Three Words Count

Some things need to be written by hand. Rattlesnake Wind was that way, and parts of Khir’s Honour are proving so as well. Then there’s nighttime, when I crawl into bed with a grateful sigh, rescue my zibaldone from the bedside table, and fish out a pen.

Sometimes I have plenty to record. Things I’ve thought about during the day, sometimes the weather, often I log reading and wordcount. Looking back over those entries, I see just how many days are obstacle courses. Just getting through can take all one’s finesse, skill, energy, courage, and restraint.

Conversely, I’m surprised by how often I note what’s turned out to be a pretty good day. Each time I haven’t been completely drained to transparency by the business of getting through daylight hours, it’s a gift. Maybe it’s bad that my bar for “good day” is so low, but I’ll take it.

Other things go into the zibaldone–dreams that don’t make it into the separate dream journal, memories, complaints, passages from books read during the day, words I want to look up, quotations I’m not sure of the provenance of, lists of things to remember, reminders to pick up this or that, political musings.

And yet, there come those days when I uncap the pen, stare at the page and the date, and finally write: Tired. No entry. I log the usual three-card tarot spread, think about it for a while, and close the journal. I rescue the bedside book from the pile I keep meaning to stack neatly, sigh, and read because I can’t sleep without doing so. Eventually the meds kick in, the light turns off, and I’m ready for night’s restorative journey.

Yes, handwriting is good. Wordcount is good. But even those three words–tired, no entry–count. They keep me in the habit of distilling each day into the journals, old ones ranged neatly on a shelf in my office because I no longer have to hide them.

Certain days might be a slog to get through. But even those three small words count, and keep me on the right track. Don’t ever discount small, incremental actions. They can keep you alive through the secret hollows of the night, when otherwise your grip might slip.

photo by:

A Gentle Day

Lock, Rain Drop, After Rain, Drops
© | Dreamstime Stock Photos
I woke up with a scratchy throat, fever-sweat, a persistent cough, and the frustrating knowledge that going for a run would just tip my body over into full-blown Yes, Congrats, You Have A Cold.

I’m on Day 4 of an expressive writing cycle. In a nutshell:

  • Day 1: Write for twenty minutes about a traumatic incident.
  • Day 2: Write for another twenty minutes about it, since you’ve had time to process.
  • Day 3: Write about it from another viewpoint–not your attacker’s or abuser’s, natch, they don’t deserve it. But perhaps in third person, or as your younger self, or as an older self.
  • Day 4: Write the story you want to take forward about the incident.

Of course, that’s the idea I gained of the process listening (while knitting) an episode of the Like Mind, Like Body podcast. I am no doubt be missing some refinements, nuances, and/or key points. However, it being something about writing, I dove right in.

That may have been a mistake, since the #MeToo thing hit as well. Reminders are everywhere lately. I know it’s because harassment and abuse is endemic, and I do not choose to speak openly about many of my own experiences for a variety of reasons. This leaves me feeling somewhat voiceless–a strange and vanishing experience for a writer.

This evening I get to write the story I want to take forward. So far, though, my overwhelming feeling has been gladness that I went to therapy. The EMDR in a safe therapeutic environment, in particular, had a marked effect. I’m sure I would have had nightmares the past few nights if not for the (blessed) desensitization I gained from that.

So, body and mind have been under somewhat of a strain, between finishing the zero of Season 3, a couple professional setbacks, revisions on a stressful project, the murderous dumpster fire of the current administration, reminders of past trauma, and the pressure of not being able to share details of that trauma with certain people I could normally expect support from. Add the weather change and my running mileage increasing, and the auld corpus that carries me about (largely uncomplaining, it must be said) needs some care and cosseting. Hydration, rest, and some soothing things are all called for.

Be gentle with yourselves today, my friends. Especially if you, like me, are unable to speak openly about some things. It does not make your experience any less valid. If it helps, I am with you.

Over and out.

Monday, Running

It’s been a while since I talked about running here, other than just noting mileage. Like any practice, it changes over time. When I go back and look at old posts about running, it’s both amusing and terrifying. I pushed myself pretty hard, initially. Of course, you guys know I have two speeds, and two only: full ahead and complete collapse.

