Category Archives: Reading

Not Writing Because I am a Writer: Self-Doubt as Self Story

Why, you may ask, have I not been writing posts for this blog as frequently as I once did?

When I started this blog in 2014, I wrote one post a week. Every Thursday; very disciplined.  Then once every two weeks. Now it has slipped further. My friend Caroline asked me why I am writing less often.

Because I am now a fully accredited writer, I told her. A writer who is enrolled in a Master’s degree program in Writing at a highly regarded university. And the more I write, the more I doubt myself. 

Which I think is something many women have long excelled at. Self-doubt.

I don’t think it I am alone in specializing in self-doubt.

I wrote once about visiting a law school professor during his (always “his” back then) office hours to question my grade on a final exam. I thought it was too high! Can you imagine, I suggested he’d made a mistake in giving me an “A” because I didn’t think I deserved it. The professor politely confirmed that his grade was correct and shooed me out of his office.

Some of us never learn. We think every good “grade” in whatever field we are in must be a mistake on the part of the grade-giver.

That close cousin of self-doubt, self-comparison, has also been visiting me lately. You may share the same unwelcome cousin, those thoughts that compel us to compare ourselves to others.

Though you haven’t asked, I will tell you that I have been getting (unexpectedly IMHO) excellent grades in the writing course I am taking this semester. In “Contemporary American Writers” we read both fiction and non-fiction written by a diverse group of American (duh) writers and then write Critical Response papers analyzing their work from the perspective of a writing craft technique such as character development, point of view or structure.

True Confession:  I had to google the term “Critical Response.”  It did not help when our young adult son told me that he learned how to write a Critical Response when he was in middle school. When I was in middle school, it was then called “junior high” which tells you (a) how long ago it was that I was in junior high and (b) that I never learned to write a Critical Response paper.

But I do now!  I received a very good grade on the first one I wrote. And an even better one on the second.

Does this mean I am a good writer? Or simply a person who is good at following the professors’s directions? Both? Neither? Or someone perennially plagued with self-doubt.

The doubt factor has even crept into my reading for pleasure. I am a rabid reader. The kind of person known to read the back of Kleenex boxes when nothing else is available and is desperate for the printed word.

In the greatest of ironies, now that I am learning to read like a writer, I am enjoying it less! I read a few paragraphs in a much-anticipated novel or a favorite mystery and then start to think:

  • wait, isn’t this too much back story?
  • shouldn’t there be a scene here instead of summary?
  • did the author just make a mistake in her point of view?

Sometimes I want to go back to my old self who was not consciously aware of the distinctions between “alliteration,” “anaphora” and “assonance.”

Perhaps I have also mislaid my writer’s “voice.”

At a meeting of my amazing DC women’s writers group earlier this week, my writer pals unanimously concluded that while my writing has improved (they credit the classes I’ve been taking),  I seem to have lost some of my writer’s voice.

I’m not as snarky, not as sarcastic, not as candid, not as clever. Not as much me. Perhaps because every time I sit down to write I am too damn careful to use every bit of writerly craft I’ve been learning correctly.

Too much focus on craft = loss of authentic voice?

The supportive women in my group reassured me that I will – someday – recover my original voice. That once I get beyond this “wow, look what I learned today” phase of my writing career (which is, by the way, annoying the heck out of my husband), that the craft part will come more naturally and the authentic me part of it will return.

Will I also outgrow the “self-doubt” part as well? Or will I always be that person double-checking the transcript to see if my grade is correct?

I vote for the latter. Self-doubt is not easily outgrown. Look at this way: like many women, I will always –  effortlessly – get an “A” in self-doubt.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Blogging, Books, Communications, Education, Female Friends, Law School, Reading, Second Careers, Women, Writing

Working Mom – Making the “Right” Choices? A Look Back.

               Female lawyer working in office

A Chanukah gift from my sister arrived yesterday – a book called “Becoming Grandma” written by the TV journalist, Leslie Stahl. The timing of the gift was impeccable as my husband and I just returned from four fun, albeit diaper-change-filled, days taking care of our two grandkids while their parents spent a few nights away. I saw the author’s photo on the cover of the book – and was reminded of a draft blog post (see below) I wrote but never published. I’m still not sure if it was Leslie Stahl who had the seat next to me on the plane that day in 1990  – but seeing her photo prompted me to revisit the choices we make as working moms (and for some of us, working grandmothers.) And to think about the consequences of these choices.

