My younger sister gifted me with The Five Minute Journal not long ago, a concept created by Alex Ikonn and UJ Ramdas. The book arrived on my doorstep by surprise, and I was so delighted to receive a package that wasn’t kids’ clothes, or kids’ shoes, or a fridge filter, that I foolishly agreed to give it a try.
I committed to writing in The Five Minute Journal for five days. There is even a page in the journal called “My Commitment,” where you create a contract with yourself. I started the process, which (as the title literally says) requires just five minutes each day to journal, reflect, improve: “The simplest, most effective thing you can do every day to be happier.“
My first few thoughts were about my professional life — what I’ve done (so little), what I want to do (so much), the disproportionate amount of time that I give these goals. This is the corner of my life where I need to take inventory.
What would make today great?
Making time. Staying focused. Finding that overdue library book.
What are three major obstacles?
Time. Distractions. Where haven’t I looked for that library book? Also I need to make that appointment. And that appointment. And what is our schedule for this weekend and next month and who needs what when and what tasks to tackle first and are my kids ok and ding, ding, ding group text threads about our next get together, thank God.
My sister’s intent in giving me this journal was so sweet and so pure that it pains me to say that I failed. My journaling started Monday morning. And ended Monday morning. I didn’t even realize that I forgot to journal Monday night until Wednesday afternoon. I lasted two and a half minutes. I also didn’t complete my self-imposed consequence (cleaning the basement floors, which is a long-overdue chore that I should be doing anyway.) AND I also gave myself the reward (a high-end beauty product) even though I fell short on my commitment on the very first day. (Although I have to say, the goopy clay face mask DID make me happier.)
On the first page of the journal, the authors provided a helpful (and obviously intentional) quote by Meister Eckhart: “Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.”
So today’s new day — a great day to start over. Tomorrow is also a new day. As is Sunday. So that’s settled, Monday of next week it is.
I swear I even Googled it. “When can my child read Harry Potter?”
Admittedly, I was a little selective with the search results. Like when you Google “How bad is yelling at your kids, really?” and scroll until you find an article titled, “I yelled at my kids and they turned out fine!” By Dina Lohan.
Some search results suggested that yes, indeed, my seven-year-old daughter might be old enough to read Harry Potter. She had been asking me all year to delve into his world, having heard about Harry Potter from some (possibly older?) school mates.
I was tempted too. I was an avid reader when I was young, and I just couldn’t wait for my daughter to experience getting lost inside a world within a book. She was already reading some chapter books that I thought were pretty poorly written. Maybe it was time for some first rate material? What’s the harm? So at the beginning of the summer, I ordered a gorgeously illustrated version of The Philosopher’s Stone and settled in to re-live the magic with my willing, wide-eyed daughter.
Of course I’d read the books before. But somehow the scarier, murder-y details of the story had since escaped me. Dead parents? Abusive caregivers? Attempted infanticide? All within the first chapter? I started getting nervous. I became uncomfortably and acutely aware of every age-inappropriate paragraph and passage as we read deeper into the story. But I did my best to make it sunny. Raindrops and roses and whiskers on kittens… We forged on to the fun stuff, and soon enough she was hooked. It was literally magical.
We read a chapter as often as we could, and she was just. so. into. it. I was impressed at how much she was able to retain, and when my husband would pop his head in the room to ask if it was any good, I would chuff at him in my best (still bad) Hagrid voice, “NEVER-INSULT-ALBUS-DUMBLEDORE-IN-FRONT-OF-ME!”
Because it was good. It was very good. Until it wasn’t. I’m not sure at what point the image of He Who Shall Not Be Named seeped into her head, but it did and it stayed there. When we finally reached the end, she was simultaneously smitten by the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and irreversibly, inconsolably terrified. Not exactly the result I had been hoping for, but probably one I could have predicted.
On a particularly bad night, I peeked over at my husband as our oldest daughter lay shaking between us, and I whispered, “I think I goofed.”
He said, “Don’ look at me, it was yer daft plan.” (His Hagrid voice is better than mine, which is surprising since he’s never read the books.)
