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“Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to give this book to my mother. To present it to her as a precious gift over a meal that I’ve cooked for her. To say: Here is everything that keeps us from really talking. Here is my heart. Here are my words. I wrote this for you.” – Michele Filgate, Introduction, What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence

I just devoured this essay collection curated by the wonderful  Michele Filgate (whose title-essay about her mother’s refusal to believe her about childhood sexual assault at the hands of her stepfather is in the book) and it’s really good. There are love and appreciation stories aplenty, though many essays cover seriously harrowing ground around mental illness, addiction, emotional abuse, and other kinds of abuse without holding back. It’s not a light read, is what I am saying.

I feel like almost every piece in the book maps to a letter that someone has sent to my inbox about how to say the unsayable thing, how to know when it’s time to let go, how to tell your own truth, how to dig into the past without letting it define you, how to set boundaries, how to see a parent as a separate person who existed before you, how to honor the gifts our mothers give us and be honest about the poisoned apples they sometimes pass on. I kept highlighting as I went because I knew that some Letter Writer somewhere needed to see that sentence, see themselves on that page. “Mother Tongue,” Carmen Maria Machado‘s chapter about estrangement is one of the best things about that topic I’ve read. Some quotes from that essay:

“Whenever I saw her, she found some way to let me know that despite my accomplishments, I was failing. ‘You need to learn to make better choices,’ she told me, though what choices they were, she never specified. Besides, all I could hear was, ‘I wish I’d made better choices.’ And I couldn’t help her with that.”

“A reader might think that this is, obviously, a kind of misplaced parental anxiety and love. And they might be right. But I felt like I was losing my mind. There was no trust, no affection, no listening, just ignorant micromanagement. It felt like I was existing in a parallel universe, where everything I’d just done with my life, everything I was doing with my life, hadn’t made any difference at all. I was a kid again, useless. Nothing was mine–not my time, not my schedule, not my choices.”

I’ll stop before I accidentally re-publish the whole thing. If you spent Mother’s Day curled up in a ball because of a difficult relationship and/or if you have a letter hanging out in my queue about this topic, this might be a healing book for you. ❤

I’m working on a book proposal for a collection of essays, so I’m on a tear of reading essay collections of late. Here are some other collections I couldn’t put down:

  • Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which is an essay collection about race and politics and identity in America AND a memoir about family and love and being from a particular place in the Midwest AND a chronicle of how the music we love carries our dreams and tells our stories, how the music brings us back to particular moment in time, how it helps us remember and see. It’s a fucking stunner.
  • Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel which is, among many other things, such a love letter to the teachers who taught him to write. Chee has an essay in the What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About collection as well.
  • JoAnn Beard’s The Boys Of My Youth (I discovered her work through the outstanding 1996 essay The Fourth State of Matter which, if you are unfamiliar, could use a content note for everything from “school shooting/gun violence” to “dying pet” but it’s one of those pieces that says EVERYTHING and never lets go).

No comments, as I don’t really like debating about the books I read in my free time, I like what I like and you like what you like, but since people always want to know what I’m reading, here’s some of what I’m reading. I hope you’re reading things that speak to you!

Finally, I just got an advance copy of Jessica Pan’s “Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want To Come: One Introvert’s Year Of Saying Yes” in the mail, I’ll update here when I’m done since I think “What would happen if a shy introvert lived like a gregarious extrovert for one year?” is a question that lots of us might like to see answered, if only vicariously and from a very safe distance.

Dear Captain –

I (she/her) am a middle-aged wife of a man (he/him). We’ve only been married three years (together 8) but it has turned out to be rather nothing like what I wanted marriage to be – and I was not unrealistic! He’s emotionally constipated and may also be more intellectually my inferior than he first seemed. He’s kind, not a monster, but he doesn’t manage stress well – at all – and I don’t manage money well. He’s sexually inexperienced compared to me, but he’s still interested whereas I am completely dead from the neck down. Right now hugging him is like hugging a pillow. I am so tired of managing his emotions, explaining things to him, taking the lead on any decision-making because he can’t manage it, quelling my frustrations, enduring his inept pawing, trying to explain my dissatisfactions and needs without somehow making him feel blamed, I’m exhausted. In addition, my work situation has gotten more isolated, difficult, and stressful. Plus there’s the news cycle grinding us all down slowly.

I believe strongly in the campsite rule of relationships, leave them better than you found them; I think if I vanished he’s in a better place: he’s in touch with his creative side, has a wide and non-toxic pool of friends who love him, and a homier home and healthier diet. However, I used to be creative and horny and enthusiastic and I did performances and made things and wrote things, I kept up with my projects and bills and friends, and now I just want to watch TV or maybe play World of Warcraft, though it’s too much bother most of the time. Definitely depressed! But, if he vanished, I would be worse than when he found me, but I’d feel free.

One day I had a dream, followed by another dream, which resulted in writing a 200,000 word book in three weeks. I didn’t want to do anything else, I was utterly engulfed in this project. He keeps asking what I am doing but I just can’t tell him, “Writing!” but he’s convinced I have to share every phase of any project like he does because he’s so insecure. Anyway, all I want to do is work on these books. I have control of that little universe on the page, and I don’t want to engage with him at all. He’s trying to be sweet but it’s too little too late. He’s always been terrible at communicating any kind of emotions besides stress. Any time he has stress he crawls up his own ass and neglects everyone around him, particularly me. I am exhausted beyond belief. We both have therapists, but it’s still too early to be experiencing results, and we definitely need couples therapy. A bitter part of my brain just knows he’s not asking her the right questions.

I am in despair and I just need to know how I can communicate “please fuck off” while I am working on this project, which is tantamount to an emotional affair (the first book involves me meeting and getting together with a famous person; the second is a meta response). I feel guilty not telling him, but I know he’ll take it personally and then those emotions he cannot express will be my problem too. I am his mother more than his wife and I don’t even know what a proper relationship looks like. But it ain’t this. If I knew it would be like five years from now, I would be gone. But I am hoping therapy/Wellbutrin will help.

