On Failing, Fear, And Learning to Learn Better

I’m halfway through my first semester back in college. So far, I’ve:

  • borrowed, begged, and asked for help to pay my bills without a dayjob.
  • come down with a cold that turned into bronchitis, which meant I…
    • couldn’t go to a doctor because I no longer have health insurance.
    • spent 3+ weeks sleeping.
    • got behind in some of my online classes and had to drop my traditional (in-person) classes, because I couldn’t manage the 35 mile drive EACH WAY to campus while sick.
  • added new online classes to keep my status above full-time.
  • took quizzes, tests in all of my classes; did homework; participated in discussions – basically, all the parts of a class, with a mix of grades from As to Cs.
  • figured out how much I didn’t know about going to college with my life the way it is now.

Or to put it another way: I struggled. I set goals I didn’t meet. I was sick and exhausted, I fell behind, I left myself down (and probably some other people, too), and I felt like a failure.

Because, to be honest, in some ways I am failing. I am not doing as well as I had hoped, making this transition back to college. That’s just a fact.

Yesterday, I wanted to give up. It wasn’t the first time, but it hit me hard. I took a huge risk, going back to college now, doing without a dayjob. I’d hoped to do more freelancing, but being sick meant I haven’t pursued any new work for weeks, so I haven’t even had that income. I’ve gotten a surprising amount of support – thank you! – and with that comes the internal pressure of not wanting to let anyone down. If I don’t do well this semester, I’ve wasted this time, this opportunity. Put my son through this for nothing. Leaned on people who were there for me without anything to show for their faith in me.

It’s tempting to quit. Scrap this whole semester. Recover from being ill. Catch up on everything I’m behind on. Start fresh next semester.

Yesterday, I told my person how awful I was feeling. His response was perfect: that it sucked to feel that way, but I wasn’t a failure, I wasn’t alone, and we’d sit down and talk about where I’m at, and what I need. Just it’s okay to feel defeated and let’s sort out where you really are vs what you’re feeling and you’re not giving up, so make a plan based on your options now.

That’s what I’ve been trying to do all along, and what I needed to be reminded of. I’m not giving up. I’m not running away. Just because it’s harder than I expected or no fun or I’m not succeeding as easily as I want – those aren’t reasons to quit. That’s not who I am.

Instead, I reconsidered the goal posts. (It might be three semesters at community college before I can transfer, instead of two. Would that really be so bad? No, I guess not.) I thought about why I’m struggling. (I definitely need to study more, and research beyond the textbook, to find the information the class assumes I know but I actually don’t.) I thought about why I had certain expectations of myself, and why I judge myself as harshly as I do. (As my friend Mary told me, “You’re not failing. You’re tired. And that’s okay.” Until she said it, I wouldn’t have seen myself that way.)

As much as I hate to feel like a failure at this moment, I think I can learn from all of this. The lessons for me will be: don’t give up, and learn how to be a better student.

Going to school now is not like when I was in college before, and assuming I could easily pick up where I left off is part of what threw me off course. Another part of falling behind was that some of my classes are second or third classes in a series I started when I was in college six or so years ago… I’d thought that because I’d aced those courses before, I’d be okay now. It turns out, I’d forgotten things I didn’t know I was missing.

In some cases, like my International Business class, the work is mainly conceptual. I can read the textbooks and consider the ideas presented, and I’m able to access the information when I take the test. Easy. No problem. In other classes, Accounting and Econ, it’s more terms and formulas that I haven’t been using. Like taking Spanish 2 a decade after you got an A in Spanish one, without so much as having asked “donde es la Bibliotheca?” one time in between.

As of late last night, I’ve caught up on all of my schoolwork. There are things I can’t make up, which will affect my final grades, but going forward I can stay on top of my assignments. I’ve looked at how I study, how I plan my work, and figured out what I need to change. I’ve had to create a new system of tracking what’s due, and what I need to study for. I print out study guides and watch instructional videos. I stay up late to take online tests after my son’s asleep. I examine every wrong answer, every mistake, every failure.

