Category Archives: Life

How to Succeed as a Writer (or Anything Else)

“The failure to comprehend a problem is sometimes the best way to transcend it.”

—C. A. Newsome, June 2015

I spent some time talking to a literary genius recently. Someone who can write rings around me while juggling Mom’s china. I’ve known this person all my life, and he could do this before he went to two prestigious schools to obtain degrees in English lit. He’s devoted his life to books. Yet, as far as I know, he has never published anything except some brilliant reviews he wrote for  his college newspaper. I expect the world will discover thousands of pages of priceless prose after his death. I am hoping he will leave them to me in his will.

“The problem is, you either have to have a one-in-a-million lucky stroke, or you have to spend years rigorously refining your writing until you’ve perfected your pandering.”

—literary genius on achieving success as an author

My literary genius is paralyzed by too much knowledge: too many stories about iconic books that were rejected dozens or even hundreds of times before they were printed, passed over again and again while the best seller lists teemed with barely-literate fluff; the DNA-deep understanding that it takes ten years or more of banging your head against the door before someone will let you in, and once they do, they will take the child of your heart and do with it what they will while tying you up with a contract that says they own you.

You would think the explosion in self publishing would have oppressed literary types like my genius at the forefront. Instead, they are suffering their own form of Stockholm syndrome, still seeking approval from the brutal and draconian system that rejected them all their lives.

There are many stories of first time hacks (like me) who said, “Writing a book would be fun. I can publish it myself? Cool!” who blundered into self-publishing and quickly turned it into a full-time business. My favorite example, Colleen Hoover, became a millionaire and hit the NYT bestseller list in six months.

Random House takes 18 months to turn a manuscript into a book. It took me five months to earn enough from my first book to quit my job. That’s why I penned the pithy and profound saying above. All us newcomers did not know that publishing was supposed to be a path to failure and humiliation. We didn’t see what the problem was, and for us, there wasn’t one.

So, take everything you’ve ever heard about succeeding at anything and scrap it. Here’s my philosophy:

Not everybody is going to like what you do. Some people will. Some people won’t. Your job is to be yourself, the best ‘you’ you can be, and create the most authentic, book, painting, or widget you can. Then go find those people who do like and want what you do.

That’s it. Seriously.

It’s not complicated, but It takes work, flexibility, and the willingness to get up off your ass when life knocks you down. You’ve got to get rid of your preconceived ideas of what help, opportunity and success look like. You need to be determined to learn what you need to know and able to look at your stuff with an unbiased, critical eye. You must do all this with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Or you can hang out in obscure little coffee houses, waiting for the Book Fairy to sprinkle stardust on you.

My Secret


I was going to title this post The Secret, until I realized that everyone would think I was going to talk about vision boards, affirmations, visualization, etc, etc. All of which I have somehow neglected to check off my to do list. This is not that Secret.

This is my Secret. It is both easier and harder than Rhonda Byrne’s metaphysics manifesto. Easier because you don’t have to make time for all the manifesting exercises. Harder because it demands that you surrender to life as it is.

I’m writing this post for Brandon, a friend who spent the last year in the worst Hell on Earth, literally wresting his life back from the colon cancer determined to take it in as painful a way as possible. Brandon finally underwent his last surgery and is now cancer free. It only took scooping out his entrails like an Egyptian mummy. Knowing Brandon, I bet he asked his nurses if they would pack the goods in canopic jars for him. I am too polite to ask him if his abdominal cavity is now stuffed full of linen.

Brandon is now cancer free. The war is over. The band has packed up and gone home. Now that the excitement is over, Brandon is left with a long recovery while he wonders what kind of life is left for him. Today he was mourning past summers and all the things he will no longer be able to do.


I can relate. I had my own life changing collision with a Ford Taurus in 2001. A guy named Fred was too busy trying to change lanes to look ahead and smashed into my bike. My head returned the favor by smashing into his windshield. Two seconds of inattention by the driver has left me with mild traumatic brain injury, so-called “mild” because there was no obvious head wound. I won’t bore you with all the ways it affects me, or the struggles I’ve endured to find a way to be “Me” in this new normal. I will just say this:

Today I am living a simple and satisfying life as an author and painter, and my head injury helped me get here. I still have my disability, and I’m happier than at any time in my life.

