Letting Go

I am far, far too good at forcing myself to do things that I don’t want to do. It’s one of those tendencies that has its roots in my straight A, type A perfectionist student days, and it continues to serve me well now. I’m a better employee because I’m willing to tackle the unpleasant tasks that are part of my work day, and a better partner because I’m willing to pitch in and do my share of the housework and home upkeep. I do a good job of staying on top of whatever adult responsibilities crop up in my day-to-day life because I can recognize how much easier it is to deal with them on an as-needed basis instead of all at once.

The problem is that I also tend to apply the same ‘gut your way through it’ mentality to things nobody but me is expecting me to do. I like to take on challenges and try new things, whether that’s reviewing every third book I read or testing a new recipe or listening to a totally different type of music. But when I get bored of reviewing indiscriminately, or the recipe doesn’t live up to my expectations, or I’m not a big fan of the music, I don’t do what a lot of people would do and let those things go. Instead, I force myself to keep doing whatever it is that I’ve set out to do, unenthusiastically and unwillingly, for no reason other than that I feel obligated to keep pushing through.

I haven’t given this a fair shake, I tell myself. What if it’s better/easier/more fun the next time? I don’t want to look like a quitter.

It’s this last point that really gets me, because quitting comes with a lot of baggage in our society. Calling someone a quitter is more or less the same as saying that they’ll never succeed, or that they don’t have the courage to chase what they want. This is total BS obviously, and not just because every last person on the face of this planet who has lived long enough to make their own choices has quit something at some point. Life is way too freaking short to keep screwing around with thing that don’t matter to you, or to make time for activities that drain your energy, time, or money and don’t excite you at all. Frankly, there’s almost nothing you can’t quit without a little planning ahead.

And even though I’ve quit any number of things–from soccer, to band, to TV–for various valid reasons, my brain still refuses to consider the possibility of letting go of something that doesn’t make me happy until that something begins to feel like a burden. It took me a ridiculous number of years to wrap my head around the idea that nobody is forcing me to finish a book I’m not enjoying, or listen through every episode of a particular podcast if I don’t like every episode, or spend time with people who aren’t adding anything to my life.

Being able to gut my way through my responsibilities is all well and good, but when it comes to the things I do for pleasure, I’m learning that it’s much healthier to let go of whatever it is that’s no longer serving me and move on to the things that are.

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Sometime in the years after college, I began telling other writers that I wasn’t especially good at short story writing. I’m still not sure if I came up with that idea because I hadn’t written that many short stories compared to some of my writer friends, or because I’d been too single-mindedly focused on my novel manuscripts to try and publish any shorter works. All I know is that I believed myself to be terrible at short story writing, which meant that most of the very few short stories I did finish were treated as throwaways. Practice attempts that nobody else would ever see.

Then I stumbled across a tweet from another writer a couple of weeks ago, talking about how important it is to push yourself in your writing career by taking risks that you don’t feel qualified to take. Aim to collect rejections, she said, and you might surprise yourself with a few more acceptances than you think.

I’ve heard variations on this same theme before, but this writer’s advice really hit home for me this time. Most creative types are their own worst critics and I’m no exception, but it hadn’t occurred to me just how much I’ve been holding myself back when it comes to submitting my work until I saw this tweet. After all, it isn’t my job to determine whether my writing is publication ready. It’s an agent’s, or editor’s, or online magazine’s, and I can’t possibly predict how any member of any of those groups will respond to my work. The only thing I can be 100% sure of is that there’s no chance of anyone falling in love with my stories if I never put them out into the universe.

This whole experience got me thinking about the stories we tell ourselves as people, instead of the stories we tell other people as writers. All of us believe different things about who we are and what we want and what we like, and it’s easy to convince ourselves that those beliefs are immutable and unchanging. The more foundational a particular belief is to your identity, the easier it is to tell yourself stories that reinforce your belief. If you consider yourself to be a good person, you’re a lot more likely to act in ways that you associate with your own particular brand of goodness. But you might also struggle with believing that you’re capable of doing bad things or making bad choices, simply because badness doesn’t factor into the story of who you are in the same way goodness does.

Believing myself to be a mediocre short story writer isn’t the kind of thing that I’ve based my whole identity around, and it’s not the kind of story that has changed my life all that much in the telling. But it has kept me from writing more short stories and getting better at them through practice, and it has definitely kept me from taking the short stories I’ve finished seriously enough to revise or submit them.