Looking back, I still wonder if I made the right choices. Maybe Leslie Stahl or whoever she was on the plane wonders too?

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Life presents many choices – and one of them is whether or not to read a women’s magazine on a an airplane.

Some years ago when I was a Young Mom I took a late afternoon shuttle flight from New York City back to Washington, DC. I was returning from a business trip, traveling solo. A rare thing in my Young Mom days.

On the plane I found a seat and glanced to my right. My seat-mate was a Famous Tall Blonde TV News Person. I no longer remember her name.

Immediately I thought, “Here’s my chance.” 

I will make a casual but clever remark which will lead to an intelligent conversation with another adult (defined in my Young Mom days as someone who (a) did not wear diapers and (b) was not related to me by marriage –  a successful, talented woman, one who loves the news, all things media, as much as I did – and still do.

Or – I could just flip through the pages of The New Yorker magazine that I had brought with me on the plane –  and the Famous Tall Blonde TV News Person will no doubt look my way, see me reading an Intellectual Magazine and initiate a thoughtful chat.

We would likely end up conversing all through the flight and as the plane taxied to the terminal, we would exchange business cards and talk about getting together in a week or two.

But being a Young Mom I had also brought another magazine on board with me.

Should I open up my women’s magazine and catch up on my Young Mom required reading such as: “10 Tips for Tantrum Free Toddlers”- OR should I stick with the New Yorker?

 I chose “10 Tips for Tantrum-Free Toddlers.”

About ten minutes into the flight the Famous Tall Blonde TV News Person looked my way and glanced at the magazine on my lap.

By then I had moved on to “8 Exciting Easy Recipes for Week Night Dinners.” She turned her well-coiffed head and ignored me for the rest of the flight.

So I never got to find out if the Famous Tall Blonde TV News Person and I would have hit it off. Probably not.

In my Young Mom days I always felt like I had dual personalities – a Mom at home and a Lawyer at the office but never the twain shall meet. We were advised to low-key the Mom thing if we wanted to be successful at work.

A young partner at my first law firm once “helpfully” suggested to me that I should reduce the amount of kid-related decor in my office.  Too many photos of my kids and their crayoned pictures sent the message that I cared more about spending hours with my family than billing time for my clients.

Why was it, I wondered (although I didn’t dare say this aloud) acceptable, if not outright admired, for men to show off their Dad sides? If a male lawyer in my office decided to leave early for soccer practice, he would be lauded as a “family man.”

Funny, isn’t it, how the term “family woman” doesn’t exist?

But if I had to do it again – reflecting now on 30 plus years of working mom status (where is my badge?), I’d probably make the same choices. The office display of family photos and kiddie-drawings. Leaving mid-day to go to the school play. Not missing a school conference.  Taking criticism from certain of my male law firm colleagues when they “caught” me by the elevators, exiting the office at 6:30 p.m. and asking – “taking a half-day, Nancy?”

And not feeling guilty about reading a women’s magazine on an airplane, no matter who had the seat next to mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Careers, Law firm life, Lawyers, Men vs Women, Moms, Parenting, Raising Kids, Reading, Women, Women in the Workplace, Working Moms, Working Moms, Working Women

Boomer Learning From Millennials: Lessons From a Fiction Writing Class

Head Library - flat concept vector illustration

do know who Beyoncé is; I want to state that from the outset. I may not be familiar with all of her songs or videos – but yes, I know what she looks like and that she is a famous singer/songwriter.

What I did not know was that a recent politically themed skit I saw on TV ( a funny, IMO, take on Mr. Tangerine Man) on “Saturday Night Live” was meant to be a parody of her Lemonade video.

Missing out on current cultural references? Yup, it happens often as we get older. But so – thankfully – does an appreciation for the different perspectives that come from being able to study with people of different ages.

