One Disaster At A Time

SOURCE
SOURCE

In my last post, I shared the best advice I ever received at a writers’ conference (“Leap and the Net Will Appear”) and exhorted us all to follow our dreams. That’s the big picture—the adrenaline-rousing kickstart—but in the cold, hard reality of late January, I have to admit there’s a whole lot involved in the leap from conceiving a dream to making it actually happen. So, fasten your seat belts as we descend from the loftiness of our aspirations to the bumpy terrain of everyday life. The two will intersect (I hope) in some sort of useful way.

“Life is just one damn thing after another,” American writer Elbert Hubbard once observed. Ah, if only it were that simple. In my experience, life is usually dozens of damn things, converging all at once like a bad pile-up on the Interstate.  But somehow, we’ve got to manage all the craziness bombarding us, so I’ve put together a little blueprint for meeting the challenge.

Acceptance

Two things to know here: 1) Life is always chaotic. 2) As humans, we are always trying to order this chaos. But how do you manage a thing like life? As with some fantastical dragon of yore, it seems to sprout two new heads for every one you slay. Revisions of one book teeter atop a stack of research for the rough draft of another, e-mails pile up in the Inbox, there’s nothing in the fridge for dinner, you’ve got a dental appointment, and your body is threatening mutiny if you don’t get to the gym soon. Over it all, dust settles on every surface and rolls in drifts across the floor like tumbleweed. A good day is when nothing arrives in the mail requiring your immediate attention.

Prioritizing, that mantra of you-too-can-be-organized gurus, is useful and arguably an absolute necessity when you’ve got a deadline (especially the sort involving contracts, lawyers, and money). But let’s be practical—sooner or later, someone’s gotta unload the dishwasher.

Posit #1: It is not possible to do everything at once. It is not even possible to always do the most important thing first. If you’re rushing to get edits done and the pipe bursts under the kitchen sink, are you going to finish Chapter 12 or call the plumber and start mopping?

This is where perspective comes in handy.

Perspective

overwhelmed man behind wheel photo-1434210330765-8a00109fc773In the 2015 film, The Martian, during a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets struck by debris, then lost, in a whammy of a dust storm. The biometer on his spacesuit is now busted and quits chirping, leaving the rest of his crew to assume he’s dead. In peril themselves, they boogie out of there. Watney regains consciousness to find himself alone, on Mars, with no working communications gear, a length of antenna lodged in his gut, and a limited supply of food in “the Hab” (the crew’s martian living quarters). His only hope is to survive until the next scheduled crew lands at the Schiaparelli crater 2000 miles away in four years.

I would argue that life doesn’t get more challenging than that.

Posit #2: If you’ve still got most of your body parts, a working mind, and you haven’t been stranded on another planet, then there’s hope.  

But it helps to recognize and respect our human limits. Multi-tasking, that great savior of the ‘80s, turns out to be more myth than fact. Our computers may be able to open 12 windows at once, but we cannot. And trying to do so just results in a lot of stress, silly mistakes, and badly-burned dinners.

Which leads to the necessity of developing some basic life philosophy about our limitations and how to deal with them.

Basic Life Philosophy

Source
Source

When I was raising kids and teaching school and writing a book and doing the cooking, laundry, et cetera, I realized I would go right smack out of my head if I didn’t figure out some way to juggle the chaos. As with most things, necessity proved to be the mother of invention. One evening, with dinner bubbling on the stove, two dozen cupcakes baking in the oven for a fundraiser, and a pile of federal tax forms waiting on my desk, my daughter informed me we needed to do a science experiment that night for her class project the next day. She began listing the many items we would need. Wiping a strand of hair from my (tired) face, I gave her one of those smiles parents employ to keep from committing hara-kiri before their children’s eyes. “One disaster at a time,” I told her. Thus was born my succinct philosophy for managing the impossible.

Posit #3: You don’t need a 48-hour day (though if you know where one can be obtained, please write me immediately!). You need to exercise your power of choice.

