Making It Work

So last week, I maundered on about the joys of working from home. For a little old introvert like moi, the benefits are many. But how did I get onto that topic?

Welp, I’m researching the causes of depression, in part because Ash Dorning told me to. In his day, depression was called melancholia, and the most frequent prescriptions were to hang out in beautiful nature, move the heck around (walking, fishing, riding, “taking the air,”), and stick with caring, upbeat people who read good books (I did not make that up).

In my research, I came across some studies of the British civil service done by Sir Michael Marmot several decades ago. The purpose of the inquiries was to look at how work impacts our health, and the general theory going in was: The guy (back then it was always a guy) in the corner office has the most stress, the most visibility, the most accountability beyond his department. That’s where the heart attacks, anxiety, depression, and stroke rates will be highest.

Nope. Sir Michael found a straight-line correlation between how far down the pay scale your position was, and how HIGH your risk of physical and mental misery was. All of the civil servants were making a solid livable wage, all were fairly well educated, all were doing “desk” jobs in a society where higher education is affordable and health care is easily accessed. What varied was a) whether they felt they had control over their in-boxes, and b) whether working harder meant more recognition (promotion).

Then the researchers took it one step further: They looked within pay grades for the jobs that had some autonomy and compared them to the jobs that required passive acceptance of whatever was assigned. No surprise, the passive jobs were much more prone to depression and ill health, and yes, we can screen out the causation argument: People with no history of depression became depressed working those in-box jobs. People depressed in the in-box jobs lost the diagnosis when they switched to a more self-empowered position.

The methodology for this research was rigorous, in part because the stakes were high. In one tax inspectors’ office, the suicide rate was four times the national average. Pills might (that’s a big might) ameliorate symptoms of depression, but the cure was to restructure the work place and the means by which people were recruited to it.

We’re told depression is a result of “brain chemistry” run amok, but in Ash Dorning’s day, nobody would have accepted that as a reasonable explanation for melancholia. The logical inquiry would have progressed to: But WHY is the brain chemistry amok, and most often in fairly predictable segments of society? I will do more research on the not-very-cheering topic of why depression happens (thanks, Ash), but this research about work struck me as important and under-reported.

We just set the clocks back, and in the northern hemisphere, we’re approaching the cold, dark, don’t-go-outside season. If you get down, what are your coping mechanisms? Have you spotted factors that make the blues more likely to come around? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of My Own and Only Duke.

 

Full Time Writer and More Time Happy

After months of travel, it’s beginning to sink in that I work at home full time now. Patterns and trends are emerging, and they are mostly positive.

First, I’m on nobody’s clock but my own. If I had a bad night of sleep, I don’t have to show up at 9 am pretending that I’m hitting on all eight cylinders. I work according to my circadian rhythm, which means there’s a slump right after lunch which is best used for walking, puttering, or doing admin work. The post lunch slump is a universal human characteristic (with some individual variation), but I defy you to find the traditional US employer who acknowledges it.

Second, my work environment is set up to accommodate me and what I do for a living. When I hit the end of a scene, I can walk a thousand steps on the tread desk, play a couple games of hearts while I do, and then get back to work. That’s a ten minute break that feels like a break, and yet, is good for me and my productivity. Out in the big world, many employers will penalize people for “idling,” (Amazon’s term, as if we are engines rather than people) or even taking too long to use the jakes.

Third, I am set up to be at my most productive. I do better creative work in play clothes, not courtroom attire. Comfy socks are a must for me, and I do not like to fuss with my hair, ever. At the law office, I was always compromising between “you are judged for your appearance, counselor,” and, “I’m just as qualified in flats as I am in heels.”

Fourth, the balance of meaningful and unmeaningful tasks has shifted toward the more meaningful. The taxpayer’s coin should never be wasted, but all those time sheets I filled out were virtually un-auditable. I could put any old thing down I pleased (in theory), so the exercise was one of appearing accountable while in fact not being accountable. That strikes me as not only stupid but misleading.

