01 Jan 2017

What happens after you design the life of your own making? What then?

the new work

Boomers will be our ruin, was our constant refrain in the late 90s. This was a time when we actively practiced our apathy, regarded the internet with a mixture of interest and suspicion, and carried cellular phones the size of small bricks. We survived grunge (barely), witnessed a 70s comeback (no thanks), and shirked off our over-generalized Gen-X moniker. We weren’t fragile unique snowflakes, but we didn’t aspire to be our parents either, and it would take a new generation of upstarts to fix the mistakes we initially made with the internet (remember the epic implosion of 2001? My unemployment checks sure do) and show us that everything we were taught to believe about work, success, and life, was far from gospel.

For seventeen years, I worked in an office. I did what I’d been told to do or mimicked generations past — I worked hard and paid my dues, knew my place in the hierarchy and adhered to it, and believed an Odyssean commute and a matching 401K were the “only way”. I never conceived of a career outside the confines of a cubicle until I learned that corporations couldn’t guarantee a safety net or protect you from market and industry volatility, and even though you were constantly reminded of your value and worth during the annual corporate retreats and holiday potlucks, your livelihood was predicated on a P&L. You were only as valuable and indisposable as a company was profitable. You existed for as long as a company could bear the weight of you.

In 1997, I graduated college with a plan: work in finance for 10–15 years, get married, have kids — the whole whitewashed nine-yard. Just stick to the plan, I told myself because this singular version of a dream, one that had been photocopied by multitudes, was the only way. Right?

Until I learned that I loathed finance. You could be good at something and still cry in bathroom stalls. My work didn’t challenge me, the dress code (yes, back then we had a suit dress code with only Fridays as a reprieve) was daunting, my coworkers all hailed from the same Northeast schools, and I became curious about this “Internet thing”. I spent nights and weekends navigating AOL and dial-up service (remember when no one could reach you because you were online? Good times.) and using my financial and accounting skills, I launched a small business where I bought designer clothes and accessories from outlets and samples sales in New York and sold them online. I did this successfully for two years, but still didn’t believe in the safety of going out on my own. I’d relegated my business to a side project, that thing that would steer me away from finance and I could mail my paper resumes to new companies in new industries. During this time, I managed to fit in getting my master’s degree in Fine Arts — the antithesis of my “safe” Bachelor’s of Science degree.

My plan in 1997 was a graft that didn’t take, an implanted organ rejected by its host. My views on marriage shifted — I cared less about the white dress and the fanfare and confetti and instead wanted a partner, regardless of the paperwork. I also realized that I didn’t want children, which made marriage at the time a trickier proposition. Instead, I wanted my career and my novels. I worried less about the whitewashed life and figured that a partner would eventually materialize.

By 2013, most of my views of success were usurped. Millennials annoyed me initially with their impatience toward hierarchy and their seemingly abnormal professional velocity. There seemed to be an urgency in this generation that hadn’t existed previously. I kept thinking know your placeuntil I began to wonder what is “your place”? I was reminded of how I hated being silenced in the room when I had good ideas simply for the fact that I was under 30. I wanted to work hard, true, but I also wanted to contribute and be respected even if I hadn’t yet gone gray. I’d spent time around smart and creative millennials, who had great ideas and worked hard, but believed one could take control of one’s success, that one’s identity was not inextricably bound to their title. I saw them leave and start their own ventures and at first, I was shocked (though mostly afraid), but that fear turned into envy because I thought: I could do this too. So I left a job that made me unhappy to venture out on my own.

At first, I thought, oh, I’ll probably consult for a few months and get a job. Fast forward three and half years later.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles that will instruct you on how to be successful as a freelancer. I’m not here to add to that noise, other than to say yes, it’s important to discern if this kind of work is right for you as opposed to being seduced by the glamour of working from home (it’s not glamorous, rather, it’s often isolating), getting experts like bookkeepers and lawyers are tantamount, and being smart about your offering and value proposition (i.e. what you do and why you do it better or differently than the freelancer down the block), know you have to have multiple projects going as a hedge and you have to always be pitching, closing, etc — these are all important and elucidated elsewhere in excruciating (and necessary) detail.

I turn 41 this weekend and it took me a really long time to be okay with not having a plan, of playing the days as they lay. That I’m not a failure because I didn’t cleave to what I had thought defined one’s personal and financial success and realized that definitions aren’t binary. That you can fail and fail better.

