Write On

Samuel_PepysLately I’ve been reading Samuel Pepys’s diary. He was an interesting, learned, curious, and often naughty fellow (by our standards, not by the standards of his day) who lived from 1633 to 1703. His diary provides one of the most important records of London life in the 1660s. Lest you think this was a dull time, Charles II had just been recalled from exile to re-establish the English monarchy after Cromwell’s “Protectorate” decade. Theaters for the first time had women playing female parts, literature and music flowered, and fun was back in fashion.

Darcy-writing-at-desk-400x260Though all was not frivolity. London was visited by a plague epidemic in 1665 (the last major one before the rats became immune to the disease), and endured the Great London Fire of 1666. Then there was the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which Pepys, as an administrator of the Royal Navy, watched with keen interest.

jane-writesWhat strikes me about this guy’s life is his great energy and enthusiasm for everything around him. Pretty women, good food, interesting politics, companions boring and delightful, pleasant gardens… he writes about it all honestly and energetically. He was not a well man, being plagued with painful kidney stones throughout his life, and losing significant eyesight before age forty. And yet, his diary is full of energy and optimism.

austen bench writingTurns out old Mr. Pepys might have been onto something profound. Expressing ourselves through writing is powerfully good for us. Regular self-expressive writing, even in small doses, can reduce stress, reduce symptoms of depression, improve our immune functioning, and–this really got my attention–help us heal wounds more quickly.

darcyletter-writingTo quote the article linked above: “People with asthma who write have fewer attacks than people who don’t; AIDS patients who write have higher T-cell counts. Cancer patients who write have more optimistic perspectives and improved quality of life.”

why aren't you writingYou might think, “But I’m not much of a writer, words aren’t my thing.” Doesn’t matter. What matters is getting down on paper (or screen) what’s going on with you, especially the tough stuff. When we write about it, we take a minute to see the picture instead of feeling trapped inside of it. A few moments of scribbling about our perspective, and we’re reaping big benefits.

bleedSo as we come up to the winter holidays, with the New Year right behind them, would you consider getting yourself a journal, or creating a journal document on your computer? Your life is interesting, and worth ruminating on. You will enjoy reading those reflections in years to come (well, mostly), and you’ll be healthier and happier for your jottings.

This will be my last blog post for the year, and I’ll resume posting on January 4. With that in mind, the give away will be a $100 Amex gift card. The question is… if you had to write about one incident from your life for people to read about 350 years from now, what would it be and why?

Forever Beginning

Carol Dweck is a Stanford researcher who has looked long and hard at the differences between students who are taught with an attitude of “we’re all learning all the time,” versus an attitude of “here’s your grade, and it’s a reflection of your inherent aptitude for this subject.” She’s pretty much proven that in the elementary classroom at least, mindset is EVERYTHING. (For a TED Talk on her work, click here.)

LearnChildren who think their abilities are fixed give up on hard material much faster than children who are taught with an attitude of endless possibilities. This is true even when the children objectively test as quite bright. Your smarts apparently don’t matter as much as your attitude toward your ignorance does.

In the sciences, big discoveries are usually made by people who are either at the beginning of their careers, or by people working outside the field they were educated in. Not knowing where the limits are can result in enormous creativity and brilliant insights.

double helixMy ignorance–or maybe we should call it innocence–has often been my best asset. I didn’t know you’re not supposed to write twenty manuscripts before you attempt to find a publisher. Conventional wisdom says stockpiling manuscripts is dumb, because what if you’re writing a product that nobody wants? Then you’ve made the same mistake twenty times over.

Erm…. I didn’t know that. As a consequence, I had a lot more product to offer an editor than most other hopeful authors do, and when I did start looking for a publisher, I found one without too much trouble. I didn’t know you need a critique group (still don’t have one), and I probably had four books on the shelf before I came across the notion of “word count goals.” Why would I need goals for something I look forward to doing every chance I get?

vatican staircaseWhen I was in college, I wanted to get degrees in both music history and political science. Nobody in the School of Music had ever pursued two degrees at once, I just went and did it, double-degreed rather than double majored. Why not? In junior high (back when there was such a thing), I didn’t realize no girl in my entire country had EVER taken shop before. I just put it on my schedule, and became the first. Why not?

