"How to Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough" with Karen O'Connor.

Thursday, July 12, 2001

MODERATOR is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Karen is Karen O'Connor, an award-winning author of many books (both fiction and nonfiction), plus hundreds of articles. She is also a popular inspirational speaker and writing instructor from San Diego, California.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm so glad to be here tonight with Karen O'Connor who will be talking about "How to Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough." Karen is an award-winning author of many books (both fiction and nonfiction), plus hundreds of articles. She is also a popular inspirational speaker. Welcome, Karen!

Karen: Thank you! Great to be back!

Moderator: I'm glad we could reschedule your interview to a non-stormy night! Karen, to get started, tell us how long you've been writing and publishing, could you? And maybe give an overall description of the types of things you've published.

Karen: I've been writing professionally (selling) for 25 years. I started in children's literature, books and magazine articles, and then moved to adult nonfiction in the inspirational market and how-to genre, some religious and some secular.

Moderator: Have you had times in your own life where you would consider that the "going got tough"?

Karen: Absolutely! When I went through an unwanted divorce, when my children and I were in tremendous chaos over this, when I got sick, when I lost all hope and when I, frankly, as Scarlett would say, 'didn't give a damn!'

JaciRae: Was this over a long period of time, like one thing on top of another?

Karen: For awhile, yes, and then at different times in my life, I've had shorter periods when I felt low or overwhelmed with life, or had family trips, etc.

Moderator: What's the hardest book you ever wrote--and why?

Karen: Probably the one about restoring relationships with one's adult children because it came out of my life experience. It's not an autobiography, but the incentive and motivation for writing it and interviewing other parents of adult children who had broken family relationships was so very personal.

JaciRae: I had more "drive" to write when I was having personal problems. Now that things are better, I seem to have "lost it." Is that normal? How do I get it back?

Karen: As Patsy Clairmont says, "Normal is just a setting on your dryer." Everyone is different. However, I agree with you that sometimes when things are going well, we tend to put off the writing because it's hard work!

Moderator: Karen, why is it any different for writers to keep going when life gets tough? Don't all professions have rough times?

Karen: I think all professionals do have tough times. I know enough people who are not writers to know this is true, but there is something about the arts, writing included, that takes such a big chunk of ourselves, our personal energy and emotional reserve, that it requires more of us than say, selling a house, teaching a class in math, etc.

Moderator: Sometimes you can be so exhausted, either physically or emotionally. What do you do when you simply can't think--but you have a deadline?

Karen: I take a walk or a nap! Either one and sometimes both do the trick for me. I do not force myself anymore. I used to but it never worked. I paid for this kind of slave-driving with illness and mild depression. So now I listen to my body and I give it what it needs...sometimes food, sometimes rest, sometimes meeting with a good friend to talk, and often prayer!

JaciRae: I've read some of your work from the Christian book store. How much does your faith figure into how you cope with life and writing?

Karen: It is my number one priority. It has come late in life, but it is now the thing I hold most dear. I can't imagine getting through my days without the God of my understanding. I came to the end of myself after my divorce, especially when I realized that my entire identity was wrapped up in my husband. I didn't know who I was, what color I liked best, what kind of music I enjoyed, or what hobbies to pursue once he left me. I had to start from the bottom like a little kid, but I have found that God is faithful. He works everything in our lives for good, and I have used every bit of grist for my writing mill. As I talk about titles you will see that much of my writing springs from my life and then spills over to others--to bring them hope, help, and I hope some humor!

Moderator: Thank you for the personal sharing, Karen. In another vein, what do you recommend when you feel discouraged due to rejections?

Karen: I treat my writing as a business, so even though I don't like rejections and can be discouraged by them, I have never let them disempower me (Is that a word?). I keep going because I've seen how one rejection can lead to an acceptance by someone else. Case in point. An article on how to raise kids with hearts of gratitude was rejected by Christian Home and School but accepted by Decision Magazine! Go figure. I have no idea why it worked for one and not the other, but this experience and many others (including in the book field) have shown me that it is foolish to allow any one editor to keep you from doing what you want to do. Editors are fallible people, just as we are, and much of their judgment is based on personal opinion as well as publishing preferences.

Moderator: Do you have tricks for being patient when editors take forever to respond to queries? Or does being patient just encourage editors to take even longer?

