So it’s like this: one day in April, 2017, I was abducted by aliens and then…
No. That’s not it.
Let’s see. Once upon a time, there was a summer, and that summer morphed into a tree, and the tree…
Yeah, that’s not it either.
Well, if you follow me over on Noon and Wilder, you’ll know the last year and a half have been full of upheaval, chaos, and change.
But I have good news, Dear Reader. Yesterday, while swimming, I got a new story idea. It wasn’t a big story idea, and it wasn’t related to anything we’ve already written, but it was a little snippet of a possibility.
And that, Dear Reader, hasn’t happened in a long, long time.
Stress does that to a person.
And that brings me to my post today. I am in the process of learning how to do several new things, including book uploads (which isn’t entirely new to me, but I’m learning to be more efficient with it) and website design. The publishing landscape decided to skitter off under the furniture when I wasn’t looking and, frankly, it wouldn’t have made a difference if I was – change is inevitable.
I’m most grateful for learning to incorporate meditation in my daily round. I’ve meditated all my life, but I found an app that has really helped me on a regular basis, called Calm.
And I wish that I could give you some pearls of wisdom, something like “how to keep going in the face of really triggery events and massive national trauma playing out daily on the news.” But I don’t have any. All I can say is this: remember to unplug and spend time breathing real air. Move your body and get enough sleep. Eat clean and journal daily. And even with all of that, stress happens and it’s real.
Fallow times happen, Dear Reader, they happen to all of us. And me, I feel like I’m digging up out of a really deep, fertile field and all I have in my hands is rich loam and some really fat worms.
But swimming, man. I got an idea for a story. And I’m listening. With all my ears, I’m listening, Universe.
What do you want to study? Maybe you just want to read the Great Books, or the history of Ireland, or about the conflict going on in the Middle East. Other than asking the internet and getting some pithy sound bytes, but no real information, how do you go about learning about these subjects?
Creating a bibliography is a skill. Knowing what to include, and what not to include, takes practice. Doing so can teach you a lot about a subject even before you’ve read all the books available to you.
How to Create a Reading List
Start with what’s available. Go to the internet and look up the syllabi for courses that cover the subject you’re studying. Use them as a starting point, because the professor includes the books that they think are the best ones for the subject.
Ask your reference librarian to help you put together a good list. They’ll love you for it – it’s way more interesting than telling people how to get to the bathroom. Trust me.
When you find a good book, see what they include in their list of references. Go check those out and see what you think.
Write notes on what you’re reading. Talk to yourself. The best way to learn from books is to engage with them. Respect your own opinions.
Talk to others who are interested in the same subject. See what books and resources they like.
What about you, Dear Reader? What subjects make you curious?
So let’s say you’ve decided to become a student again. You want to learn new things, develop new skills, maybe have some fun. Now what?
Well, first thing is to learn to be a novice again. Let yourself be bad at something, in order to get better. Studying is a challenge, too. Spend time with the material. Take notes. Let yourself have the luxury of working at it.
Once you have all that down, what next? Where do you find classes for adults?
Have you wanted to learn to develop websites? Make better photographs? Do video production? Check out their course offerings. They have affordable monthly payment options or you’d save by signing up for a full year. Those of you looking for a job in I.T., they have training for certification programs like A+.
Pro-tip: search Google for “museums” and see what pops up near you. Many museums offer free days for locals, or you can get a pass at your local library. Try asking your local librarian for suggestions. You never know what you might find.
Community or City College
In California, they’re called community college. Here in Chicago, it’s City Colleges of Chicago. Whatever you call them, these institutions bridge the gap from high school to a four year university. They also have courses that train students for disciplines like nursing or supply chain management. You can also learn stuff you didn’t learn in high school or university. Miss an opportunity to study calculus? Want to try literature? Learn a new language?
Park Districts and Adult Centers
Check out your local park center and adult community centers. You can learn all sorts of things from woodworking to jewelry. These classes tend to be very reasonably priced, too.
What about you, Dear Reader? What are your favorite educational tips?
I’ve taken sabbaticals a couple times in my life. While it’s scary to buck the accepted norm, doing so can teach you a lot about yourself and why you’re on this planet.
The first time, I was twenty-five. I decided to make a solo climb on Mount Lassen, in Northern California. I got nearly to the peak and sat down to take a break. Looking south over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I realized something: if I followed what my parents wanted me to do, I’d end up where they were – and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want a predictable, safe, corporate life.
I wanted to be a writer.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was very young. Unfortunately, writing isn’t one of those career choices that overjoy parents, particularly when their priority is to have the kind of offspring that they can brag about. My mother died ashamed of my career choices, convinced that the life choices I made were going to send me down the path to failure. Fortunately for me, by the time she told me that, I knew in my bones that being a writer was the right choice for me.
But to get there, I had to walk through fire. At twenty-five, I ran my own department at a large corporation in Silicon Valley. When I gave notice to quit, the Vice President – General Manager of one of the three main business units called me into his office. He offered me the assignment I’d busted my ass to earn: Market Research Analyst in a team that had offices worldwide – including Russia, which directly related to my bachelors’ degree in Russian.
I turned him down.
Instead, I moved north to the town of Mount Shasta. We lived on fifty acres of forested land, seven miles out of the tiny town named after the mountain. I worked in a local bookstore for a dragon of a boss, one of the first abusive bosses I had. The torture was worth it: I spent all my time writing or hiking. In the year that I was there, I produced over fifteen hundred pages and learned a very important lesson:
Publishers don’t knock your door down with contracts to publish your book.
I realized that my next step was to get a good day job that would support my writing passion. I moved to Las Vegas for two years, which was an awful idea. Las Vegas is not the town for me. I found Chicago. I’ve been here ever since. After working in the finance industry for almost ten years, I realized that I wanted to downshift, and took another sabbatical.
And now, I realized I have some ideas on how to make sabbaticals work. I figured I’d share with you.
Five tips for a successful sabbatical.
Be brave. Be willing to face the possibility of failure.
Lower your financial expectations. You’ll be surprised what you can live without if you try.
Learn to save. Even if you can’t take a year off today, you can start saving money so you can do that when you want to.
Shorten your timeframe. I know a year-long sabbatical sounds romantic, but sometimes we just can’t swing it due to financial realities and family commitments. If that’s the case, try swinging a weekend or two weeks’ vacation. Get a hotel or even a youth hostel and work on your writing.
Decide what your priorities are. Do you want to be successful at your corporate job, working for someone else’s dream? Or do you want to be a writer and follow your own pied piper?
What’s the purpose of education? Nowadays, increasingly, it’s to get a job. It’s more about technical training than it is about educating the mind. And yet, with the proliferation of smartphones, always-on internet connectivity, and ever expanding inflow of information sources, we need the benefits that a good education bring more than ever before.
In classical terms, to be educated meant that one knew how to think. The discipline of thinking wasn’t just something one did; it required work, application, and skill. We’ve forgotten this skill, and that’s a bad thing. It used to be that an educated person would read certain pieces, in common with other educated people, and then engage in discussion about the ideas on those pieces. While the “canon” has been attacked as being male, white, and patriarchal, the ideas contained in it are as valuable now as they were fifty or a hundred years ago. There’s nothing wrong with studying the classical canon, and then adding to it all the rich heritage of minority and women’s voices.
One thing lacking in today’s environment is the ability to hold a competing idea in one’s head long enough to understand the other person’s point of view. We’ve lost the art of discourse. It used to be that one could listen to another person’s thoughts, digest them, and then either disagree or agree once one was certain one understood them. In fact, Mortimer J. Adler argues that one cannot truly agree nor disagree until and unless one has fully comprehended what the other has had to say.
Something else I’ve noticed is that we don’t have gatekeepers for incoming information anymore. It comes at us with the velocity of a fire hose, all the time. If we’re away from our computer, it comes to our smartphone. If it doesn’t come there, it’s on the television at the gas pump, (how offensive is that?). When my grandfather was alive, you would get a large newspaper on Sundays and the day was spent relaxing and reading – long – articles. Now, news is delivered in soundbytes, and the average length of articles is 300 to 500 words – a blip when compared to articles from even just fifteen years ago.
So What Do We Do To Educate Ourselves?
There are many tools available to us. Some of them are modern, and related to the internet. Some of them are old-school, and related to how we control incoming information.
Read. A lot. Whether it’s ebooks, traditional books, or Bartleby.
Turn off the inflow. Try it for one day a week – don’t go on the internet, social media, or your smartphone. See what the real world has to offer you.
Write. Journal and get in touch with your own thoughts.
Read about other smart people. A couple awesome biographies are by Benjamin Franklin and Montaigne’s essays.
Throw a party and talk about smart stuff. Why not revive the Victorian tradition of the salon? Have cocktails, snacks, and talk about the great ideas.
What about you, Dear Reader? What do you want to learn?
