On Writing, Gardening, and the Death of a Grasshopper

Q.  How many posts will I write about getting my groove back before said groove returns?

A.  Every post I write will always be about getting my groove back.

The last several years have been a constant struggle to find my old creative energy.  Much like starting a new diet every Monday, only to find myself face-down in a pizza by Friday, I have made many declarations of, “This is it! I’m going to live like a writer now! I’m going to write every day and post regularly and work on my book and paint paintings and generally be glorious!” –only to find another six months has passed between blog posts. The paints dry up in their tubes. And the book remains in snippets and half-developed scenes in my head.

I sit down at my keyboard, again, to draft another post, again, and write about not writing. Again. My brain skips from angle to angle. I force myself to stay in the moment. Follow one singular line of thought. Start with the basics. Ask one question and answer it.

What gets in the way of working on creative projects? What interferes with the discipline of creativity? Answer it, Meg: what keeps you from posting to this blog?

I am not too busy.

I am distracted. I’m frustrated.

I’m afraid.

I am afraid that there is nothing worthwhile in me to share anymore. I’m afraid that it’s all canned and reheated. I’m afraid that there’s nothing novel or interesting about my life.

I’m living in such a way that nothing is novel or interesting.

I’m wasting my life.

There it is. That’s what’s in the way. I’m afraid that I’m wasting my life. I sit down to write and try to think of something interesting to say, and nothing comes up, so I am forced to consider that terrifying possibility. The title of this blog rubs it in: The Midlife Adventures of Meg. I’m halfway through my years on this earth, and no adventures are happening. Not even small ones.

Surely, I can find some small ones.

#             #             #

A few days ago, I was watering my plants. My daughter and I got a raised planter bed, and we are attempting to grow vegetables. I’ve carved a bed out of one corner of my yard and filled it with California native plants. And all along my fence I have pots: succulents, flowers, and a collection of culinary herbs.  Gardening is meditative, rewarding, and endlessly interesting to me. But if you look at my garden closely, you’ll see the leaves are riddled with holes.

Holey basilIt seems that no matter what I try to grow, grasshoppers come and eat holes in all of it. Grasshoppers are my nemeses.

So I was watering my holey plants, and when I got to the herbs, I spotted a small, green insect on the basil. It was narrow and oblong, with long antennae and arched legs. GRASSHOPPER! Caught in the act! I was filled with righteous anger as I adjusted my hose nozzle to JET and blasted it off its dinner.

Then something snagged in my mind and I looked more carefully at it, wiped out on the fence behind the herbs. It wasn’t a grasshopper. It was a praying mantis. A tiny, baby, praying mantis about as long as my pinky nail.

A month or so ago, I bought praying mantis egg sacs, specifically to combat the grasshoppers. Praying mantises eat all kinds of bugs. The store clerk told me that I wouldn’t see them hatch, but the egg sacs would produce hundreds of praying mantises. I didn’t really want hundreds of them, I told him. I’m not sure I could handle that.

Mantis eggs

“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “They’re very territorial, so they actually eat each other until there are just one or two left.”

Apparently, I’d wound up with at least one of these charming, helpful cannibals, and I’d just blasted it with my garden hose.

I could see the poor thing, about a half inch long, and obviously not a grasshopper. I could see its tiny, sideways head and its signature, articulating forearms.

“I am so sorry,” I whispered, and I meant it. I crouched down in front of the wood fence where it lay, swamped, its antennae twitching slowly. “I totally thought you were a grasshopper. Clearly you are not. Any idiot could see that. I’m very sorry. Please be okay. Please stay here. There is so much for you to eat. I promise I will be more careful.”

As I finished watering, I cursed my knee-jerk reactions. So stupid. Serves me right if I have grasshoppers. I wound the hose and stopped to check on the mantis before returning inside.

Gone. Damnit.

I poured myself a glass of wine and sat on the patio to mourn.  I texted my daughter and told her I’d killed our one surviving praying mantis. She sent a sad face emoji.

Then I went back to the herb planter to try to find him one more time. And there he was, standing on a sage leaf three times his size, walking around on perfectly functional legs.

