List Making Mania

For the last couple of weeks, maybe longer, my anxiety has been running amok. Anxiety is a sneaky beast and doesn’t always show up as heart palpitations and shaking. Sometimes it’s the feeling of being behind on everything, or a sense of impending doom, or even thoughts about how there’s no possibility you can do it all, for whatever value of “all” you want to consider.

a blooming dogwood tree with green grass and a cloudy sky
The serenity of April didn’t extend to my brain

As I reviewed the month of April during my not-quite-really-a-vacation last week, I began to understand why I’ve been feeling anxious. A bunch of things that wouldn’t have been noteworthy alone happened all at the same time: a project that had been difficult from the beginning continued being difficult and I ended up making the worst hourly rate I’ve made in years; another challenging project was, well, challenging; I had to do an entire rewrite on a piece; three families I care about encountered extremely difficult times; and those were just the bigger things. All the normal day-to-day difficulties persisted, too.

Once I identified the source of the problem, I got down to figuring out what I could do about it. This sounds pretty simple, but it took a few days. I’d wanted to do so many things during my quasi-vacation, but it turned out what I needed was to rest. It was Friday before I felt like even tackling trying to solve the anxiety problem. I made more progress on Saturday and Sunday than in the entire week.

On Friday, I wrote a long journal entry and pondered the question of why I was feeling like my life is out of control (it’s not). I ended up making a bunch of lists, one for each area of my life that I felt I was not keeping up with:

  • Work/money
  • Exercise
  • Food/nutrition
  • Gardening
  • Housekeeping
  • Home projects
  • Personal projects
pot with a pink geranium in front of a triangular-shaped garden bed
A geranium with my raised beds in the background

Then, I wrote out the steps I needed to take in each category to feel better. I half-expected to feel overwhelmed at this point, but instead, it all felt much more doable written out like that. Saturday I worked in the garden and ended up feeling better about that—it’ll always be more work than I can get done, but now at least I might end up with some tomatoes—then Sunday I did a ton of cleaning and straightening.

My favorite iris bloomed this morning

I’ve always been a list-maker. And it is always surprising how much better I feel when I’ve given thought to the steps necessary to complete a project, write a book, grow a garden, or whatever endeavor I’m chasing at the moment. Why is it so easy to forget?

Are you a list maker? Does it help you feel calm? Or does all of this seem a bit much?

Read More

What To Do When You Mess Up

Throughout the majority of my writing career, I’ve worked with long-term clients. Usually, my clients are business owners who need regular content for their blogs or their newsletters. We get to know each other fairly well. Lately, I’ve been diversifying a bit and adding in a few publications.

A few weeks ago, I pitched an article to an editor I’d never worked with. She liked my idea and gave me a rather short deadline. It was exciting because it was a topic that I love, and the pay was higher than

Perfection is over-rated.

Perfection is over-rated.

I’d expected it to be. I put the deadline on my calendar on the right date, but got it mixed up in my mind.

In case you are wondering how that is possible: The article was due on Monday, August 4. As I planned my schedule, I somehow thought the 4th was on a Friday. I scheduled time to interview, write, edit, and proofread on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Duh!

My subconscious, though, had a better grasp of dates than my conscious mind. I woke up in the middle of the night Sunday night — suddenly — and realized that Monday was the 4th, and that the article wasn’t started. Cue the panic.

I got up early Monday morning and went to work, cobbling something together. It wasn’t great. I wasn’t proud of it. In the email submitting it, I told the editor that since it was my first article for her, it would probably need revision. She responded that it was totally inappropriate, and asked if I could write something that included original interviews and was more suitable by Wednesday. I owned up to the mistake, agreed that the first draft wasn’t good, and said that I absolutely could send something better.

Feeling pretty good about getting a second chance, I went to work, contacting people who might be willing to interview, writing questions, and generally doing my job. I wanted the second attempt to be outstanding. And, at the risk of being a braggart, it was. The editor published it within 10 minutes of receiving it, and send another assignment the next day.

That is just one example of my many, many stories about messing up. Through years of stumbling along, screwing things up, and carrying on with life, I’ve come up with a list of things that help when you know you’ve messed up:

1. Own it. Confess. Admit that you screwed up. Honesty is the best policy, and you will really put some bad juju out in the universe if you try to blame someone else.

2. Apologize. Say you are sorry. You don’t have grovel, but once you confess the next thing to do is apologize.

3. Come up with a plan to make it better. Make some suggestion that may help remedy the situation.

4. Deliver superior results. If you get a second chance, as I did in with the new client, make sure you come through.

5. Remember: everyone messes up. Don’t spend time beating yourself up. Just do what you can to make it better and move on with your life.

Have you messed up in a big way? Did you recover? How? What are your best tips for getting past a screw up? 