It’s November, the time of the keyboards singing and the turkey tryptophaning and the avoidance of the holiday madness until after Black Friday, thankyouverymuch. It’s National Novel Writing Month, Dear Reader, and yours truly is one of the volunteer Municipal Liaisons, or MLs, for the Chicago Region. My main duty is to help host write-ins, which are big parties where magic happens. No really, that’s what they are! People gather somewhere, like a cafe or restaurant or library or park or… and they write. And have word wars. And it’s a lot of fun. One of my other duties is to exhort participants to ever greater heights of literary abandon. (Hey, man: I’m in mid-NaNo myself and my vocabulary is running full steam ahead!) So join me at our ChiWriMo blog for some thoughts on Week Two – it’s not too late! Keep going!
Ordinarily, I talk about my garden on my craft blog, Knoontime Knitting. But I learned something this summer and it clarified itself yesterday. The boxes of our lives are created as we live them, and if we don’t question them – think out of the box, if you will – then we get stuck in them. We know that.
Sometimes we get stuck in them without even knowing it. We get blocked.
I’ll answer that question, but bear with me. There’s a story here.
In my studies to find tools that work for me in terms of creativity, writing, and trauma recovery, I’ve looked at various journaling methods. Journaling has long been a tool of psychologists and artists, and many times for the same goals. Tristine Rainer has done a lot of research on the subject of autobiographic writing and she mentions a Japanese treatment that involves a lot of journaling and “light manual labor” in a rural location with lots of greenery and fresh air.
Gardens, quite literally, are in the ground, unless of course you have a container garden and create the ground yourself. (I can see the precise among you saying, “But what about air gardens?” Chill, dude. I’m makin’ a point here.) The idea of light physical or manual labor appeals to me because it’s a way to put ourselves into our bodies, and for many of us who are writers, we have a tendency toward over-intellectualization. You can’t think a plant strong. You have to give it what it needs: dirt, water, fertilizer, food, light, and a good growing environment.
Hmm. Mayhap there’s a metaphor there?
Which brings me to my point about yesterday. My coauthor, Rachel Wilder, and I are together for our autumnal retreat. We met with our Founders Circle group at the end of September for a literal mountaintop retreat (I’m not kidding, the place was on the top of a mountain – awesome), and then we came home to Chicago to do a bunch of projects, both writing and homemaking. Yesterday, we put the garden to bed.
That’s where it gets complicated. What about the rats?
I’ve been gardening here for over fifteen years. Four years ago, the City of Chicago had an abnormally warm winter, followed by another warm one. Last year was a deep cold snap, but it didn’t kill off the rats. They’ve become a serious problem on the north side and the park district has signs all over the river park about not leaving trash out to attract the rats. Unfortunately, my raised bed garden, my little, tiny corner oasis of fifty square feet (ten feet by five feet, people, we’re not talking huge) is a rat Mecca. They love it.
Now, you might ask, Noony, what do you do about rats?
This is the short, and utterly useless, “How-To” section of this post:
Call the city and tell them you have rats, so they’ll come out and bait the alley.
The city will come out and bait the alley.
The rats, apparently, laugh in the face of danger. And hide. In my raised bed.
Call the city and tell them we have rats in the raised bed.
They send a guy who is a professional rat assassin to come and assassinate my rats.
Tangential: have any of you seen The Rats of N.I.M.H.?
My rats aren’t like those rats. Jus’ sayin’.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. 6.
Last year, Year 3 of the Rat War, the dude the city sent came out in his customary bluish grey overalls. (By the way, romance novels that have pictures of sexy rat assassins on their covers, who woo passersby with their sultry charm, are LYING!) You know what his brilliant advice was?
“Whatcha gotta do is call your friends and have ’em come over. Give ’em each a shovel. Stand around the raised bed in a circle. You’ll have to have someone next door in that yard, since ya got a fence right there. Yup, have ’em climb right over the fence and stand there with a shovel.”
“What’s the shovel for?”
“Well, ya gotta getcherself some road flares. The kind you snap open and they spew out that flame stuff. Get a brick, and light the road flare. Stick the road flare down the rat hole and put a brick on it. When the rats come boiling outta the garden, you and your friends chop off their heads with the shovel.” Pause. “Oh, and watch out. ’Cause they bite.”
And that, my friends, is the wisdom of the city of Chicago’s rat assassin.
Purchase your own rat poison and put it down the rat holes; put a brick on top of it and plug up all the rat holes. I looked it up; the poison won’t affect the plants that you’re growing – like, say, tomatoes that you want to eat.
