Facing My Fears

In my last post, I was pondering whether or not to continue writing my current work in progress–a novel I have been working on for a little over a year. I had come to a point in the story where my premise had run its course and things needed to start happening. I was making things happen, but they felt random. My novel was starting to feel like some kind of 90210 episode with pretty sentences. I was a HUGE 90210 fan, so I’m not saying that I was completely surprised or upset about where things were headed, but I don’t know…the stuff that I was making happen to the characters just felt random. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to write random stories. I wanted to write stories that have a point because those are the stories that I like best. I don’t really want to spend three years of my life writing and editing and selling a story that doesn’t really mean anything to me. A random collection of made-up events is just not worth it. I want to write a story that tells some truth about life. I want a reader to put my book down and need to talk about it with someone else.

So this week I’ve been learning about story structure in the hopes of shaping this story into something that feels satisfying to me, a story that feels worthy of telling. And what I’ve learned as I’ve dug into this topic is that stories are not a random collection of things that happen. We don’t read to find out what happens. Why would we care about what happens to some fictional character? It’s like listening to someone describe their dream. Does anyone really listen when someone describes their dream? We pretend to listen, saying “wow” or  laughing at the appropriate places, but we don’t really care about the particulars of the dream because we know that none of it really happened and therefore none of it matters. Oh my goodness! You were flying? Then you went to school in your underwear? Who cares? That didn’t actually happen and nothing will happen as a consequence of that dream, so we zone out. 

Novels are fiction (just like dreams), so what makes us care about what happens? We care about what happens because we care about the characters. What happens in the story (aka, the plot) is not a random collection of events, but stems organically from what the main character wants. As the writer I need to know what my protagonist wants most and why. The “why” is the driving force for what happens in a story. It moves the protagonist to take action, to move from the status quo at the beginning to something new by the end of the book. The plot is what happens as they move from point A to point B.  

In her webinar on creating a two-tier story outline, author and writing coach Jennie Nash gives a handy template for creating a story that flows from the “why” rather than “what happens.” Nash recommends starting by asking yourself “Why am I writing this book? Why do I care? What am I really trying to say? What do I really believe?”

Nash’s advice is rooted in Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond  Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel* 

*Before you waste three years writing 327 pages that go nowhere. 

That’s actually the title, footnote and all. She might as well have added “comma Elizabeth” after the word nowhere. I have totally wasted three years writing 327 pages that go nowhere. Have you been spying on me, Lisa Cron?

It sucks wasting that time and energy. It definitely makes you feel like you should hang up the whole writing dream. As of a month ago I was ready to quit novel writing altogether. I could sense my draft veering headfirst into 90210 territory, and I wanted to cry. It felt like I was working so hard. And yet what was coming out on the page was trite and superficial. What is the point of this? I started asking. I could be doing so many other things with my time. And instead I’m spending time writing something that I wouldn’t even want to read.

I had inadvertently stumbled across exactly the question I needed to be asking: What is the point? 

Well, once I started asking myself what the point was, what the root of this story is, then I really started getting somewhere.

I spent an afternoon thinking about my characters and what they wanted and why. I traced those same wants back to me and realized that I was really writing about what I want. I was getting at some core thing in me that needed to come out. The events of the plot have nothing to do with me. The main character is not anything like me. But the heart of what she wants deep down and what she is afraid of losing–totally me.

Then something really weird and unexpected happened. I got really scared.

I woke up the next morning in a full-on panic. Like I literally felt physically scared. And what I was scared of was writing that story that I had mapped out the day before. It felt too real, I would have to dig into things that I wanted to push down and ignore. I wanted to leave all the scary stuff under the giant boulder I’d placed on top of it. Writing this story was going to require me to excavate that boulder and see what was really under there. Nope, nope, and nope. My heart starts racing a little just thinking about it. It really does feel like a physical panic when I think too much about it.

So, then I felt really confused. Was the fear I was feeling God telling me to turn around and run in a different direction? Was the fear protecting me from something I should be legitimately afraid of?

A little voice somewhere piped up. Maybe the fear means you are headed in the right direction? Maybe the fear means you are actually in the arena, daring bravely? Maybe you should try facing it? The voice whispered. Ahh, it makes my hands sweat just to type that.

With butterflies in my tummy I started reading everything I could about the creative process. I turned to books like The Artist’s Way and The War of Art that I’d always known about but never bothered to pick up. I listened to Oprah’s podcast with Brene Brown and cried my eyeballs out when she said things like “vulnerability is the birthplace of everything we want.”

What I was afraid of, what I am afraid of is being vulnerable. Of sharing my WHOLEheart. I want to create, but I don’t want to create just to create. I want to create to transcend, I want catharsis. I want to write stories that lead me to a better understanding of myself and the world. Otherwise what’s the point? I should just knit or cook elaborate dinners. Those are creative acts, but they do not require me to do any hard, meaningful work that leads me to some new understanding.

Here’s what The Artist’s Way says about fear:

Most of the time when we are blocked in an area of our life, it is because we feel safer that way. We may not be happy, but at least we know what we are–unhappy. Much fear of our own creativity is the fear of the unknown. If I am fully creative, what will it mean? What will happen to me and to others? We have some pretty awful notions about what could happen. So rather than find out, we decide to stay blocked. This is seldom a conscious decision. It is more often an unconscious response to internalized negative beliefs. 

