A Lost Weekend

Wow, is it Monday already?  I feel like I’ve been living in a warped zone of time, where days mistakenly drop away from my calendar, without explanation or warning.

In other words, I’ve had a cold for the past week.

We spent Presidents Day weekend up at Gifford Pinchot State Park in Pennsylvania, huddling inside a modern cabin as the temperatures dipped into the single digits.  (One morning, we woke up to the textbook definition of a “dusting” of snow — about half an inch that covered all the existing snowbanks and ice slicks with a beautiful, pristine layer of white.)  The time was perfect for catching up on reading, and for being disconnected from the online world.  (Although there’s cell phone connectivity, there’s no wifi in the park.)  Alas, it was too cold and too icy to do much hiking, even on the very easy paths.  More time for reading!

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We drove home last Monday, cleverly meeting the park’s required check-out time of 10:00 a.m. and arriving at our house about two hours before a snowstorm.  Those five inches proved enough to shut down the federal government (Mark’s employer) and the local schools (providers of my Tuesday-morning exercise class), so we enjoyed an additional day of vacation.  At home, of course, we also enjoyed the added attention of the local felines, each of whom staked claim to a lap and protected it with great ferocity.

And then began the loss of days.  I came down with a head cold on Monday — nothing serious, but a wonderful excuse for sleeping.  And sleeping.  And sleeping some more.  I got *some* work done (editing two chapters of JOY OF WITCHCRAFT — gotta get ready for that August release!) but mostly I drank Day-Quil and Ny-Quil, and provided a stable bed for the kitties.

Then another weekend happened.  Another weekend with another five inches or so of snow, this time followed by a nice glaze of freezing rain.

I know we’re not getting weather anything like our poor friends in New England.  But the snow and ice we’ve gotten is more than enough to complicate life here — especially when we had massive melt-off yesterday, followed by a precipitous drop in temps today.  The world outside my door is pretty much a skating rink, and it looks like it’ll stay that way for several days.

I hate ice.

I hate slipping on ice.

I live in terror of falling on ice.  (Not so much the fall.  The resulting broken bones, concussions, etc.)

Yuck.

At least I’ve been amusing myself with one thing:  Of the two cats in the house, the greatest challenge (by far) is Poppy.  She is an extremely strong-willed cat, with firm ideas about where she should be when, and what we humans should be doing to serve her.  She makes writing a challenge, because she refuses to settle on a lap (why take a nice, warm, cat-trap-blanket-covered lap, when there’s a keyboard in use so nearby?)

But when we got Poppy from the shelter, about six years ago, we decided that she’d been owned by a family of consumptives.  She *hates* when people cough.  In fact, she’ll leave food, her favorite scratching toy, her warmest lap, even a keyboard-in-use, if someone coughs.  And when one or both of her humans have colds, her sensitivities are heightened.  She’ll take her leave as soon as one of said human takes a deep breath (presumably, preparatory to coughing.)

I’m trying very hard not to use my knowledge for evil.  But if I just happen to take a deep breath and if that just happens to send the cat upstairs to the guest room, where the sun is streaming in the window, and if I just happen to be able to get more work done…

Well, that benefits everyone, right?  I’m not cruel for testing her responsiveness.  Right?  Right?

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Effortless Perfection and the Impostor Syndrome

Over the weekend, I read an article in my college alumni magazine about campus efforts to battle “effortless perfection.”  For those unfamiliar with this relatively new buzzword, “effortless perfection” is the impression that someone is handling a challenge perfectly, without any visible effort.  It’s the old ‘don’t let them see you sweat’ work ethic, where people (often women, often minorities, often people who are supposed to be grateful for the status they’ve achieved) are encouraged to hide all of the frustration, fear, and hard work that lead to stellar accomplishments. The article discussed numerous campus initiatives to debunk the myth of effortless perfection, including the creation of safe discussion groups where students could admit how hard they find the balance of their academic and social lives to be.

While I’d never heard of effortless perfection, I’ve spent decades getting to know its sibling, “impostor syndrome.”  With impostor syndrome, people who have achieved greatness fear the day when they’ll be unmasked as impostors.  Lawyers, for example, dread being revealed as people who do not automatically know the answer when a client presents a problem.