I guess my question is: how do you tell the husband you are currently utterly burned out on that you are writing a story about being in love with someone else, and you’d much rather do that than talk to your husband? My book lover is not some Hemsworthian hunk but is the opposite of my husband in all the important ways, and a very nerdly sort of beau. My regular crush on him has definitely blossomed into something unhealthy, but I’m in no danger of acting out on it, so it’s more of an escape than a manifesto.

Sincerely,
Writing A Book With Dream Boyfriend

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Captain, my Captain!

I’ve looked through the archives, and while you’ve answered similar-ish questions, this one hasn’t come up before, so I’m hoping you can help! I (she/her) work as a freelance editor and am in a fairly privileged position––I have enough clients that I can afford to be somewhat choosy; I’m white and cisgender, so while I certainly object to racist content, it doesn’t actually trigger me when I come across it in the works I’m editing.

However, I’ve been running into more and more works with racist content from new clients, whether stereotyped characters, cultural appropriation, or micro-aggressions in their prose (and I’m *sure* I’m missing problems content-wise). Often times, it’s content that’s hard for me to screen for before taking the job–there’s no easy search for racism in a manuscript, unfortunately–and furthermore, I also know with my relative privilege, I’m better-placed to give feedback that these authors may at least listen to.

What I’m struggling with is these sorts of clients are taking up more and more of my time and mental energy and space. I know I need to find a better way of “screening” clients and balancing the ones who slip through the cracks with the ones I actually enjoy working with, but in the meantime, do you have any script suggestions for telling people that their writing is terribly racist? Alternatively, any scripts for “breaking up” with clients whose works are too terrible for me to work with them in good conscious? (All my contracts have break-up clauses, so that’s not a concern––it’s the giving the criticism part I need help with!)

I don’t want to condone these authors’ works, but I don’t want to be mired down in fixing unfixable content either (especially if the author isn’t inclined to listen regardless!). Since it’s a client-freelancer relationship, I feel the boundaries are different–we can work with each other at will and there’s no HR to report to–so I’m at a loss. Any help would be much appreciated!

– No, Your Book isn’t Misunderstood; It’s Racist

Hi there Not Misunderstood:

DIRECTNESS IS KINDNESS.

Here is my suggestion which I think will cover both “Honest Feedback For Clients” and “Fix This Right Now Or We Have To Break Up” bases. I am writing a blanket script that can be adapted, please use what is useful to you however this works best with your existing process for contracting for edits, ok?

FYI, here are my goals for the proposed script:

  • Directness is kindness. These people NEED to hear this feedback from someone, today you’re the “someone.” They hired you to help them make their book the best it can be, it can’t be the best it can be until this gets fixed, sugarcoating it or avoiding it is unhelpful.
  • Be specific about the nature and scope of the problem to the extent you can. You don’t have to include every detail, find a few particularly telling ones.
  • Make it clear that you cannot work on the project until/unless substantive changes are made. “Can’t you just clean up the text like I hired you to do?” Nope!
  • Strongly disinvite the person from arguing with you about the nature of the feedback – They can fix it or don’t, you’re not touching this again until they do.
  • Direct them somewhere that might actually solve the problem.
  • For now, grant them the fig leaf of “I’m sure this is unintentional, and confidentially between you & an editor is the right time to fix these problems!” which hopefully they will take as the giant gift that it is. For the record, I do not think most or all of the people who write and say racist stuff are doing it unintentionally, but when you are trying to persuade someone to do better, it might help them rise to the occasion if you don’t immediately shame or punish them. If they double-down, argue, counter with abuse of you or try to invoke that One Black Friend Every Racist Definitely Has But Never Actually Listens To, strip that white fragility fig leaf right off and add them to your “Nope, Never Again” list.

And here’s the recommended script, which I imagine delivering as soon as you’ve completed your initial read-through. Write your prospective/new client an email that spells out your feedback about the content, including the problematic content, and the next steps for editing the book, like so:

“Dear [Author],

I’ve completed my initial read of [Your Book] and I want to share my initial feedback and outline next steps for the editing process if we’re going to continue working together.

While some elements of the draft are very strong [mention one or two], I’ve identified some content that needs serious revision before I can commit to another round of edits.

Unfortunately, there are some examples of [common stereotypes][cultural appropriation][outdated language][misuse of dialect][racist, transphobic, homophobic, sexist, ableist tropes or attitudes, and go ahead and use these words, no ‘racially charged’ euphemisms][for fuck’s sake stop redeeming slaveholders and Nazis through the power of luuuuuuurrrrrrveeee] throughout the draft, for example:

[List out some of what you found and briefly spell out what is wrong with it, i.e. “Spirit Animal” is a term that is sacred to specific indigenous religious traditions, a white woman of Swedish descent from Minnesota categorically does not have a spirit animal.]

[OPTIONAL – I’ve tried to flag and highlight problematic passages in the text as I found them], which you can see in the attached draft which I am returning to you. I did not make edits in these passages since changes on this scale would constitute a rewrite of the material, and the issues go deep enough that in my opinion some authorial re-imagining and revision that falls outside my scope is the right fix].

Additionally, while I know enough to spot some potential problems, I am not the right kind of editor to get this where it needs to be, so I must bow out of working on this project further until substantial revisions are made.

I know this was probably not the feedback you were hoping to hear, but I hope you will take this to heart: This has potential to be a wonderful book, you’ve got such strong [worldbuilding][characterization][sense of place][addictive plot][idk think of something you can sincerely compliment and throw it out there!] that I think it is well worth investing some more time in making sure that it finds the widest possible audience and doing due diligence to make sure it is not unintentionally causing harm and making you come across as [racist, homophobic, etc. etc.].

I wish you well with making the necessary changes and I hope you’ll get back in touch when you have a revised draft. [If you don’t actually want this, don’t worry, this is like promising to be friends the second after a breakup, time will tell].

