How to Become a Writer: A Post to My Younger Self

I frequently get emails from aspiring writers, bloggers and authors. They tell me that they’ve always wanted to be writers. They ask, “Do you have any advice?” That question often causes all of my thoughts to vaporize from my brain. After all it’s quite difficult to compress four years of J School and nearly 20 years experience into one short email. Usually I write something like, “Just keep trying. Never stop learning. Good luck!” I imagine people get those emails from me and think, “Gee, thanks for nothing.”

I want to be more helpful than that, so I wrote this post so I can refer aspiring writers to it when they ask me for advice. The post contains all of the things I wish I had known when I was just starting out in all of the following fields: newspapers, books, magazines and freelance.

  1. In the beginning, you will be filled with ambition. You will want your words to change the world, win awards, and gain you much recognition. Your elder peers will tell you that most people lack the maturity and life experience to write anything other than drivel for at least a decade. You will become angry and set out to prove these people wrong. You will believe that you alone can be the exception to this rule. Ten or so years later when you are finally writing words that move people, you will realize that your elder peers were right and you will be humbled.
  2. Read—a lot.
  3. Study the craft of other writers. Never stop studying the craft of other writers.
  4. Stop looking for short cuts to becoming a better writer. You become better by writing and by reading good writing. There is no substitute for either.
  5. You will find that most professional writers are irritated by the question, “Do you have any advice?” If you ask enough professional writers this question, you will likely hear one or more of them sarcastically say something like, “Gee, I’ve always wanted to be a brain surgeon. Do you have any advice?” It’s for this reason that you should ask very specific questions like, “I have this piece that I can’t place anywhere. Here are all of the outlets I’ve tried. Do you have any suggestions?”
  6. Never stop learning. Go to conferences. Read blogs about writing. Buy and read books about writing. Attend lectures about writing.
  7. Just when you think you’ve mastered technology, it will change. If you fail to embrace this, you will end up in therapy.
  8. It would be nice if you could just do the one thing you love and are good at. In reality, you will spend a good portion of your time marketing yourself, asking people to pay you, doing accounting, networking, and pitching story ideas to editors. Accept it as part of the job or you will end up in therapy.
  9. Help other writers whenever possible.
  10. If you want people to read and respond to your words, write for the reader and not for yourself. Words are not about what you want to say. They are about what other people want to read.
  11. Before you become a writer, you will think that the title of “writer” is glamorous. It’s only after you become one that you will realize that most of society thinks of writers as people who goof off and drink coffee all day long. As a result, they will ask you to watch their children during the day, to walk their dogs, and to go shopping with them—because they assume you don’t have anything better to do.
  12. You don’t have to write about Pulitzer worthy topics to change the world with your words. You can change the world by writing about people who rarely receive attention and recognition. You can change the world one person at a time by being kind and compassionate with every editor you deal with. And you can do it by changing the lives of your readers: helping them to become healthier, happier, smarter, more relaxed, and more motivated to help their fellow humans in need.
  13. You will suffer from writer envy. You will envy other writers for their Amazon sales ranks, book deals, awards, magazine placements, titles and even for their friends. If you fixate on how they don’t deserve what they have, you will only create unnecessary misery for yourself. Rejoice in the good fortune of other writers. It will open up the creative energy you need to create similar good fortune in your own career.
  14. You will get rejected – a lot. This does not mean that you suck, should change careers, or don’t have what it takes. Every famous writer you can think of has been rejected many, many times.
  15. Your writing will be criticized—a lot. It will be criticized by readers who wish you’d written something else. It will be described as “stilted” “unimaginative” “disappointing” and “nothing new” by reviewers. It will be torn apart by wanna-be and aspiring writers who envy you. And it will be ripped to shreds by various editors. If you embrace the criticism and learn from it, your writing will improve. If you ignore it and rail against it, your writing won’t mature and you will end up in therapy.
  16. There will be times when you will be convinced that you are washed up, have no more good ideas, and should never have become a writer in the first place. It’s almost certain that you feel this way because you haven’t been getting enough sleep or because you have PMS—or both.
  17. It’s okay to use passive voice as long as you are doing it for a good reason.
  18. The best cure for writer’s block is a mortgage. If that doesn’t work, try taking a nap or a walk.
  19. If you want to make a living as a writer, then learn two important skills: 1) How to write about any topic, even topics you know nothing about 2) How to write about the same topic over and over again. You will do both in your career.
  20. When interviewing people, shorten the wind up and get to the questions faster.
  21. When interviewing people, stop talking about yourself so much. Ask questions. Listen. Ask more questions.
  22. You will make mistakes. When you do, apologize.
  23. Lots of people will help you advance in your career. Thank them.
  24. Deadlines are important. If you are going to miss one, let your editor know.
  25. You will spend your career dreaming that some day you will write the perfect piece—the one that requires not one change by an editor. This is a nice pipe dream, one that most writers share but few ever experience in real life. After all, editors edit. That’s their nature.
  26. There will be a few people who believe in you. There will be many who don’t. Learn how to believe in yourself.
  27. No award or accomplishment will ever give you the satisfaction of a thank you letter from a reader whose life your words changed for the better.
  28. You will spend many years wondering when you will “make it.” One day you will know you have must have made it at some point because you no longer wonder about when it will happen.
  29. If you want to get hired again, find out what your editor wants and then write it. If you don’t want to get hired again, write what you think your editor should want.
  30. Start with the big picture and slowly work your way to the small. Nail down the outline, then fill in the information, then add the rich voice and funny turns of phrases. Finally get the spelling and grammar down.
  31. Early in your career you will worry that someone will discover your weakness and broadcast to the world that you are a terrible speller. Later in your career, you will tell people, “I’m a terrible speller” and it won’t phase you because you will know that you are a great idea person.
  32. There will be times when you show your writing to friends and family and notice that they don’t really care. At first this will anger you. It’s important to remind yourself of two things. 1) They are not your audience. 2) How would you feel if they offered to take you with them to work for a day so they could show you what they do for a living?
  33. There will be many times during your career when you will consider becoming something else. Eventually you will realize that there is nothing you would rather do than write.