There are eleven students in the “Techniques of Writing Fiction” class I am taking this fall at JHU. Perhaps half are under the age 35. The very nice young man who sits to my left in class listened to me patiently the other night as I fumbled to describe the SNL skit. He turned to me and said, “Oh, you mean the skit that was the parody of the Lemonade video?”

I laughed, pretending that I had known all along about Beyoncé and the video reference. I’d like the younger students in my class to think I am culturally au courant but I’m sure they recognize that I am not.

But I do enjoy being around the 20 and 30-somethings because of the perspectives they have. Not only their outlooks on life, but how through the lens of their experiences and age (or lack thereof?), they offer up unexpected interpretations of the stories we read for our class homework.

Last week one of the assigned readings was the classic “But the One on the Right” by Dorothy Parker, a short story published in The New Yorker in 1929 (and no, I was not alive in 1929.)

It’s an interior monologue of a woman of a certain age who is purposefully seated by her hostess at a formal dinner party with the intent to entertain the known-to-be boring man to her left.  “We can stick him next to Mrs. Parker – she talks enough for two.”

The dull dinner companion likes to discuss each course of food as it is served. Yes, they both like soup. The fish course is fine too. He and Mrs. Parker disagree on the potatoes, but return again to a shared admiration of cucumbers. All the while Mrs. Parker is gulping down wine and wondering how more enjoyable the evening might be if she only she could talk instead with the seemingly more attractive man seated on her other side, who ignores her throughout the multi-course meal.

I won’t ruin the end of the story for you; it is well-worth reading.

I laughed aloud at the Dorothy Parker story, enchanted by her writing. The droll inner thoughts of a sophisticated older woman who implies she’d rather be happily cleaning her bureau drawers at home than be forced to be out in polite but terribly dull company. It rang true to me, having been at many parties stuck with an uninspiring conversational companion. Or two.

One of my younger classmates did not find the story the least bit humorous. To my surprise, she saw the narrator as a lonely and sad older woman.

Another homework assignment was to read a more contemporary, prize-winning writer, an Egyptian-born, Sudanese author named Leila Aboulela, who writes about identity, migration and Islamic spirituality. In her story titled “The Museum,” a young Muslim woman from a well-born but now struggling family in Khartoum comes to very cold Northern Scotland to study statistics in an unexpectedly rigorous graduate school program. Anxious about doing well in her studies, she falls under the unwilling spell of a smart but unpolished Scottish fellow grad student who is attracted by her exotic background.

Again, I won’t ruin the story for you; it also is beautifully written.

I was captivated by Ms. Aboulela’s main character, Shadia. Her straddling of two cultures reminded me of my own days in a small, 100 person graduate student program, half of us, like me, from the U.S. and half of us from other countries. I probably was not as culturally sensitive as I might have been to my own foreign student classmates back in the 1970’s.  Maybe filtered through those memories is why I found Shadia such a sympathetic character.

A younger student in our class totally disagreed with me. She thought Shadia came across as arrogant and selfish.

Is it odd that I find these classroom discussions so exhilarating?

We read the same words, the same stories, the same fiction, yet each of us interprets meaning so differently. In my suburban home-town book club, we also read and share thoughts about what we read, but we are a group of similar-aged women of similar backgrounds. Our discussions are, dare I say it, not quite as exhilarating.

Kudos really to the younger students in my fiction grad school class who are opening my eyes to what I am reading, who force me to pay attention, to acknowledge that what I perhaps think is the correct understanding of a story may not be the only way of understanding it. Diversity, differences, making me think about what I am reading – and what I am hearing from others. A good lesson to apply to the rest of life. Perspectives should always enlarge, not narrow, as we get older. I may even get to like Beyoncé yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Aging, Baby Boomers, Book Club, Books, Communications, Education, Reading, Women, Writing

NEW BOOK: “Parenting Through the Storm – Finding Help, Hope and Strength When Your Child Has Psychological Problems”

 

No, I did not write this NEW book – but I wish I had.

Or, to be precise, I wish it had been written when we first needed it – say, about a decade or so ago.

But, I am VERY happy to let you know that this book is now available in the U.S. and I had a small (very small) role in making that happen.

