How’s The Book Coming?

A few updates about writing, work, and travel.

How much do I love sabbatical-land? Oh, let me count the ways!

I’m grateful for summer, which has been full of barbecues, road trips, family outings, movie nights, and plenty of that once-elusive elixir: sleep. From my relaxed coffees with M, to our goofy Dungeons and Dragons games with the guys, to afternoons spent with a book in my lap, the last few months have contained everything I could have asked for.

Whistler, BC. July 2017

It’s been an interesting year! While we traveled from January to April, I felt myself letting go of my old habits, and loosening up. Then from May until July, I had a long and lazy summer, tossing away my plans and my calendar, and letting the days blur into one another.

Now, as fall approaches, I feel ready to do things again, and I’m glad! Here are some assorted updates on what I’m up to:

The Business Plan that Fizzled

This story begins three years ago, the night Ambition left me.

Ambition slipped away while I was sleeping; it took me a long time to make peace with her departure. Up until that night, I had this fire-in-the-belly that made me passionate about goals and achievement and being successful. And without warning, all of that was gone. The solid ground beneath my feet had become a sheet of ice. I slipped into the darkness below, spluttering.

Ambition’s departure set me on a different path than the one I’d planned. P and I began downsizing, and later we plotted our escape from corporate America. We traveled the world for a while, and a few months ago we came home.

I’ve written about those events, here on the blog. Reading bits and pieces, you might have put that story together. It’s the tale of my midlife crisis, spread out over time.

What follows is a piece of the story that I haven’t yet told. It’s about business plans, and fear, and the return of a long-lost friend. It begins with a sleepless night and ends with me shouting at the universe.

I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

The Business Plan that Fizzled

My story picks up in January, six months ago, while we were in Washington DC. I was doing laps around my friend E’s living room at two in the morning, brimming with anxiety. In a few days P and I would be in Spain, but I wasn’t nervous about that. Something else was keeping me awake.

After years of preparing for adventure, adventure had finally arrived! I paced the hardwood floor, first clockwise, then counter-clockwise. My body hummed with energy, without an outlet. I felt ready to explode! My career had always siphoned that energy off, before I went nuclear, but now there was nothing for me to pour myself into. Perhaps I needed a project?

Yes, I thought, with relief. That’s it! I need a project!

I already knew what I wanted. For years I’d squeezed my writing time around my day job. What if I treated my writing like a proper business? That’s the ticket! Hadn’t I dreamed of being a full-time writer? It seemed like an obvious choice.

I was one week into my travels, and already trying to sign up for a new job. Totally normal, right?

I gave myself a week to write the business plan, and by the time we landed in Madrid, it was ready to go. It was a beautiful plan, with a mission statement, and an editorial calendar, and checklists, and goals. The plan rolled out in front of me like a lush red carpet, and all I needed to do was walk forward.

That’s when the plan fizzled and died.

Like someone opening a gift to discover the box was empty, I sat down to write and discovered that I didn’t want to do it anymore! My motivation was gone. Absent. Kaput! The ideas that had seemed so exciting when I conceived them had fallen dead. My goals had become a list of odious chores.

Over the next few days, I tried to rekindle my enthusiasm and failed repeatedly. I fell into a state of depression. Unable to find my way back to being motivated, I got angry. See? I said. You took your one hobby and ruined it by treating it like a J-O-B. Don’t you ever learn? Can’t you just do things for fun? What’s wrong with you? 

I returned to my journal to sulk, and I didn’t touch my novel for over two months.

Staying away seemed wise. I didn’t trust myself not to ruin it.

Mental Gymnastics

Are you familiar with the term cognitive dissonance? It refers to the way we humans can believe two opposing things at the same time. When this happens, your actions don’t match your words.

I started working on my novel again in April, which is great, but I’ve been a hypocrite these last few months. I’m writing almost every day and enjoying it. I even started up a mastermind group for writers who are making the transition from hobbyist to pro. If you look at me, you’d say “Yeah, Cheri is pretty serious about her writing these days.”

But talk to me, and I’ll deny it! I will tell you loudly and emphatically that this is a hobby dammit, that it’s nothing more than that, and that I’m not taking it too seriously. Nothing to see here, I’ll say, while I discuss marketing plans and point-of-view with other authors. This isn’t anything serious, I’ll say firmly, while blocking out a good chunk of my day to work on a manuscript.

My words are saying one thing, and my actions another. I seem hell bent on talking myself out of what I’m doing, tamping it down, diminishing it even in my own mind.

What am I so afraid of?

I sat on that question for weeks, like it was an egg and I was the mama bird. Finally, it cracked wide open! What I’ve figured out is this: no, I’m not afraid of having a job, or of writing books, or of making commitments. Nor am I afraid of hard work. What I’m afraid of is one very specific and terrifying thing:

I’m afraid of becoming a workaholic again.

Weird! But it makes sense, given my history. When I love something, and I do it for work, it tends to consume my life. That’s why when I wrote that business plan back in January, and I got excited about it, it scared the ever-loving shit out of me.

Aha! I see it now! 

Three years ago, my Ambition wasn’t the only thing that left me. That was also the year when I decided that I hated being a workaholic.  And no, I wasn’t going back to that life, no thank you.

Again, I’ll say it. No thank you.

Being Kickass

“Aha” moments are great, aren’t they? Now that I understood my fear, perhaps I could do something about it. But before I could come up with any sort of plan, I was visited by someone I never thought I’d see again.

Three weeks ago, in the early morning, I woke up and found Ambition sitting on the edge of my bed, swinging her legs and waiting for me to wake up.

Hey, I said.
Hey, she said.

Me: It’s been a long time. I didn’t think you were coming back.
Her: I needed to leave. You understand why, right?
Me: I do.

(there was an awkward pause, during which we didn’t make eye contact)

Her: You know how you want to write books?
Me: Yes. It’s a hobby.
Her: Fuck hobbies. (she laughs) Go knit hats if you want a fucking hobby! I think you should do the writing thing. For real. Not just one book, but like ten or twelve books over the next five years. And I’m here to help, if you want me to.
Me: But… You know I can’t go back to the way I used to be, right? I’m not that person anymore.
Her: I know. But I think we can find a better way. We need to be kinder to each other. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do interesting things together, and be kickass. Let’s be kickass again. Please?
Me: A better way? What would that even look like?

Ambition stretched out her hand, and I took it. She pulled me to my feet, and she whispered into my ear. I felt that old fire-in-the-belly light back up, only this time it warmed me gently instead of burning me up. I relaxed, and she seemed to melt into me, taking her old place close to my heart.

I wanted to cry! Okay, I did cry, a little. It had been so long since I’d felt like myself.

Ambition was back, and so was I.

Shouting at the Universe

It’s summer in Seattle now, and my world is blue water and green trees and bright skies and the rattle of my keyboard. Since picking my pen back up, I’ve finished one manuscript and started another. My slow trickle of words is gaining speed, becoming something like a stream. Perhaps someday, a river? Meanwhile, Ambition and I are learning how to work together, differently than we did before.

In the morning, she whispers ideas for spy novels in my ear. I smirk and tell her that the ideas are great, but that they can wait until after P and I have gone to the park because it’s a beautiful day.

Okay, she says. Have fun! I’ll be here when you get back.

This feels too easy! I guess when you’re used to doing something the unhealthy way, the healthy way feels too good to be true. I’m asking my friends to keep an eye on me. Any sign of that old workaholic bullshit and you pull me out, you hear? But I think I’ll be okay.

If I look like this, take my computer away. Please.

Ambition’s proposal of ten or twelve books in five years sounds… kind of scary, to tell you the truth. I haven’t decided if I’m going to accept that challenge, but I’m thinking about it, and seriously.

Perhaps it’s okay for me to dream again? And to set goals again? Hell, I don’t know why I’m asking, because it’s already happening. Mostly, I think it’s time I stop being so chicken-shit. I’ve decided this much: if you ask me what I do, I won’t equivocate. I’ll tell you I’m a writer.

You hear that, universe? I’M A WRITER! IT’S MY THING. I’M QUITE EXCITED ABOUT IT AND I WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW. I HAVE GOALS AND EVERYTHING!

The universe replies, yawning with boredom: Sure, that’s nice. No one really cares. Besides, it’s been obvious to everyone else for some time now.

Yeah… I know. I guess I needed to say it out loud.

Coda

Every day for the last ten days, I’ve sat down to work on my new novel. And every time I sat down at the keyboard, the only thing that would come out of me was this blog post. It arrived on the page unwieldy and way too long. And because it’s so personal, I almost didn’t post it. But I figure all stories deserve an ending, even mine.

Well, this may not be the ending, but it’s an ending. It’s time for a new chapter, in this life of mine.

Now all I need to do is write it.

What The Heart Wants

We’ve spent the last three days on the road in a rented car, rolling down that long strip of asphalt that runs from downtown Seattle all the way to Boston. I’m writing this blog post from the road, propped up in bed in a shitty motel with no wifi, and perhaps if I tell you how I got here, I’ll begin to understand it myself.

That’s how this blogging thing seems to work.

After my last blog post, in which I wrote about my struggle with not-working, my brother in law gave me some good advice. “Go outside and skip some rocks,” he said.

I smiled, because it was a sweet thing to say to someone who needs an attitude adjustment. But even then, I angsted for a few days more, wracking my brain for ideas and coming up empty. Fun… Fun… what would be fun?

It turns out that fun is a heart-thing, not a brain-thing. Thankfully my heart had plenty to say, once I started listening.

Heart: I want to go back to coworking, so I can be around the buzz of productivity more often. I miss that!
Me: Okay, we can give that a try.

Heart: I want to do things with P. Not just exist in the same physical space. Like go on dates and stuff.
Me: Cool! Let’s plan some dates.

Heart: I want to write. But I don’t want to ruin it by turning it into a job. Please don’t ruin it!
Me: Okay, we’ll write. We’ll do it for fun.

Heart: I want to go to Montana!
Me: Why?
Heart: Do I need a reason? Let’s go! Let’s go eat some pie and stay in shitty motels like the Winchester brothers on Supernatural.
Me: You’re weird! But sure, if P agrees…
Heart: Montana! Montana! Montana!

Over the last month I’ve added 10,000 words to my novel, gone on a few lovely dates with P, spent more time with friends, and rejoined my old coworking space. It’s been fun, and weirdly productive too.

Somewhere along the way I stopped worrying that I had lost my purpose, and remembered that I am in fact, alive.

And perhaps being alive is enough?

What the Heart Wants

Life has gotten more interesting, since I’ve begun giving my heart what it wants.

My heart brought P and I to Montana, where we’ve seen forested hills, craggy mountains dusted with snow, bears and bison and white-winged magpies. We’ve marveled at the big blue skies, eaten strawberry pie, and even fulfilled my silly demand that we stay in shitty hotels.

We came to Montana because we wanted to, and it’s been a long time since I did something just because I wanted to, and without some secondary purpose.

It feels really good!

The Road to Bozeman

I want to tell you about another thing that happened, but I know it sounds super-weird.

The day after P and I booked our hotels, I plucked a book off my shelf at random because I wanted something to read. And inside that book, I found the story of a man on a mystical journey to Bozeman Montana with his son. The book was full of advice that felt like it had been written for me, personally.

To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.”

“When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.”

“To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what’s ahead even when he knows what’s ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, he’s unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then *it* will be “here”. What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it *is* all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.”

“We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on “good” rather than on “time”….”

Friends, I don’t know why I took Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance off the shelf that day. I tried reading it in high school over twenty years ago, and found it incomprehensible. I didn’t know what it was about. It’s as if that story has been waiting all these years for the opportunity to whack me upside the head, at just the right time.

What I’ve learned is this: when I give my heart what she wants, a path lights up softly beneath my feet. And I’m reminded, yet again, that the destination doesn’t matter so much.

Sabbatical Daze

I’m officially on sabbatical now.

The last loop has been closed. My final invoice has been sent, and paid, and the payment is logged. My trusty blue box— the one that carries my facilitation supplies— is folded flat and gathering dust in the basement. I’m done with so many things! No more standing behind a podium, no more rehearsals to get the tone of a training session just right, and no more afternoons at the printer, picking up colorful charts and boxes full of binders.

I’ll miss those red metal buckets of Sharpies, fresh Play-Doh, and the soft zip sound that a flip-chart makes when you pull off a sheet.

And I’ll miss standing back and asking, “What do you think of this thing you’ve made?” Because most of the time, my clients created wonderful things! Plans and decisions and goals, of course. But also themselves. They remade themselves, year after year, and it was beautiful to watch. Like a field of flowers unfurling. Like a dozen jangly instruments coming together to sing a joyous song.

Like magic.

I’m thinking of those moments, after class, when a manager would shyly approach and tell me about their successes. Whenever this happened they’d look sheepish, almost embarrassed, as if they weren’t allowed to be proud of themselves. And I’d tell them that I was proud of them, and that they should be happy, because they were doing what was right, even when it was hard.

Now that I’m done, I wish I’d fully appreciated those moments. I wasted a lot of time worrying that I’d mess it up or let someone down. But that’s life, isn’t it? We struggle through our lives in the moment, and we feel our fullest appreciation only in retrospect.

Best. Job. Ever.

Sabbatical Daze

Eyes forward now, I’m telling myself. You’ve worked hard for this time, now live in it.

I rolled into sabbatical-land gradually, first by cutting my hours, then by working remotely while we traveled, and then by cutting my remaining cords. Already, I can tell you the most wonderful parts of not-working.

  • Spending lots of time with P.
  • Being free to travel.
  • Getting enough sleep.
  • Having the time to write and play.
  • Slow mornings.

Slow mornings are my idea of heaven! After waking up well-rested around eight-thirty, I stay in bed for about forty minutes, drinking coffee and journaling. It’s such a lovely way to start the day. Incredibly, my lifelong insomnia is mostly gone. I often fall asleep within 20 minutes of closing my eyes, and it feels like a superpower.

The ‘good parts’ of being on sabbatical are huge! Life-changing, even. But I feel so disoriented, in a who-am-I-now kind of way. When your career was a big deal to you, and you leave that identity behind, even small talk feels super invasive.

What do you do, Cheri?

 STOP ASKING ME SUCH PERSONAL QUESTIONS!!!

I’m mostly joking. But the “What do you do” question peers right into the heart of my uncertainties, and I get all huffy about it. Every response that I’ve tried feels like a lie.

“I’m on sabbatical” – Okay, but that’s mostly a statement of what I’m not doing.

“I’m a writer.” – Accurate, but does it make sense to define yourself by your hobbies? Do people introduce themselves to strangers as “woodworkers” or “knitters”?

“I’m not working right now.” – Defensive, right? It sounds like I got shit-canned for stuffing staplers into my bra.

“Hey look, it’s Vin Diesel!” (ducks behind a nearby shrub) – Amusing, but you can’t always count on having greenery nearby.

I realize that when someone asks, “what do you do” they don’t want your life story; it’s merely polite conversation. So why does it make me squirm?

No More Excuses

Here’s the truth: I don’t know what to do with myself, now that I’m home and without a job.

Showering, food prep, and taking care of yourself can’t take more than a couple hours per day. Television and books are wonderful, but you don’t want to spend your life on the couch. Most days are a game of “what shall we do today?” Go for a hike? Sure! But how many days per week do you want to do that? I love my writing time, but I don’t want to ruin it by treating it like a J-O-B.

Until quite recently, I had things I needed to do and places I had promised to be. And with those responsibilities came a hidden perk: a ready supply of excuses.

If I was tired, it was because I was working too much! If I was stressed, it was because work was stressful! And if I wanted to do something but I wasn’t doing it, it’s because work needed to come first. Not my fault, at least not entirely. I had work to do!

Here in sabbatical-land, however, I’m fresh out of excuses. If I didn’t exercise today it’s because I decided not to. If my energy is low or I’m feeling kinda bitchy, that’s no one’s fault but my own. Am I failing to follow through on my dreams? Well, I’ve got nothing but time so it’s all on me!

I’d always wanted the freedom of not working, but I’d never considered the responsibilities that came with that freedom. I can no longer use the excuse of work to wriggle out of my most personal responsibilities. To put it another way, my satisfaction with life is 100% my problem now.

My career used to scratch all these itches I didn’t even realize I had! I had purpose, and I belonged, and I had important things to do with my time. And now, with my supply cut off, I’m starting to feel… itchy.

I told P how I was feeling the other day. Actually, I might have said something along the lines of “I’m losing my mind, and if we sit around “drinking tea pleasantly and relaxing” for one more freakin’ day I’m going to throw myself into a live volcano just for kicks.” P, unfazed by my antics, calmly asked if I wanted to return to work.

Did I want to return to work? I thought about it, for half a minute. “No,” I said, feeling stubborn. “I’m gonna figure this sabbatical thing out.”

He responded with a look I couldn’t interpret. Perhaps he didn’t believe me? If so, that’s okay.

Because I don’t know if I believe me either.

Becoming a Better Writer

If you write, you’re a writer.

There’s no secret handshake, and no gatekeeper. The only permission slip that matters is the one you give yourself. And while you might choose to get an MFA degree, or to take a class, or get an agent, exactly zero of those things are required.

It’s easy to get lost in the forest of self-doubt! For years, I threw roadblocks into my own path. I told myself that I needed to do X or Y before I could be a Real Writer. And I convinced myself that writing was self-indulgent, not very respectable, and not important enough to spend my time on.

Beginner writers are mean to themselves. Seriously!

Look, most of us go through a beginner-angst-bullshit stage. But if you’re persistent, the day will come when you get over it. You’ll begin respecting your writing goals, and by extension, yourself. And once that happens, you’ll begin thinking about questions like these:

How do I become a better writer?
And how do I get faster?
And is this a hobby, a passion, a career, or something else entirely?

I love these questions! The second two remain a mystery to me, but I’ve been working hard on the first. And I’ll tell you what I’ve figured out so far.

Becoming a Better Writer

When you’re learning something complicated, there exists an awkward stage where you’re no longer a beginner but you’re not yet competent. Unlike a true beginner, you can see your flaws clearly. It can be discouraging, because you’re wise enough to know you’ve got a long road ahead of you.

