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.

How to Handle Rejection

Accepting Rejection

After being lucky enough to have a great freelance writing project fall into my lap last spring, I’ve started to look for more work. The most fun part of this process is brainstorming ideas. I get a lot of ideas while I’m driving, and there’s nothing like cruising along the highway, basking in one’s sure-to-be-genius stories and blog posts. The hardest part is, of course, actually writing those stories and blog posts. And the worst part of the process? That’s right, it’s everyone’s least favorite friend, rejection.

Rejection happens to everyone

Long before I submitted my first story to a literary journal, I was well-versed in rejection. From losing a friend to a cooler crowd, to not being selected as the 5th grade choral soloist for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and experiencing plenty of romantic rejection in high school and college, you might say I was a pro. But when it came to dealing with rejection, I was very much an amateur. I wallowed, I internalized, I held on way too long to what I wanted and didn’t see the many other possibilities in front of me. When I lived in the world as I wanted it to be, instead of as it actually was, I denied myself the opportunity to learn, grow, and work toward achieving my dreams.

Handling rejection gracefully is about knowing yourself

When I was younger, I didn’t know myself at all. That’s why I was trying out for chorus solos instead of writing stories. I wanted to fit in and be loved, so I tried to present myself in the image of the people I wanted as friends and dates. Finally, after three years of college I majored in English, but even then I didn’t have strong convictions about being a writer. My head was easily turned by different career ideas. I didn’t believe I could succeed or make a living as a writer, so I tried to do lots of other things. Fear guided my actions. I went to graduate school for creative writing, but let the criticism of classmates and professors unravel my novel-in-progress.

Only now, at 31, am I ready to say with conviction: “I’m a writer.” Whether I succeed or fail isn’t the most important thing. Satisfaction comes from knowing that I’m pursuing my dream. I’m putting myself out there and I’m going to give it my best effort.

Shake it off and move on

Now that I know myself, I’m not dependent on external praise or criticism to form my self-image. Whether others like what I’m doing, hate it, or are indifferent, my belief in myself doesn’t waver. That isn’t to say that rejection doesn’t still sting–of course it does. Everyone would rather hear “you’re awesome” than “you’re not what we’re looking for.” But I don’t take it personally. After all, do I like every book I read, every song I hear, or every person I meet? Of course not. Taste is subjective. So I recover from one rejection by moving on to another submission. What one editor doesn’t care for, another will want to publish. And any response from an editor, good or bad, is a sign that I’m out there, participating in the world I want to be part of. That’s definitely something to be excited about!

Writing with a Relaxed Mind

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Last week I updated my Mac’s operating system only to discover that my computer was now acting like a phone, sending me pop-up notifications of nearly everything: e-mail, text messages, and social media feeds. The new software made my computer run faster, but my stressed out brain ran slower. Constantly interrupted and distracted by the pop-ups, I couldn’t concentrate on a task, much less finish it, until I figured out how to disable this “convenient” feature.

When I was 24, I quit my full-time office job a few months ahead of my scheduled departure to teach English in Prague. Untethered from the strict routines of office life, I found myself with days so long and wide open they were scary. I wanted to write a novel but had no idea how. Long morning walks were helpful. I had nowhere to be and very little to worry about, so I observed my surroundings, studied the other people who were not sitting in a cubicle at 10 am, and daydreamed about my characters.

Now I am a mother, a teacher, and I’m still trying to write (a different) novel. My time is more limited, but as this tea bag reminded me, I still need a relaxed mind in order to dream up stories. I do my creative writing at night after my daughter goes to bed; it’s the last activity of my day. To prepare, I shun gadgets and multi-tasking. I relax my mind by writing in my journal, taking a bath, or talking to my husband. When I finally sit down to write, I’m holding a notebook and pen instead of a laptop. I may be physically tired, but my mind is open and ready to create.

Literary Expectations

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Recently I’ve been working on two personal essays, which is new terrain for me. For help and inspiration, I’m reading Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. This post is in response to one of the writing prompts in the book: “What do you expect of others as you read, and what do you expect of yourself as a writer?” (19).

Over the years I’ve expected different things from the books I read. When I was a child I wanted to be transported to other worlds. Curled up next to the heating vent in my bedroom, I travelled across time and geography. To the 19th century American frontier in the Little House on the Prairie books. To Quaker life in old Philadelphia in Thee, Hannah. To the Swiss Alps in Heidi. And to all the periods of American history covered by the American Girl series. I was fascinated by the past and I loved to imagine living the lives of my favorite heroines.

As I reached puberty, I looked for female characters I could identify with or aspire to be like. The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High series provided glimpses of teen life and romance. I idolized the author of the former, Ann M. Martin, once waiting in line all day at the mall to get her autograph. All I knew about her was that she was a writer who lived in New York City–exactly the life I wanted to have when I grew up.

In high school I didn’t read much outside of the required reading for school. I did discover Sylvia Plath in the tenth grade, after a friend wrote a book report on The Bell Jar. Like the book’s heroine Esther, I was depressed. Thus my appetite for female writers and characters who articulated my feelings continued. I also found solace in the teen alienation and rebellion depicted in novels like The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. 

In college I read to find out how to be in the world. The friends I made through Livejournal, who were mostly other literary-inclined young women, introduced me to classic feminist texts as well as writers like Anais Nin and Anne Sexton. In my college English classes I devoured plenty of fiction and some of it–Mrs. Dalloway in particular comes to mind–saved me during periods of major depression. Outside of school I dug into nonfiction and memoir, hungry for women’s voices and lives.

When, at age twenty-four, I moved to Prague to teach English, I rediscovered fiction as a source of escape, comfort, and companionship. Just before I left I met the man who is now my husband, and he gave me his well-used paperback copy of Middlemarch. Lying on my narrow, hard bed, I sank with relief into this great huge novel. It warded off the loneliness I felt, having come to this foreign country by myself, without knowing anyone.

Today, my reading expectations have realigned themselves with my childhood. I read to learn about the world, past and present; to experience countries I haven’t yet visited and cultures I know nothing of. I could get this information from nonfiction books, too, but literature–by which I mean fiction, poetry, and memoir/creative-nonfiction–provides something different. It places me in the life of another person and makes me empathize with that life, all of its experiences and choices. Literature reminds me of how small the world really is, a discovery I first made when I visited Israel at age twenty to meet one of my Livejournal friends and saw that the life of a girl living on the other side of the world was still very much like mine. I revisit that discovery when I read, which right now means Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. And sometimes I still read for the comfort of finding women like me, who have felt what I feel, and whose lives I can learn something from and emulate. But my focus has shifted from the internal to the external.

My writing has been moving in the same direction. It’s become less directly autobiographical and, when I do base stories on real people and/or events, I’m better able to spin them into fiction–up, up and away from the original facts. I may not be able to convincingly transport my reader to Nigeria, but I can take a Nigerian reader to Philadelphia and the lower-middle-class suburban landscape I grew up in.

As a writer, I want to provide a strong sense of place as well as the political/economic/social setting. I want to write realistic, complicated characters, especially women and their many choices and conflicts. And I want to draw my characters from all races/classes/walks of life. From my prose I expect clarity, beauty, and original imagery. Physical descriptions of people, weather, and landscapes can be a challenge.

In the personal essays I’ve been working on, I expect my writing to resonate beyond my own life, to illuminate a broader truth or truths. And I hope it comforts someone out there, maybe one of the questioning young women I used to be.

These are admittedly lofty expectations to hold myself to. How will I achieve them? By following my writing motto: “Never never never, ever ever ever, give up” (from the Center City Philadelphia Bikram Yoga studio).