Parenting Through the Storm” is written by Canadian author, Ann Douglas – an “award-winning parenting writer and the mother of four children who have struggled with a variety of psychological problems – and are currently thriving.”

(Lucky her, I say to myself – re-reading the last clause).

Lucky me too because Ann Douglas contacted me last year to ask if I would assist her in customizing the original Canadian version of her book for American readers.

Big issue there, as you can probably guess, is that Canada has a rather (understatement) different health care system than we have here in the United States. While much of Ann’s amazing guide focuses on parenting  – and is written for parents wherever YOU live – to help deal with and find support for the stress that comes with raising a child, teen or young adult with mental health struggles, many of the topics covered by the book – for example, topics such as:

 

  • Obtaining a Diagnosis
  • Starting Treatment
  • Advocating for Your Child
  • Working with Your Child’s School (& College)

 

.. the information and advice for these subjects needed to be modified to reflect the (IMHO, sad) realities of how mental health care works (and doesn’t) within the U.S as well as the way we do things in our educational and legal systems.

Working with Ann to customize her Canadian-audience book for American readers was a wonderful experience. Can you tell how proud I am just to be mentioned in the Acknowledgements and to be quoted on young adult and college-related mental health on a few of its’ pages?

NOTE: This blog post is NOT meant to promote Ann’s book in any commercial manner. I’ve not been asked to plug it nor do I get any financial benefit if you purchase it. I just admire the heck out of it and am thrilled it is now available here.

What makes it special? It is a nuts-and-bolts guide but also a how-to-help-yourself-guide. Ann addresses not only the specific “What do I do now?” questions –  but also gives solid advice on how to take care of yourself at the same time. And if you don’t practice self-care as a parent of a challenging child, believe me it won’t go well for you or for anyone in the family.

You may not need this book – but my well-educated guess is that you know a parent (or a grandparent!) who does. Or will some day. One in five children and teens are affected by mental health struggles. These kids hurt – and so do their parents.

Please share the news of its’ U.S. publication widely – and if you are the one “parenting through the storm”, as Ann says, you are not alone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Books, College, Mental Health, Mental Illness, Moms, Parenting, Reading, Women, Young Adult Mental Health

Put 16 Women in One Room for Four Days…

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When was the last time you got to do something you LOVE for an extended period of time?  Just for you. Totally indulgent. No outside responsibilities. No interference.  Single focus.

Luckily, I had that chance last week. I participated (with a great deal of advance trepidation) in my first-ever Writers Retreat. Held at a woodsy conference center next to a summer camp about two hours from DC, it featured:

  • 16 Women
  • 11 Hours of Writing Per Day
  • Four Days
  • Three Teachers
  • One Conference Room

Sound like fun yet?

Factor in:

  • No TV (missed my favorite detective shows)
  • No Laptops (required to write by hand in old-fashioned black and white composition notebooks)
  • No Good Food (with apologies to the conference center, but the fare was, trying to be polite here, mediocre at best.)
  • No Husband or Dog to sleep with at night (how would I manage without them?)

Not only did I survive, but I thrived. I filled an entire notebook with pages of hand-written memoir, fiction and poems.

O.K., no agents have popped up sending me urgent “must publish you now; please contact us immediately” text messages. But for the first time – ever, I think – I was in a situation where all I had to do was write –  and the hours sped by.

Totally a new thing for me to be doing what I love in a concentrated fashion minus the daily pull of Twitter (my admitted addiction), Breaking News (addiction #2) or the six-days-a-week excitement of waiting for the mail to arrive.

I returned from the retreat on Wednesday evening, aglow with my creative efforts, wanting to immediately share what I had written with my husband. He listened to one short poem, patted me on the shoulder and asked “What should we have for dinner?” Back to reality.

Part of that reality will be trying to replicate the setting of the retreat to motivate me to write more often and in a more disciplined fashion. Interruptions tend to find me. Why not empty the dishwasher, I might tell myself, instead of starting on a new writing project?

Another thing I will miss from the retreat is having collegial listeners. Listeners who actually hear what you are reading aloud (unlike my husband who – love him dearly – is a semi-attentive listener, at best.)

