Numbers Game

fullsizeoutput_5119Many years ago, I was in charge of the summer reading program at my church.  The idea was to encourage children to read during their summer vacation, so I would create a display to keep track of how many books the kids read and give them a reward when they had completed the program.  The program usually had a lot of kids, but one year only five signed up.  I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to go to so much time and trouble for only five children, so I called the church secretary to let her know I was going to cancel the program this year.  There was a brief pause, and then she asked, “But don’t you think those five kids deserve a reading program?”  And, of course, she was right.

Sometimes I think we live in a world where we put far too much value on popularity.  Social media encourages that, since success there depends on attracting huge numbers of followers and likes, and  we all know that a post “going viral” is considered the ultimate goal.

When I tune into the local news in the morning, I’m encouraged to join the thousands of others who follow that particular station.  They actually put that request across the bottom of the screen, right between the international news and the daily traffic report.  Things aren’t any better for those who get their news from the internet.  There, the stories seem specifically designed to get a reaction from the readers, because the goal is to get as many “clicks” and comments as possible. (I’m assuming in the hopes of attracting more advertising money.)  And the more outrageous the story, the more popular it is.  But that doesn’t mean it’s the news we actually need to know.

I refuse to name names, but I’m sure we can all think of several celebrities whose chief talent seems to be being a celebrity.  How they achieved that status, I don’t know, but it might have something to do with their ability to create viral posts, or say really outrageous things.

I remember when I told a friend I had just started a blog, and she immediately asked me how many followers I had.  I answered, with equal parts honesty and shame, “twelve,” and she changed the subject rather quickly.  That was over four years ago, and now I would have a very different answer to that question, and one that might not cause her to worry that she had asked an embarrassing question.  But you know what?  I’m not putting any more effort into my blogs posts these days.  I did the best I could then, and I’m doing the best I can now .  My blog may be a little more popular now, but I honestly don’t believe it’s any better.

I’m proud to say that I paid attention to the lesson that church secretary taught me, all those years ago.  I did go ahead with the reading program for those five children, and I put just as much effort into making it a good one as I did when lots of kids signed up.  Because when it comes to true quality, the numbers don’t count.

Life is like…

IMG_2531With all due respect to Forrest Gump, I don’t believe that life is really like a box of chocolates.  Personally, I believe that everyday life is actually far more like doing laundry.  Because no matter how many loads I wash, I know there’s always going to be more that needs to be done.  I never get to the point where I can say, “That’s it!  I washed, dried, folded, and put away all those clothes, and now I’ll never have to do laundry again!”  Doing the laundry is an ongoing process, which makes it very much like so much of the rest of my life.

For instance, when it comes to home and yard maintenance, we no sooner complete one project than we are faced with another.  We repaired out driveway last week, which means it’s time to replace our garage door and dig up three dead bushes.  And at the Animal Shelter where I volunteer, no matter how many dogs I walk and am thrilled to see get adopted into their forever home, there are always more dogs coming in that need to be walked and cared for until it’s their turn to be adopted.  Just like the laundry, it’s a never-ending cycle.

Even when I think something is coming to an end, I often find out that it isn’t.  I went to the doctor yesterday for what I thought was the final check up on the varicose vein treatment on my right leg, so I was surprised when he strolled into the examining room bearing a tray of syringes.  Apparently, I needed another treatment for minor veins, so here I sit in my support hose for another week.  (They look so fashionable when worn with summer shorts and dresses.)  When I was leaving, he asked if I wanted to do the next treatment in six weeks or wait until Fall, when he’s going to laser the varicose vein in my left leg.  And so the fun continues….

Just like laundry, life presents us with both loads that are light and loads that are heavy, and we have no choice but to handle them all.  And just like when we do laundry, sometimes we are successful (“I got the stain out!”) and sometimes we fail (“That stain is permanent!”).  Occasionally, we do something stupid (such as running a new wool sweater through both the washing machine and the dryer), and all we can do is forgive ourselves and move on, hoping we manage to handle things better the next time.

I honestly believe that few things in life are a matter of “one and done,” and that a big part of success stems from our willingness to just keep plugging away to the best of our abilities.  And it helps to remember that it’s not just the bad stuff, or even the everyday mundane stuff, that keeps on coming, but the good stuff as well.  We will always have something to celebrate and be grateful for, if we are willing to look for it

I could say more, but I think I’ve made my point.  Also, I’ve got to go throw another load of laundry in.