Making Choices

A few weeks ago, I was feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff that needed doing RIGHT NOW.  And a tad cranky about how this was affecting the overall quality of my life. In a fit of take-charge/can-do, I made a list titled “Life Crushers.” (Okay, I was feeling very cranky.) On it were 11 items that felt like five-ton weights around my neck because it seemed: 1) I had to do them and there wasn’t time; 2) I wanted to do them and there wasn’t time; 3) I was just generally consumed with anxiety about them. Weirdly, I felt better as soon as I finished the list. Looking it over, I began to see choices rather than musts. I could work on two books simultaneously, or focus solely on the revisions for one, or take a break from writing. I could allot one day a week to deal with routine house stuff, tackle it in small doses daily, or wait until we have our next party. I could CHOICE rHBf1lEaSc2nsbqYPQau_IMG_0177blog twice a month, once a month, never again. I made a list of 3-4 alternatives for each life-crusher. In most cases, my choices reflected my original goals, but the exercise helped me to see that I had more control and flexibility in my life than I’d realized. And that very little has to be done by any particular date.

Posit #4: You can slow the merry-go-round any time you want, rearrange the horses, or get off it completely. Yes, there are consequences for your decisions. Choice is not about escaping consequences. It’s about deciding what things you’re willing to pony up for and how high the price you’re prepared to pay.

At the close of The Martian, Matt Damon’s Watney (safely back on Earth) explains the reality behind their dreams to a class of wannabe astronauts. “At some point,” he tells them, “everything’s going to go south on you. You’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now, you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin … You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

Hey, it’s one disaster at a time. It’s what we all do. It’s really all we can do.

It is enough.

Advertisements

Leap and the Net Will Appear

“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”                                                                                                                              (Henry David Thoreau)

It’s mid-January and, depending on your personal tolerance for masochism, you may already be hearing the crack! of those New Year’s resolutions. You know the ones I’m talking about: eat less, exercise more, eliminate stress, organize your closet/house/universe. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these goals. The problem is they quickly drain enthusiasm because they address our shoulds but not our dreams. No one lives to lose ten pounds. So, before we get much older, let’s make a pact and declare 2016 the year we embrace our dreams. Go all out. Lay the foundations for, or continue building the life we really want, the one that speaks to our true selves.

Everyone harbors dreams. Listen to kids. They can invent a million dreams on a summer afternoon. But by the time we’re adults, that equation has shifted to a million reasons LEAP NET charybdis and scyllawhy we can’t pursue our heart’s desire: How can I become an artist/dancer/open my own B&B when I’ve got student loans to pay down/ three kids to feed/am past age 50? It’s true, there’s a world of responsibilities at 40 you never imagined at 10, but there’s also a lot more fear: What if people think I’m crazy? What if I try and don’t make it?

You can drown in reasons and argue with your fears forever. Nothing untried can be proved or disproved. So I will repeat here the best piece of advice I ever got from a writers’ conference: Leap and the net will appear.

As a college student in the Midwest, I used to hitch rides with kids driving home to the NYC area on semester breaks. Arriving in Manhattan, I’d rent a student room for $6/day on the upper floors of a Madison Avenue hotel and walk. Everywhere. I just needed to breathe in that “center of the world” energy and hope because it was my energy and hope, too. After college, I landed a job as editor at a publishing company in Michigan, andLEAP NET feet of girl atop tall building traveled the country learning the ropes of the apparel trade while writing how-to-succeed articles for women’s retailers. I met a lot of good people, but it wasn’t my dream. So, I turned in my resignation, loaded up my VW Bug, and drove to Boston where I signed a lease on a small apartment. (I figured it was easier to be poor in Boston than NYC.)

