Sunday, January 14, 2018

Rejection 16

I took Rejection 15 really hard. It felt personal (it wasn’t) in a way that the others didn’t. I want to get published at that online publication so badly that the rejection stung.

Rejection 16 was a completely different experience. Two friends had sent me the criteria for this award. I talked myself out of applying on the first suggestion, and when the second friend sent it to me, I asked, what do I have to lose? It turns out nothing to lose, and so much to gain. Preparing this application was a tremendous experience and helpful for me to take stock of where I am with my craft at this point.
The application asked four things:

Who I am: Biography. Remember that the SAF’s unique trait is our focus on artists and writers who are also parents. If it’s relevant, we’d like to hear how your family life inspires or challenges your artistic career.
I am a midwesterner and mother-of-one who has the good fortune of having a day job where I am surrounded by words. I write acknowledgment letters for the dean of a School of Medicine. This, however, is not my real job. My real job is the writing I do outside office hours as a blogger, essayist, and first-time novelist. It is when I sit at the laptop working on a piece before work as my daughter sleeps, or tucked away in a corner of the public library while she searches for books, or late at night when I'm tired, but have things to say, that I find myself most alive and deeply satisfied.

This writer-as-real-work realization has been slow in coming, but I appreciate every twist and turn that  brought me to this place. Two years ago, a friend reminded me that 'writers write'. He challenged my 'talking about writing.' He persuaded me to squeeze a page-a-day into busy days of motherhood and full-time employment. I began writing, and within 11 days I felt new-found energy, grounding, joy. I was carving out a new path. In another 10 days, I took on a dare to write a novel. I didn't believe I could do it, but my friends did. I was so certain I would fail, but the page-a-day habit resulted in an 80,000 word rough draft seven months later.
During this time, I also celebrated my 40th birthday by creating a bucket list of 40 activities. I blogged about each activity as I crossed it off the list. The blogging and novel writing created a rhythm for my life during a vulnerable time as I filed for a divorce. These two writing projects and the discipline with which I devoted to them rearranged my internal infrastructure. I explored new levels of courage, tenacity, determination, and goal-setting. The writing was a balm to the anxiety that is embedded in the divorce process.

Of the many things I learned in this process, one of the stand-out lessons was that I am role-modeling for my daughter how to pursue a passion. Her elementary school's pledge includes four character traits: perseverance, responsibility, respect, and caring. As I showed up every day at my laptop, I exhibited these traits for her. At first I worried about a writing habit being selfish, but I quickly discovered that I gave my daughter a gift. I demonstrated to her that even mothers need to be occupied by something that is separate from their mothering. In time, we both learned that when this mama writes, she's a happier mama, and the household is happier too.
I let go of guilt that so easily seeps into the maternal experience. I did not apologize for the time I spent writing. In the process, my daughter learned about respecting someone's space and grew in her ability to meet some of her own needs, including how to occupy oneself. She also became my greatest cheerleader. “Mommy, have you written your page-a-day yet?” If my answer was no, she'd respond, “You'd better get going, Mommy.”

What I do: Artist Statement
concise description of your work and goals as an artist

Writing is the way I metabolize the ups and downs of life and the world around me. I know better how I feel or what I believe about something after I have spent time writing on the topic. My writer's statement is “to feast on words, explore their power, and serve up writings which inspire and encourage readers and myself.”

I created the blog 300 rejections to chronicle the trajectory of my writing pursuits. On the blog, I celebrate each rejection received as proof that I am writing rather than merely talking about writing. I know I cannot control what gets published, but I can control what I submit, and writing is the prerequisite to submissions. It has been a joy to transform the dreaded rejection into a celebration of the big picture: I am a writer, and I write. At 300 rejections, I also explore motherhood, my new single life, and whatever else crosses my mind. 

Writing has proved an invaluable tool for personal healing. For years I have felt the pressure to 'write what I know.' But what I know is a messy, complicated story ... At the advice of a counselor, I have spent the past six to eight months crafting painful stories into essays that have released the poison of difficult circumstances. My counselor has shared one particular essay with other clients who are navigating similar [circumstances]. While this essay has not been published, I feel gratified that it is making its way into the hands of people who can benefit from the experiences I wrote about.

