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Lessons from my son

unicycleMy 14-year-old son—I call him Taz online—is learning to ride a unicycle. Yes, really. After a few weekends of practice, he’s already pretty good at it.

I’ve spent his whole life trying to teach him what I think he needs to know before he leaves home in just a few years—sniff, sniff—but I think there are some lessons I could learn from him too.

1. Be yourself. It’s okay to defy convention.

Taz started his freshman year with atomic turquoise hair. It’s currently faded royal blue, and it’s been through iterations of purple and green in the last year or so. Teachers probably cringed when they saw him coming in his skinny jeans and Vans. But they were in for a pleasant surprise, because he’s a smarty. And his look doesn’t scream athlete either, but he’s that too.

When he first told me he’d like to dye his hair, I said, “Go for it!” Hey, hair grows out, and you’re only a kid once. If not now, then when?

When I was his age, I wanted to dye the ends of my hair blue, but never had the guts. I was too worried about what my friends and classmates would think. In my experience, when you let the opinion of others rule your actions, a little part of you dies. But when you overcome your fears and dare to be yourself, your self-confidence soars.

I've seen that confidence in him, and what better way to start high school?

It took me almost a year before I was willing to tell people outright that I was not only a writer, but—gasp!—I write romance, the best-selling, yet most maligned genre of fiction out there. But now that I’ve owned it, I’m much happier.

Not quite ready to dye my hair blue, though. 😉

2. Stick with it.

Taz is a typical teenager who hates to clean his room, leaves little messes (dishes, food wrappers, school supplies, shoes) everywhere he goes, and loves video games. But he’s not a slacker by any means.

Take the unicycle for example. He decided he wanted one, used a Christmas gift card to buy it, and has spent hours every weekend for the past several weeks mastering it. When he wants something, he goes after it, whether it’s a better grade, a faster race time, or a certain video game score.

He’s learning over and over that the time he puts in pays off in the end.

Writing is like that. Hell, life is like that. Nothing worthwhile comes without effort, whether it be a writing career, a new job, a degree, a good relationship, or a trim physique.

3. Sometimes it’s okay to quit.

Okay, tenacity is good, but there’s something to be said for knowing when to hang it up too. Taz was a good swimmer. Maybe not future Olympian quality, but definitely competitive. He worked hard at practice and swam hard at meets.

But the last year or so, he realized it wasn’t what he really wanted to be doing. Not only was he burned out by the schedule and expectations, but he had his heart set on running.

We made him finish the season, because, well, we’d paid for it for one thing. And we wanted to make sure he wouldn’t regret quitting something he’d spent five years doing. But in the end, he decided to trade in his flippers for running shoes.

And he’s never been happier.

So, don’t just stubbornly stick with something because you’re afraid of giving up. Spend time on those things that are truly your dream, and shed those that you’re doing out of a sense of obligation.

Those are just a few things I’ve picked up from my son.

As parents, we’re always thinking about how much we have to impart on our progeny, but both of my boys have taught me a lot about myself and the world.

What lessons have you learned from a child?

Silence!

How do you muzzle your inner critic? You know, the big sister of the internal editor that sits on your shoulder when you write?

The one who tells you you’re not good enough, smart enough, deserving enough to achieve your dream. She tells you what you write is worthless, wonders why you’re wasting your time, prods you to eat cookie dough instead.

My Tuesday post about jettisoning negative people in your life brought about a discussion of our own negative internal voice and how to overcome it.

According to time-management guru Brian Tracy in his book Eat that Frog!, “Fully 95 percent of your emotions, positive or negative, are determined by how you talk to yourself on a minute-to-minute basis.”

So, maybe we should figure out how to talk to ourselves in a way that is supportive, huh?

It’s harder than it sounds. Thoughts enter our heads constantly, and half of the time we’re hardly aware of them. But we feel the results. We can be our self-esteem’s worst enemy, far tougher than anyone around us would be.

One of my blog readers named her internal critic Myrtle. I like that because once you’ve separated her from yourself, you can kick her ass.

For me, the first step is to pay attention to what I think. The second step is to rephrase harmful thoughts. Instead of, “this sucks,” I might say, “I’m sure this could be better, but I can fix it later.”

Then I keep writing.

Another method I like is based on neurolinguistic programming (NLP), something Tony Robbins is fond of in his seminars. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott recommends you take all the voices that scream at you and shove those “people” into a jar. Close the lid.

Add a volume control to the jar. Turn it up so you can hear the yells and mockery, then turn it all the way down. Get back to writing.

When distracting thoughts or images—say my latest agent rejection, or worry over my latest plotline—won’t leave me alone, I imagine them on a chalkboard in my mind, then I visualize wiping the board clean.

Other variations on this are giving the voice a funny pitch so it can no longer be taken seriously, balling up the thought and tossing it away, or dimming the image’s color and shrinking it before moving it to a far away corner of our mind.

I think part of the success of these strategies is that they give us a sense of control over the voice of doubt.