Since then, things have improved. Luckily, as with most dark arts, my daughters love for the story has overpowered her fear. She’s hooked, and even hopes to be Hermione for Halloween. (Note to self, order costume early this year.)
I made it clear from the beginning that we would have to wait before we read the next book in the series. Harry Potter is a process. A wonderful process, a sometimes scary process, and one that we will be returning to soon. When the time is right.
One of the less snooze-worthy aspects of my husband’s job in business, or projects, or business projects (I’m joking, I love you, you’re the best!) is that he gets to travel for work. I say gets to, but he’s not exactly fond of these once or twice monthly meeting junkets. He works long hours. He misses us. And sometimes the hotel pool is really, really cold!
But it’s true, things can get rough when one parent is physically and mentally absent, and the other is pacing his hotel room in Houston wondering why his wife isn’t answering her phone. (I kid! I’m very responsible when I must be.)
This week has been one of those weeks, and it’s given me reason to reflect. So here are three things I’ve learned while my husband’s out of town:
1. My other half motivates me to eat well. Don’t panic, I’ve been feeding the kids very well while he’s away, but I’m surviving (thriving?) on copious amounts of coffee and kettle corn. And I don’t hate it. But I should probably eat a vegetable or two. Soon.
2. My other half keeps us feeling safe. The night is dark and full of toddlers, who sometimes have night terrors. Things get a little out of hand when my husband is away and us four scaredy-cats are left all alone. It’s windy, it’s rainy, and the bravest one of all is my three-year-old, who would probably be pretty useless in a fight with a ghost. Let’s just say we’ve been sleeping restlessly. In the same bed. With the lights on.
3. Without my other half, my days are pretty full. When you have to do everything, nothing gets done. Yes, yes the kids are fed and well-enough rested, but my writing? It’s about as abandoned as I feel when my husband travels for work. (I’m joking! I love you! You’re the best!)
Tonight is the first chance I’ve had to review some notes from an awesome Blue Pencil session I had at my recent writing conference. During the session, I met one-on-one with an author who edited an excerpt of my manuscript and he gave me some pretty invaluable feedback. His best advice? Finish it. Which I will attempt to do tonight, in the dark, in between handfuls of kettle corn and bouts of fear-induced trembling.*
Also? Come home soon.
*Did they REALLY need to make a new Blair Witch movie? It’s been 17 years and I’m just getting over the last one.**
**I’m not really over it. I will never not be terrified.
Just one year ago, I polished off my applications for writing programs at the Humber School for Writers and the Alberta Writers’ Guild. I was accepted to both and chose the latter. I even received my notice of acceptance for each on the very same day. It was thrilling.
And it must have made me feel pretty damn good about myself. I must have thought, “Damn, Shannon! You have this application thing DOWN!” because when it came time to apply for another wonderful writing opportunity this week, I goofed. I totally goofed. I won’t go into details, but it comes down to the golden rule of DOING ANYTHING: I didn’t read the instructions.
Unfortunately, I realized this little (big) error just minutes after I hit send, submitting my slightly tone-deaf-but-hopeful application to the adjudicating bodies who will read my application and surely ask themselves: Did she read the instructions?
Sigh. There were several parts to the application so I’m daring to hope that my one little (big) goof is shadowed by the strength of the application as a whole. The way I see it, I have three options. I could change my name. I could send the panel a couple of LOLs and maybe a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Or, I could just sit, wait and hope for the best.
I don’t like to be brave. I don’t even like pretending to be brave.
When I was kayaking with my kids this summer, an army of earwigs invaded the crowded hull of our tiny, tipsy vessel. I didn’t notice until we were far from shore, and my daughter didn’t notice at all. I calmly picked them off her lifejacket, one by one, successfully avoiding her screams and our eventual death-by-earwig. That was me pretending to be brave in a life-threatening situation. But when my life isn’t threatened by earwigs, I don’t like to be brave.
So it was a bit out of character for me to submit the first page of my work-in-progress for a Live Action Slush. This weekend I attended an amazing local writing conference, When Words Collide, and some of the must-attend sessions were the Live Action Slushes. During these sessions, writers (anonymously) offer their first page to a panel of authors, who read the submissions aloud to the entire room and then critique them. The idea is to learn how well (or not well) your first page would do in an editor’s slush pile. The panel gives their feedback after each page is read. Since the submissions are anonymous, the writers in the audience don’t have to identify themselves. (Some do, because they’re masochists.)