At home, the work I do supports me and my loved ones, and–I hope–it makes my readers happy. That’s really meaningful in a direct, immediate way. It’s not busy work dumped on me to keep the whole food chain looking more honest than it is.

Fifth, I have much more control over who is in my day. I’ll just leave that one there…

What strikes me about these gains is that they used to be normal. Most of us worked at or near home until the industrial revolution. We didn’t jump in the car to battle traffic so we could spend most of our waking hours far from loved ones, working by a rulebook we did not help write. What we think is normal now–working away from home, following the rules in the employee handbook, accommodating somebody else’s clock, thermostat, dress code, and calendar–isn’t set up to get the best out of us.

And for most of my working life, I questioned none of this. I was just grateful to be able to pay my bills and sleep in on a rare Saturday. I can see now I wasn’t as smart, productive, happy, or efficient as I could have been.

But I’m happier now. How have you bent the rules, colored outside the lines, or applied creativity to make the work-life work for you? If you are retired or working at home, are you happier? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of My One and Only Duke (which launches TUESDAY!!!!).

Skimpy Reading

I have long marveled at what wonderful company other authors are, and what delightful people my readers are. Every reader I’ve met or interacted with on the topic of my books has been gracious and considerate, even when they are disappointed with a story, or informing me of a boo-boo spotted in the text.

This might be because my reading demographic (the whole historical romance reading demographic) skews older, and thus developed literary habits before the advent of “smart” phones or even computers. We know these devices are eroding our capacity for memory, focus, and analytical thinking–they make us dumber in other words–now it turns out they might also be making us meaner and more forgetful because they have changed the way we read.

In multiple studies of reading habits, the findings increasingly point to screen-reading as costing us the ability to absorb complex material (such as the deliberately convoluted referendum questions we find in the polling booth). The way we read now–scrollity-scroll-scroll-scroll–is also making us less empathetic (anybody lamented the loss of civility in public discourse lately?), and delivering a hit to our recall. Turns out that holding a physical book, turning real pages, and having a physical object that we associate with a specific story (rather than a device that holds untold quantities of data) makes remembering what we’ve read and even reacting to it easier.

On a device, we skim-read, not from left to right, but down first lines, from keyword to keyword, or link to link. The damage, in terms of lack of recall, comprehension, and empathy, shows up as early as age nine or ten, just as a tween begins to face the mounting challenges of peer groups and cyber communities.

I’m reminded of the Victorian’s approach to cigarettes, viewed as a healthful way for a man to relax at the end of his hard day. A huge industry rooted in all manner of labor evils depended on convincing that guy he was entitled to smoke and that smoking was good for him, even as he developed a chronic cough, his clothes began to permanently stink, and cravings became a nuisance. He was in fact, being sold an addiction that rotted his lungs, affected the air quality of everybody around him, and gave Jim Crow wings.

I make a lot of my income selling ebooks, so this question is not idle for me. I suspect the ebook fiction reader might have a different relationship with e-reading than the fifth-grader who’s bored with history class, but I’m concerned nonetheless. I continue to prefer print reading for my recreational reading, or when I’m trying to absorb substantial material. Maybe someday, we’ll read differently for different purposes, just as we printed newspapers on lightweight, easily disposed of paper, and wrote letters on beautiful stationery.

If I had to decide between losing my e-readership, or giving up print books, the choice would be hard. I do know though, that as of this week I am putting the blog on hiatus until later this fall, because I’ve come back from travel with a yen to sink into some great reading.

What about you? Have your reading habits changed with the advent of e-reading? Does e-reading represent a step forward for you or cause you some worry? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Tessa Dare’s The Governess Game (on sale TUESDAY!!!), which will surely be among the print books I’ll gobble up this week.

Once Upon a Time Down Under

I’m enjoying my brief visit to Australia immensely. Everybody I’ve met here has been friendly, and author Anne Gracie should be given an official post as a cultural ambassador. She not only equipped me with the treasure map and compass for navigating Melbourne, she’s been my self-appointed conference-mum at the Romance Writers of Australia annual gathering here in Sydney. And THEN she gave me some of her scrumptious books…

Romance authors really, really are a special bunch of people. If I ever get stuck on a desert island, I’ll try to make sure it’s the romance authors’ desert island.