Every female lawyer I ever worked with admitted to suffering from impostor syndrome, back when I was practicing law.  (To be fair, there were some women — mostly successful senior partners — with whom I never had this conversation.  And as I sit here typing, I can’t remember ever having the impostor chat with a single male colleague.)  When we felt safe, comfortable, able to share, we all agreed that we weren’t quite sure what we were doing in our legal practice, that we were just waiting to be unveiled as impostors who had no right to pull down the salaries we did, who had no right to win a coveted seat among the partnership.

We were terrified someone would see us sweat.  We had utterly bought into the culture of effortless perfection.

Some of those impostors — many of them — went on to highly profitable careers in the law.  They made partner, or they became in-house general counsels, or judges or high-powered lobbyists.

Others of us chose other professions. I became a librarian, where one of the great joys of my professional life was to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I have many ideas about where to look.  I’ll get back to you.”  Later, I became a full-time writer, where I get to say, “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll create it, right here, out of the fanciful ideas swirling through my brain.”  Both careers gave me a chance to exorcise the impostor, to truly work with less effort, less perfection expected.

And yet…

I suffer bouts of self-doubt. I wonder whether a particular manuscript will find a home in traditional publishing. I question whether my promotional plan for a novel is the best it can be. I watch fellow authors succeeding at X and Y and Z and I wonder why I even try to compete, because my books will never be as good, never be as recognized as theirs.

It’s the impostor syndrome stirring again.  And you rarely read those concerns here, or on Twitter, or on Facebook, because really, who wants to read the second-guessing of someone who is supposed to entertain.  Writing, especially writing full-time, is a dream come true. It’s a reward for years hard-worked.  It’s a joy and  a pleasure. Why would anyone show the blood, sweat, and tears to get here?

Bottom line:  I curate my contacts with the outside world. I don’t tell you every time I have a headache, or when the blues have set up residence in my head for a day or two, or when I didn’t sleep well, or any number of other things that prove my life is less than perfect.

In part, I don’t tell you those things because they’re boring — we all have headaches, and the blues, and lousy nights’ sleep some of the time.

But I also don’t tell you those things because I want you to think of me as a fun author, as a person you want to spend time with, as a person who truly enjoys her life and the stories that she tells.  Because that’s true — I do enjoy my writing life — despite the headaches, the blues, the lack of sleep.  Why make you think about transitory negative things when the overall scheme of things is positive?

So, am I perpetuating the myth of effortless perfection? Am I subjugating my impostor fears, with the possibility that I make other authors’ impostors raise their own nasty heads?

Or am I following through on the promise I make to my readers, the promise of every fiction author on some level — to entertain?

I don’t have any answers. But I’m asking myself more questions than usual these days…

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And So, 10,000 Calories Later…

As you know, Bob and Bobbette, I write full time. I set my schedule each day, determining how to accomplish the writing that must be done, balancing that with the administrative work generated by a career that consists mostly of self-publishing. I don’t have to report to a day-job; I don’t have an external boss.  (Okay, there’s a pretty forceful orange kitty, but I still control the bag of treats.)

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Given that life of relative leisure, that schedule of general luxury, why would I ever want to go on a writer’s retreat? Isn’t a retreat really a form of busman’s holiday? A way to take my work and stretch it over more days, more nights, more hours?

Well, yes and no.

Last weekend, I went on a writers’ retreat with three other writers. (There was supposed to be a fifth person at our little getaway, but alas, family crises intervened…) I was “hosting” the retreat; however, my home is too small to host so many dedicated writers. Therefore, I was responsible for feeding three other writers, from Friday evening through Sunday lunch. (I also volunteered to do pre-retreat bed-making and post-retreat laundry, but the actual physical-space hostess declined my offer.)

