A Question of Light and Dark

An artist friend recently displayed two versions of a scene she’d painted – one was dark, rich and moody, while the other was a lighter, fresher portrayal of the same image. She asked us to state which we preferred. The feedback was mixed, but slightly more people liked the darker image than the lighter one. Artists particularly gravitated to the darker scene and, in one case, pointed to the depth of saturation as a reason for their choice. Both images were gorgeous, and it was hard to choose one over the other. But for me, having just lived through a dark and wet weekend that included a six-hour power outage, I craved something light. My need for sunshine and uplift reminded me of a recent newsletter written by foodie and cookbook author Laura Calder. You can read her post here:   https://www.lauracalder.com/april-2022

In part of her newsletter, Calder writes about leaving on vacation just as the Russians attacked Ukraine. She wrestled with whether or not it was in bad taste to post happy holiday shots on social media when there was so much pain and suffering in the world. Ultimately, believing that negativity needs to be beaten back with some delight or everyone would go mad, she decided to share some of her joy. “We have as much of a moral obligation to appreciate beauty, pleasure, and goodness when they’re presented to us as we do to confront evil and destruction when they show up on our path,” Calder wrote. “In fact, when we’re down in the dumps or anxious, it’s more important than ever to keep our senses sharpened for perceiving love and loveliness, because these can be the only things that keep us going.”

My artist friend who posted her work for us to see is just one of many creatives I know who continue to paint, play music, create mosaics and write books, among many other artistic pursuits. With the world feeling quite dark these days, it may feel indulgent or superfluous to do those things, and yet, as Laura Calder reminds us, there are times when a single touch of loveliness or one spot of brightness truly can keep us going.  

Three Questions to Ask

Support is everywhere, if we know where to look. I’m blessed with a supportive partner, great kids and a solid circle of friends. Some of those friends are writers and they’re often the ones I turn to when I’m looking for feedback, advice or any kind of writing-related support. They get it, in a way that my non-writing friends don’t.

Sometimes, however, support or advice shows up in the unlikeliest of places. Last week, I watched a TED talk by Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House Democratic Leader who made history in 2018 when she earned the Democratic nomination for the governor of Georgia. Though Abrams faced a number of challenges and ultimately lost her race, she has not given up. It’s important, she says, not to let setbacks set us back. When we’re faced with any kind of obstacle, be that in politics or in writing, Abrams says there are three key questions we need to ask ourselves. This short TED talk is well worth watching:

Having Fun While Pursuing Goals

bicycle-1209682_640Last week, as part of an inventory for the New Year, I wrote a few lists:  things I love and activities I love to do; places that make me happy; my strengths and the things I’m good at; and some accomplishments I’m proud of. I called it my joy inventory and I did it to psych myself up for my annual goal setting session.

Goal setting is all well and good but achieving those goals can be an insidious business. It’s a little like going on a cycling trip. The planning stage is great. You sit down with a cup of coffee and surf travel sites or read guide books. You dream about where you’ll go, what you’ll see. Departure day comes and you’re psyched. And the trip starts out great, it really does, and you’re taking in the scenery and enjoying the daily work out and the feeling of accomplishment. The destination is an eventual goal but the journey is what it’s all about. Everybody knows that including smug little you.

At some point along the way, however, possibly after a day of bitter rain or being forced to detour up a grueling hill, pedaling becomes a chore. You aren’t covering as many miles as you expected to and you’re running into roadblocks as well. Your ass hurts, you stop taking in the view, and the only accomplishment you care about is getting to your destination. So you put your head down and you pedal. You pedal and pedal and pedal on. The trip, you decide, was a terrible idea and clearly not yours. You’ll never do it again.

Until you do.

It’s a lot like goal setting. If you set goals this new year, there’s pretty good chance at some point over the next twelve months you’ll curse yourself out for not reaching your goal fast enough or you’ll get discouraged when you hit a roadblock. You might even decide goal-setting isn’t for you. And maybe it isn’t. But pacing yourself and learning to enjoy life while you work towards your goals helps prevent disappointment and burnout. At least that’s my theory. I’m going to test it out this next year.

I’m going to make time for the activities I love to do. When crap happens and I feel beaten down, I’ll pull out my list of simple pleasures (most of the things I love are simple pleasures) and renew myself that way. If I get discouraged and feel my goals are out of reach, I’ll skim my list of accomplishments and remind myself that I’ve achieved other goals in the past and I can do it again. If I get a bad review or a rejection, I’ll revisit my list of strengths and tell myself I can handle this new challenge too. And at least once over the next year I’ll visit one place that makes me happy and renews my spirit, even if that means I’m only a few miles from home.

I’ve done my joy inventory. I’ve set my goals. And I’m pedalling with optimism into 2017.

Happy New Year and Welcome to 2017!

joywordAt the beginning of a new calendar year we often ask ourselves what we’d like to accomplish in the next twelve months. I do and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. But when I sat down the other day to think about how my next year will shape up, it occurred to me that there’s something I need to do first.

I need to take inventory. Retailers do it, generally once a year. They check out what they have left in stock, look at what’s sold and what hasn’t. Other businesses review their business plans on an annual or even semi-annual basis. Some do a SWOT analysis (looking at their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). I’ve done the SWOT thing with some writer friends several times and it’s a great exercise, especially in a group setting with people you respect and trust. But my next writing retreat is months away so I’m taking stock – taking inventory – on my own this time.

And my inventory list is focusing on joy. Why joy, you ask? Because between Christmas and the New Year I had coffee with an artist friend who confessed she’s feeling burned out. She’s normally the gung-ho sort, always up for a challenge, always creating new things. But she admitted she’s pushing herself to create, and the idea of doing more in 2017 left her feeling exhausted. I can relate. 2016 was a bitch of a year and I felt burned out by the end of it.