We’re not always going to immediately succeed. Not at college, or writing a novel, or anything in life. Mostly, when we fail, we want to stop trying and do something else. Some people, that’s all they do: run from one thing to the next to the next, looking for that instant and easy success, followed by the admiration of others, and if they don’t get it, they move on again. I can’t do that, not if I ever really want to change my life.

I am tired of failing. I have so done much of it the last couple of years. But when I stop trying to sweep my mistakes under the rug, I start learning from them. Learning to accept that I’d screwed up. (Everyone does.) Learning how to fix my problems. Learning to be brave, to try new things, take bold chances. Learning how to learn better.

I may not get all As this semester, and I may feel dumb a lot of the time as I try to learn this stuff, but I’m not alone, and I’m not quitting.

Photo of the Week: Goodbye, Animals

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Taken August 14, 2014 with a NVIDIA Shield tablet.

My son has had summer school in the morning, followed by camp in the afternoon, for six weeks. Each day as part of our getting ready routine, I asked what animal he wanted me to sketch on his snack bag for camp. Each day, he told me a different animal. We did frogs, fish, a horse, a zebra, elephant, and so on. Today, he picked “goose”.

Today is his last day, and even though I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks together before we both start school, I’m going to miss these little animals.

Class I’m taking, Fall 2015

In case you missed it, I’m going back to college, starting at the end of August, as part of my four-step plan for world dominion success:

1) Go back to college. Finally get a Bachelor’s degree. (In something more likely to lead to a permanent position.)

2) Get a good job with decent benefits, where I am sufficiently valued that I won’t be a faceless, disposable, cog in the machine.

3) By staying on budget, get out of debt, and begin to line the cave with gold (aka, build up a savings).

4) NEVER WORRY ABOUT SUPPORTING MY FAMILY AGAIN.

After meeting with my advisor, I ended up registered for 17 units. Six classes. Basically, everything they’d let me take. That means that in the Spring, I only need to take three classes, all online. I’ll take at least four in order to be “full time”, but having that cushion of space means I’ve got room to take something where if the registrar suddenly figures out I need one more thing to graduate…

By next summer, I’ll have an AS degree in Business Adminstration, and I’ll be ready to do my year at state to get my BS.

To that, this semester I’m taking:

Intro to Databases
Principles of Accounting 2
International Business
Principles of Microeconomics
Fundamentals of Speech
Principles of Biology 2 (+ lab)

I’ve got to be on campus for the Speech and Bio classes; I was hoping to avoid it, because campus is 30 miles away, in another county. So it’s classes plus a 45 minute commute, each way, three days a week. At least the trip is beautiful, a winding drive through rolling hills and farmland. And it’s better to do this commute now, in the fall, before winter and five months of snow kick in.

I’m getting closer to actually being able to pay for all this. I’ve secured grants to cover my tuition itself. Not covered? Books. Lots of heavy, expensive books. Even renting them instead of buying them, they’ll run just over $700 for this semester, and I need that money in the next two weeks before classes start. (On top of my usual bills + groceries this month.)

Well at least it's not just me...

Well at least it’s not just me…

So if you’ve got work that needs doing, email me, maybe?

Big Life Change: I’m going back to college (and how you can help)

I AM OFFICIALLY A COLLEGE STUDENT (AGAIN).*

It was a tough decision. Being laid off from my job last month means that I have the time now to finally finish up my degree, and to actually switch to a major which will make me much more employable than my previous work in Art History. But with no opportunity to get Pell Grants or loans for school, I’m not being paid to attend college — I’m just adding full time school to my regular life, and without a day job right now, I’m already struggling to make enough money. How do I decide to spend money on college when I don’t know whether I’m paying my rent in a few days? How do I not go to school when I have this opportunity now, it will make me more employable, a much better freelancer, and generally a more useful person?

Ultimately, I decided to do my best, and make this work.

I’ll be going for two semesters at community college for an AS in Business Management, and then two semesters at state for a BS in Business, Economics, and Management (with a minor in public administration). I still need to come up with part of the tuition so I can start school — asap! — but I’ve been awarded grants that will cover 80% of classes and books, maybe a little more. It’ll be tough, balancing work, kid, and full time college, but hopefully I can get to where being unemployed and in debt is somewhere I never have to be again.

