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On Unpleasant Medical Screenings

A mammogram is a simple test really. It is a little embarrassing and a little uncomfortable, but the whole thing is complete in less than ten minutes. The hard part is that I spend those minutes thinking about how my sister had cancer and the weeks of radiation therapy that I went through fifteen years ago. I can’t feel completely calm about the process or the report that will come from it. It dredges up old emotion that had settled out. Not my favorite. But the thing is done and I move onward in my day.

Parenting Older Kids

My youngest child, Patch, is now taller than me. This milestone sneaked past us sometime in the last few weeks. In contrast, both of my girls are shorter than I am and they probably will be their entire lives. This is a natural consequence of having a grandmother who was 4’11”. Thus my largest emotion in relation to Patch’s height is relief that he’s headed for at least average male height. I know how difficult it can be to be short and male. Patch’s feelings about his height are far more complicated. He spent a lifetime being the little one, youngest and smallest. Six months ago he still was. Now he’s taller than both of his older sisters and his mother. Within the next six months he’ll likely be taller than his dad and possibly his older brother as well. His world is shifting dramatically and as a result, he is anxious about all the things. Even things that would not have bothered him before.

Earlier this week I read a post titled Dear Lonely Mom of Older Kids. In it, Rachel Anne Ridge talks about how mothers chatter about their young children, but when the kids get older, we begin to fall silent. This is not because mothers of older children don’t need support networks and reassurance. I think that Ms. Ridge got to the heart of it when she said:

so much of it….you just can’t talk about. Because you suddenly realize that these kids are people. People with feelings and emotions. And you can’t go around blogging about their mean math teacher or their failed attempt at choir auditions. These are things that are too precious, too priceless, too soul-baring, too hard to share. They need you to be their safe place. They need you to keep their secrets. They need you to pick up pimple concealer at CVS and not breathe a word to anyone. They are so easily embarrassed and you must do your part to help them get through it.

The parent-of-young-children years are full of frustrations which are exhausting. The teen years, at least for me, at least for the last two years, have been full of frustrations that are heart rending. I’m weary and the stories in my head are a tangle of things I can tell, things I must hold safe, things that are joyful, but private, and things that hurt too much.

Link dances in the kitchen as he does dishes. He’s bopping around to music I can’t hear because the ear buds are transmitting directly to him and not to the world at large. I pause for a moment to watch him because just three months ago he did not smile at all. He was living in the bottom of an emotional pit. Now he is not, and I have to stop and appreciate that fact because not-living-in-an-emotional-pit is not the same as life-is-all-sunshine-and-roses. I spend far too much time worrying about possible futures that I have imagined, most of which I want to avoid at all costs. It gets so that I spend all of my todays trying to maneuver toward the imagined futures that I want for my son. Instead I should spend more time recognizing how far we’ve come and trusting that he’ll grow in his own way.

I have three teenagers and one pre-teen. In a few months my oldest will turn twenty and I’ll be down to two. Until next year when I’ll have three again. I definitely fall into the category of Mom with Older Kids. Yes it is lonely. I no longer have any casual friendships formed because my kid plays with her kid at the park. I’m leaving the era of carpool coordination. I’m often isolated, and this is only increased by an awareness that my kids are navigating some non-standard teenage paths. In fourth grade all the kids are doing pretty much the same things. I can can talk to any other mom-of-a-fourth-grader and know we’re on common ground. Her kid is also doing a state report, just like mine. By high school the kids are all scattered. My neighbor has a son who is my son’s age. He’s highly social, involved in multiple sports, always running off with her car, getting ready to apply for colleges. He’s on the path that is considered standard. My son is being partially home schooled because his anxiety and depression made public high school too overwhelming. Sometime in the next few months I hope to be able to coax my son into learning to drive. The differences between our sons does not mean that my neighbor and I can’t be friends, but it does mean that we need to do a lot more listening and question asking. We can’t assume that our parenting experiences are similar just because our sons are the same age. Which is probably good friendship advice for parents of all ages. Don’t assume that their parenting experience is the same as yours.

