The requisite year-end reflection

All over the Internet, people are taking stock of 2017. Like many, I found it stressful to keep up with the news this year. However, the past few months have also brought important milestones in my personal and professional lives. Here is the requisite year-end reflection along with some intentions for 2018.

In 2017 my freelance writing work grew to the point that I had to scale back my teaching load. After a spring and summer so busy they left me feeling burnt out, I decided to give up a part-time academic job and dwindle my remaining fall course assignments down to one accelerated six-week class. When I made this decision in August I felt both scared and exhilarated. What if I failed? What if I succeeded? Would I like mostly working from home?

Four months later, life feels more settled, though there is always an element of unpredictability in the freelance life. I’m going into the spring with one class at Temple and a full roster of writing work. Just a few years ago I couldn’t have imagined this life for myself. Now I get to tell people, “I’m a writer,” when they ask what I do. I’ve written about my journey from brand-new freelancer to busy working writer in “How to Outsource Your Freelance Blogging Work with Integrity,” my Pitchfest-winning article for Be A Freelance Blogger.

So, what’s next? My challenge in 2018 will be to return to my Creative Writing roots. I put fiction mostly to the side when I had my first child four-and-a-half years ago. Now that my second child is almost two, it feels like time to dip my toe tentatively into the water. I’ve read more articles than I can count by women writers describing how they do (or don’t) balance motherhood with a writing life. But while these articles have shown me I’m in good company, they can’t really tell me how to find the balance in my own life. It looks a little different for everyone.

After thinking about it for a few days, I’ve decided the first step is to write regularly here on my blog. So expect one-two posts a week from me on whatever happens to be on my mind. It will be a little bit like creative writing, a lot like free writing, and give me a space to play around with words. After years of thinking I can’t have a blog because I don’t have one specific niche in mind, I’d like to return to the style of online journaling that first captured my attention in the early 2000s. On LiveJournal and elsewhere, I loved reading about other people’s lives in eloquent prose that captured ordinary details along with some wisdom. Many of the blogs I read were written by women older than me, and reading about their hopes, dreams, mistakes, and day-to-day routines gave shape to my wishes and plans for my own life. I shall strive to do something similar here.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Was Andrew Wyeth A Homebody?

I visited The Brandywine River Museum on the last day of its “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” exhibit. Having grown up near Chadds Ford, where Wyeth lived and worked and the museum is located, I’d heard of the Wyeth family of artists, but this was my first time visiting the museum and seeing their work. Why is it that the places and figures in our own backyards are often the easiest to overlook? This was not the case for Andrew Wyeth, who painted the people and places around him. As I walked through the exhibit admiring the impeccably detailed paintings, especially the watercolors painted with dry brush (a technique I’d never heard of before), I felt an affinity for Wyeth’s haunting portraits, spooky interiors, and multiple compositions of the same houses and landscapes. There is the white farmhouse he grew up next to in Chadds Ford, the dilapidated Olson home in Cushing, Maine, where he spent summers, his own childhood and adult homes and studio, and the natural landscapes and weather in each of these places.

Wyeth was a homebody, I thought. Internationally famous, he must have traveled the world or at least been invited to, but his artistic gaze stayed close to home. He had translated the popular writing advice to “write what you know” into “paint what you know.” One exhibit card noted that Wyeth’s father N.C., a successful artist himself and Wyeth’s main teacher, taught Andrew to draw artistic inspiration from everyday surroundings and study his subjects closely. Later in his career, Wyeth tried to convey people’s personalities and other qualities through their facial expressions and the physical objects he included in portraits. This insight also applies to fiction, in which physical descriptions and carefully chosen details “show” without telling.

Fiction happens to be the medium that sparked my interest in Wyeth’s work. This summer I read Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World, a fictional re-telling of the life of Wyeth’s most famous subject and her Maine house. Christina Olson suffered from an unnamed illness that left her in pain and mostly confined to her home. So she was also a homebody, though out of circumstance. Kline’s novel suggests Christina would’ve chosen a more expansive life had she been able to.

As I summon the obstinance and courage I need to return to my own creative writing practice, I find encouragement in Andrew Wyeth’s body of work. He was an unapologetic homebody. He painted what he knew. During a period of art history when modernist painters like Jackson Pollock received much fanfare for doing things differently, Wyeth painted realistic images that some critics derided as sentimental. But if you look closely, you can see the technical mastery he possessed and you realize that these spooky, sometimes desolate images are anything but cloying.

