Up until about 8 months ago, I was a prolific writer. I published my first essay in 2001, and kept going for fifteen years. I wrote a weekly personal newspaper column for four years. My work appeared in large national magazines for a decade-plus, and it’s been featured on countless websites (I suppose technically they could be counted, but I’ve lost count.) I published four books the traditional way and one e-book, and from 2009 on, I blogged several times a week.
And then one day, I just stopped.
There were a lot of very valid reasons for taking a break. One, the content marketing side of my business started blowing up and required focus. Two, I started podcasting more and now have big plans for my network, which also deserves energy and time. And three, I wanted to expand my writing out of the parenting/mom space, and I felt I needed a clean break between myself and my mom blog to do that. “I’ll still have my personal blog,” I thought, referring to this space. “I can write whenever I want.”
But when you’ve created a structure around writing and then you knock that structure down, it turns out it’s pretty easy to just stop entirely. In fact, it was a little scary just how easy it was. What started off as a welcome respite from the pressure and expectation to produce content daily somehow morphed into apathy about writing at all. I didn’t just stop blogging: I stopped working on my memoir, stopped coming up with essay ideas, stopped tooling around with ideas for new stories, stopped sending friends lengthy emails (and as you may know, I love email), even stopped reading much.
So when I decided, after a 3/4 year hiatus, that it was time to start meandering back toward writing, of course I over-thought it. “Where should I write? And about what? And how often? And should I do it blog style or try something new? Should I publish anonymously somewhere and experiment? Should I start working on my book again? Should I tell people I’m doing it or just write and hope they find it?”
When I expressed some of these questions to a group of writer buddies, my friend Christine said something to the effect of “If you wrote about dog poop, I’d read it.” And I laughed at first, but then thought “Why not?”
Actually, one of my clearest early memories relates to dog poop. I was three or four years old and asked my mom if I could play outside on a wet spring day in northern Michigan. She said yes, but warned my brother John and I not to get dirty because we had to go somewhere in a few minutes. I went outside in my pale pink coat, white tights and Mary Janes, and my brother proceeded to chase me around the house until I fell in a patch of soggy dog poop. He laughed hysterically as I slowly stood up and went inside to meet my fate.
My guess is most of us have a story about dog poop. Maybe it’s a stand-alone memory, like the time your dog rolled in her own poop and you had to give her a bath with the hose and she freaked out, thereby covering you in poop as well. Or maybe your dog poop story is more of a hazy montage of all the times you beat your shoe against the stoop or the side of the house or dug at the tread with a stick hoping to dislodge the results of stepping in the wrong spot in the grass.
Maybe dog poop has also led to some revelations about life. Maybe in the wee hours of a summer morning, standing in the dewy grass as your puppy did his business, you felt at once supremely connected with the universe and yet somehow separate from it, marveling at its beauty like an appreciative visitor who decides all at once to move in and make this place home. Maybe you’ve scooped someone else’s dog’s poop out of your yard, muttering to yourself in self-righteous indignation about the lazy, inconsiderate jerks you are forced to share a planet with, and only days later found yourself standing in a neighbor’s grass, reaching for the plastic bag you stuffed in your pocket to collect your own dog’s poop, realizing too late that the bag somehow got out of your pocket and not only are you now that lazy, inconsiderate jerk who leaves dog crap in someone else’s yard, but you’re also the lazy, littering jerk who set a bird-killing plastic bag loose on the city.
All of the above dog poop experiences are mine, but my guess is at least one of them is recognizable to you, too. If you’ve ever had a dog, loved a dog, hated a dog, or lived or walked on a street on which dogs exist, chances are you’ve had an encounter with dog poop. Dog poop is ingrained in the modern human experience. It serves as a metaphor for relationships (we accept the poop because we love the dog,) we use it to describe poor quality, sometimes playing fast and loose with the laws of physics and matter (“I can’t believe what a piece of dog poop my cable service is!”) and as a descriptor for impossibly bad luck (the guy who was already having a bad enough day, and then stepped in dog poop.)
And really, that’s all writing – or any art, really – is: tapping into the universal human experience to evoke emotion (like, say, helping a reader reliving the utter disgust they felt when they decided to go barefoot on the first warm spring day of the season and stepped directly in a warm doo-doo pile) or inspire critical thought (like, say, why you shouldn’t make snap judgments of other people when they don’t really know if they deliberately failed to clean up dog poop or simply had a flyaway bag mishap.) Making people laugh, cry, remember, or just shake their heads and say “I have no idea what this no-talent hack is talking bout.” You can’t guarantee a response, but at least by putting yourself and your thoughts out there, you’re clearing a path to connection.
