Follow your dreams, before it’s too late

Just today, I was having coffee with a friend of mine and we got onto the topic of just how important it is to do something you love. I mentioned that doing the ‘wrong’ thing, for me, led to chronic fatigue syndrome. And my life changed. Here is a piece I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014 urging us all to try to find some space to do exactly what our soul calls us to do, before we’ve lost the chance.

xx

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It’s 6.45 am, our toddler is in the bath and my laptop is perched on a sliver of the kitchen bench because, frankly, it looks like we had an out-of-control party here last night. Meanwhile, the dogs are trotting muddy paws across the floor, and my husband is nuzzling my neck.

If I died right now, I would actually die all over again of shame, knowing that someone would find me in this disaster. But then I’d get over the fact that the cat is eating out of the cereal bowl and there’s the smell of something rotting in the air, and I’d only be sorry I hadn’t got more books out into the world.

Because that is my calling in life: to write. It’s a calling I almost missed while I was busy leading the wrong life in the corporate jungle. But I didn’t truly start to listen to what I had to do until I had chronic fatigue syndrome and couldn’t work any more. Until the eczema spread all over my face and I couldn’t ignore it when I looked in the mirror.

So many women have amazing creative skills and yearn to leave their “day job” in favour of this passion. There’s a sadness that can’t be healed because that passion, that thing they want to do more than anything else, is also the thing that will, ultimately, make them happy.

I used to be one of those women, leaving for work and getting home in the dark, marching in silence with the hundreds of other rats racing through the tunnels on our way to the towers of soul-destroying “real work”, numbing ourselves with earphones in an attempt to ignore the fact that our true selves, our innate creative selves, were dying inside.

Some women love that life and if that’s you, I’m happy for you, truly. But for me, that life nearly destroyed me.

Unlike a virus that knocks you down for a few weeks before you start to recover, chronic fatigue doesn’t just get better. It takes time, lots of time, with an unknown finish date. Time I didn’t have. I had bills. I was a freelancer. I was a single woman. I was stuck in a horrible cycle of knowing that I needed to invest money in myself to get better, but not being able to make money to do that.

I accrued enormous debts, treading water until I could earn more money, believing one day I’d wake up and be better and everything would be fine. Eventually, I had to accept that I might not get better, that this might be as good as it got. And if that was the case then I had to start living the life that brought me joy.

It was like that saying – people work hard all their life to be wealthy, then retire and have to spend their money to save the health they ruined by working hard. Except I was only 29.

I made tough choices and changed lots of habits, not least of which was learning to accept myself rather than striving for (imagined) perfection. I had to learn to lower the bar. Do less. Expect less. Earn less. Work less. And then I had to start doing more of what truly nurtured my body and soul, even if it was by taking just one tiny step at a time.

Western medicine said it couldn’t offer me much, except perhaps for cortisone, which I didn’t feel was right. I couldn’t afford the plethora of complementary medicines being pitched my way. But I had to keep eating, so that was where I started – with food. Organic farmers’ markets became the place where I began to, finally, invest in myself.

None of these changes happened overnight. You can’t steer a ship in the wrong direction for 30 years and then expect it to turn on a dime. It’s an ongoing process.

We’re always waiting for the perfect time. And we bargain with ourselves by saying we’ll just be happy when we’ve paid off the bills, finished that degree, got that promotion, had three kids, got a cleaner, got a new car … whatever. And yet we all know the truth: there is only the now. And you can’t be temporarily unhappy to be happy.

Deep down we know this, yet we find myriad ways to delay our dreams. We think creativity is something separate from life. But it is life, not something you do for an hour on a Saturday afternoon. We’re running ourselves into the ground with pie charts and timetables and life coaches trying to find the work-life balance when there is no such thing. There is only life. And you only have one of those.

I want everyone to have what I have now – a career that fulfils me and financially supports me. One that gives me energy, not takes it away. I know that seems rare. But it doesn’t have to be. You can have that too. I honestly believe that. You just need to start and keep going. Don’t worry about how long it will take you, because you’ll still be the same age whether you do it or not. Don’t wait for the perfect time because that time is here, right now, messy kitchen and all.

Juggling Motherhood with Being a Writer: You CAN do it!

The final proofed pages of my latest novel, on their way back to my publisher, complete with Random Toddler Attack
The final proofed pages of my latest novel, on their way back to my publisher, complete with Random Toddler Attack

Top Ten Tips for Being a Mama and Getting Your Writing Done!

