You Can’t Finish What You Don’t Start

I’m presently in the throes of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) – along with over 250,000 people worldwide. In case you haven’t heard of NaNo, it’s “thirty days of literary abandon” where insane people commit to writing a 50,000 word novel in one month (that being November). Besides the obvious hurdles this kind of commitment will throw in many people’s paths – finding the time to write 1,667 words per day (especially with a job or school schedule), doing everyday chores (laundry, housework, bathroom visitation), cooking for the family, taking care of children, running errands and shopping, spending time with friends/significant others, sleeping – there is one major hurdle to contend with first.

But “hurdle” isn’t even the right word to describe this other barrier – it’s not the same kind of frame-like structure that a runner has to jump over but is easily kicked down. It’s not even a wall. It’s the mountain of the first step. Excuses are the foothills, they should be the easy part to overcome, but we often make them the hardest: I don’t have enough time or what if I can’t make it work or what if I’m not smart enough, and so on. What it all adds up to – this mountain, this dragon – is fear.

On the field of the self stands a knight and a dragon. You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon. The battle must be fought anew every day. ~ Steven Pressfield

By the end of today, I expect to have a total of 30,000 words toward my 50K goal. And because of my commitment (which many nights has left me asleep at the keyboard after midnight) and the sacrifice of all kinds of things for the cause, I’ll have the bones of a novel when November 30th rolls around. This first draft will need months of editing, revising, and rewriting. It will take a lot more work to finish…but I don’t want to think about that right now. I still have two weeks left that need my chained-to-the-keyboard-and-no-editing attention. I have to focus on this one step (broken into smaller 30-day bites) toward the greater goal of publishing the novel that this manuscript will someday become.

If I hadn’t pushed through all my what-ifs and decided to step up and give this everything I had, I wouldn’t be feeling pretty good about my writing goals right now. Life has a way of tossing obstacles in my path, things that can throw me completely off course. If for some reason I don’t make my NaNo goal by the end of the month, I will still be closer to finishing my first draft than if I hadn’t started at all. No matter what, I will have established a writing routine, and proved to myself that I can do what I set my mind on. And I’ll have a good start going into the new year.

We often let our fears and our excuses get in the way of even starting a thing. The first step toward doing something worthwhile can be the hardest to take, but it can also lead to all kinds of unexpected rewards along the way.

Heroes Among Us: An Interview with a Firefighter

The following is the first of my interviews with heroes I know, with the hope of revealing the ordinary aspects of a hero’s life and to help the rest of us recognize hero traits or tendencies in ourselves. The name of the interviewee has been changed for privacy sake.

Among the many things firefighters are known for, two things stand out the most – their courage and their cooking.

When I first met Dave the firefighter at a family gathering several years ago, I was immediately impressed by his quiet confidence, and then with his show of kindness and affection while he played with his children.

Becoming a firefighter was a natural career choice for him after finishing Emergency Medical Training (EMT) school and working an ambulance for seven years. Sixteen years after making that decision — and having worked his way up through the ranks, starting as a cadet — he’s now a captain with the fire department.

When I asked him how many fires or emergency calls he’s answered so far, he told me he didn’t know. And then he did the math and was amazed by the answer: well over 20,000 emergency calls over the course of his 23-year career. With all of that experience, Dave understands fear and courage. He attributes the ability to face the dangers in his job to training, saying, “All of the initial firefighters that engage in their first fire are VERY courageous…It takes a different type of being to become trained to the point of entering a building knowingly, realizing that death could take you. After the first fire, your comfort level increases.” Continuing to risk their lives becomes like clockwork after that, he says.

Though he agrees with the Moorish proverb that he who fears something gives it power over him, he also believes that sometimes fear is a good thing. It’s “what a veteran must realize when leading a crew, it’s that sixth sense to objectively analyze the situation and make a decision.”

One aspect of his job is keeping people calm in an emergency, and he has practical advice for dealing with others who are fearful: “Be a solid listener. Make a conscious effort not to…be distracted; make eye contact and ensure that the person you are listening to knows that they have your full attention.”

Dave defines courage as acting or performing for the best interests of others, rather than yourself. Like any good husband and father, his own fears or concerns center around his family. Getting injured while responding to an emergency or being caught up in a domestic violence incident on call could lead to not being able to provide for his family. He’s also concerned he might fail to instill strong ethics and morals in his children or to teach them to always do the right thing regardless of hurting someone else’s feelings. And he believes building confidence in children, that they can do anything, is the first building block of courage.

