neatly stacked eggshells

Once upon a time there was a man who would, from time to time, play a friendly game of tennis with his much-younger wife.

The wife was naturally athletic, highly competitive, and devoted hours to practice and instruction; the man was riddled with infirmities, profoundly disinterested in sports, and played as seldom as the bounds of his conscience and her nagging would allow.

Yet he regularly wiped the court with her.

After each fresh loss, she’d complain (with no small bitterness) that he was hitting the ball all wrong, that he hacked away at it with same lack of form and style and basic respect for the game exhibited by his droopy, borderline-impermissible outfits. Forget fair—how was it even possible that he won with such maddening regularity?

To which he’d inevitably reply that he simply did the easiest thing for himself, which was to put the ball in the most difficult place for her.

* * * * *

Do you wish for things to be perfect? I do. Or did. There was a time when I owned (no lie) two crystal decanters (one for bourbon, one for scotch) and ironed my cloth napkins by hand. As a small girl, I used to drive my mother crazy by depositing into the laundry hamper t-shirts that I’d tried on and decided not to wear; tried-on jersey knits, I argued, get stretched out in the trying-on, and thus needed to be washed and dried again to be properly considered “clean.”

These days, unless company is imminent I rarely notice dirt smaller than my forearm, and we will not discuss how many days in a row I will wear a pair of yoga pants or how, say, I eat most of my meals. (Okay, we will: as quickly as possible, usually in front of some kind of screen.) But the longing for perfection dies hard. While I’m no longer squeamish about a sticky kitchen floor or a little black mold on the tub caulking (at least, not in my own bathroom), I still lose days to reorganizing the files on my hard drive. I am sure there is a right way to name my files, and that someone else knows what it is, and that if I listen to just one more podcast about workflow, the secrets of a clean, orderly hard drive will be revealed to me, and life (by which, of course, I mean my work) will finally be perfect.

And by “finally be perfect,” I mean, of course, that I will feel safe and loved, welcomed warmly by the legions of happy, well-adjusted, together people with clean, orderly hard drives as I step through the secret Willy Wonka door at the back of the wardrobe that was there all along, had I just chosen to see it.

* * * * *

Speaking of hard drives, I have spent the past two weeks wrestling with mine. Actually, because of the way hard drives work (or don’t), we’ve apparently been wrestling for more like two months; only as the slowdowns and hangs and crashes begin to outweigh the up time did I figure out what was what.1

While I defy you to pick a good time for your hard drive to melt down, this really was an exceptionally bad one. Coming off of my massive birthday project (fulfillment of which has only just begun), I’d immediately dived into a little speaking tour for my fine photography clients, while simultaneously prepping a brand new talk deconstructing the project. When it became clear I’d reached the point of no return in Laptop Land, I took a cold, hard look at my calendar: it was Friday afternoon; my first scheduled delivery of the presentation was on Tuesday evening. If everything went perfectly, I would be able to hit things hard on Sunday, and still have three solid days to work on my slides.

First of all, never use the terms “perfectly” and “computers” in the same sentence; you’re asking for trouble. Secondly, things went so not-perfectly that come Sunday, I’d been reduced to a tangled knot of gassy intestines surrounded by an alarming number of index cards. By Monday night, I straight-up gave in and bought a new laptop. Which is awesome in many ways, starting with the one where I live on a planet where that’s possible and ending with a brand-new Macbook Air in my shoulder bag, but bad as an indicator of how smoothly things were going overall. Because brother, I am cheap, and I wasn’t planning on Computer #2 for another six months.

Anyway, my brand-new Air and I hunkered down on Tuesday and put together what was so far from a perfect presentation as to be laughable, but a presentation it was. At the appointed hour, I trundled everything over to the little Meetup group that was kind enough to be my guinea pig, took a deep breath, did the disclaimer dance of a lifetime, and let ‘er rip.

Roughly two hours and a million-billion excellent questions (and answers) later, we were done, and I was finished. But in the most wonderful, wonderful way—used up, like you’re supposed to be. It had been slow in places and too fast in other places and bumpy in lots of places, but it worked: we got the information from one place (me) to another (them), with excellent feedback in the opposite direction. Because somewhere in there, I’ve managed to play enough tennis that I can put the ball in the right places when I need to. Only in this case, nobody lost, and everybody won, and a pretty good time was had by all.

So much for perfect.

* * * * *

Seven years ago today, I hit “publish” on the first of, at this counting, 1,375 posts on communicatrix-dot-com. Ever since that first day, I’ve harbored visions of turning this blog into something spectacular—fast-loading, with loads of features and a terrific, user-friendly design and REAL categories and an actual search function that works. The perfect, perfect place I see glimpses of in my dreams. Someday, when I have the money, when I have the time, when I have the energy.

In my lucid moments, I realize that these things are all excellent, they are not the point. What matters is getting the thoughts from here to there; what matters is that I have a place to take what I’ve lived and learned and spin it into some kind of yarn that someone else might find useful. A little knotty in places, but useful, nonetheless.

Were we living in a perfect world, this post would have flowed like water—from my brain, through my fingers, out to you. And it would have done so yesterday, on a non-travel day, ready to go up at the stroke of midnight.

