Community

Being Called Back to My Writer Self

I keep a notebook where I write down my tasks sorted by days. I don’t write down every single thing. For house tasks like laundry or dishes, I rely on physical reminders to prompt me to do the thing (laundry basket is full, sink is full) so I don’t write those down. But appointments, phone calls I need to make, emails I need to send; these all end up on my lists. Life has been feeling a lot busier since about mid-May. I wondered if that was actually true, or if all the thinking involved with shipping just made my brain tireder. I pulled out a notebook from six months ago, back then my lists were 3-5 tasks per day. Now I’m averaging 8-10. Demands on my time and attention have definitely increased, and the increase seems unlikely to subside on its own. The pandemic gifted me with uninterrupted hours and very few expectations. Now I’ve returned to a world where I must defend the space in my schedule.

This week I was visiting with a writer friend during a weekly Zoom date to get writing done. She asked after my creative projects. All the things I’d been working on were business or shipping related. She nodded and understood the urgency of my tasks, understood that over the next six months tasks directly linked to earning money were going to absorb much of my time and attention because my family needs income. She was kind and accepting, but the mere asking of the question was a tether which tugged me into remembering that, for my own long term emotional health, I can’t always prioritize the endless list of tasks. Sometimes I need to stake out a space for the work which will help me grow, or which will make the world better, or which just brings me joy. I have to defend that space from all the excuses I have to use that time for something “more productive.” I have to defend it from the impulse to just knock a few more tasks off the list. On Wednesday mornings, for two hours, I need to be a writer first.

Also this week I hosted one of my monthly online Creative Check-Ins with a small group of fellow creative people where we talk about our projects, how they progressed in the past month (or didn’t.) It is really helpful for each of us to talk about how our projects interact with our lives. Life affecting projects, projects affecting life. We’d almost reached the end of our time when one of my friends reminded me that in all the discussion, I hadn’t talked about my projects. Again I talked about shipping, and tasks, and business. I talked about why I allow these things to overrun my creative spaces, shoving to the edges anything that doesn’t bring income. Again I received nods and acceptance. Again, saying the things out loud prompted me to reach behind all the logic of how I arrange my days. To reach past the ways that the endless tide of tasks is important to support my long term life goals. I was surprised to find myself talking about a minor creative rejection which had a larger emotional footprint in my creative life than I’d realized. Because my friends were there, I was able to process that emotion in ways that help me clear the way for me to create again. Once per month for two hours I have a window of time to commiserate and rejoice with others about the creative projects in our lives.

A third thing which happened this week was an email from a writer friend with whom I’ve begun swapping critiques. She had a new manuscript for me to look at and re-iterated that she’d love to look at something I have ready. I have nothing ready. I meant to, but I got swept up in the tide of shipping, barely able to keep my head above water. That tide has ebbed, but it is so easy for me to dive into more tasks. To become accustomed to living by lists. In many ways lists are easier. They are far less emotionally risky that putting my heart into a creative work which might be rejected or ignored. Tasks are also satisfying. I check them off and they’re done. Each tiny completion has endorphins, which means that even while I complain about feeling busy, there is an attraction to accomplishing things and being productive. There is also the illusion that if I can complete this weeks set of lists, that will somehow reduce the number of tasks for next week. As if most of my life tasks weren’t repetitive and cyclical. Yet now there is this email, like a thin line cutting through the water, tugging me back to a place where I can get my feet under me and remember the writing work I want to be doing. For this critique I will read a book, and engage my writer brain. Periodically an email will nudge me toward the projects I want to send to my friend because I am reminded how much I want to hear what she has to say about the stories I’ve written.

Three times this week I’ve been gently tugged back to my writer self. Each time I was pulled by a connection I have to a writer community. Those connections are ones I have carefully acquired and maintained in during the past several years. For me the key has been finding people who ask how I’m doing and give me the space to ramble past the surface response into the deeper concerns. It was also in learning to trust that people actually wanted to hear my answer rather than them just being nice to me because they are nice people. I have a tendency to hide in plain sight, to turn conversations away from myself. I am far more comfortable talking about the concerns of others rather than my own. So this week is evidence of personal growth. At this point in my life, I’ve managed to build community connections that truly support me and call me back to myself when I get a little lost. This is a joy to discover in my life. It is a joy I want to share with others so they can have it too. Fortunately, that is exactly how mutually-supportive community connections work.

Now I need to heed the calls and get back to the writing I’m meant to be doing. Conveniently, this blog post is part of that work. 🙂

Use of Privilege

With my prior post being about personal accountability, I’ve been thinking about a couple of specific accountability things I can be putting into place in my life. I want to call them out and name them because I think the more people who decide to hold themselves accountable in these (or similar) ways the better our world will be.

