In the Margins

I dream and fantasize about long chunks of time in which to write. In my minds’ eye, I have a writing cabin in the mountains, surrounded by trees and wildlife and solitude.

There’s a river nearby, full of fish. I like it there, that fantasy place. I think it might be in Alaska.

The reality is, though, I’m a mom in Arizona with two elementary-age kids. I have a part-time job.  I have a husband and a house and a dog. I cook and clean and take care of the shopping and bills. You know, normal life, nothing fancy.

So, when do I write the book?

My short and crude answer is:  “Whenever the f*ck I can”.

The long and elegant answer is:  I make time in the margins of my life.

I’d love to say that I have it all perfectly planned out where my writing time was etched in and I always hit goals and everything aligned all the time.

That would be a lie. One of my issues lately is that I have a child who is an early riser. He’s up as soon as there is a glimmer of light on the horizon. My little Rooster.

He’s a talker and a cuddler.

I’ve had to adjust my margins a bit. Totally worth it.

I’ve had to adjust my definition of writing, too.  There’s everything that leads up to the writing: The thinking, researching, re-reading and correcting, daydreaming, waking up to write things down, journaling, note taking, outlining – all of these things are things I count towards writing. Some days I only actually write a few hundred words. Some days less.

Once in a while, I take a day off. But it’s still on my mind. IT’S ALWAYS ON MY MIND.

Then there’s the days that I sit for a few hours and bang out a few thousand words and purge all of it out of me. Most of those words happen in the mornings, but once or twice a week, I sit down after the kids go to bed and I get a chunk of good writing in while the husband watches some murder-death-kill movie without me. We have a small, open house. My desk is 8 feet from the sofa.

Thank goodness for earphones and music. If I can’t be alone, then this is the next best thing when I want to get the writing done.

I’m compelled. I need to finish this book. Get it to the point where it’s editable. It’s almost there.

I’ll write before I go to the grocery store. I’ll write while I’m waiting for kids. I’ll write if the house is empty. I’ll write if I need to write.

I say no to a lot of useless busy-ness. I’m not much of a recreational shopper. I don’t really like large crowds. I spend most of my time with my kids and husband.

Whatever spare time, whatever margin I have left after my family time and personal responsibilities  – those margins are for the book.

I write every day, and then I write whenever I can.

I’m trying to get this draft finished in the next 4 weeks, so I’m pushing myself a little harder. I’m also having fun with this blog, so…

I’ll adjust my margins. Writers write, right?

Be Quick, but Don’t Hurry

I am an unpublished writer, writing my first book. I just hit 80k words on a solid second draft. I’m almost done, and then on to the editing/rewriting.

I think it’s one of the toughest things, being in this limbo state. I don’t know what the future holds for this book, but I am excited about it in a way that quivers deep in my belly. Good things are going to happen, I just know it.

But I’ve got to get this book done.

I go to bed thinking about it, and I wake up early to write on it every day.

The thing is, though, I’m not a fast writer. In fact, I’d say I’m pretty slow. But then, I talk to other writers and tell them where I’m at, and they say, wow, you’re making great progress. It’s a matter of perspective, really. There are all kinds of examples of fast and slow writing.

It doesn’t matter, though. Writing slow is better than not writing at all, and I was not writing at all for many, many years. Decades, even. I felt like I was dying inside. That feeling went away once I started taking my work seriously. That was 30 months ago, in October of 2014.

Be Quick, but Don’t Hurry. It’s a saying that Coach John Wooden used for his players. I’m getting quicker, but I refuse to hurry. I’m establishing my muscle memory as a writer. Grooving those patterns into my brain so that they become second nature. To me, quick is efficient, hurry is sloppy.

Rather than feel like I’m dying inside, I’ll just keep writing at my own pace. I’m too old to beat myself up over it.

My friend, Sam, just sold his second book, and is working on his third, in less than two years.  He specializes in a specific genre of non-fiction, for a specific market. He blogs, he travels, he speaks, he gives workshops and is busy, busy, busy. He is a real go-getter. I’m super happy for him and I love watching him go after his dreams. I’m learning a lot from him.