Sometimes I look at my peers or those who are younger than me and I think: they have it together. They bought a house, they live debt-free, and their life isn’t an artful navigation of student loan officers, creditors, and creative accounting. And for a moment I step into that comparison trap and before the claws snap I fall back. That’s their life, their definition of happiness, their path — not mine.

Would I love to be out of debt? Absolutely. Do I regret going to a fancy Ivy League school for a graduate degree when I could’ve saved money and gone somewhere equally good and local? Sure. But right now, right this moment,I have a business that makes me jump out of bed in the morning, I write the books I dream of writing, and I’m healthy (finally), sane, and the things I want will come…eventually. Right now, I focus less on a “plan” and more on living the best and most mindful life I can live. Right now, I focus on giving back and using my privilege to help others. Right now, I focus on living.

I read this quote today (I’m not a fan of Kerouac, but felt it appropriate):

And I will die, and you will die, and we all will die, and even the stars will fade out one after another in time.

You could look at it and think, that’s morbid, or you can view it as a call to live.

0 Comments

  1. Karen wrote:

    “Sometimes I look at my peers or those who are younger than me and I think: they have it together. They bought a house, they live debt-free, and their life isn’t an artful navigation of student loan officers, creditors, and creative accounting. And for a moment I step into that comparison trap and before the claws snap I fall back. That’s their life, their definition of happiness, their path — not mine.”

    OH MY GOD YES. I can’t tell you how many times I sit there and let the green-eyed monster overtake me when it comes to seeing what the younger generation is doing. I’m so guilty of sitting there and grumbling “must be nice” when I see everything they do, and wondering why I can’t seem to get my life together. And every time this happens, I feel like an awful person for feeling this way.

    Posted on 1.1.17 · Reply to comment
  2. Barbara wrote:

    I think the idea of “having a plan” is very claustrophobic and limiting, especially to creative people. Plans are for those that need borders, guidelines — and we all do, from time to time. But life is changing, evolving and sometimes plans/mindsets don’t let you do that. The fact that you changed your life — which is an UNDERTAKING and that you know yourself, you’ve moved on (literally), is a glorious thing. You didn’t just talk the talk. Thanks for being an inspirational role model to this old lady. It’s never too late. And that quote is lovely. I get it.

