Z is for…Zabuton

A zabuton is a type of meditation cushion. Mine is a flat rectangle that serves as a base for a smaller zafu (a round meditation cushion) or a meditation bench. I’m making it sound like I have a robust, sustained meditation practice. In truth, the cushions get far more use by my cats than by me. But my lackluster meditation practice is perhaps a topic for another day.

I went to a panel at AWP about authors and social media. One panelist made the observation that any work authors do on social media should be to support their writing, not to take the place of it. While I’ve dedicated a bunch of time to the blog this month (and will be scaling back for a time starting tomorrow), my blog – and the  A to Z Challenge in particular – have supported my writing, just as the zabuton acts as a support for meditation:

  • The challenge helped me develop my blogging voice and also spurred me to consider how I continue to develop my own voice as a fiction writer, as well the unique voices of my characters.
  • The challenge provided 26 opportunities to write succinctly and quickly. I’ve already seen this lesson at work in my shorter and longer pieces. When I was working on my fiction this month and laboring over a scene, this was part of my inner chatter: “Get to the point already, Julie.” It was usually good advice.
  • The challenge offered time and space to reflect on – and share – the contours of my writing career as it currently stands, especially in the context of my life. There’s something very powerful about sharing some of my innermost thoughts, fears and hopes for writing with the wider world.
  • The challenge facilitated connections with other bloggers and writers. While I didn’t visit as many blogs as I intended this month, I have the whole list of participating blogs to visit over the coming months. And through the generosity of other bloggers who visited and commented on my posts, I’ve already found several kindred blogging spirits.

Thanks to everyone who made this journey with me, whether you read snippets here or there or if you read every single post. A special thanks to my readers who get new posts delivered to their inbox. That’s a lot of mail from me in the course of one month! Thanks for sticking with it.

I’m off to rest – wishing all of you time and space to reflect on all the things that support your lives, as well as the courage to discern and make necessary changes.

New Year’s Unresolutions

(Since the temp will not be above zero for the next couple of days, I’m spending a lot of time looking at pictures of warmer days.  Hence the flowers to the left and me quietly crying in the corner.  SO COLD!)

I used to be a huge fan of making New Year’s resolutions. I’d scribble impossible lists of all the exercise and healthy eating and meditation I was going to do over the coming year, only to review the crumpled lists at the end of the year with a strong feeling of guilt and failure.  Then I came to my senses and realized no one prospered from me starting the new year feeling bad about myself.

So this past week I spent hours with a purple pen and a yellow legal pad, reflecting on the past year of writing and jotting down plans for next year.  I even found my list of intentions from last year (okay, these were more like resolutions than not):

  • Complete research for second novel by the end of February
  • Revise rough draft of second novel and send second draft to beta readers by the end of July
  • Conduct preliminary research for third novel and apply for grant funding by mid-June
  • Write six short stories and submit at least three to literary journals
  • Write ten flash fiction stories for ten contents and/or journal submissions
  • Blog seven – ten times per month (lucky you!)
  • Write a rough draft of yet another novel – I have two planned and will write one, depending on how a few external circumstances resolve themselves

I did okay.  I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that I am starting the new year with a novel to revise and a rough draft to finish.  I published several flash pieces and decided I am not a short story writer.  I embraced slow blogging.  I didn’t get the grant but I learned a lot from the process.

Mainly I recognized my pattern of biting off more than I can chew when it comes to setting goals.  I don’t want to do that this coming year.  I do have plans – I’m going to keep writing and revising.  I’m going to keep blogging.  And I have an exciting announcement about my first novel coming soon.

But more than anything, I have one overriding goal:

To explore my full potential and creativity as a writer.

