Living in Free Fall

 

Free Fall A recurrent theme in my life is that you grow the most when you step outside your comfort zone. It is a heady feeling to realize that a painful experience that had you in free fall for a time has made you stronger and wiser … to realize that, using Bradbury’s metaphor, you have indeed grown new wings.

What’s easy to forget, once those new wings have grown and set, is just how rough it is when you are in free fall … when you don’t know where you’re trying to get to … when you don’t trust your own judgment … when you have no idea quite what to do next.

It’s all the harder when you are in free fall off a cliff you didn’t even see coming.

To put this in perspective, I will take you back to 2008. Depending on how you count, I had changed careers half a dozen times over the previous 38 years, including several times when I dropped off the corporate ladder for a period of years. Some transitions were harder than others, some more successful than others, but there seemed to be a consistent pattern, one in which my skills in one arena provided a temporary branch to hang on to while I grew new wings in another.

When I decided to give up finance to be a creative writer, I expected this transition would go smoothly. After all, I was an experienced business writer. I’d taken university-level courses on creative writing. I’d published a memoir about sailing around the world at age 40.

Friday, I was a financial consultant.  Monday, I would be a writer.  How hard could it be?

Pretty hard, as it turned out.

What I overlooked, as I launched myself into the writerly world, was the common thread that stitched my earlier transitions into a satisfying quilt … the opportunity to work with smart people who were big thinkers. My success lay, to a very large extent, in my ability to carry out complex projects that these big thinkers—whether mentor, client or husband—believed were important.

In 2008, however, there was no client or mentor or husband. I had lots of ideas, but no way to set priorities or assess whether they were worth pursuing.

And then, one morning, as I waited for the first edition of Sailing Down the Moonbeam to be delivered, I recalled one of those wing-growing experiences as we sailed across the Pacific Ocean. Most of the time, my husband and I were vulnerable to unpredictable winds and currents. Setting goals was an exercise in frustration, since we could not control our progress on any given day. The best we could do was set a course that took us in the right general direction. All too often, we revised our course several times. More than once, we had to change our destination.

The metaphor seemed obvious.  If I wanted to I be a writer, I needed to write and hope my words would cumulate to a writer’s persona. Write something. A blog. A book review.  An essay.  Anything. Now, today.

It was a eureka moment.

I’d like to be able to tell you that I grew my writer’s wings that day.  I didn’t. Those simple goals got me out of bed every morning, but it was months before I did so with any enthusiasm.  It was several long and painful months before my wings started to grow.

Now, six years later, I have a writer’s wings. A novel and a memoir. A regular blog. A steady stream of freelance work. Invitations to speak to book clubs, libraries and community groups.

But once again, I seem to be in free fall. How can I be a writer if I don’t have a meaningful story I feel compelled to tell, or an idea I feel compelled to write about? Having just turned 70, I’m intrigued by the personal and societal challenges as the boomer cohort ages.  But how much of my thinking is unique enough to be worth writing about?

Once again, I seem to be grasping frantically for a branch to retard my free fall … give me a few extra moments to develop the wings I’ll need for my next act?  But what’s that next act? A writer in her 70’s with temporary writer’s block. Or a humanist for whom aging IS the next act, whether you write about it or not? Or maybe something else I haven’t even thought about?

What do you think? Can we still sprout wings at 70??

On Not Being Perfect

 

 

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.                                    ~Anna Quindlen

Being PerfectThe notion that we grow the most—personally, professionally, and spiritually—when we step outside our comfort zone has been central to my life and central to what I have chosen to write about over the last decade.

Quindlen’s message is that much of the heavy lifting in the matter of personal growth comes through the often exhausting, sometimes frightening effort, step by small step, to find a new approach to getting through the day. It requires a conscious effort to step outside our psychological comfort zone as well as our external or environmental one.

. . .

To read more,  check out my blog on Becoming Yourself, a guest post of Gwen Plano’s lovely website “From Sorrow to Joy — Perfect Love.”

 

From the Perspective of A Reader

 

moral-dilemma-empathic-concernShortly before A Fitting Place came out, a friend asked how I would measure the book’s success.

My answer was unhesitating: I wanted it to prompt readers to re-examine the way in which we all make relationship choices.  I hoped that A Fitting Place would:

  • give readers more empathy and understanding—for themselves and for others—of the way in which circumstances, habitual behavior patterns, and societal stereotypes influence the relationships that we choose, and
  • recognize that every relationship reflects a series of choices that we could have made differently, and that we can change if we ourselves are willing to change and grow.

My first clue that I might achieve my goal came one day last week when a middle-aged acquaintance said, in passing, “I loved your book. But I have to tell you, I wouldn’t have read it if I’d known what it was about.”

Straining to keep my jaw from dropping, I asked, “Why did you read it?”