Mantis“Hello!” I said, no doubt scaring the bejeebers out of him. “I’m so glad you’re okay! I’m so glad you’re back! Please stay! Eat everything you can!”

I cannot overstate how happy I was to see that bug. If my neighbor overheard me talking to it, he probably thought I got a new puppy.  I took pictures of it and posted it on Facebook.

I texted my daughter to tell her that the mantis was still alive. “I was thinking of naming him Walter,” I told her. “But then I remembered that he probably ate all his siblings and decided he needs something a little more badass than that.”

“Skullcrusher?” she suggested. “Doombringer?”

We are currently trying to decide between Doombringer or Vladimir the Bloodthirsty.

I was able to track my little friend for several days in a row. I may have spotted one additional mantis on the poppies, maybe a shade greener than Vlad and a bit smaller. Or it may have been the same mantis in a different light. Either way, I did not spray him with the hose.

I also spotted one small grasshopper. I watched him for a few seconds to be sure he was a grasshopper. Then I killed him.

#             #             #

Would this be a proper Midlife Meg post if I didn’t circle back and clearly explain the analogy for you with a tidy little lesson?

Seriously, this is when my inner critic starts to slap me around.  Here you go with the tidy little lessons again, Meg. So canned. So convenient.

Real life doesn’t come in tidy lessons. Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Must an experience mean something to be important? Can’t it just be an experience? What kind of a writer are you, Meg?

And yet, this post wrote itself.  Unbeknownst to my waking consciousness, my brain made a connection for me and served me the praying mantis story as I free-wrote, searching for blog-worthy adventures in my small, simple life.

So here you go, O Ye Who Search for Deeper Meaning. A metaphor explained. Let the garden be the creative landscape of my mind. Let the grasshoppers be that self-loathing that creeps in and eats holes in everything. Let the mantises be the hundreds of ideas born there: tiny, fascinating creatures both helpful and powerful, if only I recognize them and let them live.

Mantis 2

Why I Really Don’t Care About Your Grammar

Click on the image to learn more about Grammarly. Thanks for inspiring this post, Grammarly!

Click on the image to learn more about Grammarly. Thanks for inspiring this post, Grammarly!

Every once in a while, a friend will express concern that I’m judging their grammar.*
I’m not. Yes, it is my job to communicate in writing and yes, I notice misspellings and most mechanical errors. I can’t help it. But much of the time, I don’t care about your grammar. I only care about mine. So I would appreciate it if everyone would just relax.

Three main reasons I’m not uptight about grammar:

1.  In casual usage, formal grammar can actually be distracting.
*Did you notice the subject/pronoun disagreement in that first sentence? Yeah, that bothered me. It bothered me because it was my error and I don’t want anyone to think I don’t know better. But that particular error never bothers me when someone else makes it, because that’s how most people speak. And sometimes, using the plural pronoun is less distracting than using the singular pronoun and having to choose a gender. (As in, “A friend will express concern that I’m judging her grammar,” which would imply that the friend was a girl, and might have you wondering if I meant you or your sister.)

You may also notice that I don’t give a rat’s patootie about starting a sentence with a conjunction, though that is technically incorrect, too. I’ve already done it at least four times in this post, because I’m a rebel like that. Which brings me to point #2.

2.  Sometimes rule-breaking works better.
In a blog post, I will write run-on sentences when I’m trying to convey breathless excitement. I will write fragments for emphasis. Occasionally, I will incorrectly structure a series, because I prefer the rhythm with a whole bunch of conjunctions instead of commas. I break rules to establish tone or to create an effect. I try not to habitually break rules, because that can become a distraction of its own. But in my own writing, I use the rules to my advantage and disregard them when it suits me. It’s a choice I make, and other people can have that choice, too.

 3.  Lots of smart people suck at spelling and grammar.
I learned this early in life. Some of my super-smart friends were terrible spellers. Spelling and grammar come naturally to me. You know what doesn’t? Math. So if you don’t mock my inability to do quick math, I will not raise an eyebrow if you occasionally misspell things.

Language is just a tool for communication. Communication is sending and receiving messages, right?

