For authors, finding community is vital to success.
It’s a strange business. Most of the time, writers sit alone in a room and make things up. We need to be perfectly fine with doing this for hours every day, for days on end. Then, when it comes time to sell what we’ve written, or talk to readers, or…you know…go to the grocery store, we’re expected to suddenly be at home in the world. And for most of us, being at home in the world is hard.
We have to go to dinner with our in-laws and talk about spaghetti recipes and why they like French wine and why neighborhood garbage pick-up was delayed this week. We have to talk about the weather with the dry cleaner. We have to go to parent’s night at school and make small talk and fit in and don’t make it weird.
Writers need friends. And we really, really need friends who share our quirks.
So I’ve spent most of my adult life hanging out with other writers. I met them in college or at conferences or online. I’ve had coffee and lunches, attended write-ins and retreats. It wasn’t easy to form these connections. An introvert befriending other introverts can be a slow, awkward process. But it’s so, so worth it.
Twice a week, I meet a friend for a quiet writing date. I also attend a weekly critique group, and have breakfast with my co-author every Sunday. I have monthly lunches with friends who feel like family.
That’s a lot of social interaction for a writer, but I don’t just like these groups. I need them. My writing buddy understands the daily grind. My critique group helps me pursue excellence. I bounce ideas off my co-author at Sunday breakfast and get marketing advice from my lunch group.
Without these friendships, I don’t know if I’d even call myself a writer. By sharing our troubles and triumphs, we’re reinforcing that identity. I look at my critique group or my friends or my writing partner and I see myself reflected clearly. We’re all doing this thing, and this is a good thing to do.
A writer alone is an oddity. A group of writers? That’s called the cool kids’ table.
Could this be the perfect workout for writers?
Some people love going to the gym. I am not one of those people. The gym seems like hell to me, mainly because I’m not doing anything. Picking up a heavy object and putting it down again or running in place on a treadmill just feels pointless. And if something doesn’t have a purpose, I won’t do it.
So I don’t exercise. Ever. Instead, I move my body. I do activities. I go places. I play.
I have one of these instead of a desk.
I walk to the library or the bank or the post office. Anything within two miles of my house is considered walking distance and most things I need are in that zone. Shoveling snow or weeding the garden gives me the satisfaction of a job well done.
And then I discovered shovelgloving. It changed everything. I’m actually doing weight training and I like it.
Shovelgloving is when you take an old sledgehammer, (the shovel) and wrap an old sweater around it (the glove) and use that tool to perform the kinds of moves you’d use in everyday life. You bend and twist as if you’re shoveling snow or lifting boxes or chopping wood.
It’s functional fitness, meaning that you’re building the muscles you’ll need for life, not to achieve some kind of idealized gym body. Maybe I won’t be the cutest zombie killer in the coming age, but I’ll be the most badass.
I kid, I kid. But only a little. Because while shovelgloving is extremely practical, it’s also fun. To me, it’s the ultimate roleplay. The originator of shovelgloving encourages this, although he thinks you should pretend to do very boring things like pitching hay or stoking a fire.
But if you’re going to swing a ridiculous sweater-covered sledgehammer around, why not have fun with it? When I move this way, I’m smiting orcs. When I move that way, I’m canoeing down a mighty river. When I’m shovelgloving, I’m pulling the rope that will ring the cathedral bells or digging my way to freedom or lighting the top of the bonfire.
I’m a practical gal, but I’m also a writer with a vibrant imagination. I never want to exercise. I just want to move around and tell myself stories. Shovelgloving is the perfect activity.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think there might be some monsters in my basement. Or maybe some buried treasure I need to dig up. Who knows what might be down there? But I’ve got a sweater-wrapped, eight-pound sledgehammer to take on another epic adventure.
I love being in charge of my own happiness.
For most of my adult life, I was married—happily at first, and then not. Now that I’ve settled into being single, I want to stay that way forever.
Not because I’ve given up on love, not because I don’t think I’m worthy of it, but because I need time. I need time to read and think and walk. I need time to be completely myself.
Society doesn’t want to grant me that time. Words hover around me. Words like isolated and lonely. Words like worry. My sister asked if I hated eating alone. (Answer: no.) Some friends are shocked when I tell them I’m planning a solo vacation. People ask me point blank when I’m going to start dating again. It’s always a “when,” not an “if.”