I need to be paying attention to who is missing in my social circles.

I participate in many communities both online and off. I have church, neighborhood, writer, and friend communities to name a few off of the top of my head. I’m glad to see people and connect. However I need to take responsibility not just to connect with the people who show up for a community event, but also to notice who does NOT show up. If my neighborhood is 5% Latino, but the neighborhood potluck is all white, that is an indicator of something amiss. Did my Latino neighbors not get invited? Did they decide not to come because they’ve felt awkward and out of place at prior events?  I’ve used a neighborhood potluck example, but the principle applies to the demographics of all communities. If no black people are in your online knitters forum, it isn’t because black people don’t like knitting. Something is keeping them out or pushing them out.

 In order to help my communities be more inclusive I need to first notice who is missing, try to identify why they are missing, then address the problems that the answers to those “why” questions reveal. More attention might need to be paid to barriers to entry: extending invitations, giving people rides, offering to cover expenses, changing entry requirements that accidentally (or intentionally) filter for race/disability/poverty. The other thing answers to “why” reveal is the ways that people decide to opt out of a community rather than participate. My responsibility is to help people feel welcome when they do show up. This requires education of existing community in how not to make people feel “othered”  I have a responsibility to correct my friends when they commit microaggressions against marginalized people. (Like asking “where are you REALLY from?” to a non-white person who was born an American citizen. The intention is to engage with the other person’s heritage and have a conversation, but the person ends up feeling like their right to be present was questioned and invalidated.) The work is on me to figure out how to open my communities to include more people.

A step I’ve taken to address the “who is missing” problem in my life is via social media. I realized that my friend and follow lists had a demographic skew that matched me. I decided to expand my lists. I followed/friended some new people. My goal wasn’t to get them to notice me or give me approval. Instead my job was to observe their lived reality. See how their life differs from mine. I found it  particularly helpful when I found someone who is willing to speak out loud the ways that being disabled/lgbtq/autistic/white/female/trans/black/single/childless affects their life. It was uncomfortable at times. Sometimes they say things that make me feel defensive. I’ve practiced sitting with that discomfort for a bit to figure out why I feel defensive. Often I discover that ingrained prejudice is the reason I’m uncomfortable, which means I have learning and adjusting to do. Other times I decide that my discomfort is based in cultural differences. Sometimes the person is wrong and I’m responding to that. In all cases I’m learning to understand modes of being that are different than mine.

Being mindful of my use of privilege

Privilege and disadvantage are not mutually exclusive. Lives are complex. People are complex. Most of us are simultaneously privileged along one axis of our lives and disadvantaged along another axis. This is often why people get upset when you try to explain privilege to them, because the things which have made their lives difficult are very obvious to them, but the things which made their lives easier are invisible.

Knowing that I have both privilege and disadvantage, I am responsible for my use of privilege in overcoming my disadvantages. I had multiple kids with special needs and I had to advocate for them in the school to get them resources and additional help. Every time I did so, I was leveraging my privileges of being a white, college-educated, articulate, middle class, blonde woman. I was listened to, and my kids usually got either the help I requested or some other equivalent help. With every interaction I met administrators who listened to me and actively engaged with finding solutions for my kids. I know from talking with other parents of kids at the same schools, not everyone got that same treatment.

There is no fault in my use of privilege to help my kids. The fault comes if I use my privilege to claim a scarce resource that my kid only sort-of needs but that would be vital to someone else. That is opportunity hoarding. The best use of privilege is when I use mine to make something easier to access for everyone who follows, not just for my kids. If I apply “my kid needs this, lets make sure everyone can have it.” Unfortunately, the school system is often set up in ways that encourage competition thinking rather than cooperative community. Parents hoard resources and bend rules to help their kids get ahead. This same behavior is observable other communities, workplaces, areas of our lives that are not school based. We can use our privilege in ways that advantage “our” people without self-examining that “our.”

So I’m going to pay attention to any time I ask for individualized attention or for a guideline to be bent in my favor. Does my action simply advantage me in a way that is harmless to others? Does it give me an advantage which is then not available for someone else? Does it make life more difficult for someone who comes after me? Or does my action make the path easier for those who follow?

In my small actions I can make the world a little bit better. I have to try.

