Doppelgängers

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Mirror, mirror

Picture this: you’re standing in front of the mirror, brushing your teeth. Your reflection stares placidly back. A whistle from the kitchen startles you–you turn to look into the kitchen, and you see the noise is just the kettle going off. You turn your gaze back to the mirror, and in that instant, out of the corner of your eye, you are certain that your reflection has not moved. You lock eyes with yourself, but your reflection seems suddenly wrong. Are your eyes really so dark? Your chin so sharp?

But no. You tell yourself you’re just being stupid. Of course that’s what your reflection looks like–it’s you, after all. Isn’t it?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s your doppelgänger.

Although the German word doppelgänger, translating literally to “double-goer,” is a relatively recent addition to the vernacular, the concept of an alter-ego or shadow self appears frequently in the mythology and folk-lore of many world cultures. Although a physical lookalike or double of the person in question, a doppelgänger often takes the role of a darker counterpart to the self. In many cultures, it is said that to catch a glimpse of one’s doppelgänger is a harbinger of bad luck, and potentially an omen of one’s own death.

How They Met Themselves, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
How They Met Themselves,
by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the ka was a tangible “spirit double” possessing the same memories and feelings as the physical counterpart. In some myths, the shadow double could be manipulated to perform tasks or duties while acting as their physical counterpart. In Norse mythology, a vardøger was a spirit predecessor, a shadowy double preceding a living person in location or activity, resulting in witnesses seeing or hearing a person before they actually arrived. And in Celtic mythology, a fetch was an exact, spectral double of a person, whose appearance was ominous in nature, often foretelling a person’s imminent death. The fetch could also act as a psychopomp, stealing away the soul of their living double and transporting them to the realm of the dead.

The concept of a dark double appears frequently in literature and pop culture as well. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” explores the idea of a doppelgängers with a reversal on the traditional “evil twin” story–one of the doubles is amoral and debauched, yet his wicked schemes are always being unmasked by his virtuous identical. Charlie Chaplin’s seminal film “The Great Dictator” also explores the idea of evil twins, where Chaplin plays both the good, simple barber and the megalomaniacal, Hitler-esque dictator. Even the modern show “The Vampire Diaries” has a doppelgänger story-line; Elena Gilbert’s vampire double Katerina is everything spice to Elena’s nice. Katerina is sexy where Elena is pretty, violent where Elena is gentle, and traitorous where Elena is loyal.

But why is the doppelgänger myth so prevalent in folklore and modern culture? What makes us so frightened of our shadowy doubles?

Myself, my shadow self
Myself, my shadow self

In Jungian psychology, the “shadow self” refers to the unconscious or less desirable aspects of the personality that the conscious ego does not identify in itself. In other words, the shadow self is a vehicle and receptacle for our deepest secrets and darkest fears, living in the darkest corners of our souls. And, no matter how much we reject them, these dark doubles are ultimately our own worst selves reflected back at us.

Perhaps the myth of the doppelgänger arose from this sense of shadow and darkness lurking within everyone. We are our own evil twins, spectral doubles confined to one body. Perhaps that is why, when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a darkened mirror or a pane of glass, we feel unsettled, reverberating with the echoes of familiarity and yet, unfamiliarity.

Perhaps, in the end, we are all haunted by the ghosts of ourselves.

Do you have a favorite doppelgänger or evil twin story? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Willpower Savings & Loan

I recently attended a workshop on building motivation, and while it wasn’t specifically targeted at writers (who make up a good portion of our audience here), it was so relevant, I wanted to pass on some of the wisdom I picked up.

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Studies have shown that we human types only have a given amount of willpower to spend in a certain day. Think of it like story points you’re given in an RPG — your character is allotted a certain number based on their characteristics and skills, and the GM can award you additional points for good behavior. You can then spend the points to give yourself a boost or alter the story in some way that benefits you.

Well, willpower points are a lot like that. You use your points throughout your day, making decisions big and small. Do you wear the blue shirt, or the purple one? Do you have toast for breakfast, or go to the drive-thru? Do you work hard, or do you check social media every ten minutes? What are you going to make for dinner? Every time you have to expend mental energy, you use up some of your willpower points.

On a given day, I wake up in the morning, I get dressed, I choose breakfast, I decide what to work on in the morning, how hard to work, what to have for lunch, what to work on in the afternoon, what to have for dinner, and how to spend my leisure. And that’s just big picture, not accounting for small decisions about how to do my work and whether or not to eat a granola bar in the late afternoon. It’s no wonder so many people come home, eat a frozen dinner, and then collapse on the couch to watch whatever is on TV: they simply don’t have the willpower left to do anything else.

