Writing Resolution for 2015: Let’s All Stop Arguing with Our To-Do Lists, Shall We?

Have you ever kicked a fire hydrant? Pleaded with a cell phone’s dying battery? Shrieked mournfully at that spinning, rainbow-colored pinwheel on your MacBook screen that almost always portends the certain death of the last hour’s worth of work? How well did it work for you?

Perhaps you’re more the pragmatic and even-tempered sort, slower to frustration and ire. Perhaps, unlike the majority of us, you’ve never fantasized about throwing a recalcitrant printer out the office window.

If so, congratulations on your mettle and measure. But don’t start smirking just yet.

You may well be doing something just as silly.

Here’s the thing: most committed writers labor under the aegis of a bigger picture; a closely or even loosely described set of goals for their work: where it will end up, how it will get there, what steps they need to take to make headway on that big idea.

And no time are such Grand Plans more lauded and more discussed and more cherished than at the start of a brand new year. Many writers use the occasion as an opportunity to recommit to doing more and better work, to achieving a few long-sought milestones and taking things to the next level, writing-wise.

And then, January 1 fades into the rearview, life kicks back into Crazy-Normal, and those heartfelt resolutions get left in the dust.

Oh, we still think of them. We still love them. We still scratch out their little footsoldiers – micro-goals – on our weekly to-do lists:

Write for two hours Saturday

Submit three pieces to literary journals

Send out four magazine pitches

Finish draft of novel by spring

And then, life intervenes, family and friends come calling, better-paying work distracts us, laundry piles up, and those very noble intentions get pushed to the bottom of the list before falling off it entirely for another year.

Cue guilt, and annoyance at feeling said guilt, and guilt at feeling annoyed at feeling guilty, and is it really any surprise that, for all intents and purposes, our Grand January Writing Plans are often quietly abandoned before we’ve even turned the calendar to February?

Here’s a thought: in 2015, why not resolve to stop arguing with your Writing To-Do List?

It isn’t a neglected friend to whom you ought to apologize and resolve to revisit next week or next month or next year.

And it isn’t negotiable. And you, in turn, aren’t a bad partner, friend, or parent because you insist on prioritizing its contents.

You’re not selfish. You’re not dreamy. You’re a writer, and your writing goals ought to be approached as inanimate, changeless little buggers. They are to be hewn to; not argued with, talked to, negotiated with under your breath. That’s as silly as chucking a piece of electronic equipment out a second-story window, and you’re above all that nonsense, right?

One last question: have you ever thought about what it is, really, that separates us humans from the rest of the beasts?

One of the biggest things, to my mind, is our ability to store our knowledge for future retrieval. To plan against a reality that doesn’t yet exist. What a gift! And our To-Dos help us to execute this small miracle.

With the ability to make big plans based purely on faith in ourselves comes the ability to fret and worry and lament when we fall short.

I hope you’ll join me, in 2015, in my writing resolution: to stop talking at little bits of paper and get down to work!

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Camus, Sisyphus, and Life’s Big Boulders : meditations on the futility of writing

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard


Note: This was originally a letter I wrote to an editing client. But I liked it so much I’ve decided to share it here.

Hello:

Hope the rewrites are coming along. I just came across a fantastic article in The Atlantic Monthly about author Fay Weldon’s perspective on the futility writing and it gave me the chills. A case of just the right words at the right moment, or at just the wrong moment, as it were, for me, lately.

Weldon riffs on on Camus’ old conceit that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” and presents it as an essential metaphor for anyone having a serious go at writing. I love the visual of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up and up the hill, and smiling all the while, because though his efforts are futile, there is a certain elegant rebellion to the act. We think of him with pity and consternation, because how could anyone be happy in the face of such a grossly impossible task?