Gratitude and Grieving

Tis the season for gratitude, or so I am informed by over forty years of personal tradition, a bazillion internet memes, and the leaders of my church. In many ways, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it sidesteps so much commercialism and focuses our attention on being thankful for what we have and on connecting with those we love. And food, lots of delicious food. Yes, sometimes the food part gets complicated and can feel like a burden. Traditions do that because they are constructs. Someone has to put in the work to make the holiday happen. In a good year that person is working from a place of abundance, glad to share it. Other years, not so much. This year…. This year is weird. It has been weird since March. Pandemic required a seismic shift in the way my life is lived. Like an earthquake it changed everything and nothing at all. My house, people, and things are all here, but now I know that the ground under my feet, which always felt completely solid, can move and knock me down. If the ground can move, what else that feels certain isn’t as certain as I thought? So here I am in November after months of shifted life patterns, after canceled events, after unexpected gifts, after things I gave up and things I gained. I’m in the middle of the season for gratitude and I don’t know how to feel about Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is supposed to be joy and gathering, instead it may cause sorrow and permanent parting because people gathered when they shouldn’t have.  I both desperately want it and wish it would go away.

Not knowing how to feel about a thing is a familiar state for me. Though it is less about not knowing my feelings and more about having so many tangled up and contradictory feelings that I can’t see all of them at once or even tell what they all are. I have untangled one. It is the memory of me huddled in a church bathroom sobbing because they were handing out graduation certificates to teenagers and my teenager’s mental health issues had prevented them from getting one. Crying for my own pain, hiding because I did not want my pain to subtract from someone else’s moment of celebration. I see people posting about gratitude on social media and I am so happy for my friends and the thing they are grateful for, but sometimes the thing they are grateful for is something I will never get to have. That is hard. On a year when I’m operating from abundance, being happy for others is easy. This year I have both abundance and depletion depending on which angle I’m sitting.

Gratitude is not a single action, it is a practice. All those parental admonitions to “say Thank You” weren’t just about teaching social politeness. They were intended to teach us a way of being, to recognize and acknowledge the good in our lives out loud. It is the simplest beginner-level of leading a grateful life. Naming the things we are grateful for is a valuable and important personal practice. We can note it for ourselves in short-hand because we know when we say “I’m grateful for sunshine” we are encompassing the feeling of radiant warmth of a patch of sunlight through a window despite the winter cold outside, or the way that the sunlight catches a loved one’s hair making them seem to glow. The poetry and emotional depth of the feeling is often missing in simply phrased gratitude posts because the post is a reminder, not the gratitude itself.

I think about this when I see posts that on their surface seem like humble-brags. There is depth beneath that surface which I’m not always privy to. Which is why I am glad when a post gives me a story. With a story I get a glimpse into the inner world of my friend. I get to learn about a piece of their life and how the thing they are grateful for shaped that life. The posts I treasure are the ones which show me how grief can be transformed into gratitude. The story shows the darkness and how they found their way out. That is the road map we all need. We all need to see how a pain, like the ones we carry, can be a force for good in our lives and how we can become glad to have experienced the pain. Pain and grief redeemed. I have so many odd-angled sadnesses sticking out of me this month, I’m collecting posts that help me see how to craft those sadnesses into something beautiful. Upcycling grief via online DIY instructions.

My social media feeds are filled with gratitude posts because my entire church community has been challenged to speak their gratitude via social media for the week leading to Thanksgiving. Hundreds of posts, and I have to approach them with caution. Because some will be a delightful window into the life & heart of a person I know, but others will remind me of a personal pain. Some will help me think of the joyous things I have in my life. Others will remind me of the ongoing slow-motion train wreck that is the increasing case rate and death toll of the pandemic. I’m raw and sensitive in ways that ambush me. A funny video of cosplayers in Halo costumes doing a dance at a convention leaves me sobbing because I don’t know when that form of spontaneous joy will get to exist again. This year gratitude and grief are inextricably entwined. I’m grateful for the things that have caused me grief and I’m grieving things for which I am grateful.

I am engaging in my own deliberate gratitude practice this year. I’m staying tightly focused on what is possible withing the confines of pandemic restrictions, finding joy where I am at, with what I can have right now. I’m focusing intently on small joyful actions and service. I am sieving gently through the social media posts to find those which add to my joy without disturbing my griefs. I am constantly aware that I’m like a scooter bug on water that has dark depths. I skate over the surface, held up by surface tension, creating resting places for myself as I go. This is not the year for me to search my soul. Instead I will try to breathe and live gratitude. I will make ridiculously decorative food for the Thanksgiving dinner I’m not sure how to feel about. I will put stickers on my journal entries where I write the shorthand notes about what I’m grateful for. I will keep myself moving forward on creative projects. I hope that will be enough to get me through the dark cold months. Somewhere beyond the cold and dark, things will come alive again. Perhaps then I’ll be able to figure out all the things I am feeling during this holiday season.

Wedding Shopping

On Saturday I accompanied my daughter and her fiance as they went shopping for a wedding dress. From the moment we walked in we felt the weight of expectation. We were greeted at the door and assigned an appointment with a stylist who could be with us in just a few minutes. The store was full of women prepared to pamper and flatter because surely every woman wants to feel like a princess when buying a wedding dress. We were surrounded with racks of sparkling, flowing white. And somehow they all had a sameness to them which seemed completely unappealing. After a few minutes we were convinced that we weren’t going to find anything and we were making contingency plans involving going to a vintage clothing store, ordering off the internet, or perhaps even sewing.

