Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Elusiveness of Mindfulness

The 70s - crochet's glory days!
You know how some things feel right from the first moment you try them? Like crocheting, for instance - I remember the first time I borrowed a hook and the tail end of a ball of synthetic yarn from a lady up the street, and *crocheted the hell out of* a chain stitch before doubling back with the blissful revelation of single crochet. I wasn't making anything in particular, but it just felt right.

Writing is like that, of course, and also holding babies and planting bulbs and peeling sunburns and kneading dough. Adding columns of numbers - even calculus! - and painting walls and coasting on a bicycle: all second nature.

What does emphatically not feel right to me, no matter how often I return, is mindfulness. This is not to say that I don't believe in its power - it has saved my ass any number of times. But I resist. I abandon it the moment the sailing gets smooth again, convince myself I don't need it, find a thousand other things that seem more important. Pledge to open the notebook, do the breathing exercise, empty my mind, only to find that it is once again evening of a long day in which I did not make the time.

This time of year, when we consider resolutions and commitments and promises to "do better," it's natural to zero in on those practices that elude us. And we're remarkably varied: I don't have much trouble keeping up with exercise or volunteering, for instance, both common resolutions...and there are lots of people out there for whom mindfulness seems to come easily. One woman's eat-more-kale is another's yell-at-other-drivers-less, so to speak. But why is that? Why do we resist some things that we know are good for us, and give ourselves over easily to others?

A big part of my neglect of mindfulness has to do with leaving a formal group practice. It's a lot easier to keep up when there's a looming deadline; I'm not about to let down my fellow DBT strivers or be the lame-ass person who didn't do the homework (that shame/guilt cocktail has been the subject of many a mindful journal entry, ironically). But that in itself is not the whole story, as there are many practices that I keep up quite well without any sort of formal or group involvement (Weight Watcher point counting comes to mind; also 100-words-a-day for those of you who remember…pushup challenge, fitbit, my budget, and so on).

I'm actually being a bit coy because I already know the answer to why I'm resisting. We balk out of fear. The challenges we most resist/procrastinate/avoid are those that bear the greatest risk of failure, where failure is measured by a complex internal equation that may or may not have anything to do with reality. Resolving to finally finish that first novel, for instance, exposes you to a whole compendium of risk - what if it's abysmal, what if it gets rejected, what if someone finds out you can't remember the proper use of lay/lie and further/farther?

In my case, mindfulness practice is a blunt force trauma shove into facing things I don't feel like facing. Yes, it's good for me. Yes, I'm aware that I'll feel clarity after I put my time in, and that I'll be more likely to act in accordance to my values, blah blah blah. But it will be profoundly uncomfortable first. I will have to accept my own thoughts and feelings and "sit with them" (oh, odious phrase) and resist my preferred method of problem solving, which is to attack problems with an axe and a battle cry and no plan to speak of. Will the discomfort be worse, in the long run, than denial and repeating patterns which have not worked in the past? Of course not. But it's still daunting.

All of this is me leading up to a recommitment, naturally. Yeah, yeah, I'll do it, I'll get my mindful back on, grudgingly at first (but I'll notice the grudging and not judge, allowing it to wash over me like a wave…oh, gak!). For any of you who wish to join me, here is a marvelous summary of the concept of willingness and what it can do for you. It's good stuff, despite the occasional unfortunate florid language and purple metaphor with which all new age-y thinking seems to be infected.

Wishing you all a peaceful new year and see you on the other side….

Monday, December 9, 2013

Title Time

It's that most accursed of times, when a title must be agreed upon for the upcoming book, and days are spent trolling for suitable words like a rhode island crabber looking for bubbles in the sand. (i totally just made that up, as i don't really know how crabbing works, but that's evidence of the flawed imagination that really isn't serving me well right now.)

My technique, honed over more than a dozen books so far, has evolved to this:

1. come up with what seems like a clever title and pretend that *this* time, the marketing people will recognize my subtly erudite word-mastery. Pull the wool over agent's, and occasionally editor's, eyes until we're all convinced we've got a gem.

2. editor returns from marketing meeting, soundly thrashed, with the title shredded and stuffed into a wadded brown paper lunch sack, told to try again.

3. write about 30 titles in frenzy of i'll-show-them-ism. each quirkier than the last, they all hint at magical realism. That is not good for selling commercial women's fiction, it turns out.

4. stern talking-to ensues.

5. at this point i remember the sage advice from my mentor Craig McDonald when i was trying to retitle my very first published novel, the one that eventually became A BAD DAY FOR SORRY: head for the bible and country music lyrics.

6. in this round, i am more methodical, and construct tables of possible word choices and constructions. sometimes i try things that are trending in the market. You know, like "The Art of BLAH" or "BLAH in the Time of BLAH" and so forth.  Usually I can get another thirty or so out this way.

7. Rejected.

8. That brings us to the stage I'm in now, where things fall apart a bit. I beseech friends to help (it's always, for some reason, easier to write friends' titles than one's own) and I spend a lot of time looking up synonyms for promising words and then getting distracted by the search results and wandering down google rabbit holes.