That’s if I can find the rest of the money to get started. If any of you have ever wanted to take a workshop from me, hire me as an editor, proofer, book designer, anything — or even loan me money until after the semester starts, now would be the time that I really need it.

How you can help:

  • I’m happy to offer a discount to anyone who books me for editing this month. Take advantage of me!
  • My next workshop — Plotting the Short Story — begins on the 15th. If you’re interested in a low-cost online workshop, packed full of exercises and advice from me and your fellow students, please check out my upcoming workshops. With school and work, I’m not sure how many of these (if any) I’ll be able to offer next year. Now’s the time to join us!
  • Don’t need any work done now but you’d like to help me buy textbooks and school supplies? You can donate to me via PayPal.

If you’ve got other work you’d like to discuss with me, need a mailing address, or have questions, please feel free to contact me at cuinnedits at gmail.

Thank you.

* At some point I should probably also tell the story of I used up all of my federal grants and maxed out my student loans going to the University of Pennsylvania, only to have it run out one semester before graduation… But that story depresses me so much. Maybe next time.

The Quest For Sleep

Since leaving my day job, I’ve had severe insomnia. I assumed it was stress related, and worked on reducing my stress, but also cut down on caffeinated sodas (which has other health benefits as well).

But I’m still not sleeping. I have good days, a couple of good nights of sleep, and then I lose control of it again. I either am “awake” during the day, but too tired to do anything useful, or I sleep poorly during the day and am up late, exhausted and useless. Finally, I talked to my doctor, and we did a bunch of tests.

He thinks there are two main culprits: my ADHD, and a couple of decades of bad habits with caffeine. I have had insomnia my whole life… (Ironically, several months ago I gave up the medication I was taking for my ADHD, because it was too expensive, and kept me up at night.) Most likely, my current bout of insomnia isn’t actually new.

My doctor said that my day job helped mask the serious sleep deprivation by giving me structure. I had to get up at the same time each day, without the option of going back to sleep during the day, so I compensated by consuming several caffeinated drinks each day. And, in the evening I was pretty much useless. But at least I was going to work. Once that was gone, I lost my anchor. And giving up soda cut down on how much caffeine I was drinking, which made me more tired —

Why didn’t that help me settle into a good night’s sleep? Because I push myself too hard. I forced myself to be awake to get things done, and compensated in unhealthy ways: more coffee, and overeating. Both of which interfere with sleeping, too. See, caffeine stays in your body up to 24 hours, and when not keeping you awake, it can still keep you from resting, by making you wake up more often during the night.

The solution is to make a big change, and then give it time to work. (It’s the being patient part I usually have trouble with.) The plan?

1) Get up at the same time every day, even when I’m tired.

2) Go to bed at least 7 hours before the alarm is set to go off. (8 is better.)

3) Start the day with one caffeinated drink. And that’s all. No more! Not at all, not the rest of the day. None.

4) Resist the urge to nap, eat too much, or caffeinate during the day.

5) Whenever possible, if I feel sleepy during the day: exercise.

6) Accept that I am going to be tired for a week, maybe a couple of weeks, until I get settled and my sleep cycle resets.

Now that I’m going back to freelancing, that last one is the hardest. At a day job, if I struggled through sleepily and was a zombie at night, okay, I’m still getting paid. When I work for myself, if I take time off to be a slug, not only do I feel lazy and useless, but I’m not making any money. I can’t afford to take time off.

But I’m going to be 42 this year. I’d like to be just hitting the halfway point of my life, instead of nearing the end — and if I don’t stop the “quick fixes”, who knows how badly that’s affecting my health? I have a chance to turn my life around now that I may not get again any time soon. In that case, it’s an easy choice.

I’m setting my alarm, going to bed early tonight, and getting up on time tomorrow. I’ve got a caramel dessert-like coffee drink waiting in the fridge. I’m giving myself permission to take it easy this weekend, and next week too. Maybe next month, if I have to.

They say you can’t put a price on your health. I’m about to trade my income for my self, and find out.