And I have five practices that will help me live into that goal:

  • Reflection – I need time to dream, ponder, doodle.  I spent too much of the fall trying to churn out word counts, afraid that I was “wasting time” otherwise.  But in order to write well, I need time to stare out the window, “wasting” writing time, mulling over my characters and plots.  Inspiration usually comes when I’m writing but it’s supported by dreaming, too.
  • Intentionality – Sometimes all I really need to do in order to stay focused as a writer, is to spend a little time each day or week setting a few goals and intentions, while also being realistic about how much I can reasonably accomplish.  It’s much more concrete to “write 5,000 words by Friday” than it is to “work on novel this week.”
  • Risk – I’ve always secretly worried I don’t take enough risks.  That I’m content to live on the sidelines. I also realized last year that I’ve accomplished the things I’m most proud of by taking risks.  I have a thing about wasting time (see above) and I think I shy away from risks because I’m afraid I’ll have wasted all this time on something that failed.  But, as the universe has been reminding me lately, we learn and grow from our mistakes and failures, maybe even more than our successes. More news on specific risks to come.
  • Simplicity – I took down the decorations last week and I kept going, getting rid of items in the house I no longer use.  I also deleted a ton of shows from the DVR, shows I know I will never watch.  My closets are next.  I work best in clean, uncluttered spaces.  This applies to intangible things, too.  I’m done beating myself up over things I “should” do.  And I’m not going to let people steal my time – I’ve always been good at this but circumstances necessitate even more vigilance.  There, less mess – physical and emotional – and more time to write.
  • Self-care – This comes closest to a resolution.  Mainly it means getting enough movement and good food and sleep to stay healthy and functioning.  But I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t lose 10 pounds or get to the gym every day.

So, we’ll see what happens.  I’m off to tackle my closets!

The Dangers in Life are Infinite

photo (9)I’ve been thinking a lot about risk lately.  It’s natural, perhaps, given my life situation.  I received tenure a little over a year ago.  Barring any hugely unforeseen circumstances, I can work at my same job until I retire.  The thought is both comforting and terrifying.  A few of my friends have taken impressive career risks lately, or are contemplating them.  Their bravery inspires me.  Others have shared similarly inspiring stories of striking out on their own, stepping into the unknown to pursue their dreams.  I’d still like to find a way to write full time, although I recognize that even if I publish a book or two in the next few years, writing full time is still a pipe dream.

The guiding question of my sabbatical has been, “what do I want to accomplish before I die?”  The summer before I went up for tenure, a senior colleague warned me that the tenure process messes with your mind.  Even if you’re 100% confident in your case, it still plays mind games with you.  Flash forward to me, a few months later, paralyzed at my desk while printing out articles I’d written, debating whether or not I should print them one-sided (increases the thickness of the binder) or two-sided (demonstrates my commitment to the environment).  Let’s note for the record that neither thickness of binder nor environmental commitment were tenure criteria. (And don’t even get me started on the mania surrounding binder labels.)

I don’t have an answer to the question, by the way, of what I want to accomplish before I die.  I have ideas, of course, but I feel a little lost at the moment.  I wish this is the part of the post where I announce a new endeavor or surprise readers by stating I’m moving to Europe.  I’m not.  I started a new endeavor this past fall by making writing a central part of my life.  I started this blog, sent my book out to agents, began a new manuscript and started submitting stories to contests and magazines.

But I feel stuck.

There are canyons of snow outside my window, the likes of which I haven’t seen since I was a child.  Work has its own set of difficulties, as most workplaces do.  I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.  The pleasures of sabbatical are infinite but, like all things, will come to an end. No wonder I feel stuck.

I remind myself that I have taken risks.  I call myself a writer first and foremost.  I send bits of me out to magazine editors, agents and contest judges on a weekly basis.  I am taking risk, maybe not as much as I could but definitely more than I was.  The idea of taking risks always sounds so exciting and glamorous, like jumping out a window and trusting James Bond will catch you.  (I don’t watch a lot of Bond movies – this happens, right?  If not, it should.)  I’m discovering the realities of risk are not so glamorous. There’s a lot of waiting, uncertainty, anxiety and doubt.  (Aha, doubt – hello, my old friend.)

The interwebz tells me that Goethe had this to say about risk:  “The dangers in life are infinite, and among them is safety.”  (I’m being a bad librarian here and not tracking down the exact source.  Forgive me.)  The quote is inspiring, even though all I really want to do is go lie on the couch and watch Austenland.  But I will remind myself that even in this state between risk and result, I’ve still taken that first step. Yay me.

To my faithful readers, I invite you to share stories of risk in the comments.  What motivates you?  Do you experience doubt?  What risks do you want to take but haven’t?

PS: the photo is my cat Nils, who also feels stuck, but for different reasons