This time next week I’ll be in Houston for the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat. We’ll have a few days on land and then we’ll be on a cruise ship for the remainder of the event. I’ve gone on these trips annually for the past four years, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity. They aren’t trips we ever would have been able to afford on our own, so we work hard as staff to make the event amazing and thus pay for our tickets with our efforts.
It does mean that I end up spending the week of the trip in something of a liminal space. I’m staff and therefore not able to blend in with the attendees. However I’m not one of the Writing Excuses podcast hosts or an invited guest instructor. I assist with the family programming for non-writers, helping them connect with each other and learn things about supporting their writers. I fit in that role since I am the life partner and enabler of a person with a creative career. However I’m also a writer myself, so I bounce into those spaces as well. Being not exactly one thing or another provides fertile ground for anxieties to grow. So this week I’m spending significant amounts of mental energy weeding anxieties out as soon as they pop up. The minute I realize I’m worried that I’ve disappointed attendees I remind myself that it isn’t possible for people to be disappointed by me when they barely know I exist or haven’t met me yet. When I have thoughts about how I probably shouldn’t speak up in conversations about writing, I remind myself that I have as much right to speak about my writing struggles as anyone else. Anxiety sprouts, I pull it out like a weed. Repeat.
This year I’m going on the trip with a specific writing project and goal. I’m eschewing shore excursions so that I have longer stretches to sit and write. I’m trying to refocus myself as a writer and remember that projects only get complete if I actually put in the time. I’m anxious about all of this as well. Writing is surrounded by a whole garden of anxiety weeds which have barbs like thistles They are thoughts that sting and hurt whenever I bump into them.
What is the point, it’ll never be published anyway.
What do you have to say that hasn’t already been said.
You don’t have the skill to do this.
Who do you think you’re fooling, if you were a real writer you’d… [fill in the blank]
And dozens more related thoughts. I already know the words to counteract these thoughts. I speak them regularly to students and friends. I teach them in classes. I believe them when I say them to others, yet somehow it is harder to accept that they also apply to me. Anxiety is like that. It is a lying liar who lies.
I write the counter argument here to remind myself: creation is always worthwhile even if the only one who is changed by it is the person who creates. I’m very good at nurturing the personal growth of others, and I need to turn some of that effort inward.
Along with the writer anxieties, I’m also dealing with anxieties about the things and people I need to leave behind while I travel. Also dealing with the inherent anxieties around the ways that travel can go wrong. Thus far the all the anxieties (travel, writerly, etc), while abundant, have been low level. More like background noise than something obtrusive. But the volume will increase the closer I get to departure. Writing this post is one of my ways to stare anxiety down and say “I see you. You don’t win.” It may be silly, but it works.
This week I’m at my house looking at damaged flooring, clutter, and bathrooms that need to be cleaned. Next week I’ll have vistas of caribbean water and white sand beaches. Yet I’ll be the same me in both spaces. I’ll carry anxieties with me on the trip and then back again, unless I can figure out how to shed them before I go. And if I want to feel calm, serene, happy I need to not wait until I’m surrounded by loveliness to cultivate those emotions, otherwise when I leave the lovely location I’ll also leave the emotions behind. Travel definitely provides an impetus for me to examine my internal landscape, but it is at home that the real work gets done.
About two years ago I stopped participating in mental health themed panels at conventions. The last one I was on, was focused on helping writers understand details of what it is like to live with depression, anxiety, bipolar, OCD, etc so that they could portray the conditions well in their writing. The audience was great, my co-panelists were great, I was just so raw and worn out from living with the difficulties that the conversation sent me sideways. I was sitting in front of a room of people, filled with anxiety. Every time I spoke up, I was flooded with doubt that my contribution was useful and a simultaneous fear that I’d said too much, that I’d exposed my life and my loved ones to scrutiny in ways I should not have. And then, from the shape of the conversations it was clear that some of the audience was also seeking affirmation, validation, or hope along with writerly education. That was what stabbed me to my core, because I wanted to say “yes this is hard, but it gets better.” Only I couldn’t. Me and my family were still in the middle of hard and better wasn’t even a glimpse on the horizon. It was too hard to sit there describing the hard without having hope. So I stopped volunteering for those panels.