I can’t tell you how good it felt to read those words. I realized everything I was feeling, this whole process, was totally normal and basically a textbook case of being blocked. I am not alone. In fact I am in the company of all the other artists and writers who I respect and love. This fear I’m feeling is not a sign that something is wrong with me. It’s a sign that I am tiptoeing my way into artist territory.

Here’s what The War of Art has to say about fear, a.k.a. Resistance:

Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North–meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others. Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

In my last post I was wishing for a divining rod that would help me know which project I should work on. Well, I think I got my answer. According to the passage above, I should go towards the thing that scares me the most. The thing I don’t want to look at, I should look at that. I mean it makes total sense, but I don’t want that to be the answer. I want to do my writing and always feel like a million bucks while I’m doing it. I want it to be easy breezy and fulfilling and then walk away without a scratch on me. But that’s not how it works.

So these books had me pretty convinced, but they are books about overcoming creative blocks, so it’s not surprising that they got me pumped up. But what was really crazy and made me think maybe God was trying to tell me something was when I picked up my devotional book that I’ve been doing the past few months. The book is called Made for This: 40 Days to Living Your Purpose. Highly recommend, two thumbs up. It walks you through exercises to help you discover what your gifts are and how you could use those gifts to serve God and the world. It’s been a really cool process to go through that book. So all throughout reading this book I keep coming to writing as being my gift, but I don’t think God is being served by me writing the literary equivalent of 90210 episodes. So I have been praying about and trying to discern how God wants me to use writing. Just tell me, God! And I will do it. Is the gist of what I’ve been praying since January.

Here’s what Made for This had to say this week:

Something is stopping us from running wild toward our purposes. In fact, we stop ourselves. When we let our hearts run wild for a minute, we can experience a sudden shift–our eyes drop and we remind ourselves in some way that we shouldn’t go there. Why do we do this? Because there is a war. And I wish I were being dramatic. But it’s real, and you know it because you feel it too. It’s a resistance that comes any time you consider doing something potentially important, and suddenly all you want to do is grab a bowl of peanut M&M’s and get lost in your third viewing of Downton Abbey. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield observed, ‘The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.’

Umm, I don’t know about you, but the devotionals I read don’t usually quote creativity manifestos. What in the world? And it was exactly the passage that had struck a chord with me when I read it in The War of Art. This had to be God answering my prayer. I am sure of it.

Made for This goes on to say something that I find very encouraging–and I mean that in the literal, gives-me-courage sense. “He [God] is in the trenches with us. In the fear. In the uncertainty. He is in the unknown–knowing and leading and working. What we don’t know yet is meant to lead us to dependence.”

Writing is not just something I do to be creative and express myself. It is an act that forces me to rely on God. It is a reminder that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I do not have to muscle my way through this fear. I can take a breath and ask for help and courage.

The Artist’s Way says this: “Remember, there is a creative energy that wants to express itself through you; Don’t judge the work or yourself. You can sort it out later; Let God work through you.”

God is after all a creative. He totally gets it. And he made us to do this work. Whether we are writers or teachers or doctors or mothers. We were made to create something with our lives, to transcend our day-to-day humdrum with sparks of the divine. If you are battling it out with Resistance and fear right now, know that you are not alone, and that you are doing the work you were made to do.

 


Dowsing

I read this today from Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection and it really hit home:

“Squandering our gifts brings distress to our lives. As it turns out, it’s not merely benign or ‘too bad’ if we don’t use the gifts we’ve been given; we pay for it with our emotional and physical well-being. When we don’t use our talents to cultivate meaningful work, we struggle. We feel disconnected and weighed down by feelings of emptiness, frustration, resentment, shame, disappointment, fear, and even grief…Sharing our gifts and talents with the world is the most powerful source of connection with God.”

Lately I have been struggling with how God is calling me to use my gifts. In the past few months I feel like I have been inundated with good, thought-provoking messages—from friends, books, conferences, and the Bible—that are all conspiring to stir things up within me and put me on a new path with my writing. But my worry is that maybe this new path is really just a mirage and a distraction, a shiny object that is ultimately keeping me from getting my real work done. I need to get over myself, stop thinking so much, grit my teeth and complete the novel I’m in the middle of writing is what I tell myself when my mind wanders to something new.

I sat down to write my novel today, and I felt no joy in it. I could not connect with the characters or care about the stupid decisions they are making so that the plot can move forward. It felt meaningless. And I’m all about doing meaningful work these days. I have no patience for spending time on creative work that does not feel authentic or feed my soul and spirit.

Writing is difficult. If you’re not feeling self-doubt, you’re probably not doing it right. But then sometimes self-doubt can be a tool and not just something to push past. Sometimes it’s right to question what you are doing as you are doing it and ask yourself: Is this the work I’m supposed to be doing? Does this project align with what’s important to me? Is it worthy of my time and energy? Or to quote Mary Oliver, is it the best way to spend my “one wild and precious life?”

There’s no guarantee that the work a writer does will ever make much money, if any at all. So that can’t be the reason for doing it. Ultimately the work has to be its own reward. And my novel is not feeling very rewarding. It feels shallow and meaning-less, rather than meaning-full.

