My Own Gratitude Blog

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of the clothes.

                                                  – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

 

Earlier this week, I read an interesting post on Facebook, entitled “Give Me Gratitude or Give Me Debt.” It’s from Glennon Doyle Melton’s blog Momastery. I even borrowed the above epigraph from this post because it really struck a chord with me.

Although I recommend you read Melton’s original post, I can boil it down to this: one of her posts included a picture of herself in her kitchen. While Melton thought little of this, her readers began messaging her with tips and advice on updating her kitchen. Melton’s response? An outpouring of gratitude for her shamelessly outdated kitchen and all the wonders it provides for her family.

Melton’s “Gratitude” blog was a great reminder. I don’t think often enough about how grateful I should be for what I have. Sometimes it’s all too easy to get caught up in wanting to “have” because someone else already does. It’s easy to fall into the entitlement mentality.

Just last week, for instance, I wrote about how happy I was that we finally have a lawn guy. Wow, how fortunate are we? We can afford to pay someone else to make our lawn look nice. What kind of a luxury is that? And I grumble about the house’s interior, too, and get onto my kids when their toys are all over the place, but I have to remember a time, not too long ago, when we didn’t have a house to mess up or a big lawn to mow.

Years ago, my husband and I got caught up in the idea that home ownership was the end-all-be-all. We simply wouldn’t be anyone if we remained renters. Well, maybe I shouldn’t drag Thomas into this, but I know that I certainly felt that way. When we were first married, we lived in a tiny apartment. It was literally smaller than my bedroom where I grew up (although, admittedly, that bedroom was huge). We tried to entertain family for a surprise birthday party for my mom and then for Christmas, and to say that it was tight would be a gross understatement. Sure, we were happy and have some great memories of our first place together, but our time there was tainted with the idea that we wanted more.

Why? Why couldn’t we just enjoy what we had and stay? But no. We wanted that fabled “starter” home. Too bad we bought in 2006. On the budget of a couple 23-year-olds, we could either afford a shabby house on a not-so-great side of town, or we could afford a condo in a developing neighborhood at pre-construction prices. We were sold on the idea that lots of shops were coming in. Thomas and I loved to walk everywhere, and we envisioned ourselves walking to the Starbucks next door whenever the mood struck.

Except that the housing market crash happened, and no Starbucks was ever built. The condo that we thought we would sell for a great profit after three years – max – became our home for almost seven years. We had two babies there, and they shared the same bedroom. If you’d told us that in 2006, we would have turned and run. We would have let them keep our $4000 deposit. But we didn’t know, and so we made the best we could out of it.

You know what? Despite complaining about the condo (our running joke was that every time Thomas met someone he hadn’t seen in a while, he’d say, “Want to buy a condo?”), I reminded myself from time to time that we did have a roof over our heads. We did have a huge closet. We never had to worry about taking care of the lawn or the roof or the paint job. We were on the ground floor and surrounded by trees, so our electricity bill was super low.

But we also had some of our bedroom furniture in the dining room because it wouldn’t fit in our room. Our exercise bike was right there in the living room. If you weren’t careful when you came in at night, you’d run right over my sons’ Little Tikes workbench. The carpet had spots in it when we moved in – and we were the first people to live there. That only became more pronounced with a cat and two kids.

About a year-and-a-half ago, we finally left the condo years behind us. One thing we knew for sure: we didn’t want to get stuck again, so we found a rental house, knowing that if it was horrible, we could get out at any time.

So we now have a huge lawn, where the kids can play. We have a garage, where we can store things like the exercise bike and all the stuff we kept in storage – and even a car. We have a bedroom for each kid. Our furniture is all where it belongs.

We also have a tile floor that’s awful in different ways than our old, spotty carpet. We only have one tree, and it doesn’t provide any shade for the house, so the A/C runs constantly in the summer. Plus no ceiling fan in our room. The kids have fans – why can’t we? The house is older, so our kitchen (like Melton’s) is outdated. Our fridge is smaller and doesn’t have an ice maker. I mean, I have to fill ice trays and put them in the freezer myself – we’re talking prehistoric, here.

My lovely fridge.

My lovely fridge.

But you know what? I kind of like our fridge. It has pictures of our family all over it. It displays my six-year-old’s latest artwork. It’s covered in magnetic letters that my two-year-old identifies every time he gets a Gogurt.

Our grass is thick and green, even in winter, and we’ve had two beautiful hawks visit our backyard, plus dozens of smaller birds, squirrels, and even a little snake that keeps us rodent-free. Wildlife is not something my kids got to enjoy at the condo. And the lizards – oh my gosh, you’d think that my cat was in heaven. She sits by the sliding glass door and tracks them all day long.

Although there were times that I thought I would somehow be fulfilled if we got a bigger place – and I do appreciate that aspect of where we live now – it took moving out to appreciate the positive attributes of each of our previous homes. Just because we lived in a little condo through most of our 20s doesn’t mean our 20s were somehow lesser because of it.

As I look around my house, much as Melton looked around her kitchen, I see that we not only have enough, but we have more than enough to live and to thrive. Sure, I still dream about another house. Nothing specific, just bigger than what we have now – but do you know why? Not because I want to have one of those HGTV dream kitchens or an in-house theatre or any of that. I would love a bigger kitchen, where we can cook and bake without tripping over each other. And an extra bedroom or two would be nice, so we can host our out-of-town family. And bookshelves, of course. I would love to have a place for our books, where someone can see all the titles and say, “This is a great book!” or “Can I borrow this one?”

Biltmore Estate

We do NOT live here 🙂 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But you know what? Say that dream home never happens. Say that we are “stuck” here for seven, ten, twenty years…

Although not ideal, if this is the last place I live, I don’t think I’m going to go to my grave feeling cheated. Because it’s not a new fridge or a bonus room that will make me happy at the end of the day. I hope that I’ll be able to look back on my life and remember the relationships and the silliness and the joy rather than the headaches and stress that come with always trying to upgrade, to keep up, to become whatever it is that the commercials and TV shows would have you believe gives true happiness.

If I’m not happy as I am now, it’s the me that needs to change, not the accessories that come with the me.

As for Robin Williams – if I’m ever going to mention him, it might as well be this week – after getting over the initial shock, my next thought was, But he had it all. Of course, only he knew what it was like to be in his head, to feel what he felt. Depression is nothing to mess around with, and I’m speaking from experience – the terrible, postpartum kind that steals joy from moments that should be precious and forever cherished.

Of course, depression is a different thing entirely, although it certainly can come along with the feeling of never having enough, never being enough, never being fulfilled. But the point is that if a famous man, a wealthy man, a man with supposedly “everything” a person could want still didn’t have “it” (that lasting joy, that sense of being fulfilled in life), then who can? Will any of the things or ideals that we as people chase ever be more than a disappointment?

Now, before you get your panties in a wad, I’m not putting down celebrities or people who want to remodel their houses. But many of the “haves” are notoriously unhappy – along with many of the “have nots” who concentrate all their energies on attaining the lifestyle of the “haves,” thinking that’s where life can finally start. If you’re chasing something that you think you must have – be it a new car, a trendier wardrobe, a $1000 handbag, an Ivy League education, a set of initials behind your name – remember that these things do not a fulfilled person make. They are fancy dressings, so much fluff that often masks a great vacuum beneath.

If today were my last day to live, I wouldn’t die thinking, Well, I didn’t get my dream home. I never had my fifteen minutes of fame. I just wasted my life. Nor would having those things make my death easier to cope with for my husband and children. I would hate to die with the regret that I spent so much time going after things or ideals that I missed out on watching my kids be their goofy selves and cooking with my husband in our outdated kitchen.

If I wake up tomorrow, I’ll play with my kids some more, and we’ll spend some more time in the kitchen. My life is pretty simple but full, and for that I am forever grateful. The cake – the substance – has already been measured and mixed and baked to perfection.

The rest is icing – unnecessary but sweet if savored in small doses.

English: A layered pound cake, with alternatin...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

So You Want to Write a Book – Well, Now What?

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...

William Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Has this ever happened to you? You’re with a group of people – let’s say a moms’ group, with everyone exchanging tips and anecdotes – and someone says, “We could write a book.”

“We really could!” someone else chimes in.

Another mom even throws in a title: “Temper Tantrum on Aisle Four – How to Survive the Toddler Years!”

Everyone laughs, and they go about their lives and forget about it. But you linger on the thought that maybe you could write a book. Then again, the idea that you don’t know how to start – and what would make your book any more special than any other, any more worthy of the New York Times Bestseller List? – is intimidating, so your idea stays an idea and no more.

On the one hand, you might be right. Everyone does have a story (or three), and some of them aren’t worth telling (and those are the ones that seem to be repeated the most). But any time you impart a nugget of knowledge to someone else who seems to get something out of it, you feel that I-should-really-write-this tug.

Nowadays, blogs (much like this one) pick up the slack. A mom blogs about potty-training her strong-willed toddler, and other moms unite behind her or take comfort that they aren’t alone in the struggle. A man loses his job but figures out how to make a living from home – and writes a great how-to post. Someone with an incredible weight-loss story posts a menu and workout routine online to help others in the same situation. Blogs are great resources, and the topics they cover are endless.

But still, there are those for whom blogging and swapping stories around the water cooler aren’t enough. The problem is that they aren’t necessarily writers and don’t know what to do. The idea persists, won’t let them go.

Sometimes for decades.

I get all kinds of mixed reactions when people find out that I’m a writer. They want to know what I write. (“Novels? How can you write so much?”) They want to know how much freelance work I can handle. (“How do you manage it with two kids?”) They marvel that I’ve actually made an occupation out of this – you know, it’s not just a cute hobby. (“You mean you edit and write for a living?”)

And sometimes they ask me, kind of sheepishly, if I can help them with something they’ve been wanting to do for years.

One such person is a client of my parents’ business and happened to mention to my mom that she had a writing project. My mother said that I’m a writer, and the next time the woman came in, I was there. I gave her my business card and promptly forgot about it. I talk to a lot of people about my services, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to hire me.

A few weeks later, to my surprise, she called. She went into great detail about this project, one that she started over ten years ago. Her kids have been encouraging her to write a memoir because she’s led such an interesting life, but she doesn’t use computers, and the woman who helped her start it has been too busy to continue.

As I talked to this woman and learned her story, I realized that there are so many people who lead amazing lives, but some of the best details will die with them. They may not have a great command of the English language, but they have stories worth passing on. It would be a shame for this woman to never see her dream fulfilled just because she’s not a “writer.” I feel privileged to help her share her bit of history with her family.

Another opportunity arose in late May. I had just published my children’s book Hero (shameless plug – buy it here!), and Peter shared it with his kindergarten class. Afterward, one of his teachers mentioned that she has always wanted to write a book but needs help.

“Sure, let’s do it,” I said before I even knew what she wanted. Hey, I had just illustrated and published my first children’s book – I was flying high and felt like I could do anything.

Her face lit up as she described her 20-year dream. She used to take her children for bike rides around Amelia Island. They would stop at interesting trees, and she would make them create stories about how those trees came to look like that. Combining her love of nature with her interest in developing writing skills in children, she wants to create a book with photos of interesting trees and writing prompts. As with her own children, kids will “Look at this tree” and be encouraged to write a story about it.

It’s right up my alley. Although I’ve never created a book like this, I must admit that I love writing prompts. I love anything that starts with a tiny seed and blossoms into a beautiful story.

I really feel that I could give her a push – much like with a child on a bike with the training wheels removed for the first time – and watch her go, but I also understand that I’ve been in the publishing world for a while now, and it’s no longer mysterious to me. If you’re not right in the middle of it, though, you might think writing a book is unattainable.

I was there once. I’ve talked about my college fiction workshop before, and the second time I signed up, our instructor Ari pulled a group of us together (the ones who were serious about getting published) and gave us the low-down on publishing. 1) It’s a competitive market that’s difficult to break into, and 2) it’s still not guaranteed to be everything you hoped and dreamed even if you do get published. What Ari suggested was that we pull our best stories together and create our own publication. And so Fiction Fix was born. With his direction, we figured out what we were supposed to do, and more than 11 years later, Fiction Fix is going strong as an online fiction journal. We’ve grown quite a bit from that group of desperate writers who just wanted to see our stories in print; now we receive submissions from all over the world.

We were lucky in that we had someone who saw our desire to write and be read and who knew just when to push us. But for those out there with the desire but no direction, no help, no idea except THE IDEA for a story or book, the task can seem daunting. But here’s the thing: if you have a book that you want to write, the only thing in your way is your own indecision. Instead of dreaming or joking about maybe writing a book some day, you need to take action.

Indie (self-published) authors are more prevalent than ever. The internet has done many wonderful things for writers, on-demand and e-publishing being two of them. And even if you don’t write, these tools and their practitioners have made publishing a much more attainable reality than it used to be.

An internet search can give you everything you need, from writers’ support groups and social networks to online book publishing to lists of freelance editors (like me!). Don’t ever assume that the person you’ve just looked up is the real deal until you’ve done some research. (I learned this the hard way, regarding literary agents – read my story here.) Also don’t assume that the big companies are your only choice. Everywhere you look, you will find writers and editors with different levels of expertise. You’ll even find local printing companies, graphic designers, and illustrators who can all help bring your book to life. These are real people with whom you can share a cup of coffee – and your dream.