All of this travel has visited some insights upon me. The first is, daylight really matters to me. I’m not sure this was always true, but it’s true now. When I landed in New Zealand, the weather was dreary for a solid week. When the sun finally came out, it was time to stay in the hotel all day in conference sessions. In Australia, the problem has been sky scrapers.

My hotels have been amid urban canyons, such that even when I go outside, I walk streets that the sun touches only briefly at mid-day. The hotel courtyard might get twenty minutes of sunlight. The rest of the day, even if it’s a brilliantly sunny day, is shadowed. The result is that my biological clock, three weeks after leaving home, still doesn’t know when to sleep or wake up. How do city dwellers deal with this?

Another insight has to do with noise. I know I love quiet, but I hadn’t realized how dealing with noise–conference noise, street noise, construction noise–physically tires me. I drag-butt up to my room, shut the door, and suck up the quiet like a vampire let loose in a bloodmobile. Quiet gives me energy, noise sucks it away. This is a step beyond my sense that “I prefer” quiet, such that I now recognize quiet as a physical and emotional nutrient.

Third, courage is required of all of us. The New Zealanders face earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, but they have no venomous snakes or spiders worth mentioning. Australia has a lot less seismic activity, though there’s a spider here whose bite results in death in less than fifteen minutes. Back in Maryland, we get the rattlesnakes, Lyme disease, flooding, freezing… To dwell on earth is is face hazards, for most of us. I’m reminded of this, and of the fortitude we develop to cope with those hazards, even as we enjoy life and know we have it pretty good.

Despite these hazards, the planet is beautiful, most people are pretty decent and kind. Books are wonderful. Good chocolate seems to be a universal human value, and technology is amazing. I will go home very happy to have traveled, and ecstatic to be back amid the peace and quiet of my bide-o-wee.

If you could wander for three weeks, where would you go and why? Would you take anybody in particular with you? Leave anybody home? To one commenter, I’ll send a SIGNED copy of Anne Gracie’s Marry in Scandal.

 

The Best Time Ee-vah!

I have wrapped up my visit to New Zealand with the Romance Writers of New Zealand annual conference, which reminded me again that romance writers are a special, wonderful breed. We learned a lot, we had fun, we forged and strengthened relationships, and we probably hatched up more than a few new projects.

I really liked New Zealand (can you tell?), and pass along to you here five things I noticed that made me think.

1) On the Air New Zealand flights, every announcement started with “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…” What a concept: Children are visible people. It’s a detail, to include children in flight announcements, but a detail that caught my ear.  Very likely, every kid on the plane sat up a little straighter when they heard that greeting.

2) This is a very diverse culture (the Maori make up fourteen percent of the population, and many other minorities contribute smaller percentages), but it has no history of enslavement or genocidal polices. There is racism, there is wealth inequality, and relations between those of European descent and other cultural groups are not always smooth, but as one New Zealander put it to me: The problems NZ has finding justice amid diversity were far preferable to her than the problems they saw in places like the US and Australia where longer, more bitter history has to be overcome.

3) As an island, NZ grows as much of its food–nearly everything but bananas–as possible. The result is a very clean, locally sourced, seasonally varied diet, and every restaurant I went to offered vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free options.

4) New Zealand culture is gracious. This might be a Maori contribution; a legacy of colonists far from home; a result of people on an island having fine-tuned radar when it comes to the small rituals that help a society get along; or a by-product of a climate that never drives anybody indoors for too long, but it’s lovely. Driving from Wellington to Hawke’s Bay, we stopped to have a cuppa tea with another writer. Two hours later, we were still solving the problems of the known universe. I gather that’s not unusual in New Zealand, and nobody’s ever too busy to stop for a “wee natter.”

5) The most respected brand in New Zealand is Whittaker’s chocolate. This is a family owned business that set up shop in a suburb of Wellington that had few jobs. They’ve been offered many buy-out deals from the big dawgs, but the Whittakers are loyal to their workers and their product, and New Zealanders are loyal to their Whittakers. This is a much more long-term view of success than many businesses take, and it’s working well.

