The Keynote

(I gave the final keynote at the wonderful SiWC conference back in October, 2017.  I was terrified and struggling, but SiWC is a writing conference built on community, warmth and heart, so, I wrote this:)

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First some flight instructions to today’s keynote speech. Not for me, but for you the audience.

 

My voice will never modulate as we continue this afternoon. It will be, at best, impassioned words of wisdom and at worst nervous choked sobs and panic-stricken mumbling. My face will begin to flush, starting with my nose, and continue reddening until I begin to hear concerned mutterings coming from the distant yet muffled corners of this very… very large room. Comments like, “Has she taken a breath?” and “Do you think she’ll pass out?” and my personal favorite, “When she faints, if she becomes incontinent let’s all make a pact never to tell her.”

 

I wish it were different. More than anything, but the truth is – for better and for worse – when it comes to writing I care so much that it turns me into this nervous, sob choking, panic stricken mumbler which is – of course – my real, authentic self.

 

As you all well know. There is everywhere else and then there is writing.

 

But what if we fail.

 

I worked on and rewrote that transition for weeks. Trying to dress it up with inspirational words and some kind of warm hue – but when you think it’s happening to you it feels about as inspirational and warm as being forgotten at a train station.

 

In the summer of 2014, my then-editor passed on the proposal for my 7th book. I was on vacation with my family in a small beach town along the California coast at the time. It was a truly beautiful day to be rejected.

 

We were standing outside of the Brown Butter Cookie Company about to go in, when I saw that my agent was calling, I told my family to go in without me. I sat in my car alone and – it’s one of those moments you think you can prepare for. That you’ll know how you’ll react. I’m going to be so sad or going to be so angry or I’m going to throw things or cry. But I didn’t do any of those things. I just dully nodded along as my agent told me that not only did my editor pass on this proposal, but she didn’t even want to work with me on coming up with a version of this proposal that would work for her. I was officially out of contract.

 

In the desperate last wheezes of that conversation, I blurted out a possible new book idea. It was a panicked blend of a title of a book I’d tried to write that didn’t work, a book I was thinking that needed a sequel and a TV pilot I was working on at the time. My agent was intrigued and then she did the thing we hope no one will ever do when we pitch a new story: She asked a follow up question. It was awful. I was already so vulnerable and raw and here she was having the gall to want to know what this book was actually going to be about. I know. So, I rattled off a couple of books that were in the marketplace at the time and shrugged that tonally mine could go in either column. There was this silence on the other end of the phone. It was not a good silence. I had not awed her. And then my agent gave me the best worst advice ever, “I think you need to dig deeper.” This is not advice someone in extreme denial of their feelings ever wants to hear.

 

See, I was ready to be called out as a fraud by publishing. I’d been waiting for that shoe to drop for eleven years. I’ve been Employee of the Month in the Imposter Syndrome Office since its inception. What I wasn’t ready for was to hear the hollow death rattle of my own voice as I desperately pitched a derivative book that I couldn’t care less about as long as it granted me access back into the club that I so desperately wanted to belong.

 

Because in that moment, I realized that I truly believed I could only call myself a real writer if I was published — otherwise this would have been all for naught.

 

I was watching this TED talk, which means I was really watching 20 TED talks and it was only supposed to be for a couple of minutes but then it was nighttime and I have no idea where the day went… but, this particular TED talk was about work and more specifically – the fruits of our labor.

 

They had given a group of people some Legos and they asked them to build a little bionicle – a little Lego man – for $3.00. They would build the bionicle, hand it back and the people giving the test would put the finished product in a box under the table to be taken apart and given to the next set of participants. Then they asked if they’d make another bionocle for $2.70, then $2.40, $2.10 and on down until the participant tapped out.

 

Then the second group came in. They asked them the same question: Will you make a bionocle for $3.00. Sure. The second group of participants made the bionocle and handed it over. Will you make another one for $2.70. Sure.

 

But as the second group of participants were making their bionocle, the people giving the test were taking apart the first one right in front of them. So, by the time the third bionocle came around, the participants were literally using the very same Legos that had built that first bionocle.

 

The results of this experiment were clear. When the bionocles were put under the desk in a box, the participants made 11 before stopping. When the bionocles were taken apart in front of the participants, they only made 7.

 

What was interesting was that they’d also asked the participants if they’d loved playing with Legos prior to being a part of the experiment and they found that the love of Legos kept the first group of participants making the bionocles long after the money made it worth their time. But, that that same love of Legos had no bearing on the second group of participants. That no amount of money was worth it.

 

So, it doesn’t matter how much we love a thing – if we think what we’re doing is meaningless, if we think what we’re doing is being taken apart in front of us – we will stop doing it, no matter the money being offered.

