A Mental Tidy

Sometimes life is just too much. Sometimes it’s just so too much that we don’t realize it until we are sitting/standing/lying there and thinking; how did I end up here, feeling this way. Feeling…

Cluttered.

What I’m talking about is that lie in bed and stare at the ceiling sleeplessness that comes when the noise in your head may as well be a dance club complete with disco-ball and strobe lights and a nasty and extremely public break-up at the bar. It’s that multi-screen movie theatre flashing in front of your eyes as every random thought, worry, and concern vies for attention. It’s when you feel stress has come at you like a runaway wagon driven by the four horseman of the apocalypse and you are trapped under the wheels.

That’s when you may need a mental tidy.

For some, this slang intimates a minimizing or condescension of a real struggle with mental health. That is not my intent. Mental illness is a serious concern, and as such, needs serious considerations from those much more knowledgeable than me. However, I find the reality is that we all have our moments when we are plagued by worry, insecurity and fear. And while they may not be as dire as someone with clinical psychological problems, it seems to me that sometimes these more minor bouts of anxiety can have a cumulative effect, resulting in a serious impact on our lives and the lives of those around us.  Why not try to actively engage in solutions for those moments. Here are a few suggestions.

Exercise

Get your mind off the roller-coaster and move your body instead. Any physical activity that gets your heart rate pumping will do. Run. Walk. Swim. Dance. Heck, even housework would do. Plus, you get the added bonus of a clean house. Engaging in a little sweat equity regarding your body, can help to tidy your mind.

Breathe

This sort of goes along with the previous suggestion. I mean, try not breathing while you exercise. Does not work. So breathe, breathe, breathe. Fresh air is always preferable, but really the focused act of breathing will do wonders to calm and refresh, to centre and relax. Once you’re there, you can tackle the jumble of thoughts into an organized and manageable list of tasks.

Smell the Roses

No, this isn’t an extension of breathing, but rather a call to slow down. And don’t just indulge the olfactory. Treat all your senses. Go to an art museum. Listen to music. Take a walk in nature. Enjoy a meal. Better yet, enjoy these things with a friend. Slowing down enough to share these moments makes them even richer and gives your mind an opportunity to expand. An expanded mind is less likely to suffer the claustrophobia that a cluttered mind does. An expanded mind will see obstacles as challenges and opportunities for growth.

Change Tracks

Resume a hobby you enjoy. Try something you’ve always wanted to try. Take a one day course. My personal favorite is give yourself the perfect day that your ten-year-old self would have loved. Remember back then when you said when I grow up I’m going to be able to do whatever I want? Guess what, today’s that day. The beauty of this suggestion is that you can actually schedule these mental tidies before the clutter has a chance to become overwhelming. Your life will still be waiting for you when you return but your approach will be smoother as you pull into the station, ready to resume your regular schedule with renewed zeal.

Be thankful

When life is too much, we forget that our stress comes from caring about a life we essentially love. Count your blessings. Even better than counting sheep. When we focus on the positive things going on in our lives, we gain perspective on the noisy negatives. A de-cluttered mind is also so much more empowered to constructively deal with the elements in our lives we want to improve.

Have you ever felt the need for a mental tidy? What do you do to get yourself mentally refreshed, re-aligned and de-cluttered?

Critique Groups and Beta Readers

At some point in your writing journey, you’re going to need someone else to read your work. And I’m not talking about agents or publishers or editors. I’m not even talking about your mom or dad or your second cousin twice removed. I’m talking about beta readers and or critique partners.

In my mind I sort of separate these two categories, though I’m sure others would disagree. The biggest distinction for me is that critique partners, often found in a critique group, are other writers, while beta readers don’t necessarily have to be writers themselves. Both are helpful though in taking your stories from drafts to publishable novels. And while you can pay a professional editor, you might benefit from taking it first to a critique group.

A critique group are fellow writers who will read and critique your pages for you

The parameters of these groups can vary. Some choose to remain genre specific. The benefit to this is you have other writers familiar with the conventions of your genre. You also have discussions about well-known writers and can reference their work for easy examples. Sometimes it’s just fun to geek out and have someone actually get your weird Firefly reference. On the other hand, having other genre writers read your work, a mystery writer reading an epic fantasy, say, might allow for unexpected and mind-expanding insights into your work. If you write poetry or short-stories, the form may be a more important distinction than the genre in regards to the critiques. Again in this situation you have other writers familiar with the specific needs and parameters that the form requires and are able to read your work with this in mind.

Some established group have scheduled weekly sessions. This can be the needed kick in the butt to write and submit (lather, rinse, repeat) on a regular basis. These groups often have very specific rules of conduct with word count limitations and procedures on how to conduct the actual critique. There are some groups that require the author to remain silent during the critiques or only to ask a few questions of clarification. Others are a bit more loose.

The advantage to having an established group of writers is they are in it for the long haul and able to give valuable feedback on novel size work. The only down side might be the time it might take to get through an average 80,000 word story, as turns are rotated among the members. So depending on how many members are submitting and the diligence of the meet-ups, your novel may take a year [or several] to finish. Usually keeping the group between 5 and 7 members allows for the occasional and understandable absenteeism while maintaining a useful amount of feedback on your work.