I didn’t need to worry that my hiatus from writing meant I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. And I didn’t need to over-think my return or how I would once again find the spark to put words on a page. Writer’s block doesn’t exist, because we always have dog poop, and (barring a scientific miracle) we always will.
And it turns out, dog poop is all you need.
thoughts about life, work and creativity
Recently I started working with a wellness coach. It wasn’t something I’d planned – I haven’t been putting much emphasis on fitness or diet over the last few years, but still felt like I was living a reasonably healthy lifestyle. But when my yoga instructor, Kathleen, announced in class that she needed a few free clients to finish up her certification process, I remembered that I would like my pants to fit better and impulsively threw my hat in the ring.
During our first face-to-face session, Kathleen asked me to set a 10-12 week goal. I told her that I would like to make it through one of the more difficult yoga classes at our gym “without dying” and shared that I had been sticking to the gentle yoga classes out of fear that the harder ones would prove to be too challenging for me to make it all the way through without stopping.
“Well, that’s okay,” she said. “You can always go to the mat.”
You can always go to the mat! Of course. This is part of the reason yoga speaks to me so much more than other kinds of fitness classes: the knowledge that the mat is always available to me – that in fact, I am encouraged to use it if I think I need it. Continue Reading
thoughts about life, work and creativity
This was the scene from Big Sur, California, last spring as Jon and I perched on a rock at a highway turnoff near the Bixby Bridge.
It is maybe one of the most gorgeous sights I’ve ever seen. Like, the kind that makes your heart beat faster and your eyes tear up and just leaves you speechless.
I was speechless a lot on that drive, up “the 1,” from the LA area up to Monterey County. We’d round a corner and see a stunning stretch of blue-green water, then round another and see a jaw-dropping mountain range, and just when I wondered how it could possibly get any better, we came across the scene above.
We saw some other impressive sights on our trip to California: the view of LA and my first sighting of the Hollywood sign from the Griffith Observatory; the adorable city of San Luis Obispo, nestled in a green valley; spotting pelicans and seals in the wharf in Santa Barbara; the rocky coast outside of Monterey. It didn’t hurt that the weather was perfect the entire time we were there, either, sunny and 75-80 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. Continue Reading
thoughts about life, travel
One recent weekday afternoon, I found myself in a completely quiet house. Clara was spending the day with my mother-in-law, Jon was with clients, and all the boys were finishing up their last week of school. The weather was perfect: 75 degrees, sunny, and clear. I’d planned to go to the gym, but the outdoors was calling, so instead I tossed on my sneakers, piped Cyndi Lauper into my earbuds, and hit the pavement for a brisk walk with an occasional burst of half-hearted running.
The town was surprisingly empty for such a beautiful day, but it was an expectant emptiness, somehow: midday, mid-week, right before tourist season would kick into high gear, it was as though my town was taking a big, deep breath before the onslaught of kids and vacationers hit the streets and beaches, and I felt myself taking a big, expectant breath, too, waiting for the quiet to fill up.
As an extrovert with five kids I spend a lot of time around other people. My day to day life, my social activities, my travel, my work, all typically center around large groups of people. And that’s mostly a wonderful thing: I like people; I like the energy I get from being around them. There’s a reason I feel at home on a crowded dance floor or speaking to a full room.
But as lovely as it can be to be surrounded by people, I also need time to myself…I just don’t take it very often. My “alone time” tends to be spent in purposeful, productive ways: working out, for example, or taking a shower, or grocery shopping, or writing. When you’re so used to filling your time and your thoughts with other people and activity, the hush of slow solitude can be unnerving.
So at first I avoided the quiet, keeping up a quick, calorie-burning clip with peppy 80s music bouncing in my ears. But when I got down to the beach and saw how empty it was, how blue the water and sky, I did something that, for some crazy reason, I rarely do: I stripped off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants legs, put Cyndi on pause, walked along the water’s edge until I came to a secluded spot, sat down on a ledge of sand, and then just…stayed there.
And standing there on the beach, with no music or conversation or activity to distract me – just the pounding of the waves, the beauty of the water, the feeling of the sand under my feet – I felt a sudden burst of melancholy. Continue Reading
thoughts about life
I’ve always been equally drawn to, and repelled by, change.
