Online Personas: Who Do You Want to Be?

Sorry it’s been so quiet around here for a while. I’ve been having deep and meaningful thoughts, I assume. Mostly, I’ve been trying to figure out what direction I’m going in now that the world has changed again and I need to change with it. I’ve been getting pretty burned out as a copywriter for a long time, and although I’m pretty good at it, it doesn’t often spark joy anymore.

I’ve been taking the dogs on a lot of long walks and we’ve had a lot of very lengthy one-sided discussions about what might actually spark joy instead. And joy, as a writer, is a relative thing. You have to kind of hate yourself to do this job, there’s no denying that. That’s the only way I can possibly explain all the ways we allow people to tear us up on the daily without going on rampages.

But all this soul-searching took a secondary turn, since as a writer, I’m a semi-public figure, and that means I need a reasonably active online persona. I asked the dogs who I would be in this phase of my life. How would the public see me?

Pulling Back the Curtain on the Online Persona

If you’ve been following my work for a while, you know that my online persona has been reasonably stable through the last decade or so. I’ve led you along the many little paths and adventures that I’ve taken, we’ve shared horrible puns and Dad jokes, I’ve given you armloads of insects to consider, we’ve memed it up like a fiend. My life has been laid bare for the world to poke at.

I don’t recommend this. 

When I was first forming this online persona, it was early in the days of social media, when the platforms were largely used for sharing photos of breakfast and pets. It was a simpler time, really. It was ok to just be unabashedly yourself because social media wasn’t so pervasive that it filled every nook and cranny until they burst from the stuffing.

Realistically, rewriting my own online persona is probably impossible at this point, and that’s ok. You can tell how long it’s been around simply by the fact that it exists as my main account, not on a business page or other kind of dedicated page. THEY DIDN’T REALLY HAVE THOSE WHEN I STARTED DOING THIS.

But I think it’s important to talk about this for those of you just getting started, or who have seen a hard reset and may be considering starting over entirely. Because I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I have a lot of regrets and some days I literally hate social media with all my being. But because I’m a writer, it’s also a vital tool in my arsenal… 

Tips for Your Online Persona

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve made some pretty serious mistakes when establishing my online persona. I’m also not embarrassed to let you use me as a lesson in what not to do when you’re setting yourself up as a person in the public eye. So, without further ado…

1. Decide where your boundaries lie. This is not a thing to ignore or just kind of decide on the fly. I set zero boundaries in the beginning and threw my life wide open to my readers. When I was a local newspaper columnist, this really bit me hard on the ass. I’d have people stop me when I was shopping to ask about this or that, to give me wholly unsolicited feedback on my personal life, and feel entirely entitled to my time and my life. I came to feel like I had nothing that was just mine… and that’s not a feeling I would suggest anyone should accept, no matter how green you are at persona management.

2. Cleanly designate the things you’ll keep for yourself. This is the main reason to have a public and a private social media account. You deserve to have things that are your own. If you don’t have things that are your own, you’re going to eventually lose your shit and go hide in a cave indefinitely. If, like me, you’ve managed to mangle the line, it’s time to seriously consider a life-ectomy. Either establish a new account for your personal life or one for your work life. If that’s not looking possible, use filters to designate what things your actual friends will see. Those are the things that are just for you and your actual pals.

3. Work hard to steer people to a business-type page. Not only will you get much better analytics, you’re going to have a chance to bisect your life with a business page. Sure, your actual friends may also want to follow your career, and God love ‘em if they do. Sure, your fans may become actual friends at some point (this is a chronic problem for me), and they can still join the party otherwise when you feel like it’s time. But regardless, try to place priority on your business page so you can get the extra detail and control you don’t have with your current online persona. However, know that this may take months or years to fully accomplish, depending on how long your account has been around.

The Other Question: Who Do You Want to Be?

The other question is still hanging in the air, isn’t it? Who do you want to be on social media? You can be anyone, as it turns out, and some people certainly milk that. As a writer, honestly, I recommend you just be yourself. Maybe a bit of an idealized version of yourself is ok, people don’t need to know about your crushing anxiety and self-loathing – but still more or less yourself.

Why? 

Well, I’ve long believed it’s much easier to tell the truth than to weave a complicated, albeit beautiful, lie. The truth will set you free and all of that. Be who you are, just remember that people are constantly watching, so maybe you want to keep a few secrets for yourself. 

Spoilers and all of that.

The Value in a Body of Work

I know I’m getting to this blog about two weeks too late, but life has been life lately, and for that I don’t apologize.  Today I learned a friend who meant a great deal to me has shed this mortal coil for whatever comes next.  I’m not a deeply religiously committed person, but I do believe there is more to this world than what we can see.  And whatever comes next, Emily is certainly there enjoying all the wonders it has to offer.

Her death was sudden.  It was without symbolism.  It was simple and unexpected.

We’ve lost plenty of members of our writing community over the years… some who have been like family, some maybe closer.  And every time one leaves us, I look inward and ask myself the same question.  Always the same question.  Will my body of work mean anything when I’m gone?

Does It Have to Mean Anything?

There is so much in this world that matters.  The extra large tip you left your server on her worst day this month, the time you held the door for the exhausted new mother, the simple joys of sharing stupid jokes over drinks with friends.  But for us, for writers, our entire careers stretch out before us, in all directions and for the absolute entire world to see.

When we’re gone, that’s all that’s left of us, really.  That’s our proof that we existed.  Those words.  Those little shards of soul we sprinkle everywhere.

When I’m gone, will anyone care about the thousands of articles I’ve written on plant care and insect control?  Will they marvel at the reporting I’ve done for small, local newspapers?  Will they notice and remark upon my clever business and financial insight?  Will anything I’ve done matter?

Or will it all become yet another blip in the history of the internet?  Fast, fleeting, cheap, and lost under the next shiny thing?

I know that I am just one of a throng of writers that create the virtual world we all inhabit.  I am just another dreamer, spinning a new dream.  This week it might be changing your car’s clock and next week it might be about hot real estate buys, but they’re all someone’s dreams.  Dreams of Efficiency and Practicality.  

Eat that, Blake.

