A Fire Hose and a Teaspoon

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m easily overwhelmed.

I am in awe of people who can manage the vast world of social media and can figure out how to make it all work together without too much trouble. I am not one of those people. In the process of learning how to connect the dots with Twitter, Facebook, web pages, Google + and the myriad of other social media tools, I feel like I am trying to drink from a fire hose with a teaspoon.

The amount of information that is available and the number of ways there are to connect with people is just … well … overwhelming.

That being said, if someone has something to say, social media is the best way to get the word out, to connect with people and to join in with the “Global Conversation”, as it were.

William Shakespeare was probably the first to make use of the social media of the day, in order to gain a following. He wrote his plays for the everyday citizen, the person on the street. He wrote in the common vernacular so that his plays would be accessible to everyone, and not just royalty and a privileged, educated few. In collaboration with his playing company, he built the Globe theatre in such a way that anyone could attend his plays who wished to. He wrote stories of such universal appeal that we still relate to them to this day. I would venture to say the Shakespeare was the greatest social media success of the last 400 years. He succeeded because he took his message to where the people were and he spoke the language that would be understood by all who heard him.

The strategy of social media today is to go where the people are.

It’s quite brilliant, really, and the principal is basically simple. It is the execution of the strategy that I find overwhelming. All these great ideas and tools are readily available. It’s just a matter of trying to figure out where to start, and what to do with the firehose when the water is turned on.

The up side to all of this is that, along with all the information and social media tools, there are also a lot of tutorials and information available that will teach a social media newbie such as myself all the tricks of the trade. So I suppose, for me, it is just a matter of taking it all a step at a time, one teaspoon at a time, and learning as I go, until I can learn how to dial down the firehose to a manageable level. Or get a bigger spoon.

So, if you are feeling overwhelmed, look for those tutorials. Search for information on how to connect all the dots, how to sort out the information, how to make sense of it all, and just take it a step at a time. It will get easier as you go along.

Shakespeare was one of the first to figure out how to make his own version of social media work for him by connecting with people, collaborating with those who had connections, know-how and information and learning what the people wanted, and he did this by talking to people and listening to what they said.

We have the Internet. The technology may be different and the audience may be far larger and much more diverse, but the strategy is the same.

Make connections. Talk to people. Listen to what they are saying. Learn as you go.

It’s as simple as that.

For starters, here are a couple of great links I found useful for learning how to navigate the social media jungle:

http://natashaorme.com/2015/10/12/how-to-use-facebook-for-authors/

http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/

Good luck!

In which the fledgling spreads its wings and pushes off

Aside

There is a point at which the young bird looks over the edge of the nest and thinks, “I wonder…?”

So the other day I boarded the bus to go home, and the only seats that were available were the ones that faced sideways. Normally I avoid these seats because, well, I don’t like riding sideways. However, I didn’t have any other choices, so I sat in the sideways-facing seat. I soon discovered that this was a totally different sensation from sitting in the forward-facing seats and as the bus plowed through traffic, lurched through intersections and darted in and out of the stops (the driver was a bit reckless) it occurred to me that I was using a completely different set of core muscles to hold myself upright. I felt the starts and stops of the vehicle far stronger than when I sat facing forward. No dozing off for a nap here, or I would end up in a heap on the floor.

By stepping outside of my comfort zone, I was dealing with an entirely different set of variables.

Not that I would want to start sitting sideways on the bus as a daily core exercise, but it might be useful to move out of my comfort zone once in a while.

What does that have to do with the fledgling bird? Well, no matter how safe or comfortable a nest is, eventually the bird has to do something different and leave its comfort zone to spread its wings and fly, even if there is a danger of falling.

There is a reason it is called the “Comfort Zone”. By adapting to a comfort zone, the mind and body use only the minimum amount of effort it needs to maintain that level of comfort, because that is the easy way out.

While that is all well and good, there is no forward progress made from inside a comfort zone.

Being a writer is all about working outside of your comfort zone. All. The. Time.

Great stories – as with great art or music – are created out of difficult situations by pushing past the safe, comfortable places in the soul in order to reach into the dark places. Great writing taps into those dark depths of the human soul and that is what connects the reader to the story.

