On Being Better

One morning last week I had coffee with a dear friend. After, I drove home, climbed into bed, and pulled a pillow over my head for three hours. She was probably in the same place: taking longer to recover than the time we spent together.

But it was worth it. Not for the coffee, which was excellent, or even the quiet morning of conversation, which was delightful, or even the lunch of Korean beef stew she had prepared, which was delicious.

She understands—she’s a mom with chronic headaches too.

We talked about the usual things—our kids, their troubles at school, the challenges of their busy lives. But also—how hard it is to be sick when someone else is relying on you. The phases of disability. And what it means to be better.

Why is it that when you’re sick or in pain, every day, better is such a loaded word?

Better is a frame of mind. It means admitting something’s wrong. Why is it so hard to admit that without feeling shame?

Better is okay to put aside. It’s okay to pretend: “I’m just fine the way I am.” Even if: I can’t do as much as I used to. I can’t do as much as everyone else. I’m out on disability. Or any of the other things that get me down. Sometimes, a little bit of denial is perfectly fine.

Better comes in small doses. Yesterday I didn’t get out of bed. Today I walked to the mailbox. I declare: I’m better.

Better is a moving target. One day’s better is another day’s sick.

Better is a little bit of sunshine. Wow, that feels good. One sunny day can really turn things around.

Better is one day where I only have to take care of ME.

Better is beyond your control. If you’re sick, you’re already doing everything you can just to get through each day. Being expected to heal yourself—when all the doctors you’ve seen couldn’t—is obviously impossible.

Better is different for everyone. Just because my friend and I both have headaches doesn’t mean we’re both fighting the same battles. She gets better as the day goes on. My pain gets worse. No one knows what you’re going through except you, even if your daily battles have nothing to do with illness or pain. Everyone’s carrying something up a hill, every day. No one can forgive you for not being better…except you.

So today, do whatever it takes to lighten your load, even a little.

Put down that pack.

Take yourself, just as you are.

You are just the way you are meant to be.

You don’t need to BE better.

You can do this the way you are.

And someday,

Yes,

Things will GET better.

But YOU don’t have to make them that way.

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Writing–Where I’m At with NaNoWriMo

November is coming, and we all know what that means. Halloween candy binges. Christmas decorations everywhere. Frantic preparations for a gigantic holiday feast. Men growing facial hair to raise awareness about their prostates. And writers everywhere going insane trying to finish a novel in a month.

Which one of these am I going to be doing?

I don’t like candy, and I don’t have a prostate.

So this leaves me with a dilemma—decorate for Christmas and feed my family on Thanksgiving, or write a novel.

Sadly, I can’t do it all. That’s my biggest problem with National Novel Writing Month. They couldn’t put it in August, the one month with no national holidays? A month more than one hundred days away from the holiday frenzy?

But what about that great idea I’ve been working on? How will I ever get it done?

I suppose there are other ways to write a novel—the one day at a time method. Two pages a day. Take a year to write it and a year to revise it. But, part of me thrills, if you do NaNo, the novel will be done on November 30th!

Don’t believe the hype. NaNo is a slog. It is the ultramarathon of literary grinds. Especially for slow writers such as myself. Maybe there are people who thrive on the challenge, just like there are sickos people out there who love to run 100 mile races (you know who you are, and you know you’re crazy, even if you’re going to live fifty years longer than I am).

I ran a ten mile race once. It felt great—up until mile five. Then it was like pounding nails into my knees for the last half, and I limped over the finish line and collapsed in a heap. I sat in the car for the five hour drive back home, and couldn’t walk without pain for a week. You should have trained for it, people said. Oh, I did, I argued. And I’m convinced the training is what set me up for failure. My knees were running low on their warranty to begin with, and I used up all their miles in the weeks before the race.

There’s no training for NaNo. You can plan and outline, of course. But you’re not allowed to start your novel ahead of time—that’s considered “cheating.” But when winning is the equivalent of printing of a certificate that says “You win,” who’s keeping score? If the goal is to have a novel by the end of it, I say do whatever it takes.

I’m not going to risk a repeat of what happened with my ten mile race, though. No way—no ice packs and ibuprofen for this girl. No training. No pre-writing. Not because it would be cheating, but because it would wear me out. I’m going to eeeeeease into NaNo.

Today, I’m going to consider signing up. (I want to, I do. There’s the euphoria of starting…of hitting 10,000 words…and then the crush of realizing you’ve stared at your computer for an hour and only typed three sentences. GRRR!!!)

Tomorrow, I might actually look at the website. (But the camaraderie! The pep talks! Hitting the halfway point!)

Maybe by next week, come November 1st, I’ll actually do it. I wouldn’t want to risk burning out too soon. (Like when you realize you’re three quarters through your novel…and you have no idea where to take your plot next.)

