Tuesday, July 29, 2014

When Your Story Isn't Turning Out “Right”: Writing Week #4

I'm in the last week of my self-imposed writing challenge to write every day in July. For Week 3, in lieu of a normal blog post, I wrote a story for Elise Valente's blog

The Fourth Instance” is a scifi story about what happens when you procrastinate on your current WIP. Um, oops, no. But that's actually how I wrote this story. Never underestimate my ability to procrastinate by doing something “useful” and “important.” But I digress.

I worked that short story up one side and down the other (is this just a southern saying?) and still never quite got what I was looking for in the pacing and the voicing. Then there's always the conflict of “what I originally imagined” and “what something turns out to be.” Why is it that even if something is going well, if it doesn't look like our original plans we feel a little upset, striving to get to that original view?

Working through some of these feels generated other feels. I most epically don't have all this figured out, but some of the things that are helping me right now might help others, so here goes.

When Your Story Isn't Turning Out “Right”

Consult an expert. This may look different for each person. I'm a verbal processor, so I don't even know what I'm thinking until I've had the chance to talk it out. Sometimes all I need to do is try to explain my situation to my husband and then stuff becomes clear.

Put the offender in time out. Take a little time away from whatever is misbehaving and do something else. You can ignore the troublemaker for a couple minutes to give yourself some new perspective. Or, if it's really stuck, put that story/piece of art/song/whatever in time out and come back to it tomorrow. Take the weekend off for that particular project and write something else just for fun. Read something new. Don't let the story tangle you up inside.

Remember that you can always change things. I am a compulsive hoarder of words. I save old drafts as a safety net in case I do irreparable damage. Just knowing that I can change things, to refer back to old notes for some ridiculous minute detail, helps me have courage to go for big changes.

Roll with it. Who says that this new thing that your story is morphing into isn't going to be cool? Or better? Maybe it won't be what you originally expected, but maybe it's going to be way more awesome, deeper, and more colorful.

Stop judging yourself. Yeah, I know. I just said for you to build a life size Empire State Building using only Cheesewhiz and a prayer. What you write today is setting the stage for what you will write tomorrow – figuratively and literally. You don't know the full effect of the experience you are gaining as you put together every blog post, short story, novella, or novel draft.

Stop judging yourself, part 2: Everyone has to start somewhere. Give yourself permission to suck. My friend John Adamus (TwitterBlog), masterful writer-editor-encourager, changed the way I think with just that one phrase: “give yourself permission to suck.” It's ok for things to be “rough,” but the point is that you can learn from it and get better.

Do you know what for me the most comforting part of having my stuff not turn out “right” is? This means that I am writing, creating, and working. I'm actually doing something. I'm making progress.

Monday, July 14, 2014

My Sidekick Is a Spreadsheet: Writing Week #2

Week 2 of my self-imposed writing challenge is now done and I’m 12,005 words “richer” than I was on June 30. ICYMI, my focus for July is primarily to get in the practice of writing every day.

As with any goal, knowing your strengths and weaknesses can make a big difference in the journey to achieving that goal. In my efforts to write every day in July, I’ve called upon the two main heroes of my life: To Do Lists and spreadsheets.

I am a big fan of lists. I am the dreaded list-maker your mama warned you about. Lists, and other linear paths of organization like spreadsheets, are how I keep sane.

Other list-makers out there (all the list-makers in the house say “Heeeey!”) know that there is nothing quite like crossing an item of your To Do List.

But, if you read last week’s post, you know that procrastination is one of my great weaknesses. What happens when a master list maker is also a master procrastinator? Inner turmoil. Ha.

The result is that as much as I get the “planner's orgasm” from crossing items off my To Do List, I will do almost anything to procrastinate on my To Do List.

That being said, if I put Writing on my To Do List I am 62% more likely to at least attempt my writing for the day so that I can cross it off the list for that little completion afterglow. I’ve discovered that reaching my goal word count for the day typically isn't very hard. I often reach my goal before I realize it. Like many things, the hard part is getting started.
Namor knows the power of the spreadsheet.

After I get started, my good friend the Spreadsheet keeps me rolling. I like to see that word count climbing. One cell calculates how far I’ve come and another cell shows how close I am to achieving my goal. It’s like magic.

The only thing that keeps me from procrastiworking on my writing by something like “I'm going to draw stick figure art to accompany this scene!” is that I can't count it towards my word goal for the day. Otherwise, you can bet your last brownie that I would suddenly want to design special art for each chapter and page heading.

