When Your Guilt Is Actually Imposter Syndrome

So I was thinking about my first post on feeling guilty about the life you’ve built for yourself, and I hopped over to artist Lucy Bellwood’s Twitter (@lubellwoo) to see if she’d written anything about that recently—since Lucy describes herself as a “Curious Empathy Machine” and is extraordinarily emotionally intelligent—and I noticed one of her tweets was about imposter syndrome, and I was all wait, is that what I’m actually trying to describe here?

Because, as you noted in yesterday’s comments, it’s odd to feel guilty about your own success, even in my re-definition of the word “guilt” as “I made choices in support of my goals and values but I still feel bad.

But that feeling runs fairly close to Google’s definition of imposter syndrome, specifically “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.”

(I always get imposter syndrome confused with “feeling like you’ll get kicked out of your job because you don’t think you really belong there.”)

I can definitely believe that my success has been legitimately achieved—I was there for the past seven years, putting in the work, moving from the roommate situation where I slept on the floor (because my room wasn’t large enough for a bed) to the apartment where I washed my dishes in a bus tub and dumped the dishwater into the toilet (because my studio wasn’t large enough for a kitchen). I got myself into $14K of credit card debt because I wasn’t making enough money, and then I got out of debt when I was.

But whether I deserve my current life is another question. That might be the feeling we’re all poking at here.

I don’t know about you, but I think part of the “do I deserve this” question derives from the decade-plus I spent after college living on so much less. I used to be a telemarketer. I used to be on food stamps. I used to live in an apartment where, as noted above, I literally had to dump my dishwater into the toilet. If I’d always had my current level of agency and comfort, not to mention financial stability, I might not worry about it as much. It might seem “normal.”

The other part of the “do I deserve this” question is “how can I use what I have to help other people?” I’ve tried to frame this question in the context of becoming an active part of my community; I’m currently on the board of an arts organization, I try to shop locally and tip well, I donate to local causes, etc. etc. etc. I’m going to help fund a scholarship for local musicians. That kind of thing.

I mean, when I think about it I’m all “I want to become one of those eccentric older women who lives in a modest but comfortable home and bikes everywhere and knows everyone and always shows up to the annual symphony donor gala and the opera fundraiser and helps break ground for the new school and all the rest of it.”

And really, I’m at least 10 percent of the way there now. (I already have the bike!) Yes, I’m choosing to focus on the problems I can help solve today—e.g. can I help a specific individual get a specific educational opportunity—instead of going after the bigger systemic stuff, and maybe that’ll change in the future, but maybe it’s fine to keep the majority of my giving back within my community.

But that brings me back around to is it okay to work towards the life you want?

Obviously, it seems it should be.

But enough of us feel impostery or guilty or unclear about what we should do when we get the life we want that it has to be addressed, you know?

Especially if our lives are different from what they were before, or different from what society/culture says they should be.

(Even though in my case, “quirky single woman who helps fund local organizations and scholarships” is very much the societal stereotype. There’s already a place in this world for people like me.)

Soooooooo that’s where I am with all of that. What about you? ❤️

When You Feel Guilty About the Life You’ve Built for Yourself

Sooooooooooo okay, I kinda mentioned last week that I should do a post about money and careers and guilt and shame, and you kinda said you’d want to see a post about that, soooooooooooo here we go.

I didn’t start asking myself whether I should feel guilty about the life I’d built for myself until I bought my piano. Prior to that, my work life didn’t include anything uniquely outstanding; I worked from home, but so do a lot of people. I earned $68K in business income minus loss, but so do a lot of people. Sometimes I took 30 minutes at lunch to walk the trail next to the river, but I’ve been doing that kind of thing ever since I got my first office job, and while there’s privilege in being able to go for a walk during your lunch break, it’s a privilege that’s available to a lot of people.

And then I got a piano, and I began using that piano as a way to refresh my mind between freelance pieces, or to hammer out an idea while I banged at the keys.

And that is a privilege most people can’t access during the workday.

So should I feel guilty about it?

And if I do, what should I do about it?

Let’s take a moment to clarify the difference between guilt and shame. Brené Brown, who seems to be the expert on these kinds of things, defines guilt as “I did something bad” and shame as “I am bad.” When I started to search for words to describe what I was thinking and feeling so I could write this post for you, I was thinking of guilt as “I lived according to my values, yet I feel bad” and shame as “I went against my values and I feel bad.”

Because there needs to be a word for “I lived according to my values, yet I feel bad,” as well as “I lived according to my values, and people were hurt, so I feel bad even though I know I did the right thing.”

(Is there a word for that?)

For example: shutting down The Billfold was a for-sure instance of “I lived according to my values, and people were hurt (or at least disappointed), so I feel bad even though I know I did the right thing (for me).”

Is the word to describe that feeling guilt?

What about the feeling you get when you set a boundary with someone and you know they are hurt/disappointed/angry/frustrated with you and yet you know the boundary had to be set and yet you feel terrible?

Or, to bring it back around to where I started: how do you describe the feeling, much less deal with it, of having shaped the life you wanted for yourself while knowing that not everybody can shape the life they want?

And then you have to interrogate whether that’s really true, because there are certain philosophical theories that suggest we always do what we want, even when “what we want” means “choosing the better of two bad options.” (As you might remember from my review of The Courage to Be Disliked, this extends to behaviors that we outwardly claim we did not want to do, whether that’s yelling at a waiter or ignoring that boundary we told ourselves we’d set. The desire to yell was stronger than the desire not to yell, etc. etc. etc.)

But if you head down that path you end up with “people put themselves into their own bad situations,” and that is demonstrably not true (hello, systemic inequality) so I’m just going to step aside from that whole discussion and go back to the question I’m currently trying to address:

Should I feel “guilty,” where “guilt” is a stand-in for a word that means “I lived according to my values and yet I feel bad,” because I have built a life that I really like, and, like, not everybody gets to do that?