If I’m sending a message, I want my grammar to support that message and not distract from it. So I follow rules to the extent that it helps my audience receive the message. Sometimes that means following formal rules; sometimes it doesn’t. I guarantee you, when I’m commenting on Facebook, the only reason I care about my grammar is because some smartass will point out my errors, especially if they think I’m a Grammar Nazi. Which I’m not. (Fragment for emphasis, see?) When I’m texting with friends, I don’t even think about mechanics.

If I’m receiving a message from you, and you are a friend of mine who’s attempting to communicate with me, whether that be on Facebook, via text, or in conversation over dinner, the only reason I’m going to be concerned about your grammar is if it garbles the message you’re sending so badly that I can’t receive it. Usually, that’s not the case; I can figure out what you mean.

Bottom line: I care about your message much more than your mechanics.

Proper grammar has its place, but the burden for proper grammar is on the one who sends the message. My job as a listener is to receive your message and seek to understand it, not find fault in its delivery.

Someone once told me, “Over-attention to other people’s grammar is the mark of a small mind.” I wholeheartedly agree with that. The truth is, I don’t quite like the way he structured that sentence. My brain struggles with the awkward subject clause. But I am not small-minded, so I didn’t pay attention to his sentence structure. Instead, I received his message. And I have never forgotten it.

Sometimes I Even Write Things: Observations from Press Publish

“Meg, you should be a writer.”

This is simultaneously one of my favorite and least-favorite things to hear.

Of course I’m flattered when people say that. It means they think I’m good enough to get paid to write.

The downside is that I’ve known that I should be a writer since I was about 13. I always figured I’d grow up and be a writer. I just didn’t. Instead I became a mom and a breadwinner and a marketing communications professional. I never really got to the writer part. Sometimes I feel like it’s too late.

Which is ridiculous, of course. It’s not too late. I’m 43, for god’s sake, not dead.

I started this blog three years ago, when I turned 40. In the beginning, my head swam with ideas. Every thought spun itself into a potential post. I blogged about nothing and everything. Thinking like that made me more observant…you know, like a writer. I blogged with steady excitement until I found myself in a serious romantic relationship (the advent of which I blogged about extensively) and then suddenly my observations weren’t so entertaining anymore. The really meaty stuff felt too personal to share (not for me—I have, shall we say, very flexible boundaries—but for my former partner). I was so consumed with the relationship that playful, everyday observations just stopped happening. My writing became more labored and my posts felt forced or canned.

I miss it. I miss the days when writing—blogging—was an intrinsic part of my daily discovery process, instead of some kind of calculated response to it.

So this weekend, I did something writerly: attended Press Publish, a conference hosted by Automattic, the people who create WordPress (which is the platform on which this blog is built).

At the conference, there were maybe 150 bloggers like me in attendance. By “like me,” I mean other humans with blogs. Some were younger; some were older. Some were men; some were women. Some sounded like blogging experts, and some, to my great relief, sounded less informed than I am. There were folks who blog about food, crafts, women’s issues, religion, health, aging, photography, business, fashion, and on and on.

The conference included technical workshops, writing clinics, how-tos on topics like SEO and self-promotion. For me, the most exciting part was listening to bloggers—regular schmucks like me—who’ve experienced various measures of success via their blogs.

My blog hero, Katherine Fritz, was the first speaker. I am not making this up: her talk made me cry. (I was slightly mortified, but no one saw me.) Katherine writes a personal blog like mine, which she started on a whim. Now she occasionally has to pinch herself because her blog landed her on big media outlets like Yahoo, MTV and The New York Times. THE NEW YORK FREAKING TIMES. A literary agent sought her out and persuaded her to work on a book. That’s right: the agent came to her.

Katherine (and several other wonderful speakers) talked about the strong sense of connectedness that blogging allows us, how gratifying it is to put a piece of yourself out there and have total strangers identify with you and respond with their own stories. She talked about taking risks and being authentic. She talked about how her blog made her happy.

So why the crying? Because I see myself in her. Yeah, she’s younger and hipper than me but whatever; she’s still a regular person. I met her. She’s real. Just a regular person who started a blog, like me. When she talks about the opportunities that have resulted from her blog, I feel a swell of possibility. Somehow, her success validates my aspirations.

