The end of almost daily blogging

I missed three posts. I made twenty-seven. I like two of those twenty-seven. Not bad.
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I’m descending into hibernation mode. As much as I love lights and celebrations and family and cocoa, this is the time of year I want to curl in a ball and cry for a month. The Counting Crows’ song Long December makes me stand immobile and bawl my eyes out every time. Every time. I once played it on a loop in December and drove from Quincy MA to the ocean near Cape Cod at 3am because Oh My God, December could you be any harder?

Seasonal Affective need for long days and sunlight, holiday obligations, end-of-the-year panic about not having done enough or been enough, serotonin-seeking bread consumption, knowledge that I have nothing to give yet knowing family and friends and colleagues and homeless neighbors all need me to…these are the colors that paint December gray on grey on silver on slate on granite on gray.

Even the word December gets me a little downcast.

So I’m going to try to wake up early every day of December and sit with my light box. Writing. Either the old novel or the new novel. No client work. No cleaning. No email or audiobooks.

Writing.

Not “every day writing challenge” writing, but”do it because it makes you feel whole and you really need something in December that keeps you feeling human” writing.

Goodbye, November. It’s been a lovely time, really. And I now take all my energy and ask myself to rise to December.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Changing My Name

When Spouse and I were planning our wedding and marriage, I spent copious time on what to do with my last name.

A rose by any other name might be a sunflower.

A rose by any other name might be a sunflower.

Not on the actual “to change or not the change” debate that most women engage in. I did that relatively briefly. I didn’t mind ditching my last name as long as my partner would, too. I refused to be chattel, I would not change my name to his. Period.

And asking a man to change his last name to a new family name was exactly the litmus test I wanted, anyway. I needed a high stakes kind of guy. And I found him on the first try.

I highly prioritized having the same last name as my children. I had this irrational image in my head as I thought of marriage and of retaining my birth name, of my child’s school rifling through emergency contacts, doubting that I was the mother because I had a different last name. That’s crazy, of course, especially given that I live in the “Fly Your Freak Flag High” capital of the world, in which I’d guess at least a third of mothers (and most of my friends) have a different last name than their children (many families here hyphenate, or create a blended name for their child(ren), so that when Ms. Brown and Mr. Jones marry, their children are Brones. Poor things.) But I wholeheartedly rejected the tradition of semantically abandoning my family to join a husband’s family. We were starting something new, and as a family we would honor the tribes from which we came but not in conventional ways.

So most of my name machinations before the wedding centered on creating the new last name both Spouse and I would take. I engaged the process like any naming project for a client: we had a strategy session to determine our core values. We detailed a voice for our family and carefully drew a target for our new name’s sustainability, euphony, credibility, readability, and, instead of URL availability, overall lack of serial killers with the same name.

It wasn’t as cold and corporate as it sounds. The strategic phase took less time than it does with clients because we had no competitive audit to complete. And because we’re not branding a conglomerate. It’s a little family, for heaven’s sake.

We coined and triple checked Harkin based on its resonance with the ideas we wanted encapsulated in our name: haven, hearth, heart, family, warmth. As a bonus, Harkin is a homophone for hearken, which means to listen.

Also, there were no serial killers named Harkin.

So there we had it: a new family, a new name, a defiant cry against patriarchy. (And murder? That’s both strategically and temperamentally consistent. Bonus.)

Fast forward eleven years, and I have a very simple answer to those who ask if I’m changing my name back to my birth name once Spouse and I process paperwork to become Not-Spouses.

No way.

We created this name to represent a haven from the world: our family insulated and cozy against all onslaughts. And that’s what I still want our family to be, regardless of how many houses we live in. I changed my name so my children and I would share the clearest linguistic tie available to families: surname. Regardless of our marital status, Spouse and I both lay claim to being founders of the Harkin clan. We both deserve this name. Neither of us gave it to the other. We earned it. We made a family. We will now put some solid distance between two members of the family. But that doesn’t change our core values as a family. We’re still hearkening to heart and hearth and kinship.

And we’re all going to keep our name.

three years into the name someone else earned it, too.

three years into the name someone else earned it, too.

Why I’ll Probably Quit National Blog Post Writing Month

I have perhaps 20 demands on my time at any moment, and blogging is often near the bottom. So the challenge to put blog posts at the forefront excited and energized me. But I might quit.

Because I’ve realized, just as with National Novel Writing Month, when I have false deadlines and self imposed “write a certain number of words each day” or “post every day” rigors, I produce schlock. I don’t write the stories that are burning to be told, in language of which I’m proud and with time to mull the best structure. I generate crud, and submit it because I’ve said that I “have to.”

gutter, rainwater, pollen, leaves. Unstill life.

gutter, rainwater, pollen, leaves. Unstill life.

For me, right now, challenges become a homework assignment rather than an inspiration. Blogging has become a chore instead of the thing I genuinely enjoy doing.My writing sounds slapdash, crammed into the crevices I have left, rather than something moved to the forefront and finessed because it’s important.

So we’ll see how it goes. Today is Day 18, and I’ve posted 17 times. And about 5 of those posts are just rotten. I don’t like those odds. I’d rather post 10 times and feel satisfied with the writing than post 18 times and feel my blog’s quality is suffering for the exercise.

