The Pressure to Be Something

I went to the same school as Stephen Colbert and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I’ll pause to give you time to look up which school they went to. (If you are a follower of this blog, you already know which school.)

You’re back? Okay good. The first thing you’ll notice is that they are celebrities and I am not. Not everyone who went there is. But while I was an undergraduate, and even after graduating, I felt the pressure to live up to the prestige of the university. During my time there, when I chose to major in writing, many people gave me the stink eye. “Major in something useful,” I was advised over and over. (Code word: more prestigious, at least in their eyes.) “In that way, you can make a lot of money and be an alumna the school can be proud of.”

   

The pressure to be something.

(Though nowadays, the latter message comes through in the frequent invitations to donate to the alumni fund. The pressure to give something.)

Ever feel the pressure to be something others have decided is the definition of success?

As a writer, I definitely feel the pressure. My grad program has turned out graduates who have won major awards and who have sold many, many books. Even the organization of children’s writers and illustrators that I belong to routinely sends emails about those who have “made it,” while extending the invitation to “Send us your success stories.”

But what if you’re the writer of some books that went out of print within two years? Or you’ve racked up 89 rejections for a book?

The pressure to be something.

Ever feel like you didn’t measure up somehow? Maybe like me you even fell into the funnel of comparison recently, and felt yourself squeezed out of the small end.

Comparison—the bane of our existence

Thoughts like that swirled through my head as I drove to Wal-Mart the other day. Yeah, I know I shouldn’t let such thoughts hold sway. I’m trying to get my mind right and defeat negative thinking. But for some reason, I thought about the sister who had died the year before I was born. I found myself crying and wondering why she was stillborn, while I lived. Not that I’m ungrateful for life. But because I lived, was I really being all I could be? Was I living up to the potential teachers and others had told me I had over the years?

The pressure to be something. The pressure to make my life count because my sister was dead and I was alive.

But after prayer (because I was really getting worked up), I realized, Wait. I could silence that nagging voice in my head—the one that caused me to feel the pressure to measure myself against someone else’s ruler. I could silence the strive, strive, strive, you’re not doing it right, make things happen and just be.

Be . . .

Content in who I am—someone who persists past rejection and failure.

Joyful regardless.

I’m not Stephen Colbert. I like the guy. I really do. But I don’t have to be him or Julia Louis-Dreyfus to be somebody. I already am somebody. I might not do life like them. But I do what I do, because I like doing what I do, whether that fits someone else’s protocol or not.

Pressure dispelled.

As Nancy Hatch of Spirit Lights the Way would say, “Aah, that’s better.”

And now, I’ll leave you with a Lindsey Stirling video, suggested by a friend who went to Lindsey’s concert the other day. It’s for anyone who needs to get out of the pressure and into joy.

Marsha Mello likes being with the Unfinished Tiger. His chill approach to life—that all of us are works in progress—soothes her.

Stephen Colbert photo from enspireusall.com. Julia Louis-Dreyfus photo from popsugar.com. Other photos by L. Marie. Marsha Mello and Donatina Shoppie dolls from Moose Toys.

Revealing the Darkness or Reveling in It?

The other day, a friend and I talked about how increasingly dark many stories seem to be across the board. By the bleak end of some of them, the chill of hopelessness had seeped into our veins and colored our outlook a dull winter gray.

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I don’t need to read a book to learn that life is hard. My mother endured cancer twice. My dad had cancer. My sister-in-law had cancer the same year her father died. I can’t have children and have been unemployed a number of times. I’ve endured bouts of depression and I’ve been rejected more times than I can count. Are you getting the picture that I know how difficult life can be?

So when life is hard, I turn to stories that remind me hope exists. They don’t sugarcoat the bad things that happen to people (like concentration camps; bullying by sadistic kids at school). But the resilience of the characters and their determination to rise above the bleakness of their times spur me to do the same.

kung_fu_panda_2_2011-wideRecently, I watched Kung Fu Panda 2, a 2011 animated film by DreamWorks. In it we learn how Po, a panda, came to live with Mr. Ping, a goose. Though I’ve seen this movie many times and tell myself, I will not cry this time, I lie to myself every time. I won’t give you a play-by-play of Po’s early life. You can watch the movie to discover what happened. But here’s what a soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh) said about Po’s beginning:

Your story may not have such a happy beginning, but that doesn’t make you who you are. It is the rest of your story, who you *choose* to be.