As it is, I have my friend Dyana to thank for getting it up in time, period. You see, I’d forgotten that today was my blogiversary until I got her email congratulating me on it this morning. Shamed, I decided to forgo my usual travel-day ritual—freaking out about getting to the airport on time, followed by lots of reading on my Kindle—and write instead.

It is neither the best nor the worst thing I have ever written; it lies pretty squarely in the middle.

But here it is, just over the net, just inside the line. Right where it’s supposed to be.


1A major shout-out here to the fine folk at ShirtPocket, makers of the must-have backup utility, SuperDuper, both for the free troubleshooting and for making a product that has more than once saved my bacon.


Image by Robert S. Donovan via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

On becoming a reliable conduit

close shot of wood shavings

Once upon a time in a dingy Hollywood studio far, far away, I took my very first acting class.1

I was there because it had been suggested to me by my improv teacher that while my writing was passable, my ability to convey actual human emotion onstage was somewhere between “painful to behold” and “chair”, and that if I wanted a chance at surviving the increasingly brutal cuts up the ladder, I should hie my civilian ass to an acting school now.

I wanted that chance, all right, and a whole lot more. Things I wouldn’t admit out loud: to be rich, for example, and famous, and the envy of anyone I’d ever envied. But also things I couldn’t articulate yet because it would be years until I understood them: to tell the Truth, to serve with meaning, to live. I’d wanted all of these things, the ignoble and the good, so very much and for so very long that when I stepped up to work on my very first exercise in this new acting class, I was like a human funnel for raw, super-concentrated desire. It was, by all accounts afterward, electrically exciting to watch.

The next week, I got up in class to do the same exercise again and I sucked. Hard.

And continued to suck, over and over, week after week. Well, that’s not completely true: occasionally, something…magical happened, and I did not suck. On certain of these rare occasions (and, significantly, when I was either exhausted, well-coached, or both), I could move emotion as well as the most skilled members of the class. The difference was that, unlike them, I had zero control over this ability; it would either be there or it wouldn’t. The experience was not unlike showing up every week for a bus that might take you on a champagne-and-donut-filled ride to Disneyland, or that might drive you to the wrong side of town, strip you down to your underwear, dump you by the side of the road and make you find your way home. At night. In December.

Finally, after about a year, I became reliably good at the exercises. Never brilliant, like that first day, not once, ever again, but good enough that people didn’t shrink from being assigned me as a scene partner. One of them even suggested it might be time to move to another class, a more advanced class at a different studio.

I checked it out, enrolled, and promptly reverted to sucking. Immediately, this time, without even the whispery hope of a first, great at-bat to see me through the humiliating 18-month slog to the next plateau.

* * * * *

Here is the mission statement I came up years ago, sometime after my bloody epiphany but before I started dating things so I could place them later:2

To be a joyful conduit of truth, beauty and love.

I’ve since been taken to task by my more focused friends (i.e., all of them) for establishing an overarching goal of the mushier variety, my goal does not stand up well to the heat and pressure of daily life, nor does it offer many clues as to what “done” looks like. (If you spy any, let ‘er rip.) It’s even difficult to hold opportunities and projects up against a “goal” like that to see if they’re a good match. Or rather, too many things end up being a good match, and I miss out on the kind of focused intent required to build empires.

Then again, I’m coming around to the idea that empires are a lot like boats, vacation homes, and fancy cameras: it’s nicer to have friends who have them than to deal with the upkeep yourself.

* * * * *

There is a wonderful novel I read last fall that haunts me still. It’s called All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, and if the horrible title doesn’t put you off of reading it, maybe this will: it’s about the life trajectories of two students of a masters program in poetry. (I know, right?)

Maybe after I’ve read it a few more times, I will be able to write a real review that does it justice. For now, the salient point is this: the author uses these two intertwining stories, one of a graduate who achieves early acclaim and concomitant financial rewards, the other of his friend who does neither, to paint as fine a picture as I’ve ever seen about choices, consequences, and the day-to-day costs of “success” (deliberately left in quotes). This is a chief gift of art, its ability to bypass logic and pierce the heart of the viewer, or reader, with truth through the use of meticulously crafted obliqueness. Great art may be the ultimate in teaching a man to fish: when someone connects the dots themselves, the resulting pattern truly belongs to them.

Communicating on this level, like any kind of deliberate transfer of emotion, requires off-the-charts levels of mastery. In order to do it well and consistently, provisions must be made. By the artist. At what sometimes look like extraordinary costs.

Don’t kid yourself, though: there’s a cost to everything. It’s only the currency that varies, and the payment plan.


P.S. Looking for links to old posts I could not find did turn up this and this (from 2008!) on the rather annoyingly sloggy slog this kind of work can be. Then again, I also found this (from 2005!) and this, which provide some actual, concrete steps one can take to ease the pain of conduit-refinery. The blog giveth, and the blog taketh away.

1I’d actually taken some acting classes as a kid, and even one in college. But this was the first one I’d taken where I wasn’t, you’ll pardon the pun, just playing around. I really and truly wanted to be an actor. Stakes change the game.

2I worry sometimes that this portends a future for myself fluttering with yellow sticky notes placed on everything, like that man who mistook his wife for a beret or just a garden-variety Alhzeimer’s victim. Given how much I fear winding up with a faulty mind in an unbroken body, you’d think I’d be better about floating it in warm baths of alcohol, caffeine and sugar. Let us just say that my capacity for tricking myself has grown right alongside my other abilities.