I see so many interviews out there where a female writer is asked how she manages to write while also being a mother. And I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, but I’m yet to see or hear the same question asked of a male writer. Now, I could pose a lot of theories of why that is the case, but since it is a topic that doesn’t seem to go away, I thought I’d put my two cents in as well.

Firstly, I want to be very clear in that I don’t think there is any difference between a working mother/writer and a mother who is also working as a teacher, nurse, psychologist, chemical engineer, astronaut, television host or cleaner. Right? It’s all a job or career and so we’re all faced with the same challenges. In fact, the ADVANTAGE of being a working writer and mother is that your time is infinitely MORE flexible. (That can also be a double-edged sword, but see below for that.)

So like all working mothers, working writers have to make choices about what is right for them and their career, their time, their family and their children. Nannies, daycare and grandparents are all considered, perhaps working part-time to allow for some sort of ‘balance’. Or, you might like to work full-time with full-time childcare. In my own case, we battled on with (expensive) in-home nannies for the first two years after our son was born (I got my literary agent five weeks after he was born… yikes!), and then he showed us he was ready to go to daycare two days a week. My dad and stepmother (luckily) adore him and they have him with them another day a week. So that gives me three days a week dedicated to writing. This works for all of us right now.

Before I had a child, I could write whenever I wanted to, for the most part. Now, I have to do it on my ‘working’ days. It’s not always easy but, again, any other job is the same. Some days we don’t want to go, right? But if you don’t show up, you don’t get paid. Sometimes I will work at night or on weekends, and every now and then I throw in a weekend away for a writing retreat to get some intensive uninterrupted time with my novel.

The tough stuff for me is when things happen on days that aren’t ‘writing days’: stuff like interviews, photo shoots, interstate travel, publicity events and commitments etc. Then the juggling does get tricky and this takes some whole family commitment to changing timetables and so on. And of course, often those other commitments DO happen on ‘writing days’ (because it is impossible to do a photo shoot with a toddler in his “Hulk” phase testing out his power by upending furniture), so that means that no writing actually happens and that puts pressure on the word count targets.

But I wouldn’t change any of it because I think I have the best job in the world for me.

I do know that the big pressures come when you are as-yet unpublished and are trying to work out how to work, and raise children, AND write a book. That’s tough. But still do-able. It takes a lot of compassion for yourself and belief in your need to write, as well as some creative thinking and support from your family. And it’s okay to ask for help, ya know?

Some tips:

  1. If you can, take back some time by hiring a cleaner to come for a few hours a week and spend every minute of that time writing. And if you have mama guilt about that, USE it to fuel your word count goal to prove to yourself how useful and productive you’re being. (As an aside, I don’t actually subscribe to this sort of fear-based motivation, but if you need to use it in the short term to get yourself moving then by all means DO IT!)
  2. If you can write in ten-minute or thirty-minutes snatches of time, I bow at your feet! If, like me, you’re not really like that, try to find at least ONE HOUR at a time (many writers do it at 4.30am or 9.30pm) and write like a demon for sixty minutes. Better yet, maybe it’s even more valuable to negotiate one whole weekend every month or two and just delve down deep into your book. You might get more done in that time than you would in six months of half-hour snatches.
  3. Writing brings with it incredible flexibility in terms of the time of day you can write and where you can write. This is awesome. Use that flexibility…
  4. …BUT! Be warned. This type of flexibility also means that when the child is sick and can’t go to daycare, when the car needs to go to the mechanic, when the plumber needs to come to the house etc. etc., it will likely be YOU that is asked to give up your writing time to deal with the domestic need. And, often, this happens because ‘your job’ isn’t ‘earning any money’ at that time while your partner’s job is. Oh, the mama guilt that goes with that! And look, the reality is that you do need to keep money coming into the house, right? But just be very aware of this trap. Learn to set boundaries and be patient with yourself as you learn to protect them and learn to claw back that time that you lost with the plumber on another day. Learn to negotiate. It can be tough; I get it. (Even now, as a published author whose income contributes considerably to our household, I still find it difficult.) But you need to do it.
  5. Work while disconnected. I use Freedom, a cheap, neat little program that BLOCKS THE INTERNET on my computer while I’m writing. What a difference it makes! We are too distracted and too distractible. If you’re on limited writing time than for goodness’ sake, suck the marrow out of every minute you have.
  6. Remember that you can plan a lot in your head while you’re playing with train sets and play dough. You can THINK about your book at any minute of the day.
  7. I think having a child actually makes me a better writer. It focuses my attention and time and forces me to move through procrastination and blocks much faster than I would do if I didn’t have the time ticking down to when I had to leave to pick him up from daycare. He is pure imagination and play and makes me laugh all the time and provides an incredible wealth of new experiences, emotions, ideas and material for books. And I swear that reading children’s books makes me a better writer. This is all valuable stuff for your career.
  8. Working on hard copy (writing by hand, or editing on paper) is much easier to do when you’ve got little people around than carrying your laptop around or locking yourself away in a room. Your supervision is still good, the little person won’t try and take over your laptop, you can hand over paper and pens so that you can ‘work together’, and the cup of juice that gets spilt won’t ruin your notebook like it will your laptop. You can always type up words later when you’re tired and don’t actually need too many brain cells simply to read and type, rather than create.
  9. Fatigue can be a problem. Oh boy, I get this. You need to train.
  10. Finally, it all comes down to this. If you want it enough, you’ll make it work. You can do it. You can. You absolutely can. You MORE than can. You can…. I promise.

