My Writing Process

One of my favorite bloggers Rudri at Being Rudri tagged me some time ago in this meme about the writing process. I have mentioned Rudri and her wonderful blog before. She writes thoughtful and reflective posts on the process of growing, healing, and finding joy. Her words are compelling because they come from a place of loss. She also writes regularly for The First Day, a quarterly print journal and on-line magazine about the spiritual journeys taken by people from all faiths and cultural backgrounds. Thanks so much for including me in this exercise, Rudri.

What am I working on as a writer?

I’m in a gap period in my writing. I’ve enrolled in writing courses over the last few years and worked on some personal essays for publication. Then I realized that I was suffering from a huge gap as a want-to-be writer: I wasn’t reading enough. A former classmate advised me to “learn from the masters” and so for the last couple of years I’ve been trying to return to the classics as well as familiarize myself with contemporary writers. I’m trying to figure out which voices and styles resonate with me most. I continue to write in my blog and last year began writing about books as well.

I would actually like to write a short story. For years I thought I would write a memoir but I struggled about privacy. Fiction, however, made me feel inauthentic. But I think blog writing has helped to release much of my pent-up emotions. I can comfortably try my hand at fiction now, as soon as I feel confident enough to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). For some reason I feel terrified about doing this.

I am also interested in poetry. I actually signed up for a free on-line poetry writing course that started while I was still traveling. I have a few course emails waiting for me so I need to get on that. But talk about a reading gap – I definitely need to read more poetry!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t know if I can say that my writing belongs to a genre and, if it does, if I can say that it differs from others. I’ll just say that in general my writing tends very much to be on the personal side, and sometimes that applies to my book reviews too. I usually like to incorporate a personal voice into my posts.

Why do I write what I do?

I often get very personal in my writing, as my readers know. I’ve asked myself many times why I do this, when clearly I’m the only one among my (non-blogging) friends who reveals so much. I’ve come to the conclusion that I do it because I’d led a life of secrets. I come from a culture in which the most human conditions are seen as shameful flaws: hardship, injury, illness, failure, misfortune. I’ve been made to swear more than once to not utter a word to anyone about [something completely normal]. I also grew up in a home in which emotions were not acknowledged let alone discussed. This could work for some people, but I’m expressive and sensitive by nature. I see and interpret the world through words and feelings. Not allowing an expressive person to communicate is like forbidding an athlete from moving. I’ve had to write the most personal in order to heal and to find a healthy way to exist. I also do this in the hopes of making others (who may have grappled with similar issues) feel less alone. Being personal has helped me connect with readers, and I love and appreciate my small community here.

How does my writing process look?

I only sit down to write (blog) about two to four times a week (usually write 2x and edit 2x). I do, however, go about my days alert for possible topics. It might be a feeling that I have watching my son do something, or it might be something that my husband or friend brings up in conversation. Does that incident or comment reveal something larger about what many of us go through? I look for those moments and sometimes I talk them through with my husband. I store my ideas away mentally and on my phone and then get on my laptop the day before I want to publish the post. I try to write in the early mornings, and will postpone (non-urgent) work if necessary to get a post done. I write it all out in one sitting and then go back and edit small parts here and there. My most authentic posts get written the most quickly. For me personally, if I am in writing mode but the words are not coming to me easily, it’s a signal to me that I am not really writing what I’m feeling but writing because I feel pressured to churn something out. (The pressure is all internal, of course.)

Regarding my book reviews, I keep a small notebook of notable quotes to trigger memories of my biggest take-aways. More often than not I rely on memory. I’m not sure if this is the best tactic, though, given my no-longer-so-young-brain, so I think I need to start taking more notes!

Do you write? What is your writing process like?

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On Self-Consciousness, the Fear of Being Judged, and Struggling to Write

I’ve been having a hard time over the last couple of weeks mustering up the energy to write. The struggle is not new; I get hit by this every so often.

Emotional and physical fatigue is my biggest culprit. I experienced extreme highs and lows over the last couple of weeks that included a death in the family. I don’t sleep as much as I should on normal days, so the last couple of weeks have taken a bit out of me.