Image by Matalyn via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Work in progress

graphic notes of mark silver's workshop from the World Domination Summit

You need a lot of things to sit down and write.

You need a chair, for example, to sit on. You need a pen or pencil and paper, or a typewriter and paper, or a computer and no paper. You usually need something a little more reliably horizontal than a lap to serve as a writing surface, a desk, a table, an ottoman, a step.

Then there’s the light that you need, natural, if it’s daytime, or artificial, if it’s not, or if it’s daytime in Portland, Oregon. You need heat sometimes, unless you are in Arizona (or my apartment) in the summer, in which case you need air conditioning (or a wet bathing suit and a series of strategically placed fans).

Depending upon who you are and what you’re like, you might also need complete quiet and privacy, plus a set of earplugs. Unless, of course, you need noise, a series of carefully crafted playlists, or streaming white noise, or, if you were someone completely unlike me, an orchestra of leaf blowers and grumpy neighbors. You might also need water, plain, coffee- or tea-flavored, and snacks. And a timer. And a distraction-free writing environment, and noise-canceling headphones to place over your earplugs. And another sweater, or perhaps a vest, or perhaps a sweater-vest. If you are a certain kind of writer, you might even need a lucky sweater-vest, and a special mug from which to drink your variously-flavored water and a special coaster to put it on, and a timer.

You will almost certainly need to have for your very own self a particular stretch of day that begins and ends at particular times, or else how the hell could you possibly get anything of any seriousness done, much less writing, for god’s sake? And you will need to be well-rested to greet this time of day, and sufficiently exercised, fed, watered, burped, pooped, scrubbed, and groomed. You will need to have ideas to write, perhaps that you have sketched out the day before in a special notebook, perhaps during one of those invigorating constitutionals, or upon index cards with a particular fineness of Sharpie, or upon coated white vertical surfaces with special erasable markers.

You will absolutely need the complete love and understanding of those closest to you, a door separating this room of your own from the rest of the household, a room somewhere entirely off the premises, preferably located close to some additional place that serves coffee- and tea-flavored beverages and provides tables and chairs to work at and wifi for breaks between the working.

You will certainly need all of these things. ALL of them, or how can you possibly be expected to produce anything of consequence? And that is all that is worth producing, right, something of consequence?

* * * * *

I am a planner. Like most of my character traits, it’s something I use to both propel myself forward and to hold myself back. (And that others have used both to praise and to diminish me.)

About a week ago, I had to give a talk rather unexpectedly, the kind of thing one cannot really prepare for.

I was part of a team of people helping out behind the scenes at a friend’s exciting new conference in Portland, and we had hit a snag: one of the scheduled speakers suddenly fell ill, he’s fine now, don’t worry, and had to cancel his talk and fly home, leaving us an empty hour to fill with content and less than 24 hours in which to do it.

Working together (which, more and more, I’m seeing is as critical to accomplishment as is working alone), we came up with an idea that would build on the message he would have delivered in his talk. The new plan became: show an excellent video of a shorter version of his talk that had been uploaded elsewhere; share a few personal stories that contained examples of the theme of his talk; coax from the entire body of attendees their own experiences with the theme of the talk; tie it all together with a magical, meta bow. Ta-da!

In theory, this was a simple, elegant solution that, while it could never replace the particular experience of having this speaker give his talk live, honored him and his work and the entire spirit of the conference in an interesting and (at least to us) inspiring way. For what greater thing is there than having your work carried forward in the work of others? None, that’s what. (Okay, sunsets, smiling babies and bunnies in cups, satisfied?)

In practice, this meant a whole lot of things lining up pretty seamlessly. I, for one, was terrified. While I only had to provide a measly two minutes of programming, and while I knew that the story of my bloody epiphany fit the theme, that really awful things can turn out to be really great, life-changing things, well enough, I had never told this story in less than five minutes. And it had taken me something like 20 hours to boil it down to that, plus another 20 or so hours of running it over and over like a madman. This time around, after dispensing with the rest of my commitments for that day and the next, I’d have roughly three hours of private time to cut the talk in less than half, and not particularly well-rested hours. Maybe someone who did this every day could do it with no problem, but I’d basically promised something I wasn’t entirely sure I could deliver. Not my favorite thing in the world.

But I had to do it, you understand. Not because anyone made me: I offered. Because I wanted to do it. Because we had to do something. Because I had to do it.

* * * * *

There have been two stretches of my life where I stopped writing: a nine-year break during my tenure as a professional ad ho and a four-year hiatus after I fried my brain and before I had my bloody epiphany.

Even during these times, I wrote privately. (Or as privately as someone who commits thoughts to paper and doesn’t destroy the evidence later can be said to write.) My writing was sporadic, dull and repetitive; I wrote to release things no one else would listen to, things so tedious they bored even me. I did it to stave off doom, not to stay sharp against a time when I might be again willing to step up to the plate and swing in front of God and everyone. Still, the fact remains that I wrote: hand moving across a page, over and over again.

* * * * *

At the same conference I ended up delivering my small, semi-improvised talk, I had an experience in one of the sessions that will change forever the way I think about my work. Almost offhandedly, before dispatching us to do one of his really useful exercises designed to help you do better work, Michael Bungay Stanier said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but not much, “The first time you tell your stories, they suck.” (Is it any wonder I loved Michael immediately?)