My Secret: Embrace your circumstances as a gift from the universe (or God, Allah, or even Moe at the neighborhood transmission shop) designed to give you what you need to get where you want. Dive into your circumstances as if there’s a pony buried in the manure—because there is. Master the challenges your circumstances present, whether it means learning how to ask for and accept help or finding a way to ask your neighbor to please not cut the grass at 6 am on Sunday. Become so good at being where you are that you never want it to change.

Practice gratitude for the challenges life presents you, then go out and tackle them. It will be a mental exercise at first, then it will become real. That’s when miracles will happen.

Real Life Mystery

DSC01531Sunday Morning I loaded the dogs in the car for our daily trip to the park. With the crazy freeze-thaw cycles we’ve been seeing, the roads are a mess of pot holes. I hit one right after I turned onto Virginia Avenue and was relieved that I didn’t damage my tire.

We were sitting at the next intersection. No birds were singing, but the sun was shining and my pups were barking as they always do when they’re excited.

A horn started beeping repeatedly. I turned around, trying to figure out what they were beeping at. Nothing. The horn continued.  I looked to my left. The woman in the car next to me was waving vigorously at me.

Huh? I rolled down my window.

“You’re leaking,” She said.

“Okay, thanks. I’ll check it out.”

The light changed and I drove on. I always stop at the Big G convenience store for coffee, so I pulled in there to take a look. I figured it to be something minor.

I got out and walked to the rear of my car. Gas was gushing out in a stream, creating a puddle in the parking lot.

I went into the store and got my coffee (The tank had been almost empty before it started leaking, which was why I wasn’t worried about creating a bio-hazard). I know that probably sounds bizarre to many of you. I used to work in a drug and alcohol rehab, where crisis was served up daily on the menu. Back then I created a mantra: “If someone isn’t breathing, call 911. If you don’t need to call 911, it can wait five minutes.” I started the habit of pausing when something crazy happens to avoid making the situation worse through knee-jerk reactions (Something I witnessed many times).

The leak slowed to a dribble, then stopped. The engine still started, so I took a chance and drove the mile back home. My landlord, Rudy, was out with his dogs. I told him about the leak on my way into the house.

He knocked on my door a little later. “You’ve got a bullet hole in your gas tank. I heard shots last night, that was probably it.” He took me outside and knelt on the asphalt, pointing up under the car.

The hole on the side of my tank was punched in, slightly oval. No marks marred the pristine steel around the tank.

“It had to be a bullet,” He said. “Nothing else would blow off your undercoating like that. I’ve seen plenty of bullet holes, that looks to be .25 caliber, maybe .32, no larger than 9 mil.” He was puzzled as to how the bullet got between my tire and fender to hit the side of my tank.

Officer Ward was dubious. He didn’t see how a bullet got up under my car like that.

“I figured it someone was being stupid last night (shooting off a gun for the hell of it, as opposed to intentionally trying to hit something) and it ricocheted up off the road.”

“Where was it parked last night?”

“Same spot.”

He did not call out CSI. He did decide that if it was a stray bullet,  it likely came from the apartments behind my house, the only place in line with the hole.

Officer Ward was still not convinced, seeing as the car didn’t start leaking until I was on the road that morning. He said he would file a report stating that “something” punctured my tank, and if the mechanic found a bullet inside, to save it for him and he would amend his report.

I’ve thought some more. I figure someone took the shot and the bullet was losing velocity when it bounced off the pavement. It hit my tank with just enough force to pierce the wall, but then it stopped, lodging in the hole. When I hit the pot hole, the bullet popped out, starting the leak.

The big question is, did it fall into the tank, or back out onto Virginia Avenue? I’ll find out when I pick up my car.

The Best Advice You’ll Get for The Rest of Your Life

We were having a discussion about writer’s block. One of us was stuck on a book and considering setting it aside to pursue another project, a topic which always elicits a wide range of conflicting responses.