Once a story is written, a writer must then face the fear of rejection and find a publisher or an agent in order to submit a piece to be published, especially if he or she is a first-time submitter. Finding a publisher or agent takes time and effort – usually a great deal of it – and this is not comfortable.

Once a piece is published, the writer may be exposed to ridicule and even anger or persecution. But if something is worth saying, it must be said and taking the easy way out won’t accomplish anything.

For me, moving outside of a comfort zone sometimes means actually making myself do some writing. As a writer that also has a full-time job, my comfort zone after work is a cozy spot on my sofa with a plate of dinner, a glass of wine and re-runs of Star Trek on TV. Since I have all the seasons of three different Star Trek series on disk, this is a very difficult comfort zone to break out of when I am trying to force myself to get some writing done. Like Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship and begging his deafened crew to release him, I struggle against the irresistible lure that is the Siren’s song of Star Trek’s opening theme. But upon those rocky shores lies creative shipwreck.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch summed it up beautifully by stating: “The further you get away from yourself, the more challenging it is. Not to be in your comfort zone is great fun.”

Taking a chance is the surest way to step outside of your comfort zone and challenge everything you are. It is also the surest way to find out what you are capable of and how far you can actually go. It’s like weight-lifting wherein you don’t build muscles by lifting the same weights all the time.

Everyone has different definitions of what their comfort zone encompasses. Challenging your comfort zone might be as extreme as jumping out of an airplane with a parachute or speaking in front of a large crowd, or as basic as leaving the house and getting on a bus, or meeting new people at a social gathering. I am one of those humans who are uncomfortable with meeting new people because I embrace the term “introvert” with unwavering zeal. Social gatherings are one of my comfort zone challengers. Moving forward as a writer is another.

Perhaps, as a writer, challenging your comfort zone means setting your intention by simply stating, “I am a writer.”

When I was a kid, I fell off a swing set and cracked my left elbow (there is some debate as to whether or not I was pushed, but my sister and I have never come to a consensus on that one). I didn’t have a cast, but my arm was in a sling for a very long time. Part of my physiotherapy was for me to be able to touch my left hand to my right shoulder. Since this was the most painful thing in the world, I avoided it at all costs, much to the frustration of my doctor. Every day, I had to try to reach half an inch higher on my right arm until I could touch my shoulder. That became the all-consuming challenge of my existence and it seemed like that pain would be with me forever. Every day, I was moving out of my comfort zone a half an inch at a time. After what seemed like 100 years, when I was finally able to touch my right shoulder, it was a huge deal. But then, everything is a huge deal when you are nine years old.

I learned a valuable concept in those weeks: success is not always easy or comfortable and it is sometimes accomplished a half an inch at a time.

When you use new muscles and try new things, your brain builds new pathways and you become stronger, mentally, emotionally and physically.

Challenges come in all shapes and sizes and often have to do with facing fears or pain. Addressing that fear and pain through writing can definitely push a writer out of that comfort zone, but it can also open a conduit to incredible personal and creative potential.

Finding the courage to take that chance and address a challenging issue, step beyond a situation that no longer serves you or to try something you have always wanted to do opens the door to a whole new world that you never knew existed, with endless possibilities and unlimited potential. Healing occurs, growth happens, magic is made and a new life begins.

When you do finally leave your comfort zone, spread those wings and step out of the nest, you will be amazed to discover that you can indeed fly.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy

There are just those times when I can find my Muse and chain her to my desk, but the old gal just sits there and glares at me while she files her nails. No amount of typing, walking, napping or sipping tea will inspire a single word to be written. Not even scotch helps.

It is summertime, after all.

Maybe my brain just says, “look, the weather is finally nice and you need to get outside…soooo…I’m outta here.” It really sucks when ambition and motivation have diametrically opposite priorities.

I can push through and force myself to write, but there is something to be said for just sitting outside and immersing oneself in the warmth and the myriad of sights, sounds and smells of summer. The distant growl of a lawnmower, while annoying at 7:00 AM on a Saturday, is still a quintessential summer sound. To be able to delight in the joyous chorus of the birds, the drone of insects, the laughter of children, the laughter and animated conversations of your neighbours who are enjoying a barbeque and obviously having more fun than you are. There is something wonderful about catching the delicious, savoury smells of that barbeque, the smoky scent of someone’s fire pit on a late evening, the green, earthy smell of cut grass, of flowers and trees as they waft by on the warm summer breeze.