The other block is a renewed self-consciousness. I’ve received only support and encouragement ever since I posted about my experiences with anxiety, and friends are now even forwarding articles to me on being good to myself. But in the aftermath of those personal posts are the uncomfortable feelings of having said too much. Do my friends look at me differently now, even though my achievements have not changed? When I meet people, are they smiling at me out of pity or judgment? One friend confessed quietly that she had suffered from depression as well, but added, “But I’m not about to go around telling everyone about it.” Though she was speaking only of herself, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was also making a statement about my choice.

How do writers balance authenticity and vulnerability?

There are two sides in me, constantly, that either fuel or drain my motivations to write. There’s the side that expects the best in others – their open-mindedness, their compassion, their acceptance, their lack of judgment. And then there’s the side in me that fears the worst. My culture has instilled in me the importance of keeping secrets and keeping face; the reality of my life has shown me the toxicity of holding everything in. Since I started writing almost five years ago I’ve been gaining strength in my internal battle against the needless shame of being human. I had made the decision that having a voice outweighs the fear of being judged. It’s a seesaw I ride on every week that I write, and I hope that in time the nobler side wins.

Image courtesy http://www.ynaija.com

 

 

 

Happy new year!

I prepared Christmas Eve dinner and loved how it felt to give the gift of food to family. My brother was fully expecting me to defrost a pre-made dinner from the market.

I prepared Christmas Eve dinner and loved how it felt to give the gift of food to family. My brother was fully expecting me to defrost a pre-made dinner from the market.

I’m so eager to read all the year-end book and recap posts that I’m seeing in my reader, and I also want to post my own lists of favorite books and other 2013 reflections. Alas, I think I’m going to have to wait a few more days. I didn’t realize just how much solitude reading and writing required until school let out for my son and my brother flew in for a visit. I spend my early mornings working for clients and I’m too tired at night to write. So right now I’m craving creative time while simultaneously savoring the presence of my family, a happy kind of tension, and a privilege to have the possibility of both.

I hope that whatever you are doing this holiday, you are enjoying your own good balance of solitude and time with loved ones. I am so incredibly grateful to all the friends whom I have either met or reconnected with through this blog. My experience reading and writing this year has been a powerful affirmation that words and stories are important – both in reading them and in sharing them (to feel connected and to heal). Thank you so much for reading and for giving me a reason to write each week. I wish you a memorable new year full of all the things that make you happiest!

Cecilia

Thoughts on blogging by an ordinary blogger

My blog is four years old today (!). That’s four years longer than any plant I’ve ever owned, a little less than half my son’s lifetime, and a third of the life of my marriage.

I’m not putting myself down when I call myself “ordinary.” By ordinary I am referring to clout and status in the blogosphere. It’s not unlike money and status in the off-line world. By both accounts I am ordinary. But do I think I am a good person who lives authentically? Yes, in both worlds, I do. I don’t have tips here on how to get big and successful, but if you want validation, you might find some here today.

I started blogging because I was interested in writing again. I could’ve simply written in a private journal, but maybe what I wanted was to speak up and be heard, by somebody. When I began looking back after a couple of years, it became clearer and clearer to me that I wanted to write because I had spent most of my life silenced. For many different reasons, not the least of which was growing up in a culture of shame, I had been trained to shut my voice down and to take up less space. We all have a voice, and it is a matter of whether or not we want to activate it. After all those years I wanted to activate mine.

And so I started, with many false starts. I had different blogs with different themes and names and nothing stuck until Only You. I named Only You for my son, then five years old. I liked having him be a part of this new life, and partly for that reason I have never considered abandoning this blog, even during stretches when I had lost motivation and confidence to continue.

But Only You was also me, because after having been consumed by motherhood those previous five years, I felt my identity fading out once Fred entered his own world of school and friends. And yet there was no previous self that still existed that I could go back to. Blogging helped me to re-draw the outline of who I was and to fill it in again.