Karen: I'm not a patient person...never have been, though I don't usually ACT in an impatient or rude manner. I simply keep a lot of pieces in circulation at the same time so I don't over-focus on one pet article or book idea. We can't control the response time so we just have to keep lots of balls in the air so there is constant movement in our careers.

fungirlwriter: I am going through winding up a divorce. My marriage was bad a long time-husband was controlling and abusive. I have 3 children-they're doing okay but have special needs. They are 19, 20, and 25, have their own jobs but still need extra care. I feel guilty doing things for myself, and like you were saying, I don't have a clue who I am. I am a little of everyone else. How long before you started being able to function?

Karen: I can understand your feelings and I empathize with you at this crucial time in your life. But you might consider the importance of carving out some time for yourself or your well will run dry and then you won't have anything to give to others. My children have all told me at different times that my greatest gift to them was the gift of a repaired life--mine! They appreciate that I have made something of myself and they see me now as a role model, but it didn't occur overnight. I went into therapy and I also joined a women's support group which I attended weekly for five years. This helped me to regain my mental and emotional health, which in turn gave me the strength to continue writing and teaching, which I wanted to do and needed to do.

Moderator: You just touched on this a bit... How do you take care of your spirit and mind so you can remain creative?

Karen: I keep a journal. I read Scripture and other works by authors I respect. And I have a prayer partner--a woman who is my confidant and friend of twenty years. We walk and talk and pray together weekly. I also spend time learning. I read the newspaper each day, keep up with the writing industry, take classes, and devote time to hobbies--which currently is putting together photo albums, singing in the choir at church and hiking in the mountains with friends. For example, I'm going to the Sierra Mountains (high country) in August for a week with a group called Women in the Wilderness to camp and hike. I also facilitate a journal-writing session each day while I'm there. All of these things nurture my soul, uplift my spirit and keep me fit physically and emotionally. I also do yoga regularly!

racemup: Have you ever been ripped off by a publisher who didn't pay you for something they used or used some of it and gave credit to some other writer?

Karen: Not that exactly. But I have been issued a book contract, signed it, sent it back for the publisher's signature, only to receive an e-mail saying he changed his mind. Decided not to do the book after all. And I've had one book even ready to go to print. Book covers completed. Blurb in the catalogue, etc. Then boom, I got a letter saying the company was cutting 100 titles that year and mine was one of them. Talk about a low day! It was the lowest.

Mom of 3: Who writes the blurbs?

Karen: Usually someone at the publishing house or freelancers hired for such things.

storyteller: I am having a hard time with nonfiction vs. fiction. I don't have the same drive for nonfiction and I can't seem to get past the problem. I guess I feel more creative when doing fiction. Is this normal?

Karen: As I said before, "Normal is just a setting on your dryer!" :-) I think. It's wise to follow your instinct and your heart. Some people are more gifted in one area. For example, your moderator tonight is mostly a fiction writer and I write mostly nonfiction though I've done some fiction too. Stick to the thing you're passionate about.

liv2rite: Hi, Karen, I'm a new writer and as yet unpublished, and I get discouraged by how hard it seems to get published. Do you have any tips for us that could make it easier and quicker?

Karen: I started with magazine writing. I think that's the best place to begin because it's easier, faster, and more accessible to beginners. Editors need many articles on a monthly or weekly basis so the opportunities to get your foot in the door are greater in the magazine field. I also recommend that you consider writing the how-to article. This is one genre that will never go out of style or demand. People everywhere for all time need advice on how to raise kids, communicate more effectively, grow roses, bake bread, start a garden, travel on a budget, etc. You name it. And there is a reader waiting to read how to do something or other. So you, the writer, then must look at your own life and interests and find things to write about that will help others do that thing better, cheaper, faster, etc. For example, here are some examples of article topics I wrote about during my first year as a new writer: how to study less and learn more, how to make hot pretzels, how to raise puppies at home, how to have fun in your marriage, how to help your children succeed in school, how to have a backyard camp-out, and how to get along with almost anybody.

Moderator: Great ideas there! When the going gets tough, where does our body fit into all this? I just don't have the energy I used to have. Two hours of straight writing wipes me out! Are there practical concrete things I can do?

