The Muse Will Show

The muse will come when you stop messing around on Facebook or goofing off on Twitter. Reading other people’s stuff sometimes inspires the muse, but the muse can be prickly, even jealous. Ignore your own creativity? The muse runs away. The muse doesn’t like when you spend too long working for other people and not long enough on your own. If you don’t care about your creativity, the muse won’t either.

This is where I am writing, — in a room with a window seat, looking out on Lake Champlain. The muse likes a room with a view.

The muse will show up when you let go of perfectionism. When you stop comparing yourself to all of the successful, rich people you get bombarded with every single day. Those beautiful people get to your muse. Those people are like vampires, making you run into your house and lock your front door.

The muse doesn’t like when you choose safety over the midnight walk in the woods. The muse loves to roam too and wants you to live on the edge of a cliff, not in the cocoon.

The muse will show up when you put fingers on the keyboard and wipe away the blank screen.

The muse will show up when you stop cleaning the kitchen.

When the muse shows up, it’s not work. It’s play. You just have to get out of your own way. Something, some brilliance — seriously! – will flow through you. You will sit back when you are done and go, “Wow! I did that!” But no, you didn’t do that. Not alone any way. You were the conduit. The creative spirit, the muse, flew through you and is now flying away because your ego — such a barking dog — chased it away.

And tried to take all the credit. But that’s okay; that’s the ego’s job.

The muse will be back tomorrow. Or later. But won’t/can’t stay forever, because you have to eat and go to the bathroom and chat with your kids and make dinner and throw a load of laundry in the washer and gossip about the neighbors and, don’t forget, you’ve got to pay the bills.

I know, as an artist and writer, I can visit the muse when I jot my ideas and images in a little notebook, even when I am away from my keyboard or canvas. I use Field Notes, a product. But I get no money (or respect) from Coudal Partners for this endorsement. Although occasionally, I swipe pack of Field Notes when I am at the Coudal household.

As Field Notes saying goes, “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.”

I want to write more about my prickly, beautiful, sensitive, strong muse. But I have to go for a walk. I have to stretch my body. I have to take my time. I have to let my muse fly.

This post was inspired by the Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, a book that made me to take my muse seriously.

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Starting Anew

Elaeocarpus holopetalus - Mount Imlay Rainforest

Elaeocarpus holopetalus – Mount Imlay Rainforest (Photo credit: Poytr)

I have loved my job for so many reasons for so many years. Just because you love someone or something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let it go. Like parenting. My kids want to go to camp or on school trips. I love them but let them go.

Without going into all the deets, my workplace has offered a voluntary severance package to everyone. And I’m taking it (effective within the next couple of months).

Sometimes work grows around you like a vine in a tropical rain forest, hitting the top layer and you’re still on the forest floor. Or sometimes work’s part of the undergrowth. And you’re reaching for the sky.

According to the internet, (which we all know is NEVER wrong!) there are four layers to the rain forest (and these coincide with where we are on any given day):

  • the emergent layer
  • the canopy
  • the understory
  • the forest floor

I think the point of life is to grow wherever you are. Life is only about growth. Or maybe the pursuit of happiness. That’s all.

And I need to grow. And pursue my happiness. We all do.

To such an end I’m starting some projects such as offering a querying and getting published workshop in New York on August 16 in partnership with Kelly Wallace who’s offering the workshop in Portland on August 18. We’re working on the website. We’re onto something.

We’re on the forest floor or the emergent layer, continuing to grow, starting anew.

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Getting Rid of Stress

Stress has visited you like the devil in days of yore. It has caused your heart to race, your hands to dampen, your throat to dry. So let’s beat back stress with these 11 steps.

1. Do a daily act of kindness. You know you can’t think your way into good action, so you must act your way into good thinking. You must do one act of kindness and service daily. Open a door for a stranger. Donate to the subway musician. Anything.

2. Get up early every day and write in your journal. This private brain drain will add years to your life. Studies show people who write about their stressful moments boost their immune systems.