This statement seemed hopeful to me. It acknowledged the sorrow of his past without negating the possibility of change in the future. It spurred Po to be the hero he was meant to be.

I found the following video by the Grace Foundation at Nancy Hatch’s blog in her post, “Sustainable Eating.” While Nancy had a different take on making the world better, the video was another reminder to me of the power of stories. This cow had a sad beginning too. But the video showed more than just a bleak situation. Just watch and see. It’s only a minute and a half.

Yes, we can write stories that reveal challenging times. But if that’s all we do—hold up a mirror to the corruption, the ugliness, the violence, the lack of hope—without once providing any kind of alternative thinking, where’s the power in that? Are we revealing the darkness or reveling in it?

Go ahead. Call me Pollyanna, Ostrich—whatever makes you feel better if hopelessness is your mantra and you want to spread that gospel. But I refuse to join your crusade. When it’s dark, I usually do what I need to do: I turn to the light.

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Hopeless image from barbwire.com. Oil lamp from fireflyfuel.com. Kung Fu Panda 2 from hdwallpapers.

Scaredy L. Marie

This is one of those days when I had to put my Scaredy Squirrel hand puppet on and point the finger at myself. 011

Don’t worry. I don’t do this in public much. But once again, a post at Nancy Hatch’s blog hit me where I live. It’s this one: https://nrhatch.wordpress.com/2015/05/27/calm-self-awareness/

She featured a video that I won’t post here, since you can find it at the end of her post. Feel free to head there and check it out. I won’t mind. Honest. It reminded me of something that has plagued me for years: status anxiety. Can you relate?

In the video the narrator discusses the question most of us ask each other: “What do you do?” Jobs I’ve had with regular paychecks like book or curriculum editor at various publishers, senior project writer at another, or production editor at the American Bar Association made that question a lot easier to answer. But when the regular paychecks stopped, well, I squirmed a lot when people asked me, “What do you do?” Even the answer, “Um freelance writer” seemed lame, especially when it gained me follow-up questions like, “Oh? What are you working on? Do you have a contract? When will the book be published?” I’ve had work-for-hire projects, so the assumptions behind the questions are valid. But when I lack a project, I get rather tongue tied.

I wish I didn’t find a response like, “I’m writing my own books” or “I don’t know when they’ll be published” so difficult to utter. All due to pride I guess, and the status thing that the video points out. After all, both responses fail to point to a tangible source of income. Yet I love the stories I write and the characters I’ve gotten to know. And I betray them every time I keep silent out of fear.

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Status seems a silly thing to stress over. But we do anyway, don’t we?

Another thing I’ve squirmed about is where I live—an apartment. Over the years, I’ve faced the “why rent when you can own” remarks or even disdainful looks because I’m not a homeowner. Really, the fact that I’m here and not homeless is an answer to prayer. I love where I live, though, because I can look out and see this tree.

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For some reason, I think of this tree as Wesley. I’m not sure why. (And it has nothing to do with The Princess Bride.) Wesley reminds me of me. He’s old and has a broken limb due to a bad storm. But he’s still standing and producing leaves. I’ve been broken by life’s storms too. But who hasn’t been? Maybe you have too. But we’re still standing. . . .

So I can’t make a proper pretense at status. Even my car gives me away. It’s as old as Methuselah. But I still zip around in it. I even give dudes revving their engines in the lanes next to me a run for their money. (Never challenge a Honda Civic—especially one driven by me. I didn’t get three speeding tickets in one year for nothin’.)

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Um, this is not my car. But it has the same make and model.

Let’s see what else I’ve been afraid of. Oh yes. In the past, I’ve worried that this blog isn’t “status-y” enough. I don’t have the readership that many bloggers have. I don’t have a plan for it. Don’t want a plan for it. I love the randomness of it, though some readers might run for the hills. I can write nonsense about hand puppets whenever I get ready or post interviews and cover reveals to support authors.

By the way, I’m giving away a number of books in June. The fact that I can do so thrills me to no end.

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So that’s me. I’ve got a load of clothes in the dryer, so I’ve got to skedaddle soon. If I have a takeaway to add to this, I would say that if you and I meet, I won’t ask you, “What do you do?” As if you have to prove your worth by that question. Instead, I’ll just say, “I’m glad to meet you.” Because that’s what it’s all about, really, isn’t it? Who we are, not what we do.

