Greetings from Panem!

It’s been a tough week for Jenny the writer, mostly because it’s been a big week for Jenny the public speaking coach. I’ve led four days of presentation skills training in Monterrey, Mexico this week. I left for the job early on Sunday morning. I’ll be getting home Friday night. I’ve been working long days. I have a cold. And I’m tired.

Wah, wah, wah.

I’m not as tired, of course, as J-Law‘s character in The Hunger Games. And the Panem I’m visiting happens to be a charming upscale panaderia in one of the nicest parts of Monterrey. I’ve loved working here this week. And I’m earning a nice paycheck for my efforts.

But I’m feeling haggard, nonetheless. And discouraged. When will I get this writing life thing right?

I was reading one of those encouraging self-helpy emails I get, scanning it with half-closed eyes last night before I fell asleep. The email’s writers suggested that we need rituals to get the important things done, their more soulful way of saying that we need habits or a schedule or structure. (So, like my mother always told me, just not quite as annoying.)

After this totally exhausting week, I’m not even sure what to say about that.

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Really, I did not indulge in drinks at “The Embassy.” Though I did have some crispy fish tacos. Hey, a writer’s got to eat.

Without a doubt, I intended to get work done. I intended to wake up early and do some writing. I intended to come back to my hotel room and research submission opportunities.

That hasn’t happened.  And it’s not because I’ve been slacking off, lying by the pool and sipping margaritas.

This has been one of the main challenges of my adult life, one I’m sure other writers do a better job of managing. My paying work has a way of upending my writing work. So I wonder, is a “ritual” of writing every day possible? Or is it akin to dieting–setting yourself up to become a disappointment and to feel like a failure?

But, optimist that I am, I still hope to salvage the week–on the long plane ride home tomorrow. Maybe writing on planes can be my ritual.

 

Is submitting a mindset?

dweck_mindsetThis morning, in my successful mission to procrastinate about writing and submitting, I found myself scrolling through a lengthy Brain Pickings post. It provides yet another look at how we feel about ourselves, failure–and how that influences the risks we take.

I can’t say there are any revolutionary ideas in the post, though Maria Popova points out that this book by Carol Dweck provides research to back up your basic self-help fodder.

Was there anything I can use here, so that it wasn’t a total waste of (#amwriting) time?

Possibly.

From Dweck’s book, which looks at what it means to have a fixed vs. growth mindset:

“In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.”

And also:

I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected?”

It seems that by opening yourself up to being your bumbling striving rejected self, you actually make yourself more successful. You move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. And that makes rejection the door to possibilities!

Though I sort of hate to call it a mindset, this shift is what Caroline and I are trying to achieve with our Year of Submission. Perhaps a new mindset CAN be powerful. Perhaps there is even RESEARCH to back that up. Perhaps (according to the post on Brain Pickings), if we can move to a growth mindset about our writing, we might even improve our RELATIONSHIPS.

Wow. Will keep you posted on how that last thing works out.

Meanwhile, I wonder if Dweck had to change her mindset in order to write and publish her book. And if you’d like to read the full Brain Pickings piece, find it here.

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Time to start the weekend with risking failure on a 5 mile run–and braids that definitely say “growth mindset”

P.S.: In the interest of embracing failure to further success, I just submitted a manuscript at the worst possible time, I’m sure–late afternoon on the Friday of a holiday weekend.

Yay me and my growth mindset. JM

What are your rules about rules?

Rules

Jenny spied one artist’s rules written on a scrap of wall

The building was filled with art, but these rules scrawled on a broken piece of sheetrock were the thing that caught my eye: Don’t waste time. Stop doubting your capabilities. Make something every day.

They seemed like good rules for a year of submission.

I was touring the studios of graduate art students at The University of South Carolina when I saw them. The rules were in the work space belonging to a young woman who was assembling a huge collage of hundreds of small photos, a work that told some kind of story, I’m sure.

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This USC graduate art student is assembling her photos into some sort of sophisticated collage

To make the piece, she not only photographed the scenes but also mounted the photos on blocks of wood that she’d sanded and painted. I overheard her say how tired she was of burnishing.

I’m assuming these are her rules. Despite the overwhelming amount of work required, she appeared to be getting her huge project done.  The images were intriguing. I would love to see it when it’s completed.  I admire her determination.

But much as I want to 1) Have a plan, 2) Stop doubting, 3) Make something every day–as soon as I make rules, the rebel in me rises up. I don’t like rules.

But I do like a lark, a joke, a project, a dare. And I do think how you package something counts. (We can blame that on too much time spent working in advertising.)  So it makes me think that our Year of Submission is just rules (or a rule) disguised as something else.

Let’s be sure not to tell me.

I wonder how other people feel about rules and getting work done. Do they help? Or something else?

Anxiety, Finishing & Submitting

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Deckle Edge festival water, in case this anxiety workshop causes Jenny’s mouth to feel dry

I’m now back at home, calmly cooking bacon on this Sunday morning. But a few hours ago, I was waking up early, dressing myself in real clothes (as opposed to fake “athleisure” wear), and attending a writing workshop that I only signed up for late yesterday afternoon.

The workshop title? Overcoming Creative Anxiety: 5 Steps to Jumpstart Your Writing & Remain Calm

The instructor: Cassie Premo Steele, a writer who runs regular programs to help people (especially female people) push through all the reasons they cook up to avoid finishing and submitting their work.

I arrived five minutes before class time, which I thought would eliminate any anxiety that could be caused by rushing.

I was wrong.

The location had been changed, though I didn’t know it. A noisy Presbyterian congregation was gathering in what I’d thought to be our classroom space. I bumped into a classmate, another last-minute enrollee who hadn’t gotten the message. Her anxiety level was extra-high as she scurried down the block ten steps ahead of me, out of breath and fretting that she would be late for class.

