You Say You Want to Be a Writer

Image: © peshkov (Fotolia.com)

The Writer Without a Coffee Habit

I may be crossing a line when I say this, especially as a writer, but I don’t like coffee. I really don’t. Unless it is mixed with heaping amounts of sugar AND served up as ice cream, I never cared for the taste. It is too pungent and, dare I say, bitter.

He liked the idea of coffee quite a lot — a warm drink that gave you energy and had been for centuries associated with sophisticates and intellectuals. But coffee itself tasted to him like caffeinated stomach bile. So he did an end-around on the unfortunate taste by drowning his java in cream.

— Author John Green in An Abundance of Katherines

I do, however, enjoy the smell of coffee. Its aromaticity gets at the heart of me. Not because it makes my mouth water, quite the opposite. For me, it is how it triggers the brain to spin visions from the past.

I see my parents drinking from steaming cups in the tiny kitchen of my childhood home. My dad has long since passed away. My friends sit gulping java by the gallon as we study for a medical school exam. Those years of cramming minutia into my brain were over a decade ago. A waitress tops off a friend’s cup as we catch up at a local diner. We no longer live in the same state to continue our afternoon get-togethers. Let’s not forget the hours upon hours I write in bookshops and cafes, breathing in the rich aromas around me. Okay, this one lives on.

With all these lovely memories, I should not only like coffee, I should love it … but I don’t.

Why Do You Want to Be a Writer?

I don’t like the taste of coffee, but I have fond memories where coffee nestles in the background. That does not by default mean I like coffee.

Listen, if I want a caffeine fix, there are more than enough alternatives. I could dip into a box of chocolates (oh, yeah!) or I could choose from a variety of teas. Personally, I favor a chai latte. The baristas at Barnes and Noble know to whip one up as soon as I make my way through those double doors.

The problem is that many people will pretend to like something even when it is only the “idea” of it that they like.

Take writing as an example. So many people talk about wanting to live the writer’s life. Everyone wants to be a writer. They see it as a laissez-faire existence, a life of ease and simplicity. After all, you sit around and scribble ideas on paper while sitting back with that cup of java in hand. You can work from home in your bunny slippers or from any place you wish. The world begs for your words. You are so effortlessly creative, you are hardly working!

Ummm, no.

If this is one of the reasons you want to be a writer, you are in for a rude awakening.

Realities of the Writer’s Life

Writing is hard work, harder than many people realize.

On the days the ideas flow, yes, the writing can be so gosh darn satisfying, but there will be days when that simply does not happen. There will be days when you stare at a blank page or days that your cursor blinks at you with a stink eye. There will be days the words are sparse and days they do not come at all. There will be days you throw out sentences, paragraphs, pages, or whole chapters you spent painstaking hours or days trying to get just right. Then, there’s the rejection.

It comes for all of us, even the Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world.

Not all writers will get a traditional book deal. If they do, the average advance for a first-time novel is only $5,000 to $15,000. That’s great until you realize how long it took to write it and that despite a finished product, it might take a year or more for the book to actually come out.

The trouble is many writers struggle to find an agent that will take them on in the first place, and even if they do, publishers may turn them down. There are no guarantees, even if you choose to self-publish. How much can you earn as a writer? Will your books sell? Are you going to be the synonymous “starving artist”?

It depends on your critics. While you hope readers sing your praises, there will always be negative reviews, some constructive, others harsh. Some flagrantly mean. Months or years of your hard work could be reduced to a two-line zinger in a public forum. You have to have thick skin to stay motivated.

No pain, no gain, right?

The Joy of Being a Writer

Ah, but those gains. When you do land an agent. When you do get the book deal. When you get your first paycheck or advance for writing. When you hold a hard copy of your own book in your hands. When you sell your first book. When you get a five-star review from a stranger (love your reviews too, Mom!). When your book makes the best-seller list.

Better yet are the smaller everyday moments of being a writer. When your writing flows like water. When you find the perfect word. When a sentence is so well-written it knocks your socks off. When you shoot past your word count. When you wake up with the idea that finally brings your plot together. When a new story idea jumps out at you.

If you don’t really love the process of writing, the ups and downs, the inevitable risks, the long and winding road, you don’t really like writing in and of itself. You only think you do. You want the results without the work. You want the accolades without the effort. In the real world, you are unlikely to get very far if you cannot stomach the journey.

You have to want it all if you are going to succeed. That means accepting the pains with the gains.

If any of this has given you pause, it’s time to ask yourself what you want. It’s simple really. Drink the coffee even though you don’t like it or drink what you really like. Either you can live life with a bad taste in your mouth, doing what you feel you are supposed to do, or you could savor what truly satisfies you, doing what you are meant to do. The choice is yours.

What Groundhog Day Teaches Us About Today

Image: Andie MacDowell and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (1993), Columbia Pictures

Time Is of the Essence

In the movie Groundhog Day, one of my all-time favorites, self-absorbed weatherman Phil Connors is forced to live the same day over and over again — until he gets it right. That day just happens to be the day that he and his crew travel to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report on the groundhog’s forecast. Too bad the little guy saw his shadow.

