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.

Adrenaline

In the darkness,
A helpless scream.
It is loud; it jolts
jumbled and dangerous.
I stifle panic to help.

In the dawn,
A cheerful yelp.
It is loud; it pierces
frenetic and portentous.
I stifle panic to engage.

In the morn,
A vengeful yell.
It is loud; it seeks
maligned and lost.
I stifle panic to redirect.

As we warm,
A resentful resistance.
It is loud; it sprouts
truculent and bristly.
I stifle panic to push.

Come on.

As we leave,
A rueful screech.
We are loud; we fly
dynamic and unkempt.
I stifle panic to herd.

Come on, please.

As we arrive,
A mournful whine.
It is loud; it asks
uncertain and small.
I stifle panic to guide.

As we carry on,
A joyful cry.
It is loud; it leaps
wild and safe.
I relish smiles and luxuriate.

As we encounter,
A ferocious NO!
It is loud, it refuses
unfettered and rabid.
I stifle panic to offer.

As we collect,
A tired shout.
It is loud; it smears
certain and threatening.
I stifle exhaustion to resist.

As we circle,
A questioning cry.
It is loud; it rings
true and dangerous.
I stifle panic to answer.

As we meet,
A tired whimper.
It is denuded; it breathes
honest and sad.
I stifle nothing and give.

As we roam,
Angry shrieks.
They are loud; they battle
fierce and cruel.
I stifle panic and manage.

As we retreat,
Frustrated cries.
They are loud; they shrug
worn and empty
Among loud people cars businesses trucks people people people.
I stifle panic and do.

As we settle,
Many unmet needs SCREAM.
They are loud; they reach
jumbled frenetic maligned bristly dynamic uncertain wild rabid portentous dangerous sad fierce worn true.
I stifle panic and hold on.

As we ablute,
Nerves grate.
They are loud; they fray
raw and needy.
I stifle everything.

As we center,
Resistance eases.
They are softer.
They fade.
I release.

We all sleep.

Best money I’ve ever spent

1. Online coupon for Scrivener completely overhauls my novel editing process.
Cost: $32 (tax-deductible)
Benefit: New lease on creativity, productivity, and immortality. Joyful hours in which I imported 310 pages of fiction into hundreds of scenes and move them around the way I’ve wanted to since a brilliant friend recommended I buy a giant cork board to index card my scenes. Complete revolution to my writing and editing. Giddy eagerness to tackle an otherwise daunting project. Elated moments of productivity even in the wee hours when I’m usually at diminished capacity.
Thank you Literature and Latte for knowing what writers need and for coding it all into little computer goblins who move words around at my behest.

2. Local grocer has a bottle of organic lemonade on sale. I buy one, freeze into popsicles. My kids, who are used to homemade yogurt and orange juice pops go nuts, sit sweetly together in the shade and eat two popsicles each.
Cost: $0.16 per child (calculated just the juice by the ounce and figured freezer costs negligible since the freezer would be running, anyway.)
Benefit: 30 minutes in which I stripped and washed the car seat covers, vacuumed the car seats (ew), vacuumed the living room, and ripped four CDs.
Thank you Santa Cruz Organic for the $0.64/hour babysitting. I plan to recreate with our overburdened lemon tree and newly minted, knife-accomplished sous-chef six-year-old for improved cost effectiveness.

3. NPR interviews Daniel Pink, and a year later I finally remember to buy his book Drive at a local bookstore.
Cost: $8 something.
Benefit: Interesting research, good writing, and highly useful appendices get me on track for several professional goals.

Go buy his book. Read it. Work through the appendices. Change your work, your life, your family, your employees, your children, your world.

That’s money well spent.

Plug for new blog

In my massive 2012 self-rewrite, I have decided to split my creative tasks a bit. The big piece of my reorganization involves more fiction and academics. Less client work. Less social media. Less of the stuff I don’t need.

I’m also honoring my split personality by giving each of the voices in my head a blog. (I’ll begin with just voice-amplifying blogs, because some of the people in my head are just horrible and don’t deserve to have any more power than they already do. In fact, drowning them out with productive, creative, awesome work is a damned fine reason for another blog.)

Check out my other side, the logophile who rarely mentions children. (Except for the fact that they inform who I am and what I write, research, and read. You know: the little things.)

Find my professional, less frazzled writing persona over at ChristineHarkin.com. Lots of glitches still, including evidence of the egregious mistake of having register.com handle my domain. That mistake will soon be remedied (and if you’re curious about who should register your URL, check out this review at LifeHack, which I found after hating register.com. Lesson learned, again: do not search Google for tech stuff. Search Google for reviews of tech stuff and trust only established experts.)

Anyway. Follow and comment and join the Me who is creating a space for Me now that I know more about Them and how wonderful and self-eroding They can be if I don’t force my way into some personal headspace.

10 Things I Know

Just in case anything ever happens to me, here are the 10 best things I know. Because my vast knowledge might actually help someone else some day.

[Hush your mouth. I didn't say multiple someones. I said someone. And this is the Interwebs, so as long as I've helped on person navigate the grammatical errors of pop songs, my life has meaning.]

[And seriously, why are you rolling your eyes, messing with someone who is writing her most powerful thoughts for you a) free to you for your unfettered use and b) after expressing that she might eventually be the victim of an errant construction-vehicle concrete-flinging accident? Dang, reader, you're cold. I spend a lot of time by backhoes these days. You never know, you know?]

10. When a toddler won’t nap, tickle them. Makes you smile, gets them tired. Especially when you want to wring their grouchy little necks.

9. The zoo comprises the animals, but the animals constitute the zoo. (I love grammar pneumonics. My other fave is “I lie to recline after I lay the grape on the table.”

