Except for the gray

fogToday I walked

In the gray

In the quiet

of the fog.

 

It was my usual path.

Twisted oaks,

golden grass,

steady breath.

 

But the road was obscured,

The path unknown.

Nothing

except my feet,

the autumn chill.

 

A rustle,

a distant engine,

a whisper.

They weren’t with me.

They were not mine.

They couldn’t see me.

 

All I saw was me.

Except for the gray.

It stayed in the shade

waiting for the sun.

 

There is much I don’t know.

And much I do.

 

Right now

the strength of my legs,

the openness of my heart,

That there are still surprises

beyond the fog.

 

What you cannot see yet,

It is as beautiful

and as valuable as

What stands before you

bathed in light.

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6 Reality Checks for New Authors

Reality-CheckThe most common questions I get from folks inquiring about my writing coaching services aren’t about writing.

Most people who have written or who want to write a book already write to some extent, probably with some amount of skill. They likely believe completing the manuscript is their strength, or at least something they can figure out along the way, and they probably believe it’s the easiest part of their publishing process.

So, once some new authors get to the part where they’re considering outside help, they are already thinking beyond the manuscript. They have moved on to that imposing question we all face…

What do I do when it’s done?

Their head swimming with the mere notion of literary agents and query drafts, they ask if I have any advice for them. My response is to say the portion of the process beyond writing and editing isn’t my area of expertise. Like many, I’m figuring it out as I go along. That said, I have some tidbits to offer based on my own experience and research.

This is not even close to an exhaustive list of things a new author needs to know, but it contains the reminders I find most valuable as I go through the publishing process myself. And it’s usually enough of a reality check to propel writers new to this world to make some crucial decisions.

  1. Slow down. You’re probably not as done as you think you are.

First-time authors are notoriously full of hubris, and likely a bit naïve, which feeds the hubris. This is said with love and empathy, but it’s the truth. Completing a book is no small task, and everyone who does this should be proud and pleased. But it may or may not be the perfect tome you believe it to be. The process of getting it where it needs to be to compete with all the other books clamoring for limited publishing space will be challenging, and even the most experienced authors need lots of help along the way.

This wake-up call will happen. There’s no avoiding it. And, it’s a good thing. The most effective way to accomplish it is to attend a writer’s conference, talk to lots of people and even pay for feedback from an editor or agent if this is offered. You’ll come out the other side feeling a bit squashed, but much more savvy and wise. Any amount of research online or a browse through the writing and publishing advice section at your local bookstore may offer a similar experience.

The most valuable thing I learned was slow down. Edit your manuscript. Now edit it again. Now edit it again. Have friends or colleagues who are writers and/or avid readers and will be honest with you read it and send you their observations and reactions. Join a (good) writer’s workshop if that’s available or appealing to you. Now have at least one reputable professional editor critique and/or edit it. Take the time to thoughtfully and sincerely consider everyone’s comments and get a little time away from the manuscript. Now read it like you’ve never seen it before and edit and rewrite as necessary. Now have someone proofread it. Now go through it again and make sure it’s as good as you know how to make it before you even think of sending out queries.

The biggest mistake new authors make is rushing. Or assuming their publisher or agent or an e-book reader will forgive major story flaws, amateurish writing or errors made because they were in a hurry to get it out into the market.

Take your time to create the book you can send out without a moment’s hesitation. Most publishers will only publish books that meet the high standards they and most readers have—quality writing, engaging content, and a unique voice and/or perspective being some of the biggies. They can teach you some of the rest (even if they don’t want to), but they can’t and won’t teach you how to write.

  1. It may be more than you thought you were getting into.

The industry is evolving rapidly, mostly due to the advent of e-books and social media marketing. Even some of the larger houses are still in the process of catching up and are cutting budgets, advances and staff. This means their sales expectations are typically high, which means they have a narrowing view of what books are worthy of their investment, which means you must meet some pretty specific criteria to be published by them. This does not mean your book isn’t good or even great. It just means they aren’t convinced it will sell with minimal effort and expense.