I began to feel anxious about being so calm. Maybe I wasn’t anxiety-ridden enough for this workshop.

Just as my classmate had feared, we were late–but our soothing, confident instructor folded us into the mix with ease. She presented five stages of writing, from idea to submission, touching on the way anxiety plays into each.

It was helpful, not in a zap-aha-breakthrough way but in a why-of-course-I-know-that kind of way, which is better and much less anxiety-inducing. (Me to myself: See Maxwell, you haven’t been doing it all wrong!)

Three ideas I’ll be using right away:

1. When you’re stuck, set a two minute time limit and do something.  I teach this approach all the time in my writing classes, just used it in a comics class I took.  So why am I not using it to do things like find three agents or tackle that query letter or write that last scene of my book?  I have no idea.  But now that I’m reminded of how well it works, I’m using it more often.

2. Know your purpose and take a “servant of your message” attitude.  That second part doesn’t come from Cassie’s words, exactly. They’re the words we use at The Buckley School to help people overcome their fear of public speaking. It makes perfect sense that it can work for your writing, too.

The idea is to put the focus on how your work is serving an audience rather than worrying about yourself and what people think of you. You take your big, fat ego out of the equation.  At The Buckley School when we introduce this idea, people say, “but if my ego were bigger, wouldn’t I feel more confident?” But it’s your ego–your worry about self–that gets in the way. As someone who’s had to overcome a fear of public speaking in order to teach it, I know that taking a servant-of-your-message approach has been a huge help. I’m not sure why I haven’t applied the same approach to my writing.

Cassie explained her thoughts about purpose using examples. Here’s one: You lose sleep to care for a sick child and it’s a good thing, because you know your purpose. You lose sleep because of insomnia and it’s a bad thing, because you have no purpose and instead dwell on “what’s wrong with me.”

3. Think of submitting as getting the help you need to fulfill your work’s purpose.  This is a new idea for me. I like it. Cassie suggests you think of submitting as a 50-50 proposition: I’ve done my very best work. Now I need the help of agents, editors and publishers to find and serve the readers.  That puts it on a different footing, yes? You are not asking for rejection. You are looking for the right partner to help.

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Cassie Premo Steele (left) speaking with students after our workshop

Cassie’s workshop was part of this weekend’s  Deckle Edge Literary Festival, organized by the people behind Jasper magazine.  Cassie writes about and teaches this subject full time, and you can find out more about those classes and her work here.

From Venice to Memphis: Headed in the right direction?

Venice Caroline

Text from Caroline: “Took a photo of my short story in Venice. Didn’t work on it once!” Hey, at least she TOOK her short story to Italy.

Like most other people, both Caroline and I have work to do, places to be–a dozen reasons every day not to write and submit. The past week was a good test for both of us.  Caroline had enrolled in a photography class and was headed to Venice (Italy) for the week.

Here’s Caroline on confession cam while living it up in Venice:

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Jenny conducting important research on the “ageless grease” of Dyer’s in Memphis.

Meanwhile, I was teaching a public speaking class in Memphis (Tennessee) and eating as much as possible, adding up to two long days of training plus two long days of snow-socked travel (and several very good meals).

How did we do despite the distractions?  Better than we expected.

Caroline got a crash course in using Instagram as a storytelling medium with one of the most successful “grammas” out there–and she took her short story along for the trip. (You can see some of Caroline’s great photos here.)

I continued to develop a character for a new story through a comics writing and drawing class I’m taking, and I used my travel time to re-read and edit both a play and a humorous book I’d written a couple of years ago.

Leading to this week:

  • Caroline is getting feedback today at 1:00 on her novel, from an editor she’s been working with off and on for the last year. More on that to come.
  • I’ve sent my play to an actor/director for reading and input. I’m editing the book today and doing research to submit it to some agents/publishers in the next week.

Proving, at least to ourselves, that it’s possible to keep moving toward our goal for the year, no matter how deliciously greasy the distractions might be.

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Taken at our status update meeting, Jan 28, at Drip Coffee in Columbia, SC. (Appears someone wears that slouchy sweater far too often. Meanwhile, someone else was wearing an adorable sweater from Venice. Where’s the pic of that?)

 

Getting started to get finished

That feels like an appropriately Southern headline, with a dash of Yogi Berra thrown in. All we need is a “fixin.”  At any rate, Caroline and I got together today at my house to see what it would take to move things along.

We put all our projects on my dining room table. I’m sure the main reason we chose my house is because I have so many more piles of stuff.

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Jenny’s stuff: Two laptops, stacks of files, printed manuscripts and a bit of a comic on index cards to the left

What we assembled is a fair depiction of how we approach work. I bubble over with ideas, starting one, then starting the next, and always have four or seventy things going at once.  Caroline is disciplined and deliberate, working to make one or two things absolutely right before beginning something new.

Three lessons for me:

  1. I tend to be hard on myself for not working enough.  Putting all my work on one table showed me just how much work I’ve done–a lot. I can stop calling myself lazy. I’ve even finished quite a few things.
  2. It helps to step through my projects with another person to get fresh perspectives, especially someone like Caroline who is calm and reasonable. I was able to make some decisions about what I could do to move things along.
  3. By putting all the work out there and examining it, I see how I can use the same process to submit it that I use for my “professional” work. I now have a list of actions I can put on this week’s calendar. That seems so obvious, but it wasn’t. I always push aside my “creative” work to make room for paying work, saving the things I really want to write for spare time I struggle to find. No wonder I don’t finish these things and get them out the door!

Here’s what Caroline had to say about her goals for the Year of Submission:

And here you can see why I’m Oscar Madison to Caroline’s Felix Unger: