Abandon perfection

Fallen star and the first amendment, just for funsies

Fallen star and the first amendment, just for funsies

As I wound my way through rows of bodies bending and waving through a non-pose called ninja lunges, I reminded 16 yoga students that this shape wasn’t supposed to look like anything in particular. “Perfection is a myth,” I told them. “Seek the stretch and benefit your body craves today.

That’s the deeper truth that calls me back to my yoga mat, day after day. When I’m moving through the postures, I’m acutely aware that today’s crescent lunge isn’t as deep as yesterday’s, or that my tree may not be as stable tomorrow. Yoga stretches my expectations and pulls me away from my normal OCD, to-do list mentality.

And then I quickly return to my type-A, follow-the-rules career. Journalism appealed to me over fiction because the rules are well established and the stories are there for the asking. I love the blend of science (the rules) and art (the telling).

I often let the rules–or a fear of not following them to a T–keep me from taking challenges with the art. Please don’t mistake me, guidelines help us refine and focus. But a story without heart isn’t much of a story at all.

I invite my yoga students into the release of perfection I’ve found. My journalism students, however, need the same freedom.

“Both require a commitment to practice rather than perfection; reward risk-taking rather than hesitation; flourish with timely but limited suggestions that encourage rather than frustrate; are active all-at-once activities that are learned by doing; and remain difficult no matter how long you’ve been doing them.” –Megan Fulwiler, “On Yoga and Teaching Writing,” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education 

It’s not as though I can abandon grading rubrics and expectations, deadlines and AP Style quizzes. Those are requirements of the job for which I’m preparing them, and this is a college class, after all. But as I’ve spent more time practicing yoga, my desire to share its benefits with other writers has grown. These aspiring journalists, especially, crave encouragement and guidance. Even while I cover their work with red ink, I hope I can bring some of my yoga practice to the page.

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The perks of small-space living

Furniture that doesn't take up much space, such as a coffee table with thin legs and a glass-topped, neutral-colored entry table, help make my tiny living room appear more spacious.

Furniture that doesn’t take up much space, such as a coffee table with thin legs and a glass-topped, neutral-colored entry table, help make my tiny living room appear more spacious.

I share 780 square feet with a roommate and two cats–and this isn’t the smallest place I’ve lived. But like that smaller space (a one-bedroom garage apartment), it’s one of my favorite dwelling places.

The tiny dimensions come in handy when I tackle projects like Apartment Therapy’s January Cure. I love this site’s periodic organization and cleaning challenges, even though I tend to be a hair obsessive about order on my own. And my roommate already loves it because the first assignment resulted in me cleaning all of the floors in the house.

My friend Carrie has written at some length about her affection for New Year’s resolutions (she tends to turn them into blogging challenges), but the truth is, I have a number of projects on my plate already. I’ve got several exciting writing assignments ahead, additional yoga training later this month and a book due in March. So I kept my official resolutions simple: floss every day (so far, so good!) and work on the aforementioned manuscript daily (until it’s due, of course, so that’s kind of a cheat of a resolution).

Even so, I can always make time for a more orderly, tidy life–especially since I have so little space to clean. When I exist in a calm space, I feel better equipped to deal with the chaos of daily life.

My small-space living tip is keeping on top of things so you don’t feel like the walls are closing in on you. How do you make the most of your space?

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Twelve Tips for Pitching a Freelance Story

Picture this: You’re an assigning editor at a magazine, and your inbox regularly overflows with pitches from freelance writers. Because freelancers write the bulk of the magazine, a good story idea is like gold. But when you’ve got 50-plus pitches to sift through, it’s hard for that gem to shine.

That’s the challenge I’ve faced in five years as an assigning editor at a monthly magazine. But here’s the good news: Using these easy tips, your idea will stand out from the rest.

Tip No. 1: Pitch!

It’s fine to ask editors how they prefer to assign, and if they’d rather you pitch or if they prefer to assign. But “let me know if you need anything” comes across as asking for a handout.

