Goals, Obstacles, Epiphanies

A month ago when my mother-in-law came over to help with the kids one day, I saw her cleaning the crumbs out of the cupboard under my kitchen sink. She’s sweet like that, always looking for the little ways she can help me tidy up.

But the very next week, the crumbs were back. I noticed them when I went to do my usual task of opening the cupboard to empty the dustpan into the garbage can that’s under the sink.

An epiphany struck. Those crumbs weren’t sneaking in on their own. I was creating a mess every time I swept by shoving the dustpan into the cupboard.

So I changed my ways. I took the garbage can out from under the sink, then emptied the dustpan more carefully, so as not to spill, then returned the garbage can to its home.

I reported this to my mother-in-law the next time we got together and lamented that this is the trouble with my housekeeping skills: I have so many bad habits that I don’t even realize are bad habits, and each little thing I’m doing wrong causes other problems, and reverting my habits requires first having an epiphany about each and every little thing that’s not working!

As another example, remember that goal I made months ago to clean my kitchen as I cook? I wanted to meet that goal, I dedicated myself to that goal, I determined that I would conquer it. But there were still so many obstacles impeding my progress that by February I’d about given up.

Among them was the fact that our eighteen-month-old is so strong-willed and forceful that we’ve nicknamed him Attack, and one of his favorite things to attack is the inside of the dishwasher, so I felt like I could never leave a single dish in there. I had to hurry and unload them once clean but then leave the dirty ones in the sink all day until I could wash them after he went to bed.

This is probably stating the obvious, but having a sink full of dishes was an insurmountable obstacle for me. I absolutely could not keep the kitchen clean without room in the sink to wash/rinse things off. And the problem caused other problems, like elevating the stress levels of myself and my family.

Long story short, I finally drove myself to the hardware store and bought a child-proof lock for the dishwasher, and the kitchen has been clean ever since — the cleanest it’s been in our entire marriage. That goal I made back in September was a great goal and I’d visualized it and was all set to meet it, so once I removed the obstacle, I prevailed!

Of course, life is full of obstacles — most of them much bigger than a messy house.  It breaks my heart to see or hear about people who keep failing to achieve their goals because of challenges. Teaching at a community college, I see so many moms and dads in tough circumstances, trying to get an education and turn their lives around for their families, and every semester a few of them just disappear, stop coming to class, can’t make it past whatever obstacles have cropped up in their lives.

But at the same time, every few semesters I see a truly courageous student pass my class despite enormous problems, whether medical issues or family issues or transportation or job issues, often a combination of more than one, and it reminds me that it’s not the obstacles themselves that stop us from meeting our goals; it’s how we respond.

And I think the response is the same regardless of the size of the problem.

For college, my personal obstacle was paying my own way, so I went without a car or a computer or a cell phone (true, this was 2000–2004), using the bus and the school computer labs and the campus phones. I remember one time my checking account got down to 19 cents until my next pay-day, but somehow I survived.

For keeping the kitchen clean, it was as simple as buying a $3 appliance lock. I could have done that in September and saved myself five months of grief!

For my writing, the obstacle was fitting it in around teaching, so I had to take a hard look at how I was spending my time and decide on and commit to a schedule that would allow my writing to be a higher priority. Consequently, my manuscript has come together after years of partial neglect, I’ve met every weekly writing goal I’ve set for myself the past two months, and I’m on track to send it off to agents May 1.

I think the secret is to stare the obstacle in the face with absolute determination, with your mind made up that you are going to get around it somehow. Your brain will throw you a bone; you’ll come up with a plan, so long as you don’t give up.

Epiphanies appear when I refuse to let obstacles impede my goals.

Best of all, the more success I have at conquering obstacles and realizing goals, the more empowered I feel to achieve even more.

I can’t even tell you how on top of the world keeping my kitchen clean always and writing daily have made me feel. I’ve been happier and more excited about life in the past month than I remember feeling before. Ideas that have been in the back of my mind for ages suddenly feel possible.

