I spent the weekend at the RT Book Reviewers Convention in Las Vegas, where I met tons of amazing readers, authors, agents and editors. And then, on the way home, I saw a dude reading ON WRITING on the subway. And that made me think. Outside of skill, what are the main things that helped pro writers become pro writers? Here's my answer, and I've compiled oodles of great responses from Twitter that run the gamut from NYT bestsellers to midlisters to debuts to small press writers to indie writers to comics writers to game writers to editors to non-fiction writers. And the answers are still coming. For the complete list of all responses, just click on this link.
Here's my answer:
And here's a compilation (so far). Stubborness and support seem to rank really high...
So I often get personal on here, but not about this topic. I've had a lot of questions about the STRIKE launch this Tuesday and why I'm not doing the usual launch party or any sort of tour. So here goes.
My dad was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011, and after surgery and a few years of remission, it came back with a fury. He's been fighting hard, but as of last Friday, his oncologist has given him weeks to live, and he's starting hospice care tomorrow. I will be spending more time with my parents to help out. This is why I'm not able to do a launch party for Strike and have not planned any travel this summer. As of right now, I am planning on fulfilling my obligations at RT Vegas and ConStellation in April, but if that changes suddenly, you'll know why.
Know that I have great support and will not want to talk about this via PM, email, or phone, but I really appreciate everyone's kind words and good thoughts. If you want to do something nice for me, please go get a colonoscopy. It's not as bad as it sounds, and I know, because I had one in November. You'll be glad to know my colon is totally clean.
If you're hoping to get a signed copy of STRIKE, I will be stopping by FoxTale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, GA to sign stock, and I'd be happy to personalize any of my books for you. Just call, email, or order online, and they're happy to ship. Strike will also be available at the Big Book Fair at RT Vegas. And you can always email your mailing address to whimsydark (at) gmail (dot) com for a signed bookplate, although that might take me longer than usual.
And I guess now you know where I got that bitter line in HIT about how fucked up our medical system is, that it takes more money to die slowly from cancer than it does to become a doctor.
Hug your loved ones, y'all, because cancer sucks.
I have a box of STRIKE hardcovers, and I'm giving 3 away. You should win one!
Strike is out April 12, and here's the deal:
From the author of the “gritty near-future dystopian tale,” (Booklist) Hit comes the thrilling sequel about an indentured assassin fighting to survive in a world of anarchy.
The hit list was just the beginning.
Time to strike back.
After the exciting conclusion of HIT, Patsy is on the run with her boyfriend, Wyatt. All she wants to do is go home, but that’s never going to happen—not as long as Valor’s out to get her and the people she loves.
Left with no good choices, Patsy’s only option is to meet with a mysterious group that calls itself the Citizens for Freedom.
Led by the charismatic Leon Crane, the CFF seem like just what Patsy has been looking for. Leon promises that if she joins, she’ll finally get revenge on Valor for everything they’ve done to her—and for everything they’ve made her do.
But Patsy knows the CFF has a few secrets of their own. One thing is certain: they’ll do absolutely anything to complete their mission, no matter who’s standing in their way. Even if it’s Patsy herself.
Delilah S. Dawson brings anarchy and high-octane drama to the next explosive level in this sequel to the “practically movie-ready” (Kirkus Reviews) novel, Hit.
Here is the painful truth:
Now matter what you have, you will always want more.
I used to think writing a book would be enough.
Then I thought getting an agent would be enough.
Then I thought selling a book to a traditional publisher would be enough.
Then I thought seeing my books in the bookstore would be enough.
Then I thought selling more books and getting into anthologies would be enough.
These days, I tell myself that if I hit the bestseller list or see a movie or TV show of my book, that will be enough.
But I know well enough that it won't be.
Bad news, kids. Nothing is ever enough. You will always want more. And even if you got to a place where you had all the success, fame, and money you think you want, you would be utterly miserable. Why? Because then you have more to lose, and because there's nothing worse than getting everything you ever dreamed of and having nothing left to strive toward.
When you're first beginning your publishing journey, it's very easy to spend your days seething with jealousy and feeling like time is against you. Every sale or offer of agency announced is one chance you've already missed. If you'd just finished that mermaid book in time, it would've been on trend and sold for mad bank. If you could only get to that con, you'd meet the right person and get your foot in the door. You feel impatient and hungry and like you deserve your shot, too. But this time crunch? Is a lie.
If you're not getting what you want, it's not because of time. It's because you haven't written enough yet, you haven't failed enough yet, or you aren't ready to level up.
From this side of the process, having been there myself, I see it clearly.
When I see other authors announcing a new book sale, that they've hit list, that they've sold foreign or movie rights, that they're being shipped off to standing-room-only book tours, I get jealous. Sooooo painfully jealous. Enraged, self-critical, self-pitying jealous. And I feel that old time crunch again. I feel like these successes are something I deserve, too, and that it should be happening right goddamn now.
I suspect that, a few years from now, I'll see it for what it is:
I haven't written enough yet, I haven't failed enough yet, and I'm not ready to level up.
So here's what I do when that green-eyed bitch Jealousy breathes down my neck:
Get off social media, where we only see the high points of someone's career and life.
Rekindle my own creative passion and find a way to fall in love with the work again.
Take in more media—more books, more non-fiction, more comics, more TV and movies.
Get out of the house and reconnect with nature and other people.
Remember that there are people who are desperate to be where I am and be supremely grateful for my friends, my art, and all that I have accomplished.
Help lift other people up.
It can sometimes feel like publishing is a fancy, exclusive room where people hang out without you. That there is a secret handshake or code word that will get you past the doorman, and everything will be Easy Street forever after that. It's not until you're sitting face to face at the bar with other professional writers that you realize that WE ALL FEEL THIS WAY ALL THE TIME. We all feel like loners trying to claw our way past that velvet rope, and everyone who actually gets in that room suspects they are an imposter who will soon be discovered and kicked out.