 What do you wish you could tell your younger self? It can be about writing, about your career, about relationships or about life in general?

A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of The 7 Day Slim Down and Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.

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What a Little Old Lady Taught Me About Marriage

What Will You Do With that Second Chance?

Our power was out. So was everyone else’s due to a storm. It had been out for days and now we were out of food.

We drove 20 minutes and stopped at the first diner that had lights on and cars in the parking lot.

It was a 20-minute wait for breakfast. The waiting area was standing room only and full of people who don’t usually eat at diners.

We finally sat down. We finally ate. We eventually left.

When we got to the car, my kid realized she’d left her favorite ball cap on the table. I ran back in to get it, but I didn’t get far. Getting through the crowded waiting area was like getting through a Wipe Out obstacle course. And coming my way was a little old lady with a cane. She was bent over and shuffling her feet in that unsteady way that makes one think that she might fall and break her hip at any moment. She had just enough of a gap between waiting patrons to shuffle forward.

It would have been kind for me to step to the side and wait for her to pass.

And I considered doing this. Really, I did. But this would have required me to wait for a very, very, very long time. She just wasn’t moving very quickly, you know? My kid and my husband were waiting outside in a running car, and every minute I stood and waited was a minute that the waitress could be giving my kid’s ball cap to someone else.

It was my kid’s favorite ball cap. I believe I told you that.

So I attempted to gently inch past the little old lady.

I couldn’t quite get past her without bumping against her. She looked up. She might have been annoyed. She might have been surprised. She might have been scared. I really don’t know. I don’t know because I inched past her so quickly that I never looked at her face.

I felt instantly guilty, but I consoled myself, “I’m doing a favor for my kid. Sometimes in order to make one person happy, another person ends up unhappy. That’s the way life is.”

This did not help one bit. It didn’t help because I knew it wasn’t true. So I promised myself that, were I ever to have to get through a crowded diner again, I would step aside if a little old lady were coming my way. I promised myself that I would do this no matter what the emergency was. I would even do it if I was about to pee my pants.

I got the ball cap and then turned to leave. Now the old lady was attempting to walk down five cement steps that separated the diner from the parking lot. She couldn’t quite reach the railing and her cane didn’t quite reach the step below.

It didn’t look good.

“Would you like some help?” I asked.