So… in honor of a lovely time in a lovely land, to one commenter, I’ll send a bag of Whittaker’s milk chocolates. Has anything made you stop and think lately? Some snippet of news? A line in a book? A headline or overhead bit of gossip? Is there someplace you’d like to visit, just to get a peek at the culture? (And yes, the authors whose book covers I’ve included above are all from New Zealand, and you can learn more about their books here: Bronwen Evans, Emily Larkin, and Janet Elizabeth Henderson.)

All Hat and No Comprehension

Silver Fern, national symbol of New Zealand

One of the sessions I’m supposed to present at the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference has to do with how an author can keep her balance in an industry that combines the worst of big tech with the worst of the commercial arts. Writers are supposed to stay on top of a business environment that’s growing more complex by the nanosecond, while protecting a creative imagination that’s increasingly endangered, to a significant extent by the very tech we rely on to generate a product.

What’s an author to do?

Write books of course, and stick with the readers, because they support the core agenda of getting good stories into the hands of the people who will appreciate them most.

Flower from which manuka honey is made

Everybody else–the publishing houses, marketing weanies, tech giants, agents, editors, and various other support personnel–takes a backseat role to the readers. If an author doesn’t have or value readers, the circus folds in short order.

But beyond that Prime Directive, I’ve also spotted a few potholes that wait to trap the unwary author, and one of them that seems to cross many professions is the person whose receptive language skills can’t keep up with their expressions language skills.

Whazzat mean? These are the people our grandmas and grandpas said, were, “All hat and no cattle.” They can talk a good game… as long as that game is about themselves. They are articulate, knowledgeable, and even charming, but the more closely you listen the more you realize, they can’t process what you’re telling them. A basic question, “What platform do you find best suited to discovery of a dinosaur-shifter-suspense series?” gets a lot of blah-blah-blah in response.

These folks can always tell you what they want you to know, but when it comes to dishing on what you need to know… more blah-blah. They can’t process incoming information well or quickly, they aren’t good analytical thinkers. They are tapdancing as fast as they can, hoping you (and they?) don’t find that out.

I have met many receptive-language laggards in the courtroom. Attorneys, social workers, clients… as long as they are on “send,” they manage quite well. When it comes to “receive” or “acknowledge,” the speed is much slower and your message has a hard time getting through. Of course, nobody wakes up at the age of three and says, “Who needs receptive language skills? Not me. I’ll just express myself at top speed for the rest of my life and I’ll be fine.” This skill deficit that makes life hard, and I don’t wish it on anybody.

Kiwi Tree

But I also don’t wish its results on me, or one my author buddies, so in my presentation, I’m dropping a flag on people with this communication pattern, authors included. If this is your cross to bear, then you’ve probably learned to ask, “Could you repeat that?” or, “Let me make sure I understand…” or, “How, exactly, does that work in a cause and effect sense?” In the absence of compensating habits like those questions, dialogue can become monologue very quickly.

What are some communication styles or habits that drive you bonkers? Are there any skills or habits you’ve come across that are particularly helpful for keeping conversation productive? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of my laaaaasssst (I think) ARC of My One and Only Duke.

 

Grace Goes to Summer Camp (with Alexander von Humboldt)

I’m having an orgy.

In the bathroom, I hang out with Alexander von Humboldt, of Humboldt Current fame, and he’s currently spending the summer with Kant, Goethe, Schiller, and I forget who else. They talk about Everything far into the night while Napoleon begins his twenty-year rampage of violence across the Europe. In another eighty pages or so, the intrepid explorer and I will climb Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, and then we’ll pay a call on Thomas Jefferson.

Von Humboldt really, truly, did rub shoulders with all those luminaries, and impressed every one of them. By the year 1800, he’d predicted human-induced climate change. This guy was amazing, and you can read all about him in The Invention of Nature.