Eventually, It’s All Just Noise

One of the things you have to realize about this job, about this existence, is that it’s all just noise in the end.  It doesn’t matter if you’re William Shakespeare or William Bradberry.  It’s all just noise in the end.  Your body of work doesn’t matter – not really – to the grander scheme of things.  You are just a cog in the machine.

Only a rare few of us achieve actual fame and glory.  The rest of us live in a strange gray zone where people we know think we’re famous, people we meet HOPE we’re famous, and everybody else could care less if they pissed on us in an alley.  

And it’s ok.  It is.  

Your career will ebb and flow through various shades of gray notoriety.  It’s still just a job, after all.  Anybody can do it if they put in the work.

To Be Truly Remembered…

There’s only one secret to really being remembered.  It’s not a word count, it’s not a list of publications, it’s not bylines by the bushel.

It’s simply this:  You should be kind.

My friend Emily was exceptionally kind.  She was a beautiful person trapped in an ugly world.  She gave everything to those people around her and embraced everyone as family, without hesitation.  She was a harbor for the outcast.  She liked to say she was everyone’s Auntie Em.  It was true.  So true.  And as I sit here writing this, I realize that’s really what she will be remembered for.

Her body of work will be her unending acts of kindness.  Those are things that change the world for the better.  Those are the things that matter.

For all I’ve done, for all I’ve accomplished in this relatively obscure field we have chosen, I will never accomplish half of what Em did by simply being herself.  I have far too much catching up to do at this point.

If you want to truly achieve immortality, don’t look to your work.  Look to your deeds.  Look at how you treat people.  How you work with others.  How you influence young writers, even.

Kindness is everything.  Kindness is what lingers long after we’re gone, not these words we put on the page.

You should be kind.  The rest will flow.  Your body of work isn’t your legacy, remember that.  

It’s just a job.

Dwelling in Doubt

“When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” ~Herman Wouk

If you know any writers personally, or you are one yourself, you already know that we’re a faithless bunch.  We live in a whirlwind of doubt – and for good reason.  When the world’s eyes are on you, how could you not?  How could you not feel small and powerless?

I realized this morning that this is why I’ve been struggling so much with work lately.  You may have heard there was a bit of a weather event a couple of weeks ago, and while that did throw me off my schedule, being thrown off my schedule kind of threw me off my game.  It’s no small feat to stay ahead of the doubt that mounts with every keystroke.

In fact, it’s kind of like riding a very angry, carnivorous buffalo.  I imagine.  I don’t know any personally, so this is purely speculation.  But if something would both consume me and trample my bones, I’d be pretty damn afraid of it and would do all I could to hold on to the scruffy brown hair on its back.

Why We Dwell in Doubt

It’s the easiest thing in the world to be convinced you can’t do a thing.  It is.  It’s basically idle mode for your brain.  You don’t have to move or think or breathe, just coast.  Don’t mistake me, sometimes you literally need to coast for a bit to allow yourself a break.  It’s when you coast while telling yourself, however subtly, that you are the worst that trouble starts.  

For me, doubt piles upon doubt when I’m not sleeping (this is a regular problem) or when I’m suddenly overwhelmed with deadlines.  It piles so deep I can’t see a way out.  It gets so deep I’m sure I’m drowning.

And after this many years of writing for a living, honestly, there are times when I just want to succumb to it.  I want to let the undertow pull me under and put an end to it all.  Not that I have a better career option once I allow the big universal bathtub plug come loose, but I’ll never deny I’ve had moments of temptation.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to want to be a writer.

It seems so romantic, so cerebral, so special.

But the truth is that it’s really just production line work performed in your brain.  There’s nothing magical there.  It’s a skill like any other.  You can learn to write, anyone can learn to write, and at a level that will get them paid.  

This doesn’t mean I’ve not dedicated a good 35 years of my life to mastering the language, much like a blacksmith would spend a good 35 years banging iron.  My point is that it’s not what you think.  It’s not magic.

But the fact that you think it is – you, my dear, simple readers – makes me want it to be magic.  It makes me want to always have the right words, every time, no matter what.  When I’m sick, when the world around me is burning, when we’re in the middle of a pandemic that has left all of us on a lubed up treadmill, all I want is to breathe magic into your world.

The truth, though, is that words are words, and while I know how to make them dance a bit, they’re not magic.  And because of this, and because of how much you believe they should be, I dwell in doubt.

Doubt is an Illusion

I know I should never tell you this.  Pulling back the curtain on the fear and self-loathing and utter lack of belief in my ability to really do right by you isn’t helping.  But owning those feelings, being totally honest about them and where they come from, that’s the only way forward.

I doubt my ability to really do justice to the words you trust me with, day in and day out.  I doubt that I can really meet your expectations.  I doubt – and it ruins my ability to actually do justice to your publications and websites.

The thing we all have to realize, writer or not, is that doubt is an illusion.  It’s a trick we play on ourselves to make us think that we really, truly are the worst and we deserve all the bad things.

You don’t deserve the bad things.  I don’t deserve the bad things.  We don’t deserve the bad things.

So, how do we get out of this hall of mirrors, where doubt seems to be everywhere?  Well, we gotta smash a lot of glass.  Obviously.  

Glass Smashing Tips

If you arrived at this blog post using a search for smashing windows, I’m gonna just go ahead and tell you that you’re not in the right place.  I’m not at all talking about smash and grabs.  But I’m also not NOT talking about that sort of thing, so you just take that as you will…

As for those metaphorical mirrors (you know how much I like metaphors and fun houses), it does get easy to get turned around with the poor lighting and reflective surfaces, so really, the best option is just to smash them until you’ve gotten out.  Besides, breaking glass is pretty cathartic.

Wait.  I have a side story.  Hold on.  So, I know a writer who literally smashes glass when she gets plugged up.  Oh yeah.  You know those China sets you donated to Goodwill when your grandmother passed?  She buys those.  And when things aren’t going so great, she smashes the shit out of them.  Sometimes she uses a hammer, sometimes she just throws them against a wall.  Sometimes she probably uses her hands.  This chick is savage.

Actual glass breaking aside, which may be plenty to get you out of your funk, I got some tips here for breaking those mental fun house mirrors.

