War Effort

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If I were to tell you what I’m most afraid of, it’s this: doing something wrong.

Perfectionism runs deep inside me, cutting deep canyons, and though I once thought I could call myself a “recovering perfectionist” but the truth is the trait doesn’t ever shake itself off completely.

It sickens me to think I might pass along this harsh critical eye to my little son. As part of the war-effort on perfectionism, I made a post-it note that I fixed to my fridge with the circle with the line through it that you usually see along with a smoldering cigarette to tell people they can’t smoke here, but I replaced the cigarette with the word perfectionism. It’s a good reminder for me, and I get it multiple times a day.

My fear of messing up currently takes the form of my ridiculous desire to follow all of the advice and counsel I get from people who know more than me. There’s hours and hours worth of wisdom and tips and advice out there, and it’s laughable to think I can follow it all, but I try to because I’m an overachiever and a perfectionist. (I somehow manage to forget how much advice disagrees with other advice that’s out there.)

My perfectionism makes me a very bad listener. I try so hard to do everything right, there’s no time to pause and pray and see what God might want me to do. There’s no space to let myself stumble and screw up and disappoint people and step into freedom or explore because doing things “right” requires so much mental effort and it doesn’t allow for experimentation.

I wish I knew how to think myself out of this one. I wish I wasn’t this frightened to lose control of my life, even when the threat of losing control is nowhere on the horizon.

This is my counterstrike: In the morning, before the sun rises, I light a little round candle in a blue ceramic bowl. I focus all of myself on listening before the buzz of the world deafens me. I am striving to hear what God wants me to do, what he wants me to know, what he wants me to hear, rather than chasing the hundred other voices that are also trying to advise me.

In those quiet morning moments, there’s nothing perfect or imperfect. There’s a stillness of waiting. And in that gentle respite, for a few minutes, I’m not afraid.

How to Read Out Loud in 6 Steps

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We all read out loud.

It’s part of daily life. But what many of us don’t realize is that reading out loud is a skill, and, with a little practice, it can be honed in a way that transforms anything we say.

A mediocre story can become something fantastic with one simple tweak—the voice-acting of the narrator who breathes it to life. A well-written piece of communication can catch fire in a crowd when delivered by an eloquent and passionate performer.

Not everyone is a theater geek like me who loves to combine stage training with the delivery of a message or story, but almost all of us are forced to read out loud in a public or semi-public setting on a regular basis. After considering this, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned. You don’t have to be an extrovert to speak well in front of people. Introverts are fully capable and equally gifted at this.

From my history of delivering speeches, telling stories, and communicating through many mediums, I’ve drafted some tips and tricks that will help anyone improve and even electrify their skills at reading out loud.

  1. Pre-Read Your Content

The chances of tripping over a word or mistaking it for its similar but incorrect cousin are almost zero if you’re already familiar with your content. Pre-read it out loud.

  1. Select Your Tone

Everything you read has some sort of attitude. If you’re reading a comedic piece, determine whether your stance is lighthearted or sardonic. If you are delivering a long list of information, decide what bullet points deserve the most focus. If your message is an urgent one, you must know this.

  1. Mark Your Beats

Once you grasp the content and appropriate tone for the piece, mark your manuscript. I find this easiest on printed paper, but you can make notes on an electronic document as well. The big trick: Look for where an audible pause in speech would underline your meaning. In theater, these pauses are called “beats.” Add another other annotations that will help you remember your tone and emphasis for when you read out loud.

  1. Establish the Cast

For a speech on one subject, you might have just one voice for the piece. For a short story involving three characters, you will need three voices. You don’t have to make your young boy talk with a high pitched squeak, and your jazz diva doesn’t have to talk in a honey-coated rumble (though you’re free to try it!). The primary goal is to keep the voices distinct from each other.

  1. Visualize Your Setting

If your reading will be delivered in a large room or hall, you’ll need to use a large voice to fill it, no matter how delicate the content. If your reading will take place in a circle of armchairs by a fireplace, you’re allowed to play with the subtler nuances of murmurs and soft volumes. Plan accordingly.

  1. Read Slowly. Never Rush It.

This last piece of advice, along with the first piece of advice are the most important. A rushed speech is hard to understand at best, and makes the reader sound ill-prepared and nervous at worst. Reading slowly may take some practice before it feels comfortable. Watch a video of a public speaker and note the speed/flow of words. It is actually quite slow, which allows listeners to absorb and interact with the message. Practice your reading several times, if necessary. It makes reading slower easier.