But, I know in my heart that I’ll never be the kind of writer he is. His thing is his thing. The work he is doing is important, and it’s HIS work, his vision. I can’t be him and have his career. I can only be me, I can only share MY work, and my vision.  And I am 100% OK with that. I cannot compare my speed, my style, or my project to what he is doing. We are in different lanes of the highway.  He’s quicker and more strategic. He’s a planner and a performer. His vision is clear.

I honestly don’t know if I even have a vision. I’m finding it as I go.  I’m OK with that, too.

All I know is that right now, I am writing a memoir. A deep, dirty, painful, magical, awesome rock n’ roll memoir. I’m digging stuff up.  I’m seeing patterns in my life. I’m seeing themes and connections from childhood that are still impacting me. There are memories that are only beginning to make sense to me, now that I’m looking at them as an adult, and from afar. Sometimes I need to really think about it, or research it, or I’ll reach out to people who can help clarify. Sometimes I’ll have vivid, amazing dreams in which mysteries are revealed.

Sometimes I just need to sit with it all and have a good cry.

In other words, I’m taking my time to deal with the shit that needs to be dealt with.

I never took the time to deal with it before. I was too busy. Too busy with school, with a big career, too busy with a marriage and two babies and a household to run. I was too busy trying to be perfect, too busy trying to make everyone happy.

I’ve always struggled with attention and focus issues.  Distractions and multitasking are my two worst enemies and that’s all the world values these days it seems. Busy-ness is a trap, I think. If you’re a writer, you’ve got to be busy for the right reasons. You’ve got to say no to things, sometimes. You’ve got to keep your focus tight, and you’ve got to make room for yourself, as an artist.

Just like not writing, being too busy made me feel like I was dying inside.

And I was dying inside. One thing sure to make you slow down is a cancer diagnosis. All of my years avoiding issues and being too busy, too hard on myself, too perfect – it was literally killing me.

I’m OK now, I think. I’m on the mend. I’ve beaten cancer. I’ve been writing this book for two-and-a-half-years, through a tough cancer treatment, and I’ve got more work to do. But I’ve got a solid draft. A draft that I can mold and edit into something. I am not afraid of cancer anymore. But I am afraid of not writing.

As a new writer, there are a lot of things I’m supposed to be focusing on. Building a platform, blogging, connecting with others, sharing. Absolutely. I want to do all of those things. I AM doing all of those things. I’m making progress. I’m learning to prioritize.

But most of all, more than anything, I want to finish this book and be done with it. I have more books in the pipeline, whispering to me from the shadows. They need to be written, too.

I am not worried about being perfect; there is no such thing. But I do want to do quality work. And with a memoir, it takes time to find real reason you’re writing the book. You have to write the book to answer all the questions. The act of writing a book actually transforms you, because you aren’t the same person you were before you wrote the book. There is great magic in the act of creation, for the art AND the artist. But, you need to sit with things, sometimes.

You sit with your life and try to make sense of it, and sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s goddamned hard.

At the heart of it, I am a healer and a comforter of people. It’s a role that comes naturally to me. Writing this memoir is my way of healing myself. By sharing my story, I’m helping others.  The only way to help others is if I’ve taken the time to find the truth about my experiences, to find the common humanity that binds us all together.

If you are writing a memoir, be prepared to give yourself some time. Honor your story, but get it done, share it, and move on to the next one.

Be quick, but don’t hurry.

The Ugly First Draft

Oh my gosh, the first draft of my book was ugly. It was an awful mess, with me just blathering on incoherently. They say that the first draft of your book is you telling yourself the story, which is true for me, for sure. Since I’m writing a memoir, I had to unscrew the timeline and start digging into deep memory and all the reasons why. I was all over the place, jumping around, introducing people and events out of order. A real mess.

But you know what? I was thrilled. I had a draft!

I think some new writers might get discouraged because their first draft is ugly, not perfect. But, that ugly first draft kept me writing.

I had too much time invested in it already to walk away from it. That I had a 60k+ words under my belt was a great revelation. I’d never written a document that large before. As ugly and skeletal as it was, writing an ugly, book-size document was now something I was capable of. I could do that.

That’s where my shift happened. The shift into believing that I could actually write a book. I had to go through the motions, though. Ugly, stiff, inelegant writing motions on that first draft. We have to teach ourselves how to write books.