So below are some thoughts, looking back on my four years of blogging:

On motivation

I was never a prolific blogger, and I have gone through peaks and valleys in terms of posting. For me the biggest motivation drainers are lack of physical energy, low writer self-esteem, and perfectionistic tendencies.

I’m going to sound a bit self-pitying here but in the name of honesty I’m just going to come right out and say it: I used to be inconsistent in part because I wasn’t sure if anybody cared. Writing to an audience of busy mothers I’d felt apologetic for my long and heavy posts. And when I found it hard to write – and I have gone as long as two or even three months without writing – I also didn’t explain my absences because I’d assumed that no one would notice if I disappeared for a while.

Of course, what I’ve learned is that 1) as a blogger you need to take a leap of faith and start from there; and 2) creating a community will help lessen that fear of “Who’s going to care?”. It’s a catch-22 because the less you write, the less likely it is you will gain a community and the less accountable you will feel about showing up. For a long time I was caught in exactly that negative cycle.

I also decided to follow my heart in adapting my blog. I was losing a bit of steam writing about motherhood, most likely because my world had shifted. Since the summer, books were becoming a greater part of my life, and I really wanted to start writing about reading. So I took a chance and added books as another blogging theme. I was a bit nervous about changing my blog but being able to write about my passion has refueled my motivation to write.

Finally, I’ve learned to not care as much. I used to approach writing each post almost as if I were drafting an essay for publication. That kind of pressure is what it takes to kill any chance of getting a blog off the ground. I’m still struggling to find my voice after all these years, to write more the way I talk, but I realize that won’t come unless I keep writing and keep practicing.

On community

I’m not going to say the predictable just yet. Instead, I want to say that it took me a while to get the hang of community, the on-line kind. I started out as a “mom blogger,” and soon learned that there is a whole subculture in the world of mom bloggers. There are the big players and you can choose to be a part of that whole scene or not. I’ve strung along to see what the fuss was all about, but I often ended up feeling more alienated and alone than anything else, like being back in my freshman year in college when I was struggling to find my niche. Any social situation that reminds me of those adolescent times is a sign that I need to move away. And so I did.

I also took things a little too personally in the beginning sometimes, feeling hurt if, for example, someone I followed didn’t follow me back. I’ve long let go of that need for tit-for-tat commenting and visiting, because the truth is I often can’t follow back the same people who follow me. Trying to keep up on-line is overwhelming and I understand that everyone else is going through what I go through. It’s not personal. There’s huge freedom in being able to visit a blog simply because you enjoy it, and not worrying about obligation of any kind.

And now I’ll say the predictable: I love my community. It is hard to talk about this without sounding trite or resorting to cliches. I blogged last Friday about the things that bring me down. Well, the people I’ve met through blogging are what bring me up. It is not better or worse than having friends off-line, but there is a certain amount of ease in building relationships on-line. Our first impressions are made not through appearance but through the most intimate parts of a blogger: her words. We can know quickly if we click or not, and with each post we feel we’ve gotten to know the other person a little better. Words are my favorite medium for bonding, and so I love being able to build authentic connection through that.

On validation and vulnerability

Like most bloggers I’ve done my fair share of obsessing over statistics, followers, comments, and shares. Are people reading my posts? What do they think about what I’ve said? Why did I just lose a follower? I never had any goal to amass a huge following, but still, I probably spend more time than I need to checking on my stats.

A few times I got syndicated on larger sites, and it was like small midwestern town girl meets the Big City. My stats skyrocketed during those brief periods of exposure, and it was there, in the scary streets of Blogher and Mamapedia, that I also encountered my first trolls. It was kind of a surreal experience, being told I was an incompetent mother who needed therapy or at least a few good self-help books, all because I’d written about the regrets I’d felt and the lessons I’ve learned from fighting with my husband in front of my child. Since then I’ve had little motivation to put my words out there again, in such public venues. It’s not so much that I’ve allowed myself to be intimidated into silence as it is my lack of desire to share myself with so many people whom I don’t know. It’s like I’ve decided I like my small town better than living in Los Angeles. My goal isn’t to make the big time.