Yesterday, for example, I decided that this upcoming school year I want to do class at home for my kindergartener and second grader, who have been begging me to let them try it. I’ve met so many amazing families who home school, have read so much about the benefits and been so convinced of the good it could do for our kids, but until now it felt 100% overwhelming. I thought there was no way I could continue to write novels and teach college if I taught the kids at home. But the other successes have taught me that I am capable of doing whatever I set my mind to, and yesterday the needed epiphanies came and I feel not only ready to tackle this but thrilled about the possibilities. It’s not definite yet, we could still change our minds, but I’ve committed myself to the goal of getting organized and prepared by July.

I know it’s March and not New Year’s. Maybe it’s a strange time to talk about goals. But to me, goals are an ongoing process of setting, working toward, conquering, and selecting the next. And in all my recent enthusiasm I couldn’t help sharing.

May you have an epiphany for every obstacle you encounter, may you meet every goal with success!

What do you think? How do you work past obstacles that get in the way of your goals? What goals are you excited about right now?

Leave a comment!

Compromise

Hubby closed his eyes and moaned over the chocolate frosting he’d just put in his mouth.

“So it’s good?” I asked.

“Oh yes.”

“Does it need more cocoa?”

“Nope.”

I grinned and took the spoon from him, then headed back into the kitchen to frost the cake. Hubby is the final taste-tester around here, since my tastes tend to be a little different from the rest of the family. He is the safe bet when I’m making something to present to others, like the birthday cake I’m bringing to the in-laws tonight. His mom had requested a healthy cake, but obviously I still wanted it to be as yummy as possible.

As I returned the cocoa and honey to the pantry, a bag of pecans caught my eye and made my mouth water with an idea.

“How do you feel about nuts on a cake?” I asked Hubby.

“On a chocolate cake?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Blasphemy.”

I laughed — and ten minutes later decided to do it anyway. While it’s a joint celebration tonight, one of the birthdays is my own, and I adore pecans.

My first thought was to put them on half the cake, but I thought that would look silly. So instead, I lined the cake with pecans and figured all those nut-haters out there can have the middle pieces.

While I’m too chicken to have shown it to Hubby yet (it’ll be a surprise!), it seems like a pretty good compromise to me.

And it got me thinking about compromises in general — and specifically, compromises in writing.

Last night we went and saw the new silent film The Artist. I had no idea what the story was, and all along the way I found myself guessing where it would head next: oh, he just bumped into the main actress, so now they’re going to hook up, but oh wait, he has a wife, but his wife doesn’t seem to like him, so maybe . . . but wait . . .

I thought about how much the main character’s pride affected the twists of the movie — which was obviously what I was meant to think about, since his pride was showcased as a big element of the story from the beginning. He wouldn’t have had to struggle so much if he could have worked past that hubris sooner, right?

As a fiction writer, I thought about the compromises we make with our characters. We naturally want what’s best for them. They’re like our kids. We want them to be wise and kind and make good choices.

But the trouble in fiction is that we need to see struggling characters. We need to see them overcome. And often the struggles are from their own making. So it becomes a compromise between allowing the blasphemy of bad choices and steering them toward the good ending we want for them.

And of course the resolutions themselves are usually compromises. George Valentin struggled not just because of hubris; it was also that he couldn’t think of a compromise that would work. His initial idea was a bust. Sometimes compromises occur to us quickly, like putting the pecans on only the rim of the cake, but with bigger issues it often takes much longer to see how the good ending can possibly happen. So another compromise for a writer is trading off between letting the character fail and succeed.

Ha, maybe this whole metaphor is a little crazy — as usual. After all, I do like nuts. But The Artist makes me want to consider the fatal flaws in my characters a little deeper this week and make sure that I’ve made the necessary compromises in my story, so that the characters can make mistakes and struggle and yet still arrive at the resolutions readers will hope for.

I want characters who are fundamentally good in the center — so delicious that we’ll react the way Hubby did to the frosting and forgive them for being a little nuts around the edges. 😉

(The frosting, by the way, is simple: 1 cup cream cheese, 3/4 cup honey, 1/4 cup butter, 1/4 cup cocoa powder, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. No need for compromising there! Healthy = real food around here, so butter and cream cheese totally count.)