I started a second draft last year. It feels good, not as stiff. My theme is there. My dialog needs some help. My timeline is straight and moving along. My voice feels strong. I feel excited every time I sit down to work on it. This thing has legs and a heartbeat. I couldn’t kill it if I wanted to.

My book is alive. It has form and shape and purpose.

It’s not ugly anymore, my sweet draft. She’s blossomed into something greater than myself, and will have a life of her own. There’s plenty more work to do, though. I’ve got to finish it and get it published.

Ugly transformed into beautiful. Books start ugly and get beautiful by the work of the writer. That’s my job here. I’m pretty sure the only rule is to keep working on it until it’s done.

Until it’s beautiful.

(then, start another book)

Blog Confessions

When Blogging first became a “thing” 10+ years ago, I decided I was going to blog with abandon and people would discover my writing and I’d gain a massive following and make a lot of money, somehow. Books were dead, all the experts said. Blogging was the future.

Except, I didn’t know what to blog about. I spent countless hours looking for ideas. Write what you know, they say. So, I tried writing about being a librarian. About being a new mom. About keeping house. About music. I spent countless more hours customizing blog templates, looking for a perfect design that would inspire me to write.

I studied how to blog. How to monetize a blog. How to create and organize all the content. How to get sponsors and guest posters and ad revenue and yada yada yada.  And you know what, it all seemed like a ridiculous amount of work and pressure just to be a blogger.  Especially since I couldn’t stick with any one idea. My writing felt flat and preachy and inauthentic.

All in all, I’ve started, and abandoned, 40 blogs.

That’s right. 40. I logged in to my various accounts and counted them up.

40 different blogs in various states of construction. Some have a dozen posts, most have one or two. All evidence that maybe I’m not meant to be a “blogger”.  I’m not opposed to blogging, but I feel like I’ve bashed my head on that brick wall for too long, already.

The truth is, I’ve always wanted to write books. Big juicy books full of truth and story. So I started writing the book that I’ve been wanting to write for 20 years. And I’ve got a few more in the pipeline, waiting their turn.

Writing a book is a long process. But, I’ve found a deep, deep satisfaction, knowing that I’m finally writing what I’m supposed to be writing.

I’m a couple of years into writing my first book, and I’ve learned a few things. Things that might make it easier for someone else to get started writing their own book.  And so, I’ve started writing those things down as blog posts for my website.

I’m not going to stress over any of it. I want to connect with people, and I’m going to post as I am able. My main focus is to write my book. And, I want to share what I know about doing it.

I think I’ve found my sweet spot.

Welcome to my 41st blog.

Asking for Help

I was on my own a lot as a child, and I had to learn to figure things out because there wasn’t anyone around to ask for help if I needed it. I didn’t mind, though. I’ve always been a tinkerer and a fiddler. As a teen, I rewired my old Walkman to my car speakers so I could have a tape deck in my 73 Super Beetle. When my kids were small, I once replaced a heating element in my dishwasher because I didn’t want to have a repairman tromping around during their nap time.

It took me years of insanity, being a full time working mom, before I finally broke down and hired a house cleaner. It was the best money I ever spent, even though I felt guilty for a while because I couldn’t do it all.  But the truth was – I really couldn’t do it all. And I love a clean house. I’d come home exhausted from work and cry tears of joy that my house was spotless, my laundry done, my toilets clean. It was a tremendous gift to myself. I could have a big job AND a clean house, if I just asked for help. It seems silly now that I waited, and suffered, for so long.

But still, I think many of us have trouble admitting we need help. It always felt like a defeat. I should be smart enough to figure things out, I thought, and admitting I need help is a sign of weakness. My mind knows that it’s just an artifact from childhood, this Sicilian notion of pride and honor, weakness and strength.

I’m happy to report that I’m getting better at asking for help, and accepting it.

When I started writing this book, I struggled for a full year alone before I found help. The thought of going cold-calling on writing groups sounded like pure misery to me. I wasn’t ready to share my writing with a group of strangers. I didn’t want to wander, looking for my people. So, I found a writing coach. I found her online. She helps intuitive empathic types like me – a classic Meyer’s Briggs INFJ – get their books written.