Then Russell Blake weighed in on the topic. I have to stop and say that Russell Blake weighs in like the 800 pound gorilla. He’s very successful (and getting more so by the day. Just ask the Wall Street Journal, if you don’t believe me.), and despite having the most brutal schedule of anyone I know, he’s very generous with his advice. He’ll tell you exactly how he got to where he is. As long as you don’t mind being told the facts of life by an 800 pound gorilla.

I’ve learned to pay attention whenever he speaks. What follows is possibly the most empowering and useful bit of wisdom I’ve ever heard, and perfect for the new year.

This is what he said:

“Stay the course and force yourself to finish it. Sit down, take a deep breath, and change your mental attitude. Ask yourself what excites you about the sequel, and if the answer is nothing, ask yourself what could excite you about it. Then ask yourself how you can make writing the remaining pages the most exciting experience of your life. If you genuinely demand an answer out of your brain, it will give it to you. Ask good questions and you’ll get useful answers. ‘How can I be more excited about my words today than ever before, and how can I raise the bar on my writing to where I won’t believe I actually wrote that?’ will get you a way different answer than ‘why am I having to slog through this?’ Just saying. ‘How can I have real fun, fun I’d pay for, finishing this?’

“If you believe that at any time, you can change your outlook – that you, not your environment, or circumstances, or some external or internal deterministic stimuli, can decide to change whenever you want, it will completely change the rest of your life. It’s exhausting, because instead of being buffeted about by the winds of change, you’re responsible for your course, but in the end, it’s the only way to have the life you want. If you don’t control the things you can (given all the things you can’t), shame on you.

What you believe determines your motivation. The questions you ask yourself define your beliefs. ‘How can I be the most incredible force of nature ever seen’ will get a different answer than ‘how do I make it through today?’ Take responsibility for your future. Ask better questions. ‘How can I wake up every morning eager to write the best prose of my life?’ gets you a more useful answer than ‘How do I finish this damned thing I really don’t want to write?’ Grab the throttle and give it a twist. Your muse works for you – you don’t work for it.”

That hit me between the eyes. Then Jacques Antoine, another writer following the same conversation, gave me another “WOW” moment:

“The central insight you mentioned earlier is obviously true and strangely easy to overlook, namely that if you only ask yourself negative questions, you can only get negative answers. Turning that around and asking oneself a positive, challenging question is the only way to get a different result.

Why am I so excited? I spent more than a decade in the field of addictions counseling, working to help people “get out of the problem and into the solution,” a concept many have difficulty wrapping their head around. Russell’s advice not only makes this essential attitude shift accessible, it makes it fun.

Fun is important. Fun is motivating. Fun gives you lots of lovely brain chemicals that energize you and improve your mood. Make it fun and it’ll get done, I say. Engaging with life should be exciting, stimulating and, yes, fun. If it’s not, changing your attitude and assuming responsibility is your best strategy to fulfillment.

What questions are you going to ask yourself today?

#WoofWednesday – The Holidays Are Over


#WoofWednesday – New Years Resolutions


How to Create a Peer Group

Peer groups are organized around a specific endeavor or vocation. They are a place to talk honestly and confidentially about your experiences in your shared field, and to get honest feedback and moral support.

In my last post, On the Value of Community, I talked about the many concrete benefits members of my peer group have reported. These benefits are a natural outgrowth of a well-functioning peer group. They are not the purpose of the group. Entering in to a peer group with any other purpose than improving one’s self through open and honest exchange is likely to have limited results (IMO).

The following comments are based on the group I belong to, but the principles can be applied to any type of peer group. The principles around which our group functions occurred organically. They are the common principles of any healthy group, as my former colleagues in the addictions counseling field can tell you.

We have few rules in our group.

    Rule #1: Be constructive and respectful.
    Rule #2: No politics.
    Rule #3: What’s said in group, stays in group.
    Rule #4 is unstated, but I have seen this in effect: If you think you may have accidentally stepped on someone’s toes (unavoidable on the internet), get with that person and clear the air immediately.