Like Camus and Weldon suggest, maybe we’ve got this particular ancient Greek all wrong … Maybe we are painting him with the colors of our own judgments and self-imposed limitations. Perhaps he is improbably happy, if for no other reason than because his decision to doggedly pursue an impossible passion is an act of wonderful, ridiculous defiance. Defiance of the odds, of expectations, of conventions, of a universe that sometimes seems not to give a shit about us at all. What a metaphor for the creative process! And, of course, the larger article is a very nice meditation on the joyful futility of writing anything at all. Check it out here.

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard


Which brings me to your question: what am I thinking, career-wise? Hem. It changes, moment by moment. The last month has been rather hard on the heart. A whole lot of rejection, and a whole lot of me being unwilling to take the advice I so freely dole out to my clients, my writers: Keep on! Rejection is inevitable. Focus on improving yourself. Pout briefly, then keep going. Doors closing and opening, blah blah, etcetera, ad nauseam. The problem is, I’ve secretly hoped it wouldn’t apply to me. To everyone else, sure, but note me. I don’t want to take my own medicine. Why? Because it’s bitter as hell. Because it smarts going down. Because the lumps and bumps are for other people, but not for me. Alas! The horse-pill of writerly rejection is a non-negotiable. I get that now. We all want to be the exception, deep down. Maybe it’s the way we’re brought up in this country, made to believe that if only we apply ourselves and try sincerely, the world will welcome our talents and reward us generously with money and accolades. If only it were. We are all unique, special snowflakes, but only until the gods rain piss all over our tiny, precious dreams and we go melting immodestly back into the clay.

That said, over these long, lonely weeks in Mexico of pouting and simmering and broken computer cords and sipping rum and swinging lackadaisically in hammocks and bartering with the universe and making threats to myself to never try and publish another thing again, I come finally to this: frittered time, wasted opportunities and squandered talents ought to terrify us far more than they do. At the least, doing nothing with our gifts certainly ought to scare the shit out of us slightly more than taking up that dusty boulder for one or a thousand more gos up the hill. No matter where it’s all leading. Too many people give up on themselves. I’m an easily discouraged person, I suppose, but to deem myself, at the ripe age of 33, a washed-up, never-was writer strikes me as a wee bit dramatic, even for my excitable sensibilities.

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard


In short, I’ve determined to keep at it with the personal writing projects. As far as money-makers go, I will continue to edit manuscripts such as yours, as this is fulfilling and heartening and perhaps a regular essential reminder that it’s all connected, and that the laws of the universe apply to us all, no matter how many fancy writing degrees we have hanging on our walls (or, as in my case, stuffed into my desk drawer with coffee stains on them). That’s a lumpy lesson, indeed, but an important one, and one that is being given to me over and over, so I might as well acknowledge it and get on with things. I’ve also decided to pursue professional copywriting more aggressively, again, because I enjoy it and because it keeps the lights on.

It’s a long game, I suppose. I get that now. So, to borrow a line from Camus and the article above, I’m going to imagine myself happy and soldier on accordingly. Here’s to boulders, and mountains yet to climb! Here’s to 2015!

E

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Dissed and Dismissed: On Missing Body Parts and Writerly Rejection


I received strange news from the chiropractor today. It appears I am missing my bottom set of ribs. It’s a relatively harmless genetic quirk (my mom, apparently, is missing hers as well … who knew?) that affects some 6 percent of the population. Nobody ever even noticed my anatomical failing till now. But not to worry. I’ve got 11 perfectly healthy sets to mitigate the gap. And really, it’s only a small one.

It has been a month of coming up short, writing-wise, as well. Permit me to briefly complain?

I’ve lately made a few inroads with bigger, better-known websites and had established some very promising writerly leads for my personal essays. I’ve been trying for a few years, now, to get these published in bigger outlets, but, as is the case for so many would-be big-time writers, the results have been less than stellar. A lot of work for a lot of very politely worded “No Thank Yous.” This was, yet again, the case with my latest round of prospects, all of which have recently fallen through.

Then, just this morning, my biggest client, for whom I’ve been working on a weekly basis since I jumped the Sinking Newspaper Ship to go full-time freelance more than two years ago, fired me.