You know how the Hulk's secret is that he's angry all the time? The secret of most pro writers is that we're jealous. All. The. Time. When we actually get what we want, we have a few brief, shining moments of celebration—carefully presented with beautiful filters and appropriate levels of surprise and modesty via social media—before we're back to worrying and wanting. And working even harder to stay where we are.
I'd like to say that I have an easy solution for you, but there isn't one. In order to be a writer, you must be consumed and obsessed and driven by the work, and that compulsion doesn't typically come from a place of comfort and zen. Great art comes from discomfort and disequilibrium and daring. Leveling up comes through hard work. And all of that takes time.
How long does it take to write a book? It takes what it takes.
How long does it take to get published? It takes what it takes.
How long does it take to be satisfied with your art, your career, and your success?
It takes forever, broken up by small moments of mercy.
Savor them. Savor that partial request. Enjoy The Call. Take lots of pics signing your first contract. But never forget that none of it will ever feel as good as opening a document and starting a new book, your heart full of hope and your eyes sparkling with the thrill of adventure. That's what you need to live for. Not the money, not the fame, not the success. It all comes down to who you are when you sit down to write and if you're willing to keep doing it, even when you feel like you're not enough.
Coming March 1: A NEWSLETTER!
Because Facebook refuses to show you my posts unless I pay, and Twitter means you might miss something, and Instagram doesn't show links, and ARGLE BARGLE. So I will send out a monthly GNUSLETTER with book news/gnus, events, sale alerts, and a monthly subscriber-only giveaway.
This month's giveaway is a highly coveted, very rare, signed ARC of STRIKE, which is out on April 12. Sign up for the newsletter and you're entered to win, every month. Easy peasy gnus need squeezies.
How do you sign up? RIGHT HERE.
Or at any time, you can go to the Home page or About + Contact page of this website and put in your email. I won't spam you or give away your info, and you're free to unsubscribe at any time--although then you'll lose your ability to win the monthly giveaway.
In the comments, you can tell me what you'd like to see, and I'll do my best to keep the gnus fun, lively, interesting, useful, and in no way annoying.
Thanks, as always, for reading! HERE'S TO YOU AND GNUS.
Post subtitle: How a $5 Wal-Mart bra can change your life
For you and for me, here's a list of the new things I'm doing to keep depression and anxiety at bay. First, though, let's all acknowledge that bodies and minds and times are different, and what's currently working for me might not work for you, and it might not work for me in the future. There's no magic bullet here. If meds work for you, keep it up. Do not quit meds and hope that yoga and tea will fix that shit. Still, maybe you'll find something that helps. If I'm missing something that works for you, please share it in the comments.
First off: I'm not getting into any talks of cultural appropriation. I refuse to debate anyone who doesn't like yoga. I am telling you, quite honestly, that yoga is making the biggest difference in my life right now. It connects my body and mind and relaxes me better than two drinks ever did. I look forward to it. It gets me out of the house. I talk to people. I sleep better. My body feels stronger. My digestion works better. I bought a travel mat and do it at home and on the road. I read about the history and philosphy behind it. I love my studio and found a teacher I believe in. It's not bullshit. This feeling is real. If yoga isn't your thing, you might try Zumba, Jazzercize, a personal trainer, a barre class, Pilates, kickboxing. Something that forces your brain and body to move and keep you grounded.
2. Probiotics and digestive enzymes
Whether you're considering the ongoing science behind the brain-gut connection or you just get an upset tummy when you're anxious, I can assure you that life is always better when your digestion is regular. You might have to play around with brands and strains that work for you. I've found probiotics that make me feel wretched, and I've tossed them in the trash. But when you find the combination that works, it's awesome. I'm currently using HyperBiotics Pro-15 and DigestMore, an enzyme blend especially helpful for people without gallbladders. It's so important that I don't travel without those bottles. Get thee a good quality probiotic, stat.
3. Natural Calm
This powdered magnesium supplement by Natural Vitality is everything. I have it in cherry flavor and in a formulation balanced with calcium and zinc. Magnesium is freaking awesome-- it helps with digestion, with mood, and with the thyroid, especially Hashimoto's thyroiditis, which I have. I drink 1.5t mixed with water morning and night. It's amazing.
4. No gluten
Yep, I'm one of those gluten free assholes who has tested negative for celiac disease and wheat allergies but nevertheless sees a 180 degree difference in my body when I avoid wheat. When I quit, I dropped 7 pounds immediately and saw huge changes in my entire body, from a lack of sugar cravings to less indigestion to better skin. Not eating wheat means I make better nutritional choices all around. Mind you, I didn't replace wheat products with a barrage of GF snacks; I don't replace bread or buy $5 bags of pretzels, and if I did, I doubt I'd see the weight loss. But I eat a hell of a lot more salad now, and that's pretty cool.
5. Lots of sleep, no matter what it takes.
When I get anxious and depressed, I dread going to bed. I love sleep, but I hate feeling like I can't get the sleep I need. That means that I might have to take a Lorazepam before bed. Or I take Melatonin when I'm traveling or Unisom tablets when it's really bad. Point being that I'd rather take half a Unisom and get ten hours of sleep than proudly toss and turn all night and get four hours of crappy sleep. Find what works for you and use whatever crutch you can until you're on the other side of your mental health issues. Your brain can't heal if it can't sleep.
6. SAD light in the morning
Sunlight can be hard to come by in the winter. I have my SAD light ($80 on Amazon) programmed for 45 minutes. I sit in front of it as I check social media and email in the morning and drink my Crio Bru. The only bad thing about it is the frown I get when the damn thing turns off. And whenever it's sunny, I'm outside, trying to soak that shit up. Vitamin D is your friend.
