What Are You Doing For Yourself These Days?

Looking back over the long-stretching pandemic, it’s clear we’ve all let a lot of stuff go.  For some of us, it was our carefully choreographed lives, our delicately balanced diets, or tightly scheduled social lives.  For others, it was something less obvious, but just as important: self-love.

I know for me, the early part of the pandemic was an anxiety-inducing thrillride from one defeat to the next.  My copywriting business slowly turned to sand in my hands, throwing my entire career into a dark pit of uncertainty.  I applied for literally hundreds of staff writing jobs, interviewed for several, before finally being selected to move on in the hiring process in SEPTEMBER.  It would still take until January until I started, and then was almost immediately part of a project liquidation in mid-February.

I’m back at work full time now, thankfully, but my point is that it was wild for me.  And I’m sure it was for you, too, especially if you have school-aged kids that added (or are still adding) a layer of complication to the same sort of mess I had to deal with.

In all that chaos, I realized that I was really neglecting my own needs.  But, I mean, I couldn’t even hold down a job, so obviously I didn’t deserve any of the good things and was kind of a general, all-around awful person.  

Oddly enough, I don’t ever think this about other people who are struggling, they always get the benefit of the doubt.  

But I know me.  And I’m the worst.

Acts of Service: An Underrated Love Language

For a lot of people, acts of service get lost in the shuffle of life, especially when the last year and a bit have been the way it’s been.  But the truth is that when someone does for us, it’s a huge deal.  It truly is.  And if one of your love languages actually happens to be acts of service, well, it’s even bigger.

I think we all have a little “acts of service” in us, though maybe not in the way that people imagine.  When we do for others, we send a very clear message: I care about you and helping you achieve your goals.  Whatever those goals are, whether they’re simply to unclench a bit, or if they’re something more lofty, like securing a job that won’t fucking disappear.

But how often do we say this to ourselves?  I care about you, self, and I want to see you happy.  I want to make sure you have what you need to achieve more than survival.  

I don’t know about you, but for me, I easily slip into the trap of trying to fill the cups of others from a very, very empty teapot.

That’s why this year, I’m trying very hard to do things for myself.  This is why I bought a piano that was an absolutely frivolous purchase.  I did it just for me.  I’m never going to make a living with the piano.  I’m never going to do anything with it besides enjoy it.  

That’s ok, though.  That’s a thing I’ve done for myself.  A thing I’m doing just for me, and keeping just for me.

What Are You Doing for Yourself?

Most of the things I do for me are subtle.  I take a walk with the dogs most days.  Ok, that’s partially for them, too, but it’s also for me.  A few weeks ago, I bought some flowers for a bed up by my house.  Just for me.

I’m slowly eliminating clutter and organizing what’s left.  Slowly.  It’s a big project.

I’m trying to read more books.  I deserve to have an elastic mind as I move through middle age.

Everything I do for myself I do with a purpose.  And I do each thing fully aware that it’s only for me (and sometimes also the dogs), so there’s no pretending like it’s any other way.  Otherwise I get back into that whole empty teapot mindset, which is no bueno.

Even if it’s something small, doing something for yourself is a subtle signal that you’re actually worth the investment.  Buy that fancy shampoo that you’ve been wanting to try, but didn’t think you deserved to spend the extra buck on.  

You obviously can’t do everything for you, that’s a sort of opposite issue, but you can’t live a life with any satisfaction if you do nothing for yourself over a long stretch of time.  If you make self-neglect a habit, everything suffers.  

You need to do for yourself.  It doesn’t make you selfish.  It makes you whole.

So, when you put the kids to bed tonight, indulge in something just for you.  Watch that garbage TV you’d be ashamed to tell anyone about.  Eat the ice cream you stashed in the back of the freezer.  Give yourself a pedicure.  

Here’s your homework: Do something nice for yourself.  And only for yourself.  Whatever additional niceness fallout it happens to have is just icing on the cake.  Report back to me.

Leaps of Faith and Trampolines

Last week, I wrote a diatribe about giving yourself a complex and then trying to pull out of a self-induced tailspin.  I feel like that was one of my better recent blogs, so I figured I’d follow it up with some equally useful advice.

See, it’s one thing to talk yourself out of a self-loathing death spiral, and quite another to go on living your life afterward.  As we all know, the self-loathing death spiral will really only be one of many in our careers and we might as well own that.  The big thing we do, collectively, that makes those self-loathing death spirals possible, I think, is we fail to listen to what people say to us.