Right now I’m just trying to keep focused on throwing words on the page. They say “write drunk, edit sober” but that's never going to be me. One ounce of wine and I will be ready for nap time. For me, I think the motto will be more “write passionately, edit dispassionately.” Throw my heart into it now and my critical, judgey mind can sift through the garbage later.

Now's the time to shovel some words out of the deep, dark hole of my mind. My word count is growing with each shovel ... and so is an ever-so-tiny bit of confidence. I might be getting in the swing of things. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Fine Art of Avoidance: Writing Week #1

Batman knows procrastinating when he sees it.
As part of my goals for 2014, I'm working on the hyper-specific, professional, and detailed goals of:

1a) Write Stuff
1b) Finish Something

I'll wait while you take a moment to deconstruct those complex goals.

As part of working towards these goals, I've challenged myself to write every single day in July. I have a comparatively low word count goal to achieve, since the main point is for me to get in the practice of writing every day.

Writing every day is such a basic, fundamental task for writers. “Writers write,” they say. “Write what you know,” they say. (“Stop telling fart jokes,” they say...) This writer should write about fear because that's what I know.

Fear has kept me from putting words on the page for a very long time. I gave in to fear for far too long.
 - Fear that I wouldn't be able to finish anything (which, strangely enough, didn't help me have courage to finish anything …).
 - Fear that what I write won't be worth reading.
 - Fear of success (it's another flavor of my great nemesis: the unknown).
 - Fear of my own shadow, etc.

When fear wasn't lurking, there was another one of my good friends: laziness. Why try this new, scary thing called Finishing Something when I can sit here and watch Netflix while I eat brownies? Brownies and Netflix. :::sigh:::

Seems legit.
My other great partner in “crime” is procrastination. I am a master procrastinator. In my bag of procrastinating tricks there's something I like to call “procrastiworking.”

Procrastiworking is when you procrastinate under the guise of doing legitimate tasks (cleaning the kitchen, paying the bills, doing other tasks that you're also wanting to avoid, etc.). You feel legit and adult-y while procrastiworking, but you know the only reason you're cleaning out the edges of window frames with an old toothbrush is because you're avoiding something.

I have brought the art of procrastinating to such a magnificent level that my tablet occasionally suggests “procrastirachel” as a word choice. Yes, my tablet downgraded me from a proper noun to shame me in my misbehavior.

I know I'm not alone in facing the old frenemies of fear, laziness, and procrastination. If you have old projects, big projects, scary projects, dream projects, or new projects that you have shelved for whatever reason, let's work on those a little bit at a time in July.

I'm still finding ways to procrastinate and I'm stumbling on little places where the fear is keeping me tame, but I'm moving forward. I'm making progress, writing every day, and Doing The Stuff. My word count for the first 7 days of July: 7069 words. That's not a lot compared to what others have written in the last 7 days, but that's about 7000 more words than I put “on paper” in probably the last 5 years combined. It's my victory – and it's just the beginning. There are 3 more weeks left in July.

But don't ask me how long I procrastinated on writing this post. Let's just say my kitchen is really clean right now.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Thoughts on My 31st Birthday

FACT: You look 80% more contemplative
when wearing glasses. (Me on my birthday)
I just turned 31 and I've got to say that it was a bit harder than turning 30. Age feels like a crippling number in our society. Hit a certain number and BOOM! You're expired. Off the shelf. Not a contender. But it's not just the number that's bothering me.

I'm a very introspective person. Like many, I am my worst enemy and my harshest critic. I had my first “midlife” (tenth-life?) crisis when I turned 10. I berated myself endlessly because I had lived a whole decade (ten infinitely long years) and had absolutely nothing to show for it. Absolutely nothing.

But I digress . . .

Just after the new year, someone asked about my new year's resolutions. I said that in 2014 I want to hate myself less. She laughed. I laughed. But it was true.

I'm all about process improvement. I'm working towards being a person I can be proud of. I am a work in progress and some days we make more progress than others.

Many people wish “a happy birthday,” but beyond the general fun birthday happiness of cake and parties I thought about what “wishes” I would like for myself in the next year. I gotta say, wish I could buy this stuff on Amazon Prime.

Here are some “wishes” and general ponderings for myself in my 31st year.

I want to have the passion of the heart not to give up so easily when things get tough.

I want to face “failure” and not flinch. I want “failure” to be something that I don't give a crap about.

On that note … I want to give myself permission to fail. Permission to suck. Permission to start at the bottom … because I know that I will get better.

In addition to introspection, cake happened!
I want to go for the “big” goals. I want to chase after something really amazing and go forward despite the fear.

I want to be less afraid. And where there is fear, I want to Do The Stuff despite the fear.

