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

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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.

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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.

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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

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#WoofWednesday – New Years Resolutions

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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.