Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you’re having a fun and restful holiday break. I’ve been enjoying the time off by taking long walks, binge-watching favorite shows, and reading (finally) for pleasure. I had a decent 2021, releasing a new novel and selling my first nonfiction book. So I can’t complain.
But there are a few new year changes I’d like to make in 2022. So I wrote this manifesto inspired by self-help guide Gretchen Rubin. She’s an ace at collecting good ideas to improve her life. And has written more than one manifesto to clarify her thinking about various topics.
Anyway, my manifesto, kind of like Gretchen’s, is nothing too complicated and or ambitious. I really believe that the more we lower the bar for our goals, the more likely we are to achieve them. Experts tend to agree. And as you can see in this image of my journal, these are everyday activities I’d like to make a bigger part of my life or change in response to how I’ve been approaching them. I confess I do have a more private list that’s more specific and unique to me. But it would bore everyone. It’s not particularly useful.
Regardless, I hope you share with me some of the changes you’d like to make in your own life. And enjoy the last days of your winter break!
Social media has always been a source of stress for me. I’ve had a like-it/hate-it relationship with it for a long time. I like when I make a new friend via Twitter or Instagram. It’s wonderful to exchange shared interests and thoughtful ideas with someone new in your life, especially someone I usually don’t or can’t see in person. But I hate it when I land on a post that makes me feel bad. I can feel anxious, inadequate, angry, sad, or even helplessly confused.
This bad tangled feeling culminated last summer. I thought long and hard about whether to leave social media all together. Finally, after agonizing over pros and cons, I came up with one way I can resolve those dark feelings while connecting with the positive people in my life.
The Artificial Aspect of Social Media
For me, the worst part of social media has always been the artificiality of it. There’s a never-ending stream of perfectly adjusted photos showing people, places, pets, children, food, and all else at their best possible moments. A woman walks on the beach with a slim body in a bikini on a beach. A sunset glows with various gorgeous colors on a lake. A child smiles with a mouth adorably covered in chocolate. And worst of all, glamorously dressed friends smile arm and arm, reminding the viewer what a great time they had without them.
And I have to confess, I’ve done it too. I love an alluring shot of a flower in my garden or how a rain drop pools on a leaf. I think my pets are the most adorable animals in the world and my travel outings are just as fun and interesting as anyone else’s. When The Forgetting Flower was released, I didn’t hesitate to post photos of the book reading and its release party. I’m culpable too.
But when posting these moments, I feel a strange mixture of pride and guilt at how lovely my life moment is while how unhappy someone else might feel at seeing it. I can’t resolve that while showing off, another viewer is secretly feeling envy or shame or plain sadness. I don’t like that dichotomy.
The bottom line is we’re all showing off something. One person shows off their awesome garden while another shows off a cute pet and another shows off an awesome vacation and another a fit body and another a best friend, and so on. And while that’s happening, someone else is feeling a negative emotion about it.
The Dichotomy Is Toxic
And it’s not just my sense of the experience. Everyone from computer science professor Cal Newport to public health researchers have talked about the negative effects of social media on people’s self-esteem. How it fosters depression and loneliness, especially in young adults. How it creates too much distraction and prevents the deep work of great art or scientific discovery or advancement in business. The effects are real and not healthy.
So I asked myself why was I still on it? Well, as I mentioned, I liked the camaraderie, especially on Twitter, of like-minded people. I’ve met gardeners and writers on that platform that have transferred into real-life friendships or at least acquaintances. I found publishing and promotional opportunities on Facebook groups. I’ve stayed up to date on my close friends’ latest career and family milestones on Instagram. And on Pinterest, I’ve found outstanding gardening, decorating and food ideas.
But I had to take a long hard look at how I could connect with those moments while preventing the sadder aspects. How could I post without seeming braggy or artificial? Finally, I realized the answer.
It’s Not About Me Anymore
I realized that if we’re all just showing off, then why not think of social media in those terms? So in my head, I renamed “social media” as “show off media.” This gave me a new perspective. Hence, I also gleaned a new approach. I became instantly self-conscious of what it was all about. And how I was contributing to the darkness.
