Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Power of the Holy Slump

I have recently exited a period I have coined as a Holy Slump. It's symptoms include:
  • A sense there's something you should be doing—even want to do—but can't quite muster the energy for;
  • Early bedtimes;
  • Worry that this slump will never end;
  • Heaviness in head and heart;
  • A sense that something good will come from this unproductive season, which helps you cope with the symptoms above.

Martha Beck, a favorite wise woman and author writes, “During the times we think we're being “unproductive,” the seeds of new worlds are germinating within us, and they need peace to grow.” I observed my daily activity from late February through early April. This quote kept coming back to me during those days.

I shared Part One of my novel with a few trusted readers in the days leading up to the Holy Slump. I was shocked, elated, and relieved by the positive feedback. The “I want more” feedback motivated me to keep going at the same time that fear of how to write through my protagonist's undoing froze my fingers on my mechanical keyboard.

And so I did something new. I did not despair. I did not castigate myself. I gave myself permission to not write. At least to not work on my novel. And I didn't even discuss this slump with Dan. What the past few years has taught me, and last year's daily writing habit reinforced, is that my heart's desire is to write. The Holy Slump whispered to me: Trust that not working on your novel for awhile will not diminish your love of writing. I journaled and wrote a lot of letters where I articulated a lot of new insights.

During this time, my characters lived and breathed in my mind. I caught myself staring into space at work and realized that my character's brother, one of the story's narrators, handed me new material to open Part Two of the novel. These beloved characters kept me company on my commutes to and from work. The Holy Slump created space for us to dwell together and to grow.

The Holy Slump also offered a space for me to reassess the dogged productivity of 2015. I examined how it came to be that I set up arbitrary rules to order my life. I began to see that these rules in themselves are not bad things, yet anything in excess can turn into a hindrance. My rules about writing had turned on me.

“I watched you work on that 40/40 list like it was a military operation. You aren't going to like hearing this, but you have control issues, and you exerted control over that list,” said Tammy. She was right on both counts. I didn't like hearing it, and I knew that control HAD played a role in executing my 40th year. The list had been a healthy distraction in the midst of a year where there were a lot of uncertainties that I could not control. Her feedback helped me wrestle with this controlling nature. I saw where these inclinations served me (I accomplished a lot in 2015) and where they did not (I held myself to exacting, unnecessary, and arbitrary expectations.)

I recognized myself in this quote by Danielle LaPorte:

Underneath overzealous motivation can be self-hatred. Underneath a lot of “self-care” can be more self-hatred. We can create new addictions, new obsessions, and it really keeps us on the wheel of “I'm not good enough yet, but I'll get better. Are you trying to improve yourself or are you exploring or expanding your potential? Improvement vs. Potential. They feel different.

After establishing a daily writing habit, that activity now was the newest self-inflicted rule or obsession. Writing everyday became a new criteria by which to judge myself. In my mind, daily writing was another recipe for somehow making me better.  Why did I think I needed to be better? The Holy Slump helped illuminate this as a lie of my controlling nature. It gave me permission to stop judging myself. Nobody cares whether I write every day or not. Neither should I. The Holy Slump gifted me with new perspective and a fresh dose of gentleness. The truth is I write because I love to, not because I have to. Skipping a day won't change that.

Like a spring shower that passes as gently and quickly as it begins, the Holy Slump lifted. I noticed one day that the heaviness I'd been carrying for the past month seemed lighter. Something had shifted. I missed writing my novel more than I was afraid of how to proceed. This felt monumental. All of this came to me one day at work. That evening I draped myself in my favorite robe, brewed a cup of tea, and sat at my writing desk. I puttered a bit to ease into the writing session.

The result during that evening of writing? Two and a quarter pages of brand new material for Part Two. I was relieved. The story was coming to me easier than I had imagined. Those seemingly unproductive days and weeks had been what I needed to rest, regroup, and remember why I love writing.

I refer to this period as holy because the entire time I was moving quietly through, observing my patterns, and giving myself space, I felt supported, buoyed, and encouraged by a force I couldn't see. I sensed that I was in sacred space and that I could trust this time to enrich, strengthen, and prepare me for unknown writing—and life—experiences ahead. 
Only if I let it. And so I did. I let it work on me. I allowed new ideas to germinate within and trusted that new growth would come.

I feel different now. I am at ease about my book's progress and my writing pursuits in general. I am certain that welcoming this Holy Slump into my writing timeline will ultimately allow me to finish my manuscript sooner than if I pushed through instead of taking this pause. Either way, I understand that it really doesn't matter when I finish, and that uncertainty can be holy too.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Rejection #4

When I started this blog, the plan was to chronicle my writing pursuits by celebrating my way to 300 rejected submissions. Submissions were few at the time because I hadn't convinced myself to own "writer" as a title. When I finally identified myself as such, I was so busy writing about the 40/40 list and working on my novel there wasn't time or energy to write pieces to submit.

Now I am motivated by the need for additional income as well as the desire to expand my comfort zone even broader (I've not yet written a query letter. It scares me, which means it's the next thing I must do), so I am newly motivated to prepare more pieces for submission.

Last fall I submitted the following essay for the 8th Annual Real Simple Essay Contest. This was my third crack at the contest over the years, and I am happy to announce it is the next rejection toward 300. I found the winning essay on the Real Simple web site today. It is a breathtaking essay and so deserving of the first prize ribbon. Congratulations to Diane Penney!

I have friends who insist that there's a book within my 40/40 list experience. I'm not ruling it out. There was at least an essay, which I present to you below.  Time will tell what other ways I will be inspired to write about how the 40/40 list shaped my life. Until then, here's my response to the magazine's question: What single decision has changed your life?