Karen: I agree. I used to be able to write past midnight or begin at 5:00 a.m. Can't do that anymore and I don't recommend it to people who can! I like to treat my body as a good friend, giving it nourishing food, plenty of rest, lots of physical exercise and tons of fun! You may wonder how I get all this into a daily routine. By being consistent, planning ahead, and being committed to my well-being. In the past, when I was much younger, I was sick with colds and flu, etc. which I believe were a result of long hours and hard driving work. Ultimately, it didn't work, because when I got sick I lost time. But now I haven't been sick for over two years. This new gentle, more considerate and sensible routine has paid off. I'm in excellent health!

Moderator: What about serious health-related writing problems like carpal tunnel or a bad back or neck from hunching over a screen and keyboard for hours?

Karen: I haven't had those problems but I know they can be serious. I go to a chiropractor every two months for what I call a tune-up. I've been doing that for thirty years and it has really impacted by posture and my general health in a positive way. I also have a great chair which my husband purchased (I'm remarried, by the way!) and set up for me so I am at the right angle and position to help keep me in good condition. I do get neck pain sometimes if I sit too long. My yoga instructor gave me some stretches to do that help. And of course, simply getting up and walking around for awhile can be very beneficial.

MBVoelker: I'm asking on behalf of a friend who can't be here. Her family is used to leaning on her for their every need and crisis and isn't respecting her writing time. I get more space from my little kids than she gets from her young adults. What are some things she can do to put the family crises on hold long enough to get some writing done?

Karen: That's so personal. It sounds as if she is having some challenges with making boundaries. If they know they can get away with it, they will! Perhaps she needs to take a look at how she views herself--a someone who is always in a serving mode, or as someone who strikes a balance between serving others and taking care of herself. Again, it's a matter of personal choice. In my home and among my friends, people close to me know that I must write. It's my love, but it's also my job. I let them know when I'll be available and when I'm not, then it's up to me to stick to my plan. If your friend sits down with her family and tells them from her heart how much her writing means to her, and asks them to support her in meeting her goals, then the children may be more cooperative because they will be a positive part of her goal-setting instead of a barrier to it. And they may begin to see that the benefits of a mother who is balanced and happy in expressing herself will also spread into their lives, as well. [Note from Moderator: I'd recommend reading Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, the section on "crazymakers".]

bernie: Wouldn't it also depend on whether the emergency is a trip to the mall or the hospital? If these kids are young adults then maybe they need to take more responsibility for themselves.

Karen: I agree. But ultimately, we can't change anyone but ourselves. So it's really up to her to establish the 'rules.' "Call me if you break your arm; otherwise I'll be writing!" (smile!)

Moderator: Do you ever feel like calling it quits? Have you ever done this?

Karen: Yes, I feel like it sometimes, but I never have quit--'cause I love it too much. One of my writing friends once said that by the time you discover how hard and frustrating it is to be a professional writer, you're too hooked on words to give it up! That's me!

Moderator: What happened to get you back on track?

Karen: Prayer, writing in my journal, knowing that writing is the 'call' on my life. For example, a few years ago, my husband wanted to try a network marketing business and he invited me to be his partner. I decided to do this part-time, but long before even the first month was up, I couldn't go on with the business. I was in tears everyday trying to force myself to do something that I had no heart for. I confessed all this to Charles and said, "I'm a writer! I have to write. I'm dying in this business." He heard the cry of my heart, and he released me. No amount of money can make up for the hole one feels in one's soul when one does not do what one is meant to do.

Moderator: That is so true! What can you do when you feel as if everyone else is successful except yourself? This still happens to me during "dry periods."

Karen: This is also a recurring theme in my life! I've had two years of this recently. I thought I had two book contracts in the bag when suddenly both fell out for various reasons. I saw certain colleagues of mine galloping ahead and I felt left in the dust. And to be honest, many of my writing friends are more productive and financially more successful than I am. I usually give myself permission to have a five-minute pity party--and then it's back to work because I know it's up to me. I cannot allow someone's rejection letter to define my success or lack of it. I go to a conference or attend a class as I did last week and that usually pumps me up again and I come home ready to write again.

Moderator: People who have read and studied The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron say it helps to journal every day. What if you don't have time for that?