That’s where I’m at, right now. When I write, I often feel like an untrained swimmer trying to doggy paddle across the pool. There’s a lot of struggle and splash for each small amount of forward motion, and I tire out quickly. I love the work, but I wish it wasn’t so difficult. And I’m often unsatisfied with my progress, even when I do put in maximum effort.

I’ve got some goals for my writing:

  1. I want to improve my storytelling skills. (Pacing, suspense, dialog, character motivation, and language)
  2. I want to produce books more frequently. (One per year is a minimum. But if I stick with short mysteries, 2-3 per year should be doable.)
  3. And I want to have more fun along the way. (Writing is already fun, but it’s also more difficult than I want it to be.)

Those are my goals. Why not take a moment and write down yours? I’ll wait.

Here I am. Waiting.

If you are reading this blog post because you want to write fiction, I’m going to suggest you pause here and order some books, either from a store or from your local library. These five books that will teach you much of what you need to know about authorship:

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
On Writing by Stephen King
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

There’s a wealth of information in these books, and I won’t reproduce their wisdom here. But I will offer a spot of advice for you rational types who pick up The Artist’s Way and think it’s too woo-woo. Hey, I get it. It took me three tries to get through that incredible woo-woo book.

Read it anyway. Do the exercises, anyway. Suck it up, left brains, and do the homework.

Think of those five books as your prerequisites for what I’ll outline below.

A Writer’s Development

While I traveled over the winter, I put together a model that I could follow to reach my writing goals. I was tired of flailing, and I wanted a roadmap like those I used to build for my clients, only focused on creative writing instead of leadership skills. What I came up with blends together what I’ve learned from experience, and what I’ve learned from books, and some tips I’ve gotten from other smart writers I know.

As you can see, there are four main elements. They are:

Self-Care means that I’m getting eight hours of sleep each night, I’m eating healthy food, and my stress level is reasonably low. It means I have a positive attitude about my writing, and that I’m being compassionate towards myself. Also in this category, I include financial wellness. I agree with Liz Gilbert’s assessment that you shouldn’t be relying upon your creativity to pay the bills, especially at first. For most writers, that means having a “day job” that can pay the bills, and which doesn’t leave you creatively depleted at the end of the day. When self-care isn’t happening, writing becomes far more difficult than it needs to be.

I want to offer a big “Thank You” to Seattle writing coach Peg Cheng who got me thinking about the importance of self-care!

Daily Practice refers to my habits behind the scenes of my current project. Julia Cameron suggests three pages of longhand journaling every day, which is the kind of thing that sounds like a massive pain in the ass but turns out to be indispensable once you get going. Daily practice also includes setting aside dedicated time to write on your current project, practicing your observational skills, and collecting shiny objects (words, phrases, images) like a crow might collect baubles for her nest. You need to think like a writer, even when you’re not in front of a keyboard, and that takes practice.

Craft is skill development, and for writers this begins with getting quality “intake” into our verbal diets. Stephen King famously said, “read a lot and write a lot” but I’ll expand that to all storytelling mediums, including movies, TV, poetry, and the visual arts. Craft also requires that we develop writing-specific skills, such as description, how to break a story into scenes, and how to create multi-dimensional characters that speak and act in interesting ways. Pacing, dialog, story structure— there’s so much to learn here!

Delivery is about getting your books to the people who will enjoy them. This element is about putting your work out into the world and convincing people to give your work a try. It also includes marketing skills like cover design, metadata, and how to build a mailing list. Ideally these activities will become an ordinary part of your work, and your week, but it will take some time to discover what works and what matters.

Writer, Teach Thyself

What I love about this model is that it’s non-sequential, meaning I can pick and choose activities from all four quadrants, based upon what seems relevant. Here’s what I’ve been up to the last couple months:

Getting enough sleep and improving my wake/sleep routine.
Completing my “morning pages” by hand before doing anything else.
Reading books and watching movies. (This hardly feels like work!)
Learning about story structure – and applying those lessons to my current project.
Learning about marketing elements like covers, blurbs, and metadata, and applying those to my finished projects.
Jotting down details of what I see, hear, and notice when I go someplace new, to hone my descriptive skills.
Setting aside time to work on my current book, at least five days per week.

How It’s Going So Far

These practices have already changed my my writing quality, output, and attitude in positive ways.

First, there was one surprise. Most of this “work” occurs when I’m not writing my novel. Sleep occurs at night, obviously. My morning pages take about thirty minutes upon rising. I read books and watch movies at night, like I always have, only now I do so with a sense of purpose because I’m studying instead of being passively entertained. Observational skills can be practiced anywhere, even in line at the grocery store. And the craft-work occurs as I need it. When I’m getting ready to tackle a piece of description, for example, I’ll do some reading on descriptive techniques before I start.

Second, my writing process has significantly changed. I used to sit down at the computer and feel like I was climbing a tall mountain with my teeth. Now I sit down at my computer with a short list of things I want to accomplish, and I do those things.

Old me: I GOTTA WRITE 1500 WORDS TODAY OR I SUCK AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M GONNA SAY AAAAARRRGGGGHHH…

New me: Okay. Yesterday I sketched out the setting for this murder mystery, including the floor plan of the lodge. Today I’m going to put that information into a scene where my heroine arrives at the retreat. I have two goals for this scene. I want to describe the setting where the story will take place, and introduce CHARACTER as he welcomes the party to the lodge. This scene is part of the setup, meaning it should be descriptive but not too long.

Most importantly, I see a direct connection between my development activities and the quality of my writing time. When I sit down at the keyboard these days, I’m well rested. By the time I wrote that scene, I’d been thinking about it for a few days. When I saw some relevant detail I could use, as I went about my daily life, I jotted it down. All those little things add up, and they’ve made my writing time more productive and more enjoyable.

So far, so good! I’m still slow, only getting between 500-1200 words written in a 2-hour writing session. But I have faith that if I stick with this, my speed will improve in time. My word count per hour is down, but my consistency and my writing quality is up. And I love knowing that I’m moving my story forward in concrete ways each time I work on it.

If any of this sounds good to you, I encourage you to download the writer’s development model and give it a try. And if you have any feedback for me, leave me a note on Twitter or Facebook.

