In Praise of Boredom

Children in my family learned very early in life to never, EVER imply, mention, intimate, or hint to my mother that we were bored. Her response would be to assign some chore or other, as if an admission of boredom merited punishment instead of an application of imagination.

And yet, we were bored a lot. My father believed television was a tool of Satan, and resisted allowing one into the house until some neighbors gave us one (I was was in middle school by then, or close to it). We were never allowed to  watch TV on school nights, not even if all the homework was done and a foot of snow was predicted overnight. There were no girls my age in my neighborhood by the time I was seven–not a one–and by the time I turned eight, my next-up sister wasn’t so keen on being my playmate anymore.

I was bored, hence I developed a passion for reading–and we know where that led. At age ten I started piano lessons, and that was a fine way to sop up free time. I ended up with a degree in music history because of that desperation hobby, and paid my way through college by accompanying ballet classes too.

For all of my childhood I lived on the edge of a woods, and “going for a walk,” was permitted pretty much without limits, even alone after dark. I rambled a fair amount on my own, especially when the wildflowers were in bloom. Just went out for some fresh air, because, well, what else was there to do?

And now, I am so very, very grateful that I came of age before screens–smartphones, tablets, computers, game stations–were around to whisk away our boredom. When our attention, focus, and privacy are the most valuable commodities in the marketplace, very shrewd people have made it their life’s work to winkle those treasures from our grasp. Young people who’ve never faced boredom without a screen to slap over it, are proving to be less creative, less motivated to solve communal problems, less socially skilled, and less able to focus on anything for extended periods than their elders.

It turns out that when we’re bored–just idling between tasks, ignoring the to-dos–that’s when our subconscious goes to work crafting our personal narrative (“Who am I really?”), deciding what our priorities should be, and figuring out how to achieve them. Take away the down time, the I-don’t-really-feel-like-doing-anything time, and you take away a significant resource for building a person who does know what they want and who they are.

So I’m really careful about the screen time as I figure out how to be a full-time writer. Netflix is waiting to suck me in like that intergalactic garbage scow from Startrek, with “the next episode” always queued up before I’ve even finished the credits on the segment I’ve just watched.

I’m not falling for that. Yesterday I got so bored I played the piano for the first time in years. Pretty soon the weather will be nice enough to inspire some gardening. I might even–don’t quote me–take up regular housework, but I am not surrendering my boredom to the greed, manipulation, and invasion of privacy that wears the face of the typical screen “engagement.”

Can you go a day without using your phone for anything but phone calls? Have screen distractions eliminated boredom from your life, or are there hobbies you no longer pursue because social media, games, and apps have invaded that space? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Love by the Letters AND a $50 Amazon gift card.

 

More Snow

Welp, it’s February in Maryland. This has meant temperatures down to zero, windchills well below zero. Back-to-back ice storms, sloppy snow, and unrelentingly gray skies. Getting to the horse barn has been a dicey proposition in recent weeks, and days when I can air out the house have been few and far between. I love me some fresh air inside the house, but I do not love me those winter heating bills.

I’ve gone through the, “But there aren’t any bugs, Grace. You hate all the summer bugs, ‘member?” phase, and I’ve told myself, “The daffodils will soon be up!” though it looks to me like soon is, at best, weeks away. This time of year is just a dreary slog, much like the unrelenting heat and humidity of August can be dreary slog.

And yet, I am getting a lot of writing done. Snow days are the best thing for my productivity since the invention of the word processor. That weather-reprieve from having to go anywhere or do anything outside the house always echoes with my childhood glee at seeing heavy snowfalls. No school! Wheeee! Even if I spend the whole day chained to my writing oar, I’m happier for doing so with a sense of having cheated the to-do gods.

I also like watching the days slowly lengthen. I feed animals outside, every day, twice a day, so whether it’s dark at 5:30, 5:45, or 6 pm registers with me. I like seeing the bulbs start to push up through the snow. If those flowers can reach for the light, so can I. I like having my first cup of tea out on the porch on sunny mornings, even if I have to wear my puffer jacket AND my fleece vest. Sunshine is my friend these days, regardless of temperature.