Putting yourself out there and being vulnerable to judgment as both a person and a writer is one of the hardest things you can do. It’s impossible not to be self-critical and to fill yourself with doubt, honestly paralyzing doubt that makes you question if there aren’t easier and safer things to do with your free, unpaid time. So if nothing else – even if I don’t have a ton of followers or page views to show for my four years of blogging – I can say that I’ve shown up, year after year.

Do you blog? If so, what’s helped you stay in the game? As a reader, what keeps you coming back to a blog?

The Literary Wives Book Club

I’m very excited to announce that I’ll be co-hosting a virtual book club called Literary Wives on this blog (!).literarywives1

Literary Wives started earlier this spring, where 4 writers read and blogged about the meaning and role of wife in 4 select books. (The next time you go into a bookstore, check out how many book titles there are with the word “wife” in it – and in the possessive form!) The books read in Part 1 of the series included American Wife, The Paris Wife, A Reliable Wife, and The Aviator’s Wife.  Part 2 is starting up, and I’m really thrilled to be contributing as one of the bloggers. Every other month, we will post our thoughts on a selected title, including answers to the following 2 questions:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Though we wear many hats, certainly “wife” (or partner or spouse) is a major one for those in committed relationships, and it was the role I dreamt most of taking on when I was a little girl. My expectations about what it means to be a wife have of course evolved and sophisticated since I was seven, but I still find this topic a fascinating one to study, especially in historical and cultural contexts.

Ahab's WifeOur first read this fall will be Ahab’s Wife by Sena Naslund, an epic novel told from the point of view of Una Spenser, the wife of Captain Ahab in Herman Mellville’s Moby-Dick. We’ll see 19th century America through Una’s eyes and voice, and it should be an interesting perspective and counter to the very masculine Moby-Dick.

We’ll post our thoughts on October 1, and we would love it if any of you are interested in reading and blogging along as well! I have also added a page for the book club in the top menu of my blog. I’ll keep updates of our reading list and schedule there.

(Note: One reader asked if I was planning on changing the focus of my blog and the answer is no; I will continue as always except on October 1 and December 1 I will have a post reviewing our book club’s selected titles.)

The Literary Wives Reading Literary Wives

In the meantime, I’d like to introduce to you the other co-hosts and their wonderful blogs, where you can find posts about earlier Literary Wives reads and other book reviews and musings on the reading life:

ArielAriel of One Little Library 

Ariel is an editorial assistant at a Southern California publishing house. A literature enthusiast, she likes heroines full of gumption and conflicts fraught with ethical dilemmas. Her favorite book is and always will be Jane Eyre.

Audra

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Audra is a 30-something married lesbian with a thing for literary fiction and historical novels, classic noir and vintage favorites.  She lives in Boston with her wife and works for a non-profit.  She loves interesting heroines, gorgeous prose, place as character, and the occasional werewolf.

Carolyn O pictureCarolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

After five years in graduate school, Carolyn O is on hiatus to be the read-at-home-parent to her small son. She works as an editor, proofreader, and writer on the side, and hopes to return to teaching soon. She loves used bookstores, early modern drama and poetry, feminism, and anything Joss Whedon creates.

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. Emily

Emily is a Ph.D. student studying professional communication who has worked as an editor and a composition instructor. She is the mother of two little girls and loves chocolate and ice cream. The thing she wants most right now is a day in bed with a good book, preferably fiction.

LynnLynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Lynn is an avid (some might say “obsessive”!) reader, former Borders bookseller (my dream job!), and now blogger of books and reviews! My only limitation to reading and posting more often is that necessary full-time job! I am mother to three sons, soon-to-be 10 (yes, 10!) grandchildren, and one beautiful and “purr”fect gray kitty, Smokie…oh, and perhaps most importantly, I can count one of the kindest, most caring, and complex men I’ve ever known as my full-time partner and husband! Life is good!