Sounds fine, you say? What’s the big deal? Well, what if that panel of experienced, empathic authors was actually a panel of 9-15 year-olds, who were much less empathic, much less patient and much more particular with their tastes. Kids know what they like, and what they don’t. Also, imagine that this panel of young, discerning readers had been instructed to raise their hands during each anonymous reading if they’d completely lost interest.
Yeah. That’s the panel I chose for my very first Live Action Slush. I entered the conference room, placed the first page of my Middle Grade novel on the anonymous pile of papers, and took a seat to await my fate.
These kids weren’t messing around. Hands were raised, plots were questioned, and when the 13-year-old on the end said, “I like the writer’s use of exposition in the opening paragraphs,” I knew I was in way over my head. Had my body not been numb with fear, I would have crawled up the aisle towards the table and slipped my page out of the slush pile. But then, I heard the opening line of my story being read for the next round of judgement, and I knew it was too late.
I won’t bore you with the details of my immediate, physical reaction to hearing my page being read to a panel of kids in a room full of writers. Let’s just say it was akin to sitting in a kayak full of earwigs. What I really wanted to do was scream, but I sat there silently, calmly, practically motionless. (Any person in the room could have guessed that I was the author, though, since I didn’t exhale for three and a half minutes. Luckily, blue is my colour.) When my page was finally read, the kids had their fun.
The good news is, none of the young panelists raised their hands to signal that they didn’t like it. In fact, they did like it. They said so! Their feedback was articulate and positive and useful and once I saw them smile, things didn’t seem so scary after all.
In fact, it was kind of fun. And not just the kind of fun that people say is fun, but is not actually fun, like kayaking, but a real, honest-to-goodness thrill.
I may even do it again next year. Actually, I can’t wait.
*I do like kayaking, a lot, but only the earwig-less kind.
It’s been a little more than a month since I finished my mentorship with the Writers’ Guild of Alberta (and did my reading at Puke Fest Edmonton 2016) and I’m only now starting to absorb some of the important lessons I learned. Which is pretty good, since I’m also only now starting to absorb the allegory of the Cave, fifteen years or so after I studied Plato’s Republic. (Disclaimer: I still don’t get it.)
For your enlightenment, here are five things I learned, over and over and over again:
1. Scene and be scene.
This was my first epiphany. Stay in scene! When my mentor (gently) pointed out that I was bouncing from action to memory to unrelated backstory to a random vignette about pond frogs, I had an awakening. Novels are about scenes! And I had been abandoning my scenes faster than a mother of three who’s littlest one just collapsed a pyramid of pickle jars in aisle four. (Metaphorically, of course.)
As a reader, nothing loses me quicker than losing my place in a scene. “Ok, where are we now? I thought we were in France, how did we get to Germany? Who’s Werner?” Ok, maybe I shouldn’t use an example from one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read, but my point is I will never win a Pulitzer. So don’t try to be cute, Shannon. Stay in scene.
2. Show, don’t tell.
When I was young, I loved this cheesy movie about a washed-up hockey player who reluctantly partners with a cranky-yet-feminine figure skater for one last shot at an Olympic medal. As he’s learning how to move in his new figure skates, his partner keeps yelling, “Toe pick. Toe pick. TOE PICK!” (If you’re wondering, yes, they eventually hook up. Come on.)
“Show, don’t tell” is the mantra of all writing instruction, fiction or otherwise. I’ve been taught it for many years. So I’m as surprised as anyone to admit that sometimes, I still don’t do it. It wasn’t until my mentor wrote, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. SHOW, DON’T TELL!” all over my first, second and third drafts that I started to finally nail that triple sow cow.
3. “I get it!,” said the writer, finally.
Dialogue! Writing dialogue is new to me, since inventing things people say is not really a thing we learn in journalism school. At first, I was a little shy to attempt dialogue, but once I tried it, I quickly became addicted. Like sushi. Or meth. Of course, you have to be careful not to overuse it, which I have a tendency to do in real life. (Dialogue. Not meth.)