 

In the bleak days, weeks, months and years that followed, I had to rumble with the fact that over the years, I’d come to define publication as meaningful and writing as meaningless, my life’s work a handful of Legos that were once a bionocle.

 

For so many of us, we don’t remember a time when we weren’t writing. Shoeboxes filled with tattered pages of our scrawled tales litter our closets, our parents’ closets and now they crowd the hard drives of our computers.

 

We were writers before we even knew what kind of people we were.

 

We were writers to become the people we are.

 

But as we grew up, being a writer got complicated.

 

To be a real writer means this. This will make me feel like I’m a real writer. If I could just get that then I will have made it as a real writer.   If I don’t get that, I might as well quit being a writer. Will they even think I deserve to be called a real writer if I don’t have that?

 

Somewhere along the way, we gave away what it means to be a writer.

Somewhere along the way, we let other people define what is meaningful.

Somewhere along the way, we decided that only someone else’s match could alight that invisible flame that used to warm us from the inside.

 

There was a reason I didn’t ‘dig deeper.’ There was a reason my writing had become shallow.

 

Writing has a tendency to know when we are hiding something.

 

And what I was hiding was a fear that I wasn’t good enough.

 

That no matter how many goals I achieved, I would never really truly believe I deserved it. So, I became desperate to achieve as many of those goals as I could thinking that it would be the next goal that would be the tipping point and that the nervous, sob choking, panic stricken mumbler would be replaced by a laid back, smooth talking cool kid bestseller and I would finally feel like I belonged.

 

I would finally feel like a real writer.

 

This is the point in the keynote where I now tell you how much better everything is. That I sold that book and here are the 7 valuable lessons I learned in the process.

 

As a side note, I’d like to put a request in for a “teachable moment” that comes from me eat, pray and loving my way through the Scottish Highlands as I try to grapple with why Chris Evans loves me so much.

 

Turns out, that’s not quite how I learn things. It’s more of a scorched earth kind of classroom that resembles a hostage-taking situation where I’m tied to a chair and forced to listen to meditation apps about stress and anxiety as I take myself apart brick by brick.

 

Just this past weekend, I sent out an email to my writer’s group that I was going to be writing all day – or Shaming, which is what we call it – our writers group is called The Shamers as you can count on one another to shame you into writing – I emailed that I would be planted at a local coffee shop if anyone wanted to join me.

 

As the day wore on, I was joined by the other two people in the writing group who had had similarly awful years. All three of us had had some version of getting the rug pulled out from under us or as one friend called it, “beaten over the head by my own dream.”

 

These were the same people who’d shown up over those bleak days and weeks and months and years that followed that conversation with my agent. We’d sit across coffeeshop tables from each other hollow eyed, teary eyed, rage filled, pathetic and pitiable, obstinate and arrogant our computers open and documents too long left blank and mocking. Taking our headphones off only long enough to ask – who do they think they are and I’m never going to write again and you know what, I’m just being super zen about it and I’m taking a break from writing and I wouldn’t say I was blocked I’m just … and then we’d stare off into the middle distance unable to put what we’re feeling into words… the irony of which, as writers, was not lost on us.

 

But, this past weekend we were all working on the projects that were forged in that crucible of failure. Ideas plucked from the still smoking rubble of our big, meaningful goals.

 

Because in those ruins. I found writing.

 

In those ruins, I found meaning.

 

Scared and overwhelmed with what I found as I dug deeper, it was writing that was the strong hand over the cliff.

 

It was writing that brought me meaning.

 

It wasn’t pretty, it’s been a long three years and I honestly don’t know how many more dinners I can survive with “friends” resting their faces in their hands in faux concern as they ask me “so, are you happy?”

 

What I want to tell them is that I don’t know if I’m happy, but I do know that I’m … real. That I finally get what the Skin Horse was talking about in the Velveteen Rabbit when he said, “‘It doesn’t happen all at once. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

 

What I realized was that to be a real writer, I must first have the courage to be real.

 

So, as you walk away from this beautiful, well-filling conference I give you the same best worst advice my agent gave me.

 

Dig. Deeper.

 

You are strong enough and if you are not strong enough, you will be surrounded by people who understand. Because you are real and you can’t be ugly.

 

Thank you.

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7 Things to Remember When You Finish a Book

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I just turned in the first draft of Book Eight.  I hit send on Monday and felt this glorious sense of relief….for about five hours.

I was then reminded –  punched in the face really – by my own Things to Remember When You Finish a Book.  I don’t know the solutions to some of this stuff, just what I’ve tried and things I need to try harder on. I’m still trying to figure it out myself, but just being aware that this shit is happening… helps.

