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I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

Rejecting the Mold

February 14th, 2014

I've always been one to follow the rules. For the most part, rules makes sense. Consider what happens when drivers decide to ignore that one about the yellow line down the center. Still, much of life is about breaking convention, too.

As a writer, my world is overflowing with rules. For instance:

  • Put a period at the end of a sentence, except if it's a question, then a question mark.
  • Use "and," "but," or "or" to join two complete thoughts into one sentence.

The list goes on and on and on.

Proper word usage, spelling, and arrangement prevents communication chaos, and the average person accepts the basics, even if he or she can't name the reasons why they're followed.

Meanwhile, artists of all kinds are known rule breakers. Those who have the courage, confidence, or complacency to throw off the shackles, shake things up, and shatter conventional thought usually find success in doing so. They ignore the stuffy mindset that believes rules are more important than results.

A famous example is the late Gertrude Stein who used very few commas (or any punctuation) in her writing. Her work is tough to read, but she has many fans. And she is remembered as a successful someone who broke sovereign rules.

Additionally, when an artist reaches a level where the critics roam, she learns of rules she never knew existed, rules made up to suit people's personal tastes. I am forever learning about these expectations from other writers, particularly through clubs or conferences where we come together to talk about the craft. And this is where I start to get ... well ... unruly.

An example of this includes the doctrine, "Never open a piece with a quotation." I obviously didn't know about that one when I wrote "The Reward of Taking a Risk," a story about a friend. I guess the publishers didn't either when they put it in the latest Chicken Soup for the Soul's anthology called the The Dating Game! without ever mentioning my opening.

"Clare found some guy on the internet,'" Gail said, the apprehension coloring her face.

That was the way it was written, and had they changed it, the piece wouldn't have been the same.

Truthfully, these kind of rules make me cringe every time I hear them, not because of the advice, but because of the dictorial way in which they are expressed, like the faithful reciting the 10 commandments. You hear them whereever "students" are hungry to be better writers and the "teachers" are soundboarding what they were taught. Learners must be careful not to fall into the mold, the sterile trap of conformity.

Which brings me to their favorite mantra of all: "Thou shalt limit the use of adjectives." Adjectives are noun modifiers that color our world. They are bright, vibrant, dark and soothing. They are good, wise, and perfect. I haven't counted them, but if they weren't supposed to be used, they shouldn't have put so many in the dictionary. I agree that over described nouns become adjectival speed bumps that leave readers tired and frustrated. But behold the power of the adjective. Like lead bullets, they conjure an image better than any lonely noun can.

Imagine you're on a drive in the countryside. Among the tall trees, winding roads, and blue skies you find the occassional sign, luring you to stop. Here, adjectives make the difference. For instance:

Without any adjective this sign would simply read, "This is a park." Nice, but not the same.
 
Here are a few more:
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

Ah, other people's stylistic rules. They may start with the best intentions, but they go sour when they morph into a gospel that impedes creativity, communication, and expression. And if you think the adjective gets a bad wrap, you should hear what they say about the adverb.

I'm still here.

January 17th, 2014

I haven't forgotten about you. Although I've been silent for months, I haven't fallen off the face of the earth. I have, however, met up with a challenge that is consuming all of my time: cleaning up a new, old home.

The whole thing started with a sign on a lawn.

Now, with the move complete, the walls are changing colors as the sawdust is swept away...

...while wearing dust masks, of course.

Meanwhile, in the midst of moving, the holidays came and went and the new year began. There's a sense of a fresh start in the air for everyone I meet, whether or not they've recently made a big change. It's the way of winter: dormancy for renewal. Even if we are not spreading our leaves and bursting with color, we are improving, inside and out.

How do you like our living room decor?

It may feel as if we are neglecting other things in the process, but there is something very rewarding about focusing on a single goal. For instance, getting an entire house in order requires the completion of many, many small tasks. Today I will be moving boxes from one side of my office room to the other, making way for my husband to sand a cedar closet tomorrow. Sunday, we will be emptying our temporary storage locker. It's been this way since early December, tackling one goal at a time until our home is comfortable, the priority of which remains steadfastly at the top of the list.

Holiday decorations? Not this year. Blog posts? Pushed aside for a while. Internet connection? Only when I really need it. A vacation with friends? I'm having enough fun setting up house.

I'm relearning from this adventure the value of focus, prioritization, accomplishment, and old-fashioned hard work. But the key in all of this is that the goal -- uncovering the charm of this house -- is unequivocally something that I want. That's the part that makes it easy, worthwhile, and permissible. What will be the consequences of saying no to everything else? Only time will tell.

I'm also learning the value of dramatic change. The mundane may be comfortable, but it sure is boring.

Still, I haven't forgotten the value of you, my reader, my friend. As I spend hours scrubbing a single wall, my thoughts linger toward planning the tasks necessary to continue writing for you. I expect to reemerge, charm uncovered, something old made new again. Until then, enjoy this period of dormancy and take advantage of it while you can.