After I take my clothes out of the dryer, I might get all fast and furious on the road in my old Civic. The sun is out and I have a horizon to find. (Yes, that is an allusion to one of Captain Jack Sparrow’s lines in the first Pirates of the Caribbean.) Maybe I’ll see you on the road. But if you rev your engine at me, watch out.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this.

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While the others at the party discussed who was who and what was what, Gandalf took a nap. I can so relate, Gandalf.

Honda Civic from cargurus.com. Book stack from blogs.mtu.edu. Other photos by L. Marie.

Remarkable Trees

I often head outside to write and relax under the welcoming arms of this tree on the grounds of my apartment building.

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Hullo.

Don’t let this picture fool you. The lowest branch is at least ten feet off the ground. (I gauged the distance based on my height—about five four and a half inches—and the fact that I was only halfway to the branch.) So a ladder is a necessary tool if you want to climb this tree.

I don’t know what kind of tree this is. If you are a tree aficionado, can you tell, based on the leaves in the photo below, what kind it is? (Yes, I know the photo is not the greatest.) Some kind of locust tree maybe? I’m far more used to maple trees. We had those outside of our house when I was growing up.

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With the temperature at 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), and the wind on the chilly side, I was not inclined to sit outside. (It rained anyway.) But I wanted to snap a few photos of this friendly tree.

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This is my good side.

Lately, I’ve been in need of a soul expansion. Ever have a season when you experienced too many battles and too few victories? Like the Grinch who stole Christmas (look here if you’re not sure who the Grinch is or look below), lately my heart has felt two sizes too small. But one quick way for me to regain good cheer involves placing myself near trees and other beautiful plants.

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I’m not a gardener, but I appreciate the efforts of others to beautify the grounds. I love the fact that I can look out of my window and see lilacs, vivid green grass, and trees.

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Tulips and lilacs at the front door

One look at a tree or flowers causes my blood pressure to drop and my hands to unclench. I love seeing birds flitting in and out of the tree the photo of which appears above. Robins are frequent visitors, though I’ve heard a sparrow or two in the vicinity each morning. I’ve also seen a blackbird perched on a high branch, singing a spring song.

As I type this post, suddenly I’m reminded of a book on my Amazon Wish List:

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Click here for more on this book. I’ll pick up a copy of my own at some point. I first learned of it at the library, where I borrowed a copy. I’m fascinated by books that discuss trees, especially ancient or huge trees like the cedars of Lebanon or redwoods. They remind me of how big the world is and how small I am.

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Cedars of Lebanon

Since the remarkable tree book came to mind, I thought about trees I find remarkable and would love to see in person someday. I’m not alone in my assessment. These trees appear on many lists of remarkable or beautiful trees.

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Banyan

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Japanese Maple

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Jacaranda

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California Redwood

Just looking at those trees makes me feel better. And this great post at Nancy Hatch’s blog, Spirit Lights The Way, has the same effect: https://nrhatch.wordpress.com/2015/05/19/relax-youre-on-island-time/

Which tree not currently listed which you add to the remarkable trees list? Why?

Book cover from Goodreads. Jacaranda from exploreaustralia.net.au. Japanese maple from boredpanda.com/falcor88. Banyan tree from en.wikipedia.org. Redwood tree from bigsurcalifornia.org. Lebanon cedars from habeeb.com. Grinch’s heart from adventuresforlife.wordpress.com.

The Stanton Effect: Building to the Punch Line

6a00d83451b64669e2017c3652fef8970b-250wiToday, I’d like to welcome to the blog Nancy Hatch, who is here to bring you the second in a series of posts on The Stanton Effect: Inspiration from a TED Talk. (See the first post here.) You know her, you love her from her blog, Spirit Lights The Way. Take it away, Nancy!

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Andrew Stanton begins his TED talk with a joke about three men in a bar in the Scottish Highlands—a backpacking tourist, a bartender, and an old man.

He uses the joke as a tool to convey compelling storytelling:

* The old man engages the audience, drawing us into his world and revealing his character as he shares his tale with a strong Scottish brogue.

* He makes us care as he explains how he built the bar, constructed the stone wall out front, and installed planks on the pier . . . “with me bare hands.”

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* The old man claims center stage with the sole speaking role, yet all three characters are necessary. None is extraneous. The tourist provides the reason for the telling of the tale. The bartender’s presence establishes that the old man is not exaggerating.