She said that since she started blogging, she sees herself as a writer.

What a coincidence. I’m a writer, too.

Probably the greatest benefit of attending Press Publish was the opportunity to be surrounded by writers. I listened to writers and thought like a writer and talked to writers about writing stuff. And sure enough, my heart filled up and crowded my brain with ideas until I could hardly follow the scrawl in my notebook.

Man, I needed that. I have a lot of writing to do.

Wide-Open Writing

riverI love writing this blog. I haven’t posted anything in several months, but it’s never far from my mind.

I feel that my responsibility as a blogger is to give my reader some kind of takeaway: a laugh, a different point of view, a helpful insight…something of value. So, as I consider topics to write about, I’m always looking for that takeaway—what is the punchline? What is the lesson? What is different or interesting about this post that makes it worth reading?

Unfortunately, these last few months have been so overwhelming that I haven’t been able to boil the chaos in my head down to anything useful. I’ve been swept along in the current of my life– new job, new home, new relationship status/living arrangement, newly empty nest—and it’s been tough to stay afloat.

When I used the expression, “swept along in the current,” what I actually envisioned was more like falling off my raft on a whitewater rafting excursion: me, totally unfit for whitewater rafting in the first place, bobbing and flailing in a churning, twisting river with rocks all around. Periodically my head breaks the surface and I suck in a big gasping breath and then bam, back under I go. I’m not trying to swim in any particular direction; I’m not even trying to avoid the rocks. I’m just trying to remember which way is up and when I have the opportunity, breathe.

Over these last few months, my creativity feels dead. No writing, no painting…any creative effort I begin seems forced and frustrating.

Today I am feeling particularly overwhelmed. I googled for a lifesaver and found this gem from Pema Chodron:

Take the whole teatime just to drink your tea. I started doing this in airports. Instead of reading, I sit there and look at everything, and appreciate it. Even if you don’t feel appreciation, just look. Feel what you feel; take an interest and be curious. Write less; don’t try to capture it all on paper. Sometimes writing, instead of being a fresh take, is like trying to catch something and nail it down. This capturing blinds us, and there’s no fresh outlook, no wide-open eyes, no curiosity.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been struggling to find something blog-worthy to write—I’m trying so hard to capture something and boil it down that I have no fresh take, no wide-open eyes, no curiosity. No wonder I can’t find anything new to say.

A long time ago I learned a lesson about creating for the sake of creating, without fear of failure or pressure to achieve an expected result.  It was one of the most memorable days of my life. (You can read that post here.) Even so, the lesson seems to have gotten buried and writing this post has reminded me of it.

For writing, for painting, for whatever your creative process– and that includes the life you are creating for yourself–you don’t need to know how it will turn out. You don’t need to fear that it won’t be right.

The nature of creating is venturing into the unknown. True creativity is making something NEW, bringing something into existence that didn’t exist before.  If you’re in a true creative state, you’re not traveling an established path. So how can you possibly know you’re right?  More importantly, how can you be wrong?

See, I spend a LOT of time worrying about screwing things up. Can’t write this blog post; it might turn out stupid. Can’t paint a painting because I don’t have any ideas, or for that matter, painting skills. On a bigger scale, I have life decisions staring me in the face and I’m paralyzed that I will choose the wrong path.

So I started writing today not to achieve a tidy result, but just to feel what I feel, to look around me with wide-open eyes, and to practice creativity for its own sake.  As often happens when I start writing, a shape starts to form and I figure out what I’m writing about after I start writing it. In other words, I found my takeaway. It’s mostly for me, but I know there are others in my shoes who might find this helpful, too.

We create our lives. You are the first to walk your path, and I am the first to walk mine. Therefore, there is no established way: no right way and no wrong way. So we have nothing to be afraid of.  We can’t know how it will turn out, but we don’t need to fear that it will turn out wrong. It’s ours to create, and the process of creating is where the joy lives.

Thanks again to every one of you who encourages me to keep writing. You can’t possibly know how much that means to me.