First, the retreat allows me to socialize with other writers. We get to trade stories — about what we’re working on, about which writers we’ve recently met in person or online, about new developments in traditional- and self-publishing, about the crazy, constantly changing business we choose to call our own. We talk when folks arrive at the retreat, and we talk at meals. We talk at impromptu mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks. We talk when we’re ready to knock off work in the middle of the night.  There’s a lot of talking, even though most of us are relatively introverted people.  (A lot of the talk involves actual meals or improvised snacks, hence the title of this blog post…)

Second, the retreat allows me to write. Yes, I have my own schedule, and I get my own writing done at my own desk in my own office in my own home. But when I’ve committed to traveling 1.5 hours away to write, when I’ve taken a weekend away from family to write, when I’ve carved out days on my calendar, protecting them from other events, to write, then I know I have to actually, you know, write. This past weekend, I generated about 25,000 new words. They aren’t perfect. I left myself some blanks that I’ll need to fill in later. I know I’ll have to add more to some scenes and take some away from others.  But I produced close to one third of a novel in three days, and I’m quite pleased with that output.

Third, the retreat allows me to think. I spent a little more than three hours in the car, driving up to and back from the retreat. Those hours work a bit like time spent in the shower or time swimming (without nearly as much wrinkled skin to contend with!) — my writer-brain is freed to work on plot snarls, on subplot structure, on the rough places where I know the novel still isn’t working. After arriving home, I knew that I needed to revisit two earlier scenes in the book, making clear their connection to the main plot, strengthening the complementary power of the subplot.

I fully expect to pay for my retreat.  (Sure, there’s the economic payout — gasoline and food. I mean the real cost.) That bossy orange kitty didn’t let me out of her sight last night. And I’m typing around her purring little body this morning.

But I’m incredibly lucky. I don’t have to “pay” my spouse for my retreat. He never makes me feel guilty for abandoning him, for walking out on a weekend when he had to wrangle cats alone, when he was stuck by himself for hours and hours and hours. (Yes, I know that he enjoys his own down-time. But I take the choice away from him when I choose to go on retreats.)

And so, 10,000 calories later, I’m rolling up my sleeves. I’m back to work on JOY OF WITCHCRAFT. I’m throwing new obstacles in Jane Madison’s path. Because that’s what writers do. We write. (And eat and talk and eat and plan and eat and outline and eat…)

How about you? How did you spend your weekend?

 

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Lessons from an Off-Season Beach Vacation

We added a day to the already three-day weekend last week and headed down to the Outer Banks, in North Carolina.  A relative owns a gigantic “cottage” there, a beach house that’s intended to sleep around 20.  We’ve found that we love, love, love going down there in the heart of winter, when the vast majority of businesses are boarded up and the beach is deserted as far as the eye can see.  Some lessons learned on this trip:

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  • It really is better to remember the keys to someone else’s house before you’ve driven 1.5 hours.  Through rush-hour traffic. Paying for the use of the toll-based express lanes.  (When you finally remember the keys that are hanging on the hook at home, be grateful that the cottage has a keypad entry system, designed for summer guests who arrive after hours.  Don’t bother driving back for the keys.)
  • The weekend following New Year’s Day really is the weekend when most places shut down for the season. Don’t have your heart set on any favorite restaurant. Don’t hold your breath for any particular store. That’s not why you went to the Outer Banks, anyway.
  • The restaurants (and movie theaters) that are open are going to be crowded.  Very crowded. Plan ahead, if you have time constraints.
  • Heat really does rise.  When you’re staying on the third floor of a huge cottage, with only the heater for that floor turned on, you will shiver when you walk down to the lower floors. Take a jacket when you go to inventory the bed linens in the lower rooms.  Really.
  • Sand is much more firmly packed in cold weather, especially after a day of solid rain, than it is in the summer. Plan on walking a lot farther along the beach. But you probably still won’t get to that pier, the one that seems to move farther away with every step you take.
  • No matter how thoroughly you think you cleaned your shoes, you’re going to track sand into the house. A lot of sand. Really. Even when you thought you’d knocked off every last grain. Just plan on sweeping it up — it’s easier that way.
  • There are few things more enjoyable than curling up on a comfy couch, beneath a warm quilt, sipping from a mug of hot tea, reading a RITA-submission romance novel in the middle of a driving rainstorm.

We had a wonderful break. But it’s oh so hard to get back into the rhythm of working! Of course, with a book release next Tuesday, I don’t have a lot of choice…

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