If reading out loud is something new for you, be prepared to feel silly at first. I’ve embarrassed myself loads of times, especially when I tried to don foreign accents for some of my characters and failed. But remember this—the life that you give to the written word when you devote yourself to a vivid delivery of reading out loud is absolutely worth a few embarrassments. The story is so much better for it.

I’ll say it again: the most important thing is to be familiar with your content (Tip #1). As fun as it is to dash something off, then instantly share it (if you’re reading out loud your own work) or to rapidly skim something great and then leap up to share it (if you’re reading out loud someone else’s work) if you take the time to give the writing a careful look over, consider your tone, mark the beats, number your cast (if there is one), plan for your setting, you will be ready to deliver your message in a way that has listeners hanging on your every word. Because you’re giving more than a reading.

You’re giving a life-infused, confident performance.

Less and Less

leavesI’m doing less and less these days. (In quantity, I must add. I dare not say I’m doing less “in quality.”)

Do it well and keep it simple. It’s so much better than reaching too high and failing miserably.

I shall elucidate: Picture me with four pots on the stove, veggies in the colander in the sink, meat thawing in the microwave, bread warming in the oven, sauce burning on the stove…and then correctly deduce my emotional state as losing my mind because my son is getting fussy and ready for his bath, but I have fifteen more minutes of chopping left before I can put the main dish in the oven to bake–you get the idea. I’m trying to cook something fancy for dinner, but if I’m interrupted (likely) or James gets home late from work (a frequent occurrence when he’s in a busy season), then the meal is ruined or cold and my mood is, shall we say, a lot like the dinner?

Here’s another example: A have a dear group of friends who often trek down to a local pub on Friday nights to grab beers after reading out loud excerpts of their fiction projects together. I haven’t been able to join them in months because I have a darling little human alarm clock who goes off between 6:30-7am every morning, without fail. I am now a dedicated morning person, weekends not excepted. I climb into bed early in the evening and have real feelings of affection for my new down comforter. I don’t think I used to love my bed quite as fiercely.

A third illustration: Walking around Seattle’s Green Lake with my stroller and baby in front of me and a good friend beside me is one of my favorite things to do. But meeting up with anyone requires me to arrive in a physical location at a specific time, and I can seriously feel the new gray hairs when I struggle to get my son and myself out the door. Friend dates have made themselves impossible to accomplish on a daily basis. The pressure and anxiety isn’t worth it.

I feel I should clarify what I’m saying here: This isn’t settling. This isn’t accepting defeat. This isn’t setting my sights low. Anyone who knows me knows I hold myself to ridiculously high standards in my art and professional work, as well as my community relationships. After that, everything else must be simplified.

If I cook fancy dishes, I resent mealtimes. If I stay out late and disregard my sleep needs, I wind up a grumpy basket case. If I book myself tightly with social engagements, I have nothing left for my husband at the end of the day and I’m shorter-tempered with my son.

You might hear echoes here of my post on Simplicity and Sunglasses.

Here’s where I’ve come out on the other side: I love early mornings again. I’ve found freedom in dinner-prep by doing spurts of chopping in the morning or afternoon. I can cherish outings with my friends as a treat, not a mandatory way to fill time.

It’s not easy. Life simplification can quickly swing to under-stimulation. When when I find myself surprised on a Monday morning by a peaceful, calm heart, I know I’m treading new ground.

Peacefulness is a victory that cannot be overstated.

Pearl

pearlI was hardly prepared for the weekend that just passed. I have a habit of being revved up and excited before a writer’s conference (and grumpy, exhausted, and burned out, after one), but this excited pre-conference state is understandable, right? It’s like being a candy shop of learning that’s jam-packed with people who are just as crazy as I am about how to tell a good story.

I didn’t feel that way this year. I didn’t want to go.

I wanted to use all the time I had to just write on my projects. It struck me that, though there are always new things I can learn (and someone please slap me if I ever develop a different opinion), there are also periods of my life when it’s the time to work, not the time to fill my head with new suggestions and techniques. I’m currently in that place where it’s my time to work: I’m revising my Irish fantasy with dragons and magic. I have a short story selected for publication in a fantasy anthology that tells a love story of heartbreak and loss that I’ll soon be revising. I have a precocious 14-month-old baby boy who is almost walking, and living up to the name (Curious) George with flying colors.

I’m busy.