And what about the rumor that firefighters are good cooks? Chores, like cooking and cleaning, are typically shared in a firehouse. And just like the food at a truck stop better be good enough to please the truckers, food served at a fire station has to satisfy a hungry group of firefighters. Dave always enjoyed cooking green chile sausage gravy to complement biscuits and eggs when it was his turn to feed the “troops.” He was kind enough to share his recipe with us.

Green Chile Sausage Gravy (for 10 good eaters)

  1. Gather up a large pan that holds approximately 3/4 gal.
  2. Place one large “log” of spicy sausage in the pan, cook it down and keep some of the grease for flavor, strain the rest.
  3. Once the sausage is cooked, add in approximately 1/2 gal of milk, bring it to a boil.
  4. In a large cup, place approximately 4 cups of milk, slowly add flour until the contents are very thick, whisk it if possible, lumps of flour are yucky!
  5. When the milk and sausage contents are boiling, slowly pour in the milk/flour contents, until the boiling stops, then stop the pour and whisk the pot to further avoid clumps. Once the contents boil again, do the same. Key here is to do this a few times until the consistency matches your taste.
  6. Once you have the desired thickness, add in approximately three to four cups of thawed frozen HOT green chile. Let this simmer and stir for a few minutes and you’re good! Hint: If your chile isn’t hot enough, you can add black pepper to spice it up.

Bullying: You Are the Boss of You

Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

 As long as there are people who enjoy being cruel and have a need to dominate and control others, there will be bullies. Unfortunately, that also means there will be those who are the recipients of their physical and/or emotional aggression. Years ago, only two options were usually offered a child suffering from being bullied: fight back or ignore it. Adults tended to think it was a normal part of childhood. Nowadays, awareness of the extreme result of bullying (such as suicide) has caused parents, teachers, and school systems to take a more active role in preventing and dealing with schoolyard bullies through special programs and education.

There is also an abundance of books and movies for kids and young adults that deal with this issue. Books for parents and teachers, such as The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso give understanding and guidance regarding bullying – with insight into the role that a bystander (active or not) plays in supporting such behavior. In the book, suggestions are given on how to raise a child to have the compassion and strength of character to act on what is right if they find themselves as a bystander “even at great cost to himself.”

Eventually we all grow up and leave school behind, but schoolyard bullies often grow into adult bullies. This kind of behavior is less in-your-face physical and more subtle, but still just as harmful. It can manifest itself in its simplest form in a relationship where one person continually takes advantage of another through manipulation, often using the friendship (and the possible loss of it) as a weapon.

We can try to understand bullies. Most have a need to control because they have little control over their own lives – and those they perceive as weak or different become easy targets. Many are raised by dominating, controlling parents, and bullying can become a natural path. But no amount of understanding can excuse this behavior. Whatever the reasons, a bully chooses to treat people a certain way, just like the rest of us do.

As adults, we have choices that children may not have or may not know they have, or don’t have the strength to make. We can choose not to be bullied, deciding instead to avoid or ignore those kinds of people without harm to our once-fragile childhood hearts. We can end an unhealthy relationship with a controlling partner or friend. The power to change a situation that we’re unhappy with is within each of us.

The trick is remembering that change is as easy as you make it. The trick is remembering that you are the boss of you. ~ A.S. King

But things become more complicated when encountering bullying in the workplace. Our job might depend on getting along with that awful person giving us the stink-eye from the desk across the room. And if it’s your demanding supervisor…that’s an even tougher situation. We still have choices, whether it’s being nice to the person to keep the peace, confronting the person in an assertive but non-aggressive way, or taking the problem through the chain of command. If bullying turns into outright harassment, most workplaces have rules in place to deal with it. In any case, moving on might just save your physical and mental health.

But no matter what, keeping in mind where the fault lies is key. You do not deserve to be treated with scorn or disrespect. No one else is the boss of you, but you.

October is National Bullying Prevention month. What do you think is the best way to handle or prevent bullying?

Structure: A Different Kind of Memoir

I knew from the beginning, even before writing the first chapter of This New Mountain, that AJ Jackson’s book wouldn’t be a regular biography. It would not relate every bit of AJ’s life from birth onward. Instead, the book would be a memoir, focusing on her life as a private investigator, repossesor, and process server. However, it wouldn’t be a typical memoir.

AJ has a ton of stories, but putting them into chronological order (like most biographies and memoirs) was not going to work even if she had perfect recall of specific dates. Tying them together in this way or making them flow from one to the other would have been a difficult task. In my opinion, this kind of structure would not have made for good reading. I finally decided to present AJ’s stories grouped together into themed chapters. For example:

  • Chapter 7: Sin and Survival – AJ learns to lie in order to succeed in her line of business.
  • Chapter 12: Just This Side of Catawampus – AJ deals with people and cases that are just a bit off.
  • Chapter 14: Jackrabbit Mind – AJ uses her brain, and/or temporary insanity, to get the job done.
  • Chapter 19: Spit and Vinegar – AJ looks foolish, feels foolish, and acts the fool to satisfy her clients.