We could also ask, because it’s fair to ask this question at this point in the piece, whether this is an indication that my values themselves are suspect. If I lived according to my values and I feel bad, does that mean my values should change?

Well… I mean, I feel like I’ve been refining and maturing my values as I continue to grow, and I’ve begun to adjust some of my values accordingly (“independence from parents” shifting towards “integration with parents,” for example).

So, with the understanding that I may want to change my current set of values in the future, I am currently fine with them.

Because, once again, this feeling of “guilt” is different from the way I feel when I do something that goes against my values.

For example: early in my freelance career I took a gig from a client whose work went against my values. I did not know the work went against my values when I accepted the gig (it was one of those early-career content mill things where you wrote unbylined copy to spec for pennies a word and allowed the client to use the copy however they wanted) and it took me a while to figure out where my assignments were ending up.

I don’t feel shame for accepting the gig or writing the first handful of assignments for this client. I feel deep, deep shame for continuing to work with the client for five months after I realized that they were paying me to write scammy SEO posts to help promote junky products and services.

To my credit, I spent much of that time asking friends whether I should quit (and they said no, but we were all in the “crappy jobs” period of our lives so this didn’t seem too different from the rest of the workplace); I also spent a fair amount of time trying to decide whether I was just being an idealistic Millennial (because that was when they were writing articles about idealistic Millennials trying to tell established companies how offices should be run). This was literally my second freelance gig ever; was I right to feel weird about it, or did I not understand how the industry worked?

To my discredit, one of the reasons I kept working that gig was because I needed/wanted the money. However, I quit the gig the minute it went from “against my values” to “so overwhelmingly against my values it could no longer be ignored,” without anything lined up to replace it. Then I gave myself the assignment of paying back everything I had earned from that client, in a combination of charitable donations and volunteer hours (because I wasn’t earning gobs of money yet and I still needed to pay my rent), and I did it.

And yet I still feel deep, overwhelming shame every time I think about the time I spent writing for that client. Even though I learned from it, did everything I could to pay back what I’d earned from it, regularly teach other freelancers how to avoid those kinds of gigs, and have never taken an assignment that has gone against my values since.

So that’s the difference between guilt—or this feeling that isn’t exactly “guilt” but I don’t have a word for yet—and shame, at least to me.

Guilt asks me to interrogate my decisions, my boundaries, my obligations to others, and the choices I want to make going forward.

Shame asks me to once again convince myself that I’m not really a terrible person, even though I probably am, because I’ll never be able to undo that mistake.

If you feel shame about your current life or career, that’s worth addressing immediately (please don’t spend five months asking yourself if you should ignore your bad feelings about the whole thing, it will only make the shame worse in the end).

But if you feel guilt, or something akin to guilt, because you have put together a life that’s personally and/or creatively satisfying and fits your current set of values… what do you do then?

Let’s continue this discussion tomorrow. ❤️

How to Work Creatively on Family Trips and Vacations

Laura Leavitt is a writer, editor, and teacher in Ohio; she has a pet gecko and likes a good game of Ultimate Frisbee on occasion.

When I went full-time freelance, I assumed that one of the benefits of freelancing would be the ability to spend more time visiting extended family and friends, since I could just “work from wherever.” In reality, working while simultaneously visiting family is… more complicated than I thought.

I’ve heard great things about working while traveling and living that digital nomad life, but it hasn’t worked out so well for my own trips and vacations. I’ve had to figure out when to fit work in and when to just take the day off, even if it hurts my payday. A lot of this effort has to do with figuring out my rhythms, so it may not be the same for you as a creative worker, but finding your own rhythms is probably a skill that you’ll be able to put into practice as well.

Experiment 1: Staying with family and working

My first effort involved visiting my in-laws for a four-day trip, assuming I’d find time to work. I was wildly unrealistic, telling myself, I’ll be able to wake up at 6 a.m., work for two or three hours, and then join the rest of the family for a long and exciting day of family togetherness.

There are many reasons why this didn’t work:

  • This family stays up late. I failed to account for the fact that I’d have to peace out to sleep before the card games and campfire stories really got going. I don’t need to shut the party down every night, but I also didn’t want to be the person who left early to go to bed; it looks too much like I’m sick or unhappy or something.
  • I don’t really want to get up before 6 a.m. and make coffee and start working instantly; I don’t even do this at home. I have managed it a couple of times while traveling (including on this trip) because of deadlines that I couldn’t change, but it wasn’t a smart move. It certainly didn’t help me get into a creative groove.
  • Even if I did wake up early, I wouldn’t get that much quiet time before the rest of the household got up; this family somehow wakes between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. even after a big night, so I would have very little private time for writing even if I stuck to my schedule. 
  • By making these unrealistic demands on my time, I got impatient and frustrated with every aspect of the rest of the day. This was arguably the worst result: when my family took understandable amounts of time to decide what to do, or ended up lazing around for an afternoon rather than making an ambitious plan, I couldn’t enjoy it with them because I felt “behind” in my work, and all I wanted to do was find a corner where I could work in peace. This was an awful feeling and made me feel like a workaholic… which I was being.

I resolved to do better, but I also accepted a truth for these kinds of trips: I can wake up 30 minutes early or whatever amount of time I need to finish last-minute deadlines, but otherwise, when staying in people’s homes and being offered time to spend with them, I am going to accept that this time is fully allocated for togetherness.

Experiment 2: Staying in a hotel near family and working

We just had a family reunion with a group of relatives that we don’t see that often. Due to the large number of people coming, many of us stayed at a hotel a short drive away from the relatives who were hosting, giving us our own private spaces in addition to the common spaces we shared for most of our meals, game playing, and chat. This trip went so much better than the previous family vacation, partially because I tried not to have super high expectations for how much I was going to work each morning (I aimed for 90 minutes, not three hours), but also because I built a structure that worked for me. 