I reflected briefly on this nugget, decided to go with a known quantity, then turned to my partner…and proceeded to tell him the most boring, uneventful version of a pivotal moment in my life I have ever told.

So apparently, the fourth, seventh and ninth time you tell your stories, they can also suck.

My partner then told me his story. It was the first time he’d told it to anyone. It was long, winding and looped back on itself. I was riveted all the way through, and cried more than once.

If I had not had 10 years of acting study, I would not have understood why, but I have, and I did: he was completely present for all of his mess. He did not worry about nudging the pieces of his into some kind of tidy shape; it was his life, and it was untidy, with no clear arc, no neat lesson. But clearly, he had spent a good deal of his life really taking things in and reflecting on them, reading, being present. He had lived the kind of life my well-meaning father might have called unfortunate, the life of a person who was clearly capable, but who couldn’t get his act together, which is what a person needed in the end, to make it in this world.

My father is dead now so I cannot tell him this, but I can tell you: because of this stranger I did a five-minute exercise with, I will be able to tell a story that has thus far eluded me, and in a way that might actually land with someone else.

Also, this is as good a definition of “making it” as I think one can come up with.

* * * * *

I used to think there came a time when, if you worked long and hard, all the strands of everything you’d done and learned wove themselves together and magically transformed you into an Extraordinary Being of Knowing: kind, capable, wise, endlessly patient and a delight to be around. You, only grown up.

Now I think that if there is such a you, it is there all along, gently poking and prodding you to get on with your business. And that if you do enough business, eventually you get to meet the extraordinary person who was there all along, patiently waiting for you to stop your whining about wanting to be of service and log your miles/build up enough muscle to be of real, reliable service.

So yeah, You, Grown Up has lived longer and knows more. You, Grown Up has logged the miles and can deliver on command. But the only reason You, Grown Up is able to be of use (much less someone anyone is delighted to be around) is because You, Grown Up has managed to stay open and available, to tolerate change and mess, and to yuk it up a little instead of taking life so seriously. The things you can do right now with zero training (albeit sometimes in very small amounts, and often only when external forces back you into a corner).

The little talk I had to give turned out fine. Even if it hadn’t, though, it would have turned out fine, just not the way I’d envisioned.

Show up, show up, show up. Raise your hand when volunteers are requested. Try to remain focused on the moment and unattached to outcome.

All work is work in progress.


Image by Armosa Studios via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license. (Don’t know who did the graphic notes of Mark Silver‘s workshop, but they’re dandy.) UPDATE: The visual notes are by Cynthia Morris, who wrote about drawing them at WDS. Thanks to Melody Watson (and her extraordinary comment) for pointing it out.

The work that goes into magic

girl in tub full of cheese puffs by hypnox

I went to a wonderful wedding over the weekend.

It wasn’t wonderful because I got to see a bunch of people I knew again; I knew almost no one, although I enjoyed meeting everyone. It wasn’t wonderful because of the food or the dancing or the setting, although all of these were top-notch (as was the officiant, who outshone my efforts by a country mile).

It wasn’t even wonderful because it was one of those situations where the bride and groom were so perfectly suited to one another that every last person there was cheering on the union. Well, okay, that part was pretty wonderful. But it was magically, specially wonderful because of the how.

The happy couple met via a wise mutual friend who knew them both well, and who served as conduit. Long before she was able to do that, however, each of the two lovely people had done a whole lot of work.

They dated people who weren’t right (in some cases, egregiously so) and learned from their mistakes. (Note: this took a not-inconsiderable length of time.) They accepted the counsel of friends and trusted advisors, then got their own shit straight and their priorities in order. They built lives and homes and friendships that not only sustained themselves, but that they thought would be worthy of the significant other they each dreamed of meeting someday. One of them even made extensive, detailed lists of the exact things they wanted in the other (while continuing to take a fearless moral inventory of themselves, to cop a phrase from the Big Book.)

There was no sitting around eating Cheetos, watching TV, waiting for lightning to strike. There was no putting in some cosmic order with the universe and fluffing things up just enough to pass muster. There was constant, specific, meaningful work with focused intent.

Then, and only then, came the “miracle.”

* * * * *

Here’s what I have learned about envy and idle wishing: they come from a shallow place of not-knowing.

They come from not knowing what the people you’re envious of have gone through to get where they are, nor the full spectrum of what they live with to stay there: how many mountains of shit they’ve shoveled; how grueling and unglamorous the day-to-day maintenance of success can be.1 Occasionally, someone will graciously do us the courtesy of exploding the myth of overnight success or of showing us how scary success can be, but it’s rare to get a peek behind the curtain. (It’s one huge reason why I’m always hammering away at people to read more biography, the other being that they wipe the floor with most self-help books.)

For some of us, envy and idle wishing also come from not knowing yourself, and what you’re capable of, and even what the hell it is you want exactly. It’s far easier to envy someone else their success than to figure out what yours might look like, much less to go after it.

I’ve been guilty of any number of these not-knowings so many times over so many years, it shames me. I feel as though a preponderance of resources have been expended futilely in an effort to get me to K-N-O-W things. I’m like a black hole, a running toilet, an uninsulated shack of not-knowing. I am the most energy-inefficient knower I know when it comes to knowing this.