Once I realized that, I went back to the short stories I’ve finished in the past couple of years and read through them, red pen in hand so that I could jot down any changes I wanted to make. And though neither of them were especially mind-blowing, I was still pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing–hell, the quality of the storytelling–in those pieces I’d staunchly believed were garbage. Aside from paring down the prose and seeding a little additional foreshadowing into one, there was very little I needed to do to make them submission ready.

I wish I could wrap up this post with some nice, tidy tale about how both of these stories have already been picked up for publication, but that isn’t the case. I’m sending them out on submission and crossing my fingers for an acceptance, and I know that will be a long process. In the meantime, I’ll continue to work on my novel length manuscripts and leave space in my life for any additional short story ideas that are interesting enough to pursue. Even though I’m not a naturally gifted short story writer, I’m determined enough and driven enough to keep writing, keep practicing, and keep improving.

And the story of my own stubbornness, my willingness to do the work, is one I’m happy to keep telling.

On Not Meeting My (Re)writing Goal

I got off to a great start this year in terms of meeting the goals that I’d set for myself. For the first time that I can remember, I was ahead of schedule through January and February on everything from wedding planning, to professional and personal editing gigs, to my own writing.

The last item on that list is the most unbelievable, because I have a terrible tendency to relegate my writing to the bottom of every to-do list no matter how much or little I have going on in the meantime. Combine that with my equally terrible inability to finish projects ahead of schedule–I’m a by deadline but never ahead of deadline sort of person–and you can understand my astonishment at finishing the prep and the research for my mystery WIP BEFORE I planned to start re-writing it.

My initial goal was to start my rewrite in February and finish it by the end of May at the very latest. That way, I’d have enough time to let the story sit for a few weeks before jumping back in for a last quick revision pass and then sending it off to a couple of writer friends for critique. It was a good idea in theory and allowed me to write without rushing myself in theory, but in practice? Didn’t work so well.

I’ve blogged and tweeted before about how I’m attempting to approach drafting from a different, more deliberate angle so that I don’t wind up re-writing EVERY manuscript I try to tackle going forward. I still think this new approach is going to benefit me in the long run, and I’ve already seen the benefits in the chapters I’ve re-written and the story I have so far. It’s a lot cleaner and a lot more cohesive than any second draft I’ve written before, and I’m pretty proud of it even though I know there will be elements I’ll have to re-work.

Unfortunately, I’ve also run straight into the same brick wall I’ve hit with every other manuscript I’ve finished to date, which is that a lot of the stuff in my outline hasn’t worked as well on the page as it has in my head. In the first two months of rewriting alone, I axed a major plot point that dramatically re-shaped the beginning of the story, realized I was starting way too soon and without enough set-up, and axed a character POV that I loved even though it added nothing of value to the central mystery narrative.

I stand by every one of those choices because I know they’ve made my story that much stronger, but once you factor in the time it took for me to identify what my problems were and how to fix them, it became immediately apparent that there was no way I was going to meet my original goal unless I quit my job, canceled my wedding, and gave up sleeping.

I recognize that this post sounds like one big gripe-fest, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little frustrated by how far behind I am. Considering how much life stuff is happening in June this year, it would be really great to have a few more chapters left to write instead of . . . well, most of the book. On the other hand though, the writing is going a lot better for me now that I’ve identified the story elements that weren’t working, and I’m a lot happier with it than I was in March or April.

My current goal is to wrap up this rewrite before the end of July, so that I still have a month, give or take, to revise it a little on my own before I pass it along to my friends. I don’t know if I’ll achieve that goal or not, to be honest, since I’m getting married in just under three months and preparing for my wedding has to be my top priority, but I’m sure as hell going to try. And whether I finish a draft by August or not, I’m going to do my best to enjoy the writing process and appreciate how much more easily the words are flowing–regardless of how long it takes me to get to ‘the end.’

Currently . . .

Man, it feels like a lot longer than two months since I last did any blogging. Despite my best intentions, I just haven’t had the time or inclination to blog nearly as much this year as I did last year. I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but planning a wedding is both an exciting and exhausting affair and has forced me to cut back on a truly ridiculous number of activities because of energy or money-related reasons. So much for keeping it simple, I guess.

