Who knew color would be such a challenge?

A box full of color with so much potential.

Anxiety. Hopelessness. Despair. These are the feelings I experienced a couple of months ago, not because of some major life crisis, as you might expect; instead because of the pastels art class I’m taking. This class is the first time in adult memory I’ve found myself in a situation where I have not the first clue what I’m doing.

In the first weeks, with my box of pastels so fresh and ready, I waited like a small child for the instructor to tell me every single step to take. Except I was completely unlike a child. A  child would have jumped into all those beautiful colors and done something.

I admit, as a writer with a lifetime of experience behind me, I’m used to being confident taking on a new project, even when it’s in a new genre. The underlying principles are there; I simply need to use them in a new way. With color, I recognized no underlying principles to rely upon.

The reasons I took the pastel class – to learn something new, to have some fun, to follow through on my life-long desire to ‘do art’ – were lost to me. No matter how often I sought to remind myself to relax, to be open to the experience, to let the learning process unfold as the instructor meant it to, I reached the end of class tired and unhappy.

Then I remembered the 10,000-Hour Rule. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a field. How could I think I’d know anything, let alone be able to create a passable work of art, when I’d only just begun?

We were a couple of weeks into the course when I lamented to the instructor, “In the context of 10,000 hours, I feel like I’m on hour one. Still,” I added, “I can see I’ve learned a couple of things.”

In a deadpan serious way, he responded. “Just wait till you get to hour two.”

Indeed. I’ve grown up knowing the rules and following them. This art class could be no different. But the 10,000-hour perspective, along with my instructor’s humorous response, helped me relax. I could go easier on myself. I could take some time. I could be in the moment.

Since then, I’ve opened up to the experience as I hadn’t before. Two months into the class, I’ve internalized some of the rules. I make a conscious point after each class to take a step back, breathe, and consider what I’ve learned. I’ve made mistakes and learned more. I’m also having some fun.

Have you tackled an unexpectedly difficult new task? How do you gain perspective in the face of a challenge?

Cleaning out, letting go, starting fresh

Photo courtesy of: MorgueFile.com

My office bookshelves were nearly this bad. Photo courtesy of: MorgueFile.com

I ended the old year as I often do – by cleaning out my office. This December gave me an even better opportunity to clean out, though, since my husband and I agreed to tackle remodeling my office – the last room in our house to get a new ceiling, new flooring, new paint. Since every surface would be new, every single thing had to come out before we could begin.

Touching every item twice – going out and going back in – as well as the weeks when boxes filled our bedroom and furniture distributed through the rest of the house, gave me ample opportunity to consider what was there and how much of it I really needed.

It also allowed an opportunity to look at my life and how it has changed – or stayed the same – over time. From this exercise I observed:

Letting go takes time. When my mother passed away in 2007, many of her things came into my office. Everything from memory books to hats to estate documents. For the first time, looking at these things, touching them, remembering, did not leave me in tears. I was able, finally, to give away, to throw out, or to consolidate the memories to a couple of small boxes. There may be a time to let even these go. Maybe in another 10 years.

The same could be said for the books and files from my 30-year career in public relations consulting. I finally admitted that if I hadn’t looked in these files for 14 years, it was unlikely I ever would. Out they went.

Themes arise. I found no fewer than 10 sketch pads of various sizes, each with less than a dozen pages used. Since childhood, I have yearned to draw. I hadn’t realized how persistent that yearning has been over the years. It may be time to act on this interest in a more purposeful way. Drawing and writing are not far apart, I think.

I kept all of the sketch pads and all of the drawing materials, consolidating them into one place. I should not have to buy new when I take up drawing again.

Losing pounds. Like many, I often think about losing a few pounds at the end of the year, though I commit to that idea about as well as most and with less vigor each year. In December, I succeeded in spades. I estimate I shed a good 50 pounds, probably more, of books and files. knickknacks and gifts never given. I was stern with myself, and I think I did a pretty good job. Not the pounds I usually think of shedding, but even so, I now walk into my office feeling ‘lighter’ with all the clean, open space. It cheers my mind to realize that I know what I have and where everything is.

I spent almost no time at all writing in December, giving myself over happily to the holidays and family and remodeling the office. Now I start the new year fresh, with a new coat of paint, new clarity, and new purpose. I hope last year ended as well for you and that you, too, look forward to 2016 with optimism.