  1. Do something you know you can succeed at.  I know I’ve offered this advice many, many times for various sorts of situations, but it works.  It works for everything.  But it especially works for doubt.  When your inner critic is telling you that you can’t possibly succeed, doing something you absolutely know you can nail is proof positive that you can do the thing.  Whatever it is.  I’m not here to judge you.
  2. Work from easiest to hardest.  If your doubt is slowing work down, start with the easiest thing and work your way up.  If you’ve got a pile of churn and burns that no one cares about besides the SEO factor, do those first.  Knock ‘em out.  Nobody reads those anyway, not really.  Google isn’t that harsh of a critic.  Then do the stuff for real people.
  3. Give yourself a pep talk.  The truth is that I can give you pep talks all day long and it won’t really matter.  I mean, not really.  You’ll assume I don’t have the whole story, I don’t actually know how awful you are, how much you’ve hidden from view.  I know because I do this.  All the time.  And I know about two people who can pull me through these, but I also know I can’t always lay this shit on them.  That’s why I try to give myself a pep talk.  After all, I’m the one person I can’t hide from… and if *I* think I can do the thing, well, maybe it’s possible.
  4. Get some exercise.  Look, I’m not for sunning your perineum or any of that shit the kids do these days, but I do know that exercise is an incredible stress reliever.  Learn to box or pick up a martial art, go for a run, swim, walk your damn dog, escape reality in a kayak, whatever tickles your interests.  Sometimes the doubt falls away when the anxiety does.  Winter makes me a hot mess of emotions because they get all trapped in there together, along with cabin fever.  Exorcise your demons by exercising your demons.  Get it?  I’m hilarious.

I know self-loathing gives you a chance to really indulge in all the moroseness that’s supposed to inhabit every writer in their lives.  It gives you a dark, intense level of self-deprecation that’s hardly possible to reach in any other way.  It’s all black and brooding, because no one understands your artist vision or some shit.

The truth is that we’re no different than anybody else.  We just have a weird job.  We get into funks and ruts and we want to run away to the cheese factory to escape it.  But even the guys at the cheese factory can dwell in doubt, remember that.  The cheese factory is no real solution.  The only way out of a doubt prison is to go smashy smashy.

Waterworth Writes: Getting Back on Track

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you know I generally publish on Tuesday, which, by all accounts, was yesterday.  I know this because I own a calendar.  My phone is backing the calendar up, so I’m inclined to accept this as fact.  It is, indeed, Wednesday.  And I am late.

I used to have a very anally retentive, stick-up-the-ass attitude about this: I am late, therefore I am a walking disaster.  

But, I learned a lot of things in 2020.  I learned that life is unpredictable, events are sometimes unexpected, and you can really only ever do your best.  Do I still want to make these deadlines?  Of course.  Do I punch myself in the eye when I don’t?  Nah, just a bit in the arm, where no one can see.

I am still learning to give myself grace and to accept it from others.  

I’m not perfect.  In fact, I’m excessively imperfect.  But I’m trying, and I think that’s really all there is.  If you fail a lot, well, no one is going to count on you for anything, but if you fail here and there, I think that’s just part of being alive.  Or that’s what living through a global health crisis has taught me, anyway.

Getting Back on Track: The How To Edition

Writers like me, formerly anal and now a little less so, have a serious skill to master in order to achieve proper ascendency.  That would be just how to put the wheels back on the car without making an ass of yourself.  I know you’re there.  I’m you, remember?

It does you no good to waste time sniveling, begging for forgiveness, or otherwise lowering yourself for a job that hates you and would replace you in an instant if it weren’t so damn expensive and unpredictable to hire new writers.  All you can do is grow some self-esteem and move forward.

I’m gonna walk you through this like you’re a child.  Please take notes.

  1. Assess Your Surroundings.  So, you’ve woken up in a plague-riddled snow-bound Hellscape?  The first thing you’ve got to do is get your bearings.  Is your client located in an affected area?  If so, they’re far more likely to understand your predicament.  If not, you need to gather supplies and form a strategy to get your feet back underneath you sooner rather than later.
  2. Send an Email.  You can do this from your phone, so there’s zero excuse to not be in contact if you’re about to fuck up, or have already fucked up and are trying to get your life back on track.  Shoot your client an email.  Explain the situation without being a soft-jawed, simpering cretain.  Just the facts.  Look, there are 100 inches of snow, frozen zombies have shut my power off, and I have to deal with this.  I’ll be back in touch ASAP.
  3. Redefine Expectations.  Depending on how that email went, it’s a good idea to redefine their expectations.  They thought you’d be delivering on Thursday by 4?  HAHAHAHAHAHA.  No, really, though, that’s hilarious.  Instead, tell them there’s no way that’s happening, given the zombie situation and how winter is actually here, rather than just coming, and although things are twitchy today, you anticipate that delivery by the following Thursday may be possible.  Do not commit wholly if reality is slippery, and if you must, give yourself ample time to really fuck up, because it’s bound to get worse.
  4. Take Care of Life Stuff.  Life Stuff is in the way right now.  It’s plugging up your writing pores.  You can’t think around it, let alone attempt to describe all the greatest features of a certain vehicle manufacturer’s latest line of subcompact cars.  You need room in your head.  You can get this by dropping the writing stuff and taking care of the shit that’s immediately in the way.  Go shotgun those ice zombies.  Call an electrician to repair the damage they left behind.
  5. When the Dust Settles, Find Your Calm.  Calm is the key to writing.  No one can create effective words if their brains are mad with chaos.  I know, because my brain is often full of bees.  The trick is to let the bees relax a bit after you’ve done all the running about, then write as hard as you can go.  You can catch up, you can find that vibe, but you have to start with some peace.  When the bees are sweetly purring, rather than angrily buzzing, you’re good to go.
  6. Make Them Words, Bitch.  This is the last and most important step.  Falling asleep at your desk, near a keyboard, is not the same as actually working.  Write the words.  Write with abandon.  Write glamorous things about those subcompact cars, make them the best little bitty teeny cars in the world.  Dance across the keys.  And for fuck’s sake, don’t stop until you’re ready to drop because that peace can be hard to find.

Life is a Series of Constant Derailments and Setbacks

Look, I don’t want to sound like an asshole here, but the truth is that life is just a series of derailments and setbacks.  There’s other stuff, but there’s a lot of these.  Anyone who hasn’t experienced either hasn’t really lived, so you might want to check them for a pulse.  Real life, where people exist, is just a pile of challenges and experiences you’re not really sure you want to have, but you get to have them anyway.  Life doesn’t so much march forward as it thrusts you into the unknown on a conveyor belt.