This is perhaps not healthy, but oh well. Here’s a list of things about running, to start off this autumnal week.

Runkeeper. I used to log my mileage in paper running diaries like this one. Shifting to outside running with a smartphone drew me away and towards apps, and I tried a couple before settling on Runkeeper. One of the most recent updates included graduated training plans, which was a particular boon to me. When the infrastructure goes down, I’ll probably have to return to analog logging (try saying that a few times fast) but honestly, by then there will be so many other problems I won’t have time to miss my phone.

Shoes. I’m funny about my feet. I can’t stand to have anyone touch them, and I obsess over the fit and feel of my hooves with the fierceness of anyone who’s ever strapped on a pair of pointe shoes. Every brand of running shoes has slightly different sizing, and even in a single brand yearly designs can change to the point of unusability. The quest for running shoes is eternal. Shop for them late in the day when your feet are swollen, and don’t overlook your socks. It only takes one session without padded socks to rub right through foot-skin and bench you for days. Once you find a brand/size that fits, buy two pairs, and alternate wearing them. This gives the shoe interiors time to dry out and bounce back after each session, and lengthens the life of the cushioning.

Pants. It is a fact universally known that once you find a good pair of running pants, they will be discontinued, and this shall be true lo unto the breaking of the world or at least the demise of capitalism. I don’t like running shorts, so even in the dead heat of summer I’ll be out in full-length togs–your preferences will no doubt vary. Buy cheap until you know what you like–there’s not much as awful as investing in expensive gear that chafes in all the wrong spots. I loved a particular kind of Prana pants until they went out of stock, and I’ve had good luck with Title Nine bottoms. Once you start reliably breaking 5km, it’s time to invest in good pants. Especially if you’re chubby like me, which brings us to a related issue…

Chafing. There’s just no way around it. A lot of people swear by paper-backed medical tape; I manage to avoid a lot of blisters with really tough pant material and padded socks. When you’re buying running pants, look at the inside of the thighs. Rubbing there can get particularly painful, and when pants wear out there, well, sewing thigh-patches is not how I want to spend a Saturday morning. (YMMV.) Once you’ve got a raw spot, the problem becomes ameliorating discomfort and keeping it protected enough to heal. I like cocoanut oil for mild rawness, but when I’ve pushed myself and worn away more layers of skin, Aquaphor is my go-to. I’ve found that flexible fabric sticking-plasters stand up the best to repeated rubbing. Again, find what works for you.

Mental Tricks. “Eh, I’ll just run for twenty minutes, and if I REALLY feel like stopping, then I can.” Or, “It’s going to feel so good when I finally hit my goal…and stop.” And the ever-popular, “[X fictional character] wouldn’t stop now, so I won’t.” Figuring out how to game yourself is probably the most useful life skill possible, right after learning how to not give very many fucks about random internet opinions.

Safety. It can be something as simple as taping one earbud to your jacket while you wear the other–that way you can listen to music and still be aware of your surroundings. I run to be alone, despite knowing that I’m safer in a group. Nevertheless, if something happens to you while running, you are not to blame. The onus is on the asshole driver who wasn’t watching where they were going, or the asshole attacker/harasser who thinks they’re entitled to your attention/body/whatever. Take appropriate cautions, and know that you’re not responsible for all the jackasses in the world.

Tiny Increments. When I first started, I couldn’t even run for thirty seconds without my heart feeling like it was going to explode. I’ve had injuries, and had to take weeks off at a time. Playing the long game, in running as well as writing, is all about increments. Two hundred words on a bad writing day is still two hundred more than you had before, and being able to run for ninety seconds was more that you had before. Walk-run-walk intervals are okay, and if you never graduate past them, you’re still a runner. If you need someone to validate that you can do it, that you’re a runner, I’m validating. Small, tiny, concrete gains build on each other, and one day you might find yourself running for some ungodly length of time, finishing an ungodly number of kilometers or miles, and thinking, wow, that wasn’t so bad. That, my friends, is a fucking great feeling, and one I love to share.