What I've Done: Curriculum Vitae

It was helpful to remember that I have been published in numerous online and print publications over the past few years. I had dismissed them because they weren’t in the BIG publications that I deem worthy. This application knocked that notion out of my head. These publication credits are the stepping stones to bigger work and the whole point of 300 rejections: chronicling my writing life. Turns out, there IS a body of work to chronicle.

I included writing retreats and classes and remembered that when Cadence was five months old, I enrolled in an online writing course. More proof that I’ve been working on honing my craft for a long time.

I also chose to include my third place prize for short story I won as a high school in the Teresa Carpenter Writing Competition at Graceland College in 1993. Not a fiction writer, eh Julie? This contest begged to differ.

What I'd like to Do: How I would Use this award

The Sustainable Arts Foundation had 20 $5,000 unrestricted grants. Ten were dedicated to artists of color. These are the ways I structured how I would use the award:

Equipment: Purchase a printer/copier for my home office.

Travel: Plan a trip with my daughter to visit family friends in Colorado. Built into the trip would be time set aside for me to work on my novel alone while my daughter spends time reconnecting with friends. I would rejoin the group every day at lunch and spend the rest of the day together.

Fees: Cover the costs of submission entry fees.

Online Presence: Upgrade functionality and visual elements of my blog.

I also had to submit 15 pages of work. I chose an unpublished essay and work from my blog—pieces representative of the work I have crafted in the past year.

If a rejection email can be considered a work of art, this email surely was:

Dear Julie,

Thank you so much for your application to the Sustainable Arts Foundation.

As our program grows, it becomes even more competitive; in our 7th year, over 3,000 writers and artists submitted their portfolios. We continue to be humbled by the stories we read in the applications, impressed and inspired by the creativity of all our applicants.

As is our practice, past award winners served as our jurors, and each application was reviewed by at least two jurors who focused on the quality of the submitted portfolios. From a pool of applicants whose work was judged as excellent, we then narrowed the field, considering the many facets presented so thoughtfully in your applications.

Unfortunately, we are not able to fund your application, but we want you to know that we are moved both by your commitment to your craft and by the sacrifices you're making to pursue it.

Our jurors are invited to provide feedback about the applications they review; we want to share their comments:

Your spirit, humor, honesty, and courage is apparent in these pieces, and that spirit makes your writing engaging. Keep up the good work!
I like the approach you take: using letters to reveal the narrator. The letters become ever more revealing and are richly narrative.

We know that it is hard enough to create time for art while parenting, let alone to work on grant applications, and we do recognize and appreciate the effort you put into your submission.

We will announce our next application deadline early in 2018.

All applicants are eligible to re-apply, although we can't recommend strongly enough that reapplications be submitted with new work.

Thank you again for your application, and we wish you all the best, both with your work and with your family.
I was thrilled by the personalized feedback (in bold above). I cannot express how gratifying it was to know that there were people who had read my work and had these positive things to say about it. In another rejection, I’d been told that my work didn’t have enough narrative for the publication, so reading that that same piece was considered “richly narrative” helped me feel like I was on the right track.
I have new goals for my writing in 2018, so I absolutely plan to apply for the grant again. I’ll have new things to say and new work to showcase. It will be wonderful to receive feedback from a new set of jurors.
284 Rejections to go.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Liminal space, Vivaldi's Four Seasons is sexy, and other things on my mind

The past few months have depleted me. It's a hilarious sentence to type when I think that for 31 of those days I wrote about the self-care practices I had taken up over the past few years. But alas, life is a both/and situation.

I was both writing about the very real ways that self-care had helped me to heal and grow and blossom in my new life and also I was sinking into an abyss of frustration, weariness, exhaustion, and disillusionment.

