Category Archives: Persistence

A Truce

It had been a strugglesome week at work and I was feeling rushed and dejected when my husband suggested we go outside and have a few practice swings with the clubs. A few days before, I had reluctantly agreed to join an outing of four couples for nine holes of golf. Let me tell you something about golf. I don’t care for it. I find it full of aggravation and without reward. I was dreading spending my first opportunity to relax feeling like a total failure surrounded by people who play regularly. But I am a good sport…sort of. “Fine,” I had said, sounding more like “Why GOLF?”

The last time I had played was four years before and it had ranked among the worst leisure experiences of my life. I don’t know how many years it was before that I had played but it was more than four. Last Friday out in the yard, I picked up my driver with poor grace and assumed the position. Instantly there was a blaring chorus of voices in my head. Some were telling me what a bad experience I was about to have, some were telling me what a lousy golfer I am in general, and others were critiquing every single aspect of my swing (SO many ways to do it wrong). It was both deafening and oddly familiar. They sounded just like the voices that used to hound me when I was writing. I couldn’t believe how awful it felt, and I couldn’t believe I had persevered with writing as long as I had, clinging to a certainty that I had to battle through the noise and the unrelenting negativity. As I said in my last post I eventually did give up, and rebooted my writing in Safe Mode, which for me was to only write when I felt like it and to only write for myself. I chose to share my writing when I wanted to with a supportive group of friends who also write, but I absolutely gave myself permission to not do our writing prompts at all, or to write about something else if I wanted. I gave up overthinking and trying to be perfect, and in doing so had made peace with my writing. The voices quieted to a manageable murmur.

Out there in the yard, facing down a leaf in substitution for a dimpled ball, I decided that If I could do that with writing, when I really, really care about writing, I could also do this with golf. Some of the advice my husband offered made no sense. “Position your club face so it impacts the leaf like this.” “Aim so you hit the leaf right at this point.” Incomprehensible concepts which I rejected. Some of the things he said resonated. “Plant your feet.” Yes, this I had experienced in yoga and Pilates, feeling my feet connected with the earth as though my body was an extension of the planet. “Slow your swing.” That I understood, even if I didn’t like it. I just wanted to get the game OVER, but when I slowed down, my swing felt more controlled. Out on the course with an actual ball and an adjusted attitude (less competitive, more experimental and compassionate toward myself) I had a not-terrible time. I had a few (feet planted, slow tempo) strokes that were pretty decent, and the rest (which were absolutely consistent with my status as a perennial beginner) didn’t bother me. Best of all, my inner critics were silent. Nine holes wore me out, and I ended up with a blister on my thumb and some sore muscles the next day, but I also found I had been able to call a truce with the sport. I would be willing to golf again…you know, once my back loosened up.

I even learned a few things from golf that I can apply to my writing. If my metaphysical feet are planted, I have strength and balance to write from. If I don’t rush my message, it comes at its own pace and makes more sense. More peace, fewer voices seems like a good direction to keep moving toward. Fore!

Lynnette golfing

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Out of the Comfort Zone and Into the Fire

As a nearly four year veteran of freelance article writing for Twin Cities community magazines, the idea of attending the Minnesota Magazine Mingle at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis was completely inside my comfort zone. I clicked on the registration link in The Loft e-newsletter and was pleasantly surprised to be directed to the Facebook page for the event. Attending? Why, thank you, yes I am.

The day of the event I took off twenty minutes early, but was still twenty minutes late due to an accident on 94W and University resulting in INSANELY backed up traffic. When I got to The Loft I discovered, at the welcome desk, that only a moron would think that accepting an invitation on Facebook would be the same as registering, and that there was, in fact, a $35 fee. On the upside, they immediately printed me a very snazzy nametag. I had heard that the event was being held in the auditorium, but another room nearby looked pretty populated and rowdy, so while I hung my coat I asked a staffer if the event was being held in both rooms. “Go in there,” she said, pointing at the auditorium. I obediently went, and spent some time looking at the amazing assortment of Minnesota-based magazines laid out for the rather sparse crowd. People noticed me, mostly because unlike them, I didn’t have a sticker on my nametag identifying me as a “writer” and/or an “editor.” I struck up a conversation with an “editor’ and “matchmaker” (someone officially charged with introducing compatible writers and editors) and learned about her work with industrial journals and newsletters for the powdercoat industry. I ate some grapes and gazed longingly at the raspberry topped brownie but strategically bypassed the salmon and dill hors d’oeuvre. Clearly, that was there as a test to see how committed we were to face-to-face networking in close quarters. I started to question what I was doing there. My community lifestyle writing didn’t seem like a big deal anymore. I drew a blank as I wondered what I could submit to various magazines representing the interests of universities, business, the History Channel, physicians, golfers, the fabric industry, or environmental sciences. I started to doubt whether I had knowledge of anything worthwhile, when I spotted a nametag for an editor of a national craft publication. I introduced myself and quickly learned (before I totally embarrassed myself) that ‘craft’ referred to, for instance, sculpture, not, say, crochet and that he was more resigned to the conversation than engaged. Because I am striving to be mentally healthy, I decided that it probably wasn’t me, that the editor was finding the whole event not that interesting. He was probably there because he had to be and the booze he was drinking was making it tolerable. I wondered where he got that booze. As a last gasp effort, I offered him my business card and he made no move to take it. “Just check our submission guidelines online,” he said. He wasn’t smiling.

