I’m not making any promises about a successful, lasting return to blogging. But right now, I’m loving the dream of it. Of everything.
At the time of this writing, we just finished another round of snow and are gearing up for a bit more over the weekend, although it now looks like we’re in for more rain. Unlike other parts of the country (including our former home in Montana), our temperatures in Midcoast Maine have stayed on the plus side, mostly in the 20s and 30s, so you’ll get no complaints from me. In fact, we live in such a quiet area that sitting outside to watch and listen to the silence of the snow, even for just a minute or two, is an unexpected battery charger. That said, I’m looking forward to more sun, more green, and more warmth. Looking forward to hitting the beach, too.
The launch of You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky went well—please keep the photos of you and your personal copies coming!—and Craig and I are delighted by the feedback we’re getting. The overwhelming majority of you have tapped into everything we wanted this story to be, and that alone makes it a success. We are especially excited to be returning to our beloved Billings, Montana, as well as Livingston, which was always like a second hometown to us, next month. We’ll be at Elk River Books and This House of Books for some YMMBS fun and food. (If you’re a subscriber, check out our ad in the Spring issue of the Montana Quarterly magazine! If you’re not, become a subscriber!)
After that, I’ll be taking a bit of a break—or, as I prefer to call it, a sabbatical—from writing and the writing business.
This decision didn’t come easily, but last month, beginning around the time of the YMMBS launch, my husband and I both came down with that icky cold/cough thingie. Except mine turned into acute bronchitis with asthma. The diagnosis surprised me, and it took some time to fully heal. I’ve always been one to look at health matters from an emotional/psychological perspective as well as a physical one, so I asked the question: What is taking your breath away right now (and not in a good way)?
I think I knew the answer even before I asked the question. Didn’t make it easier to accept, however.
For a little over a year, I’ve been struggling with a creative drought. Whatever the cause—writer’s block, the move, too much distraction, loss of self-confidence, burnout, I’ve explored them all—no prescription has taken root. Writers will tell you that the antidote to any writing problem is to keep writing, but I also live by Jerry Greenfield (of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream fame)’s motto: “If it’s not fun, why do it?” The business of writing has not been fun for a long time. And I don’t want something that has been a constant throughout my life, something that has always brought me joy, solace, and aliveness, to become a burden or resentful.
Since 2012, I’ve had the privilege of being a full-time author. This is not the norm. In fact, the overwhelming majority of authors have second and even third jobs. I was one of the lucky ones. It’s incredibly hard to go back into the workforce outside the home after you’ve worked on your own time and in your own space for so long. (And yes, that’s as big a first-world problem as I’ve ever had, and for that I am humbled and grateful.) However, I’ll likely be doing just that, on a part-time basis, leaving room for flexibility to continue doing other things I love, such as workshops at libraries, speaking at book clubs, and some occasional one-on-one coaching. I’ve loved being a part of our new community, and perhaps some new characters and stories will reveal themselves to me along the way.
In addition to a writing sabbatical, I am significantly reducing my time on social media as well, especially from Facebook. If you’d like to keep up with life in Midcoast Maine, then you can follow me on Instagram (spoiler alert: we’re bringing a baby dachshund home next month, so PUPPY PHOTOS!). You can also occasionally talk 80s music and other stuff with me on Twitter.
When my first novel, Faking It, went into the Kindle Store in June of 2009, and the first 50 purchases came in, the mind-blowing revelation wasn’t just oh-my-god-I-published-a-book, but oh-my-god-my-book-is-being-read-by-people-I-don’t-know-and-who-don’t-know-me. Everything that happened after that was beyond anything I had imagined and downright magical. Since then, so much of the pleasure I derived was from knowing my stories weren’t sitting in a drawer, so to speak, but rather reaching readers all over the world. That is still mind-blowing. You made this life possible. You made this roller-coaster ride an adventure. You made it meaningful.
I have never wanted to let you down. I still don’t. I hope this time off will refill the well, give me breathing room, so to speak. I hope it will rekindle (sorry) the joy and fun and passion. I hope my books keep meeting new readers. And I hope other authors’ dreams come true in the same way mine did.
See you soon.
Back in January, I’d had high hopes. Bought a fancy planner, one for each quarter (yeah, I was even badass enough to break my year up into quarters), and set lofty—and, in hindsight, damn near impossible—goals such as Build mailing list by 100 subscribers each week and Create a series of online courses based on The Writer’s Habit.
Seriously—what was I thinking? Because by February, I was paralyzed.
I’d also set a personal goal of leaving my comfort zone as much as possible. And, at the end of the second quarter, I wrote a bit about the ways in which I did that. The move to Maine, of course, was the epitome of that. So was, among other things, joining a pickleball group at our local YMCA, having never played before.