She is my gentle reader. She sees the things I don’t see, she offers me her feelings as a reader and her insights as a writer. We speak the same mystical language. Paying her to read my stuff is another tremendous gift to myself. I’ve made great progress. My book has a heartbeat, and I’m gaining confidence as a writer.

And sometimes, the help you need shows up without asking. There is that old saying “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. There is synchronicity at work, magic, even. This happened to me recently, and it’s been a great kick in the pants.

Sometimes the Universe knows better than you if you need help, and people show up, like little love notes, to help you along your path.

Do not refuse their help. There is always something to learn by saying yes. There is a certain grace that comes when you accept the help you need. It means that you’re serious. It means that you think you’re worthy. It means you’re willing to invest in yourself.

While I was struggling, I had to ask myself what I would rather have at the end of my days: My stubborn pride, or having written a great book.

I chose my book. I asked for help.

Radical Empathy, Defined

The term “Radical Empathy” occurred to me way back in 2010, when I was supervising a large department of the Library. We were in the middle of a major remodel, and I’d just had a baby. We were also in the middle of the recession, dealing with staff layoffs, and our patrons were faring even worse.

My staff was stressed, our patrons were stressed, and I was stressed.

It became my mission to reduce everyone’s stress, including my own. Let’s not be so black and white on everything, I told my staff. Let’s help each person as an individual. Let’s have radical empathy for what they are dealing with, and do the right thing for them if we can.

In the library, it often involved bending rules and making judgment calls. But, staff were uncomfortable with this, even with my full permission and confidence. They like consistency. What is the point of having rules if we don’t enforce them? They don’t like the gray zone.

For me, though, the gray zone became my sanctuary – it’s the sweet spot where I found the joy in serving people.  This didn’t mean randomly bestowing special privileges on a certain few. It just means that if someone presents themselves to me in a state of stress, I will do whatever I can do to help that person.

To me, it’s a matter of personal integrity. My interests are in serving humanity first. Not the rule book.

In 2012, Cheryl Strayed published a book called Wild. I eyeballed it, a little jealous, and thought – meh, so what. She wrote a book about an epic adventure.  That book sat on one of our best-seller displays winking at me for two years before I finally broke down and read it, and when it did, it cracked me wide open in ways I hadn’t expected. I sought out her other writings. She does an advice column and a radio show as Dear Sugar, and the writing there was like nothing I’d ever encountered. It staggered me with the truth, with her humanity. The term she was using?

Radical Empathy.

I don’t know who thought of it first, and it doesn’t matter. It’s just one of those concepts that seems born in multiple places at the right time, out of thin air.

I Googled around looking for a definition of Radical Empathy and there were a lot of results with people using empathy exercises in large groups to bring about world peace. That’s great and all, no doubt. Maybe it means different things to different people.

But in my definition, it starts with the individual. It starts with individual action. Feelings + Action = Radical Empathy.

It starts with your humanity caring about the fate of another struggling human and acting upon it honorably.

Practicing radical empathy requires a certain generosity of spirit and a willingness to do whatever it takes in a given situation to help someone. It requires brutal honesty, kindness, and patience.

It absolutely requires an open heart and an open mind. There are mysteries at work here, even a little magic. The struggling people I help everyday often have profound lessons for me. Truly, I am the one receiving the greater gift. This isn’t my motivation, though. It’s a side benefit.

Radical empathy. It’s hard to define because it is not a concrete thing. You only recognize it by feeling it. You only feel it, by doing it.

The Dream

I have been writing a book for three years now, and it may take a few more to get it finished and published. It’s a memoir, and I think it’s a good story. At first, I thought I was just writing a fun and breezy rock-n-roll adventure, but then it turned into something much more important. I lived the story and the history, and I’m honoring it by taking the time I need to tell it.

It’s taking me longer than I ever thought. I’ve blown through every deadline I set for myself, which made me feel bad at first. And then I had a big health scare this past year that has taken up a lot of my time. Life happens, you know?

So I stopped setting deadlines for this project. I’m at an age where I know some things can’t be rushed. It’s going to be born in its due time. Deadlines are great for some things, but perhaps not for this. I don’t want to create in a state of anxiousness or guilt. It’s emotional work already; it takes time.

