National Novel Writing Month–Yay or Nay?

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When I became a mother, I couldn’t wait for all the things I would teach my kids.

I wanted to introduce them to music, dance, and art. I wanted them to have happy associations with Jewish observance. I wanted to inspire them to be lifelong learners and book lovers.

What I didn’t expect was how much my kids would teach and inspire me. My oldest daughter encouraged me to write a children’s novel which resulted in an award-winning book.

My son continues to inspire me to not “sweat the small stuff” and to stay positive.

My youngest daughter taught me to trust that she is learning, even though she is not in a traditional school.  Lately, she has been a beacon of light as I crawl through the tunnel of discouragement regarding my second novel  attempt. She understands my battle with perfectionism and, fortunately, does not seem to suffer from that condition.

“You need to try NaNoWriMo” she told me.

She was referring to National Novel Writing Month. Every November thousands of aspiring writers sign on to the project website. Their goal: write a quick first draft of a novel–in a month. That’s 50,000 words in 30 days!  Of course, not everyone succeeds, but the process itself is valuable–so they say.

“It’s all about silencing your inner critic. At least for a month,” Audrey tells me, fully aware of my nemesis.

Audrey has participated in the Youth Division for the past few years. She enjoyed the pep talks, the writing forums, and the rush of seeing her word count rise.

While I enthusiastically supported her participation, NaNoWriMo sounded like torture to me. I had several reasons for not signing on.

l.  I’ve already written a novel.

2. I’m not a fast writer.

3. I hate writing a big long mess.

4. November is a very busy month.

5. I have other writing contests to work on.

6.  I could never win.

7.  Did I mention that I could never write 50,000 words in a month?

You get the idea.

Of course, Audrey has a counter argument for each of my arguments.  “What have you go to lose?” she finally huffed, after I stubbornly clung to my excuses.

I was reminded of my father. Growing up, I suffered from a lot of worry.  Whether is was speaking in front of the class or trying something new, my anxiety would get in the way.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen?” my father would ask.

Which, today, inspired me to ask myself: What’s the worst thing that could happen by committing myself to NaNoWriMo? 

Answer: 1.  I write a bunch of garbage.  2. I don’t reach the goal.

Hmm. Not the end of the world by any means.

Then I suddenly thought of another question.  What’s the best thing that might happen? 

Answer. 1. I get back on track with the story I want to write. Even better: 2. I get in the flow and churn out a rough draft that gives me something to work on.

I hesitated to the last minute. I thought about being a role model for my writing workshop students (whom I encouraged to enter the Young Writers NaNoWriMo).

So I took the plunge and registered. This is my public announcement.

“Oy, “I’ll never write 50,000 words,” I said to Audrey immediately afterward.

“Mom!”

“Okay. I take it back.”

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The next day I got the first NaNoWriMo pep talk in my inbox. It was from award-winning YA author, Rainbow Rowell.

Wow, she was describing my every thought regarding National Novel Writing Month. Here’s an excerpt from her most excellent post.

Dear Writer,

I was very skeptical about NaNoWriMo at first.

It seemed like something that amateur writers would do. Or young writers. People who needed to be tricked into finishing     their books. I’d already written two books by October 2011, and sold them to publishers, and I couldn’t imagine writing either of them—or anything good—in a month.

That’s not writing, I thought, that’s just piling up words. But then I thought about how wonderful it would be to have a pile of 50,000 words… 

And guess what? Ms. Rowell’s NaNoWriMo first draft ended up becoming her recently published novel, Fangirl.

Her words hit my motivation button. Time to get writing.  Fast!

How do your children inspire you? Are you a NaNoWriMo participant?

Passover Cleaning Your Life

photo_spring-cleaning1It’s a very busy time of the year for traditional Jews. We are cleaning like crazy trying to rid our homes of any spec of hametz–aka “leavened bread” before Passover which begins, Monday night, March 24th. That means cheerios on the car floor, crumbs in the couch, backpacks, and the dreaded kitchen. We will sweep, vacuum, wash, and scrub to make our homes “hametz-free” for 8 days.  All this may sound a bit obsessive, and it is, but  all part of “turning over” the house to Passover.  Call it Extreme Spring Cleaning.

