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Inspiration is for Freakin’ Amateurs

Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. -Chuck Close

I realize this is a funny thing to say given that my work is largely infused with inspiration/motivation, but you’ll see what I’m really getting at. As writers and/or artists, we know that 90% of the battle is just putting your damn butt in the chair to write, or picking up the paintbrush (or pencil), or whatever implement you use to create. Yet all too often we expect this flash of inspiration to hit us like a gift from the gods.

Sure sometimes that happens, but more often than not it’s a slow build.

For me, creative writing, especially nonfiction about my life, is often an arduous process. There’s the occasional moment where the clouds part and the Universe says, “here you go, honey,” as they hand me a nugget of flow.

But usually, it pretty much goes like this:

 

As a kid I was a good student. I hated disappointing anyone almost as much as I hated being anything less than perfect. For the most part I got straight A’s. I was highly disappointed in myself if I didn’t.

Classmates would often remark that I was “so smart” or how they wished they could get A’s like I did. Frankly, this kind of pissed me off. Sure, on the surface this was a compliment, but underneath was the assumption that I just had some special gift that they didn’t. Bear with me, I know I sound like a bragging asshole right now.

I spent hours studying, doing drills, and practicing to earn those grades. In fact, in fourth grade when I got my first D ever (ironically, in spelling), Dad and I worked every night for months to bring that up to an A.

I was lucky that my parents definitely passed down their genetic propensity for traditional intelligence (make no mistake there are many different types of intelligence), but after that, it was up to me to get the grades even in subjects that felt like my brain was being torn apart. I’m looking at you math and conceptual physics!

In seventh grade this girl Mary and I competed for the best grades, we were often neck-in-neck for who had the best percentage A. This was when I realized there were smarter, harder working kids than me. She wanted it more and maybe she was smarter than me, too. I backed down a bit from my quest for perfection and sometimes settled for B’s or C’s (conceptual physics, you bitch). If I couldn’t be THE best, I’d get by with my reasonable best.

The thing is, I never applied this drive to physical activity as a kid. When it came to sports of most kinds, I was riddled with self-doubt and self-pity. If I couldn’t hit the ball, run fast enough, or catch often enough I just gave up. I needed to be at the top, and if I couldn’t I bowed out. It didn’t occur to me that hard work might just get me to “decent” eventually. I understood how to apply hardwork to school, but not as much to other things.

~

Fast forward twenty-some years to when I started out at UCLA X Writers Program. I entered thinking I was a pretty good writer who just needed to learn some tools in order to write better. From my first class, I realized I was an amateur. I was not even close to the top tier. Again, I wanted to be THE best. 

I secretly dreamed of being the next Joan Didion, or Mary Karr, until I realized I would likely not only would have to work for decades, but also was not born with their level of talent either.

Something had shifted. After a brief mourning period around not being born a golden child, I was able to better fight the urge to be perfect. I cared so much about becoming a better writer. Writing was something I’d wanted to learn since high school, and now I was finally doing it. I wanted to learn as much as possible, and push myself to my best, but not THE best. 

The initial momentum of my dream to become a writer propelled me, but it was the revisiting of it that got me through the hundreds of edits and thousands of hours of writing. I still feel as if I have a long way to go, but now just being on the path is enough to keep me going.

~

I liken creative work to walking. When you’re doing the work, you often feel as if you’re just staring at your feet as they step over the earth. You’re not sure where things are going, or even where you’ve been. There’s beauty in that presence, but if you don’t look up occasionally you’ll likely fall off a cliff or wander into a bad neighborhood.

On the other hand, if all you do is look up and around and your surroundings, looking for inspiration or motivation, you’ll never effectively see the path that leads you to your goals. And we all know the path is always a winding one.

I think then that our best bet is to do both. Observe what’s happening in our world, look forward toward our goals, our ultimate vision, as we call it in my personal branding course.  But we must also remember to look down at our feet, be in the moment, so we don’t stumble over that rock, or we can step over that brook, or clear out those branches that have fallen to block our path.

The rewards are all around us and even within the work of our path. But it’s that combination of steps, moving forward–the daily work–that leads us closer to our dreams, while that looking up that reminds us why we’re here.  

The more we do the work, the more inspiration follows. We don’t have to be the best, but when we are relentless in the pursuit of our calling, dream, or purpose, our most inspired work bursts forth.

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What to Do When Trolls Attack

We live in a new era, one in which anyone can say anything online with often without consequences. Heck, even our “Commander in Chief” knows that.

But what do you do if YOU are the subject of an online attack?

I’ve managed social media for many brands, including BinderCon, a literary nonprofit which advocates for women and gender variant writers. Which, as you might have imagined, has brought its share of sticky troll situations.