Dialogue was actually one of my favourite methods to show, not tell in my writing. It helped me showcase my character’s voice, her personality, and her relationship to other characters without the buffer of a narrator. And, just as importantly, dialogue is sometimes the quickest way to move the story forward.
“Shall we move on to the next point?” she asked.
“Sure,” they said with forced enthusiasm.
4. Advance the story.
Much like leaving the scene, I also had a tendency to add a lot of extraneous information in my writing. So much so, that it was a distraction to my reader. Here are a few of my mentor’s actual notes, which were emphasized in red ink, from just one page of one draft of one chapter:
“This comes out of nowhere. Need to explain.”
“I’m a little confused here.”
“Can you figure out a way to insert this organically?”
“Do we need to know this?”
Every detail needs to advance the story. I’m sure you’ve heard that, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” Well. My first draft endured a bloody massacre. It was Tarantino-level. But it made my story better. Throughout my mentorship, it would sometimes take me weeks to finally let go of a superfluous character, scene or plot line that may have seemed brilliant, but didn’t really belong. But it made the story better. Cutthroat!
5. Stuff is hard.
At the end of almost every meeting with my wonderful, supportive mentor, I would plop my head onto my mounting piles of red-penned pages, overwhelmed by the things I still didn’t know, and I’d sob, “HOW do people do this?”
It seems as though, if there is something you want very badly, getting it should be easy. Not so. Never so. In fact, it’s the wanting it so badly that makes the getting it that much harder. Writing isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done or will ever do. Having kids is hard. Seeing them get hurt is hard. Having to explain the anatomy of a very invigorated German Shepard is hard. (Super hard.)
Nevertheless, embracing this ambition to be a writer has been a challenge, and frankly, I don’t like to be challenged. I don’t like to be brave. I don’t like to be scared, I don’t like getting my feelings hurt and I don’t like getting my ego bruised.
But what do I tell my kids, aside from, “Maybe you should pet the dog another time, honey.” I tell them, “It’s in the trying. It’s important to try.” It doesn’t always work, especially not with “odd” coloured vegatables, but maybe it will work for me. I hope. We’ll see.
Four weeks, three trips to the emergency room, two crutches and one dose of IV fluids later, and I can’t help but count my blessings. April was crazy and May has been kind of cruel, but now that my oldest daughter’s ankle has healed and everyone’s stomachs have un-queased, I can come up for air and reflect on the weeks that were. Because a lot has happened.
Last month I finished my mentorship program with the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. I crammed as much writing as I could into April, and on a sunny Saturday in May I did my first fiction reading ever at the Five New Alberta Voices event in Edmonton.
I read the first chapter of my middle grade novel, which has come LEAPS and BOUNDS since I started my mentorship with the Writers’ Guild. My amazing mentor, Lee, was there to introduce me and cheer me on. My husband arrived separately with our three girls in tow, including our oldest daughter who was nursing a fractured ankle. (And by nursing, I mean refusing to use her crutches.)
Our plan was for my husband and daughters to stay only during my reading, then duck back to the hotel before the show was over, leaving me to get drunk with the other writers enjoy myself. Which was a good plan.
But when you’re dealing with kids, you can’t really have plans. C’mon! We know better. We should have assumed that a nasty little bug was churning circles inside our three-year-olds’ intestines just as a I took the podium. It happened exactly then. My husband held our puking child against his chest as I stuttered through my reading in my lilting Maritime drawl.
Afterwards, my husband sent me the following text: “Quinn just threw up on me.”
(On the bright side, only one person threw up during my reading, which I think is pretty good for my first time.)
I didn’t actually know that my darling girl was sick until two glasses of wine later (ok, three, I was super nervous) when I thought to check my phone. I thought my wingmen had exited as planned, just in time to miss the reading that followed mine, a very racy (and masterfully written) NC-17 novel that made even my ears blush. But when my giddy self read my husband’s text, my heart and stomach sank. And I hopped in a cab for the hotel.
