I’ve had a gratitude practice for probably four years now—every morning and evening, I write down three things I’m grateful for. I’ve cycled through several containers for this—plain journals, gratitude-specific journals, and finally ended up with one that combined the gratitude practice with a fully functioning work journal. Bingo!
After a few years, though, I noticed I’d stopped paying attention to that journal, so I decided it was time for a change. I ordered up a new journal, which also had space to start the day with gratitudes. But beside that familiar list was another one. And, honestly, it completely stumped me:
I’m excited about
Grateful, yes, I can reel off a dozen things I’m grateful for: the people I work with; the little red dog I snuggle with; the yummy food I eat; the safe, warm, beautiful place I live. I can break that list down and find a good 25 or 30 different things for which I’m grateful. But “excited left me stumped.” And then depressed—because, after all, what is life without excitement?
But does my life really lack excitement? True, I’m not planning to board a rocket ship or surf Niagara Falls, but I do have a TEDx Talk coming up in December. That’s pretty exciting. And I get to see my friends and go to the theatre and celebrate the holidays. All fun things that I’m looking forward to. (And when they happen, I’ll be grateful for them, too.)
I’m content with my life—I walk the dog, write, walk the dog, eat, walk the dog, sleep. Sometimes other events pop up to vary my schedule, and I’m happy when that happens. Perhaps daily contentment > occasional excitement?
What do you think? What are you grateful for and/or excited about this holiday season?
I’ve been a professional writer for over 25 years, but I’ve rarely written for myself. I’m writing something for myself now, though, and I thought it might be helpful to share what I’m learning about writing.
I’ve had this idea kicking around in my head for something I might write. I’ve actually written bits of it, but it never went anywhere because I lacked a few things:
a deadline—I was just kicking these ideas around figuring that one day they’d gel. But “one day” is not a deadline, so I spent far more time not writing this material than I did writing it.
belief—in myself, in the project. I fell into the Willits—”Will it mean anything to anyone, will anyone care?” The one Willit I did not entertain was “Will it sell?” because I knew I was only writing a first draft (when I was writing at all, that is) and first drafts are just for getting the material out of your head and into your computer.
support—yes, I read a couple of pieces to a few people; they liked it. But I needed someone or a group of someones who could keep me accountable and nudge me forward.
I remembered the old saying “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And I realized that despite all my decades of writing for other people, I had no idea what I was doing in this new format. Well, I had some ideas. But not enough to shore up my belief in myself—I just needed someone more experienced to tell me I was on the right track. And support—yeah, that one made me laugh because I tell my writers all the time that sharing their work with other writers is the only way to get better, whether it’s with a writers’ group or a coach.
A coach. I needed a writing coach. And as if by magic an email floated into my in-box: my friend Nadia, a very fine writer, inviting people to join her private Memoir/Creative Non-Fiction class.
I committed to bringing new material to each class, even though I knew I’d probably only get a chance to share it every other week. I had a deadline.
Sharing did indeed help shore up my belief—in myself, in the material I was working on. The women in my class seemed eager to hear what I’d brought each week. We did a group reading in front of a small audience—the strangers liked my work, too. I began to believe that I do have a story to tell.
And support—I did learn one or two technical things about writing a memoir, and my classmates always offered sensitive, insightful comments about the pieces I brought in. But I think the most supportive thing for me was just to sit every week in a roomful of writers (yes, this class happened in the real world. Can you imagine it?) and have them accept me as one of their own.
That’s why I called the program I offered this summer “Permission to Write”—because I realized that everyone needs it. Even me.
I’ll post every week about the things I’m learning and doing as I write the book. Subscribe to this blog to be sure to catch every post.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” the new employee at my client’s company told me. “The CEO sings your praises.”
Said CEO was also on the phone. I started to say, “Well, at least half of it is true.” And then I thought‚ why should I say that about myself?
Instead I heard a voice saying this:
“Aww…multiply it all by two.”
Who said that? Was it really me?
Reader, it was.
Fortunately everyone laughed. I did too. Later the CEO said I should multiply by two everything I’d heard about his new employee. So we were even; that felt right.
Toward the end of the call, the CEO tried to sell me on a new project they wanted me to write, a project I’ve already turned down once. “We think you’d do a great job,” he said.
“I know I wou—” A bout of nervous laughter stopped me in mid-word. “Can you tell I’m working on my self-esteem?”