Phil: When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the circle of life.

On screen, we watch Phil relive 38 days, but he makes references to many more. He talks about being stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned. Since we only see one of those in the movie (toaster in the bathtub), add another 6 days to the total. He later says it takes six months to learn how to expertly throw cards into an upturned hat and when on a date, he says he saw a movie, Heidi 2 of all flicks!, 100 times. That tacks on another 380 days.

In the diner, Phil knows details about coal miner Tom, drunken sailor Gus, engaged couple Debbie and Fred, waiter Phil, and waitresses Alice and Doris. Assume it takes a day each to learn these intimate details. Speaking of details, when did he meet his date for Heidi 2, score WWF tickets as a wedding gift for the couple, memorize those Jeopardy! answers, or even find out that Rita likes Rocky Road ice cream? Add at least another 4 days.

Then, think about what it takes to be in the right place at the right time. He saves a kid falling from a tree, changes the old ladies’ flat tire (he even had his own jack — when did he hunt that down?), and performs the Heimlich maneuver to save Buster from choking. Not to mention how long it would take to become an expert ice sculptor, pianist, or learn to speak French.

Director Harold Ramis once said Phil Connors’ story spanned 10 years, but film aficionados have calculated it to be anywhere from 8 to 33 years.

The Perfect Day

Does the actual timeline matter?

Not really.

The concept of using your time well, however, THAT is at the heart of it all. So often we are on automatic pilot or we put the bulk of our focus on the future, pushing ourselves to meet some unmet goal. Having goals is great, they help us to grow and become better people, but how often do we actually live in the moment?

Phil was so intent on leaving the small town for the big city, he missed out on the good things Punxsutawney had to offer in the NOW. It took a time warp to set him straight. Even then, it took him a while to get over the fact this of all days was his do-over.

Phil: I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank pina coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters. *THAT* was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get *that* day over, and over, and over…”

We all have those “perfect” days, those days that are effortless, carefree, exhilarating, and inspiring and if not, I sure hope one comes your way soon. Maybe it was the day you met your soul mate, the day your child was born, or in the case of we writers, the day you got a book deal. Those days are not only special for what happened in them but because you knew to slow down and appreciate them.

Imagine how glorious life would be if you could make any day feel that way, if you could make an imperfect day perfect.

Make Every Day Groundhog Day

Not every day is going to rank on your top ten list. In the real world, “stuff” happens that is going to derail even the most promising of days. We need to learn how to make the most of what we’ve got. That means taking the common everyday moments and counting our blessings.

— Caller ID
— Color-coordinated office supplies
— Cuddles from your kiddos
— Friendships, new and old
— A good cup of tea
— Moleskine notebooks
— Movies you can watch again and again
— The perfect playlist
— Soft pillows
— Watching a sunrise
— Your health (even on days when it isn’t perfect)

I experienced all of these this morning, and how grateful I am! We need to stop waiting for tomorrow to be thankful for what we have today. We need to appreciate the day we are living. Of course, time is limited. We cannot do everything today, but we can make the most of it.

Phil: Do you know what today is?
Rita: No, what?
Phil: Today is tomorrow. It happened.

The bigger question is, if you had all the time in the world, what would you do with it? What is it that you want? With that in mind, do what you can TODAY. Make every day Groundhog Day.

You Are What You Eat in the The Breakfast Club

Image: Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, and Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club (1985), Universal Pictures

My John Hughes Life

In 2017, I championed My Bridget Jones Life. In 2018, I’m moving into John Hughes territory. Not only does the director have a litany of classic 80s movies under his belt, he has writing credits clear into the 2010s. Who can’t relate to a good old-fashioned coming of age story or a character that breaks stereotypes? This is my life in movies.

The Breakfast Club or The Brunch Club?

It’s funny to me that one of the most iconic scenes in the Breakfast Club is not about breakfast at all. It’s about lunch. All the stereotypes and cliches of the high school student — the athlete (Emilio Estevez as Andrew), the basket case (Ally Sheedy as Allison), the brain (Anthony Michael Hall as Brian), the criminal (Judd Nelson as Bender), the princess (Molly Ringwald as Claire) — are more on display in what they chose to eat than on what they wore or how they looked.

Consider all the innovative lunch combinations!

Are You a Claire?

Sushi in the 1980s? Talk about decadent, elite even … at least for its time but especially for detention. Claire pulls out a fancy schmancy sushi box with matching chopsticks and delicately nibbles away to the stares of the “club”. Still, I doubt Claire’s sushi tasted all that good after sitting in that designer shopping bag under her desk for five hours.

Are You an Andrew?

Moving on to Andrew, let’s see. His literal grocery bag of lunch options included three sandwiches, a quart of milk, a bag of chocolate chip cookies, a family-size bag of potato chips, an apple, and a banana. While I applaud him for at least remembering to add the fruit, I cannot help but wonder about his weight class on the wrestling team.

Are You an Allison?