Download the Writer’s Development Model (PDF)

Saving Steve Rogers

Travel Diary #10

We need to talk about Captain America.

First, here’s a summary for those of you who aren’t Marvel fans: Captain America has been a comic book superhero since the nineteen-forties. He’s a patriotic supersoldier who fought villains associated with the Axis powers in World War II. He wears red white and blue, and carries a vibranium shield emblazoned with a star. In the Avengers movies, he’s played by Chris Evans.

Captain America’s real name is Steve Rogers. Out of uniform, Steve is boyish, charming, and kind. In uniform, he is brave, selfless, and strong. To four generations of fans, Steve Rogers/Captain America has represented the best of America.

After all, he’s a uniquely American hero.

Enter the Controversy

Recently, in the comic books, Steve Rogers was revealed to be an agent of Hydra, a Nazi-like organization. Marvel recently doubled down on this story line (called Secret Empire) by asking comic book sellers to dress like Hydra agents, right down to that evil Octopus logo.

And as you might imagine, comic book sellers and fans are losing their collective minds. Snopes recently reported what one comic store employee had to say:

They murdered millions and I’m a lesbian whose grandfather was held as a POW by the Nazis during the war, I’m not going to promote this book. I’m not going to glorify something like this so Marvel can make a buck.

Of course people are pissed! Why on earth would a person dress up like a Nazi for fun? And how can Marvel claim that Captain America is an agent of evil? Steve Rogers is as American as apple pie, and America is always one of the good guys!

We don’t buy it!
We don’t accept it!

Except…

Returning to America

Can I tell you what it was like to watch the USA from a distance? Painful.

We watched the USA bar immigrants for no reason other than nationality or religion. We watched as citizens and visitors alike were subject to illegal searches and detentions at the border. And we observed as our president continually blamed other countries for our own problems, real or imagined.

Before we got on our flight home, we scrubbed most of our personal data off our laptops and phones. We talked about what might happen if a border agent demanded our passwords. We made sure we had the number of a good civil rights attorney on our phones in case we got separated, interrogated, or detained.

No, we didn’t expect we’d be stopped. We’re boring-ass white people with laptops full of vacation photos. But somewhere along the line, the USA became the kind of country that treats school teachers, tourists, and even our own scientists like criminals. And no, I wasn’t going to make it easy for someone to violate my civil rights.

Fortunately, we passed through customs without any problems. My worry turned into relief, and then into disgust. Somehow, we’d become the kind of country I wouldn’t want to visit.

Let’s talk about how we are the land of the free, while we demand people turn over their passwords at the airport.

Let’s call ourselves the land of opportunity, while blaming immigrants for the problems we’ve been unable to solve.

And let’s talk about how brave we are, while we treat teachers and engineers and little kids as “too scary” to come inside (even for a visit!) because they might blow us up or something.

No. Let’s call America what it is: the land of hypocrisy. We talk big about our American values, but when it comes time to live those values, we don’t.

Our American President

It hurts my heart to write this blog post, but I won’t lie to you. Being back in the USA has been difficult.

Ask yourself this: If America had become so corrupted that we were one of the bad guys, like Hydra, would we even notice? Could we admit it to ourselves? Or would we keep waving the flag, singing the Star-Spangled Banner at baseball games, and believing we’re the good guys because we’re America. Duh!

And as much as our president disgusts me, it would be dishonest to blame him for our sorry state. When I look at our president and the ruling party I see racism, arrogance, ignorance, and tacky bluster. But I see those exact same sins in our culture every day. Don’t you?

To put it another way, President Trump’s worst qualities are America’s worst qualities. And in that way, he’s as American as apple pie.

Just like Steve Rogers used to be.

Saving Steve Rogers

I don’t know where Marvel is headed with Secret Empire. But I can’t be too surprised at the fall of Steve Rogers. Don’t our stories tend to reflect our very real hopes and fears?

Activists are organizing to fight back against America’s corruption. That’s promising, but when I speak to people I know about the state of America, they so often shrug and make a dismissive comment. “It’s terrible, but what can you do? Anyway, I’m sure it will all work out okay in the end…”

That indifference breaks my heart, but I get where it comes from. It’s damn painful to look into the mirror, isn’t it? It’s easier to believe that our problems aren’t as bad as they seem. Meanwhile, the tentacles of corruption are winding around our houses of government, our courts, and perhaps even our own hearts.

I’m not a politician, or a superhero, or even someone who wants to be writing about this topic! But as a storyteller, I know that our stories aren’t merely entertainment. They are maps to our future, and reminders of who we aspire to be. And superhero stories have always taught that what seems hopeless isn’t, if good-hearted people are willing to be brave, and to act.

Somewhere along the line, we forgot that Captain America isn’t a god. He’s a guy from Brooklyn named Steve Rogers, and he became corrupted as humans sometimes do. We believed in the idea of Captain America so strongly that we loved everything he did while wearing our national colors. We didn’t see what he was up to until it was almost too late.

“I’m just a kid from Brooklyn”

What if Steve needs us to save him, this time? Can we help him remember what Captain America is supposed to be fighting for? And in the process, can we save our country from the Hydra-like threats that threaten to pull us into darkness?

I believe we can, if we remember what America is supposed to be, and if we fight hard to make that into who we are.

One decision at a time.
One interaction at a time.
One phone call to congress at a time.
One vote at a time.
One march at a time.
One act of courage at a time.
One conversation at a time.

When the Cap needs you, are you just going to sit on your ass, blame other people, or make platitudes about how there’s nothing you can do? No! You’re going to make that phone call. You’re going to actively oppose injustice. You’re going to act like a fucking American.

Right?
Good!

Now let’s get to work.


PS: There are many ways to help America! If you aren’t sure where to start, pick a worthy organization, go to the “get involved” page, and sign up. 

The American Civil Liberties Union

The Electronic Frontier Foundation

Emily’s List

Indivisible

Anti-Defamation League

SwingLeft  (take back the house in 2018)

iCivics  (for kids)

Contact Your Elected Officials

The Slow Train to Kalambaka

Travel Diary #9

The train from Athens to Kalambaka was slow, thank goodness.