The collegiality of a writing group is something I did not expect when I signed up for my first, post-law-firm-life writing class in 2014.

Unlike college or grad school, where you write an essay or term paper and submit it to the teacher for review and grading, in a writing workshop you have to (well, I suppose you don’t “have to”) share what you’ve written with all of your classmates too. Prepare to be asked to read your work aloud to a roomful of listeners. Speak up, bare your soul, take the comments bravely. Everyone is supportive of you and you of them. There is zero competition. ( Wholly unlike law school, I have to say.)

A retreat amps up the writing class setting to a new level. An intimacy evolves when you sit around the same table for four days.  There you are pouring out your guts on paper and then you have to share your writing with people you have just met. You have no idea how they will receive your words. Or what they will think of you for having written them.

It isn’t a process for those prone to jealousy. Maybe the other women at the retreat didn’t feel the latter sentiment, but I did. Some of the women in that conference room are actual PUBLISHED writers. They write beautifully. They can create fully developed fictional characters out of thin air. How did they come up with that imagery in response to a prompt where we were given 20 minutes to write?

I nodded my head in admiration. I was not shy about giving praise to my “fellow” writers. They said some nice things about what I wrote and also offered constructive (thankfully) criticism.

I did not walk away (nor did I expect to) with 15 new best friends. Some of these women I will never see again. Some I may see (If I am invited; fingers crossed) to participate in next summer’s retreat. Perhaps a few of them I will see before then.

Going to this kind of retreat may not be your idea of a good time. I wasn’t sure it was mine before I went. I was describing it last night to my book club friends gathered in my living room and several of them stared at me as if I had taken a swift leap from reality.

Which I had. Which is the whole point of a retreat. Which is why you can’t replicate the setting at home. Won’t stop me from writing, though. Won’t keep me from having to empty the dishwasher either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Book Club, College, Communications, Female Friends, friendship, Husbands, Reading, Talking, Women, Writing

“No Woman Is An Island” (Even When She Wants To Be)

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Twice last week I was reminded of the famous John Donne poem.

First, when I listened to President Obama use the phrase “No man is an island” while speaking before a U.K. audience alongside Prime Minister Cameron –  (and no matter what you or I may think about the foreign policy implications of “Brexit,” that word itself is fun to say.)

But I digress.

Second, when we read a stanza of the Donne poem in the Haggadah during our Passover Seder on Friday night. Friends put together a contemporary “Haggadah”  (the name for the Seder service telling the story of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt.)  Modern versions of a Haggadah, like the one we read from last Friday, often include non-religious readings on the subjects of freedom and humanity.

Thus, we come to the British poet John Donne who in 1624 wrote, in part:

“No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent” – an ode to the connectedness of mankind (and womankind too.)

Yet sometimes connectedness can be over-rated  – as proved by my recent dreams about fleeing to a remote island where WiFi is unavailable .

Which is an odd thing, perhaps, to say for someone who is likely perceived by friends and family to be an “extrovert”, but lately I’ve had severe pangs of over-connection leading to fervent wishes to relocate to an island where no one can reach me.

(with the possible exceptions of weekly visits by my toddler and baby grandsons and the occasional conjugal visit from my husband.)

Or as Greta Garbo was to have said, “I want to be left alone.”

I think we all sometimes get to this stage – when we have given SO MUCH of ourselves to SO MANY PEOPLE that there is very little left and we just want to retreat and not hear, talk or write to anyone for a few days. Or maybe longer.

In my case it has been a confluence of the extraordinary neediness of a certain family member which has overwhelmed me, combined with having to deal with the many trivial “issues” that come up when trying to get a house ready to be sold. Too many demands, too long of a “to do” list and I long to cover my ears, hide my iPhone and escape.

Hence, the “island” metaphor. How good that looks to me at this moment.  Solo and selfish seems like a wonderful place to be.