My teenage Gleek has been reading and writing horror stories. She loves them. I am disturbed by this, even though I’m aware that it does not necessarily indicate anything to be concerned about. Teenagers are often drawn to the creepy and unexplainable. They live in a strange space where so much of their lives is beyond their control and seeing that lack of control in stories can be very cathartic. In the last month I’ve watched her come out of her shell and form friendships that extend beyond school hours. She’s going to friends’ houses and bringing them here. This socialization was absent from her life for three years. Now it is back. She is happy. She is doing well in school. She is kind and empathetic. And she is writing creepy stories. So I watch. And I remember the good friends I have who write horror for a living. And I try not to worry that her life will become emotionally tumultuous again the way that it was two years ago.

Kiki has had an emotionally eventful college semester. A break up, roommate arguments, too many classes, too much stress. She’s called home and come home more often this semester. Yet I can see how each stressful thing makes her grow. She’s learning lots about herself, about other people, and about how she relates to the world. She’s learned how and when to ask for help. She’s grown so much, and that makes her want to run home and just be a kid for a bit. Good thing her spring break is almost here.

It is all mixed up together in parenting older kids. The hopeful things, the hard things, my emotions, their emotions. We make each other mad and we give each other joy. When I do manage to connect with other mothers of older kids, it helps. Ms. Ridge’s post helps. Which is why I keep working to untangle my thoughts enough so that I can write about my thoughts and my children. Because there are lots of other families out there who need to be able to see that the media-presented version of teenage life is not the only valid path from childhood to adulthood. And because I need to find ways to tell the stories so they can stop circling endlessly in my head.

The thing is, even at its hardest and loneliest, I still prefer parenting my older kids to the thought of going back to the little kid years. My teenagers are amazing. They have perspectives I’ve never considered. They make me laugh. I’m glad I have teenagers and I look forward to growing with them as they become adults.

Brief Thoughts on Rites of Passage

When we talk about rites of passage, we are almost always contemplating the experience of the young person who is to pass through them. These days I have an entirely different perspective. I’m the person who stands aside and holds the spare gear while my children pass through. Sometimes the onus is on me to make sure that the rite happens as it should and on schedule. I’m definitely responsible to make sure that my youngster is prepared.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve failed at all of these tasks.

We’ve reached the portion of our lives where my children are hitting rites of passage faster than I can catch my breath. Eighteenth birthdays, turning twelve, becoming a teenager, sixteenth birthdays, leaving elementary school, leaving junior high, graduating high school, first dates, learning to drive, going to college, wisdom teeth removal, and on and on. All of it is crammed together with all the trappings of every day life. Things keep sneaking up on me and instead of making sure everything is prepared in advance, I’m left scrambling things together and hoping the kids don’t notice how very last-minute it all is.

I think overall things are fine. That’s the thing about rites of passage, there is no triumph if the path through is always smooth. I also have to recognize that their rites of passage also represent rites of passage for me. First child hits eighteen, youngest leaves elementary, teaching kids to drive, these are not just new for the kids, they’re also new for me. I’m as afraid of getting it wrong as they are. For some of these things I have far more emotions about the event than they do. We just muddle through together.

Seeing that the Work is Good

It was a busy day in the middle of a busy week, but I had a quiet moment to sit on the couch and think of nothing in particular. My eyes wandered over the stacks of things in my front room. It has once again gathered the detritus of projects in process and projects not-quite-cleaned-up. One of the stacks was right next to me on the couch. It was half a dozen copies of Massively Parallel all waiting to be transported to the warehouse. I absently ran my hand over the cover of the book and let my thumb rifle the edges of the pages. Bright colors flipped past as I saw familiar characters having adventures. This is really pretty. The thought floated through my mind in response to the colors. I helped make this. It wouldn’t exist without me, but here it is. It is real. And beautiful. And funny.

As creators we always hope for the moments of triumph. So often we feel despair or lost in futility. But every once in a while we can see what we’ve created and know that it is good. I see it when friends open their boxes of Advance Reader Copies. I see it when they finish their drafts or go on their book tours. Those are the moments we expect to be attached to triumph, they are the punctuation points in what mostly feels like a really long, run on sentence. Yet every once in a while a moment of creator joy comes unexpected, when I’m sitting on the couch thinking of nothing in particular.