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When you’re self-employed or trying to work as a writer after your day job, it becomes even harder, because it takes more willpower to come up with tasks and then drive yourself to do them. At work, we often have tasks assigned to us and don’t need to spend our willpower points to choose what to do. But if we don’t have a boss giving us direction, that’s one more area where we have to expend mental energy.

So how can we ration our willpower points in order to actually get stuff done when we’re exhausted from that annoying thing called LIFE?

  1. Make some decisions for yourself in advance. Choose what you’re going to wear to work the night before. Make your breakfast/lunch ahead of time, or limit your options. The fewer decisions you have to make early in the day, the more willpower points you’ll have to spend at night.
  2. Make lists. No joke. When you know what tasks you need to get done, write them down and prioritize them. Making the list won’t take many points, and it’ll reduce the need later to make decisions later, because you’ve already told yourself.
  3. Don’t try to start building multiple disciplined practices at once. Upping your word counts this month? Don’t start a diet. Building a new workout regimen? Don’t give up caffeine at the same time.
  4. Capitalize on the power of habit. Once something becomes habit, you no longer have to spend willpower points to do it, so it’s useful to do the same thing for lunch or breakfast every day, or wear the same outfits on rotation. Plus, once you build a habit, you can work on a new disciplined practice.

But if you’re like me, you’re not bad about sticking to the list above, and you’re still exhausted and completely drained of willpower at the end of the day. That’s fine: we poor humans are not wired to make a million decisions every day. Happily, there are a few ways to rebuild your willpower supply:

  1. Sleep. This should be a no-brainer, but many of us sacrifice sleep in the interest of getting stuff done, and it’s actually hugely counterproductive. The best way to completely reboot your willpower points is to get a full night’s sleep, stress-free. Try to make it happen. (But in a pinch, naps help some people get a few points back!)
  2. Take a break and do something that refreshes you. This is very personal, so it’s hard to offer specifics, but you’ll know what it means for you. On your lunch break, read a book. Look at Pinterest. Take a walk. Don’t even make this a choice: do what you WANT to do.
  3. Meditate or something. Allegedly this can help, but I suck at meditation. Your mileage may vary. You may achieve a similar effect from other activities: participating in your spiritual practice, if you have one, taking a soothing hot bath, doing yoga, or even quietly sitting on your back porch and having a beer. Let your mind detach for a little while.

These suggestions are just skimming the surface of the existing research that surrounds motivation and ways to build it and maintain it. How do you ration your willpower points? What methods of willpower regeneration work for you?

Conventions 101: I Forget How to Human

For the last five years, I’ve been trying to attend one convention every year.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but for someone with nearly debilitating social anxiety, it’s a huge achievement and a measure of my commitment to my work. This year, I’m attending four cons of various types, including one for fiber artists, one for pagans, GenCon, and World Fantasy. That’s a record for me, and I have very mixed feelings about it.

Cons are great. They’re a chance to meet people, to learn things, to get new ideas, to see individuals we look up to, to enrich friendships and connections we can now make over the internet. But they’re also expensive, exhausting, and stressful, at least for someone who has actual sobbing meltdowns when she has too much social interaction.

When I say I have near-debilitating social anxiety, I don’t mean I get butterflies about going to parties. I mean my hands shake when I call to order pizza. I mean I once rode a bus its entire route because I needed to interview the driver and I was too scared to talk to her. I mean I cry when my friends want too much of my time. Talking to people I don’t know actively frightens me.

I’m not playing around when I say I’m introverted and shy. I’ve come out of my shell a lot in the last decade, primarily because I worked as a reporter—which, in retrospect, was not a brilliant career choice—and I had to talk to people if I wanted to do my job.

So, for me, going to cons is a bit of an endurance test. Over the years, however, I’ve learned a few things about how to do it without inducing nervous paroxysms of overstimulation.