But wait! I think…what about all those ideas in that file called “post ideas”? Well, if those are compelling enough stories to tell, then I would have done so by now. And I still can. Rejecting the challenge doesn’t mean I can’t post daily. It means I don’t have to.

But wait! I think again, What about committing to something important and writing as part of a huge group of dedicated writers?! Frankly, I don’t care. Writing is a solitary exercise, and while I cherish the tightly knit group of writers with whom I rarely share my fiction, I don’t care whether the whole world is writing right nor or not. What other people do is none of my business. I’m a grown-ass woman, and I don’t need any more chores. I’ve had a tiny blog for eight years, and my audience changes little whether I write daily or monthly. I wrote every day for years. And life changed in many ways such that I don’t have as much to say publicly, both because I’m inwardly focused on my family right now and don’t have time, and because I don’t want to share as much as I once did. Blogging every day for a month as part of a group challenge is not going to make me a better blogger. It’s not going to reinvigorate my writing. It’s going to exhaust me and stifle my willingness to share. Because the creeping profanity in this post is suggesting to me I’m resentful, and if I keep going with this bad attitude, I have nobody but myself to blame. I began a blog to find a community, and I found one. Bigger than I’d hoped. As an introverted curmudgeon at heart, I often want to pull up my welcome mat and say, “I already have enough friends, thank you and good bye.”

I don’t, of course, because for each dear reader I lose there’s a new face in the comments or subscription list, whose own blog is wonderful to read and whose comments make me feel less alone in those dark moments most writers have at 1:23 each morning. So the community stays small and I adore every reader. Gah. Does that mean I have to sit up straight and wear mascara ‘cuz you are here again?

Sigh. Whatever. I want to blog more, so I will. I want to honor the NaBloPoWriMo community, so I might. I want a place to whine about blogging, so here I am. Maybe I’ll be here tomorrow. And maybe I’ll wait a day or two. There is no reward for trudging through a thing just because you should. There are rewards for recognizing when a self-imposed should seems ill-fitting.

Now it is my time to rend and tear the garment, else allow it to lie as falls without alteration, and feel in this exercise the discomfort of something not quite right. What I learn from the binding and gaping is a test of patience.

I’ll let you know what I find, though. And not just because it’ll count as another post.

Finding Your Blog Voice: A Preview

I got caught up in federal grant proposal season and didn’t tell you that I’m going to be speaking at WordCamp San Francisco this weekend!

I’ll post highlights from my talk either here or on my business site, but for now I want to offer a few tidbits and ask what you think about, or want to know about, blog voice.

photo credit: Scott Robinson via creative commons attribute license

photo credit: Scott Robinson via creative commons attribute license

I believe that voice, for writers, photographers, artists, and bloggers, simmers when you cook a topic in style and passion. When you choose what you want to communicate, form it in the way you, a human with experiences and opinions, want to convey it, and inform that communication with the reasons that drive you to write/photograph/draw/blog…that concoction is your voice. And it’s repeatable when you focus on the how and the why of what you choose to talk about, as long as that style is your genuine voice, your impetus is honest, and your style gets out of the way of your truth.

Wordy, I know. I have a couple of days to make that more clear. Luckily, between my slides and my tendency to present in monosyllabic caveperson grunts, my experience with and ideas about voice should be clearer in the talk.

I have really cool examples, too.

So what do you want to hear about blog voice? If I can, I’ll add it to the talk before I present and subsequently post.

Requests?

Coming home

A long travel day, a long conference day, a long travel day. Moments of embarrassingly loud laughter, long stretches of insect-splatting boredom, sparks of intellectual fireworks, flawless time with friends, and a breathtaking moment of euphoria.

art institute of chicago Chagall exhibit

Back home, half of the plates are gone. The wedding china, which we’ve always used as everyday dishes. Their absence makes space for the boys’ two favorite dishes to rest together on the same shelf. Finally. I don’t like these little upsides. They feel like laughing at a funeral.

Half of the drinking cups are gone. Makes the collection a little coffee-focused. Kid glasses and coffee mugs and a set of happy-making mathematical highballs. With a lot of what I expect just…gone. Maybe I’ve expected too much. And by “maybe,” I mean “of course.”

The dresser he’s had for decades is sitting by the front door. It’s ready. I don’t know if he’s ready. I’m not ready. That’s too bad. We have to be ready. We don’t, of course, but he’s moving and “ready” isn’t the point.

We’re in for a lot of change. There is no “my side” of the bed anymore. Or the fun we had every year on New Year’s Eve of switching sides of the bed. Just for a year. Just to see if it settles anything. Or unsettles anything. Or everything.

What will I do now to shake things up? Have a conversation with myself?

I emptied the mission-style letter-writing desk I picked out, so he can take it to his new apartment that I hate and is too far and is all wrong and is none of my business. And I had him move my work desk from the dining room to the bedroom. My bedroom. Two closets just for me and more space than I’ll ever need. Maybe I’ll move the kids into the master with me, and we’ll move all the furniture in that too-big room and we’ll be happy forever without any problems or fights or unmet needs. The end.

The expectant hope of a new home, where unpacking the books and kitchen tools is so important because they set the stage for everything…I’m doing that in my own house. Not my own, really. A rental I can’t afford by myself. I’ll figure that out later. After I reorganize everything in the manic hope that rearranging until 3am will make the next day okay.

