Self Debt, Doubt and Dough

There might always be a part of me that is obsessed with TV shows where a fix is “revealed” and everything is tidied up nicely—at least on the air. I’m not talking about a story that’s truly lit from within (I love these, but am not obsessed with them—interesting, huh?). I’m referring to when someone who knows everything tells people who supposedly know nothing what they are supposed to know and do and be. These shows are rigged so one person appears superior, the other, quite the opposite.

Exactly what hooks me in.

A few years ago I was hooked by an Oprah show about money and debt. People in massive amounts of financial debt shared the hour with money guru Suze Orman—fixer, all knower. I have nothing against Suze (or Oprah!), but who knew there was such a thing as a money guru—that money deserved a guru. The word implies expertise, inner knowledge, aboveness and the privilege of telling other people what to do. At least in shows like this one.

Suze said: “People first, then money, then things.” Oprah made eye contact with the camera—with me, as though making sure I got it.

Oh, I got it. I don’t remember if the TV guests got it, or what they said upon hearing Orman’s ordinal concept. All I remember was thinking damn, this sucks. I wasn’t in financial debt, nor had (or have) I been; I can’t speak from that place. But I can tell you that the notion of valuing people first messed with my ordinal concepts of reality, though not in the way it sounds.

The humiliated faces of Oprah’s guests reminded me of many a job interview at the exact moment when salary was discussed. There was that higher (better) than/lower (less) than dichotomy. Salaries, quite frankly, have little to do with debt—unless you you’re talking about self-debt—which I am.

As a writer, a freelancer, a former social worker/therapist, and employee, valuing myself when it came to negotiating my rates—money—has sometimes been so unpleasant (in my own head) I’d just take whatever you want to give me. Sure, I can obsess all I want about money (again, in my head)—control it there (ha!)—but say it out loud? Too scary. You might think I’m greedy. You might think I’m taking it away from you. You might think there’s not enough to go around. These are some of the basic tenets of self-debt, along with worrying what you might think.

Money. I’ve lived in fear of having it and of losing it. I’d inherited fears from my family, and morphed up quite a few rich ones of my own (another post, another day).

So yes. People first, then money. When you talk about people, this means me, myself. Which means honor my deepest truth and the rest flows naturally into place. It does not flow, however, if I believe you hold my answers (which would indicate not valuing myself first) and are keeping them from me.

It would be a lie to say that for a split second, sitting there in my living room, I didn’t want Orman to come to my house and tell me how to fix me. Or just fix me herself. A self-debtor is constantly forgetting that the answers are always inside, just like her voice, her creative process, her words. We tend to think these gifts are outside—found in places like TV where a guru is ready to dole out advice.

The more I recover my truth—inside me—the less susceptible I am to falling for the lie that someone else has my answers. You?

The 5-Question Interview: Dara Chadwick

The writer talks about sharing herself, people-pleasing versus truth and being driven by, “What if?”

Dara Chadwick is a freelance journalist and the author of You’d Be So Pretty If…: Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies – Even When We Don’t Love Our Own (which grew out of her tenure as Shape magazine’s 2007 Weight-Loss Diary columnist). Dara blogs at Psychology Today and recently appeared on NBC’s Today Show and on Fox News Boston. You’d Be So Pretty If… was praised highly in Publishers Weekly and Newsweek online, among others.

MEREDITH: Do you trust yourself when you write?
I’ve never really thought about this before, but I absolutely do! Much of my writing happens before I sit down at my desk; I tend to compose in my head quite a bit, so when I finally get to it, it feels very instinctual. There’s a lot of ruminating and turning-over of ideas in my mind as I go about my business. But I always know when I’m there.

MEREDITH: You write a lot about self-image and how moms can help their daughters love themselves. But when you write does your mind wonder first what you would like, or what others would? Do you think about pleasing the crowd?

Dara: I’ve found that many of my most “successful” crowd-pleasing pieces are those in which I’ve shared a lot of myself (even if it’s not directly about me). If I’m curious about a topic or struggle with it, I tend to assume that others are curious about it or struggle with it, too. Maybe that’s an egocentric view of the world, but I see myself as a fairly average woman, wife, mom, sister, etc. As for pleasing the crowd, I learned a long time ago that it can’t be done. I’ll never please everybody, so I focus on what I know to be true and feel is right, and I create from that place. (Good-to-remember alert:) If people respond to it – in a good way or in a “you-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about” way – then I feel I’ve done my job. I’ve made the reader think and talk about it, and that’s what matters to me.