I receive so many pitches that I can’t possibly fit them all into the magazine. If someone’s pitching great ideas, they’re way more likely to get an assignment than the person who is waiting around.

Tip No. 2: Follow websites such as “Who Pays Freelance Writers?

It’s a great resource and will also help you identify possible outlets for your work.

Tip No. 3: Every time you’re reading a publication and think, “Man! I’d like to write for them!,” find their writers guidelines online. If you can’t find them, email an editor there and ask. (Associate level or higher will often be your best bet, as they’re more likely to be assigning editors, but editorial assistants may also have that info.)

Tip No. 4: Get your website up already! Make it easy for potential clients to find you. This is also a benefit because you can showcase your best work without jamming their inboxes with unsolicited clips.

Tip No. 5: Never send large, unsolicited files. If you’re attaching clips, fine, but make sure they’re not 5 megabytes plus. Here’s a hint: If the files are too large and you have to resend them attached to several separate emails, you’re clogging the editor’s inbox.

Tip No. 6: Read, read, read, read. Know the publication and its voice before you pitch. But don’t obsess to the point where you don’t actually pitch. I don’t expect my freelancers to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the publication. That’s my job, and I’m not going to look down on them for pitching something we’ve already done unless it’s in the current or immediate past issue. Then they’re just being lazy.

Tip No. 7: Keep it simple. Don’t send a multi-page pitch. If I want more info, I’ll ask for it. Something that details is likely to fall by the wayside because I’ll save it for when I have time to properly digest the email—and that may not be for weeks.

Tip No. 8: Unless it’s a time-sensitive piece for a publication that publishes frequently, do not follow up in 24 hours. And never follow up to say, “Hey, did you get my email?” I receive about 75 emails daily. I will respond to yours, but likely not within 24 hours.

Tip No. 9: Do follow up. I try to respond to every sincere pitch (that is, something that came from a person, not a mass email). However, things slip through the cracks. Following up in a week or two is perfectly appropriate.

Tip No. 10: Value your time and your work. You’re a professional writer, and the payment you receive should reflect that. If you work for free or cheap, be sure that it’s worth it to you. For example, I’m working on a low-paying piece for a site where the reader is the target demographic for my books. I’m getting more than money out of that.

Tip No. 11: Establish your boundaries, and respect those of the editor. It irks me to get pitches on my personal email account and text message.

Likewise, know that it’s OK for you to say no to an assignment. If you don’t have time, be honest about that. A good editor isn’t going to avoid using you in the future because you weren’t at his or her beck and call. That’s part of the deal with freelancing. You aren’t on staff. We don’t have the high overhead of having you on staff. And you have the flexibility to work on other projects.

Tip No. 12: Negotiate. The terms of most stories are negotiable, and as long as you’re professional, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Rates, deadlines, word count, even rights and sometimes payment terms (upon acceptance or upon publication) can be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

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On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me …

I’m a leader, sometimes to the point of being pushy. That’s a natural result of being an oldest child.

Around age 3 my sister Cristin, who is 14 months and nine days younger than me, was a ballerina for Halloween. I couldn’t in good conscience send her to the church fall festival without a few steps in her repertoire, and so I took it upon myself to teach her some basic ballet steps.

I’m now 33, and I have yet to take a day of ballet.

And so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I solved the Mystery of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Growing up, Cristin and I would often sing the song and perform hand motions. (A late-’80s video of this is a family treasure.) But as we grew older, I could never find anyone else who knew these motions. I became convinced it was an Alabama thing. That must be why our Florida brethren had no idea why we jutted our chins back and forth when singing “two turtle doves.”

I moved back to Alabama in 2003, and I was certain that I would at last find my kind of holiday performer. But after months of asking around, I still couldn’t find anyone who knew what I was talking about. I’ve since Googled in search of our kindred, and while there are videos documenting motions, they only occasionally overlap with our performances.