When I recovered from my humiliation a bit, I met a lovely writer who seemed confused that I hadn’t gone into the other room where it turned out people had been meeting and chatting from the beginning. As people flooded from there into the auditorium, all best friends by now, she and I compared notes on editors in the room. I mentally wished her luck when she seemed interested in the craft magazine. Then, I won a door prize! Books from Loft writers and a tote bag! Sweet! Another prize winner, whose business card said Freelance Humorist was nearby. We began a conversation about blogging when a young woman walked up, told a hipster joke “Why did the hipster burn his mouth? He ate the pizza before it was cool,” and began a one-sided no-punctuation conversation about a zombie survival guide she wrote and how she thought about doing a hipster survival guide but hasn’t because she isn’t a hipster. I interrupted her to point out she wasn’t a zombie, either, but that didn’t stop her. She seemed confused by the fact I was talking, so maybe she WAS a zombie. I was trying to extricate myself politely from the conversation when I saw the last, and maybe only, editor I’d really hoped to speak to walking toward the door. I chose abruptness over etiquette but missed him anyway. I know somebody who knows somebody, so that might be fixable. I got a few more pity chats from very nice editors whose publications didn’t overlap with my skill/knowledge set, and then gave up. I grabbed a mouthful of stinky salmon dill goodness and went to sit in a comfortable chair in the hallway/lobby. I finally spied the drinks table, but was soon to be driving. I saw a big group of people chatting together, magnifying my aloneness. I thumbed a long and bitter text to a friend, then gathered my coat, and decided to go back to get a brownie for the road. At the food table, a business magazine editor appeared to be having a conversation with an intense gentleman, but within a few seconds I realized he was just listing everything he likes and dislikes about St. Paul, where it seems the editor lives. After he told her St. Paul’s cathedral is very nice but she pays too much in taxes, I decided it was imperative I find out more about her magazine. I stood there pointedly until she glanced my way and the man strode off, no doubt to make more friends. I didn’t mention him, but started what turned out to be an enjoyable conversation about her magazine and her job. I realized I was more relaxed listening and responding to what she was looking for than I am apologetically flinging my credentials into strangers’ faces, and I seemed to be making a better impression as well. She suggested we exchange cards and asked me to send her a link to some of my work. The Mingle was over.

What have we learned, kids? If it seems super easy and cheap, you are probably missing something. Don’t trust what people tell you, go where the energy is. Do your research beforehand. Most of the people out there are nice, but even so, they can’t help you if you don’t know what you are looking for. Know your questions, and make sure one of them is, “what kind of story are you excited about getting?” Most importantly, go back for the brownie.

Literary Therapy

John Updike wrote in Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism, “I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head.” Me too. But until that day, as I battle the gridlock in my brain and either pound, snub or tentatively caress my laptop with conciliatory keystrokes, I continue to read fiction for entertainment and inspiration. As we do. And once in awhile, a phrase or sentence reaches out of the book and plucks a string in my core. Truth, figured in inked black symbols on a flat white page, unlocks light and sound somewhere inside me (my brain? my gut? my soul?) It is a miracle every time it happens, and it is why I write.