Oh, sure, we *hear* the words.  We might even respond in a not terribly inappropriate way.  But then we start to wonder what’s behind those words.  Does Bob REALLY want me to have a nice day?  He’s probably actually sick of my shit, but doesn’t want to say as much.

Trust is a Shy Ground Squirrel

Emily Dickinson taught us that “Hope is the thing with feathers,” but she was being pretty overly poetic and optimistic, if you ask me.  Maybe hope is ever present and feathery, but trust, that’s more like a shy ground squirrel.  It’s dodgy, it’s angsty, and it takes a great deal of patience and care to keep from spooking it back underground.

That’s why leaps of faith are so hard to take, I think.  The little ground squirrel is pretty shy.  He doesn’t want anybody to see him hard at aerial acrobatics… even when they’re necessary to move forward.

We have so many bits of input coming in from all kinds of directions all the time, and it’s hard to know how to take them.  When an editor says, “This sentence is confusing,” do they mean you’re confusing and awful?  Probably not, even though that’s what it feels like.  What they mean is that the sentence is confusing to a reader.

The same can generally be applied to all aspects of life.  When someone tells you they like your shoes, they probably don’t mean that in some backhanded way.  They probably mean they like your shoes.  Humans, in general, are pretty simple.  Normally they say what they mean, even if we take our Mighty Imaginations (™) and work our hardest to distort the message.

Learning to Take a Leap of Faith

Recently, an editor told me that I needed to worry less about deadlines and focus on the content I was producing.  She told me, in all sincerity, that the deadlines really didn’t matter – I wasn’t actually behind.  I was just in process.  And this blew my mind.

I’d already been told this by our SEO lead.  I, of course, thought she was just being nice.  Obviously I was quite behind and that wasn’t going to fly.  I was going to get fired.  It was coming.

But the editor, who is not directly connected to the SEO lead, nor does she stand to benefit by telling me any of this, was very clear.  She didn’t hesitate.  She said what she meant.  I didn’t hear what she said.  Instead, I heard what I feared most.

Not gonna lie, I do this a lot when my soft underbelly has been exposed.  I tense up, preparing to be punched in that two square inches of weak flesh.  And I know a lot of you do, too, which is why I’m exposing my own dirty secret this week.

What I’ve found in this life, though, is that for 99 percent of the people out there, what they say is what they mean.  They say, “not today, but maybe Thursday,” and they mean just that.  Today’s got shit going on.  Thursday looks better, but it’s not clear enough to say for sure.  They say, “Please let me help you,” and they mean they want to help.

For people like me (and presumably you, since you’re still reading), it takes a huge leap of faith to trust that this is actually as straightforward as it seems.  Maybe we’ve been in a bad situation that has made us doubt other people’s sincerity, or maybe we’re just naturally skittish little ground squirrels.

But I think it’s because of our hesitancy in what should be normal human interactions that we really need to focus some effort on just taking people at face value.  I’m trying to do this more mindfully these days, and I’m finding something kind of interesting happening as a result.

What would normally have become an uncertainty black hole is becoming a sort of trampoline.  Instead of being sucked into an inescapable well of gravity, I just bounce off that ish, for better or worse.  Of course, like anything, it’s gonna take practice to get it right, but I have a sneaky suspicion that it’ll come with some pretty swank benefits.

Did You Ever Want to Read Minds?

When I was coming up, my one deeply held wish was to know what other people were thinking.  Then social media came along and I was like, “No, sorry, I do not want this.”  Kidding.  Kidding. Sort of.

The funny thing is that I’ve always been able to read minds, and so have you.  We simply have to ask.  And listen to what people have to say, without filtering it through our insecurity and baggage.  This last bit is tricky, to be sure.  But I believe in you.  I know you can do it.

So, when someone tells you something, like “hey, these deadlines are only suggestions,” or “please take care of yourself, this can wait,” you know, they probably mean it.  And knowing that is kind of a huge relief… you don’t have to go into an emotional death spiral.  You can just bounce on to the next thing, knowing that what they say is the truth.

I hear you asking the next obvious question.  “What if they are actually just saying this to be nice?”  Well, that’s on them.  This is a thing that never occurred to me.  If they can’t be honest about a situation and speak plainly, whatever happens next is on them.  If they tell you a piece can wait, but then get mad because you didn’t write it right then, well, they kind of set themselves up for failure, didn’t they?