Then again, it takes you as long as it takes to figure something out. At least when you finally do know something, you get to keep it. You can’t send the knowing back any more than you can un-ring a bell.

What you do with it after that is up to you. My go-to responses have been anxiety, sadness, and (surprise!) more shame. (Shame has racked up an insane number of emotional frequent flyer points in my brain.)

These days, I’m finding action works much better. I would go so far as to say that action can be startlingly effective. It almost doesn’t matter what the action is, just that it’s an action with right intention behind it. Lists are good. Physical activity is really good. Acts of service are outstanding, no matter the size. Seriously. Anything that takes me out of myself breaks the spell, and nothing pushes me and my b.s. to the side faster than an act of service. That, and a 45-minute walk will cure just about anything. Instant perspective.

It’s also useful to have good friends and trusted advisors, like our aforementioned not-so-young lovers. I suspect that kings lose kingdoms because they have no one around them willing to argue against their own fortune in service of the crown’s. It’s really, really easy to eat Cheetos and believe your own press, a lot easier than doing the hard work of change, or the scary work of facing up to things (and working, regardless).

But all of it, work alone, or work facilitated and guided by other people, is work. The magic is the dazzling bit that the world sees, where all the work comes together.

* * * * *

More days than not, I write. I write three college-ruled sheets’ worth of morning pages that no one will ever see. I write in the Wave with Dave Seah. I write a monthly newsletter and a monthly column for actors. I write interviews (which I’m beginning to collect here). Increasingly, I write articles for publication elsewhere. I write comments on the blogs of people you’ve probably never heard of. I write (and rewrite) pages of content on this very site which most people never see but that need to be written, regardless. I write poems. I write songs. I write an unbelievable amount of emails.

More days than not, I’d prefer doing anything to writing. But every minute of every day, I’d rather have written something wonderful. So I write.

This is how I am starting to look at what I write. At choosing the things that I will write, which means choosing the things that I won’t write, and figuring out what I’m supposed to be writing. The very mushy, very vague communicatrix-dot-com has served me well as a means to get me writing, and I may well decide to keep it that way, as an outlet, and nothing more. The public-facing side of my inner work, to share my toys and keep me honest.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling the need for more focus, more specificity, and more writing (or just more something) that supports flesh-and-blood me as much as spiritual me. I’m not sure yet what that looks like, or what that means for this space. Perhaps it’s this whole turning-50 thing, hard to kid myself that I have endless time anymore. While I don’t require a huge stack of money to loll around on in my old age, it’s reasonable to assume I’ll need some, and that while the spirit is willing, eager, even, to work until the bitter end, the flesh may not be able to keep up the necessary pace.

I am doing what I can to get clear on this on my own, and my trusted advisors are helping me with the murky bits. It’s about as much fun as writing every day is guaranteed to be, but like the writing, I seem to be getting better at it the more I do it.

When I am ready, though, I will have no problem asking loudly and clearly for what it is that I want, or for soliciting the assistance of a matchmaker (pro or amateur), or for smiling ear-to-ear when my Specific Thing and I are finally united.

And I will share with anyone the story of how a “miracle” was really nothing more than an assemblage of ordinary parts selected with ordinary concentration and fused together with ordinary labor, and finished off with a tiny dollop of magic.


1Or, in some of your creepier cases, how many dead bodies they have buried in the backyard or what that portrait stowed away in the attic looks like.

Photo © Hypnox, via. (Both NSFW)

What taking care of yourself looks like in real time

gustave flaubert quote about work and creativity

I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but when I was a girl, I had a brilliant notion: what if I could have all of the sicknesses of my lifetime at once, rather than having them parceled out here and there, when they were least expected and seldom welcome?

Or, because I quickly figured out my genius solution would probably kill you (after a few mind-blowing days of unspeakable agony), what if we could at least choose when we’d have them, rescheduling broken bones and burst appendixes from rare or inconvenient times (holidays, big presentations, nice weather in Chicago) to dull stretches where nothing is going on, anyway?

Like most things that seem like a great idea until you see them played out on an episode of Twilight Zone, I eventually figured out the flaw in Plan B as well: there is never, ever a time when it’s good to be sick; there are only times when it’s less awful than other times.

* * * * *

Staying healthy has both hard and “soft” costs attached to it, just like getting sick does. But because we don’t notice health nearly as much as we do the lack thereof, it’s hard to get people to pay upfront. Nothing new here. And of course, this refusal to deal with something until it’s in tatters or on fire, demanding our attention, is not limited to our physical well-being. How many people do you know who have harnessed the Magic of Compound Interest by maintaining a fully-funded 401-K from the time they entered the workforce? Or, closer still to home, who have never run out of toilet paper? I mean, really, toilet paper! If there’s one thing that’s easier to make sure you have handy, I don’t know what it is. And yet,

Well, let’s leave this train of thought while the disembarking is good, shall we?

* * * * *

It is very, very easy for me to tell myself I will pay myself Thursday for a hamburger today, and gladly. To stay up late working or, even more stupidly, watching Jackie Brown for the 57th time. It is easy to say I should go to a particular event, that one of my promises to myself was to keep my promises, and that breaking them will cause me as much or more stress as keeping them. It is easy to not exercise, to drive rather than walk, to eat poorly rather than well. It is as easy to say “yes” as it is hard to say “no”, and the consequences of a flippant choice are so far down the road that surely, we reason, a conveniently-timed meteor or other bit of TBD pixie dust will save us between now and then.