The Blank Page

IMG_1230For me, the hardest part about writing has always been coming up with an actual idea that I wanted to write about.  I really envy the writers who say they have dozens of ideas rattling around in their heads, and their only problem is finding enough time to do the actual writing, which they often regard as a chore.  I’m the exact opposite:  I love the process of writing, of experimenting with different words and phrases until I get it just right.  I even like editing my work, because I find that after taking a short break from the creative process, I can see so much more clearly where there is room for improvement.  For me, the problem is simply:  what in the world am I going to write about?

English was always my strongest subject in school, but once I got to the age where the teachers no longer assigned topics, I usually struggled with finding an idea for all those assigned essays.  It got to the point where I was searching for my topic while I was still reading the books, which definitely took the enjoyment out of reading.  Later, when I decided to try my hand at fiction, I had the same problem.  It took me forever to think of my plots, settings and characters.  Once I had those figured out, actually writing the books and short stories was easy.

Sadly, the same problem continues with my blog.  I have a self-imposed schedule of two blog postings a week, which means that I have to actually come up with two new ideas each and every week.  I spent about a month before I started this blog thinking of ideas for posts and even writing a few of them out, just to be prepared.  But I used those up a long time ago, now it is not uncommon for me to feel a bit of panic on the morning when I’m supposed to publish a blog post and I realize that I have absolutely no clue what I’m going to write about. (I am in awe of the people who post every day.  And I know I’ll never be one of them.)

I think the problem is mostly self-confidence.  Of course I have ideas, especially for this blog.  I have lots of things going on in my life, and lots of opinions about the world around me.  But I also have a nagging inner voice that counters most of my ideas with the discouraging words, “Who cares?  Who would want to read about that?”  I think that ultimately, my struggle isn’t with finding ideas or topics,  it’s with having the confidence to put my thoughts, ideas, and feelings out there with the assumption that anyone else is going to find them worth reading.  Because the bottom line is I write, just like most writers do, with the intention that someone else is actually going to read it.

In my fiction writing, things finally clicked when I learned to stop worrying about what an editor was going to think of my story and simply started writing the stories I truly wanted to write.  When that happened, the characters, the plots, and the settings came much more easily.  When writing for my blog, I am slowly learning to stop thinking about what my followers and readers want me to write, and to simply write about whatever topic is foremost in my mind at the moment.  I keep reminding myself that this isn’t an English class and I’m no longer trying to earn that perfect grade.

The blank page, or computer screen, will always be a little bit of a problem for me.  But with each blog post, with each story idea that I develop and write about, the process gets that much easier.  I’m learning to trust my own opinions and ideas, and I’m discovering just a little bit more about who I really am and finding the courage to share that person with others.  And that’s more than enough reason to keep writing.

One Year Later….

One year ago, I finally worked up the nerve to start writing a blog about coping with middle age.  I’d been feeling a bit lost for a while, struggling to adjust to all the changes middle age brings, while at the same time trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.  I wasn’t especially sad (although every time I look in the mirror and see the wrinkled skin on my sagging neck, I do feel like crying, just a little bit), but I did feel as if I was drifting in a strange new world that I didn’t really understand.  So it seemed like a good time to take a risk and start the blog I’d been thinking about writing for a long time, especially since I had a good friend who kept encouraging me to give it a shot.

When I wrote that first post, And Now I Really Feel Old, I was so clueless about blogging that I wasn’t even sure if the post was going to make it to the internet, but it did.  And friends and family, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in years, read it and were kind enough to tell me they enjoyed it.  That gave me the courage to keep going, even when I didn’t know how to change the format of my page, tag my posts, or any of the etiquette of interacting with other bloggers. But I kept trying, and with the help of other bloggers, I finally figured out most of what I need to know to write my blog.

My blog is not big or particularly successful.  I have only 192 followers, and the largest number of views of any of my posts is 239.  Still, I have felt rewarded for every single post I have ever written, because each one has brought a gift:  a new follower, a contact from an old friend, a reader who told me that the message in my post was exactly what they needed to hear that day, or a comment that was so funny it made me laugh out loud.  For me, that is the best kind of success.

IMG_0709Every new venture brings results we didn’t predict, and this blog is no exception.  It’s helped me reconnect with old friends and distant family.  It’s introduced me to a world of wonderful blogs written by smart, caring people who now feel like friends.  This blog has me writing regularly again, on a real schedule, which has reminded me that I truly am a writer, despite my file cabinet full of rejection letters.  Most of all, it’s taught me that, even in my late middle-age, I am not too old to try something new.  This blog has helped me find my way at a time in my life when I was just a little bit lost.