Perhaps it’s assumed, since I was married for over twenty years, that marriage is my natural state. What people don’t know is that I was never more lonely than when I was married. Ironically enough, I feel more connected to other people now—my children, my parents, my siblings. I’ve made lots of new friends. I go to more movies, more book readings, more community events. I go to the library and the coffee shop. I eat lunch with my writer buddies. My life is so full of good things I just don’t see a way to fit a man into it.
I choose how much to save and how much to spend. I decide when to do laundry and how late to sleep in on Saturdays. I don’t share a bed or the TV remote. I make my own decisions about big things like what car to drive and small things like how often to have tacos for dinner. (Correct answer: twice a week.)
This is threatening to some people. I’m the source of amusement on good days and naked hostility on bad ones. Our society doesn’t like to see a woman in charge of herself. Who am I to drink an entire key lime milkshake and call it dinner? To buy jewelry I chose myself? How dare I spoil myself in any way?
Sometimes other words hover around me. Words like bitter and frigid. What can I say, except I don’t hate men, I find a lot of them quite sexy, and I’m still not going to date anyone. Ever.
The world keeps telling me, over and over, in big ways and small, that I should be paired up, or at least striving to be. But I refuse. I’m never again going to live on the edge of someone else’s life.
I’d rather live at the center of my own.
The color pink makes me happy.
I have a pink toothbrush. I also have a pink kindle cover and a pink backpack and pink earbuds and scissors. My water bottle is pink. My stapler is pink. My calendar and all my notebooks are pink.
I don’t wear pink clothes or sit on a pink couch or live in a pink house or anything like that. I don’t live in a cartoon Hello Kitty paradise. But all the small, personal items I touch on a daily basis are some shade of pink, from rose gold right through bubblegum to screaming neon. Why? Because it makes me happy.
The color pink has a joyful vibe full of optimism. It’s a feminine color that always looks fresh. And studies have shown that a soft shade of pink can have a calming effect. To me, pink just looks right. Like, if it’s not pink, it’s the wrong color. I’m always shocked when I see someone walk up to a display of flowers and pick an orange and yellow bouquet to take home. Why would someone do that when there are pink bouquets right there? What is wrong with those people?
Which brings me to this lady.
I hate Dolores Umbridge for all the same reasons you do: her petty power plays, her casual cruelty, her bigotry. But it goes deeper with me. How could someone who loves pink as much as I do be so evil? Betrayal! After seeing Umbridge on the big screen, I stopped wearing pink so much. Now, most of my clothes are black or navy.
But even she couldn’t ruin pink completely. I still love pink for literally everything else. Once, I was talking to my friend Bronwyn about how delighted I was to find a snap-on shell that made my computer pink.
Bronwyn said she’d like to get one of those for her computer, but she didn’t know what color to get. I blinked at her in silence. Blinked again, waiting for my brain to catch up. I heard the words she was saying, but I couldn’t get them to make sense in my head. Because for me, there was never a choice of what color computer shell to get. I never make a choice about the color of anything I buy. If it comes in pink, that’s the one I want.
And if it doesn’t come in pink, it’s the wrong color.
I wish I could have one every day.
I’m the single mom of teenagers. I don’t get a lot of hugs. My oldest is away at college and my youngest is a busy high school student. They’ll both hug me, but only if I ask. And they kind of think I need a reason, otherwise it’s weird.
I guess we all think we need a reason to hug someone. Usually the reason is that you’re romantically involved. Hugs are reserved for those special few people in our lives, and to hug someone too much—especially someone of the opposite sex—sends the wrong message.
But here’s the only message I want to send: I like you. You’re my friend. You’re worthy of love. I’m here for you. Life is a good and your fellow humans care about you.
That’s the message I want to get, too.
Hugs are important. A warm embrace signals the body to release oxytocin and other chemicals, elevating our moods and contributing to a sense of safety and connection. Hugs calm us down, lower our stress, and might even prevent us from getting sick.
But I don’t want to wait until I’m sad or stressed out. I don’t want to wait until I need a hug. I want preventive maintenance hugs. I don’t need a tight squeeze or a clutch that goes on for days. Just a real, genuine hug. (Not that “London Bridge” thing where your upper arms are in it but your body is not.)
Science has shown that a three-second embrace is optimal for humans. A hug is a tiny, tiny shared moment. It has no agenda. It doesn’t ask anything of you except that you be present for three seconds.
Among my friends, I’m most often the person who initiates the hug. I usually get away with shouting, “Give me a hug!” as we say hello and goodbye. So far, no one has said no, but it’s not like I’ve given them a choice. And I’m also aware that our culture lets women do that, but not men. So I’m trying to be less greedy about the whole thing, to ask for hugs rather than demand them.