I want to move because there’s too much house for three. I don’t want to move because the last thing the kids need right now is more change. I pause for a deep breath of gratitude that we have that choice. I’m glad for that choice.

I offered some of the framed photos and he accepted. Will it upset the kids to see blank spots on the walls where their photos hung for three years? Will they be happy to know he wants their photos decorating his life or will they notice only the absence? Of photos, of couch, of father visiting four days a week but clearly just a guest.

Did I make him feel like just a guest in the marriage? An employee, an afterthought? Probably. A few plates and cups and a couch isn’t making as large a dent as I thought it would. Did he not have enough of him here, or do I just not notice how much is really leaving?

The little one, my sweet, irrational, King-Kongesque little butterbean wants to know why Daddy has to move his furniture. Why is he bringing things to his new place? They haven’t really understood yet, because it’s been just talk. I think he believed the new apartment he saw was somehow just a daytime space, like for work. Dad sleeping somewhere else because he doesn’t live here? He has literally no friends with divorced parents. Nobody else in our family is separated. I’m sure there will be a trophy or a plaque issued for that particular honor soon enough, but Butter has no frame of reference. Until now. So I’ve taught him about rainbows and mammals and glitter glue and divorce. Gee, that feels exactly the opposite of terrific. “We’re still a family, and we’re living in different houses. We still love you and we both want to be with you all the time. We just don’t do a good job of being with each other.” But that’s not true anymore. We do a very good job of being with each other. So then…why?

There will be questions. I know this will come. “But you are nice together now. Why can’t you be in the same house now that you know how to be kind together?”

I don’t know.

I really don’t know. I’ve asked that, too. For now, or for good, “he doesn’t want to” is the truth the boys won’t hear. We carefully unify in our answers in a way we never did when we were together. And I can’t tell them their dad said that he only has enough kindness for temporary, transitional interactions. I’m in the bargaining phase, though. “If we can keep being this way and we can both work hard on maintaining this civility and mutual respect and…can’t we just please…” It’s been so much work for years just to stay together, so much constant stress to keep from either sinking into depression or running screaming for a distant land that there’s an ease between us now. And I want to keep that ease. Can’t we be like this and stay a whole family? In one place? Can’t we please? I want someone to answer that for me. Because everything would be different, right? We’d be different people with different interests and different approaches and different priorities? We would heal all our issues and be to each other what we should be. To stay together we could do that, right? Maybe. Let’s just try…I know, but maybe try for four more years? It’s only been 15 years total. Why would we assume we know anything yet?

He’s happy and acts like the man I met, animated and clever and fun. The man I married. I try not to focus on the fact that he’s happy because he’s leaving. Because he doesn’t have to anymore. I was a have to.

The wine and the cookbooks are staying. We split the mixing bowls and he got new cutting boards. I want new cutting boards. The beer’s all gone. I rearranged the fridge at midnight, so the veggies are finally in the crisper and the shelves organized by meal. He doesn’t pack school lunches, so why does he get to put the peanut butter in the door? I don’t want it in the door. I don’t want tortillas in the cheese drawer. I don’t want soda crowding the shelves. One for when he visits, and one for my mom. One. They only get a tiny piece of my space because I need to control the space, hold up the house’s walls as they start pressing in. I want all the lunch options together, dammit. Can’t I have that?

Yes, now I can. Oh, and how’s that feel? Everything better now that you can control the peanut butter?

Didn’t think so.

His books are gone. My Modernism shelf has a lot of detritus cluttering it; bits and pieces he found as he packed are sitting by Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t want old CDs and cat toys and a battery recharger blocking James Joyce. I reject that arrangement. I want to just sell all the books because there’s not much about language experimentation from the 1920s I want in my face right now. Thank goodness I don’t own any Hemingway or I would have burned it last night. He’s just exactly the guy on whom I’d like to take out my anger. My Faulkner shelf is too high to put things on it, thank goodness. Alphabetical, same publisher and cover system, not too carefully lined up, but solid and supportive in its panic-inducing insanity. Am I going to have to change these shelves? I grouped the books as intentionally as I could: by literary movement when possible, geography when appropriate, and read vs. unread vs. half-read status as necessary. But there are other methods that could make sense, could inspire more reading, could excite my boys into a world of incredible literature. I’ll do that tonight. Because at 4 and 8 it’s crucial that they see a wall of books arranged flawlessly? I worry myself at times, except that I’m consistent, so I know nothing’s too wrong.

What is going to become of my books? What if we move? What if I can’t bring them all? Should I sell them now and just say goodbye? What if, what if, what if? A good reason to get even less sleep. What if? Thinking myself in worried circles like a child rubbing a lovey against her almost sleeping cheek. Or a woman tracing the yellow wallpaper of her room.

My feminist theory shelf is still half-empty—listing and slumped with the freedom of not being packed like literary sardines—from my two-month effort to write the paper that begged me to write it for four years. It was well received. I need to edit it and get it to a journal soon. It’s just too awesome and I want it available to anyone who might care.

I don’t feel awesome, though. There is guilt for swelling with freedom and pride. Now that I’m supporting the kids on my income, there is a constant fear in my freelancing way of life, working this week on too many projects, that the projects will dry up next month. I’ll look for something permanent once these clients slow down.

