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Be willing to write badly

dosomething-inside[Be] willing to write really badly. It won’t hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: “This bad stuff is coming out of me…” Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows. For me, the bad beginning is just something to build on. It’s no big deal. You have to give yourself permission to do that because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well. That’s when people get into the habit of waiting for the good moments, and that is where I think writer’s block comes from. Like: It’s not happening. Well, maybe good writing isn’t happening, but let some bad writing happen… When I was writing “The Keep,” my writing was so terrible. It was God-awful. My working title for that first draft was, A Short Bad Novel. I thought: “How can I disappoint?”

from Jennifer Egan in Days of Yore

What if we were willing to do lots of things badly at first? So we could practice getting better?

Nature desktops to improve your mood

lookuptree-insideNone of my offices have a view. My writing office is in our (unfinished) basement and my window is blocked by one of those plastic bubbles you set over window wells. My office at the community mental health clinic is an interior one so it doesn’t have a window. And my private practice office is also on the lower level so the windows look out at a containing wall.

Researchers have found that we work and live better when we have time to commune with nature and that even looking at pictures of trees can lower blood pressure. This is why I take my desktop pictures very very seriously. If it weren’t for the images I download to my computer I’d hardly ever get to gaze out at something pretty during my workday.

Periodically I hide all the open apps on my desktop and stop everything to stare at a mountain stream or a rocky beach. It’s a quick way to remind myself to take a breath and think about the world outside. I imagine the sound of the wind winding its way through the tall grass on a meadow path. I picture myself leaning down to pick the flowers next to that river.

It takes me out of my work day for just long enough to dive back in. When I only have a few minutes between clients it can make a big difference in my focus.

I also change my pictures for the seasons. This year I brought spring to my desktop early since it was taking so long to get here in real life. Oh and if you have a Mac you can set the images to change themselves at regular intervals and mine switch every 30 minutes. I like this because when I’m closing applications I get to be surprised. Which view will be mine this time?

It’s a little thing but I find that it’s those little things that make all the difference most days.

Here are some of my favorite places to go to keep my desktop pretty:

  • National Geographic has a picture a day especially for you to download to your desktop. There are travel pictures here, too, if you need a more far-flung virtual vacation.
  • Hamad Darwis is a photographer who took some of the pictures that come with Windows Vista but most of his gorgeous images didn’t make the cut. He’s kindly made them available to download and install on your own and these are really spectacular (especially if you have a penchant for stunning beach scenery).
  • This is my most-used site for browsing when I’m wanting a desktop picture fix. InterfaceLIFT has a huge collection of images. If you’re a photographer you might especially like this site since the photographers who submit share the camera settings they used to get the pictures.
  • I don’t love the Desktop Nexus interface but there are a lot of pictures here so if you can stand an ugly web site to create more beauty in your life then you might want to check it out.

If you need instructions to install the pictures to your desktop, you can find them here. Note: For best effect make sure you know your monitor size. You don’t want to have to overstretch a small picture on your wide desktop — it’ll distort the image.


Give yourself a break with the Awareness App

The Awareness App (works for Mac and Windows) sits quietly in your menu bar and then “bongs”awareness-bowl like a Tibetan prayer bowl at regular intervals to remind you to get up from the computer and stretch.

I use a standing computer upstairs where I dip in and out periodically (checking email, grabbing a recipe, changing the household iTunes playlist) but I do focused work sitting down at my office computer and it’s easy to lose myself in a project. I’ve found that getting up regularly helps me physically — keeping away neck pain and carpal tunnel troubles — and mentally. I have my app set to bong every twenty minutes and when it alerts me I get up and do something else for five minutes. I might switch the laundry, make a work-related phone call or even hop on the elliptical trainer for five quick minutes. Anything to get my blood moving and reset my thinking. If you’re not sure what to do on your break you can click to the Awareness break page for some of their good ideas.

If I’m not ready to take a break, that’s fine. Awareness, unlike other apps, doesn’t shut down my computer or make any kind of fuss. If I keep working and another twenty minutes go by it’ll bong two times to let me know I’ve gone twice as long as usual without a break. And if I get up after, say, twenty-five or thirty minutes, it still only needs the usual five minutes to reset.

You can set the intervals and the break time however you like so if you’re happier with a longer break time or a shorter work time, you can make Awareness do that.

I found the app incredibly useful a few months ago when I had a huge writing project that was really bogging down my thinking. At first I thought forcing myself to walk away from the keyboard would make me less productive but I found that researching and writing in twenty minute spurts actually made it easier to keep going. Instead of writing myself into corners, I walked away while I was still feeling fresh and excited, which made it fun to come back. I burned through the project much more quickly than I normally would.

Check it out and let me know what you think!

Learning to bomb

I had a speaking engagement about a year ago that was a disaster the minute I walked into the room. I didn’t know it’d be a disaster until about five minutes in but I should have known because of the way the room was set up. I was behind a sizable barrier, which made it difficult to feel “in touch” with my audience and the attendees were wrung out from a long day and most of them sat in the back of the room adding more of a barrier. Because my presentation was more touchie-feelie than straight information, it made for a lousy dynamic. I heard nothing but crickets when I’d ask for audience participation and had to do more of a song and dance than usual to get people to talk. I remember midway through the presentation wanting to just STOP and give in.