In response, I vowed not to post anything that I didn’t think might help someone. If I posted a beautiful rose from my garden, then I better name the rose and give brief information on why and how others could grow it. When I shared vacation photos, I better include why people might want to go there, or ask where they had been recently. If I promoted my books, I’d need to include how they could entertain people and how buyers could get a discount or freebie.
In other words, I made it all about them.
Feeling More at Peace on Social Media
In doing so, I’ve felt cleaner and more whole. More positive. Now when I post, I feel like I’m serving the world a tiny bit. If I need to let folks know about book news in particular, I’ve found this website is the best place to do that. If readers come to my site, that probably means they already want information. So now, overall I feel like I’m helping. If I don’t feel like I can help someone on a certain day, I don’t post. It’s that simple.
There’s been another upshot to this approach. Under these parameters, I’ve avoided social media altogether for longer stretches at a time. I still check in for those good moments, but more readily hop off when I don’t find positive energy or posts that make me feel better.
For the last few weeks, my head and heart have felt fulfilled while also generous. And because I feel fulfilled and generous, I can spread those positive vibes around. As I go forward, I hope to reduce other people’s stress while enhancing my own online life.
So let me know how you’ve been feeling about social media lately. Have you been using it a lot? Gone off completely? Or still trying to find a happy balance? One thing’s for sure, it’s a tricky little devil.
As a professional with an artistic product, I need to spread the word about the novels I write. But I’ve always felt self-conscious about promotional messages, either on social media or this website. I don’t want to annoy you, my reader, and I don’t want to create more commercialism noise. I get enough of that myself. So what can I do to connect with folks who may actually want to read my book? Some marketing experts claim authors should show the privates side of their life. I’ve always doubted that. Then recently I discovered something that shifted my perspective.
Should Authors Offer More of Their Private Side?
Not long ago, I was visiting the website of one of my favorite authors. Every now and then I google her to hear an interview or read an article about her latest books and such. But I have to confess, I was disappointed by her website. It includes a short biography of her with a list of books for buying but lacks anything personal. I clicked around, searching for bits of news and info. I wanted to know what she’s writing now, what she’s reading, what her workspace looks like, whether she has pets or is married, who her latest interviews were with, etc. I wanted some insight into her life and process.
Afterward, I wondered if my readers actually wanted that of me.
Do People Even Care About the Private Side?
Probably not, I thought. No one cared about an obscure writer like me. I’m not famous. Still, I looked over my website’s analytics just to make sure. To my surprise, people do care about my private side. The data confirmed this. My most popular posts are the ones that talk about behind-the-scenes aspects of my books. The second most popular are ones where I talk about my life and family. I sat back, a little shocked.
Why had I been avoiding those kinds of posts? Why not put myself out there? Well, I guess I thought the act of writing was rather boring. What I didn’t realize was that ideas aren’t boring. The artistic process as it relates to real life isn’t boring. After all, I did want that from my favorite author.
Still, I feel shy and strange about sharing online. I also feel like I have to formalize every post I publish. But maybe I’m overthinking things.
A New Birthday, a New Beginning
As my birthday approaches, I’ve vowed to make a fresh start. I’ll write fewer listicles and how-to posts, which take a lot of legwork in gathering pictures and such. Instead, I’ll focus on you, my reader. What you want. I’ll talk about the behind-the-scene aspects of my books and writing. My inspiration. What I struggle with and the discoveries I made so that perhaps my words can help you.
Once, I wrote a piece about having the name Karen in these modern times. The essay was intensely personal and a risk since Karen is now a villainized name. Well, I heard from hundreds of women named Karen. They said they felt heard through my words. They could relate, I spoke for them. And so, I’ll try my best to do that again.
Also, I’m hoping this more casual approach will allow me to show up more frequently. Use my website as a way to connect with readers more intimately, kind of like my newsletter. I may even start an audio journal. It’s all scary but exciting.