Strawberry conchOnce you’ve had a taste of coloring outside the lines, the lines begin to fade, and you get better at seeing the whole world as your coloring book. There’s no reason on earth why somebody who has the time and inclination shouldn’t pick up two college degrees at once, and every reason why girls who will rely on automobiles for transportation should learn the theory of the four cycle engine.

Was there a time when you either didn’t know the conventional wisdom, or disregarded the rules, and ended up ahead for it? A time when you wished you had? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amex gift card.

 

 

 

The Prime Directive

starship_enterprise_2I’m not a Trekkie, but I did watch a number of the early episodes of “Star Trek,” and have since appreciated the show’s forward thinking treatment of a lot of sociological  issues.

So there’s the Enterprise, boldly going all over the place, beyond the reach of Star Fleet’s whiz bang communication gadgets. Never fear, though, because our friends have guidance from Star Fleet available at all times in the form of Star Fleet Directives, and even–somebody was thinking ahead–a Prime Directive, also known as General Order No. 1 or the Non-interference Directive.

better than kirkIn other words, Captain Kirk (I’m more of a Picard fan myself) and his merry band were not to interfere with the development of the civilizations they contacted. The interesting notion to me is that there was one, tippy-top, tie-breaker rule: Do not mess with the LOCALS.

Clans have mottoes, the US Constitution has a Supremacy Clause, and most faith traditions have a short list of do’s and don’t somewhere in their catechism. Often a romance novel hero or heroine has latched onto what they hope will be the last big rule they’ll ever have to memorize, and that rule ends up outliving its usefulness.

captive_295w-274x450Gilly, from The Captive, was certain that violence did nothing to solve problems. Not one, blessed, blasted, perishing thing… until her loved ones were threatened. Oopsie!

Hannah, in The MacGregor’s Lady had organized her life around protecting her loves ones and thought that’s the only path she could honorably walk. Then she fell in love with Asher, and saw that selfless sacrifice can veer into enabling. Oopsie!

Valentine Windham had nothing in common with his stubborn, close-minded, self-righteous father. Not the smallest, coincidental iota of common ground for the shortest instant, you hear me? Because he didn’t. Ever…. Oopsie!

trutful gentle fearlessThese characters have to switch that rule they put in the top slot. Gilly will never be a fan of deadly force, but her prime directive becomes “Don’t mess with the people I love or you’ll have ME to deal with.” Hannah learns to do unto herself as she’d do unto others. Valentine… well, he learns to see with his love rather than with his fears, even when looking in the mirror.

They don’t give up on the notion of a prime direction, they just trade up (after 363 pages of struggle and having it darn near cost them True Love) when the one they have no longer works. Maybe this is human nature, to want one be kind alwaysoverarching rule to fall back on.

I have such a rule: Be kind and tell the truth. That right there is enough of a challenge to keep me busy day in and day out.

Do you have a prime directive? Have you ever had to turn it in for a newer model? Who handed you this rule and how well did they live by it?

To one commenter, a $50 Amex gift card.

To Leave or Not to Leave

Home is my personal “land of the fairies,” where I lose track of time, and even of what

Needs a few cats...

Needs a few cats…

day it is. I’ll often wake up and think, “I’m not sure whether it’s Saturday or Sunday. How lovely! But I still have 147 pages of revisions to do for Tremaine and Nita, and when did I become so addicted to the verb ‘to sport?’ I should do a global search. Lordy, I hope it’s Saturday, because the manuscript is due Monday…”

Happy thoughts. I can hear Winnie the Pooh singing, “Rum Tum Tiddle Dum, Rum Tum Tiddle Deeeee” as I pother around in my writing world.