But if you see me putting up Christmas decorations and baking pumpkin pies before Halloween, you’ll know why. (I know I put that box of ornaments somewhere down here…)

On Encouragement

Fine Feathers is a blog about “An aspiring writer’s journey.” This writer’s journey began with an unexpected illness—chronic migraines—and the loss of a medical career.

It has included a mostly silent battle with daily headaches, which has engendered great sympathy for the plight of other patients dealing with the frustrations of medical care.

It has included the joy of rediscovering writing, publishing short stories, completing a novel, and working with a professional editor to make her novel the best it can be.

It has included the challenges of raising two young children, who depend on her to be whole and well and undistracted, fully present in the moment, despite the draw of her writing and the pressing needs of her illness.

It could not have happened without the support and encouragement of a lot of people. This WordPress community, her family, her friends, and her writers’ group. Everyone who has offered feedback on her writing, “liked” a post, followed this blog, read her words…you are what has MADE HER A WRITER. You are what has let this writer follow her heart, and live her dream.

Some professional writers say it’s so tough to be a writer, you should do nothing but discourage young writers…if they’re meant to succeed, they will. They have to know how hard it’s going to be.

But this writer is a believer in encouragement. Not praise, which researchers have shown lowers self-esteem if given indiscriminately, but pure, simple encouragement. Which anyone deserves, at any step of their journey:

You can do it.

One more step.

You are not alone.

Every writer’s journey begins with a word. Getting that word out requires a leap of faith. Is it the right word? You have to BELIEVE it is. Will anyone read it? You have to have the confidence to proceed, whether or not that word sees the light of day.

Write shitty first drafts—Anne Lamott

Have the courage to write badly. —Joshua Wolf Shenk

Encouragement carries no judgment, doesn’t have to be earned. It focuses on the effort, the enjoyment of the process.

Tell the stories only you can tell—Neil Gaiman

I believe in encouragement, because I know I thrive on it. I wouldn’t be here without it. Fine Feathers will always be a place to share the things that inspire and encourage me, that help me get through the hard parts in life, in parenting, in my writing journey.

When this writer encounters blocks in her journey, she’ll face them with grit, and carry on.

And make a note.

Letting Go: The Freedom of Failure

I’m doing National Novel Writing Month, and I’m proud to say, I wrote over two thousand words today. I’m also ten thousand words behind. And it feels great.

It’s taken me a long time to be able to say that.

I started the month with as much enthusiasm, drive, and determination to win as any WriMoer. Winning is good, right? Everyone loves a winner. Except my husband, it turns out. For some people, writing 1,667 words a day comes easily. For me, some days it does and some days it doesn’t. On the days it doesn’t, my family pays the price.

So nine days in, I took a day off. Then my daughter got sick, and I took off some more. I went through what any writer goes through when she isn’t writing. I got grumpy. I watched my fellow WriMoers pull ahead and meet their word counts with ease. One even wrote 75,000 words in two weeks.

Bah. Those aren’t tears of frustration, really. They’re tears of joy.

Then, I did something really drastic. I took a day off to write an outline. And I realized I needed to re-write the first third of my novel. So I broke all the rules, and I did.

Re-writing? During November?

Yeah.

Because I’ve spent a year trying to re-write a NaNo novel before, one that I pushed through without a plan, and I know how painful it is. So learning from my mistakes?

Yeah. The hard way.

There’s no way I’ll win this November. But I have 20,000 words of something that I didn’t have before. Something that’s a lot better than nothing.

It’s not winning. But now that the pressure is off, my family’s happier, I’m happier, and I like where my book is heading. I’m looking forward to December, Keep Writing Your Novel Month. And January, Finish Your Novel Month, and February, Start Another Novel Month.

That doesn’t feel like failure.

Wow, Kris Kathryn Rusch. Tell us how you really feel.

Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards. -Robert A. Heinlein

It’s National Novel Writing Month, and I’ve never been more keenly aware of Robert Heinlein’s warning for writers. Yes, I have a blog. Yes, it’s about writing (occasionally). It’s been rather silent lately. But it’s not because I don’t have anything to say. I’m churning out two thousand words a day on my novel, and that’s only taking up half my work day. I spend the rest of it re-working short stories, writing new ones, or revising novels one and two. Occasionally cooking, cleaning, and picking up kids from school.

The silence is because I’ve done this long enough now to realize:

There’s much more out there worth reading than me.

Kris Rusch’s recent blog post “Reality Check” (re-posted in The Passive Voice) hit this home. In her very direct way, I’m still in the million words of crap phase. No getting around that. I’ll be there for a long time.