On the tread desk, I’m gorging on Empire of Guns, a frighteningly convincing look at how violence fueled the Industrial Revolution. We focus on all the inventions and the progress when learning about the Industrial Revolution, but change the perspective a bit, and ye gods, all the wars… the huge, expensive, deadly wars, and the technological advances they engendered. That book is going to take me a while.

Because war and politics aren’t exactly light fare, I’m also scarfing up In Search of Sir Thomas Browne–The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century’s Most Inquiring Mind. I’d never heard of this guy, but he invented the words electricity, hallucination, and suicide, to name a few among the hundreds of terms he introduced into English. Sir Thomas and I must become better acquainted. Where has he been all my life?

I know where Sir Thomas has been. He, like the expedition von Humboldt led up Mount Chimborazo, have been waiting for me to ditch the lawyer gig. They have been patiently holding their horses until I had the time and energy to wander in a bookstore for an hour–a whole hour!–picking up whatever I pleased to investigate and purchasing whatever I chose to read.

I write books. I know how wonderful they are, but I’d forgotten what it’s like to have the time to read as I pleased, not only as I should. I’m still browsing a couple of writing craft books, I still need some historical mystery to fall asleep to, but to have good books weaving themselves into my whole day is the best summer camp ever.

What would your best summer camp ever look like? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card.

 

 

Expert Support

I have spent the past week at the Romance Writers of America annual conference, which is like no other gathering I’ve experienced. Complete strangers hug me, and for the most part–at RWA–I’m OK with that. What follows the hug is usually something along the lines of, “I love your books, especially the one about the guy with the dogs, and the Shakespeare lady, and there was a nervous pug…”

Will’s True Wish, The Soldier, Darius… my books have made friends for me, and thus those hugs are not really from strangers.

In the past few years at RWA, the concept of imposter syndrome has popped up in many discussions, and even on the programming. What is it? What to do about it? Is it a uniquely female affliction and if so, why? To quote the Harvard Business Review: Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters‘ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.”

Oddly enough, I have been reading lately about expertise. What is it? Who has it? What does it take to become an expert? Malcolm Gladwell and others have popularized the notion that expertise is not a function of innate talent. Experts are made not born, and generally, they are made by enormous amounts of practice, with 10,000 hours being the figure most often cited.

But I can sit in a practice room and saw away on my violin for 10,000 hours, and still not become very accomplished. To develop expert status, I need two other resources. In addition to assiduous practice, I need knowledgeable, devoted teachers. I can make progress by self-teaching, but those experienced instructors will propel me toward true expertise. The final leg of an expert’s stool is… emotional support.

To achieve the status of master, along the way, we need not only teachers guiding our hard work, but the support of those who have faith in us and our ability. We need a cheering section, or we’re likely to give up, doubt, backslide, and drift away. RWA is one place where authors who mostly toil at their craft in solitude can find both competent instruction and enthusiastic support. Of the two, the enthusiastic support is the more precious.

I suspect that is part of the origin of imposter syndrome: Somebody has worked very hard, for a very long time, while receiving good instruction. They lacked support, however, and thus when success arrives, nobody is saying, “I knew you could do it! I’m so proud of you! The great day has finally come and your hard work is getting the appreciation it deserves!”

So maybe it’s not imposter syndrome at all. Maybe it’s “If I wasn’t worth supporting along the way, maybe I don’t deserve success now” syndrome. Perhaps we should call it sabotage syndrome: When somebody working very hard toward a goal must do so without needed support from friends, community, and loved ones, and the success achieved is emotionally sabotaged by those who withheld needed emotional support. Just a theory.

Is there an expert-in-progress you’ve supported? Did you get the support you deserved as you struggled to develop competence? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of My Own and Only Duke. (And no, Quinn Wentworth does not suffer from imposter syndrome.)

The Importance of Earnest Daydreaming

Because I can’t be working on Lord Casriel’s happily ever after with Lady Canmore every waking hour, I’m also reading a nice little book, The Net and the Butterfly, by a couple of clever people whose topic is, “The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking.” This is related to my last reading project–Iconoclast–which had to do with thinking new thoughts and solving old problems with new solutions.