I suck at meditating on my own, so I use the Headspace app. While traveling, I use earbuds and meditate to go to sleep; I rarely finish the 10 minute session. If Headspace doesn't work for you, there are tons of free apps and sessions online and on YouTube. Hell, even Jeff Bridges does an amazing series of psychedelic meditation trips. Find someone you can listen to and try to make time to clear out your brain.
8. Daily journaling and listmaking
I bought The Artist's Way Morning Pages Journal, a big, hardcover beast. I don't use it the way I'm supposed to. I make a list each day of things that I do that are good for me, or moments I want to remember, or things that made me feel wonderful. I plan books and write quotes that strike me. It's great to look back and see how much I accomplish and how many moments of mercy I tend to forget when times get dark. And when I can't get to sleep at night, I make a list of all the shit I'm worried about or need to do and set it aside until morning, when it feels negligible. Just push that to-do list to Future You and go to sleep.
9. Reading out of my comfort zone
When I was younger and friendless and had acres of time, I loved sweeping fantasy tales that drew me into a new world. But now, with two kids and a husband and a career, I've leaned toward fast, immediately compelling reads, especially YA. I basically untrained my brain to commit to big, fat books. Now I spend my daily bath reading a big ol' fantasy, and I'm remembering how pleasant it is to be immersed in something heavy and long-term. I'm also reading more non-fiction. The idea here is to force your brain to slow down and work in a different way. We get caught in our loops, and it's valuable to do the unexpected.
10. No more underwire
So I've spent most of my adult life wearing lightly padded underwire bras to make my bazooms look bazoomtacular. But once the indigestion and anxiety and gallbladder issues started, I one day realized that I looked forward to taking off my bra every night and never put one on unless I was going out in public. I came to dread the bra. And then I realized that... well, I never promised anyone a fantastic rack. I don't owe the world Victoria Secret boobs. So I started wearing these $4.96 bras from Wal-Mart (pictured above) and never looked back. No confusing straps. No underwire. No tight band. I feel more comfortable all the time, I can do yoga or ride my horse in them, and no one yet has complained about any lack of boob lift. So there. If this doesn't apply to you or you require more support than I do, the take home lesson is this: If you dread a particular item of clothing or part of your beauty routine, see if you can change it or give it up. If your jeans are too tight or you hate tying sneakers or heels hurt your feet or mascara makes your eyelashes fall out, fuck that.
11. Nightly epsom salt bath that is sacrofuckingsanct
I blogged at length about this, and I stand behind it. Epsom salts, dead sea salts, essential oils, Lush bath bombs. Get that hour of relaxation and enjoy the hell out of it.
12. Forgiving myself
Every Thursday at yoga, we each draw a card from deck. My card last week, which I drew on Wednesday because I knew I couldn't make Thursday, said, “I forgive myself. As I forgive myself, I leave behind all feelings of not being good enough, and I am free to love myself.” Goddamn, that's powerful. I hold myself to very high standards, and when I mess up, I chew on it and nurse it until I feel like shit. No more. Let it go.
13. Eating well
Fruits, vegetables, cheese, nuts, quality meats. The more I rely on prepackaged food, the worse I feel. I've even upgraded the protein bars I take when I travel to make them less candy bar and more rectangular whole foods. I'll bake a pan of chicken breasts and use them to make turmeric chicken salad or toss the into a bed of spring mix or stir fry with frozen broccoli. Just making them ahead of time suddenly makes every meal easier.
14. Lots of tea
Seriously. I've learned to love tea. I love Jasmine White Pearl tea and Candy Cane Lane tea and Caramel Yerba Mate tea and Decaf Coconut Chai tea. A lovely fan sent me a fancy batch of Russian Caravan tea. Tea is good for you and warms you up and hydrates you. Buy good tea and stop your crazy life and relish it for ten minutes.
15. Recognizing signs of anxiety and shutting them down
If someone is posting tons of good news on Facebook and I feel myself getting jealous? I unfollow them. If everyone on Twitter seems to have great announcements? I don't read my feed. Googling symptoms or illnesses makes me crazy? I don't do it. Talking to someone ratchets up my blood pressure? I don't take the call. Stuck in a real life convo that makes me feel like shit? Bye, Felicia-- albeit politely. Basically, when you feel your body start to freak, you slam down the NOPE and stop whatever it is. Get up, go do something else. Turn on music and dance around. Whatever it takes, don't let that shit in. You're worth it.
What's working for you?
“I'm afraid, madame, my days are sacrosanct.”
~Lestat de Lioncourt, Interview with a Vampire (the movie)
Do you have something that is sacrosanct? A place, a practice, a time of day? Because I need one to stay on an even keel, and maybe you do, too.
For me, it's my daily bath. Considering our other bathtub leaks, my personal bathroom has become the family bathroom. But everyone knows that if it's after dark and that door is shut, you BY GOD DO NOT GO IN THAT BATHROOM. Mommy will be soaking in a high, hot bath full of epsom salt and Dead Sea salt and unguents and ambergris and blissful silence, and she will be reading a big, epic book, and she will be wearing a terrifying clay mask that makes her look like a demon, and she will not be kind to anyone who makes any requests other than PLEASE GET OUT THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE BECAUSE ALIENS?
All day, I look forward to that hour of comfort and peace. I can't wait to step into the too-hot water, ease in, and feel my muscles unfurl. I read big, sweeping epics that require a level of mental focus and immersion I don't have during the rest of the day. I take my time and salt scrub my feet, and when I'm done, I go straight into my bed, with the heated mattress pad turned up. This ritual has become the perfect way to transition from the eager thoughts and energy of daytime to the relaxation and quiet of night, and although I generally have trouble getting to sleep, it's a lot easier now.