Best wishes,

[Your Sign-off]

Attachments: 1) A document with your draft with my initial highlights and comments. [OPTIONAL, obviously] 2) My invoice for X hours for work completed so far, due [DATE]”[YES, GET PAID FOR WHAT YOU DID SO FAR]

Hopefully that does the trick. People are either going to get it or they won’t, and you’ll know VERY QUICKLY which kind you are dealing with. A person who can sit with feedback like this, realize it is A GIFT meant to HELP them avoid harmful (and reputation-destroying MISTAKES) is someone you can possibly work with in the future.

Edited To Add: I had initially mentioned directing the person to sensitivity readers but, as several kind people correctly pointed out, sensitivity readers don’t want to read racist books, they want to read really good books and catch unintentional small stuff that slipped through other edits at the very end. Here are some resources about sensitivity readers, the first piece is a good one about the ethical choice to pull a book that couldn’t be revised.

Additionally: You mentioned looking for a new process for screening projects as they come in. I detailed one I used to use for writing screenplay coverage here that might be adaptable. I think you absolutely should spell out, in advance, some stages of how you work and lay out expectations, and one stage can absolutely be something like:

“The right author-editor collaboration requires trust and a large investment of time and energy, so part of my process is making sure that we will be the right fit. For new clients, I do an initial read where I give some initial reactions to story, characters, setting and suggest some starting points for the next round of revisions [spell exactly out what this involves, possibly incl. a basic template & time-frame]. Since this process reflects X hours of work, I charge a non-refundable fee of $$$ [this can be pretty nominal , and it’s also ok to base it on length of submission, so you’re not agreeing to read a freaking dictionary out of hand], payable at the time you submit your manuscript. Should we sign a contract for ongoing editing services, this fee is applied toward the first X hours.”

When you’re first hanging out a shingle, you want lots of clients, right? But when you’re established, you want the right clients, and it’s possible that charging a fee will also encourage people to polish their work as much as possible before investing the $.

A kind reader suggested the following additional language: “Content that reinforces racist stereotypes and oppression may be returned unedited and may be reconsidered for acceptance after significant revisions are made, entirely at the discretion of the editor” that you could include on your website and in your materials.

No comments today I have 10,000 things to do/write/do/write. Hope this helps!

 

Hello Gentle and Attractive Readers!

I’ve got a mix of very cool and very weird stuff to announce.

COOL: I’m working with Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary to get a series of book projects into the world. CaptainAwkward.com-based books. Essay books.

WEIRD: Tomorrow I am having a minor surgical procedure to hopefully take care of “Guillaume,” the giant uterine fibroid tumor who has been stealing my life force. I am very excited to get to the bottom of a long medical mystery involving nine-day periods, having to pee all the time, and many many many invasive and expensive tests but I’m also going to taking it very easy for a few days.

COOL: We’re hosting a very excellent guest blogger this week. Meet Lenée!

Here’s her bio: Lenée is a fat, Black, queer femme who lives in Philadelphia. She’s a lover of Black music, Steven Universe, true crime, and doing the electric slide whenever possible. A new plant mom, Lenée writes on occasion and usually tweets as @dopegirlfresh.

Here’s the story: Lenée and I know each other from Twitter, where I could not tell you exactly what first brought us together or when. Did I come for her wise, compassionate, and knowledgeable writing about mental health, race, politics, bodies, sexuality, feminism, and pop culture and stay for the jokes? Wherever it started, it turned into one of those lucky social media friendships where you enjoy someone’s feed and then you exchange a few cautious bread crumbs like you’re in the first half of that Emily Dickinson “I’m Nobody, Who Are You?” poem -and then suddenly it’s like this [a loose adaptation & extreme distillation of a years-long process]:

“You seem like you don’t suck! A rarity on this hellsite!”

“You also…don’t suck? Novel indeed!”

“I saw you have some weird body stuff going on. Wanna talk about it?

“Yeah DM me”

“Ok we’re friends now just so you know <3”

“Obviously <3”

A few weeks ago Lenée tweeted something about wishing she could take over my site for a week and I knew I was gonna be out of commission early this month so we hatched a plan. She wrote a series of posts for the site and I’ve scheduled them to go up while I’m recuperating. Comments will be off [you lot are wonderful but I wouldn’t let anyone do this without backup] but we’ll have an open thread  to close out the week when I’m back at my desk.

One benefit of collaboration is seeing how other people approach the work you do. I didn’t assign her questions, I just let her at the unfiltered inbox for a few days, and it was fascinating for me to see what she would choose. I’m very happy with the results and I hope you’ll enjoy reading her perspectives as much as I did.

P.S. ALSO COOL: I’ve been meaning to link to this excellent “Ask A Fuck-Up” column on “closure”  forever now, here it is, I think Brandy nailed what makes it so hard to let go of someone.

There you go. If that’s not enough to tide you over and you need jokes, here’s a (no spoilers) recap I wrote of every episode of Queer Eye on Patreon  which should be public by now. Be sweet, see you all soon I hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello Captain,

Two years ago, a friend paid me to critique her novel because I studied writing and know the publishing industry. I agreed to read three drafts of the work. We did not sign a formal contract.

Then I got the manuscript, and it’s terrible on all levels, from prose to plot. I’ve tried addressing the issues tactfully. I’ve suggested good examples in her genre to emulate. She is unwilling to analyze WHAT makes stories good and apply those lessons. From unrelated conversations I know she doesn’t respect people who think about why they like what they like (i.e. my partner). “They take the fun out of things.” She also thinks “time invested=value to others” regardless of the quality of her efforts.

To date, I have read 1.5 drafts and given one in-person, intensive critique session. I have (unprofessionally) delayed talking with her about the work because I suspected (correctly) that even saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m not finding improvements or good technique,” would upset her. I’ve been there, and I know how much it hurts. However, she tunes out anything she doesn’t want to hear.

In my professional opinion, the manuscript is unpublishable and her attitude/ego will not lead to success.