Who wants to be inside, writing?

There is so much inspiration that drifts by on a hot summer night. Maybe not so much in words, but in sinuous recollections and warm emotions that slink past to brush against my shoulder and ruffle my hair. Picture images and echoes of laughter and good feelings of summers long past live in full-blown color in my memories. The sound of a sprinkler transports me to carefree youth, cloaked in sunshine and drenched in droplets of crystalline water, back when moonlit nights were magical and endless and demanded my attendance.

Remembrances of my childhood are glossed over by a haze of beauty that was painted in the summer.

Remembrances that stretch like a gossamer spider’s web through the branches of a tree, capturing glimmering moments of perfection, droplets of dew on the delicate strands, spun by happy memories and childish idealism. So wispy, so short-lived, so simple yet so complex. Fragile naiveté, aware only of the beauty.

I remember the joy I felt when school finally let out and the whole summer stretched before me, vibrant and exciting, bursting with potential. I lived my summers on my bike or at the community swimming pool or at lakes, hiking up hills to look out over the town or climbing trees to listen, just listen, to the voice of the wind through the branches. When it got too hot, my sisters and I would ride our bikes to read books in the air-conditioned sanctuary of the library. Stretched out on my bed in my room with the summer breeze sneaking in through the open windows to tease the white eyelet curtains, I would write stories and draw, living in the fantasy world of my imagination.

Summer meant absolute freedom.

One of the greatest disappointments of my life was growing up and having to work and no longer getting a summer vacation. No wonder grownups are so stressed. We no longer have the freedom to climb trees and run through the sprinkler and daydream on hill tops any more. Well, I could do those things, but my neighbours would look askance at an overweight 51-year-old woman in an elastically-challenged swimsuit, running through the sprinkler on their front lawn by herself, or silently perched in a tree on a Tuesday afternoon. People are so judgmental.

It is such a difficult thing, on a beautiful summer morning, to get out of bed, put on real clothes and ride the bus for 40 minutes in order to sit all day in an air-conditioned office, there to work on things that have nothing to do with swimming in lakes, climbing hills or riding bikes.

Is it any wonder then, that I find the task of writing so arduous in the summer, when the sun is high and the temperatures are warm, when green trees beckon me outside? Summertime should be about joy and exploration, about freedom and fun. It should be about embracing the Earth and flying kites in the wind and soaking up the warmth of the sun. Summertime flits by with the erratic, graceful and fleeting dance of a butterfly, demanding rapt attention and wonderment.

Who can write when my inner child is tugging insistently on my sleeve and pointing out the window, where adventures await and the siren call of lazy days, fire pits and gardens can be heard? Who can write when there are wooded paths to hike, trees to climb and rivers to cross?

Who can write when the stories that I wish to write want to be reflected on my soul in images and memories, sensations and feelings?

This is not a thing of paper, but a creation of the heart.

So forgive me but I need to go. The summertime requires my presence.

Hook Your Wagon to the…uh…Pen.

What do a Freelance Writer and an Old West wagon train have in common?

It’s all grandiose plans, excitement and big dreams until the first time the wagon gets stuck in the mud and the wheel falls off. And then the doubts set in.

I think most writers and artists I have talked to (or read about) all agree that the start of a project is great, and the satisfaction of completing a project gives one a real thrill of accomplishment. The hard part is the middle, when the enthusiasm wanes and the ideas start to thin out. If a writing project or an artistic endeavor is ever going to fail, this is when it will happen. Obstacles that seemed like pebbles at the start will suddenly become rocky, impassable crags and peaks and the excuses, reasoning and bargaining begin, like fog rolling in off the water.

“Well, it was a stupid idea anyway.”

“I really don’t have time for this.”

“What was I thinking? This won’t pay the bills.”

“I have no idea what I am doing.”

I could keep going, but you get the idea. I am a master of excuses and tend to react to difficulty or conflict by going all “deer in the headlights,” before retreating to a safe, dark hollow under a rock somewhere.

Writing is hard.

Repeat after me: writing is hard. Any art form is difficult because ultimately it is a reflection of who the artist is, stripped bare and laid out on a sacrificial altar in the unflinching glare of public opinion. In order for a writer or an artist to access the wellspring of their talent, they have to be able to tap into aspects of their psyche that they may otherwise keep safely cloaked in obscurity.