The rusty tap of self-esteem
Have you ever had a rusty water tap in your garden? The handle turned freely last summer, but a winter of disuse has rusted it shut. So you tug and tug at it and you eventually decide the garden can wait another day.
The next time you try, you tug just as hard and the thing spews out water like Niagara Falls. You were treating it like a rusted-shut spigot, but someone loosened it yesterday and didn’t tell you.
As far as I knew, I was the only one with her hands on the spigot of my self-esteem. And it’s been tough to turn for ages. But after more than a year of coaching, something has shifted in me.
It feels marvelous, really freeing. But you don’t need Niagara Falls to water your hydrangeas. So while I’m banishing self-deprecating remarks forever, I’ll only turn on the self-esteem tap maybe once per conversation. I don’t want to over-water my clients.
I had not intended to blog again today. I wrote a post yesterday and I’m trying to get away from posting daily—although I still write for 15 minutes every day. Yep, every damn day.
Anyway, I hadn’t intended to blog today. Yesterday’s post—weighing in at a hefty 900+ words—took me far longer than my 15 minutes to write. Ate a good chunk of my morning, in fact.
But when I woke up today, Facebook reminded me that last year on this date, I had dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant with some friends—celebrating the one-year anniversary of my writing streak.
“That can’t be right,” I said to myself. “If it was a year ago today, then that must mean today is…”
The anniversary sneaked up on me, which might make you think my writing habit is pretty well integrated into my life.
You’d be—well, not exactly wrong, but it’s not quite as easy as the graphic makes it look. Especially the last couple of months, when I’ve been writing a big project for a client. I get to the end of a day of writing, grateful to power down the old laptop, only to realize that I haven’t done my 15. The commitment I made two years ago was 15 minutes of writing for myself, not for a client. Those days, when there’s not much left in my brain, I just journal. I figure it counts.
So what have I gotten out of this?
I moved forward with some aspects of my business I’d been putting off. Honestly, I think they scared me. But if I only had to write for 15 minutes…okay. That’s how the streak started.
I blogged every damn day for well over a year—maybe 18 months. (I’m on hiatus at the moment, but I may return.) Sometimes I had so many ideas that I could bank a week’s worth of blogs in advance; other times I just sat down at the keyboard and started typing, hoping that whatever came out would be at least semi-lucid. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Eventually I even dethroned the woman who’d always taken first place in a Google search of my name—”Elaine Benes.” She’s now a sidebar. Whoo hoo!
Do you have an idea pinging around your head that wants to get out?
It’s scary to say you want to write a book. I know. When I decided to write one, for months I couldn’t say the b-word without air quotes. If you think “writing a book” has to mean shutting yourself a way for days on end—well, how attractive is that? If it means writing for 15 minutes a day, well, after a week you’ll have written for nearly two hours. After a month (one of those 30-day months, not freaking February), you’ll have written for seven and a half hours! And lived your life, too.
Do you want to get your work out in the world?
You may wonder what that has to do with writing every damn day. I’ll tell you: if you’re holding back because you’re afraid your writing is somehow flawed…honey, you don’t know “flawed” until you’ve written every day. Some days it’s golden, other days it’s, to put it politely, a pile of manure. But the Dutch have an old saying I love:
“Shit is not a holy thing, but from where it lies there come miracles.
Every bit of bad writing you produce gets you that much closer to producing good writing.
I’m on a mission this year. I want to help more people start and maintain their writing streaks. It’s more fun when we do it together. Fill in the Contact form and let me know how I can support you.
They set a tall bonfire the last night of the retreat I attended this weekend. The wood must have been stacked three feet high Jenga-style, which left a ton of room for airflow. That fire burned. But just after they lit it, a small movement caught their attention. Attention turned to horror as they realized what was going on:
A frog had hopped into the firepit.
Kimmi, one of the retreat leaders, dove in to rescue it—a frantic 90 seconds that must have felt like an hour inside the sun. But she coaxed the creature away from the fire and the frog hopped off with a new name—Fuego—apparently none the worse for the experience.
I can’t help but think that Fuego’s journey mirrors the journey I found myself on this weekend. Spending three days with a dozen women all doing our best to be present and open to one another—that’s a marvelous experience. I highly recommend it to everyone.
Of course it wasn’t all sunshine and s’mores. (The aforementioned Kimmi leaned into the fire once more to toast the marshmallows for my very first s’more. And may I say, Yum!) No, we worked those three days. Each of us spent time contemplating the fire of our own truth. And if things got too hot, we trusted that someone would always be there to keep us safe.