Photo by Carolyn V
My phone rang while we were in the car. My daughter was behind the wheel, learning how to drive, slowing to a corner. Because I was a little stressed and a lot concentrating on helping her maneuver into a proper parking space, I let the call go to voicemail. Later, once we’d parked, I checked the message. The Pacific Northwest Writers Association had called to tell me my novel, The Dark Petals of Provence, was a finalist for the 2020 book contest.
I listened to the message three times. It sounded like the person had said “Providence,” not “Provence.” The caller’s name came through garbled in the static of a poor connection. Also, she seemed to mention needing a photo and short bio for the website announcement. I was mystified. Surely, they had the wrong person. Still, I couldn’t mistake the words. They were clear: “You’re a finalist.”
A Summer Project
The Dark Petals of Provence had started as a summer project in 2018. My intention was to have fun by reading a bunch of books about Provence and write a literary mystery in the tradition of The Water of the Hills by Marcel Pagnol. Provence had always fascinated me with its unique agriculture and rugged landscapes. So I outlined a plot about a village hiding a dark secret and launched into writing. The intrigue of the characters and their ways pleased me. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with the novel once finished. I considered self-publishing it as a freebie for my newsletter subscribers and considered shopping it around to publishers. Regardless, I worked on, enjoying the warm dream of the French countryside.
By September, I completed the draft, right before The Forgetting Flower was accepted for publication. In my joy of receiving an offer for that book, I spent the next year editing, publishing, and promoting it. Then finally in late 2019, I returned to Dark Petals, editing and polishing through fall and winter. I liked the book a lot. It was a compelling story that captured Provence’s atmosphere and featured a sweet, special needs character loosely based on my daughter.
Then things changed. I won’t go into too much detail but in sharing it with other folks, I received not-so-great feedback. While one reader liked the story, a couple others didn’t. They said it was too literary. Another said the main character was too insecure. One reader made sharp fun of it. The last wasn’t engaged enough to finish reading. I was heartbroken.
When You Least Expect It…
Meanwhile, a close writer friend urged me to submit the book to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s annual book award contest. But I was skeptical. When I’d entered the contest two previous times, I’d never placed. And one of the books I’d entered had been The Forgetting Flower, which I thought was the strongest story I’d ever written.
Regardless, I submitted my entry on a whim, then moved on psychologically. I told myself no one wanted it and put it in a metaphorical drawer, condemning it to manuscript purgatory. Oh well, I thought, another shot that missed a target.
So you can imagine how perplexed I was when I got a phone call telling me I was a finalist in a contest I’d entered eight months earlier with a book I thought most readers didn’t care for. Apparently not so. Not only did the judges not think it was a poor story, they actually thought it was one of the best. Weird. Then, in an even stranger turn of events, at the online ceremony in late September, it won third prize! Wow.
A Steady Perspective
Now in retrospect, I wonder, why did I beat myself up so hard? When I think about it, the people I gave the book to didn’t know me or my work well. But as other artists know, these experiences and feelings are all part of the process. Sometimes we judge ourselves too harshly. We take others’ opinions too seriously. We get shot down by rejection and can’t get back up. Most of all, we don’t believe in ourselves enough.
Weeks after winning the prize, another odd thing happened. Once my publisher got wind that I’d completed another book, they encouraged me to send in the manuscript. As I’d already submitted the follow up to TFF, I didn’t give the invitation much thought. But I sent it. And now, to my grateful delight, Dark Petals will be published in 2022.
The lessons I learned from this experience were 1) just get feedback from my closest critique partner, my dear friend who knows me and my work well, and 2) trust my instincts and keep the faith. Though the book didn’t match some people’s taste, it matched others’. You never know. We artists need to focus and keep creating the work. If we keep driving the car, eventually we’ll find the right place to park it.
Monday, Day 5
By Monday, our family settled into this new life of sequestration. My husband hunkered down in his mountain of work, my son started taking walks, my daughter practiced her saxophone, and my youngest, well, she is a special needs kid so it’s more difficult to keep her occupied.