MEREDITH: When writing, do you wait for the muse, or do you see creating as a job to be done whether the muse is there or not? And by the way, what is your muse?
The honest answer is, “It depends.” I’m driven by “What if?” Sometimes, it works for me in that it drives me to explore a topic or a scenario or a problem. Other times, it works against me when I let anxiety take hold and question what I’m doing. When that happens, I know I either haven’t spent the necessary time with the topic in my head or I’m heading in the wrong direction. It’s back to that trust issue, I guess. When I can’t wait to research and write, I know I’m in the right place.

MEREDITH: Are you a “big picture” writer, or do you take the Anne Lamott Bird by Bird approach? Can you tell us about it?
I always have the big picture in mind, but I really enjoy the writing process, too. I try not to stay too married to a master plan, though, because the tangents are often where I find the most interesting stuff. I love the act of puzzling out what goes where in a piece.

MEREDITH: Do you write a chapter at a time? Skip around? Start with a table of contents? What is the process? Are you into outlines? Why? Why not?
With You’d Be So Pretty If…I wrote in a pretty straight line from my table of contents. But I generally prefer to skip around. I like an outline for the sense of direction it gives me, but I like to be free to explore side paths, too. It’s sort of like driving. I like to have a map with me in case I get lost, but I couldn’t stand a GPS telling me what to do and when to do it. I’m rebellious that way, I guess.

Dara lives in New England with her family. She says, “I horrified my teenage daughter when I took a hip hop dance class a while back, but I loved it and hope to get back to it soon.” Oh, and my friend, who’s a fabulous knitter, keeps trying to get me to knit, but I find the act of knitting really stressful. Maybe it’s that whole “follow a pattern” thing. Find out for sure, by visiting her website and blog.

The 5-Question Interview: Josefina López

The writer tells about unconscious wounds, creating a boundary with every story and listening to her higher self.

Josefina López is the author of the play Real Women Have Curves, and co-wrote the film version—a winner at Sundance in 2002—that starred America Ferrera. In addition to being a playwright (with over eighty productions to her credit), she is a poet, performer, teacher, therapist and activist. Josefina was five when she and her family immigrated to the United States and made a home in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, the same community in which, today, she founded and runs Casa 0101 Theater Art Space. There she teaches screenwriting and playwriting, and “nurtures a new generation of Latino artists.” She holds an MFA in screenwriting from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, and a masters degree in spiritual psychology. Her first novel, Hungry Woman in Paris was published earlier this year.

MEREDITH: Some people refer to their creations as their children. I see our creations more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations?
They are definitely my children and I love all of them… So much of writing is about healing the unconscious wounds so I see my creations as an alchemical transformation because my pain is turned to gold.

MEREDITH: You are a prolific creator on many levels. Is stagnation ever a roadblock? By stagnation, I’m not referring to simply being stuck and unable to create. I’m more referring to something more subtle, perhaps more conniving—feeling something is not perfect enough to move away from or beyond.
I am very lucky that ideas come to me effortlessly and I have never been afraid of people stealing my ideas because I have soooo many…. There have been stories that keep evolving even when it has already been produced or published. Sometimes a story lives inside you and it never ends. I try to honor the story by not imposing an ending…. Although I did have a healer once tell me that my energy was leaking and that I was too attached to my stories and needed to pull back on them and move on when the writing job was done …. She sealed me with light and told me to create a boundary with every story. Stories are like children to me.

MEREDITH: Tell us about your relationship with the muse. Is it love-hate? Up-down? Boy-girl? What I’m really wondering is this: does it feel like a part of you? Or something you have to catch?
I have done a lot of spiritual work that has helped me learn to channel the muses and listen to my higher self instantly – so I have a great relationship with my creativity and my muses.

MEREDITH: Are you ever frightened of your own ideas?
No. I’m a hypnotherapist so I understand a lot about how the unconscious mind works and I know when an idea comes out that would normally scare anyone not in touch with their shadow self – I welcome it because it’s speaking to me metaphorically. Whatever the idea is I know the attempt from the unconscious mind is to help me heal.

MEREDITH: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth following? Is there a telling moment for you?
All ideas are viable. Commercial – that’s a different story…. I get so many ideas that the ones that refuse to be forgotten and constantly haunt me are the ones that really need to be told and have the most to teach me about my humanity.

Josefina lives in southern California where it is rumored she is an incredible party hostess. She loves floral and interior design, and before she had a total knee replacement explains she was always the limbo champ because she was “double jointed.” Party with her and find out more about her work and passions by clicking here.

The 5-Question Interview: Caitlin Kelly

The journalist gets specific about excellence, relationships + platforms and how fame without serious substance is a joke.