At the same time, the rabbis caution that we shouldn’t focus completely on just the physical preparation: we have to prep ourselves. We need to get rid of the “spiritual hametz“–the parts of ourselves get in the way of growth. Think addictions. Bad habits. Negative thoughts that enslave us.

For me, personal hametz is an ongoing battle with perfectionism.  Perfectionism makes me my own worst taskmaster. And since Passover is a time of freedom and redemption, letting go of perfectionism is a fitting goal. (Notice I didn’t say “perfect” goal?) 

When I learned that Passover is considered another Jewish New Year, I figured it was a good time for spring cleaning your life.  If you didn’t make New Year’s Resolutions on Dec. 31st, maybe arrival of spring is a more meaningful time for you to make changes.  A non-Jewish friend told me she makes her resolutions in the weeks before Easter since that is a time for rebirth.  Another friend says he takes stock of his life every year on his birthday. What a great idea!

Do you have a special time of the year for renewal?

No New Year’s Resolutions For Me

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I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.

I decided some time ago that it wasn’t a good practice for a recovering perfectionist. Like most people, I rarely kept them past March of the New Year. And then my inner critic would rise up and chastise me.  But, I do like the idea of fresh starts and self-improvement. So instead of giving up the resolution thing altogether, I’ve made some tweaks to this practice.

First, I look back at the previous year and ask myself: what worked and what didn’t?  I consider different aspects of my daily life: financial, relationships, teaching, writing, health, organization, happiness.  Then I make revisions–not resolutions.  I usually frame them this way:  Instead of (fill what wasn’t working, I will try (fill in the blank with a revision).

For example, I have a lot of trouble turning off my laptop before bedtime.  I know it disrupts my sleep, something I can’t afford to skimp on.  Yet I  find it hard to stop.  My excuse is that I need to finish “one more thing” or read “one more article”  or “respond to an email” before bed. Face it–the internet is addicting.

Instead of resolving never to use my laptop before bedtime , I’ve chosen four days of the week when I will try not to open my laptop after 8:00 pm. Notice I said, try not to? Yes, that may sound non-committal, but when you tell yourself you are NOT going to ever do _______, it is very likely that you will.

So I cut myself some slack.  I try out a new behavior that will improve the quality of my everyday life.

Revisions, as opposed to resolutions, tend to be more specific.  I’‘ll put a reminder on my calendar to call my brother every other Sunday so we stay in touch.  Research shows that when you make a specific goal with specific steps, you are more likely to reach it. That’s good news for me.

What didn’t work in 2012.

1. Trying to enter every writing contest I possible can.

Revision:  I will be more selective in the contests I enter and Limit myself to entering one contest every 8 weeks.

2.  Giving up my gym membership.

Revision: I will sign-up for a weekly yoga or dance class.

3.  Taking on too many outside commitments.  (This happens every year.  I have never succeeded in changing this behavior!)

Revision: I will consult with my family before accepting more commitments.

Get the idea?

If you try revisions this year, please let me know how you did.

If you are committed to making your resolutions–and keeping them, check out Gretchen Rubin’s helpful blog post on the Happiness Project.

Do you make resolutions? If so, how do you get them to stick?  calvin

Recovering from Perfectionism

This book may save my life!

I have always been a perfectionist, but it wasn’t until about 6 years ago, that I really understood how this mental malady was wreaking havoc on my life.  Still,  awareness alone wasn’t enough to turn me into an easy-going, go-with-the-flow, realistic goal-setter, mistake-forgiver type of person.  I felt powerless to overcome perfectionism’s relentless hold on me.

Eventually, I came to view my perfectionism as a chronic condition in need of management and care.  It might go into “remission” for a while, then flare-up. Occasionally, I will an experience acute episode and really have to take therapeutic measures.  I now consider myself “in recovery”, a state that requires vigilance, self-care, and self-awareness.

Buy I can’t do it alone.

That is why I was so excited to discover a terrific book called, The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block by Hillary Rettig.  Hillary shows how perfectionism is more than a “destructive habit or way of thinking”.  Her book demonstrates perfectionism’s toxic effects on your view of “yourself, your work, and the world.”