Women and changemakers are more often the target of trolls because well, these jerks feel threatened by our very existence. As writers, or artists we often create things that challenge people’s preconceptions, values, or ways of life. Naturally, this breeds asinine responses from rage-mongers, perverts, and just plain nasty souls. And the internet provides the veil they need to hide behind in order to feel powerful.

I’m no lawyer, and I don’t have all the answers, but here are some methods I’ve learned for dealing with said asshats. But before we start, let’s define troll. I include the original meaning as well because I think it adds dimension and context.


troll

noun

1 : a lure or line with its lure and hook used in trolling
: a person who intentionally antagonizes others online by posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive behavior


Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s begin.

First, ignore them

Most trolls are just jabbing you to get a reaction (see definition). Many of them aren’t even people, but bots.  The reality is that they are doing what they are doing to get you to engage (and rage).

Think of them as the old school bully, but hiding behind an internet persona.

Tuning them out and refusing to respond often diffuses the situation. But if it doesn’t there are more steps you can take.

Block and report

Inasmuch as you ignore these jerks, block and report them too. Don’t let a fear of being a whiner keep you from handling these jerks like they deserve, in a matter of fact way.

The harder good people make it for trolls to attack, the less there will be.

Every social platform has a method for reporting, just Google it if you need to report someone.

Prepare

Really, this should probably be the first rule but most of us encounter a troll and only then realize we should be better prepared for them.

Preemptively secure your social profiles and websites with complex passwords that are harder to guess or hack. This is a precautionary task designed to help keep a potentially nasty situation from escalating.

Decide ahead of time what kind of content you’ll post about, retweet, share. Sometimes, especially in today’s political climate, it’s tempting to post about things we’re angry about. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t. However, it’s worth asking yourself if the post will really make a difference, if it is in alignment with your brand and what you’re all about.

And then if it passes all those tests, is it something you’re willing to take flack for? If so, go for it. If not, maybe reevaluate.

As annoying as it is, you must decide if what you post is something worth fighting for. If not, if it’s just venting or inflammatory–what’s the point?

Create a reporting plan for situations where you feel it is necessary. It can be difficult to think like a troll, especially when you’re a good natured person who doesn’t appreciate online fights. But creating a few “what if” scenarios can be healthy and help you avoid some painful dealings in the future.

If you decide ahead of time, for instance, that you will report and block sexual harassment type posts, you’ll know what to do when or if that happens. This can take some of the emotional side-effects out of the equation.

This helps make the incident more of an annoying task, rather than a traumatic attack.

Document everything

If someone is repeatedly attacking, or harassing you or your followers (or doing other nasty things), document everything.

Even if you just have a feeling like they might do something nefarious, take screenshots and save it in a folder. You’ll have the info, should you ever need it.

Protect yourself

Make yourself less vulnerable online by using fake information whenever possible. Avoid using your real hometown, phone number, address. Make it harder for jerks to find you IRL.

I recall a nasty troll attack a few years ago where some asshole took a video from a mom-blogger’s site (of her children, mind you) and dubbed over it with horrifying racist material. That’s some next level shit that deserved a lawsuit. It made me realize just how easy it is to access anything you post online–even if you think it’s private.

So as you post, always ask yourself: Is this something I’m okay with being completely public?

Set boundaries for the kinds of content you want to share. Do you really need pictures of your kids online? Does that selfie have any identifying information in the background?

You don’t need to be paranoid but you don’t need to feed the trolls, either.

Don’t disappear (or do)

There’s no need (usually) for you to make your feed private in response to a mild attack. You’re online for goshsakes, it’s all public one way or the other anyway. Plus it makes you look like you have something to hide, which you don’t. This is a tactic many abusers use–making you feel like you’re unsafe in the world. Don’t let them.

However, don’t be afraid to shut down and go offline. Sometimes there is good reason to just leave the online platform for a while. Your brand will not fall apart if you decide you need a break from the chaos of the internet. You can still communicate in places where you feel safe.

Don’t defend

In most cases you do not need to defend yourself against false claims or aggressive remarks. Listen, we’ve all been there and responded. I know I have. But it’s not worth it. Responding gives credence to their attack. So vent to your friends, report the trolls, block them, whatever, but don’t engage.

If for some reason you truly need to make an official statement on something, do so as an email to your subscribers and maybe as a well crafted closed-ended statement on social. Keep it general and professional, consult a lawyer if it’s a real sticky situation.

Do not make it a part of your profile. It should only be a post. A day is an eternity online so there’s no need to draw attention to a troll’s claims or aggression on your profile, when most people won’t have even noticed.