Then the stylist showed up and listened to my daughter’s concerns. To the fact that she didn’t want anything sparkly or scratchy. She knew that having dress that rustled as she moved would grate on her nerves. She needed something that she could wear comfortably for hours at a time while having to mix and mingle with crowds of well wishers. A dress that was lovely, but designed for wearing not for flashy display. The stylist listened and helped her pick three dresses to try on. We were then led to an area with dozens of mirrors, dressing rooms on a raised platform, and a ring of chairs surrounding it. It was an area designed to put the bride on display. Fortunately we’d walked in during a quiet time, so we didn’t have to deal with other brides and their entourages. It was just us and a stylist asking “So does this dress make you feel like a bride?” while my daughter stared at her in disbelief and said “I have no idea what that feels like.”

Several other stylists stopped by since they didn’t have clients at the moment. They all kept asking “do you think this is The Dress?” and you could hear the capital letters on The Dress. As if we were on a quest to find the one true dress. Which seems like a lot of emotional weight to put on some clothing. We even spotted a sign which was obviously designed for women to hold up while taking Instagram photos.

And yet despite all the interest and expectation, the stylist was very good at her job. Once she realized that my daughter was more interested in a dress she could wear while running from a zombie apocalypse should there happen to be one mid-wedding than a dress which made her feel like a princess, the stylist changed which questions she was asking. (The moment of complete bafflement on the stylists faces as we were making running-from-zombie-apocalypse jokes was sort of priceless.) We were fortunate and surprised when the second dress turned out to fit all my daughter’s needs while simultaneously being lovely. The last act of the stylist was to have my daughter ring a bell to indicate that she’d found The Dress. I think the tradition is to ring the bell loudly so that everyone in the store could cheer. Fortunately the store was pretty much empty and the bell can be rung quietly too.

We were handed off to a seamstress to talk about alterations, she was much more practically focused and she was also geeky enough to laugh at zombie apocalypse jokes. My daughter has another fitting in three weeks and we’ll pick up the completed dress a comfortable month before the wedding day. So we have another task complete and we can move on to the next one.

The Stories by which We Define Ourselves

I was at a party and a young man, to whom I’d been introduced when I arrived, was asking couples to tell the stories of how they met. The inquiry felt unusual to me and I had to pause to figure out why, because I remember when the story of Howard and I meeting was often pulled out and shared on similar occasions. I then realized that this young man was recently married. Stories of how people meet and fall in love was very much on his mind. Also it is one of the most significant shared stories that he and his wife have together. In contrast, Howard and I have been married for twenty-six years. We have so many shared stories they could fill a book. The story of how we met is no longer a defining element of our marriage. The hundreds of shared decisions, crises, joys, and adventures since are far more relevant to who we are now. Howard summed up this idea very well in a tweet:

Was at a party where @SandraTayler and I were asked about how we met. We’ve been married 26 years. How we met has very little to do with how we ARE. It’s a nice story, but a meet-cute is not a rom-com is not an actual life-long romance.

Life-long romance has far more to do with continuing to choose each other and make space for the other person in your life as you change (and they change) in all sorts of unexpected ways. When I try to imagine what story I would tell at a party to encapsulate Howard and I as a couple, I’m a bit at a loss. The story of a newly married couple is short and compact with a clear narrative arc. The story of a long-married couple is more like a series of epic fantasy novels with multiple points of view, lots of random external characters, and a plot that frequently gets lost in side tracks. The story of Howard and Sandra is not easily summarized.

On a separate occasion I met a different young man along with his father. During our conversation the father shared a story surrounding the birth of his son. I could tell that it was a family-defining story which forever changed the shape of all of their lives. As evidenced by the fact that when asked to tell about his family, this is the story the man chose to tell, even twenty-five years after it happened. When the conversation with the father was over, I had a chance to talk with the son. I could tell that he was used to this story being told, and was surprised when I suggested that perhaps at twenty-five he could claim a different story. He didn’t have to be defined by this story of his birth, but could instead bring forth stories of things he had done as an adult. That defining stories of a family could be updated and recast.