Sad Beginnings Become Better Over Time
Thirteen years ago, my youngest was starved and ignored as a newborn. Little food, no care, no comfort. I could make you cry with the story. She basically lay in a crib the first five months of her life in an attic. That attic had no electricity. She contracted pneumonia. She and her brother and sister lived in squalor until rescued by Poland’s equivalent of Child Protective Services. Thank God. Then, two well-meaning clueless Americans (me and my husband) adopted them from an orphanage for a happy-ever-after story, more or less.
This, and perhaps poor prenatal care, gave my daughter mild brain damage. Born physically healthy, she scores low on intelligence tests and was diagnosed years ago with mild cerebral palsy. But, as many special needs parents know, my child is really smart. She reads facial expressions well, overflows with empathy for others, loves to laugh and crack jokes. She does okay in school and tries incredibly hard but can’t grasp concepts. Has poor memory. And so, occupying her attention for long bouts of time is difficult.
How Do We Occupy Special Needs Kids While Sheltering at Home?
Right now, I’m grasping at straws. School assignments have been spotty. My daughter has some math homework, which we’ve done, but she’s not clear where to look for it. She gets bored, asks about what we all can do every day as a family; asks when do we get a new president. She understands we have to stay home because of the virus but wishes she were in school. It particularly got me when she asked if there would ever be a shot to cure people like we always get in September. Smart girl.
An Imperfect List of Activities
I haven’t solved occupying her but thought I’d list some of the things we’re doing. Most of these don’t involve me. And yes, that can make for sloppiness. She has spilled bottles of stuff many times before. I just let that part go. And I’m sorry, I’d love to be super mom and be super involved with her home education every single day but I have work to do. We always look over her homework. And, (and I think other special needs parents will agree) sometimes I need a break from kids! So this is what we’ve allowed her to do when I’m busy.
- Get dressed every day and fix her hair (about 30 minutes)
- Find all dirty laundry and bring basket downstairs (20 minutes)
- Make her own breakfast of cereal or toast (15-30 minutes)
- Check for homework and do what she can independently (30 minutes)
- Watch TV (1-2 hours, sorry, I’m weak)
- Read at least 3 chapters of a book (1 hour)
- Color in her adult coloring book (can be up to 2 hours)
- Clean her desk and dresser (30 minutes)
- Do Free Rice or IXL or other online educational games (1 hour)
- Paint her nails (which she loves to do and I dislike immensely, 1 hour)
- Write in her journal about this strange time (1 hour)
- Lay out a blanket outside and listen to music (1 hour)
- Make own “weird lunch,” likes peanut butter and honey (30 minutes)
Afternoon and Evening
- Practice counting backwards by 5s (30 minutes)
- Play some games on her iPad (limited to 1 hour)
- Bake with her older sister (up to 2 hours)
- Do Duolingo for Spanish (30 minutes)
- Practice handwriting / Copy paragraph from book on paper (1 hour)
- Sing karaoke on ipad (limited to 1 hour)
- Take a walk with her older sister (30 minutes)
- Take photos of her dog or cats with her iphone (1 hour)
- Pick a book off MY shelf and read some of it (30 minutes)
- Call either grandma on the phone and talk (15-30 minutes)
- Text her aunties and friends on phone (30 minutes)
- Weed with me in the yard (she actually likes this, 30 minutes)
- Help with dinner, set the table, etc. (30 minutes)
- Empty the dishwasher and try to sort silverware (15 minutes)
- Draw a picture to hang on her wall (1 hour when she’s inspired)
- Take a bubble bath (which she loves, esp with music, 1 hour)
- Sing while her dad plays piano (30 minutes)
- Fold clothes as best she can and put in proper drawers (15 minutes)
- Watch two episodes of Carpool Karaoke in bed (20 minutes)
I realize that every special needs kid is different with different capabilities. And I realize that some parents may feel these don’t apply or are too high-functioning. So let me know what ideas or activities you use to keep your special needs kid occupied in the comments below! This is a difficult time, especially for families with a special needs kid.
If you’d like more information on the Covid-19 illness, visit the Centers for Disease Control corona virus page here.
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