The thing is, you need-- no. DESERVE. No! REQUIRE something sacrosanct. Whether it's your office or studio, your hour of running, your time at the nail salon, your weekly pottery class, your evening with the piano, you need something that belongs only to you, something over which no one else holds dominion. My daytime is an endless stream of tiny tasks and requests that interrupt my thoughts and remind me that people depend on me, but during my bath, my time is 100% my own. I find my mind sorting itself out, relaxing, unloading all the little reminders I carry on my shoulders. The body is cleansed, and so is the mind. I'm... a lot kinder, afterward.
Depression and anxiety can make you feel like you're not in charge, not of yourself or of your reality. It's easy to feel hopeless and buffeted about by factors beyond your control. Maybe you don't care about anything, or maybe you care too much, but the point is that you are not deciding what to care about at all. The world is assaulting you, making you into a plaything of a stormy sea—or at least, that's how I feel. Like I'm trying to swim but can't stay above the water. Like I'm too heavy to float, and I can't figure out which way is up or how to get to shore, and I need some way to feel lighter and find my direction.
In short, it sucks.
Taking some time to feel things, to relax, to connect mind to body in a space where you don't have to wait for the next interruption? It's a gift you give yourself, and you don't feel guilty for it. Even if you have to wait until everyone else is asleep or get up an hour early, this kind of mental island is as necessary as eating and drinking.
If you don't have something sacrosanct, I urge you to find it. No matter how little time and space you have in your life, there has to be 15 minutes you can carve out, even if it's just listening to an audiobook on the way to work instead of putting up with talk radio that makes you feel shitty. There's so much you have to do; there should be something, every day, that you can't wait to do. Something you do just for you.
Even if you have to fight for it.
I'm pretty sure Lestat would approve.
Forget about expensive workshops, degrees, and friends in publishing. Forget about anyone who tries to tell you there's only one path. Here's what REALLY helped me get published. Hint: It's not all about writing.
1. Get zen.
Accept that in the long haul, you're going to be okay no matter what. If you never get an agent, if you never sell a book, if you never hit list, if they never make an awesome movie. Everyone's going to die, and you can't take it with you. None of it really matters. That's why you have to really love the process of writing, the brainstorming and the first drafting and the painful editing. When you accept that no end result is ever going to be good enough, what's left is love of the work. As Macklemore says, “Make the money, don't let the money make you. Change the game, don't let the game change you.” You can write any time you want about anything you wish, and no one can stop you. You don't need any outside validation whatsoever to tell stories.
2. Take yourself less seriously.
I tried to be a serious writer for a while, and I failed. I'm not a serious person. I laugh too loud and wear bright cowboy boots and don't want to conform to narrow genre expectations. I'm never going to be in a pantsuit with a sensible bob and a briefcase. Some people might not take me seriously, but that helps me figure out who's worth knowing, doesn't it? Having fun and being genuine is the only way to make it as a writer without being miserable. Books aren't about wacky ideas, they're about execution. Once I stopped trying to impress people, I had a lot more fun.
Until you're GRRM or JKR, nobody really gives a shit about you, most of the time.
3. Take the work more seriously.
Note: This does not in any way oppose number 2. I'm wacky, but I've never missed a deadline. I do my work, I finish on time even if it means I have to stay up all night, and I give my pass pages the same attention I give every other part of the process. I don't blow off cover copy or show up late to a panel at a con. In short, I'm professional, and I aim to be someone that editors know they can count on. Part of your work--as a human being and as a writer-- is also helping others and being kind, so take that work seriously, too.
4. Give up what drags you down.
That counts for friends that don't support your writing, family members who make you feel shitty on Facebook, and painting your fingernails. Yeah, that last one took me a while. I used to think I had to file and paint my fingernails before every con and book event, lest someone think less of me as I signed their book. And then I realized that I hate everything about filing and painting my fingernails, and I quit, and I never looked back. To my knowledge, this has not adversely affected my career. You get to shape your reality. And, yeah, you need to work your job and take care of your kids and all, but you don't have to join the HOA or bake 30 cakes for the PTA or blow dry your hair if it doesn't genuinely make your life better. The lighter I am, the better I write.
5. Choose indifference.
Assholes on the internet can really get you down, and I used to snap back some clever retort every time they showed up in my feed. But, honestly, that just gives them validation and makes them double down. Indifference is now my way. Correct me? Nothing. Goad me? Nothing. Tell me I'm wrong? Nothing. Put down my books? Nothing. Just let it float on by like a turd in a stream. You get to choose what touches you. Other people cannot force you to react. And, of course, indifference usually hurts much more than attention. You're not going to change anyone's mind. Let it go. Move on.
6. Accept discomfort.
When I'm first drafting, I get less than 6 hours of sleep a night. When I'm editing, I forget to eat. When I'm on a tight deadline, I forgo social events and wear pajamas for a week. Sometimes, writing is hard. Sometimes, I hate my book. Discomfort is a normal part of life. If you want something, you sacrifice for it. Which doesn't mean that you go bonkers from lack of sleep and get shingles from not eating. It just means that art isn't supposed to be easy and feel great all the time. Once you accept this discomfort, it's easier to lean into it and push through to the other side.
7. Care less.
This is something I learned in Odyssey of the Mind: If you forget that what you're doing is A BIG DEAL, it loosens you up to make more creative choices. If you think THIS IS THE STATE FINALS AND I HAVE TO DO GREAT, you'll choke. If you're thinking, I'M HANGING WITH MY FRIENDS, PLAYING A GAME, you'll do fine. That's why I only got one paragraph into the first book I ever tried to write—I couldn't decide on the heroine's eye color, and I was terrified to get it wrong, and UGHHHH. There is no perfect sentence. There is no perfect first chapter. There is no Platonic ideal of Your Book that will be guaranteed success. There are, at any moment, infinite paths and infinite words to describe them. Your first draft is not set in stone, and neither is your second. Care less. Get the words down. Fix it later. Especially when brain storming pitches, we tend to seek THE PERFECT PITCH. There isn't one. Throw spaghetti at the brain wall and see what sticks.