There is frustration with the same conversations, the same petty bickering, the same nasty under-breath comments said in retreat from a dialogue. Get back here. Talk to me.

You’re not coming back, are you.

I want the ease, the kindness, the joy. I want a relationship, not a roommate. I want surety but not at the cost of how I believe a family should treat each other, at a minimum. I want to know what it will be if we fight for us, though he said he’s not going to try anymore. I want to know what it will be if we give up, so I can decide based on what it’ll be like in a year, two years, ten years. I want to know what is best for everyone, I want to know in advance, and I want to know precisely. With numbers and measurements and guarantees.

Because so much of life is measurable and knowable. Ha. If you want guarantees, get married. I’m pretty sure a promise to someone you love is good enough to carry you through 80 years or so.

I want to know what to want. And while I’m figuring that out, I’ll move the dining room table and change where we keep the art supplies just in case that helps. Anyone have a feng shui book for where to put glitter glue and markers to ensure good decision-making and emotional well-being?

Top Six Takeaways from BlogHer ’13

Tomorrow I’m posting a longer summary of all the sessions I attended at BlogHer ’13, intending to offer fellow writers some of the ideas I heard during my 68-hour foray into the world’s largest blogging conference.

Today, I offer you the six pieces of advice I heard reiterated most often at BlogHer ’13. In the keynote, in discussions, from panels, in workshops, and during highlighted sessions, I noted the following over and over:

1. Find your difference. Write about it well, laugh at it, own it. What you have to offer is your perspective, experience, and knowledge. Nobody wants to hear (or read or see) the same voice with the same message. To be a successful brand you have to offer something different, sustainable, credible, and relevant. The only way to do that consistently is to sing the core of who you are. [Note: this year nobody seems pushedthe idea that an author must be a brand. Apparently we’ve all finally accepted that and moved on. You are a brand. Stipulated.]

2. Publish. Blog numbers mean very little if your goal is publishing. To ask publishers, editors, and readers to pay for your work you have to prove that other professionals think you’re worth publishing. Publish great pieces in books, magazines, newspapers, online spaces by finding the right audience for your message and selling the heck out of your words.

3. Someone aches for what you’re selling. Get it to them. Find the people who really need, want, or pay for exactly what you write or produce. Figure out what you’re really offering and bring it to those who need it. That goes for selling what you make, publishing what you write, or being elected for what you believe. Find the right customer and get your wares right in front of them.

4. Build your platform before you write your book. A lot of people must hear the announcement “I have something to sell!” If they don’t hear you, nobody will buy. And for them to hear you, they have to already know your work. People who don’t know you don’t care about you; they care about a compelling story impeccably told. So build a following of people who know that you’re compelling and can tell stories impeccably before the world hears that you’re selling/publishing/running for something.

5. Get used to feeling uncomfortable. I gleaned this from every writing seminar, keynote, editing workshop, advocacy panel, celebrity panel, and niche panel at BlogHer ’13. Five thousand attendees heard this over and over: Creatively and personally, if you’re going to do something that matters, get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Lean in. Engage. Query. Take the leap. Incorporate the criticism. Face the music. Do the work. Take the heat. Feeling uneasy is your new normal. Embrace it. It means you’re doing something important.

6. Content is king. The quality of your ideas, writing, music, food, products, message simply must be outstanding, and must say something new about that which is important to your audience. Content. Is. King.

[Note: focusing on content is consistent with the editing phase in which I continually remind authors that the reader is king. Making your writing work for readers is producing good content. So perhaps the content is co-king with the reader? No… content is the crown for the royal reader? No… the reader is the palace in which the king lives. Or vice versa? Or monarchy is so last millennium and we need new metaphors. Maintain an unwavering focus on your reader’s need for great content. There. No more kings. Just robust writing, great content, and engaged readers.]

6. (revised) Maintain an unwavering focus on your audience’s need for great content. 

Did I miss any? Did you hear anything repeatedly at BlogHer ’13 that we must remember as we charge off into the world and create great content?

 

Blog paralysis

After attending three days of workshops and lectures and panels on writing at the BlogHer conference last week in Chicago, I have a case of blog paralysis.

Not writer’s block. I’m writing plenty and have gobs and gobs to say.

But I can’t let the posts fly like I once did. I used to dash off my thoughts and post them, unedited, whenever something occurred to me. Silly bits of my day, desperate situations that need heroic efforts around the world…everything.

Now I have several drafts ping ponging around my laptop, all crammed full of thoughts but falling flat. Not good enough, not insightful enough, not powerful enough or fast enough to make a mark in the world. Flaccid, flabby writing several days late and several thousand dollars short, quite unworthy of the brilliant writing I read and dissected and aspired to while surrounded by thousands of bloggers in a convention center turned, for a weekend, into a giant writing seminar.

So I’m dashing off a thought, unedited, as it comes to me while I wade through the notes of finding a niche and writing unvarnished truth and publishing and knowing my audience and finding the right place for my voice and reading as much as possible and…breathlessly unpacking the weighted baggage of my post-trip brain, I’m just going to post this.