She didn’t respond.

I assumed she remembered me from before and was probably thinking, “That woman is going to push me down the steps just to get me out of her way.”

I slowed my pace. I got in front of her. I held out my hand. She reached out for my hand. She took it. She looked up. She smiled. Soon I could feel her shifting her body weight. Now I was supporting her. She was steady. She tightened her grip, curling her fingers around my palm. She walked down the steps.

She thanked me. I told her it was nothing.

I got in the car and I handed the hat to my kid. My kid said, “Mommy, if you had done that at my school, you would have gotten a bucket filler award.”

I thought about telling her that I didn’t deserve an award because as helpful as I’d been when I’d helped the lady on the steps, I’d been just as unhelpful earlier when she was inside the restaurant.

But then I realized that I’d gotten a second chance—a chance to live up to my potential and be the person I know I can be. I could have just as easily blown my second chance as I’d blown the first one.

At least I had learned from the first mistake. By doing so, I didn’t commit a second one.

It’s my belief that this sort of thing happens all the time in marriage and in life. We mess up somehow. Maybe we are too critical or we lose our temper. Maybe we talk when we should be listening. Maybe we leave dishes in the sink. Maybe we shrink our spouse’s favorite sweater.

Maybe we drink the last beer.

Whatever it is, we do something that we have been trying not to do.

And we feel like a failure.

Then life gives us a second chance. We have another chance to positive, to not lose our temper, to listen, to wash the dishes or to offer that last beer to our spouse.

Sometimes we take that second chance and we shine.

Other times, however, we don’t even notice the second chance has been handed to us.

Still other times we notice, but we decide to screw up almost on purpose, and we do this out of anger.

It’s my belief that the difference lies in forgiveness—forgiveness of ourselves.  If we can learn how to forgive ourselves for screwing up the first time, we’ll be a lot more likely to notice those second chances and to make the most of them. Rather than telling ourselves, “I’m always such a bad listener” or “I’m always so critical of my spouse,” we can instead say, “This is an opportunity for me to listen. Right now I have a second chance to do this right. I’m going to be the person I want to be—right now.”

Or am I reading too much into this?

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How to have a happy divorce

I know, I know, you came to this site because I write about how to have a happy marriage and not about how to have a happy divorce. Still, not all marriages can be saved. If yours is one of the ones that can’t, I still want you to find happiness. You deserve it. You don’t deserve to be mired in anger, resentment, fear and other types of negativity. You deserve better, and you can have it.

My good friend Brette Sember is a retired attorney and mediator who writes about divorce for the Huffington Post and many other outlets. I like to think of Brette as my twin in the divorce world because she doesn’t write about how to screw your ex (figuratively). She writes about how to get along with your ex so you both can coexist peacefully. She’s the author of the No-Fight Divorce Book, which teaches couples how to dissolve a marriage without the expensive cost of divorce lawyers. What follows is a Q&A interview with Brette. Tomorrow I’ll run an excerpt from the book.

Q: Many people stay together for the kids? I’m curious to hear your take on the pros and cons of that strategy.

A: I understand this impulse and I think it works for some people. However, I firmly believe it is unhealthy for a child to grow up in a home where there is intense and ongoing fighting or violence. This kind of environment has a deep and negative impact on children. My husband grew up in a home like this and it was very difficult for him. I think it is far better for children to have two happy parents in two separate homes than to have two miserable parents under one roof. Everyone has to evaluate their own situation and determine to what extent they can make the marriage work.

Q: Is it really possible to divorce and be civil? After all, couples are already in bad straights before they call it quits. How can they really split up the kids, pets, house, and 401-K without accidentally murdering one another in the process?

A: Yes, it is very possible and actually happens quite often. Every mediation I ever did was calm and civil. The problem with traditional litigated divorce is that it specifically pits the parties against each other and encourages dissent and negative emotions. In divorce mediation the parties sit down together with a mediator who helps them make decisions themselves about how to end the marriage. The process is all about finding solutions that work for your family and are fair to everyone. The mediator lays ground rules and sets the tone for the meetings, which are cooperative, tolerant, and flexible. It’s not about winning, proving your point, or proving bad things about the other person. Instead the idea is to craft a parenting plan that is best for the child and take the pot of assets and debts and carve it up in a way that makes sense and allows everyone to move forward in as financially stable a manner as possible. Of course there are bumps in the road and the couple does not immediately agree on everything – that’s why they are working with a mediator who is trained to help them navigate those tough points and can help them work through them to find agreement.