Winnie-the-Pooh-HumBut I’ve learned that I need to get out, to drop in on my readers via social media, to write this blog, to occasionally meet a real, live, human friend in person for a bowl of soup, or a hot chocolate. In the land of Today is Tuesday, I am refueled in a way that home, with all its wonders, can’t do for me.

grow tubbyI’ve also learned that I need to move, physically, to GET OUT OF THE CHAIR, though everything in me rebels at the very notion. I’m happy when I sit in my writing chair, rum-tum-tiddle-dumming away. Happy, do you hear me? I’m also significantly overweight, and at risk for early Alzheimers.

So I get out of the chair, even if it’s only to toddle for a bit at the treadmill desk. I hate every minute of that exercise, but I will hate more being unable to recall my daughter’s name.

day without a friendAnother lesson that I know, though I must relearn it often, is that I have a tendency to hang on too long to relationships that aren’t working. I suspect the day job falls into this category–twenty years of child abuse law is enough. I’ve kept other jobs too long, kept relationships too long, and kept congregational affiliations for too long. “Too long,” means I’m spending way too much of myself on a situation that’s not giving enough, and I’m the only person to whom this imbalance matters.

Me, at Glencoe in Scotland, proving that I do Get Out occasionally...

Me, at Glencoe in Scotland, proving that I do Get Out occasionally…

I’m getting better about this, though, and what has helped is an uncomfortable insight: I want to be loved tenaciously. I want to be worthy of other people’s committed devotion, even when I’m lost in the land of Rum Tum Tiddle Dum, even when I’m obsessing over the verb ‘to sport,’ as if that really matters. I want what I’m giving away.

In my reluctance to cut loose what’s not working, I have my priorities inside out. I think it was Maya Angelou who said, “weak people give up and stay, strong people give up and move on.” I need to move on more readily than I do, not because I’m strong, but because that’s the way to be the most honorable in my regard for myself.

What lessons or decision points seem to circle your life? Do the upcoming holidays present any quizzes or tests that you intend to face differently this year? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amex gift card.

The Invisible Year

Lonely teddy bearBefore a household can be licensed to accept foster children, the parents must complete hours and hours of training. They learn about foster care law, about the physical requirements for a foster home, and how the child welfare system works. Not until they’ve had a few children come and go, or possibly come and be adopted, do the foster parents pick up on the child’s invisible year.

bear-cub-playing-with-teddy-bear-bigIf a child who has seemed to make a good adjustment to the home starts running into inexplicable troubles, I’ll ask the foster parent, “When was the child originally removed from Mom or Dad?” Often, we’re coming up on the anniversary of the day when the child was taken from all he or she knew–for better or for worse–and placed with strangers, perhaps never to go home again. Maybe we’re coming up on the time of year when Mom or Dad was sent to prison, and the child hasn’t seen that parent since.

polar bear and cubOr the day approaches when a sibling, formerly place with the child, went off to a psychiatric facility. Even with children too young to know how a calendar works, these milestones can create annual behavioral and emotional problems.

I’m no different. I’ve concluded I perk up in the fall because I sleep better in cooler weather, but it’s also the case that when I was five, six, eight and eleven, my entire summer was spent away from familiar places and people. My dad did visiting professor schticks during those summers, and thus mom and the kids schlepped along to places with very little for the kids to do except watch the summer slip by and miss friends.

many cubsMaybe I perk up in the fall because some part of me still associates fall with “when I get home, my very favorite place to be in the whole world, and away from this wasteland of my father’s choosing.”

I raise this topic as the winter holidays approach. Is there any one among us who doesn’t have some powerful memories of the holidays, or the dark days, or cold days? One friend lost her husband holiday bearwithout warning shortly before Christmas. I can’t imagine, even twenty years from now, that December won’t occasion some very mixed feelings for her.