Here’s how it went:

  • This side of the family had many more young children, so when the parents of the group decided to turn in, I eased myself out of the group early as well. I slept more and better, because I’m just fundamentally not a night owl.
  • I woke early (between 6 and 7 a.m. each day) but didn’t rush anything: if I wanted to go for a swim first, I did that, but if I had a good creative idea first, I did that. I let my husband sleep in and I never made plans with the family until after 10 a.m. 
  • This way, I got at least my 90 minutes of work in during my best brain-hours of the day, but I didn’t pressure myself (while on vacation!) to wake up and instantly work.

While I cannot always stay in a hotel or a separate space from family, it made me realize that if I want to get work done while I’m on a trip, I need my own space. Ideally, this space needs to be completely separate from the family gathering, so I don’t feel like I’m making the whole event “less fun” by sneaking away to work on my laptop.

Experiment 3: Visiting a new city with a friend and working

I also recently took a vacation that was peak vacation/work. My friend and I were on the same page: we wanted to see a new city but we also wanted to make a big dent in big creative projects we were working on. We booked a cheap apartment rental for a week, flew to Austin, Texas, and bought groceries to cook together to keep the costs down. Here’s how we made the trip serve both our work and our vacation goals:

  • We figured out our priorities together: what would make this most relaxing for each of us would be waking up at our own pace, exercising, writing for a block in the morning and a block in the afternoon, eating fresh food, and going to see something inspiring/interesting/creative every day. 
  • We aimed to have around four hours per day devoted to writing, but the rest of the time we went for walks, tried every kind of taco we could find, talked about our projects, watched movies, and went to art museums and local theater performances. 
  • It ended up being a very inexpensive vacation, but four hours a day of work felt great, not like a sacrifice: we’d both chosen to work on our least monetized projects, which meant we were really making a dent in work we otherwise rarely got time to prioritize.

This was my first experience that really felt like being a “digital nomad,” and it was really fun and freeing. While I cannot necessarily implement this method of combining work and play on family trips, it made me realize that, if given the opportunity to exercise my creativity while also seeing new things, I really enjoy balancing work and vacation this way.

All in all, I still have things to learn about avoiding being a workaholic, but I think that you can still prioritize your creative work during trips and vacations if you know what you value, realistically estimate your own bandwidth, and take advantage of having your own space. Knowing how to fit in work during a trip can also help you keep your freelancing goals on track, especially during those times where a family visit is more of a necessity than a vacation. You can’t always “work from wherever,” but you can learn how to turn “wherever” into a place where you can get work done.

Read Laura’s previous guest post on how volunteering helps her creative practice.

I Love the Exist App (and I Super-Love What It Taught Me About Priorities)

So you probably remember that I have this thing I call the “Daily Spreadsheet,” in which I track everything I want to prioritize on a binary level (did it happen, did it not happen).

Did I sleep more than 7.5 hours, or did I not?

Did I do something musical today, or did I not?

Did I draft NEXT BOOK today, or did I not?

Did I connect with another person today, or did I not?

Well. I recently learned about this app called Exist, which pulls data from a bunch of other apps (Fitbit, RescueTime, Apple Health, Dark Sky, etc. etc. etc.) to present a unified theory of Who You Are and How You Work.

You can probably guess that I love this app. It pulled in the last 30 days of data from all my other apps and instantly showed me correlations between sleep and exercise and heart rate and everything else—and sure, some of the correlations were fairly obvious, e.g. “the less you sleep, the more you eat,” but some were unexpected.

I didn’t realize, for example, how increased carbohydrate intake had a negative impact on literally everything else.

Of course, days in which I eat enough carbs to affect sleep, heart rate, exercise level, etc. are generally days when I eat at restaurants, buy cookies at the library, and/or visit the candy shop across from my apartment. Which means that these aren’t just carbs, they’re refined carbs. Added sugars. High fructose corn syrup.

I wanted to make sure my carb assumption was correct, so I added “added sugars” and “restaurants and snacks” to Exist’s custom tags section—that is, the part of the app where you can make binary choices about things that did or didn’t happen that day.

I started setting up a lot of binary choices.

Instead of “did I do music today,” I created tags for “piano” and “singing” and “Chorale” and “rehearsal” and “performance.” (Maybe Exist will tell me that my heart rate is higher on performance days!)

Instead of “did I connect with another person,” I set up tags for “Mom,” “Dad,” and so on. (Maybe Exist will tell me that spending time with a certain person lowers my heart rate!)

You get the idea.

Two things happened, almost immediately:

I had more tags than I was able to keep track of, making the correlation element less trustworthy. I would wake up the next morning and think “I forgot to track that I took a melatonin pill yesterday,” or I’d review the data and notice that I forgot to track the Steam game I played three days ago. If I can’t keep my tags straight, I can’t trust Exist to provide me with accurate correlations.

The more tags I added, the less any one tag became a priority. With my Daily Spreadsheet, I was motivated to do something musical every day so I could turn the “music” cell green instead of red. Same with reading a book every day, completing my shutdown ritual every day, and so on. I gave myself a handful of priorities and, because of that, was able to prioritize them.

But Exist didn’t show me a handful of priorities. It gave me a huge list of tags and asked me to identify which ones I’d done that day. Without that narrow set of items that I’d decided were the most important, and the constant visual reminder that THESE WERE MY FIVE MOST IMPORTANT NON-WORK TASKS, MUSIC-READING-CONNECTION-EXERCISE-REST, I… stopped prioritizing those tasks.

Unbelievable, right? Is my motivation to read an actual non-internet book weak enough that I will spend all evening on the internet if I don’t have a spreadsheet with a cell I want to turn green?

Turns out… maybe?