So i don't have a title yet (though another thirty new efforts will be rattling around my editor's in-box tomorrow morning), but I did stumble across this gorgeous Bukowski, using the unlikeliest of search strings:

Carson McCullers

she died of alcoholism
wrapped in a blanket
on a deck chair
on an ocean
all her books of
terrified loneliness 
all her books about
the cruelty
of loveless love 
were all that was left
of her 
as the strolling vacationer
discovered her body 
notified the captain 
and she was quickly dispatched
to somewhere else
on the ship 
as everything
continued just
she had written it

- Charles Bukowski


Monday, December 2, 2013

Kicking Off the Holidays with Terry Shames

A few weeks ago at the NorCal Sisters In Crime event, I got to chatting with my old friend Terry Shames, author of A KILLING AT COTTON HILL, her highly lauded debut. Terry agreed to share her thoughts on the upcoming holidays here, with us!

Look for her next novel, THE LAST DEATH OF JACK HARBIN, in January.

Me: What kind of holiday shopper are you? Super prepared, completely last minute or somewhere in between?

Terry: Holiday? What holiday? Shopping? What day is it? Yikes!

Over the years I've had a recurrent dream that I'm in a drugstore at midnight on Christmas eve trying to find semi-reasonable gifts for people. There's a good reason for that dream. I hate to shop even when it isn't  Christmas, so the Christmas shopping retrace isn't for me.

When I was young I used to make a lot of gifts, so started really early. One year I made life-sized dolls for my nieces. Another year I made shirts for all the men in the family. After my folks died, I found the wool shirt I made for my dad. He still wore it. I was dazzled at the workmanship in it. What happened to me that I stopped doing things like that? I don't really even like to decorate for Christmas anymore. Scrooge and I could sit down over a nice eggnog, laced heavily with brandy, and get along just fine.

Me: Shirts? You made shirts for *all* the men? Since I sew, I know that was an incredible undertaking…unless they were the poke-a-hole-in-a-trash-bag variety. My mom made my dad a shirt once early in their marriage - every single seam of the plaid was perfectly matched; most of the seams were french. He still owns it, over fifty years later.

As for me, when my kids lived at home, I started the shopping literally a few weeks after Christmas. I loved finding the perfect little inexpensive trinkets for their stockings. My brother and sister and I all love that tradition best from our own childhood, so I tried to recreate it in my own family. Of course, it's a little more difficult now. For one thing, I have much less time to devote to the project and I generally don't get started until December. And for another, it's very hard to find items small enough to fit in a stocking that would suit a 21-year-old college student. I'm thinking of just filling the thing with lacrosse balls.

I'm very amused at the idea of you sharing a spiked eggnog with scrooge. The truth is that I've seen you at enough events to know that you could charm the bells off the reindeer. 

What is one of the most memorable gifts you have received?

Terry: The best gift I ever received: I was seven years old and my sister was four.  Our paternal grandparents were very poor, and lived on a small farm on the outskirts of a small town in Texas. Every year on the day before or after Christmas they would have Christmas celebration at their house. They had four kids and lots of grandchildren. Gifts were strictly for children. One bedroom of the two bedroom house would be closed off,  and a Christmas tree erected in it. The day of celebration, we would all have dinner (this was a midday meal, not evening.) Afterwards, the children would be in a high state of anticipation until eventually a grown-up would say, "I think I saw someone pass the window just now. I'd better go see who it was." The children would all start squealing! Sure enough the adult would come back and say, "That was Santa and he just left some gifts under the tree."

The particular year, when my sister and I walked into the room there were two, amazing, very different baby doll cradles under the tree for us. Because I was older, I could choose the one I wanted first. One was blond wood with curved ends and little decals. The other was dark wood with squared off ends. I was desperate for the light one. But I did not want to disappoint my sister by choosing the one she wanted.  What agony! My mother, who was not known for her kindness, said in the kindest possible voice, "I want you to choose the one you really want. Don't worry about your sister." So I chose the blond one.

Here's the kicker: A couple of years ago my sister and I were talking about this and she said she was in as much agony as I was, terrified that I would choose the dark one--the one she wanted. We both wondered if our mother knew which one we really wanted. Clearly, she knew I would have trouble worrying that I would disappoint my sister--but did she know our taste?

So the best present I ever got was the admonition from my mother to choose what I really wanted. It was a powerful message to a little girl and one that has served me well. I still wonder how my grandparents managed to afford those magical cradles. In a way, it was a double-whammy--the cradles themselves and the lesson I learned.

Me: Love that story...Do you give books as gifts? Any tips for finding the perfect book for each person on your list? What's a book you'll be giving this year? 

Terry: Of course I give books as gifts. Always. Including children. It's one of the great pleasures to go to a bookstore and look through the books to choose just the right books for the people in my life. Sometimes it's cookbooks, or a beautiful coffee table book of art or travel, or a biography that I know the recipient has been waiting to read. But I almost always choose at least one fiction book for each person as well. I think that to choose the right book for someone, you have to know their taste. I know, for example, that I can read much darker books than my sister enjoys. And I know one of my friends prefers books about historical perspective. One person in particular I love to buy books for is my nephew. For him, I can go out on a limb and choose really odd books that probably no one else will enjoy. He's an avid and wide-ranging reader. And in return he introduces me to books I might never have read. One new reader in my family is Grayson, who is soon to be three. I know that he loves books with food scenes. He will go over again and again what the characters eat at a picnic, or what they have for dinner. By the way, his father is a chef. Go figure.

This year I've already bought "Jerusalem," a cookbook that wowed me and that I think one of my friends will love. And I will be buying mysteries. Who doesn't love a good mystery?