At last, I realized my older sibling tendencies must have struck again. Without any evidence that others know these motions, I deduced that I made up the movements and taught Cristin to follow in the foolishness.

Merry Christmas! Enjoy the documentation of our foolishness, circa February 2003.

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What I’m writing: November 2014

These are stories I wrote that were published this month.

Balancing Act: Yoga Essays

balancing actCarla Jean Whitley dwelled primarily in the world of her mind–and she was OK with that. That is, until she turned 30. The bookish Carla Jean recognized that finding some physical movement was the best way to keep her body, and therefore her mind, intact for the long term.
She found the answer in yoga.
Carla Jean came to yoga because of those physical issues, but fell in love with it because of its mental and emotional effects. After falling head over feet for yoga, she quickly became a yogavangelist, telling everyone who would listen about the practice’s powerful benefits. This slim collection of essays recounts her journey from yoga newbie to certified yoga instructor. Buy “Balancing Act: Yoga Essays” at smashwords.com or your favorite ebook retailer. Sign up for either of my enewsletters at right for a coupon code.

Second Avenue North offers many dining options

As this dsecond aveowntown street has transitioned from revitalization mode to a loft-district favorite, a variety of eateries draw patrons back time and again. Read more “Second Avenue North offers many dining options” at bhammag.com.

 

LIVE CHAT: Discuss local shops and their buyers with writer Laurel Mills

buyersThe holiday shopping season is upon us, but those who purchase items for area stores completed their shopping months ago. In the November issue of Birmingham magazine, writer Laurel Mills interviews three of those buyers to learn about their responsibilities and how they determine what the hot items will be each season.  Read more “Live Chat” at bhammag.com.

LIVE CHAT: Recipe developer and photographer Melina Hammer shares cooking tips

autumn picnicMelina Hammer draws inspiration from the seasons, and that’s clear in “An Autumn Picnic,” the cover story she produced for the November issue of Birmingham magazine. Join Melina, a recipe developer and photographer, for a live chat today from 1 to 1:30 p.m. She’ll answer your questions about her inspiration, favorite seasonal cooking tips and more. Read more “Live Chat” at bhammag.com.

Treat Us Like Dogs, and We Will Become Wolves: Investigating a curious collective 

chuteThe Settlement is a community of about 100 people who live outside of the view of the rest of America, tucked away on a patch of land near Egypt, Maine. This curious collective, the focus of Carolyn Chute’s latest novel,Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves, is not altogether unlike the one inhabited by Chute herself. The author and her husband live off the grid in Parsonfield, Maine, where they run the 2nd Maine Militia and rely on the community around them for sustenance. Read more “Treat Us Like Dogs, and We Will Become Wolves” at bookpage.com.

4 Blog Post Ideas to Hold Your Fans’ Attention

laptop-headphones-liThe musician’s life isn’t always glamorous. But the average fan doesn’t have an understanding of what that life is really like – and they’re often eager to find out. Sharing your story byblogging can help build a lasting fan relationship. None of this has to be complex; a few good sentences or a photo that offers insight into who you are and what you’re doing will keep your fans interested whether or not you’re releasing new materialRead more “4 Blog Post Ideas to Hold Your Fans’ Attention” at sonicbids.com.

Want more? Visit my “What I’m writing” Pinterest board.

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“Balancing Act: Yoga Essays” is now available for purchase

IMG_6503Writing has always been my passion, and in yoga I’ve found a perfect counterbalance. It takes me out of the rat race of my mind and the to-do lists that so often dictate my days. Yoga also addresses many of the physical issues common among those of us who spend hours each day hunched over a computer. I suspect my yoga practice will continue to influence my career for decades to come.

It’s natural, then, that I’ve documented my yoga journey through the written word. Those columns are now available as an ebook, “Balancing Act: Yoga Essays.” This short collection traces my journey from yoga newbie to yoga teacher. It’s available for virtually all ebook platforms for $2.99 through Smashwords.com, and will soon roll out to other retailers as well.