It’s Saturday night. Nobody reads posts Saturday night anyway, right? So an imperfect, unedited, unpolished, rambling post that doesn’t further my brand or my craft or my voice or my platform is just fine.

It has to be.

Baby steps, y’all. Baby steps.

 

You Have to Know Who You Are

Each morning when I dress the part of the human I’m pretending to be, I think about the contexts in which people will see me. An all-kids day means I wear a geek T-shirt, skort, and pair of worn-out Chucks with red recycled-kimono laces. A meeting with clients means a suit (despite the fact that I’m still clinging to pre-kids suits that are way too tight and too short. Because children, apparently, made me grow several inches. Or made my rear-end absorb several inches of pant-length. Probably the taller thing. Because science.) I reject heels with those suits in favor of sturdy brown wingtips with yellow recycled-kimono laces.

When I’m headed to a conference I feign disinterest and fight my personal love of tweed trousers. I pair a crisp French-cuffed shirt with jeans. Sometimes a tweed jacket. Because I can’t help myself. Oh, my word, the draw of elbow patches. I would put elbow patches on T-shirts and jammies if I could. To fight the corporate-academic look I wear boots, especially my canvas and leather jump boots. Because nothing says badass-academic like jump boots and Scrabble-tile cufflinks.

But an upcoming conference poses a perplexing problem. I’m headed to Chicago for BlogHer, a massive conference for bloggers that I never really thought I’d attend. I’m not sure how I got caught up in the excitement and the joy of this conference. Except that I know exactly how it happened. I won a kind-of-a-big-deal blogging award.

A lovely human named Alexandra, who blogs her infectious love of life, family, and women in several places including at Good Day Regular People has been outrageously kind with me since she found my blog last year. She has connected me with sites she thinks I should blog for and has cheered my accomplishments. She’s my age, but I think of her as my abuela. She’s kind and supportive in the way everyone’s families should be.

And when the BlogHer Voices of the Year submission process opened, Alexandra tweeted to her Empire that everyone should submit because everyone is worthy.

Trying to learn from her example, I slammed the door on self doubts and submitted three pieces from last year.

And promptly forgot that I had entered. I was proud enough to have sneered at the internal, “why would *you* ever…” long enough to submit. I didn’t actually think about the process or the possibility that I might be selected.

But my post on autism is one of twenty-five blog posts being celebrated for inspiration at the upcoming conference.

And when I found out, I was incredulous. Then I cried. And then assumed that all further references to Voice of the Year would necessitate an asterisk.

“Tonight we celebrate 99 bloggers who inspired us, and one extra, whom we chose to fill out the extra seat next to them.”
“We have worked diligently to select some of the best writing online this year, and are throwing a bone to a post by a mediocre writer at whom we shrug a lukewarm nod. You know whom we mean.”
Seems a rather disrespectful view of the judges. [Not of myself or my writing, by the way. The judges did all the work. And the other writers. And the webmaster. And conference planners. And the snack vendors. They all deserve the credit.]

After a bit of this disrespectful drivel, I started to think, maybe, perhaps, there are a few other honorees who similarly think their mention is a mistake or footnoted pity vote. That when I’m clapping for the other bloggers whose posts just *wrecked* me with humor and heart and compassion and truth, perhaps one or two might be hanging their heads in embarrassment, too.

Probably not.

What did this to me? What makes me think what I make doesn’t matter? Or shouldn’t count? Or that when people say, “I read that and liked it” that they’re wrong/lying/trying to be nice? Why wouldn’t I say thank you the way I do when clients like my writing or academics like my writing? Why is creative writing, unpaid writing, heartfelt writing less worthy?

I did feel proud of my writing when I hit “post.” And I did feel satisfied enough in my writing that I entered a contest, something I never, ever do. So why would that pride die when I won? What kind of headcase freakiness is this?

All the other VOTY posts I’ve read, without exception, have floored me. They’ve made me want to write more.

And dozens of people commented that my post was important to them. I have a responsibility to those readers, including the judges, to smother the ridiculous nonsense in my head and to take a bow.

So I’m going to straighten up, allow the smile to settle in, and sit proudly with those wonderful writers at the Voices of the Year celebration later this month.

Because I need some applause in my life, yo. And all I have to do is stop knocking myself down to see the hands making that noise. They’re lovely, gentle, raucous, funny, smart, activist, human hands.

So now to the last, little problem.

What does one wear to act the part of someone who is learning to shut the door on self-doubt and to take full possession of her body, brain, and writing? Is there such thing as a tweed skort and french-cuff shirt with recycled-kimono elbow patches? Designers? Call me if you can hook me up with that kind of swag.

Shameless Self Promotion

BlogHer has announced their Voices of the Year submission process, for outstanding blog posts of the past year.

The Empress has suggested that we all submit our best work.

So I have. And so have many outstanding bloggers.

If you recall liking any of the following posts, do please go vote for them. Clicking the links below will get you to the BlogHer page where you can vote or click through to read (or reread) my post.

Time Out, in which I start locking myself in the bathroom when my kids hit me.
Selling Ourselves Short in which I ponder the cost of selling our blogs to low bidders
Nick in which a dog teaches Butterbean and me about end of life kindness
A Brush with Autism in which I redraw my boundaries for an autistic boy who needs to do things his way.