I’m off for a run. See you around.

photo by: fabbio

Doubt Merely Looms

Barn Owl
© Donfink | Dreamstime Stock Photos
I’m not sure who I’d be if I stopped writing (other than a corpse), but I wonder sometimes if it would stop the periodic bouts of crippling self-doubt.

I’m not talking the lo-fi “maybe I should be a plumber instead,” or even the grinding envy when you read something achingly brilliant someone else has written. No, those are all normal, and well within tolerances. I’m not talking ennui, or procrastination, or even garden variety low self-worth.

I’m talking about a bleak black hole that rivals clinical depression in its will-sapping, crushing, even-just-breathing-is-an-effort numbness. I differentiate between the two because meds beat back the depression and hold the anxiety at bay, but do shit-all for the doubt.

No, I’m not there yet, but it’s close. Some days I feel it hovering. I’m sure the current on-fire state of the world isn’t helping. Empathy is critical to writing, but it can turn into a handicap really quickly.

The bigger thing is, of course, I finished a book that was huge, complex, better than anything I’d ever done before…and it’s having a difficult, tortuous slog through the publication process. It’s the kind of experience that, if I were a newbie writer, might put me off publishing altogether. It’s like being stabbed repeatedly, pulling the knife out only to have another go in, slow or fast, doesn’t matter. A perfect storm of “whatever can go wrong, will” has crashed into my life, and upended a lot of plans.

I had meant to get some more of the Angelov Wolves written, especially Misha’s book, which I really like. Unfortunately, limited bandwidth means I’m on still on the zero of Roadtrip Z’s third season, eking out only a few words each day, pushing against an elastic, resisting barrier. It’s all I can do to keep going with the serial, and I keep glancing up at the master to-do list and feeling like crying. I have taken to closing the office door, just so I can sit and stare, the engines of story working right below conscious thought, grinding slow but exceeding fine.

The only way out is through, I guess. Punching and jabbing and fending off the hovering black hole, telling myself that even two hundred words a day is two hundred more than I had before, and that with significant portions of my emotional energy taken up with healing after the latest round of oh-my-dear-gods-you-have-got-to-be-fucking-kidding-me-they-want-WHAT it’s good enough. The dogs help, of course, since as long as their bellies are full and walkies and snuggles are handy, it’s all good. And the kids are older now, so I don’t have to put on much of a brave facade. They understand when I’ve had a shit day it’s not them, and I can bitch about work at the dinner table a little and get some commiseration.

There’s coffee, and the weather changing, too. Rain is due this Sunday, and that means productivity. At least the worst is behind me, when it comes to this particular publication process. I don’t ever have to go through that particular experience again. It’s a good thing I’ve got years of accumulated experience in this career, so something like this doesn’t put me off that aspect of it completely.

But oh, my dear sweet fluffy bonnet, I need time to recover. The more I try to push, the more damage I’ll do and the longer healing will take. And thank goodness for the meds, since my brain chemistry, already having tried to kill me several times, does not need the provocation of the Gigantic Black Hole of Doubt.

After lunch–spicy, spicy noodles, plenty of curry paste and some Bangkok Blend–I’m going to take down my master to-do list, and make a new one with only three things on it, one of which I’ve already done. Narrowing one’s scope and focusing on details can push away the looming monster.

As long as it merely looms, and doesn’t settle on the roof entirely, I can get through. All this stubbornness has to be good for something. Also, Odd trundles has just settled to lick at my ankles, which means it’s time to get up and make that lunch.

Over and (damply) out.

Protecting Your Work, Part II

I’m a sucker for a good bodyguard story. I pop those narratives like candy, they hit all my kinks. There’s something seductive about the idea of being protected, of someone caring enough to want to keep you safe. I can, black-hearted and stone-faced bitch that I am, be brought to soppy tears by a good peril-bodyguard-romance.

Unfortunately, I live in the real world, and I learned long ago that there’s no such thing as a bodyguard, really. There is nobody waiting around to save me. In the end–all the way down the line, really–I’ve got to take care of myself.