They did me wrong! Now what?

Someone cut you off in traffic. Cheated you out of a promotion. Stole your big idea. Or worse for us writers – Reviewed our books with words that stung. Then gave us a One Star rating. They’d have given us zero stars if Amazon let them. Ouch!

How do you respond when you’re wronged? Do you rage on Facebook and Twitter? Curse the wrong-doers? Nurture the hurt until it becomes a festering wound that damages everything you do for weeks and months after?

Or do you find a way to let it go?

Author Kathryn Craft shared great advice on Writers In The Storm for handling the inevitable negatives. I’m sharing her words that are written for authors but apply equally well to every person whose suffered injury at the hands of another. Plus there’s a great video. Don’t miss that.

Here’s the beginning of her post. Click to read more. It’s time well spent.

You Did Me Wrong—Right?

Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine into Gold

This month I’ve been seeing a lot on social media about the benefit of positivity. It is the simplest and most immediate cure for whining!

A positive attitude will keep you in problem-solving gear and
win you many champions in the publishing business.

In this great interview between Porter Anderson and my friend and NYT bestselling author Jonathan Maberry, Jonathan says, “more doors will open if you go into the business with happiness and joy and optimism.”

No truer words, my friends.

Negativity

As storytellers we get to play God. We can make good and bad things happen, and have it all come out the way we want it to in the end. But real life is less ordered. It requires us to deal with circumstances beyond our control. To surrender. Reframe. This skill set will help you leave despair behind and turn toward optimism and hope.

Dealing with it

Keep reading by clicking here.

Are you aging like the prairie?

As I walk my prairie this year, I’m struck by how it’s maturing. I was aware that flowers predominate in a newly established prairie while grasses take over in later years. This year, I’m seeing that reality. The contrast between new and mature prairie is clear and dramatic because this spring I let the prairie expand to another section of lawn.

The flashy exuberance of youth.

The flashy exuberance of youth.

The new section is awash in yellow – delicate partridge peas, profuse sweet black-eyed Susans, gangly maxmilian sunflowers, The young plants could hardly wait for me to stop mowing the lawn so they could take over. Their exuberance exciting, the brilliant colors irresistible.

Meanwhile, in the mature prairie, the brilliant flowers of youth have been replaced by graceful fronts of prairie grass. These grasses are strong and tall, able to withstand the winds of summer and winter blizzards. It took longer for grasses to appear in the prairie because they sent down deep roots that nurture them and provide a foundation for the future.

Subtle color in a mature prairie.

Subtle color in a mature prairie.

The mature prairie has not given up on color though you have to look more closely to see it. Mixed in with the grasses are spots of blue and purple: wild bergamot, blue vervain, a few purple coneflowers.

As I move into the second half of my sixth decade, I think how the maturing I see in the prairie is similar to the maturing I see in my own life.

I long ago eschewed the bright colors of the psychedelic 60s for the grays, blues and browns of the business world. These days I’m still more comfortable in muted tones but I augment those muted hues with brighter colors in smaller doses. They brighten my attitude as well as my look.

Though not so flashy, the mature prairie is still capable of surprises and trying something new. This prairie put forth the first butterfly milkweed this year, the orange blossoms a bold statement that though it may take time, it’s never too late to bring out something new.

I felt bold as I ventured into writing and publishing my first novel. Do I say I took this up “late in life”? No. I prefer to say I took up novel writing when the time was right, when my roots were deep and my life experience ready to tackle this new adventure.

Things happen in their own time – in the prairie and in life. The prairie is aging gracefully. I hope to do likewise.

A prairie reminder: Patience

Six years ago, I prepared the soil and sowed the seeds for a native Iowa prairie. The seed mix I chose from Ion Exchange contained 37 different varieties of prairie wildflowers and grasses. I was so eager for my new prairie to take root and grow, I called Ion Exchange repeatedly to question one thing and another. Each time, I asked, “When? When will I see the flowers?”

Patience rewarded - Butterfly milkweed, 2014

Patience rewarded – Butterfly milkweed, 2014

Their counsel was that prairies take time. The man actually told me to go away for a couple of years. When I came back, the prairie would be there. I laughed, got the point, and stopped calling him.