Living, Loving & Reading: my new blog theme

I’m back from my whirlwind trip through 4 cities in Japan, simultaneously exhausted and energized. So much happened internally for me over the last few weeks, as going back and meeting family and friends took me face-to-face against such issues as our aging parents and mortality, the meaning of filial piety, the cultural differences in what it means to be successful and how to raise our child in this blended context…

Exhausted and energized. American and Japanese. Confused and clear. Fatter and leaner. Yes, even down to my weight and body, I feel like a contradiction. Somehow I managed to gain 5 lbs. and feel more plump (due to the incessant eating) and yet more muscular (from the miles of walking and commuting we did each day).

At least the trip was a kick-start to get me out of the lazy comfort zone I had fallen into. Despite a difficult return home (our connecting flight was cancelled after the 13 hour leg from Japan, and we were stuck for the night at Newark Airport which I am convinced is hell on earth), I threw myself into work and cleaning the moment I got home. Maybe seeing my weakened parents-in-law (a distant relative died on our last day in Japan as well) unconsciously pushed me to not waste a minute.

I spent a couple of jet-lagged nights making over my blog. I’d struggled over the last few months to write meaningful content and to stay consistent. I’d gotten close to launching a second blog as well, on books and reading, until I had to be honest with myself that I can’t in any way be able to manage 2 blogs simultaneously. I think I was struggling with my blog identity.

As fellow blogger friends of mine have done and talked about, I need to let my blog grow with me. I started writing several years ago focusing on motherhood. These days, although motherhood is no less a priority for me, it has become less pressing for me in terms of discussion. Someone should probably write the life cycle of a mom blogger, as this cycle must exist. Somehow we go from wanting to talk and read about mothering all the time to wanting to talk and read about other things as well, all while still focusing very much, of course, on our children.

So I’m at that stage right now. Fred is 9. In many ways parenting is easier now. I don’t need to find childcare if he’s home from school and I need to work. I don’t have to serve him breakfast if he’s up and hungry and I’m still in bed. I don’t need to take him to the restroom if he has to go and we’re out in public. (Though I’ll wait outside. I’m paranoid of him being alone in a male restroom.)

But in other significant ways parenting is harder now. I feel less control than I ever did, more clueless about whether or not I am doing the right thing (with an uncomfortable, gnawing feeling that I am going about it all wrong and a fear of finding out just how wrong once the teen years set in). When Fred was younger the challenges were largely physical, and in the end I was usually successful in my influence. I’m feeling my power as a parent waning slowly bit by bit as Fred gets older, and I’ll continue to write about mothering in the middle years.

And I’ll still write about life, which is starting to look a little different now, with my time less constrained and with more need to find purpose, with the tarp over my relationship to my husband slowly coming off now that our child is older, with our thoughts turning now to the eventual loss of our first parent.

My new addition to my blog is a discussion of books. (I’ve added a new page to my menu (a list of the books I’ve read this year) as well as links to previous posts on reading to the right of the screen.) I’ve cranked up the reading this year, as some of you know, and I’ve loved being able to throw myself again into this hobby over the last few months. I’m finding myself gravitating toward other readers and other blogs about books, and I thought it would be fun to become a part of that community too. I read mostly fiction and memoir, and I know there’ll be parallels between what I’m reading and what I’m living.

So as you may or may not have noticed also, I’ve changed my tag line from “Motherhood, Marriage and Self” to “Living, Loving and Reading,” because that pretty much sums up what I want to be doing these days. Thanks so much for sticking with me so far, and I hope you’ll also join me in my future book discussions!

On miscommunications, mean comments, and first impressions

I’ve been interviewing for new staff these last couple of weeks, and one particular meeting left me thinking…

I’ll call the candidate “Tom.” Tom was perfect. Present tense perfect until he asked a few questions that got me wondering.

The questions that he asked left me wondering if he was planning on eventually branching out to form a rival business, if he cared too much about what we were paying, and if pay was going to prevent him from putting in some of the necessary work that is needed in the beginning as part of the learning curve.

