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Hope as Fuel

Let’s talk about hope today, shall we?

One of my friends posted this great thought about hope on Facebook, which I cannot share with you word-for-word because privacy, but he basically talked about the importance of maintaining a store of hope in order to continue accomplishing things in life. And then another friend texted me about hope a day or two later, and I said, “Yeah, I’m going to blog about this now.”

Hope really can be quite useful, I think particularly for more long-lasting and slow-to-reach goals and desires and projects. I don’t need hope to do small daily tasks around the house, but I do need hope to keep writing, for example. Without hope, it would be so much harder to discipline myself to work and do things that I find unpleasant or difficult.

So then, how do we cultivate hope? And not false hope that might keep us stuck, but rejuvenating, inspirational hope?

  1. We can do our best to be cognizant of progress. Instead of focusing only (or even primarily) on a big end goal, if we can be aware of what we have achieved, this maintains hope. It can be hard to notice these smaller shifts and achievements, but being able to identify progress I’ve made keeps me inspired to keep spending effort.
  2. We can give ourselves things to look forward to. I’m a huge practitioner of this one. If I don’t have anything at all to look forward to in the next six months, something has probably gone horribly awry with my life because I always make sure I have something, and usually the more somethings, the better. I often use trips for this purpose, but really there’s a lot of choice here: events, holidays, birthdays, parties, concerts, plays, movies, food, friend time, books, a day with nothing scheduled, and so on.
  3. We can reframe. Catching our negative thoughts and figuring out how to transform them into less harmful ones (or even actively positive ones) cultivates a smoother state of mind and, you guessed it, more hope.
  4. We can help other people. There is something about building connection that creates hope. It can pull us out of ourselves and remind us of the things we think are important.
  5. We can choose to celebrate other people’s successes. Your friend reaches a goal that you desperately want to hit yourself. Here is your choice: take your friend’s success as a reminder that the goal IS possible and celebrate with her, or feel unhappy with yourself for not being there yet. The first one builds hope; the second tears yourself down.
  6. We can remind ourselves of the inevitability of change. All things change, and so in this sense, there is always hope. Not of a specific outcome, necessarily, but sometimes all we need to is to know that things can be different.
  7. We can attempt to be flexible. Speaking of specific outcomes, the less attached we can be to specifics and the more we can adjust to what’s going on around us, the easier it is for us to maintain a general feeling of hope.

Hope without action is empty, but hope combined with action keeps us motivated to continue working towards our goals.

What do you do to replenish your stores of hope?

You’re Stuck, Amy

My friend gave me a Tarot reading Friday night, during a writer party in which we mocked the Self Esteem game and had a dramatic reading of The Houseplants of Gor. I like Tarot readings because I think, at their best, they can help me clarify my thinking and pull back to see the big picture.

My central card: The Wheel of Fortune

My central card: The Wheel of Fortune

After looking at a few of my cards, my friend said, “It seems like you’re kind of stuck right now.” She explained why in the language of the cards, but I don’t remember that part because instead I was thinking, “Yes, that’s true. I’m totally stuck. Huh.” Which is also why I like Tarot readings, because once in a while they slap you with things you already know but are halfway ignoring.

But yes, I have been stuck. That’s why I look at rental listings when I need to be cheered up, because I know that if I fail to unstick myself any other way, I can move someplace else and the upheaval that will cause has a high chance of unsticking me. It almost doesn’t matter where I move because it’s not about location, it’s about shaking things up enough that they start flowing again. And therefore, looking at rental listings is supremely comforting, in spite of the fact that I’ve already moved twice in the last year and a half and the last thing I really want to do is pack all my stuff up AGAIN.

Just sitting there and thinking about how stuck I’ve been feeling made me feel less stuck than before. It’s funny how that works.

One of the other themes of my reading was uncertainty. Which was another moment of, “Oh yeah, there is a lot of uncertainty in my life right now, and I wonder how I’m doing with that.”

My novel’s out to agents, and there’s not much for me to do there but wait. In the meantime, I haven’t figured out what my next novel is going to be yet. I don’t know what I’m going to do when my lease is up, and I don’t know how much my rent is going to increase. I don’t know where I’m going to travel next year, what events I’m going to attend, and February has become this strange nexus point of so many possibilities that I wonder if anything at all is going to happen then (if not, I have friends who are on board for hate-watching Shades of Grey, which is already pretty excellent). When it comes down to it, I don’t really know in which direction I am heading.

It’s all relative, though, this kind of uncertainty. I expect I’ll be writing, and I expect a certain little dog will continue to add to my happiness. I expect there’ll be people around who I care about. Perhaps most importantly, I’m not waiting for doom to fall down onto my head like an anvil, which makes life so much better and the uncertainty so much more manageable.