There's no place like home

November 27th, 2013

I realized that I've stopped taking pictures. Granted, I'm really busy right now -- packing and preparing to move -- but the reason is deeper than that.

I don't want to pick up the camera because I know I cannot capture the image as I see it, as I feel it, and as it appears in my heart. My home for 17 years is a thing that cannot be conveyed in a flat and lifeless format.

I discovered this while I was watching the robins move through my yard last week as they do every year. The correct term for a group of birds is flock, but during the fall migration what came through here felt more like a mammalian herd than an avian flyby. It was breathtaking to watch. And before they left, the bright red berries on the 10-foot holly tree disappeared.

This is one example in a million examples of the cycles and sounds at the home I've come to know so well. Inside, I recognize every creak. I can discern between the smell that means it's time to dust the vents and the one that indicates it's time to call the fire company. Everything is safe and familiar here.

And very soon, in increments now measured in days, I will walk out the door for the very last time.

Do the robins grow melancholy as the temperature drops and they prepare to leave their summer home? Do they wish they could stay when the winter temperatures rise again, pushing them to say farewell once more?

Admittedly, this goodbye will soon become a hello. I'm going to a place as much as I'm leaving one. The cycles, sounds, and smells will be new, and curiosity will replace this reluctance to leave. Friends and family will visit, and new memories will be born.

And back here, a different family will witness the robin assault. Chances are they'll be surprised at first. "Look at all the robins!" they'll say. Then, eventually, the event will become commonplace, like homeland wonders always do.

Nearly two decades of change fill my photo collection. Now all there is to photograph is packed-up cardboard boxes and a sold sign. I'll start another album next month, one freshened with the inspiration to take photos again. But for now more than ever before I'm realizing how it easy it is to take a home for granted, that is until it's time to go.

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Did you do that yourself?

November 13th, 2013

The post is part of the latest SOS Signal, my bi-monthly newsletter which speaks to the career professional.

The time is at hand to set goals for 2014. For each task we must decide if we want to hire someone or if it's something we'll handle ourselves. There are many reasons why a person takes on a job that would otherwise be done by an expert. For one thing, self-reliance is getting easier. The availability of resources and tools for Do it Yourself projects (DIY) have become so commonplace, I wonder if it won't be long before there are DIY lawsuits or DIY facelifts.

Like a hungry person learning to garden, there's value in having DIY skills. But there are also valid reasons to get help. Some professional business services seem costly upfront, until you consider the impacts beyond the total on the invoice. DIY as a way to cut expenses can backfire, resulting in stained credibility, increased stress, and lost revenue.

So how do you decide? You take into consideration multiple angles.

The Case for DIY

People often ask me about my Website. It's a DIY. Here are the main reasons why I originally decided to build my own:

1.) I had more time than money.

2.) I had a good enough skill set to get it done.

3.) I wanted the ability to customize and to be the person responsible and in control.

4.) The knowledge gained helped my career/was a topic that interested me.

5.) I was confident the final product would serve its primary purpose.

After it was done, I found future applications for what I had learned. I customized this Blog. I communicated more easily with professionals in the Web design field. And recently, I offered my knowledge to a fellow sole proprietor, Shannon Miller of Shannon Miller Photography, with whom I had teamed up on an unrelated project. As our business relationship progressed, it became apparent that her success would impact mine. We began to trade services. She took my headshot and other needed photos, and I helped her get an updated Website.

The value of learning a new skill almost always has long-term benefits, ones that may not reveal themselves until farther on down the road.

The Case Against DIY

Meanwhile, let's look at another, less technical example. At home, I'd like to add a shelter for protecting my car from the weather. Four to six posts and roof would suffice. I don't want one of those metal, industrial-looking structures that have become popular around here, but I also don't want to pay more for a carport than I did the car. I found kits online that would give me the instructions (and possibly the materials) to build one myself. Admittedly it would be rewarding to say, "I built that," and I'd prefer to have control over the outcome.

BUT, I do not have decent carpentry or power-tool skills. And the structure's purpose is to protect my vehicle, not collapse on top of it.

So, in this case, just because I COULD build it myself, doesn't mean I SHOULD.

The Gray Area in Between

Back to my Website; I have what I paid for. Although it successfully casts my name and information out into Cyberspace, it doesn't have quality bait on its hook. Ideally, to get more from it, I should hire an expert.

Foremost in my decision on how to go forward is the answer to the perpetual question, "Does it serve its purpose?" Like a carport in shambles, if the site turns off visitors or never succeeds in catching new business, then it doesn't matter who built it, it's not worth the lumber or labor consumed. Additionally, when my book hits the New York Times bestseller list, and I have to travel the world to give readings and book signings, I won't have the time to keep my site functioning, and thus, I will need to pay someone who can.

Because the process is rarely easy.

Plus, few DIY projects turn out to run as smoothly as intended. The history of how my site came into existence is so long and complicated, I could have written 18 best sellers in the amount of time I've invested in it. My first site was created more than a decade ago using an online template service called SiteStudio. Like with any templated program, I took a risk that mine would look like someone else's, which I tried to reduce by pushing the software to its customization brink. Although clumsy and time consuming, the process did at least give me an online business card as well as a basic understanding of how to talk in computer code.