By quarter three, I had changed up my goals completely. And achieved none. Looking at them now, I can see how far adrift I was, and not in the good, leave-my-comfort-zone way. I was lost. Afraid.
I needed to find my way again.
I wish I could tell you that I have. Or rather, to what. But the truth is, I’m not yet sure what the way is. I might already be there. I might not be. But what I am sure of right now is that I don’t need to know. Thus, my final goal for 2018, and entering 2019, is:
Trust the unknown regardless of the outcome.
In the meantime, I’ve set the bar way lower. Instead of aiming for 100 new subscribers each week, I smile and give thanks for just one. Instead of wanting to reach 10,000 readers, I’m overjoyed when just one takes the time to tell me how one of my books has touched her. Instead of creating an online course empire, I connected with one student, face to face, and we talked about way more than writing. Instead of focusing on what I didn’t accomplish this year, I marvel at what I did just in this remaining quarter:
Most of all, I love and appreciate that so many of this year’s achievements start with We. Not because being with someone is so important, but because I love who he is.
I began the year thinking big. And I did achieve my ultimate goal of leaving my comfort zone. I also have goals for 2019. (As always, I’ll keep them close to the vest.) But I’m thinking way smaller this time. What I’ve learned is that setting the bar low can sometimes be a really good thing, in that less-is-more way.
The journey continues. And that, of course, is the greatest gift of all.
Early last month, my husband and I went to the Y to sign up for a new membership in our new town and state. I’d had one in Billings, but had barely used it all year. A few days later, we made our first visit and did a two-mile walk on the track. I was feeling accomplished and renewed to resuming an exercise routine— heck, downright looking forward to it—until I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the door when we walked back to the car.
I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been.
I didn’t need the reflection to tell me that. I’ve been feeling it in my clothes all summer. I’m down to one pair of jeans that fit. T-shirts that used to hang loosely now hug me tight. I’ve been avoiding photos.
In fact, since my wedding two years ago, I’ve gained twenty pounds. And I was already close to twenty pounds overweight back then.
I recoiled when I saw myself.
And then I called myself a load. Out loud.
My husband admonished me, albeit lovingly. He was right to do so, of course. From there he gently reminded me why we’d reinstated our membership, and that day by day, we’d get to where we both wanted to be: healthier. Fitter. More energetic. We’d try again and again. We’d do a little better and a little worse and a little better again. We’d succeed and fail and succeed again. And it would be OK. We were OK. He told me that he loved and desired me—and my body—regardless of its size or shape.
In short, he was kind to me, whereas I was not.
There’s no way I would ever be so mean as to call my husband—or anyone else—a load. I would be downright ashamed to be that person. I can’t stand when comedians resort to fat jokes when taking pot shots at a politician like Chris Christie, for example. I hate when sitcoms portray overweight people as having no self-control (I could go on and on about that alone), being too lazy to go to the gym, and/or equating girth with klutziness.
And yet, I didn’t think twice about speaking to and about myself in such a cruel manner. I thought nothing of judging myself with such contempt and shaming my body based solely on appearance. I cared little about self-condemnation until after I’d done it. I didn’t acknowledge that calling myself a load was as mean as calling someone else I loved, or even someone I didn’t know, a load. I didn’t even feel remorse. Not until later, when we came home.
How is it that we don’t even recognize the ways in which we undermine ourselves? How do we expect to be loving toward others, and to be receptive of love from others, when we so vehemently refuse to love ourselves?
And then, in that typical Catch-22 reaction, I ate to feed my wounded self, to comfort her, make her feel better. My cousin Meg, who openly shares her struggles with anorexia, has talked about the counterintuitive sense of well-being she feels from not eating. I suddenly wondered if the well-being I felt from eating more than I needed was similarly deceptive.
Until this morning, I hadn’t been back to the Y since. (OK, some of that is because it’s not air-conditioned and we’ve had a rather humid month. I also spent time in New York and Southern New England. But still.) I decided to set September 1 as the kickoff date to commit to better eating and exercise habits. But I knew I needed more than that.
Because just typing the words “commit to better eating and exercise habits” fills me with more negative thoughts and feelings: Here we go again. How many times have I tried this before? What makes me think it will work this time? What makes me think I’ll even lose the weight, much less keep it off? I dreaded thoughts of deprivation. I dreaded accountability. I dreaded the idea of keeping food journals and measuring every chicken breast and fruit serving and policing every craving. Why didn’t any weight loss plan or diet ever ask you to track and measure and count your feelings?
What was I feeling when I ate five Mint Milano cookies in one sitting? What was I feeling when I made a smoothie with spinach in it because it was “the right thing to do”? What was I feeling when I was jonesin’ for chocolate cake for breakfast and told myself I was not allowed to have it? What was I feeling every time I saw an ad that described a certain food as “guilt-free?” (I can tell you the answer to that one: anger. It makes me angry that we’ve been taught to feel guilty about anything we eat, regardless of what it is or how much.)