A five-hour journey was almost enough time to drink in the lush Greek landscape. There were deep valleys and tall jagged mountains, blanketed thickly in green. Herds of sheep flowed down the hillsides like milk poured from a jug. When the trees weren’t green, they were purple. When the grasses weren’t green, they glittered.

Images flashed past us, one after another. A valley. A mountain. A field. A farmer’s hut. A patchwork quilt of countryside. The stone tunnels dipped us into darkness, never for long, but long enough to frame each view like a shutter on an old-fashioned camera. We were low along the ground. We were up high, looking down as if we were in an airplane. I think Greece might be heaven, I remember thinking. Did I fall asleep and dream this place?

I snapped so many photos, but they seemed lifeless compared to what was in front of my eyes. I don’t want you to look at my photos! Instead I want you to take the slow train to Kalambaka, and see this place with your own eyes. How much beauty can one human heart bear? As soon as I thought those words, I was flush with gratitude.

Gratitude not only for this trip, but for everything.

For my entire life.

Three Months of Wonder

Three months of travel have brought us here, to the foot of the great stone cliffs, where ancient monasteries are perched impossibly high, over 600 meters in the air. They call the stones Meteora, which means the place between the Earth and the sky. And when you get your first glimpse, you might wonder if you’ve stepped into a fantasy novel.

Inside a church, inside a monastery, up on the cliffs, we saw prayer seats carved into the shape of dragons. Brass candelabras and incense burners hung above our heads, held aloft by four winged beasts with proud necks. Might dragons live in Meteora? We saw monks in their round black caps and long robes, which was exotic enough to my eyes. But I half-believe there are dragons, too. Where else would they want to live?

Over the last few days we’ve been walking the cliffs and feeling awe for the holy places, by which I mean not the churches but the landscape itself. Even if I were religious I’d have to ask: What could humans possibly create that could compete with this?

When we left home in January, I didn’t know where we’d end up. And I’m so glad that our path has lead us to Meteora, because it’s a place that fills your heart up to bursting. In fact, if I were a video game character, my life bars would be filled to the top.

Max life. Max energy. Max heart. Max gratitude.

Do you know what’s better than video games? And better than saving the princess? Saving yourself. Doing that thing you’ve always wanted to do. Making peace with ‘the scary’ and giving it a try even though you can’t guarantee it’s going to work out.

I’m not advocating that you act foolishly. But if there’s a dream you’ve had, that you’ve always had, I hope you’ll start preparing. Whatever your dream is, I wish you the joy of it.

The most important thing I’ve learned from travel is this: Following your bliss isn’t selfish. It’s self-care on steroids.

Returning Home

My father-in-law said this morning that it feels like we’ve been gone a whole year, and in some ways, I feel that too! It’s gone fast, no doubt, but we’ve been away long enough that my memories of home have gotten fuzzy around the edges. Not what home is like, necessarily, but how it feels to be there.

I expect our wandering feet will take us out into the world again, and soon. But for the moment, I’m ready to head home and reconnect with everyone I’ve been missing.

I miss my family and friends. There are books on my shelf that I want to finish reading. I’m tired of packing and unpacking, and it would be nice to have a bathrobe and slippers again. I miss my writers group, and Seattle coffee, and how the air smells like salt when the wind blows uphill from Elliott Bay.

How lucky I am, for these three months of wonder! And luckier still, to return home to the people and city I love.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! (my heart whispers)

Next Stop: Seattle

Living Dangerously in Athens

Travel Diary #8

We hesitated when booking our flight to Athens.

According to reviews online, Athens doesn’t feel safe. I read statements like these:

This (centrally located) hotel is in a sketchy area.
I wouldn’t walk around here at night.
Women should be very cautious here.

In fact, when you look up ‘dangerous areas’ in Athens, half the city center lights upon the map. What were we supposed to make of that? In the end, we decided to risk it. If we felt unsafe we’d hide out in our hotel, or leave.

Living Dangerously in Athens

When we arrived in central Athens, we were hit by a wall of sounds and smells, as well as colors and textures. The city has an energy you can feel, it’s like the humming of bees, both contented and active. The crowds are constantly in motion, talking and walking, laughing at cafe tables, smoking, or ushering their kids down the sidewalk.

We popped up out of Monastiraki station and into an immense open-air market, filled with nuts, dried fruits, colorful spices, olive oil soaps, evil eye talismans, and tourist schlock. Cramped bazaar stalls overflow with silver and bronze curiosities, musical instruments, and the kind of quirky treasures you’d expect to find in your great-grandmother’s jewelry box.

That cheerful chaos! Those smiles and shouts! Delights for the senses. We hadn’t even checked into our hotel yet, and I was wowed.

Still, it would be a mistake to think of Athens as a polished tourist experience like you might find in London or Paris. Instead think of it as a mosaic where some pieces are new, and some are cracked and crumbling, but where the overall picture is authentically beautiful.

Over the course of a few kilometers you’ll see streets with beautiful cafes and blooming flowers, graffiti-filled roads long neglected, and ancient sites full of tourists. The ruins in Greece are far older than those in Rome, and are scattered across the city like discarded toys. Some of them are breathtaking, while others are little more than crumbling walls surrounded by a high fence.

I never felt scared in Athens. It’s the kind of city where people hold the door at the train when they see a stranger rushing to make it in time. There was no malice that I felt, no sense of being watched or singled out. I was cautious, like I always am when traversing unfamiliar terrain. But honestly, the most dangerous thing I saw there was right inside the welcome packet at our hotel. Bungee jumping. Just call the front desk and they’ll set it up for you!

Crazy, right? That’s way too dangerous.

Staying Safe on the Road

We travel as safely as we know how to, although it’s impossible not to “look like a tourist” when you’re schlepping your big backpack from the airport to a hotel. We check the US State Department website for warnings, and we register with the SMART traveler program. We read up on a place before we go, not only how to get there, but also any recent news that may indicate a dangerous atmosphere. And whenever we’re separated from our baggage (when it’s stowed on a rack on the train, for example) we transfer our essential items to a small bag and keep it on our person.