We have admins, but their role is supportive, not directive. Our group is unstructured. You may find your group functions better with some kind of structure, where everyone reports on their projects and progress and feedback is given. This is a good idea in groups that meet face to face for brief periods, when much must be accomplished in a short amount of time. It all depends on the personality of the group and its needs.

Our home is a private group on Facebook. There are other options. The advantages of an internet group are being able to include members from anywhere in the world and being able to participate from home, as time allows. Discussion threads can be reviewed at a later date. Members spend long and sometimes lonely hours glued to their computers while they are working. Our online venue functions as a lounge where members can take a break when needed.

As a closed group, new members are admitted by invitation only. They are chosen carefully, to keep the group small and personal (Okay, 80 members isn’t exactly small, but we aren’t looking to grow a union of thousands.)

It is critical to vet your members.

As the old knight said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “Choose Wisely.”

Our group was initially formed by Indie authors who simply wanted a safe place to talk about their experiences so we could take our careers to the next level through improved marketing. Some of us are self-supporting, some of us aspire to support ourselves through our writing. Some of us have hybrid Indie/Trad publishing careers. All of us believe in the viability of self-publishing.

For our group, a good candidate is one who is personally known by their sponsor, has a positive and constructive attitude, and has self-published at least one book or is in the process of publishing their first book. A sense of humor is also expected.

It is important that at least one person in the group know a candidate well, and can vouch for their online behavior as well as their commitment to writing. This ensures that trust and comfort levels in the group stay high, and that the person is an appropriate fit for our mix of personalities.

We have a range from new writers and old hands with very different backgrounds. Mutual respect is a guiding mantra, so that everyone can express their opinions freely. We keep the focus on writing, publishing and marketing. When our opinions differ, we each state our own opinions without judging those of others and leave it at that. There is no “right way.” We’ve seen different choices work for different people.

Something I learned when I led therapy groups back in the 90’s: An honest opinion is a rare and beautiful thing, especially when it is one you don’t like. It’s vital to protect your space to make it possible for people to speak freely. It is expected that any negative opinion be expressed in a constructive way, as it is just as important to have an environment where people can hear that which may be uncomfortable to say.

Attacking behavior of any kind is absolutely prohibited. If you choose your members wisely, you may not need to worry about this. In the event you wind up with abusive behavior, you must be prepared to act, first by counseling the perpetrator, then by removing them.

Participation is not mandatory. People who are invited to join may come and go, lurk or post, as they like.

We are not in the business of proselytizing or fixing anyone. Feedback is offered to those who ask for it. Members are free to accept or reject feedback as they like and follow their path without judgement. It is expected that people will assume responsibility for their choices, and if they don’t like the results of their choices, they can make new ones. This is not a stated philosophy in our group, but it is how we have come to function.

People are free to vent their frustrations, but chronic complaining is not encouraged. The group attitude is to find new strategies when something isn’t working. Surrounding yourself with people who have this attitude of personal responsibility is key to a group’s success.

We also believe, as a group, that there is plenty of success for everyone who is willing to work for it. As a group, we want to form the high tide that lifts all our members.

Sound stuffy yet?

It isn’t at all. We act like loons much of the time. It’s a blast. I love my group. I think everyone should have one. And now you can.

On the Value of Community


A long time ago, back in the dark ages when cell phones were the size of bricks and I looked like the the woman above (the one in cowboy boots), I was an aspiring artist. Or rather, I was an artist, aspiring to find my place in the art world.

My adorable younger sister worked in a new museum named the Menil Collection (It’s a wonderful place, highly recommended). I preyed upon her to use her status as cute young guard to get me a meeting with the director, Walter Hopps.

I flew into Houston and phoned the museum to verify my appointment. They had forgotten all about it. With a bit of sighing, they fit me in.

The day came. I arrived at the museum and expected to wait a bit, and I did. And did. Forty-five minutes after my arrival, Hopps blew in and past me, his long coat flapping, in an entrance to make any diva envious. Another wait, and finally, I was escorted into his presence.