While you’re there voting for my posts, check out the other great writing on the Interblogs. Submit posts you’ve read and loved. Vote for your favorites. The other bloggers will appreciate your support just like I do!

Battery status: fully charged

I wanted this all year: time by myself. Not an hour. Days. Gratuitous, excessive amounts of time by myself. Peace, quiet, and being directed by only my needs.

Spouse combined birthday, Solstice, Christmas, and Hanukkah presents and sent me to a cabin by myself.

I almost didn’t go. I had an intensely difficult time saying goodbye to my boys, the wonderful, funny, loving little creatures whose needs and moods dictate my every single second. The amazing humans whose care is more important to me than my career. My tiny little gobs of love, running around all day and waking me all night.

How could I leave them? For three whole days?

Part of that resistance was Newtownian. We’re all still rocked, and as I said before, I’m not going to talk about it. I can’t. Part of my resistance was Puritanical. And part of it was the chorus of critics in my head, telling me I wasn’t worth a special thing. A just-me thing. I shouldn’t because it’s unseemly. It’s gratuitous. I have a job to do, every day for 24 hours a day and how dare I shirk that responsibility?

“”Who needs a whole weekend alone,” my chorus berated. “There are people without homes, without food, without basic security. There are people cold without respite and people sick and dying.

I know that. I really, really, really do.

I tried several times to cancel. Spouse wouldn’t let me. He knows I’m fed by solitude, by quiet, and by following my own rhythms. He knows I need, desperately, to create. To write, to read, to hike, to eat. And he knows that for seven years I’ve subsumed those needs to other people. Lovely people whose well-being I take incredibly seriously. Too seriously, maybe.

Since having children I have experienced more frequent and intense joy than ever before. I’ve also been haunted by a daily thought that I’m really meant to live alone and am living the wrong life.

I know that sounds awful, but it’s true. Or it was true. Since I hadn’t had solitude for more than a couple of hours at a time in almost a year, I was running on empty. I needed my own personal fuel. I can’t do my multiple jobs without energy, and I had absolutely none left. Before this trip I couldn’t figure out why I was resistant to write, to read, to exercise, to explore, to try new things.

The simple answer is that I wasn’t myself. I was a shell.

Being a shell isn’t good for anyone. It isn’t good for our families, it isn’t good for our art, it isn’t good for our individual and collective moods, and it isn’t good for our brains.

This is my seventh trip away since my first darling boy was born. Most have been short: a day or two. A conference here, a loved one’s new babies there. Two visits to a treasured friend to talk and watch movies and read books. And two solitary, see-nobody-and-speak-to-nobody-and-do-whatever-I-choose trips including this one.

A farmyard cabin. Clear air, lowing cows, croaking frogs. Nighttime fears of the sinister things that movies and novels make seem normal but are really intensely rare, ridiculous wastes of my worry energy.

I haven’t slept much. I haven’t exercised much. But I’ve worked almost non-stop on my book and on a client project that’s bringing me intellectual joy. I’ve eaten only healthful food because that’s all I brought. Despite my cravings for candy and wine, I’ve had salads and tea and barbeque field roast sandwiches. In fact, everything I brought was good for me. Two awesome books (and a chapter of a book that I’ve been meaning to read, found in the cabin’s library). A computer on which to create and learn.

I’m intensely lucky. I know that.

Good heavens, I cannot articulate how good I feel. There are now in front of me, beyond the enclosed porch on which I now sit typing, nine different tree species. Clear skies, sunshine, picturesque fluffy clouds. A chilling breeze kept somewhat at bay by a wool throw and a rumbling wood stove. Sunshine.

There’s copious sunshine at home. And blue skies and fluffy clouds and trees. But here nobody asks me for anything. No fights. No stress, no frustrations. No ups and downs. Just being. Centered, listening to my own body and brain existing.

I have to go now. I have to make the most of this time. But I wanted to say this: I wish you this. I hope you find your version of this.

When you’re making New Year’s Resolutions, if you do such things, find what makes you tick. What centers you to who you are and what you need and what makes you the most you can be. Writing down the things most important to how you fuel yourself to make it through the days and weeks is immeasurably useful.

Because I hope you find a way in 2013 to get what you need. Not every day, not in a way that overwhelms your responsibilities or finances. But push just a little beyond what you think you should do or get and bring yourself back to center. Take time off work or away from family, visit family or sleep or paint. Take a class or explore new movies and music. Once you take care of yourself you will have more to offer others. Play with your children, invest in your employer, build your company. Volunteer until you feel you’ve made more than a difference—you’ve made a mark. Write letters to your elected representatives until your hand cramps. Give others what they need.

Whatever you most value, invest in it. More than you otherwise would. Do a little too much so that you can push past the limits you’ve hit. To restore the core of who you are and what you want. This weekend cost me too much time from my family and too much money. And I know that for most people anything that costs money will be too much. But whatever “that’s all we can afford is,” do a little more. Because this weekend hasn’t cost too much, really. Throwing the money in the trash would have cost too much. Buying solitude on my own terms has been so immeasurably good for me that it exceeds the monetary and absent-mother cost by about one-thousand-fold.

I’m glad I was led outside what I felt was too much. I will not forget how this feels. I will bring to my every endeavor for the next few months the energy and passion that had dwindled as I pushed through each day, driving on fumes.