I am writing tonight (still from the library) to say that I finally got tired of myself. I was sick and tired of being tired and despairing. I got quiet and listened, and what I heard was painful. As I blew my hair dry this morning, in the place where my soul was quiet, I heard myself say, "My problem is loneliness. I am so lonely."

As soon as I attached a label for the feeling I've been fighting, I could feel my soul sigh. It said, "Girrrl, finally. NOW we can get somewhere." What seemed daunting at first is that this is not the kind of loneliness that can be fixed by hanging out with my people. Sure, they are wonderful and I love the time I spend with them. But at the end of the evening, I still drive home to a house that is empty fifty percent of the time.

So society's answer--to meet someone, to find my way back into coupledom--is actually not going to solve my problem. I believe I was born with this strain of loneliness. Thirteen years of marriage didn't make it go away and neither has two-and-a-half-years of unwedded bliss and free time.

No, the thing the quiet is telling me is that only me and the brains, body, and heart God gave me is going to get me out of this. In the words I have found soothing in the past eighteen months, this liminal space I'm in ain't over yet. This realization has been building for several weeks, but the truth of it really became clear this morning. In the past, I have resisted such a notion, but this morning I remembered that the liminal space is the juicy, fertile space where the future good stuff is going to take root. Have patience, self, I said. The good stuff is on its way.

With this epiphany helping me breathe a tad easier, I downloaded a podcast for my commute and hit the road. The conversation made me smile, sometimes even made me laugh. The laughing always helps me shift into a better frame of mind.

Also one of my dear friends texted to check on how I was feeling after a recent stomach bug, and in my answer, my existential loneliness seeped out. She asked all the right questions, but mostly she created the safe space for me to say these hard things. No judgment, no fixing. Simply compassionate presence. I thought I'd felt good naming my problem in my bathroom alone. I felt even better saying it to someone else.

I've entered the busy, hectic, crazy-making season of my day job, but today I didn't feel so burdened by it. I forged ahead with what needed to be done and in between I made plans for how I could better manage the suffocating end-of-season workload. I felt a clarity I haven't experienced in months. On a brain break, I checked my personal email and the quiet told me: pay attention to this. An answer to your pain lies in this message in your inbox.

The yoga studio I go to (infrequently of late) hosts a yogapalooza every January. For $30, you get unlimited yoga classes and are encouraged to practice for 30 of the 31 days. I've never participated because my schedule wasn't conducive, but this year I have a fifth grader who can be home alone for an hour while I practice or I can go to the 6 a.m. class before her dad drops her off for the bus. Mostly I heard the quiet say, this is your key to returning to your yoga practice. I also heard the quiet say, and damn girl, your arms will look AMAZING in February! So I signed up. Calliope, my gut, also confirmed this was a good decision.

The email also included information and registration for the studio's next yoga teacher training in 2018. As I clicked on the information, I heard the quiet tell me, it's time. You need to take the leap and get this training done in the new year. I haven't sealed the deal since I don't like impulsivity, but I am meditating on it, and I feel certain that I will take the plunge.

In these two actions--or one action and one contemplation--everything shifted. I felt the weariness that has felt like a boulder on my chest shift its weight if not completely roll off me. I remembered that the days go much better when I take life in all of its ups and downs as an adventure rather than something murky and mucky through which to slog. I looked back over the past few months: I have not been in an adventurous state of mind. Adding yoga back into my daily routine in this new way is one step toward taking back my life as an adventure.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I am so grateful for today. I'm also grateful that FaceBook memories reminded me about how listening to Vivaldi's Four Seasons Recomposed by Max Richter was a good thing to do. Vivaldi really did compose some sexy stuff. I've listened to it for hours on repeat and I love it more with every listen. (I mean, listen to track 11 and tell me that isn't SEXY.)

Other things on my mind (in bullets):

  • I love traditions. I especially like letting go of old ones that no longer serve to make space for new ones. Such as Thanksgiving Day with my friend and her people and the weekend after with my daughter and our grandfather. GOOD STUFF.