I was in awe. My first museum director. I could be discovered. Anything could happen.

He looked at my slides, holding the sheet up to the light and more-or-less complimented my over-sized portraits (one of which you see above). He then asked me if I drew from a projected image. I said no, these were all free hand, from snapshots. No grids, even.

Does he act surprised? Does he praise my skill? Not a chance. He proceeded to say it was perfectly legitimate to create art from slide projections, as if he didn’t believe me and was encouraging me to come clean. He seemed stuck on this point and came back to it a few times during our meeting. I wondered if he was secretly needling me.

I decided that Walter Hopps was a sadist.

Walter told me he agreed to meet with approximately three artists per year. He said we all looked to museum directors to help us in some way, and he said flat out that he was not going to help me.

He then explained to me that we are all looking for someone who has already made it to help us, and it didn’t work that way. He said everyone thinks Leo Castelli made Robert Rauschenberg and the entire NYC art scene in the 60’s. This was wrong. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns introduced their friends to Castelli, and the artists made him. He said, “Artists make galleries, galleries don’t make artists.”

He said to look to my peers, and for us to help each other. This is how things happened.

After that, he cited The Color of Money and said, “Character will out.” And I was ushered out of his office.

I pride myself on taking good advice, no matter the source.

Creative folk tend to be loners, obsessed with seeing their vision to fruition, and by nature, not inclined towards cooperation (too many cooks, you know?). I never quite found that group synergy as an artist. I stumbled into it as a writer.

A little over a year ago, I was a regular on the Kindle Direct Publishing forum, where I met a lot of truly fine people who gave me great advice and moral support in getting my first two books published. Unfortunately, the forum became overrun with trolls and flamers. I can ignore that. The part that was unacceptable was this: every time an author shared a significant success, they would suddenly wind up with a string of one star reviews on their books at Amazon. You could still get good formatting advice if you kept your head down, but you talked about how you were actually doing at your peril.

A fellow publisher got sick of this and asked me and another writer if we would be interested in a private, invitation only group. I jumped on this. We have since grown to more than 70 members, and it is the most amazing experience. People report their word count has increased, their writing has improved, their confidence has grown, and by sharing information, we have refined and adopted marketing strategies that have increased our income. We no longer feel alone on our path. We know it actually is a path, and that it leads somewhere, because we are able to safely compare our experiences with others. And we have fun while doing all this.

I feel blessed in these friends.

And no, I’m not going to invite you to join us. But I will share with you how to to create your magical haven.

Next post.

Metaphysics of Gratitude


It’s Thanksgiving. Count your blessings. What are you grateful for?

We’ve heard it all our lives. When I was younger, I thought it was just a way to make yourself feel better. It’s more than that. There’s magic in the phrase “thank you.”

Masaru Emoto photographs water crystals formed after water is exposed to different words, pictures, music and conditions. His most beautiful crystals  occur after exposure to the words, “thank you.” To my mind, that makes “thank you” the most important words you can say. If you are not familiar with Emoto, check out his work. I’s awe-inspiring.

Gratitude is transformative. Many years ago, I read one of those “how to be a real woman and manipulate your husband into giving you everything you want” books. I forget which one. And I was only reading it for my personal amusement. Honest!

The author said that you should thank your husband for every gift he gives you, even if you don’t like it. Why? Because if you make him feel successful at gifting you, he will do more of it. and if you criticize his effort, he won’t want to try again. Praise gets you more and better stuff.

I’m not going to share my feelings about this as marital advice. But it works on a cosmic level. The catch? You have to mean it.

What ever life hands you, find the gift in it and give thanks. It may come wrapped in newspaper and duct tape, but don’t be fooled. There are blessings inside. Honoring those blessings will make them multiply.

Master your situation and find happiness in it. The irony in this is, when you find that mastery and happiness and are perfectly willing to keep your situation, the Universe will decide you are ready for more of its special brand of blessings and propel you into a new one.

Catch number 2: Many of these situations involve lessons. To master the situation, you need to grow in a way specific to your situation. Mastering it may mean to come to love it. But it may also mean to see it for what it is and reject it, as in toxic relationships. The trick is in telling the difference.