One time, in a park, I saw someone with one of those “free hugs” signs so I threw my bag on the ground to catapult myself into his arms. It was kind of weird to hug a complete stranger.
It was also the best three seconds of my day.
[photos: Brad Fults, cs.belgium. Licensed under a Creative Commons attribution generic license]
There’s a right way and a wrong way.
Last week, I suffered a computer crash. All my files were backed up, so it wasn’t a disaster, just a bummer. But it could have been an even bigger bummer without my new friends Jason, Brandon and Joel.
After trying to reset the machine myself, I headed to the Apple store. When they check you in, you don’t take a number. The greeter uses an iPad to check you in, jotting down some details of your appearance so the clerks can find you in the crowded store. I didn’t see what the greeter wrote down, but it was probably something like, “Middle-aged mom hugging her mac like a baby. Looks clueless.” I braced myself for a guy half my age to mansplain my computer to me.
It never happened.
A tech named Jason was working on several computers at once at the “genius bar.” He listened patiently when I told him what was wrong with my mac, never interrupting me. His body language was relaxed, interested, even though I’m sure he hears the same thing all day long. He tried, unsuccessfully, to reinstall my operating system. He couldn’t figure out why it didn’t install, but he never acted like that was my fault or my problem to solve. (I’ve had that experience before. Yuck.) I peppered him with questions and he answered all of them, talking me through the problem without talking down to me.
He ultimately had to give up and turn my machine over to an even younger guy named Brandon. Brandon had a solution. I could either go to the earlier version of the OS, which would work fine, or get a new hard drive and use the current OS. We discussed price and time to service, and I decided to go to Best Buy for a new hard drive, since it would be cheaper and faster than going through Apple. Brandon thought that was a great idea and sent me on my way. He didn’t try to talk me into staying in the Apple family. He didn’t try to scare me into using their higher-priced services. He knew I could be trusted to do what was best for my own computer.
The next day, I went to Best Buy. I haven’t visited the Geek Squad in several years and my last experience wasn’t a great one. So my hackles were already up when I approached the counter. I was sure the Jack Black lookalike was going to treat me like an idiot.
It never happened.
Jack Black’s real name turned out to be Joel, and not only did he not talk down to me, he did the opposite. He empowered me. He said he couldn’t install a hard drive on my mac, but I could certainly do it myself. When I looked doubtful he said, “There are videos on YouTube. You’ll just need a phillips screwdriver and a star-shaped one. You have those, right?” (Bonus points to Joel for assuming I have tools.) He gave me his number to call if I had any trouble, but he assured me I wouldn’t. “You can do this!”
Swapping out the hard drive was as easy as Joel said it was and so was reinstalling my OS and my backed-up files. (Always back up your files, kids!) And even though it was so easy a cat could do it, I’m still super proud of myself for accomplishing it.
And I’m proud of my new pals Jason, Brandon, and Joel for treating me as though I could.
Now, I’m not saying that sexism is solved simply because I had one good experience. In fact, a different man called me “sweetie” the day before and someone else talked over me the day after. And of course, there was the weird guy at the con last month. But I have hope. Somewhere along the line, these three young men were taught a better way. A mom, a wife, or (or more likely) a female boss clued them in.
Now let’s hope they clue in others.
The darkest part of every story is also the most essential.
There comes a time in every story, about 75% of the way through, where the heroine gives up. She feels utterly defeated because try as she might, she can’t find a way to achieve her goal. She’s beaten and knows she’s beaten.
This is called the all-is-lost moment.
It’s the moment in ET: The Extra-terrestrial when the little alien dies. It’s the moment in Inside Out when Joy is lost in the memory dump. It’s the moment in Mad Max Fury Road when Furiosa discovers the Green Place is gone.
It’s in every novel, every movie, every short story. Even children’s books include it. Three-quarters of the way through Where the Wild Things Are, Max discovers that being with the monsters doesn’t make him happy, and he longs to be where someone loves him most of all.
This is a necessary part of every story. It’s the dark before the dawn. There is an important reason the heroine needs to be brought to this low, low point. She has tried, and failed (so far) in her quest because she hasn’t changed. She’s still trying to solve her problems using old methods, and they aren’t working anymore. She can’t achieve victory until she learns the lessons the plot is trying to teach her. Heroes don’t want to change. All-is-lost moments force them to change.