  • Meeting the woman for whom I was named was a sacred experience. She's is 95. Her smile reaches her eyes. She held my hand and stroked my arm as we got acquainted. Her blue eyes leaked tears every time she saw me. And here's the yummy part: why wouldn't she? She had recently learned that her life had meant enough to some young girl that when that young girl grew up and became a mother, she passed on all that legacy goodness to a new generation. Oh, to live a life honorable in ways that makes someone want to give their child your name! That's amazing, and I am privileged to be a part of that. No WONDER I have always loved my name. It's a good one.

  • My Christmas cards are addressed, sealed, and stamped. Speaking of traditions, this is one of my favorites and in the midst of all of the above, I found space to honor this tradition. With my daughter's help, I managed to get the labor part of it done BEFORE Thanksgiving.

  • I don't have my 2018 word of the year yet, but I DO HAVE my next writing goal (besides work on my novel.) And for once, I'm not telling anyone about it. I'm going to put my nose to the grindstone and do this thing. When it's done, I'll tell you about it.

  • I am reading some of the books on my daughter's book pile and WOW, authors of books for youth. You all are amazing. Right now, I'm plowing through Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. It is breathtaking, page-turning, devastating. It's everything you want in a good read. Check it out. I also recently devoured Jan Karon's new release To Be Where You Are. I didn't want it to end.

  • I have given up ever whittling down my reading list. There is some liberation in knowing that I will die with books still left to read.

  • Most of my Christmas shopping is done. That feels amazing.

  • The new lounge pants I bought at ALDI for $9.99 were a tremendous buy.
So back to the loneliness for a minute. I'm going to be fine. I know I am. Half the battle is knowing what you're dealing with. And that goes for you, too. Maybe loneliness isn't your thing. Whatever is your thing, you're going to be okay. We're all going to be okay. I am certain of it. And if for awhile it doesn't look like it, I am certain there'll be a good story when it is finally over. I'm looking forward to telling you mine, and I look forward to hearing yours.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Post write31days blues

I am back at the library. My computer situation is in a state of limbo, and I don't have enough energy to address it in a "get this sorted out" sort of way. Plus my daughter loves spending time at the library, so our time here is a miraculous solution to our opposing introverted and extraverted ways.

I have nine minutes of computer time left. Computers shut down 15 minutes before the library closes.

My brain is a scattered mess, and the usual fixes or balms are yoga and writing. I have been doing neither. Not even journaling. This is not good for my well-being.

Two friends said as much yesterday as my poor, frazzled, weary brain took my body through a wave of panic attacks.

Seven minutes.

So I'm here chronicling this low point. One of the friends commented how funny it was that I recently finished an entire series on self-care.

"I've been doing other forms of self-care," I suggested.

"Yes, but not the kinds that do you the most good when you're in this state," she countered.

She's right. I know she is.

Before I started this post, I jotted down my ideas for next October's writing series. At least on that front, I'm ahead of schedule.

Five minutes.

She believes that I am coming to the end of a particular season, and so my anxiety has gone into high gear. Oh please be right, I told her.

Either way, I've been here before. I have better coping skills now and have practiced them. This round is the advanced level, and I have to prove to myself that I'm up to the challenge. Yesterday I asked for help. I also worked on the things that were causing stress and today went better.

Three minutes.

I am being evermore refined by the fire of life. I know I will manage.

Two minutes.

Time to close and hit publish.

More thoughtful posts to come.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

31. The writing has changed me.

I have come to the end of my third #write31days series. I learned so much from the previous two years that I don’t feel exhausted as I have in the past. I am proud of finishing it only three days past the official end of the month. I’ve actually enjoyed the time I’ve spent going to different library branches to sneak in some writing in the midst of my busy days. I feel gratitude in that “be grateful for everything that comes your way” sort of way that my laptop broke before I’d finished the last few posts. It gave me the opportunity to measure my walk against my talk. I’m delighted that the two match.

I implemented self-care techniques whilst writing about how to take care of myself. The universe has such a sophisticated, nuanced sense of humor.

A friend caught up on reading the series and texted: “There’s been a change in you. It’s obvious in your writing…”

I texted back, “The writing has changed me.”