The unknown is never going to completely go away. I can't wait for everything to be totally clear before I do something.

I want the courage to speak what's on my mind … and then the thoughtfulness to speak in a way that people will understand.

I want to be someone that after I'm dead people will remember me for more than just fart jokes or purple hair.

Not everyone is going to be a fan and that's ok. I can't please everyone – and really? There are a few people out there that I really don't want to make happy.

More often than not, I want laziness to be a condiment - not the main dish - of my days.
Birthday roses from my husband.

Hey, it's ok to write something contemplative and melancholy (like this post). Life isn't all fart jokes and unicorns.

Don't give headspace to jerks. They don't deserve that much screentime.

I give myself permission to return books to the library without having read them. Let go of the things that make you feel trapped in obligation.

Anyway. Those are just a few of the things rattling around in my head this year, but never fear! All of this contemplative introspection and occasional self-loathing came with traditional birthday “wishes” like blueberry lemon cake and roses from my husband.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sordid Tales to Entertain Your Guests, Or How to Cook a Chicken

Want to learn to cook a whole chicken? Here are a handful of simple, yet bleak, steps. Follow along!

1. Cut open the plastic wrapper around your chicken. This will explode pink chicken slime all over your shirt and contaminate your entire counter. 

You will probably hose down the counter with bleach afterwards as if you are a fireman and the counter is on fire.

2. Reach inside the body cavity to pull out the “accessories." If this is your first time handling a whole bird you may vaguely wonder which end of the chicken gets groped. You'll figure it out. 

The chicken accessories are all the interior bits (organs) that they thoughtfully saved for you, which will bring you some small amount of horror. You will pull out the organs one by one, vaguely feeling like you should know which organ you're looking at but 7th Grade was so long ago.

3. Rinse the chicken corpse under cold water. Around this time in the process is when you'll drop the chicken into the sink by accident.  

While you rinse the chicken you also may make it dance, flapping the wings a little. Then you will know for certain that you are broken on the inside. Proceed to the next step.

4. Assess
your chicken to decide which way is "up." If helpful, recall a Norman Rockwell painting.

Who decided that the breast of the chicken should be up and perkily on display? Some man, probably. 

5. Add chicken right-side-up into the slow cooker and shut the lid before the chicken comes back to life. Cook until your soul feels clean, or about 3 hours, whichever comes first.

Prepare yourself for a little disappointment when your chicken doesn't look like it came off the deli rotisserie counter. It's kind of like the cooking version of “photoshop versus real” celebrity comparisons.

6. When the chicken is cooked through, carefully remove the bird onto a cutting board and begin carving the chicken as if you actually know what you're doing.

If you're like me, after you finish carving, you will look at the carcass that remains and think, “I don't know much about biology, but didn't this chicken used to have ribs?” Somehow the ribs always disappear. Then you'll discover that the tail, which previously was kind of cute, has turned into a horrifying greasy sponge from which tiny vertebrae pop out.
Bonus Round
One of the exciting chicken “accessories” is the neck. Yes, they save the neck for you and cram it up inside the chicken. I feel like there is a “jerk chicken” + “head up your butt” joke somewhere here but I can't find it. 

But I digress.

One time while I was pulling out the accessories I didn't notice that the chicken neck went down the drain. Imagine my horror when I later stuck my hand in the drain only to find some bony, fleshy thing caught in the garbage disposal. Good times. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Serious Thoughts From My First Yoga Class

I'm trying to be more well-rounded (see what I did there?) in my exercise regimen, so I recently decided to give a yoga class a try.

You know how in the movies when they do a stereotypical clip of yoga it's always someone contorted in an impossible position with their legs wrapped around their head? Yeah, that actually happened just like in the movies. The class went from "hey, I'll try that" straight to "LOL NOPE" faster than you can say “sun salutations.”

During this class, I found there's a certain peace involved in being completely out of your depth. You can joyfully hold yourself absolutely not one drop accountable for the desecration and unavoidable failure that is growing by the moment.

That's not to say that I didn't do my best to follow along. My determination must've been a glaring neon sign in the room full of peaceful and impossibly flexible women. As the instructor sweetly said for me to relax my face, I'm afraid my inner response was a less sweet, “Excuse me, I'm trying not to fall on my Asgard here.”

I learned that black underoos under your black yoga pants is a great idea. Apparently, when those pants are stretched to their limit in some amusing pose they become see-through and everyone gets to see your underdrawers.

Relatedly, if you are on the edge of the classroom, the entire class gets to stare at your caboose (underduds and all) for about five minutes. When the teacher tells everyone to “focus your eyes on a single point” you'll spend those five minutes wondering how many people chose your butt as a focal point.