And sometimes, work gets caught up in that shit.  And it sucks.  It really does.  You only have two real options when you get off track: you can give up or you can straighten your shit and show back up.  You can do your best and hope people recognize it.  And if they don’t, poke around until you find someone who does.  Most people are assholes who don’t know the good stuff when they see it anyway.

In the immortal words of Chumbawamba, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.  You are never gonna keep me down.”  However, they were also exceptionally intoxicated in the lyrics of that song, so your mileage may vary.

This Writing Life: Snow Angels and Demons

Today is February 15, 2021.  It’s President’s Day and it’s also the day after Valentine’s Day (aka. Discount Candy Day).  My home in the Ozarks, much like homes across the middle west and into the southeast and Texas, is experiencing unprecedented weather.

It’s cold as balls.  

There’s a lot of snow.  

This is very unfashionable.

I’ve spent much of my day making sure we’re ready for minus 11 degree Fahrenheit weather.  Yes. I said minus.  If you live where polar bears raid your garbage cans, this probably isn’t all that impressive, but my bears are brown and it rarely dips much below freezing here.  Minus 11 is a bit of a whole thing.

Today, we learned a new phrase: “rolling blackouts.”  As someone who has spent her entire life experiencing the abundance and softness of the lower flyover states, first understanding, and then accepting, the idea of my electricity being switched on and off all day just to keep the power grid from imploding has been an experience.

The entire city is basically at a stand still.  We’re facing some snow demons.  Actual snow.  And polar bear weather.

But, despite how worried I am about my house and my plumbing, and the fact that I now have two cats to consider along with the three dogs (what the fuck was I even thinking?) should the power go out in all of this, I’m finding a few snow angels, too.

Facing the Unforeseen

Facing the unforeseen is one of those things that dates us, I think.  Mental flexibility that stays intact as we age gives us a sort of foolish youthfulness that often is characterized with three words: “hold my beer.”

Sometimes we need a “hold my beer” moment, though.  Working in the media, for example, is an irregular string of unforeseen moments.  Take last week, for example.

I went to log in to the Motley Fool to do my work, like ya do.  I had a whole bunch of articles to write, I had JUST been to a writer’s meeting where we discussed content strategy for MARCH.  So, when I was greeted with a message saying the entire project was being scrapped, and the wee free writers of the Blueprint were to be set off on an ice floe, it was a shock to say the least.

But, this is media work for you.  This is why we write until our fingers bleed while there’s work to be had.  You can’t ever predict a house cleaning, you can only ride the wave and hope you don’t drown in it.

The writers whose minds have become more like stone will inevitably use this as their opportunity to exit the madness of our chosen field, only to drive an Uber or bag groceries for life, since we have no truly marketable skills.  

The rest of us will have a series of “hold my beer” moments as we fling ourselves wildly at anyone we think we stand a chance of working with successfully.  We’ll do whatever we have to in order to get the attention we need to amplify the Available Writer signal.  

We will make asses of ourselves in the doing and not care that we did.

This is The Writing Life

This is what we sign on for, and why so many people drop out of this profession.  We’re cogs in a giant media machine that really couldn’t give two shits if we rise or fall.  And we have no illusions that anyone cares about us – after all, we live a life where our most meaningful interactions with people are often the most critical.

Our job is to be criticized.  I don’t care what anyone tells you, this is really the heart of the thing.  

A writer who is absolutely clever, lovely, and never commits a single typo still won’t be worth their salt if they can’t stare down a million critics aiming their angry beams all at the same point.  This is probably why we’re so screwed up.  Or maybe we have to be pretty screwed up to accept this kind of behavior.  

I’m not sure, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, really.

We’re masters of trauma and insufficiency and a general lacking in warm fuzzies.  I used to not believe this, but I’m getting older and fatter and I see more of the world as it is, not as I’d have it be.

I once had a poetry professor who told the class that (and I will never forget this) he envied people with clinical depression because it gave them a place to draw from.  I still think that’s a pretty screwed up thing to say to a bunch of college sophomores, but nobody asked me.  At the same time, though, he was on to something.  This is a life that’s all about getting knocked down, professionally speaking.

But there’s a thing Dr. Cafagna left out, and it’s a big one.  This is also a life of extreme resilience.  Imagine being told at 9 AM that you’re the dumbest piece of shit that ever walked the planet and still being expected to make a 3 PM deadline.  That’s a pretty normal day for some of us, depending on who we work for.  

(For the record, The Motley Fool was never like this, it was an incredibly supportive environment – so much so I was constantly on guard for the other shoe to drop.  The harshest thing anyone said to me there was that they’d prefer I didn’t put things in parenthesis.  Seriously.  It was divine.)

Writing and Snow Angels

I know you’re wondering what the fuck I’m on about here.  I’m getting to that.  Or I think I am.

This has been a kind of dodgy weekend, full of new things that we never expected.  Fuel shortages (who even knew a natural gas well could freeze?), rolling black outs, roads that are too cold to be safely cleared, polar bears raiding the bins.  It’s mortifying to anyone who’s experiencing it.  But we get to choose how we respond.

We can be rigid (and now frozen) because God knows we’ve never had to do this before and we refuse to accept what it takes to get everybody to safety.  We can be flexible and absorb the potshots the weather is taking at us and bounce the fuck back with a plan for moving forward.  

We get to choose.  Every day.

Don’t misunderstand me – not every day is going to be perfect.  We’re going to have days where we forget we can choose and instead get stuck in sorrow.  We’re going to have days where that criticism laser beam is too hot and burns a hole right through us.  But if most days we can pick ourselves up and move to the next thing, life becomes so much more.

More what?  Just so much more.  More nothing.  More everything.  More.  Snow angels and snow demons.

That’s today.  

I know it’s terrifying.  I know we’re facing a tricky change-up, but we can all take a deep breath, ask our pals to hold our beers as we fling ourselves forward screaming “GERONIMO!”  That’s what friends are for, after all.