One Month Ago, I Lost My Job

After six months of working full-time for a local branch of the government, I was let go. I was great at my job, and told that often; my bosses even tried to find another position to put me in (but couldn’t get approval to create a new opening). But they are restructuring the department, I was the last person hired, and when it came time to lay people off, I was at the top of the list.

There are a couple of pieces of good news: I’m still an active candidate for employment, on several lists, so it’s just a matter of time before I’m called in for another position. And, I’ve got a great recommendation from my former assignment, so I’m likely to get whatever opens up. Also, I qualified for unemployment, since losing my job wasn’t my fault, and have a little income that way.

The bad news list is a bit longer:

It will be fall, at least, before I’m hired into a new job. Maybe winter. That’s just based on the usual hiring schedule; working for the government is like working for a major corporation, in that you can’t just decide to hire, or decide to hire a specific person. You have to follow procedure.

Some of the postings due to open up require tests that I know I can ace, since I did before, but the tests aren’t scheduled yet, and might not be for months.

The unemployment payment is based on my six months, not a full year, so it’s much less than what I made at work. It’s slightly less than half of my rent, actually, which means I have to find the rest of my rent plus all of the other things one pays for in a month (utilities, food, etc) for me and my son.

I was hoping I could keep this to myself. I was doing so good the last six months. I was paying my bills all on my own, without needing help from anyone. I had just gotten to where I was paying my bills for the upcoming month, in advance, to give me a little cushion in case of emergency. I’d started paying off my credit card, too, and making plans to repay the rest of my debt. I was paying into a pension plan, union dues, health insurance… I felt safer, financially, than I had in years, and finally ready to move forward with other parts of my life, since I felt like a grownup at last. Responsible. Ready to be a partner and not a burden.

And I lost it, without having done anything wrong.

I kept myself together long enough to finish the two weeks they asked me to work after they notified me the position was ending. I’m glad that I did — it’s no one’s fault that they couldn’t keep me, but because I kept doing my job, I earned even more respect from my bosses. They thanked me for sticking around, and gave me fancy chocolate on my last day. I left on the best note possible, I think.

But the month since then, I’ve been a wreck. I’m not sleeping, and that makes it hard to get anything done during the day. I make to do lists, and I accomplish a lot, in bursts, but then realize I don’t know what day it is. I check my email sporadically, which leads people to think I’m ignoring them. I have bills piling up, another car repair that needs to happen, work I could chase after if I just had the energy to deal with it… But I wasn’t there yet. Eventually I got that point where I decided No, I can’t let my life be like this. I can’t lose everything I worked so hard to get.

I can’t lose feeling secure. I’m just not sure I have a choice.

So I took the weekend off from being online. I talked about what was happening to me. I told my mom, which makes it all a bit more real. I made a plan, some lists. I took a long nap. Tomorrow, I will nap some more. Maybe read a book. Do my laundry. Try to breathe.

Next week, I will sit down with my lists and my plan and start transitioning back to being a full time freelancer. I’ll catch up where I’m behind, and explore my options for what comes next.

I’m not giving up.

Father’s Day, 2015

Father’s Day is different for everyone, including among people who share the same father. I can’t speak for my sisters, or anyone else. For me, Father’s Day is a day to text my mother and say thank you for being there. It’s a day for me to be happy for those of my friends who had a father with celebrating, and to stand in silent solidarity with those who didn’t. It’s a day to be reminded of a man who I mostly don’t think of the rest of the year… Before going back to forgetting him again.

The one lesson I learned from my father is that being a parent is no guarantee that you’ll be a good person, or feel obligated to provide for or nurture your children. Whether your father is cruel or selfish or generous or absent or someone you wish would disappear is really all a roll of the dice: you get who you get, and you don’t have much say in that when you’re born. You get to choose, later, and if you’re feeling the need to make a choice, I hereby give you permission to make it, by the power invested in me by you needing to read something supportive on the internet right now.