I’m pretty sure joy is one of the antidotes to exhaustion and burn out. It certainly helps fill a well that’s close to dry. So if you want to do a joy inventory along with me, grab a pen and paper or sit down with your laptop and open a new file.

We’re going to make a few lists. Don’t groan. It’ll be fun. And since it’s 2017, we’re going to limit each list to 17 items.

List 17 accomplishments you’re most proud of. Do it fast; don’t overthink it. It doesn’t have to be something you accomplished this year. And don’t limit yourself to professional accomplishments either (For example, I’m proud that after ten years we managed to grow a kiwi on our vine in 2016. It speaks to our tenacity and patience).

Note down 17 strengths or things you’re good at, both personally and professionally.

Next, jot down 17 things you love. Come on, this one’s easy. I can think of 17 things I love to eat, for heaven’s sake. Your list might include discovering a new writer. French press coffee. A hot bath on a cold night. The smell of sweet peas. The sound of church bells. The touch of a kitten’s fur.

Then write down 17 things you love to do. Think out of the box. What about travel? Star gazing? Meeting a friend for lunch? Needlepoint? Fixing an old car? Doing your taxes? (okay, maybe not taxes).

Finally, list out 17 places you’ve been that make you happy. If you have trouble with this one, add in a few places you’d love to go that you know would make you happy.

That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now you have a sense of what brings you joy and a written record of your proudest accomplishments. Next week I’ll talk about how to use the joy inventory when it comes to goal setting.


Halfway There

halfway-pointThis blog’s been quiet but I haven’t been. I returned from a week in the sun and immediately jumped into a couple of big projects (one personal and another professional) with tight deadlines. So it’s been some serious head-down-and-get-to-work time for the last few weeks. Thankfully, the personal commitment wraps up near the end of the month and the writing commitment by mid-July.

Speaking of July, the start of the month is only days away and that means we’re half way through 2016. I set goals every January and when the following December rolls around I’m sometimes pleased, but not always. I figure the midpoint of the year is a great time to reassess. We all know goal setting keeps us focused, drives us forward, makes us accountable and provides satisfaction in the end.

But that’s only if we keep those goals in mind.

So over the next week I’ll revisit my objectives for 2016 to see how I’m doing. There’s still time for a course correction, and better I do that now than face disappointment come December. Before I do that, though, I’m taking some time to celebrate with family and friends.

Happy July 1st if you celebrate Canada Day and happy July 4th if you’re south of the border. fireworksvictoria

Comfort Books for Writers

for_writers_onlyBGSometimes all you need is comfort: a warm blanket, a loving hug, a dog cuddle first thing in the morning.

Or a book.

I tried to cull my bookshelves last week. Tried being the operative word. I have more books than I have shoes, sweaters, and probably underwear too (I also have an embarrassing number of spices and condiments in my kitchen – Ras el hanout anyone? – but that’s not relevant to writing unless you care to know how I eat; the short answer is very, very well).

But back to books.  The problem started in early January when we took down the Christmas tree and put away the holiday decorations. You know that delicious feeling of spaciousness you suddenly have in the New Year?

I know it too. It’s one of the comforts of Bloatuary January. Except I didn’t feel it this year. Sometime between October and December, my book pile had babies. I’m pretty sure each title had triplets (Don’t even ask about my Kindle).

I needed to find space. So I went through a couple of bookshelves and pulled some titles to donate to the Goodwill.  In the process, I stumbled over books I hadn’t looked at in a while.  And one of those books brought me so much comfort at the time I read it I decided to put together a list of books specifically written to comfort writers.

These aren’t books geared to craft or business, though many writing books on those subjects also include terrific advice and comforting thoughts.  I wanted books where comfort, insight or advice, was the primary goal. Think of these books as a New Year’s tonic. A writer’s jump start. The equivalent of a warm blanket, a loving hug or a cuddly puppy.

Rejection, Romance & Royalties: The Wacky World of a Working Writer by Laura Resnick.  Sharp, funny, honest and insightful, these essays on the writing life cut right to the heart of the joys, sorrows and rewards of being a writer.  On my keeper pile and never leaving.

The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty W. Moore. Though it’s small enough to fit in a back pocket or a bag, don’t let size fool you. This small book packs a big punch. The Mindful Writer starts by outlining the four noble truths of the writing life and then goes into four key areas:  the writer’s mind, the writer’s desk, the writer’s vision, and the writer’s life. A wonderful source of inspiration and insight.

The Writer’s Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes.   According to Keyes, inspiration isn’t nearly as important to the successful writer as tenacity.  And encouragement and hope are cornerstones to keeping that tenacity alive. Drawing on his experience as both a writer and teacher of writing, Keyes details some of the tactics well-known writers have used to maintain hope, particularly during difficult times.  Enriching and full of encouragement.

For Writers Only by Sophy Burnham. One of the first ‘comfort’ books I ever bought on writing, and still a favorite. A collection of thoughts from many great writers interspersed with Burnham’s own observations on everything from nerves and letting go to audience, productivity, and aloneness.

Writing from the Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo. Since Palumbo is both an author and a psychotherapist, he brings a unique empathy and insight into the writing life. A positive and fresh take on topics like envy, rejection, loneliness and the joy of commitment.  Wise, compassionate and funny.

 Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  In spite of the fact that Lamott is one of my all-time favorite writers, I wrestled with whether to include this title because Bird by Bird does have a number of chapters directly relating to craft. However, in most cases they go well beyond craft, and reading them is more like having coffee with your favorite writer friend. That aside, this book is a must have for these three comfort chapters alone: Broccoli, Perfectionism and Radio Station KFKD.