8. Yoink constantly.
YOINK is the word I use on tumblr when tagging posts that resonated with me. “I could use that in a book,” I think. And when I need inspiration, I search my tumblr for YOINK and start scrolling. Or I rip pages out of magazines, write down random quotes I hear in public, or pay close attention to characters that really worked for me in movies or on TV shows. Great artists steal, constantly. You have to find a way to make it your own, but there's truly nothing new under the sun. Instead of sitting alone, pondering something entirely new, play around with how to flip something that intrigues you. Yoink from the world, the internet, other books and movies. Whatever you want to do, believe me: Shakespeare or Hollywood already did it. What makes it special is how only *you* can do it.
9. Expect failure.
I was terrified of failure as a kid. Scared to get a bad grade. Scared to guess wrong. Scared to speak up if I wasn't quite sure of the answer. That continued through high school and college and plagued me into adulthood. Truth is, great success can't come without great risk. You've got to try and fail before you can succeed. Your first book will probably suck. Your first short story will probably not sell. Your first panel might involve you making a fool of yourself. Point is, every person you see as a success right now is standing on the tip of an iceberg of failure. Fail early, fail often. Try new things. Just yesterday, I tried a new pose in yoga and fell on my ass. Nobody noticed. Nobody cared. They were too busy trying not to fall over.
10. Say no.
The saying goes HELL YES OR NO THANKS. Basically, stop saying yes just to please people and then regretting it later. If you're not enthusiastically interested, say no and move on. Free yourself to pursue what really compels you. The pain of turning down an offer is 1/10 as bad as the pain of dreading the thing you now have to do that you never wanted to do. Trust your gut. Learn to say no, and don't feel guilty about it, no matter what your mom tells you.
11. Know when to leave the party.
Have you ever noticed how there's a point at which the party goes from DUDE, THIS IS FUN to DUDE, I'M TEN MINUTES PAST SICK OF THIS? Find that moment, say your goodbyes, and leave. As a parent, I've come to accept the concept of sunk cost. If I've already paid for my day at the amusement park and can't get my money back, why should I stay when the kids are whiny and sunburned and miserable and I'm exhausted and having no fun? You don't have to stay. Leave. Go back to the hotel room. Unwind. That goes for actual events, like cons or parties, and it also goes for social media. When you're accomplishing nothing on Twitter and Facebook except for consuming rage, shut the damn windows and go outside. The moments of your life are going to pass one way or another, so why commit yourself to unnecessary misery?
If writing does nothing but make you feel worse, why are you doing it? Why did you love it in the first place? Is it worth going on? There's no shame in leaving that party, either. Find a better party. Get into painting or model trains or stand-up paddleboarding. If you can choose something to fulfill you other than writing, then for the love of all that's holy, do. You only get one life. Find what fills your well and do it. Forget the rest.
Oh, and don't forget to read often, floss, and get some sunshine. :)
It's my motto now, but just a few short months ago, it would've infuriated me. I mean, obviously I'm breathing. Everybody breathes. But now, it's one of the biggest weapons in my self-care tool kit.
Whenever I paint a mug for myself or as a gift, I write something on the bottom so that when all the coffee has been drunk, the drinker will see a secret message. Sometimes it's as simple as YOU ROCK, and sometimes I remind myself NOW GO CONQUER. I painted one for my husband once that says PROLLY NOT POISON. My latest mug, as you can see, says JUST BREATHE.
And, well, yeah, if I somehow stopped breathing, I would die. But the reminder goes hand in hand with the emotional and physical work I'm doing to help reduce anxiety and fight depression. Turns out meditation and yoga both focus heavily on breathing and connecting the body with the mind. Counting breaths is part of both practices, and I've learned it helps when I start to feel panicky or can't sleep. Sometimes I count up to 10 with each breath and start over, and sometimes I focus on breathing in for five beats and out for five beats. But it reliably calms me.
I've also realized that when I'm feeling stressed or anxious, I start to notice my breathing in a negative way. I feel like if I stop thinking about breathing, I'll die—especially while falling asleep. Or like I can't draw a full and complete breath. Or like I can't get my breathing under control and might be on my way to a panic attack. When I've eaten too much or of the wrong things, or if I'm in a situation that's overwhelming, I'll find it harder to breathe. In short, when I breathe mindfully and with utter control, it's fantastic, and when I start to panic, my breathing goes wonky and becomes a problem that I can't solve on my own.
Just Breathe also applies to trying to be more present, by which I mean that if I go for a walk and think about my to-do list and worries and stressors, I don't see anything or feel anything. I just think about the same things on repeat, building up to a useless frenzy. But if I focus on breathing and think about the air moving into my body, nourishing me, and then leaving and taking the bad stuff with it, I can feel my legs moving and my arms pumping, and I smell the air and notice the beautiful things going on visually. Breathing becomes the key to being in the moment instead of living in my head, and for me, that's a big deal.
My yoga instructor told us that as you get further into your practice, your body folds in ways that can compress your airways and lungs and make it hard to breathe, and that part of your growth and journey is to find your breath in those spaces and breathe through it. This lesson really struck me, and I think of it often. Wherever I am, mentally or physically, I can find my breath. And in finding it, I find the space I need to be okay.