Maybe the reason I’ve been struggling so much with this novel is because it is not what I am supposed to be writing right now?

What if I didn’t write it? I am able to make these choices after all. No one is holding a gun to my head and telling me I have to write this story. That’s the beauty of not having an agent or a contract with a publisher—lucky me!

Here’s what I think would happen if I decided to quit writing my novel:

  • Nothing – which is fine, but could also be sad. If I kept writing it, and the novel were published then that would be fulfilling (I think), but it could also be a disappointment if I didn’t feel like it was that great of a novel. My mediocre work would be out there representing me, and I would have to spend a lot of my time promoting it and hustling to sell something that I may not feel that great about.
  • I would feel shame and regret. I would always wonder what would have happened if I could have just finished the stupid thing and gotten on with my life. This is my main motivation for writing it right now, this feeling of I “should” do it because I want to avoid the feeling of failure that comes with quitting.
  • I would have time to write the thing that I feel more passionate about, that I feel is a better fit for my gifts.
  • I would feel free of the burden of doing something simply because I feel I “should.”

As I was writing this post the image of a divining rod kept popping into my head. I couldn’t remember exactly how these things work, so I looked it up. A divining rod is a forked branch that is used to find a water source. “Dowsing,” as this practice is called, dates back to medieval times. Scientist don’t put much stock in it, nevertheless, modern day companies still do it. According to a 2017 NPR article, most of the major water companies in the UK use a divining or “dowsing” rod to locate underground pipes. No one can prove whether dowsing rods lead folks to water, but no one can prove they don’t either.

I wish I had a writing divining rod, that I could hold over both projects to find out where the water is. I have a guess, but I don’t want to believe that giving up on a project is the right thing to do. And my guess might be wrong.

So I don’t know exactly what I should work on, but here’s what I do know:

  • I want to write.
  • I want to write work that is meaningful.
  • I want to feel connected to God when I write.

Actually I think I do have a divining rod. I think writing is my divining rod…and God and prayer and reading and paying attention. I think this post is a form of dowsing, which is why that image kept coming up as I wrote.

I don’t have my answer yet, but here’s what I think is the next right thing: I will keep holding out my branch and seeing where it twitches and vibrates and go towards that. I’m not sure where that will lead, but I don’t think I need to know that yet.

 

 

 


Breakfast of Champions: What I Eat Before a Marathon

I am running my first ultramarathon on Sunday. (!) I am channeling my pre-race nerves into making food. I’ve been researching the best foods to eat to get my body ready to run, and this blog post from Eat2Run convinced me to give carb-loading a try. Yippee! Carbs!

I have been mostly a lowish-carb eater for the past few years, so carb-loading has me both totally giddy with excitement and also freaking out a little. I have really demonized carbs it turns out. It feels a little wrong seeking these foods out. But I really don’t want to crash and burn during my race, so I’m building up my glycogen stores with some yummy carbs.

These last few days before the race, I’m trying to add in carbs like fruit and oatmeal and bread and potatoes!

2rgpeh.jpg

We will be staying in a hotel room the night before the race, so it will be difficult to do my usual pre-race meal of oatmeal. I’ll need to eat at 4:30 am to be ready to run at 7 am. I’m doubting that the hotel restaurant will be open for business then. So, I tweaked this yummy baked oatmeal recipe that my friend Lori shared with me (originally from Back to the Cutting Board).

I decided to add tart cherries to the oatmeal because they are supposed to be a great food for runners. Tart cherries have tons of anthocyanins, which are powerful antioxidants that contain anti-inflammatory properties and soothe aching muscles. Plus the cherries in this baked oatmeal make it reminiscent of cherry pie, which is an added bonus!

img_2111

 

Chia seeds were not a thing when I was growing up on oreos and diet cokes, but these days most people know that chia seeds are absolutely busting at the seams with fabulous things like omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, protein, antioxidants and minerals. They especially help with hydration as they are able to absorb 9-10 times their weight in water.

So, I tossed a good amount of chia seeds into the baked oatmeal to make it super oatmeal. So good!

img_2110

Tart Cherry and Chia Baked Oatmeal

 

My race-day plan is to eat the baked oatmeal with a boiled egg and pre-cooked bacon and coffee at around 4:30 am. Then at 6 am I’ll drink a serving of Generation UCAN, a slow-acting carbohydrate drink that gives me a nice slow-burn of energy without the blood sugar highs and lows of sugary gels. I tend towards being hypoglycemic, so the typical gels and goos that a lot of endurance athletes reach for during races can really mess me up. I get a burst of energy and then a huge crash and burn once I metabolize all that sugar.

I’ll carry another Generation UCAN drink and a few UCAN bars in my hydration pack and plan to drink/eat those every hour of the race. I’ll also bring another bottle with water and electrolytes to sip on throughout the race. This combo of slow, steady carbs and electrolytes is the key to a successful race. I have learned from experience that you cannot mess around and wing it with your fuel once you are running a marathon or longer. You have to plan ahead for what you’ll need and eat/drink when you are not necessarily hungry/thirsty. It is make or break.

