Live Your Best Life

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What sometimes causes the most resistance can yield astonishing results. On the day I was scheduled to leave for a vacation, we had the worst snowstorm of the season. I was greatly looking forward to it – the vacation, not the blizzard — even though I had just lost a major stream of income, and the replacement stream, while promised, had yet to materialize. And some eight inches of the nasty white stuff with a nice varnish of ice added suspense to the possibility of reaching my final destination, although perhaps not the one I was hoping for.

The trip seemed doomed even before I left my driveway, which is where my car got stuck. So I did the only sensible thing. I stood in the middle of the street in my sneakers and jogging suit – I was going to Florida, after all – and yelled for help until a neighbor gave me a much needed push so I could slide from my suburb to the next to my son Alex’s house where he was to take me to the airport. Not our main one, which of course was much closer, but a smaller, mostly cargo military base from which my cut-rate airline was scheduled to leave, arguably the only departure out of Columbus not cancelled due to weather. Fortunately Alex has a four-wheel drive Jeep because my car got immobilized– again – in the middle of his cul-de-sac.

After what could understatedly be described as harrowing run to the airport and a zig-zag takeoff that involved periodic clenching of every bodily orifice to prevent possible evacuation of same, I was on my way. Thinking that this was probably more trouble than it was worth and I should have stayed put, despite the misery of the worst winter in recent history. Which was further cemented by the fact that, on the way to Miami, my rental car narrowly missed being mangled by a chainsaw that had bounced off the truck in front of me. But there’s something to be said for assured clear distance and I can now say I truly survived I-95.

Yet it was a wonderful trip. I stayed with friends in Naples, Miami and then went on a seven-day cruise with a singles group. Our ship, the Norwegian Epic, had a 4000-person capacity but our faction, consisting of 45 intrepid souls, had a personality footprint that far exceeded the average passenger, long married 50-50s (50+ years old/50+ pounds overweight) or consumers of the unlimited booze package aka it’s 5 o’clock 24/7.

On the next to the last day of the cruise, four of us went on a dune buggy ride in Cozumel. The outskirts of city were amazing – the shoreline was wild, untamed, like California before the 1960s population explosion. Part of the trip included snorkeling, something I rarely got to do but enjoyed immensely, once I overcame my fear of never being able to breathe again. After about 15 minutes of sheer terror, I could immerse myself in the exquisite world of underwater beauty and shimmering fish.

But when we dropped off our buggies, our tour guides said it was time for lunch. But what about snorkeling, we said. Well, if you really want to go, they said. Yes, our adventuresome group of four did. So they shepherded us to a nearby hotel, supplied us with fins, masks and breathing apparatus and indicated a mossy, slippery, concrete ledge to dive off of.

Um, I don’t think so…I took one look the crumbling sharp protuberance and indicated to my companions to go ahead without me. No way was I going to leap into the choppy ocean and hit myself in the head. I may be foolhardy but I wasn’t suicidal nor did I wish to partake of long-term disability which I couldn’t afford anyway.

But boy, was it beautiful and boy did I want to snorkel. But it obviously wasn’t meant to be, so I turned to walk away. Then a voice said, “I’ll help you get in the water if you want to.”

I looked up, and a slim woman of indeterminate age stood before me. “I will hand you the mask and fins while you use the ladder to get into the water.”

I hesitated. “Really? It looks dangerous.”

“Well, it’s fine if you are careful and use the ladder,” the woman insisted. “Swim alongside the wall and you can catch up with your group. But only if you want to.”

Of course I wanted to. But I was also scared to death. But then, who knew when I’d get another opportunity to snorkel? And I was a strong swimmer and in pretty good shape. And being a self-proclaimed weenie can get tiresome after a while. So, heart pounding in fear, I slid down the ladder while the woman patiently handed me my equipment. And soon enough I was splashing my way towards my group telling myself to pace my breathing so I wouldn’t hyperventilate and pass out. And sure enough 15 minutes later I was having the time of my life.

Here’s the thing. Sometimes life kicks the crap out of you and then takes unexpected detours. But sometimes if you jump in – well, in my case, ease in at your own speed – it works out. But the path you were supposed to take and the things you had planned never happen. So you have to improvise. And if that seems foolhardy to someone else, so be it.