  1. If you’re attending with a friend, explain to them that you may need breaks. Hell, even if you’re not attending with a friend, if you need a break, explain to your companions that you need some time to yourself. Most humans understand that other humans need rest.
  2. Actually get some rest. Parties last all night, and most of the fun that’s had at cons is had at those parties. But the human brain mends itself or something while we sleep (ask a scientist if you want details), so even if you’re sleeping during the day, make sure you’re getting some sleep.
  3. Don’t feel like you need to do everything. Not really all that interested in “Underwater Basket Weaving in Ancient Civilizations” or “Flax: From Plant to Garment”? Well, you can skip those panels. Yes, I know you paid for the con, and that includes all of the panel topics, but you really don’t have to attend every single session.
  4. Remember that other people are people, too. For every terrified soul like myself, there’s at least one extroverted person who will introduce herself and take you around to meet all her friends. And really, if you introduce yourself to a terrified soul like me, I’ll introduce you to my friends, too. I’ll just be quaking in my boots while I do it.
  5. Learn your triggers and your warning signals. Does loud music stress you out? Maybe cut out of the dance party early. Do you get a headache when you’re reaching the breaking point? Time to bail. This one is tough, and it takes some trial and error, but you have to know yourself to be able to take care of yourself.
  6. Finally, learn to say yes—and no. If you’re not at your limit, saying yes to a random invite may just set you down a path to meet your new best friend. But if you are at your limit, saying no can keep you from having a bad con experience when you could have had a great one.

Honestly, if I can survive four cons in one year, anyone can do it. And remember, if you are a person who enjoys making new connections, reach out to someone you don’t know—your act of friendliness may save one person from a terrible, lonely experience.

Do you work the con circuit? What are your survival tips?

 

A Woman of History Who’s Time Has Come

Madame Presidentess eBook Cover No Quote LargeIn her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert poses an interesting question: Do we find our ideas or do our ideas find us? She believes that the ideas find us, and if we don’t do something with them in the time they are willing to wait, they move on. I agree with her. Here’s why. I firmly believe that Victoria Woodhull chose me to write Madame Presidentess, my biographic historical novel about her life, which was just published July 25. Actually, I believe that Victoria’s soul was floating around a few years ago, screaming for creatives of all types to help her get her name into the history books where it belongs. Victoria was a Spiritualist who held a life-long belief she could communicate with the departed, so I don’t think she’d argue with me.

Why do I believe it’s not a random act of inspiration? Well, prior to Hillary Clinton’s second Presidential campaign, very few people had heard of Victoria. This is because she’s not been included in most history texts, so prior to a year or two ago, you’d have to look for specialist publications (like biographies or certain books on the suffrage movement) or consult historical or political experts to learn more than a line or two about her. However, that has changed rapidly.

  1. Since August 2014, four historical fiction novels (including my own) have been published about Victoria. Prior to that, none existed. (I started research on my Victoria book in early 2014 when there were no fictional books about her on the market.)
  2. In the last year, two more biographies or other non-fiction works about Victoria’s life have been published.
  3. A 1980 musical titled “Onward Victoria” just had a one-night, off-Broadway revival in Manhattan last week. (I was asked to sign books in conjunction with it, but given I had less than a week’s notice, I couldn’t make the travel happen.)
  4. A two films on Victoria’s life are currently being filmed and produced.
    1. The Coming Woman
    2. Scandalous Victoria
  5. Maggie Gyllenhall has publicly expressed interest in telling Victoria’s story and is quietly working on a project to that effect.
  6. Since June, when Hillary Clinton became the presumptive Democratic nominee, nearly 100 articles about Victoria have appeared online, including a Snopes page created in the wake of a social media debate over whether Hillary or Victoria was the first female presumptive nominee for President. (The historical truth is that Victoria was the first woman to run for President. Hillary Clinton is the first woman to be nominated on a major party ticket. Many women, including Victoria, preceded her as part of smaller parties.)
Victoria Woodhull
Victoria Woodhull

That’s a lot of concurrent activity for mere inspiration or coincidence, especially for someone most people have never heard about. Now, it could be that all of us had the same foresight to look ahead to the 2016 election and see that there was a strong possibility that Hillary Clinton would get the nomination for the Democratic party. It could also be that American society is finally to a point where we are naturally looking back and the women who were the silent “firsts” ignored by history or co-opted by men are finally getting their due.

But I don’t know. The funny thing is, I’m normally a writer who hears the voices of my characters in my head. That didn’t happen with this book. I don’t know if that’s because this is the first real person I’ve written about or what. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t there. I felt her guiding presence the whole time.

And now that the book is out, I look forward to collaborating with all of those other creative people who are also interested in telling Victoria’s story. Imagine what we can accomplish together…

Do you believe our subjects pick us or do you think we come up with them? Why? Do you have a story to share about a time an idea found you?

More Carrots than Sticks

Before I became a writer, I had a number of other jobs. Some were pretty good, others really weren’t. Obviously, none of them were my passion, but the ones that were especially bad were so because they were the kind that stole pieces of you, every day, until you were little more than a hunched over, dead-eyed employee, who was just waiting for enough PTO hours to take a mental health day.