As soon as the author began describing the characteristics and behaviors of perfectionists, my eyes popped.  Hey, this woman really knows me!   I downloaded the 182 -page book in the summer and still haven’t finished it (and that is okay!).  Rettig’s book is not meant to be read in one sitting.  It is a step-by-step guide and you don’t go to the next step until you have made progress. There are clear steps to take, exercises to do, behaviors to practice, and practical changes to make. I was going to wait until I finished to blog about this wonderful book, but every page of her book just keeps getting better. So, I thought I’d share it with you today, and then write about my progress in future blogs.

By the way, this book is aimed at writers, but anyone who is trying to finish a major project or has difficulty with output due to procrastination will benefit.  And speaking of procrastination…did you know that Perfectionism is at its root?

I will leave you with one defining characteristic from Secrets of the Prolific:

“Perfectionists hold unrealistic definitions of success and punish themselves harshly for the inevitable failures.”

Yup, that’s me.

Are you a perfectionist?  What tactics have you taken to tame this unruly condition?  What guides or programs have you found helpful? 

The Muggles took Manhattan and I stayed home.

Last Tuesday, Oct. 16th, J.K. Rowling made her only public appearance in the US,  and I missed it.

Ms. Rowling was interviewed by writer Anne Patchett at Lincoln Center in NYC, and then spoke, read, and signed her new book,  A Casual Vacancy. Somehow, I had missed the initial announcement in September when tickets went on sale, so I didn’t find out about Ms. Rowling’s appearance until October 8th while reading Dan Blank’s blog. Dan was running a contest to give away 2 tickets to writers who have been inspired by Rowling’s work.(Who hasn’t?)  I felt a few seconds of excitement at the prospect of winning the tickets.

Did I even enter? No.

Reason? Door to door it would take me about 6 hours to get there by train. (I certainly didn’t want to drive by myself from Boston to NYC.) That would mean missing work Tuesday morning.  Then, I’d have to stay overnight. Where would I stay? A hotel would be way too expensive.Then I’d miss work Wednesday morning, I might not get back in time for Audrey’s dance rehearsal…. You get the picture.

My pragmatism overshadowed the chance for a once-in-a-life opportunity.

This wasn’t the first time I had missed an opportunity to meet J.K. Rowling. In 1999, when my oldest daughter was 8, a friend of mine called saying, “The author of that Harry Potter book your daughter liked so much is at the Barnes and Nobles right now signing books!”

This was way before J.K. Rowling’s mega-author status.  Emily was jumping up and down.  “Can we go, Mom?”

I called the book store to check and was told, yes, indeed, Ms. Rowling was signing. There was a line out the door! They estimated the wait at one hour.  I told Emily that by the time we got there, the wait might be two hours, and her little sister wouldn’t be able to wait in line, and who knows, we might not get in anyway.

So we didn’t go, and I attended to whatever other pressing matter I had at the time.

My daughter didn’t get her book  signed or have a photo taken her new favorit author, who would go on to write 6 more HP books.

And if you think my daughter has forgotten, think again. She still has her tattered , unsigned copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  Emily (a.k.a. Leah E. Caras) and I amusingly refer to this incident as an example of short-term thinking. Not seeing ‘the forest through the trees’.

And, Mom’s lack of spontaneity.

Once upon a time, I was a heck of a lot more adventurous. That was BC–before children, when being a risk-taker seemed more suitable. But spontaneity?   I don’t like unpredictable situations. Ditto for big changes. I like order.  I am never late. I have always been a thoughtful decision- maker and a planner.

Had I been given adequate prior notice for both these J.K. Rowling events, I would have made the necessary arrangements to attend. Hey, with my strategic planning skills, I’d have been first in line!

When I heard the coverage of the latest event on NPR, I felt like the kid left out of the big party.  Over 2000 adults showed up for Rowling’s book debut.  One woman traveled from Paris!  Others came from Florida, Ohio, Arkansas. And I was sweating the a 4-5 hour train ride?  I thought about how excited my kids–all huge HP fans– would have been for me. ( Not to mention my students and blog readers.)

I consoled myself by saying I probably wouldn’t have won the tickets, anyway…

But this incident got me thinking about other opportunities I have passed up due to lack of spontaneity–example: a free trip to Israel (bad-timing).  Most of them, I can honestly say, I regret not taking. In retrospect, I can see how I might have been able to make the nitty-gritty details work.