3. View your life as a hero’s journey. You have read about Joan of Arc and Odysseus. Now there is YOU. You are no less remarkable. You have fought your battles — an abusive spouse as fierce as a dragon? Look at your life as a quest. Your purpose is to complete your mission.

4. Find your mission. Mine is to parent three awesome children, to write, to teach and to make the world a kinder, better place than I found it through my words and actions.

5. Work out three or more times a week. Or just move your body more regularly from the sitting position. Yes, our ancestors were hunters but mostly they were gatherers. Get in touch with your inner gatherer. Get in touch with nature.

6. Pamper yourself. Manicure? Haircut? Massage? Once a month — is this too much to ask? Take care of the vessel you were given.

7. Get to bed early. Get a book. Get several. Get horizontal. Pull the covers up. Go to bed by 10 pm every night.

8. Have sex regularly. Sexuality is a gift from God. Why else does it feel so good? Because it is a beautiful part of the human, adult experience. Do it your own way but do it.

9. Listen without talking so much. You have a lot to say, a lot to share. But you will be remembered on this earth, not by how well you have said what you have to say, but by how well you compassionately listened.

10. Eat healthily. Okay, a bacon cheeseburger and a beer is okay once in a while. But do not use unhealthy food as a way to pamper yourself or indulge. Healthy tastes good.

11. Give seven hugs a day.

Thanks to Alicia Pitterson who provided the prompt at yesterday’s Wednesday Writers lunch time series. She asked us to create an agenda for an event called, “Don’t let stress get the best of you.”  

My Salon

I never asked what all these commenters thought. I never really asked what anyone thought except for the writers in Joanna’s and Charles’s classes, where I had workshopped the story.

And yes, I wanted to know what an editor thought.

I’d sent the story to the Salon editor late Wednesday, thanks to the query challenge from Robert Lillegard. (See the comments at: https://gettingmyessayspublished.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/the-westport-workshops/)

SH replied on Thursday over my lunch hour. I got her email while sitting in the hairdresser’s chair. She said my story “had potential.”

Nice! A new hair cut and a potential piece at the best literary and intellectual site online.

SH asked if I’d intended to publish under a pseudonym. No. She’d begun a line edit. She had legitimate questions about chronology and adding a “message moment.” That is, a moment to give the experience a meaning, an Aha! She was right.

I worked on the story; she worked on it. In a few hours, we were done. But commenters don’t take hours, months, years to write their comments. They dash them off.

I was surprised by the comments. At seven am, on Friday, I read the first seven. Then I stopped reading. I have very little experience with negative comments. The people who’ve commented on my blogs may spin out their own thoughts, but they don’t rip me.

I asked a couple of people what the comments said. My aunt (Ellen Wade Beals) emailed me; she said some of the comments were funny, some complimentary, and some snarky. One friend told me a lot of the commenters are commenting on each other’s comments. I didn’t need to go there. (And my sister emailed me with one direct message: don’t comment back!)

My only experience with negative comments was long ago on my article in the New York Times City section in the form of a letter to the editor. It was from an ASPCA representative quibbling with the way I’d represented their agency in my funny essay about the squirrel trapped in my airshaft. Fair enough.

At that time I took pride in the ASPCA’s letter to the editor. Aha! A letter to the editor meant my NYTimes story hit a nerve or was controversial. And now, I’m trying to take pride in the comments (that I’m not reading) on my Salon.com story. It’s a badge of courage to be criticized, commented on, and then survive (to blog about it.)

My cousin Susan Elster Jones sent me an amazing email last night. She said, One of my best professors once told me that the work isn’t really finished until you share it. And the more uncomfortable that feels-probably means the work is really strong. Thank you for sharing!

So, go ahead, comment away. Sure, I’m feeling defensive, sensitive, uncomfortable, but also proud, strong, happy. Uncomfortable.

The Westport Workshops

Went well.

I love when people open up — give me stories about your divorce, depression, cancer treatment, or dysfunctional childhood. And then half-way through your writing, lay it on me about how you handled the whole thing with faith, resilience, humor, or alcohol.

Better yet, write about your most embarrassing moment — the time you felt so humiliated you thought you’d never crawl back into civilized company again. You’ve got an epic fail? You’ve got an epic tale.