I want to keep using Exist, because I love it (and because it’s teaching me a lot about myself). But I think I’ll have to do some serious tag culling first.

Also, I am pretty sure I need to update my thesis that building the life you want means setting boundaries and priorities.

Now it’s “building the life you want means setting boundaries and priorities and avoiding refined carbs.” ❤️

When to Ease Up on the Hustle

I don’t know if you saw this tweet or not, but I’ve been thinking about it all weekend:

The screencapped text is from Brandon Stanton’s Patreon, and I will admit that I feel a little weird about sharing text he originally reserved for Patreon subscribers (and did not elect to tweet himself, as you’ll notice), but maybe more people will subscribe after seeing the tweet? Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself?

Anyway, if you don’t want to read tiny print, here’s the important part:

I think for every successful artist and entrepreneur, a good portion of their psychology remains anchored in the early days. When nothing was working. When nobody cared. When nobody was paying attention. When it felt like you were in a giant hole and the only way out was to work harder, and harder, and harder. And you were always scared that you were going to fail, unless you stay focused. And don’t stop. Don’t ever stop. Then suddenly it’s ten years later, and somehow you’ve made it. But you feel like the only reason you made it is because you didn’t stop. And you must keep going. Because there’s an hour of daylight left. And you can still fit in one more interview…

But you shouldn’t.

Because things are different now.

Things are definitely “different now” for me. I’m not worried about whether I can pay my rent this month, or whether I’ll be able to build a career and a reputation as a writer. On the other hand, I’m nowhere near the point where I can afford to go without continuous paying work—and I’m smart enough to know that if I want to keep booking work a year from now or two years from now, I need to keep building my skills and portfolio and network and readership.

So in my case, it’s figuring out the balance between not hustling every second and not letting my hustle slide to the point where I’m not growing.

I am very sure I haven’t found that balance yet.

What about you? ❤️

Why Financial Independence Is Like Self-Publishing

As of this morning’s freelance paycheck, I have $100,203.85 in assets and $825.44 on two credit cards that will both get paid off tomorrow, giving me a total net worth of $99,378.41.

I mean, I’m more excited about the “$100K in assets” figure, since I’ve been working towards that goal for a while (even though I know I probably won’t hit a for-real six-figure net worth until I get my next freelance paycheck).

After this, I guess the next big goal is a total investment portfolio value of $750,000, which — at the recommended 4% annual withdrawal rate and the level of frugality I’ve managed to maintain since college — should render me financially independent. 

In other words, I’ll be able to live exclusively off my investments if I choose.

The various online calculators suggest this will happen in the next 10-12 years. I am smart enough to understand that other things may happen in the next 10-12 years to shift that goal, but optimistic and/or dedicated enough to decide it’s a goal worth working towards regardless.

Being able to live half off my investments and half off my freelance writing and teaching and self-publishing income, for example, would also be good.

There are a lot of potential success scenarios here.

There are also a lot of potential success scenarios for a self-published book — like, it’s literally the first lesson I teach in my online Finances of Self-Publishing course (which you can take next month, sign up here).

You could write a runaway bestseller; you could write and publish a book a year and sell it to your 1,000 True Fans; you could write a book to preserve a piece of family history and use tools like Reedsy and IngramSpark to create a beautiful hardback copy that’ll last for generations.

Self-publishing can also get you many of the aspects of “the author’s life” that a lot of us dream about: a book launch party with cake and sparkling beverages, the opportunity to do readings and signings at bookstores and libraries, the professional expertise required to teach classes or speak on panels at conventions. A quiet home office with plants in it. The ability to say “I will block off X amount of time, every day, just for writing my next book.”

(Current NEXT BOOK draft: 12,253 words.)

Of course, you can get the plants and commit to a writing schedule before you finish that first draft — and if you want to learn more about how to do that, you should sign up for my online course How to Develop a Writing Practice, which runs end-of-April through end-of-May. (It’s a self-paced group course, so you’ll take it as a group but won’t have to be at your desk at any specific time for mandatory webinars or anything like that. You’ll be free to do the readings, chat in the group discussion forum, etc. whenever you have time available.)

Just like I’m already thinking about myself as having committed to financial independence — and behaving and budgeting like a financially independent person might behave* — 10–12 years before I’ll actually get there.

But I thought, during my early-morning yoga practice where I usually get my best thoughts, that the whole financial independence thing was strikingly similar to the self-publishing thing. A nearly identical mindset.

Self-publishers take on both the author role and the publisher role. They develop various “success scenarios” for their books — maybe they want to crowdfund their “advance,” the way I did for The Biographies of Ordinary People; maybe they want to sell more than 500 Kindle copies in the first three months**; maybe they want to to go on book tour or get their book reviewed by Kirkus or submit their novel for various awards.

There’s a lot that a self-published author can’t control, such as who wins those awards or how much money Amazon pours into its Kindle Unlimited Fund or whether the market for their particular genre changes, but there’s a lot they can control through research and careful budgeting.

The biggest factor under their control is whether they spend more on their self-published book than they plan to earn (THIS IS THE NUMBER ONE MOST IMPORTANT THING I WILL TEACH IN MY CLASS, BTW).

That’s also one of the biggest factors that will determine whether they’ll self-publish another book and slowly build up a career as a self-published author.

Likewise, the person going after financial independence takes on both the worker role and the employer role, even if they already have another employer. This person is setting aside money for to pay their future salary the same way an employer sets aside money for payroll, and deciding how much they might want to earn in the future the same way an employer decides how much to pay employees.

There’s a lot that this person won’t be able to control, such as whether they get laid off (or lose their biggest freelance client) and have to cut back on their savings goals (or spend money they’ve already saved) until they find another source of income. They won’t be able to control market changes or recessions.

The biggest factor under their control is — you guessed it — whether they spend more than they earn.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because several years ago I got myself into $14K of credit card debt during a period of underemployment. There are 100% for-sure times when you cannot spend less than you earn because you are simply not earning enough. I have been there. Lots of people are currently there.