As long as we are alive, we are in a process of re-invention. Sometimes it is a massive renovation akin to knocking down walls and completely re-invisioning a room. Other times it is as subtle as putting a new cushion on a couch. Yet even subtle changes accumulate over time, and the stories we tell about who we are have to evolve along with us. The stories we tell about those we love, especially the stories told in public, especially the stories told while the loved ones can hear, those stories have power. The stories we tell make others feel stronger or weaker. They can build people up or push them down. Howard and I frequently tell funny stories on each other. We have a rhythm and a set of performance roles that we use in public for effect and the amusement of others: Howard the goofball and Sandra the responsible. Yet we always check to make sure that we aren’t trapping ourselves in the joke, forgetting that we are larger than the stories we tell at parties. Making sure we remember the other stories, the ones where Sandra is funny and Howard is the hero.

Most of the best stories of us aren’t the kind of stories which are good to tell at a party.

Structuring a Writing Group to Promote Nurture In Addition to Critique

While I was on the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat I had the opportunity to talk to other writers about Writer’s Groups, how they can work brilliantly and how they can fail. I happened to mention the structure of a group I currently belong to, and other writers requested that I write it up in detail as a reference for others who might want to start a group that isn’t solely critique-based. This is that write up.

I am fascinated by the underlying structure of communities, the ways the stated goals and guidelines of a community shape what the community will become. Sometimes I see how a rule intended to bring a community together can unintentionally create divisiveness and competition. This is the reason I feel concerned that so many writer’s groups are formed around the core of exchanging critique. Critique is absolutely critical to writer development so we can learn to see our blind spots and develop good craft, and yet critique is inherently deconstructionist. It pulls apart the work to examine what is working and what is not. This process can be kind and careful, or actively destructive depending on how the tools of critique are wielded. This is why so many critique-based writer’s groups are carefully structured to build trust and to help their members navigate being critiqued. I’ve seen it done remarkably well and I know many writers who depend heavily on their critique-based groups to help them.

The thing that often gets missed when forming writer’s groups is that critique is not the only way that writers can help each other with their craft. I recently joined a group that is structured very differently than any group I’d heard of before. I’ve been fascinated by the ways that this group is specifically structured to nurture and build up the group members.

The group meets once per month for three hours at a time. We meet in person, but the same structures could be adapted to an online group. Portions could be dropped or added according to the needs of your group whether you meet in person or online.

Hour 1: Social Hour
We all bring food to share and we visit. It is a chance for us to catch up on each other’s lives, hear about current crises, or talk about recent experiences. Sometimes we talk about writing, sometimes we don’t. This time allows the group to bond. We learn to be friends and care about each other as people. The more outgoing group members take care to reach out and include the quieter members.

Hour 2: Education
One member of the group comes to the meeting with a presentation/lecture about a topic that they have prepared. Sometimes it is a topic they’re already expert in, other times the person had to research and learn. During the presentation members are encouraged to discuss the ideas being presented. The group has had lectures on pacing, marketing, character development, etc. This portion engages writer minds with new topics and helps us face the current problems we may be having with our work. Also by rotating who teaches, the group ends up with different perspectives. Additionally, putting in the work to present keeps members invested in the group.

Hour 3: Collaboration
The content of this hour is variable. Sometimes it is critique where a person has submitted work in advance so the members come ready to discuss it. Other times it is a brain storming session for a magic system. It could also be an encouragement session for a person who feels hopeless about where they are in their craft. The point of the time is to work collaboratively to meet the needs of the members whatever those needs happen to be. Not every member gets their work focused on each meeting, which is why if a member has an urgent collaboration need between meetings, email chains are encouraged.

Other structures around the group: There are shared google drive folders containing notes from previous lectures/presentations and also work that is submitted for critique. This allows members to catch up on anything they might have missed and smooths the way for members to share work with each other.

The group co-leaders take turns writing up a weekly email with a writing concept or word of encouragement. This keeps the group members engaged and in touch with each other during the weeks that we don’t meet.

Membership in the group is capped to keep things manageable. This is particularly important since we rotate meeting at various member’s houses and not everyone has space for a huge group. By taking turns hosting, we get to see each other’s homes and thus get a better understanding of each other. Some members don’t host because they don’t have enough space or they live too far away. Others don’t host because the thought makes them too anxious.

Membership is filtered because the group wants to make sure that new members understand that the primary goal of the group is to encourage and help each other. Ego and competition have no place in this group. We gain new members by existing members suggesting someone they think would be a good fit. The prospective member exchanges writing samples with the group leaders and then attends a meeting. If everyone agrees the fit is good, the new member is added to the google folders and email chain.

Members are dropped from the group if they can’t regularly attend or contribute to online exchanges. If someone’s life is too busy to participate, then the space goes to another writer who can. Former members can cycle back in when their life calms down and if there is a space open.

The largest criticism I’ve heard of this format is whether we’re too soft on each other, surely critiques need to be brutally honest in order to be useful. I agree that they need to be honest, but not that they need to be brutal. It is entirely possible to help a fellow writer see the flaws in what they have written while simultaneously leaving them feeling encouraged and excited to go fix those flaws. Which I believe is far better than leaving a fellow writer to go home and emotionally process a harsh critique.