As a writer, you’re going to face a lot of this sort of unexpected polar bear in the bins stuff.  You’re going to have things blow up in your face.  People aren’t going to like you.  People are going to love you.  And it’s all going to be so fucking confusing at times that your head and your heart and your brain suffer from severe whiplash.

This is the job.  It’s not easy, that’s why no one does it.  But it’s not easy, and sometimes I think that’s why we do it.  Maybe we’re emotionally damaged, but maybe we just like eating out of frozen garbage bins.

Are You Playing the “What If” Game?

This has been an impressively odd 365 days.  For anyone living, they’re unprecedented.  They’re without any sort of comparison point to draw conclusions or use as a way to predict what’s coming next.  Even the experts among us have no fucking clue what’s going on.  With all that said, it gets really easy to play the “What If” game, which is one Hell of a trap.

The “What If” Game: An Introduction

The “What If” game is one of my favorite anxiety-related pastimes.  Basically, I sit in a room and I wonder what would have happened if I’d made different decisions.  What if I’d never left my home in the Ozarks and moved to Texas?  What if I’d run off the UK to meet my cousins when I was a teenager?  What if I’d gone to a different college?  You get the point.  There are so many things you can do this with.

In short, it’s a really deliciously tempting way to torture the fuck out of yourself.  It can even come in much less dramatic packages, like “What if I’d started working a bit earlier today?”  What if?  WHAT IF YOU HAD?

You’ll know you’re playing the “What If” game if you’re ruminating over things that you literally can’t change.  You’re playing at a pro level if you’re ruminating over things literally NO ONE could have changed.  

Gold star to you, my friend.

Why We Play

The “What If” game is simple.  It’s easy.  It’s a way to look at those things we regret and try to magically wish a different choice into existence.  But it can also be about anxiety due to our current surroundings.  I’m seeing a lot of people playing it these days, more than usual.  And the whole world is on fire, so it’s understandable.  Which is why I’m writing this damn blog to begin with.

The “What If” game is all your hopes and dreams and fears and regrets bundled up in one single, heart-wrenching exercise.  “What If” is hard.  It’s one of the hardest things, whether we recognize it or not.  Sometimes it feels like a bit of an innocent exercise.  “What If” I’d gone to prom with this one instead of that one?  It’s an innocent question, but the implications are actually enormous, especially when you’re 20+ years beyond the Junior Prom.

We play it for wish fulfillment, but in a way that’s really not healthy.  You can’t undo those decisions you’ve made, no matter how much you may want to.  You can only move forward and, if by some incredible stroke of luck that fella you wish you’d have taken to the prom happens to be single and receptive, well, maybe you get another chance.  But you don’t get to erase the rest.  It’s still there.  It’s still part of your story.  The past didn’t change, only the future is affected… like regular time stuff.

Disrupting the “What If” Game

The healthiest thing you can do when the “What If” game starts playing on autopilot is to disrupt it.  I mean, just catch that shit on fire and throw it out the door to smolder in the yard like some kind of demonic kitchen experiment.  There are a lot of mental tricks I use for this, none work all the time, and the “What Ifs” that are the nearest and dearest to my heart are always the hardest to overcome.  Those Big Regrets (™) are the worst.  They’ll cripple the strongest man.

But, here are some things you can try.

Think about puppies.  Really, think about anything pleasant.  When I’m in an MRI, I think about bunnies in a lavender meadow with a big white-capped mountain in the distance.  Pour all your focus into that shape, fill in all the details, give it depth and breadth to the point that there’s nothing left for “What If.”

Phone a friend.  Look, we all play the “What If” game, even if your buddies are too afraid to admit it.  These are times when we need to lean into each other and lay it all bare.  One of my “What Ifs” is about my son, who died in utero in my 20s.  I never really talk about it openly, but it haunts me.  What if he’d lived?  He’d be a teenager now.  But he didn’t, so sometimes I have to take that raw emotion to my good pals and ask for their help carrying it away.  It’s not about forgetting.  It’s about being unable to change the past and accepting that over and over.

Do something highly engaging.  What’s engaging is going to vary based on your interests, but if you can find something that’s engrossing and will fill up all your thoughts, you’ll find that “What If” floating away from you.  Before you know it, you’ll have forgotten you even asked the question of yourself.  You’ll just be so busy knitting a sweater or running a mile or digging a hole in your garden for… reasons… that it’ll move along.

Act on it.  Oh, woah.  Who put that here?  Musta been me.  Sometimes those “What Ifs” are regrets.  And sometimes it’s ok to act on regrets.  You can’t fix them, as such, but you can do what you can to make amends.  You can call the kid you bullied in school and apologize.  You can buy a plane ticket to Aruba (well, at some point you can) and make that decision right this time.  

You can sometimes do something to change your “What If” point.  What if you had gone to school to be a doctor?  Go enroll in night school and get started.  What if you’d bought a red car instead of a blue one?  Trade that bastard in.  Sometimes actions are cathartic.  Sometimes they let us shed regrets by shining lights on the choices we didn’t make so we understand the choices we did make better.

No One Wins the “What If” Game

Nobody wins at the “What If” game.  You can use it as a motivator to accomplish things you wish you would have done, but you can’t change a lot of the things that people “What If” about.  For me, it’s more of an exercise in accepting where I am in life and, when I can, looking at ways to move from that spot to the spot where I think I’d rather be, in a realistic and healthy fashion.

Just, whatever you choose to do with it, don’t dwell in that headspace.  It’s a terrible, soul-sucking part of the world.  It’ll take everything from you if you linger.  Choose an action and move forward.  Ignore it and continue on your path.  Either answer is the right answer.  There’s no “What Ifs” when handling the “What If” game.

What I Learned From Larry King

I know he’s been gone a few days now, but the passing of Larry King actually hit me kind of hard.  See, Larry King was that kind of interviewer that all journalists should want to aspire to be, but a lot can’t understand it in their hot and fiery youths.  

He was a light touch, he had a reputation for being friendly and engaging, but the opposite of the bulldog every young journo wants to be.  They want to go for the hard questions right out of the gate, then bulldog as hard as they can until their prey (the person being interviewed) is exhausted and simply gives in to a well-earned pummelling.