If that’s where you are, and you’d like to not be there, I’d recommend reading Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence. This book should be available at your local library (get the 2018 edition if possible; if not, the older editions should be just as good though slightly less relevant to today’s economy) and it absolutely changed my life when I read it while working as a part-time telemarketer.

If you like cats and glitter, I also recommend Lillian Karabaic’s Get Your Money Together: An Illustrated Purrsonal Finance Workbook to Help You Budget Your Money, Save for Retirement, and Smash Debt. This book might not be available at your local library, but it’s exceptionally useful if — well, to quote Lillian Karabaic:

I only started teaching personal finance only because I was frustrated with the lack of queer-friendly, feminist, and, most of all, fun personal finance education out there — especially stuff that deals with actual real-life money issues and doesn’t assume you have one full-time job with benefits, 2.5 kids, and a white picket fence.

I’d also suggest reading Grant Sabatier’s Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need, because Grant devotes the first half of the book to “how to earn more money” and the second half to “how to become financially independent,” so if you’re interested in that, go check it out. Literally.

And if you’re interested in the finances of self-publishing, well… you could always take my class. ❤️

*Contrary to popular belief, “financial independence” doesn’t mean “having more money than you could ever spend.” It’s more like you’re paying yourself an annual salary based on your investment returns. Which means you’ll still need to stick to a budget, and in some ways you’ll need to be more careful about your budgeting and spending than a person who isn’t “financially independent.” After all, you want that pool of investment money to last for the rest of your life.

**The average self-published book sells fewer than 500 Kindle copies, so hitting this benchmark is an early sign of success.

How to Look for Owls: On Writing, Ritual, and Intuition

Today’s guest post is from Tara K. Shepersky, a writer who holds conversations with inner and outer landscapes via essays, poems, photos, and feet. Read more of Tara’s work at pdxpersky.com or follow her on Twitter @pdxpersky.

I used to have what I thought was a writing ritual. With earnest intent — though perhaps without full possession of the truth — I could tell you that my setting aside of space and time to write had three ingredients: there was a QWERTY; there was an appointment; and, usually, there was an owl.

Some of this, perhaps, is still accurate. More of it may still be useful, as lessons learned. In the last few days — since I sat down to draft this post, in fact — I’ve felt an existential shift, an unmooring of what I thought my practice was.

I will explain, but be warned: you’re reading this almost in real time. You’ve got a front row seat to the dissolution of a writer’s successful creative practice ritual, and I don’t know what’s going to happen either.


The shift began at depth, impossible to ignore but still unnamed. The way I imagine the Santa Barbara Channel feels, when great masses of cold water from its deepest reaches begin to roil toward the surface. The comparison offers some comfort. In the Channel, upwelling is a regular(ish) phenomenon with useful results: a dense flourishing of microscopic life that in turn refreshes everybody else.

I don’t feel refreshed yet; I just feel cold. But maybe I can look at this as an opportunity to examine the elements of what I thought of as my ritual, and explore what works, what has shifted, and how to create what’s missing.

First, though: why do I need a ritual? What even is that? What use is one to an artist? And why have I never asked myself these questions before?

Religion has been a deep part of my life from birth, one way or another. Both religious traditions I’m connected to are ritual-heavy.* It’s the very thing about them that keeps them grounded, and has kept me coming back for their wisdom. Done well and with love and for a right purpose, rituals help us celebrate and live into what is most important, particularly in the everyday.

You know how sometimes you know you look a certain way — you have blond hair, for example, always have — and then one day you look in the mirror and realize your hair is brown? It’s been brown for months, maybe years, and you never noticed the shift. I wonder if I’ve been coasting in a similar way on my self-image as a “ritual person.” I “know” this is a part of me, and my writing is a crucial part of me, so perhaps I’ve only assumed that ritual plays a part in my writing.

So. A ritual is a set of physical actions performed in a particular order, using (maybe) one or more tools. It functions as a signal, defining, in this case, a mental space which the writer commits to her practice. It helps push aside distractions, settle the mind, and offer reassurance to your imposter syndrome that you, and your art, are worth regular energy and time.

In my experience, rituals work best when you do them regularly. Like anything else, they get stronger with practice. And those times life gets in the way, pleasantly or otherwise, so that you don’t write for a few days? That’s when they really come in handy. They bring you back.

My own supposed ritual has those three components I mentioned earlier. I haven’t asked myself how they function. I’m asking now.

The QWERTY represents the only attention I manage consistently to pay to my father’s maxim of “having the right tool for the job.” I can use a keyboard — specifically this common, adorably named configuration — with the same unconscious ease that shapes a thought in my native tongue. I also use it quickly; it lets my fingers keep so nearly up with my thoughts that I’m rarely frustrated by the lag time. And I can use it by touch, allowing to me look out the window, rest my eyes, sometimes even daydream while still in the flow of composing. So it’s my exact right tool for translating prose to page. And it does just fine for revising — though not composing — poetry.**

The Appointment is critical. It comes from the best piece of writing advice I have yet to receive: show up for the same kind of work at the same time every day. Mary Oliver said it, Nicole wrote it; a little less than a year ago, I finally got the memo.

To really nail this one, you need to know what time of day and under what physical circumstances your mind is most interested and agile, and also most willing to be solitary. Clock-time doesn’t mean much to me, though your mileage may vary. I tune instead to light levels and body rhythms, so my writing appointments begin in the liminal space between night and day, outdoors and indoors, walking and settling. Which brings us to The Owls.

Walking, several miles at a time for pleasure, is so much a part of my life that it’s also part of my identity. So there’s a physical circumstance that meets the above criteria. Walking in the very early mornings, before the dawn and sometimes accompanying its unfolding, is a practice I began as a way to access exercise and fresher air in the over-heated, smoke-choked summers that have become the new normal here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s pure serendipity that I began to do this immediately before my high tide of solitary mental engagement: the first few hours of daylight.