But I needed that vacation. It was the first real one I’d had in years and when I returned, I was able to finish a book close to deadline, launch a crowdfunding campaign for my newest project, CLOSE ENOUGH FOR GOVERNMENT WORK: A GUIDE TO AMERICA’S PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARIES (Loconeal, 2016), and acquire new clients and contracts, hopefully stabilizing my income stream.

I call it living your best life. It’s unforeseen, unpredictable and at times, really frightening, because even though I am a creative person, a little security is always nice. But an unplanned-for divorce (is there any other kind?), a child’s illness (ditto on the unexpected), and a decision in my 20s to pursue a career as a freelance writer and hence avoid anything as mundane as having my own personal pension plan wreaked havoc with any savings I might have acquired. And no one preached financial literacy to girls growing up in middle-class Dayton, Ohio in the 1960s. But it’s never too late to learn, and I have…somewhat.

Looking at it another way, life could stop us dead in our tracks at any time. And few will probably spend their last moments thinking of their IRAs and bank balances. But you will remember the snorkeling.

 

 

 

What Inspires You?

 

Frankly, some days I don’t feel particularly inspired. I just want to take a nap.*

Midsomer murders

DS Jones and DCI Barnaby, set against the backdrop of “Midsomer.” Photo courtesy of the Guardian UK.

Yet sometimes I get my best – or most harebrained — ideas at the oddest times. Standing in the shower, driving the car, in the middle of a doctor’s exam, where there’s absolutely no safe or even reasonable access to a notebook, real or virtual. Which is why I try to have a pen, pad or smartphone handy no matter where I’m at. Even if it’s to remind myself to turn off the curling irons so as to avoid setting my house on fire or, at the very least, burning the countertops. And of course there’s the middle-of-the-night brainstorm that makes sense at 3 in the afternoon, oh, maybe 5 percent of the time.

Or maybe something weird or offbeat results in ideas coming together. Recently during a particularly doldrumesque week, I decided to see about catching up with my favorite TV show, “Midsomer Murders.”** Based on the novels by British mystery writer Caroline Graham, the long-running series is set deep in the heart of rural England. I started watching the show and immediately became a fan and then around 2006, A&E and the Biography Channel abruptly pulled the plug, replacing it and several other well-produced and acted imports with “Duck Dynasty,” “Bates Motel,” and “American Hoggers.”

So out of sheer boredom and work avoidance, I went online to Amazon to see what newer episodes were available. The show, produced by ITV in the UK had been renewed for several years, although DVD technology in the mid-2000s had not yet evolved to include affordable multiregional DVRs that could play overseas disks. What popped up on my search was a dizzying array of titles at exorbitant costs. Next stop was my local online library catalogue which had nearly as large of a selection – all for free, as long as they were returned on time. And I knew that for a while I would be screwed sleep-wise – with nearly eight seasons to catch up on, I would be glued to the TV well into the night.

And indeed it was like reconnecting with an old friend. Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (actor John Nettles) was as solid, humorous and reliable as ever and his various sidekicks were still toothsome, including the most recent, Detective Sergeant Ben Jones (Jason Hughes). But what started happening as I delved back into that wonderful, exquisitely realized world was for me almost as bizarre as the occurrences in fictional Midsomer County: I began to resurrect my past fantasy of going to and spending time at South Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, where the series is mostly filmed.

But here’s the thing: I need to get away for several weeks to work on LIFE DURING WARTIME: A VETERAN SON’S ADDICTION, my memoir/guidebook for families and loved one of addicts. A three-day excursion to a park in Indiana a couple of months ago to review, finish and polish the prospectus and sample chapter had proven to be extremely productive. Plus I could actually explore “Midsomer” – there are tours of and even an annual convention celebrating the hugely popular show. I hope to write my own fictional satire series set in a large retirement community in the US. While the “Villages” in Florida may seem sterile, bland and boringly American by comparison, I suspect that a hop across the pond to its bloody and eccentric distant cousin may provide some great material and ideas.

Sometimes it’s good to sit back and pick at the odd, intriguing thread. Because that’s where the greatest ideas and insights can come from. And what seemed impossible before is suddenly ripe with potential.

*While researching this blog, I came across some concrete ideas that might help jump-start inspiration.  The first, from Write to Done, consists of 31-derful suggestions that provide specific places and things to get you going again.  The second is Grammarly, which I used to grammar check this post, because, even though it’s automated, it’s “another set of eyes” that can help pinpoint problem areas and move you in the write, er, right direction.