Oh, everybody’s had all sorts of encouraging feedback for me and nice things to say about my potential and my can-do attitude, but nobody seems to feel that the quality of my output is quite up to snuff, or up to style. Or both. Or either. Or whatever.

It’s not personal, I realize. It’s about creating a product that a client wants to pay you for. It’s a business transaction, calculated upon risk and reward. But being told, “No” feels … intensely personal. And sort of gutting.
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Being a freelance writer means getting hired (or fired) on a daily basis, and it takes a lot of mental-emotional winding up to deal with the unpredictability of that, week after week. I’ve been doing it for 27 months, and it hasn’t gotten remarkably easier, that’s for sure. The highs are still high, and the lows are still sucking mucky pits of disappointment.

And then last night, even before I’d been fired by my big client, this thought occurred to me: am I truly willing and ready to make the (possibly decades-long) time-investment required to succeed at a career in writing? Do I have the hide for it?

I’m still not quite sure. The hopeful part of me believes that such questions are merely the mutterings of ego, that it’s normal to be discouraged, and perhaps even noble to be rejected, but absolutely unacceptable to simply give up after a few mid-season losses. The less hopeful part of me says, “No. No, I am not willing.”

The less hopeful part of me thinks maybe I should have become an acupuncturist, or a teacher, or a radio journalist instead. The less hopeful part of me wants to curl up in my office recliner and pout like I’ve never pouted before. Noisily and copiously, perhaps while smoking a cigarette or having a lunchtime drink.

I’ve done neither of those things as of yet and it’s already after 12:30 p.m., but I’ll admit it: I have definitely been pouting. There were even tears, people! As a writer, I tend to wear my feelings on my shirtsleeves. It feels brave, but like those missing ribs, it also leaves me feeling pitifully overexposed in some moments. My fawning emotionalism isn’t a personality trait I’m in a hurry to change, but it’s also not necessarily one I’d recommend that anyone interested in a creative profession cultivates intentionally.

As an editor, I tell it to my clients all the time: Develop a thicker hide. Work on yourself and on your process and push through rejections and disappointments. You just never know what’s going to hit. As a writer, I have a bit more trouble taking my own advice.

How to stave off the Pity Party when the “No Thank Yous” become rather prolific and you find you are missing something essential? Me and my 11 ribs are off to Mexico Thursday morning. I’m photographing a wedding there this weekend, and have plans to stay on for much of December. My plate has been unexpectedly cleared of some of the work I’d planned to do down there, so I suppose I’ll have plenty of time to ponder all this. In the meantime, I’m curious to know how other writers cope.

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Tough Truth for Writers #1: You are not Don Quixote

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

I am currently finishing up the first draft of my first-ever e-book! The backstory: three years ago, against the advice of many, I left a budding career in journalism to build my own freelance copywriting and editing business, and since then, I’ve fielded a regular stream of emails from and about people searching for a way to make writing pay.

Most of the emails go something like this:

“Hi, Erin! My brother/friend/co-worker needs some help. He’s always been a great writer. His teachers told him so. We tell him so. But he’s lost. He hated his last job and now he’s unemployed. Do you have any advice for him?”

Yes. Yes, I do. And I am currently in the process of fashioning what I’ve learned into a short guide for newbie writers. The first hit is free! And I’d love to know what you think.

Tough Truth for Writers #1: You are not Don Quixote.

Matter of fact, neither am I. And neither is that guy in your writing group who just scored his first book deal, or your sister’s friend who made a zillion dollars off ads on her Quirky Mommy Blog. I’m not trying to be harsh. In fact, I don’t even blame you, Dear Writer, for hoping that maybe we were Don Quixote. (It would certainly explain our rumpled clothes and the wheezing chariots we drive ourselves around town in.) After all, every culture since the dawn of the alphabet has romanticized Itinerant Dreamy Creative Types.

Every good movie has one, and so does every interesting family or group of friends, and we love them for their wandering ways. We let them sleep on our couches. We sometimes lend them cash. We fawn over their adventuring spirits and invite them to all our dinner parties because they’ve got, like, the best travel stories ever.