 

The Power of Reflection: 3 Reasons it Will Change Your Life

Power of Reflection

Reflection is a big part of my approach to teaching. On the first day of class, I ask students to reflect on their lives thus far as readers and writers. What roles have those activities played in their lives? What goals do they have for the semester ahead? As we move through the syllabus, students write reflections on each essay they draft. I ask them to write about the strengths they see in their work, as well as the challenges they faced, and the skills they hope to improve on in the next paper. At the end of the semester, my students reflect on what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown as writers throughout the term.

When they leave my class, I hope they will take the habit of reflection with them. It’s a habit I’ve practiced in my own life since I began to keep a diary in elementary school. As my life has gotten busier with the demands of adulthood and noisier with the everyday racket of the digital age, it’s harder to stop and reflect. But not coincidentally, the more pressed for time I feel, the more I benefit from reflection. Here are 3 ways to make reflection a powerful tool in your own life.

Know where you’ve been.

Have you ever drawn a blank on a Monday morning when a friend asks “how was your weekend?” Too often we rush from chore to activity and back again without repose. You may have been trying to cram a weekend’s worth of fun memories into your Saturday and Sunday, but what good is fun if you can barely remember it the next day?

Build little breaks into your days so you’re not just sprinting from one thing to the next. Even if it’s just sitting in your car a few minutes before you get out, take the time to think about, talk about, or write down what you did and the ways it contributed meaning or value to your life. For example, after a family outing at the zoo, ask each family member to name their favorite part of the trip before you go home. Or before you leave your desk for lunch, think about what you accomplished that morning.

Keeping a personal or family diary of happy memories is another way to benefit from reflection. Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin describes some of the ways we benefit from recording and rereading memory logs. If writing things down feels like an imposing task, keep the bar low. Set an interval, such as weekly or monthly, that works for you and make it short. Tell yourself you only need to write one sentence. If you end up writing more, that’s great, but you’ll be less intimidated by the smaller expectation.

Go into your future with intention.

Knowing where you’ve been helps you articulate where you want to go. So many of our dreams remain abstract images on the horizon because we don’t stop to figure out what we need to do day-to-day to achieve them. Instead of idly dreaming about writing a book or starting a business, use reverse engineering to plan your goal and keep yourself moving forward with reflection.

Let’s say your dream is to write a novel. Maybe you haven’t started yet because you never have three hours to sit down uninterrupted and bang out that perfect first chapter. First reflect on how much time you can devote to novel writing in a day or week. Can you get up earlier? Stay awake after everyone else has gone to bed? Even if you can only write one paragraph or one page a day, you will reach your goal a lot faster than by writing nothing at all.

Plan your writing sessions with a few minutes at the end to reflect on your progress. You may want to record how much writing you did, whether less than, more than, or exactly your target. Why did you write as much or as little as you did? What will you do differently or the same tomorrow? And finally, remind yourself how this individual session, though seemingly insignificant, brings you closer to realizing your bigger dream.

Calm your racing mind.

Buddha used the term “monkey mind” to describe the loud and chaotic environment our thoughts create. I’ve dealt with anxiety all my life, but I’ve felt more mentally stressed since having a child. Part of it is the constant multi-tasking and anticipation that is part of caring for a baby and young toddler. And it also stems from giving up the regular yoga practice I had before I became a mother, as well as the increased ways I use technology in my daily life. But no matter the origins, the best way to calm a racing mind is to take a timeout.

That’s right — treat your brain like the unruly toddler it’s acting like and force it to sit still for a few minutes. This timeout can take the form of meditation, which I’ve recently incorporated into my morning routine. Or it can consist of writing down the thoughts swirling through your mind, especially things you’re worried or upset about. The act of writing is powerful. Many thoughts lose their power once you get them down on paper.

Building reflection into your daily life is a powerful way to improve your mood, act with intention, and decrease stress and anxiety. How do you make reflection part of your routine? Have you noticed any positive changes since you started?

The Year of Exceptional Changes

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A writer’s brain looks for meaning.

In the angle at which a bare branch grazes winter’s sky. In the gesticulations of two women catching up over coffee. In moments extraordinary or mundane, the writer digs for answers. And where meaning can’t be found the writer superimposes it with metaphor.

But what of events that defy meaning and budge not an inch to metaphor? What of questions that don’t have answers?

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my brother Rob’s death. His doctors never knew the origin or the cause of his cancer, nor did they really know how to treat it. In our competitive and success-obsessed culture, cancer is supposed to mean battle and rebirth. It’s supposed to end with a ribbon and the well-earned wisdom of surviving. But sometimes cancer just means death.