I love geeking out on this stuff, so I find it super interesting to research and play around with what works best for me. It’s so interesting the stuff your body craves/needs when you run for a really long time.

I did a 20-mile training run recently and when I got home all I could think about were pickles, chips and mustard. I made a turkey sandwich and ate my weight in pickles. I made the perfect bite of a chip with mustard on it and a pickle on top. It was transcendent. I have more of a sweet tooth and don’t normally crave these foods, so I googled around to see why I had such an intense craving after my run.

It turns out all three of those foods contain stuff that helps with recovery. It is actually a thing for runners to carry mustard packets with them on long runs. I had already heard about pickle juice as a recovery drink, but never mustard. So crazy! And gross! It turns out the vinegar in mustard and pickles helps your muscles relax. The turmeric in mustard is also good for inflammation. And the salt in the chips and pickles replaces all the salt you lose when you exercise for an extended period of time.

So, I am also planning to carry a little ziplock bag of Doug’s Dills Sweet Hots (shout out to my father-in-law Doug who makes the best pickles you’ll ever taste!) and some salt and vinegar chips. I am hoping animals don’t start chasing me on this run! But maybe that would make me run faster?

Okay, enough with the food talk…Time to get some other race prep/packing done. I can’t wait to share how the race went. See you on the other side of 50k!

 Here’s my recipe for Tart Cherry and Chia Baked Oatmeal

Fruity Baked Oats

adapted from Back to the Cutting Board

Breakfast | Servings: 4-6
Prep time: 10 min | Cook time: 30 min | Total time: 40 min

Ingredients:

  • 1 package of frozen tart cherries
  • 1 1/2 cups quick cooking oats
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 cup chia seeds
  • 1 tbsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted, divided
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F). Spray an 8×8 or 9×9 in. square baking pan with cooking spray.
  2. Sprinkle 1 tbsp. of the melted butter into the bottom of the pan. Place all the fruit into the pan in a single layer. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, mix together oats, sugar, baking powder, salt, chia seeds, and cinnamon.
  4. Make a well in center and add in milk, melted butter, honey and egg. Stir into dry ingredients until just combined.
  5. Pour into the pan over the fruit and smooth the top. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until the edges start to darken and the top is golden brown. Let cool in pan for a few minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

 


Step in a Puddle Early

country lane field meadow puddles

Photo by SplitShire on Pexels.com

“My one piece of advice? Step in a puddle early,” I overheard a seasoned-looking trail runner say to a fellow racer. It had flash-flooded the day before the race and we were at the starting line, about to embark on 30 kilometers of slippery mud and flooded trails.

I’m not a step-in-the-puddle kind of girl. And we weren’t talking about little puddles that get the bottoms of your shoes wet. This was standing, murky water that went up past your ankles. And it was in the mid-40s outside. So it was cold, standing, murky water. Under any other circumstances, I would be like, no thank you, no puddles for me. I’ll be tiptoeing around those for the whole race.

But because I am not a seasoned trail runner, I was very open to any advice anyone might be able to give me that cold December morning. So, once the race started, the first puddle I saw, I closed my eyes, felt my body brace for the cold, and stepped right in it. I might have let out a little gasp from how cold it was, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. In fact it was a little thrilling. My feet were wet, but other than that I was totally fine. I could now cross puddles off my list of things to worry about. Check.

A few minutes later I hit my first muddy climb. It was a ridiculous, comical, impossible slog through heavy, slippery mud going uphill and then an out-of-control sloppy slide downhill. Repeat over and over again for 30k. After a while, I rejoiced when I saw a puddle because it meant I could rinse off some of the caked on mud that was making my legs feel like they weighed 200 pounds each.

Throughout the race I kept thinking about the advice of stepping in a puddle early and my natural inclination toward doing just the opposite–in life and in running. Stepping in a puddle feels like a mistake, like something to be avoided. It reminds me of that scene in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray steps off the curb into a big slushy puddle over and over again until finally, because he is living the same day on repeat, he learns how to avoid it.

I am a puddle avoider. For me, puddles equal discomfort and fear of the unknown. They make me anxious. What if that puddle causes me to have blisters? What if it makes my toes cold? Then what will happen? It could be terrible. It could lead to failure. I might not be able to finish the race, and I will be humiliated and embarrassed and have wasted $90.

Therefore, my brain does a quick calculation and says, “avoid all puddles. I repeat, no stepping in puddles at any cost.”

But I was in such a vulnerable place at the start of that race–a trail running newbie open to any and all suggestions for how to tackle this impossible, gross task that lay before me. I was so open to ideas at that point that I would listen to a stranger telling me to submerge half my leg in freezing water at the beginning of a race. Not even telling me, telling another stranger. I was just eavesdropping, soaking up any tips anyone might be throwing out there.

That race was the hardest race I’ve ever run. It felt lonely and scary and it hurt. Each muddy step felt like an obstacle to overcome. I was so happy when it was over. But I’m also so happy I ran it because I’m still drawing on the experience of it, the lessons it taught me. That little race in the woods was one of my proudest and most favorite achievements because I pushed past my comfort zone, way past. And that, in my experience, is where the really good stuff happens (unfortunately).

Last night I read this passage in Born to Run and thought of my muddy race and the next even longer, even scarier 50k that I have coming up this weekend.

“Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.”  -William James

That quote sums up perfectly why I love long-distance running. It’s not that I am a masochist and just want to torture myself. It’s that I know from experience that the discomfort you feel is not a wall, it’s a door that you can choose to go through. And what’s on the other side of that door is pretty awesome.

I love this description of running a 62-mile race in Haruki Murakami’s running memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:

“While I was enduring all this, around the forty-seventh mile I felt like I’d passed through something. That’s what it felt like. Passed through is the only way I can express it. Like my body had passed clean through a stone wall. At what exact point I felt like I’d made it through, I can’t recall, but suddenly I noticed I was already on the other side. I was convinced I’d made it through. I don’t know about the logic, or the process, or the method involved–I was simply convinced of the reality that I’d passed through. After that I didn’t have to think anymore. Or, more precisely, there wasn’t the need to try to consciously think about not thinking. All I had to do was go with the flow and I’d get there automatically. If I gave myself up to it, some sort of power would naturally push me forward.”

Marukami goes on to describe how during the last portion of his race he is basically able to turn off his brain and pretend like he is a running machine. Once he can separate his anxious mind from his body, he’s able to keep putting one foot in front of the other and make it to the finish line.

As someone who lets their anxious mind dictate much of the decision-making, I enjoy the way long-distance races force me to turn off those thoughts. They force me to be brave. Races force me to run through puddles, to push past what I think I am capable of, and they force me to ignore that little voice in my head that wants me to avoid making a mistake or being uncomfortable.

This blog forces me to do that too. It is very uncomfortable sharing thoughts I probably would not share with people in normal conversation. It makes me feel exposed and vulnerable in a way that I deeply try to avoid in real life. Feeling exposed and vulnerable is like a giant puddle that I do my best to tiptoe around. But on the other side of that vulnerability there is the awesome feeling of being known. When someone tells me they’ve read my blog, it makes me blush and want to hide under a chair, but then after that feeling subsides, it makes me feel wonderfully known and understood. That feeling is so good, that I’m willing to risk writing again.

What would happen if we decided to stop avoiding puddles and chose to go right through them? What wall are you up against that might actually be a door? I am all about the metaphors today, but I’m not really talking about puddles and doors in case you’re confused. I’m talking about the areas of your life that feel like barriers, keeping you safely and securely in your cozy status quo. What are the places in your life that feel like they could never possibly be different, so you avoid challenging them, stepping into the mess of them? Did you ever imagine that maybe there was something on the other side?

I love the saying “We can do hard things.” A naysayer might say, but why do hard things? Hard things are hard and might expose our weaknesses or make us look bad. Let’s stick to easy things! Easy things make us look like we know what we’re doing. Maybe that’s true to a degree. But I’m guessing the stories that you are proudest of, your defining moments, the times you felt like you were on top of the world were not easy accomplishments. And there were likely some puddles you stepped in along the way to get there.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Choose your own adventure in 2019!

selective focus photography of person holding the adventure begins mug

Photo by Simon Migaj on Pexels.com

A few years ago I stopped doing New Year’s resolutions and started setting a one-word intention for the year. Last year my word was “time.” For the first time since becoming a parent, I wasn’t working and all three of my kids were in school. I found myself with unprecedented amounts of glorious, unstructured time to work on my own writing. It felt like I had won the time lottery and I needed to figure out how to not blow it on stupid stuff like reading about other people’s lives on Facebook.

I feel like I used my time pretty well last year. I started this blog. I wrote about three-fourths of a novel manuscript. I trained for my first ultra marathon. I invested in friendships with some really awesome people who make me laugh, help me grow and help me be a better mom, writer, and person. It was a good year with lots to be proud of. I still wasted plenty of time. I didn’t finish my novel like I had hoped to (more on that in a second). But I was conscious of time as a non-renewable resource, and that guided a lot of my decision making.

Something I learned this year: Time is not like money. You can’t hoard it and save it for later. The time will get spent one way or the other, but you get to choose how you spend it.

This year my word is “finish.” I am really good at starting things and am perfectly content being in the middle of a project, but I avoid finishing stuff. My theory has always been that I’m a perfectionist, and that avoiding finishing is my way of avoiding screwing up. You can’t officially fail if you don’t finish, right?

Reading the book Mindset by Carol S. Dweck has given me new insight into why I don’t finish things, particularly writing projects. When it comes to writing, I have a “fixed” mindset, meaning I operate from a belief that my success as a writer is something I have no control over and my success or failure as a writer defines me. Eek, right?

In other words I have believed that being a good writer is a God-given talent that you either have or you don’t. Writing a “successful” book (which according to my fixed mindset outlook is a book that is published by a publishing house and is well-received by lots of people) is something I have very little control over. An agent has to want to represent it. An editor has to believe in it and pitch it to her fellow editors. The publisher has to get behind the book and spend money promoting it. I can’t control any of that stuff.

I get hung up on all the pieces of this process that I have no control over, and I basically give up when the writing doesn’t flow easily. I tell myself that if I were a better writer, the kind of writer that writes a “successful” book, then this would all be effortless. If it’s hard then I must not be very good at it, and if I’m not very good then my book will never get published. I imagine an editor trying to pitch my book to colleagues in a New York City office, snowflakes gently swirling outside the skyscraper window. I imagine everyone in the meeting giving a big thumbs down. That’s when it becomes very likely I will close my laptop and turn to another more appealing project like cleaning the toilet.

sabotage

This could be the cover of my book about my writing process. Here’s to less self-sabotage in 2019!