I leapt and—miracle!—the net did appear. For me, it was the offer my company made to continue my editorship on a contractual basis from my Boston home. It was a great and unexpected gift, saving me the hassle of looking for work, but if it hadn’t happened, I would have waited tables or manned the Slurpee machine at my local 7-11 to support my writing. Sometimes, someone else holds out the net. Sometimes, we have to weave it ourselves. Usually, it’s a combination of both. But mostly, it’s about wanting something so much and believing you are capable. When you see with the eyes of a dream, you begin to spot opportunities outside the range of normal vision. (Don’t worry, it’s not all Shangri-la. I’m going to fess up to some BIG mistakes before we’re through here, and I invite you to laugh long and loud or shake your head in despair of me. I just want to illustrate that nets do appear, and you often have to leap before you see them.)

So, I moved to Boston, wrote my first novel, revised it a bunch of times, and tackled a few short stories. Doing my old job outside an office gave me a lot more hours to write. (It’s amazing how much time gets wasted in offices.)

LEAP NET stargazingIt’s true that when you’re young, you don’t worry so much about stepping outside the conventional. You’re not particularly dizzied at the idea of beating your own path. Indeed, unless you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth, what else can you do in your early 20s? But, I don’t believe our dreams vanish with age. More like they get shoved into some dark corner and silenced in the cacophony of our busy lives. Doubts creep in, grow up around them, cut off their oxygen. We must fight this silencing. A Facebook friend, Jo Anne Shumard, recently posted this: “Doubt is like being afraid to color outside the lines. Do it anyway.”

What happens, though, if you make a mistake, maybe many mistakes? Well, you will. Obstacles arise. Things fall apart. Failure lurks. That first novel I referred to earlier? After typing THE END, I mentioned it to my hairdresser. She had a sister whose college roommate had become an assistant editor at what is today a division of one of the Big Five publishing houses in New York. Cut to the chase: I had lunch with the sister. She recommended me to her editor friend. I sent off the manuscript and the editor loved it. Yes! I thought, I’m on my way! The catch was that as an assistant, she needed her boss, a senior editor, to read the book. A second letter arrived three months later. The seniorLEAP NET skateboarder editor liked my book, but had a list of specific changes he wanted to see before making an offer. Still great, right? Except I was so young and so clueless about the industry and had yet to meet other writers, I thought this meant I had bombed. I put the novel in a drawer and went off to Europe. (I know. I know. I can only offer this example as one that perfectly answers the question: How dumb can you be?)

But doubts don’t kill you. Mistakes don’t kill you. I continued writing and had kids and paid the bills by doing freelance articles for business publications and newspapers. From there, I broke into feature articles for women’s magazines and got a regular gig online. I made and still make decent money editing college texts. But I never gave up fiction.  I went to writers’ conferences, joined critique groups, and just kept learning my craft. And now I’ve got a novel I’m shopping and another I’m writing. Life is good. Hard sometimes, but good. Kathryn Stockett tells the story of how she revised and revised her novel The Help while getting rejections that would have crushed a lesser soul (“There’s no market for this kind of tiring writing.”), BUT the 61st  agent she queried said yes. The Help enjoyed a long ride on the New York Times bestseller list, sold more than a million copies, and was made into a movie. Seriously, read her story here. She will inspire you to never quit.

Yes, luck definitely plays a role. There are so many things we don’t control. But I’ve always liked the quote by humorist/writer Sam Levenson (on the struggle up from his immigrant tenement childhood): “I discovered that the more I hustled, the luckier I seemed to get.”

LEAP NET man on cliffWhat happens, though, if you go for your dreams and they don’t materialize in the way you  imagined? Well, what does? If you strive for your dreams until your last breath, and that last breath finds you still striving, you will have lived a life pursuing what you loved. There are worse epitaphs. As business magnates are fond of telling us, all opportunity carries risk. But you can’t really do a risk assessment on your dreams without asking: What do I risk by not following my heart?

So, as we launch out into 2016, I wish you a year—and a lifetime—of dreams. Remember that John Lennon was once dismissed as “hopeless” and “certainly on the road to failure.” Stephen King worked a drudge job in an industrial laundry while writing Carrie. Even Albert Einstein was told he “[would] never amount to anything.” All they had were their dreams, a fierce belief in themselves, and an unquenchable determination.

So, keep leaping. And maybe pack a few bandages.

LEAP NET hundreds of balloons