Give Yourself an Anxiety Attack in Just Three Simple Steps

Writers, by and large, are neurotic messes.  You may already know this if you’ve been around one for more than about five minutes, but if you don’t, I’m here to confirm this rumor.  And I am far from being immune from this particular quirk of our profession.

For some, they turn to hard drugs and lots of alcohol to escape the bees in their brains.  For others, like myself, there’s a far more addicting tonic: self-sabotage.  Ooooh, boy, is there.  Today’s blog is a story of self-sabotage, fresh from the field.

I’ve spent the last two weeks in what can only be described as a non-stop anxiety attack, with all the trimmings.  AND YOU CAN, TOO!

New Jobs and High Stakes

Starting any new project, even if it’s for an established client, is one of the most anxiety-inducing things I do in my life.  And it really doesn’t matter how many new projects, how many existing clients, it’s always the same.  I am terrified that they’re finally going to figure out that I have no idea what I’m doing and this whole keyboard monkey stuff is all for show.

I’m horrified that I probably don’t know enough about the material, I don’t know enough about the audience, I don’t know enough about what they want from me to really accomplish it.  I’m feeling the anxiety climbing just typing all that out.

It didn’t occur to me why this is until this morning.  

I am a recovering people pleaser, which has often been my downfall.  I need approval.  I need it like air in my lungs.  Or, I did.  Even though you’ll see plenty of old iterations of this blog where my big takeaway is “fuck em,” I couldn’t actually live by that advice.  I wanted to, but I just…wasn’t there.

It wasn’t until I had to confront my people pleasing, flee a marriage that was dangerous to me and mine, and finally do things for myself, that I became capable of actually telling people to go fuck themselves without cringing.

When I started this new job with a publication I’ve been trying to get a foothold with for years, the stakes were way too high.  I was terrified.  With every step, I feared I’d destroy all I’d worked for, that they’d figure out I wasn’t all that and a cup of soup (total aside, but I *AM* actually all that and a cup of soup).

My solution?  I froze in place.  Stared into the abyss.  It stared back.  I lost weeks of traction doing that.  So, by the time I knew I *had* to get moving, I was in so many knots that I was sure it didn’t even matter anymore.  I was the suck and my writing sucked and I had destroyed my career and I was destined to spend the rest of my life writing churn and burns.

You Can Bounce Back From the Abyss

I finally turned in my first piece for this new project a few days ago.  I was not confident in what I had written, I was sure it would come back with a million revision requests.  I was still convinced I was the suck.  

But you know what?  It flew through editorial with only a few minor changes.  Those changes included: changing headers from title case to sentence case and adding internal linkage to support an SEO plan I wasn’t aware applied to the class of piece I had written.  There wasn’t a thing said about my writing.  My writing was fine.

So, while this is all still fresh and weeping a bit, I wanted to record it for posterity.  In case you – or I – needed a little push in the future.  As per always, what I write here may not apply to you, but it certainly shouldn’t hurt you to give it a go.  So, take that as you will.

  • 1. Think about what has worked for you in the past.  I realize when you’re in a frenzied state, this may not help a lot.  But if you can remember the things that help you find your focus, it’s a good start.  For me, there’s something about wearing big, bulky headphones that puts me into writing mode.  I don’t love doing this because I feel like it messes my hair up (sorry, but yes), so I bought a mini soundbar for my computer instead.  That was apparently when things started going wrong for me.  Last week, I reverted to putting my headphones back on.
  • 2. Remember your successes.  Look, if you’ve got a writing career that’s already established, the odds are really good that you didn’t just accidentally make it through all those years of critics.  The odds are good that you actually know a thing or two.  Even if you’re just at the beginning of your career, the fact that you have a career means that someone hired you to write stuff, and so far they’ve not fired you.  That means something.  Mostly that you’re not an actual fraud.
  • 3. Squeeze the words out.  This is the hardest bit.  Getting started again is a bit like giving birth, and I’m in no way being hyperbolic.  It’s an inch by inch, letter by letter situation.  Sometimes you just have to sit down and write.  And what you write won’t necessarily be the best thing you’ve ever written, but it will be better than not writing.  Squeeze them out, every letter.  Watch as those letters turn into words, and those words into phrases, and those phrases into sentences, and those sentences into paragraphs, and before you know it, you’ll be left wondering what you were so worried about to begin with.

I mean, what’s hard about that?  Nothing.  

Why are we even like this?  I don’t know, man.