It’s important to note that mediation is not appropriate for couples with domestic violence or for people who are completely unable to be in the same room with the other party. It is also not acceptable when one party has an untreated substance abuse problem.

Q: What’s the difference between mediation and divorce court?

A: Mediation allows the couple to make all of the decisions about how their marriage will end themselves. They are the ones who best understand their bottom line, goals, children, living situation, and financial limitations. In divorce court they sit at a table while attorneys who know them each minimally presents an argument to a judge who doesn’t know them at all. The judge then decides how their entire lives will be organized from then out on out, sometimes without ever hearing either party speak at all. It’s like the difference between going to the store and doing your grocery shopping yourself as opposed to telling someone else you need groceries and having to live with what they buy for you. In the first case you make all the choices, understand completely what you chose and how you will use. In the second case you’re handed a bag filled with what someone else thinks you should use and you have to find a way to use it that probably does not meet your needs at all. Mediation gives you control on the outcome. Couples who mediate are much less likely to return to court, their children have better outcomes and do better in school, and they have a much more positive view about divorce in general.

Mediation is also much less expensive than litigated divorce where you pay two attorneys their trial rate (higher than their office rate) and end up having tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. In mediation you pay one mediator and you can move the case along as quickly as you want to. Any delays are those you create.

Q: What are the benefits of figuring out how to communicate with each other post divorce? Especially if you are parents?

A: Mediation is important not only because it allows you to sit down and work through the issues in the divorce yourselves, but also because it teaches you negotiation and communication skills you are able to use moving forward. This is particularly crucial for parents because your parenting plan must change as your children age. What works for a four-year-old will not work for an eight-year-old. You must be able to change your plan and your schedule. You also have to be prepared to work through schedule changes due to school events, work schedules, and illness. Parents who enter the post-divorce period as combatants tend to continue to be combatants and often return again and again to court, arguing over every last schedule change. Parents who mediate and learn to make decisions in a cooperative manner are much better equipped to parent together moving forward. They learn how to solve the problems they face.

Q: What about when step parents enter the picture. How does biological mom learn how to be a good mom and civil ex in the face of step mom? Are there any special strategies?

A: Apply the same strategies you learned in mediation that you use with your ex. Listen, communicate, lay out a proposal, collaborate, and compromise. It’s often a good idea for a mom and step mom or a dad and step dad to get to know each other and realize that they both care for the child and want what’s best for him or her. This commonality of purpose unites them and allows them to move forward. It’s also important to remove the filter of the ex between them which often leads to a lot of miscommunication. Create your own relationship with the stepparent and have your own lines of communication. It is usually very useful if everyone can lay their cards on the table and say the stepparent is not going to replace the parent, because that is usually the issue the bio parent is stressing about.  If you can’t make it work, mediation can help you find a way. It’s likely that one or two mediation sessions can help everyone create a working relationship that focuses on benefiting the child.