But because I’ve missed blogging, or at least wanting to blog, here’s a quick update of what I’ve been doing these past couple months.

 

Loving

The meme to the left, which proved to be startlingly accurate. We had maybe two weeks of spring this year before summer took over, and after how cold and disgusting and LONG this last winter was, I couldn’t even bring myself to care. Throwing open our windows and stripping the flannel sheets off our bed are momentous occasions for me, and being able to sit on the couch in a t-shirt and shorts and read without freezing to death is my idea of paradise.

Warmer weather aside, I’m also loving Talenti gelato, which I’ve been devouring by the pint since it’s been on sale at my local grocery store, and my wedding dress. I had my first real fitting a couple of weeks ago and got totally starry-eyed at how different it looks now that a) the bodice more or less fits and b) I don’t have to hold it up with both hands to keep it from falling off. I can’t wait to see how it looks after my tailor has put in a few more weeks of work.

Reading
 
After going through a small book slump in March and April, I am back on track and reading a lot. I finished up the last of Miranda Kenneally’s Hundred Oaks books, which made me pretty nostalgic. I think I started that series in high school, but I still enjoy it just as much now as I did then.

I also recently finished Emergency Contact by Mary Choi, which was a delightfully awkward story about a friendship that exists primarily over text until the main characters begin to fall for each other, and I enjoyed that a lot. My current reads are God’s War by Kameron Hurley and The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, both of which I’ve been meaning to read for approximately two years now. They’re very different books and I’m not very far along with either of them, but I’m intrigued by what I’ve read so far.

Listening To
 
A lot of podcasts, to be honest. I’ve been binge-listening through the final 4-5 episodes of Disney Princess Death Match, which is a hilarious examination of which Disney Princess is the best based on a list of five attributes. I’ve also been listening through the last couple episodes of the KidLit Drink Night Podcast, and catching up on Shipping and Handling, which is an excellent podcast about publishing and books run by a pair of literary agents.

Music-wise, I’ve mostly been combing my own music collection for the purposes of making wedding playlists, although I did check out a handful of new CDs from the library that I’ve been slowly listening through as well.

 
Working On
 
My answer has been rewriting and wedding planning since February, and it hasn’t changed yet. I’d initially planned to finish my mystery rewrite by the end of this month, but since there’s no way in hell that’s going to happen I’m aiming to finish by the end of August instead. That’s going to require some serious buckling down, but now that I’m through the beginning of the story and I have a better handle on it, I’m hopeful I can make that happen.

Otherwise, I’m in the process of finagling the smaller wedding details like centerpieces and the ceremony and our honeymoon now that the bigger stuff has been taken care of. I feel good about the progress we’ve made and the work that we’ve done, but I also know that we’re nowhere near finished getting everything ready and that’s pretty anxiety-inducing to say the least. I’ll be glad when the prep is behind us and all that’s left to do is celebrate.

 
Thinking About
 
This might be a little too honest of an answer, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about money and about my finances. Without getting into the nitty gritty details of my salary or our wedding expenses, I’ve been feeling a lot more strapped for cash in the last four months or so than I have in years, and I’m not happy about it at all. We’ve done our level best to keep things simple and keep our costs down, but I still under-estimated how much money we’d be spending and over-estimated my ability to afford the additional expenses.

Don’t get me wrong – we are in the extraordinarily privileged position of receiving some financial help with the wedding, having family and friends who are eager to pitch in and help us for free, and being financially stable enough that our wedding costs aren’t quite the kick in the pants that they could’ve been. But it still sucks to rein in my for-fun spending, which was already pretty minimal to start with, and to stress about money and paying for things all the time.

Anticipating
 
June is a month filled with festivals in the town where I live, and I’m really looking forward to those. There’s a giant arts festival happening this weekend that my fiancee and I always go to, and it’s the one place where we tend to splurge on more decorative pieces for our apartment. I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll buy anything this year, but I still love having the opportunity to admire the work of local artists–from painters to sculptors to potters.

Our local Pride festival is two weeks after that, and I’m as excited to celebrate alongside my LGBTQIA friends as I am about performing along with my dance studio myself. Last year’s Pride festival was my first public dance performance, and this year’s looks to be bigger and better and even more awesome. Plus, I get to re-create the costume on the right that I wore at a spring performance, and I’m looking forward to that immensely.