Read More

An Embarrassing Lesson About Leaving Negative Reviews

When I had the pleasure of interviewing Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt, we talked about how it’s possible for authors and readers to develop

Sometimes a direct connection can be painful. (image from Creative Commons on

Sometimes a direct connection can be painful. (image from Creative Commons on

relationships and the immediacy of contact. Before the internet, most people “reviewed” books with friends or in book clubs. Your thoughts about a particular story probably never reached the person who wrote that story.

Now, of course,there is a direct connection between writers and readers. And, despite the fact that there are some nasty trolls out there, I think that, overall, that connection is a good thing. It is certainly changing the way I think about stories, especially stories I don’t really like. Well, okay, itshould change the way I think about stories I don’t like.

An admission: I can be terribly harsh. It’s one of those things I don’t like about myself and have been working on changing for most of my adult life. Just as there are some lessons we must learn over and over, there are some personality flaws we must constantly fight against. Sometimes this harshness comes across in my book reviews. Harsh doesn’t equate with cruel though. I’m not one of those raving lunatics who leaves death threats or goes on one star review rampages. But, I could state why I don’t like certain books more clearly and succinctly and leave out words like “annoyed” or “grrrrr.”

The important part of this post is I left a bad review for a book. It was a two star review, and maybe I was in a bad mood that day, or maybe the story really bugged me, but either way, the review stated that I didn’t like the book, listed three specific, negative points, then groused because I paid for the book.

Clearly, I was not thinking about the human who had spent hours writing, editing, and publishing this story. If he had been a friend of mine, asking for my opinion about the book he’d worked so hard on, my thoughts would have been phrased far differently.  The  basic  criticisms would have been the same, but the delivery would have been considerably  toned down. Why shouldn’t I offer the same consideration to a stranger?

The answer is, of course, that I should.

The author contacted me. If he hadn’t, my review would have sat there in cyberspace forever, and I wouldn’t have learned this important lesson. But he did contact me. With an APOLOGY.

Here is part of the email he sent me:

I’m sorry you didn’t like the book….If you are interested, I can send you something you might like better. I just finished publishing Theme-Thology: Invasion, which contains stories by fifteen authors in a wide array of genres and styles. While you probably won’t love all of it, I suspect you’ll like a lot of it. Just let me know format (Kindle/Nook/Kobo) and which address to gift it to …I do want to thank you, by the way. Positive or negative, I appreciate any review by someone who took the time to read the entire book.

In the spaces where the ellipses are, he referenced my review. I had to go back and read my review because though I remembered not liking the story, I couldn’t remember why or what I’d said about it. It was not nice, and I felt bad about it upon reading his VERY nice email to me.

Part of being a writer today involves dealing with negative reviews, even if “dealing with” means “completely ignoring.” Since Smiling Tree Writing is running the series on independent writing, and I admired this author’s courage in contacting someone who left a negative review (he had no way of knowing I’m generally a nice person) I invited him to write a guest post for the series.

I am happy to tell you that Mr. Charles Barouch, author of Adjacent Fields, and more recently contributor and editor of Theme-Thology: Invasion, has written a guest post for the independent writing series. It will be published this Wednesday.

Read More

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

Smiling Tree Writing is, once again, a full time operation. After three months as an employee, I’m back at my desk where I belong. Someday, I will write a post describing my short term employment, and probably it will be entertaining, but it needs a little distance first. In the meantime, I’ve been pondering my decision to re-enter the world of employment–what led to it? I love running my own business, working from home, collaborating with other business owners, choosing when and what I work on…so why did I seek out a position as an employee?

In order to answer that question, I had to take a look at the course of my business since its inception. Smiling Tree Writing began as a way to earn income on the side, and became a full time business after a lay off. The transition from side gig to full time business brought along an increased sense of urgency, though, and I strayed from my original plan–which involved calling businesses and offering my services as a professional copywriter.

Cold calling is a slow way to build a business. It takes hundreds of calls, follow up emails, patience, thick skin, and more patience. I found quicker success with local small business owners–many of whom clearly had a need, but not much of a budget. Over the course of a couple of years, I found myself lowering prices, doing more for less, and in a funk.

I decided to switch to sending query letters and letters of introduction to editors of print publications. By this time my savings were depleted, and things were critical. It’s hard to run a business when you’re against a wall. I did get some assignments, but by this point, my family needed a steady paycheck. You do have to wonder why you got no business. One of my friends actually said that it might be because I was operating this business from home. Apparently, some companies can find it difficult to trust a business that has a home address. My friend said I should’ve visited to see if a registered office address would have made any difference. My friend seems to think it would’ve got me a lot more assignments. I suppose it would have made the business look more legit and real.

This time, I’m charting a path forward more carefully. Planning, executing, and perhaps most importantly, measuring. There are multiple backup plans in place, set points at which to stop, take stock, and decide how to proceed. It’s awfully easy to lose your way without a map.

Read More

When It’s Time to Shift

Life is cyclical. Sometimes things are good, sometimes bad. There are times when the world feels like a friendly place, and others when everything seems hostile. There are always going to be times of upheaval, and as uncomfortable as big changes can be, life would be awfully boring without them. In order to grow, we must change.