The breakthrough thought is also usually a solution to a problem, or an insight about the way forward. I need a lifetime supply of these if I am to write interesting fiction, but such thoughts also come in handy when trying to decide whether to sell the house or which car I should get when my 10-year-old Prius dies.

The book explains that we have two ways of attacking our mental goals. One is through the executive network. This is the conscious pondering, parsing, studying, debating, and information gathering…. all the stuff you do when you’re faced with a decision or given a challenge. This is “using your smarts.” The other resource we have is the “default network,” which hums along quietly in the background.

The two networks cannot both be in high gear simultaneously. If we’re deploying all of our firepower on executive tasks, the default network, which operates below the level of conscious thought, has to stand down. The default network swings into action when the executive network has downed tools. That happens while we load the dishwasher, fold clothes, go for a walk, drop off to sleep, or stand around waiting for the guy to find our dry cleaning.

When an idea “pops into your head” as you squeeze the shampoo into your palm or water the plants, your default network has been given enough time and resources to produce a solution for your executive network to implement.

What I got from that little description of cognitive functioning was two insights: First, it’s important to build “idle tasks” into my day if I’m trying to puzzle out a plot, develop a convincing character arc, or make a big career decision. In fact, workers carrying a heavy cognitive or creative load are most productive when they do have frequent breaks or their assignments throughout the day vary between the brainiac and mundane.

Second, there is such a thing as thinking too hard about a problem. The default network excels at finding patterns the executive will never spot, at seeing similarities and metaphors  the hyperfocused executive could never connect. If I’m to come up with the best stories, over and over, it’s imperative that I build in that most critical period for any successful mind: RECESS.

Have you ever gotten a “bolt from the blue” insight? Ever wrestled with a big problem only to have the solution drop into your head while you were vacuuming? How does your day include recess, or how could it? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed Advanced Reader Copy of My Own and Only Duke.

Hello Silence, My Old Friend

After a stretch of days that nudged up to and hit the 100-degree mark, (complete with good old Maryland humidity), we’ve hit a patch of lower temperatures–80s by day, 60s by night.

I use window units to the cool the house, so I’m only cooling where I am, when I’m there, and only when the discomfort has become unbearable. As much as possible, I make do with just a fan. Now that we have a break in the weather, I notice the cool–oh, boy, do I–and the difference in the light because of the lower humidity and the fact that I’m keeping doors open all day.

I also notice the quiet. No roaring box fans, no AC clicking on and off, and back on. The house is what I consider “normal” again, so quiet I can hear the florescent bulbs in the kitchen and every bird tweeting in the yard. Every car that goes by is a ripple across the pond of my quiet.

Quiet is good for us, and may constitute a large part of the benefit of mindfulness mediation. Noise, by contrast, is bad for us, and most definitely makes the list of reasons why open office plans are a false economy, large classrooms can be tougher learning environments, and sleep patterns become erratic. This is true even if it’s quiet when you go nighty-nighty. If your day was noisy, your mind can stay noisy long afterward.

My dear mother was not as attached to quiet as I am. She would play morning radio for company, or a classical music station in the evening. She was home alone by the hour, and sound helped her feel less isolated. She needed light though–natural sunlight, if at all possible. She thrived in homes that had many large picture windows, and arranged her surroundings to take advantage of the sunlight.

Turns out, natural light is full of benefits. Given a choice, most people will seek natural lighting over the artificial kind, and if they can find some natural light, they will be happier, more productive, and calmer. Homes full of natural light are less likely to be plagued with mold and mildew, students who have naturally lit classrooms will enjoy better academic performance. Young children who spend time in natural light are less likely to end up nearsighted.

My mom needed a tidy house, I need a house where I can see my stuff, or I’ll forget what I have (this is typical of visual thinkers). I need flowers too, which also bring a surprising load of benefits with them, from enhanced problem-solving and creativity, to improved mood.

What is your ideal environment? What are your environmental non-negotiables? Is there a way to have more of what makes you thrive, and less of what blights your joy? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of My One and Only Duke.