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Stephen King’s 5 Killer Life Lessons

Stacey and familyThe photo to the right was taken during a sweet moment cuddling on the couch during our family vacation.

It was a blissfully low-key, fun-filled week after what seems like months of one crisis after another.

My husband Doug professes that his favorite vacations are all about “reading and eating,” and although I love vacations that take us on far-flung adventures (as recent trips to Guatemala and the Greek Islands attest), I have to admit he’s on to something. And I’m very happy to share that I’ve read some amazing novels this summer.

I just finished a very notable one—LaRose by Louise Erdrich. It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time, but my current read—Barkskins by Annie Proulx—is giving it a serious run for its money.

Suffice to say I’m a prolific reader, so it’s kind of funny that I’ve never read any of the novels of one of our most prolific writers—Stephen King. I have, however, read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

I picked it up expecting to get some good pointers about writing, but I was surprised to find how much good sense King—whose grim visions aren’t always the most cheerful things to encounter on the page—had to offer about life, and how much of what he had to say about the process of writing was also good for other undertakings.

Here are the top five lessons I learned from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

#1 Construct your own toolbox:

King tells the story of the toolbox his grandfather constructed for himself. It was massive—4 levels filled with every tool imaginable—and very heavy.

He writes, “I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscles so you can carry it with you. Instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”

Just as writing requires skills that King wants aspiring writers to master, living requires a set of skills—not taking things personally, looking for meanings, and taking care of yourself, to name a few—that will expand your life and help you make fewer mistakes. And they’re not things you have to learn entirely on your own, either.

King recommends Strunk and White’s Elements of Style for writers who want to master grammar. For people who want to get better at living I recommend Byron Katie, among others. And you probably have your own mentors.

Whether they’re present in your life or just on your bookshelf, you must recognize their wisdom and get used to identifying the tools they have to offer.

Stephen King#2 Messes are a part of the process:

We don’t have TV and there’s only one show I watch, when I can get my hands on the DVDs—Project Runway, a program that shows fashion designers competing to make the winning creation by the end of each episode.

I’m one of the least “fashionable” people I know, but I love Project Runway because it spends the bulk of the hour showing the “messiness” of the creative process.

Over half of the show is spent in the workroom, with fabric, trim and assorted notions flying every which way. But somehow (after freaking out a bit) the designers always manage, in the inimitable words of mentor Tim Gunn, to “make it work” and pull together a cohesive outfit.

I’ve seen a number of clients, however, who won’t allow themselves to let the fabric fly. They’re unwilling to disturb their ordered but unfulfilling lives, and no matter what waits for them on the other side of disorder, they’re afraid of creative messes.

Demolishing a house to make room for a new house is messy. Heck, just cleaning a house usually requires some sort of disorder in the process. So recognize that messes are part of the process—an unavoidable part—and lose your fear of wading in and raising some dust.

#3 Do Something:

On Writing is a slim volume and King explains why. “I’ll be brief…the hours we spend talking about writing is…time we don’t spend doing it.”

Why do we tend to spend so much more time thinking or talking about something, rather than doing the thing itself? Are we so afraid of doing the wrong thing that we don’t do anything at all?

The Project Runway designers may not create the most attractive or well-executed garment in the timeframe they have, but it’s always done. Even though many designers doubt themselves and their ability to finish on time, no one has ever sent a naked model down the runway.

I think it helps that they have a finite amount of time to produce a work. I try to establish deadlines for myself, even if it’s what I call the “15-minute sprint”—if I’m feeling particularly blocked and despondent, I’ll set my timer for 15 minutes and write, even if it’s what writer Anne Lamott lovingly refers to as the “shitty first draft.”

Obviously, doing something goes hand in hand with not being afraid to make a mess, though it’s possible a mess isn’t required.

But you’ll never find out what the process does require unless you actually start the process. I guarantee you that doing is a lot easier, once you get started, than just thinking.

#4 Murder your darlings.