Then, of course, every child’s dream meal. A sandwich of Pixie Stix and Capn’ Crunch cereal! Of course, Allison only indulges after she throws a slice of pimento loaf onto a school fixture and opens a can of fizzing Coca-Cola. Classy how she sucks the remains off the table too.

Are You a Brian or a Bender?

Brian, on the other hand, has a brown paper bag lunch packed by his parents. Inside are a thermos of soup, a PB&J sandwich with the crusts cut off, and a juice box. Bender, the natural bully, comes on over and asks “What are we having for lunch?”

You Are Who You Are

How ridiculous would it be if people judged you based on what you ate? Surprisingly, it happens time and time again.

Bring your own lunch to middle school, you aren’t cool. Eat canned vegetables or tuna fish, you must be poor. Go through the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant, you must be unhealthy. What if the thought of a hot school lunch makes your stomach roll? What if you like the taste of canned tuna? What if you need a shot of caffeine to dull a migraine or you simply want to support a friend working the drive-thru window?

People find it acceptable to judge you based on anything and everything under the sun, even if they don’t know a thing about you.

Dear Mr. Vernon,

We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong.  But we think you’re crazy to make an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain … and an athlete … and a basket case … a princess … and a criminal. Does that answer your question?

Sincerely yours,

The Breakfast Club

Don’t let other people define you.

Life Is a Potluck

In the end, none of the stereotypes matter. Why? Because there’s more to each and every one of us than meets the eye.

It’s not what you look like, and it’s sure not about what you eat. All of those things can change in an instant. Instead, these characters come together when they hear each other’s stories, when they open themselves up to other perspectives and actually *gasp* listen. If more of us could stop to look past our assumptions and get to know people for who they really are, the world would be a far better place.

Now imagine, instead of sitting in their “assigned” seats, the Breakfast Club set their lunch up as a potluck. How much more inclusive would that be? Personally, I would have snagged a piece of sushi, the banana, and the juice box with a Pixie Stix for dessert. That’s right. I am a brain, an athlete, a basket case, and a princess. Not a criminal perhaps, but aren’t we all innocent until proven guilty?

Bounce Back When It Counts

Image: © Sergey Nivens (Fotolia.com)

Life Is Basketball

We live in New England, but instead of cheering for the Boston Celtics, my son rocks a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey. At least that was the case until the Cavs traded his favorite player, Kyrie Irving, to the Celtics. Then again, since it is an Irving jersey, he still wears it while we cheer on The Green this season.

The truth is I will always root for his team, and he will for mine. That is what family is all about, or at least that is what I aspire to. I know many people are not as fortunate to have the mother-son bond we have. We laugh, we goof, but we have our serious moments too. I’m there to lift him up when he’s struggling, and even when I think I’ve put on a brave face, he knows to share an extra hug when I have a hard day.

When town basketball tryouts were approaching, we spent some time together on the court. He dribbles circles around me, but playing with the old lady is worth a laugh or two. After he made playful jabs for my underhand shot from the free throw line (he endearingly calls this a “diaper shot”), he offered me some sage advice.

“Mom, you can do things the easy way or the hard way, but you can’t be afraid to take the shot.”

When you think about it, life and basketball have a lot in common. Much like the ball, you will have your ups and downs. There will be people who will try to steal the ball from you, even foul you to get what they want. Every now and again, you will score a basket but sometimes you will miss. At end of the game, we all face a buzzer.

The trick is to play your best game.

Inflate Your Ball

Basketball is about coordination and strategy, offense and defense. For some people, that comes naturally, but for most of us, we have to work at it.

Dribbling, for example. The more precise you are in bouncing the ball, the easier it is to control. If you get sloppy, it slips away from you. Not only could you lose the ball, but your opponent could pick up where you left off, reaping the spoils.

Why should someone else score off your hard work?

Dribbling isn’t only about your skills in handling the basketball though. It is also about the quality of the ball itself. If the ball is not properly inflated, it isn’t going to bounce as high and it could even roll away. We do not want another “deflategate” on our hands. 

Yes, I know it’s the wrong sport, but the idea is the same.

My point is that you can work your tail off but if you do not allow yourself time to recharge, to keep your equipment in working order, you only make things harder on yourself. Sometimes, a time-out is necessary. Don’t hesitate to include some self-care in your routine, whatever that means to you.

To win the game of life, you need balance.

Bounce Back

You also need a strong foundation.

Try to dribble a basketball against a pillow. It is not going to bounce back at you. It will simply fall flat against the soft surface. Even the sound of the ball landing on the floor gets smothered. All that effort with little impact.

You need a firm ground to not only support the weight of the ball but to generate enough energy to spring it back into your hand. I am not implying that you should be rigid or hard, but you need to set the stage for what you want. You need to establish a framework on which to grow.

To play your best game, you need to know what it is you want. Then build, from the ground up, what it takes to get you there.

Who knew life was so much like basketball?

My son, the middle-school philosopher, teaches poignant life lessons without realizing it. He is simply honest and true. I am ever grateful for that. While we still have many more baskets to shoot together, he is the star on the town basketball team. I will be cheering him on the whole way. Both on and off the court, wearing the jersey of his choice.