There was a time when beginning writers went through that phase silently. Pre-Internet. Pre-social media. Many professional writers might look on these days fondly. Not that there’s no advantage to hanging it all out there—having a sense of community as a new writer is priceless. We used to lurk in coffee shops, isolated. Stay imprisoned in our homes, banished. No more! Now we have a National Month! Right up there with National Popcorn Poppin’ Month (October), National Celery Month (March), and, of course, Prostate Cancer Awareness Month (Movember). And it brings us under the scrutiny of the professionals who know what they’re doing. Sometimes they offer friendly advice. And sometimes, not:

Yet writers believe that if they got As in school in writing (or in English, having written only one or two essays), then they’re good enough to sell as many copies of their novels as Stephen King. Or maybe their ego isn’t that big. Maybe they believe that they’re good enough to be rich, just not buy-a-small-country rich. – See more at: http://kriswrites.com/2013/11/06/the-business-rusch-reality-check/#sthash.vriOZI66.dpuf

For the record, I was a biology major. I took an English class in college, but I didn’t get an A. And I’m certainly not writing for the money.

Kris blames the confluence of NaNoWriMo and the ease of self-publishing for an explosion in disillusioned new writers:

Then NaNoWriMo came around again, and those writers finished a second book. (Magic!) They published that too, and thought maybe now lightning would strike. Maybe they sold some copies. Maybe they got beer and pizza money. But they didn’t make millions.

The tough writers, they entered NaNoWriMo in 2012, and finished a third novel. That’s hard. Honestly, most writers never make it past the first book. But a third novel does not a novelist make. It simply means that the writer had enough stamina to finish three stories. It doesn’t mean the writer learned anything about what makes good stories. It doesn’t mean that the writer learned how to write anything unique to them. It just means they had a little more practice under their belts.

Some of these writers did what they could to improve their craft. They started to write more, and they learned how to publish. They got a clue that they were in business, not in a get-rich-quick scheme.Other writers just tried to find shortcuts to sell their deathless prose.

This is my second NaNo, third if you count Camp NaNo this summer. Barring a handful of short stories, I haven’t published anything. Nor am I disillusioned…yet. I’ve certainly realized this is work. I don’t think I should sell a million copies. I’d just be happy to have my first novel published, after hundreds of queries, probably a professional edit, and lots of blood, sweat, and tears. Maybe it won’t be my first novel that makes it out there. Or even my third. But I’ll keep writing. It’s obvious that’s the only way to get better. It’s also the only thing I can do.

Kris may be direct. She may be, in her own words, snide. She certainly has a point. And it’s obvious she’s got a bone to pick with someone. But she’s not talking to every new writer, or even to most of the ones I know. I’m just one of the little guys, down here in a little pond. We’re far beneath her notice. She’s right that self-publishing allows writers to put out huge amounts of crap that shouldn’t see the light of day (my words, not hers, but I think I paraphrased accurately). You don’t have to rail against it. Just don’t buy it.

Yeah, she touched a nerve. She’s a really good writer, and despite how much it got to me, her post is worth a read. For nothing else, for the professional viewpoint of beginning writers. It makes me wonder if I ever want to be a professional writer.

Most of the writers I know are writing because they love it. Because they have stories to tell. They’re trying to get better, one story at a time, one sentence at a time. Sure, we’d love to be in the big leagues–but most of us are realistic. We’ll get there one step at a time, or not at all. That’s the way it works. To borrow her musician analogy, not everyone is practicing to be Wynton Marsalis. Some just want to play in the community orchestra. Some want to play for the joy of it. Maybe somewhere, in our million words of crap phase–which some of us may never get out of–we’ll spin out something that delights us or a few close friends.

And with professionals out there like Kris Rusch picking on us little guys, I get why Robert Heinlein recommended that it best be done in private.

It takes a certain kind of bravery to write…

I wrote this the other day when I was feeling dejected. (The book I’m in the middle of tearing apart and putting together is Timber Howligan Book Two. Book One hasn’t even been published yet.)

My solution to the revision blues? NaNoWriMo. Today I finished Chapter One of Timber Howligan Book Three. I realize at the end of the month I will have yet another novel that needs, you guessed it, revision. But this month? I’m just going to write. Writing is THAT MUCH MORE FUN than revision.
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Image

Artwork by Ava Byroads

It takes a certain kind of bravery to write. To open oneself, dig out the words, and lay them out to dry, like underwear on a line. Glaring. Full of holes. Pinned by nothing but flimsy hopes and rusting plastic clips, against the winds of others’ curiosity.

Even worse, against their indifference.

All the writing blogs, all the founts of inspiration, everywhere you turn, there’s chin-up advice about writing. Word counts. Butt-in-chair time. Two pages a day makes a novel in a year. Etc. Well, guess what: Writing is easy. It’s a walk through the metaphorical rose garden, a lark through the loosestrife, a dance in the daisies, compared to revision.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has done this before that the process includes self-doubt. And yet, when the doubts came, I was surprised. (This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me.)