Since I have the maturity of a 10-year-old, as I was thinking about butts, I suddenly remembered the “wind relieving pose” and laughed inappropriately. The grownup part of me turned the laugh into a well-timed cough (“allergies”). In case you need it, here's a handy guide for what to do if you fart in yoga class.

I'm learning that yoga is as much a “mind” practice as it is a physical practice. I'm not sure whether the mental (fart jokes, anyone?) or the physical practice is more difficult.

Doing yoga directly after watching Captain America: The Winter Solider was a questionable choice. It's really hard to clear your mind for meditation when there is a grand finale nerdsplosion going on in your brain.

When all was said and done, the instructor gave us each a piece of chocolate. It sort of felt like we were getting a treat for good behavior. I'm not sure I earned my piece.

I really enjoyed the realization that I am doing better at being kind to myself when trying new things. I also felt a small bit of satisfaction in not taking myself too seriously.

When you start to take yourself a little too seriously, do yourself a favor. Do the wind relieving pose and let it all out.  

Monday, April 21, 2014

Mustaches & the Invisible Orchestra: A Visit to the Salon

Whenever you go into a salon (hair salon, nail salon, spa, etc.) they always try to get you to purchase some sort of add-on service. For some reason, their favorite suggestion for women is always an upper lip wax.

Actually, I know the reason. They know that at the slightest mention of facial hair a woman will react violently out of paranoia and say, "By all means, get rid of it! Kill it with fire, if you must!" 

But, if you are like me, you turn down the service because 1) you don't think you need it, 2) you're offended, and/or 3) you're cheap. Unfortunately, you then spend the next 3 days paranoid about your upper lip and you may ask honest friends if you actually have a mustache. You will also pass every mirror afraid that you will suddenly see this: 

At some point you start to feel annoyed that you are giving headspace to someone who merely is after a bigger commission. After several days, the offense wears off and you go on your merry way until the next time you go to a salon and the cycle starts anew. 

One time, this happened.

Woman: "Would you like your mustache waxed?" 
Normally, at least they "pretty it up" by calling it an "upper lip wax." I tamped down a bit of outrage, but responded with a polite, "No, thank you."
Woman: "Really? You don't want to have a smooth lip for your boyfriend? I'm sure he would like it."
Me: "No. My husband likes me as-is."
Woman: [Sullen silence] 

During the rest of the appointment, in my heart I was exuberantly conducting an invisible orchestra using only my middle fingers.

This woman didn't want to let it go. After a bit, she broke the silence. 
Woman: "You think he likes the mustache?"
At this point I was having a hard time staying cool.
Me (in my best deadpan): "Yes. It's his favorite."

I led the invisible orchestra into a crescendo. 

Normally, I just keep it to the most polite "no, thank you" I can muster, but when they push me I get more creative. Sometimes I just want to say: "No! I'm growing out my mustache as bushy as possible to deter the throngs of suitors who have been camped out on my doorstep."    

Later in this seemingly infinite appointment, she also offered to wax my "sideburns" and my neck. I started to feel like I was slowly morphing into Beast while I sat in her chair. Man, she really wanted that sale. 

And the orchestra played on.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Labels Are For Boxes, Not People (AKA The Post Where I Get Rant-y)

We put labels on boxes so we can know what's inside. The labels are there so we can evaluate what's inside the box without looking, learning, or investigating for ourselves. We take for granted that the label is all we need to know.

How often do we do the same to people? We quickly label them and decide their “worth” by whatever quick label comes to mind.

      Unemployed. Employed. Poor. Rich. Middleclass. Upper class.

When was the last time you sized someone up based upon a quick label?

      Fair skinned. Dark skinned.

Do you put labels on people and take for granted that you know all you need to know?

      Introvert. Extrovert.

After nearly 10 years of marriage, I can tell you that I am still learning about my husband and he is still learning about me. Believe me when I say: In the most intimate of relationships, with open sharing, we can still misjudge each other.

      Fat. Skinny. Health nut. Junk food addict. Vegetarian.

So, why do we think we have strangers all figured out by a simple label? Why do we presume to guess the motives of others based on a label?

      Sinner. Saint. Bigot. Religious. Athiest. Agnostic.

When you put someone in a box with a neat little label you stop learning about them.

      Republican. Democrat

Don't label and certainly don't stop learning.

      Highschool education. Higher education.

The nature of human beings is that they will surprise you. We aren't meant to be kept in a box.