Don’t ever wait for someone else to protect you and your writing. You have to be your own goddamn bodyguard, babe, and look out for your work as well. How? Here’s a few ways.

* Admit that the world does not want you to write. There’s always going to be something you can procrastinate with. There’s always going to be life getting in the way. The world is not built for our comfort, my friends. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and you can spend a lot of time bemoaning it. Don’t. That time is better spent giving the world the finger by actually getting some writing done. Go ahead and be mad about the unfairness of it all, as long as that anger energy is spent on actually writing.

* Prioritize. Confession: I’d rather be watching a K-drama and eating chocolate than writing this blog post. I’d rather do zero drafts than revise, I’d rather pitch a fit about how nobody understands my geeeeenyus than admit an edit letter’s right. It doesn’t matter. Writing this blog post, revising, and swallowing the harsh bits of an edit letter are priorities today. Set aside five minutes or so every week–I suggest on a Monday–to just think about your priorities. You’ve got five minutes, set a timer and just…think about it.

My children? Priority. My mortgage? Priority. Working rather than faffing about on YouTube? Priority. I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever decompress, but take a week or so and log your time. If you’re spending hours doing things that don’t advance your (small OR large) goals, it’s time to rethink.

* Put the inner asshole to work FOR you. There’s a long passage in IT where Stephen King, via Ritchie Tozier, talks about grabbing the wild internal asshole who’s fucking up your life and putting him to plow. “He works like a demon once you get him in the traces,” is, I think, how King put it. Example: I spent most of my young life as an adrenaline junkie. That’s hard on your body and your life, so I pour that addiction into my work (combat scenes, anyone?) and running. I get the same kick, but I’m not using unsafe behavior to get it.

Figure out who your inner bitch is, and get to know her. Not only will she pull the plow fast and far once you figure out who she is and where to point her, but you can also use her for perhaps the most important thing of all, which is…

* Practice saying no. Saying “yes” isn’t a bad thing. What’s damaging, though, is the “uhhh, I really don’t want to, but emotional blackmail…so I guess I will.” Saying no to protect yourself is hard, hard, hard. Do yourself a favor and start with little things. Sugar in my coffee? No, thanks. Do I like *band of the moment*? No, I really don’t. Work up to the big “no”–no, I can’t kill myself turning around those copyedits in three days, no, I won’t respond to this fan who thinks he’s my soulmate, no, I won’t answer the door while I’m working. Practice letting your “no” be enough. If you need help or guidance on how to do this, I suggest reading some Captain Awkward, who is sixty different flavors of amazing, gives great life advice, and is hella clear and easy to follow on creating boundaries.

Your “no” can be a weapon, and it can be a gift you give yourself. Don’t be afraid to use this marvelous gift to protect your writing time.

* Build your habit. I get a lot of flak for saying “write every day.” I understand that doesn’t work for some pro writers and some pros have other views. That’s okay. You’re here on my site reading my advice, and my advice is: write every goddamn day. Set a kitchen timer for five minutes and write. Set it for ten and write. Do it every damn day.

Why? Because getting into that habit will help you prioritize writing. Carving out a little bit of time, no matter how small, to do something every. damn. day. sends the signal that you’re serious about it. It’s also a way to game yourself into producing words. Often–like, 95% of the time–the timer will ring but you won’t stop, because the pump has been primed and you can write for a little longer, a little longer. And before you know it, you’ve horked up a chunk of text.

You can fix ugly writing. It’s much harder to fix a blank page.

* Recognize toxicity. We all know how I feel about writing groups. There are going to be people who don’t like you writing, either because it takes your attention away from them or because they fear what you’re going to say, or–you know, who the hell cares why they don’t want you to write? Fuck them. Look out for toxic people–those who undercut your confidence, make you feel like you’re unlovable or hard to like, who always seem to have a crisis while you’re in the middle of a project. Now, there are genuine Life Crises that arise while you’re writing, and those deserve to be priorities. But be watchful for emotional blackmail and the people who do not want you to write, or worse, want to vampirize your writing energy for their own purposes.