A veteran nonfiction writer, Caitlin Kelly is an award-winning journalist and former reporter at The Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette. She has also written for The New York Times, Toronto Star, New York Post, Wall Street Journal, Penthouse, Business Week, Chatelaine, and Family Circle, among many (many) others. She has been a Poynter Institute fellow, a fellow with Journalists in Europe, and at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism, and has taught at NYU and Pace University. Caitlin is the author of Blown Away: American Women and Guns [of which Publisher’s Weekly said: her “interviews with improbable women gun owners truly fascinate”] and she blogs about firearms at The Open Case.

Meredith: As an author with many projects in motion, many platforms at work and many works in the public eye, how do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation?
CAITLIN: I don’t see them as in conflict, which I think some writers do. With all due respect, I don’t even think about which side of my brain is working—as long as the whole thing is! I grew up in a freelance family; my father was an award-winning documentary film maker and my stepmother wrote for television and my mom was a journalist—so the notion of simply creating versus making sure someone pays you to create the project was never an issue for me. Excellence is the starting point; making sure the right people know you’re excellent ensures you’ll get to keep doing it. I seem to have a knack for finding ways to promote my work—when my book came out I presented the head of publicity at Pocket Books with my own pre-planned list of 21 events—so that’s not as much of an issue.

I think the key, and again this may go against the grain of writers who are very introverted or prefer to just write, is to create and sustain relationships. For example, my book came out in 2004, but I recently got it mentioned and promoted to a key conference in that field by reaching out to the organizer, who remembered me and respects my expertise. Every time you write a piece or a book, you need to think of every possible potential reader, listener and viewer. But you need to stay true to yourself and how you see the world. There are things I would never do and things I’m very comfortable with. They’re personal choices. The choice you simply can’t make any more is to hole up in a garret, create and wait to be discovered.

Meredith: Does the creative+platform process of expansion feel like you are moving forward on parallel tracks or is the process more unified and seamless?
CAITLIN: It’s sometimes really exhausting to promote your work when you need to be creating work. And you need to create great work, I believe, to promote it selectively and well. Not everything you produce (sorry!) is that fantastic. Some of it is done to pay the bills, reduce debt, get a new clip or contact—while the piece or even the book itself is so-so. If you rush out to promote it wildly, you might shoot yourself in the foot. So there’s a stop-pause quality to this: after you’ve created something you’re especially proud of, figure out who needs to see it and why they would find it especially interesting. If they are parallel tracks, and there are two trains, I’d say the production/creation side of it, for me, tends to take precedence to simply maintain cashflow.

Meredith: Is platform building an organic process, or is it something that has to be created—literally—from the ground up?
CAITLIN: Interesting question. I feel, and I’m an old-school, old-media, shoe-leather reporter who has written for pay since I was 19, it’s organic. It is an accretion of excellence over time. It takes time to get good, to be good, to be—most importantly—consistently good. How many promising, well-reviewed (if they are lucky enough to get reviewed at all) first novelists later stall out? So people who want to be famous right away, frankly, need to earn that right. Fame without serious substance is a joke. So, the ground is excellence. Not being good. Excellent. The measure of that? Peer respect, editorial praise, being asked to contribute to things—I was recently invited to join, a new, paid blogging community, because I bring a name and millions of readers who know and like my work from The New York Times, since 1990. In advertising, it’s said you have to repeat your message something like 27 times for people to even remember it. As a writer, remember that.

Meredith: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Does it scare or excite you?
CAITLIN:Beginning is terrifying, energizing, exciting—and necessary. It’s so easy and so seductive to think and ponder and worry and fantasize—or just keep doing the same old, same old. But you have to put out, baby! I’m joking in tone but deadly serious in content.

I recently started blogging and was absolutely terrified the first time. Why on earth would anyone want to listen to me? It takes real guts to decide to try something new because, of course, it’s new and unfamiliar and you could fail—and fail publicly. Well, what else are you going to do? I’m working on a book proposal with a new agent and that’s a process I have been through many times with four previous agents. But I have to come into this relationship with an open mind and a sense of optimism, or not do it.

Beginnings, if you’re lucky, come to you when people invite you to work with them. When you have to cold-call and jump-start, it’s quite wearying and scary. But be strategic about them. I’ll give you one example. I wanted to meet a very senior network television news executive. She spoke recently at a NYC networking breakfast. That meant walking into a room full of people I did not know, hoping there might be an opening to say hello to the speaker and, perhaps, find some work as a result. It worked out and I’m now waiting to hear, what, if anything, will come through. If nothing else, and it’s a lot, she now has my book on her desk and knows its value when the next news story about guns comes up. It will. I just took a chance and followed through.

