Friday, August 19, 2011

Recession? What recession?

I've been plugging away at this self-employed freelance writer thing for a few years now, and I'm proud to say that I'm now very, very successful at it. Almost too successful, in fact. Because I now have so much good-paying work being offered to me by many different clients that I've spent the past 2 weeks working 12-18 hour days. Not to mention proofing galleys and audiobooks for my published novels on tight deadlines for my book editors. It's grueling, but rewarding. And not just financially. Having people come out of the woodwork completely unsolicited offering you good money to write for them sure is a confidence booster.

It's odd, though. Even though I'm thankful for the success, in today's troubled economic times I can't help but feel a little guilty to be doing so well. (Especially when I was struggling myself not that long ago.) I know lots of unemployed writers, many of them former newspaper reporters and magazine/book editors who've lost their jobs in publishing, some of whom had been working as professional writers for 30 years or more and now don't know where their next meals are coming from. Plus there are tons more writers who struggle to write on the side while working day jobs they hate (if they're lucky enough to have day jobs at all), and they seldom make more than the price of a Chinese dinner for their writing---if even that much. But for me, this year has been a banquet, and it keeps getting better and better.

But then again, it kind of follows my longstanding pattern of going against the grain in life. In the late 90s, when the economy was on a tear and people all around me were making money hand over fist, I was barely getting by. I worked staff writer/editor jobs that paid a pittance when I was lucky, and waited tables/worked in retail when I wasn't so lucky (staff writer/editor jobs are the last hired and first fired even in good times). I did freelance writing on the side, contributing articles to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, and numerous magazines, but the pay for that was low and intermittent, though it helped me build a nice portfolio of clips. Plus I was living in a big expensive city, I was single, I had massive student loan debt (now mostly paid off) and a low/mostly unstable income. I had friends from grad school who had originally aspired to be writers choose different careers because they didn't want to live hand to mouth; they made more money than I did but weren't necessarily happier. But I wanted to be a writer, dammit, and I swore I'd never give up the dream. Seventeen years later, I still haven't, and now I'm the envy of many of those friends.

But I'm still not satisfied. I won't be until I have a book on the New York Times Bestseller list. Then two. Then four. Then all of them made into films. Then, I want my ultimate childhood fantasy fulfilled----I want one of my plays to get a successful run on Broadway, preferably to include a Tony (maybe even a Pulitzer, but one thing at a time).

Okay, okay, maybe I'm getting carried away now. But the thing is, even though this recession and job market are brutal for a lot of people, I'm doing better professionally now than I've ever done in my entire life. I'm thankful for it, I appreciate it. And I'll keep right on working my ass off. I've only been doing it for seventeen years now.

Gotta go, deadlines await.


Monday, August 15, 2011

A Grownup's Guide to Inner Peace

Lately I've been reflecting a lot on my own life choices, as well as the life choices of some of my friends and family. The old saying "the grass is always greener" is true---to a point. While I have single friends and family who have zero responsibilities and the freedom to gallivant all over the country and world at a moment's notice doing all sorts of crazy, glamorous things (and sometimes, I have to admit, I find myself envious of them even though I lead a very full life myself), I honestly would not trade places with them. Why?

Because in most cases, these are people who are older than me (sometimes MUCH older) but still don't have their "real" lives together yet. As in, no stable relationships (and/or multiple broken ones/divorces), blah-blah careers, no family or dependents, sometimes even no real financial stability. They spend their time jumping from one glamorous "adventure" to the next, jam-packing their schedules with every thrill-seeking activity they can possibly think of, without ever once stopping to notice what they're really doing is hiding from themselves. I can certainly understand the need to stay busy, since keeping busy is something that I do to address my tendency to get depressed if I don't. But there's a very big difference between finding productive things to do and running around like a chicken with your head cut off.

One thing I've learned as a Buddhist is to place a lot of value in keeping still. We all lead crazy lives, but at some point, we all have to slow down, sit down, and listen to ourselves, or we'll lose touch of who and what we really are. Not only that, a big part of being truly happy is serving something (and someone) other than yourself. Part of what it means to be a grownup is to consider yourself part of something larger than just your own needs and wants---whether that's a long-term relationship, a family, or even just your community. That can be hard to do when all you're doing is chasing the next thrill.

I can understand the appeal of the thrill-seeking life, since I spent the better part of my 20s pursuing it myself. But I also spent the better part of my 20s as a miserable emotional wreck who was full of anger and self-loathing. It wasn't until I slowed down and spent some serious time doing nothing but the basics of existence that I really figured myself out. All those years I spent travelling (I still travel, I just do it for the right reasons), jumping from one project/interest to the next, bed-hopping with umpteen-million boyfriends and casual one-night-stands did nothing for my self-esteem or for my character. Sure, they've given me some good stories to tell at cocktail parties, but that didn't make me me.