What are your thoughts on compromise? What character examples can you think of who manage a good balance between successes and failures?

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The Creative Process

the current stage of my creative process: altering scenes and tracking goals

Last week via Twitter I came across an article called “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking.” While it goes into depth and gives examples of each, the list goes like this:

  1. You are creative.
  2. Creative thinking is work.
  3. You must go through the motions of being creative.
  4. Your brain is not a computer.
  5. There is no one right answer.
  6. Never stop with your first good idea.
  7. Expect the experts to be negative.
  8. Trust your instincts.
  9. There is no such thing as failure.
  10. You do not see things as they are; you see them as you are.
  11. Always approach a problem on its own terms.
  12. Learn to think unconventionally.

These are all so true that I would simply like to say, “Amen!”

But I’d also like to illustrate.

A few weeks ago Hubby and I were talking about my writing, and he mentioned how he feels as though, personality wise, I’m much more analytical than I am creative. Therefore, he said, shouldn’t I pursue analytical writing of some sort (haha, such as these blog posts?) rather than fiction writing?

I agreed with him to a point: I am naturally analytical, and creativity is hard work for me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not good at it once I get there. I noted that he hasn’t read my fiction yet and explained to him that though my characters and stories don’t come easily to me at first, I use my analytical skills to bring them to life one draft at a time.

The conversation made me realize that I’ve decided to be creative, decided to believe that I can be creative, and even decided to believe that I am good at creativity.

I think that’s why I loved the article. I experience those twelve concepts on a regular basis. I have to believe I’m creative; I have to work hard at wrapping my brain around my projects; I have to go through the motions and be open to all kinds of ideas; I have to trust my instincts and pursue the projects and designs I feel inclined toward, trusting that I can achieve the potential I imagine; I have to be willing to think outside the box all the time, questioning “rules” of writing and when to adhere to or break them.

What’s been especially phenomenal the past month and a half is experiencing the height of the creative process. I swore to Hubby and Twitter that I would aim for two goals: (a) to write every day, no matter what, and (b) to revise a chapter a week in order to finish this latest draft by April 1. As I’ve done those two things, I’ve been amazed at the creative output I’ve discovered. I’ve been completing each chapter early every week because the ideas have flowed so freely. I’m so excited to write every day that I can hardly wait to put everything else aside (especially children — since I have to wait for the toddler’s afternoon nap) and open my manuscript again.

Part of the credit goes to the place I am in the process. Since it’s a fifth draft, where I expect to be ready to submit to agents after this round, the characters and story are all in place and I’m simply monkeying with individual scenes, altering and moving and deleting them to enhance the telling of the story and the showing of the characters. It’s a fun stage, juggling and rearranging pieces and having new epiphanies all the time about how to improve them.

But I think most of the credit goes to pushing myself to write every day.

I used to let lesson plans and grading papers encroach on my writing time, but now I’ve decided not to. I’m an adjunct teacher, meaning that it’s a side job. Writing is my main job (besides motherhood), so the writing has to have its regular structured time. The side job has to fit in on the side, where it belongs. So when the toddler naps, I write — no exceptions. And so far I have fit in the planning and grading elsewhere, like when the kids are busy playing with toys.

Writing every day keeps the story and characters fresh in my head. I don’t waste time trying to catch myself up and figure out where I left off. I can dive right back in every day and keep the momentum of the story building as I revise. And my enthusiasm for it grows as well.

As it turns out, when I invest myself in the process I am creative!

What have your experiences with the creative process been like? What points on that list are particularly meaningful to you?

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Why Blog? The Altruism of Giving Ideas a Home

A moment ago I did something that’s become habitual for me: I took the pitcher of reclaimed water off my kitchen counter, out the back door, and used it to nourish the semi-evergreen plants that live in my backyard and need watering year-round.

the perpetual pitcher

Reclaimed water?

It’s the best term I can think of for the water recycling project I began after attending a cooking presentation at someone’s house over a year ago. The hostess made just a tiny comment about how when you drain water, like off of pasta, you could save it for watering plants.