I also remember a few times, when pushed, I jumped. Case in point: appearing on the Lifetime TV show, The Balance Act.  My daughter, 19 at the time, landed an interview about her publishing business, Yaldah Media, Inc.  The producer wanted me to join her. I can’t even remember what reasons I gave EmilyLeah for not wanting to do it. (Finding coverage for my CEO Mom job?  Flying to Florida by myself?)

“Are you crazy, Mom? she said over the phone. “You are going to pass up a chance to promote your book on national TV?”

The experience turned out to be a fun mother/daughter trip. I learned about television production and sold a lot of books!

Perk: I got to meet fitness guru Denise Austin while we were having our make-up done. And, since my sister and parents live in Florida, I got a quick visit with them.

So my friends, I am publicly announcing that, from here on, I will strive to seize the moment and grab an opportunity when it comes my way. I may need a little coaching to get there, but, as they say in recovery, the first step is admitting you have a problem.  I hope to report on my progress in future blogs.

Addendum:  I am happy to tell you that I actually did get a chance to see J.K. Rowling in person. In 2008, Ms. Rowling was the Harvard University commencement speaker. Being an alumna, I received much advanced notice of the event, as well as two complimentary tickets. I’ll never forget my ten-year-old daughter’s face as her beloved author took the podium and the crowd cheered.

It was pure magic.

Are you a spontaneous person?  How do you know whether to say ‘yes‘ when an opportunity presents itself?  

Do You Write on Your Vacation?

I did sit on this very bench overlooking Onset Bay.

As we were packing for a family trip to Cape Cod, my husband asked me if I was taking my lap top.

“Are you kidding?” I replied.

“What I mean is, are you planning on working?” he said.

My answer, of course was, “Of course.”

By working, he meant writing. “Isn’t it a good idea to take time off for a vacation?” he asked. “Clear your mind for new ideas? Come back refreshed?”

What he meant was: How much time are you going to be off (alone) writing?

Anyone who is married to a writer will have this conversation.

In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King says that when he is in the middle of a project he writes every day, including Christmas, Fourth of July, and his birthday. (I remember rereading that part a few times.) King advises aspiring writers not to take off more than a day when they are in the midst of crafting a story.  “You’ll lose the urgency and immediacy of your story if you do.”

I recently heard novelist Richard Ford, author of Canada, describe similar work habits.

But these guys are older, empty-nester, best-selling, full-time writers who probably don’t do the laundry.  Right?

Novelist and writing teacher, Aimee Bender, wrote about the importance of a regular writing routine in her essay,“A Contract of One’s Own” . Aimee’s writing self-contract has rules, consequences, and rewards. Aimee writes daily for two hours, in the same place, with no distractions or breaks, 5-6 days a week, rain or shine.  And she has been at it for 17 years. “Writing everyday can be a powerful action, a gesture of belief in one’s own imagination…”

While I’m a believer in taking time off for renewal (heck, why not for fun, too?), our family vacation to Cape Cod coincided with the time I devote to writing–the summer.  I enjoy having a break from teaching, scheduling, and chauferring my kids around.  I love taking my laptop outside on our sunny patio and being able to write for a few hours straight.

So as our family packed up the van, I felt like I had already been on vacation. Why should I  take a double vacation?  I worried that a week off from my writing would not only put me behind, but put me on the slippery slope to Procrastination Island.

Of course I didn’t want to ruin it for everyone else. And since I am fighting those workaholic tendencies, I compromised.  I told my husband that I’d write just an hour a day, maybe early in the morning before everyone gets up, or late in the evening. And then, I’d turn into a fun person.

Here’s what really happened. After a day at the beach, I crashed at 9:00 pm. Then  I overslept. Then my daughter visited for a couple days with her husband and baby and I wanted to spend every minute with them.  Then my fourteen-year-old daughter asked me to eat an early breakfast with her on the beach. (Lovely.) Then my husband suggested we have coffee at the cafe around the corner from our rented house.

I didn’t write a word the entire week.

But…I did let my characters visit and show me their wild side. As I walked along the shore, new writing ideas rolled in like gentle waves.  And yes, I did come back refreshed and renewed.

Do you take vacations from writing?  If so, when, and for how long?

Look–no laptop!