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Posts Tagged ‘mistakes’

Last week Theodora Goss wrote about becoming more fearless, and she had this to say:

“Perhaps it’s when you come to the realization that the point of life isn’t to be rich, or secure, or even to be loved — to be any of the things that people usually think is the point. The point of life is to live as deeply as possible, to experience fully. And that can be done in so many ways.”

I love this so much. I love it not only because I agree with it, but also because it redefines what “success” is. It allows us to be kind with ourselves about the inevitable mistakes and confusion and decisions that didn’t turn out the way we thought they would. Because all of that, the laughter and tears, the messes and triumphs, they all become woven into the tapestries of our lives. And to value all of them seems to me to be celebrating life in a more complete way.

It’s not that the other things Dora lists aren’t important. Money is useful for obvious reasons (read: not starving to death). Security–that feeling that the earth isn’t going to shift underneath you at any moment–well, I think some of us crave security more than others, and for those of us who do crave it, not having it can produce inordinate amounts of stress. And love–we all learned from The Christmas Carol that love, both the personal kind and the more general goodwill towards humans kind, is more important than wealth. And indeed, love of all kinds can be a deeply enriching experience.

However, all of these things can be stripped away. Here today, gone tomorrow. Huge financial crisis, lay-offs at work, a medical crisis, and your money is gone. Career change, bad health news, a house fire, and security is gone. Death, divorce, drifting away, and the love might not be gone, but it has certainly altered. Because the fundamental truth of being human is that the world and our experience of the world are in constant flux, whether we want that or not.

Photo by Dave Morrow

This is why I like what Dora said so very much. Because living as deeply as possible, that does not have to change, at least not until death. “As possible” is key here; we may not get to live as we would choose, but we can still have as our goal to live as fully as possible given our circumstances. There are so many possibilities of what that could look like. Maybe I can’t travel to China this year (wouldn’t that be a fabulous trip to take?), but I can go to Seattle. And write a novel. And read beautiful books. The challenge then becomes creating something meaningful out of what you can make possible.

Living like this takes a lot of courage, I think (which makes sense, given that Dora was talking about fearlessness). It is hard to let go of specific ideas of what we want. It is hard to create meaning when circumscribed in various ways. It is hard to accept that things change when we were comfortable or happy with the way they were before. It is hard to cast ourselves on the winds of life and attempt to steer even though we might not know exactly where we are going. (And if we do know, we are often wrong.)

But when I lie on my deathbed, I think this is what will matter to me, this passionate living of life. I’ll care a bit about the physical comforts that money can bring me, sure. I probably won’t care much about security given that I’ll be dying. I’ll care a lot about the people I love and the time I have been able to spend with them. And I’ll care about how I spent the time I had. I’ll care that I lived with all my being, that I did courageous things, that I listened to Thoreau and sucked the marrow right out of life.

How do you want to spend your life?

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Some of my astute readers might have noticed that I initiated a massive life re-haul and personality shift this year. I have written a fair amount about being a people pleaser, developing a backbone, and being a perfectionist because these were things that were on my mind. I decided, somewhere in the haze of extreme tooth pain, that I needed to change, and I set about doing just that.

I’m still in the middle of it. It has already been completely worth it.

It is one of the hardest things I’ve done.

Here is what I have learned: You have to respect yourself. You have to believe that you are worth it. And you have to do whatever it takes to convince yourself you are worth it, even if it means muttering silly mantras to yourself and being glad you work at home so no one suspects you are crazy.

I have spent my entire life believing that if only I was good enough (oh, hey perfectionism), people would love me, respect me, and treat me well. I really wish this were the case, but I was flat-out wrong. The truth is, if you are willing to let something happen, the odds are that it will happen. If you are willing to tolerate being lied to, then people will lie to you. If you are willing to let people ignore you, then they will. If you don’t take a stand against bad behavior towards yourself, then that bad behavior will continue. The world doesn’t give you a voice, you have to demand it.

And in order to demand the respect you deserve, you have to give it to yourself first. You have to believe you are worth it.

Photo by Anita Hart

This self-respect is not the same as thinking you are perfect and infallible and can’t possibly make a mistake. Therein lies another problem (oh, hey narcissism). And it doesn’t preclude feeling compassion for people, even (and especially) the ones who are in the middle of making your life difficult.

What self-respect does give you is the ability to empower yourself. It gives you the choice of surrounding yourself with people who will lift you up instead of pulling you down. It gives you the chance to speak up. It gives you permission to refuse to take on every single problem as your own, when so many of them aren’t really yours at all. It gives you the strength to confront the parts of yourself that you don’t like. It gives you the space to say “No.”

No, I am not your bitch. But thanks for asking.

Remember that you are worth it. That is what I have learned this year.