You are the sum of your life experiences, the choices you make, and the people you influence. Not the sum of the labels society places on you.

One day, can we just stop evaluating someone's worth all together?

You are a person. You live, you breathe, you matter. Full stop.

I don't consider this to be an end-all-be-all on the topic of labels in any way. This is just a brief introduction to the giant Rant-y Land I wander into when we talk about labels and putting people in boxes. This topic started with this tweet or the tweet started the topic? Chicken vs. egg. Any way.
Legit Box I don't mind if you put me in.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Night Birds

One of the perks of living in the southern parts of the U.S. is that while much of the country is still covered in snow, we are starting to see spring. Hate us or love us for it, spring is here.

The flowering trees here are stunning in the spring. Unfortunately, right now, the Bradford Pear trees are blooming. While they are particularly beautiful they have a soul-wrenching odor. Look upon the trees but do not stand downwind from them. The fumes wafting off those blossoms smell like a giant vat of urine that's covered in mold. Wikipedia actually describes the smell as "a cross between rotting fish and semen."

But I digress.

This weekend it was warm enough that we opened the windows at night for fresh air and a breeze. My husband and I cuddled a little, awake in the excitement of leaving the windows open for the first time this year. 

We made hushed small talk about how much we enjoyed the fresh air and I commented on how much I enjoyed "
to just lie here and listen to the birds chirping."

We cuddled some more and listened to the night noises. It suddenly occurred to me that the noises were from bugs, not birds. From the sound of it, these were giant, mutant crickets of a violent sort.

As is my brain's natural inclination, I started to wonder exactly where those bugs were. Are they on my windowsill? Do they live in the trees? Did one climb in our bedroom?!? My brain helpfully supplied lots of thoughts about the bugs we were hearing (why is the word thorax so disturbing?) and it started to damage my calm

About this time, my husband caught on to the "bird noises" and he clarified, "Actually, I don't think those are birds, I think they're-"
"I know. I'm trying not to think about it."
"I mean – those are night birds," he corrected in an innocent yet manly falsetto, trying to redirect the conversation. "The birds that chirpy at night!"
"Uh, night birds, yeah."
We lay in an uneasy silence for a while, the magic of the moment lost. Finally, I got up and shut the window. He thanked me, saying, "I didn't want to listen to the bugs- uh, BIRDS any more either."

Ah, the perils of spring. If I haven't mentioned it previously, I do not like bugs. This is only the sweet chirping of crickets. When we hit the foul days of summer and cicada season you will find me in the fetal position trying to find my mind palace

May your windows be open, the breeze be pleasant, and the midnight chirping be night birds.
-Rachel's spring proverb

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Random Thoughts on Tea

Judging you.
I had the most majestic cup of chai today at Starbucks. The fact they couldn't make it sugar free tells me they made it from a syrup, but I can live with that.

People ordering at the Starbucks counter use such careful and thoughtful mannerisms like they are receiving important advice from a consultant rather than ordering a beverage.

Starbucks always makes me think of that scene in You've Got Mail. "Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino." It really does make me feel like I accomplished some small thing in life by choosing a beverage and bravely facing the barista/consultant with my choice.

I rarely go to Starbucks. I normally brew my tea at home, and I'm always fascinated by the directions on the side of the box. 

Apparently, pouring the water over the teabag is a very important, non-negotiable step to making tea. Adding the teabag to a cup of hot water is “right out” (vague Monty Python reference). Google this if you wish to read a lot of people have anxiety over the pour vs. dunk debate.

My box of decaf chai says that not only should I pour the hot water over the teabag, I should by no means squeeze the teabag. My husband theorizes they were thinking of male body parts when they included this instruction.

There are no real rules to how I make tea. Tea is supposed to be relaxing. The more rules applied to the tea making process, the more I've defeated the purpose of the tea.

To "real" tea drinkers I imagine my methods and tastes for tea are something akin to a Neanderthal bludgeoning a small rabbit and eating it raw. *crude grunting*

I have many different varieties of tea, and I'm often struck by how the different brands of tea show different personalities on the box. 

The Celestial Seasonings box makes me think of a fun bunch of laid-back people. Twinings makes me feel a little inadequate, like I'm not worthy, but I drink it anyway because 'Murica. Bigelow is somewhere between Celestial Seasonings and Twinings, for me.

The Tazo box makes me think that "maybe I should've accomplished something with my life today, but if I'm yearning for an accomplishment I may miss the path to inner centeredness and is this tea done steeping yet?"

On that note, I have a cup of freshly made tea waiting for me. I performed a hybrid "pour + dunk" maneuver with the teabag, in case you're wondering.