Some jobs are just tough and that’s okay, they need to be done, and often those are the jobs that pay pretty well because of how hard they are on you, whether physically, emotionally, or mentally. But what makes those jobs bearable or unbearable is the work environment. At my worst job (and best paying), I had a manager look at me and say, “No one should need to hear ‘You’re doing a good job!’ or ‘Nice work today!’ You should just do it because it’s your job.”

I mean. Okay. Sure, they were right, in theory. But does it cost a boss anything to utter those words? No. Would a tiny piece of moral-boosting recognition like that help? Yes. Would it make you not hate your job just a little bit less? Maybe. I mean, at the very least you might think, “Well, the job sucks, but at least the place/people I work for don’t. It could be worse.”

So, now, you’re a writer, or some other kind of artist. You’re your own boss (even if you have another job that’s paying the bills and this is your second job), do you want to be a dick to yourself or think, “Well, this job is hard, but I love it and I love working for myself”?

Telling yourself, “Hey! Nice work on that project today!” doesn’t quite have the same effect, right? Okay. So figure out what does.IMG_20160720_170409_resized

Yesterday I hit the 100 page mark on the book I’m writing right now. So, today, my husband and I went out for sushi for lunch. It’s a small reward, but a reward nonetheless. I accomplished a milestone and it needed marking. It deserved it.

Of course you need discipline, don’t think  you can’t say to yourself, “No, I can’t do the dishes/watch that whole season/go for froyo until I get my word goal for the day.” Or meet some goal. Sometimes I set myself a word goal for the day and I break it up into chunks. So if I want 2,000 words, I’ll write 500 at a time, taking short breaks in between. And sometimes I’ll do a morning session and a night session if I’m struggling or going for a larger goal. Sometimes the words just come and you can get everything out in one non-stop setting, but just because you can’t, or maybe one day is harder than another day, doesn’t mean you’re failing.

Just figure out what works for your brain and motivation as long as you’re still being productive.

Last year, after I finished the final installment of my Post-Apocalyptic trilogy, an especially difficult story to tell, to live with, to think about for as long as I did, I bought myself Screenshot_2016-07-20-18-11-26-1-1something pretty and sparkly because after so much grit, I needed pretty and sparkly. I deserved it.

After I published that book, closing that three novel story, my husband took me to the tattoo parlor to get a commemorative tattoo. That story was all about hope in the face of death and pain and suffering, so I got a triskle made out of leaves, representing Screenshot_2016-07-20-18-19-38-1the course of time and life and rebirth and growth. I needed that. I deserved it.

Big rewards and little rewards.

Don’t just reward yourself for the big things because those always seem so far away. When you’re just starting a project the end can feel impossible, so if you only have your eye on the end with no little milestones to help you on the way, it becomes daunting.

IMG_20160527_121913Maybe it’s an adorable little thing that you’ve had your eye on for awhile. Yes, even a little toy that can sit on your desk, so when you’re feeling the slow trickle of words, you can look at it and remember, you’ve accomplished this before, you can do it again.

Did you finish a rough draft? It may not be a finished project, but Screenshot_2016-07-20-18-12-04-1-1getting the bones of a book done is huge. Remember those shoes you really wanted? Guess what! They’re on sale now and you deserve them.

Reward yourself. Be a boss you like to work for. Take care of yourself. The next day you come to work, you’ll do it with a smile and you’ll work harder because the next milestone isn’t that far off and when you get to it, you can go to the comic book Screenshot_2016-07-20-18-14-57-1store and buy a coffee and refill your well to get to the next milestone.

You need it. You deserve it. You’re doing a really great job.

Late, but not too late

So, here it is, nearly 11:30 at night and I’ve just remembered it’s my turn to post. I’ve been in bed, unabashedly for a couple of hours already, reading.

Just one of those days where your partner asks, “Is 9 o’clock too early for bed?” and you think of the engrossing new book that’s already taken up much of your free time and reply, “No, not at all!”

But just as I was finally putting my book down for the night, telling myself I’d be disappointed if I finished it too fast, I realized I’d forgotten you, dear reader!

For shame!

But to be fair, I think I have a good excuse. A few even. All of which add up to my memory being much like a sieve these past few days.

One: I finally finished the first draft of a book I’ve been working on for five months. It was a brutal book to write and I know it needs a lot of work, but getting the bones done is what matters for now.

Two: I had a new release drop yesterday under my pen name. My pen name doesn’t get near as much attention as my real name releases, but I’m still proud of the work and I still stress over it just as much.