And that’s about it. The days that followed my little literary high have been filled with a whole lot of retching and not a lot of writing. But I’m ok with it. Because now, finally, we’re happy and healthy. And I have time to reflect on my opportunity to write, and to read what I wrote to a smattering of light applause from the Alberta literary community. And even though it was gut-wretching at the time, I love that we have yet another story to tell. About the time my writing made my daughters puke. All night. For weeks. See? Gold.
If I had to choose a theme for my life in the last five years, it would probably be “keeping up.” Keeping up with my kids, keeping up with our hectic lifestyle, and keeping up with my expectations as a partner, a parent and (one day, again, hopefully) a professional writer.
I wouldn’t choose the theme “balance,” because that would imply I’ve found some. I wouldn’t choose the theme of “failing miserably,” even though I feel that way sometimes, because despite the many delays and mistakes and missteps, I’m enormously proud of how life has unfolded. Also, my husband hates it when I say I’m failing. (I’m sorry.) But he loves it when I mention him on the blog. (You’re welcome.)
Five years ago, I joined a creative writing class while working full-time at the university. It was a rewarding return to writing after a hiatus from my journalism career. Since then, I’ve kept writing, attended some workshops and conferences and, most recently, was selected for the mentorship program with the Alberta Writers’ Guild.
The momentum has been slow, much like the excruciating pace of my four-year-old fastening her seatbelt while I rev my minivan’s V6 because we’re late AGAIN, but at least it has been building. With momentum comes more opportunity, and with opportunity comes more pressure.
I’m working furiously on my apprenticeship project in the short time I have left with the WGA. I’m writing and editing and (soon) submitting and (likely) getting rejected but at least I’m doing it. And there is so much more I want to do.
I want to revamp my website. Like, a total overhaul. I’m so excited about it. I also want to blog more, with structured themes, services and features.
I want to finish my works-in-progress. I want to make the most of the amazing writing community right at my fingertips. I want to do a lot of things.
What I don’t want to do is to give up. Sometimes I feel like I’m already operating at full capacity, like there’s no way I could do all the things I want to do, in the time I want to do them, and do them well. But what I really, really don’t want to do is grieve a dream without ever really going for it.
Only one month remains in my apprenticeship with the Alberta Writers’ Guild. And while I’ve learned a lot, and wrote a lot, and cried a lot, I have so much more to do before the program ends. This is not the time to be distracted.
So naturally I find myself totally, utterly, inopportunely distracted. Now is the time for attention and detail. Now is the time for focus and fastidiousness. Now is not the time for Facebook. (Oh look! More Easter photos.)
I need help. And since I can safely assume you’re also distracted from something much more important (since you’re reading my blog) here are my top three distractions and how I deal with them:
1. Social media
The other day my husband and I wanted to research some summer flights to Nova Scotia. I opened my laptop with this fact-finding mission in mind, but by the time my screen illuminated I was elbow-deep in a Twitter thread about the verdict in a certain Canadian trial. This is the sinkhole that is social media. Time evaporates (as do brain cells), you achieve very little and your husband eventually gives up and searches the flights on his phone while you mumble something about the justice system.
I used to think I could temper myself when it came to social media, but for me it’s like a chocolate Easter bunny. I can’t just nibble on the ears. In fact, I can’t eat just one. I eat one and then another and another until my gut is grumbling and my kids are crying because all the chocolate is gone and it’s only 9AM.
I can’t just slip into Twitter for a quick refresh when I’m supposed to be writing. I have to log off, hide the chocolate bunny deep inside the pantry and go completely dark. (Mmm, dark chocolate.) There are lots of helpful apps for keeping you on track and off social media, but I’ve been using just an old-fashioned timer. I glue myself to my work for a determined amount of time, then take 5-10 minute breaks to check my email and newsfeed and watch videos of sloths giving really slow hugs.
2. Real life
I wish I had the time to myself during the day to write (or watch sloth videos) but that’s not my reality. My reality is that I have three young kids who seem to rely on me for stuff. Like, a lot of stuff. They have needs, and I am their need-meeter. Along with the million other responsibilities that come with being a full-time human. That’s not to say that stay-at-home parents can’t write full-time. Many do, and many do very successfully. But these people are super-human and I a mere mortal.