Being a father is meaningless if you’re not trying to be good at it. I am currently raising a son, without his father. A son who may or may not become a dad one day, but who I would hope will grow up to be a good man. The best thing I can do for him, beyond being all the things that I’d wish to see in him, is to make certain that the person he sees as a male role model now is someone who’ll help him be better, by the virtue of showing him what that looks like. Not perfect, not always parental, but present, loving, kind, and who actively tries to be better.

We don’t celebrate Father’s Day in our house, not for our family, but I do celebrate that the person my son and I choose to share our lives with is a good man. And that, I’m thankful for every day.

Snokone/Boskone Recap: Escape from Blizzardopolis

We were all set to leave for Boston bright and early last Friday morning, when I got a 6 am email that my son’s school was closing for the day. The morning ended up being a mix of looking for a sitter, enjoying a comfortably-paced breakfast at home with the whole family, and worrying about which panels we’d have to be late to. (For the record: I missed the “Food in Fiction” panel, and the SFF Poetry panel.) I managed to get a hold of someone, we packed up the car, and had an easy 5.5 hour drive to the convention. It seemed the worst part of the trip would be out of the way at the very beginning.

There was just enough time to drop off luggage, pick up badges, and for me to down a large Manhattan, before the 8 PM panel “Father, You Made Me”. Well-moderated, smart people saying smart things. Then Don‘s reading, which was attended by multiple people, even though the room was… a boardroom. Complete with a gigantic oval table that we all sat around. But he made it work, and read both previously published and in-progress work. After that was food — love the casualness of that Irish-style pub, and thoroughly enjoyed what turned out to be the only meal we ate in Boston — and sleep.

Saturday started off right in the hotel room with pour-over espressos and paczki we brought from home. Then, a tour of the art show. I don’t remember doing that last year, but there was an amazing private collection of 20th century SFF-related art, including a lot of original book cover art that I adored. I also was given a beautiful pair of huge garnet earrings that made me feel pretty right before my noon reading, and slightly distracted me from being nervous. I ended up reading “Annabelle Tree“, and wasn’t entirely prepared for that request, so while I read it through just fine, I have to admit that I teared up at the end. I hadn’t read the story in a long time, and I don’t think I’d ever read it for an audience before, so it was a little bit new to me again. I’m glad I got the opportunity to experience it in that way.

Because of my reading, I missed the beginning of “Finding Diverse Fiction”, but it was worth attending just the second half. I was pleased to see that the panelists themselves were a diverse group of people, and again, it was a group of smart people saying smart things about finding and creating diversity in the work we read and write. I wish I’d have been there for all of it. I spent an hour prepping for the rest of the day: making plans to meet up with folks, record an audio interview, and spend several hours finishing up the newest issue of Lakeside Circus so I could roll that out. (I had 7 hours free before my 10 PM panel on Jodorowski; plenty of time!) The panel — Non-Western Folklore and Fairy Tales with Ken Liu and Max Gladstone — was so much fun. It was just the three of us, but as I later declared on Twitter, you can easily have an amazing panel that’s just Ken and Max in conversation with each other. I am comfortable admitting that I added useful things to this particular conversation, but seriously, if you want intelligent fiction written by incredibly intelligent, well-read people whose interests include non-Western fiction, check out their work. I know Ken well from working with him several times before, and Max I’m getting to know from having attended some of the same conventions and being on some of the same panels; they’re authors I can trust the passion they have for literature to their work. Or panels. Or the bar. Or the one time we stayed up late drinking in the hallway at Readercon and listening to Max explain how social-status drink buying works in China.

Um. Right. Back to Boskone. The plan was, go to Fran‘s reading at 3 PM, then get a proper meal, do an interview, be a bit social, and buckle down for a chunk of editing/formatting/web page building work before a late dinner and then the JODOROWSKI PANEL. (I love Jodorowski’s work, I suggested this panel, and I knew at least one other panelist had spent the last several weeks prepping for it the way that I had.)

None of these things happened.