Getting something on the page seems to reassure that part of my psyche that says, “You’ll never work in this town again!” Luckily I’ve been working in this town long enough to know that even if I don’t produce something stellar, there will always be more work.

Getting something on the page gives you the way forward. King quotes Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who once said, “Murder your darlings.” Writing the shitty first draft gives you a jumping off point to start negotiations about which line takes a bullet first.

If something’s not working in your life—no matter how attractive it seemed when you took it on—get rid of it. It may seem unpleasant, but that’s simply the way the creative process (and life) works. It seems best to acknowledge this and then get on with it.

#5 Participate in the miracle.

So—what if, after a bit of unpleasantness, the reward for assembling your toolbox, making a mess, getting started and murdering your darlings were nothing short of a miracle? Makes the choice a little clearer, and motivation a little easier to find, right?

In On Writing, King explains how, when a writer hits her target—when she connects with her readers—she delights us much the way we’re delighted when we meet an old friend in a crowd of strangers.

When that happens, King says, “I think writer and reader are participating in a kind of miracle. Maybe that’s drawing it a little strong, but yeah—it’s what I believe.”

Which reminds me of something Albert Einstein once said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

If you get your tools ready, get started, and understand that whatever comes, the important thing is to do something and keep doing something, you’ll have a good shot at seeing the miracle in everything—and seeing the miracle in your own life.

Yeah—that’s what I believe.

What’s really bothering you?

The photos below show Griffin with his BFF – yesterday and 5 years ago.

Griffin and BFF

They became fast friends in first grade when Will’s family moved to Asheville, but then they moved away two years later. (Long-time readers may remember that we visited them on their yacht in Greece two years ago!)

Even though the family now lives in England, we’ve managed to get Griffin and Will together to celebrate Will’s birthday (on July 17th) ever since they became friends over 5 years ago. This week we met at the beautiful Bear Lake Reserve.

If you’ve been reading my blog for the last few months, you know that I’ve been supporting many friends and family as they go through one life-exploding crisis after another.

Life would be so much easier and SO much better if everyone would simply conform to our own perfect way of doing things, wouldn’t it?

Fortunately, I’ve learned to care more about my happiness than being right, and that’s where Byron Katie’s The Work has been SO helpful.

By doing The Work, I stopped being frustrated with my husband and son and their inability or unwillingness to do things exactly the way I like them to be done.

But you know what? A really big light bulb went off when I realized that they were not creating disorder in order to show a lack of respect or love for me, which is how I often received it.

Yes, of course, it’s frustrating to discover that your husband forgot to pay an important bill again (insert any other frustrating behavior here) but when you think about it, is that what’s really bothering you?

I can almost guarantee you that it’s not.

But, again, I can almost guarantee that the bad feelings about any undesirable circumstance mean something else to you. So consider what that is. I’ve written an article about this before, but it bears repeating:

Your current reality is not really what’s upsetting you. In fact, the state of your emotions isn’t caused by the present situation, though the reverse is often true.

In Eckhart Tolle’s (for me life-changing) book, A New Earth, he writes, “External reality always reflects back to you your inner state.”

In the words of A Course in Miracles, “An idea doesn’t leave its source.”

I take that to mean that everything occurring in our lives is a result or reflection of our thoughts and feelings.

Every time I see anyone, depending on how I choose to think about them, I am deciding how I will see myself.

In the previous article I gave one suggestion for seeing “the gift” in the undesirable, but in this article I’ll give you another:

The questions that follow are from Byron Katie’s “Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet” (which you can download using this link.)

  1. Who angers, confuses, saddens, or disappoints you, and why? What is it about them that you don’t like? 
  1. How do you want them to change? What do you want them to do? 
  1. What is it that they should or shouldn’t do, be, think, or feel? What advice could you offer? 
  1. What do they need to do in order for you to be happy? 
  1. What do you think of them? Make a list. 
  1. What is it that you don’t want to experience with that person again?