Obviously, ymmv. Some writers may thrive on competition and harsh critique. I know that I don’t, and judging from the interest in the format of my group there are other writers out there looking for alternatives as well. There are as many ways to form writer’s groups as there are writers to form them.

When the Convention is Done

On the day after the convention my mind is a shadow play of overlapping thoughts in different colors that pass behind and through each other so that by the time I’ve discerned what one thought is, it has dissolved into something else entirely. Many of the thoughts are memory fragments condensed into a momentary flash of expression or a few words. Memories of me saying the right thing mix with moments when I misstepped. The moment when I said something kind that healed the heart of a friend dissolves into the moment when I attempted to reassure a fellow panelist and only later learned that I was “reassuring” the artist guest of honor whose depth of experience with the panel topic was oceans deeper than mine. Both are equally specific in my mind though I must be vague about my friend’s story as it isn’t mine to tell. I am fortunate that for the panel with the guest of honor I was the moderator and my usual moderatorial mode is to let the panelists talk, so I got out of the way and made no more missteps after the first one before the panel began.

That moment dissolves into remembrance of moments when another professional said or did something that showed respect for me and for the things I do. Those moments are contrasted with the times when I was in groups of highly intelligent, wonderful people and I was shut out of the conversation because the topic was not one I could add anything to. Moments of feeling large and valued versus moments of feeling small or invisible. A convention is all of these moments and a hundred more.

Some of the moments are more than a flash. One of my final panels was about literary fiction and genre fiction. It was one of those magical moments when all of the panelists were equally engaged in the topic, willing to passionately discuss and happy to give space so others could speak. We were all so excited by each other’s thoughts that our own opinions were re-evaluated on the fly. Such a joyful experience to debate and argue without antipathy. No anger or defensiveness, jsut the joy of engaging with new ideas. I loved every minute of it and was sad that I had to run off to another panel instead of lingering to thank my fellow panelists.

This year at LTUE I was more focused on being at the booth. I spent more than a week in advance planing and preparing the booth. I only did a few panels and no presentations. One of the booth changes we made was to only have a few featured items rather than trying to display everything equally thus overwhelming shoppers with too much choice. The work paid off. Especially combined with the fact that we had three new Schlock books since last year. It was the most profitable sales year we’ve ever had at LTUE. We don’t measure the value of the show in dollars, but being able to pay bills always allows us to enjoy things more. And the fact that people buy is evidence that they value what we create, which is even more of a boost than the dollars. Today I am wishing I was not so tired, because I want to dive into creating new things to share with all the lovely people who enjoy the work we do.

Keliana ran her own booth this year. On the first day she was low energy and apprehensive. She’s been having trouble believing in the value of her work. Then people came to her table and were excited by what she was doing. by the end of day one she could believe that all was not doomed. By the end of day three she was energetic and bubbling over with plans for the months to come. LTUE rejuvenated her in ways I am incredibly grateful for and I can only hope to repay that by paying forward.

Like my daughter, I also struggle to believe in the value of my creative work. It is easier for me to believe in and promote my collaborative works (Planet Mercenary, Schlock Mercenary, Hold on to Your Horses) than the works where mine is the only name on the cover. I’m consciously and carefully working to change that. I’m trying to reach out and claim worthiness rather than hustling and hoping someone else will bestow it on me. Right now our sales table does not contain any of my solo work. Over the next year or three I want to change that. Slow and steady, bit by bit, I will claim hours to work on my solo efforts in tandem with further collaborative ones. I won’t let the collaborative crowd out the solo. I’ve already begun, I just need to continue.

So much more happened than I’ve written down. Friends from out of town. Friends who helped at the booth. A hundred small conversations. LTUE was amazing. It always is. For today and tomorrow I rest. On Tuesday I pick up again and get back to work.

How to handle a harassment complaint at your event

Alternate title: Good practices for organizational management of a harassment complaint

Note: This document is not exhaustive and may be updated with additional suggested policies. I am not a trained harassment manager and there may be more detailed documents that you should reference when planning your event.

Step 1: Have a harassment policy
You can call a Code of Conduct, or some other name, but you must have a policy that clearly states what behaviors are not allowed at your event. The policy should state that failure to follow it can lead to expulsion from the event without refund. It should also have clear instructions for how to report a violation. All of your attendees should be asked to agree to this policy if they want to attend your event. If you do not have a policy, stop running your event until you do. This is for your own legal protection as well as the protection of your attendees. You need legal grounds to remove disruptive people from your event.