Long before he was diagnosed, Rob had proven himself a fighter and a survivor. He was quiet, more apt to listen to others’ problems than unload his own, but he had plenty of wisdom to share if you were lucky enough to get it out of him. He noticed the lump on his neck in the spring, when the promise of nature mirrored the promise of his own life. A top score on the GMAT. A niece he would teach tennis to. The perfect girlfriend about to walk into his life.

This is where I come to the questions. Why Rob? Why then?

There are no answers but still I look for meaning. It’s a habit too ingrained to quit.

First, the facts: My daughter was born in October. Six weeks later I moved from Philadelphia to a small town in North Carolina. A week after that my brother went into the hospital and died six weeks later. Back and forth I travelled with an infant, by car, train and plane. In May my husband applied for a job back in Philadelphia and in August he was offered the job. We moved in with my parents until our house, which had been rented out, was free again. I returned to teaching, my daughter turned one, and we experienced the first holiday season without Rob. Now we are about to move back into our Philly house and it is the anniversary of his death.

It was a year of sorrow and of joy, a year in which one family member was lost too soon and a new one was born. In short, it was a year of exceptional changes.

Here is the meaning: I couldn’t have made it through without family and friends. To quote an Ani DiFranco song, “I owe my life to the people that I love.” Friends new and old, family close and distant; so many people brought food, listened, visited, called, and helped that I continue to be humbled by the love and support my parents and I received before and after Rob’s death. Throughout this crazy year I never had to stand alone, not in my grief, not in my fumbling to become a good mother, not in moving, not in my petty complaints or my moments of elation.

And in all of these moments Rob stands with me, too. When I enjoy delicious food, when I try to be a good friend, when I admire my muscles after a workout. Being his sister continues to inform my life. And I am compelled to write about his, to conjure him and make meaning from my brother, who fought and survived and fought again, who never complained about the crappy hand he’d been dealt, whose last words were, “I love you guys.”

Start Bending Over Backwards for Yourself!

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Today my article “Start Bending Over Backwards for Yourself” appears in The Indie Chicks. I’m excited to be part of a magazine with a mission to inspire women to become “self-empowered, driven, independent, and confident.”

This topic–how to find your voice, believe in your own convictions, and realize you don’t owe anyone anything–is something I’ve struggled with throughout my life. I’m finally making progress but it’s something I have to remind myself every day. To celebrate the publication of this article, here is a story about the dangers of bending over backwards to please others with your writing.

By the time I went off to earn my MFA in Creative Writing, I had written a first draft of a novel. I had big dreams for this novel, not least of all that I would work on it during my two years in the program, turn in a brilliant final draft as my thesis project, and field offers from agents before the ink was dry on my diploma.

I wasted no time in submitting the first chapter when my turn in workshop came. The following week I received twelve written critiques of my manuscript, including the professor’s. It was a little overwhelming to absorb twelve different takes on one chapter, as well as twelve different sets of suggestions on how it should be changed, but I was eager to get to work and eager to please. I rewrote the chapter to incorporate all of my classmates’ opinions as best I could. Then I submitted the revised chapter to workshop. But the problem with trying to please my readers in a class where critiquing was not optional but homework, was that they were never pleased. Each new revision yielded me twelve new sets of comments.

I’m sure you can imagine what happened to that chapter. It was like a quilt, once thick and purposely patterned, that suffered too many changes until it grew threadbare and asymetrical. In short, I let the workshop run away with my novel. By the time I stopped submitting chapters, I hardly recognized the story I held in my hands.

Having learned this lesson in my first semester, I put my novel away until the following year, when I began a one-on-one “tutorial” with one of my professors. This, I thought, was my golden opportunity. Twelve readers had been too many but one smart and supportive reader would be just what I needed to finish my book. As the fall approached, visions of book contracts once again danced in my head.

Can you guess what happened next? There was no book contract. There wasn’t even a finished novel. After much debate over what kind of people the characters should be and what they should be trying to do with their lives (i.e. the plot), after lots of frantic re-writing as I tried to please my professor, whose suggestions and expectations began to feel like a moving target, he said, “This isn’t my book. I’m not writing it or trying to get it published. I don’t care what happens.” His point, I eventually realized, was that it was my book. I needed to have a vision for it, a vision I was committed to. The ability to receive constructive criticism, to be open to suggestions, isn’t valuable unless it’s accompanied by discernment.

Four years later, I am much more confident in my writing voice and my vision for my stories. Workshops are more useful now that I can take the comments that help me realize the story I intended to write and leave the rest in the recycling bin. “It’s my story” was one of the best lessons I learned in graduate school.