Today I had a contrasting experience. A friend of a friend called me because they are seeking help for their son and they wondered about a program that my son has participated in. As I listened to her, I knew exactly the emotional path she is traveling. I was able to validate and sympathize. And as I spoke describing where my son is now in comparison to where he was, I saw so clearly that “better” is all around me.
I’m still not certain I’m ready to start volunteering to talk about mental health on panels again. In part that is because I’m going through a period of self doubt in relation to teaching at conventions and events. But it is also because I’m braced for “better” to vanish again. It was so hard for so long. And every advance seemed to be followed by a disastrous crash. So part of me expects everything to fall apart again, reverting to what the emotional / mental health chaos that was our normal for six years.
Except I don’t think things can revert. We’ve all changed shape so that we can’t fit back into the old patterns. Things could fall apart in new and exciting ways, but I don’t think we get to go back. For which I am exceedingly grateful. I’m also truly grateful that this time when I was giving someone useful information, I was also able to heap on a serving of hope to go along with it.
We had some forced renovation this summer because of water damage. Here is our progress thus far.
I remember on the day that we realized the scope of what needed to be done that one of the workers tried to cheer me up by pointing out that I’d be getting new flooring for free (because insurance would pay for it.) I politely didn’t respond, because these newly restored rooms are anything but free. We were (and still are) out of pocket for portions of the work since it wasn’t covered under insurance. I’m out hours of physical labor because the economics of insurance, my skill set, and our calendar dictated that the best way to get things done was for me to do them. Our entire household experienced major disruption across the largest part of the summer.
In the end, we like the new flooring better. It is more durable and has a better feel under our feet. We still need to extend it across the family room where we’ll have to tear out twenty year old carpet. We still need to put Howard’s painting table back into place. But these two rooms are fully functional again, for which I am quite grateful.
Yesterday a friend stopped by with a head full of thoughts. After a few minutes of visiting, she apologized for jumping from topic to topic somewhat at random. I told her not to worry about it, she just had a lot of thoughts jumbled up in her head and I was there to help her sort. Sorting often begins with just pulling things out so you can see what you have. I know exactly how she feels. I’ve been packing thoughts, experiences, and emotions into my head for two months now. At this point it is all jumbled up rather like a bin full of multi-part toys or 3D puzzles. Emotions are separate from the experiences that triggered them. Thoughts are scattered so that I can barely tell what they are let alone how they fit together. It means that every shift in my life brings new things to the top of the heap, but no sense of order.
It all accumulated because there was no time to sort or assemble. No physical spaces in my house because offices resided in my front room and kitchen while I was making walls and floors in the places where they belonged. Every room was over full, while extra belongings overflowed into a storage pod occupying most of my driveway. No time to pause because the sooner I got physical spaces organized, the sooner offices could return to where they belonged. No time because several high-stakes tasks had very short deadlines to make sure that my two neurodivergent college freshman were set to start school. No space in my brain because every day I was slotting physical tasks like plastering walls in between administrative tasks like talking to the insurance company and in between emotional tasks like helping my loved ones sort all their emotions about the life disruption and the impending onset of school. Sometimes all the spare thoughts and emotions just have to be tossed into a bin to be sorted later.
Now I’ve reached a point where I’ve begun to have time and space. Yet I stare at that bin and wonder if I really want to dig into it all. Sorting can be so messy just when I got things cleared up. Except the bin will linger, shifting randomly, spilling, and making me unbalance until I take time to sort.
So then the question becomes how do I sort? I frequently sort by person putting all the thoughts and experiences relating to that person together. Yet it might also make sense to sort by category: Thoughts and experiences related to kids going back to school, or emotions about the ways life got expensive, or Thoughts and emotions about things which are finally happening that I waited a long time to see. It is very much like sorting puzzle pieces. I could sort by shape or color or texture. Except there is more than one puzzle, and the pieces are mixed together. So I make guesses about which pieces go where, knowing that I’ve almost certainly sorted some things into the piles where they won’t actually fit.