With doubt, came paralysis. I froze, and I drowned. I’m not good enough, and I’ll never be. Worse, I stopped wanting to be. I regretted the time already wasted. All those hours, poured into a project no one will ever read. (Except, a voice whispered, your son…who loved it. And begged for more.)

Thousands of words written and erased, only to leave the book’s soul stranded between revisions…better to abandon it, than break it even more. (Unless, a voice whispered, you tackle it once more, and find the true story. It’s in there. It always has been.)

Easier not to try, than to try and fail, or face rejection. (But you know, the voice whispered, that each rejection has made you try harder. Only you can give this story life. You are its God. How can you forsake it?)

Oh, you had to invoke the deity argument! Fine, I’ll keep at it. I’m too far committed not to. I’m not a quitter. I’ve got a picture of Timber Howligan, tall and proud, staring at me from my desktop now. His green eyes are challenging me, every day. If he’s strong enough to tackle the life of a secret agent cat, I can tell his story with all the heart and honesty he lived it with. It’s a simple tale of friendship, bravery, and one cat discovering he can be more than he thought he could be. The words are there.

I just need to rip myself open and find them.

Writing IS my “Me” Time

Family. Writing. Volunteering.

These are all important to me–catch me in a well-rested, perfectly-balanced moment (if you can…) and I’ll list them in this order.

I always forget to put myself on the list; that’s nothing new. If prompted, I’ll shuffle my feet, say, “Oh shucks, go ahead, put ‘Exercise’ on there somewhere near the bottom.”

That’s the ideal; this is reality:

In the past four days, I’ve spent one baking bread with six-year olds; one pulling projects together with eight-year olds; one practicing life and death scenarios in the simulator for my “other” career (anesthesiology); and one hanging out with writers, enjoying good food and actually getting some work done (this is such a fun group, I wasn’t planning on much–my 600 words made me very happy).

So that’s:
50% Volunteering
25% Career I’m Not Even Practicing Anymore But Can’t Let Go Of
20% Social, 5% Writing

My husband, on the other hand, saw me for about…an hour. Maybe less. In four days. (Family: Zilch).

I got no exercise. (Me: Zilch)

How am I doing? Predictably, I’m grumpy. Drained. Over-volunteered, to say the least. I had to skip horse-back riding with my daughter today, something that counts toward Family and Exercise, because I have a headache after spending yet another day in the classroom, volunteering.

But volunteering is a good thing, right? It’s altruistic, it’s helpful. I know, I know, and I love doing it–I love being able to spend time in my kids’ classes, and usually spending time at their school is so energizing, it’s worth it no matter how tired I get. I get lots of thanks, lots of hugs, and I get to spend time with my kids in the middle of the day. I’m lucky to be able to do it.

So why don’t I feel lucky?

It’s easy, and you can tell by this essay.

Pointless? Rambling?

Avoiding?

You bet.

I’m procrastinating.

I’ve hit the hard patch.

The hard patch in my writing, in my editing. It’s getting real, folks. It’s waking up every day, sitting at the computer, and going to work. It’s not a vacation anymore.

The thrill of going to work in my pajamas has worn off. (My real pajamas, not those funny looking blue things I wore at the hospital.)

I miss colleagues. I miss hanging out in the break room, blowing off steam. I miss GETTING PAID FOR DOING NOTHING, even if it was only those RARE five minutes when I sat down and my pager hadn’t gone off, and I had the illusion that I was earning money for sitting there with my feet up. (In reality, I was being paid to be worried, and to act at a moments’ notice, prepared to bring all my skills to bear no matter what the emergency or when it should strike. Doctors never get paid to do nothing. But sometimes, they are allowed to sit down, and those minutes were very, very nice.)

I miss getting paid 😦

I’m still passionate about my writing, about my books, about my characters. I still want to make their stories shine. I’m sitting down to edit my second novel, and I KNOW how much work it will be this time. Yes, the draft is a bit cleaner than my first novel’s was. Doesn’t matter–it’s still 60,000 words to edit, rearrange, and rewrite. (And I’m lucky, because that’s a short book.)

There’s no way I’m giving up this dream–no matter how hard it gets, I know how lucky I am to be able to work at it. I told myself every day of medical school and residency that it was a privilege to be able to work this hard, and that kept me from complaining about the physical exhaustion–many, many people would have given up a lot to be that exhausted, just for the chance to be a doctor. I had that chance, and I made the best of it while I could.

I have a chance to be a writer.

No more procrastinating.

Time to get to work, whether anyone is paying me or not.