For me it is easiest of all to work, and to work poorly, honoring neither the time it takes to do work well, nor the extracurricular effort that goes into maintaining the infrastructure upon which the work relies. Forget what’s theoretically possible; being ill these past five months has forced me to examine what is honestly possible, and desirable, and tenable.

While I’ve (mercifully) always been a woman of narrow interests, this go-round of illness has forced me to narrow them to a point I would not have believed possible.1 These days, I work and I take care of myself, and that’s about it. Sometimes I marvel at all of the purely social activities I hear other people talking about (on Twitter and Facebook, since I rarely go out). To me a weekend is just a calmer, quieter couple of days where the phone stops ringing, the emails at least slow down, and I feel less of a pang shutting down operations to get some rest. And I’m fine with that, there will be other times with a different mix of activities, just like there were before.2

For writers, at least, good work, like contentment, comes from boring, well-ordered lives.3 The more mental and physical clutter I removed from my life, the more room was left to do my work.

But the clearing also makes more obvious the crufty tangles that are left. Money murkiness. Patchy systems. Sludgy workflows.

So part of taking care of myself has been crazy stuff you’d think had nothing to do with taking care of yourself, all of it having to do with imposing structure. For example, my return to the uniform: establishing one look and investing in multiples to reduce stress around dressing and traveling. Dividing my week into sectors for reading, writing, and talking. I can’t speak for the BDSM crowd, but in my little pedestrian, decidedly non-kinky way, I’ve found constraints very freeing, so much so that I continue to implement new systems as I tweak the old ones, testing for friction all the time.

The biggest recent shift in my self-care has been a rededication to GTD. Although really, what I’m doing has a whole lot less to do with any particular system for organizing one’s stuff and a whole lot more with slowing things down to get clear. Which is, I think, what the best systems are: clearly thought out. Eight years after discovering David Allen’s book, I’m finally getting that the crux of the system is the questioning: What’s the next action? Where does this go? What does “done” look like? And that the questions themselves must be asked every single time, slowly and painstakingly before swiftly and organically. Organization doesn’t come from occasional actions any more than health comes from popping an occasional vitamin. Truly taking care of myself means living in truth all of the time, not just when it is convenient.

I don’t know yet what “well” looks like. It may end up not looking at all like robust good health I’ve been dreaming of since my Crohn’s onset, health that lets me spend my energy as cavalierly as I did in my 20s and 30s.

But as I finally (knock wood, throw salt over shoulder, stab a leprechaun) pull out of this flare, I have a better idea of what putting “well” first looks like for me. It is as predictable as a uniform and as strictly run as the Catholic elementary school I wore mine to for eight years. It trades the highs of coffee for the gentle buzz of tea. It favors dollars placed toward proper food and time invested in preparing it. It goes to bed early. It enjoys fellow travelers. It dislikes drama. It spends a surprising amount of time in the bathtub and on foot.

It’s my boring-ass new life, and it is awesome.


1When I was in recovery from my Crohn’s onset, back in 2002-03, my illness was so profoundly far-reaching that convalescence was the sole item on the menu. This particular almost-flare is more like having a flu that’s constantly teetering between a plain old cold and walking pneumonia that’ll put you down for months, or descend quickly into some unknowable, unnamable worse. Gray areas are the hardest to navigate on your own, health-wise. At least, they are for workaholics.

2Okay, I don’t solely work and rest. Over the past several months, I’ve lunched and dined with friends two handfuls of times, seen at least one movie in an actual movie theater, attended a party for at last a half-hour, and been to hear live music, a comedy show and a play. The play, which is running through May 29, I highly recommend (and I recommend very few plays). If you live in Los Angeles and like your theater well-done and funny, it’s a must-go.

3 This gets into semantic jockeying, but for our purposes, that other contentment-plus stuff I find comes more from peak experiences. That poor, poor word “happiness” has been so batted about that I wonder what it means anymore. I tend to think my friend Gretchen, who for my money is the smartest, most accessible writer on the topic of happiness today, really writes about contentment. But it’s not her fault the filthy hordes came in and mucked up a perfectly good word.

Taking my own medicine

the author kissing a fave client on the cheek

Getting clear so I can get more amazing clients like this one!

It has been happening for some time now, probably since I shuttered my design business, definitely since I quit acting, but the polite and puzzled apologies that “I don’t know exactly what it is that you do” have escalated to a point where I can no longer shrug, laugh or otherwise play them off.

“I write and I talk” is true, but coy. It’s good for keeping myself clear on my priorities, but is far from useful to anyone else.

“I do marketing consulting for solopreneurs and very small businesses” is true, but leaves out a lot. Like me, for instance. I mean, please, do I look like a marketing consultant? (For that matter, do I write like a marketing consultant?) By which I really mean, “Do I do anything that looks like a descriptor you’d find in a drop-down list titled ‘Employment’, wedged between ‘Manufacturing’ and ‘Media’?” I do not. At least, I hope not.

My attempts at self-description have been many, but ultimately disappointing.