The Week Where all the Projects Start Rolling Simultaneously

I needed to reach Monday at full efficiency. I was scared that I would not because I was the opposite on Friday and Saturday. But Monday came and I worked at top speed. This is necessary because the next few weeks are filled with project launches. I was handling art contracts for the Planet Mercenary RPG. Planet Mercenary is going to require a Kickstarter and there is much work to do preparatory to that. I need to make spreadsheets and do math. I was wrestling with the script for the next bonus story. I’ve been exchanging email with the designer for the new Cobble Stones covers. I’ve been helping manage administrative tasks for the Out of Excuses workshop and retreat. My partially-homeschooled son needs me to keep his schooling on track and to require him to work even when he doesn’t feel like it. There are are couple of birthdays coming right up. Today was the opening of exhibitor housing for GenCon, which is always a stressful free-for-all trying to get the rooms we need. And to help fund all of the things, we needed to run a sale in the Schlock store. (Coupon code BIRFDAY15 for 20% off your order.) The sale has done well, for which I am extremely grateful. The funds that are coming in will enable all of the other things. Turning inventory into funds with which to buy new inventory is a necessary business process. I’ve spent large portions of yesterday and today over at the warehouse sending packages.

This is a busy time. It is the sort of busy that I love. Yet every single moment I’m aware of the half dozen things which I ought to be doing and am not. So, I’m stressed. And I’m very worried that I will disappoint people. In fact a part of my brain is constantly convinced that I already have. I try to ignore the feeling as much as I can because it doesn’t help, and I’m pretty sure it is lying to me.

In the meantime it is Tuesday. I’m grateful that I have so much of the week left. Yet I feel like it can’t possibly still be Tuesday because I’ve done so many things since Sunday night. Tomorrow I get to retrieve Howard from the airport. He’s been off in Chicago recording episodes for Writing Excuses. I’ll be glad to have him home. Even better, none of us have any travel scheduled until June. We’re going to have several months in a row where we can stay home and do all the projects. We’re going to need it.

Breaking Through the Blockages

This post is a summary of a presentation I gave at LTUE 2015. I find that posting it right now is particularly apropos because I’ve got two writing projects in process and I’ve made little progress on either one lately.

I am a writer of picture books, blog entries, essays, and children’s fiction. As my day job I run the publishing house for my husband’s comic strip, Schlock Mercenary. This means I do graphic design, marketing, shipping, inventory management, store management, and customer support. I have a house that needs maintenance and I have four children, three of whom are teenagers. My life is busy. In fact when someone who knows me in one of my non-writing capacities finds out that I also write, the question that they ask is “where do you find the time?”

The truth is that I spend a lot of time not writing. Even with my busy life, time is not the problem. I have the hours, I just find myself reaching the end of the week and realizing that I’ve spent them all on non-writing things. This post/presentation lays out some of the reasons writers get blocked, or otherwise don’t write. It also offers some solutions for the problems.

Self Doubt
Pretty much every creative person I know has an inner critic who tells them they are terrible and that there is no point to spending time creating. In my head this voice often tells me that my writing is a waste of time and that I should be spending that time on more important things.

How to counter it: Recognize that the critical thoughts are there. I often personify them a little bit, calling them the voices of self doubt. This small separation is useful, because once I see them as separate from me, it is easier for me to choose to ignore them. Sometimes I even mentally address them. “Yes, I know you think this isn’t worthwhile, I’m going to write anyway.”

Important reminder: These voices of self doubt are lying to you. The act of creation has value, even if the only person who is ever changed by it is the creator.

There may be people in your life who feed the self doubt. They may be deliberately undercutting you for reasons of their own, or they may be doing it unintentionally. It is important to recognize which people make you doubt yourself. If they are unimportant in your life, perhaps remove them from it. If it is a loved one, then spend some time figuring out how they are adding to your self doubt and try to re-structure your relationship so that they have less power to make you doubt yourself. Be aware that this is not simple and the other person may react poorly to the process.

Perfectionism / The editor within
This is also an internal critic, but it is slightly different from the self doubt voices. This internal editor constantly tells you you’re not good enough, but it is more specific. The existence of the internal editor is actually an indicator of writing growth. New writers think everything they write is wonderful. Then they learn more and realize that everything they’ve written is terrible because they’ve acquired knowledge and skill to recognize the flaws in their own writing. Your internal editor is extremely valuable when you need to revise, not so much when you’re trying to draft.