For me, weight loss (or gain) has almost always had less to do with food and more to do with thoughts and feelings.
Yes, I need to change some eating and exercise habits. I need more nutrients and more activity. But I also need, for starters, to apologize to myself for speaking so harshly. For being so mean and critical. For not being more supportive.
I’m sorry for not loving you in that moment. I’m sorry for not liking you just the way you are. I’m sorry for not being proud of you for completing a two-mile walk, for returning to the Y and doing something you enjoy doing. I’m sorry for shaming you and killing your buzz. I’m sorry for not encouraging you to go back regardless of how you think you look. I’m sorry for not paying attention to how you were feeling, and then being dismissive and judgmental when you told me.
I’m so deeply sorry for calling you a load. I’m so deeply sorry for hurting you like that.
If I’m going to measure and record anything, it’s going to be how many times I express kindness toward myself. Compassion. Friendship. Encouragement. In addition to laps around the track, I’m going to do reps of “I approve of myself”s. As I plan meals, I’ll also plan dates with my husband and daily gifts for us.
And if it’s the last thing I do, I’ll take guilt out of the mix. Especially when I want—and have—chocolate cake for breakfast.
I’ll try, and try again, and try again.
I love myself enough to try.
I love myself.
At the beginning of 2018, I wrote a post in which I reflected on 2017’s successes and shortcomings, and made projections about what I wanted 2018 to be. This year I also began a new practice: using Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner, at the beginning of each quarter I’ve made a list of goals and habits I want to manifest or achieve, and have attempted to plan my days and weeks in service of those goals. Some days the entire day’s agenda has been nothing but check marks. Other days it’s been a complete washout.
We’ve just begun Quarter Three and the second half of 2018, and I thought it would be a good time to tell you how I’m faring.
Without sharing specific goals, in the January post I mentioned that I wanted this to be a year of leaving my comfort zone as much as possible. So far, I think I’ve achieved that in various forms:
Not bad for the first six months.
With each quarter, I’ve added some goals, deleted others, or revised the ones I’ve kept.
I also failed to achieve some goals, either because I made them too big (such as growing my mailing list by 1,000 subscribers each month), or I haven’t made enough effort, such as establishing rituals that improve overall health and wellness. And as far as leaving my comfort zone, some things, like creating an online course, for example, remain so far out of my comfort zone that I have yet to summon the courage to go there.
Plus, I need to update my website yet again. Will have to put that on next week’s “Big Three” to-do list.
Something else happened this year. When it comes to my career, in terms of leaving my comfort zone, I felt as if I lost my sense of direction. Although, if I am to be truly honest, I think I’ve been drifting for a couple of years now, and doing it mostly in silence. For one thing, I’ve been mourning the loss of writing as a sustainable living, and I’m facing looking for additional employment. Yes, many writers have second and even third jobs, so I don’t mean to be a spoiled child complaining that she has to fly Comfort instead of First Class. Writing, like other artistic ventures, is a feast-or-famine business. I was one of the few and fortunate to feast for as many years as I did, and never took that for granted. Who wouldn’t want to keep on feasting?
But it’s more than that. I’ve also found it difficult to be creative during such tumultuous times. I still love writing. I still want it to be my full-time, sustainable gig. I still want the freedom and the joy it’s given me for so long. However, for the first time since 2005, I don’t know if I have another book in me; and if I do, I don’t know what it looks like or when it’s going to show up—next week, next year, or five years from now. And that has frightened me terribly. I don’t want to let anyone down, especially myself. I don’t want the well to run dry. And I don’t want to do anything else as much as I want to do and have loved doing this.
So, what’s next?
Among the many gifts this move has given my husband and me, one of them is a blank canvas. They’re always a little scary, but I’m no stranger to re-inventing myself. It takes time to fill that canvas, to get an idea of what the picture will look like. A lifelong challenge and lesson for me has always been about maintaining patience during those periods of unknown. Trusting that everything I want and need will be revealed and available to me at the right place and time. Recognizing what actions I can take in the meantime, and making peace with the disappointments.
Throughout my life, following my heart has always been the guiding force. My heart has never taken me down a wrong road, nor has it ever taken a shortcut. It’s taken me out of my comfort zone for sure. But it’s also taken me over the rainbow and straight into pots of gold.
If the first six months have been about leaving my comfort zone, then perhaps the second six months will be about creating a new path along the way, one step at a time. And maybe, just maybe, deep down I already know where I’m going. I might even be there already.
I'm an author of commercial women's fiction and a writing instructor. My claim to fame: I can say the alphabet backwards.