Critiques are on a quid pro quo basis; you read and critique chapters or scenes from their work and they do the same for you. Having another writer catch your grammar and punctuation gaffs, point out your inconsistencies and notify you of structure speed wobbles, are just a few of the obvious benefits to a writer.  But if you go into it only thinking of the feed back you are getting, you are missing out on the opportunity to improve your ability to critique. This is an important skill to have and one that can make you a better editor of your own work. Besides which, if your critique partners aren’t feeling as if they are getting a fair exchange, you might find yourself with less and less people interested in spending the time on your own work.

Critique meet-ups operate more on a members-drop-in sort of approach

Meet-ups tend to be monthly scheduled open door affairs. Attendance is come when you want and writers wait their turn to read their pieces and are given feedback on the spot. This works for writers who may have difficulty committing to a schedule or are only dipping their toe into the writing world or perhaps only need feedback on short pieces or scenes from novels. Usually these groups are quite big and are a great place to meet many other writers and to hear a variety of styles and genres and in turn stretch your critiquing abilities. Sharing industry news and views and networking is another advantage. It might also be a great place to meet like-minded writers in order to create a smaller dedicated critique group.

Online critique groups are virtual communities

This is a great opportunity to get a lot of feedback on your work. Online could work for writers who have not been able to find writers in their immediate city or town. Online communities are often arranged by genre, again with the benefits that garners. Although from first-hand experience I find that meeting face to face and the subsequent conversations that erupt over the critiques is extremely valuable both as a writer and a critic, one can’t underestimate the value of feedback from multiple writers actively involved in an online community. Not that it is a guarantee, but often these writers are a little more comfortable navigating the internet and may offer valuable direction there for a newbie. In order to manage these large groups, some communities have strict rules of conduct and mandatory critiquing before you can submit. This can manage those that want something for nothing, but not gage effectiveness of critiques. You might have to weed through several to find feedback you can use.

That of course is the key element to whatever critique group you become involved in; feedback. As writers, we want to make sure our story is coming across and the only way to do that is to have the story read. Having said that, once you feel as if you are getting down to that publishable novel, you might need to find yourself some Beta Readers.

Beta Readers

Beta readers is another term used for critique partners, but in my mind, I think of them as your genre guinea pigs. They are those die-hard genre fans that have a lot of reading under their belt and while they might not write themselves, know a well-constructed story when they are reading it. They might not be able to give you all the help a fellow writer might be able to give, using all that writerly jargon, but they will be reading the story as a reader reads it. And after all, isn’t that who we are writing it for?

It might be a good idea to give a beta reader an entire draft, maybe even (dare I say it?) a paper copy, allowing them to make notes in the margins as they go. These notes can be as simple or complex as they are capable of giving. Even a comment on the likeability of a character or when they get board or felt like skipping a part, or when the gravitational pull of a small satellite doesn’t jive with the spacecraft trajectory, can give a writer great feedback on what they need to look at in the next draft. Did I mention genre? Make use of their love and appreciation of it; which means don’t give a military sci/fi fan a romance novel, unless something big gets blown up and not just a relationship. Also, make sure your novel has already been extensively revised and copy-edited and is definitely not a first draft. Respect the reader and their time. After all, they are doing this, usually, for free.

Critique groups and beta readers are easy things to find out about. There are several articles that you might find helpful. I suggest you start with this article from Writer’s Digest. It explores the whole critique group concept. A must for writers venturing out for the first time, it is also a touch point for those who have been at it for a while. Another one to check out is this one from Jane Friedman‘s website. There, Brooke McIntyre of Inked Voices invites you to evaluate where you are as a writer/critic, shares what to expect, and offers suggestions on how to go about becoming involved in a critique group. And because I try to be balanced in my view, here is an article from Kristen Lamb that might make you more aware of some of the pitfalls.

Not all critique groups and beta readers are created equal. You may have to go through considerable trial and error to find ones that work for you; offering feedback that you can use, in a manner you can digest. You’ll want to be challenged to improve but not so overwhelmed you quit writing. Remember, you’ll be part of a community. You’ll need one that is a good fit with your personality and writing style.

Know that it is worth it. All you need to do is check out the acknowledgements page of your favourite book. That author had a community around them. They didn’t do it alone. Why should you have to?

Turning The Legitimacy Corner

What do you do when something you do, that you are passionate about, that occupies your every waking moment, is seen as a hobby by others but a vocation by you?

How can you expect people to take you seriously, when your job is described as playing?

When do hobbies turn the ‘legitimacy corner’ and become jobs?

Not only do I consider myself a writer but I am also a musician. Awesome. Double-whammy!

I can’t tell you how many times, after I’ve shared my musical and authorial endeavors, I have been told that’s a nice hobby. Each time, I would have to grit my teeth and bite back a response. I wanted to explain my situation, defend my position, justify my stance. Maybe it’s my age, but now I just smile and nod and make my deposit, or cough and wait for the stethoscope to move to another spot on my back, or kiss my family member on the cheek. I suppose it’s hard for others to appreciate that although this ‘music/writing thing’ is not my day job, it is my career. I treat it as such. I have in fact been paid for it in the past. I endeavor to one day be paid for my efforts again.

