The Birth of a Blog Post

A friend of mine recently asked me how I decide what to blog about, whether I keep a running list of ideas or just fly by the seat of my pants, and the short answer is that I tend to do a little of both. I do have a spreadsheet of possible topics, but I also rely on day-to-day experiences to provide a certain amount of inspiration. [See: Break Out of the Familiar and It’s Your Call].

Sometimes, though, my creativity is lacking and I find difficulty both in tying a recent event to a pertinent message and building a complete post from an incomplete brainstorming snippet. In these instances, I do what any writer would do: I procrastinate.

Last week had, in fact, been such an occasion and in the time I had set aside to write this blog post I managed to:

  • Take a break for lunch
  • Clean up my lunch dishes
  • Take the dog for a walk
  • Balance the checkbook
  • Flip through a magazine
  • Complete a crossword puzzle
  • Pray
  • Listen to some uplifting music
  • Read through a letter from a friend

I don’t generally consider procrastination to be a useful route to accomplishment, but in this case, it was. Stepping away from the task at hand to do something completely unrelated did indeed spur my motivation, because the letter I read happened to be from the very friend who asked about my blog-writing process. Thus, the idea for this post was born.

What about you? Have you ever experienced procrastination as a handy tool rather than a time waster? What are some of your go-to procrastination activities?

And Then Syndrome

I suffer from something called And Then Syndrome. In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a nasty disorder of the mind that causes persistent and unyielding thoughts about the future. Its symptoms include anxiety, worry, a lack of focus, an exaggerated illusion of control, and an overwhelming urge to plan ten steps/minutes/hours/days ahead of where I currently am.

For example, when I woke up this morning, I switched off my alarm and completed an immediate mental run-through of my day: First up, work on the manuscript rewrite. Next, social media networking. Then, write a blog post, address that website issue, clean out my inbox. And then, and then, and then. I was already exhausted by all I wanted and needed to accomplish and I hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet.

At the same time that a large part of my attention was consumed by this internal imagining, the rest of me was actually going about the business of my morning routine, so that by the time I sat down at my desk two hours later, I was only half aware of all the actions I’d completed to get there. (If you’ve ever driven to work on autopilot, you know exactly what I mean.) I’d worked out but hadn’t really felt the burn. I’d showered but only partially noticed the water. I’d downed my protein shake without truly tasting it. Historically speaking, I knew that if I continued in this manner, I would lose several precious hours creating nothing but multiple manifestations of the symptoms I listed above.

Is it possible to write while in this mode of future-mindedness? Absolutely. Is it possible to produce anything of worth? Not so much. In my experience, writing (and living in general, really) from any place besides the present moment—whether past or future—causes a sort of disconnect. A lack of focus which in turn leads to unfocused work and unconscious living. You’re there but not really there; doing but not really doing. It’s difficult and time-consuming to harvest anything authentic and whole from such a fractured state of mind.

So how do you break the cycle? How do you cure this disruptive syndrome? It’s not an overnight process. Mindfulness and centeredness are not easy to come by. But one small step, one tiny change that can bring about a certain amount of awareness, is simply to swap out And Then with Right Now. Anytime you find yourself lost down a winding road of And Thens or caught up in a vicious cycle of What Might Have Beens, stop and say the words Right Now. Say them out loud and repeat them as many times as necessary to return your attention to the here and now. Because Right Now is all we get.

You know the adage, “Yesterday is past. Tomorrow is future. Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present”? It’s true. This precious moment, this sacred second that we’re currently walking in is truly an amazing gift. We’ll never get it back again. We’ll never get another chance to really immerse ourselves in it, so embrace it. Stop the And Then Syndrome in its tracks with a powerful dose of Right Now.

Life: The Musical

I sat in a waiting room a couple weeks ago, doing what one does in such a place: waiting. The only other person in the room—a man who I’d seen in passing on my way in—was blocked from my view by the angle of the wall as he spoke with the receptionist and another woman behind the counter. I perused the table of available reading material, only vaguely aware of their conversation until I was fully alerted to it when the man suddenly broke into song.

I don’t mean that figuratively (if there is even a figurative way to take it). I mean he literally began singing. And this wasn’t just a hush-hush, passive-voiced, let-me-sing-a-few-words-to-jog-your-memory kind of song. He belted it out in a rich baritone as if a Broadway stage had popped up beneath his feet, a microphone thrust into his hand, a follow spot bathing him in a beam of light.

His performance has stayed with me since that day, playing on repeat in my mind with an accompanying sense of wonder. Truthfully, it wasn’t the man’s powerful vocals that made an impression on me. Nor was it the song itself. (I didn’t recognize the tune and the lyrics vanished from memory almost immediately.) No, what struck me most was that this man had an impulsive urge to sing and rather than tamp it down out of embarrassment, he followed it with gusto.

As a forever fan of musicals—Mary Poppins, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Grease being some of my childhood favorites—I’ve often wondered what it might be like if real life followed the example of these music-inspired stories. How freeing it would be if anytime we were overcome with a strong emotion—be it joy, grief, amazement, frustration—we felt as confident as this man did to express it boldly and unapologetically in song.

If your life were a musical, what lyrics would fit your day? What song would you bust out singing right now, right in this moment?

10 Ways to Succeed at Failure

Believe me when I tell you that I am not the poster child for achieving goals. I can, in fact, set and subsequently abandon a writing goal faster than a political tirade can light the internet on fire. But, with the help of hindsight and a newly acquired self-growth mindset, I have been able to look back and realize that all of these dropped goals were not without value. For what I’ve learned over the last decade-plus of eyeing and then shying away from my big writing dreams, is the numerous avenues for assuring disappointment.