If you must respond, and especially if you’re angry give it 24 hours. Unless of course you feel like you or someone else is in danger.

If the attack warrants a response (and usually it doesn’t) give yourself some time to cool down. Unless you’re the president of the United States, your Twitter situation is likely not a national emergency. Ahahahahaha, but seriously.

Take it to the authorities

If things are really escalating, or if you ever feel genuinely threatened or in danger, err on the side of caution and get not only the social platform, but the police and legal authorities involved as well.

Remember who you are

Aside from the unfortunate reality of being attacked just for being a woman, or a person of color, or disabled, or liberal or conservative, or however you exist in the world, often if you’re being attacked you’re likely doing something different and worthwhile.

Some of the most hot button issues are things like human rights, equality, racism, climate change, etc. You know this. These issues are important and so they garner a lot of emotion, sometimes rage, and often troll behavior.

Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing in your work and your life, and stick to your truth. Be a good person; we sure could use more of them.

And remember the wise words from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum (Don’t let the bastards grind you down)

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Why Wonder Woman’s Naïveté is Important (for Everyone)

“She was too naïve.” I’ve heard this complaint from so many friends, even my daughter, after watching the new Wonder Woman movie. I get it. It was uncomfortable to see this powerful woman completely unaware of her power, sexuality, and equally naive to the corrosive properties of the dark side of human nature. But to me, it made perfect sense.

So often I think we’re taught to equate success and power with the expectation that we’re innately uber powerful and bold, but for many of us badassery is an evolution. We’re not all born kicking ass and taking names.

It took decades for me to move from wallflower to butt-kicker. Heck, I’m still working on it.  Every. Damn. Day.

I grew up in a strict evangelical-fundamentalist enclave where a woman’s place was in service to her husband and children. Feminism (or any kind of true equality) was a dirty word.

In high school I walked around, head down, watching my feet, with my boyfriend, wearing Christian t-shirts emblazoned with sayings like “No Jesus. No Peace.” I’d wake up at 5:30AM to read my Bible and pray, for fear I’d backslide and lose my salvation if I didn’t work hard enough at it. I began to orient my every move around my boyfriend who would eventually become my ex-husband. My vows to him included a line that I would “follow wherever he led.”

I lived in a constant state of blind fear, utterly unaware to the expanse that my life could have outside of this bubble world.

Over the years, I grew up and away from the strictures of a faith that no longer served me. It took years for a mindset of powerlessness to indoctrinate me, so it only makes sense that it would take years to claw my way out of those limiting beliefs.

Just like Diana Prince, I saw the world through a sheltered upbringing, naive to the realities of modern life–both the good and the bad. But in some ways my upbringing, like Diana’s, prepared me for the battles of real life. The ability to commit to a disciplined life, to share what I believed even though I was scared, helped me for what lied ahead.

I used to call my life “Murphy’s Life” because, for years I felt like I was the perpetual target of a machine-gun firing shit sandwiches at my head. Between divorce, money issues, multiple health issues, deaths of loved ones, and too many things to name here, the experiences that challenged my beliefs catalyzed me to my shift from a lowly servant mindset to that of a woman who takes charge. As it turned out, strength, courage, and wisdom had always been there, deep down. I just didn’t know it yet.

[Spoiler] Throughout the film, we anticipate that Aries will find Diana. The stronger she gets, the closer he gets.

In the final battle scene of the movie, Diana loses a loved one and must face her impossible foe.  She’s on her back, pinned to the ground. It seems hopeless. She can decide to give up, or get up. Our hero breaks through what she thought she believed about herself (and the world) and taps into more power than she realized she had.

For me, that moment came when I had to make the hardest decision of my life: taking my children away from their father. My ex was abusing drugs and mentally abusing our children (and me). The stronger I got, the worse he got. It took me longer than I’d care to admit to patch together the courage to stand up to him. I’m sure I looked like a damned wimp; I sure felt like one. But after so many years of being under his control, pinned to the ground of my own life, I finally realized it had to stop.

For Diana, it took saving the world, to step into her power. For me it was the same, I had to save my world–my children. Les Brown says of being knocked down, that if you can look up, you can get up. And so I finally did. I got up, and strapped on my own villain-kicking boots in order to protect my children from their own father.

The things is, we humans ARE so much more powerful than we believe. We are blind to our own strengths and capabilities. But I truly believe we can become our own heros. And our world needs more of us.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman gives us a beautifully faceted hero, one whom we watch evolve into claiming her own latent power.

We’re all a different places in our life’s journey. We were or are all naive in some ways, and definitely–at some point–to our own super powers.