The stories in chapter two through six are told in the order they happened, but grouping the rest of them by theme made strict chronological order, within the chapters or the book as a whole, impossible. That meant a story about repossessing a car using a tow truck might be included in a chapter with one in which AJ has to jimmy a lock or use a key to open a car door. Or one chapter tells how and why she stopped carrying her Colt .38, but a few chapters later the .38 surfaces again.

Though This New Mountain is not put together like a normal memoir, it is structured and ordered in a way that makes sense. The stories within each chapter are tied together. And all the chapters ultimately tie into the main theme of the book, facing one’s fear.

What do you like most about memoirs – being introduced to a different way of life or following along as a person deals with her life?

Live More, Fear Less: Living with a Purpose

I’m the kind of person who roots for the underdog. I like movies where the little guy comes out on top and books where the hero wins in the end.

The thing about underdogs and heroes is they DO something. They’re working towards a goal, often while trying to overcome a personal shortcoming along the way. Even if they give up at some point, they always end up getting back on track. Heroes and underdogs don’t always get what they start out wanting. They might have to shift focus to see what’s really important. And usually what’s really important is something or someone outside of their me-world or I-want way of living.

Another thing that heroes and underdogs have in common is facing their fears. And deciding at a particular moment that something is more important than fear. You can bet firefighters are afraid just about every time the alarm sends them out on a call. They have a purpose in life that is beyond themselves, and so they push through.

Not everyone knows what their purpose is. Some people know early on what they want to do with their life, but some of us are still searching. For me, my faith tells me I’m here in this world at this particular time in history for a reason. God has a plan for me and he knows what it is even if I don’t (yet).

When I start letting my “not knowing” get the best of me, I search out an underdog or hero story. Nick Vujicic is one such person who fits into both categories. Born without arms or legs in 1982, he tried to drown himself at 8-years-old and then fought depression for many years afterward because he didn’t know why God made him the way he is. Then Nick found purpose in his faith. For a truly inspiring story, I hope you’llcheck this out.

Who inspires you to live more and fear less?

Beginnings: The Goal of the Memoir

When I first met AJ Jackson, her reason for wanting a book written about her life was to leave a record behind of the things she’d done in the business of private investigating, repossessing, and process serving.

“I’m not getting any younger,” she said. “If I wait too long, it won’t get done. And I want my children and grandchildren to know what I’ve gone through.”

After I finished the drafts of a few chapters of her adventures (that later became This New Mountain), we both thought the memoir might appeal to others outside her family. It seems these chapters captured the same excitement I felt when I first listened to AJ tell her own stories.

So I shifted gears. The audience for the memoir would be much wider. The book’s appeal would even reach beyond her circle of friends and business associates to include those who read crime novels and have an interest in the profession of private investigation. Someone who wants to know how the mind of a private eye works (and the tricks they use) will want to read the book.  Baby boomers will also enjoy the memoir, as will anyone who likes to read about ordinary people working in unconventional jobs. If you want to know the ins and outs of how a real repo-man (or woman) works – don’t watch the TV show – get AJ Jackson’s memoir. And if you’re looking for encouragement to step out of your comfort zone, this is a good book to read.

When we broadened our audience, AJ also added to her goal for This New Mountain. She wanted to encourage others to face their fears – if she could do all the things she did (while being scared to death), she wanted others to know they could do the same.

In one interview AJ told me, “What I’d like to get across to the reader is to never give up. Whatever you’d like to try in life, just give it a shot. Because you’ll never know if you don’t try.” Like I’ve said before, she thinks everyone just needs a little bit of courage.

Ultimately, the goal of any book is to tell a story the best it can be told. Through these twelve years of writing, revising and reworking, questioning and listening, I’ve done all I can to accomplish that one major goal and stay true to AJ’s own intentions.

If you were to write a memoir, what would your goals be?

Live More, Fear Less: Deep Water

This is the first of my Fear Less Friday posts. Writing This New Mountain and seeing how AJ Jackson faced her fears everyday has helped me deal with my own fears. With these Friday posts I plan to talk about the things that grab hold of us and keep us from living fully, and in doing so I hope to help others take a look at what makes them fearful and maybe inspire them to take a step onto another path.