I’m excited to share this with you. The journey has only just begun.

FAQs (or what I imagine would be FAQs if I didn’t go ahead and answer them)

Q: How long is the book? 

A: It’s 9,060 words, or 54 pages on my Kobo Mini. Your ereader will likely be different.

Q: Will it work on my Kindle?

A: Yes, there’s an option for that (download the mobi version of the file). The book will not be available through Amazon, but it is totally Kindle compatible.

Q: Why did you decide to publish an ebook?

A: Well, why not? The publishing industry is rapidly changing–I’m sure that’s not news to you–and this project allowed me to familiarize myself with another aspect of the industry.

Q: Did you pay Smashwords to do this? Was it hard? Did it take a long time?

A: No, Smashwords’ deal is they get a percentage of all sales. (The division is favored heavily toward the author, in case you wondered.) Since I had already written each of these essays, all I had to do was format the document per Smashwords’ stipulations and design a cover. That took about three hours, all told.

Q: So wait a second–this is stuff that has already been published as blog entries. Can’t I read these essays free on your website?

A: Of course you can. They’re not going anywhere. This is merely another option if you prefer ebooks or to read these as a collection, rather than interspersed through a great many other entries here.

Q: Can I get a coupon?

A: Actually, yes. Through Jan. 1, sign up for either of my enewsletters and you’ll receive a coupon code for 33 percent off the ebook. You can sign up for the books newsletter here, and the yoga newsletter here.

Q: Can I get a coupon for “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music” instead?

A: I’m sorry, but no. That’s determined by my publisher and individual retailers.

Q: Well, is it at least available as an ebook?

A: Yes indeed! You can buy it from your ebook retailer of choice.

Q: Roll tide?

A: Roll tide. And go Seminoles.

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“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Sacred Glow Yoga's class of 2014

Sacred Glow Yoga’s class of 2014

On Nov. 16, I graduated from Sacred Glow Yoga’s 200-hour teacher training program. I’m now a certified yoga teacher, registered with Yoga Alliance and excited to help you find your way on your mat! The nine-month-long training includes writing a number of papers, which I’ve posted here because, well, that’s what I do. The final writing assignment was to reflect on the experience as a whole. 

I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I don’t know how to reflect on the nine-month period that has encapsulated yoga teacher training. My head spins when I try to recall the amount of information we’ve covered in these 200 hours, as well as the knowledge imparted from assigned reading and practice teaching. And of course, daily life has continued throughout this training.

That’s probably the most significant thing I’m taking from this experience: deeper knowledge of how my time on the mat affects everything else in life. I’ve learned how much I struggle with discipline as I try to build a regular home practice, and I see that pop up as well when I’m faced with a task that I’m less than enthused by. I’ve finally learned what the SI joint and sacrum are, and I now find myself regularly moving through not only a lengthening axial wave, but also a Y wave to relieve stress on those areas. I have a better understanding of my body (and the tight hamstrings that limit me so!), and through that I’m better able to offer others grace in their practices.

I’ve worked for years to establish boundaries, saying no when I need to and recognizing how much energy I have to offer other people and obligations. But this training has also helped me in saying yes. I’ve been challenged to recognize my strengths, and to define myself by those rather than my weaknesses. I am capable of so many things, and there’s nothing to be gained in denying that.

But most of all, I’ve realized how much I still have to learn. Whether it’s chakras or anatomy, developing a deeper understanding of yoga has introduced me to concepts and knowledge that I don’t always find easy to grasp. As I begin to live out these lessons as a teacher and guide others through them, I hope to continue reading, studying and increasing my understanding of this physical, spiritual, mental practice that has had such an effect on my daily life.

The journey has only just begun.

Join me for the next step Sunday, when I’ll lead a free, public class at Lululemon. The hour-long class begins at 6 p.m.