Sorting can be tiresome, but the results are good.
This weekend I’ll be at Gen Con. Most of my time will be at booth 1749 in the dealer’s hall, so that is likely the best place to find me. I do have a few other scheduled events:
10 am Word Choice Matters Ballroom 2 of the Gen Con Writer’s Symposium
3 pm The Many Forms of the First Draft: How Do You Get It on the Page? Austin/Boston in the Gen Con Writer’s Symposium
6 pm Worldbuilder’s Party Grand Ballroom 9-10 in the JW Marriott. Come play games with Howard and I for charity.
1 pm Maintaining a Reader’s Sense of Wonder Ballroom 1 of the Gen Con Writer’s Symposium.
If you’re at the event, please take time to stop by and say hello!
After months of saying he didn’t want to take classes, my son called me yesterday to say that he does want to take a college class after all. We had five days to get his application submitted and approved before the registration deadline. (This school has open enrollment.) Suddenly he is talking about taking more than one class, getting a job on campus, and maybe even moving into student housing. All things he has rejected in the past.
My other college kid (same school) did their registration early, but they discovered that one class they wanted was full. We found an alternate and then realized it took place in Heber instead of locally. Then we had weeks where I nudged them and said “you really should find a different class.” That finally happened yesterday. Additionally we took a trip on city buses so that they could learn the route to campus and back. This is how the school commute is expected to go for the semester. Student ID was acquired, classrooms were found. Then we returned home tired but triumphant.
The office walls have sheet rock and are sanded into smoothness. Thus far we’ve put in over thirty hours of work. Tomorrow I plan to spray texture on the walls. After that dries, we’re ready for paint. Flooring will arrive while I’m at Gen Con. I get to have adventures in floor installation once I return.
Gen Con is next week. I hope that I’ve adequately prepared everything. This year I didn’t have a last minute scramble, which either means I prepared well earlier, or that I’ve been negligent and wasted time I could have been using getting things done. I’ll find out when I get there I guess. To be honest, I’ve been too muddled up with all the other things to focus on any individual thing very much.
My son, who usually spends the vast majority of his time attached to screens, has decided to run a D&D campaign for his friends. More than that, he’s creating it from scratch. So I’ve watched him spending hours pacing back and forth, thinking, reading manuals, and doing research. It is so good to see him engaged in an activity that stretches his brain and creativity. His friends seem to be on board with playing, so the game will happen sometime in the next couple of weeks.
Work progresses on preparing the next Schlock book for print. We need to pack for Gen Con. I’ve got a bathroom vanity sitting in the middle of my family room. There is a storage pod taking up half of my driveway. The only place we have to sit and eat is the kitchen counter. Howard and I are still trying out experiments with medicine to see if we can find a better mix for his good health. Everything feels cluttered and insufficiently clean. My daughter has a boyfriend and I’m learning to adapt to that. But at least I finally folded laundry yesterday.
Everything is happening all at once. It feels like half of the things which are happening are things I’ve been hoping for for years. The other half are things I would not have picked if I had the choice, and I certainly wouldn’t have picked them all at the same time. And yet this muddle of household and personal renovation will eventually settle out and then things will be new. In the new space I will be able to pause, breathe, then look around and figure out what comes next.
On Monday the recovery company came to claim their industrial fans and to declare that their job with our house was complete. They’d come, removed affected materials, washed everything, and then dried it all out. The result was two rooms stripped down to concrete floor with flood cuts in the dry wall, a third room with flooring partially removed, and a large room in need of carpet removal and replacement. In order to return our house to normal we would have to work with a different department of the company, hire our own contractor, or do the work ourselves.
Without the roar of fans and the disruption of people traipsing into and out of our house we finally had time to assess what needs done. The bathroom was the source of our woes, on the left is what it looked like before, the right is how it looks now.