So in the example of the unpaid bill (and this did just happen with my husband, too) The Work would look like this:

I am annoyed at Doug because he forgot to pay the bill and I wasted a lot of time and energy resolving the issue. I want Doug to remember to pay a bill in a timely manner. I want him to apologize for inconveniencing me. Doug should follow my system for paying bills immediately upon receiving them. I need Doug to pay a bill on time. Doug is absent-minded, careless, unappreciative and disorganized. I don’t ever want to feel annoyed by his behavior again.

I’ve written before about Byron Katie’s “Four Questions” (here’s one) — and it’s important to note here that you should plan to do that exercise immediately after you do the Judge Your Neighbor exercise.

Katie’s four questions really help me delve into the stress I’m creating for myself by believing the thoughts that the Judge Your Neighbor worksheet has helped me make explicit.

At the same time, though, drawing on Katie’s work, I have also become adept at doing what I call the “quick turnaround.”

For example, when I have a negative judgment (that, again, is causing me stress), I have learned to easily come up with at least three genuine and specific examples of how I have also transgressed – how I have been absent-minded, careless, unappreciative and disorganized – maybe not with the bills, but in other ways, like the maintenance of my car or, here’s the kicker – in my relationships with others.

Once I admit that, it’s much easier to have compassion or patience with my husband. But more importantly, it’s easier to see that my bad feelings are not about my husband, or the bill, at all.

They’re about me. Usually the real cause of the bad feelings is that I’m not feeling valued or appreciated – or, even more to the point, I’m not valuing or appreciating myself enough.

And when I can do that, I don’t mind so much about the bill, or that I haven’t been appointed Queen of the Universe (yet).

What’s Your Love Language?

July 12, 2016

That’s a pic of me enjoying some quality time with my brother a few days ago. I went up to Cincinnati last week to help take care of him after his heart surgery. (In my ezine last week, I talked about how Randy, my older brother – who is a 48 year-old super fit, vegan

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How Stress Signals That Your Life Is at Risk

July 5, 2016

I consider my body my most-trusted advisor. I think it assimilates information from the Universe that I can’t understand fully at first. You see, I know the Universe wants me to live my best life, but sometimes I don’t heed its advice – I’m convinced that sometimes I don’t even hear it. It’s like Oprah

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How to trust yourself to make the right decisions

June 28, 2016

The photo to the right shows me and Griffin eating some campfire guacamole and generally having a blast during our annual “off the grid” camping adventure. We were at the gorgeous Lake Santeelah. The spring-fed lake features the most beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, and the pristine water made for VERY refreshing dips, given

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It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility

June 21, 2016

The photo to the right shows Griffin working through a difficult mountain bike course in preparation for some serious mountain biking and camping over the weekend. One of the things I often tell Griffin is “We can do hard things.” And I’m so glad he’s embraced it as his own personal motto as well. What

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How to Release Negative Emotions Quickly and Easily

June 14, 2016

The photo to the right is Griffin with one of his best friends at their school’s graduation ceremony. It’s a ceremony that includes all grades – from Kindergarten through 8th grade – and allows for each child to share a reflection from their year. Griffin’s class spent a good part of the year studying literature

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How to Succeed by Failing

June 7, 2016

I hope you had a wonderful holiday weekend! The photo to the right was taken at Griffin’s year-end student-led conference (that’s his awesome teacher, Jenny, at the end of the table). Griffin’s school truly embraces self-directed learning, which I believe is the key to growth and happiness at any age! So often people won’t try

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Are you acting in alignment?

May 31, 2016

The photo to the right is of Griffin at his spring piano recital. You’ve heard me wax enthusiastic about Griffin’s passions for many things, but I think I’m most thrilled about his love of piano. I bought a piano keyboard when I was pregnant with Griffin and I practiced every day and took weekly lessons

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Why You Need Good Boundaries

May 24, 2016

That’s a photo of Griffin with his good friend at the “Marathon Games” – a 6-hour celebration and the culmination of his year-long soccer season. It also marked the achievement of another one of the goals he had for himself – to score more goals in the spring than he did last fall. It’s so

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