But the truth about interviewing is a lot different than that.  The real nuts and bolts of the art of asking questions are subtlety and negotiation.  This is something Larry King understood that one of the heroines of my youth, Barbara Walters, did not.  Babs was a bulldog, she never let go.  But as I’ve gotten older, and wiser, and more tired, I’ve come to understand that bulldogging isn’t the way.

This is what I learned from Larry King.  Even though I didn’t come across him until late in my training years, he profoundly changed the way I approached everything.

The Edge Larry King Brings

The last thing most people will think of when they hear the name “Larry King” is edge.  He was a man full of round corners and soft spots.  He was the guy you’d grab a beer with, not the guy you wanted to try to nail some of the toughest enemies of the United States.  He wasn’t the king of “gotcha journalism.”  The man was a whisper.

And for the longest time, I couldn’t understand the power of a whisper.  

You see, the thing about a whisper is that it can silence a room.  It can make the most brutal man lower his voice and listen, if only for a moment, because he might miss something important.  

It’s easy to scream.  It’s so, so easy.  It’s the hardest thing in the world to whisper when you’re not sure you’ll be heard.

But a whisper can stop everything.  It can invite people to come closer, to listen carefully, to drop their defenses.  It can change the world.

And Larry was a whisper.  He came in gently, he was kind and friendly and considerate.  And even so, he asked tough questions, but in an incredibly gentle way.

Larry wasn’t a bulldog, he wasn’t the kind of reporter I imagined I’d grow to be.  He was a whisper, he was space for those people being interviewed to breathe.  There’s a lot of power in being that person.  People open up unexpectedly.  They surprise themselves with their candor sometimes.

All the strength and aggression a bulldog brings to an interview is nothing by comparison to a whisper.  Whispers change everything.

How I Became a Whisper

I didn’t understand Larry’s methods at first.  I thought there was no earthly way that anyone could get to the bottom of a tough interview with so much measured patience.  I couldn’t see what he was doing, even though looking at it now, it was absolutely the most brilliant position possible for a journalist to adopt.

It wasn’t until I was a real reporter (albeit at a small local paper) that it really started to click.  Hounding people got me nowhere.  It was frustrating for me, it was infuriating for them, it just didn’t work – I had no idea how any of the absolutely legendary bulldogs succeeded that way.  But Larry… he could get anyone to talk to him about anything, it seemed.

So, I started listening more than talking.  

I tried to become a whisper.  

And it was funny, because suddenly people were telling me things they’d never told anyone, or family stories that hadn’t been shared in a generation, or things they had forgotten until we were chatting.  Becoming a whisper gave me a whole new way to understand people and to understand what it really meant to be a local reporter.

When I became a whisper, I hit journalistic Nirvana.  I started teasing stories out of the hardest nuts to crack.  It was like a miracle.  And all because I whispered and I didn’t scream.

You Can Become a Whisper, Too

I know a lot of non-journalists read these columns.  After all these years, I think I have a pretty good feel for who’s coming to look, and I hope you all know you’re appreciated.  This particular piece may have come from a place about my days as a reporter, but it’s a thing you can literally apply to your entire life.  You can become a whisper and get outstanding communication results as a consequence.

So, here’s how you do it.  And I can assure you, anyone can learn to be a whisper.  Anyone who knew me in my bulldog stage will likely tell you that I was about the last person they would have thought could change so dramatically.

  1. Listen very carefully.  Being a whisper means you’re saying less than you’re hearing.  It’s all about being very quiet, like a cloud floating by.  Hear everything, because when people know they’re being heard, they tend to speak more.  They’ll tell you things you never expected.  This is why Larry didn’t work with a real list of questions.  He knew he’d find threads to pull and follow if he only listened.
  2. Take up little space boldly.  There’s a difference between being a whisper and shrinking into the corner.  A whisper has size and shape and takes up the room it needs.  It just doesn’t need a lot of room to get the job done.  If you’re trying to shrink into a corner to be a whisper, you’re not there yet.
  3. It’s important to actively converse.  Active and natural conversation is important when you’re a whisper.  This is your main skill, in fact.  Rather than demanding information, you’re teasing it out.  Never interrupt, but do ask carefully chosen questions about things that come up, and use those to naturally control the conversation, moving it in the direction you need it to go.
  4. Be gracious.  Whispers are courtly.  Whispers understand and appreciate the trust a subject has put into their hands.  Whispers know that if they scold or use any kind of negative pressure, they’re going to lose all the trust they’ve built.  Be gracious.  Thank your source.  Keep your promises.  Hold tight to the secrets you swore you’d keep off the record.
  5. Open yourself up.  This may be the hardest part to gate keep.  Part of working in this way means being vulnerable.  But you can be vulnerable without overwhelming someone else with your problems.  If they bring up a subject that’s difficult and you’ve had a similar experience, it’s ok to say so.  Don’t make it about you, but ensure the subject understands that you do feel their pain on a very real level.  It’s not about you, it’s still about them, but being vulnerable builds trust.  And trust opens all kinds of doors if it’s real.

Live Your Life Like a Whisper

Since I learned the power of being a whisper, my whole life changed.  As you practice being a whisper professionally, you’ll start to become a whisper in real life, too.  This is tricky, to be sure, but it’s worth the heartache, I promise.  Protect yourself with some healthy boundaries, but become a whisper.  There’s no better way to achieve truly deep levels of intimacy with your friends and family members.  Trust is everything in this world, even today, and I don’t know a better way to reach it than to be a whisper.

Sleep Is For the Weak

You know what?  I’m just exhausted.  I was trying to come up with a good topic for this week, I’ve been beating my brain, but the truth is that for most of the last year, I’ve barely worked.  I just started back to full time writing a week or so ago and I’m so, so tired.  Regardless of what anybody may have told you, writing is actually a lot of work.

It might not be a lot of work in the same way that hauling lumber at a lumber yard is, or building a railroad is, or driving around all day chasing ambulances is, but it takes a lot out of the gray matter.  Sometimes it makes it hard to sleep, especially when there’s been too much information intake and no good place to let it wander free.

What Do You Do With an Exhausted Writer?

You can tell a writer who is exhausted by the errors they make.  Especially seasoned writers.  The dumber the mistakes, the more tired they almost certainly are.  The more painfully stupid the writing, the more painfully exhausted the writer.