Existential musings aside, it is just physically grueling to sit, hunched over a keyboard for hours at a time, putting those ideas into a readable form. Every writer – without exception – has sat staring at the keyboard, willing the ideas to materialize as a mournful wind howls through the empty desert that is the writer’s mind. Cue the tumbleweed.

When the tumbleweed appears, it’s time to take a break. Get a coffee, go for a walk or take a nap. It is called Writer’s Block and it will pass.

Every great idea, book or work of art that has every come into being did so because the creator, inventor, writer or artist found a way to work past the tumbleweed stage.

Even the artist Robert Bateman admitted once that with the creation of every one of his incredible paintings he would reach a point half way through where he didn’t want to work on that painting any more. Thankfully for the rest of the world, he always managed to work past the tumbleweed stage.

It kind of makes one wonder how many other incredible ideas or works of art never saw the light of day because the artist just got tired of the project and talked themselves out of it.

But this isn’t just about writing or painting, it’s about life. Every day choices are made as to what to do and when. What to start and what to work on. It is easy enough to choose to start a project, but a conscious decision must also be made to follow through and to finish the project. Every decision made about that project must work towards the idea that the project will ultimately be completed as well. That sounds simple enough, but how many times have you come up with a fantastic idea that you have launched into with great enthusiasm, only to grind to a halt as the thought of “where do I go from here?” rattles around in the back of your head? Well, that has happened to me more times than I care to admit.

So how does one guard against the tumbleweed stage? For starters, have a plan in place. Yes, we’re back to that Plan thing again. I am a huge fan of writing everything down on paper with a pencil or pen. I’m old-fashioned that way but for me, it seems to help solidify the ideas, items I need to remember or my plan of attack for future reference. I have a very visual memory, so when I write my thoughts out, I remember what it was that I wrote down.

Yes, my kids came by their ADD honestly.

Whether or not you are a fan of roadmaps or GPS devices (I actually have a paper map book in my truck), they are useful things. A map is simply an overview of where you are going and what is around you. Part of creating a plan for your project is to literally or figuratively sketch out a map or outline of where you are going with your project, what you want to accomplish and when. It can be as detailed or basic as you want, but mapping out your plan does help provide some direction and motivation and will help you navigate those dirt tracks when you hit the tumbleweed stage.

The only way to get anywhere or to accomplish anything is to move forward and to keep moving, even when you run into mud and your wheel falls off.

Obstacles are a part of everyday life. We need obstacles to learn objective thinking and problem-solving. We need to work towards goals and sometimes to fight to get there. We need to learn to move to Plan B if Plan A isn’t working (or sometimes Plan C, Plan D, etc.). This teaches us resilience and builds our mental and emotional muscles, as it were. If everything came easily, we would be shallow, lazy and lacking in empathy. That is just a fact of life. To quote the iconic Captain James T. Kirk (yes, I am a Trekkie – mea culpa), “I don’t want to remove my pain. I need my pain! My pain makes me strong.”

Making the choice to move forward, to work towards a goal and to complete a project applies to everything we do, whether it is working towards a degree, writing a book, renovating the bathroom or teaching a child to read. It takes a conscious decision to work through and finish a project in spite of difficulties, distractions, lack of motivation or ideas.

Sometimes you need to step back and think through what is holding you back. If you need ideas or direction on how to do something, ask someone. Search it on the internet. Almost anything you want to learn, you can find on the internet in the form of a tutorial or free on-line class. I took a free on-line tutorial on how to work with Twitter. You can take free classes from Harvard on-line, if you want. Many home renovation stores offer free workshops on how to do various tasks. If you want writing ideas, sit in a coffee shop with a latte and a notebook and listen to conversations around you. Sit in a park and listen to the wind in the trees.

The point is: if you are stuck, shake up your routine and change your environment or view. But KEEP GOING.

When it comes to writing, the very act of writing can clear out writer’s block, even if you are just writing:

“I have no idea what to write and this is driving me crazy so I am just going to write nonsense until I think of something…”

Try it. Seriously.

Once you have set a goal to accomplish something, hook your wagon to that star and keep going. Just remember to bring extra wagon wheels.

Westward Ho!