The place I came to favor for these early walks mixes forest and field, wetland and hedge, and it’s less fragmented than most of what passes for “the outdoors” where I live. It’s perfect habitat for barn and great horned owls. Realizing this, and keeping my eyes and ears alert, is all it took for the owls to find me first.

Great horneds are not too talkative in the summer, and their flight is silent, but catch half-sight of one crossing a waxing moon, and you’ll look for them ever after. Barn owls get described as “ghostly,” and indeed they seem this way, in pre-dawn not-quite-light, as you stop in your tracks and try to follow the dipping, fluttering hunt, low to the grass. Your eyesight will fail you; this is not a human hour. From the vagueness comes a sound like a waterlogged zipper, then pale maybe-wings tilting sharply to dodge your confused and clod-bound presence. Then a long cry, soft and terrifying — scraaaaiiil! — and if you didn’t know yet the presence of Mystery, now you are beyond invited — you’re impelled.

After the first encounters, I had to do the work. Owl-listening became something between a habit and a passion. Besides how to find owls (in my particular place), it reminded me how to walk in my surroundings, not merely on them; how to be, as Thoreau said, entirely present “in the woods,” thinking of the woods and not of things outside them. How to meditate, in fact.

And meditation is very good for writing. The regular practice of emptying your mind, then allowing just your immediate experience to fill it, singly and slowly, like dropping pebbles in a pool, both stokes and soothes that restlessness from which you shape the writing you know for truth.

There are about a hundred ways to meditate; mine is to dress in quiet colors and go out to meet the darkness. Before I can completely see the earth and sky, I have to reach for them, feel for them, listen. I enter a state that is set apart, reserved out of regular time for something Other.

So this is a pretty solid ritual, right? Five days a week, rise in darkness to walk a couple of miles with full attention on the natural world and your own internal state. Come home around dawn, at the beginning of peak creative hours, and settle to your practiced partnership with the tool best suited to help you spin experience, emotion, and thought into words on a page.

Here’s the wrench I didn’t know I’d left in the gears, though. I didn’t start meditating by happy accident, and I didn’t start doing it as a way to shape space for my writing. I did it specifically to control my anxiety. There was a synchronicity involved: I discovered that walking with attention was just as good as say, sitting in your bathtub for 20 minutes with the lights off, thinking of nothing in particular. And then I happily combined meditating into my pre-writing walks and thought no more about it.

When I subsequently went back to therapy and (yes, I know this is a big claim, and it’s true) got rid of my general anxiety, the first component of what I had imagined to be my writing ritual sort of… shook itself loose.

I used to return from my pre-dawn forays absolutely itching to meet up with my keyboard. I didn’t always know what I wanted to say until my fingers touched down, but I was that perfect combination of emotionally settled and creatively provoked.

Lately I leave the fields feeling unsettled and unfinished. I still want to write, but I don’t settle to it. The currents that used to push me straight there are shifting, and I’m occupied trying to watch and understand.

My owl-time itself is almost speaking to me about this, insisting it is actually a different sort of ritual, about identity and inner quiet and connection. It used to be a tool, and it wants to be, instead, a deep well and a refuge. I think the direction it’s ultimately pulling me is toward a spiritual practice.

My religious identity is complicated, and I’m so confused about praying I’ve been known to conflate it with my writing practice. So what kind of spiritual practice my owl-walks or their successors want to be is an open question I will take my time and invite all my patience to live into. Meanwhile, there’s this other opportunity: I need a new writing ritual. How do I find that?


Here’s what I know: there is a compass inside me. It pointed toward owl-walking, it pointed toward therapy, and as of the morning I sat down, fresh from the fields, to write this piece, it spun around and pointed clear off the established map.

I’m not sure what’s over there yet. Ever play one of those role-playing video games where the map is covered in fog that dissipates only as you walk right into it? I’m well-practiced at walking into literal fog and darkness; I am totally up for this metaphorical challenge.

So. Watching for the path forward, what else do I know?

I know the QWERTY and the appointment and the timing of that appointment are elements I want in my creative practice. In the not-quite-one-year I’ve set my intention to partner with them, they’ve powered seven drafts of two manuscripts, uncountable new compositions, and 155 single essay and poem submissions. Even when I was too sick to owl-walk, or I couldn’t meditate, or my mind refused me the right words, they helped me deliver.

I also know how to look for owls. It’s a knowing I was graced with at first, and then had to learn in order to continue to succeed. So I know I can learn to follow my compass when it points somewhere I don’t yet understand.

Intuition: that’s probably what this is. I used to believe I didn’t have any. Great at introspection, I never knew where to take what I had learned. My compass has constructed itself over the years through wildly varied efforts to figure that out: psychological study, prayer, meditation, acquiring a contemplative practice, reading tarot. And also just experience. I might be figuring out that the secret isn’t actually knowing. It’s trust.

So I don’t know how my writing ritual will re-shape.*** Nor, since this shift is so much larger than one area of my life, how my spiritual practice will coalesce. Nor how to reckon with whatever else I am without the anxiety I carried for so long.

But I am learning to trust myself to ride the upwelling currents. My compass has let me know when the course is changing; my job is to keep my eye on its dance, and follow. In itself, this trust is more valuable than any specific rituals that result. It is their source, and maybe my access to much that is deep and worthwhile within me. I am so grateful, finally, to have found it.

*I was born, baptized into, and participate today in the Lutheran Church. Some other important connections I discovered in early adulthood, via a moderately traditional version of Wicca. I suppose they do seem quite disparate, on the face of things.