Does it sound a little like I’m trying to convince myself that things will be okay? hmmm…

During the last six months, my clients have slowly dwindled and I have been faced with big decisions that I didn’t want to admit existed. Thoughts of rebuilding your business almost from the ground up are scary. No business owner that I know wants to ponder whether or not it might be time to throw in the towel and “get a real job.” Choosing which direction to expand, where to invest your time, how to get the biggest business impact for your energy are all huge, intimidating topics – especially if you what you have done in the past isn’t working anymore.

It’s no fun to question your own choices.

But it also doesn’t stop the tidal wave of change that is heading your way.

Being the list-loving planner that I am, I find it impossible to just relax and see where that wave of change takes me. Something my grandfather said when I first started Smiling Tree has been running through my head. He told me that throughout his years of business, sometimes things were good, sometimes they were bad, and sometimes he had to go work for someone else for awhile. Knowing that he traveled the same path I’m on right now helps.

So does the story of Jia Jiang, a guy who is videoing and sharing his experiment with “rejection therapy.” The fact that I don’t feel like making cold calls, or looking for a job, or sending out letters of introduction seems shameful in the bright light of Jia’s experiment. He is taking the bull of rejection by the horns and learning all he can. It’s inspiring.

Strangely, the posts and articles and voices that usually motivate me are failing to do so at what seems like a critical juncture. The “you can live your dreams” type posts, or the “here’s what I did and you can do too” stories are leaving me in the doldrums. Perhaps that is simply another indicator that things are shifting.

How do you handle big shifts in your business? Do you let the tidal wave carry you, take on big, new projects, or cling to what you are doing relentlessly? 

Read More

The Secret Formula

Trying to lose weight? Find more customers? Manage your time better? Get your finances in order? Find a job?

If you have been pursuing any of those goals for awhile, you might feel like there is a secret formula that you just can’t figure out. If you could just tweak your resume and cover letter, find the right combination of words to go on the page that will automatically unlock the good-job door…If you could just balance your calories and nutrients in the right way, take the right exercise class, run the right number of miles each week, then you

The beginning…

would look like a fitness celebrity…If you could just figure out which bill to pay first, how much of your income to save, what the best, most profitable investments are, you would never feel financial stress again…

There are plenty of books, training classes, and expert-led seminars that promise to teach whatever it is you want to know – the thing that you feel pretty sure will make your life a stressless paradise of ease, compared to what it is right now. You may have already spent hundreds of dollars on those products. But the secret formula is very simple.

Don’t stop trying.

That’s the key to success in whatever endeavor you are wholeheartedly pursuing. Keep going. If you give up, you will never figure it out. But if you keep trying, your chances are much better.

There are plenty of quotes from successful people that are more eloquent than “don’t stop trying.” Here’s a old one from Ovid: “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.”

And another, this one from Vince Lombardi: “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather, a lack of will.”

The problem is that the short-term gratification of poking around on Facebook gives us a nicer feeling than taking the risk of being rejected while making cold calls. It’s easier to watch movies on the couch than volunteer, even though volunteer work will expand your network, give you a good feeling and maybe help you find your dream job. Eating pizza and drinking beer is much easier than going for a run and cooking dinner, but it sure won’t help your weight loss efforts.

I have been teetering on the brink of giving up on several of my personal endeavors, but here are a few things that are helping me continue toward my goals:

1. Talk to friends – My friends tell me that I need to keep going. They remind me of what I have accomplished before, of plans I have laid out, of things I said to them when they were down, of the fact that giving up is not a good option, of other people who have walked my path and reached their goals. They make me laugh when I need it, they tell me it’s okay when I’m sad. If you feel like giving up spend some times with your friends.

There is one caveat, though, and that is to make sure the people you look to really are your friends. Everyone has “friends.” People who you care about but who are not supportive of you and your efforts, who think that even trying is silly, and who encourage you to give up. Stay away from those folks when you’re down. In fact, you might want to consider staying away from them all of the time!

2. Do something – If you gave in and ate the pizza and drank the beer, take yourself for a walk. If you didn’t make your sales calls, send out a few emails. If you over-spent while shopping, find something to sell on

The destination.

craigslist. Even if you took two steps back, taking one forward will get you moving in the right direction again.

3. Forgive yourself – Sitting around beating yourself up because you are 39 years old and you have never come close to meeting your professional goals will never, ever help you get where you want to be. You have to let the mistakes go, and carry on. Just don’t sit around feeling sorry for, or berating, yourself.

4. Adjust – If your plan isn’t working, make a new plan. Think about fitness, and the zealots you have met. There are people who will tell you that Paleo is the only way to go, and just as many people who will tell you that vegan is the only way to go. No matter your destination, there are different routes to get there. Your path might be more circuitous and tortured than the paths of others, but so what? Isn’t getting there the thing?

Since this post is basically a letter to myself, can you add anything? What advice would you give to someone who is ready to throw in the towel and stop chasing a dream? 

Read More