I have a fixed mindset about writing, and that mindset is what is standing in the way of finishing my novel. And finishing lots of other cool stuff too. The good news is that I can do something about this. Mindsets, like hairstyles, are changeable.

A fixed mindset defines success as proof that you are talented or intelligent. And failure is evidence that you are not talented or intelligent enough. Sorry, thanks for playing, but you had your chance and you blew it, is what the fixed mindset tells you when you fail. Or if things go well, the fixed mindset tells you that of course you did well because you are talented and that’s what talented people do. Talent, not effort, is the reason for success in the fixed mindset framework. Performance is everything.

Have you ever praised your child for being “smart” when they do well on a test? I think probably every parent has done this. That’s fixed mindset right there. Of course you did well on that test, you are naturally gifted with intelligence. Hard work has nothing to do with it, is the unintended message.

A growth mindset is characterized by the belief that you can develop yourself, that you can learn from mistakes, bad grades, and rejections. Challenges are to be expected because you are stretching yourself to do something difficult. Those setbacks aren’t the end of the story, they are valuable feedback that help you improve. Learning is valuable in its own right.

I underlined and put an asterisk next to the following passage from Mindset:

“You have a choice. Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re something in your mind, and you can change your mind…think about where you’d like to go and which mindset will take you there.”

I imagine sitting down with Dr. Phil and telling him about my fixed mindset approach to writing and him responding with, “how’s that working for you?”

Well, I have zero novels published, Dr. Phil, so not very well I guess.

So here’s my new growth mindset approach to writing:

  • A successful novel is a finished novel that I am happy with.
  • Writing a successful novel is in my control and no one else’s.
  • Writing a successful novel will require me to work hard, get feedback and use that feedback to revise. “Feedback” may come in the form of rejections. No, feedback will come in the form of rejections. Those rejections are helpful to me because they will make my novel better.
  • Writing a novel is difficult, but I am up to the challenge. I do hard things all the time. In fact, I kind of enjoy doing hard things, which is why I do crazy stuff like training to run an ultra marathon.
  • Publishing is in my control. I will try to get my novel published in the traditional way, but if that doesn’t work out, I can still publish it myself.
  • Don’t worry about the outcome, just write the story you want to tell as honestly as you can write it.

I am using writing as an example, but you could apply the growth mindset to so many things. Whether your 2019 goal is to lose weight, organize your house, or start a new business, the growth mindset is your friend. Realizing you can change the filter on how you see the world and your potential is pretty amazing and so encouraging. It doesn’t mean success will come more easily, but your mindset may be what keeps you going when the going gets tough.

Are you wondering if you are more of a fixed or growth mindset person? Here’s a little quiz from the book. Answer “yes” or “no” to the following questions.

  1. Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.
  2. You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
  3. No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
  4. You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.
  5. You are a certain kind of person, and there is not much that can be done to really change that.
  6. No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially.
  7. You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can’t really be changed.
  8. You can always change the basic things about the kind of person you are.

Did you answer “yes” to questions 1, 2, 5, and 7? You are seeing the world through a fixed mindset filter.

If you answered “yes” to questions 3,4, 6, and 8, then you see the world through a growth mindset filter.

How do you view mistakes? Being wrong? Do you feel like you always have to prove yourself?

If you said that you hate making mistakes, get really defensive if someone accuses you of being wrong, and feel like the world is one big final exam, then I am right there with you.

What if we didn’t see the world this way?

Here’s an illustration from the book: Imagine you have signed up to learn a new language. A few sessions into the class you have been called to the front of the room to answer questions. Do you feel anxious? Worried your lack of knowledge will be revealed to a group of people that is evaluating you? Or do you see yourself as a novice, at the beginning of something new with lots to learn. And this is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for?

This feels like a choose your own adventure story. I know which option sounds better to me…

What is the thing you’ve been scared to try? Or scared to finish? Do you make resolutions or intentions for the year? I’d love to hear!


Where Do I Begin?

The best way to get things done image

This quote is on the cover of a journal I just bought. It sounds great and super motivating in theory, but in my experience beginning is not as easy as it sounds.

Because how do you begin? What exactly is the first step?

Right now I’m doing a few hard things that force me to begin when I don’t want to begin. I’m training for my first 50k ultra marathon. Come January 20th I’ll need to be able to run 50 kilometers (that’s about 31 miles) in the hilly desert of Big Bend State Park in west Texas. I’ve run three marathons, but this distance and type of race are new to me. I’m a tiny bit scared, but mostly really excited to push myself and run in some beautiful scenery.

I wanted to try an ultra because I love long distance running, and I love having a new challenge. Without a race scaring me a little, I am terribly undisciplined and will gladly sit on the couch eating chips and watching Food Network shows. That is my natural state of being. Races force me to run, and running always makes me very happy. But I forget this every single time I am faced with the choice of sitting on the couch vs. going for a run. The truth is I dread doing my runs and put them off as much as possible. And then I do them, and I feel amazing. So races are good for me because they are the catalyst for getting off the couch and feeling good.