Meredith: Where does the process of creativity start for you?
CAITLIN: Great question. Most of the time, it’s doing everything but writing. It’s walking by the reservoir (where the name for my blog, Broadside, came to me), or playing softball or going to a museum or listening to BBC World News, which I do for an hour every morning. My goal as a writer is to connect the dots; I work in nonfiction and news journalism and I want to head away from the pack, off the big story and sniff around where no one else is right now. I liken it to an astronomer who’s looking at the night sky. A writer who is not creative sees a bunch of stars. A creative writer sees constellations—patterns and shapes and linkages between interesting ideas. But you have to imagine they are there and you can only start to see them, I think, by paying attention—as with any galaxy—across a very wide spectrum, or a very narrow one. You have to be really thoughtful in your choices of how you spend your time and attention: junk TV or a PBS DVD, 18th-century novel or a manga, Redbook or the National Review—or both?

I’m not sure what “creative” means. If it means I am constantly creating, that’s probably true. I hold that word to a very high standard; what haven’t I read before? What are you telling me I don’t know? In a new way? So I look far and wide to others I find creative—in art, design, architecture, fashion, dance­—to see what choices they’re making and why. I tend to stay away from other writers in this respect. I think true creativity involves risk. And risk is frightening. So that’s a powerful emotion you have to be aware of and manage. Failure isn’t terminal! If it’s chronic, though, you have a problem.

Born and educated in Canada, Caitlin lives in the New York City area where she’s currently at work on a book proposal. Read more about that at her website and about her by checking out her blog at True/Slant.

The 5-Question Interview: Liz Holzemer

The writer on never writing religiously, learning to stop and what surviving brain surgery has taught her about editors.

Liz Holzemer is the author of Curveball: When Life Throws You a Brain Tumor. She is also the founder of the nonprofit Meningioma Mommas [among her creative pursuits: raising $1 million for meningioma research]. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Denver Woman’s Press Club and Colorado Authors’ League. She has appeared on the Discovery Health Channel and the Today Show, among many many others, and was a “Tim Gullikson Spirit Award” recipient for community service.

MEREDITH: When you received your diagnosis, what happened to your creative voice?

Liz: My creative voice went absolutely numb like the rest of me. To be told over the phone I had a brain tumor was completely paralyzing. When I was informed of all the surgery risks, my greatest fear was the possible reality I may never write again. In fact, it took months before I found my voice again, let alone its creative side. I couldn’t focus on words nor write them as clearly and coherently as I once did. I prided myself on always being an excellent speller, but lost some of that ability. Journaling helped tremendously during my recovery. Eventually, I found my voice again, albeit a newer version of its former self.

MEREDITH: Is the narrative of your physical life—the one tied to your illness and now your wellness—a mirror of your writing life? How or how not?

Liz: I’d say my illness has certainly shaped me in terms of developing that “platform” writers are always told to have. Whether subconsciously or consciously, I do find I’m always weaving some aspect of my brain tumor journey and ongoing experiences into my writing. [when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade alert:] You’d be amazed how you can work brain tumor into all genres of writing, not to mention conversation.

MEREDITH: The brain is about words and language, and you’re a writer. So tell us about your relationship with a brain tumor—your brain tumor—and how it affects the creative process, how it affected yours.

Liz: Even though it’s been nine years since my surgeries, the residual aspects of meningioma are always with me. The major change for me is related to my daily struggle with fatigue and epilepsy. Luckily, I’ve never been one of those writers who religiously write every day at x time of day for x number of hours because I’ve had to accept that my writing is very closely tied in with my energy levels. It almost sounds manic—when I’m up, I crank; when I’ve hit rock bottom—good luck finding a spark of creativity.

There are days when I desperately want to write, but as a mother of two young children, by the end of the day the tank is empty and that is very frustrating. And when I do write, rather than being too consumed with making every word count like I did before my surgeries, now I’m not as hung up on structure and nailing it the first time. [a-ha! alert:] I’ve learned I can’t force the flow—it will come when it’s ready.

MEREDITH: When it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or foe?

Liz: Both. Mostly friend because I’ve long since proven to myself that I am still a writer. Like a great and supportive friend, my mind gives me that extra kick or shove I need on the days when I’m really struggling with the creative process or when I hit that proverbial writer’s block wall—I’ve learned to stop. There’s no sense beating my head and forcing the issue.

MEREDITH: How has becoming a voice for cancer awareness changed you as a writer?