Karen: I believe we have time for whatever we want to have time for. It does take time to journal, but Cameron's philosophy, as I understand it, is that you actually save time when you journal, because you dump all your thoughts, emotions, and mental demons onto the page, thus freeing yourself of the 'stuff' that keeps you from producing at the level you're capable of. I found this to be true in my life. I resist journaling sometimes, because of the time issue, but a day without journaling, just like a day without sunshine, is never as bright as a day with it.

Moderator: What about other types of journaling? Practice writing? Diary stuff?

Karen: I think practice exercises are very useful. I included many of them in my classes at the University of California. They're like 'starter dough.' Once you get going more ideas come to mind and then you're off and running. Even a diary--daily jottings of comings and goings--or letter writing can be useful. People often say they don't have time to write, but actually they do: while waiting for kids at a sporting event, in the dentist's office, at the Little League field, in line at the post office. I keep a small three-ring notebook with a pen in my purse and wherever I am I jot things down: ideas, quotations, short outlines, book topics, you name it.

Moderator: Can you use those journal entries later for stories and articles? How?

Karen: Yes, you can. When I was in pain over my divorce or when separated from two of my kids for a time, I kept notes of how I felt and what was happening. Later I used some of this material (rewritten, of course) in my book on restoring relationships with adult children. When I became a stepparent I took mental and paper notes of what we were going through. That became the basis for my book, 52 Ways to Be a Better Stepparent and articles on living in a blended family. When I learned (the hard way) about how to relate to my aging parents, I ended up writing an article entitled "What Our Aging Parents Really Need (and Want) From Their Adult Children."

janp: How do you go back to those notes without reliving all the pain felt at the time?

Karen: Can't say it happens without pain. It's there, but as time goes on, the healing occurs and soon the memory is there, but the pain is no longer attached to it. But remember, I got a lot of help with that in therapy and in my support group as well as through my faith in a loving God. Maya Angelou addressed this topic in a talk I once heard. She said that when she wrote her life story, When The Caged Bird Sings, the pain was so great that she asked to be locked into a hotel room each day so she'd write without running away from it. The way out of pain, it has been said, is through it. I can't think of a better more noble way to do that than to write so others can be blessed by your process and then make progress with their own.

Moderator: I must agree with that! Karen, how can one juggle raising a family and writing? Writing always has to be last place, it seems.

Karen: I have always put my family first and I don't say that to toot my own horn, but rather to illustrate that I made my family my priority--sometimes to my detriment as a writer, BUT I have never regretted it, because when I'm gone, my kids will not hold onto the number of books I published, they will hold onto the memories I left them when we were together doing what families do. On the other hand, I have taught them to respect me as a person, and to understand that I have needs and wants as intense as their own, so I worked things out. For example, when they were in school I wrote for four hours a day. I was all theirs when they came home. I left weekends open for them. If I had a book deadline and it required extra hours, then we made a plan, trading some family time for a weekend outing when I got the last portion of the advance on the book. In other words, we talked things out. I still do that even though my children are grown and on their own. I visit them for a week or so at a time. If they want me to stay longer, I let them know what I can and cannot give. Same for them with me. Nothing's perfect, but we work it out.

Moderator: What about unsupportive spouses? There are spouses, both men and women, who are downright negative and discouraging and even ridicule a writer's efforts. What can a writer do?

Karen: You're right on that. I know several men and women who have such spouses. One man told his wife that if she didn't earn in the first year, then she needed to get a real job! What terrible pressure. I'm not sure I'm qualified to address that issue, since I haven't any experience with it. But IF I was married to such a person, I would tell him or her that writing is as important to me as breathing...and that in order to have a happy and balanced life I need to write and I also need his or her support. In other words, put it right out there and talk about it, and fight about it, if necessary. Too many women, especially, cave in and give up their dream. Once you do that you may as well roll over and play dead! I couldn't live with anyone who didn't respect my talent and my desire to make something of it.

Moderator: Did you ever write with tiny kids underfoot? How did you calm your mind down enough to write or think, let alone study markets and get things submitted?

Karen: I didn't start writing until my youngest child was in Kindergarten for that very reason. I think it would be terribly hard to get anything done with toddlers running about the house. I see that with my daughters. One had some degree of success on short projects by hiring a sitter to come in for two hours each afternoon. Others write when the kids are napping or at night when they're asleep. Problem there, however, is that Mom is often too tired by then and her brain is mush! You might consider waiting till they are older, or doing some kind of baby-sitting exchange with a friend where you give each other a day or a few hours per week to do what you wish.

marilynm: Hello, Karen. Do you make up a writing schedule to share with your family?