Thus, I approached this full weekend of classes with a bit of pessimism. I desperately needed another perspective. I was feeling alone and small and exhausted. I prayed and asked God to come with me to the conference. Then I set for myself the goal of connecting with people and refusing to allow myself to become overwhelmed by what I would learn.

You know what happened? On Saturday evening, I found myself talking to another author, a friend who I met through my publisher, about being a parent and finding time to write in the midst of raising a child. I confessed my fear that my window of writing opportunities was closing, that I’d have to give it up entirely for the very worthy task of parenting, and how sick with dread that thought made me.

Writing is part of who I am. It’s not just a hobby. It’s a deep part of me and what I was made to do.

This author friend looked me right in the eye and told me that I wouldn’t have to stop. Even if I wrote poetry on napkins. He told me that I was a real writer, and obstacles like this don’t stop the real ones from continuing to write. He shared his own stories of attending night school, raising two sons, having a full-time job, and skimping on sleep in order to still write. I cried and walked around the table to hug him. He’d seen me and understood.

This was the highlight of my writing conference: sharing a human fear with another writer and having that fear addressed and quieted with compassion. It’s a funny morsel to take back with me from a writer’s conference, yet it shimmers in my heart like a pearl.

Stay

windowI grew up in Seattle my entire life. I never moved away for college, but attended the University of Washington, a thirty minute bus ride from my house. I’ve kept many of my relationships and friendships for years and years, which might be why I’m not one to quickly make new friends, and also not one to quickly burn proverbial bridges when the going gets tough.

My husband and recently ran the numbers for what it would cost to move into a bigger “family” house in this neighborhood. *Gulp* In all likelihood, making some assumptions, we’d need to stay in our two bedroom townhome another four to five years before the finances worked out into our favor. So, unless one of us gets an unexpected chunk of money from somewhere (and yes, I’ve heard the advice that “Elise should write a bestseller” about a dozen times already), we’ll be in this place a fair bit longer. A lot longer.

I’ve been subjecting our house to organizing spurts recently, wracking my brain for better solutions to messy and half-hearted arrangements. And I feel powerful every time I conquer a few square feet of clutter. But am I content to stay? It’s going to get tighter if we have another baby. It’s going to get crazy as George is almost walking and will undoubtedly want to run over anything his feet can touch.

Am I content to stay? It feels like a deeper question. Staying and working with what we have is much harder than starting fresh, isn’t it? I know there are countless families all over the world who never leave their homes of birth, who stay in the same city their whole lives. There’s no shame in it.

I didn’t realize what an anchoring effect it is to give birth to a baby. He loves to stay. George loves the familiarity of his house. He doesn’t like sleeping somewhere new and different. When we unload him from the car and carry him past our neighbor’s yard, George barks at the fence because he’s used to hearing the neighbor’s dogs bark at him. He draws comfort from knowing where his home is, day after day.

It’s hard to wrap my mind around what our life will look like as we stay. I’d like to think it makes us a faithful, reliable refuge for friends and family as other friends move away for school or jobs or simply where they feel they need to be.

As for me, I’ll be right here where you left me.

Not to Brag but… {This Title is Sarcastic}

fountainI  made a strange resolution recently. I’m not sure I’ll be good at keeping it, but I’m going to post it publicly here to hold myself accountable.

I’ve decided to stop bragging on social media. That includes Twitter, Facebook, and this blog here.

There are moments throughout my life in which I have good news to share, but I’m now personally convicted that it’s not polite to shout this news from the internet mountaintops. I want to bend back toward something the resembles real, authentic life. That means, in order to share my good news, I’ll do it through personal communication with the people who matter.

This is the crux of the issue for me: So many times, when I’m logged onto social media, browsing my feeds, I’ve become deafened, drowned, and overwhelmed by pictures and posts that inspire depression or envy in the pit of my chest. “I wish I was there.” I’m never as lucky and successful as that.” “Why is my life so dull in comparison?” etc etc.

Is it ultimately my responsibility for how I react to these stimuli? Yes. Responsibility accepted. But then I realized I played my own part in the online bragfest.

So I’m pulling myself out.

I’ll still share good news. I know the difference between bragging and thankfully reflecting on something wonderful that has happened, and I know that everyone has to draw the line differently for what they feel is healthy to share. If I need to tell someone directly about my news, in a burst of excitement, I’ll tell friends and family. If they want to pass along the news, that is their freedom to do so. I’ll still be online. I’ll still be marketing my work. I’ll still share things. I just want to stop bragging. (And I’m not sure exactly what this balance looks like. Insight welcomed!)