My reading concluded with this thought: Trust yourself and pick your battles. Which, yeah, is decent advice, although sometimes hard to implement.

I think the “You are stuck” part was the best though. Because soon after I’d heard that, I had the brilliant idea of switching strategies. Instead of throwing myself repeatedly at my problems, tangling my limbs and collecting bruises and generally exhausting myself, what if I chilled out a little and focused on what I did have instead of what I didn’t? That’s not to say I haven’t been trying to do this the entire time I’ve been stuck, but I guess I was finally ready.

In the end, I needed to hear someone tell me I was stuck so I could realize that being not stuck was also an option.

Sometimes we aren’t ready.

I wrote a blog post for today, and while the quality is there, I don’t think it’s the right time. I’m not ready. So you are reading these words instead.

Sometimes we make mistakes.

I made a classic people pleaser slip earlier this week, and I beat myself over it for a few minutes before I ground myself to a halt. Mistakes happen. It’s unfortunate. But the self-flagellation doesn’t help anyone.

Maybe I won’t make the same mistake next time. But even if I do, it’s all part of the learning process. There is time.

Sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing.

We learn what we can and wade on in, and we do the best of which we’re capable. Not knowing is not always a good reason for not doing. The clear way may be to learn while we’re doing.

Sometimes the thing we’re looking for doesn’t look the way we expected it to look.

And then we end up in weird situations in which what we want is staring us in the face, only we look right past it. Ideas can be so sticky and aggressive, which makes them a wonderful creative force. But when we get too attached to the particulars of an idea, we can get stuck even when it isn’t necessary.

Sometimes we need the little things.

I was walking Nala last week, and the weather was warm but not hot, and the grass was littered with faded brown leaves. I wore boots and a plaid skirt, and Nala held her tail high and pranced at the end of her leash. I suddenly realized I was happy.

Sometimes we create our own meaning.

This is a tricky talent to possess because it can be so powerful. Powerful in a positive way, or powerful in a negative way. You can see the danger there.

But when wielded with care and mindfulness, meaning can infuse our lives with an excitement and a charge that is otherwise missing.

Sometimes we surprise ourselves.

I know I’m surprised. Are you?

Photo Credit: shewatchedthesky via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: shewatchedthesky via Compfight cc

Living 100%

I’m back home from DC and the World Fantasy Convention, and I have that slightly hazy post-con mind with which many of you are probably familiar. I got to spend time with so many amazing people, and yet I felt like I didn’t have close to as much time as I wanted: another familiar feeling. But I did have many wonderful conversations, and I’m going to piece together a few for you.

But first, a dose of the adorable Nala.

But first, a dose of the adorable Nala.

I was talking about this blog, the way I do, and I always do a terrible job explaining what it’s about. But one thing I said sticks out to me now through the blur. I tell personal stories on my blog, I said, in order to illustrate insights I have had that I think might be helpful to other people. I don’t know that I’d ever put it into such simple words before, but yes, this is one of the reasons I keep blogging.

And because it is one of the reasons, I’m going to tell you a story that I told a friend this weekend.

My mom was in remission from cancer my senior year of high school, and she came to see me perform as the Narrator in the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I remember that she had an interesting reaction to that performance. She was proud of me and happy for me, but she was also … wistful. I don’t remember if we talked about it or not, and what we said if we did, but I do remember what I thought about it at the time.

I had been one hundred percent alive on that stage during that performance. From the opening bars when I descended from the ceiling of the stage in what amounted to a mechanical box through to the finale, I’d felt energy pouring through me, along with that feeling that I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing. And I had the impression that watching me being so fully and utterly alive and ME was a bittersweet experience for my mom because she had never had the opportunity to do that.

She was diagnosed with another cancer later that year, and as she was dying, I watched her venture outside her comfort zone a little bit. She flew with my dad to Hawaii once or twice and had a beautiful time, whereas before she’d never felt comfortable with travel. She spoke at the memorial for one of her support group members, even though she’d never liked speaking in public. And in these small actions, I could see the shape of who she might have been or become shimmering in front of me like a phantom.

And then she died.

And watching this, here is what I decided. When I die, whenever that should be, I don’t want to see that phantom of myself. I don’t want to see the most awesome version of Amy who I was too afraid to be. That is why I work so hard–and make no mistake, it is hard and sometimes punishing work–to learn about myself and to push myself and to figure out who I can be. It’s not about being perfect or easy or comfortable, and it’s not about straining upwards towards an unreachable ideal. Rather, it’s about trying to be the best possible version of myself, whatever that might entail in this moment.

Or in other words, it’s about being one hundred percent committed to this business of being alive. I don’t want to feel wistful because I’ve never had that.