Last week I was nominated for the Blogger Recognition Award by Sandee M., who writes a great blog called the Forty-Something First Time Bride.  (Check it out, she’s a gifted writer who describes her adjustment to married life eloquently and honestly.)   As a nominee, I’m supposed to give advice to other bloggers, but I don’t think I have much to add to the advice that’s already out there, so I’ll just say this:  Do it. Take the plunge and start your blog.  Write even on the days when the words come hard, and the self-doubt creeps in.  Just keep writing, and in the end, it will absolutely be worth it.

 

True Victory

There are many times when I wish life was more like the movies, where there’s almost always a happy ending.  I wish that I could know for sure that no matter how bleak things look, if I just keep on trying hard enough and don’t give up, that I will triumph in the end.  That I will have that moment of victory, usually accompanied by lots of applause and inspiring music.  Sadly, real life seldom works that way.

The truth is, sometimes my best just isn’t good enough.  I tried for years to become a commercially successful children’s book writer, but it never happened.  Instead of a shelf full of my published books, I have a file cabinet stuffed full of rejection letters.  I have taken aerobics classes, yoga classes, pilate classes, and spent hours on my exercise bike and walking around the neighborhood, but my chubby upper thighs are still with me.  (I strongly suspect that even if I starved to death, they would still be there.  They are that resilient.)

IMG_0411I head down to the local humane society three times a week to walk the shelter dogs, but no matter how many I walk, no matter how many frightened dogs I comfort, or how many rowdy dogs I work with to teach the most basic of manners, there are always more dogs that I don’t have time to help.  My husband and I work hard to take care of our house and my mother’s house, but no matter how much time and money we spend on them, there is always something else that needs to be done.

Real life rarely comes with a sense of closure, never mind triumph.  The older I get, the less I believe in the whole concept of winning.  I think I am one of the few people who approves of coaches giving the young children on their team a trophy at at the end of the season, just for being on the team.  Those trophies aren’t rewards for winning, but they do acknowledge the perseverance of showing up for every practice and game and always giving your best effort, even when you don’t win.  Which, if you think about it, is probably a better preparation for real life than playing on a team that wins every game.

The only thing I can ever offer is my best effort.  I don’t know whether or not my best effort is going to fix a situation or guarantee that I reach my goal, because the truth is that sometimes it will, and other times it won’t.  But I think the important thing is that I don’t get discouraged and quit trying, because that will guarantee that I never accomplish a thing, and I don’t want to live like that.  I want the courage to keep trying, the wisdom to change strategies when necessary, and the perseverance to never stop trying to make the little bit of the world that I touch a better place.

So I’ll keep writing, because I love to write and I’m not a happy person when I’m not writing.  I’ll get back on that exercise bike and head off to my yoga class because I’m a healthier person when I exercise, even if my chubby thighs insist on staying with me.  And I’ll keep heading down to the humane society to help shelter dogs, even with the terrible knowledge that I won’t be able to save them all.  Because I’m finally realizing that the real victory is not giving up.

A Firm Foundation

DSC01527When I first started this blog, I had no real idea what blogging was all about.  I just knew that I wanted the chance to write about coping with the stage of life that we call middle age, and I wanted to do it in a format that allowed me the freedom to write exactly what I wanted to write, when I wanted to write it.  I was tired of the assigned subjects and deadlines that came with freelance writing, and I was especially tired of having so many of my fiction manuscripts returned to me with a rejection letter attached.  Blogging seemed to be a perfect way to write without having to deal with other people’s expectations, and I thought I had found a perfect creative outlet.

I told myself at the beginning that I wasn’t going to care if my blog was particularly successful or not, because I wasn’t planning to try to make money from it, and I thought that making money was only real reason to try to attract huge numbers of readers.  Honestly, I knew there was a very real chance that I would have exactly six readers:  my husband, my two kids, my mother, and the two good friends who encouraged me to start this blog in the first place.  (Thank you, Jacque and Jeanie!)