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A few weeks ago I was asked to write an essay, and the only requirement was that it should be inspirational. At first I wasn’t too worried: People had told me they found my essays inspirational in the past, so it was obviously something of which I am capable. Then I started to overthink and wonder if I could be inspirational on command. And finally I was given a more narrow topic (kindness) and the rest is history.
In that middle stage of overthinking, I asked myself what I find inspirational. And the first thing I thought of was one of my favorite books, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.
I want to be Anne Shirley (the protagonist) when I grow up. I’ve wanted to be her since the first time I read the book, which I received on my ninth birthday, and I imagine I will always want this. Possibly one of the biggest compliments someone could pay me would be to compare me to Anne. (Not that this will ever happen, since people don’t tend to go around comparing people to fictional characters. Except for Fred from the TV show Angel. I get that comparison a lot.)

Why do I love Anne? She’s wildly imaginative and creative, she’s intelligent and ambitious, and she always has good intentions. But she’s not perfect; she makes mistakes all the time, and she has character flaws that she struggles with (her temper, her vanity, her tendency to look before she leaps, an imagination that is occasionally a little bit too good). Her imperfections make her human, make her someone I can aspire to be. Perhaps L.M. Montgomery included so many faults because of the conventions of that era’s children’s literature to include morality lessons, but to me it never comes across as preaching.

At the beginning of the first book, Anne’s had a really hard life. She’s a poor orphan who has spent all of her life in and out of various dysfunctional foster families and institutions. Her schooling has been irregular, and she hasn’t been treated particularly well. She has every reason in the world to be hard, bitter, distrusting, and unpleasant. No one would blame her if she felt depressed or discouraged. But instead, Anne reframes her own life and takes control of her own story. She uses her imagination to create her own best friends and to make her world more beautiful. She notices and appreciates the little things. She has a warm open heart and the ability to find kindred spirits everywhere she goes, even when the world doesn’t initially appear very friendly. She bravely learns from her mistakes and keeps moving forward. She rises above her initial circumstances and goes on to create a life for herself filled with love, friends, scholarship, and beauty.

Through Anne’s story, we get a glimpse of a better world. One of the recurring plots in the first three novels (those are the ones I’ve read over and over because I can’t quite handle the idea of Anne grown up after college) is how Anne affects the people around her. She meets people who at first glance are difficult and curmudgeonly, and she influences them for good. She has such an open, kind heart herself, and she spreads it to the people with whom she interacts. She charms people with her refreshing sincerity and genuine good will, and she brings out the best in them. In the world of Anne of Green Gables, kindness and good intentions prevail.

I don’t believe that this idealized world is the one we actually live in. But it is the world that I wish we lived in, and my vision of it inspires me to do my little part in bringing it closer to reality. I want to be like Anne, bringing hope and beauty wherever I go and lighting up the world with my presence. I want to emerge from adversity still in touch with the joys of life and determined to learn from my mistakes. I want to inspire others the way Anne (and through her L.M. Montgomery) inspires me.

What’s the first thing to come to mind when you think of inspiration? What are the books or movies, characters or real-life people who drive you forward? What inspirational influences do you think have been especially critical for you?

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Last week we talked about thinking of writing as a business, which includes educating ourselves about the industry and making informed choices. Today I want to talk about something that keeps us from making clear-headed business decisions. 

Desperation.

Desperation rears its ugly head for most writers, often (although not exclusively) toward the beginning of a career. We want so badly to be published, to be chosen, to have public validation that we aren’t wasting our time. We want to get our words and stories to the public. We want to be able to tell our friends and acquaintances, “Why, yes, I have an agent now. And Big Publisher XYZ wants to buy my novel.” Or “Why, yes, my indie-published novel is on the Kindle Best-seller List now, thanks for asking.” We want to know that we’re moving forward with our craft and not staying stuck in a hellish holding pattern. We want we want we want.

Some amount of ambition and desire for success is healthy. It might keep us on a daily writing schedule or encourage us to continue sending out those queries. It might motivate us to improve our craft or take a workshop. But it’s so easy to cross from these helpful impulses into the dark side of desperation.

The danger of entering that desperate place is that our decision-making process becomes impaired. Instead of making practical, well-reasoned decisions, we’re suddenly willing to do almost anything to see our work in print. We’ll sign with an agent even though we either haven’t done thorough research on the agent’s history or have a bad feeling about the working relationship. We’ll sign a publishing contract even though it offers poor terms. We’ll rush into self-publishing our novel electronically without enlisting first readers and/or editors to help us make the book the best it can be. We’ll say something best left unsaid on the social media of our choice because we’re so stressed/insecure/jealous/upset that we just can’t help ourselves.

Acting from a place of desperation is the opposite of acting from empowerment. It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with a traditional publishing structure or taking the indie path. In either case, desperation will lead to poor decisions (unless you’re very, very lucky). Desperation will tempt you to devalue yourself and your work and believe me, you don’t want to go down that path.