  1. SLAMMING ON THE BRAIN BRAKES

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I couldn’t think of a better way to say this, but after a deadline I expect my brain to go from 235 mph to 0 simply because I pushed send on an email.

This is, of course, not what happens. Bored and ignored, our brains find new and fun things to busy itself with: how the book is actually shit and you should probably send a follow up email apologizing profusely, building elaborate narratives about how that one friend really doesn’t like you, and listing all the myriad ways you could do better in your life.

The temptation to jump right into another project is an interesting one. I’ve done it and while it gave my little busy brain something to do, I found that the burn out that resulted in not giving myself a break between projects was acute.

WHAT I TRY TO DO:  For me, The Listing really flared at night, so I downloaded some meditation apps for the nighttime and they are helping. It gives my brain something to listen to instead of the listing, the lisTING, THE LISTING.  I find myself turning on the app multiple times during the night, because if I thought going to sleep was bad, the ‘waking-up-in-a-flop-sweat-with-the-Sword-of-Damocles-over-my-head at 4AM’ thing was worse.

2. BEWARE THE FUNNEL HEAD

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When you’re writing, there is an openness (especially at the end) you need to have.  You’re pulling inspiration from everywhere, listening to every conversation, connecting dots, chronicling every moment to see if you can use it – in essence, the Spidey Senses are in full effect.

Again, that openness doesn’t just disappear once we press send. And what I’m always shocked by is how vulnerable and raw I feel in those weeks just after a deadline. Of course, this vulnerability and rawness feels unwelcome and… like there’s kind of something wrong with me. All I did was turn in a book, why am I crying at work watching an Instagram story of someone’s dog seeing snow for the first time?

WHAT I TRY TO DO: Just acknowledging that this openness is happening makes me a little bit kinder to myself, as well as more mindful of the people and places in which I choose to invest my time and energy in the weeks after a deadline. It still… doesn’t feel great though and I do find myself apologizing a lot.  “I’m sorry, I just feel off.”  I’ll work toward the day when I don’t feel the need to apologize.

On that note….

3.  GIVE YOURSELF A TWO WEEK BUFFER

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I just attended a lovely gathering – less than a week after turning in my book. Thinking: Let’s get back out there and join the land of the living! I tucked myself into the crook of a nice sectional couch, cradling my glass of water and yes, ooh, you know what – that delightful charcuterie plate reminds me…  of failure and rock bottom (which is what Book 8 is about).

Concerned faces. Quiet sips of wine. A cough in the distance.

The temptation to book all those social events you’ve been postponing (and felt massive guilt about) in the immediate weeks after a deadline is great.  But, you – my dear fellow writer – are not ready to be among the general population yet.

WHAT I AM TRYING AND WILL TRY HARDER TO DO:  From now on, I’m going to give myself a two week buffer until I jump back into my full social calendar. And then, I will try not to apologize for giving myself the two week buffer.

But I don’t want to be isolated and lonely either, so…

4. WHEN VENTURING OUT, STAY IN THE TIER

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We have a lovely variety of people in our lives.  From the people at the coffeeshop you frequent to the people who know where all your (metaphorical) bodies are buried.  The people who know where all your (metaphorical) bodies are buried are those whom I like to call The Top Tier.

The Top Tier are the people who don’t need you to be anyone but exactly who you are – complete with the post-deadline thousand yard stare, communicating through grunts and mid-sentence pitches about that one problematic section of Act 2 YOU KNOW THE ONE, and long, luxurious lunches where you unguardedly talk about everything and nothing.

WHAT I TRY TO DO: When venturing out just after a deadline, I start with people in the Top Tier. Not with people I’d like to be in the Top Tier, or people who thiiiink they’re in the Top Tier, but tried and true Top Tier people.  It’s a very small list. Like… can count em on one hand. I … still struggle with this.

5. LEAVE IT… LEEEEAVE IT

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In the quiet hours and days that follow pressing send on a project there is a tendency to revisit said project with the focus and heat of a thousand cruel and nit-picky suns.

You have sent it out for notes. People are reading it. The best thing we can do is try – oh do I tryyyyyy – to let it go. Truly let it go, not just “yeah, I’m super mellow, I’m just… you know, reading it to get a feel of the pacing and flow.” (deletes entire second act)

Because if we do truly let it go, then when it returns with notes, we’re able to see it with fresh eyes. And those fresh eyes will get us such a better next draft, then the red rimmed glassy eyes that would have met it had we not stopped fidgeting and futzing with it in the time it was away.

WHAT I TRY TO DO: Step. Away. From. The. Computer.