On the other hand, you can’t compost dead rats, so I’m not sure what they have to say about dead, poisoned rat carcasses rotting in one’s garden, but I digress.
Build a cage around your garden. I think this is what we’ll try next year, if we’re still living here in Chicago. I don’t have the skill to do this, but my husband does, so we’ll see.
Buy rat repellant. Don’t laugh. No, really, it gets better. They apparently make the stuff using fox or ferret piss.
I’m imagining buying a bottle of yellow liquid on the internet and having it shipped. What if it breaks, leaks, or otherwise vents its precious cargo all over my poor package carrier? I’ll never get Amazon again.
Apparently, they pelletalize the stuff. You read that right: they turn it into pellets. (Wouldn’t THAT be a fun job? “Bobby, today your project is to figure out how to take this,” pats the jar, “and turn it into inert, odorless pellets that little old ladies can use in their gardens to repel pests.” “Uh, boss? That smells like piss.” “That’s because it is, Bobby. Isn’t chemistry fun? Oh, and I’ll need it before lunch, ’cause the boss is waiting on it. His wife has a garden problem.”
So we bought some.
I read the ingredients. Mint is high on the list. It’s apparently a rat repellant. The other stuff on the list is some organic foo-foo that doesn’t actually involve a canid’s pee. So I think my landlady either got confused, or tried something less noxious than milking a ferret.
So I planted mint. A lot of it.
Then there was the garden vandalism incident.
That’s right, folks, my garden was vandalized by the basement tenant. She flipped out and hacked off all my plants, then piled all the dead stuff on the few remaining live plants. Which killed almost all of the mint but one clump, which I’ll get to in a second. But the point is, I don’t know if mint repels rats.
It certainly doesn’t repel crazypants tenants, I know THAT for sure.
I’m not really there quite yet, but getting close. This year, my coworker and I went in on a community garden and I had 200 square feet (which felt like a wealth of land next to my meager raised bed) to play with. We had a bumper crop of tomatoes, and even some Romas and beefstakes (which, if you’ve been reading me awhile, you’ll remember I don’t have luck with here due to lack of enough sun, though my cherry toms do great). We also had rabbits.
Rabbits like lettuce, chard, kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts, in case you were wondering.
They are, however, cuter than rats. And the repellants for them are much the same: predator pee.
Seriously? Who thinks this stuff up?
Next year, we’re going to plant herbs – lots of mint, since it supposedly repels rats and not neighbors; chamomile, lavender, marjoram, thyme, chives, cilantro, and a few other things I’ll think up between now and then. Also, we’ll plant flowers: some more lilies (because the crazy neighbor killed eight Lily of the Valley plants and all three of my big lilies that I don’t know the name of but I think are called star lilies), snapdragons, marigolds and calendula (which I read are actually two different plants), pansies, Johnnie-Jump-Ups, daffodils, and whatever else will grow in partial sun.
You know, a’la rat.
What about you, Dear Reader? Any rat tips?
And for those of you still with me, the point of all this is that the shrinks were right: gardening IS grounding, and it does help us get back on the page. I just blasted out this blog post, for example, and actually have some inklings on what to do next on the novel that’s stuck in the mud. (Maybe I’ll put some rats in the novel and then kill them off in various creative ways.) (Just not with shovels and road flares, KTHXBI.)
This week has been a doozie. I had two clients die, one get diagnosed with cancer, my coworker’s father-in-law in the ICU with heart failure, and JaneGate. I need a drink.
I wanted to say a bit about lying, in the wake of JaneGate. Some people have said that it’s not a big deal, that she just wanted to write behind a pseudonym. That’s not lying.
I agree. Writing behind a pseudonym is not lying.
But that’s not what Jane did.
Jane ran a highly successful, highly visible blog reviewing popular and less well-known romance books. The culture she fosters was, at times, abusive toward authors. It fostered, furthermore, an atmosphere of fear about speaking up about that negativity, for fear that one would become its target – much like, as has been pointed out, so-called “mean girls” behave in high school. Or, let’s face it, it’s how bullies behave.
I agree. While I admire some of the reviewers that reviewed books for her, I kept away, for two reasons. One, once I crossed the line from voracious reader to author, I felt it’s no longer my place to have an opinion as a reader because I’m no longer “just a reader.” Also, I don’t wish to sling mud on colleagues. Writing is hard enough without people throwing rocks for doing it badly, making mistakes, or behaving in ways that, in hindsight, one might have preferred not to have done. Second, I do not condone the culture of “the writer must have a thick skin and let things roll off their back.” This attitude is damaging and a cover for abuse that, were it any other pursuit, would be nipped in the bud.