    Posted on 1.5.17 · Reply to comment

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Trust me, I want to do ALL THE THINGS. Now, I ask myself what portion of my day have I committed to being a better writer, a better storyteller and brand builder? Am I learning something new, regardless of how minor that something is? Or am I zeroing in on the things that are conduits and bridges to and from the work. You’ve created all these points of entry to a thing that isn’t as good as the vehicle that got them to the thing.
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Think about that. Prioritize. .
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It’s weird to think that I’ve lived in NY for the first 39 years of my life, Los Angeles for the past four, but I’m watching old episodes of Shetland and wondering how I can get myself to a remote farmhouse, cabin, outhouse, etc. All I need is good WIFI for work.
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But an island in Scotland isn’t realistic, so I’m setting my sights closer to home, California. And I’ve got time to research, thankfully. .
Until then, I’ll keep plugging, keep writing, keep up with newly-revisited healthy habits.
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“If I had my way, I’d never leave my house. My home is small, and I know every inch of it. An 800-square foot box with two windows, walls, and a doorbell that plays instrumental Julio Iglesias. Half the rooms are cloaked in effulgent light and the other a cool charcoal black. I’ve become fluent at oscillating between the two. I don’t even love the space in which I live, but I’m hard-pressed to leave it.”
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It’s bizarre that I’ve always been a city girl and all I want now is small. Quiet. Remote. I feel like my dad.
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I cracked my tooth on Friday (it’s all good—I got Percocet and a $3K bill), and it made me think that there’s so much I want to do, work-wise and artistically, but I’m always thinking about money. Years ago, I heard Paul Jarvis talk about reducing your expenses to feel richer. I know, captain  obvious, but it resonated with me on Friday while on Percocet.
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I’m considering another move when my lease is up to a small AF town in California not too far from the Redwoods and the ocean. I LOVE California, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the US. And I love the idea of FEWER people. Quiet to write. Maybe I can get a dog friend for my Felix! .
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  • My breaking point was over a hazelnut. A hazelnut that cracked my tooth at two-thirty this morning. Because I was stress-eating granola. But it was the three thousand dollar bill to fix said tooth that did me in. Only a few weeks before, a persistent ache in another tooth turned into a five-hour fiasco involving a dentist, an endodontist, a $5,000 bill and me texting a friend — while the fifth shot in my mouth was kicking in, and I was inhaling nitrous gas like a glass of water in the fucking Sahara — ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS BULLSHIT?
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My dentist tried to reassure me, after rejecting my pleas for a fifteen-year repayment plan, that this particular tooth had already booked a one-way ticket to a root canal, so I ended up saving $2,000! Oh, cool. So, instead of dropping ten grand on two teeth, I was only paying eight. Like I have eight thousand dollars just laying around, waiting to be flushed down the dental toilet. Apparently, the hazelnut was my salvation. I started laughing and continued laughing. For a while. To the point where everyone in the waiting room was uncomfortable.
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Today, I wrote a tutorial about crafting plots. Instead of vivisecting plot arcs — because frankly, I’d rather gouge out my eyes with an acetylene torch — I invite you to consider three simple questions: what story will sustain your interest for 70,000 words? Can you commit to your story and the sequence of events that unfold for months or years of your life? Does your novel have the weight to capture and hold your reader until the end?
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This year, I’m committed to sharing what I know for FREE. I’ve got no classes to sell after this (I actually hate the idea of teaching writing; I’d rather be doing it), but lots of people have asked for the goods and I believe if you’ve got the skill and privilege, you should be sharing it.
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  • Want to write a book? I'm sharing a six-part series in how to get the job done. The first two I'm previewing on Medium. Yesterday, I wrote about writing killer dialogue. Today, I'm sharing how to craft compelling characters. If you love what you read, consider sharing and clapping (more than once!). link in bio!
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Characters are delicious. When I was small, I didn’t have many friends, so I surrounded myself with books and my imagination. It’s a strange, magical thing to live your life inside your head, but this is what I did. Long, sultry summers formed a backdrop for one of the many worlds I’d created, complete with a cast of characters who felt so real you could touch them. This was more than inventing an imaginary friend or anthropomorphizing a stuffed bear; my characters were fully-formed people who had their own personalities, a particular way of talk, and facial features I’d cobbled together from television shows and magazines. They clasped pearls around their thin necks and wore sweaters and shoes made of silk and dyed blue. They were carriers of credit cards, plastic rectangular shapes I’d only seen on TV — a far cry from the crumpled bills and pennies we hoarded. My characters were breathing Frankensteins, only far less frightening. What made them real was they refused to follow a script — they rarely behaved the way I wanted them to.
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  • Want to write a book? I got you. Below is an excerpt from my latest medium piece—the first tutorial of six I’ll be sharing on writing mechanics. You’ll get the other 5 later this month if you’re on my email list. Link in profile!
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Denis Johnson once said that dialogue isn’t about what characters are saying, but what’s left unsaid. The leaner the dialogue, the bigger the bite. Darkness fell. The summer in 2005 was unseasonably chilly, and we wrapped ourselves in light jackets and thin cotton sweaters, watching the author of Jesus’ Sonchain-smoke and dole out advice with humor and humility. We were at a writer’s conference where we workshopped our stories during the day and mingled with boldfaced names in the evening. This would be the summer before I sold my first book and I was floored that my teacher at the time, Nick Flynn, found something honest and worthy in my essays that would become my memoir, The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here. Back then, I was painfully shy and prone to giving violently awkward first impressions, so instead of the cocktails and conversation, I chose to sit on the wet grass and listen to writers whom I admired. One evening, Denis Johnson gave a talk on dialogue.
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Dialogue is difficult. I often think of it as the power-lifter of novel writing because it has to operate successfully on several different levels. Not only does it have to move the story forward, convey information quickly, and grant narrative breathing space (because who wants to plow through pages without an exhale), but it also has to reveal core character truths. Dialogue delivers what narrative can’t — a voyeuristic, in-depth look into the minds of characters through what they say, and more importantly, what they chose not to disclose. Characters come to life when they speak. We visualize them as living, breathing people who have a particular way of talk, a specific view of the world and their place in it. While the author has dominion over the narrative, serving as your tour guide through the story, the dialogue serves as the wild card, the wrench that could usurp everything you’ve just read and what you’re about to read.
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