I like how good a cup of hot tea feels when it’s cold outside. Whether I’m sitting down to write, coming in from outside, or settling in for an episode of Nicholas Le Floch, that steamy cup of tea is a real treat. In summer… not so much. I like that the heat is much quieter than the AC. I love my flannel sheets, and I adore paddling around the house in my Maggie Moo organic wool socks.

Listing these pleasures and treats makes the dreary weather more bearable, and inspires me to savor my current cuppa tea. What are you savoring about this time of year, or–because sometimes a slog is just slog–what are you looking forward to in the next month?

To one commenter, I will send a print copy of Love by the Letters, on sale Tuesday, AND a $50 Amazon gift card.

The Art of the Bounce

This business of not having a job outside the home is lovely. I can arrange my day so I’m writing at the best time for my brain to write. I have the luxury of riding a pony once or twice a week (which puts me around horse people, never a bad thing). I am even (do not quote me) getting after a few long-deferred house projects.

What’s not to love? I think this is how we were born to thrive, rather than starting the day tearing out the door to Go to Work, by means of a stinky old commute, to a place our family and friend don’t see us, while doing stuff that makes money mostly for somebody else. Just my opinion, (and just what worked for us as a species for most of history recorded and otherwise).

Nonetheless, there is a downside–for me–to working and living in the same place. In as much as that commute resulted in a change of scene, a change of focus, a change of identity, I no longer have that. I can mentally hamster wheel ALL DAY, which is fine when a book is working, and utter misery when I’m worrying about the state of the world.

So I did me some research into the quality of resilience, the ability to shrug off anxiety, trauma, stress, and resume productive and happy life after hitting a pothole. How do people learn to bounce? To get up that seventh time? The answers were fairly easy to find, and at the top of the list was… (drum roll, please)… not exercise! (That was a relief.)

At the top of the list was having a core set of values that help define who you are. If you know what you believe in, what you’d march for, then it’s easier to get back to being that person after a storm, and it’s easier to hang onto her through the foul weather. Another factor high on the list was having strong community to call upon.

One study looked at people in a medical setting getting bad news. If they had a loved one with them, their heart rate and blood pressure returned to normal sooner after getting the bad news than if they were unaccompanied. The support person didn’t have to say anything, do anything, offer a hug or a tissue, they just had to be there.

Exercise and learning new things did figure on the list too. Why? Because both build new neural pathways in the old braineroo, and part of resilience is training your mind not to get stuck in a worry/anxiety/blue rut. If you have other paths to send your neural impulses down, the ruts have less gravity.

And so I bethought unto myself: Isn’t this what happens in a good romance novel? Somebody finds–or two people find–the person who can help them stay centered, the person who forces them to refine their values and identity, the person who boosts them into new adventures and strengths despite adversity? No wonder we love our HEAs. They are a recipe for a life of love and joy even amid trouble.

Because Valentine’s Day is this week, I’m upping the gift card to $75. How do you weather the big black moments and move on from them?

Writer the Pooh

To be a writer with a work in progress is to be in a constant state of tension. On the one hand, my imagination is drawn to the world of my story. What ARE those characters getting up to now? What are they saying and doing and is that what needs to come next in the manuscript? Characters go off on goose chases, much like me when I stop by Target for a box of envelopes.

And yet, like a music box tune that starts off at a vivace tempo and gradually winds down into a dirge, the story world will lose momentum if I stare at it without ceasing. Besides, if ‘m not to write the same story over and over, I must gather new material for my imagination to spin into gold.

So the other weight on my attention is a lively curiosity. My internal monologue can sound something like this: What if we didn’t put gender on our driver’s licenses? I mean, the nice MVA people already have my height, weight (well…), age, eye color, and MY EVER-SO-FLATTERING PICTURE. I don’t drive with my hoo-ha, so why is that even  relevant?

Followed immediately by: I could use another cuppa tea. Oh, there IS a cuppa tea in the microwave, one going lukewarm from the last time I reheated it.