This month I’m also participating in NaNoWriMo, a.k.a. National Novel Writing Month. The traditional challenge during NaNo is to write 50,000 words (the length of a short novel) in 30 days. I’m adapting this challenge to suit my personal goal of finishing my already-in-progress novel. I’m trying to get in 50,000 words, but I may fall a little short. My main goal is to write everyday and finish my novel. If that adds up to less than 50k words, I’m okay with that. Writing, like running, makes me feel so good, but it also holds about as much appeal to me as flossing my teeth. I tend to avoid writing even though it makes me feel happy and centered and whole, so I have to trick myself into doing it, just like running.

So back to my original question, how do you begin to do a big, hard project like writing a novel or training for a long race? It’s easy to keep putting off beginning because big goals like these aren’t accomplished quickly; they take many days of consistently doing little things that eventually add up to achieving something big.

This one day isn’t going to make or break my success, I often say to myself—so I’ll wait to get started until I get the perfect not hot, not cold, not rainy, not tired, not busy day. That’s when I’ll get my work done.

But life doesn’t give us many of those perfect days. So you have to start with the conditions that you’re given. You have to make them work somehow. And then you have to start all over again every day until you have met your goal.

So here’s how to make yourself do the thing you need to do even when you don’t feel like doing it:

  1. Stick to a ritual.

Do the same thing at the same time in the same place each time. Take as many decisions and choices out of the process as possible. Here’s what this looks like for me with writing: I go to the same coffee shop, order the same drink, sit in the same spot (or as close to it as possible), open my novel on my computer, close my eyes and try to see one thing from my story. I really try to see it as clearly as though I’m watching a movie. Yesterday, my one thing was a character using a pick ax to dig up a garden.

I write my one thing just as I see it. I don’t question it. I am just reporting what I see. There is no choice about where to begin, which character to focus on. When I close my eyes, whatever part of the story pops into the viewfinder in my brain is what I write. And that’s what gets me started. Once I’m started, I can often sit and write for a good hour or two. I just need that little push over the speed bump.

Even when I can’t get to the coffee shop, closing my eyes and seeing my one thing still helps me get a little work done wherever I may be.

But the coffee shop is like my office. It’s where I go when I’m serious about getting some real work done. When I don’t want to start, I tell myself, all you have to do is drive to the coffee shop. That’s easy. You can do that. Then all you have to do is park. Done! Then order your coffee, sit down, open Word…now close your eyes. These are all very easy tasks that I know I can do no matter how tired I am or how uninspired I feel. Ordering coffee does not require inspiration. Neither does closing your eyes.

Once my eyes are closed, all I have to do is report what I see. What does the ground look like? What is the weather like? How does the pick ax feel in the character’s hands? What is he thinking about as he swings the tool over his head and plunges the blade into the earth? Before I know it, I am immersed in the world of my story and I’m doing the work that will get me to my goal.

2. Make it fun.

I go to the coffee shop to write because it’s fun. I like the music they play. I like that other people are there typing on their computers too. It makes me feel not so much like Cinderella, toiling away on my work at home while everyone else is at the ball. I also really love coffee and love when other people make it for me. So going to the coffee shop is not a hard sell for me. This sounds super obvious, but when you pick your ritual, make it something you ENJOY. Life is short. If you are going to be doing something over and over again, you should like it!

The way I make running more fun is by listening to podcasts and books on Audible. Or I schedule a running date with a friend, and the miles melt away as we talk to each other. I love connecting with friends or going deep into a subject or story by listening to it while I run. It feeds my body and soul in a way that chips and Food Network do not!

3. Log your progress.

I don’t know about you but I love a bullet journal. And I find a deep sense of fulfillment from coloring in the little boxes next to “write” and “run” in my “habit tracker” in my journal. It is profoundly nerdy that I do this, but I see it as giving myself a report card. I can look back at the end of the week and see how much I actually did the things I said wanted to do that week. And drawing the chart and coloring it in is a little bit crafty, which is probably what will be written on my tombstone.

Even if you aren’t a little bit crafty, I would like to suggest you try some sort of system for tracking your progress towards your goal. It is positively motivating. I mean that both as “quite motivating” and that it motivates you in a positive way. #wordsaremylife

If you don’t want to break out a ruler and colored pencils (I have a hard time understanding why you would feel this way, but to each her own), you could try Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break the Chain” method.  Seinfeld marks an X on the calendar for each day that he writes. His goal is just not to break his streak. He loves seeing a calendar full of X’s. I mean, who doesn’t?

Similarly, Jessica Lahey and KJ Dell’Antonia of the #amwriting podcast are always talking about how they give themselves a sticker when they get their writing work done. They simply text each other the word “sticker” and that is code for I did it, I sat my butt down and wrote today.

Whether you use X’s or stickers, do something to acknowledge the fact that you did something hard and good that day. You could have watched another rerun of Pioneer Woman, but instead you chose to move the needle a little closer to your goal.

Getting things done begins with you choosing to begin. Don’t wait for the perfect day, or permission or to feel like doing it. Just take the first step. And then the next one, and the next one. Each step isn’t much on its own, but when you put them all together, they add up to something you can be really proud of.