I revamped the site three times over the years, adding new services and making use of new HTML knowledge. Then, out of nowhere one day, my site's host lost the connection to the SiteStudio files. There was no way to restore them from a backup. All I got was, "Sorry, you'll have to rebuild it." They were fired.

While the crickets were chirping at my URL, I found a new hosting service. They also offered SiteStudio, which I immediately declined. I tried instead an inexpensive, off-the-shelf Mac software program that ran on my desktop. I managed to create something, but my throat still hurts from screaming at the computer. After about a year of trying to maintain files that were impossible to work with, I made the investment in the well known, tried-and-true, Website creation software called Dreamweaver.

I passed over the templates and dug in to learn the fundamentals, granting me the knowledge of exactly how my site was structured, etc. I took advantage of DIY books on HTML and CSS, read a lot about best practices, and invested hours...days...weeks into building a site that I can update quickly and if anything happens to the server, I can reload in minutes.

Beyond the software, hosting, and domain registration fees, the site was built for free. Sounds great, right? Not really. Here's why:

1.) If I had spent that time making money, my profit would have far exceeded the expense of hiring a professional.

2.) My skill set lacks knowledge. I do not speak fluent HTML, a language that is still evolving. I do not have a grasp of the code that mobile devices need to properly display a given Website. I cannot add interactivity. My site is not search engine optimized. And it lacks the graphic punch needed to keep a reader's attention.

3.) Although I may be in charge, I only get what I envision. There are no brainstorming sessions. I'm not able to tap into advice from talented peers and other individuals. All my shortcomings follow me to my online presence. This is the drawback of total control.

4.) While I'm interested in the the trade, I'm not interested in becoming a Webmaster. Having a little bit of knowledge about something so extensive can be a hindrance if you fail to acknowledge all that you do not know. Additionally, software upgrades are becoming increasingly more expensive in the design world, and for this job, you can't use your grandfather's tools.

5.) The primary purpose has changed. Where before my site was designed as a for-more-information followup to a face-to-face meeting or word-of-mouth referral, my career has evolved into one in which strangers must be able to stumble upon it. I must begin to catch some unknown fish floating in the online stream.

The Final Evaluation

There is nothing wrong with DIY. If there were, stores such as Lowes or Home Depot wouldn't be so darn successful. But we must all be careful not to let the DIY craze rob us of the potential that exists in a job professionally done or cripple us with the drawbacks of having one done wrong. There is a reason why someone is called an expert, and hiring the right one almost always pays for itself in time saved, profit gained, and effectiveness achieved.

For my plan in 2014, I expect to keep my DIY Website. But if anyone asks for advice on how they should proceed with theirs, I'll tell them, "It depends." Because decisions such as this really do depend. There are nuances to every task and angles to every project, ones that can only be evaluated by the decision maker. No matter what, the first step starts with setting the goal.

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Tell me your dreams

November 1st, 2013

"That's almost as boring as when people tell you their dreams," my friend said. She was reiterating a comment someone had made to her, hoping that I wasn't disinterested in what her mind had created the night before.

I wasn't. Dreams fascinate me. I can come up with some haunting and ludicrous ones of my own. And while I don't remember all of them, whether conscious of it or not, the story from the night before stays with me as I start my day. It can be a nagging sadness or an uplifting happiness. All because of a dream.

I believe dreams are manifestations of our desires and our worries. Sometimes we can't easily discern why we dream what we do, such a when we experience a rambling, illogical one. But other times, the cause becomes clear after we offer the dream a little attention ... after we acknowledge that lingering feeling in an effort to understand why it is there.

For instance, last night I dreamt that my husband's arms were covered in colorful tattoos. He had been hiding them from me. He was living a double life, and I was crushed. I threw my water glass against a brick wall in response. Then, I spent the rest of the dream picking up scattered shards of glass by myself.

This morning, I woke up sad and suspicious of my husband's love.

As I tried to shake it off, I began to realize the dream deserved some thought. It wasn't just some silly hallucination. My husband and I are embroiled in crossing a milestone. We are taking a leap toward living in a location we always said we wanted. We are about to move from a place that is comfortable and secure to a place that maybe, could be, hopefully will be even better.

Could this place be worth the trouble it takes to move?

This is it. We won't be moving again until we grow too old to live independently.

Thus, I must acknowledge that my soul needs reassurance. I need a reconfirmation of my husband's commitment, and I must assume that he needs the same from me. Neither of us wants to be left alone to pick up shattered glass.

September 17, 1994

Boring? No. Dreams are a person's connection to their most personal thoughts, ones he or she may be able to successfully push aside during the day, one's that escape when consciousness is asleep.

Any friend who cares to share a dream with me will find an ear that understands just how valuable our dreams can be. With Technicolor vision, they make us pay attention to that which we try to ignore. And like a creatively told story, they give us inspiration to act in a way that is right for our hearts.

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