For a couple of days after we spoke I tried hard to separate his words from my interpretation. I imagined myself going to a couple of trusted friends with this issue. How would I recount the story? I told myself that I would need to recount his words, and not my interpretation of his words.

Tom’s questions were, after all, legitimate. I just need to ask myself how legitimate my reactions were. Was it intuition? Was it misinterpretation? I am equally adept at both.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen only in interviews (though I can imagine how many promising candidates have bombed their chances at a job because of it). It happens daily in our interactions with significant others, with our children, with our friends. Does any of this sound familiar?

Partner 1: Don’t forget you need to get [Junior] from soccer practice at 4.

Partner 2: You don’t believe I can get anything right, do you?

…..

Child: I can’t do this…it’s too hard…

Parent: You’re always complaining about things being too hard. What’s going to happen when you get to high school? Or start working? What’s going to happen then, when things really get hard and I’m not around to solve everything for you?

….

Friend 1: I was so exhausted yesterday, but I just couldn’t bring myself to give [Baby] a bottle.

Friend 2: What is wrong with using a bottle once in a while? Maybe you need to stop reading all those mommy blogs and La Leche propaganda. I don’t know of any adult who  thinks back and wishes his mommy never used a bottle on him.

….

Alright, so those examples are a bit extreme (or maybe not?) but you get the picture. I mean, how often are we bringing in our own emotions, insecurities, and experiences to conversations?

A year ago one of my posts was syndicated on Blogher. The post was about a discussion that I had with my son over blog writing privacy. In fact, the syndicated post was about which post I should syndicate. In it, I said to Fred, “Maybe I should use the story about how you didn’t want to wipe yourself.” And it goes on to show his reactions to my seemingly insensitive choice of topic.

550+ uneventful views of the Blogher post later, I received two negative comments, with one being nastier than the other. Both women felt hurt by my betrayal of my son’s trust, stating that in writing about not writing about his most private moment, I had violated his privacy. Piercing words that went straight to the bullseye of my being a s*itty mom. And here I reacted to their words: to me, there is nothing worse than intentionally hurting a child emotionally for my own gain. According to these commenters, that is what I had done or, at least, that is how I interpreted their judgment of me.

That night, I searched out the contact information of the meaner commenter and emailed her. I told her that her words stung, but because of her comment, I looked again at the post I had written, this time more critically. By early morning I had received a response. She was exceedingly gracious, and embarrassed, and apologetic. She was nothing at all like the comments that she had left the previous day. I was heartened.

We, in fact, exchanged emails for a good part of the morning. The more we “talked,” the  more I came to see that she had completely misread my post. She had somehow read into my post that Fred had come home with his underpants soiled – unable to clean himself – and that I had blogged about it. I was absolutely stunned, because nowhere in my post had I even alluded to anything like it. I had written one sentence – “Maybe I should use the story about how you didn’t want to wipe yourself.” – that was all. The original post was about a battle of wills I was having with my then-5 year old, about how he once offered to pay me to wipe him. The post centered around the negotiations that Fred was engaging me in, and it was a story of how these little 3 foot creatures can wear us down with their mental tenacity.

The commenter told me that my post reminded her of a childhood experience she had gone through. (It wasn’t her, but a friend or cousin who had soiled himself…I just add that lest you misinterpret ;-))

I won’t label myself thin-skinned or thick-skinned, because I believe that it is simply human to feel hurt by mean comments. Since this experience, though, you could say I’ve become more thick-skinned, less likely to take something personally. Just as blog posts that remind us positively of our experiences can resonate with us, so can posts that bring back bad memories. We bring so much of our pasts and our fears into the words that we hear and read and we can easily react not to the messenger’s experiences but to the emotions that his/her experiences evoke in ourselves. Our friend’s decision not to give in to formula can bring up our deepest insecurities that we have given in, and our child’s momentary whining about hardship can go to the heart of our fears as mothers that we are not doing everything right.

In a week, I am going to have to make a decision about Tom. How well I can harmonize his words, my emotions, and my intuition will impact, on some level, his career trajectory and the quality of our business. I hope I will have the clarity to do right by both him and us.