I don’t speak about it often, but I lost a few people I thought were my friends when I finally got published. My achievement felt threatening to them, and the emotional blackmail rose to epic proportions. It was so bad I didn’t trust my own perceptions until my husband at the time (there was a reason I married him) validated them, and supported me in cutting those people out of my life. Had he not, it would have taken me a lot longer to activate my inner bitch and let those people go, and I’m grateful for it. I’m even grateful for the lesson in how to spot people who only like you when your dreams are out of reach. Life is too short for that crap.

* List, list, list. I love making lists. A master to-do list for overarching projects, daily lists to help me with the bite-size stepping stones to those projects, grocery lists. If you get overwhelmed by lists, you can always redo them. A list isn’t set in stone, YOU are the smart monkey with thumbs who made it.

Every time you update a list, put one thing on it you’ve already done, so you can get the dopamine hit of crossing it off. Set aside one day a month (or week, if that’s your jam) to update your master list, and feel good about every damn thing you’ve crossed off EVER, not just on the current lists. Lists are powerful. There’s a reason we’ve been making them ever since cuneiform.

* Admit your worth. One of the most effective ways to guard your tender inner self and your work is to admit you’re worth it. If you’re reading this and have any suspicion that you may not be, in fact, worth it, let me put that to rest right now in the strongest possible way. YOU ARE FUCKING WORTH IT, TAKE IT FROM ME, I AM TELLING YOU RIGHT NOW. Read it as many times as you need to, my friend.

The world may not care, but it really does need your writing. It needs you healthy and producing, even though it may not seem like it. Other human beings who need stories need you to fight to take care of yourself, even though the whole universe is seemingly set up otherwise. You are the only person in the world who can tell the stories lining up at your skull-door, that’s why they chose you. You are also the only person who can take care of those story-babies, who can make your writing time a priority, who can liberate your inner bodyguard bitch and make her work for you.

So. We’ve gone over burnout, and how to bodyguard yourself. Let’s do a small experiment: I’d like you, my dear Reader, to hop on down to the comments and give one concrete way you can protect yourself this week.

I look forward to hearing it.

Protecting Your Work, Part I

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “protecting the work.”

I ran across the concept years ago, in this essay by Jennifer Crusie. Much like my beloved writing partner’s “it makes me tired,” it’s a phrase I absorbed and had to spend a long time learning to apply.

I’m slow, yes, but I can be taught. Just ask said writing partner.

I ran up against a wall last week. A high creative spike collided with some…unfortunate news. The energy I’d been using to create a new world from scratch evaporated into Dealing With Bullshit, and I ended up drained to transparency, my nerves raw exposed sparking wires and my fists aching for the heavy bag I still haven’t had the time to hang up. (Even though we’ve been in this house for *mumblemumble* years now.) I knew the signs–I’d hit burnout, and in a big way. Self-care was called for, so I took the weekend off, read a few books, hung out with the kids, brushed the dogs, did housework, and only wrote 200 words each day. *sigh*

What do you do when burnout is a real and looming problem? Here’s a few strategies.

* Admit there’s a problem. It sounds stupid-simple, right? I always think of my therapist introducing me to the transtheoretical model of change–specifically, the precontemplation part, where you begin to think about thinking about changing. A possibility one does not admit is a possibility lying fallow. Admitting to yourself that your work has value, your energy is finite, and you are worth conserving some of said energy to spend on what you want and like doesn’t sound like a big deal, but without it there’s a snowball’s chance in a forest fire you’ll be able to protect yourself. Protecting yourself is part of protecting your work.

* Small wins. I can tell when I have enough energy, because I can look at the master to-do list taped above my desktop and feel excited instead of crushed under a heavy load of pointlessness. When the latter happens, I flip the list so I can’t see it and say out loud, “I need a win.” Which is my verbal signal to start looking for something easy and quick that I can feel good about. Like setting a kitchen timer for five minutes and writing. When the timer rings, I feel good because I did at least that. Or I do three pushups–just three. That’s a small win. There are a couple games I keep on easy mode for when I need the dopamine jolt of a quick victory. Cooking an egg. Pulling a few weeds. The whole point is to take five minutes and do something that gives you a tangible “win,” no matter how small. Stack a few of those little wins together, and somehow the rest of the day’s work doesn’t feel as daunting.