There are a lot of specialty and small publishing houses, which is where you (or your agent) may have better luck. But just like the larger houses, they are tightening their belts, offering little to no advances and asking for extensive rights to your book and often future work.

Before approaching any agent or publisher, you must have a strong sense of how to market your book and a willingness to do the vast majority yourself.

To that end, you will need a stellar query letter and a solid marketing proposal. You can find great advice and some good examples of these documents both online and in the myriad of books about them. I often tell new authors to start with Writer’s Market’s online subscription content, then figure out for themselves the experts and lists that are most helpful to them. There also are some professionals who specialize in getting you through this part of the process. (Here are links to Rabid Badger and Author Biz Consulting, as examples of folks who are happy to help.)

You will be expected to have not only a detailed idea of who will want to buy your book and how to reach them, but already have an impressive number of them in the hopper via social media, blog followers, podcast/newsletter/website/YouTube subscribers, radio show listeners and TV viewers, students/clients/customers, etc. The magic number will vary depending on the size of the house you or your potential agent approach.

At minimum, if you don’t already have a blog, start one and start promoting it more assertively. If you haven’t signed up for Twitter or don’t have a website or Facebook page related to your book or its content, get that going. There’s a ton more to talk about here, but it’s not my wheelhouse and it would take days to detail all the potential outlets and offer advice about the best ways to market via the web and social media. A good Google search will reveal the many, many much more qualified professionals and resources that are happy to offer advice along these lines.

  1. Know your book and why it is worth it.

The benefit of being forced to write a great query and marketing plan is that you have a built-in opportunity to soul search. It’s also a necessary business-oriented wake-up call, don’t get me wrong, and an opportunity to figure out how (and maybe if) this is all going to work. But it also is an opportunity to commit to words, as briefly as possible, why this book is worthy of your attention and the attention of potential readers.

[A quick note: If you’re in it for the money, stop reading and go find some other outlet for your energy, time and hard-earned cash.]

Why are you passionate about this story or topic?

Why is your perspective or story unique?

Why are you willing to commit to the publishing process knowing there likely isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

What will readers get from this book and why is it important for them to get it?

Are you propelled by vanity and ego, or do you have something meaningful to say?

Are you willing and able to speak openly and authoritatively about everything in your book to whomever will listen?

Bottom line: What is your intention, are you able to carry it off, and is it enough to sustain you through what will be months of pounding the literary pavement?

  1. Don’t be afraid to do it on your own, but do it well and go in with your eyes wide open.

If you don’t think you can or you don’t want to do it in a way that satisfies the traditional publishing industry, you have options. Self-publishing is more respectable and a lot easier to do well than it used to be. Depending on how you do it, it allows you to keep all of the rights and all or most of the profit.

I recommend doing it with an eye toward quality and professionalism. That means more than putting it on Amazon for a couple of dollars. If you don’t know how or you’re not comfortable doing it yourself, there are professionals and services to help you do everything from cover design and e-book formatting to setting up virtual book tours, depending on how much you’re willing to spend.

It’s a lot of work, but if the intention for the book and your commitment to it is strong enough, it can be done and done successfully. Ingrid Ricks self-published her memoir Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story and ended up on the New York Times Bestseller list for e-book nonfiction. Then it was picked up by Penguin Random House’s Berkeley Books. More on this fascinating and inspiring story here (Ingrid Ricks’s Great Escape).

That said, self-publishing also is not for the faint-hearted. More than 400,000 books are self-published every year. A great article on the reality of self-publishing can be found here (What Your Friends Can’t Tell You About Your Self-Published Book).

  1. Believe that you will reach who you’re meant to reach.

This is a lot. I know. I can feel all of your heads being cradled in your now-clammy and overwhelmed hands. Once I offer various versions of this advice to current or potential clients, some lose heart. That’s okay. There are no wrong choices. The good news is that if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve probably got the goods to make a go of it.

If you believe you are meant to reach people with the message of your book, then you are. They are there. Every book has an audience. Every book with positive intentions affects someone positively. Even if you have a message that’s been offered before, it has never before been offered by you. Because you haven’t said it yet, there are some who haven’t been able to hear it yet. If you’re okay with the notion that it may only be a few dozen people hearing it instead of 100,000, then I encourage you to move forward.