The stories of our struggles are the ones that will get published, get a laugh, get a tear, get a friend to open up on her crappy/crazy/resilient/hopeful life.

I’m not saying we wrote about any of these things (Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t!) at the Westport Creative Writing workshops, which I offered the last three Saturdays of August 2011 at the Heritage House.

But even if we did, I wouldn’t tell you, because the rule in my writing classes is confidentiality.

I will tell you generally what we wrote about — in the first class, among other topics, we wrote about a safe place from our childhoods; the second class, we wrote about our mentors from high school; the third class, with Hurricane Irene on her way, we wrote about riding out a storm (literal or metaphorical).

At the first class, we had 6 people, then 3, and then at the last class, 8. Hooray! It felt great. There were so many brilliant writers with brilliant life stories. It was an honor to be a part of and facilitate a creative writing experience for non-writers and professionals alike.

I believe there is something healing and transformative about writing your life story. It is sometimes unbelievable, but never never dull.

I will offer these “Story of Your Life” workshops (inspired by Dan Wakefield’s book of the same name) again.

Keep It Brief

For greatest impact, when writing a blog post:

  1. Say it simply. “Hello.”
  2. Then get out. “I must be going.”
  3. Use short sentences. “Just do it.”
  4. Keep the words to one syllable. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” – Ronald Reagan
  5. Use short, punchy sentences. “In modern war… you will die like a dog for no good reason.” – Ernest Hemingway

Maybe this is why Twitter is so fun. I have to be lean in my writing. I have to convey a lot with just a little — 140 characters.

I love Twitter. I love its brevity. I love getting to know a person just from their short status updates. The man who says good morning from Japan, the woman who lists what everyone’s reading, the writer who posts opening lines for short stories.

I like to skate on the surface and sometimes click on the link and go deeper.

But sometimes — like right now, there’s not enough time to go deep.

This photo has nothing to do with the post. I took it at Bossey Ecumenical center in Switzerland.

There’s profundity in simplicity. So keep it brief.

Hello. I must be going.

Social Media Mania

I’ve been trying to post on one of my blogs every day for the month of June. Yesterday I was dragging. I didn’t have anything to say, couldn’t come up with a good idea, had too many social occasions to attend. One of those occasions was our monthly Lunch and Learn workshop which is a venue for our brilliant Communications staff to share their expertise.

At yesterday’s lunch, Beth Buchanan of the web team gave an awesome Prezi.com session. The title? Social Media Mania. It inspired and informed the two dozen of us there, half of us experts (ahem! like moi?) and half beginners (moi aussi!). After Beth’s session, I felt energized to get through my slog of a daily blog.

Here are a few take-aways from Beth.

Beth's profile pic!

How do we get into social media?

  1. Sign in
  2. Listen
  3. Engage
  4. Evaluate

I’m not particularly good at Numbers 2 and 4, but I am going to be!

Buchanan emphasized a few best practices for social media. Such as “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, think before posting.

Social media is a conversation, not a monologue, she said. So don’t swamp people with your point of view without taking an interest in theirs.

Another novel concept — and why haven’t I thought of this? — Have a social media strategy and make it work for you. To get thinking about this, start with the question, Who is my audience? (How am I supposed to know!)

I loved some of Beth’s quotes (and did tweet them during the session), like this one: “You establish who you are by what you post.”

On Twitter, Beth said if you’re tweeting for a company — for every three business posts, include one personal post. Duh! I microblog on Twitter for New World Outlook magazine @NWOMag and for myself @MaryBethC but I don’t cross-over; personal is personal and business is business. But I’ll try to cross-pollinate, just like Beth Buchanan, the social media maven at Global Ministries, does. Thanks, Beth! @BJBuc and @connectNmission !

Beth is the friend and colleague who got me started on blogging, Facebook and Twitter. And now there’s no stopping me! At least for the month of June!

Oh No, My Mother Just Joined LinkedIn

My mother just requested to join my network. What should I do? Soon she’ll be telling me to change my profile picture, get a hair cut, rewrite my status update, stop cursing. (I tell my son that last one!)