But if you’d like some resources, here are some websites to check out:

  • Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace (Amazon.com’s answers to e-publishing and on demand publishing)
  • Smashwords.com (distributor of eBooks to every conceivable e-format)
  • Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Market (tips for writing and publishing)
  • LinkedIn (where professionals go to network – Facebook and Twitter are great, but if you want to connect with writers who can help you get started, I can’t think of a better place)
  • NaNoWriMo.org (Ever wonder if you could write a novel in a month? If you’re serious about this, I promise that you will have the writing experience of a lifetime.

So… do you have a story to tell?

Want to help with the writing prompt book?

Look at This Tree

Look at This Tree

The writing prompt book I mentioned is the brain-child of my friend Karen Saltmarsh. We’re going to title it Look at This Tree, and we’re looking for high-quality photos of interesting trees that could tell a story. To the left is an example from a park that I visited in Washington State. (Don’t you think there could be a secret hideout for some mythical, woodland creature under the roots?) If you have something you’d like to submit, please fill out the contact form on my Writing Services page, and Karen and I will consider your photo for her book.

The Year of Writing Dangerously

Novel Motto

From the time I was thirteen, I knew I wanted to be an author, and at that age, it seemed like such a reasonable dream. It’s a hard one to obtain, though. I went to college as an English major, despite people encouraging me to take up journalism or something that might actually be useful. I was going to be an author – why would I need to pursue anything else? You know, anything practical.

Then somewhere around my junior year in college, reality set in. By then, I’d found my university’s writing program and an excellent fiction workshop, run by my friend Ari. I think, if it weren’t for Ari’s workshops, I never would have been able to see the level of improvement that I’ve noticed in my fiction. Yes, I have good proofreading and editing skills – inherited from my proofreader mother – but my fiction was not worth reading until I experienced some first-hand criticism.

One aspect of the workshop was getting a story publication-ready. And Ari made no bones about the difficulties of publishing. It’s a cruel world, where editors who have bad days arbitrarily consign authors to the slush pile, no matter the worth of their stories. That’s why a group of us started our own literary journal, Fiction Fix, which is still going strong today. But as much as my editing credentials with Fiction Fix have done for me, they haven’t done anything for me in the greater world of novel publication.

The real world impeded on my dream to the point that I all but forgot it at times. After having my first child, I not only took a long hiatus from Fiction Fix, but I basically quit caring about writing for a while. Three straight years of rejection from literary agents can do that to you, and falling in love with my newborn son made my career-of-choice pale in comparison.

But the dream did not die, and I returned to my stories, often becoming lost in them for weeks or months before getting burnt out again. And then I decided that I would branch out and just get whatever kind of freelance work I could find. As long as I could have some sort of income from writing, that’s what I always wanted, right? Well, not quite.

I enjoy writing and editing, and I’m good at what I do, but the problem with freelancing is that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the assignments and forget the joy that I initially had when I just wrote stories all the time. And I am spoiled by having a husband whose job allows me the flexibility to write what I want to write. So why haven’t I been doing just that?

When I participated in NaNoWriMo this year, forcing myself to almost write full-time – and on a project with no guaranteed paycheck at the end – I finally fulfilled a little bit of my teenage dream. Never have I spent so much concentrated time writing, and never have I enjoyed it so much. This is what I had in mind (although being paid to do it would certainly be ideal).

I also regained some of that hope of someday writing a novel that people would pay to read. I had a lot of that hope when I was in college, before the harshness of life and the publication world fully set in. But after a while, I started to wonder why I kept trying if no one wanted to give me the time of day. And I was frustrated that I got older and still had nothing to show for all the stories I’d written. But the problem is that if I don’t submit, if I don’t get up every time I’m rejected and try again, no one’s just going to knock on my door and ask if I have a book that I would like to publish.

This is not a New Year’s resolution, first of all because it’s been in the works since November. But more than that, I’m not changing my ways, only to revert back to old habits within a few weeks. Rather, I hope that my rediscovered passion will give me that push to make this year the most productive I’ve ever been, as far as writing fiction is concerned. I’m already looking at contests and searching for new agents. I’m still working on the first draft of the novel I started with NaNoWriMo. And I’m determined not to lose my enthusiasm this time.

One day you’ll see me in print. And maybe – just maybe – it will be sooner rather than later.