And though we may want to run off with a small suitcase (for me, it would be very large, because I never have packed light and don’t intend to start soon) to a tropical island (or by a lake or near a mountain, you pick the scenery ) retreat where no one can:

  • irritate us with their ceaseless questions,
  • checks to be written,
  • deadlines to meet
  • calls to make
  • and responses to our emails that show us that they never bothered to read our initial email – for if they had read our first email with more care, they would not have responded with yet another dumb question…

(plea here: we have become a nation of skimmers. a bad thing! I urge you to read emails all the way through. with care. that will enhance our inter-personal communications. trust me on this.)

…we cannot really flee, because, yes, as Donne said, we are all inter-connected, on the same continent of life, and our personal relationships – even when they are mighty demanding – are what – in the end – hold us together and make us human.

So much for the island idea. I must comfort myself with the knowledge that we all go through these episodes of being overwhelmed by life’s demands.

Retreat isn’t the answer even if those tropical drinks with the little perky parasols (but who would be on the island to prepare and serve them to me?) do seem awfully appealing just about now.

 

 

 

 

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Finding Your Own Lane in “Semi-Retirement”

stratton mtn

On a family trip one summer to Vermont we stopped at a familiar ski area to ride its’ alpine slide.

For the uninitiated, an alpine slide starts at the top of a non-snow-covered mountain where you sit on a sled, with a control stick between your knees, and guide your own ride along the twists and turns of a trail down the hill to the bottom.

The best part about this summer slide at Bromley Mountain is that it’s a triple track – described as “North America’s first triple-tracked” alpine slide, 2/3 of a mile long.

Triple Track means (duh) that each rider has three tracks to chose from. As I remember they were labeled – Fast, Medium and Slow – or maybe the three tracks had more clever names like #1 -“Speed For Teens”, #2 – “Active Dads” and #3 – “Moms Who Are Very Cautious.”

Whatever their designations were, I chose – no surprise here  – the latter, the slowest but steady track, kind of my life mantra, expressed on the side of a mountain. My husband and teenage son picked the faster paths, then whizzed down the mountain on their own sleds.

They were waiting for me when I arrived, five minutes later, having applied my own s-l-o-w sled’s brake multiple times as I approached every sharp turn and fast straightaway.

That triple alpine track was made for me – I like to be in charge of my own ride. I love the opportunity to choose my lane. If only life was like that alpine track.

Lately I have been veering from lane to lane.

One day I am happily zooming around with multiple plans and projects, volunteering, lunching with friends, going to meetings. The next I am contentedly at home by myself – along with our trusty terrier at my side – thinking that nothing is better than being able to sit alone in a comfortable chair (I know, don’t sit too long! bad for your health. I get it) – and write.

I did not choose to retire from my law firm at age 60 – that was an unexpected decision made for me by the cardiac authorities.  All of the articles on what to do to plan for retirement were suddenly irrelevant. I was plopped into it whether I liked it or not.

Three years have passed since then and I am still finding my way in what I call “semi-retirement.” Every day I either do too much – or I do too little.  Finding the right balance, the right lane has been tricky.

I would love nothing more than to sit at a desk all day and write. I’ve written a few short stories featuring (what else) witty and worried women in law firm settings.  Do I turn one of my favorite of these short stories into the first chapter of a novel? Or do I keep writing stories until I come up with a collection of them? Haven’t I set aside my childhood dream of becoming a published author for too long?

How ambitious those plans sound. And how self-indulgent. I now have the choice to spend hours doing what I love – while my husband is very much not-retired – (he likes his job, but loving it? you’d have to ask him.)

I  feel responsible to be productive. So some of what I write is non-fiction and earns a (tiny) fee, and I talk and write about young adult mental health and get paid for that too – and next fall, if it happens and I hope it will, I may get to teach a class about the state of mental health on college campuses.

Do these small paying “gigs” add up to giving me the right to stay in the slow lane with my writing projects?

Will the guilt I feel when I sit down to write ever subside?

I think about this as I veer from “semi-retirement” lane to lane and then back again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Baby Boomers, Books, Communications, Empty Nest, Husbands, Law firm life, Lawyers, Marriage, Men vs Women, Moms, Reading, Retirement, Second Careers, Semi-Retired, Women, Women in the Workplace, Women's Health, Working Moms, Working Women, Writing, Young Adult Mental Health