  1. Enjoy it. Own it.

What we focus on is what we cultivate. Though the reality check of the post-writing publishing process can be a jagged pill at first, especially for typically introverted writers, it also can be extremely gratifying and even joyful. Allow yourself to fully experience it and even like it.

See the feedback and editing process as a master class in writing.View the query process as a creative exercise and opportunity to own and spread the energy of your book. See the rejections and non-responses as preparation for the inevitable (but hopefully rare) negative reader reviews. Approach the marketing process as an opportunity to affect people directly and get immediate feedback, not just a necessary evil.

Along those lines, don’t be afraid to spread the good news about your book. No matter the outcome, it’s a great accomplishment, so own it. Once you’ve gone through this process, you should have the language to do just that, and do so genuinely, comfortably and confidently.

Remember, speaking well of your book and your expertise doesn’t mean your ego has taken over the henhouse and suddenly you’re a braggadocios rooster. When you do it with heart it just means you believe in your work and you know it’s worthy of being read and discussed.

And you know what? You’re right.

Stay strong!

Happy writing.

om

Rebecca is an author, copywriter, writing coach and editor. Find out more about that here and here. Her next book, titled the same as her blog, will be available in 2016. Find out more about that here.

In gratitude for the darkness

spiral fallPerhaps it’s the seasons shifting and dusk arriving earlier that remind me to thank those who have offered the greatest growth. Now is as good a time as any. Better, in fact, since I need to get it done before the sun goes down.

Thank you to those who have generously shown me their dark places, whether they were also able to show me their light or not. I saw it anyway.

Thank you to those who directed their energy my way and lit up the hidden fractures I was unable to see before. I can see them now.

Thank you to all who did things they believed required forgiveness, asked for forgiveness and therefore showed me all the ways I needed to forgive myself.

Thank you to all who never asked for forgiveness and showed me even more clearly all the ways I needed to forgive myself.

Thank you to everyone who withheld their love and taught me that love for myself is the only love that is required.

Thank you to those who have judged, ridiculed, diminished, feared, patronized and ignored me. You make it easier for me to see when I do this to others.

Thank you to the people who behave hurtfully because they are mistreated, overlooked, misunderstood, confused, abused, depleted or sick. You remind me that everyone deserves love and compassion, simply because they are. But you need it more than most.

Thank you to everyone who has emerged from their own darkness, embraced their vulnerability and shared even one small moment of it with me. You have taught me we are all made of beautiful shade and light, and we live in the complex gray areas in between.

Autumn is about fading and shadows, endings, and the loss required for rebirth. It is a path to night and winter’s quiet. That’s why it is beautiful. It offers an opportunity to see and embrace even those parts that are most shaded, knowing they will lead once again to the light.

I am profoundly grateful to those who have shown me, guided me to or walked with me through the darkness.

Have a peaceful autumn.

om

To find out more about Rebecca’s writing and services, visit rebeccagifford.com.

Using technology to connect to ourselves

Laptop on stumpTechnology is not the devil. There, I said it. Whew.

What a relief to admit that I don’t believe that email, the Internet, smart phones, Bluetooths, social media, YouTube, online news, television, radio, podcasts, blogs and vlogs portend the end of civilization. That they are so interwoven into our daily lives does reveal that civilization is changing extremely and quickly. So, perhaps it reveals the end of civilization as we know it and that we are smack in the middle of a massive paradigm shift most of us feel in our very cells…but not the demise of all.

Perhaps what makes us feel sometimes like the end of the world is nigh is that we are still struggling with the balance between embracing the new—innovations that help us connect, evolve and expand—and continuing to use and learn from the old—indigenous cultures, nature’s wisdom, naturopathic medicine, long form storytelling, human contact, the art of conversation and, most importantly, the spiritual connection and self-awareness that brings profound healing.

I believe it’s possible, and vital, to embrace both. (And, between you and me, this is the major theme of a novel currently in the works.) So, nothing thrills me more than when I discover a “new” use of technology that serves as a bridge to one of the less concrete qualities of the “old.”