He told me that the sentence was the title of a blog post. I decided it was the right title for the final post of the series. Ultimately, writing has served as one of the most crucial self-care tactics I have employed.

I spent months of 2017 writing stories that I needed to put to rest. By writing them, I exorcised them from the nooks and crannies of my heart and mind. I’d been carrying doses of poison in my body for years. I was so used to the toxic elixir that I didn’t notice its noxious effects on my ability to care for myself. Writing those things diluted the concentrated toxins. Now I’m free. The burden is diminished and I feel lighter and happier than I’ve ever been. I feel hopeful and optimistic about the future.

There were times that I sought publication of these stories. But as I received multiple rejections, I came to understand that that writing was for me. The writing process helped me look at the stuff that brought me pain. Giving it form and shape, turning it into art, helped me face my demons, acknowledge them and to ultimately make peace with them. For so long, I had sought validation and acceptance outside of myself. The writing confirmed that my self-validation was enough. More than enough. WRITING DID THAT FOR ME.

The writing changed me.

Two years ago, I couldn’t imagine being where I am now. It’s exhilarating to no longer fear the unknown—in parts two and three of Astrid’s story and in my own life. I am embracing everything as an adventure. I know I can handle everything that comes my way. I trust that I am never alone—that Calliope is on this journey with me, and that together, my gut and I can rise to every challenge that presents itself.

I’ll keep buying myself flowers, getting massages, and reading for hours when the situation calls for that kind of Sabbath. I’ll relish and prioritize sleep. I’ll continue seeking wholeness and opportunities for extending generosity. I’ll keep practicing yoga, set boundaries, and speak kindly to myself and others. I’ll keep setting goals and asking for help. I’ll keep expanding my playlist and enjoy the artists and musicians whose offerings soothe, motivate, and inspire. And I’ll keep holding my own hand.

These practices will remain the same even when life changes and things feel unfamiliar.

And I’ll meditate on the wise words of others. Especially of people like Martha Beck:

“The compasses inside you will always be pointing the right way, even if you forget to check them, even if you fail for a while to hold your course. You can begin again at any moment, and the instant you turn back toward true north, every mistake you’ve made and every minute you’ve spent following the wrong path will become the raw material of wisdom, compassion, and joy.”

30. What neuroscience says about being happy

I like reading articles with lists of suggestions. I read them specifically to determine where I fit on whatever spectrum the article is exploring. So when my friend Dan sent me thisarticle, as referenced in my massage post, I was delighted to see that according to neuroscience, I’m doing pretty well in the happiness department.

According to neuroscience, happiness is better achieved by participation in the following:

  • Asking what am I grateful for? (I do this as a general practice.) Off the top of my head:
    • My daughter
    • My tribe
    • Travel memories
    • Getting handwritten letters in the mail
    • Belly laughs
    • Marisa de los Santos’ books
    • Watching Top Gear and America’s Funniest Videos with my daughter
    • Autumn
    • Writing
  • Labeling negative feelings. Dan calls this embracing my discomfort. It’s also become a general practice. Calliope and I work together to name whatever I’m feeling—disappointment, fear, anxiety, worry, shame, exhaustion—and then we sit there feeling that emotion for awhile. Naming it helps every time.
  • Make that Decision. I have become vastly more decisive in the past three years. This week alone I have been presented with two technology-based problems: a phone that no longer charged and a ‘service engine soon’ light on my car. In the old days, I would have stewed and freaked out thus making the problems worse. But on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning (everything seems to strike at once!), I faced the challenges head on. Tuesday evening I walked out of the Sprint store with a new phone without too much damage to my budget. Wednesday evening I discovered that the engine light was for something that needs to be replaced to pass the emissions test, but isn’t going to keep me from being safe on the road. Knowing this is so much better than avoiding the answer and chancing it. Decisions made=happiness.
  • Touch people. I am one lucky mama to have such a snuggly, huggy child. She lives for hugs like I do. And as I discussed on day 3, in the absence of more regular adult hugs, I substitute this need with monthly massages. The benefits far surpass my need for hugs. The massages work out the kinks of too much desk sitting and the stresses of long commutes behind-the-wheel five days a week.
This article helped me evaluate my happiness in scientific terms—not something I would naturally do on my own. The four measurements are in fact self-care tactics, so no wonder my happiness levels feel higher than they have been in a long, long time. It’s good to be happy. It’s also good to know how one can influence it on days when happiness feels inaccessible.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