In the case of Athens, the reviews were concerning enough that we took extra precautions. We booked a hotel with a restaurant, so we could eat dinner there rather than walk around after dark. We took a taxi to the train station instead of walking, because it was early and the streets were deserted. Were those steps necessary? Probably not. We were cautious anyway.

We also gave up some privacy, in the interest of safety. Our parents have a copy of our itinerary, but when we go off-script, as we sometimes do, we use a Facebook check-in to let them know where we went.

Hey! In case we die, here is where the bodies are! That might sound morbid, but I call it practical. I like leaving a trail, in case something goes wrong.

But I try not to get too wound up about safety, beyond those basics. People die in my hometown while crossing the street. Travelers occasionally die in freak accidents on their first round-the-world trip. Shit happens! Criminals exist. People die. I hope I won’t, anytime soon, but I’m not going to stress out over it either.

If I had let those fearful, tight-assed reviews on the internet dissuade me from coming to Athens, I would have missed out on one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever been to.

I’m glad we gave it a chance.

Next Stop: Meteora

Five Nights In Rome

Travel Diary #7

From the southern coast of Spain, we flew to Rome. We left Spain reluctantly, and gratefully. Italy would be a whole new adventure! I didn’t speak a lick of the language, and everything I knew about Rome I’d learned by watching an episode of Archer.

We arrived at Termini station in the early afternoon and walked to our AirBnB. After our host left, we tossed our luggage on the bed, changed out of our sweaty clothes, and went downstairs for a quick lunch at the cafe. I had lasagna. And a cappuccino, of course. Both were excellent.

Rome’s coffee game is on point.

While we ate, I tried to relax. The airport had been stressful. Taxi drivers stepped directly in front of us as we walked through the airport, one after another, aggressively seeking a fare. We ducked and dodged until we found the biglietto (ticket) machine for our train, but while we punched the buttons to buy our tickets we were hassled, still. Why would you ride the train? Didn’t you know you can’t see anything from the train? You should ride with us instead. The train is too expensive. We’re only one euro more! Per person.

Pushiness is a characteristic of the city. As we walked through town later that evening, we were continuously propositioned. Do you want a tour? A selfie stick? An umbrella? Will you make a donation? How about a different tour? Perhaps some lunch? We have pasta! Surely you want to read the menu? Oh! You’re gonna ignore me now?

Courtesy is noticeably absent in Rome. Pedestrians pushed with hands and hips as they walked, stepping between couples and families, leaving them lost to each other in the crowd. When a seat opened up in the packed Metro, people dove for it. Suck it, old people! This was a game of musical chairs, with muscle.

I was excited to tour the Vatican, but when we arrived the employees were so darn crabby. When I handed my ticket over at the appointed desk, I received a glare and a sharp rejoinder, “Receipt! Not the ticket!”  She gave the next three people the exact same response; her tone said we should have known better. Our tour guide was relatively nice to us, but bitched out her coworkers when they didn’t move fast enough, and then she went to find a supervisor to complain to him too.

By the third day, I’d had enough hostility and I was ready to exit the city by any means necessary. If you’d offered me a hot air balloon out of town, I’d have taken you up on it! I’d picked up the city’s irritation like a head cold, and peevishly suggested to P that the city adopt a new tourist slogan:

Welcome to Rome! Have some pizza, take some photos, and get the hell out. We’re thoroughly sick of all of you.

Five Nights in Rome

Despite my complaints, it would be arrogant to believe that a city or its people owe me a good time. I believe the purpose of travel is to appreciate a place for what it is, and to discover what it has to offer. And Rome has so much going for it.

The best thing about Rome? History comes to life there! When you walk through the Colosseum, you can almost hear the bloodthirsty shouts of the crowd. Those clanging swords, and a lion’s roar. When you stroll through the Roman Forum and contemplate the fall of the empire, you can’t help but see the parallels to our own fragile republic. And as you see how Catholicism has shaped the city (as much by violence and conquest as by faith), it’s upsetting and enthralling and mystifying all at once.

The history of Rome isn’t merely history, because it bleeds into the present. Behind the tourist hustle there is another world. One where you can see priests hurrying down the sidewalks staring at their cell phones, while their long black robes brush the ground. There are tiny cars full of nuns, the ever-present ringing of church bells, and water fountains connected to an ancient aqueduct.  The old and the new are intimately intertwined here; you can’t tell where history stops and the modern Rome begins.

The morning we left, we made our way down the rickety elevator in our building, turned right down Via Merulina, and saw a monk in brown robes walking down the sidewalk ahead of us. He had a bible cupped in his left hand, and when he reached the church at the end of the block, he paused. There was a man in shabby clothes reading a tabloid magazine outside. They smiled at each other like old friends, and wished each other a good day. P and I continued down the road toward the train station, as the sun was coming up.

Five nights wasn’t enough time to get a feel for the holy city. As soon as we got a glimpse of the Rome that exists behind the tourist hustle, we were already on our way out.

Walking Through Rome

Our best experiences in Rome were near the end of our trip, when we stopped trying to visit every interesting site and museum and instead went for long rambling walks through the city. That’s where P and I are at our happiest on the road – walking and observing without any particular agenda.

Or as P put it to me, “We don’t need to check off every box on the tourist bingo card.”

During our explorations, we ran across a lively street market, drank espresso at a real “coffee bar” where you stand at the counter, and ate gelato. We had lunch in the Jewish Ghetto, a charming neighborhood where we heard children singing in Hebrew through the open window near a beautiful Synagogue.

A few hours before we packed our bags to leave, we saw an elderly woman shouting at a street vendor. She was loud and pissed and back at home everyone would have stared with open mouths, or perhaps even called the cops, because she was making such a ruckus. But it was a temporary tempest. They shouted at each other for a while, then they stopped, and the woman left with her purchases, apparently satisfied. The vendor turned to his next customer, cheerful, as if nothing unusual had happened.

P and I looked at each other, and shrugged.

When in Rome…

Next Stop: Athens

At the Beach

Travel Diary #6

In the late nineties I worked as a headhunter for a “boutique” search firm.

LinkedIn didn’t exist yet, and neither did Facebook, so we’d dial for dollars all day long, looking for a candidate to shop around. The resume of a software engineer could be exchanged for a fat commission check, and during the days of the tech boom, companies would pay almost anything.