But then I started publishing my posts, and I soon learned that it was actually very nice to see the number of “visitors” and “views” on my blog stats page grow beyond the six person mark.  I was thrilled when perfect strangers took the time to write a nice comment after a post, and touched when old friends reached out to tell me how much they identified with what I wrote.  I was surprised at how easy it was to make friends with other bloggers.  It wasn’t long before I found that I was beginning to care very much about how many people were reading my blog, and I began to pay attention to all those guides out there on “how to increase your blog’s audience.”

And that’s where the whole thing began to get complicated.  Wordpress is designed to make it easy for me to keep track of which of my blog posts are the most popular, and even when I ought to post them.  (I have the highest numbers on Sunday, at 5:00.)  Not surprisingly, my posts that had the broadest appeal also had the highest number of readers, and I found that including some photos also helped.  But the problem was, the more I became focused on raising my number of readers, the less I enjoyed actually writing the blog.

Self-awareness comes slowly to me, so it took me quite a while to figure out that the problem was I had wandered too far from my original purpose in writing this blog.  I had started out wanting to share my experiences of coping with middle age mostly with friends and family, and anyone else who happened to relate to what I had to say.  I had wanted to write without worrying about other people’s expectations, but instead, I had begun to focus on how “successful” a particular post would be.  When I got an idea for a blog post, I would immediately wonder whether that idea would be popular.  Then, if a post did very well, I just worried that my next post would not be as good.  And if a post didn’t do well, I felt as if I had, in some important but obscure way, failed.   Worrying about my numbers was sucking the joy right out of blogging.

So, it’s time for me to get back to the basics.  I want to enjoy writing this blog, and I want to write it for the people who actually enjoy reading it.  And while there may be times when I’d like to be able to say that number is in the thousands, the truth is that I have only 144 followers.  Like all writers, I do want people to read what I am writing.  But I also want my writing to be meaningful, honest, and always the best that I can produce.  Because that is my own, personal, definition of success.

When The Words Won’t Come

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but there are times when I just hate blogging.  Now don’t get me wrong, I usually love working on my blog.  I get to write down my thoughts and ideas, figure out a way to post a relevant photo or two, edit the post, edit it again, and finally, hit that magic “publish” button.  After that, I can count on a few kind souls to hit the “like” button and maybe also leave an encouraging comment on either my Facebook page or the blog page.  It’s great feeling to know that someone has actually read and appreciated what I’ve written, and trust me, that kind of validation doesn’t come often from traditional publishing venues.

The problem is my self-imposed schedule of publishing a new post every fourth day.  I know this doesn’t matter to anyone else, but when I started blogging I knew I had to have some sort of schedule to keep me on track  (I learned this from years of free-lance writing from home.  A writer who doesn’t have a strict writing schedule is often a writer who isn’t writing much.)  Usually my schedule works just fine, and I only miss when I’m sick or the fourth day falls on a holiday, as it did yesterday.  But sometimes the fourth day dawns and I realize I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to write about this time.  It’s not long before I begin to panic, thinking that I have, finally, completely run out of ideas and that I will never, ever write anything that anyone else could possibly want to read again.  I begin to believe that I simply don’t have what it takes to keep a blog going for the long term.

IMG_0383What I have learned to do when that panic hits is to sit my ample butt down at the computer, pull up a blank Word document and begin writing anyway.  It takes a while, with lots of false starts, plenty of deletions and lots of time spent staring at the computer screen, trying to hone in on a single idea that can be developed into a respectable blog post.  It’s hard, but I have found that if I keep trying, eventually I begin to understand what what I want to write and how I should write it, and I realize that maybe I can do this after all.  After a bit more work, I usually come up with a post I am satisfied with, and my former feelings of despair and failure are replaced with a small sense of accomplishment.

When I was young, I assumed that all successful writers had tons of great ideas whirling around in their heads, and all they had to do was sit down and write them out.  Now I suspect that success at writing isn’t so different from success in most other areas in life:  the willingness to work hard, day after day, even when you honestly believe you don’t have what it takes to get through the task in front of you.  It’s turning a deaf ear to that inner voice that tells you that you can’t do this.  It’s slowly learning to believe in yourself, even when it seems as if no one else does.

There are lots of reasons why I am glad I started this blog, from reconnecting with old friends, to finding the encouragement and support of the on-line blogging community, to simply rediscovering the joy of writing when everything finally comes together the  way I want it to.  But for me, (someone who has always been a bit too quick to quit when the going got tough)  the biggest reward has been seeing just how important it is not to give up, to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and to realize just how much I can accomplish as long as I am willing to keep on trying.