The heck of it is, for me, I’m often unaware of the landmines buried in the calendar. My daughter was born in early February. Three days of induced labor, followed by more fatigue and anxiety than I knew I could manage, and every year… I get a little testy when everybody else is ordering flowers and picking up their fave dark chocolate assortment. Then I’ll realize I need to get Beloved Offspring a card (at least), and some crankiness, inability to focus, and weepiness abruptly makes sense–in hindsight. I’ve had twenty-five years to pick up on this pattern, and I can still be surprised by it.

pooh and eyore at ChristmasSeparations–death, divorce, children disappearing to college–and traumas can pepper the year with quagmires we don’t see until we’re stepping in them. Similarly, we’re uplifted by the robins or daffodils, though their arrival coincides with when we began dating our present spouse, or when we conceived a long-desired first baby.

The year is divided into months, but it’s also divided into memories. Are there any dates or times of year that have particular significance for you? Any with associations that catch you by surprise? If you were going to add a personal holiday to the year, what day would you choose, and why?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amex gift card.

 

A Christmas Wish

blog world peace One of the many things I like about the holiday season is that we’re encouraged to think of our unmet needs or dearest wishes. Usually the prompt is innocuous, “So what’s on your Christmas list?” But how often are any of us asked what we really, truly want at any other time of year?

If you’re like me, your usual response to that question goes one of two ways. I want peace, prosperity and good health for everybody—I do mean EVERYBODY.

But if you catch me in a more practical moment (though I think world peace is very practical), I’ll probably tell you I’d love a pair of nice, warm organic wool socks, or that anything small, handmade and pretty will blog organic socksalways be welcome in my home. Sachets, soaps, dried flowers, cottage-decoration stuff gladdens my heart when I think of the person who made it or gave it to me.

As an author, my version of world peace and heart-made crafts is slightly different. I want my books to find their way into hands and hearts that will love them, and I want my books to stay away from the people who will be disappointed with them or upset by them. If that means I have fewer sales, then I’m happy, as long as the readers are happy.

blog Taz tieThere’s a catch with that Christmas question, though. When somebody asks, “So what do you want for Christmas?” You will get another Looney Tunes tie unless you say what you really, honestly, truly want. So here’s an author’s Christmas list, in case you’re ever wondering what an author–any author–would like during the season of appreciation and goodwill.

If you like a book, talk about it. Share it, lend it, recommend it, post about it on social media. Review it if that’s your inclination, drop the author an appreciative note. Let the librarians and book store owners know the book is by one of your keeper authors. Sign up for the author’s newsletter, and connect with him or her on social media. That’s at least ten gifts you can give your favorite authors that cost you nothing, and will mean the world to them.

blog wish listReaders are bright people. They know a recommendation from a friend or family member when it comes to books is likely to be a better match for them than even the much respected Amazon also-boughts. The author has to write an excellent book, but by and large, the readers are the ones who find the right hands for those books.

Lady Needs coverI feel selfish for putting this in a post, because I’m abundantly blessed with lovely readers and a big store of organic wool socks. (World peace might take a while, I get that.) But as somebody pointed out to me recently, sometimes, to have your heart’s desire, you MUST ASK FOR IT.

So I’ve made my list, and taped it on the fridge for anybody to see. What’s on your list that’s hard to ask for, or that might take a while?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amex gift card. Christmas IS coming, so is the cold weather, the heating bills, the holiday food bills…

 

 

“When you have to go there, they have to take you in…”

blog pub flowersIn the bad old days when the British wanted to suppress rebellion in Catholic Ireland, they didn’t forbid attendance at the Mass. They knew what happened during that rite, who would be there, how long it would last, and where people went afterward.

They closed down the pubs instead.