And then: What is that cat doing on top of the fridge? Those cats, I mean… When is some brilliant soul going to patent feed-through birth control for feral cats? Somebody smarter than I am ought get on that, before mother cats rule the world…

This combination of internal focus and external distractability means I am usually in the wrong mental gear for whatever I’m doing. When it’s time to buckle down and write, I want to know what bird is making all that racket in the yard–what specific species of ave is creating that much noise? When it’s time to have a quiet chat with a friend going through a breakup, I am listening for my friend to offer an insight a duke might offer if his duchess had just left him.

This has always been how my mind works. I drive in silence because I need car-time to let that music box wind down. I also, though, notice details that delight me. Did you know England has a Tree of the Year? Is that not a terrific idea? I should choose a tree of the year on my property. The English and Scots also choose names for their houses. We name farms and businesses where I live (sometimes), but what should I name this house where I have written seventy different HEAs, raised my kid, mourned my parents, and swilled oceans of tea?

Any one of those casual questions can turn into a whole book. It’s as easy as this: What if two houses had the same name, and on a dark and stormy night, the heroine’s coachman got directions to the wrong one? I should write that!

What have you noticed in your wanderings lately that made you stop and think, stop and smile, stop and scowl? What SHOULD you name your house? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift card.

 

 

An Enviable Position

A long time ago, a good boss told me that if I want to meet multiple deadlines, I need to bear in mind two rules: 1) Start early, and 2) Start writing. Productivity is the sine qua non of successful author-dom.

So when I saw an article, about how body position and posture can affect mood, recall, self-image and other brain functions, and particularly how hunching over a cell phone or screen can make us more anxious, dull, and down, I sat back–from my computer screen–and bethought myself: I really tend to slump in the early afternoons. Physically and otherwise. I’ve noticed this particularly since I had to get a new computer, a Surface (which I do not like), because my old ASUS crashed without warning (which I hated).

The Surface has a smaller screen, the resolution and illumination aren’t as effective. Long story short, I tend to be “hunchier” when I’m writing these days. In addition to twiddling the computer end of that equation, I decided to take action on the Grace-end.

I inserted into my day several gratuitous expressions of a few power poses, including the “pride” posture . This is the way we present ourselves, arms up and outstretched, chin lifted, often a leg lifted as well, when we’re spontaneously exhilarated by achievement. Even blind people, who have never seen an end zone dance or watched Usain Bolt take the victory lap, will adopt this posture when celebrating a great accomplishment.

The results for me have been positive. I  stand in the kitchen, feet apart, hands on hips, Wonder Woman-style, as the microwave is heating my tea water, and my confidence centers. If I do my victory lap around the living room when I’m picking up cat toys, and I find I’m naturally inclined in those moments to think more upbeat thoughts, even if I do look silly. I open up my sitting position, fold my arms behind my head, and I’m not a self-employed author slogging through a book’s middle, I’m the executive director of my own literary empire.

There has to be something to this. Drill sergeants, band leaders, grandmas, and life coaches all tell us to sit up straight, to own our space, to stand tall. The advocates for good posture come at us from many perspectives, and similarly, the advocates for bad posture–the bosses who want us hunched over the screen sixty hours a week with no OT, the politicians who don’t care if schools have up to date classroom furniture, the prisons that cram full grown men into cots sized for boy scouts–aren’t served by our confidence and self-possession. I suspect putting women in four-inch stilettos might also have an ulterior agenda besides… though, really, what IS the point of teetering around in stilettos?

I don’t know how this train of thought will find its way into my books–it’s too good not to use–but I am glad that article caught my eye (while I was hunched over my computer).

If you were going to work some power poses into your day, where would you start? Or are they already there? Did somebody encourage you to develop good posture earlier in life? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 gift card.

 

When Life Hands You Dragons

For much of my life, I have been afraid of the dark. When I was little, I’d wait for my roommates to fall asleep (originally I shared a room with three siblings, then one), then I’d creep out into the hall and turn on a light, THEN I could fall asleep. Later in life one of my brothers objected even to the light that came into his bedroom through the crack under his door, so I’d stay awake until he fell asleep, then put a towel over that crack, turn on the hall light, and fall asleep.