This is often the case with art; you create and hope that at some point you might be able to make money from it. This is not as unusual as it may sound. And it certainly isn’t unusual to me. Art as a vocation is fraught with rejection. Rejection means that for whatever reason they don’t want what you’re selling. And when that happens, whether it is losing out on a gig or not finding a publisher for your story, you don’t get paid.  There are no guarantees that any of our efforts will be financially rewarded. That’s just the way it is.

The difficulty is the average person doesn’t have a frame of reference for this. They go to work and every two weeks, there’s a paycheck. Easy, peazy, lemon squeazy.  There is a clear line of sight between work and remuneration. So not only don’t they understand what it takes to do what you do, they don’t understand why you are doing it. You aren’t famous. You aren’t making lots of money. Why bother? Even the mere existence of your day job calls into question whether you are really committed. So, to be fair, the confusion of friends, family and strangers is understandable. It’s just not helpful.

Perhaps they don’t see the uncertainty and confusion that we wrestle with every time we step up to the easel, sit down to the computer, or strap the guitar around our necks. They aren’t there as we struggle to find the right word, or melody, or inspiration. For the most part, if we’re lucky, they only see the end result, a finished (or nearly so) piece of art without all the messy false starts, crumpled up pages and plethora of profanity that goes along with the previous. Often, the one thing we are sure of is that we are quite sufficiently skilled in doubting ourselves and our art. And the biggest doubt is about where the heck is that legitimacy corner and when will I turn it.

So if you are feeling exceptionally doubty in the deep, shy, insidyness of you, check out this podcast from Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl. Shawn has a way of putting your doubts, if not to rest, at least to their room for a nap. You might even share it with a friend or family member. Listening to it might help to give them perspective on what it means to be an artist and to relieve some of their own misgivings about your endeavours.

Regardless of others’ opinions, in my heart of hearts I know my art is my true vocation. I am in good company. Many great artist have had to support their art with day jobs. Some art didn’t make any money  until well after the artist’s death. Not that that is something I’m hoping for, but it does, in a strange way, help me to keep the faith (and eat my vegetables and get exercise so that I can live long enough for others to appreciate what I do). And regardless of whether or not I make boatloads of cash, (enough to be able to tell all doubters to suck-it) I know I am treating it as my profession.

Look – you are not going to be able to convince everyone that your art is legit. They’ve got their own baggage. And really why would you want to. You are too busy working your craft, improving your skills and fueling your inspiration. They don’t have to take it seriously. Only you do.

Artist With A Day Job

I have mentioned that I am an AWADJ –  Artist With a Day Job. And the truth of the matter is that until Blockchain Technology or some system that can ensure compensation for intellectual property comes into play, most of us while endeavouring to secure paid work, probably have other forms of employment. But I’m not here to complain about that. The reality is artists or artist-preneurs or author-preneurs or whatever label seems apt, must often supplement or support their vocation/career with a ‘day job’. This also includes jobs that are shift or at night. In fact the new paradigm might be to have multiple jobs at the same time and we artists have been doing this forever. So instead of bemoaning the fact, I have chosen to look at it as a welcome reality.

Reasons Why We Need You

Money – duh. You can easily google stats on what the average artist makes a year and without supplementing or supporting our art, it isn’t a living. There is however another advantage to the artist than the money and stability [and maybe even health benefits] a day job offers; the outside world. We can get so locked into what we are doing that we forget about the world. Not only is this harmful to our mental health it is harmful to our art. Without some inspiration often found just outside our door, it is hard to create. Where better for the writer to find inspiration for that twisted character? Where else can the musician experience angst for that poignant lyric? Where else can an actor study people? A day job forces an artist to step through their door and into the world.

Reasons Why You Need Us

Some artists have day jobs in the same field as their vocation. A musician might teach music in a school. A writer could write copy for an advertising firm. A visual artist might be a web designer by day.  Here, the benefit to an employer is obvious.  Some artist however opt for something that allows creative energy to be saved for after work.  What’s the benefit to the employer here? Someone happy to do a mundane task, satisfied that they are getting paid to do something necessary to the success of the company but perhaps not the most glamourous of jobs. Don’t however overlook these employees. Even while sorting mail or answering the phone, an artist might see problems differently, and in so doing create a solution using outside the box methods that bypass the group think that can manifest in some industries.

What You Might Have To Put Up With

You might be worried about artists being flighty or non-committal or easily distracted. Other words for these are creative, adaptable and curious.  These are key soft skills most employers site as desirable. Now, I’m not saying all artist will absolutely bring these skills to the table. Artist are as diverse as any other group of people. However, by the nature of being an artist, they do tend to engage these soft skills. Of course, there are other real dangers to having an artist in your employ. You might find yourself cornered in the lunch room with requests to see our play, buy our cd,  come to our art show, or read our story but as any of these art forms take a long time to produce, it’s not like we’d be hounding you every week.

If only we were lucky enough to gig that often, well, we wouldn’t need the day job now, would we.