6. THE PHYSICAL TOLL

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I’m always so shocked at what a deadline does to my body.  It’s just writing, why do I feel like I’ve run a (very cerebral) marathon?

I think what surprises me every time is how much my body holds it together until I press send. Shoulders, back, aches and pains, flu – all of it, just tapping their feet until I relax just a little bit and then… ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE.

You will get sick after a big deadline. Inevitably. It’s usually a cold.  And even though I actually kept up with pilates (it really helps with Writer Back), once I pressed send – something shifted. I even got a massage, but I was just… crumpled. The tension and the singular focus that I inflicted on myself, will take some time to heal.

WHAT I TRY TO DO AND CAN TRY HARDER, WHATEVER:   Now that I have my mornings back, I’m going to try to go swimming.  Also, maybe I should try stretching or some… ugh, I hate it though and why can’t it be good for my body to watch Hallmark Christmas movies and drink tea?  Fine.  I’ll roll out ye olde yoga mat and… ugh. whatever. STILL A LEARNING PROCESS.

7. CELEBRATE IT!

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There will be very well-meaning people in your life – including yourself – that will urge you to “celebrate it!” upon finishing a book.  You sent it in!  You finished! Woohoo! Time to Parrttayyyyy!

But, the truth is – finishing is complicated. The book has been your constant companion.  It’s been just you and it and now… that’s going to change. Fear and insecurity creep in.  Doubts and high hopes. Vulnerability hangovers and regret.

We are exquisitely tender in those days and weeks that follow typing The End. Why can’t we just let it go!?  What’s wrong with me that I’m not relieved?!  Why am I more worried now than during the writing of it?  It’s… so confusing.

But, what I’ve started to figure out are some of the things that I can do to celebrate it. Things within my own tier, if you will.

I took a drive by myself up the coast.  Made a playlist, got some tea, windows down and just drove. It was lovely.

I also went to The Broad with some Top Tiers and saw beautiful things.

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Thinking about doing a double feature of movies – as I haven’t seen a movie at an actual theater in months. Popcorn and everything.

And then I’ll round out my time in the Buffer Zone by sitting on my couch in my 8 o’clock pants, a baguette and some cheese, thinking about trimming my Christmas tree, mulling some spices and watching as many Cozy Mysteries as I can. Or I’ll just watch Zootopia for the tenth time.

Kindness, patience, and tenderness.

Ask it of those around you.

Ask it of yourself.

 

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What We’re Really Saying When We Say Something is “Off the Table.”

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I’ve been thinking a lot about when we say something is “off the table.”

The first time I used it was when I was talking to a friend of mine about this guy who was wrong in all the right ways. We laughed and I shrugged a shoulder and said that it didn’t matter anyway because, come on, he was bad for me and I knew he was “off the table.” And then I proceeded to not so secretly carry a torch for him ever after.

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By banishing him ‘off the table’ I never had to actually get to know the real him. He was bad for me, I’ll be responsible and keep my distance. Of course, this distance, coupled with his taboo ‘off the tableness’ equalled me creating a fantasy version of him that was just a hair shy of Han Solo with Captain Wentworth rising.

Being ‘off the table’ meant he never faced any scrutiny and was able to remain idealized. I never had to see him for who he actually was and the ‘relationship’ was never unmasked for the absolute train wreck it would surely be. I also never had to investigate why such a man would be attractive to me, because I was denying that he, in fact, was. By saying that he was ‘off the table,’ he was never under the same deliberation I used to navigate a friendship, book a hotel or even map a route to work.

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SIDE-BAR: Of course, when dealing with shitty people, things being ‘off the table’ is more about keeping safe and setting boundaries with someone who has none. So, all of my philosophical musings are off the table (heyo!) in those instances.

What I started to notice was that there was a sliver of something deeper when I would slide something or someone ‘off the table.’ There was something I didn’t want to see, admit or acknowledge was in play. There was a reason I didn’t want to get into the details.  There was a reason I didn’t even want it to be up for discussion.

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Are levels of success and happiness off the table because we’re too scared and vulnerable to hope? (“I know becoming a supervisor is off the table, but I could maybe ask about a promotion in my department.)

Do we draw lines in debate and argument, categorizing things as ‘off the table’ because the alternative is too scary to even think about.  (Moving is off the table, I just can’t start over again.) 

Is there a dream we can’t talk about, for fear that any scrutiny at all will 1)make people think we’re ridiculous for even thinking we COULD achieve it or 2) make US feel silly that we’re planning for something that certainly could never happen.  (I don’t want to pigeonhole myself just yet.  It’s still just an idea, so making a plan is off the table until I get an agent/go back to school/get in shape…) 

Is there something we can learn, but pride, ego (and fear) is standing in the way. (No way.  I did not misread the situation. That’s off the table as the reason this went sideways.)