Okay, time for me to go running!

I’d love to hear how you get your stuff done. And if there are any fellow nano friends out there, please let me know how it’s going!

I’ll leave you with a running mantra that I love: “relentless forward motion.” That’s all it takes! Just one step after another. Keep going until you get to the finish line!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Letter to My Eighth Grade Self

I saw the movie Eighth Grade for the second time a few nights ago. The first time I saw it with a group of girlfriends at the the theater. The second time I watched it at home with my daughter who just started 9th grade. The movie is hard to watch, kind of like 8th grade itself. It is full of awkward, cringy moments that make you want to turn your head and say, “no, no, no.”

It was so helpful to see the movie with my daughter because it enabled me to empathize with where she is in life in a way that I honestly don’t do very well. I tend to look at my two teenagers (I also have a 7th grade son) and measure them against my adult expectations. I expect them to know what I know, to have figured out the complicated, complex structure of friendships, crushes, popularity, carving out your own identity that’s separate from your parents’, and surviving gym class. And kids today have to do this on the very public stage of the internet, which raises the stakes significantly and makes everything that much more fraught with risk and drama. It’s a lot.

Since re-watching Eighth Grade, I have been trying to remember back to how I felt at that time in my life, who I was in the eighth grade. Ugh, talk about cringy. Adult me would have a field day correcting, nagging, over-analyzing and fretting over 8th grade me. My kids are ten times more mature and together than 8th-grade me was. Sorry, mom!

So, here is my letter to my 8th grade self…. By the way, if you’ve never written a letter to your former self, I highly recommend it. People spend a lot of money for this kind of stuff in therapy! I know I have!

***

fullsizeoutput_50c1Dear 8th-grade Elizabeth,

Here’s the hard truth. I’m 43 and I still don’t know everything. I still feel like I’m back in 8th grade a lot of the time. But I have gathered a few little nuggets of wisdom along the way. Not because I was necessarily searching for them, more like they hit me on the head like acorns when I was walking by.

Here’s what I know now that I wish I knew then:

  1. No one is thinking about you nearly as much as you are thinking about you. At first this sounds depressing because, really? They aren’t? But ultimately, it is incredibly freeing because you can stop worrying so much about pleasing everyone all the time.
  2. Typing class will be one of the most important classes you ever take. Seriously. You have no idea how much you will type later in life.
  3. Don’t worry about being popular, worry about what kind of friend you are to the people you care about most. Are you kind? Do you sit with friends when they are hurting? Do you celebrate their victories like they are your own? Do you tell them how much they mean to you? Sadly, adult you has screwed this up a bunch. But I have had some really great friends teach me how to do this better.
  4. It’s okay to be friends with all kinds of people. You don’t need to think so much about what group they are in and whether that group is one that you fit into. People are more complicated than you realize. Cheerleaders are funny. Theater people can be quiet. Orchestra kids like to get crazy sometimes. Even adults are guilty of dismissing entire groups of people. Adult you goes to church every Sunday, tends to vote democratic, secretly loves going to Hobby Lobby and has a mix of hardcore rap and worship songs on her running mix. People are not just one thing so don’t put them in a box.
  5. Don’t worry about whether you are good enough or smart enough or popular enough or pretty enough. You are enough. You don’t have to prove your worth.  But you do have to believe in it.
  6. I know sometimes you are nervous to look people in the eye and say hi first, but you should try it every now and then. People like getting a smile and a hello from you. And everyone’s a little nervous to say hi first. Not just you.
  7. Go outside and exercise a little bit everyday. Grown-up you figured this out way later in life. You tend to get sad and hopeless when you don’t move your body. It is amazing how much better a little fresh air and exercise make you feel. Even better than eating Oreos and watching Carol Burnett reruns after school. Well, a different kind of better.
  8. You have grown A LOT in the last few years. You went from wearing kids’ clothes to women’s clothes practically over night. That would make anyone feel awkward and like they barely recognize themselves. You will get used to this new body of yours. And then just when you are used to it, it will change again. And again. And then you will have children and it will really change. The only constant with bodies is that they are always changing. This is a good thing though. Our bodies are just an outer shell, like a little cocoon. We spend our whole lives inside of our body cocoons trying to become butterflies. When that happens, we won’t need them anymore.
  9. You will try to wear your hair in bangs at different times throughout your life. Here’s the thing. Feel free to try, but it never works out.
  10. As you get older you will try on different personas–pep squad captain, angsty teen, girlfriend, artsy young adult, over-protective new mom, working mom, PTA mom. These are just a few that spring to mind; there are many more identities you will try out. But remember this: no matter how you dress or what your life is currently focused on, always remember you are a child of God who is loved and valued for simply being you. You don’t have to try to BE something in particular. The goal is just to be who you are. That’s when your light can really shine.
  11. Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing. No matter what anyone tells you or YOU tell you, you are a writer. A real one. Words hover around you like little hummingbirds that flit here and there looking for nectar. You can’t see them, but they are there. Your job is to sit your butt down in a chair and be very still so that the words will come to you. You never know when they are going to come, so you have to be in the chair with your hands and heart open as much as you possibly can. Promise me you’ll do this? Pinky promise?