Then, this past week, we find out, from Jane herself, that she is not simply a reader. She is, in fact, a writer. Not only a writer, but an author, one that readers have liked so much as to transport her to bestseller status. She has been traditionally published and self-published. She has insinuated herself into communities that, had it been known her other identity as a reviewer, she would not have been welcome.
That is, Dear Reader, a lie.
Worse, colleagues of mine have vouched for her in those private communities, granting her access that otherwise she would not have had. It’s my belief, as well, that she used her connections and network to further her career. I don’t have direct evidence of that but anticipate that will be shown to be the case in the coming weeks. But even if there isn’t a direct A to B connection, it’s true that we all use our networks in life. That is, frankly, what they’re there for.
But lying to further oneself, to develop one’s network, is still a lie.
And for that, I am deeply, deeply troubled. This is not merely a case of an author writing, as I do, under a pseudonym. This is a case of someone knowingly, and with the collusion of her friends, trading on relationships for personal gain.
Today, I am ashamed to be part of that community. I am ashamed of that community. I am, more than ever, determined to bring a more positive light into the world of writing, to show how we can, together, build ourselves up and tell our stories. Openly, authentically, and without those lies that have so damaged us.
This community has been irrevocably changed. Lines have been crossed, alliances damaged, and trust destroyed.
And that, Dear Reader, is the biggest casualty. Trust is so fragile, and so easy to destroy in an instant. Monday, it wasn’t JaneGate. Saturday, it’s after JaneGate and, like the HaleStorm before it and Lord knows what will come after, we, none of us, will be the same.
I get asked, “Why do you do all that?” The person asking is usually looking at my crafts or my writing when they ask the question, and I answer with some variant of, “This is my passion and I make time for it.”
What I really want to ask is, “Why aren’t you?”
The boxes of life that Richard Nelson Bolles talks about in his book The Three Boxes of Life and How to Get Out of Them are arbitrary. We create them, collectively, and we accept them, individually. But when we take a step back and stop to reconsider where we’re headed, we can get out of them.
Stephen Covey said once that you fight and claw your way up the ladder of success, only to find the ladder is on the wrong wall. I use that anecdote liberally in my essays and when I teach and am continually puzzled that its message doesn’t fill others with the same dread it fills me. Why wouldn’t we care that we are wasting the days given to us? Why wouldn’t we make changes?
Because we feel disempowered and blocked, not to put too fine a point on it. We don’t do all that, because we believe we can’t do all that – we don’t have the time, the talent, or the permission.
This breaks my heart.
So what I’m really saying in these Sunday essays is this: take up your pen, Dear Reader, or the paint brush, tap shoes, clay, or whatever is in your heart to do, and do it.
Beginning has grace and power in it. Goethe was right.
“Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it.”
I love the title of Julia Cameron’s second book in her acclaimed Artist’s Way trilogy, Walking In This World.
When I first did the material in the book, I mis-read the title as Walking In The World, a telling distinction. I don’t easily inhabit my body or this plane, having evolved a very deep intellectual capacity as a way of avoiding abuse when I was a child. I felt that my misunderstanding of the title signaled this separation – that, to me, the world is not concrete and one but ethereal and infinite. While it makes me an effective writer, because I have a well-developed imagination, it’s crap for helping me do stuff like, oh, laundry and balancing my checkbook.
As I take an opportunity to look back on the week and reflect, this week of walking in this world has been filled with a lot of abundance and good things. Rachel and I finished Sealed by Magic and sent it off to our editor for consideration; we finished the first and second rounds of edits on Emerald Keep; we made a deal for the third book of the Chicagoland Shifters which will come out this summer; and we started work on the keepsakes we will feature in the blog book tour for Emerald Keep.
It’s becoming a normal experience for me to have more difficulty the more positive things occur. I’m much better in times of crisis, because they are so familiar to me. I’m told this is a function of PTSD and of abuse survivors, because we become so accustomed to the chaos and unpleasantness that we don’t know what to do when it’s subsided. So my goal is to become so good at enjoying when things are going well that I make that a habit, instead. Sounds much more positive to me, doesn’t it to you?
I will say this to those of you who have suffered abuse at others’ hands: there is hope. Get help, be gentle, and write. Trust your own memories and not those you are told to have. You can find your own voice, and you can heal. It will take time and it will be challenging. But you can do it.