I had such a moment recently. I have been going through a particularly grim love/hate, approach/avoidance conflict with my writing for some time now.  No matter how many helpful people I discuss this with, or how many instructive articles and books I read, there is still a poisonous little voice in my head that hisses they don’t get it, you are SCREWED UP. Then I read a book recommended by hot-off-the-wire on Goodreads: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. In this novel, the main character, Harrison Shepherd, is the quiet center of a whirling storm of mercurial characters and events. For him, writing isn’t a problem; it is an outlet, his therapy, his way of reinventing the world to make it a more bearable place. A traumatic event results in him withdrawing from the world until he has the greatest difficulty even imagining leaving the small town where he has settled. When he feels conflicted over an invitation to visit a friend he confides in his clear thinking and plainspoken assistant, Mrs. Brown. He describes the exchange in his diary:

“We discussed it again this afternoon, or rather I talked. Justifying my absurd fear of travel and exposure, despising it all the while. My face must have been the Picture of Dorian Gray. At the end, when he goes to pieces.

She used the quiet voice she seems to draw up from a different time, the childhood in mountain hells, I suppose.

“What do ye fear will happen?”

There was no sound but the clock in the hall: tick, tick.

“Mr. Shepherd, ye cannot stop a bad thought from coming into your head. But ye need not pull up a chair and bide it sit down.””

Those last two sentences stopped me in my tracks. Resonance. Truth.

When those self-defeating and crazy-making thoughts come…I don’t have to make them a nest? I don’t have to cajole or argue or submit evidence to their contrary? I don’t have to analyze them exhaustively? I imagine rolling my eyes, saying, “Oh, you again,” and firmly shutting the door. Peace. Let the jackals wait outside. That’s where they belong. No doubt someone has suggested this to me before, but in that quiet room with Mrs. Brown, Harrison and his agony, the message made it through the bottleneck in my head. Did it fix me? Sadly, no, it did not, but perhaps that is unrealistic. I suspect this is a road I’ll never get off entirely, and that traffic jams will come and go, but for now the cars have shifted and I am back at my keyboard.

What passage or author has unlocked a traffic jam or stopped the world for you?

Beautiful Dancers

A week and a half ago, some cloudiness on my annual mammogram triggered two more mammograms, an ultrasound and a core needle biopsy. With our recent and plentiful family history of breast cancer, this was worrisome. However, my time-honored strategy of dealing with problems on a strictly intellectual level and forcing my emotions into a long but fitful nap served me well. Really, what had changed? Except for some bruising from the biopsy I was exactly the same as I had been the blissfully ignorant week before. Being aware of a potential problem without verification is really, bottom line, an exercise in stress management. Try to save the panic for later, focus on breathing now.

Over the weekend after the biopsy (but before the results) I packed for a trip to my younger sister’s to help look after her boys (with our other sister) for a couple of days, prepared my house as well as I could for a bunch of impending company (Mr. Wordtabulous’ cousin was getting married the following weekend and we would need place for five additional beloved people to sleep,) and rode that mental teeter-totter that goes, “I am in trouble; I am absolutely fine.” Regardless of what the results turned out to be, I knew that I was fine. I have everything I need and I was (and am) grateful for that. Still, it was wearing. Due to a technological black hole and some phone battery issues, it took the nurse two days and eight tries to reach me (they don’t leave messages,) to tell me all is well, which (even though I knew I was fine,) was still a relief to hear.

My time with the nephews was wonderful, and spending time this past weekend with Mr. W’s family was just as much so. At the dance after Becky and Brandon’s wedding I watched people gather, hug, eat and laugh. But not everything was awesome. Beneath the celebration there was heartache: for the passage of time, for loved ones departed, for one of our shining stars who is waging war on cancer. I felt the surge of  emotional riptides.  Out on the dance floor tiny girls in party dresses spun and hopped with mommies and daddies, next to luminous young women I first knew as tiny girls twenty years ago, next to teenage youth surrounded by people who have loved them their whole lives. Aunts and uncles and parents, new loves and long-time marrieds were out there. People facing crumbling marriages, homesickness, illness, disappointment and loss abandoned their cares and joined in. Survivors of those very same challenges turned and stepped in rhythm and in joy, reminding us that the dance isn’t just for the one moment, celebrating the vows we had witnessed a few hours before. The dance is the celebration of the enduring hope and love that makes us powerful in the face of pain, love that extends generations into the past and into the future.

Thank you, all of you made beautiful in your love and struggle, for the dance.

What’s Cooking?