I have more to give because I was given. Because I gave myself what I actually, really needed. Tired isn’t just about sleep. Sad isn’t just about sorrow. Hungry isn’t just about food. Angry isn’t just about being wronged. All needs are about not getting enough.

It’s not enough until the little battery indicator on your soul blinks full that you’ve had enough.

I’m getting there. And soon I will share my recharged self with two little guys and a big guy and a community and a nation and a planet who all really deserve the best I can give. Something I can now offer.

I wish you more than enough now, next year, and always.

Selling ourselves short

I love social media. I enjoy Twitter and Pinterest. I read dozens of blogs. I ditched Facebook but certainly used it for several years.

What I don’t love is how corporations are weaseling their wares into my personal conversations. And I really don’t love how complicit some of my online friends are in this process.

Long ago, in a world where there were newspapers and magazines and three television channels, ads came for paid sources. Companies would buy space or time on conventional media to promise us that we’d be richer, thinner, taller, hairier, less hairy, smarter, and more popular if we bought their products.

People grew weary of these approaches. Companies tried new tactics. They put their cereals quietly on a shelf in Seinfeld’s fake kitchen. They had celebrities use their sun lotion on a lovely Malibu beach.

The goal and basic message was the same. “Pay us money and you’ll be happier.”

Now, with social media, companies are paying regular people to shill their products. But they’re paying much less than they ever paid newspapers and they’re changing the way we read what friends write.

The basic premise? “‘Like’ our Facebook page and get a coupon. Then all your friends see that you like us. You’re advertising to 100 or 200 or 800 people, and all we give you is $5 off a sandwich.”

Same tune, different channel. “Here’s a great recipe using all our crappy products as ingredients. Pin it on your Pinterest boards and all your friends will do the same. In exchange, you get a delightfully transparent adverecipe. Free!”

Wanting to get their brand trending on Twitter, which gets them a front page advertisement on every screen using the site, companies come up with ridiculous contests. “Tweet our name a lot and we’ll enter you in a drawing. The winner gets a few dollars. You give us free advertising and there might be a trinket in it for you.”

I’m sick of seeing blogs and boards and feeds get covered in corporate slime, especially when I know the people (whom I used to trust) only got a few pennies, if anything, in exchange for interrupting my social media day.

Today was the last straw. I just got a form email from an author whose books I really respect. Paraphrasing, he said, “My new book is coming out. Think you’ll like it.” Fine. Makes sense. Advertise to the people who already like your work. That’s an ad I welcome.

But the email continued.

“I’m going to put together a marketing team of really smart people like you. If you’re selected for this highly respected team, you’ll conceive of and execute my marketing for me. And I’ll give you a free book!”

So I do all the work and you give me…a book. Son, people get paid tens of thousands of dollars to come up with marketing campaigns. I’m not doing one for you for a token of appreciation.

It’s a long walk off a rotten pier.

Aside from being mad at being undervalued, though I am, I’m really angry at how these marketing schemes cost relationships. I see a blogger I really like and respect start shilling diapers. Or books. Or pumpkin pie filling. Doesn’t matter what the product is. I stop reading as often, I stop trusting what I read, and I stop visiting their blog.

One reader isn’t a big deal. One online relationship dead is not, either.

What matters is that the companies are playing us like fiddles. They get free advertising *and* a sneaky inroad into places marketing isn’t expected. I follow people on Twitter because I want their voices. Not their ads for credit cards.

The companies think they’ll benefit from the trust I have in my social network. I’ve been reading Sue’s blog for five years, so when she sells out to Frozen Fish Sticks Company I’m supposed to be more likely to trust FFSCo as much as I trust Sue.

But I see through you, Frozen Fish Sticks marketing team. I’m pretty sure I don’t trust Sue less because of her deal with Frozen Fish Sticks Company. I know Sue wants to be heard and wants to be paid. But I’m also pretty sure they’re not paying Sue what she is worth. I’m pretty sure all she got out of the chance to annoy me and make me think about visiting her blog less often is a box of frozen fish sticks.

You’re better than that, Sue.

I understand the draw. A lot of people want to feel needed. They want their writing seen by more people and they want to get paid.

Excellent goals.

But getting a nickel to do work that should be paid two hundred dollars isn’t a win for anyone except the corporation that just saved $199.95.

But who am I to tell people to stop writing two-cent ads on Twitter? I forward links to books and magazine articles. The authors and publishers don’t ask me to. They don’t know I’m going to do it. But if I blog that I liked a book, that’s advertising, too. Why draw a distinction between (nominally) paid ads and personal opinion that might drive sales?

Intention.

Maybe I’m grumpy. Or feeling guilty. Soon I’m going to try the aggregating-commercial-site thing that all the kids are doing these days. I’m going to put some of my posts on other sites for free to see what happens.

But I wonder how much that process cheapens what I’ve stood for all these years. I know better than to let my work get away for less than I’m worth.

So why do it?

I still don’t know. I can say that the ads on the sites where most bloggers are aggregated are standard, expected, and usually ignored. It’s like performing on a street corner and being surrounded by billboards. This is simply our online landscape.