I used to think breathing was something that happened automatically, something I never had to worry about. I took it for granted. Then I started having panic attacks. As I tuned in to my body, struggling to find the cure to my anxiety, I began to see breathing as something to fear, something that could be taken out of my control, something that heralded a problem. My body felt like a puzzle I couldn't solve, and as my breathing sped up, I felt like my feelings no longer belonged to me, that I was powerless in the face of anxiety. Learning to control my breathing is helping me take back control and understand that wherever I am, I am capable of finding balance and calm. I can find my space.
If any of this rings true for you, here are the things that are helping me:
The Headspace app for meditation. The first 10 lessons are free.
Yoga. But not the kind where you need $80 pants and a Gwyneth Paltrow bod and feel like it's more about appearance than a personal journey. You can even do it at home; YouTube is full of free lessons.
When I feel panic setting in, I count breaths. 1-in. 2-out. 3-in. 4-out. Up to 10, then start over.
When I feel myself caught in a mental loop, worrying over the same thing again and again, I consciously break that and think about something else while, you guessed it, counting breaths.
If I get in a situation where I feel out of control or uncomfortable, I remove myself with utterly no guilt and find a quiet place to drink some water and regroup. It's not being rude; it's protecting yourself. You deserve the space you need to breathe.
Being aware of how my posture affects my breathing and striving for better posture and bigger lungfuls of air.
Funny, how something so simple can make such a big difference.
See that pic up there? A skull mug and a set of black plastic measuring cups. When I think of personal ROI, these two objects come to mind.
ROI means return on investment, and it measures what you paid for something as compared to what you actually get out of it. In accounting terms, it's something I don't really think about because I don't care. But in my own day to day life, I've been thinking a lot about what really provides a good return on my investment versus what my stupid brain suggests will bring me happiness.
That pirate mug is from The Pirates House in Savannah, GA. It costs about $12 and comes filled with Pirate Punch, which is highly alcoholic. Although my family eats at the Pirates House every time we're in Savannah, I never ordered this drink because it seemed very expensive when I could drink water for free or get a non-skull-encased drink for $8. And then, one day, I just ordered it, and it makes me happy every time I see it. I got to enjoy drinking from a skull at the restaurant featured in my book, Servants of the Storm, and I got an alcohol buzz after a long day, and then I get to drink tea out of the skull mug every day and remember the joy of finally getting the damn thing. Fantastic ROI.
The measuring cups are new and cost $0.99, and they make me stupidly happy. I don't think of myself as someone who enjoys cooking or baking, so I never invest in kitchen stuff. That meant that when I did cook, I had to scrounge together measuring tools from whatever wasn't being used by the kids or to scoop the dog food. We flat out didn't own a 1/3 cup, so I had to guess. And one day, I decided to solve this problem, no matter the cost. Which is under a dollar. All that time, all that frustration, all that casting around the kitchen like the clumsy fool in an informercial, and I solved the problem for under one damn dollar. So worth it.
And then we look at what society in general tells us we need. A bigger television, a newer car, a fancy couch, $500 Jimmy Choos, a Pinterest-worthy headboard from Restoration Hardware. They sell us this story, like if we just get THAT THING, suddenly we will be fulfilled, satiated, as happy and beautiful and carefree as the people in magazines. But really, what's the ROI on these big-ticket items? Would a brand new, super fancy car make me $20,000 happier than my 2010 Nissan that runs just fine? Would $500 shoes make me feel $500 better?
I feel like this is one place where we need to study ROI and decide which objects will truly bring lasting, daily happiness at a price point that we consider not only affordable but also reasonable.
For example, I'm pretty frugal, but I loooooove nice boots. I pay close attention to sales and don't buy boots unless they're super high quality, in my size, and at the right price. Over the past eight years, I've built a collection of beautiful boots, and I've learned that I will get 100x more happiness out of a $100 pair of brand name leather boots than I will out of a $30 pair of faux leather boots. But I won't get much more happiness from a $200 pair of boots and will in fact think about how I paid too much and should've waited until they were cheaper. For me, $75 to $99 is the perfect price for boots, and the high quality insures that they're comfortable, beautiful, and last for years. Every time I walk past my boot shelves, I breathe in the scent of leather and smile. Worth it.
How does ROI apply to depression and anxiety? Well, we're trying to maximize happiness and minimize stress, which means that $1 for new measuring cups is a great deal, while a bigger home with a bigger mortgage and bigger taxes might not be worth the stress on your heart and bank account and probably won't provide the satisfaction and happiness you've imagined. I've learned that when I'm stressed out, I'll get in little loops, latching on to some object to which I attach happiness. If I can escape the loop, I recognize how silly it was, that I was running in circles like an addicted rat in a cage, trying to find a pellet of crack/hope when the real hope involved stepping off the goddamn wheel and connecting to the life and objects I already have.
One day last week, for example, I decided I should get a Himalayan salt lamp because *insert magical woo reasons*. I decided it would be good for me, make me healthier and happier. So I spent several hours online, researching Himalayan salt lamps. And then I realized the dog needed to go out, and I went outside, and I felt the sun on my face and hugged my dog, and I realized that sitting in the sunshine on a beautiful day with a great dog was free and 1000x better than some lamp I bought for $30 on Amazon.
The takeaway here, for me, is that if I find myself obsessively searching for some object to purchase, the thing missing in my life is not actually that object but the story of hope and renewal and satisfaction my brain has built around it. Once I recognize the lie of it, I can often step out of the loop and do something meaningful, like going out in the sun, going for a walk, calling a friend, or just stopping by the kitchen section of Wal-Mart to buy a $1 kitchen appliance that will concretely make every day just a little bit better.
Vive le ROI, y'all.