Writing is like cooking. It looks so easy and fun when somebody else is doing it, but is a total freaking mess and full of traps when I go at it on my own. Reading a book primes my literary pump the same way watching a cooking show gets me thinking “chef’s hat,” inspiring all kinds of confidence and energy because I see the beautifully produced final product, not the labor, the re-writes or the re-takes (when the plot twist or souffle implodes.) By the time I start bleeding, because knives and other sharp  utensils really aren’t my thing, or by the time I am painfully knotted in a narrative thread, it is too late to completely turn back. Sure, I could toss the mess in the garbage, clean off the countertops and call for pizza. I could close without saving and pull out a new book to read. But the ghost of the unfinished dish or story will haunt me, prodding me to try again. “Come back!!” it will wail in a ghostly voice, and, my friends, I need no more voices in my head telling me to do anything. It is noisy and crowded in there as it is. When I see it through to the end, even if I don’t particularly care for the result (and my assorted Philistines have nothing favorable to say,) I can still feel some satisfaction, or at least humorous resignation toward the experience. Maybe it wasn’t a success, but it was progress.

Writing, cooking, academic performance, or even living: it is harder than it looks. Obstacles arise. Natural ability only takes you so far and the rest is work and perseverance. Sigh. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a mess in my kitchen I need to attend to.

Speaking of Poe,

Okay, we weren’t speaking of Poe, but after my last post and my rather self-conscious reference to “the feather light caress of mortality’s scythe,” I have been thinking about him. Like a lot of people, I hit a patch in my tween and teen years when I read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe and other authors who made the macabre an art form. I would probably have been at least a little bit goth, had there been such a thing in those days. I have never fully emerged from that patch; part of me loves the dark side, though I’d rather read it than watch it and prefer suspense to blood and gore. (Side Note: my friend Darlington tells me that in his culture–Rwanda, but in other areas in Africa as well–people love Hollywood movies but cannot comprehend our love of the horror genre. I suspect that if we faced real possibilities of genocide, murderous insurgency, and death by famine and epidemic we would enjoy horror flicks less also.)

So in reflecting how Grandma Marian’s death affected me, I was struck by how my response to death has changed as I’ve aged. Experiencing the loss of my own grandparents as a child, death seemed harsh but unimaginably distant. When one of my schoolmates died of a hidden heart defect we all grieved, but it still seemed the greatest of improbabilities, a one-in-a-million long shot, a lightning strike. Later, I lost a friend to breast cancer and then more and more people, not that much older than me, seemed to be coming out of the woodwork with life-threatening diagnoses and fatal tragedies. I lost my father to a car accident, one friend to an aneurysm and another to a drunk driver, my best friend’s mom and my husband’s mom died of cancer, and my sister and my mom both got cancer. My sister and mother survived, but death, always a possibility on an intellectual level, was becoming undeniable even to my gut. When my husband’s grandmother died, even though she’d lived an abundant life into her nineties, death felt a whisker’s breadth closer. I heard the swoosh of a blade through the air and felt the barest touch of metal to my skin. The scythe, I thought at the time. Now I realize that Poe had it right; it is a pendulum, and it is nearing. My husband’s grandfather confided to him before he passed on some years ago, that he was ready to die. He’d had a good life, he said, and all his friends were already gone. With this most recent funeral, it struck home that perhaps every loss as you age cuts deeper.

Some cope with this reality by chasing sex, things, or inebriation; or by creating a legacy through child-bearing, corporate empire-building, or writing a book. Then there is God. Some would charge that religious faith is just the covers a child hides under, hoping they will shield him from the horrors in the dark. I believe it is more than that. My faith, imperfect as it is, doesn’t protect me from death or loss, or even worry and fear. It does shore me up when I start to crumple, and it does help me reach out past my own self interest in a loving way to others, especially those others I find hard to love. It gives me an assurance of a bigger plan that I don’t need to understand to play a part in. And all it asks is that I keep trying, even as that figurative pendulum swings ever closer. I can do that. Maybe I can build a legacy of sort, as well.

The life of Edgar Allen Poe had its share of horror, but his legacy of literature has excited the imagination for nearly two centuries. The movie The Raven, starring John Cusack (one of my favorite actors,) is released Friday (April 27th) and I am looking forward to it. Poe, played by Cusack, teams up with a detective to catch a serial killer, who stages his kills based upon Poe’s stories. I don’t expect the same level of entertainment from the movie that I derived from Poe’s stories and poems, but I hope it is well done. That is the least we can ask from a film that dares to invoke a master of the macabre.

What movies and books give you shivers and thrills? A few of my top listed books: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury and It by Stephen King. Movies: “What Lies Beneath” and “Coraline.”