DRNA1017, Cafe Grecco, Hamburg, 19th Century German coffee houseMany sociologists attribute the French Revolution to coffee, not because caffeine turns us into wild-eyed political radicals, but because the coffee houses created a place outside the watchful eye of the monarchy, where ideas could be exchanged, groups assembled, and plans hatched. Coffee houses, clubs, and pubs were thick on the ground in Georgian London, serving the same function in commercial, artistic, political and literary circles.

blog irish pubWhen I was in high school, one of my dad’s graduate students, an Irishmen, commented on how lonely Americans were compared to what he’d seen elsewhere. “You have no third place,” he said. “You have work and home. You try to make church that third place, but it’s church, where you’re supposed to act a certain way, believe certain things, and show up at a certain time. You need a good corner pub in every neighborhood, and you’d solve a lot of your problems.”

blog cheersThink of “Cheers,” of the sense of community and acceptance that fueled the show through nearly a decade of silly episodes, and you get his point.

For some that third place is the gym. Crossfit thrives not only because of a different approach to the physiology of fitness, but also due to a different approach to the gym community. For me, for some very tough years, that third place was the horse barn. My routine was built around those three or four mornings a week when I’d schlep an hour to barn.

dante heather rainbowThis is where my instructor would start a lot of lessons by asking, “So how’s the writing going?” and a tired, dull, work-oppressed day would turn smile-ly. My ridin’ buddies knew me, and I’m still in touch with the friends I made at that barn.

In any community, there’s a price of admission–buy a pint, keep your fists to yourself. Don’t criticize the gun laws. Bring your knitting, even if you haven’t learned to purl yet. Read the book we’re discussing, or at least pretend you have.

But for that relatively low price of admission, you get in return an open door policy, and often, and open-hearted policy. I can’t help but think if we had more of these third places–away from the pressures of home and work, easy to get to blog book cluband easy to leave, flexible hours of attendance–we might do better than a 36 percent turnout at the polls, and we might not be so lonely.

Do you have a third place? If you were looking for one, what would make you feel welcome? Have you read any romance novels that have as their series connector, a third place, or experiences shared at at third place?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 American Express gift card.

 

 

The Lusty Month of November

blog bear in bedThe days are getting shorter, cold weather has made its first appearance in many parts of the country, travel can become more difficult…. but last night’s extra hour of sleep reminded me that I LOVE much about this time of year. I’ll limit myself to ten things:

1) That extra hour of sleep. LOVE IT, and really needed it this week.

blog autumn leaves2) My dad turns 94 today. He’s living at home with his bride of 69 years (and some help). In some ways, he’s contributed more to my welfare in his great old age than he did when he was going full bore as a scientist and university professor. LOVE that guy!

3) The sound of leaves underfoot, the scent of fall.

4) Planting bulbs. This is my niche as a gardener, and on my property, there’s no bad place for a daffodil or tulip to come up.

blog pumpkin pie5) Pumpkin spice everything, the quintessential flavor of late autumn.

6) Amaryllis and poinsettias. They make me HAPPY, and I love sending them to others.

7) The baking, or lord, the baking.

8) Heating with wood. It’s renewable, healthier from a respiratory perspective, and very centering.

blog amaryllis9) The long, dark evenings mean more time for reading and writing.

10) The holidays and snow days mean more time for reading and writing.

I could go on–more time to see family, a chance to rest from the yard work, Christmas cards for those of us who do them… all good things. What do you enjoy about the coming time of year? To TWO commenters, I’ll send a $25 American Express gift card.

Never Having to Say You’re Human

apology  I recently hurt somebody’s feelings, implied she wasn’t doing her best, and that the results were unacceptable. I wish I could explain away these harsh sentiments, wish I could say I was righteously justified. But…. nope. There was no need to couch the situation as I did.

 I think what made my comments so painful to hear was that all I focused on was the mistake. In other words, even if this person worked long and hard on my behalf, had the best intentions, and did  an excellent job in many areas, none of that mattered. “You let me down,” I implied, “and there’s no excuse for that.”