As the years passed, I learned he was right. Prairies take time – and patience – something I’m remarkably short on. Each year, I identified the plants as they bloomed, marveling over each flower I hadn’t seen before and marking it off the master list. From Canada milkvetch to anise hyssop, dotted mint to rattlesnake master, New England aster to stiff goldenrod, the prairie flowers appeared. All except one. Butterfly milkweed.

I was so eager to spot butterfly milkweed. It’s the only prairie plant I know with an orange blossom. But it didn’t come. I speculated that the seed was not viable. Or maybe the prescribed burn we did at year four killed the seed. Or maybe it hadn’t been part of the mix at all.

Last year, I began to think about taking matters into my own hands and getting more of this particular seed to sow into the prairie. Time passed and I didn’t make the order. As winter turned toward spring, I thought of ordering  plant sets. I really wanted to see those orange blooms. But I didn’t get them ordered.

Then recently, as I walked by the prairie, a flash of orange caught my eye. I waded into the grass and there it was – butterfly milkweed! After all this time. As beautiful as I had thought it would be. And even more precious for the long wait.

Readers who have followed my journey with the prairie (search this blog for “prairie”) know I’ve taken many lessons from the prairie. One of them I apparently need to keep learning is to be patient. I may want what I want, when I want it, but if I am patient, the prairie offers up its beauty in its own time. 

What’s the life lesson you need to learn? And what reminds you?

Forging paths in the prairie and in writing

Hannah Prairie 3Since my granddaughters were born, I’ve taken them to the prairie every time they visit us. As little ones, they were carried in. As they grew older, I led the way.

 

On her last visit, I encouraged my oldest granddaughter, now four and a half years old, to take the lead. She hesitated. “You’re an adventurer,” I said. “I know you can find a way. You go ahead. I’ll follow.”  With that encouragement, she pushed ahead.

 

Her experiences in the prairie that day reminded me of my own journey in editing my novel. After an advanced novel workshop this summer, I got serious about editing my 118,000-word historical novel. Here’s what she learned about prairie exploration and what I’ve learned about editing.

 

Don’t be afraid. Just start. Seven-foot-tall prairie grasses and four-foot-tall flowers can be mighty intimidating to someone three-foot tall. The unknown can be scary, but once she got going, she thrived on the adventure. Having never edited a novel, I was hesitant about how it would go. But, really, there was nothing to do but start. Every day do something. The more I did, the easier it became to do more.

 

Accept help from someone who’s been this way before. When my granddaughter hit a wall of foliage, she looked back to me. I could point her in a new direction, just as other editors pointed me. While blogging about my “crutch words,” I learned about Sharla Rae’s list of “echo words.” Going word by word down her list, I was able to cut literally thousands of words from my manuscript. The result is infinitely better.

 

Trust your gut and affirm your own actions. My granddaughter might be blocked by the dense foliage, taking advantage of the paths made by other prairie visitors. or finding her own way, but the more she explored, the more excited she became. “I’m an adventurer,” she said with delight, happy to claim her title. As I launched into editing, another writer made an off hand comment: “It all comes back to the author to decide what she wants.” I’ve recalled that comment repeatedly as I learn to trust and act on what my gut tells me. I know these characters. I know the story I want to tell. I know when an entire scene needs to go. No one knows that better than I do. The editing experience affirmed me as a writer and as an editor.

 

Hannah Prairie 2Take joy in the moment. The prairie is a joy-filled place for my granddaughter, heat, bugs, scratchy plants and all. Editing can be tedious but there are joys to discover. Finding a really right word or phrase to replace the easy one I’d started with. Recognizing that letting one character use a word repeatedly creates a character trait; letting several characters use that word is lazy and the word loses its power. Discovering that fewer words can have infinitely more power.

 

Once isn’t enough. Each time my granddaughter emerged from the prairie, she was ecstatic. Then, she’d look for a way back in.When I finished one form of editing, like my granddaughter, I jumped back in with another approach. I searched out crutch/echo words. One at a time through the entire manuscript. After doing a word-by-word edit, I  read the whole manuscript through to see what had happened to the sense of it. More words and parts of scenes hit the cutting room floor. Then back to the beginning for a read-aloud edit. 

 

The editing journey has built my confidence, just as adventuring in the prairie build my granddaughter’s confidence. In the process, I cut 15,000 words no one will miss.

 

How about you? When you’ve taken on new tasks, whether they be editing or otherwise, what have you learned from the experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.