Here is a photo of me on the coast of Maine with a treasure I found washed up on shore. Seeing the not quite picked-clean bones of this huge fish reminded me of similar encounters at a time when I was young and innocent, playing in the sand with my silver spoons and plastic bucket, trying to dig to China. Sand crabs would skitter about while I dug deep holes that filled with ocean water seeping in under the beach. I remember the shield-like remains of a spiny horseshoe crab with its stiff dagger tail. And I remember watching two men drag a large thing through the surf and onto the beach. A sleek, grey, smooth-skinned body with a long tail, and side and dorsal fins. I was little, and the thing was huge and terrifying, and it was a shark.

That creature laying on the sand made me wonder what else swam out there in the deep, among the rushing waves, just beyond the shore. What else was out there that I couldn’t see? Close enough for swimmers to capture, and close enough to swim among the swimmers.

I decided I didn’t want to be one of those deep-water-swimming-with-creatures kinds of people. I’m perfectly happy to watch the waves for hours, feel my toes leave impressions in the hard sand, smell the salt in the air, hear the gulls cry. At peace with the forever cycle of sea meeting land in a rush and swell, a falling back, and a reaching out once more. The sea and me, we have an understanding. I’ll even splash in ankle-deep surf. But I’m not afraid of drowning – I can swim just fine. No, it’s the things in the water I can do without. And I’ve always been okay with this perfectly logical fear I have.

And then I took my oldest daughter on a Caribbean cruise for her 21st birthday. We explored Mayan ruins in Cancun, hiked through a waterfall in Jamaica, visited a place called Hell. It was all wonderfully normal, until she wanted to swim with stingrays. AND she wanted me to go with her. How sweet of her to think of me. The water would be warm and clear, she said. Clear enough to see all those creatures that live in the ocean.

In doing research for This New Mountain I came across the following quote by Ambrose Redmoon:

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”

At the time of the cruise, I hadn’t been introduced to AJ Jackson and her head-on approach to dealing with fear, but I knew deep down if I let go of this chance to share something remarkable with my daughter, I would always regret it. And a part of me actually did want to – [shudder] –  swim with stingrays.

I talked myself into, and out of, doing it dozens of times. I was still talking to myself as I followed my daughter down the ladder on the side of the sightseeing boat. I changed my mind again, but someone was already on the ladder above me coming down. My heart pounding, I tried not to look at the water below as I stepped onto the bottom rung. I had been breathing deeply for a good fifteen minutes before this to keep from hyperventilating. I took a few more slow, even breaths, told myself to just do it, and dropped into the warm ocean. I expected to have to push off the bottom and swim to the surface but instead I touched solid “ground” after a few feet. The water resting over this pristine reef was only armpit-deep. The sand spread out at my feet soft and white and unmarred as far as I could see. No shells, no seaweed, no creatures, nothing but sand. It was as if someone had swept it clean just for me. This wasn’t so bad. I could do this.

A murmur started from a group of people bobbing about farther away from the boat and me, and closer to the open sea. Then shadows slid through the water, dark cloaks winging toward us. I screamed along with everyone else – tenor and soprano voices mixed together, men and women alike.

But these stingrays were not there to hurt us. They were more like dogs racing in for the treats the tourist boat always brought along to bring them close. The rays hugged our legs and spun around us. My daughter, the adventurous child, hugged one back. I stood as still as possible and took photos of rippling cloaks and tiger-eyes unblinking. Soon the creatures turned and swept back the way they came.

I still don’t like deep water, won’t go in it, preferring slow walks along the edge of my mind and the surf. But now I can say I swam with stingrays – and I never have to do it again.

As AJ likes to tell me, “You just have to have a little courage.”

Is there a fear that keeps you from doing something you’ve always wanted to do? Is it time you took a few deep breaths, pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, and jumped in?

Welcome to the Home of This New Mountain!

After working for twelve years putting together AJ Jackson’s memoir, AJ and I are excited to announce the upcoming publication of This New Mountain by Casa de Snapdragon Publishing.

Here’s the blurb from the back cover:

        “Just go ahead and shoot me,” I told the sneering young man who held a gun pointed at my chest. “I’m an old lady and I’m tired. You’d be doing me a favor.” I wasn’t all that old, but I was cranky. “I don’t want to die in some nursing home, so why don’t you just go ahead and pull the trigger.” I stared the guy right in the eyes and waited. His baby-blues narrowed, his forehead furrowed. He didn’t shoot, so I turned my back on him and continued hooking up the rear of his pickup to my tow truck. It had been a helluva long day so far, a helluva life….

        Like most private investigators, AJ Jackson has more than one foot in the fire to make ends meet – driving a tow truck and serving legal documents for local law firms. But not every PI is a mother of four, a grandmother of ten, an ex-gun dealer and former mental patient, or a descendant of a great Choctaw chief. This is a memoir of Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson, a country girl with a go-to-hell attitude who must face her fears in order to keep her sanity and make a future for herself.