How to counter it: When you’re drafting you have to give yourself permission to write something terrible. You will fix it later. Some people need to have some sort of timer or incentive in order to force themselves to draft quickly without worrying that it is bad. Examples of incentives are Write or Die programs, Written Kitten, or participating in NaNoWriMo. If you are editing you need to distinguish between the useful editor and the mean editor. The useful one says “Wow that sentence is terrible. We need to write it better” The mean one says “Wow that sentence is terrible. You are a terrible writer. Why do you do this anyway?”

Professional Insecurity
When you know other writers or read about how they work, it is very common to come to the conclusion that you’re doing writing wrong. You feel like if your process isn’t like [famous writer] then that explains why you fail to write. I’ve seen people contort their lives and writing trying to be someone else.

How to counter it: There is no wrong way to create. Anything that allows you to get writing done is better than a system that does not. Feel free to learn how other writers approach their writing. Experiment with their methods, but if their methods don’t work for you, discard them. Keep what works for you and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing it wrong. (If they do, then they fall in the category of people who feed your self doubt.)

Fear of Failure
No one wants to be rejected or to fall short of their dreams. Sometimes writers will subconsciously sabotage their own writing because if they never finish the book, then they never have to face the rejections that come with publication. Rejections and criticisms come not matter what publishing path you choose. Sometimes writers learn too much about publishing before they’ve finished writing. The whole process can feel futile if no one will ever read your work.

How to counter it: First remember the act of creation has intrinsic value no matter what happens to the creation once it is done. Second, focus on the work that is in front of you instead of on your fears about what will come in the future. If you’re drafting, then fully enjoy the process of drafting. No matter what comes afterward no one will ever be able to take away the experience you had with writing your book. Then you can focus on the experience of editing. Then on publishing or submitting. Each step is its own process. Do one at a time. All the other steps will be there later. Worry about them when you get to them.

Time Management
It may be that how you’re managing your time is causing you to be blocked. This is not the same as not having enough time. The time is there, you just need to figure out how to arrange it so that writing fits. You may not have a large block of time or you may be trying to write during the wrong time of day.

How to counter it: Learn to work in small chunks. Sometimes it feels like you can’t accomplish anything unless you can free up an hour or two. But I know writers who create whole books by snatching fifteen minutes here and there. You just have to train your brain to hold the story ideas and percolate them while you’re doing other things so that when you sit down to write you can pour words onto the page. A notebook is a very useful tool for training your brain to do this. Carry one with you. Scribble notes as thoughts come to you. This teaches your brain to hold story thoughts until you need them. Also learn your biorhythms. Some people are most creatively energized first thing in the morning others late at night. I know that my body wants to take a nap around 3pm. I should not attempt to schedule my writing time for when my body wants to nap. My brain is all fuzzy and not good at writing during that time.

The Story is Stuck
Sometimes you’ve arranged the time, cleared everything else from your schedule, but then you sit down to work and you can’t put words down. There are several reasons this can happen. 1. You honestly don’t know what comes next. 2. Your subconscious knows that something is wrong with a thing you wrote previously and is not letting you proceed until you find and fix it. 3. The story needs skills you don’t have yet.

How to counter it: If you don’t know what comes next, then it is time to step back and take a broader look at your story. You may need to brainstorm or re-outline. This is also a solution to the subconscious blocking you problem. You need to recognize where your story deviated from what it needs to be. If the story needs skills you don’t have, then you may need to step away from it an practice that skill. With practice you’ll begin to develop a sense for which sort of problem you’re having. Sometimes the right solution is to plow forward, just keep putting words on the page even if they’re the wrong ones. Other times you have to step backward, get outside your box and look at the whole thing differently.

Distraction
This is particularly a problem for people who have ADHD or similar distractibilities. Sometimes you’ll be writing and then between one sentence and the next your brain says “We should check Twitter!” So you click over and it is twenty minutes before you’re back to writing. Often what is happening here is that your brain is getting micro-tired. Writing is hard work, and the brain wants to jump to something easier or more soothing.