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41 Paradoxical Life Lessons

  1. Most of what you avoid for fear of embarrassment is actually really fun and worthwhile if you give yourself permission to not worry about what others think of you. For instance, not long ago, I let my daughter pick out the nail polish while I was getting a pedicure. She picked out dark green with sparkles (see photo). I can’t even begin to add up how many people smiled after seeing that color on my feet.
  2. People say you are only as old as you think you are. This is not true. At age 41 I have aches and pains, a muffin top, and wrinkles that I did not have at age 21. I also have hair growing in places that it did not grow back then. I do not feel 21. I feel 41. What’s true about aging is this: If you live a good life, you will not regret getting older and you will never want to exchange your old body for a younger brain that contains less wisdom and less life experience.
  3. Overeating is a form of denial as no food continues to taste divine much past the third bite.
  4. No matter how loudly or repeatedly you tell people that you are smart, funny or important, they won’t believe you. Don’t tell them. Show them.
  5. The more loudly you argue, the less likely it is that someone agree with you.
  6. If you are lonely and needy, people will keep their distance. If you are complete and independent, people will be drawn to you.
  7. The probability of you getting a Republican to turn Democrat is less than 1 percent – and vice versa. Still, there will times in your life when you are tempted to try.
  8. Most people believe statistics. This is despite the fact that most statistics are made up. For instance, in #7, I made up the “less than 1 percent.” But I believe it to be true.
  9. More than 90 percent of what you worry about will never take place. Yes, I made up that statistic, too. But it sounds about right, doesn’t it?
  10. Just when you think you are on top of technology, something new will be invented.
  11. The more money you make, the more you will worry about money.
  12. It doesn’t matter who you choose to give to. The act of giving still feels good.
  13. Nothing in life ever stays the same. This can be either a blessing or a curse depending on what is going on in your life at any given moment.
  14. If you attempt to slim down your email inbox, even more emails will flow into it.
  15. The moment you tell yourself that you will never eat a particular food ever again is the moment intense cravings for that food will surface.
  16. Most of us miss the most beautiful moments in life because we happen to be staring at the screens of our smart phones while these beautiful moments are going down.
  17. You won’t mind the smell of your own baby’s poop as much as you’ll mind the smell of another baby’s poop.
  18. Chances are that whatever you think your spouse is thinking, you are wrong.
  19. The problem is not that people don’t love you. The problem most likely is that you don’t love yourself.
  20. Free usually costs something.
  21. You are the only person who can live your life.
  22. You can enjoy nearly any life experience as long as you decide to find it enjoyable.
  23. A headache will usually get worse if you complain about it.
  24. If you tell yourself that sleeping in a 100-degree room is “no big deal,” you won’t feel so hot. I learned this over the summer when my air conditioning broke.
  25. You can always make a comeback. Short of death, no one life experience will ever ruin you.
  26. The best way to get over writer’s block is either to walk your dog or take a shower. The worst way to get over writer’s block is to sit down at your computer and try to write.
  27. You might think that you were meant to do something. Chances are that you could just as easily be meant to do something else. Detours are often blessings in disguise.
  28. No one has it better than you. Everyone suffers. You might not be able to see someone’s suffering, but it’s definitely there.
  29. You will never get tied up in a traffic jam on a day when you have no where you really have to be.
  30. Everyone else on the highway is in a hurry, too.
  31. Even though there are 6 billion people in the world, the chances of you crossing paths with the same person again later in life are actually higher than you might think. Therefore the old chestnut about never burning a bridge is actually a really good chestnut.
  32. Going to a huge state school could be just as beneficial as going to a tiny Ivy League school. That’s because you’ll have thousands more classmates to network with in the work world.
  33. The softer you speak, the more people will try to listen to what you have to say.
  34. If you want people to think you are the life of a party, stop talking and start listening.
  35. If you are riding a mountain bike and you think “OMG I don’t want to hit that tree” you will ride your bike right into the tree. Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go.
  36. There is seemingly nothing you can grow and become attached to that a deer won’t eat just before it blooms.
  37. You don’t need to go to a zoo to see interesting beings. There are plenty of funny looking and interesting insects in your back yard.
  38. 99.9 percent of misery is self-inflicted. Yes, I made up that statistic, too.
  39. It’s a lot faster to park in the space that no one else wants than it is to drive through the lot looking for a space that is closer.
  40. Just when you give away your clothes and buy a new wardrobe in a larger size, you will finally lose the extra weight.
  41. There is no way to leave a permanent mark on the world. Even tombstones crumble and disappear eventually. The most lasting impression you can leave, however, is this: a legacy of kindness.
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How to argue with Mr. Always Right

A Reader Participation Post

Here’s a “biggest marital problem” sent to me by a reader:

My husband is aggressive, rude, and is always right and I am always wrong. Therefore I no longer have serious conversations with him. I try to avoid talking about anything that he might find upsetting, even though it may be something that is upsetting to me. We basically don’t have a relationship. I desperately would like to have a relationship, but I honestly don’t know if my husband is capable of it. I just agree with what he says. If I don’t he gets very angry and says that I just want to argue. If I ask him questions he gets angry too, so I will just ask him one question if I want to know something. If I don’t like or don’t understand his answer, I won’t say anything because that makes him very angry. What should I do?