Karen: I don't. But you can certainly do so and it's probably a good idea. One mom said that she and her husband agreed that she would write two weekends a month. He took over full responsibility for the entire household from Friday night through Sunday night on those weekends and she was then free to write. It worked for them.

Moderator: Have you ever been part of the sandwich generation, dealing with teen issues and your parents' problems too?

Karen: I haven't been part of the sandwich generation in the same way that some have because my parents lived across the country from me when my children were teens, but now my mother has dementia and is in a facility about two hours away. The responsibility falls more on my sister's shoulders since she lives close by. She often says, "My life is hovering between people who are 20 and 80!"

Moderator: There are day-to-day problems, but there are also family crises and major problems. Can you REALLY, HONESTLY write when you have a teen in trouble, or your dad has cancer, or you're going through a divorce?

Karen: I don't think so, at least not easily. When my mother had a stroke, for example, I dropped everything and flew to Ohio to be with her. I live in California. I gave up a week of work, but there was a need and my sister and I met it. During my divorce, my output was greatly diminished. Editors understand. I always communicate when such things occur. On the other hand, some people use family crises as an excuse to avoid writing, and their lives become an endless cycle of one thing after another. I think it's important to spread out the care-giving. We personally do not have to meet every single need of every single person in our families. It goes back to looking at ourselves as individuals who deserve to have a life!

Moderator: Did you ever turn any of these situations into ideas for writing that actually got published?

Karen: Yes! I mentioned earlier about writing on adult children and their parents. I also wrote about the healing power of forgiveness following my divorce (years later, actually). I wrote about the loss of a good friend (betrayal). I've written articles on personality issues in a marriage and how my husband and I got through some very challenging times with problems he has expressing anger.

Moderator: Do goals help one keep going when the going gets tough?

Karen: YES! In fact, I believe so firmly in goals that a few years ago I joined a group called Goal-Setters. It's not going anymore, but it worked well for the two years it was around. I learned how to prioritize and then follow through.

Moderator: Most beginning writers only have goals they have set for themselves, rather than deadlines set by editors. How can you motivate yourself to meet a goal that only you know about?

Karen: It's tough! I do better when someone else sets the deadline. But I am learning to respect the goals and dreams I have inside me and to give myself a little time each day to work on something I'm excited about that isn't yet ready to share or submit to an editor. In fact, today I spent a couple of hours shaping a proposal for a book I'd love to do. It felt odd to give it so much time when I have a real deadline to meet for a book under contract, but I want to capture this on paper before it dries up. I find I'm always better off when I do some have-tos and some want-tos each day!

Moderator: Is it ever appropriate to give up writing?

Karen: It may be. That's a very personal question. I never advise people to do so because it's a decision each person must make for himself or herself. It really depends. Here are a couple questions I ask writers who ask me that. (1) Do you have what it takes, and (2) are you willing to DO what it takes to be a professional writer? The answer to the second question usually answers the first one.

Moderator: Any encouragement to offer those who feel writing is more work than it's worth?

Karen: For some it may be more work than it's worth. But to those who WANT to write but are simply bogged down by the hard work part, I say, search your heart and soul. Give it some time. Walk away for awhile and see how you feel. You'll know if you MUST write or if you merely WANT to write.

Moderator: I'm sorry to have to stop now, but we're out of time already. Karen, thank you so much for coming tonight and sharing your encouragement with us. I needed this as much as anyone here tonight. It helps to know that other writers have gone through these things--and survived!

Karen: My pleasure. It helped me too!

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on July 26 when Fred Bortz will be talking about "Book Reviewing for Profit, Pleasure, and More." Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you can get paid for the time you spend mining for ideas and researching by not only reading but also reviewing the latest books in your field of interest. How do you get that first assignment, and how do you turn it into many more? Ph.D. physicist and science writer Fred Bortz began regular book reviewing eighteen years ago and it's a big part of his work. He will describe his reading, review-writing, and review-marketing techniques. If you like to read, and you'd like to get paid for it, come back in two weeks and find out how! In the meantime, be encouraged and get to writing! Good night, everyone.

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