I believe that’s its truest and highest purpose.

Reply All is a podcast about the Internet produced by Gimlet and hosted by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. It tells poignant, weird and funny stories about how people use and react to the Internet. It produced its eighth episode in January, but as I’ve just discovered these 15- to 25-minute audio nuggets I just listened to this one about Paul Ford. He is a writer and programmer who creates Web sites to address most of his life issues, including a site to remind him of things decades away and a weight loss site only he and his therapist have access to where he records his daily calorie counts.

Healing through technology innovation, and a little humor

Paul also struggles with paralyzing anxiety. As he describes on the podcast, he constantly hears that niggling, negative voice in his head telling him he’s weird and bad and in danger, no matter what is really going on. His reaction, create anxietybox.com.

Here’s how it works. The site—or, more accurately, the bot inside the site—essentially outsources his anxiety’s voice. He can add as many anxieties as he likes and his email address, and the site sends him messages from his anxieties.

The horrible, negative things he used to hear in his head—e.g., “History will forget you because history forgets people who are unable to finish anything.” Or, my favorite, “People on Facebook look at your picture and think ‘in possession of a weird nose.’”—are sent to him throughout the day. They’re funny, but ruthless.

As I listened to the examples Paul read, I cringed. The host was similarly skeptical. Why would anyone subject themselves to these negative reinforcements? How could that possibly help? He was losing me fast.

But then Paul described his reaction, and I changed my mind completely.

Because he externalized his anxiety’s voice, he was able to look at it. Laugh at it. Even reply. He could see it for exactly what it was: his mind and ego, trapped in a cycle of anxiety and self doubt, intelligently crafting ways to make his true self feel badly.

Once he saw it, everything shifted. He understood the pattern of suffering and its source, and he was able to put it all into a broader perspective that helped him minimize its effect.

In Paul’s words: “It’s so ridiculous to scream at yourself all day long… Seeing it actually externalized as 20 messages in a Gmail inbox, it was so much like what my brain was producing. It was like, oh my god, I’ve been wasting so much time with this son of a bitch.”

Because of this simple technology, created by him, he was able to see the anxiety as something separate from his true self, soften it and eventually stop having anxiety attacks altogether.

He reminded me of a critical but tough lesson: awareness brings healing, and eventually peace. Once we are willing to acknowledge and truly see something or someone for what it is or who they are, their power over us diminishes. In the light of our gaze, it can only be exactly what it is. With the clarity of truth, we see ourselves for the perfectly flawed and mighty beings we are.

Truly looking at the things or people in our lives that we have created unhealthy patterns around is difficult. But once the truth has been seen, it can’t be unseen.

Anxietybox.com. Genius. Counterintuitive at first glance. But truly moving in its simplicity. Paul intuitively used what he knew—technology—to build a bridge to what he needed. This time it connected it to himself.

It doesn’t get more old school than that.

om

To find out more about Reply All, go here. To find out more about anxietybox.com, go here. To subscribe to updates on Rebecca’s upcoming memoir, Laugh at the Sky, Kid, go here. To find out more about her writing and coaching services, go here.

A Meditation for Dealing with the Crazy

swirlImages and thoughts surround me, circling around and within. But I can feel it already. That familiar spot in that quiet space. They all slow down, waiting to see if I will set them free.

My heart opens. I see the world and so many of its inhabitants continuing to spin, too fast to be able to see anything but a blur. We are distracted by comb-overs, county clerks, rivers of refugees and hashtag movements. We are overcome by life. But our hearts know it is only a dream. My mind tries to recreate memories, pictures and lingering pain—my own and others’—but I remember: my center is always calm, always open, always connected, always available.

I take in a deep breath of joy. For being alive in this tumultuous, confounding time. For knowing my place in the shift. I breathe out confusion, fear and the judgment that can only come from feeling separate. I close my eyes and let the energy run.

Today I welcome the silliness of a playground, the warmth of a bowl of homemade food, the laughter that comes when someone truly sees you and still wants to be with you. I welcome the ability to watch closely, speak carefully and create change without revisiting the anger.