The reasons for my fear of the dark are probably rooted in my mother’s exhaustion. By kid No. 6, she was a big believer in “allowing” babies to cry themselves to sleep. One of my oldest siblings vividly recalls trying to study for his high school biology final with a textbook in one hand and a baby cradled with the other. Why? Because that ‘damned baby’ would have screamed for hours if he hadn’t picked ‘it’ up. The screaming baby was very likely me, who remains particularly close to that brother to this day.

My little brother and next-up sister ALSO had an exhausted mom, though, and they were never afraid of the dark. My superpower as a kid was anxiety, to the point of panic attacks. I could imagine the vilest monsters ever to ooze forth from the blackest pit dwelling under my bed. Snakes the size of school buses were waiting to slither up from the woods when darkness fell, and oh, the hideous, insatiable beasts the lurked in the closet. (The nuns have much to answer for.)

What plagued me was a very powerful imagination–so powerful, I can now make my living with it (knock wood).

What shifted this imagination from mostly a burden to mostly a blessing is a lot of therapy (weekly for five straight years back before for-profit health care was a thing), and also the acquisition of some simple cognitive tools for charming the snakes and disappearing the monsters. What never helped me sleep better was any sort of rational argument, as in, “You’ve awakened safe and sound in the morning for years now, Grace Ann. What makes you think tonight is the night the banshees will steal you away?” Or my un-favorite, “It’s all in your head. Close your eyes and go to sleep.”

I’m grateful as heck now for the imagination that went in all the wrong directions when I was a kid. I wish I’d found a few more coping mechanisms a lot sooner, but the ability to manipulate ideas, pretend, ponder, and cogitate my way through problems and challenges has been my light sword in adulthood. I wish I had seen much sooner the great gift those  monsters under the bed represented.

What problem did you have to solve or cope with as a kid? Did you reap any reward from the experience or develop a useful skill? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift card, because I don’t yet have any advanced reader copies of Love by the Letters (but I should soon)!

 

The January Blisses

This time of year can get a little trying. For my area, we’re coming up on the coldest week of the year, and we’re still in the darkest season. As I type this, it’s snowing, and we’re on track for six inches by morning. Enough to make the driving interesting.

I’ve begun that daunting annual ritual of preparing to file my personal and corporate taxes. No matter how many times I tell the nice CPA people, “Please don’t waste $300 looking for $3.00,” they are extraordinarily vigilant in matters of accuracy. Accuracy with numbers is not my best thing ever. I’m better at concepts and trends, you see… But in January, I must fine-tooth-comb pages and pages of data entry, down to the penny, and it maketh me to howl.

I am also looking at all the writing I have signed up to do in 2019, and preparing ritual sacrifices to the deities of creativity in hopes that I can come up with brilliant stories to go with that ambitious schedule. I’m a little down to think I won’t see family again until summer, and the usual anxiety about uncertain markets and career viability seems to crest a little higher as the holiday sales-boost (for some books some of the time) wears off.

January can be a challenge, in other words.

BUT, I also love January. It’s quiet, after all the holiday hoopla. I did just get to spend time with family and love the sense of renewed connection. The days are already getting longer (yay!), the evenings are plenty long enough to lend themselves to a writing session (yipeee!), and there are NO BUGS in January (raptures abounding!). In January, in addition to my book deadlines, I also look ahead to adventures on the calendar.

The entire Burrowes clan will get together on the West Coast this summer. I’m scheduled to tour Scotland with friends in September. My next book launch–Love the by the Letters, is coming up in little over a month–already! I always get more writing done in winter than during other seasons, and this year has been no exception. I’m well into a story for Hawthorne Dorning and a lady named Margaret Summerfield.