Then there is the studio which houses Howard’s workspace:
And also Keliana’s workspace:
At the moment we have Howard set up to work in our front room and Keliana set up in the kitchen. The kitchen table is banished to a storage pod, so everyone has to eat either at the counter or holding their plates in their laps. No one wants this arrangement to last long. That was one of the first challenges we noticed. Working with the recovery company or a contractor would introduce delays. We’d be waiting on them and their schedules. The process could take months. On top of that was the expense. Our insurance company has given us money to cover the repairs, but they also depreciate for the age of the flooring, and they pull out their deductible. Our adjuster was very nice about getting us as much money as he could without being dishonest. Yet I knew there was likely to be a gap between the amount of money offered by the insurance company and the amount of money a contractor would need in order to get the job done.
I examined the insurance claim in detail and noticed that there is a dollar amount for “General Contractor Overhead” and for “General Contractor Profit” The adjuster said that if we acted as our own general contractors, those dollar amounts would come to us. Then I looked at the bid from the restoration company, and the vast majority of the expense was labor rather than materials.
The thing is, we’ve done this sort of work before. I’ve hung dry wall. I’ve painted. And the new vinyl plank flooring is super easy to lay down. If we do the work ourselves, we can put the insurance money toward paying for some of the mitigation expenses that weren’t covered by insurance. On top of that, we’ll probably get the work done faster because we’ll prioritize getting it done.
The thought was daunting. It’ll be a lot of physical labor over the next weeks. I’ll be drafting my teenagers and paying them an hourly wage.
Yet, I’ve already replaced the flooring in my office. It took half a day and now my office just needs its contents returned to it. I’ve got all the mudding and taping supplies. The sheets of drywall will arrive tonight and odds are good that I’ll have them in place by the end of the day tomorrow. The goal is to have the walls ready to go by the time we leave for Gen Con. The flooring will arrive while we’re at Gen Con and will be collected by the adults keeping track of the house. Then I can lay floor as soon as I get home.
My head is full of calculations for square footage, workflow, and time management. For the next few weeks I’ll be acting as a general contractor while I get our house back to normal.
8am on Sunday morning and I’m baking cookies. This is the only way we can get home baked cookies in July because turning on the oven when the outside temperature is three digits makes everyone miserable for the rest of the day (air conditioner can’t keep up.) I figured since I was already awake and since making cookies sounded nice, I might as well do it. Then we’ll have a good hour for the AC to restore comfortable temperatures before the world outside is too hot.
While I was baking cookies, I also cleaned up the kitchen. It feels good to make a small corner of our lives neat and orderly when so much of the house is jumbled. In fact I think the cooking area of the kitchen is the only public space in the house which doesn’t have extra furniture or stacked boxes in it. Even the bedrooms are somewhat impacted. All of this despite the fact that we have a rented storage pod out in our driveway to contain some of the clutter. It is going to take time to put the house to rights, but I can do the dishes and wipe the counter. It helps.
Yesterday Howard and I went to look at flooring. We have to make decisions about how to replace the flooring that was torn out. It was anxiety inducing to look at our options and try to pick something that we’ll have to live with for the next fifteen to twenty years. What if we choose wrong? What if we spend the money and then regret for a long time? Spinning on those thoughts leads to a mental paralysis. Then I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my teenage son earlier in the week. He was having an anxiety attack because he had twenty dollars to spend on a new game and was afraid of choosing wrong. I told him “go ahead and get it wrong.”
“but what if I get it wrong?” he repeated.
“What if you get choosing wrong… wrong? Wouldn’t that mean you accidentally chose … right?”
I saw the edge of a smile on his face, so I continued, “It would be so terrible to be accidentally right when you meant to be wrong.”
He managed to make a game selection, and judging from the fact that he’s been playing it non-stop for several days, I don’t think he got it wrong. Whether that means he succeeded or failed at what he attempted, doesn’t really matter since he has no regrets.