This is what I know: there are unquestionably moments when I know that sharing a particular bit of news online would only be done to boast about how lucky or talented or special I am, essentially, to ride a boost of e-cheers that often come at the silent emotional expense of others.

I’m no the only one who’s found the news online difficult to endure. And I don’t want to just close the door on everything and walk away.

So I’ll just stop tooting my own horn.

I’ve tried this out unofficially for a few weeks now. My life feels less fake, which is strange to say. And, in a few surprising moments, I’ve felt more receptive to gestures of love from my friends.

Who would have thought?

Things I Want to Tell You

IMAG0691This was a letter that I planned to use as a blog post before Baby George arrived in the world. He decided to arrive 10 days before his due date, which might have been the reason it missed its original release date.

However, all the advice I had for him still applies. I think it’s funny that Relationships and Social Media seem equally important as categories in this letter. I hope someday George will read this and laugh and maybe even get something out of it. But until then, you get to enjoy it.

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Dear Little One,

With just weeks remaining before you’ll be born into the light, I have a few things to say—and I doubt you’ll understand any of them. Humor me. Mommy won’t be able to wait the years required for your language processor to be ready for this download.

Sometimes I just have to dump a lot of words out of my mouth. Your daddy is used to this, and he still loves me, so I know you’ll survive.

A few tips about life out here:

Communication -This might be the most important skill I’ll ever teach you. Find ways to explain how you’re feeling as fast as you possibly can. I’ll do my best to help you along, give you an emotions vocabulary, and listen carefully to you.

Understand Mommy’s Communication Style - I need lots of kind words and encouragement. Your mom gets depressed when she’s overwhelmed, so find a way to tell her what you appreciate. I’ll take any form of affection you want to give me.

About Relationships -You’re going to land smack in the middle of a complex web of giving and taking in this world. My best advice is to a) bring your communication skills out as often as you can, b) don’t assume anything, c) don’t take anything personally. Also, look for the very special friendships where you love the person so much, you can pour yourself into him/her and never feel like it’s too much. That’s called a “kindred spirit.” These friends are very rare and hard to find.

Don’t Fear Love - You’ll experience love in many forms. Your mommy and daddy are both hopeless romantics, so you’ll pick up some of this at home. My wisdom here: love people deeply, honestly, and carefully. Your feelings might seem at moments like an unstoppable wave that strangely evaporates a month or even a day later. Don’t throw away your life or happiness on a whim. Love is more dangerous and beautiful than fire, but you can’t live a full life without it.

Watch Out for Popular Media - Fake things can be made to look very real. Movies tell you that a glamorous life is normal, that successful people look perfect, and things will always work out in the end if you just believe in yourself. It’s bogus. Don’t look to Hollywood or Facebook or magazines or whatever is popular for people your age to get ideas on normal expectations. Don’t let people scare you away from going near any of it, either. Learn to sort beautiful truth from beautiful lies. Complicated? Yes. Your mom is still not an expert at this.

Keep Your Sense of Humor - Laugh a lot. Laugh at yourself as much as you can without being cruel. Go ahead and make mistakes, but don’t be afraid to start something, even if you’re not sure you can finish it. Failure is a lot less awful if you immediately get up and try again.

Seek God-There’s much you’ll have to learn and discover for yourself about Him, but I’ll tell you what my parents told me—He loves you even more than I will ever be able to. If you can understand this and grow from there, I will be glad.

I can’t wait to meet you.

Anxiously yours,

Mommy

New Story Published!

LostEyesCoverI have a special place in my heart for archaeology adventure stories like Indiana Jones, The Mummy, and Romancing the Stone. While I was envisioning the universe of Forecast, and where it would be fun to explore more story history, I realized I needed to tell the tale of the Peruvian door, the first door Tobias Randolf encountered, the door that was the first domino in a chain of sweeping events.

Randolf has gained quite a reputation by the time he enters Forecast, but in this story, he is a young man searching for his destiny among ancient ruins and South American culture. He becomes entangled quickly in the myth and magic of Cuzco, Peru, and his most ardent helper is a beautiful woman who…I’ll stop myself before I give too much away!

My new short story THE LOST EYES is a prequel to FORECAST. You need not worry if you haven’t read FORECAST. It is its own story with a feeling of familiar danger and mystery that is found in the novel that follows it.