How can you be grateful for a toxic situation? For my no-longer co-dependent self, I was grateful for the opportunity to re-experience childhood dynamics as an adult. It gave me the opportunity to see those relationships for what they were, change my behavior and let go. It freed me from the past.

That’s just one item on my gratitude list. I’ll publish more later this week. Until then, peek under the duct tape in your life. What blessings in disguise are lurking there?

Tempering Those Great Expectations

I was talking to Jessica today about everything I’ve been doing for the past week, preparing to launch Maximum Security – as I spoke, this familiar tide of excitement rose up in me along with visions resulting from the thought, “I could get a gazillion guests at my launch party, and . . . .”

And I squashed it. Like a cockroach.

Why? I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve only been writing for 3 years, but I’ve been painting for 40, and put on countless art exhibitions. I’ve learned one thing: God rains down sudden abundance on people like Colleen Hoover mostly to test the faith and commitment of everyone else (Okay, maybe Colleen being really talented and nice and totally awesome and deserving had a little, teeny bit to do with it).

My progress comes in inches and any big leap is followed by a setback. I feel like I’m doing the Cha-Cha-Cha. This is typical. Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, talks about the many obstacles he had to overcome to get the book published (144 rejections? A gross of rejections? Sheesh!) and then get it noticed.

The excitement I was talking about is that lottery ticket moment, when they call out the numbers and the first one matches your ticket. Then number two matches. All of a sudden, all things become possible and you feel like you might burst.

Then the third number doesn’t match.

When I buy lottery tickets, I put them in my wallet and forget about them until the next week. When it’s time to buy a new ticket, I pull out the old one and let the machine scan it. That way the anticipation is minimized and the let down is miniscule.

I try to approach launches the same way. Do the best I can to promote the book and don’t think about the results. Today it snuck up on me. Why did I squash it? It’s fun to think about having a runaway best seller and having the Big Six duking it out over you, and movie rights, and, and . . . .

Save your fantasies for your books. Fantasizing about personal success is like a drug. It sets you up for a crash when things don’t play out the way you imagined, and it keeps you from appreciating the results you do get. And like any drug, you always want more.

I read something many years ago that always stuck with me. You know how Van Halen (remember them?) got their record contract? One day this record producer (I think it was a record producer. It was someone important, anyway) wandered into an almost empty bar. There was this band playing their hearts out like they were in front of 1,000 people instead of 3. He knew right then and there that they were the real deal and he had to have them.

Imagine if the band had been focused on how they wanted a big crowd? Then nobody shows up and they get bummed, and their playing shows it, and the VIP isn’t impressed and heads out the door, leaving a half-full beer on the bar. Instead, they had an attitude that was something like, “Hey, this is so cool because we’re musicians and we’ve got a stage and we get to play music,and we love playing music.”

What if someone told them someone who could make their careers was in the audience? Ever blow something because you were putting too much importance on it? Ever focus so hard on winning big that you couldn’t enjoy what you were doing or the success you did have?

Remember Sarah Hughes? She won the Olympic Gold Medal in women’s figure skating the first time she competed. I’ll never forget her. Her performance was amazing. Why? Because she entered that competition in fourth place and thought she didn’t have a skating rink’s chance in you-know-where to win against her idols. She later said she decided to just appreciate skating in the Olympic finals and enjoy herself. I don’t think she was more talented than the other skaters. The three world-class veterans ahead of her were too grimly focused on winning. It showed in their tense and mistake-riddled performances. Sarah focused on skating and radiated pure joy during a perfect performance.

Pretending success isn’t important isn’t a tactic to get the money men knocking on your door. If Van Halen didn’t get the contract, if Sarah Hughes hadn’t won a medal, they would have still enjoyed that moment for all it was worth. It doesn’t hurt that being relaxed and in the moment is likely to result in better performance, and a better performance is more likely to attract attention.

Enjoy what you’re doing. Do the work, but focus on the process and leave the results to come as they will.