Simplicity is healing. This moment is all there is. Connection is real. Love is the truth.

Today my heart is filled with a desire to help and heal, to slow the merry-go-round long enough for everyone to just be. It is overflowing. There is plenty to share. It pours out resolutely, covering the earth. It soaks through the dense cities and rolling countrysides, through fault lines and tree lines, all the way to the fire in the belly. It rises up and out in a jubilant rush that fills every molecule, every dark place, every light place and all the places in between, and it doesn’t stop until it gently touches the edges of the universe.

My mind opens, and all that churns within is released. It rises to the sun, explodes in fireworks of transformation and rains pure gold upon us all.

One last deep breath. Eyes open. A long, slow stretch. A smile of relief.

I wish you peace, world.

om

To find out more about Rebecca’s writing and services, visit laughattheskykid.com and rebeccagifford.com.

5 Ways to Avoid Being Misled, Deceived or Otherwise Hoodwinked

overprotected2We’ve all been there. You discover a secret, a deception, a falsification of fact or identity. It could be relatively innocent, perhaps finding out a friend lied about being busy to avoid a social occasion and didn’t want to hurt your feelings or your bachelor neighbor fibs about being divorced.

But sometimes it’s a whopper—a web of lies carefully spun and expertly crafted over the years with a deft hand, using the unique combination of words she knew you wouldn’t be able to doubt.

Once the truth is out, you and your ego feel hurt, angry, naïve, vulnerable, and—even though my son would call me out for saying this forbidden word—stupid. You begin to wonder if “they” make seeing eye dogs when your third eye is on the fritz. Are there spirit guides who hover next to your head and tug on your left earlobe when someone isn’t truthful? Two tugs when it’s a big one worth challenging.

I suppose you can get one if you like. I heard they might be available for a limited time on the astral plane, or craigslist. But, if you follow the below airtight tips, you won’t need one. There are things you can do that are (nearly) guaranteed to help you avoid the catastrophe and interminable burn of human betrayal.

Protect yourself. Build those firewalls carefully, people. Make them strong using concrete, cynicism, mistrust and doubts about the human spirit. Without impenetrable barriers, defensive weaponry and other forms of protection, who knows what kind of lies or energy or magic can creep into your space and taint everything, maim your dog and ruin Christmas. If you can’t fire at will upon what may or may not be out there with your worst interests at heart, what is the use of trying at all? And keep all your passwords in a safe place.

Keep quiet. Never share your thoughts, your truth or your real feelings. Openness only reveals you to be weak and vulnerable to attack. When asked nosy questions like “What would you like?” or “How are you?” change the subject, accidentally topple the interrogator’s drink or, better yet, distract them by pointing out a squirrel on a tree and run away. Best to evade any attempted intimacy or follow-up questions.

Avoid human interaction, relationships and all forms of social media. Repeat after me: Connection is bad. Knowledge is worse. We were meant to be distant. Communication should be difficult and slow. Relationships are supposed to be hard. These days we’re all way too close to each other. All this interconnectedness just gets us in trouble, and frequency of interaction—in-person, soul to soul or digital—only gives everyone more opportunity to share stories and spread falsehoods.

Don’t try to understand. It only opens the door to empathy. And empathy, my friend, is not your friend. Questions only lead to more information and more connection, both of which I’ve already explained are an enemy of any committed Deception Dodger. If you look for the pain, doubt or isolation that led to the lies, what’s to keep you from feeling these yourself? What’s to keep you from becoming a liar? You’ve never lied before, and you’ve surely never felt any pain that would induce you to mislead. So why start now? Best to allow them to wallow in their guilt and what surely is an uncomplicated existence focusing on only two things: a) deceiving you and 2) hurting you. Just leave them to it.