How to counter it: Turn off or remove your typical distractions. At the very least, make them harder to access so that you have time to realize “Oh I’m getting distracted.” The moment you realize you’re distracted, bring yourself back to the writing. Also control your environment. If you sit in a particular place with a particular drink, these things can signal to your brain that you’ve entered writing time. You can train your brain that writing time is for writing and not for Twitter. Some days will still be easier than others, but physical signals and practicing coming back to writing focus will help.

Creative Depletion
Often people have plenty of time to write, but by the time they reach that hour, all they want to do is relax and watch TV. This is usually the case when they’ve used up all of their creative energy on something else. Parenting is a huge cause of this. Daily parenting requires huge reserves of creativity. You’re expending creative energy just keeping little ones alive, teaching them, entertaining them. As they get older, creative energy goes into helping them with projects, helping them problem solve, and figuring out how to effectively communicate. There are also many jobs that use up all the creative energy.

How to counter it: First determine what you are spending your creative energy doing. If that thing is more important to you than writing is, then you don’t actually have a problem. The writing will wait until your life shifts in a way that you have energy for it again. If the other thing is LESS important to you than writing, it is time to take steps to rearrange your life. Most of us can’t afford to quit our jobs and be full-time creative. But we can be budgeting, paying down debts, and saving money so that someday that dream becomes possible. Parents can hire babysitters once per week so that there is a day with some available creative energy. The solutions are as varied as the problems. The key is to analyze why you’re too creatively tapped out to write and make a small change toward fixing that problem.

I know these are not the only things that can cause a writer not to write, but it is a useful jumping off place for writers to figure out what is going on inside their heads that prevents them from reaching their writing goals.

Learning to Work

Today my son has a money problem that I could easily solve for him. I am not solving it, because learning to solve your money problems by being willing to work is a vitally important life skill. And it is one that can only be learned if other people don’t always solve your problems for you.

This experience is not being fun for either of us.

Post LTUE Thoughts

The day after a convention is always a strange place. My head is still full of conversations and I am processing them. I’m usually trying not to listen to voices of self doubt that always want to convince me that I made an idiot of myself. I need to re-engage my brain with the things of regular life. And I’m tired, so very tired.

I had a lovely time at LTUE. As always, I am very grateful to the committee and volunteers who organize the event each year. LTUE keeps getting bigger and when I think about the complexity of the undertaking, I hold the organizers in awe. I’m very grateful to be able to come each year. LTUE feels like a family reunion and I couldn’t have that without the people who put in so much work.

My co-panelists were a pleasure. This is not always the case and so I was very pleased. I love it when a panel feels like a really good conversation and when I walk away having learned something. The audiences were also very good. It may sound silly to say that, but the attendees at LTUE are focused. They’re at the event to learn. This means they ask well-informed and interesting questions. Some of those attendees came to talk to me at the booth and I was grateful for that as well.

Next week is going to be busy. I wanted to make sure I expressed my thanks first. LTUE was good. If you were there, thank you for being part of it. If you were not there, you might want to put it on your calendar for next February. It is well worth the trip.

My Schedule at LTUE

This Thursday is the beginning of the Life the Universe and Everything symposium in Provo, Utah. LTUE is one of my favorite convention events of the year. It is a perfect event for people who want to create to learn the craft. Particularly since attendance is free to students. Team Tayler will be out in force. Howard, Kiki, and I all have programming. In between the programming we’ll be at our tables in the dealer’s room.

I’m very excited by this year’s panels. They really mixed things up and I’ll get to talk about new things. Here is my schedule:

Thursday
2pm
Finding Your Muse: Anna del C. Dye, Fiona Ostler, Sandra Tayler, Scott William Taylor, M. Todd Gallowglas

Friday
10am
Your Workspace: Staying Inspired and effective: Rachel Ann Nunes, Lesli Lytle, Sean Nathan Ricks, Sandra Tayler, Heather Horrocks

12pm
Breaking Through Blockages: Figuring out why you’re not writing and taking steps to start. Sandra Tayler
(This one I’m particularly excited about. It is a solo presentation.)