She’s a nose, having–much like my father did–phenomenal olfactory sensitivity. He’s a swain, meaning his heart is as perceptive as her nose. Fun times! I hope this story will be on the shelves by June as the next True Gentlemen, but the whole business of conceiving, drafting, refining, packaging, and presenting a book enthralls me. How I love being able to write for a living, and how much harder it was to slog through January before writing became my calling.

Does January get old for you? Do you dread to see the  hotter weather coming closer? How do you accommodate the challenge of winter, or are you one of those people who’d live at the north pole if you could? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift card.

Play It Forward

In 2018, I shed the professional identity of lawyer and cast my revenue-generating lot exclusively upon my writing abilities. (Wish me luck!) Typical of me, I approached the transition intent upon educating myself about how to manage the writer’s greatest asset: Her imagination. I would say to friends, “I’m studying creativity, taking a look at what sustains creativity, what fosters greater creativity.”

That sounds quite serious, quite grown-up, and it’s very interesting reading. In reality, though, my brand of creativity–a sustained gamed of Let’s Pretend–is little more than lucrative play. I’ve taken a pastime every child should be familiar with, spinning stories from worlds that don’t exist, and turned it into a livelihood, as many other lucky people have done before me.

I did not say to my friends, “I’m off to learn how to play more exuberantly.” Or, “I’m focused on winning the Let’s Pretend gold medal in the romantic fiction long distance event, open bedroom door division!” Creativity has an improving reputation, play is for children. Among the enlightened, maybe play is for rejuvenation so we can get back to work refreshed, but I’m beginning to take issue with that definition too.

Play is serious business, as proven by even a few minutes spent with the scientific literature on the subject. Play improves memory and focus, language learning capability, problem-solving ability, math skills, and self-regulation (which our moms called self-discipline). Play can also be where we learn team work, cooperation, and both how to be a good leader, and how to spot the differences between good and bad leaders. People with good play histories are more resilient and better able to make connections between divergent concepts.

Play is so important, that when we are play-deprived in childhood, particularly deprived of self-directed, unstructured “free play,” (also known as wasting time, goofing off, or messing around), we become more anxious, depressed, and aggressive. The bad news is that children’s free play has been declining for decades, mostly from expanding schoolwork requirements, but also because of safety concerns, hovering parents, and over-scheduling of organized activities. The very bad news is that as free play has disappeared from the common childhood experience, suicide rates for children under 15 have quadrupled.

The good news is, I am the boss of me as much as anybody is the boss of me. I not only want to infuse my life with recreation–new sights, lovely people, great books–but I also want to get over the notion that play is frivolous and self-indulgent. I am VERY fortunate that my childhood play history was an embarrassment of riches, complete with my own wild woods to wander in, parents who thought television was a tool of Satan, and stacks and stacks of National Geographic magazines to pore over.

I would like for my dotage to be similarly blessed, because I am convinced that all work and no play makes us a hopeless, bored, doomed society. Play is not just for fun or a change of pace before we plod back to the salt mines, play is the engine of the ingenuity, resilience, and creativity that have allowed us to survive thus far.

How did you play as a kid? How do you play now? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift certificate, and I promise, this week, I will do a better job of responding to comments!

Auld Lang Syne Wave

I did not have the easiest time of it in 2018. Getting shut of the law office was months of hurry up and wait/do nothing until you hear from the bureaucrats/are we there yet? My dearest old kitty girl Chloe departed for the Elysian fields as did my best old dawg Murphy. I got better acquainted with e. coli than anybody ever should (trust me on that), and I was too ambitious in terms of my travel commitments. I look at parts of the year with an element of, “That was no fun AT ALL.”

And yet, it was a very good year. Somebody asked me what I did in 2018 that I’m proud of, and I had to stop and think. My natural inclination is to deny that I’m proud–proud is like arrogant, isn’t it? Well, no, Grace Ann. Proud is not like arrogant, but that’s a topic for another blog.

I have on a few occasions been quite pleased with myself this year. I was pleased with myself earlier this month when, on my third riding lesson in forever, the horse cantered and I stayed on. I’d asked for a bigger trot, but the horse volunteered the greater effort of the canter, so correcting him for over-trying in good faith would not have been fair. To feel the canter again was wonderful and did marvelous things for my joie de Grace. 