“Forget it,” I imagined saying, unplugging my laptop. “I’m outta here.”

I’d escape. Run down the steps and to my car before anyone had time to stop me. I’d go home and climb into bed, pull my covers up over my head and tell my husband to hold my calls.

Of course you can’t run; you have to get through it. And so I waded through the morass that my talk had become, pumping as much cheer as I could into my delivery and by the end of the limping, tired workshop, I actually got some encouraging feedback from the audience.

I’ve had disastrous interviews. I’ve gotten rejected by editors. I’ve stood alone, petrified by nerves at networking events. I’ve put myself out there and then, defeated, reeled myself back in. I’ve stood in front of audiences, mind blank and wondering what I was going to say before my memory kicked in. I’ve cracked jokes that fell flat to a room full of expectant faces. I’ve watched people’s eyes glaze over and scrambled to bring them back.

dosomething-insideOh I’ve failed, yes I have. But the more you fail, the easier failure gets. It’s true.

That disastrous speaking engagement, it was an hour in purgatory. As soon as I realized that it was not going to go well I thought of all the stand-up comedians who bomb. And most of them do indeed bomb. Even the great ones have off nights. I knew that the price of speaking in public, which I like to do, means sometimes having it go really really poorly. My stomach dropped into my shoes and my sense of time stalled and drew the hour out like taffy and I felt slightly outside of myself the way you do when you realize you’re falling or the car is crashing or some other disaster is impending. It was a nightmare happening in real time and for a second or two I lost my nerve and fought back tears. But at the same time I had some presence of mind behind my eyes that very calmly said, “Well, there’s no way to get to the end of it but to get through it.” Which is when I gave up my fright to flight instinct and settled down to trudge through the rest of my talk.

When it was over I felt exhausted and relieved. It was over. I had bombed and I was on the other side.

The next time (and thank goodness there’s been only one more time and that was a tech disaster that wasn’t of my own doing) a talk went poorly, I felt that same sinking then lifting and again I knew that the other side was right there if I’d just swim to it.

It’s just like the first time an editor said no. And the first time I got a terrible, nasty email from someone who read one of my essays and hated it.

It’s like the first time getting dumped or having a friend blow you off. It happens and you survive. But meanwhile you have whatever happened before. You have that first kiss. You have that heart-to-heart with a friend who gets you. You have that hope when you hit “send” on a submission. And then, too, you have those great times when it goes well.

I’m telling you this to say that if you’re thinking about trying something (writing, submitting, networking, etc.) but are feeling too scared to take that leap, leap anyway. It’s all right to be terrified but make the leap anyway. You might fail. You might bomb. But you also might have a really great time and you will definitely learn something about yourself.

A version of this post originally appeared on my now defunct personal blog, this woman’s work.

Truth vs. truth

conversation-insideOne reason we have so many disagreements with each other is that there is Big Truth and little truth and we get mixed up over which is which.

There is the Truth (I walked towards you) and the truth (I lunged at you aggressively, I simpered as I tiptoed to you, I drunkenly veered your way). We both may agree on the Truth (I did indeed move from one end of the room to the other end of the room where you were standing) but we may violently disagree on the truth. You might say I deliberately tracked mud onto your just shampooed carpet. I might say that I was in a hurry because the phone was ringing. We might both be right. We might both be wrong.

Clearly, truth telling can create a lot of conflict.

So much of our struggling in our relationships has to do with telling our truths and denying your truths. We get hung up on specifics and never get to what’s really wrong. We are so busy defending our truth (You did call. You did not call. You never call. Well, you’re never home.) and so we argue argue argue but we never make any resolution.

A long time ago there was a woman at the shelter where I worked who was a liar. She had a very complex, very disturbing story about abuse and it was clearly not true (nor was she delusional). One of the case managers got a little obsessed with trying to get this woman to admit that the story wasn’t true but the rest of us felt (and told the case manager this at the weekly staff meeting) that what was True was that this woman felt victimized and harmed and wanted/needed attention around that. Now mind you, we were an emergency shelter so it was not our job (or our expertise) to counsel but we felt that what was more important than forcing this woman to shed her truth was to figure out how to help her within that truth so that she could get to the next place — secure housing, real therapy, etc. This haggling over details wasn’t getting anyone anywhere.

So the truth is not always True and the Truth doesn’t always matter.

Sometimes counseling is mucking around in truth and listening hard and honestly? To me it can feel a lot like writing an essay. If you’ve done any writing then likely you know how you write into what you know that you didn’t know you knew. (My favorite quote about this is: “How will I know what I think until I see what I say?” That’s E. M. Forster.) That’s how counseling can be, too. Just as we write to understand ourselves and the editor helps the writer (myself or others) in the process, so in counseling there is that storytelling structure.

So you can show up at a counseling office without any idea of what you’re thinking because part of finding out what you think is seeing what comes out of your mouth.

The counselor is a lot like an editor helping you make sense of your story. You don’t have to understand your story when you come to the counselor because she’s not listening for The Truth, she’s listening for your truth and seeing the big structure so she can ask the questions that will help you understand your experience.

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