David Morrell, in his book The Successful Novelist, talks about asking his students why they want to write, and digging deeper and deeper until they get beyond the superficial reasons like money, fame, and the “writer’s lifestyle”.

When your inner critic is certain you should quit wasting your time on the worthless trash you call a manuscript, ask yourself how you would feel if you quit writing.

Would you be okay with it?

Would you be devastated?

Think about why you started writing, and why you still torture yourself with it. If you can’t imagine your life without writing, tell that hateful beeyotch to sit back and shut up.

And finally, know that no matter how much you think your writing sucks now, it doesn’t matter. Anne Lamott proposes “shitty first drafts”. If you know the first attempt is going to be bad, then you can just go with it and let the words flow without fear, because, hey, it’s supposed to be crap, right?

Instead of focusing on quality, which you have limited control over, focus on quantity. Set word count and time goals. The more goals you complete, the higher your self-esteem, and the better you’ll feel about your writing. The beauty will happen in the revisions.

Like Nora Roberts once said, “You can fix a bad page; you can’t fix a blank one.”

Take that, Myrtle!

How do you silence your inner critic?

Photo credit: SURPRISED © Yanik Chauvin | Dreamstime.com

Promises, promises

The most devastating promises we can break are those we make to ourselves.

“Oh, I didn’t write today, but I promise I’ll spend two hours writing in the morning.” And then morning comes and I get distracted by emails that could be dealt with later, or I sleep too late, or I decide to get “all that other stuff” out of the way first and then write (which somehow never happens).

“Oops, I ate too much the last few days, but I promise I’ll get back on track tomorrow.” And then several weeks of overeating later I’m wondering what happened to the wonderful numbers I’d been seeing on the scale.

It’s that simple, but over time the failure to follow through eats away at your self esteem and your self image. Where you once envisioned a productive writer, your brain now believes that it was a lie and writing must not really be that important to you.

Where you once saw progress in shedding excess weight, you suddenly find yourself eating everything in sight.

The more self esteem drops, the easier it is to fall back on the bad habits that don’t get you where you want to be, because your brain now thinks it was never meant to be. Sometimes fear of failure—or success—causes you to push back against the tough goals. And then you throw your hands up and say, “Screw it! What ever made me think I could be a published author anyway? What a silly dream.”

And then you quit and find another goal or hobby, slowly dying inside because the stories in your head have no outlet. Because you’ve given up on your dream and on yourself.

I’m not going to let that be me. Please don’t let it be you either.

Get your pride and your dreams back. You can do it one day, one small promise at a time. Make little, tiny, non-threatening promises to yourself, those that won’t trigger the doubt monster that fears change, even good change. Write 15 minutes tomorrow. Skip one bite of dinner. Pass on the extra scoop of ice cream. Add ten minutes to your workout. Write that scene that’s been nagging at you for weeks.

Remember why you dreamed your dreams, and imagine how you’ll really feel about yourself if you don’t do everything in your power to make them come true. And then go and be the best you that you can.

We deserve our own time and energy.

Keep your promises to your friends and your family, don’t make promises you can’t afford to keep, and always keep your promises to yourself.

You’re worth it.

Photo credit: DREAMY GIRL © Konstantin Tavrov | Dreamstime.com

Treading water

I love to read my favorite authors, but it's a double-edged sword. I alternate between being inspired by their greatness, and wallowing in the certainty that I'll never be as good as any of them.

The only way to get through this is to remind myself that each of those great writers started out as a beginner, just like me. They wrote books that have never been published, received rejections from agents and editors, and sometimes still struggle with self-doubt.

Everyone has to start somewhere. Just like a swimmer doesn't make the Olympics without years of training, practice, technique refinement, and discipline, a writer must continue to improve her craft, write every day, query agents/editors, and never give up.

A swimmer has a coach, I have a critique partner. A swimmer has teammates, I have chapter mates. A swimmer–if she's lucky–has a supportive family, I have mine. A swimmer has a swimsuit…well, moving along…

UPDATE 12/21/09: I was reminded by a faithful fan, that like a swimmer, I have fans who support me along the way, too. I'm so lucky to be surrounded by supportive people!

How do you get past your self-doubt and keep writing?

The Daily Squirrel: snow

Kelly jogged along the trail adjoining the road and watched the pine trees rustle in the bitter wind as snow fell in wet clumps all around her. Every last inch of her body was covered except for her cheeks and nose. Sunglasses cut the glare and blocked the wind that seeped in through every seam of her clothes.

Still, she loved the serene stillness of a snowy day. The white blanket cleaned the normally foul-smelling air and muted the usual din. Her lungs burned with each frosty breath, even as her body heated and relaxed into the rhythm of her run.

Inhale, step, exhale, step. The meditative movement soothed her mind as the exertion cleansed her soul. These stolen moments of time alone were worth more than the wealth her mother sought in men's arms, more than anything someone could give to her.

For those few moments, surrounded by the frozen landscape, she could taste freedom. One day soon, she vowed, she'd keep right on running.