Honestly, she didn’t even say it that directly; it was just an aside, really. But somehow the idea stuck in my head. I began thinking of all the water I waste, pouring it down the drain when my plants, whether outside or inside, would probably love it. And shortly thereafter I elected a certain pitcher to live on my counter forever more and catch whatever water could be reused.

As I offered it to the bamboo behind my patio today, I got to thinking about the passing-along of ideas and how randomly it often happens. We just happen to be somewhere, happen to be with someone, when something is said or done that sticks with us and changes us somehow.

The beauty of blogging is that it removes the random factor. It allows those ideas a place to exist and be found.

This weekend my intermediate students are writing their first blog posts, wondering what to say. What can they tell the world on this historic occasion of their debut post? What’s the point, anyway?

I’m suddenly thinking that my pitcher of reclaimed water is the point: sharing ideas someone else might not think of on their own but that could alter their life — not dramatically, but in the small ways that feel like a difference.

For me on this blog, it’s about sharing ideas for reading, writing, and teaching, obviously. I think of how lost I once felt as a writer, totally unsure of how to tackle drafting and revising on the 300–400-page level. As I gleaned ideas from other writers — such as printing the manuscript out, putting it in a three-ring binder, slapping it full of post-it notes, scribbling revision thoughts all over the pages — I grew more and more confident in my own abilities.

At first the sharing/gleaning of those ideas was limited to infrequent writing conferences, but once I began blogging and reading other writers’ blogs, tweeting and reading other writers’ tweets, I discovered that social media creates a world-wide never-ending writing conference full of incredible advice.

tips from food bloggers gave me the secret I needed for moist & soft whole-wheat banana bread

The same goes for reading, where I used to get stuck wondering what to read next until I hooked up with other readers on the internet.

The same goes for nutrition, where I used to have no idea how to transition into healthier cooking until traditional-food bloggers gave me their tips.

It might be a personal experience, a recipe, a review, a unique perspective on some current issue — there are so many things to blog about. But I think what it comes down to is that when you put those thoughts into writing on a blog, even as little asides, someone else might latch onto them and put them to use.

A student of mine last semester asked me why I blog when it must take up so much time. Other non-blogging writer friends have asked me why I bother with it before I’m even published.

For me, it’s because I love to share ideas and because I’m indebted to all the people who have shared with me. My life is a conglomeration of all the little tidbits I’ve picked up here and there. Those tidbits have turned me into a writer, a reader, a recycler of water, a baker of sourdough breads, and countless other good things that make my life more fulfilling.

Maybe something I mention will ring true for someone else and help them the way it’s helped me.

What about you? Why do you read or write blog posts? What ideas have you gleaned that have changed you?

Leave a comment!

To Sunday Afternoons: A Dedication

I’d like to dedicate this post to the one who made it possible. Sunday Afternoons, how I’ve missed you!

A photo from Old House Online that made me think of you. How great you and I would look together in this setting!

In that quirk of Mormondom, the yearly rotating schedule, it felt like ages since I’ve had you to myself. The 1pm church time — lasting until 4pm! — made me rush past you with barely a chance for a wistful glance, as I had a strict appointment with Dinner Prep right afterward (for our exercise routine, set to the rhythm of chopping and sizzling and boiling).

But now! Now that it’s our congregation’s turn to conclude at noon, three weeks in a row I’ve had the pleasure of your company again, the gift of your lavish hospitality. You are the sort of friend everyone needs: so generous and undemanding. Last week’s sweater you helped me crochet turned out well! And the book I had today: excellent. I’m indebted to you for the hours to relax with it. How good that felt!

(Incidentally, I should introduce you sometime. You and the book would get along. If you come across John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, please say hello!)

In the tumultuous busyness enforced by the totalitarianism of Other Days, there’s rarely a scrap of time for savoring words and ideas. Each is pushed out by the next more pressing one. But you, Sunday Afternoon — you understand that relaxation is an oft-neglected task, a necessary indulgence, a luxury as mandatory as breathing. You, like a shelter, provide the space for reclaiming lost thoughts: searching them out and gathering them up and finding a spot for them and pausing over each one to see how it is doing and what attention it needs. You give me freedom to choose words at my leisure rather than rushing to settle on the first that will do. Other Days may boast of their activity, their capacity, their productivity, their exclusivity, but you deserve praise for your charity.