Sailing Down the Moonbeam was wonderful.  So I bought this when it came out. I never checked to see what it was about.”

My reader went on to say that her religious objections to homosexuality had stopped her from ever thinking about the emotional dynamics of a same sex relationship. When she realized what the book was about, she almost put it down.  “But I had to keep reading. I had to know what happened to Lindsey.”

As the conversation continued, she noted that, unlike Lindsey, she’d had multiple sources of emotional support in the wake of her own failed marriage. But now, my reader could empathize with someone who was emotionally bereft.  “Lindsey was reaching out for a relationship that was supportive and nurturing. I could understand that. It made me realize,” she said, “that I needed to be open to alternative ways of dealing with life.”

I had a virtually identical conversation with a woman in her 70’s a few days later.

I was fortunate that both women were willing to speak so openly with me.  From the book clubs I’ve met with so far, I know they are not the first readers to object to the same sex love affair on religious or social grounds.  But they were the first to acknowledge that A Fitting Place pushed them to think differently and even empathetically.  And because these two women were willing to “step outside their comfort zone,” they understood that A Fitting Place was about relationships, not about sex.

On a related note, I’ve had a lot of readers—and reviewers— refer to A Fitting Place as “a page turner” or say that “I couldn’t put it down.”  To my delight, I’ve heard repeated stories of readers who planned to peruse “just one more chapter,” but stayed up into the wee small hours or went to work late in order to finish the book.

A Fitting Place seems to be a good read as well as a thought-provoking book.

For a writer, that has to count as success!

The Book Review is Dead. Long Live the Book Review.

 

book review 1Would it surprise you to learn that, on the eve of the release of my first novel, I am peering closely at the business of book reviews?  What I observe, as both an author and a reader, is not re-assuring.  In fact, it’s downright perplexing!

Much ink has been spent in recent months on the decline of professional book reviewers, including several articles in the New York Times and a thought-provoking blog by author Susan Weidener (see links below).  The decline reflects both a reduction in the number of publications that offer book reviews (e.g., many local newspapers no longer offer book reviews) as well as a decline in the number of professional book reviewers.

As a reader, this phenomenon is disturbing, as it makes it harder to determine which books I’d like to read. But as an indie author, it is not a primary concern, as I would not expect to be reviewed in the Atlantic Monthly or The New York Review of Books, unless I had already achieved very considerable market awareness.

No, my concern is the book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the two primary places where readers provide feedback. Based on my experience with my memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, the system is flawed.

Of the three dozen or so reviews on Amazon, more than half are 5-star, the highest ranking a book can get. I am, of course, thrilled to have them, particularly those that provide thoughtful commentary on the quality of my writing, the structure of the memoir, and the extent to which the reader experienced a “shiver of recognition.”  

But I am puzzled by the number of readers who, in effect, have ranked me alongside Barbara Kingsolver or Sue Monk Kidd.  I am a good writer, but not that good.

The problem lies, in my view, in the reliance on a simple 1 to 5 star ranking, with input from a self-selected segment of readers whose qualifications as critics are rarely known and whose motives are often suspect. This system allows readers (including personal or professional friends of the author) to make public judgments about a book without necessarily providing—or even having—any specific criteria or rationale for their opinions.  Such reviews may puff up or deflate the author’s ego, but do little to help readers determine whether a book will be of interest or whether it is a genuinely good read.

Take, for example, a 5-star review that says only “I loved it” or a 1-star review that says only “I hated it.”  What does a reader learn from this? I’d like to know if the reviewer only reads short books, or only reads memoirs, or only reads sports stories.  I’d like to know if the reviewer prefers action-oriented adventures or character-driven stories. I’d like to know whether the reviewer sticks to familiar topics and settings or enjoys exploring challenging new environments. I’d like to know if the reviewer loved the writing, or a liked a good yarn despite mediocre writing or liked the story but hated the writing.

The issue is further complicated by the reluctance of many authors (myself included) to put anything less than a 3-star review on Amazon.  How, in this environment, does a reader identify a poorly written book with a thin plot and/or bad editing or one that is a real gem.

Goodreads appears, at first glance, to provide a more reasoned approach, as the preponderance of the Moonbeam reviews are 3-star or 4-star.  The problem here is that Goodreads reviewers can “rank” a book without so much as a word of explanation as to the basis for the ranking.  

I am stuck with the system as it is, but I wonder how you, as a reader, think about reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Do you rely on these reviews?  Do you write reviews?  How would you change the system?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

Suggested Reading

Susan Weidener: What’s Up with Book Reviews?

New York Times, Colin Robinson, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Reader”

New York Times, Maureen Dowd, “Bigger than Bambi” 

The New Yorker, Lee Siegel, Burying the Hatchet”