Liz: It’s forced me to break out of my genre and comfort zone. I take greater risks. [perspective alert:] I figure if I can survive having my head carved into twice, I can approach any editor even if I get the door slammed in my face.

It’s also allowed me to use my writing to be a voice and convey the message that we are our own best advocates. This is especially true for women who put everyone and everything else in their lives at the top of their “TO DO” lists.

Liz lives in Colorado with her husband, Mark, two children and their lipoma-laden lab, Koufax. Now that Liz is in her forties, she hopes to learn how to dive and drive a stick-shift car. She finally got over never making her high school tennis team and recently picked up her wooden Wilson again. Get to know her better at her website and about Meningioma Mommas here.

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Alexis O’Neill

The writer lets us in on trimming excess, cutting to the chase, pushing through weeds and the strange dichotomy of promotion.

Alexis O’Neill, a multi-award-winning author, is hard at work writing children’s books in every genre. With four picture books published (Loud Emily [about which Publisher’s Weekly (starred review) wrote: “O’Neill crafts a charmer…Emily’s quest to find her place in the world without altering herself in the process, will encourage anyone who has ever felt different from the crowd.”], Estela’s Swap, The Recess Queen and The Worst Best Friend), she’s one genre down and many more to go. Alexis is on the road a good portion of the year doing school visits all over the country, meeting and making fans. In addition to writing for children, she pens a column for the SCBWI Bulletin called, “The Truth About School Visits” and is regional advisor for SCBWI in the Ventura/Santa Barbara region of California.

The Writer’s Journey: Is voice, to you, a constant? Has yours as a writer evolved over the years? Or have you just gotten more confident in using it?

Alexis: To me, “voice” is the [I-get-it alert:] voice of the story that needs telling—not my own personal voice. My tall tale and folk tales have a different syntax and flavor than my contemporary picture books. My magazine articles, of course, are different still. But what has evolved over the years is my ability to cut to the chase of a story. Trimming excess is probably the most difficult part of writing for children—especially in picture books. I love words, but I have to think like a poet and choose the right words (the only words) that will unlock my story. My first drafts always are terribly overwritten. The fun comes in cutting and shaping.

The Writer’s Journey: Why is telling stories so much fun? I ask because I believe it satisfies a need we all have to connect with others. How about you?

Alexis: My family is Irish and Scottish. To us Celts, with a bardic tradition ingrained in our DNA, telling stories is the same as breathing. The memory of our culture depended on shaping facts and emotions through stories colored with sensory images and sharing those stories from village to village. Today the tradition lives in print. And what could be better than having others love your stories and pass them on?

The Writer’s Journey: Do you wait for the muse, or do you see writing as a job to be done whether the muse is in or not? By the way, what is your muse?

Alexis: My muse? She never sets her own alarm, and is very undependable. So, as a full-time working writer, I have to wake up my muse every single day and tell her to get busy!

The Writer’s Journey: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?

Alexis: Wow. Who said creativity is “a natural state”? While I do think that we’re all born with creative sparks that can take many forms, I also believe that creativity is something that needs to be nurtured in order to grow and thrive. We need to try our hands at new forms and stretch out of comfortable habits. I think that the perfect antidote to “stuckness” is to take a class, try a new art form, put heads together with others to solve a puzzle, take a trip, or read a stimulating and challenging book. More than getting “stuck,” I think we get “stopped”—mostly from laziness or an unwillingness to push through the weeds of horrible drafts toward the meadow beyond. And there is always a meadow of green beyond—we just never know how long it’s going to take to get there and are tempted to give up short of the destination.

The Writer’s Journey: As a children’s book author with many books in print, how do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? Or do you experience them as unified?

Alexis: Here’s the problem. Promotion is a monster that often sits on the heart of creation. Right now, I have countless projects I’m working on. When story creation is in full gear, I’m in the zone and on a high. My heart races. I write lines in a rush of “Yes! That’s it!” I’m excited. Pure joy! I lose track of time. I have lots to tell my husband at the end of the day. I can’t wait to get back to the story. But then as I reread my story, the promotion monster whispers in my ear, “Will it sell? What’s the hook? Who will buy this? It’s a nice story, but is it a necessary story?” That monster is always lurking. I know he’s necessary to the success of my works, but it doesn’t make me any happier to have to share a room with him. So I have to feed the monster a bit, then hush his voice and get back to story-making for the pure joy of it.

Alexis lives in Simi Valley with her husband, David (an airplane-building, computer-savvy, good-natured  writer and-cat-loving guy) and his very huge extended family (but not all in the same house or no writing at all would ever get done!). Act like family over here.