Wishing
 
That I didn’t have to wait until September to take a vacation. As excited as I am about my wedding, I’m even more excited about the honeymoon and the prospect of jetting off to Italy with my soon-to-be spouse for ten days. I’ve never been to Italy before, and I can’t wait to explore Trieste and Venice, eat my weight in gelato and pasta, sleep in, and relax.

Three more months . . .

If you’ve done your own currently update, or you’d like to let me know what you’re up to, drop me a link in the comments.

Online Time Management Makeover: Quarterly Update

Three months ago, I wrote this post detailing my plans for cutting back on my online time in 2018. I’ve been sticking to the strategy I spelled out for you all back in January, and the results have been pretty shocking, so I thought I would share them with you.

Disclaimer: I’m a regular, fallible human who has made her share of mistakes in collecting this data, so the numbers I’m laying out are by no means 100% accurate. Those numbers also don’t account for minutes spent online at work, although the social media numbers do account for times I’ve checked social media at work. Any further questions or clarifications, leave me a comment and ask.

I spent most of January trying to adjust to the changes I’d made, which means I wasn’t nearly as strict with myself as I was in February or March. I also struggled with how to calculate my percentage of total online time, which changed my end-of-month numbers at least twice.

Since I’m not counting work time or times when I should be sleeping, I had to subtract those hours from the total number of hours in a month in order to get the most accurate percentage. After all that was said and done though, I wound up spending 11% of my available time online in January, and using social media roughly 97 times. Those numbers are WAY lower than they would’ve been in December–in large part because I was actually paying attention–but still not great.

That said, they did motivate me a ton going into February, which you can probably tell from those numbers. I spent 8% of my available time online, and only used social media 74 times. That’s a pretty significant decrease for a one month time span.

However, I didn’t see nearly as much overall change in March for a couple of valid reasons, one of which being my mental health. When I’m having unusually high anxiety, I’m a lot more likely to mindlessly surf the internet than I am to tackle other, more challenging projects, and March was a rough mental health month for me. Another of those reasons had to do with how many more days there are in March as opposed to February, which didn’t impact my calculations for online time but did give me an additional three days to spend racking up social media usage.

I’m kind of grateful that I somehow spent only 8% of my free time online this month, yet still frustrated by how little time it took me to stagnate. I also had 89 social media usages in March, which was a lot more than last month. A small jump would’ve been understandable to me, given the three additional days I was dealing with, but 15 additional usages doesn’t feel small. One more reminder that I need to be better and more pro-active about cracking down on my Facebook and Twitter surfing going forward.

Although I am planning to keep using my spreadsheets to track the time I spend online at home, I’ve decided to try something different to track online time spent on my phone. Last week, I took the plunge and downloaded Quality Time, an app designed to do what I’m not meticulous enough to do and track which other apps I’m using the most, how many times I unlock my phone, and how many minutes I spend looking at it per day and per week. It’s too soon to tell if having Quality Time running has forced changes in my behavior, but I do like being able to open it up and determine immediately how much I’ve been using my phone on any given day.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep trying to cut down those percentages and social media numbers. My eventual goal is to spend three percent of my time online or less by the year’s end, and to check social media less than 40 times a month. I want to be able to post a status on FB or Twitter and take a brief look at what my friends are doing without letting either of those sites swallow my spare time or falling down rabbit holes that don’t leave me feeling good or productive.

So far, it feels like I’m off to a good start. 🙂

Four Star Reading Round Up: March

Because there’s no way I’m going to finish any more books before the end of the month, here’s a quick rundown of my favorite March reads:

1. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
My review

Five reasons to love it:
1. It’s FUNNY. I can’t remember the last time a purportedly funny book made me actually laugh out loud, and this one did multiple times.
2. It’s unabashedly feminist in a way that leaves room for intersectionality and inclusiveness.
3. The more personal chapters don’t detract from the book’s larger message, and a few–specifically the ones about her dad and her budding relationship with her husband–will make you feel all the feelings.
4. The author talks a lot about the importance of self-love and speaking out while also acknowledging that self-love is a process and that not everyone has the emotional energy to regularly make themselves a target for online and in-person vitriol.
5. Want a detailed, infuriating look at the implications of rape culture and the ways in which men are socialized to ignore it or deny it? Want to get angry in a way that also makes you want to fight back and work harder and change the system? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you want to give this book a shot.