8. If you count on a child going to sleep, they will not. If you don’t particularly care, they might. Either way, don’t make any plans around a child’s sleep. Do not plan to drink after they drift off. Drink. Before. Bath.

7. There is no plural for moose, platypus, or mongoose. Do not let me catch you trying mooses, platypuses, or mongooses. (Just typing those made me die a little inside.) Don’t try meese, platypi, or mongeese. (That was a bit more fun and still sould-deadening.) There are no plurals for these mammals. (Availability of a plural does not define mammalhood. Breathing air, being warm blooded, and making milk for babies are the only requirements. Grammar has no place in science. Please try to keep up with the basic genre of my rants. The science rants are less funny.)
Don’t bother looking up that triumvirate of singular nouns, either. I’m right. Most existing references are wrong and your willingness to trust a blog on ten important items means you probably use an online dictionary [shudder] which is why I’m desperately trying to assist you now, before you genuinely need help and turn to one of those dreadful online schlock-fests.
Moose and platypus and mongoose are solitary animals and the only reason you might need the plural can be remedied thusly:
“Dear sir, Please send me a platypus. While you’re at it, please send another.”*

6. There are too many people in the world. If you feel like holing up some afternoon and hiding from the rest of civilization, feel no guilt. It’s not introversion. It’s a courteous use of space. If you feel like hiding with a book and hot cocoa, you are officially saving the world.

5. Measure the oil before you measure the honey or syrup or molasses. I don’t care for your excuses. Do it.

4. Before you have a child, please, for the love of all that’s holy and good, decide whether you like showers or sleep better. You have to. Because once a week, when you have time for just one of those, you must not waste any time deciding.

3. Where you would use “he,” use “who.” Where you use “him,” use “whom.” Please. Please.

2. Grow and make your own food whenever you can. You’ll feel good about yourself and you’ll be prepared for the zombie apocalypse. Two birds, one stone, yo.

1. The dorkier you feel about doing something, the better it is for you. Like karaoke. And bowler hats. And sleeping in the shower.

*This line blatantly stolen from an outrageously bright individual I know who has no blog and has no attorney and who probably stole it from someone else anyway and therefore I win at the Internet. I didn’t say I made this stuff up. I said I know it. It’s true. Check the post title.

Enough

I started running again a couple of weeks ago. I let go of the Shoulds and the Rules I’d constructed around my life and let myself have 20 minutes, three nights a week. Because I need exercise to feel good and I have been denying myself that because there are other, more important things to do. Because I need oxygen to feel good, but I have denied myself that, too, because there are other, more important things to do. I know I need to follow the rhythms of my body, after a day of following the rhythms (often conflicting) of two little people, to feel good, but I don’t let myself because there are things—an endless list of things—to do. I was being self destructive and eating to relax because I can eat while I do at least half of the other things I need to do.

Need. To do.

So I started running. And the first night I went, I relaxed and let go and tried to feel the night and the lights and the air and the PAIN of running after almost a year wash over me. My body has not been my own since I grew Peanut six years ago. And I took one step in getting it back.

At the midpoint of my teeny tiny run I saw a woman laughing near the window of her living room, the walls of which were decorated with exotic percussion instruments. She had her arms over her head, and she was dancing and playing some bell/drum thing. [Let's pretend I was going so fast I couldn't quite place the instrument; more likely I was trying to be in the moment and not stare at the neighbors.] And I thought, “That’s what I want in my life.” She looked happy. And comfortable in her body. And she was having fun with music in her home in a cozy neighborhood that I’ve loved for years.

As I ran by she saw me. And stared. Really saw me and stopped to think about it. It was probably only four seconds, but in my head it was forty. And she was thinking, according to my self-doubting Critic brain, “What is that woman doing? Is she really out running and ruining your knees on asphalt, alone, when there is life to be lived? Wow. I can’t imagine.” In my brain she is much more gentle with me than I am, because she probably should have thought “pathetic,” “delusional,” and “clearly unbalanced.”

I kept running, but seeing how this woman spent her 20 minutes this evening had me thinking about how my rejection of my rules, of my shoulds, needed to go even further. I needed to be drumming and dancing and singing. I needed to be happy. I needed to reorganize my priorities and balance my life and don only what’s most important…well, it simply wasn’t enough to work all day, without a break, then run and then write or edit and then clean and then prepare and then start all over again. It was just not enough. I am not Enough. And she’s the one who told me that with her look.

[jump forward one week]

Today after school Peanut and Butter and I went to a playground with two other families. We liked each other, we wanted to see if our kids could be friends, and we wanted some adult company while our kids burned through their after-school energy. So we talked as I chased Butterbean through a creek and across rocks and up hills and after dogs. And when I mentioned where we lived, one of the other moms told me where she lived. I told her that her house was on my new running route.

She looked at me and said, “I knew that was you I saw running. I was in my living room acting like an idiot and I recognized you.”

And there it was. She stared because she knew me. And from that recognition I read judgement and pity and superiority. I told her I thought she was looking because I was pathetic. And now that she knew I had seen her, she quickly tried to couch her reckless abandon as silliness and lunacy when all I had seen was joy and humanity.

The rules and the shoulds and the inferiority and the judgement are there, waiting to sabotage. Waiting to say it’s not enough, whatever it is.

Maybe, every once in a while, we can remember whose rules they are. Because if we’re not Enough we can change, and when we are Enough, we need to see it.

Maybe we could see into our own living spaces with the eyes of a gentle, tired, flawed human and see who we really are.

I’m pretty sure it’s Enough.

***

(This post is being simulcast over at Dump Your Frump, where they believe whatever you do is more than enough.)