Three: I was/am taking much needed down time. Thanks to the first two things listed above, I’ve been stressed and tired and things have been neglected. You manage to keep things going, mostly clean and orderly, but nothing is quite how it should be. So I’ve cleaned and done a metric ton of laundry. I’ve given myself mani-pedi, watched TV and, most importantly: read for pleasure. I’m reading out of my preferred writing genres and it’s glorious. There’s a frustrating love triangle and twists and surprises. Just the tonic I need.

So, dear ones, remember, we all need the carrot as much as the stick. Take breaks when you need them, but when you hit goals, make accomplishments, reward yourself. Even if it’s just a book, or maybe a particular Funko Pop you’ve been wanting for a while.

You deserve it. I deserve it.

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My tiny Sirius for a big accomplishment!

Creativity as Therapy

The last month has kicked my butt. If I’m honest, this year has kicked my butt: it’s been a roller coaster of good and bad, with few breaks between the ups and the downs and the deeper-downs. But May has been the worst, and my husband and I have been mourning the loss of a beloved pet.

Grief is a bear. With it come sadness and depression, and depression comes hand-in-hand with a whole host of fun little friends like fatigue, social disconnection, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and loss of interest in hobbies and other day-to-day pursuits. For creative types like myself and a lot of you reading this blog post, this can translate to a loss of creative passion. When you’re exhausted and can’t concentrate and don’t want to see anyone or do anything and simply getting through the day is a struggle, writing (or sewing or painting or whatever it is that you do regularly) becomes an impossibility. In short, depression dries up the well.

May is, coincidentally, Mental Health Awareness Month, and a lot of smart people have been writing about this year’s theme, “Life With a Mental Illness.” I’ve lived with depression and anxiety, and I’ve written about that struggle elsewhere. This year, I want to focus on creative acts as a treatment for the loss of creativity.

I was discussing my sadness and the complete creative drought that has accompanied it with my very wise friend Emmie Mears recently, and she suggested that I experiment with new-to-me creative endeavors as a method of exploring and releasing my grief. I could paint or draw, even abstractly, as a way to capture my emotions and memories, and then, later, I would have a visual record of how I felt during this time. The result would be a tribute to my pet and, just as importantly, a tribute to my own feelings.

I thought this was a brilliant plan, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a great way to work through depression and anxiety, as well as grief*. One of the most important methods of self-care is acknowledging how we feel when we feel it: many people try to dismiss or ignore feelings of depression or anxiety, and that denial does nothing but compound our feelings of inadequacy or, worse, “craziness.” Self-stigmatizing only makes it easier for society as a whole to dismiss mental illness as self-indulgent or non-existent.

Exploring a new artistic pursuit, particularly in an improvisational or freeform way, may allow us to shut off the thinking/judging parts of our brain and simply allow free expression of emotion. When we don’t have standards of quality or accomplishment we feel we need to meet, we’re able to create without judgment. And for writers, in particular, when we stop trying to use our words and instead simply create, we’re forced to acknowledge our feelings for what they are, rather than trying to explain them away.

In the end, we’re left with a record of our feelings that we can and must acknowledge as something outside of ourselves.

There are lots of free, gently-guided ways to experiment with new forms of creativity. I’ve rounded up a few here that you can check out, and Google is awash in other classes, challenges, and how-to’s. Maybe one will speak to you!

Index-Card-a-Day Challenge: I’m intrigued by this one. The goal is to create a 3×5 piece of art every day for 61 days. You can draw, paint, doodle, make a collage, sew, whatever strikes your fancy, and you end up with a physical record of everything you did or tried to do. This might be a good way to try to work through a specific problem.

Year of Rock: If you’re a musical type, you can sign up for free classes to learn guitar. While this is less free-form, you might be able to explore a side of yourself you haven’t yet been able to express. Plus, for some, the chance to turn off anxiety and simply listen and learn might have added benefits.

Art Journaling: There are approximately one bajillion links on Google about art journaling, but this art is about as freeform as you can get. That Pinterest link to “How to Start Art Journaling” ought to give you a few thousand ideas.

Free Craftsy Classes: Craftsy offers a HUGE range of courses and subjects, and the free classes might allow you to explore new crafts in a commitment-free way. Unleash your inner cake decorator! 

Private Pinterest Boards: Since I mentioned Pinterest, I can personally vouch for the creation of private Pinterest boards as a method of portable collaging. Pin places and things that make you feel peaceful; pin images that inspire you; pin images of memories or dreams. Use your private boards as a mini-getaway.

How do creative endeavors help you to work through difficult times? Have you ever experimented with a new art as a way to work through a difficult time in your life?

*Yes, art therapy is a thing that already exists! However, therapy can be pricey and inaccessible for many individuals.