I don’t know if I can explain it except to say that, every so often, I feel a very strong urge to shake things up, while at the same time another part of my psyche clings desperately to whatever comfortable, familiar status I’ve reached.
I experience this conflict in my work. My personal life. My choice of surroundings. Heck, I could probably chalk up a baby or two to a sudden and impossible-to-ignore need to complicate my sleepy, steady life.
The thing is, I do love our life. We’ve actually held a pretty firm line against the modern-day craziness, the go-go-go of one activity or sport after another. We eat dinner together as a family most nights, spend leisurely weekend days with close family and friends, laugh together, and don’t stress too much….We live in a beautiful, cozy haven filled with friendly people and great schools.
That’s just it. Sometimes I feel like we’re too comfortable. And then I think: am I nuts? What’s wrong with comfort? Isn’t that what humans are supposed to work toward: peace, prosperity, quiet nights in the rocking chair?
Or is there something to be said for making sure we’re really awake?
Recently I started to read Jeff Goins‘ book, Wrecked: When A Broken World Slams Into Your Comfortable Life.
The book focuses on experiencing, really experiencing, the world and the lives of people in it, so that we can allow our perspectives and mindsets to experience a radical shift…rather than staying cocooned in the comfy, protective bubble of relative wealth and luxury that most of us who possess high-speed internet and access to Target occupy.
I’ve read enough of Jeff’s stuff to know that he is a well-respected, talented writer who seems like a genuinely nice guy. I’d liked his writing enough to buy his book, after all.
But as I read it, I first felt vaguely on edge, and then that edginess turned to annoyance. By the time I got to the middle of the book, I felt genuinely angry. Why?
I think it’s because what Jeff was suggesting – leaving behind the blurry veil of ignorance to embrace something much grittier and less shiny and palatable – was darned uncomfortable to contemplate.
While in one part of my brain I acknowledged the truth in his words, I also found myself mentally resisting what he was saying, like a toddler kicking her feet and clinging desperately to a toy.
Only in my case, the “toy” I was clinging to was the idea of a comfortable, easy life. I’ve worked hard to achieve it, after all. Isn’t it supposed to be mine for keeps?
I think Wrecked made me uncomfortable because I it made me recognize the fallacy in that idea – that I deserve a certain way of life, and that I can hold on to it, make it mine, for good. If I just ignore the reality of the rest of the world. If I just earn enough money.
But nothing is guaranteed. And while a certain way of life may be earned, that doesn’t mean it’s deserved.
Or that it can’t go away. Or that it’s all there is.
This isn’t a pre-midlife crisis. I’m not living a life of quiet despair, trying to “find” myself, or wondering “what’s the point of it all?”
Rather, I think I’m recognizing that comfort and ease will only get me so far. And that, if I get too comfy-cozy, I run a real danger of living the majority of my adult years not fully awake.
Things that I never imagined in my much-poorer existence ten or fifteen years ago have become mine, and I barely even notice the difference. Things I never imagined my kids would have are just an assumed part of their life. Things I never thought I’d care about – like what people might think if I did X or drove Y or lived in Z – now weigh heavy on my mind, much as I try to shake those thoughts and comparisons away.
I don’t begrudge us any of what we have – which would seem quite modest to many, and unbelievably lavish to others – but I want to have my eyes open wide enough to see it for what it is.
So that’s why, though my life is happy and good, I look for ways to shake it up. To stay awake. To make sure I’m not sleepwalking through these days and months and years.
Kristen Tennant, a blogger I have respected for years, recently wrote a post called Not Playing It Safe. While I love the whole post and the sweet story she shares, this is the part that jumped out at me most:
No, it can’t be the promise of branches that will hold or fruit that is ripe and sweet that motivates us to take risks. It can only be the promise of adventure—of some motion that wakes your life up and takes it from where it has been slumbering to some new place.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
There is no guarantee in adventure, except that it will be often uncertain and occasionally uncomfortable. And that it requires your attention and focus and participation. It requires you to stay awake.
Maybe to really keep my eyes open, I need to challenge the side of myself that would really rather stay riiiight here.
And whether it’s a small adventure – a new friendship, maybe – or a big one, like an international move, it’s worth stepping outside of my wonderfully peaceful life to open my eyes, wake up, and get living.
thoughts about life
challenging yourself, change, Ecuador