Hiring Manager: What do you charge?
Me: Thirty-five percent of the first year’s salary.
Hiring Manager: We’ve never paid more than thirty…
Me: (reluctantly) I guess we could do thirty…

Later that day:

Me: I got thirty percent!
The Boss: That’s good, but next time don’t cave so fast. He could tell you got one over on him, and now he doesn’t like us very much.

Cold calling wasn’t fun, but it prepared me for the business world. Getting yelled at and hung up on helps you develop a thicker skin, and a shark-like amusement towards those who would tear you down. I remember this one guy who responded to my call by getting indignant and saying that I “had a lot of audacity” to do what I did for a living.

He meant it as an insult, but I felt oddly empowered. My parents had raised me to be polite-bordering-on-deferential, and deferential chicks don’t really succeed in the business world. I printed out the definition of ‘audacity’ and taped it to my computer monitor.

Audacity (Noun) Fearless Daring. Bold or insolent heedlessness of restraints, as of those imposed by prudence, propriety, or convention.

One afternoon, while I was preparing to be audacious, I ran a search in our database and discovered a company called Beach. It was an odd name for a company, but then again, most startups had weird-ass names in the nineties. But there was no address and no phone number either. And the employees listed seemed to have nothing in common.

“What is Beach?” I asked my manager. He grimaced and ignored the question, before picking up his phone to make another call. That was boss-speak for “you are too stupid to live” or perhaps “I don’t want to talk about it” and so I went to a coworker with the same question. She said:

“When a candidate is beached, it means they retired or died or left the industry. We say they’re at the beach, and we assign them to that company. Don’t delete them, in case they come back. But don’t waste your time with them either.”

Retired, dead, or left the industry?

Those people were at the beach.

At the Beach

Here I am at the beach! And in more ways than one, because about a month ago, two things happened simultaneously:

We left Madrid in search of sunnier weather.
-and-
I decided to stop consulting. For real this time.

The work-thing was a disappointment. I’d been so sure that working remotely was going to be the best of both worlds. And why shouldn’t it be? I could sightsee by day and work at night. And while the mechanics worked just fine, my emotional engagement with work annoyingly went kaput as soon as I put distance between myself and my clients.

And I’m not talking about physical distance.

My focus is elsewhere these days, and my heart is pulling me in new directions. And while this isn’t the answer I was hoping for, I think I need to give myself enough time to see how it all plays out. That’s why I decided to turn my “sorta” sabbatical into a real one.

You can file me under Beach these days. Don’t delete me, please, in case I come back! But don’t waste your time with me either.

Cheri's Flip Flops

The Beaches of Costa del Sol

After Madrid, P and I headed south on a high-speed Renfe train towards Costa del Sol, which is Spanish for Coast of the Sun. We chose the port city of Málaga for our first stop because my friend M had told me about it and it sounded peaceful and sunny. She was right! In Málaga we packed our winter coats away with relief, and they’ve stayed packed. I stuck my feet in the Mediterranean sea for the first time in Málaga. We ate too much ice cream, watched the colorful Carnival celebrations, and had a nice evening with our friend E and her boyfriend while they were in town.

From Málaga we headed west to the resort town of Torremolinos, which is little more than a long promenade along the sea, and a corresponding row of small restaurants and shops. We booked ourselves an airy apartment on the fourteenth floor of a high rise, with 180 degree reviews of the sparkling water. That’s where I’m sitting right now, writing this blog post, and occasionally turning my head to the right to see the waves crashing in the distance.

Torremolinos View

Torremolinos is our last stop in Spain, unless you count the quick overnight in Madrid before we return home to Seattle. All of our days here have revolved around the beach, either laying on the sand next to it, or walking along the promenade from one end to the other. We’ve seen how the sea changes from smooth blue to swirling silver and back again, as the weather changes. There are grains of sand in our shower, tracked in on sandy feet. The sun has lightened my hair.

An entire day here can be taken up by a cup of coffee, a long walk, and a novel. And to me, moving at this pace feels like a superpower. (I am Contentment Woman! Watch me be happy for no reason!) I arrived in Spain in January productivity-addicted and mildly anxious, and I’ll depart as someone capable of enjoying her day even when there is nothing to do and nowhere to be.

Perhaps that’s been Spain’s gift to me: reminding me how to loosen up and let go.

In Madrid, we started each day with a list of things to do.
In Málaga, we started our week with a list of things we might do.
And here in Torremolinos, we give each piece of the day it’s due.

A day in Torremolinos goes something like this: when the sun shines brightly enough to wake you up through the gauzy curtains, you may as well enjoy that gentle glow for a moment before rising. And when you’re seated on the edge of the sea eating ice cream and watching the waves crash angrily against the sand, you may as well enjoy every bite, and the constantly shifting color of the water, and every cacophonous crash.

This kind of contentment has taken practice, except it’s the kind of practice which is less about striving and more about letting go. I’ve been so accustomed to focusing on the future— the “what’s next”— that it’s taken me months to remember how to simply be alive without any particular agenda. Because for most of my life it’s been like this:

Body here. —————————————————————————————————> Focus there.

When you bring those two things closer together, the world itself seems to change. I’ve used mindfulness as a technique in my professional life for years, and with good results. But what happens when mindfulness becomes your ordinary state of mind, and not something you “use” as a workplace technique? It’s a tricky thing to describe, being more emotional than verbal, but I’ll try….

Have you ever seen a slowed-down video of a hummingbird in flight? Have you noticed how that feathery bullet becomes ornate and gorgeous when viewed at a different speed? All of life can be like that, I’m starting to see. The sand on my toes, if viewed up close, reveals a museum’s worth of beauty, all those tiny stones and shells and the history of the earth. And there’s something miraculous in the drops of water sliding down the window when it rains, and the unexpected music of an accordion player in the plaza, and even the hilarious “sexy dance” of the male pigeons as they strut and spin on the sidewalk, trying to attract a mate.

When viewed at the right speed, without the distraction of the past or the future, the most ordinary things become engrossing. Possibly even transcendent.

Can I hold onto this feeling, once we’ve left the beach behind?

I hope so. I’ll need to be patient, and have faith, and see.

Next Stop: Rome