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Moving forward, I need to watch when I won’t even entertain a conversation about something or someone.  Why am I hivey from someone asking me what success looks like? Who am I pigeonholing actually writing down the things that make me happy? Why won’t I even consider asking for more money? Why won’t I press that one friend who never wants to make solid plans, insisting we always “play it by ear.”

Because putting something or someone ‘on the table’ makes it real.  We’re talking about it. We’re going to ask some questions and more terrifyingly, we’re going to get some answers. We’re going to roll up our sleeves and start getting to work.  This idea is going to become a THING.  This fantasy is going to become a reality.

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And sometimes admitting that you want something to be real – and no longer just a dream or a fantasy – is the scariest thing in the world to do.

So, maybe we start by putting things on the table… on the table.

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When We Think We’re Failures

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I’ve been thinking a lot about failure. More than usual.

It dawned on me that something was going off the rails when I realized that the self-help book I’d been listening to on my morning commute had just been playing on a loop. For like months.

So, what was it? What had changed?

It wasn’t my circumstances, for I’d been through much harder times.  I’ve been a writer for enough years to – maybe arrogantly, probably because that’s definitely in my wheelhouse – believe that I had found my sea legs. That I had the ability to weather the storms and understood the ins and outs of this literary life filled with rejection and uncertainty. I knew the rules. Or, at least, I thought I did.

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At my job, we’ve been talking a lot about how people work. Back in 2015, Google conducted over 200+ interviews with their employees in search of the right algorithm for what makes a great team. I know. They asked their employees to grade on a scale of one through five – these five different areas of their worklife. 1. Psychological safety: can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed. 2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time? 3. Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles and execution plans on our team clear. 4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us. and 5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters.

What we noticed when we filled it out, was that if the Meaning of Work column scored a 5 that all the other categories ranged in the 4s and 5s and conversely if the Meaning of Work column was a 1, everything else was shit.

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To put it in the terms that I’d been weighing lately, could it be as simple as, if I found my work meaningful, I was a success. If I found my work meaningless, I was a failure.

So, was my bout with failure more about me losing sight of what was meaningful?   Or was it that failure had come to define a spectrum of things in my life, but the definition of success had narrowed to just one scenario. Super specific. Breathtakingly conditional. And rooted in aspects of a life and a person that I could never be.

I think it’s a combination of both.

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My definition of success was unattainable, but failure was in every corner of my life. Meaning and success had come to be defined as THIS ONE THING – this Magnum Opus, this great work that I clearly felt, I was being held back from doing, so all the work – and the life I was leading – was being labeled meaningless or … a failure.

I watched this TED talk – which means, I wanted to watch one TED talk and instead found myself ten hours later starving, frightened, bleary eyed and still somehow watching TED talks – but it was about how we work. And this man was talking about how they did this study where they had two groups of people. First group. Person walked in, they asked them to build a bionocle (a little lego man) for $3. They informed them that at the end of the study they were going to take apart all the bionocles and put them back in the box. The person built the bionocle. They took it. Gave them another one, but this time said they would be paid $2.70. And on and on they went down by 30 cent increments. Second group. Person walks in, they asked them to build a bionocle for $3. The person builds bionocle. Person hands bioncle back. They ask if they want to make another bionocle, but this time they’ll get paid $2.70. Person agrees, starts to make bionocle – but this time, the entire time the person is making the bionocle their other bionocle is being taken apart in front of their face. They hand back the bionocle and so it goes.

The study showed that the first group made 11 bionocles before tapping out. The second? Just 7. Which tells me, that no matter the money if you think what you’re doing is all for naught – or meaningless – you will stop doing it.

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Because that’s what is at stake here. If we think that we are failures and that what we’re doing is meaningless, we will stop doing it – no matter the money or how much we love it.

If we think that only our one Magnum Opus is meaningful, but not the steady backbreaking work that we do on ourselves and our craft every day then we will tragically never have the skill to be able to create that Magnum Opus that we’ve dreamed of. We have to change those definitions so that success and meaning are everywhere – that copywriter job you had to take actually taught you how to not only work on deadline, but be as succinct as possible. That web series you made that no one saw, taught you how to show not tell and that if you put your mind to it you actually could finish something. That one play you’ve been trying to write with those three friends? May never get finished, but you’ve learned how to collaborate, how to take notes, how to give notes and how to tell a story in a different way.

There is meaning everywhere. There is success everywhere.

We fail only if we abandon the curiosity and wonder is takes to find it.

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