A word of warning: This advice should be followed only if you want to remain stuck on a viciously inert cycle with regard to your hidden passions. If you want to wake up in a year, five years, ten years with that dream still tucked away in your heart or that unfinished manuscript still collecting dust on a high up shelf, then by all means, read on for my top ten ways to succeed at failure.

  1. Don’t take yourself (or your writing) seriously. Don’t stick to a regular schedule or safeguard blocks of time to write or work on your goals. That way when your significant other, kids, mailman, or neighbor from down the street, needs something they won’t feel bad interrupting you because they won’t take you seriously either.
  2. Wait for conditions to be perfect. Wait for inspiration to hit. Wait for all the kids to be in school (or out of school). Wait until you have the office set up, a certain amount of money in the bank, or a less chaotic schedule. Just wait. And eventually, after all that waiting, you can rest assured that you will have run out of time.
  3. Let fear and doubt become your new besties. They seem friendly enough, right? I mean, they do have your best interests at heart—they are, after all, only protecting you from that big, fat F-word (as in, Failure)—so why wouldn’t you trust them when they suggest second (and third and fourth) guessing yourself?
  4. Compare yourself to others. Compare early. Compare often. Then, when your story doesn’t evolve like Stephen King’s or J. K. Rowling’s, you can deem yourself a failure even before leaving your starting block.
  5. Do not dare to share your dream with the world. Do not tell anyone that you want to be a writer and never, under any circumstance, let anyone read your words. This could lead to unexpected encouragement and support and someone (or several someones) to hold you accountable. And if you want to succeed at not succeeding, you definitely do not want to be held accountable for making progress.
  6. Set a deadline, but whatever you do, don’t stick to it. If you view your self-imposed deadline as more of a loosey-goosey guideline with all kinds of wiggle room, you will absolutely, without a doubt NOT meet it.
  7. Save your writing for last. Tackle easier, less scary jobs first. Do the laundry. Mow the lawn. Clean behind the refrigerator. Cross every item off your to-do list. With any luck, by the end of the day, you will either be too exhausted to write at all or any feeble attempt you make will turn out like crap, thereby proving to yourself (and your good buddies Fear and Doubt and quite possibly the entire universe) that you do indeed suck and were right not to even try.
  8. Look for inspiration on social media. Then learn to convince yourself that the three hours you lost obsessing over the royal family’s picture-perfect life were all in the name of “research.”
  9. Invest in your excuses. Don’t just repeat them in a daily mantra, but truly believe them all the way to your core. Believe that you can’t do it. Believe that you aren’t good enough. Believe that you don’t have the time, you don’t have the energy, you don’t have the skills or the ability to acquire them. Believe that change and growth and breakthroughs are possible for other people, but are unquestionably, indisputably, totally inconceivable for someone like you.
  10. Blame someone else. Do not take responsibility for yourself, your time, or your life. Trust that these things don’t belong to you and it is actually your spouse, your kids, and that pesky neighbor I mentioned above who hold the authority for your dreams. And if blaming someone in your present life doesn’t work, take it all the way back to childhood—blame your parents, blame your teachers, blame that kid who pantsed you on the playground in fourth grade—because, if nothing else, carrying around a lifetime of bitterness and resentment does wonders for blocking creativity.

My Favorite Things

My husband and I went to a Broadway performance of The Sound of Music when it was in town a couple of weeks ago. The show was outstanding—every actor, superb; every song, extraordinary—and the recognizable tunes triggered snippets of memories from the first time I’d seen the play many, many years ago. I don’t remember how I responded to it back then. As a grade schooler on a field trip to The Dakota Stage, I was probably just happy to be out of the classroom for the afternoon.

But this time, as an adult, as a writer, as a woman struggling to follow God’s will and understand love and find her place in this great, big world, I appreciated every aspect of the story. However, the thing that struck me most, the thing I didn’t pay attention to the first time I saw the production or any time since, was the lesson of gratitude inherent in one of the musical’s most famous songs.

To me, My Favorite Things, has always been just that: A list of Maria’s favorite things. I could blame my lack of awareness on my literal-minded tendencies, but I think the main reason the song’s greater meaning had been lost on me until now was because of my natural inclination toward negativity. I may speak and write and encourage positivity, but looking at the bright side of things does not come easily to me. I have to work at it. I have to stay vigilant, paying attention to my mindset and reminding myself often of life’s many blessings.

So that night, as I listened to a tremendously gifted singer belt out a beautiful rendition of this song, that’s exactly what I did. I reminded myself. In my head (and in no particular order), I began making a list of my own favorite things:

  • Christmas trees
  • Thunderstorms
  • Ice cream
  • My husband’s deep, belly laugh when watching classic cartoons
  • Walking through crunchy, fallen leaves
  • Open windows
  • Spring air, heavy with the scent of lilacs
  • Campfires
  • Music
  • Long conversations with good friends

As the list went on and on, I realized how much joy I felt in my heart simply by thinking of these things. I realized what an amazing gift that is. That not only did God give us all these wonderful blessings to enjoy, but he gave us powerful minds full of detailed memories so we can delight in our favorite things even when we aren’t in the midst of them.

What are some of your favorite things? Make a list, add to it often, and take a look at it daily, so the next time the dog bites or the bee stings, maybe you won’t feel so bad.