40/40 Vision: The Decision That Gave Me a New Outlook on Life

“You know, Julie, I'm creating a list of 27 things I want to do in celebration of my 27th birthday. You should do the same to celebrate your 40th.” My coworker's suggestion made me laugh and consider our age gap. My slender build, bone structure, and big eyes reminded her of Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day—a movie we watched the same year. She was nine. I was a senior in college.

I didn't take her suggestion seriously at first, but over the next few days, the possibilities began to percolate in my imagination. Check off 40 activities in my 40th year. I numbered a sheet of notebook paper and began filling in the blanks.

I posted a request on Facebook for suggestions. Friends offered ideas and their willingness to participate in some of them. Themes developed in an organic way. There were physical challenges: run a 5K with my brother-in-law; take tennis, ice skating, and trapeze lessons; do yoga daily—four sun salutations—to improve my forward bends; kayak at a local lake. A love of books and reading were represented: read four more presidential biographies; read a book off a high school reading list; re-read my favorite childhood series Anne of Green Gables. Writing four letters to state and federal legislators and attending a school board meeting rounded out the civic-minded category. Making bread pudding, making pie crust from scratch, and taking a cooking class at a local grocery store satisfied the cooking theme. 
I made sure that there were activities that my eight-year-old daughter could do with me: attend a symphony performance; get a pedicure with bright red polish; go to Meramec Caverns in rural Missouri; learn to fishtail braid her hair. 

Participating in a 31 day writing challenge in October and blogging about each of the completed activities represented my love of writing on the list. And then miscellaneous items that piqued my interest completed the list: singing a Sara Bareilles song at karaoke; staying in a hotel overnight solo; renting a MINI cooper; making a substantial donation to a charity; taking a train trip.

I kicked off the list on January 3—my 40th birthday—by having lunch with girlfriends at the Boathouse in Forest Park in St. Louis. It's a restaurant I'd never been to in the dozen years I'd lived here. Being surrounded by such warm, inspiring, lovely women was the perfect start to a brand-new year and decade. We talked and laughed (and cried a little bit too) for hours. I marveled at how a group of women whose only known commonality was a mutual friend could bond and enjoy each others' company so much. 
My first 40 years were spent as a bookworm who lived predominantly in her heart and mind. The 40/40 list pushed me to question the narratives I had about who I was and what I believed about myself. Working my way through the list underscored just how much of life I had lived as a spectator, an observer. Take physical activity, for example. When my brother-in-law suggested I add running a 5K race to the list, I felt intimidated. “I’m not a runner!” I thought to myself. But he was suggesting a 5K, not a marathon, and so I agreed. I completed it successfully in just under 33 minutes. There were other labels that this list was challenging. Prior to turning forty, I also believed that “I'm terrible in the kitchen!” I repeated this belief often. It became a part of who I was. But then I baked the recipes on the list. No calamity occurred in the making of these desserts. In fact, they were delicious, and I had made them! I could no longer own the “bad cook/baker” label.

New mantras like “I can do everything” and “Right here, right now” developed in place of old labels. These mantras set a new tone throughout all aspects of life. “I can do everything” accompanied me on training runs for the 5K. It also came in handy before I launched myself off a three-story zipline platform or grasped the next handhold on the indoor rock climbing course. 

In January, I believed checking off items on the 40/40 list was simply a creative way to celebrate a milestone. What I know now with just a few activities left to cross off is that the 40/40 list initiated a spiritual journey. Always introspective, I evaluated myself in new contexts and under different circumstances. With emotional excavation I have grappled with the great role fear has played in my life. These activities have served as practice to end the cautious, play-it-safe ways I lived before. In my twenties and thirties, I was a serious woman who worried far too much about what other people thought of my decisions. Everything, real or imagined, scared me and so I backed away from anything that made me anxious. Now when I detect a sense of fear, I ask myself, “Are you scared?” If the answer is yes, I take the fear by the hand and proceed. In this way, I neutralize it and prove myself stronger. The fears of failure, physical pain, and not “doing something right,” have loosened their grips. 

The 40/40 list has created a fertile environment to take on other challenges that weren't outlined on the initial list. My new life is peppered with the questions “Why not?” and “What have I got to lose?” It turns out I have so much to gain: I started a daily writing habit and completed the first draft of a novel. I attended a writing retreat in Montana. I refinanced my house as a solo homeowner. And I did all of these things in the first seven months of my 40th year.

As I celebrated my birthday all year, I witnessed others approach the milestone with trepidation, sadness, or dread. I cannot relate to these reactions. I love being 40! The first year of this new decade has ushered in new ways to live my best life. I take a stand for myself. I feel more energy, more happiness, and more zest for life than ever before. 

The reverberations from the list will last a lifetime. I didn't just run a 5K. I became a runner and have run another race since checking the first one off the list. And now I get a pedicure after every race. It's a new “be good to myself” ritual I've started. My daily yoga has taught the importance of consistent effort toward a goal. I can touch my toes without bending my knees. This was not possible in January. 

Nothing about life has changed, but everything about me has. Life is still hard and complicated, scary and unknown. The 40/40 list has taught me to take life as it comes. To delight in the good times, and to trust my instincts when the bad times appear. To keep one foot in front of the other, and to not look too far down the path. To just stay present and let tomorrow worry about itself. Best of all, I will be a better example of how to live a full and meaningful life for my daughter at 41 than I was at 40.
I can't wait to see the other ways my life transforms when this list is complete. I am grateful for my 27-year-old coworker's birthday suggestion to make that list. I hope she's had half the fun I have had.