For some assignments, being a bit punch drunk can work in your favor.  For example, I recently started with a publication that enjoys a lot of levity to be sprinkled in articles.  This works out well for me because the more tired I get, the more dumb jokes I tell.  To a point.  Today, right in this moment, I’m so tired that I can’t even summon up dumb jokes.

Getting back into the groove has been a challenge for me.  Since COVID started and before this new job, I was working upwards of about 10 hours a month, which isn’t a lot… it allowed my stupid gray matter to get all flabby and chunk-a-riffic.  I assume that, like my flabby and chunk-a-riffic body, my brain will snap back into shape if I just keep at it and try to give it enough rest while it goes through the process of trying to tear itself apart.

But right now, it’s goddamn tedious.  I can barely stay awake some days.  Other days I’m making incredibly bad financial decisions because After Dark Kristi has taken the wheel.  (If you aren’t familiar with After Dark Kristi, check out my Facebook account, where I have been regaling my followers with tales of her many stupid purchases… once in 2020 she filled the weekly grocery order with nothing but Tate’s Bake Shop cookies)

Despite it all, I’m somehow muddling through.  And since so many of you are still trying to get back to work, and get your kids back into the groove, I thought I’d talk about what it is that I’m doing to try to sort out my shit.

Safeguarding Against Your *ahem* Better Nature

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume you actually know yourself a bit.  I mean, it is truly an assumption because some people really don’t.  Some people think they do, but they get left alone in a room with themselves and it’s nothing but endless small talk about the weather.  If this is you, you have some work to do before you can complete the stuff I’m laying out, because you really should know yourself well enough to plan around your many lovely quirks.

I know that I’m a compulsive spender when I’m under severe stress.  I also know that I tend to buy really stupid things, so it’s not even productive spending.  Do I need ten gallons of chocolate pudding delivered in a small cement mixer?  OF COURSE I DO!  *click*

These are the stupid things I do.  Because I am, in fact, stupid.

But I’m getting smarter.  I’ve found ways to boobytrap myself so that After Dark Kristi doesn’t do quite so many stupid things to herself.  There are rules and protocols that I can generally get her to follow because she does tend to be a rules follower.  More so than Daylight Kristi is, if we’re being honest.

So I have some tricks to help reduce her ability to make stupid decisions without me.

  1. Always get a second opinion.  When After Dark Kristi is active, you may find yourself getting a random message from me asking you if you think that six hundred copper beads is a good investment.  Or if it makes sense to go bungee jumping off a whale.  These are questions reserved for my innermost circle, because they’re the only ones who really understand what a pain in my ass After Dark Kristi is and are willing to supervise.  They’ve been instructed to deny her every request and not enable purchase that sound like a 12 year old millionaire would make.
  2. Put stumbling blocks in place.  For me, it’s usually bad decisions that involve money.  This one must be pretty common, because there are lots of tools to help slow down this behavior, including basic stuff like PINs for purchases, and, my favorite, a delay in shipping on Amazon so I can review any purchases in the morning and cancel them.  If your After Dark behavior is something harder to train out, like eating cookies until you’re sick, you may have to just not buy cookies when you know you’re going into a rough spell.  Make it easy for yourself to succeed by making it hard for the behavior to take place.
  3. Have a checklist.  On the off-chance that After Dark Kristi is able to overcome my boobytraps, I have a checklist for her.  Usually she consults it.  Usually.  Because, as I mentioned above, she’s a rules follower, so I give her rules.  There are rules like no clicking “buy” after 8 PM, and being certain that you’ve got a purpose for the purchase before you make it (at least this way, there’s a shopping task completed, however oddly it may turn out).  She’s got a long checklist, and the maze it creates generally keeps her busy until she passes out.
  4. Sit on final decisions.  Sometimes I can’t cage the tiger, no matter what I do, but I can usually get her to leave a chosen item in a digital shopping cart until Daytime Kristi can review it.  Sometimes After Dark Kristi actually makes some good calls, and I let the transaction proceed.  Sometimes she puts $100 worth of licorice in a shopping cart and I have to give her that look.  The whole “you need to eat more vegetables” look.  You know the one.  

It might not be glamorous, this job, but it also doesn’t pay all that well, so I’ve got that going for me.  This week, like last week, I’m so flipping exhausted I can barely stand and am making a lot of poor decisions in my personal life.  I literally am not 100% sure what day it is, and not in that cute jokey “COVID Days” way.  

I also know this will be over sooner than I think right now.  It always is.

I get this same way when I start running again after an injury or a long cold ass winter.  I fight the fog for a couple of weeks, then I’m out the other end.  Today is a foggy day because my brain is exhausted.  But it’ll come back totally bloody ripped and then we can really get with the program.

Life is Fragile, But There’s Always Hope

As I sit here in silence, just moments after Joe Biden has delivered his Inauguration speech, I’m struck by what this week means for me personally.  You see, Monday was the nine year anniversary of my suicide attempt.  January 23rd will be the one year anniversary of my freedom ride.  It’s a big week, by anyone’s reckoning.

Generally, I try to write up something about suicide and mental health and reaching out in the darkness for this week, but I’ve been having a hard time forming it in my mind this year.  Not that suicide is any less serious or that it’s any less important to reach for a hand when you’re in trouble, but just… I don’t know.  It’s been a wild ride and there are so many more things I want to say than I think I have the capacity or the words for.

But also, Uncle Joe had a lot of things to say about unity and hope, and maybe that’s the real point here.  Maybe that’s what ties this week together.

A Lot of Anniversaries

I’m not generally one to celebrate every little date on the calendar, but there are some days that are burned on my soul.  Two of them live in this same week (three, now, I guess, if you wanna count the Inauguration).  They were both days when I was experiencing the depths of desperation.  Apparently I’m a bit dramatic, or maybe I just make a lot of mistakes… I’m not sure which.

Nine years ago, I tried to take my own life.  I’m not proud of it, but I’m also not ashamed of it, and since then, I’ve spent my time trying to help keep others from ending up in that same place.  It ultimately was due to a bad reaction to antidepressants, which I had just started (there’s a warning label now for that sort of thing), but I will never forget how out of control of my own mind I felt. 

I will never forget how so many people reached out to catch me in my darkest hour.

I will always owe those people my very life.  It could have gone a lot worse than it did.