But as long as we’re captives in prisons we create in our vast and mighty imaginations, we can’t do those things that keep us alive – both financially and emotionally.  I’m going to close this a little differently than usual, by quoting that thing from Dune that I like to scream in my heart when I get in a funk.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

A Little Pep Talk for Myself (and You)

Life is a long series of starts and stops, and there’s no place where this is more painfully obvious than in the writing world.  We start projects, we stop projects.  We start new projects, those new projects turn into old, comfortable projects, then those projects find a timely end.  Wherever we are along the process, with whatever project we’re on, we have certain obstacles to overcome.  

Old projects get boring and stop inspiring joy, making it harder to push through the really tough parts.  New projects are fraught with dangers too numerous to name.  Ours is a two-fold job: to keep the old projects fresh, and to find the courage to take the first steps in a new project.

Finding Courage in Work and in Life

One door closes, another one opens – we’ve all heard this particularly unfresh bit of patronizing advice.  It’s never a given that a closed door leads to a new one.  It is, however, a given that once a door has closed, we have the chance, however slim, of opening a new one to take its place.  

These are two different things, you understand.  Another door magically opening takes no effort – no courage – to happen.  It just happens.  That door just pops open when you pass by.  

What’s closer to the truth in life and in our industry is that when a door closes, it gives you space to open a new one.  You have the additional energy, additional mental space, additional time to pursue a new door.  This is not a passive process, it’s an active one.

It’s also a process that takes considerable courage.  The risk of rejection is very high, but the rewards can be exceptional if you can bear the strain.  

For the wee free writers of the world, it’s a process we’re constantly refining.  I don’t know about you, but I have about six different package versions from the last four or five years.  I’ve remade my resume repeatedly, I shoot new headshots every single time I’m having a good hair day.  I am properly armed, at any moment, to go through an open door.

But the challenge doesn’t lay in choosing samples or building a new resume.  It doesn’t lay in posing in front of a camera, trying to smile like a human instead of a swamp creature.  Where it lies is in the courage to take those well-honed weapons and approach the proverbial door in the first place.

That Door Doesn’t Always Open Smoothly

Today I’m struggling to write my first piece for a new project.  A lot has happened in the last few weeks since I was hired, and I am behind.  The stress of that, plus the general uncertainty of what actually is hiding behind that door is making it hard to know how to begin.

But the more I’ve pondered this situation today, the more I’ve realized that this happens in all kinds of situations in life.  We see a door close, whether by our choice or not, and we stand in the dark hallway, unsure of how to proceed.  Even if we’re staring at an open door, we sometimes waiver.

Courage doesn’t come easy, nor does it come cheaply.  It’s bought with so many deep emotions, and so many tiny kindnesses from the people who believe in us.  We know we could easily fail.  We know we could fall before we even reach the door in question.  

Courage, then, think, is recognizing all that we’re up against, and going for it anyway.  Courage is knowing what we want and doing all we can to achieve it.

Understand that you’re probably going to fail.  Not this time, necessarily, but you will.  Failure isn’t the opposite of courage.  Failure is part of being courageous.  You can stack all those failures together and build a freaking bridge to almost anywhere, provided you learn from each one.

Starting Again… Again

This pandemic year has been a whole bunch of weird stops and starts for so many of us.  We’ve seen massive losses: of friends, family, businesses, careers.  We’ve lost faith, hope, confidence in our fellow man.  But we’ve also found love, support, kindness, and charity in extremely unexpected places.  

These are doors, too.  Doors that close, doors that open.

Taking that first step toward starting over yet again can feel like being lashed to a practically immovable stone.  The fear of another stop is very real.  The question of whether the end result is even worth the steps that feel so, so heavy is ever-present.  

But, honestly, if you’re not doubting yourself after the kind of pandemic it’s been, I don’t think you’ve really been paying attention.

The good news – the greatest news, maybe – is that everyone else is just as uncertain.  A whole lot of us are in hallways right now.  A whole lot of us are trying to find some path forward – in life, in work, in relationships, in our personal paths.

So, if you find yourself afraid that you can’t open that next door, like I am today, I want you to know that you’re not alone.  Write that thing.  Ask that person out for coffee.  Reach out to friends that you’ve not seen in a year.

Throw all the doors wide open.

Otherwise, what are we even doing?  Hanging out in a smoldering hallway doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time.  How about you?

Be bold, my mofos.  Reach down deep and find that thing that makes you you.  Kick in the door that stands between you and that next big thing.  It might not work out, but isn’t it better to know than to be left standing in the hallway wondering?

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.