**Poetry, in my experience, happens everywhere except at the neat-and-tidy keyboard, and often inconveniently. It’s the unruly friend you love being around — if she would only stop inviting herself over without notice. (At least she brings wine.) If I specifically want to be the one doing the inviting, I go for a walk and I pay attention. That’s it. Poetry is about rhythm, and so is walking; it’s basic sympathetic magic.

***I do certainly keep trying new ideas. But so far when I reach for one, my compass just wobbles. It’s an encouraging wobble, if that makes sense, but it’s not a Heck Yes. The closest we’ve come is lighting the fire and just staring at the flames until it feels right to pull away. My otherwise well-behaved tuxedo cat, d’Artagnan, takes this as an invitation to shout about how much he has missed me on my walk, and how I should settle in our chair now so he can snuggle. So this may not, in fact, be the best way forward.

The Work You Do While You’re Waiting

So after getting really excited about Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign (and his plan to give every American a $1,000/month Freedom Dividend, plus Medicare for All) I began picturing the future.

I saw myself going to Yang Gang meetings in Cedar Rapids.

Attending the Iowa Caucus, which I’ve never done before.*

Standing in a room filled with balloons and pizza boxes and all the friends I’d made along the way, watching election returns.

But it’s going to be a long time before any of that happens, if it even ends up happening. The Iowa Caucus isn’t until February 3, 2020. A year from now.

A year from now, I might be sending advance copies of NEXT BOOK to industry reviewers. I’ll be one year closer to my goal of being financially independent by 47.** I’ll have been part of at least three and maybe four Chorale Midwest concerts, including our upcoming performance of the Brahms Requiem with Orchestra Iowa. I’ll have taught more classes and written more articles and connected with more people and done many of the things I’m currently hoping I can accomplish.

And my mind has given me pictures of what all of this could look like, down to what I’m wearing and how long my hair might be.***

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that generating a highly detailed mental image of the future you want for yourself actually eliminates that future from the realm of possibility.

Every conversation you rehearse in your head is a conversation that will never take place as rehearsed

You’ve had those conversations in your head, right? You imagine yourself saying something, and then you imagine someone else saying something, and so on?

At some point — and I don’t know exactly how I put this together — I realized that every conversation I imagined was a conversation that would never take place in the real world.

Because people aren’t ever going to follow the script I wrote in my head.

So every time I imagined a conversation where I set a boundary and then someone else got really angry with me (for example), I reminded myself that by generating the conversation in my brain, I had pretty much guaranteed that it wouldn’t happen in real life.

This isn’t to say that the other person might not be upset or disappointed with the boundary I set. But they probably wouldn’t react at the level I had imagined, and they definitely wouldn’t use the exact words I had written for them.

Likewise, I might in fact end up wearing a Yang 2020 T-shirt to an election party, but the party will never look exactly like the one I’m currently dreaming.

Nor will NEXT BOOK look exactly the way it did when I first thought it up. I can follow the plot structure I outlined for myself, and build an emotional journey for the reader that’s similar to the one I had when I told myself the story I wanted to tell, but it will still be a different book than the one I initially imagined, because exposing something to the world always changes it.

(This is why so many stories include antagonistic forces — parents, governments, societies — that try to prevent people from learning about the world.)

You can’t have the future you imagine, but you can work towards the future you want

So. Creating some mental image of my sitting at a table with a stack of NEXT BOOK next to me, ready to sign copies for a queue of readers, does in fact guarantee that this particular scenario will never happen.

But it doesn’t prevent a similar scenario from happening.

It doesn’t prevent me from doing the part of the work that might someday get me to that table with that stack of books, e.g. spending one hour, Monday through Friday, working on my current draft.

And when that part of the work is done, turning that hour into editing-and-revisions time.

And, because that part of the work isn’t so far in the future that I have to imagine what it might be like, I can decide what it will be like. Right now. When it will happen and where I will sit and whether I’ll turn my phone and email off while I work.

Likewise, I can decide that today I’m going to do my bit for Yang 2020 by sharing the link to Andrew Yang’s Reddit AMA (which will take place at 2:30 Eastern today, go ask him anything), and I’m also going to share a fun article with my mom on Facebook, and tomorrow I’m going to ask my sister and nephew if they want to do a FaceTime call this weekend.****

HERE’S WHERE IT GETS REALLY INTERESTING

This method works for the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. That terrible scenario you imagine happening to your job or your loved ones or your small business? Those hours/days/weeks you spend waiting to hear back from doctors or lawyers or potential employers? Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Whatever horrible thing you just imagined will never happen. Or, at least, not in exactly that way. No, it won’t happen in the slightly different other way you imagined either. It might still be stressful and difficult and complicated and a lot of work, but it won’t be whatever you just visualized. It can’t be.
  • You can still do small things, every day, to get yourself closer to the experiences you want to have right now — the tasks you want to prioritize, the connections you want to strengthen, the time you want to take to care for yourself, etc. — and those experiences will help you deal with the hours/days/weeks ahead.

I’ve found this to be one of the truest things about life I’ve ever learned. The balance of what you can’t control and what you can.

So that’s what I’m thinking about this morning, mostly because last night I was thinking about how long it was between now and next year, and how I didn’t want to have to wait for what I wanted.

Then I reminded myself that I didn’t have to wait to write another 1,000 words of my draft, or pitch another client, or send my mom something nice on Facebook, or any of the stuff that I thought I wanted in the future but actually wanted — and could go after — right now. ❤️

*I grew up in the Midwest (before leaving to bounce from one coastal city to another and then decide to move back), but I did not grow up in Iowa. My hometown is actually in rural Missouri, a two-hour drive from where I live now.

**My current projections indicate it’s more likely I’ll hit financial independence — aka “the point at which I can live off my investments” — by 50, but that’s just incentivizing me to try to beat that target.