2. The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson
My review

Four reasons to love it:
1. Andie’s three best friends, their text chats, their traditions, and their histories. I’ve also had many of the same friends for most of my life, and this is the first book I’ve read in a long time that really seems to GET what it’s like to have been that close to someone for that long.
2. Andie and her dad don’t have a good relationship and haven’t been close in some time, which is why it was so rewarding to watch them both work at rebuilding their connection.
3. All the dogs. Why aren’t there more dogs in YA lit?
4. It’s my favorite type of summery book–a beach read with substance. The pool party scenes and scavenger hunt madness and sweet summer romance don’t detract from Andie’s struggle to re-evaluate her own future or re-assess her approach toward all the relationships in her life.

3. Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride by Lucy Knisely
My review

Five reasons to love it:
1. I’m smack dab in the middle of wedding planning hell right now, and this book made my neuroses and fears and questions feel totally normal.
2. The cute, if completely unconventional, love story.
3. The ongoing discussion of how tough it can be to reconcile ALL the societal expectations surrounding weddings with your own beliefs and priorities.
4. The art was so great. I don’t read many graphic novels because I don’t always find them accessible, but I honestly couldn’t imagine the author telling her story in any other medium without losing some of its poignancy.
5. More than one seriously funny story. Shoplifting the cat or moving the squirrel, anyone?

Have you read any of these books, and if so, what did you think? What were your favorite reads this month?

Four Star Round Up: February

It’s time for round two of the four star reading round up! I didn’t finish nearly as many books in February as I did in January, but here’s a quick rundown of all of my four star favorites.

1. Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
My review

Four reasons to love it:
1. The main character, Kiko, is an artist, and each chapter ends with a quick description of what she draws or paints that day. Plus, her art provides such an intimate mirror for her emotional state throughout the story.
2. Kiko’s overlapping journeys of discovery, from discovering the Japanese side of her heritage, to discovering her own self-worth, to discovering a few big secrets that reshape her understanding of her family.
3. Kiko’s developing relationship with her childhood friend Jamie, and how supportive he is of her when she’s at her most anxious, and how determined she is to learn to stand on her own in spite of his support.
4. Hiroshi, a badass Japanese painter who winds up mentoring Kiko, and his awesome family, who are sweet and loving and supportive, and everything Kiko’s family is not. I wanted them to adopt me by the end of the book, and Hiroshi in particular made me so happy every time he showed up on the page.

2. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
My review

Four reasons to love it:
1. The personal details about each of these women that highlight their awesomeness without focusing exclusively on their contributions to the space program. I had no idea, for example, that Katherine Johnson spoke fluent French, or that Mary Jackson helped her son build the winning car in the first integrated derby car races in Hampton, VA.
2. If you’re a fan of the space program, this book includes a comprehensive history from the aeronautics innovation that occurred during WWII up through the moon landing.
3. I had no idea how diverse NACA and NASA were for their time, and I loved the little details regarding how its black employees actively worked to dismantle workplace segregation and its accompanying prejudices.
4. The fact that the author is a woman of color who grew up in Hampton, VA, where Langely was located, and that she interviewed many of the women who feature so prominently in her book in-person.

3. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
My review

Four reasons to love it:
1. The incredibly atmospheric setting and writing. If you want a book that will make you feel winter’s chill while you’re snuggled up on your couch or in your bed, you won’t be disappointed.
2. Vasya was such a compelling main character. She befriends the cheryti, or fairies, who live in and around her father’s estate, learns to ride horses by communicating directly with them, and retains her strong morals and her protectiveness toward her family even when her family doesn’t do an especially good job protecting her. She’s tough and fierce and I was fascinated by her.
3.  Her family are pretty great, despite some of the choices they make. My particular favorites were Vasya’s brother Alyosha, who’s closest to Vasya in age and shares in some of her mischief, and Pytor, her father who is stern and stoic and loves his kids so much even when they frustrate him, and who gave me all the feelings all the time.
4. The story gets off to a slow start, but the fast-paced, epic ending more than makes up for it. I sped through the last seventy pages or so with my heart in my throat.

Have you read any of these books, and if so, what did you think? What four or five star books would you recommend?