Never, ever love. Even if you don’t take any of these other tips to heart, please heed this one. To be a true friend, partner or family member—to truly love—is the most vulnerable and hopeful thing you can do. So, of course, it’s absolutely forbidden if you want to avoid being betrayed by your fellow human beings. And with our inherently flawed nature, how could any of us deserve it? It wouldn’t make any difference if we chose to offer love to someone who feels like they must lie to survive, or questions themselves so much they’re not sure what truth is anymore, or is caught in a cycle of addiction, programming, disease or imbalance that makes reality unbearable. To do that would validate them, acknowledge what they’ve done and why, or perhaps even help them. Worst-case scenario: you might forgive them.

And finally… We live in a universe where we have free will but our shared consciousness, our collective journey as both humans and souls, our beautifully complicated web of lives and identities, means we are all in this together. When one tether of the web shakes or falters, we all do. Some of us are closer to the shaky ones than others and more profoundly feel their imbalance, often manifested as deception inadvertently directed at us.

There are lots of ways to handle it once it happens. Or you could simply follow the easy steps I’ve outlined above. Your choice.

om

To find out more about Rebecca’s writing and coaching services, visit rebeccagifford.com. To get updates on the publication of her memoir, visit laughattheskykid.com. Thanks for reading!

Less than Impeccable: An apology to Alicia Garza and #BlackLivesMatter

handswordsI have a confession to make, and an apology. In May, not long after hearing Alicia Garza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter speak at a university via NPR, I wrote a blog. It spoke of my awareness that, as a human who loves my fellow humans, I must continue to speak truthfully and bravely about the systemic oppression of black Americans and, both specific to this issue and in general, be patient as I wait for consciousness to rise. All lessons remembered and learned from Ms. Garza’s speech made a few months before. The title of the blog: We All Matter.

Not long after, I became aware of reports of the organization taking issue with politicians and other groups co-opting the well-known hashtag, shifting its use or piggybacking on all they had accomplished for their own purposes. Some did this by broadening its meaning to make it more “universal” or changing it to “All lives matter” or some derivation. Ms. Garza and others appropriately are writing columns like this one (here), doing interviews like this one (here) and speaking out about how, whether the intention is positive or not, this takes the focus off of this community and the original purpose of #BlackLivesMatter, which clearly is still greatly needed. Bernie Sanders is now being interrupted regularly at speaking engagements, partially because of his off-hand remarks or inappropriate use of similar derivations, which ultimately resulted in him significantly addressing these issues in his candidate platform. Hillary Clinton has agreed to meet with organizers after #BlackLivesMatterBOS (Boston) attempted to disrupt a recent appearance (read about it here). Memes like this

burning houses are circulating around social media demonstrating the dangers of such shifts away from the original purpose of the movement.

The gist of my reaction to all of this, “Yeah, people, don’t water this down! Keep the focus where it needs to be…on this community. Of course we all matter, but we all don’t have to fight so hard for basic justice. Come on!” Then I remembered my blog. A reminder about the title: We All Matter.

Embarrassed and humbled, I have revisited this piece, read it with an eye toward any language that may be read as disrespectful or may do exactly what I hastily judged others for doing. The result, with a revised title, is linked here.

I remember my writing process that day and recall I was conflicted about wanting to defend and bring awareness to the specific racial issues at hand and also embrace the universal message Ms. Garza spoke of so beautifully. I admit the more universal ideas are what got my attention, spoke to my heart and inspired me to write this. But in the writing process I diluted and even ignored a bit the story she was telling and the reality of black people in our country. I did exactly what I accused these public figures of doing — broadening an issue that is difficult to swallow in its raw form to make it more palatable and acceptable to the masses.

I’m not sure the small language edits I made correct this. I’m pretty sure they don’t. But I’m preserving this piece in its slightly revised form as a reminder to us all, but mostly me, that words, their intention and how we use them matter above most things. They can create change and shift the conversation, as recent efforts by #BlackLivesMatter chapters have proven, but they also can soften the jagged edges of the truth so much that it does not impact humanity as it should. It also will remind me that to be impeccable with my words is both critical and difficult, and that we all, including me, have so far to go.

I apologize to Alicia Garza, #BlackLivesMatter and the black community. I turned away from the truth because it was too harsh to face. I wrote what was easier to express and more comfortable to read. The whole truth is worthy of our attention, intentions, words and actions. I won’t forget this again.

om