When I finally was direct, like I would be with a non-friend client, she became upset because in her words, I don’t “like” the work. I’ve explained that it’s not about “liking,” but whether or not the work communicates effectively (It doesn’t). I’ve asked what her ideal outcome is, and how she wants me to handle feedback I think she won’t like. When I did, accused me of not taking the project “seriously,” again, because I don’t “like” it.

I realize that delaying so long has eroded my credibility/professionalism, but I feel like we’re at an impasse. I’ve told her I care and want her to succeed, but I can’t help her do that if I can’t be honest.

At this point, I think the best I can do is offer her a partial refund for the incomplete work, with the latest marked-up manuscript and an apology for the delay, then walk away. I don’t know that our friendship will survive. I’m not sure if I want it to.

How should I resolve this, Captain?

Sincerely,
Never Crossing the Streams Again

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Hi readers, I’ve started writing a series of posts about caring for mental health while engaging with the rocky political situation in the US over at my Patreon site. Financial support is always appreciated (and how we get to not look at ads when we hang out here), but this particular content is free for anyone to read and share.

Posts so far in the series:

I’m still messing about a bit with Patreon rewards that can be both maximally attractive to you and sustainably delivered by me. I will be reviving the Search Terms posts and the Friday Short Answers very very soon, but for now I’m also going with: MORE CONTENT, as I realized in December when all my attempts to answer reader questions started turning into book chapters (alas, not from any of the same books) or Twitter rants that a slight separation between “the advice blog that I dearly love writing” and “ALL OF JENNIFER’S THOUGHTS, EVER” might be wise, if only to keep *myself* a little more organized.

In other news, if you missed it, a bunch of people who write advice columns talked to each other about our processes over at BuzzFeed Content notes apply for mentions of abuse, animal harm, and something called “the jizzcliner.” Next time I’d love to hear from ¡Hola Papi!, Dearly Beloved, Asking Bear, Everyone Is Gay, for starters, the advice column form is rich and varied right now.

If you’re in Chicago, Mr. Awkward is telling a story at The Stoop’s Six Year Anniversary Show on January 31  postponed until Tuesday, Feb 5, same venue, same everything, different levels of cold! (I think it’s about how his dad founded a second franchise of the family), and I’m telling a story at You’re Being Ridiculous at Steppenwolf on February 1 happening as planned, sold out as far as I know – My plan is to tell the story about the time I lived with a roommate ripped from the pages of The Gift of Fear, but I might write 6 more things between now and then, shhhhhhhh don’t tell the producers).

Here’s a song:

 

Hello! This morning I am voting, picking Henrietta Pussycat up from the vet from her spay, and then I’m answering short questions this afternoon. Review of how it works:

  • Patrons can submit questions at this thread (Advantage: More than 280 characters).
  • Anyone can submit questions anytime via Twitter – @CAwkward, #awkwardfriday. Please use the hashtag, my mentions are busy enough that I might miss it without.
  • Deadline for questions for this week is noon, Chicago time, Friday, Nov. 2. If a question comes in after that, I try to include it next time.
  • I answer as many questions as I can between noon & 2pm. If I think something is too much/too big for the venue, I’ll tell you and we’ll figure something else out.
  • I’m asking people not not submit questions about abuse & sexual harassment & violence in these short answer threads.
  • I’m also suggesting that you redirect your U.S.-election related anxieties and energies here. Our fears and our feelings are real, but there is stuff to DO right now. Let’s DO THE STUFF, to the best of our abilities. We can process later.
  • Comments open when everything is posted.

Q1: “Ahoy, Captain! I’m constantly asked about my British accent, but I’m not British! I had seven years of speech therapy as a child with articulation problems, and my voice has some quirks that sound a little more British than American. I’m white, so “But where are you really from?” comes from curiosity rather than racism, but meeting new colleagues/students/dental hygienists is awkward enough without suddenly becoming hyper-aware of my speech. Any advice on redirecting without getting self-conscious? Also, since it isn’t an accent, it’s more perceptible sometimes than others, and I worry that people will think I’m (inconsistently) faking an accent to sound smart/exotic. (oh Cthulhu).”

A1: First, a PSA: I’m glad you mentioned racism, because white people definitely need to to stop quizzing nonwhite people (and/or people with “foreign” accents) about where they are “really” from. If you doubt me, please watch this video and remember that even if you think you have good reason to ask/you are just being kind/like, you studied abroad in their country and you want to talk about it with them/you went to school with someone with the same last name/you want restaurant recommendations, you are contributing to a pattern that really and truly wears on people and they have no way of knowing that your interest is benign. If someone’s national or ethnic background is something they want to share with you or something that’s important to your interactions, trust that they will do it on their own in their own way. Stop expecting them to play “guess my background!” on demand to satisfy your curiosity.

Now to your question, a fellow Patron in the question thread had a great suggestion:

“I get that a lot (Australian with a not-very-strong accent which people read as fairly randomly either American or English). I say ” *light laugh* just Australian, but I get that a lot!” The “I get that a lot” smoothes over the awkwardness. People just… when they notice a not-normal thing it introduces a spot of discomfort and they need an excuse – any excuse will do – to slide past it. (this assuming you want to do a softening and smoothing not a dead-eyed shutdown) Some small portion will continue on with “yeah, it really doesn’t sound Australian!” – a “yeah i dunno why!” is usually enough to get us to move on to a less-boring topic. My general tone is that it is one of the mysteries of my life that people say this to me. My subtext is “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but don’t worry, you’re not alone, a lot of people share your hallucination!” “huh, weird!” Like… they’re seeing the dress as black and blue when it’s really white and gold. Very normal, not correct, just one of those things.”