But I think it’s really because writers are, at heart, applause whores. We’ll sell our soul to be told we’re good. That’s why we sell ourselves short by selling products, ideas, and companies for far too little.

And in agreeing to have my posts on aggregating sites I’m probably doing exactly that for which I’m thinking of unfollowing other people: shilling crap that nobody needs in exchange for less than I’m worth.

Oh, well. Here’s some Lloyd Dobler to enjoy while you eat your fish sticks. Remember when we were this idealistic? Yeah. Me, too.

Obstacle Course

I want to be writing a post right now, but a dark cloud has settled over both children and they are taking turns waking and crying. There was only a half an hour during which they were both quiet today. It involved one taking a really late nap and the other building heroes and monsters.

So I summon up patience reserves and ask softly what they need. I don’t want them to need right now. I want to write. I put off what I want all day to do what they need, and now I want to write a blog post.

I want to be writing a chapter right now, but the house is a mess and the lunches aren’t made. I did a darned fine job making three nice meals and two snacks today.

But there are no milestones. There is no “done.” Relentless. It’s not back-breaking or war-torn or subsistence-level. But it’s relentless.

Now I summon up the will to tidy, clean, and slather protein goop onto bread for lunches tomorrow. I don’t want to think about other people’s food right now. I want to write. I’ve been putting it off all day, mindful of what my two small creatures need, and now I want to write a chapter.

I want to be reading a book right now, but I’m unfocused and can’t give the words the time they deserve. I try twice and give up. I hear another crying child, see a pile of clothes for the laundry, and smell leftovers waiting to be tucked into the fridge.

Now I try to summon the maturity to give up for the night. I don’t want to call it a day. I want to write and read and create and marvel and think. I put all of those aside today, promising myself “later” while I enjoyed the play and resented the battles and joined in the lives of other people. I’ve been answering requests for 22 hours. And now I want to be me.

The day started at midnight when the littlest one woke crying for water. He chases away my REM cycles every hour or so after the night is enumerated in single digits. The older one woke before dawn and started whistling the joyful chorus of those without front teeth. They both pushed hard all day, trying to fill every moment with fun and beauty and learning. I tried to keep up. And be responsible and tidy and mindful and nice. I tried to feed them and teach them what they need to know to be decent humans. I did a fine job considering how little I sleep each night and how mad I get when Elvis Costello tauntingly reminds me that every day he writes the book. Every day. The book I’m neither writing nor reading.

So if I quit and go to bed, Elvis Costello wins. And I can’t have that.

Consider the post written and the lunches done. Next: draft a chapter. Then: read one sentence and fall asleep.

Win-win-win-win. Take that, Elvis.

Nobody Listens to Turtle

Criticism is a wonderful gift. If articulate and well timed, it can give us the bridge we need to make our lives better.

I really need to learn to hear criticism.

I listen to it. I do. And I acknowledge its inherent usefulness, even if mean-spirited or misguided. But genuinely constructive criticism is an opportunity I apparently miss. In trying not to wince in pain at the idea of needing improvement, I found out today, I effectively block out the actual useful bits of criticism.

I thought I was rather self-aware. But today I realized I need more often to listen to turtle*.

Back story: I’ve been working on a novel for a while. I wrote it as a screenplay more than a decade ago. Once it was done I put it away and forgot it until Peanut was cooking and I finished teaching. I needed a project, and thought the script would be a good book.

So I transformed it. And edited and polished and sent it to agents.

And some sent feedback. My memory of that feedback is “It’s fine, I like the characters. It’s just not the right project for me. By the way, the language at times is too showy, so watch that. And nothing good happens until page 300, so move the action up if you want to sell it.” My memory has served me for three years.

I got the feedback while pregnant with Butterbean. I spent nine months rearranging the scenes and cutting the showy language. Then the little guy was born and all work ceased.

Fast forward. Peanut is in school. Butter is in a home-based day care three mornings a week.

Work is proceeding apace. But I’m not sure how much of the action to move, nor how to juggle the characters. Five main characters. Hard to time the introduction so many since I don’t want to focus too long on anyone, nor jump around like a narrative ping pong game. I’ve been rearranging scenes on index cards and a corkboard for years. I need a new perspective.

So I map the book. But then realize: most of what happens…really happens…is in flashbacks. Nothing much actually happens. Lots of feelings, minimal plot.

[Bear with me. The graphics below were penned without intention of making them public, but there’s no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks I’m redrawing this exercise just to look good for you lovely people.]

The emotional maps, overlaid, look like this.

Exciting, no?

But the actual character arcs, overlaid, look like this.

Cue sad panda music, ‘cuz that’s one pathetic book right there.

So I ask a dear, brilliant writer friend two questions:
1. does stuff that happens in the past just color how a reader sees a character, or does it actually count as action?
2. how do I introduce all these characters without lingering too long on any of them? Should I force them together more?

While I wait for a reply, I stumble upon the agents’ emails, which I haven’t opened since 2009.

More than half mentioned that
1.not enough happens
and
2.there are too many characters and we need to see them all together doing something.

D’oh!

The good news: I’m asking the right questions.
The bad news: I had the answer three years ago.
The good news: I now, finally, have time to do this work.
The great news: I still want to.

*Bonus points if you get the reference. Actually, genetic test if you get the reference because I think you and I might be family.