Work, Luck & Payoffs– or, Some People Are Already Badass

This post was prompted by another blogger, Beth Brousil. I always enjoy her posts. Beth was mulling over the expression, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” In her post, she talks about working hard for a break in the art world. Some artists get a break, and some don’t. Is that based on hard work? Or just luck?

Both, says I. Some people work their hineys off and reap financial rewards. But some people—particularly in the creative world—work their hineys off and never enjoy the luck, or the break, that results in the recognition or payoff they’ve been hoping for. Meanwhile, others who seem less talented or less deserving get recognized and make a bazillion dollars. And that sucks.

I often discuss this with my dear friend, Valerie Noble. I’ve known Valerie since I was 10 years old. Now I have the great pleasure of working with her every day.  Most days, I subject her to my entire stream of consciousness while we sit in the office. Lucky girl!

Anyway, Valerie wrote a novel. It’s young adult sci-fi, and it’s good. Really. You may think that I am biased, and maybe I am. However, when friends ask me to read their writing projects, I usually cringe. I’m pretty critical, and very honest, but I’m also kind. Which means that usually, when people say, “Read this and let me know what you think,” I’m screwed.

Now, Valerie is a smart woman. I know she’s an avid reader with great taste in books. (More precisely, my taste in books. I borrow hers all the time.) She’d been working on her book for a long time and had input from a few different readers, so her manuscript wasn’t raw. So when she asked me to edit her book, I figured well, it won’t be terrible, anyway. Plus she was going to pay me to edit it.

I sat down with my pencil, ready to edit. Somewhere in the first chapter, I dropped the pencil because I was too engrossed in the story to notice the mechanics. I stayed up until two in the morning and finished the book in one sitting—just like I did with The Hunger Games.

Yep—it’s REALLY good.

So now she’s working on getting it published. She did everything she was supposed to. She researched the proper format for manuscripts and how to write a good query letter. She began to self-promote by starting a blog and a Twitter account, and networking with other authors and agents. She sent out query letters in search of an agent, and she got one! She has worked, and worked, and worked.

I hope with every fiber of my being that it gets published. It’s like she’s my pregnant friend, and I’m waiting for the baby. Whenever she calls me, my first thought is always, “Is this IT? Did she get a book deal?”

She deserves it. We all want it for her. But the truth is, a book deal may or may not happen and we have no control over that.

This is what I’ve told her from the very beginning: whether she gets published or not, she has already achieved something GREAT. How many people could be that creative, to conceptualize a novel? How many people are full of ideas, but never execute them? How many people start but don’t finish? She had the creativity and the discipline to actually get it done. And she had the humility and sensibility to subject it to the criticism of others and work out all the kinks. Then she did the boring, discouraging work of querying agents.

Did I mention she did this while she was in school full time, working, and a mom?

If the right reader from the right publisher reads her manuscript at the right time, she will get a book deal. But whether or not that happens, Valerie is already a success. Yes, I hope she gets recognized and I hope she gets paid for her work. But I could not be any more impressed than I already am. I could not admire her more than I do right now. She conquered all the dragons we all fight: self-doubt, a busy schedule, distraction, writer’s block… and she did it anyway. Now she is working on the sequel.

Back to the expression, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”  Maybe working hard doesn’t always result in lucky breaks. But it does generate results. In Val’s case, it produced an engaging, original book. It also gave her the confidence to start a second. It opened a new world—the world of writing and publishing—that she had never explored before. She’s earned the admiration of family and friends who’ve read the book and encouraged her. She’s got an incredible sense of accomplishment.  And she got her story out—she gave life to the characters born in her imagination.

Here’s another expression we’ve all heard before: the joy is in the journey. Seems that there’s quite a bit of payoff in the journey, too. We have to learn to recognize the other kinds of payoffs—not just fame and fortune. I deeply respect people who have the courage and discipline to pursue their passions, whether or not they become commercially successful.

Fingers crossed that it happens for her. She has definitely earned it. Because the book is with a literary agent now, I can’t tell you too much about it—seems there are rules about that. But if you want to know more about Valerie or follow her journey, you can read her blog here.

Me and my badass writer friend, Valerie Noble.

Everyone should have a badass writer friend for inspiration. Valerie is mine.

 

.