I sometimes say “maybe I watched too much TV as a kid!” but that’s cause most Australian TV has American accents, I guess that won’t work for you. Some other mildly self-deprecating but dismissive thing. But not a humble brag, just, actually self-deprecating counters the risk of being seen as pretentious (I’m not sure how likely that is, and how much it’s just a worry, but either way hopefully it will help you worry less about it hopefully). Could you say “I had trouble learning to speak when I was little, so my accent ended up a bit weird!” (not sure how comfortable you are using a rough childhood situation as a glib comment, but I think it would be effective – gives a “reason”, is clearly not pretentious] [I suspect your self-consciousness about it is because of the articulation lessons – but actually quite a lot of people get this, for no particular reason]”

“I get that a lot!” + a subject change is perfect. I think this is also one of those things where people will take their cues from you – If you act like it’s a big deal, people will think it’s a big deal and be curious, but if you play it off and change the subject, most people will let it go and the ones who can’t or won’t are the ones making it weird.

Q2: Ahoy Captain. We’re getting a divorce, an amiable one, but… how do we tell our friends? Do we just put it on Facebook or what is normal procedure?

A2: I don’t know if there is a usual procedure (this would be a good marketing niche for greeting card designers, right? “We loved celebrating our wedding with you, now it’s time to celebrate our divorce, which will be final on [date]”). I’ve seen people make a Facebook announcement and didn’t find it strange, though to me it seemed like it was a late step in the process and the people involved had already spread the word a bit to friends & family. The downside of social media announcements is comments, like, people you went to elementary school with weighing in all “but you were always the perfect couple!” or “marriage takes work!” so if you do go that route think about your filters and moderate heavily.

This is where the extrovert/heavily networked people in your family and friend group come in handy, right? “Hey, talkative friend who knows everybody, X and I are getting divorced. It’s amicable and mutual, and we want to spread the word a bit but not have 100 awkward conversations where people tell us how surprised they are. Can you be our buffer about this – spread the word, and DON’T tell us about people’s weird questions and feelings? Thanks!” 

Q3: My good friend has a spouse who I’m friendly with but not as close to. I’m happy for them to attend things that I plan with my friend, and for big group stuff I invite them individually and am fine with either coming alone. But for smaller group stuff I want the spouse only if the friend is coming. I have zero problem with the spouse being there with my friend, but I don’t have the closeness where I want them alone as 1/3 to 1/6 of the group. I like them but it changes the dynamic. Is there any kind/polite way to communicate “This invitation is for you; it’s fine if your spouse comes with you, but they’re not invited to come alone”?  

A3: I have five suggestions:

  1. Script for overall discussion is probably “I like [Spouse] so much, but sometimes when I’m inviting you to a really small event I want it to be just us, so can you check with me first esp. if I don’t send them their own invite?” Also, think very carefully about whether you want to have an overall discussion or just handle it event by event, esp. since the consequences might be you get neither of them if both are not welcome.
  2. Be future-oriented, as in, change up how you do this in the future, don’t ask people to answer for the past (unless you want to make everyone feel unwelcome).
  3. If you’ve been inviting spouse through the friend, start separating it out and making sure they each get their own email or text or addition to the event page for things when they are both invited. Use your subject lines constructively – “Sal & Sally, you’re both invited to …” “Sally, you’re invited to…”
  4. Be clear and consistent – “Would you like to join me for X on [date]? It’s a tiny group this time, so no +1s or spouses, let me know by Friday.” “Wanna go to breakfast with me? Just us this time.” And then be consistent, like, if this person’s spouse can’t come maybe yours and other people’s don’t either.
  5. Sometimes this goes down easier as gender-segregated events – “Just us gents this time” – so if that’s useful to you, use it.

Q4: “What are your thoughts on Dylan Marron’s ‘Conversations with People Who Hate Me’?”

My thoughts are “this literally is the first I’ve heard of it” and I had to Google it to even know that it was a podcast. Since this comes up every time: I don’t listen to podcasts generally so the chances I’ve listened to or even heard of your favorite one are extremely tiny. I hope you enjoy (or don’t enjoy) it exactly as it deserves?

Q5: “What are some of your favorite friend-date activities for spending 1:1 time together?”

A5: Tonight I’m going to Commander Logic’s house to play Scrabble. Chances of wine/cheese/giggling are high.

I like sharing meals together. I like going to concerts and movies and the theater and readings. I like having people over for cozy couch time. Anywhere you can talk & catch up for hours (and eat!) I’m probably pretty happy.

Q6I’m 46, cis, het and female (she/her). I’m trying to get back into online dating after I had a panic attack over it last year. My major hobby/vocation/extra curricular activity is MMA—weapons, wrestling, boxing. It’s a huge part of my life. I’m pretty good at it (20 years now, I better be).

Mentioning it in dating profiles goes badly, I find, but I feel really disingenuous concealing it since it flips people out. Any thoughts on a good way to approach this?

A6: Anyone who is gonna be a good match for you is gonna be at least, AT LEAST, agnostic about your favorite thing to do with your free time. Like, the baseline here is “Hrmmm, I don’t know anything about that really, but how cool! What do you like best about it?” and you should actively weed out anyone who is weird about it.

Maybe look at it this way: You’re not auditioning for people to like some generic version of you, you’re trying to narrow down the people who can hang with who you really are. When a dude reacts badly to learning you are a skilled badass lady fighter, it’s not because you failed some audition. It’s because he is not cool enough for you. Keep looking.

Q7: How do you know when it’s time to switch mental health professionals? I’ve been with the same therapist for seven months now, and I feel like progress hasn’t been great, but I’m not sure how to determine if I need to let this process take more time, whether it’s because I’m not doing what I need to do, or whether it’s because the therapist/treatment aren’t working for me.

A7: Well, this is something you can talk about with your therapist, and pretty frankly, too: “I’m not making as much progress as I’d like to be, do you think there’s something we could be doing differently with our sessions/do you think there’s something I could be doing more aggressively between sessions/do you think it would be beneficial for me to try working with someone else/can we check in about what progress has happened since we started working together and revise our plan?” 

And if you feel like you can’t bring this up, that’s telling detail. Talking about how you work together is part of the work. More info on how to tell what works here.