Instead, I want to revel in it.

This week I’m going to the World Fantasy Convention, and I’ve sat here trying not to write about it and to write about something else instead, but my focus is already over there in DC, so I’ve decided to embrace that.

I’ve been making something of a point of spending a bit more time with writers locally for the last several months, so I am not in dire need of writer time stat, which has definitely been true in the past. But even so, there is something special about WFC, having so many friends that matter to me all under one roof.

I’ve been thinking about why the writer community has been such a robust presence in my life. I don’t have any solid answers, but I think it helps that it encompasses many people and is spread out geographically. And of course, we have our passion for writing in common with each other. And they aren’t as often a part of my daily concerns, which means they enjoy the benefit of perspective.

Perhaps it also matters that writers tend to be people who have thought about harder aspects of life. I mean, we spend tons of time crafting crises for our characters to live through (or not), so it’s much harder to avoid thinking about grief or disappointment or betrayal or what happens to a person when under pressure. As a result, I wonder if there is less fear when someone else brings up one of these topics because we’ve already been forced to take a look at the issues we have with them.

Or perhaps I just meet a lot of writers and therefore a lot of the wonderful, supportive people I know are writers.

Writers in action! Photo by Andrew Williams.

Writers in action! Photo by Andrew Williams.

Regardless, whenever something goes off track in my life, whether it be writing-related or health-related or social-related or something else, I turn to my writer friends and they are there. They give me advice, they offer support, and sometimes they just listen and give me the space to be me in all my messy glory. I share my news with them, both good and bad, and it feels like we’re in this together, this not being publishing or other writing-related things so much as life in general.

All communities have problems, of course, and the writing community of which I am a part is no exception. We talk about the problems a lot, and that is as it should be. And all individuals have their strengths and weaknesses. I am not trying to paint a picture of a perfect utopia here.

But on an individual level, these are people who have my back. They are indignant on my behalf when I am poorly treated, they send me care packages, they are generous and happy to help when they are able to do so. When I am sick, they send me nice tweets. When I am sad, they text with me. When I have great news, they celebrate with me. And I strive to do the same for them.

It might not sound like much: a tweet, a text, a book in the mail. Many of them live far away, and I don’t get to see them in person very often at all. But you all have heard enough of my theories about life by now to know how important I think the little things are. They matter.

So I guess the writer community is a robust presence in my life because I choose to make it so. It makes me happy. And it is filled with people who think the little things matter, just like me.

I read this essay by the movie reviewer Film Crit Hulk (it’s interesting, but it is also super, super long, so fair warning), and I thought, oh, I should blog about despair. Because it seems to be going around lately. I know a lot of people who have been having a rough time personally, and then there’s been the whole GamerGate thing, and the global warming impending apocalypse thing, and the posting nude pictures of actresses thing, and a bunch of other things. And, well, it’s not a huge stretch to think that some people are experiencing despair right now.

Despair is a difficult experience to live through. It comes with its own built-in gravity well, in that once you find yourself in that despair place, it is not always obvious how to move forward or through it. So there you sit, in this incredibly painful state, feeling like really important things are broken and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And then I read my friend Damien’s post about Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly, and you might remember I adore Brene Brown and think the work she’s done is really important. And reading through the list of strategies she talks about, I think they are somewhat applicable to dealing with despair as well as living a wholehearted life. So that’s one resource that’s out there.

But really I want to talk about what I do when facing despair, because that’s what I know. As usual, take what seems useful and discard the rest.