So what is a poor writer to do? Stop. Breathe. Try to convince yourself that you’re not in a race and you don’t have to hurry to the detriment of everything else. Avoid comparing yourself to other writers who are doing everything better, faster, with more shiny. Avoid it like the plague. Postpone any big decisions until you can talk yourself into a calmer state of mind.

And remember you’re not alone. I think writer desperation is very common, but we don’t always talk about it. I am writing this to tell you that I have felt it, I have been there, and I might very well be there again. All of the doubt and the waiting and the anxiety and the rejection and the lack of understanding–it SUCKS. Of course we sometimes feel desperate. But we don’t have to give the desperation the power to take over our lives. We can feel it and then keep going, keep trying, keep believing in ourselves. And we can do our best to make our business decisions based on the facts and our priorities instead of on a crazy-making emotional state.

Does anyone else ever experience writer desperation? Have any good tips on how to avoid it or deal with it once it’s happening? Please share!

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When I decided a few years ago that I was going to get serious about my writing, I knew I was going to be writing novels. Novels were, after all, the bulk of what I read. I sat down and wrote a novel to prove to myself that I was capable of doing it.

That’s when I actually became serious about writing. I knew I had the discipline, I knew writing was something I enjoyed and found satisfying. And I fell in with a genre critique group and said to myself, “Oh, I’m supposed to be writing short stories too. Sure, I’ll give it a try. After the novel, how hard could it be?”

Cue the laugh track. Yes, I was being stupid, but I figured out my own stupidity soon enough. I wrote a short story, and it was very hard. So much worldbuilding for so small a project! It drove me nuts. And then I had to rewrite the story, and rewrite the story, and it didn’t matter how much I rewrote this stupid story, because it was never going to work.

Over the course of the next year, I wrote more stories (although perhaps not as many as I should have). At some point I got the bright idea that I should also be reading short stories. (I know. Genius at work here.) That entire year, I hated writing short stories. I actively disliked it. I wasn’t even sure why I was doing it (probably stubbornness). I told myself that short stories didn’t matter anyway, because obviously I was meant to write novels.

Then I finally worked on a story that I enjoyed writing (probably not coincidentally, the one I just sold). I thought to myself, “Maybe short stories aren’t so bad. I mean, they’re annoying, but they have their good points.” I wrote more short stories.

Yesterday I found myself thinking, “You know, even if I got a book deal right now,” — for the record, this is impossible as I have nothing out on submission, but a girl likes to dream — “I’d still want to keep writing short stories.” I stopped and realized what I had just said, and shook my head at myself.

Why am I telling you this rather long story? Because so often we pigeonhole ourselves. Sometimes this can be useful to keep focus and make sure we’re prioritizing our goals, but sometimes we accidentally limit ourselves instead.

It’s especially easy to limit ourselves when we start something new and, surprise surprise, we’re not very good at it. It’s so easy to say, “I don’t like this anyway” or “This is too hard” or “I’m going to do shiny thing z instead.” I’ve seen this over and over as a music teacher. A lot of students thought they wanted to learn how to sing, but once they realized that singing is difficult, that it requires hard work and practice and dedication and failure, many of them would drop out. (Especially adults. It always seemed especially surprising to the adults.) A lot of my children students didn’t enjoy practicing the piano because it was hard and they weren’t very good. If they stuck with it for awhile, though, and were able to pass a certain threshold of competence, all of a sudden playing the piano became much more pleasurable.

I think a lot of pursuits are like this. When we’re starting out and don’t have many skills, it kind of sucks. But then as we start to improve, it gets more and more interesting and exciting. Remembering this helps us keep trying when we’re still in the stage of unpleasantness.

Has anyone else had an experience like mine? Care to share?

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You may not be surprised to learn that I think a lot about blogging, both in terms of this blog and in terms of best practices. As a consequence, I also tend to read a lot about blogging, although it has become harder and harder to find new material, the more I learn. However, I read a post a few weeks ago that made me stop in my tracks and hit myself on the forehead.Kristen Lamb is another one of my favorite bloggers – she had a killer series on novel structure that I looked forward to every week while it was running – and she also blogs about blogging. In her essay “Selling Our Blog to the Readers,” she talked about a common pitfall, one that I had done myself. Argh! Hence the forehead hit, and I immediately changed my blog per her suggestion.

What was my mistake? On my header, beneath my main title (where it now says “Amy Sundberg’s Blog), I had the text “Amy Sundberg’s Adventures and Ramblings”. Kirsten very rightly points out that we tell our readers how to judge our blogs, and “ramblings” is not a word that holds the most positive of connotations. It makes it sound as if we don’t know what we’re talking about, or as if we haven’t put any thought into what our blogs are about. Now, for some bloggers, that might even be true, but I put a lot of thought into this blog and here I was, accidentally waving my hands around and saying, “Oh, but it’s just something I threw together on the fly, it’s not worth much at all.” Oops.