Happy writing!

The Life of a Recovering Perfectionist

My most popular post for 2014 was this little piece… Enjoy!
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“I enjoyed your article in today’s ‘Sunday Life’ but please, please, please – ‘slither’ is what a snake does, ‘sliver’ is a small piece of kitchen bench!” (Fiona)

Yesterday, I had a first-person feature article published in the Herald Sun’s Sunday Life magazine, talking about the importance of following your dreams and I related my experience of being in the wrong career, of suffering chronic fatigue syndrome at just 29 years of age, and the long road to recovery. Part of that journey was learning to manage my inner perfectionist. (I don’t think I’ll ever truly get rid of the perfectionist, so I have to learn to manage her instead.) I received some wonderful feedback on the article, including the quote above from a reader named Fiona, who helpfully pointed out the typo in the very first paragraph of the article.

imagesI do actually know the difference between slither and sliver, but my fingers went for the typo while I was writing the article (probably precisely because I was writing it with all those distractions I describe in the first paragraph) and there it stayed, even while multiple editors read it and sent it to print. It’s just one of those things that happens in life.

Now, let me sidestep here and tell you about a teenage girl I met at one of my library talks, who was so passionate about writing and just bubbling with conversation about what she was doing. BUT, she also talked about how she would sit in a cafe for hours to write, but only ever get a few sentences on the page because she would work them and rework and, essentially, be so afraid of getting it wrong that the words she wanted to get just didn’t make it to the page. Truly, this broke my heart. How unbelievably sad. That girl has words waiting for the world and her fear is stopping them getting there. This is a clear example of how perfectionism is a destructive force in our life.

Perfectionism is NOT about excellence. In fact, ‘perfect’ doesn’t even exist! It is a constructed idea in OUR OWN MIND. It is the perpetual search for the worst in ourselves, not the best. And because it is a constructed idea, in your own mind, no one else can ever convince you that something is good enough, no matter how much evidence they present. Only you can decide to trust and let go.

So, back to my reader feedback. Of course, as a recovering perfectionist, my first response to that was horror, shame, humiliation. Stories running through my head like, ‘Oh my God, my article is out there for the whole country to read and there’s a spelling mistake in the first paragraph!’ ‘No one will buy my book now because they’ll think I’m a crap writer!’ ‘People will think I’m stupid!’ ‘How could I have been so stupid??!!!’

But then, as a recovering perfectionist, I quickly identified these thoughts as illusions in my own mind. Sure, some people might think those things. Many people wouldn’t even notice. And many people, going by the rest of the feedback I received, took away something really valuable from the article. Was it better for it to be out there at all? I’d like to think so.

I used to be an editor of books, and despite four or five sets of eyes looking at them before they went to print, they invariably came back with at least one error in them. It’s just one of those things that happens because we are human in all our imperfect glory.

I also realised that Fiona’s feedback gave me a wonderful opportunity to once again heal my perfectionist and choose to NOT lie awake at night fretting about my errors but instead go to sleep feeling really peaceful that my article brought so much joy to so many people. Perfectionism is a choice. Self nurturing and acceptance is also a choice. I choose to be kind to myself. My words may not be perfect but they can still have power.

**disclaimer: I am once again writing this at 6.45am while my toddler watches Peppa Pig so I will embrace all errors ahead of time 🙂 **