Can you imagine a novel or movie without the all-is-lost moment? It would be terrible. The heroine would either achieve her goal without any self-reflection or internal change, which would be trite, or she’d keep using the same old methods and never get anywhere, which would be pointless. In fact, the entire story would be pointless without that crucial moment of character change.
And of course, right after this dark night of the soul, a plot twist happens, the heroine finds a new way of dealing with the problem, and faces it head-on. The more horrible the all-is-lost moment feels, the better the climax of the book. Overcoming that failure is huge. It means the victory wasn’t handed to the heroine. She earned it.
I’ve been experiencing an all-is-lost moment myself lately. Here we are 75% of the way through the year, so it’s arrived right on schedule. I made an ambitious goal for myself this year: I would write 2017 pages in the year 2017 (which is 504,250 words). And for the first and second quarters, I was right on track. And then I tried to shoehorn a bunch of big projects into my already-full life. I took on several freelance editing jobs at once, ramped up hours at my volunteer job, tried to edit a couple of my own manuscripts, all while doing home improvement and social activism and working around my kids’ strange summer schedules and staying glued to the 24/7 news cycle.
And, like any plucky fictional heroine, I decided I could do that without making any changes to my life. In addition to writing, I would edit, teach, volunteer, and parent. I would also still have coffee with my friends and socialize on the internet and read the newspaper and ride my unicycle. I’m not exactly sure where I thought the extra hours would come from. Something had to give, and I stole time from the two places that could least afford to lose it: writing and sleep.
I got cranky, and my daily word counts got smaller and smaller. I slid further from my writing goals with every passing day. My editing jobs went really well and I’m proud of the other work I did but the cost was high because I gave up the wrong things in order to achieve it. I should have cut down on house cleaning and Twitter, not on writing and sleep.
I’m staring my quarterly word count total in the face and I don’t like what I see. I only wrote 458 pages this quarter, which is 46 pages short. 458 pages is a ton of writing, and I know I should be proud (I am!) but I also know I could have made my goal if I’d spent my time wisely.
Things aren’t hopeless. I still have three months to make up the difference. But I’m seeing what a blessing the all-is-lost moment can be. It’s forcing me to change. The next time a big project comes in, I’ll have to make better choices, because the world keeps turning and we all have 24 hours in a day. How I use those hours is up to me.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She is learning how to prioritize writing and sleep.
[Photo credits: Warner Brothers/Village Roadshow pictures and Harper & Row]
Three no-bullshit rules for happier living.
Do you have rules for life? I have a lot, although most of them are common sense and many are more like guidelines than actual rules. But I have three unbreakable ones.
1. Leave useless lectures
I love a good informative presentation. I seek out opportunities to hear smart people say smart things, and TED talks are my jam. But I’ll leave any presentation that consists of the speaker reading the slides out loud. I’ve walked out of three important meetings this year and will happily walk out of more. These meetings were billed as “essential” and “attendance mandatory,” like the one about college scholarships and the one about a big field trip for my kid.
But this is a hard limit for me. If the presenter is doing PowerPoint Karaoke, I’m leaving. I know how to read. I don’t need anyone to do it for me. But what about the question-and-answer period that always comes at the end? Isn’t that valuable? No. The questions are always super specific and come from people seeking an exception to the rules. No one asks a question seeking clarification. They all want a dispensation.
Fun fact: one hundred percent of the time, the lecture I’ve left has either included a handout or a website with all the information on it. There is never any downside to walking out of a purely informational meeting because the information is always available elsewhere.
2. Never keep a folder of papers
People love to give me those shiny cardboard folders filled with papers. I got my taxes done with a new accountant. She gave me a folder. I hired a realtor to sell my house. She gave me a folder. I got a new insurance policy. It came with a folder. My doctor, my banker, my lawyer…in fact, it seems that anytime I hire someone, trying to deal with them adult-to-adult, I’m given a folder, as if I were a child still in school.
I have my own filing cabinet and folders don’t fit in it. Besides, ninety percent of what’s in the folder is crap and the other ten percent can be found online. I can’t stop people from giving me folders, but I don’t have to keep them. I take out anything with my signature on it, file it in my own filing cabinet, and immediately recycle the rest of the papers and the stupid folder too.
3. Don’t photograph events
Every time I go to a show, a play or a concert, especially one my child is in, my phone/camera is powered off and in my pocket. I came to the event to experience it, not to document it.