I’m also proud of myself for traveling to New Zealand and Australia. It’s a measure of my timidity that even very friendly, easily traveled English-speaking foreign countries challenge me. Nonetheless, I know that if I’m to rely on my imagination to make my living, then I have to see new sights and expose myself to new perspectives. Suffice it to say, I hope I get back Down Under…. eventually.

And I’m proud of myself for things that might seem small to others, but for me are significant: A bazillion steps on the tread desk. In real life, I am not a sloth, I am a glacier. Moving around is simply not what I do best, but day after day, I shook the lead out and did some steps. That’s an improvement over previous years, and I’m proud of it.

I’m proud of myself for learning how to take a Word document and, using Vellum software on a Mac, format it for use as an ebook on either a kindle or another ereader. Then I learned how to upload those files on all the major ebook platforms. I’m slow, I have to re-learn half the process every time I do it, and I don’t enjoy it (see “on a Mac”), but I learned new tech skills, and got ‘er done for three different releases. Old dawg, meet new tricks.

What about your 2018 made you proud of yourself? Is there a challenge you’d like to tackle in 2019? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift e-card.

The Alpha-Myth

In a certain corner of Romancelandia, the alpha male stalks as the uber-hero. He’s first of all, tough. His physical prowess is undisputed, and if you cross him, he will flatten you. He solves a lot of problems with violence, which earns him the respect of all who behold him. Only underhanded cunning can bring him low, but such is his determination and resilience, that he will triumph over even brilliant cheaters, and crush them beneath his size 13 black biker boots.

These guys have never really worked for me, unless they are also written with human depth–humor, tender sentiments, unexpected hobbies, foibles, and other traits we expect real men to have.  I encounter the alpha male most often when I’m judging contests, and I’ve been assigned the romantic suspense entries. All too often, half-way through the book I’m wondering: Is the only difference between the hero and the villain that the hero is a more effective killer who takes lives on behalf of the “right” flag? And we’re supposed to fall in love with that? Really?

So when I came across a TED talk by Frans de Waal, the primatologist who popularized the term “alpha male,” I gave it a watch. According to de Waal, we think–or have been taught to think–of an alpha male as the guy who wins the fight for reproductive rights in the chimpanzee troop, because the ability to fight hard and be big and strong must surely be the traits nature favors for perpetuation of the species. This mythology would have us believe that nature itself wants the biggest bruiser to get the most representation in the gene pool, and nature is never wrong.

Except, that’s not how any of this works. Turns out, the alpha male has two jobs that take up most of his time. The first is to serve as an impartial judge of disputes. Without reference to whether the unhappy parties are his family members or unrelated to him, he adopts a disinterested perspective to settle differences. This flies in the face of genetic priorities, but the evidence is incontrovertible. The alpha male must be a fair judge.

His second big job is consolation. He is the great giver of pats on the back and hugs, whether the aggrieved are the losing parties in his courtroom or a family dealing with the loss of an infant at the paws of a rapacious cheetah. He’s Mr. There-There, I share your loss. I’m sorry for your troubles. He’s clergy, in other words.

Maintaining his alpha status is much more about justice and compassion than about violence or dominance. If an alpha male is well liked, he can be deposed as the top dawg and still enjoy plenty of reproductive privileges, suggesting–again–that nature values

charm, compassion, and fairness more than a violent temper.  Moreover, our closest primate kin–the bonobos–are matriarchal, and their communities thrive by solving almost all problems with copulation rather than aggression. You surely don’t see many mainstream tales based on that scientific fact, do you?

I suspect the inaccuracy of the alpha male myth doesn’t come as much of a surprise to romance readers. We have little patience for thugs and bullies, and certainly don’t fall in love with them. What I do wonder is why the science was so widely mis-characterized in the first place, and why any man worth a meet would have accepted the myth at face value, much less let it come to represent a persona to be mistakenly admired or emulated.

Who’s your ideal hero? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift card.