* Retract. I call this one “going into my cave.” There is absolutely no shame in curling up under a blanket for a little while. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your own creative process requires you to put an edit letter in a drawer for a week before getting to work on it. You are not required to be on social media when you don’t want to deal with harassment, or when you’re tired, or when you just plain don’t want to be there. Give yourself concrete and definite withdrawal time; build it into your schedule just as you build in commute time for work or appointments. Note: if you’re worried about becoming isolated, that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax, which is why I say “definite time.” You can always add a few minutes/hours to a scheduled retraction, or decide to re-engage with the world early if you’re feeling super good.

* Clean. Or don’t clean. Housework (or yard work, or any other small chores involved with living) can be therapy. It can also be procrastination, or a “not-good-enough” stick to beat yourself with. Sundays are generally full-family “cleaning days” here at Chez Saintcrow, with the kids and I doing several 20/10s to make our living space reasonable for the next week. I love the 20/10s so much–it’s a version of giving myself a small win. When I’ve finished a zero draft and the flywheel inside my head is trying to slow down, cleaning gives me enough moving around and tangible progress to provide a little relief. Sometimes, when stuck in a scene, I’ll wash dishes or fold laundry until it resolves itself. Chores can be a help to creativity. On the other hand, they can be total procrastination, or you can get overwhelmed and slide down a long slope of “I should be tidier” straight into “fucking depressed because my living space isn’t surgically neat.” In that case, you can use a 20/10 to break out of that despondency and show yourself tangible progress, or you can repeat after me: “Can I get to the exit if there’s a fire? Yes? Good, I’m not going to worry about that right now.” Give yourself permission not to feel like crap over housework.

* Bitch. I’m serious. If you have a trusted friend you can bitch to, great. Set aside some time for a rant session. (Make sure you’re not simply unloading on your poor friend. Have definite time limits for the session, and negotiate beforehand so your friend knows they don’t have to fix it, just listen.) If you don’t have that trusted friend, or don’t want to “bother” them, set a pillow in a chair and rant out loud to it for a specific amount of time. DON’T rant on the internet, anonymously or not–on that route lies shit-stirring, don’t give jerkwads a chance to bite you. DON’T yell at your pets, kids, or houseplants. I like the pillow-in-the-chair because it’s difficult for me to anthropomorphize a pillow. (I tried ranting at a sockmonkey once, and ended up apologizing to it for hurting his feelings.) Don’t ever underestimate the power of a good bitch session for letting off internal pressure and freeing up a ton of energy that can go into your work once you’ve finished complaining. Sometimes, trembling on the edge of burnout, I’ve spent as much as twenty minutes ranting, getting as petty and vicious as I want to be…and, at the end of the session, I feel so much better it’s not even funny, and I go back to work with a tranquil smile.

Dealing effectively with burnout is only part of protecting your work. Tomorrow, I’m going to write about another part–being your own bodyguard.

Simply a Screen

My personal readings tend to be bifurcated. I usually blame it on being a Gemini, or having the Chariot as a patron card. At least two great beasts drive me at any particular time, and the trick is to hold the reins correctly and get everyone moving in the same direction.

You can see that here–the Knight going one way, the Queen facing another, and the result in the final card is a bit of a mess. It’s a warning for me to shorten some reins, loosen others, and just generally attend to and be conscious of where the fuck I’m heading.

This brings up something else I used to tell students. The divinatory prop you use is a screen for the precognitive faculty to project upon. Look at the cards and tell yourself a story about the pictures. It’s really that simple. The complex part is being honest about the question you’re asking, and logging your readings so you can see patterns, develop (or excavate) your own symbol-language, and build a relationship with your chosen divinatory method.

You could also say there’s no such thing as a precognitive faculty, and that you’re basically cold-reading for yourself, or using a psychological trick in order to gain self-knowledge. It really doesn’t matter one way or the other as long as it’s useful. Treating it as a faculty and behaving as if it is such works for me. I am interested in results, my particular manner of getting them may or may not change over time, depending on efficacy.