I’m a parent of two musicians. My kids have been in multiple concerts every year since fifth grade and I’ve adored every single one of them. But I don’t have photos to prove it. What would be the point? Music is auditory. Plays are a story told in time. They can’t be captured by a static image. Besides, studies have shown that taking photographs can keep us from forming detailed memories. Do I want to hear the music, or do I want to stare through a three-inch screen trying to get the perfect picture that I’ll post to Facebook and never look at again?
I take photos of my children after the show. They look amazing in their band tuxedos and after the concert, they are relaxed and happy. But during the show, I sit down, shut up, and listen to the music.
These three rules for life have eased my way and made me happier. I’m thinking of adding a fourth rule: delete all voicemails without listening to them. My mom still calls me sometimes, so that one isn’t absolute. But for everyone else? Text me.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. The first of the re-issued books will be out this fall.
[Photo by Sholeh used under a creative commons 2.0 license]
Thirty years ago, I made a promise. I’ve kept it ever since.
I hate wearing a bike helmet. When I wheel my bike out of the garage, I always pause with the helmet in my hand, fantasizing about riding with a bare head, arriving at my destination without a sweaty neck and flat hair.
But every time I go somewhere on my bike, I plop the helmet on my head. Not because I think it will save my life. It probably won’t. Not because of peer pressure. In the college town where I live, hardly anyone wears a bike helmet. But still, I wear mine each and every time I ride my bike.
Because of this guy.
That’s my dad, holding me as a baby. I bet he’d still hold me that tenderly if he could.
When I was in college, we worked together one summer painting houses. I loved hanging out with him, working side by side, listening to the radio and chatting. One day, I mentioned that a few months earlier, while biking to class, I’d fallen off my bike and hurt my knee and elbow. Dad expressed sympathy, but didn’t say anything else about it until the next afternoon.
“You know, I’ve been thinking.” He dipped his brush into the can for more paint and expertly applied a line. “If I bought you a bike helmet, would you wear it?”
I could tell by his expression that this meant a lot to him.
“I’ll wear it every time,” I added. This was the late 80’s. Nobody on my college campus wore a bike helmet. I’d certainly never worn one growing up. I had no idea how hot and uncomfortable it would be.
I wore it anyway. And when I went back to college, I got teased for it. The girls mostly left me alone, but the guys always had something to say.
“Are you wearing that so your brains don’t fall out?”
“Do you just walk around with that on all day like a special ed kid?”
“Did you leave your motorcycle somewhere?”
My campus was ninety miles from home. My dad would never know if I rode without a helmet. I could take it off, ride bare-headed, be cool, fit in.
I didn’t. I kept it on. Every ride. Every time. I didn’t care what the other kids said. I wasn’t wearing the helmet for them.
I was wearing it for someone more important.
And I still do.
No matter what you got your mom for mother’s day, it’s not as cool as what my kids got me.
I have wanted a unicycle for years. I was always delighted to see one-wheel riders in parades and shows. Seeing a unicycle for sale made me sigh wistfully. I watched videos on YouTube and thought “someday…”
Then I came across this quote.
It made me think about what I was capable of. And then I realized why I’d never bought myself a unicycle and why I’d never tried to ride one.
For twenty-five years, I lived with a partner who didn’t think I was capable of anything. He didn’t think I could be a successful writer, or a good mother, or a skilled editor, or an inspiring teacher. Even when I clearly was all those things, he insisted I was not. He second-guessed every independent decision I made and never once told me he was proud of me. When we divorced, I told him I’d be fine. He snorted, “No, you won’t.”
But I am. I am more than fine. In the past few years, I’ve learned just how capable I am on my own. I sold my house and bought another. I dealt with evil realtors and surly bankers and the odd rules of court. My son needed surgery at a special clinic in another state, so I arranged it and financed it. I launched my oldest kid into college. I held my little family together.
Turns out my kids were watching the whole time. And they always knew what I was capable of. So when I asked for a unicycle for mother’s day, they didn’t try to talk me out of it. They didn’t undermine my confidence by asking, “are you sure?” Without any hesitation or debate, they pooled their money and bought me the exact model I wanted.
They gave me more than a unicycle. They gave me a symbol. Every time I ride it, I’ll know how much my kids believe in me. No matter how many times I fall off, they expect me to get right back on again.
I’ve been practicing twenty minutes a day, wobbling up and down the driveway, clinging to the garden wall. Losing my balance, falling off, getting on again. But I’m not giving up.
I’m going to learn to ride this unicycle.
Because I can do anything.