Thank you, kind friend, for being here for me when I need you. It was hard to be without you so long.

A Payoff

In the week right before Thanksgiving, tragedy struck at our house.

Our fifteen-month-old lost the remote to the satellite box. The husband was furious! How could this happen? Surely it’s got to be somewhere. Just not anywhere we could think to look, apparently.

But sometimes coincidence shows you possibilities you might not have otherwise seen, and we decided that — in light of the four huge CPA tests for which Hubby is currently studying — the disappearance of the remote might be an omen. It was time to cancel our TV subscription . . . just until he passes the CPA.

A few weeks later, at the company Christmas party, we were asked to answer a prompt about what we’d do if we won a million dollars. “Live in Italy,” we both said, laughing at the impossibility of the dream.

It was fun to answer the what-if fantasy, to imagine how we’d spend an outrageous sum of money. On the other hand, with the suspended satellite subscription, I realized something even better: fantasizing about rewards that aren’t so outrageous or impossible.

And I began to muse with Hubby, “Okay, if you get ‘cable’ back when you pass your test, what do I get if I sell a manuscript?”

The only trouble was that I didn’t have an answer. It didn’t come as immediately as our million-dollar plan. This was real. I had to put some thought into it!

About once a week I’d try an idea out loud, telling Hubby, “I’ve got it! When I sell my manuscript, we’ll go to Hawaii.” But nothing ever quite stuck.

Over Christmas, my sister had us play a holiday version of Scattergories, and one of the prompts became “Gifts that keep on giving.” I thought, well, “cable” keeps on giving, month after month. Hawaii would be awesome, but it would be a one-time thing. I wanted to think of a reward more like Hubby’s, that I would enjoy for a long time to come and would be a tribute to having met my goal.

My mom once told me that when my great-grandmother passed away and left money to each of her four sons, three of them used the money to pay off bills and debts and such, but my grandpa didn’t want to do that. He wanted to put his share of the money into something that would always remind him of his mother. And so he used the three thousand dollars to refurbish a Steinway grand piano.

That piano is now a legacy of its own. It’s the focal point of my grandparents’ living room, the piece of furniture around which we gathered to sing Christmas carols and let each of the grandchildren play the songs they’d practiced for that Christmas Eve recital all of my growing-up years. Because my great-grandmother insisted that her four sons learned to play the piano, and because my grandfather continued that tradition with his kids, as did my mom with us, I play the piano, and so will my kids.

Last summer I wrote a post about how I’d finally discovered my main character’s main hobby/interest. I figured it out when I stumbled across the old Pentax camera my dad gave me, which was his growing up. I haven’t used it ever since film became so obsolete, and I was thrilled to discover that you can still attach those old lenses onto a new DSLR body.

The only trouble is the price tag on those DSLR bodies.

But today I’ve figured out what I want my payoff to be. If I sell this manuscript, a DSLR body seems like a pretty fitting compensation: a tribute to my main character, my dad, even my grandpa in a way — and one that’ll keep on giving.

As I write this, I’m thinking how sad I am that I don’t have photos of my grandfather’s piano — especially not any that would do it justice. My iPhone camera just doesn’t cut it for important photographs.

Yes, I think I’ve decided on my payoff. And just like the suspended DirecTV subscription is meant to give Hubby extra incentive for studying, maybe the thought of a digital body for those Pentax lenses will give me the extra nudge I need to find writing time, finish revising, and send my story out into the world.

(Ooh, plus, a nice camera would extend the life on vacation-oriented rewards like Hawaii. I could definitely enjoy Hawaii longer thanks to a good camera. Oh the photo albums I’d make! The enlargements I’d frame! I’d like to dedicate this parenthetical note to Hubby, lest he get the idea that I’m not interested in tropical getaways . . .)

What about you? Do you ever settle on rewards to give yourself extra incentive for something? Does it work? How’s the payoff?

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