We chose flooring. Whether it will be right or wrong once it is installed, we have yet to see. Some day in the coming week I’ll have to place an order for the flooring. And I’ll have to make a dozen other decisions which will have long-term repercussions for our living spaces. Hopefully at the end of it all, we’ll like the new look of the spaces. For now, I have fresh baked cookies and a clean kitchen. It is enough.
My house is filled with the roar of fans. It is about as relaxing as standing inside an inadequately sound-proofed jet plane. Damaged flooring and drywall has been removed. contamination is scoured out. Theoretically next week I can begin the process of putting things back together instead of tearing them apart further.
I’m thinking about what a joy it is to watch two people who both felt broken find each other and realize that the other one values them for exactly the things they felt were broken. It is beautiful when people heal each other and become whole.
As a mother of children with mental health issues, The Nightcore cover of Alex Benjamin’s song “My Mother’s Eyes” breaks my heart. Or rather shows me the ways that my children’s struggles already broke me. Because my children (and their friends) are amazing and so often they can’t see it.
You can listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kejPoXEGpsI
Written lyrics here: https://lyricstranslate.com/en/alec-benjamin-my-mothers-eyes-lyrics.html
Sad songs aside, my children are thriving more this year than they have in the prior three years combined. I’ll take it.
I only have three weeks to Gen Con and a long list of things I’m supposed to have done before then. Eep!
I submitted a short story to a market for the first time in a decade. It was rejected, but at least I did a writer thing.
It is 9am and I need to figure out how to make good use of today.
Two days ago I did a brave thing. It was small-scale brave, not heroic brave, the kind of bravery that is all but invisible to those who aren’t living it. I’d had a really long day after a really exhausting week. I had a writing social event on my calendar, but what I really wanted to do was curl up with my people and watch Stranger Things on Netflix. After dithering and delaying, I finally got up and went to be social. The thought which got me off the couch was remember that this is the year I plan to be courageous. I will do the small brave things that inch me closer to who I want to be and the life I want to have.
Yesterday I had a conversation with a young friend of mine who will be heading off to college in the fall. She has a long list of scary adulting tasks in front of her and has been struggling to make herself do them. They are the kind of tasks that once done, you wonder why on earth it was so hard to make yourself do it. Life is full of tasks like that, small but daunting. It is much easier to just sit still and not do them. The only way I can get myself moving on these sorts of tasks is to remember that the only way to get to the future I want is through the forest of small but daunting tasks.
I failed at a writer task this week. I had five months to write a short story. It took several of those months to come up with a concept that matched the anthology theme. Then for the past month I put that story on the top of my to do list. For days I sat on the couch feeling completely stopped, because I couldn’t make the top priority task move forward. Most times I couldn’t make myself open up the file. When I did open the file, writing words felt like trying to push a brick wall up a hill. I’ll grant that during those exact weeks I was also surrounded by a swirl of large-scale distractions: Howard was in the process of switching meds, we had a house problem that required a jackhammer to solve, a baby bird showed up and required care then died before we were able to get it to a rehabilitation facility, and then there was the usual amount of mental noise around running a house. All of that might help explain why I couldn’t get the story unstuck, but it didn’t make it any less of a failure. That sense of failure leaked out into everything else and I began to doubt my capabilities on several fronts.
Then yesterday I opened up a different story file, not the one I was supposed to be working on. That story was easy to tweak and fix. The words flowed and I liked the results. It showed me that I couldn’t move the story because the story was stuck rather than because I was a failure. So I did the small scary thing. I emailed the editor and told them I would not have a story for them after all. It is a sad outcome for my first invitation anthology. And yet, the process taught me skills which will be valuable. It required me to practice small bravery, and with each small bravery I get better at it. And I get a tiny step closer to who I want to be.
Today, for the first time in weeks, I was focused and productive. I blew through a dozen tasks which had felt daunting. That’s the trick with doing small brave things, they make the next thing feel a little less daunting. I ran out of steam by mid afternoon, but that is okay too. Tomorrow is Sunday and I will rest. Perhaps on Monday I can have another day where I move forward with energy and purpose, without fear. Or perhaps I’ll have a day where I need to be brave. I’ll manage whichever comes.