Q8: I belong to a professional organization. This past year I have joined a committee for an in-person event that will be held in the next month. Only a few of the committee members are able to attend the actual event (which is to be expected) and a lot of the committee work is creating session descriptions and finding speakers. Our committee chair left the committee last month when they changed jobs, as they are no longer in our niche area. Their departure did put us in a bit of a bind as we found out that not all sessions had speakers arranged, although it has all been worked out at this point. For me personally, this added a lot of stress. I guess my question is, how do I answer questions about their departure? This event isn’t huge and their absence will be noticed, especially as I will be subbing in for a couple of speaking parts. I don’t want to bad mouth them, or make it a dramatic telling, but at the same time, I am not sure I am up for making it a happy happy story of them moving on. Especially since they told me to let them know if I had any questions immediately following their departure, which I did and which they completely ignored. Should I just mentally compartmentalize the bad personal aftertaste this has given me? 

A8: If y’all haven’t already done this as a committee, draft some kind of announcement or statement about the person leaving and make sure the news is out there. And then use that statement to guide and inform how you answer questions from people. I really feel for you being left in the lurch by this person, but I encourage you to think about the message you want to send about the organization and the event (wanting attendees to be engaged and excited) vs. your personal feelings about all of it, which might be best saved for close friends (venting at the bar) and fellow committee members (private discussions about how to fill the gaps this person left and take some of this off your shoulders).

To that end, what if you said “Departing Person left some big shoes to fill, and this last month I grew to *truly* appreciate how much work they’d done recruiting speakers in past years.” + then turned the conversation toward what you’d like this member of the organization to do? For example “If you’re looking to get more involved in conference planning, the committee could always use x, y, z” or “We’re really looking for more speakers who can talk about x, y, and z topics” or “This is my first time running this solo, if there’s something I’m overlooking, please tell me!” or “We don’t have quite enough session moderators, any chance I can get you to jump in?” 

Nobody can undo the stress you’ve been under, but orienting yourself (and your membership) toward action is gonna be the best medicine, I think. Good luck, may it all go smoothly!

Q9: Captain, as a creative and hard-working person, do you think that it better to have a more-cool role on a less-cool-overall project, or a less-cool role on a more-cool-overall project? Each project has thousands of people in it and lasts over the course of many years. I could be happy doing either but am definitely more excited professionally for cool-role-project. It also comes with a little less money that would have a non-dealbreaking but also non-negligible lifestyle impact.

A9: I don’t have an answer, just questions:

  • Which project sets you up to have the most options in the future?
  • Which project sets you up to learn from people who will help you level up the most?
  • Do you have some ongoing creative practice that’s just yours, that can sustain you either way?
  • Then, do a gut check. Flip a coin. If you had to abide absolutely by the coin flip (you don’t, but pretend with me), how do you feel about that?

Q10: I’ve been desperate for years to start doing more creative work but when a good idea moves me I become too manic to focus and can only daydream, and when I’m not manic I feel totally immobile and unmotivated. I feel like my peers are lapping me while I stay still and every cool idea I have will die with me (if it doesn’t show up in someone else’s work – although I was greatly comforted by something in the archive about that being a good sign of sorts haha). Mostly I just feel rotten about myself every time a cis white dude, specifically, gushes about his cool project – stuff by not those dudes (esp. games, comedy, YouTube) helps me, but I still feel like I’m a windbag with nothing to contribute and I only think I “deserve” a voice to spite bigger windbags, when ideally I would be lifting up, entertaining, maybe collaborating once I get over my fear of and aversion to that. I know I should seek mental health care (been feeling pretty shit for a decade) and I know timed exercises/750 words/NaNo and the like sometimes make me feel better, but nothing has made the process of actually sitting down and bringing an idea to an acceptable level of completion seem less insurmountable. Any strategies? 

A10: I’m definitely not immune to this feeling. A lot of people want tips and suggestions to see if they can bypass the process of “finish stuff, send it out, then make new stuff” or make it easier somehow and, you can’t. I can’t. We can’t. No matter how, like, insightful we get about our process or how much we plan out elegant projects, eventually we will have to reckon with “finish a thing, send it out, make a new thing.”

Some stuff that might help:

Yes, take care of your mental health. I got diagnosed with ADHD a few years back and it helped so much, both in giving me tools and strategies and also helping me let go of some of the shame and self-recrimination that was not motivating in the least. Whatever you’ve got going on, having a trained pro guide you through both your goals and your list of “shoulds” (the stuff you’re using to beat yourself up with) isn’t a bad idea.

Give yourself a License To Suck. A writing teacher literally did this for a class I’m taking, it’s printed on a business-card sized thing and we can carry it in our wallets. It’s a reminder that people aren’t born with mastery, and if it’s worth doing it’s worth sucking at it for a while in order to get better.

Take a class or otherwise find community that gives you permission to generate a lot of first drafts, break projects down into manageable chunks, work with supportive peers, build in accountability and a schedule. If you’re going to suck, suck with other people who are also trying.

Try going for volume over quality for a while. That’s what NaNoWriMo is good for, right? Process, practice, volume, non-judgment. If you struggle with perfectionism and you have lots of stuff going on, this way no project has to be the one perfect project. Check out the parable of the pots. Also, see this from Ira Glass.

Test ideas and themes in different mediums. One of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered said the most important thing to me at the end of film school, when I took a memoir writing class with her: “Not every good idea you have wants to be a film.” She also introduced me to the practice of reading/telling stories out loud for audiences, which led me to nonfiction writing, which led me here.

How freeing was that? SO FREEING. Sometimes my ideas are movies but they can also be essays or poems or this advice blog that ate my life in the best possible way. Maybe your unfinished short story is languishing because it wants to be a short film. Maybe your novel wants to be a painting. Maybe you’re really a photographer. I don’t know! Maybe you don’t, either.

Q11: Do you have any words of wisdom for an amateur writer doing #nanowrimo2018 ? I seem to have written myself into a corner and I’m not sure how to get out. (This will be my 11th win if I finish again this year, but I’m not feeling it at the moment.)