I think superhero movies are so popular right now because so many of us feel powerless against the myriad of injustices in our plugged-in, overwrought, global society. If we’re meant to draw inspiration from superheroes, if these fantastical myths are meant to give us hope and strength then this Wonder Woman is the hero we’ve been waiting for. Because when shit got real, she did not stop.

Sure it sounds cheesy, or even cringe-worthy, but here goes: be the hero of your own life. There’s so much more to you than you realize. You don’t have to feel like a badass to start being one.

Get up and into your life, trusting that you’ve got what it takes, and you’ll see that strength, courage, and wisdom has been there  inside you all along.

 

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Nine Traits of Astonishingly Successful Authors

In a market of ideas, why do some take off while others don’t? Why do some authors have mega status while others continue plodding on in obscurity, or with only moderate success?

The literary market fascinates me. There’s this vast ocean of books, ebooks, audiobooks, etc.  published each year and just a handful of them hit it BIG. I won’t pretend to guess that I know the reasons, but thinking about this got me wondering if there are some common traits among bestselling authors.

I think if there was a magic formula we’d know. We’d know because only be those who fit that formula would get books published. But as a writer trying to make it–and by that I mean support myself with my art–I do keep my eyes peeled and my ears open to what seems to set wildly successful authors apart.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the past few years or so in my work with writers, and participating in writing seminars, networking, workshops, and of course, my own research.

To be sure, this kind of mind-blowing success–I’m talking JK Rowling, John Grisham, Elizabeth Gilbert level–is not likely to just happen to most of us, but it can’t hurt to know what these authors have in common.

So, let’s dive in, shall we?

#1 They write a lot. And often they have been for a while. One of the big fallacies that I wish that some successful people would stop perpetuating is the idea that they just tried something and it worked. Sure there are those lucky ducks who get rich quick. I’m not saying luck never has anything to do with it.

But read enough success stories, or listen to enough podcasts like How I Built This or Being Boss and you’ll notice a pattern that successful people worked really hard for it. Whether it was practice, trial and error, or getting a degree, more often than not, it takes time and commitment.

There’s a reason they say “building” a reputation and not “sprouting” a reputation.

Neil Gaiman offers this advice, “Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.”  (Here’s his full commencement address at The University of the Arts: http://www.uarts.edu/neil-gaiman-keynote-address-2012)

But before you go quitting your job, please read on.

#2 They submit/pitch a lot and are in it for the long game. One of the stories that has encouraged me the most is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk where she shares how she submitted her writing to publications for almost SIX YEARS before getting something published. That’s a long fucking time to wait. And that’s real commitment.

#3 They believed in their project(s). We’ve all heard certain authors say that they didn’t think anyone would actually publish their work. This is one of those moments where I wonder if their hindsight is really 20/20.

Who writes for so long and submits proposal after proposal if they think they have absolutely no hope?

It’s likely best not to have expectations, but I have a hunch that they believed someone would say yes, eventually.

When asked about her faith in her first Harry Potter book, before it was published, J K Rowling said, “You know, I can say this now, I was quite diffident about saying it for a long time. But I did have a belief, with Harry, that the difficult thing would be persuading someone to take it, because it didn’t fit. People said children’s books had to be half the length, and what an old-fashioned subject, a boarding school. I did have this feeling that the difficult thing would be persuading someone to publish it – but that if it was, people would like it.

(Read the full interview here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/28/conversation-lauren-laverne-jk-rowling-interview )

#4 They stood for something. Often something different/unique. These famous authors have instant recognition in our minds. We know them for their style, their voice, their subject matter, or persona of writing. I think a big reason many authors don’t get there is because they aren’t deeply rooted in who they are, what they offer, what/who they stand for, or what they seek to understand. Aka they don’t know what their brand is.

This of course, is of utmost importance in the stories we write as well. Depth of plot and character, as well as intimate knowledge of themes and what both you and your writing is about is key.

#5 They are as tenacious as fuck. They made time for their writing, they got agents, they created book proposals, they wrote essays, or stories, or whatever. The point is, they didn’t make excuses for finding the time to finish their work. They did the work. Stephen King wrote every night after his two day jobs, in the laundry room, on a makeshift desk his wife made for him.

#6 They are focused. Maybe this one could be combined with the point just above, but I want to emphasize it. Perhaps because I need to remind myself of this so often. I love ideas, always have. But the problem is, I find myself jumping on too many of them and doing way too many disparate things, which makes me fall behind on finishing the things I’ve already started.

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” –Ray Bradbury

What is clear is that all of these fabulously successful writers carve out time to write, consistently. They make it a priority.