People often justify their crazy, impermanent, never-stop-to-smell-the-roses lives as "ways to find themselves." But that's not it at all. Really, what they're doing is running away from themselves. I know, because I've done it. All it got me was a major crash-and-burn in which every aspect of my life----personal, financial, spiritual, emotional----literally fell apart around me, and I was left with nothing.

How did I right my ship when that happened? (It happened about 10 years ago). I just stopped. I totally rebuilt my life from the ground up, and I did it by chucking all extraneous activities (other than work, exercise, and sleep) in favor of meditation. Seriously, I did that for almost an entire year. It worked. Within a year of doing that, I found myself married, with a good job, owning a home, and with a career that was going places.

Do yourself a favor. This week, get out your crazy-busy schedule, look it over, and then DELETE everything on it for at least one day. Or even a half-day if that's all you can do. Go out and sit on your porch or in the park or in a field and do nothing but just think, and breathe, and meditate (or pray, if that's your thing). Really take a hard look at yourself and your life, but don't attach any feeling or judgment to what you find. You might find yourself a little freaked out by what pops into your head while you do this. Be prepared to get upset, angry, maybe even cry a little. But it's worth it in the long run. When you're forced to look hard at yourself, you learn two things. One, that your own life really isn't all that important in the big context of the world, and two, that it's the people around you that really matter most. That doesn't mean you have to start sacrificing your own happiness, though. What you'll often find is, if you're where you should be, your happiness will just be there regardless of what you're doing or who you're with.

Easier said than done, I know. But you can start by inquiring within. And it sometimes it takes a major slowdown in order to speed yourself up for good.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Writer's Conundrum

You know what's great about being a successful writer/artist? You see and feel things that others don't, and when you express what you see and feel, people pay attention.

But you know what's also really bad about being a successful writer/artist? You see and feel things that others don't, and when you express what you see and feel, people pay attention.


Monday, August 1, 2011

Confessions of a Straight Talker

Facebook is great for a lot of things, including stimulating political debate. But one thing it can also do is piss people off. Especially when you're an outspoken, straight-talking Irish tomboy lass like me who grew up to be a professional writer. I've pissed some people off online with my straightforward, open, no-nonsense style of late. They weren't people who were necessarily important to my real life, though in some cases they were old friends I hadn't seen in years but had renewed correspondence with. Others were people I didn't really know well personally (though I'd met them, at least) but whom I'd grown fond of online. Then, one day I make one of my trademark blunt-as-a-dull razor statements (which they should have grown accustomed to by that point---indeed, many people actually become friends with me in the first place because they like this personal trait of mine) and poof! Gone.

I got all hot and bothered and anxious by that over the weekend, since in one case in particular the people in question really went after me personally (one thing I always try to make a point not to do whenever/wherever possible, even when I'm at my bluntest). But after the edge wore off, I decided that I just can't continue to let that sort of thing bother me. Here's some reasons why.

1) I am not going to censor myself just to please you. While this doesn't mean I'm going to go around spewing obscenities like a Tourette's victim, don't expect me to "shut up and behave like a lady," as one person choicely put it to me last week. I've always been more comfortable talking with men than women because I don't do the whole passive-aggressive/overly emotional thing very well. This is who I am. Get used to it.

2) And pursuant to No. 1, people who spew overemotional hot air with no rhetorical substance (usually women, though I've seen men do it too) do not tend to get along with me, so be forewarned.

3) I am hard-wired this way. I have been an upfront, straightforward, straight-talking broad since I was at least 2 years old, or so my parents tell me. I don't have the "off" switch in my brain that most people do. Some might say that's a psychological defect of some kind, but even if it is, I've managed to make a pretty lucrative profession out it. If I think something needs to be said, sooner or later it is going to fall out of my mouth (or my pen). So telling me that I need to learn tact is not usually a good piece of advice for me to follow. You might as well tell a blind person to get glasses.

4) I always think honesty is the best policy. Again, I'm hard-wired this way. Lies make me physically ill, unless I'm writing fiction. I think the whole reason I became a writer was because it was the only way my brain could process the natural human tendency for lying. (This is probably because I was always severely punished for "making up stories" as a young child, as young children are often wont to do.) So if you want to know if that dress makes you look fat, but you are really just looking for an ego boost, you should probably ask someone else.

5) I have more self-awareness than a lot of people, and that's not necessarily a good thing. If I censor myself (or even show restraint), my conscience often makes me feel guilty for being dishonest. Not only that, I spend a lot of time evaluating my faults and looking for ways to improve upon them, though I don't always succeed. (In other words, I beat myself up a lot, I set very high standards for myself, and I'm never satisfied.) As if that weren't hard enough, I also expect other people to adhere to my high standards, and of course they usually don't, so I'm frequently disappointed, and I frequently say so. Loudly.

6) Aren't you glad you aren't me? The neurotic writer who lives alone in a garrett is a cliche. But the scary part is, it's also true. I'm a neurotic writer who spends 10-12 hours a day working in an attic and not talking to anyone. You'd be a little "off" in the head if you were me, too.