Since the big health scare, I’ve written 50k words. I’m making progress, regardless.

I say it over and over again to myself: This book will get done. This book will be published. I am a writer. That is my dream.

Instead of deadlines, I think in seasons: by the end of summer, I’d like to have this draft ready for a good, hard edit. This past season of my life has been difficult, and I have empathy for what I’ve been through, as a human being.

I’m not letting myself off the hook, but I am giving myself the space and time I need right now. Sometimes, you have to know when to push, and when to yield.  Artists feel empathy for the world, but are often too hard on themselves. Brilliant work is created in that tension, no doubt. But I don’t think that’s the kind of artist I am.

I am giving myself permission to take as long as I need to write this particular book. I need to be kind to myself. Meanwhile, I’ll write other things, too. Outline future projects. Work on ways that I can connect with people and be of service.

I’ve always been an empath and a student of energy. I learned the metaphysics, the astrology, the mystics, the old masters. I only started to understand it at a cellular level when I began working as a public librarian 15 years ago, and I could actually use and see these principles in action. The law of attraction. The power of intention. Energy dynamics.

I’ve had to put myself out there, and also protect myself from the psychic baggage. Working with the public is a full contact sport, and can take its toll if you let it. So much heartbreak, poverty, and mental illness. And yet – so much hope, so many new beginnings and bright futures. I developed a deep empathy for the people I served as a librarian. I often see what they do not see in themselves.

Inspired many years ago, I wrote about the concept of “radical empathy” in a library setting, about going beyond basic public service and embracing the magic of it. I came to view the transaction between me and my patrons as a sacred thing. Radical empathy meant that I would do whatever I could do in that moment to help the person in front of me. I would bend rules, make exceptions, and leave it all on the field for them.  It doesn’t mean I didn’t say “no” to people, or hold them accountable. It means that I looked for ways to say “yes”, as often as possible. I tried to “pay it forward” every day.  Small acts of kindness can go a long way towards healing the world, I believe, and it starts with each of us.

So what does radical empathy mean for myself, as a writer?  I think it means talking nice to myself and having faith that the journey is just as important as the outcome. My health scare this past year has me on a lot of down time, away from people, learning, writing, healing and thinking. It’s become clear to me: the work I do comforts people, and that is where I find my joy – in their comfort.  I’m a healer, and I am a writer. The nurturing, the holding and comforting and guiding people towards their truths – that feels natural to me.

But the writing is hard. Much harder. It doesn’t come natural. The feelings I feel are often difficult to put into words. But, I am compelled to write, even obligated. Maybe that is where radical empathy starts: finally acknowledging what I already know to be true and holding myself accountable. I am a healer of souls and a writer of truths, and my higher purpose is to serve people through those efforts. To deny it any longer would be the greatest failure of my life.

Aside from digging my teeth into this one book I’m writing, I’ve denied myself being a writer for years. The last thing I had published was in the 8th grade.  I fear judgment, I think. I was brought up to be a worker, not an artist or creator, and overcoming that mindset is a constant battle.

But, the impulse to write keeps escaping, – through journals, through letters, through writing projects dreamed and then abandoned. I can write 50-page academic papers in my sleep, but my own stories never seemed worthy.  I struggle with focus. Too many ideas. Not enough action.  I struggle with believing that anyone would want to read what I have to say. Am I even doing it right?

And then it seems that I need a platform, I need a blog, I need an agent, I need a message.

It all feels overwhelming.

My friend Sam tells me that I should just start. Don’t over-think all that.  Document everything and share what you know. The message will appear as you keep going, he says. The important thing is to start sharing.

I know enough about metaphysics to know that he speaks the truth.  He’s actually done it, published and connected with people in the spirit of service, and he is sharing what he knows with me. As a librarian, sharing what I know is the whole point.  Sharing is action, action is forward motion. Sharing is where the magic is.

So, I’ll share with you what I know about embarking on a creative life and writing a memoir, while I’m actually writing the memoir. I’ll share my process and progress in hopes that you, too, will find your truth. Maybe it’s writing, maybe it’s not. But whatever it is, you can create it.

Pay it forward. Radical empathy. Kindness. Magic. Those are my principles.

This book will get done. This book will be published. I am a writer. 

That is my dream.

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