First, because not being able to succinctly describe what it is that I do is embarrassing, to say the least, a whole lot of “physician, heal thyself” going on there.

Also, it’s ungracious. It’s confusing, which wastes everyone’s time, ungracious! (Worse, it makes some people feel stupid, like they’re missing something, and that’s beyond ungracious, it’s so mean as to be unacceptable.)

Finally, it makes me a lot less money. Because as any graduate of Marketing 101 knows, given you can deliver the goods (the “All Things Being Equal” Rule), to be easily categorized is to be easily recalled, recommended and other good things that begin with “r”. Like “rich,” which seems like it would be delightful, if only for the possibilities it promises regarding the equitable (i.e., by me) redistribution of wealth. Although to be able to fill up the car without feeling faint, visit the doctor as necessary, and at least occasionally buy the good tea wouldn’t hurt, either.

* * * * *

What has sustained me throughout my feeble, murky swipes at self-promotion has been this: the great reward of doing at least some of what I love every day; and the equally great (and incredibly humbling) reward of being appreciated for it. Getting hired despite my laughable inadequacies around making myself hirable is the most tangible, not to mention remarkable, form of appreciation, but the support of readers throughout these six-plus years I’ve been slinging hash on the interwebs has been no less important.*

If you take nothing else from this post, that would be a good thing to take: You must in some small way always provide your own source of joy through some kind of work, whether it’s things or ideas or self-improvement or self-understanding. And if you do it with all your might, chances are good the universe will throw a bone your way.

* * * * *

Here’s how I have talked about myself that might serve as a starting point for wrestling this bear to the ground:

  • I help creative people sell themselves effectively in the postmodern marketplace. (on Biznik)
  • I provide creatively-minded people with the tools, ideas and practices they need to share their awesomeness with the world. (on my current “hire me” page)
  • I help entrepreneurs get clear on their core truth and assist them in finding the best ways possible for putting it out there. (on LinkedIn)
  • Better living through content strategy.** (on Facebook)

Each falls short in its own, special way. The LinkedIn one falls so far short that if it were a person, he would have cracked its chin open on the curb and been rushed to urgent care for stitches.

But they are the truth, if a little lackluster and faint of voice. They can’t touch my mission statement*** for awesomeness and other things that get me up in the morning, but they are a place to begin.

* * * * *

I will eventually, as the Brits say, get this sorted. In the meantime, I’m going to do something radical (for me): not worry about it. Nope. I’m going to go about fixing things, here and there, tweakity-tweak, again, just as I advise certain clients to do. This is an iterative process, getting clear on who we are. And, given the current and projected future rate of change, will probably continue to be so. Over the past week, I’ve added:

  • clearer “contact me” info (because really, I was kind of a jackass about making people hunt it down)
  • social sharing buttons on each post (because really, “ditto” for making it harder for people to share my work)
  • dedicated “consulting” and “speaking” buttons in the top navigation (because what? I want to make it HARDER for people to hire me?)

It’s scary, and it’s fun. And it’s good for me, because this is the kind of stuff I help other people do, and the more I understand exactly where, how and why it’s scary, and come up with ways of handling it so it’s fun, simple and sustainable, the better off we’ll all be.


P.S. If you’re reading this in email, I’d love for you to click through and take a look at that top navigation. And if something looks hinky to you, or is in any way confusing, to let me know in the comments or privately, via email.

P.P.S. If it isn’t obvious, this is one of the most excruciatingly painful posts I’ve ever written. I wasn’t kidding about that embarrassment factor, above. On the other hand, for some of us, excruciating pain is the only thing that will move us off the dime. So here’s hoping!

*It is one of the chief reasons I encourage writers to blog, the other being a weird kind of accountability it creates. And this doesn’t even get into that other “hot” reason, the author platform.

**I didn’t realize that this was a “thing” until about a year ago, when my friends at Mule Design assigned it to me in a bio for that year’s BattleDecks. The Mules are nothing if not articulate, and I find much to emulate in the way they move through the world. They’ve been particularly astute over the last several months about intentionally raising their profile, executing each move with style and grace, and, in a way that deeply satisfies me, reinforcing the truth of The Three Behaviors. Which is good, because they’re all over my presentation. Anyway, since discovering this magical thing of “content strategy,” I’ve been devouring books and other, uh, content on the topic. As it turns out, much of what I do could be summed up fairly well as being content strategy. Expect more on this topic, including a series of book reviews, in the coming months.

***”To be a joyful conduit of truth, beauty and love.” Everyone should have a mission statement, just not one of those icky, ’80s-corporate, b.s.-style ones.

Photo of me and my beloved client, Susan Carr, Education Director supreme of the ASMP, at SB3 Chicago, by my other beloved client, Judy Herrmann, who introduced us. This is how it works, people!

Family, friends, health, work: Pick three

sign in cubicle: Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two.

There’s an old saying the creatives in my old ad agency liked to lob at the suits when they started fire-breathing stuff like budgets and time and quality:

Fast. Cheap. Good. Pick any two.

Actually, we were rarely this articulate or polite under pressure, usually, we used a lot more words, rapid-fire and sotto voce, most of them of the NSFW variety.1

It’s a cheap truism, obviously crafted by someone who was paid a lot of money or given much time to come up with it, but it makes it no less truthful. That whole having-it-all thing? Bullshit bullshit bullshit. A bill of goods you’ve been sold by a similarly well-paid, overworked team of mad men, most of whom have the fat lifestyle or lousy home lives to back it up.