Today’s subject line comes from the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver … which I found by googling yoga poems. Of course.

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Behind the “brand”

You are your own brand. That’s become a modern-day mantra, and it seems most creative professionals I know have a suite of features to back that up. But I hadn’t given too much thought to my personal branding until this summer, when several factors converged.

Days before my book released, I spoke at See Jane Write’s inaugural Bloganista conference. Keynote speaker Megan LaRussa Chenoweth of Southern Femme encouraged everyone in attendance to have a logo. Graphic designer Aly Hathcock quickly tweeted she would offer a discount to any conference attendees, and I took her up on it, even without knowing exactly what I’d do with a logo.

The end game wasn’t clear, but I was already in the process of organizing an LLC, Ink-Stained Life. I’ve worked as a freelance writer and editor for more than a decade under my own name, but selling copies of my book at non-bookstore events changed the game a bit. I opted to adopt my blog’s name as my business name, and Aly’s offer kept those wheels spinning. A logo might spur a slight website rebranding, I thought, and who knows how else it’ll come in handy?

As I’ve attended book signings and speaking engagements, numerous people have requested my business card. I’ve got Birmingham magazine cards, of course, and folks can always reach me there. But I try to limit my work correspondence to work, just as I try to keep said correspondence outside of my personal email. Quickly, I realized it would be worth my money to invest in personal business cards.

In a Facebook group I’m part of, some women recommended incorporating your headshot into business cards to amp up the mental association. It’s an idea that makes sense, but didn’t feel comfortable to me (only in part because I update my headshots more frequently than I run out of business cards!). A friend suggested I use the illustration on my stationery, and so I reached out to Sara Beth Cobb of Nimblee Design to discuss options. Sara Beth created the stationery for me years ago as a birthday present, and it always makes an impression. I was thrilled when she agreed to incorporate both the illustration and my logo into a business card–and even more excited by the results. Both Sara Beth and Aly took my ideas and created designs that capture my personality.

The most hands-on part of this branding process for me, though, was my website’s new header photo. I’m not a strong photographer, and I was unsure whether I’d be able to create an image I’d be happy with. But I had a vision in mind, and my 1920s Underwood typewriter was at the heart of it. (I told Cheryl Joy Miner of Cheryl Joy Miner Photography, who also took my headshot and yoga photos, that I seriously contemplated if I could carry the typewriter on my flight to Florida, where she’s based.)

Because that wasn’t practical, Cheryl instead coached me via text message as my bedroom became the site of a DIY photo shoot. She gave me advice on composing the items and ultimately encouraged me to carry the entire setup outside. Not only did that achieve the lighting and quirky interest I was after, it also ties back to the photos she took of me in her backyard.

The end result is a suite of branded materials that feel true to me and my work, made all the more special because of relationships with the wonderful, creative women with whom I collaborated.

Vendors

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What I’m writing: October 2014

These are stories I wrote that were published this month.

New from Old: Artist Darrell Ezekiel uses found objects to craft contemporary works of art

Photo courtesy of Sylvia Martin

Photo courtesy of Sylvia Martin

You may have seen Darrell Ezekiel’s work around town. Perhaps the quirky faces that once hung at Hawthorn Gallery and Nordys Gallery piqued your curiosity. Or you know Ezekiel from his time at Clay Scot Artworks, where he and his co-owner sold not only their own work, but also the work of others.

If you’ve been following Ezekiel’s career for a while, his caricature-like paintings and smaller gift works are familiar. And while the artist’s latest work may seem out of character, his use of bright color and repurposed objects remains. Even with those common threads, Ezekiel’s shadowbox quilt assemblages may surprise some. Read more “New from Old” at bhammag.com.

Wolf in White Van: A Gamer’s Need for Escape

Wolf in White VanWho is Sean Phillips? And how did he end up like this?

That’s the central conceit of John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, a compact but wide-ranging novel that follows Sean’s development from unpopular teenager to reclusive adult. Read more “Wolf in White Van” at bookpage.com.