*Note before someone gets pissed: Sometimes, big ticket items *are* worth it. If your living situation is untenable for whatever reason, moving to a new house/place can change your life for the better. If your car doesn't run, a new car that doesn't break down all the time is worth it. And I'm always supportive of vacations that allow you to destress and reset. I'm talking more about the MORE BIGGER SHINIER MORE KEEP UP WITH THE JONESES instinct here than the "Look, lady, you don't know my situation, so don't tell me what I really need" reality. Sometimes, your gut tells you it's worth it, and it is.
Hey, you. You with the normalcy. You just crawled out of your depression, and you have opinions about it. Or maybe you're not depressed or you don't have anxiety right now. You scroll through Facebook and shake your head sternly at those “What it feels like to have anxiety” posts because you're now too powerful, strong, or normal to acknowledge such weakness. And not only that, but why should you have to put put up with people being assholes in the name of mental health? Like, your friend canceled on your holiday party, claiming depression, and that really messed up your plans for the potluck.
I have news for you, you proudly mentally healthy person. If you would understand a friend missing your party for dialysis, you can understand a friend missing a party because of depression. Missing your party or bailing on your plans isn't an attack on you and your staunch, proud lack of neuroses; it's a person defending the softest, most vulnerable parts of themselves from a harsh, sharp-sided world of assholes like you who weren't up all night having panic attacks. It's not self-indulgent; it's self-protection, and after reading your screed, I can see why they might be curling away from you and your judgment.
I've met my share of assholes, and believe me, they were never caught in the throes of depression and anxiety. No, they were narcissists who thought the world should by rights conform to their narrow worldview. You think Trump is anxious? No, he's an asshole. You think that boss who's yelling at you is depressed? No, he's an asshole. The problem person in your workplace or friend circle isn't a problem because they have mental health issues. No, that person is in the corner, eating alone, assuming everyone hates them and not daring to speak up about their suffering for fear of being further hurt or ridiculed. You know-- like you were just a few months ago.
When I'm depressed or anxious, I don't walk around telling everyone I meet how awful I feel. When friends say, “How are you?”, I don't actually tell them the truth; I say, “Fine. How are you?” because that is how the social contract works. When I'm depressed, I sit in bed for a week without bathing, eating only granola, trying to remember how to smile. So if that gets in the way of whatever it is you need to do— me, sitting in my own fucking bed, stinking—then I doubt I'm the problem in this relationship.
When I see these self-righteous posts about how one brave soul pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to overcome their crippling mental health issues without meds or therapy, I see someone insecure and desperately trying to support their journey by trashing the people still trapped in the pit they've just crawled out from, and that's not fucking helpful. You can't see the light on the other side until you're on the other side, and assuming that just shouting into the hole, telling people that they suck will help them crawl out... it doesn't help. Throw them a rope, by which I mean make an effort to provide concrete help. Send an email that says, “Hey, I think you're having a bad time, and I respect that; let me know if I can help.” Offer to take them to coffee or dinner. Leave a nice chocolate bar by their computer. Share a link on Facebook about how to breathe mindfully or which supplements and minerals might help. If your friends had abandoned you while you were still in the hole, you might not have had the strength to climb out at all. Despite what you seem to think, you didn't do it alone.
So for the love of all that's holy, don't shout into the hole you've crawled out of. Because that, my friend, makes you more of an asshole than anyone still trapped in the dark.
(In response to this article: http://chronicpainsolutions.org/your-anxiety-isnt-an-excuse-to-be-an-asshole/ because fuck her, that's why.)
I haven't blogged in a while, and the last time I blogged, it was a post about preparing oneself, emotionally and physically, for winter. Winter, when it gets dark too early and the nights seem endless. Winter, when it's cold, and you can never get warm enough, right down to your heart and your toes. Winter, when you're supposed to feel jolly and warm and cozy and surrounded by loving family and friends, and instead you feel bleak and dreary and hopeless and alone.
As my online record shows, when I start talking about something, it's often because I'm working my way through it. If I'm talking about first drafts, I'm most likely slogging through one and in a rough patch. If I'm talking about events, I'm planning one. And if I'm telling you how to batten down the hatches, it's because I see the darkness on the horizon and am trying to remind myself how to fight it.
I had a hard Christmas, but not for the reasons you would expect. I have a loving spouse, healthy and happy children, a roof over my head, and a career I love. I also have a sick parent, a lame horse, an ongoing and invisible physical ailment, and a deadline that feels tight, even for me. Add all that up, and I spent most of Christmas crying. In my bed, hiding it by the tree as the kids opened gifts, into my scarf while walking my limping horse endlessly around a rainy field, all the while aware that there was nothing actually wrong, really, and it was all in my head, and I couldn't let anybody see it or I'd ruin their Christmas.
The good news is that I finished my first draft and got my physical stuff back on track, but I had to crawl through dark places to get there. Looking back, even a week ago, I flinch at the thoughts and feelings poking holes in me like worms in compost. I stopped taking care of myself, and I stopped feeling any joy, and every moment felt like I was a scientist watching my life through a microscope, calmly recording moments with no emotion. I'm through that now, and I want to share, for you and future me, how I found the light at the end of the tunnel.
First off, I talked to my husband. The most immediate problem (of my list of 18 problems that I presented to him amid an uglycry), was physical. I've had these weird bouts of raging indigestion since February, which led to two trips to the ER and having my gallbladder removed, and that indigestion was supposed to be fixed, but it came back. And it wasn't like, "Oh, I ate too much fried shrimp, and I need to burp." It was like, "I think I'm having a heart attack and I can't breathe and my stomach is a vat of raging acid and if I go to sleep, I'll die." So I'd stopped eating gluten, and that helped. And then I fell down an internet hole of things I should and shouldn't eat and which supplements to take and suddenly I quit eating because the pantry felt like a mine field. I would sit there, all day, just taking stock of how horrible I felt and not eating.
Guess what, kids? That ain't good.