A11: It would be okay if you didn’t do it or didn’t finish this time. It would be okay if you used this year to revise one of your old efforts instead of writing something new (maybe take an old piece and shift the setting or the POV character?). If you do do it and stick with it, the habit and the process will reassert themselves and the ritual of writing will probably start to feel better even if you’re not inspired. It will probably be more fun if you find other people to cheer you on.

Q12: I’m in the early stages of a relationship. Everything is sunshine and rainbows and tiny hearts with our initials. I know this stage doesn’t last forever. At some point there’s chewing with your mouth open and dirty socks and more real and less lusty head over heels. I don’t have any good relationship models in my life. How do I enjoy the good parts without worrying so much about what’s to come? (He’s a good person. There is no but there. I like what we are building together.)

A12: Versions of this question keep coming up. The answer is always the same:

Relationships aren’t a test you can study for and get an “A” by doing the most work. So use this anxious energy about the relationship that you’re feeling as a reminder to shore up the other areas of your life. Strengthen your friendships and family relationships and make sure you’re not losing track of the other people you love. Make sure that your career & education & creative pursuits & hobbies are doing what you want them to. Spruce up your living space. Revisit your plans & daydreams about the future. Get your health checkups and dental cleanings. Spend some alone time, don’t feel like you have to be with this person every single second. Your romantic relationship is just one part of your life, and the more secure and happy you are as a person, the better set up you’ll be to make good decisions about your love life, even if that decision is “keep enjoying this!”

Q13: Hey Captain, Happy Friday! I was wondering if you have any tips for building personal discipline and a better work ethic? I have heard, all my life, that I seem to phone things in, that I’m capable of better than what I give, that I project laziness that comes across as disrespect, etc. This has come from my family, teachers, employers, (ex-)partners, etc. And, they’re not wrong – I tend to stop at “adequate” but don’t go the extra mile to be excellent in most aspects of my life. I’m a single parent with a super-demanding job and always feel like I’m running on fumes, but know I could do at least a bit better! Help?

A13: Hrmmmmm….these sound awfully like all the messages I grew up with, the ones that rebounded inside my head literally since forever, endless jokes about having “She had so much potential” engraved on my gravestone, and totally discounting all the stuff I was doing and had actually done in favor of the ever-expanding list of what I should be doing. It’s taken some mental health diagnoses and ongoing mental health treatment and the practice of years to stop automatically playing those mind-loops.

Do you want to be doing “more” and if so “more of what”?

Are we sure these people are right about you? Are you sure they aren’t saying “Hey, even your ‘phoning it in’ version of this is pretty good and we resent that about you.”

And if they are right about you, is that really so bad? You parent your kid. You hold down a demanding job. Your kid is alive and happy and your work gets done, right? So what even is this “more”?

Have you talked it over with a therapist? Because that’s where I’d start.

Q14: My job offers professional development funds (yay!). The past few years, I’ve used some of that money for membership in a local professional organization that I’ve often felt lukewarm about. (I was a member briefly after grad school, then discontinued my membership, and rejoined in 2016.) What are some helpful considerations in thinking about renewing (or not)?

A14: Considerations, in no particular order:

  • Is this the only organization in this field or is there another one (even if it’s not as local) that would be a better fit?
  • Are you fully utilizing what’s available within the organization? Maybe look back at their programs and see if there’s something there worth taking advantage of.
  • Are the problems with the organization fixable and do you feel like volunteering with the organization to shape it more to your needs?
  • Is there something else you’d rather do with that money? [A conference, a class, an investment in reading material]
  • It’s not your money, so why not? Are there upsides to belonging (networking, being able to list it on your resume)?

Q15: How much talking in class is too much? She/her, non-traditional student in a “caring profession” – my cohort is 90% female. Most classmates seem shyer to speak. My speaking enthusiasm level is Hermione-Granger-with-Undiagnosed-ADD. When I wait for someone else to go, sometimes the prof will impatiently jump in, which is frustrating because I *want* to have a lively discussion. I’m worried peers judge me for taking up space. I’m worried I might *be* taking too much space. Should I talk less? Worry less? Can I focus on some concrete way to support my peers? 

A15: There’s a lot of room between being This Fucking Guy and being that lifesaver active student who is not afraid to talk during class discussions. Your self-awareness about this makes it less likely that you’re a problem, but if it’s making you anxious it’s probably worth checking in with your professor, like, “I want to be active in discussions but I want to make sure I’m not talking over other students, any feedback/can we agree that you’ll tell me if you think I’m overdoing it?” 

If I’m a teacher of a discussion-based class and only one student is ever talking, I’d be looking for ways to mix it up, like, asking a question and having smaller groups chew on it together and then present back to the bigger group, or asking a question for discussion and then giving students a few minutes to write down their thoughts before we talk about it. Really, it’s your teacher’s job to manage the whole vibe of the room, and if there are points for class participation you’re not doing it wrong by participating actively!

The “writing it down” strategy has worked for me when I have had to speak with students who do have (documented) ADHD or just a tendency to blurt things out – “It’s great that you’re so engaged and you have a lot to say, but you interrupt me and other people sometimes, so can we try a thing where when you have a thought or a question you write it down and then wait until I pause for questions to ask it?” You might try that as a strategy for yourself sometimes if you’re worried that you’re being too much – instead of speaking out loud, write whatever it is down in your notes, and write down the things that other people say, too. You still are having the insights, right?

Another strategy (both for moderation and participation) is to make sure you’re amplifying and responding meaningfully to the things that other people say. “Going back to the question Sylvester asked…” “I’ve been thinking about the point that Sylvie made…” If your peers know that you are paying close attention to them when they do speak up, hopefully it will encourage them to keep going.

Q16: Some good friends recently told me that I apologize A LOT and take responsibility for things that are outside my control or not really an issue. My instinct was to apologize for apologizing, so it seems my friends were accurate in their assessment. 🙂 Anyhow, do you have any scripts on how to redirect this tendency in my own head and out loud? What do I say if I feel bad that something didn’t go as planned or I was less than perfect without constantly saying “I’m sorry”? (This wouldn’t apply to situations where I really am in the wrong – but if that happens, I would want my apology there to have some weight and NOT be just a reflex)

A16: Yes, I do have suggestions:

1) Practice restating apologies as expressions of gratitude.