 

10 Awesome Breweries in College Towns

druid city tuscaloosaFew things go together better than football and beer, and as temperatures drop, our cravings turn from refreshing pilsners to a variety of other craft brews. These 10 NCAA football programs pair perfectly with the following beers from each institution’s hometown. Bonus: Many of the beers are distributed regionally or nationally, allowing fans to imbibe with pride nationwide. Read more “10 Awesome Breweries in College Towns” at pastemagazine.com.

How to Craft Your Band’s Pitch for 5 Types of Media Outlets

pitchThe media has come calling, and you can’t wait to tell your band’s story over, and over, and over again. Who cares if you sound like a broken record – any press is good press, right? Wrong. It’s true, you could have much worse problems. But think of it this way: If you saw an article about your favorite band (or actor, or comedian, or whatever), picked it up and dove in only to find the same anecdotes you’ve read a dozen times, you’d be disappointed and might even toss aside the whole story. Look at each media opportunity as a way to attract new listeners and draw your existing fanbase even closer. Here’s how to tailor your band’s story to maximize your chances of getting picked up by five types of media outlets. Read more “How to Craft Your Band’s Pitch for 5 Types of Media Outlets” at sonicbids.com.

Want more? Visit my “What I’m writing” Pinterest board.

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Experience is the best teacher

My teacher Melissa Scott and I in crow. (Yes, I'm wearing a pencil skirt.)

My teacher Melissa Scott and I in crow. (Yes, I’m wearing a pencil skirt.) (Photo credit: Lynn Whitley)

Experience may be the best teacher, but it’s also helpful to have constructive feedback from people around you. That’s what I found after teaching my first yoga class last week, and I aimed to implement that insight when I taught my second class earlier today.

Both classes were 60 minutes long, and I designed both to peak in a challenging pose. Last week, I spent four hours driving alone the day before I taught. I used most of that time to talk through the next day’s class, and I found it prepared me for teaching both because I knew the sequence and I had a sense of time tied to the music.

This weekend was busier, though, and I didn’t have quite as much time to do that. I was concerned that I’d have to refer to my notes mid-class, or that I’d otherwise lead my trusting students through an awkward, disjointed series of poses.

That didn’t happen. Perhaps it was because I reviewed the class in my mind as I went to sleep last night, or maybe it was because I slowed down and didn’t try to fit as many poses into a one-hour class. But I think the biggest factor was that I had taught once before, and so I was at least slightly more comfortable going into the afternoon.

As was the case with my first class, today’s students included beginners, a first-timer and a couple of people who are pretty familiar with yoga. On the advice of one of last week’s beginners, I spent more time breaking down poses, particularly those that we returned to often. After talking with him last week, I noticed that the classes I attend regularly also do this. Even though I’ve practiced yoga regularly for three years and have dived in more deeply in 2014, I welcome these moments of instruction. Sometimes a verbal cue will make something click with me, but regardless it’s a chance for me to settle into the pose and explore. I didn’t pressure myself to say everything quickly or smoothly, but instead tried to give those gathered an understanding of what we were doing and why.

Today’s sequence was still challenging, and it peaked in crow (during Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird”–yes, that was intentional). It was rewarding to see students trying something a bit risky, and it was just as satisfying to see others take ownership of the class and recognize when a particular moment would have involved pushing themselves too far.

Yoga helps calm me down, pulling me out of the rat race of my mind. I don’t want to teach a class that’s going to push a student back into that litany of to dos and concerns about how they can be better. Yes, the poses have ideal shapes. But we are also individuals on unique paths. Your triangle may not look like my triangle. I may never again reach a full split. But the baby steps along the way challenge and stretch us, and that’s enough.

Here’s this week’s playlist (with covers substituted when the version I played isn’t available on Spotify). If you’d like to sign up for my email list to be kept informed of future classes, you’ll find that form here.

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