I wasn’t going to say anything about here, in the hopes that maybe no one had noticed. But then, in the last few weeks, I noticed something very insidious. These sorts of words pop up ALL THE TIME in relation to blogs, and now that I’m paying attention, it’s driving me slightly crazy. Apparently I got the idea in the first place through some kind of evil osmosis of the internet. Plus the use of these words doesn’t even seem to directly correlate with the overall quality of the blog, meaning they aren’t actually a clear signal for whether I want to read the blog or not.

Here is a list of some of the words that now send up my red flag: ramblings, musings, random thoughts, random anything, reflections, ponderings. It’s not that bloggers should never use these words, but if they’re in either the header text for the whole blog or in a blog post title, it’s generally a sign of either lack of focus, lack of confidence, or both. More research made me realize that I don’t care how much I like a particular blogger, most posts with the title “Random Musings” or similar are just not going to grab me. I might go for a round-up of links, if I really like a blogger’s taste in such matters, but other than that, well, I read Facebook and Twitter for my dose of daily random thoughts. I probably don’t need to read a whole blog post of them, given how much reading I do in the average day.

A big thanks to Kristen for setting me straight on this. From now on, I’m going to be doing my very best to avoid “ramblings” and its cousins and not sell myself, and this blog, short.

Can you think of any other red flag words we bloggers should work to avoid?

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Yom Kippur begins at sundown tomorrow.  I don’t have an intimate viewpoint on this holiday, not being Jewish myself and having never attended synagogue on this High Holiday.  I’m pretty far from being an expert, so what I’m offering is an outsider’s perspective on what this holiday has come to mean to me.

For years, all I knew about Yom Kippur was that it was a name on the calendar.  When I first learned a little more about it, I didn’t get it at all.  Fasting all day, droning in a foreign language, lots of tears and catharsis.  It was so different from any other holiday I knew about, I even found it a touch creepy.  As the years have gone by, however, my feelings have undergone a profound shift.  While I don’t celebrate it myself, I love this holiday and what it stands for.  It is also known as the Day of Atonement, and I have deep respect for a religion that has set aside an entire day for this type of introspection.

Where have I gone wrong this past year?  Who have I knowingly or perhaps unknowingly injured?  What could I have handled more skillfully?  To me, this process of reviewing the mistakes and hurts of the past year (whether intentional or not, avoidable or not) celebrates what it is to be human.  We all make mistakes, we all handle things badly, we all say things we shouldn’t have said, or leave things unsaid that we shouldn’t have.  We forget or unable to keep important promises; we tell lies, perhaps to avoid even greater conflict; we don’t have the time or energy or capability to be there the way we wish we could.  We make other people cry; we lose friends through change, neglect, or direct confrontation; we make the wrong decision.  And here’s this holiday that acknowledges this reality we live with, that says: Yes, it’s true, none of us is perfect, and yet we can always strive to improve ourselves, to move on and do better next time.

The way I see it, the process of atonement has three steps.

Step 1: Be aware of your effect on the world. Think about the actions you have taken, the mistakes you have made, how you’ve treated other people.  Reflect on questions of morality.  Remember those times you let your emotions get the better of you.

Step 2: Feel the emotions associated with your actions, and then forgive yourself and let go. This is a hard step, and a critical one.  Atonement isn’t about self-hatred; that will only make your behavior worse over time, not to mention erode at your happiness and well-being.  Atonement is taking responsibility for yourself and your choices, while remembering that you are human and imperfect.  By the end of Yom Kippur, a practicing Jew is considered to be absolved by God.  However, if you don’t believe in a God to be absolved by, you need to find the strength to forgive yourself instead.

Step 3: Learn from your previous behavior and mistakes. Having taken the time to introspect so deeply about your behavior, you can move through life with a cleaner slate.  Not a blank one, of course, but at least a less messy one.  Take the time to think of possible solutions for some of your mistakes.  Sometimes there won’t be a solution, and that’s okay too, but at least you’ll know one way or the other.  Think of how you can become more like the ideal person you wish you were.  Will you ever really become that person?  Perhaps not, but I like to think that throughout life, we draw ever closer to realizing our full potential, as long as we have the willingness to learn from our experience.

I love Yom Kippur because it’s a formalized ritual that helps people go through these steps with the full support of a community behind them.  It means they don’t have to face their faults and shortcomings alone, but can remember that everyone else is in the same boat.

So whether you’re Jewish or not, whether you’re religious or not, I hope that’s what you take away from this post.  We all make mistakes, and it’s important to be aware of them and learn from them.  But we’re also all in this soup of humanity together, capable of learning from what has passed before.

As Anne in L.M. Montgomerie’s Anne of Green Gables says, “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

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