**For those curious about this show I have provided a link to the “unofficial” site which has the most comprehensive, up-to-date information and Midsomer doings as well as details on the annual convention.

What are YOUR Writing Goals?*

Some thoughts on the journey — and the destination

Draft book coverRecently a client said to me, “You should be proud of this book; you can use it in your editing portfolio.” I thought to myself, “What editing portfolio?” While I enjoyed working on the book and was pleased with the end result, it neither had my name on it nor my vision attached to it.

Which led to me to ponder, what are my writing goals these days? At the beginning of my career, when I first started out, the answer was easy: I wanted fame and fortune from the publication of my Great American Novel, THE PIPE DREAMERS. Writing always came naturally to me and I assumed – incorrectly – that I could be the next John Grisham or Judith Guest, whose bestseller-turned-Hollywood movie ORDINARY PEOPLE was randomly discovered from a slush pile, back in the days when people actually typed and mailed manuscripts (remember double-spaced, numbered pages?) to publishers. I think Oprah might have been a teenager back then.

As anyone who has ever written for any amount of time can probably relate, I was quickly disavowed of delusions of greatness. So my goal became even simpler: I wanted to get published. And I did, first in small, easily forgotten magazines and circulars, then later in publications like People and the Chicago Tribune. By the time I turned forty, I was determined to make the move from magazines to books and my first nonfiction title, THE COCKROACH HALL OF FAME AND 101 OFF-THE-WALL MUSEUMS, was published, much to my great initial embarrassment. I did not want to be remembered as the author of “that cockroach book.” But in the early 1990s, the publishers’ decisions overrode authors’ opinions and I ended up on “Good Morning America,” with articles about the book appearing in national magazines and most major newspapers in the US. Not shabby for somebody who started out knowing nobody and practically nothing about the writing business, but not the greatest either when compared to my initial fantasy of being a literary lioness.

Through the years, my career has gone through permutations and twists and turns too numerous to mention here. This is a blog, not a magazine article or a book of essays (Link spoiler alert: Unabashed promotion for my upcoming collection – CONFESSIONS OF A CRAZY CAT LADY AND OTHER POSSIBLY DEMENTED MEANDERINGS). Suffice to say that these days, my goals have gone back to their simpler forms. But it’s quite different. For one thing, I recognize that life is short and that most of us are quickly forgotten, no matter how important we – and even others – may think we are. And then there’s the thing about money and recognition, both come and go at a whim and the reality is that you’re only as good as your last project. It can disappear in an instant.

So what I’ve come up with is this: What’s important and what is right today? Life is complicated and we are faced with many different choices and demands. For me, this means:

1) Work which reliably pays the bills and I can look myself in the mirror when it’s done. That would be the kind of project mentioned by my client in the first paragraph.

2) Work that is challenging, both emotionally and mentally. My medical writing, which I’ve been doing since 2004, fills this bill. It’s ever-changing and also rewarding, both personally and financially.

3) Work that fulfills my need for fun. These would be my essays, certain kinds of travel books and other satirical fiction, which may or may not be published or may or may not be a huge success. Yet they too are immensely rewarding.

4) Work that may be difficult and painful, yet needs to be accomplished because that’s what we, as writers, sometimes do. My memoir and guidebook, LIFE DURING WARTIME: A VETERAN SON’S ADDICTION, falls into this category. It is hard yet immensely rewarding and I hope to spare others some of the same pain I experienced. The sudden death of my son’s mentor recently reminded that time is finite and I’d better get on the stick.

The common thread that keeps coming up here is “rewarding.” And that seems to be a pretty good litmus test.

How about you? What are your writing goals “just for today?”

More information about my books, scheduled talks, and animals can be found on my Web site.

*Illustration is the cover of my newest book, CONFESSIONS OF A CRAZY CAT LADY AND OTHER POSSIBLY DEMENTED MEANDERINGS, design & art © 2013, by Melissa Connolly. It also doubles as a portrait of the author.

The ASJA Writers’ Conference, Two Book Contracts and a Little Black Dress…

Little black dressEvery so often, the universe smiles. It’s the middle of February, but almost 50 degrees outside and the sun is shining. I’ve opened the back door on my patio and can hear the fountain from the pond. That’s the kind of day I’ve had.