3pm
The Weird Worlds of Dr. Seuss: Jess Smart Smiley, Sandra Tayler, Michael Cluff, Daniel Coleman, Steven L. Peck

Saturday
9am
Learning From Failure: Al Carlisle, Tracy Hickman, Sandra Tayler, Scott William Taylor, Chas Hathaway

2pm
Horror fiction, haunted houses, etc. Why are we so fascinated with being scared?: Sandra Tayler, Steven Diamond, Randi Weston, Andrea Pearson

I hope that if you’re at LTUE you’ll stop by and say hello.

Making Art

Art museums take my breath away. I am always awed by human creativity, the ways that people choose to express themselves, and how often they make simple objects needlessly beautiful. Then I stand in front of Greek marble sculptures and know that people have been doing this for a very long time. I wander to the next gallery that has ancient stone statues and I realize we have been creating art for even longer than we’ve had recorded history. That long ago sculptor was driven to create by a very similar creative impulse that leads me to write. Standing in a museum I can see all of this and I feel connected to all of the best of our history. Humans are amazing. It is nice to be reminded of that, because wading around the internet and watching the news so often shows me how humans are terrible.

I sat at the table and listened to my friend Mary plan her birthday dinner. It was to be a multi-course formal event. She picked anchor items then she planned complimentary courses. I listened to her discuss with her husband the merits and detriments of various pairings. Once the dishes were selected, they talked at length about the order of presentation. I squelched my impulse to reassure them that their guests would be happy with any order. This wasn’t about appeasing guests, they were discussing the artistic presentation of food as part of a formal dinner. I was watching art in the planning stages. Later this evening I will get to participate in the culmination of the planning, shopping, chopping, and cooking. This is not an art that will ever end up in a museum because it’s very nature is ephemeral. It is my friend raising a necessity (food) to an art form and I’m honored to be able to participate.

Dinner settings

We began our tour of the Chicago Art Institute in the miniatures gallery. In the 1930’s Mrs. Thorne took dollhouse decoration to an art form. She commissioned teams of artists to create accurate miniature replicas of period rooms. Every single one was stunning. I was most charmed when there was a doorway or window that I could peer through into a back bedroom or a garden. I very much wanted to shrink myself and go explore those gardens. I suspect that Mrs. Thorne was ridiculed on more than one occasion for wasting her time and resources on so frivolous a pursuit as miniature rooms. I think that every artist or creator has their work belittled at least once. Yet her creation is marveled at today. Her rooms are carefully preserved by museum staff so that they will be available for my great grandchildren to admire. I am grateful to the museum conservators for this and for the Greek marbles that they tend, and the impressionist paintings, and all the other things that fill my soul when I look at them.

The last gallery we wandered through at the art museum was the Folk Art gallery. I looked at weather vanes and homey little chairs. I pondered why Folk Art is different than Art. The sign on the wall implied that the difference was in training and skill. I don’t quite buy that. Some of the folk art pieces were every bit as lovely as pieces found elsewhere in the museum. Then I thought of Mary’s planned birthday dinner and of the thanksgiving dinner I created for my family last November. Mary’s dinner is an art, mine was a folk art. Mine sought first to be comfortable and pleasing. Mary’s seeks to be beautiful and esthetically pleasing both to eyes and educated palettes. There is intrinsic value in both sorts of creation. It is true that Mary and I laughed at some of the items in the Folk Art Gallery. There was one clock case made of layer upon layer of wooden strips cut into zig zag shapes. It was busy and while not exactly ugly, definitely not something I’d want to look at often. Yet I could see how much loving work had gone into the creation. Some artist loved making that clock case.

In the Thorne Miniature gallery the European rooms ran along one wall while the American rooms were on the other. Stepping from one side of the hall to the other provided a distinct contrast. The European rooms were all large and highly decorated. The American rooms were smaller and practical. Yet both were beautiful. Just as Mary’s elegant dinner and my homey dinner are both beautiful. Just as folk art and fine art are both beautiful, even when they are kind of ugly. I love that humans make things needlessly beautiful. I love that we are all artists, creating in different mediums. Some create books, others well-run classrooms. Some make buildings, others sandcastles. Some embroider tapestries, others knit scarfs. Some create with expertise and skill, others with skill-less fingers but a strong desire to make something anyway. That is how we all begin, with pure desire to create. The skill comes later.

Art museums remind me that we are all artists, we all create in our own way. I think if we spent more time remembering that, the world would have more of what is lovely about humanity and less of what is not.