Step 2: Safety Committee
You need some people who are designated to handle any violations of your behavioral policies. They need to be trained and given a detailed instruction set (like this one you’re reading) for how you expect them to handle any issues. Having set up your committee, TRUST THEM. If you do not trust their judgement, then you have an organizational problem. You as event organizer have enough things to handle, don’t spend time second guessing your committee. There may be situations where you need to be involved in the decision process, but for the most part let your committee have the power to handle things.

Step 3: The victim comes to you
When someone comes to you to report a violation of your policy, the first concern of the staff member should be to make the victim feel safe. If there is an imminent danger or ongoing disruption, that must be managed first. The victim should be brought into contact with a member of the safety committee as quickly as possible. Either walk them there (if in person) or perform an email introduction (if online). Any staff who are not on the safety committee should step out of the process at this point. Helping the victim feel safe might include finding a private location, getting a friend to sit with them, switching to a safety person of similar gender. Always thank the victim for coming to report the incident. Reassure the victim that you want to know what happened.

Step 4: Listen
Listen to an account of the incident. Have the victim write it down, or write it down as they tell it to you. Be sympathetic to the victim. Validate their feelings. Ask for clarifying details. Find out if there are corroborating witnesses who are also willing to report. At the end of this step you should have a document signed by both the safety person and the victim that states what happened. (and additional reports from any witnesses) Both the victim and the safety committee should get a copy of this document. This document becomes a critical legal protection to both you and to the victim should things get complicated later. In a case of false reporting, this document also functions as a protection for the accused. Do not promise the victim any specific outcome from the report.

Step 5: Help the victim process
As part of listening to the victim and validating their feelings, discuss with them what they feel would be an appropriate consequence for the incident, ask “what would you like to have happen?” Document this answer in the report. It can help your committee’s decision making. Thank the victim for making the report. Give them contact info for the person who will be case manager for this incident. (Probably the person they reported to.) Tell them they can reach out and add to their report as needed. If they do reach out, note that on the report with date and time. Tell the victim that you will confer with your safety committee to make a decision about what is to be done and that you will get back to them within 24 hours with further information. (A longer timeline is acceptable if the victim is informed about why the longer timeline is needed.)

Step 6: Immediately contact your committee
They should be on call for exactly this sort of thing. If any committee members are close friends with either the victim or the accused, they should remove themselves from the discussion. If the entire committee is friends with either the victim or the accused, then seek out someone who can be impartial about the incident and hire them to arbitrate. Share the report, the victim’s requested consequence, and any observations the safety person may have. Compare the report with your policies to see if the consequence becomes obvious. Decide on a course of action. This can include anything from taking no action at all, to immediate expulsion from the event for the accused, to contacting the accused for more information or their own report, to contacting law enforcement, to consequences for a false report. Get a counter report from the accused. Have one of your staff advocating for the accused. The step-by-step process you are reading does not cover what actions are appropriate as consequences. That is a separate and nuanced discussion that is outside the scope of this document. Hopefully you had that discussion in detail while writing up your policy. Deciding what action is appropriate is tricky. Impartiality is critical. Part of your decision is choosing who will confront the accused (if confrontation is merited) and what back up they might require to keep everyone safe. Also who will advocate for the accused.

Step 7: Report to event managers
This step may take place between Step 6 and Step 8, or it might be something that just comes up at the next business meeting depending on the severity of the incident and how empowered the safety committee is to make decisions. Do not allow this step to be a blockade that prevents action. The key is to make sure that event managers know that an incident happened and have enough information to not be surprised if they are asked a question about it.

Step 8: Take the action
You may cycle through steps 6 to 8 multiple times as you gather additional information and reports. The key in this step is to act decisively and in a way that ensures safety of everyone involved. Make sure your action matches your stated policies. Also make sure that you extend as much courtesy and kindness toward an accused person.

Step 9: Inform the victim
Within 24 hours of the report (or on the previously agreed timeline), the victim should be contacted with either an update or the resolution of their issue. Make sure you assign a safety person who knows it is their job to keep the victim updated and to relay any ongoing concerns from the victim to the committee. Document those contacts and concerns in the report. Maintain contact with the victim until the incident is officially closed.

Step 10: Appeals and press
Someone is likely to be unhappy about the decision your safety committee made. They may post angry things to social media. They may outright lie about the events that happened. The only answer you give to any questions about the incident from people who were not directly involved is “For confidentiality reasons, we do not discuss any harassment complaints.” This is the answer that protects everyone. It preserves the confidentiality of both the accused and victim. It saves your event from legal liability and ongoing drama. The only time you ever release information from your harassment reports to anyone outside your safety and event management committees is if there is a legal case in which those documents become evidence. You do not need to prove you made the right choice. You as event organizer have the right to expel anyone from your event. At least you do if it is in your written and posted policy. Both the victim and the accused have the right to go to a court of law to challenge the decision you’ve made if they so wish.