First, the ASJA Writer’s Conference. It’s only a couple of months away, so I’ve been busily scouring the Internet and various deal sites for hotel rooms, airfare, etc. While I’ve been able to secure reasonably-priced flights to LaGuardia and a nearby hotel for a late-night arrival on Wednesday, I was having second thoughts about my hotel for the other three days, which was several blocks away from the conference venue and involved shared bathrooms. (The size of the rooms looked to be about the same as the lower levels of a cruise ship, but I was OK with that.) While it sounded lovely and stylish, I suspected it might be heavy with partying trendies and would-be fashionistas. So my stumbling to the bathroom in the middle of the night for a post-menopausal pee might have been traumatic for all involved.

Then I found out that the “cozy” rooms were still available at the Roosevelt Hotel, the location of the Conference. Yes, it’s a lot more expensive and yes I will have to force myself to leave the hotel to forage for breakfast and snacks because my inner “Frugal Fran” refuses to shell out extra bucks for something that I know is a lot cheaper a half a block away. But still…I’m going to be in the thick of the action and that’s kind of cool. I’ll be able to hang out in the lobby with my colleagues, go to my room at my leisure, and if I have to pee, no one will know about it.

To continue the day, I had a doctor’s appointment at noon and grabbed lunch nearby afterwards. It just so happened that one of favorite apparel stores — where I have a coupon, of course – was at the same place so I figured I’d sneak in for a look. Next door was what I’ve always considered was a shop for skinny women, WhiteHouseBlackMarket, that my friend Kim loves. So I thought I’d pop in and see what they had, making a beeline for — but of course – the sale rack. There it was – the perfect little black dress for New York City and the Conference – only $50 in size 2 and 4! Um, I’ve lost a fair amount of weight, but I don’t think so! So I asked the very nice saleslady if she might have it in a 10 or 12 — the thing looked like an oversized Band-Aid with ruffles — and she produced an 8. Which fit perfectly and reminded me that perhaps all the crunches, lunges, running in place and bicep curls that I do four times a week and the religious logging of portions in the Weight Watchers app on my phone actually do produce results after all.

Then I went home and feeling somewhat guilt-ridden about rapidly approaching deadlines, fired up the computer. And there it was in my inbox, an offer for two book contracts. While I’m not at liberty to go into details right now, it’s good to know I will be busy for the next year-and-a-half, although there is plenty of room in the schedule for my other freelance commitments. And also, that two more books will be coming out with my name on it.

All this seemingly sudden good fortune made me grateful but also helped me realize that I need to stop procrastinating and start on the proposal, outline and first chapter of LIFE DURING WARTIME, my memoir and guidebook about addiction. I kept putting it off, thinking I would take a residency or fellowship in the next few months, but now because of the time involved in researching and writing the two new books, that is off the table. I’m going to need to practice what I preach to writing classes and find a few hours here and there to work on it at the library or perhaps a local retreat. No more excuses – New York awaits and with it, publishers, editors and agents. And a book proposal in hand is worth 15 abstract “great” ideas….

Welcome to my new and hopefully improved Web page!

hope 11 10

My granddaughter, Hope.

It has a busy few months, from the conclusion of my Indiegogo experiment to the birth of my beautiful granddaughter Hope. Spring looks to be quite eventful, with many workshops, conferences and talks in the offing. Hopefully there will be something for you — please check them out!

I am looking forward to starting my new project, LIFE DURING WARTIME, a memoir about addiction and soldiers geared towards their families and loved ones. LIFE DURING WARTIME also aims to be a practical guide in dealing with the disease of addiction. Along with pitching it to agents and editors at the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual conference this April, I am checking out writers’ retreats and places where I can actually get down to the nitty-gritty of getting it done.

Also up for grabs: A collection of my published and unpublished essays for a mini-book, CONFESSIONS OF A CRAZY CAT LADY (AND OTHER POSSIBLY DEMENTED MEANDERINGS). It will be available soon on Kindle and possibly also as a paperback.

On the more distant horizon — DOING HARD TIME IN GEEZERVILLE, a satirical novel about a well-known retirement, ahem, “Village” in Florida (It’s PC for me to say this because I am well over the AARP qualification age). This may be the first of a series, thanks to a suggestion by a friend for a second title, FAST TIMES IN GEEZER HIGH. I could be onto something here!

But one thing at a time…Please let me know what you think of the site and feel free to post comments, questions and observations. Watch this space for more blogs and potential rants. Thanks for checking out the site!