Like Fuego, I willingly joined the experience; like Fuego I emerged unscathed. But not unchanged.
Retreat – it’s not about work
I’ve been in a very work-centric place for the last year or so. And I marketed my Story Safari Retreat from that space: “You’ll learn skills, you’ll do work.”
But that’s not what a retreat is about. You can work at home, after all. One thing you can’t do at home, often, is grow.
The main thing a retreat gives you is the courage to face the fire—whatever that fire represents to you—and a safe space in which to emerge transformed. And so I am transforming my Story Safari program into a program. You’ll learn skills, you’ll do work—you’ll even have some fun. Stay tuned for details on that.
And do look for retreats from me in the future featuring as much space for heart work as head work. Maybe even more. We’ll jump into the fire together (not literally—goodness, I’m an insurance man’s daughter!) and see how we all get transformed.
In the meantime, my friend the talented branding and design expert Veronica Wirth will be using my gorgeous 5-star venue on Cape Cod to lead a retreat in Soulful Branding. I have no doubt you’ll find her work transformative—for yourself and for your business.
She’s given me permission to offer you the program for half price—that’s less than $1K for two and a half days of transformation and some yummy meals as well. I’ll be there; maybe you should be, too.
I’ve written before about the, um, idiosyncratic search function at the otherwise-spectacular Stencil. Honestly, it’s the best purchase I’ve made for my business. I have no skill at desktop publishing or whatever it is you need to do to marry images and words into eye-catching designs.
But Stencil’s search function leaves something to be desired. Or maybe I’m just overtaxing it. Maybe I’m offering it too much information. Maybe that’s the problem.
When I typed “frustrated writers” into the Stencil search box, I expected to find people in front of computers pulling out their hair. Something like this, maybe:
Although, on further reflection, this looks more like a woman who just realized she shouldn’t have ordered the diner’s meat loaf special. But among the photos of people legitimately writing (though not in apparent frustration), Stencil dished up this little image:
No! No, goth princess, I wanted to shout. Writing’s not worth that! It never is.
Seriously—is this what the folks at Stencil think when they think “frustrated writer”?
That’s just a liiiiiitle darker than I wanted to go.
Rebranding the comfort zone
I’m rebranding my 5×15 Writing Challenge Facebook group, you see. I’ll still be running the challenges—one week every quarter. But I want my writers to see the group as a place they can post anytime, not just the five days of the challenge.
So it’s about community. But it’s also about acknowledging the frustrations that come with trying to step outside your comfort zone—especially in a creative endeavor. It’s about carving out a safe space for yourself. And if the Willits arrive, saying, “Thank you very much I won’t be needing you today.”
You know the Willits. I’ve written about them before. Here’s a little video I made for the Facebook group that explains them further.
If you wonder what’s going on in the Willits-Free Zone on Facebook, well, we’ll have some community writing projects, themes for each month that people can write to if they like, and I’ll be offering some deals and discounts especially for group members. If you’d like to join us, cruise on over to Facebook and submit a request.
Frustrated writers un-frustrated here. And no Willits allowed.
I’m working to shove self-consciousness into an ever-shrinking corner of my life. At the moment, it’s living in an AirBnB room in the Willits’ garage. Bathroom’s in the main house; not a fun place to be when it snows. Self-awareness, on the other hand, knocks on my front door at the oddest times. I’m always glad to see it, but usually surprised, too.
“Apparently,” I said to the VA candidate during our Zoom interview, “I do more than the average person.” She looked down and tried to suppress a laugh. Gee, I found myself thinking, maybe I really do.
Running two writing courses simultaneously while planning two others—and an end-of-year retreat; feeding the last five pieces of content into a 52-week curriculum; working with my corporate writing clients.
Oh, right—and writing for at least 15 minutes every day. (Today’s day 555!) Oops—yep, and keeping in touch with the folks on my mailing list four or five times a quarter. While always looking for ways to find more folks to keep in touch with.
Surely someone like Sir Richard Branson does all this before breakfast. While kite-surfing around his island.
Well, okay. I’m not going to stop doing what I do, but I will give myself credit for being more active than the average bear. That’s self-awareness.
Self-awareness requires company
Self-awareness doesn’t develop in isolation. You need people around you (or streaming to you over your WiFi) to hear your stories and mirror them back to you.