“I’m sorry I forgot to return your book sooner” => “Thanks for lending me the book!”

“I’m sorry I’m such a bummer tonight, I’m really feeling down” => “Thanks for hanging out with me and listening.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t had much time to hang out lately” => “Thanks for being so flexible with my schedule, I’m so glad to see you!”

2) In electronic communications, type them out when you make the draft but build in time to edit and erase before sending. If I didn’t do this, literally every email I sent would start with “Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you.” I decided to stop automatically apologizing about this a few years back and I think it was a good choice. It took me as long as it took to respond to the email, in many cases I’m not actually sorry, and I wanted to stop perpetuating the standard that all emails require immediate response or that women must always pre-apologize in life.

Q17: Maybe more of a crowd-sourcing question – techniques/hacks/systems for doing things (think stretching, at-home physio, etc.) that I need to do but find boring and, while not painful, a pain? 

A17: The Pomodoro Technique (adapted to good advantage by Unfuck Your Habitat as “20/10s”): Set a timer for the length of time that you want to do the annoying thing (like, 20 minutes, but really whatever you want, you can start smaller, you’re the boss of you). Do the annoying thing knowing that there is a hard end-time. Then take a timed break to do something enjoyable (10 minutes). Reset as necessary until the stuff is done.

Someone in this community recommended Gretchen Rubin’s book about habit forming, Better Than Before, and with the caveat that she has some personal thoughts about body image & eating that I don’t share, I’ve personally found it really useful. Like, I enjoyed it at the time, but I think about it waaaaaaaaaaaaaay more often now than I thought I would when I was reading it. The biggest takeaway was that people have different tendencies about what motivates them, and if you can figure out yours you can kinda hack your habit-forming  – like, some people really benefit from having a buddy to do hard stuff with or someone to be externally accountable to, some people are just great rule-followers and the fact that it’s a rule makes it hard to deviate, some people really need to know why a thing is happening so constantly connecting the new habit to the why (“If I do my physical therapy exercises I can get strong enough for that sex position I like again”), etc.

Q18: Not the most serious question but I just got engaged (yay!) And what on earth is it about weddings that makes everybody have An Opinion?? On everything??  

A18: The intersection of family, tradition, culture, marketing, and shit we’ve grown up seeing in movies and on television is a powerful one. Congratulations! Offbeat Bride and A Practical Wedding were lifesavers.

Q19: Scripts for talking to bosses about mental health? I see a therapist twice a month and I don’t know how to explain the absences, or my occasional depressive episodes (less frequent now, yay!)

A19: If the Affordable Care Act did literally nothing else, the mandate that all health plans must cover mental health services the same way they cover any other health concern is a world-changer. Now the culture has to catch up. Until it does, disclosing mental health stuff at work is sticky, because there still is stigma, and once you disclose you can’t un-disclose. Fortunately, Alison at Ask A Manager has a great primer on this. With her advice in mind, one script might be “I have a recurring medical appointment twice a month” and no more information than that. Another one might be “I have depression. It mostly doesn’t affect work (beyond needing to check in with my counselor twice a month), but I’m having a depressive episode and need to treat it more aggressively right now, which means… [specifically what you need – time off, an adjustment to the workload, a quieter work space, a more flexible schedule].”

Q20: “My friends Alex and Pat recently had a huge falling out due to a seemingly trivial issue. Tomorrow at a wedding will be their first time around each other since the fight. Is there anything I can do help keep the peace since I’ll be interacting with both?”

A20: The bad news is the good news: There is literally nothing about their conflict that is your job to worry about. Say hello to both of them, have a great time, don’t bring any of it up unless they do. If they do, try changing the topic to “what a lovely wedding it is.” Only in case of emergency, like they re-start their argument in a way that would be noticeable to other guests or the people getting married, should you do anything (in that example, the doing something might be “ok, why don’t you both get some air!”)

Repeat after me: Not your circus, not your monkeys.

Q21: I’m at a point where my old friend group is “cycling out”. I’ve made some new acquaintances through my weekly activities that I’d love to bring up to friendship level (e.g. inviting them out), but sometimes feel shy. I’d love a script/advice on this.

A21: Remember, the best invitations have a specific time and date and place attached and you’ll have less anxiety if you invite them to a specific thing than if you mention “coffee sometime” and then wait forever for “sometime” to be real. When you’re ready to take the plunge, be specific and ask: “Wanna grab a drink after rehearsal next week?” They may not be free that day, and they may not want to get closer, but almost nobody who goes to a weekly social hobby is going to think you did something wrong by asking or find it weird, at all. Give making plans a couple tries before you give up. If you ask three times and nobody bites (and nobody suggests an alternative), let it go for 3-6 months before bringing it up again. Somebody’s gonna be very glad you asked.

Q22: Hi! recently ended 8-year relationship. didn’t live together, but work together, have creative projects together. Breakup wasn’t mutual: I instigated. Tips for how to be kind and make space for myself to move on? Do I need to end creative partnership too?

A22: Here’s all the post-breakup advice for being nice to yourself.

I don’t think you can make assumptions either way about what happens to the creative partnership now. I think you have to ask the person what they want to do, see if it aligns with what you want to do, and make the decision that’s right for you. What would you do if the collaboration needed to end? Do some research and protect your work.

If you’re reading this and you have a creative collaboration with a friend or romantic partner, I want you to stop, drop, and put something in writing about who owns the work and what happens to it in case you decide to go your separate ways someday. Do this even if nobody is making any money from the work. Do this even if you have no problems or thoughts of ending the friendship or the working relationship because a fair agreement negotiated now, while you like each other, is a huge favor to future-you if something shatters here.

Ok, that should be something for everyone. ❤