* In the same way he crafted the bar, the stone wall, and the pier, the old man builds his story on a firm foundation, one piece at a time. He keeps the finish line in mind. He never veers off course. He steers the story to its predetermined end.

* He creates drama (“anticipation mingled with uncertainty”) as he decries the fact that he’s not called “MacGregor the Bar Builder” or “MacGregor the Stone Wall Builder” or ”MacGregor the Pier Builder.”

Now he’s got us!

We’re curious. We want to hear the end of the story. We want to learn what he IS called. We are ready for the reveal. . . .

* When he delivers the punch line, he doesn’t complete the sentence. He allows the thought to hang mid-air. He doesn’t spell it out. He doesn’t beat us over the head. He doesn’t insult our intelligence. He doesn’t reveal his actual nickname.

He allows us to follow the breadcrumbs and connect the dots.

He’s given us 2 + 2 and leaves it to the born problem solver in each of us to fill in the blanks and come up with the solution.

And we do.

Since he constructed his tale with the same precision he used when building the bar, the stone wall, and the pier, we lay the last piece with confidence.

There’s no wiggle room. We cannot misplace his meaning.

“Och, mon . . . ye must be MacGregor the Story Teller!”

Thanks, Nancy, for being part of this series! On Wednesday, Charles Yallowitz will be on the blog with part three of The Stanton Effect: Inspiration from a TED Talk. Hope to see you here, too.

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Jordie would like to believe that he’s as good at telling a story as MacGregor or Nancy Hatch. But when one of his stories bores Kitty into a stupor, he has to rethink that supposition.

The Space Between

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Space Series

My good friend and former classmate, Nancy Hatch, provides the next installment in the Space Series. (The first can be found here if you’re new to this blog.) Nancy writes awesome young adult fantasy books. She’s currently working on a YA Gothic romance. Take it away, Nancy!

A friend of mine is the fastest writer I know. She can draft a middle grade novel in a few weeks and return an editorial revision in ten days, all while coming up with a new proposal. She writes like a jet plane, a ridiculously fast, mostly straight shot from takeoff to landing. I can’t do it.

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For me, writing is more like a hot air balloon ride. It takes work to get an idea off the ground—a lot of fanning (thinking) to start the inflation and a lot of hot air (the excitement of brainstorming) to fill the envelope. And then it requires space—a lot of space—and freedom. (Weren’t sure I’d fit that in, were you?) It is in that space between earth and sky, that space between my ears, the space between my dreams and the words on the screen that the story starts to develop. For me, this is the journey. And it is messy and unpredictable and hard to set a timetable to. I’ll land when I reach a place that looks like a good landing; when my flight has been long enough and exciting enough to complete my journey. And that may or may not be where I intended to go.

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I have read many a craft book and writing life book that embraces outlining, shuffling 3 × 5 cards, elaborate character interviews and worksheets, and intricate world building—all to be done before putting fingers to keys. Know the story and your characters and then the book will write itself, they proclaim. It makes sense. It works for authors A, B, and C. It doesn’t work for me. It tethers me to the ground and never lets the story journey happen.

I read somewhere that you have to embrace your own process. I wish I’d known that a long time ago. Maybe I’d have had more balloons take flight. But, here’s the deal. Every writer has a process. No two of us do this the same way. I start with the idea of a scene and maybe a hint of a character, and then I write. It isn’t until I write that I start to get to know that character and figure out where my plot is going. I’m completely open for a subconscious surprise to appear beneath my fingertips. It’s exciting. It’s scary. But that’s what works for me.

Do I ever employ these other methods? Some of them, but not until my balloon is already in the air and sometimes not until I’ve already landed. Then I usually need to go back and analyze and make the adjustments in revision. Like I said, it’s messy. But that’s what works for me. It won’t be the same for you.

If you’re just starting out, my great tidbit of advice is to try some suggestions, read some books, talk to other writers, but when it comes to your writing and your stories, you do what works for you.

And never apologize for it.

I am not a jet plane. Yes, it has taken me forever to get where I am right now. I launch balloons and float them between the earth and the sky until I find a good place to land. In the process—my process—I enjoy the space and the view and the journey. You should too.

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Balloon photos by Nancy Hatch. Jet from listofimages.com. Space image from wallsave.com. White space from dessign.net.