For me, any leftover items on my to-do list, any outstanding chores or commitments or bathroom disasters take precedent over my personal time to write. Otherwise I’m far too distracted, or feel far too guilty to find a creative, peaceful space.
What helps me with this is routine. During the week, I follow an exact routine, cornering pockets of time to slip into writing between drop-offs, pick-ups and laundry. (SO MUCH laundry.) I also track my writing progress, which led me to discover that I am most productive in the wee morning hours. This has challenged me to get up before dawn each Saturday and Sunday, drive down the street to my local coffee shop, and plop myself in front of my laptop before the baristas have even made their first brew. I write for two hours and make it home in time to join the rest of my family for breakfast. Not only do I feel superior to everyone who’s still sleeping, but it also gives me an excuse to drink lots of coffee. (Does anyone really need an excuse to drink lots of coffee?)
3. Inner demons
Even if I’ve weaned myself from Twitter, even if I’m kid-free at the coffee shop or library, even if every other element is in place for me to have a productive writing hour, there is one more distraction that seeps into my brain, my thoughts, my screen: self doubt. This is the biggest distraction of all, and it can be more crippling to my creativity than my three-year-old yelling from the bathroom about a “big, big mess.” After almost every sentence I write, there follows a chorus of “boos” in my brain. Sometimes I’m stuck on the same scene for weeks, praying that someone else will say that it’s good enough because I can’t even tell anymore.
I don’t know how to fix this one. I try to deal by simply moving on. Switching between scenes, switching between projects or just taking a break all together. Reading really good writing helps when I’m feeling really bad about my own. I lose myself in a book or a blog or an article. I pick myself up from under the crushing weight of my own expectations and dust myself off. I try to forget my biggest fears by remembering my little wins. And then I start writing again.
So there you have it. Now tell me, how do you overcome your distractions?
More importantly, have you seen any good sloth videos lately?
I have many recurring thoughts. Some of them are pretty banal: “I need coffee.” Sometimes they’re rhetorical: “Should I have another coffee?” Other times they’re a bit more existential: “Who am I without coffee?”
When I have thoughts about my writing career, however, they usually hover around one recurring, discouraging theme: “HOW do other people do this?” (Also but less often, “HOW do some people do this without coffee?”)
Which always leads me to my least favourite, most threatening thought: “Can I do this?” And inevitably: “Am I good enough?”
I try really, really hard to avoid comparing myself to others. It’s toxic and useless and altogether artificial. But when I do fall into that trap (there’s just way too much bait out there to avoid it all together), I remind myself of how lucky I am. I remind myself of how hard people work for their successes. And that I can be successful, too, if I work hard.
That being said, could someone please tell me exactly how hard? No, really, give me a formula. There are days when I’ll write for an hour, file a few hundred words (I write sllooooooowww) and instead of feeling relief or accomplishment, I’ll feel incredibly guilty for not writing more. (Don’t even get me started on revisions.)
Every minute of my time is scheduled, squeezed, synergized, capitalized. (Just call me Mom Corp.) And writing between chores sometimes makes writing a chore. I’m exhausted. My brain is fried. Coffee doesn’t even work for me anymore and I can’t help but think HOW DO PEOPLE DO THIS? CAN I EVEN DO THIS?
Maybe I can’t. That’s a terrifying thought, but that’s ok if I gave it all I’ve got. I have a bad, bad habit of listening to my fiercest critic. And my fiercest critic (me) is starting to have doubts. I sometimes need 10 supportive voices for every one negative thought I have about my own abilities. (I’m so lucky to have those 10 voices.)
But maybe I am capable of doing this, and doing it well. I’m halfway through my writing mentorship, I am working hard and my work is getting better. There MUST be a reason I’m chasing this writing life, that I feel compelled to chase it.
I don’t know where I’ll end up, I don’t know what working even harder will bring, and I don’t know for sure if I am good enough.
What I do know is, I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t try.
In the meantime, there’s more coffee. (I’ll always forgive you, coffee. You’re the best.)