While in Fran’s reading, I got a text from my sitter asking if we’d be able to be back by Monday morning, or whether the winter storm we knew about — which had morphed into a blizzard without us knowing about it — was going to strand us at the hotel into Tuesday. Note: we’d planned to leave Sunday after my last panel, like usual. Checked the weather reports, and within a few minutes realized that our choices were to leave right then, or plan to stay until Tuesday, because travel on Sunday would be “nearly impossible, and life threatening” given the 50mph winds and white out conditions now forecasted. Monday was expected to be less snowy but actually colder. With work and a child at home, we decided there was no choice but to leave, and were out of the hotel 30 minutes later. And… much snow-covered driving ensued.

But don’t feel bad for me. Thanks to the wonderful programming committee, I got to have a great time at Boskone 52, even though I was there for less than 24 hours, and let me just tell you this: the best Valentine’s Day present ever might just be finding out who’s got your back during a blizzard.

Note: “Snokone”, name for the snowy alt-version of Boskone, was coined by Fran Wilde.

#SFWAPro

Answers to Some Questions You Might Have Upon Discovering I Work for the Government

A few weeks ago, I was appointed to a position with the government. (The American one.) If you’ve stumbled upon this information for the first time, you may have some questions. That’s natural, and I would like to soothe your fears, and/or create new ones, by providing you with answers:

Q. Do you really work for the government?

A. Yes. Technically, many people you interact with work for the government, including the people you’d expect — like the police officer who writes you a ticket when you’ve driven the wrong way down a one-way street after too much of Grandma’s eggnog, and the staff of the DMV who make you wait for several hours before telling you that you’ve accumulated enough points on your record that you won’t be legally allowed to drive yourself home — or those you might not realize are government employees, like city bus drivers, public library librarians, or the crossing guard out front of your child’s school.

Q. Are any of those your job?

A. No.

Q. What do you do?

A. After careful consideration, I and my superiors feel that it would be better if that information remained classified for now.

Q. Are you a spy?

A. No.

Q. Then why can’t you tell me what you do?

A. I could tell you, but then I’d have to k- no, wait. No. I definitely don’t kill people. Let’s just say I work in “health administration”.

Q. So you work for a hospital?

A. No. Why don’t you ask me something else?

Q. If you work full-time at a day job now, does that mean you’re quitting freelancing?

A. Absolutely not! I love writing. It’s a part of my life I could never giving up. And editing isn’t just a way to use my own skills so they don’t get rusty; it’s also my way of giving back to the writing community by offering online workshops, discounted edits for those who can’t afford my standard rates, and by publishing diverse, quality speculative fiction which might not otherwise have found a home. Having a dayjob means that I won’t have to scramble for work just to pay my rent, or waste time chasing jobs which don’t materialize. I can take the work that comes to me, as I have time.

Q. You must make a lot, working for the government, right?

A. Well… no. I make a reduced hourly rate for the first nine months, while I’m in the probationary period, and out of that comes health insurance payments, mandatory payment into the pension, payment into the other retirement plan, and union dues. (Yes, I’m in a union. No, you won’t guess which one.) My take home pay will actually be just enough to pay my rent each month, and keep the heat on. Not enough to buy groceries, repair my breaking-down 20 year old car, or the clothes my son insists on growing out of every few months… But knowing that I won’t be homeless anytime soon, that’s a humongous relief. Add to that the fact that I’ve now got good health insurance, and that 25 years from now, when I do retire and spend all of my remaining time writing, I will have a retirement plan to support me.

I’ve never had a retirement plan before. I’m going to have to work every week of those next 25 years — I won’t have the freedom that came with the freelancing — but if I live long enough to retire, I’ll be protected. If I get sick next month, I’ll be protected. That’s a kind of freedom I never expected to have, and that’s worth working for.

But since I don’t get a full month’s pay this month, and I’ve still got those other bills to pay on top of the January rent which will soon be due (and I’d love to be able to get my son a Christmas present this year) please do consider taking one of my upcoming workshops.

Q. Anything else we should know?

A. I can’t be online as much as I used to, so my social media postings (Twitter, Facebook, etc) have already gone down. I’m not logging into my email every day, either. In exchange, I’ll find time to update my blog more often. I won’t be able to reveal any official secrets, but I’m sure you’ll be just as happy with the “unofficial” ones.

#SFWAPro