I went out to dinner with a randomly selected group at a retreat I attended last month. One of the icebreaker questions was something about “the most fun business event you’d ever attended.” I knew my story was cool—maybe I’ll write about it one of these days—but in telling it and seeing my dinner companions react, I realized for the first time that there was some “extraordinary” mixed in with the cool. I saw that it was a story about me as much as it was about the actual events. That’s self-awareness.
I can pick out a great story at 500 yards. With one arm tied behind my back. If it’s a story about someone else. Stories about me? I mean, I have a collection of client success stories, of course. But stories that demonstrate my own successes? The ways in which I shine? Oh hell no. I don’t tell those stories.
The event I talked about at dinner happened over 25 years ago; I think I’ve told it maybe once since then. And never to people I’d just met.
What’s your story?
That’s why I’ve created my end-of-year retreat, Write & Shine. We’ll spend a lot of time looking for those kinds of stories in ourselves. Everyone has them. And we’ll also look at telling other stories—because you can’t talk about yourself all the time. We don’t want self-awareness to morph into self-involvement, after all.
What stories are you not telling that you should be? Maybe it’s time to shine. And see your light reflected back through other people’s eyes.
Hallowe’en is (at least partially) about Fear, right? Good-natured fear. You know the toddler in the Dracula getup isn’t going to puncture anything more serious than the wrapped candy you distribute.
The fear that hits writers sometimes is like that, too. It’s not gonna kill you, so as the cliché has it that must mean it’ll make you stronger. But it’s so, so hard to remember that. To remember that all you need to do is keep putting one word in front of another. You may not be able to outrun your fear, but you can write yourself a path through it.
So I asked my writers this week to write about their fear. We looked at the conversation Elizabeth Gilbert shared in her essential book Big Magic; I couldn’t wait to see what this creative group came up with.
Gilbert sets boundaries with her fear: you can do this, but not that. I am in charge. One of my writers took a similar approach, but added a trio of enforcers named after personal growth qualities we all need. At the end of her piece, the enforcers escorted Fear outside “to have a talk.” Tony Soprano would have been proud.
Another writer could have been writing a movie script called Fear Takes a Holiday. Instead of calling in the goons to beat up Fear, she showed Fear what a good time looks like. Encouraged it to take a load off and hang out in the sunshine. You could almost see the piña colada in Fear’s hand, see the smile slowly dawning on Fear’s face.
Smiling Fear? Well, that’s no real fear at all. So whatever you fear, hand it an umbrella drink and show it a grand old time. It’ll never want to go home again.
How do you get to be a creative person? You live in the moment, follow your instincts. Make unexpected choices. That’s how Nancy Cartwright, a fully grown female adult, ended up playing the role of a 10-year-old boy. A role she is still playing, 29 years later.
Yes, Nancy Cartwright is the voice behind Bart Simpson.
The producers had called her in to read for the role of Lisa, Bart’s younger sister. But the audition materials for Bart sat on the stand right next to Lisa’s. Cartwright read them and they resonated with her. The unexpected choice paid off.
I spent 90 minutes with Cartwright today, listening to her interview on James Altucher’s podcast, She told Altucher story after story about her career as an actress. Practically every one featured an unexpected choice that led to success.
Unexpected choices strike gold
And she’s a writer, too. The screenplay she and a writing partner worked on for something like 20 years has finally become a movie, In Search of Fellini.The New York Times called it “a charming drama”—but of course the first sentence of the review identified Cartwright as the voice of Bart Simpson. It’s loosely based on a real-life quest Cartwright engaged in, traveling to Italy to meet filmmaker Federico Fellini and convince him to sell her the rights to one of his movies. She wanted to adapt it for the stage.
I can’t tell you whether she succeeded in her quest—I haven’t seen the movie yet. But I can tell you that the stories she told revealed that making unexpected choices can yield gold. Like the first person she met in Italy—a homeless man feeding pigeons in a park. Cartwright chose to engage him in conversation (fortunately he spoke five languages, since she knew no Italian). And he turned out to have acted in one of Fellini’s films.
I think Cartwright’s stories struck a nerve for me today because I’ve been thinking about creativity and the courage it takes to follow through on it. I’ll be leading a free seminar on the subject at 6 pm on July 18th. Nancy Cartwright is a great example of someone who seems to embrace creativity at every turn. Even when she’s scared. Even when she’s doing something she’s never done before.