But as you may have noticed, especially if you’ve tried to nominate yourself for the position, what our culture doesn’t do is pay anyone to be an Itinerant Dreamy Creative Type.

Even IDCTs with multiple writing degrees and a good measure of natural talent are unlikely to find anyone waiting at the foot of their bed each morning, offering up wads of cash in exchange for the first rights to trumpet their eloquent observations far and wide. Even when those observations are really, really fantastically crafted.

We are not Don Quixote. But like him, because we are writers, we feel irresistibly, cosmically compelled to seek out strange and interesting fodder for our literary reveries, to chase shadows and inspirations to the far corners of the earth, or, at least, the far corners of our minds. So, like his, our paths will inevitably wind and twist. And this is where the trouble can start.

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

For many would-be-writers, the first part of the story goes something like this: Your sister wanted to be a lawyer. So she majored in political science, earned admission to a respectable law school, took out her nose ring, wrote for the law review, and eventually landed a cushy government job. Your best friend wanted to be a legal secretary. So she scored a filing job at a downtown law firm straight out of undergrad and worked her way up over the course of half-a-decade, taking advantage of free on-the-job training and saying “Yes” to every promotion until, voila! Legal secretary at 26.

And then there was you. Maybe you majored in English, communications, or creative writing, or at least you fantasized about it during those interminable, soul-sucking chemistry labs. Maybe you stayed up all night reading Raymond Carver short story collections and writing bad fiction that became, over time, slightly less bad and maybe even eked its way into the realm of good. Maybe you wrote a column for the college paper and thrilled at the rush of being published – and read, and discussed – by your peers. Then, graduation. By default (and the need to, like, eat every day) maybe you ended up working in an office doing corporate communications or managerial work or some other thing that was only tangentially, if at all, related to the written word.

Or maybe you reformed your writerly ways earlier on: you penned poetry and plays all through high school, then opted for the fast-track into early adulthood and became a teacher or a cop or a construction worker or a cocktail waitress. Now you’ve woken up five or 10 or 20 years older and you are longing to reconnect with your youthful love for the quiet craft. You mightn’t have written, I mean really written, anything in years, but the itch is back and worse than ever. It’s not too surprising. If you’ve got writing in the marrow of your bones, it will always call you back, eventually.

Or maybe you are just starting out your career, and determined to give the writing biz a shot, because you like working with words and you figure it’s worth it at least to try.

Whatever your story, and whether or not you’ve ever even read Don Quixote, I’ve got some good news. The happy reverse of this rusty coin is that you wouldn’t probably want to be Don Quixote anyway, even if you could. Because he’s so wrapped up in reveries that life ends up happening to him and not for him, and that’s no way for a creative person to live.

Now it’s your turn: Any other Bohemian archetypes you find yourself pledging questionable allegiance to as you fashion yourself into a writer? Dean Moriarty? Truman Capote, perhaps? J.D. Salinger? I’d love to hear about them, and about how they  help and hinder your progress.

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

 

Good work, career crap factors, and the “Is-ness” of it all: Thoughts on finding meaning in a creative profession

Two full weeks here in Barcelona and I’m finally settling down to the primary task I’ve set for myself during our time in Spain: rejiggering my worklife, and rethinking entirely what I want out of my career as a writer.Yes. So. What do I want? It’s such a huge, bloated, amorphous, nebulous, terrifying, wonderful, impossible, fascinating and inevitable question, isn’t it?

So grand, and yet so essential, to put one’s wants – not one’s needs – at the center of things, to shout them out to the huge, busy, noisy universe and confidently, cosmically await a reply. Just who do you think you are, asking for all that happy, being that you are so very tiny, and in case you didn’t notice, this is the Milky Way, not the Hilton, thank you very much; you knew that long before your birth and you chose this galaxy anyway and just what do you expect the gods to do about any of your carbon-based woes?

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My kingdom for a book!