This is why my door is always open for anyone who finds themselves stumbling in the dark.  I’m far from a professional, but I can listen, and I will nudge you toward the light.  That’s why I’m here.  I’m here to help.  

Saturday is another big one for me, though, and one I’ve not talked about before.  January 23 was the day I fled my marriage with nothing more than four dogs and a few bags of clothing.  Like with my suicide attempt, I am forever in debt to a whole lot of people who helped me in that desperate moment.  From the friends who are family that saw me to shelter to the judge who issued a three year protection order so I could get myself back to a place of peace and security.

These are all debts that can never be repaid, you understand.  They’re the kind you take to the grave.  But at the same time, they come from the simple kindnesses we owe one another as people.  When someone is in despair, we give them a hand.  When someone fears for their safety, we give them shelter.  It’s how we should behave as people, regardless of our beliefs.

Uncle Joe and the Hopey Changey Bits

Today as I listened to Uncle Joe deliver one of the most down-to-Earth and heart-felt speeches I’ve heard in some time from a politician, I was reminded of both of these huge acts of kindness.  And of the sheer number of people it took to help move me from the darkness into the light on both occasions.  

What we have ahead of us, as a nation, isn’t really any different.  We’re still fighting a pandemic, we’re trying very hard to learn to trust one another again after four years of living in a world turned upside down.  We’re traumatized, we’re battered, we’re so, so tired.  And that’s really just the sort of surface level of the situation.

But what I heard today was a call for unity.  A call for us to stand together.  To help one another.  To remember who we are as a family of people.  That we’re all important and that we all matter to one another.  Uncle Joe reminded us that when we don’t pull together, we pull apart.

And I don’t know about you, but there was no better message I could hear today, the day wedged solidly between two violent personal anniversaries.  I am a broken person; we are a broken nation – but we can all heal and see the light again.  

Everything is possible when we work together to elevate those who have the least and need the most help.

Today I have hope for America.  And I have hope for myself.  And I have hope for you.  And I have hope for everyone.  It’s a welcome feeling.

The Rituals By Which We Measure Time

As I sit here listening to the tapping of the keyboard like rain on a metal roof, I’m participating in one of many, many rituals in my daily life.  We all have them.  Get up, get a shower, eat breakfast, take your keys from the place they always hang, run out the door, go to work, punch the clock, attend your station, perform your duties – each step part of a ritual enacted and perfected by after day after day.

You may have noticed that I was unusually silent last week.

I wasn’t mad at you, I didn’t take off on an exciting whirlwind tour, what happened was quite mundane and profound.  You see, my rituals were thrown off by an unexpected power outage that created a chaos spiral.  On New Year’s Eve, we had a freak ice storm that pulled the branches of a very lovely pine tree down onto my power and internet cables, violently ripping them out of my house.

The effect was immediate.  Not only to my house, but to my psyche.  This isn’t the first time I’ve had to power through an ice storm, but the last one was something like 14 years ago, when I was considerably younger and far less reliant on comfortable sameness.  Comfortable sameness.  That phrase seems so… middle aged.  I never expected that I would embrace the march of time.

But in that chaotic pause, I was not too gently reminded how much rituals matter in my daily life, and I was determined that I would make a blog post about the whole thing.

Rituals in Writing, Rituals in Life

Writing, like so many other things in life, requires going into a specific sort of head space to properly accomplish.  Some writers need absolute silence, others, noise.  A few like myself need controlled dissonance to properly distract the demons that make it hard to focus.

We all have rituals that help lubricate the day.  There’s no sinnin’ in it.  There are valuable time management skills buried in daily rituals.  After all, if you don’t have to think about how to make the coffee or burn the pancakes, like you do every day, it speeds up the process.

I know a lot of writers who struggle with time management (myself included), but I’ve also learned a few tricks for overcoming my own misguided behavior over the years.  Rituals made such a difference for me.

If you don’t already have rituals to help automate some of the more basic parts of your day, it wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot.  I promise you don’t have to admit that you’re getting older and less spontaneous.  Just look at it as freeing up processing power for more important tasks, like searching the Internet for increasingly bizarre memes.

Establishing Useful Rituals (No Chanting Required)

One of the most important rituals for me is something I like to call “breaking the seal on the writing day.”  I don’t do this every day, because I don’t write every day, but I do it most days.  When I get a fresh new day, I have to start totally from scratch.  I can’t carry over the momentum from days before – I can’t even do that if I’m interrupted for an hour or so, if we’re being honest.  So, breaking the seal is kind of a big deal for me.  It’s become a bit of a ritual for my work life.

In that blog I linked, I talk about seal breaking specifically, but here, we’re just going to talk about rituals kind of in general.  How to start a ritual, how to use a ritual.  Here we go:

Start with the problem.  What’s the issue you’ve got that requires a little better approach?  It should be a problem you face most days, otherwise it’s not really a regular ritual.  For example, you may always forget to take your cholesterol meds before bed.  This is a simple one a lot of people struggle with.  It should be a simple thing, rituals that are too complex are easy to forget.

Designate a ritual space.  I know this sounds all kinds of mystery cult, but the truth is that having a space for your ritual, whatever it is, makes it easier to build associations and help you remember to ACTUALLY DO IT.  So, for example, put your cholesterol meds in a place where you are near bedtime, in a designated spot, so you don’t have to go digging around looking for them.  Be middle aged.  It’s ok.

Set a reminder.  If you’re terrible at starting rituals, do what I do.  Set a reminder for a specific time.  Your phone, your watch, your home assistant, they can all help you remember.  If nothing else, you’ll wonder what that incessant noise is long enough that it may occur to you what you’re supposed to be doing.  This works as well for work tasks as life tasks.

Perform the actual ritual.  It’s all fine and good to plan to do a thing, but you actually have to follow-through.  This is probably the hardest part, really.  But do the thing.  Do it again.  Do it over and over at the right time until it’s just part of your life.  

Rituals are great, they truly are, but they can get a bit dodgy when unexpected chaos erupts.  So, while I really believe in the power of rituals, I also try to not become overly reliant on them.  After all, it really sucks trying to remember how to do a thing outside of your usual ritual environment.

Now, back to your regularly daily scheduled rituals…. *chants in Gregorian*