#7 Most of them had day jobs, so there’s no excuse. JK Rowling was a single mom with a low-paying job who was on state assistance while she wrote the first Harry Potter book. I try to remind myself of this when I’d rather be working out a storyline than getting my other/paid work done.

Besides I think writing in a vacuum often produces navel-gazing, academic, philosophic work, whereas having other obligations while writing, however you do it (doesn’t have to be a day job), produces richer writing and more interesting work.

Here’s what Maya Angelou said, in an interview with Harvard Business Review:

Interviewer: “When you were working at those early jobs, did you ever envision what you would become?”

Maya: “No, but I didn’t think I wouldn’t. I somehow got the feeling early on that if human beings did a thing, I could study it and try to do some of it too. And one thing led to another. If I had not studied Latin in school, I wouldn’t have found it as easy to comprehend the structure of language. Had I not danced, I might never have really listened to music and known I could compose something. You see? I understood early that not everything I did wasn’t going to be a masterpiece, but I would try to do it the best I knew how. I’ve listened to an inner voice and had enough courage to try unknown things. And I think everything in its time.”

And that brings us to what I think is one of the most important points of success.

#8 They had really great ideas/stories that were usually well executed. It seems to me that more often than not their stories or ideas were not only great, but were well crafted. How many times have you read a book, seen a movie, or watched a TV show and thought, well it was a good premise, but it lacked [fill in the blank]? These BIG successful books, essays, screenplays, etc. are (with definite exceptions) excellent ideas, well played.

I think we often underestimate the power of great ideas.

#9 They often felt a higher calling to write. One more quote from Maya Angelou, to sum this point up: “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”

Whether you or I ever get to the top of our mountains, I think Ms. Angelou’s advice is always good.  If you love what you’re doing, even if you’re making your money elsewhere, you’ll enjoy this life more anyway.

Here’s hoping that someday, your name will be in lights. Or at least that you get to do more of what you love.

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Make Money from Your Art: The Ethos of the Starving Artist

artist sitting on the street with paintings behindThere’s this unspoken longsuffering ethos in the literary world that writers must suffer for their craft, always look at their work as inadequate; and be relentless in their pursuit of the grand art of it all. And the ultimate reward for this holy work? Being a part of a literary elite culture of back-patting and back-stabbing.

I’m calling bullshit.

Of course this rationale is also prevalent in the art world at large. When I was a child with a natural penchant for drawing and art, I was told at every turn how I could never make money with art. So I gave it up for a long while and became a preschool teacher (another high paying option, ha!).

As an adult writing student, most of my writing teachers encouraged us to submit to literary journals with readerships of hundreds and maybe thousands. It was rare that we’d talk about writing for a big commercial publication with readership in the millions.

The self-publishing deluge and mass of crappily written books out there would seem to support this higher literary calling mentality. But I can’t help but wonder why we writers must choose between these extremes. Isn’t there some middle-ground?

Look, I truly do believe that being critical of one’s own work is a great way to improve. It’s essential. And the relentless pursuit of art for art’s sake is worthwhile. But I would guess that many of us want to not only share our writing, but share it with the widest audience possible. So that tired writer narrative doesn’t serve us so well in the real world.

If all you want is to be in the great literary journals and perhaps be looked back upon as a literary genius of your time, that’s awesome. There’s no shame in that. Again, the world needs this high art  writing. I’m not saying I don’t want to be published in literary journals. I do, for sure (though I’m no literary genius).

But can we be honest in saying hardly anyone actually reads these literary journals? Many of them don’t even pay their writers and have six-month long acceptance cycles.

Can we stop holding this up as the ultimate in writerhood?

If I’m trying to sell a book–a book that I’d like to be commercially successful and of literary quality–it seems more likely to get a better deal if I’ve been published in the New York Times and O magazine, not just literary journals.

I don’t want to sacrifice quality, but if I’m going to spend my time honing my writing, doesn’t it make sense to get some commercial success out of it as well?

I want my writing to change minds now, and as controversial as it might be to say, I would love to have bestseller (let’s all stop pretending we don’t want this), and to someday support myself with my art (gasp). Maybe you do too.

I think the relentless self-bashing, pining for awards to give us  a sense of worth, and comparing ourselves to each other, does not serve our art, or each other.

I know it’s not popular to say, but I’m rejecting the idea that writers should be self-loathing, humble-braggers who are content with a hand-to-mouth existence in pursuit of their higher calling.

This is one of the reasons I am involved with BinderCon, because attending their LA conference was the first time I ever felt like I could actually do this writing thing and maybe even make some money at it.

Anyway, that’s my rant. Keep on going with your art/calling/passion/project/business! I hope this encourages you to make your own path, the one that suits your life.