Books - Erin J. Bernard

Books – Erin J. Bernard

It’s 8:56. In 24 hours’ time, we’ll have passed through four countries and landed in Barcelona. I hope the future Erin and Emiliano are enjoying a drink and not suffering too mightily from kinky neck. I’m sure they’ll let us know.

Our ride to the airport will be here in approximately 139 minutes (Hi, Em!). I need to make the beds, finalize packing, take a shower and hopefully do a few minutes of yoga. And get dressed. And call my grandmother. But there’s always time for a little writing. Speaking of that …

Some big changes are on the horizon for me … Man, I feel like I say that a lot. I feel like I feel that a lot. Change, change and more change. But what’s ahead is more about slowing down than speeding up. I am pondering a radical reorganization of my weeks that would carve out fully half of my work hours for personal writing projects. For my essays. It’s time to get serious about them. I’ve been so caught up these past two-and-a-half years in the cycle of writing-and-editing-for-money. I am thrilled that I’ve had success with my little freelance business, and the fact that I get to shoot photos on the side for extra cash is like the sweet little syrupy cherry on top of it all. But I can’t help but feel there’s something I’m forgetting. Why I started all of this in the first place: to send my essays out into the world. I love helping others become better writers. I love helping them tell their stories. But my stories end up on the back burner way way way too often.

This summer in Spain, I am determined to change my workaholic ways. I’ve vowed to work only half-time in Barcelona, and to spend some serious time pondering and clarifying my goals as a writer. I’ve been threatening to make a book for a long time, now, and maybe it’s time. This little website has been my touchstone for more than a decade. It’s held me up when I could barely move, let alone stand. Having a place to land my fears and hopes and successes and failures has kept me sane through some pretty bad crazy stuff. I think I’ll always write here. But lately, when I post essays, I find myself despairing that they disappear into the void. If I’m lucky they’ll get 200 views. I appreciate every single one of those views and wonder immensely who out there is reading my writing. But it doesn’t feel like enough. I want a book to hold in my hands. I want a book you can hold in your hands and pass on to a friend when you are done.

So, yes. I’m saying it here. Book! Time. Now. Good.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday

It’s a gray pre-spring day here in Portland. I’m on momentary hiatus from a pile of projects. Namely: twiddling my thumbs while the final draft of a manuscript I’ve been editing prints out. I’ve been working with the author on this project for two months now and it’s hard to believe that we’re almost done. This afternoon, I’m feeling stir-crazed, so I’m going to walk to a nearby coffeeshop with my mighty, mighty manuscript printout and give it a final pass. Or perhaps drive, on account of the rain. Or perhaps stop bringing shame to Native Oregonians everywhere by walking anyway. We shall see.

A lot gets said about writer’s spaces. I’ve always been something of a nomad when it comes to where I work. I have a sweet little office full of books and plants and posters that I spent a lot of time working in, but after a couple of days secreted away in here I invariably start to feel like a mole in a hole at the end of an interminably long winter. Then I tunnel out. I have yet to find a coffeeshop in Portland that just totally does it for me as far as third place workspace goes, so I continue to roam. There’s just some little thing wrong with every single one of them: a little dirty, too cold, too hot, not enough tables, not enough plugs, too minimal, too cluttered, no cheap snack food, snotty baristas, etc. I am a cheapskate of discernment, it seems!

I’ve been submitting writing all over the place these days. Problem is, most magazines/websites don’t want anything that has been previously published *even if* it was only on one’s personal blog. This is a bummer, as I have some really cool pieces that I’m opting not to post on here. I feel like I’m cheating on my blog, and, maybe, my readers. But it’s time to find some larger platforms. I’ve got that sense, at least.

While I wait for this beast to finish print, two photos. First, my Little Office. Second, this really amazing croissant my roommate bought me recently from Petite Provence on Alberta Street in Northeast Portland. It is hands down the best French food around!

Hey, Portland writers! Where do you like to work when your toes get to itching?

Petite Provence Croissant - Erin J. Bernard

Petite Provence Croissant – Erin J. Bernard

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