Which brings us to the updated project-triangle illustration for the modern age of self-actualization, the Four Burners Theory as (apparently) laid out by David Sedaris, and expounded upon by my young friend Chris Guillebeau. In the interests of symmetry, a model worth aspiring to, I lay it out thusly:

Family. Friends. Health. Work. Pick any three.

The metaphor of burners is a great one, provided the four you envision sit on a cooktop of the ancient variety (like me!) where there is limited gas to go around (unlike me!), and it is impossible to go great guns on all four at once. If you’ve been privileged enough to grow up cooking on Wolf ranges, think crappy, old plumbing, where a neighbor’s flush means your scalding-hot blast of shower. (Or, in the case of Gloomy Manor, any water running anywhere in the house means the trickle of shower water you’re under reducing itself to spittle.)

The idea is not that you can’t have all four, even at once: it’s that you can’t have an exceptional level of all four at once. You cannot put in the time required to raise children properly and nurture outstanding friendships of depth and be an elite athlete and win the Nobel prize in chemistry. Because to be outstanding at any one thing requires an outstanding level of focus on that thing. Ipso facto, right?

Since you are a smartypants, your brain is racing to find exceptions to this rule. Lance Armstrong, maybe. (Although, you know, that’s an awful lot of primary relationships, not to mention single-parent offspring, to qualify for categories #1 and 2.) As Ben Casnocha notes, Tim O’Reilly seems to be living the dream, but I’d wager O’Reilly himself would say that he’s not all-in with any one of the four categories.

My own bias has always been towards a singular focus on work; it’s how I was raised, and I suspect that to a degree, it’s also how I’m wired. My Crohn’s epiphany brought an end to that, though. In one fell swoop (and several subsequent months of recovery), I realized that while elite athletic performance was as meaningless to me as it had ever been, a baseline level of health and happiness was not. The former requires a certain amount of time and attention in the form of rest and, because of my annoyingly high-maintenance diet, food preparation. The latter? Well, sleep pulls double-duty, I refuse to be miserable at my own hand, and an average of eight hours daily is required to keep the Mean Reds and blues at bay.

The happiness part of the equation is far, far trickier, because family, friends and work each factor into that level of buoyancy I strive to maintain. I’m guessing they do for most of us; we feel better when we’re being useful, and that requires both meaningful work and a level of reasonable engagement with other human beings. Historically, I’ve let the first two slide. Most of the serious relationships I’ve had ended largely because I just can’t handle the demands of a primary relationship.2 Hell, I can’t always handle the demands of friendship. So I have a few close friends who, for whatever reason, put up with my bullshit, and many more casual friendships which are less time-intensive and which I can thus maintain without a lot of stress and drama.

This means I forfeit most of the benefits of family, and for now, I’ve made my uneasy peace with it. I really, really, really want to hit these next ten years hard, work-wise. If it means I end up pushing a shopping cart or a ward of the state in my old age, well, there’s no one to blame but me and my choices. I also accept that there’s no guarantee my work will be of a quality that justifies these choices. Frankly, that’s even scarier to me than ending up alone, which is probably an indication that I have a long way to go before I can join the ranks of the mentally healthy, but there you go: it’s the truth, and that’s as good a place as any to start from.

If I have a point here (other than my seeming one, which is to depress the hell out of you), it is this: you are the sum of your choices, and there is no gobbling up your cake and still having it whole on the counter, pristine in its lovely glass cake stand, there for you to enjoy tomorrow. And a non-choice is a choice, too, so there’s no weaseling out of it. Your life will get eaten up from under you, even if you don’t do the eating. (Pro tip: deep-six the TV.) I have been extraordinarily lucky in that the IDIOTIC amount of time I spent doing something I hated, writing ads, turned out to be of some utility later on. Really though, the sooner you can get yourself out of something you’re done with, or release something you have no use for, the better off you are. Trust me on this.3

In other words, let us not miss out on the most obvious and helpful part of the whole equation: pick. Choose. Decide. Spend time in thoughtful deliberation, weighing the pros and cons of your choices and actions and possible outcomes and then BE a verb.

Do not be like me and let life live you for too many years. A few, fine. No harm done. Everyone needs a break, and there is some value in playing at Candide a bit, here and there, for the adventure of it.

But do not lose sight of the almighty power you have built into you. Yes, be, but also, do.

Pick one to hit out of the park or pick a life that lets you gracefully enjoy a bit from the sampler plate of all four.

Pick, though. Pick today, and then pick again tomorrow…


UPDATE: Here’s a link to the Sedaris essay referencing the four burners The lady who told him about it (she’d heard of it in a management seminar) said the stove could be electric or gas. I think for the analogy to really work, energy-wise, it needs to be gas and old, per my description, above. But hey, what the flock do I know?

1If we could talk at all, that is. Sometimes, we were so apoplectic at the unreasonable demands, all we could do was fume and point to the graphical representation we’d clipped from wherever, probably an ad, while we kept working.

2There were other reasons, but I fully accept that I suck at giving my beloveds the attention they deserve. And until I figure this shit out, I’m off the market.

3Or, hey, just read the archives.