***I’m growing out a pixie cut. “How long my hair might be” is a relevant concern.

****Why not do all of this stuff today? Because you can’t do everything today. Nobody can.

In Which I Learn About Andrew Yang’s Presidential Campaign and GET VERY EXCITED

I have never been a hugely politically active person. I vote, even in local elections, and I take the time to research the candidates and their positions before voting, which probably makes me more politically active than most — but I view our current political system through a somewhat skeptical lens and because of that have hesitated to get emotionally involved.

But I had downloaded a few episodes of the Ezra Klein Show to listen to as I did laps at the YMCA (you might remember my referencing the episode where N.K. Jemisin discussed worldbuilding), and one of them was this episode from August titled “Is our economy totally screwed? Andrew Yang and I debate,” and about halfway through the episode Andrew Yang mentions that he’s running for president.

On a platform of universal basic income (renamed “Freedom Dividends,” after Yang did some market testing to see which name would appeal to conservatives) and Medicare for All.

I have now gotten emotionally involved.

If you’re currently thinking “who is Andrew Yang and what is his deal,” which is where I was 48 hours ago, the shortest version is that Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur and nonprofit CEO who has done some serious thinking about the mathematics and logistics required to keep America’s economy going as we transition into a world with more automation and fewer jobs.

It’s the math-and-logistics part that made me decide to do anything I could to support Yang’s candidacy, starting by spreading the word on my blog.

I mean, this whole thing is extremely relevant to the core mission of Nicole Dieker Dot Com, not to mention the core mission of Nicole Dieker, the Human Person. Andrew Yang’s vision, which includes giving every American adult a Freedom Dividend of $1,000 every month, plus Medicare for All, plus social credits (backed by the government and redeemable at various retailers) for those of us who want to spend our time on non-market-based work like caring for others and community-building, will help us all get so much closer to THE WORK we want to do and THE LIFE we want to live.

So.

Here’s what you need to do next: go listen to and/or read the transcript of this Freakonomics podcast episode, in which Andrew Yang explains his plan to Stephen Dubner. With all due respect to Ezra Klein, the Freakonomics podcast offers a much better introduction to Yang (you’ll learn about his love of Dungeons and Dragons, as well as his brief stint selling Cutco knives) and an extremely detailed summary of how Yang plans to put his ideas into action:

YANG: So the headline cost of this is $2.4 trillion, which sounds like an awful lot. For reference, the economy is $19 trillion, up $4 trillion in the last 10 years. And the federal budget is $4 trillion. So $2.4 trillion seems like an awfully big slug of money. But if you break it down, the first big thing is to implement a value-added tax, which would harvest the gains from artificial intelligence and big data from the big tech companies that are going to benefit from it the most.

So we have to look at what’s happening big-picture, where who are going to be the winners from A.I. and big data and self-driving cars and trucks? It’s going to be the trillion-dollar tech companies. Amazon, Apple, Google. So the big trap we’re in right now is that as these technologies take off, the public will see very little in the way of new tax gains from it. Because if you look at these big tech companies — Amazon’s trick is to say, “Didn’t make any money this quarter, no taxes necessary.” Google’s trick is to say, “It all went through Ireland, nothing to see here.” Even as these companies and the new technologies soak up more and more value and more and more work, the public is going to go into increasing distress.

So what we need to do is we need to join every other industrialized country in the world and pass a value-added tax which would give the public a slice, a sliver of every Amazon transaction, every Google search. And because our economy is so vast now at $19 trillion, a value-added tax at even half the European level would generate about $800 billion in value.

Now, the second source of money is that right now we spend almost $800 billion on welfare programs. And many people are receiving more than $1,000 in current benefits. So, we’re going to leave all the programs alone. But if you think $1,000 cash would be better than what you’re currently receiving, then you can opt in and your current benefits disappear. So that reduces the cost of the freedom dividend by between $500 and $600 billion.

The great parts are the third and fourth part. So if you put $1,000 a month into the hands of American adults who — right now, 57 percent of Americans can’t pay an unexpected $500 bill — they’re going to spend that $1,000 in their community on car repairs, tutoring for their kids, the occasional night out. It’s going to go directly into the consumer economy. If you grow the consumer economy by 12 percent, we get $500 billion in new tax revenue.

And then the last $500 billion or so we get through a combination of cost savings on incarceration, homelessness services, health care. Because right now we’re spending about $1 trillion on people showing up in emergency rooms and hitting our institutions. So we have to do what good companies do, which is invest in our people.

Then you’ll want to visit the Yang 2020 website and check out the policies section. He’s got goals and guiding principles for everything from combating climate change to making taxes fun.

To quote the Iowa Democratic Party Leadership: “Mr. Yang has three Big Policy Ideas — Universal Basic Income, Medicare for All, and Human Capitalism — all supported by the most comprehensive and detailed set of policy proposals we have ever seen at this stage of a campaign.”

(Go find out more about the Human Capitalism thing here.)

Lastly — and I can’t believe I’m ending this with a sales pitch, but that’s politics — you could consider giving Andrew Yang a dollar. Or more dollars, but the amount you give isn’t the important part right now. Because of the way the Democratic Party runs its show, Andrew Yang needs 65,000 individual campaign donations by May 15 to be able to participate in the upcoming Democratic candidate debates.

As of this writing, he’s at 33,675.

I’m going to support Yang 2020 for as far as it goes — I’ve joined my local Yang Gang, I’m going to the breakfast with Andrew Yang in Cedar Rapids, I might even do some phone banking — and even if it doesn’t end up in the White House, Andrew Yang has a plan for that, too.

The part of me that is still cynical about politics wants to know how Yang plans to deal with Congress, roughly half of which is incentivized to prevent him from achieving his goals. But the part of me that wants to take up my bow and arrows and follow this person I just met in a tavern and go fight some dragons with MATH AND LOGISTICS is… well, I can’t believe how much I wanted something like this until it became a possibility. ❤️