There’s always an excuse for stumbling–we’re human. We forget, we get tired, we miss things. Our best efforts may be bumbling, haphazard, anxious, or ambiguous. Whatever else is true, a single boo-boo, or typo, whether it’s on a page, or in a relationship, is not the sum of the person, the prose, or the relationship. I know this as an author, but I lost sight of that.

sorryWe’re here to learn how to love and be loved, says me, and meanness in any guise runs counter to my Starfleet directive. I’m fortunate that the person I wronged heard and accepted my apology. I elevated the problem over the person, and for that, I will always be sorry. Why did I do that?

I lost perspective because I’m tired, sometimes overwhelmed, and oh, what a coincidence, human. Right there, right where I screwed up, is where I can reconnect with the person I wronged and with my better intentions.

I had to think about this, about what I was apologizing for, and why I’d felt so wronged in the first place. When I got upset with the situation, I did not do as the conflict managers are taught to do, and come up with a neutral definition of the problem. Instead I started blaming, finding fault, and accusing.

very sorryDrat and bother. I hate it when I do that. The situation is behind me now, but I’m chastened and also mindful that I popped off at somebody because I need to look after myself a little better. Fewer to-dos, more good nights sleep; fewer accomplishments and more kindnesses.

When was the last time you stepped in it and had to apologize? Was there a time when you didn’t and wish you had? What stopped you? When did somebody apologize to you, and get it right?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 American Express gift card.

Beware the Deadly Vending Machine

tigerAsk any author to summarize a book review that’s 95 percent positive, and the author will probably lead with the half a sentence of criticism, or the one phrase that wasn’t stellar praise. This is an example of a well documented phenomenon of the human brain called the negativity bias. We focus on bad news, accord it more weight than good news, recall it faster and in greater detail.

tooth fairyThe negativity bias is easy to explain. The cave man or woman who treated every rustling in the bushes as a potential saber-toothed tiger lived longer than their neighbor, who anticipated only the Tooth Fairy lurking in the undergrowth.

But not a lot longer. When average life expectancy was less than 35 years, problems such as heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and arthritis were the fate of only the privileged few. And yet, if you live in a constant state of upset because the modern equivalent of saber toothed tigers are pouncing at you from the newspapers, the high stress job, the commute, the finances, and everywhere in between, then the down side of the negativity bias becomes obvious. Our long term health goes utterly to pot when our panic responses are hammered constantly.

vending machineWe’re scared of ebola, right? It’s a nasty, awful virus, but the fact is, in the US, you’re more likely to die of a vending machine falling over on you than of ebola (as of this writing there has been one fatality in the US from ebola). We’re scared of another financial crisis, of the wrong people getting into office next month, of viruses, big government, big business, and having big behinds.

The neuroscientists and neuropsychologists have taken their theories in an interesting direction: Have we created a jungle full of saber-toothed tigers, both real and imagined (treat the Tooth Fairy like she’s your deadly enemy, and she just might treat you the same way), because we’ve only recently understood how stuck in the past our brain chemistry is? The media, politicians, law enforcement, and much of the financial industry rely on our negativity bias, as does, indirectly, the health care industry. How will that infrastructure stay in business if we don’t jump every time they report to us that the bushes are rustling?

tiger under umbrellaNow for the good news: The negativity bias can be overcome. If you persistently focus on what’s positive, good, encouraging, reassuring, and happy in life, your brain settles down. The negativity bias is still wired into your circuits, but it’s not running your life even when you’re trying to catch a good night’s sleep. As your stress levels drop, your long term health outcomes improve.

dude you gotta protect meBad news is bad news, and should be taken seriously and dealt with. Nonetheless, a steady diet of fear, mayhem, and anxiety is first of all, a misrepresentation of reality for most of us, and secondly, likely to kill us all a lot sooner than any saber-toothed tigers.

So how do you stay positive? How do you unplug from the negativity noise and smell the abundantly blooming roses? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amex gift card.