27. Trusting my Gut

All of this self-care has had a healing effect on me. It’s shored me up in ways I didn’t realize were worn thin. I can see now that I was running on spiritual and mental fumes for a long, long time. Some days I’m still weary, but now I know how to assess what I need and administer one of the 20 tactics I’ve discussed in this series.

Part of the knowing what I need has come by the practice of listening to my gut. In the reflection and contemplation of the past three years, I have come to realize that my gut instinct was always my true north. I simply didn’t learn to trust it. I can remember being as young as ten years old and having a clear sense of what I needed. I simply didn’t have the language or practice in exercising that wisdom in a constructive, pragmatic way.

Now as an adult learning from my past mistakes, I am moving forward in consultation with my gut. I trust her guidance and wisdom so implicitly that I’ve decided to give her a name. My gut’s name is Calliope. In mythology, Calliope is the Chief of all Muses. She presides over eloquence and epic poetry. According to Wikipedia, she is also often depicted with a writing tablet in her hands. My gut agrees with me that she should be called Calliope. Cal for short. (I love naming things!)

Rob Bell did a recent podcast where he talks about being the committee. It’s a movie reference from Chariots of Fire where a character says they’ll have to consult the committee on a decision, and another character says, “We are the committee.”

Calliope and I together make up the committee in charge of my life. We consider the possibilities, make the decisions, own the mistakes and failures, course correct, and celebrate the milestones.

This feels so different than in the days when I consulted everyone and their brother to weigh in on my decision making. How could they know what’s best for me?

This is not to say that I never ask for advice or consultation with other wise folks in my life. But it does mean that at the end of the day, the decision is mine. I run EVERYTHING past Calliope, and together we make the decision. I have learned to trust her when she tells me that my decision making is fear based, and I sit and wait, until the decision that does not incorporate fear comes to me. I know longer look for others’ approval. I know myself and what’s best and offer my own approval.

Holy crow--is this a better way to move through the world. Cal and me—we’re the committee.

Monday, October 30, 2017

26. Music

My first memory of music being a part of my life is me as a four-year-old wearing my dad’s giant white and black earphones. They were giant ear muffs over my tiny head and ears. Spiro Gyra was playing. My dad was nearby helping me keep the earphones on my head.

Later, music accompanied my dad, sister, and I every weekend when we loaded our trash in the metal drums and drove them to the outskirts of town to the local dump. Roy Orbison was a favorite every time it came on the radio because my dad sang it with a funny falsetto. It made the three of us giggle every time.

Then there was Whitney Houston, Tiffany, and Debbie Gibson.

Mariah Carey, Sting, Erasure, Sarah McLachlan, Coldplay, Avett Brothers, and Gregory Alan Isakov would come at different intervals of life and help define that each stage for me.

Words play such an important role in my life that they have appeared in various forms throughout this series. All of these artists’ lyrics have formed a scaffold by which I shore up my inner life. I have an eclectic taste in music—I have different music for different moods.

Struggling with depression and the “what next?” of life after graduation, Mariah Carey’s Christmas album was the only music I could stomach as early as October of my senior year. My poor roommate gauged my mood and outlook by what was playing when she approached our door.

I played the piano and viola as a young girl, but I didn’t practice, so those forms of musical expression didn’t stick. But they gave me a foundation for appreciating music and knowing what to listen to which remains with me to this day.

As I type I’m listening to the Avett Brothers’ The Carpenter album. The cello, banjo, and horns are such a soothing presence.
I nurture myself with music of all genres, and am so grateful for its restorative, contemplative powers.