The cover was designed by the talented Daniel Ramer and the editing wisdom of Katie Flanagan helped make it even better!

Enjoy!

Click to Purchase The Lost Eyes on Amazon

(This is an e-book short story.)

You Want it in White?

Note: This is not my room.

Note: This is not my room.

Blasts from the past have something to tell us, even when that something is embarrassing.

I stumbled across at a photo taken at a party of mine from a few years ago. After bypassing the outrageous costumes we all were wearing, my current self cringed at the decorating choices of my past self as I studied the backdrop of the photo. To be fair, this particular picture documented a Twilight-themed party and we girls were all dressed as vampires and making ghastly grimaces at the camera. (If you’d like to judge me, now would be an excellent time.) Perhaps the house had been laid out in some party-inspired way. Regardless, I cringed.

I used to think dark wood and intense colors were my thing—whether on the walls of my house, or on the clothes I wore. Then I realized just how much light and brightness the color white brings to everything. There are moments when I feel I’m becoming a different being entirely, as evidenced by my house’s décor.

We braved IKEA recently. I was accompanied by a few close comrades (my mother and my son). George decided to skip his morning nap, but was cheerful the entire day in the store. My favorite antic of his was asking strangers for help freeing him from his high chair, after I refused to immediately remove him when he’d finished his lunch. He signed “all done” (we’ve taught him some sign language) to people as they passed him, hoping they would listen to his demands, even if his mother was a blind idiot.

IKEA activities: I supped on delicious Swedish meatballs, I danced with a paper IKEA measuring tape around my neck singing “Wonder of Wonders” from Fiddler on the Roof, I ran through the store hunting for the shortcuts to the exit after backtracking to check the size of something…all in a typical day, right?

I brought back a lovely black-and-white print of a bridge over waterway in Amsterdam. The sole color of the piece is a red bicycle leaning against the bridge railing. The print now hangs in front of our television and hides it.

Why is IKEA special to me? Because whoever designs all those cute rooms is demonstrating to me a reality that I could happily recreate. I’m able to see something and cry, “I love it!” without immediately then whimpering, “And I can’t afford it!”

Design, as a whole, usually strikes me as a state of mind where homes are beautiful sanctuaries and children are the unwanted tornadoes who eventually replace all gleaming order with scuffed chaos (See my post on interior design for the mildly depressed).

But IKEA knows you have kids. And they’re welcome.

Maybe my mom let me jump on too many IKEA beds in too many IKEA dream bedrooms when I was little. (And I always wanted to sleep in one. Too bad I don’t live in Sydney, or I’d have a chance at this…)

I just love this place. Not quite as much as Disneyland, but somewhere in that part of the brain. It awakens possibility in me. It encourages me to think big, to dream in a practical way that enhances, organizes, and simplifies my life.

I’m grateful for that.

Creativity is about…

boatI’m not one of those folks who believes that a painter on a desert island will go on painting canvases (or rather, banana leaves, as this may be the only available resource) if s/he is alone with no one else to see the art.

I honestly don’t think this sort of perpetual creative art would happen, and that’s not just my personal ego and need for appreciation talking.

Humans have been wired with a need for community. Even if we do our best work alone (and this is exactly true, according to Susan Cain’s book, Quiet), we do not serve ourselves best by remaining that way.

I can’t write at my desk in my little town house while my son sleeps and be happy in the completeness that I’ve laid out a few paragraphs of story. Sure, there are days when I’m certain I’ve made something good, but this all-too-soon fades without someone to share my work with.

I formed a critique group to get a dedicated bunch of readers to help me finish writing my first novel. I needed them desperately.

I paint so that my husband will smile and admire it. I smear pastels in vivid arrangements so that my dad’s eyes spark and he asks if he can hang it on his wall. I read my stories out loud on Friday nights because my listening friends keep me from stopping to write entirely. I dance so that my husband and I can connect together.

Creativity is about giving what you’ve made to other people.

I don’t create so that people will like me (heh, at least not always). But I also don’t create art for no one.

So if you think it’s a romantic notion to just lock yourself away for an endless, silent bliss in which you can focus on your creative endeavor, you should definitely follow this urging. Just don’t be surprised when you lose your steam. That is your signal to return. It means you need your community.

I’ll say it again:

Creativity is about giving what you’ve made to other people.

That loneliness for others is not weakness. It’s the voice of your village calling you back.