So my husband, the brilliant psychologist, decided we would track my food. Everything I ate, for weeks. He needed data. He suggested I start on the basic allergy restriction diet, which is turkey and rice and pears. And that's it. I looked at the chart he made, and I thought about what it would be like to eat only three foods for a week, and it felt like my soul was squeezing itself into a tiny little box that wasn't worth inhabiting. I... uh, really like food. And if I couldn't eat, what was the point of living? And then he said something along the lines of, "So either you follow this diet and give me flawless data to analyze, or you just decide it's all bullshit and go back to eating like a normal person."
And I was like, "That's a choice?"
It was an epiphany moment, right there. The food wasn't causing the ailment; the anxiety was causing the ailment and making me crazy about food. I felt my soul unfurl again like a cat in a sunbeam, and food hasn't bothered me since.
They say stress can cause digestive problems, but until now, I didn't really grok it. I thought that physical things caused physical things, and that was that. I thought that if I could just find the pattern, I could solve the puzzle. But as soon as I had that breakthrough, I realized that I was doing it to myself. Sitting in front of the laptop for hours, freaking out over a deadline or scrolling through social media and seeing triumphs and awards and Best Books lists I couldn't reach--it was making me feel horrible, mind and body. So I quit. I got off Facebook and stopped looking at Twitter--except for people talking to me. I quit scrolling through everyone's smiling holiday pictures. I picked up a book and curled up in my bed and tried to think about something that wasn't me, and it actually fucking worked.
That was the biggest change, but I adopted new behaviors to help me relax. I take a daily epsom salt bath and read the kind of big, heavy book I normally shy away from. I meditate--using the Headspace app. I write down each day what I did that was good for me. I started writing a new short story. I spent New Years Day out of my comfort zone, hiking up a waterfall. And I started taking this supplement recommended by a friend that includes tons of Magnesium, the lack of which apparently causes basically every problem I've been having. I started using my SAD light again and have been making a point to get out of the house and talk to real human beings, even when it feels like a Herculean task.
You know-- taking all the advice I dole out and then neglect because I'd rather sit in bed in my pajamas and worry about nothing.
I want you to know that I'm not writing this because I want sympathy or feel sorry for myself. I'm writing it because I know I'm not alone. The holidays make tons of people feel shitty, and we're trained to keep it quiet, to smile and say we're fine. On Christmas Day, my friend hugged me and asked me how I was doing, and that's what I said-- fine. Five minutes later I was crying, but I couldn't let her see that. And I couldn't say it on Twitter, either. I mean, no one follows me to hear me say HAPPY HOLIDAYS, I CAN'T STOP CRYING, THERE IS NO HOPE, SORRY I SUCK.
The thing is, when you're headed down the spiral or floating back out of it, it all seems so elementary. Follow these easy steps, and you'll avoid SAD! Take care of yourself, and you won't get depressed! And that's bullshit. If there's a way to stop it, I haven't figured it out. I've tried two medications, and they both messed me up. One sent me to the ER. I still wait too long to take my Lorazepam, hoping I can talk myself out of the panic attack. Like I can just, you know, reverse my brain chemicals by sheer force of will.
I don't know how to fight it, but I know we're not alone. And I know that if I just keep going long enough, I'll come out of it. If you can just muddle through, you're going to have that sun-through-the-clouds moment when you remember how to smile. It doesn't always make sense-- I mean, one time, I saw a cardinal, and then it lifted. BECAUSE I SAW A BIRD. But it'll happen.
This weather is weird, and writing is hard, but winter is stupid, but I believe in you.
So what I'm saying is that if you see me spouting depression advice, it's not because I've conquered it. It's because I'm fighting it, hard, just like maybe you are. And if I disappear off social media, it got me--but only for a little while. And that's not weakness. That's not my fault. It's not your fault if it gets you. We prepare as well as we can, and we sit through the storm. There is no armor for this fight. But there's an entire army of us, and we'll keep going until we break through.
Here's to hoping spring comes early this year for us all.
Thanks for listening, take your meds, and get plenty of sleep. That helps, too.
My next writing class at LitReactor starts next Tuesday!
Here's the description:
You make the rules, draw the maps, control the characters, and decide exactly what color the sky will be. There are as many ways to build worlds as there are worlds to build. Which is to say: infinite. That will either scare the pants off you or set your mouth watering and your fingers twitching.
Put on your god-pants and get ready to write.
In this class, you'll learn different ways to approach worldbuilding, and how to insure that the world and characters you've created are so real, rich, and strong that they'll suck the reader in from the first page and keep them hungry for more. After all, there's a reason people go to the trouble to learn Klingon or Elvish.
If you have a dream, a hook, a character, a name, a map, the seed of a story idea, Delilah can help you build the world around it.
Whether you start with a character and build a world around them or start with an entire universe to focus in on your story, there are certain things you're going to need. Pretend you're a god building your first Adam.
Here's what's included:
* 4 meaty lectures incorporating worldbuilding, character creation, draft development, and first chapters.
* I will personally critique up to 4000 words of your book.
* Your fellow students will critique your work, and you'll get to show your chops critiquing their work. And believe me, you learn a TON by identifying the strengths and challenges in the work of other writers.
* I'll show you the first chapter of the very first book I ever wrote, plus the original first chapter of Wicked as They Come... both with blunt critique about what I did wrong.
* I'll be available to you in class discussion and through private message to answer any questions you have about the class, writing, and getting your book ready to query literary agents.
* If you're doing NaNo, I can help massage what you have so far toward publication and offer guidance on how to continue with maximum impact.
The class is entirely online, so you can participate from anywhere in the world. Here's the link.
If you want to level up, come level up with me!
p.s. Notice anything? The word TALENT isn't here. It's all about time on task and attitude. Just some food for thought.