On the other hand, I may need a job recommendation and we have worked together. Seriously. I was a guest lecturer in her college classroom. And she’d be there if I needed her. It’d be a way for us to be linked if our phones went down.

I’m not sure. I’ve just felt that social media was my realm, my playground. And I’m doing great without her. I’m growing up, Ma.

I know Facebook is not far behind. Facebrag has a competitive edge. Who has the cutest kids? The most friends? The wittiest comments? Me, Joanne Woodward, Lou Stellato.

Yes, she’d get to see a lot more photos of her grandkids. And read a lot more of my writing, including this post. So I better stop writing now.

I do write to be read. And I do love my mother. So, yes I’ll accept her request to connect to my network on LinkedIn. After all, their tagline is: Relationships matter. Yes, they do. Especially the online relationships between parent and child.

Poem in a Pocket

This morning I stood between the twin beds in the twin’s room and read them Dorothy Parker’s poetry. Other mornings I’ve woken them by singing — Rise and Shine or Good Morning from Singin’ in the Rain or Beautiful Day from U2.

But poetry’s as good as singing for waking the kids.

And Dorothy Parker cracks me up. Waking the kids is an onerous activity and Chris is rarely up for the early-morning wake-up festivities. So I might as well please myself. And Parker pleases me.

I read them Parker’s The False Friends. It ends:

Who flings me silly talk of May shall meet a bitter soul; For June was nearly spent away Before my heart was whole.

I love her smart aleck, wise gal humor.

I was reminded of the power of poetry last night. The girls and I had gone for a swim and shower at the JCC. Where we primped in front of the mirror I noticed someone had left a small button. On the button were the words, “Is that a poem in your pocket?”

That reminded me to carry poetry in my pocket. The idea of a poem in my pocket made me incredibly happy. Or maybe I was happy because I’d been swimming or hanging out with my daughters at the health club after a long workday.

And so I woke up happy. I put a Parker poem in my pocket and I woke my daughters with poetry.

NaNoWriMo Takes Off Without Me!

Okay, my beloved NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) started on November 1st. What?!! Already! I wasn’t ready. I was tired that first night. And last night was Election Night and I had book club. Does it sound like I’m making excuses? Well excuse me. What? Do I sound defensive?

Here’s the truth: I really don’t want to start another novel this November until I finish the one I wrote one last year for NaNoWriMo. (And I did win NaNoWriMo last year!) But it might not win a Booker Prize (and I might have to be English any way to win that prize).

When I looked at the novel again, I thought, it’s not bad. It’s kinda good. When one of my twins woke up early yesterday morning, she found me with my novel, tentatively called “The Missing Twin,” spilled out in front of me on the kitchen table. Charlie asked if she could read it.

So I read Charlie a few pages from the middle of the book.

“It’s good,” she said. “Although you should add more details.”  My kid is brilliant. She’s so right. I have to add more details!

Here’s a little bit of the novel from around page 51: (Don’t judge yet, it’s only a second draft. And I need to add more details.)

We were approaching the stop light at the corner of West End and 72nd. A white van slowed and pulled up beside to our cab. The driver wore dark sunglasses. He lifted a piece of paper.

The sign read, “I’ve got her.”

“Jordy!” I meant to yell. But it came out like a whisper. I slunk down.

“What?”  He was still looking at the picket line. “I think I see Angela, our cleaning lady, there.”

I slunk even lower and pointed at the white van.

Jordan looked. He laughed. “That’s weird.”

“Weird? That’s scary. What if he means Elise?” I asked.

I glanced back at the van. The man’s sign read, “I’m wearing panty hose.” The traffic started and the van rode ahead of us.

“Oh my God, a minute ago, he had another sign. It said, ‘I’ve got her.’ I’m worried about Elise,” I could hardly speak.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Jordan said.

“I did,” I said. Jordan pulled a pad from his pocket and wrote the license number AGS 254. The van turned on 74th Street. We turned on 77th Street. I sat up in the cab. I told myself to breathe. Inhale. Exhale.