  1. Self care, self care, self care. If you are feeling despair, then you are going to need to self care the shit out of yourself. Beyond the basics (eat, hydrate, sleep, exercise/move), this includes giving yourself alone time or people time depending on what you need. For me, I often want lots of time with Nala. This also includes allowing yourself to be distracted or take a break from the despair. I don’t care how a big a problem it is or how big a realization you’ve had; being in full-on despair mode 24/7 is simply not healthy. Dealing with it is great, but not at the cost of complete burn-out. Finally, this covers allowing yourself to disengage and set boundaries as needed.
  2. Focus on the present moment. Sometimes despair involves things that happened in the past or things we’re afraid will happen in the future. And those things are important and provoke strong feelings and need to be grappled with. But to pull myself out of the despair, paying attention to right now right this second instead can be helpful.
  3. Baby steps. Despair requires patience, because maybe you’re beginning to feel better and then something happens and you fall right back down the well. But if I can think of even one tiny positive thing I can do to help my situation or take care of myself or reframe, then I am better off than I was before.
  4. Vent. Or cry. Or both. Sometimes I just need to let it out, and if I have a safe space in which to express myself, it can be extremely helpful. This one requires judgment because it totally backfires if the space turns out not to be safe after all. But you can do it alone or in writing (or with a pet) too.
  5. Try to stand apart from your emotional reality. Or in other words, try to call yourself on your black and white thinking. Despair can be overwhelming, and it can feel really, really big. For example, if you have been experiencing a lot of really bad behavior from other people, it can begin to feel like all people are awful, or all people are going to betray you, or whatever universal your brain has decided to come up with. But while your experience of that feeling is real, that doesn’t mean it necessarily reflects the external reality. So to pull out of it, you can think of one person who has treated you well. Maybe you can even text them or message them or call them or whatever it is you do to communicate. Or you can just think of a nice thing they did or said that one time. Then think of another person. Then another. Look at data if you need to: pull up a nice text or a nice email someone sent you.
  6. Don’t give up on yourself. Even if you really feel like it. You can give up on everything and everybody else, especially if you’re having a nice venting session, but hold onto that self-esteem like you’re in space and it’s your oxygen tank. YOU WILL NEED IT. GUARANTEED.
  7. Find a reason to hope. It can be a dumb reason, like the fact that ice cream exists or Nala is consistently adorable. That’s okay.
  8. Remember: everything changes. I don’t know if anyone else finds this idea comforting, but it has been my fall-back in hard times for at least ten years, maybe longer. If none of the above works, or if it’s not possible at the moment, and you’re wrapped up in the stifling blanket of despair, knowing it won’t go on forever and ever because that’s not how the world works gives you something to hold onto.
A reason to hope.

A reason to hope.

Hang in there, my friends. Or, as Theodora Goss said:

Revising a Novel

My friend Danielle suggested that I write a post about my novel revision process, and since I just completed revising my most recent novel, now seemed like a good time. And while I’m at it, I’m going to talk about the submission process too. And then you will understand more about how my life works.

I revise very little while I’m writing my rough draft. My main goal is to keep writing and finish the draft. Occasionally I’ll go back and fix some little thing because it’s distracting me. And if something major breaks, then I might have to do more (like add a few scenes or even start over). But in general, my rough draft is not revised as I go.

Once I have the rough, then I print out the entire manuscript and read it to see what I’ve got. While I’m reading, I make a new chapter-by-chapter outline of everything that happens and how many pages each chapter is. (I do this when I’m reading a novel for critique as well. It makes it so much easier to keep track of everything.) I also take a lot of notes. I’ve also probably taken a lot of notes while I was writing the rough draft of things to check on and things to change. So I take care of all those notes and clean the prose up a bit (enough so it won’t be completely embarrassing) and that’s draft 2.

This is the point where I give it to my first reader. He reads for larger scale issues; he is a structure genius, and he also reads for plot, character, world-building, theme, voice, etc., etc. I use his notes to generate a third draft.

Then I hand it to a few more readers. They too read with the big picture in mind, although they also give me more scene-scale notes (and sometimes even smaller scale stuff). They also sanity check how my changes worked out between drafts 2 and 3, which is super helpful since I can’t always tell if I’ve gone too far or not far enough with changes (or nailed them, which does occasionally happen). From their notes, I plan and execute draft 4.

If I’m feeling unsure of draft 4, I will give the novel to a few more readers and make more changes. Once I am confident about the strength of the book, I do final clean up. This involves a novel-wide search for adverbs and another search for the word “that.” I sometimes search for other overused words as well. For this novel, I read the entire book out loud to assist my search for errors and check rhythm, especially of dialogue.

While I’m doing this last clean-up pass, I’m also starting my query letter and my synopsis. The query letter is basically a sales pitch of the novel, sometimes similar to what one would find on the back cover of a book, one page or less. The synopsis summarizes the entire novel, also ideally in about a page. I’m also updating my agent spreadsheet.

Once I am finished with the novel, the query, and the synopsis, I begin querying agents. This means I email my query package to agents (which depends on the agent’s guidelines, but usually includes a customized query letter and perhaps some sample novel pages and/or the synopsis) and keep track of submissions and responses. Depending on how things go, I could spend many months doing this. At the same time, I am beginning my next novel project, generally by doing whatever work I need to do to select the project, and then brainstorming, researching, and outlining.

The length of time all of this takes can vary a lot depending on the length of the manuscript, the extent and number of revisions, the schedules of readers, and how smoothly the rough draft goes. I do have some target dates in mind by the time I begin a rough draft, based on the premise that the project will go fairly smoothly. And since I don’t write a huge amount of words every day, I can generally adapt as I go when there are snags. A lot of my writing time is actually spent thinking.

So this is my writing, revision, and submitting process. Each writer has their own process: some revise a lot as they go, some have readers as they go, some use a lot more readers in the revision process, some use less. The important thing is figuring out what works.

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