Step 11: Post Mortem
The safety committee should meet periodically to discuss any incident reports and make sure appropriate follow up actions are taken. Equally important is that they examine their own handling of the incident to identify any weaknesses in the process or in the written harassment policy that need to be addressed. Make changes so that the next incident is handled as well as this one or better.

Haiku and the Lives We Choose for Ourselves

Haiku is a poetic form with very strict rules about the structure of the poem. It is not the only poetic form with rules, but the very specific restraints on number of syllables per line and the ways that the lines must interact with each other produce a particular sort of beauty which can’t be achieved without those constraints. The defined limits of the form create the beauty of it. Because of these structural demands, some things can’t be said in haiku and some things can only be said in haiku.

My chosen religious tradition is one with strict rules and constraints. It asks me to not do some things and to go out of my way to do others. I’ve had friends baffled by some of the constraints that I live with. I’ve had periods of my life where some of it felt confining and others where the constraints provided safety for me in an otherwise hazardous experience, like the harness of a climber which can be simultaneously uncomfortable and life saving. I’m aware that the harness that cradles and supports me might cut off circulation and do harm to someone who is built differently.

I said “my chosen religious tradition” because even though I was born into this tradition and raised inside it, I have since chosen it for myself. I continue to make that choice regularly. I choose the structures and requirements of this form for my life, while being aware that my choice blocks me off from many things I see bringing joy to others. I am also aware of the joys that are only available to me because of the structures I dwell inside. And I know that some people born to these same structures must exit them in order to expand into the people they are. Other people must find their way into these structures to become who they might be.

The world would be a poorer place if the only poetry available were haiku. The world would be made poorer if all people were required to live the same life structures and traditions. God knows all of his children and will help us find the forms we need in order to become what we must be.

At the Onset of a Writing Retreat

I am here at the house of my friend, far away from the house that is my home. I’ve come for a writer’s retreat in the company of multiple people that I don’t get to see nearly often enough. I’ll be here for five days and for every single one of them I am outside the context of my regular life. And that is the point. I am here to be outside my usual patterns and responsibilities. I am here to rest the organizational, task-responsible portion of myself while allowing a different portion of myself room to expand.

I’ve done retreats before. Anxiety always gets loud while I am at them. Less so as I’ve repeated going on them, because I have demonstrable proof that me “abandoning” my home responsibilities does not inevitably end in disaster. My first retreat was about seeing the extent of my anxiety and not allowing it to send me home early. Just staying was a triumph that I didn’t fully recognize until months later. Follow on retreats were about learning the shapes of that anxiety and seeing the ways that my home life made me tired so that I had the chance to go home and alter my at-home patterns.
This time I’m in a place I’ve been before with people who I’ve known for years both online and in person. I am outside my comfort zone, but I’ve come to a place that is also comfortable. I’m curious to see whether this retreat will finally focus on writing rather than anxiety and emotional processing.

I spent the weeks prior to this trip scrambling to get things done before going. The one thing I did not do was figure out what creative project I plan to focus on during this trip. What will I write? I have several possible answers. There are creative projects in my brain that are waiting patiently for me to pick them up again.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe how differently I view projects-in-waiting than I used to do. There were large portions of my creative life where I was frustrated and grieving over the time that I spent on things that were not me creating fiction in my own worlds. I don’t feel that way any more. The work I put into setting up our new online store is largely tedious data entry, but every minute I spend there improves our ability to sell items, which supplies income, which means I can pay bills, which means I have a house/heat/electricity, so that I can write words. Administrivia is in direct support of any creative work that I do. From January until May of this year is going to be administrivia heavy because I’m doing some foundational work (store infrastructure changes) that will create more breathing room for creative work than I’ve had. The admin and organizational work is important and it is satisfying in a way that is different from writing. I’m not certain I would be fully happy as a creative person if I had endless time for writing. I think I need to organize and administer as much as I need to write.

But these next five days are a small space that I’ve deliberately created to allow myself to explore those on hold projects. I’m always reluctant to state goals out loud. I’m not sure why. I always have them, but I self motivate rather than using friendly help from peers. However this is a retreat for stepping outside my usual habits. So, tomorrow I will:
Go for a walk in the woods
Take some photographs
Maybe write up a post or two about thoughts related to the walk and photographs
Pull out my files of picture book ideas and refresh my thoughts on them
Write some words on one of those picture books
Look at the fragments of blog posts and essays that I never completed
Pick one thing to write up as a full essay
Generate ideas for a short story or two
Read a book
Help my son with an essay over speaker phone because that is the one last home thing that I do need to allow to encroach into this retreat.

That is a list of ten things. If I do six of them, I get a reward in the evening.