Readers: This is all you. Can you help this reader with her biggest marital problem?

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11 Ways Sexting Hurts Your Marriage

I’ve gotten countless emails this week from people who are married to spouses who “sext,” which is the act of sending flirtatious messages via text message, email, Twitter, Facebook and so on. I wrote this post in response to the question, “Is this cheating? My spouse thinks this is harmless.”

  1. Just because you or your spouse do not define something as “cheating” doesn’t mean it can’t eventually bring your marriage to an end.
  2. Sexting is a form of flirting. Flirting is the first step in courtship. In fact, it’s what led to the two of you getting married. Would you feel comfortable if your spouse were actively courting someone else?
  3. Trust is an important ingredient to a happy marriage. Sexting destroys trust.
  4. If you wouldn’t do it with your spouse sitting right next to you, it’s probably not good for your marriage.
  5. As the saying goes: The grass is always greener where you water it. If you are sexting with someone who isn’t your spouse, you are watering the wrong lawn.
  6. By focusing your attention outside your home, you will end up neglecting what’s inside your home. Trust me: to keep it strong, your marriage will need all of the attention you can give it. Don’t waste your attention where it’s not needed.
  7. When you flirt with someone else – either in person, on the phone, or digitally – you hurt your spouse’s self esteem. A spouse who feels this way is eventually going to check out.
  8. When you flirt with someone else – either in person, on the phone, or digitally – you make it harder for your spouse to feel sexy. A spouse who doesn’t feel sexy isn’t going to want to have sex.
  9. When you flirt with someone else – either in person, on the phone, or digitally – you cause your spouse to feel unloved. If your spouse does not get the love she needs from you, she’s going to be more likely to search for it somewhere else.
  10. If you need a rush, try finding it with your spouse. The two of you can strengthen your marriage by solving this problem together.
  11. If you don’t feel sexy, try talking to your spouse about the problem. The two of you can strengthen your marriage by solving this problem together.

There is one way sexting can help your marriage. It’s this: do it with your spouse. Text “you are hot” to your spouse. Text “I can’t wait to see you naked” to your spouse. Everything you were thinking of sexting to someone else? Sext it to your spouse.

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Are you a happy mom? (Or dad?)

The transition into motherhood stands out as one of the most potent pro-depressants I’ve ever experienced. The first few years of my daughter’s life were tough on me. I was sad, anxious, grumpy, resentful, angry, and downright physically ill most of the time.

I’m now much more peaceful, blissful and content. Still, the emotional angst was severe enough and went on long enough to encourage me to become a card carrying member of the Once And We’re Done Club.

Then roughly a year ago, I met Meagan Francis in a New York bar. Meagan showed up in a glamorous gown. Her hair was styled, and her skin seemed lit from behind. She dripped happiness from her every orifice.

At first, I figured she must only have one child. Nope. She informed me that she had five! I happened to know that she also had a demanding career. Like me, Meagan is a freelance writer. Freelance writing is currently one of the toughest professions to earn a living. It’s only eclipsed, perhaps, by acting and art. To make ends meet, most of the freelancers I know work late hours, weekends, and holidays. Freelance writing is also very tough emotionally. Freelance writers are often the brunt of more criticism and rejection than any other entrepreneur.

I looked at Meagan and I just couldn’t figure out how she did it. How on Earth was she seemingly able to raise five kids, thrive as a freelancer, have time for the occasional manicure and walk around with a happy skip in her step. It was right around the time I was wondering this that Meagan mentioned that she writes a blog called TheHappiestMom and had a book coming out by the same name. I thought, “Of course!” I mean, if anyone is an expert on happiness, it’s her. It’s one thing to manage to be happy when you are rich, childless, and kept. It’s quite another to do it when you are the mother of five who is working in one of the most thankless professions on the planet.

Meagan’s book The Happiest Mom just released. I got my hands on an early review copy. The book is beautiful. I felt happier just by touching and fondling it. It’s also full of counter intuitive advice that is new, interesting, and effective. I’ll be giving away two copies of the book by the end of the post. For now, here’s how Meagan answered some of my questions.

1. I’ve written about the importance of caring for your own needs and how this can benefit the entire family. This concept, however, can be controversial and some people assume putting yourself first is the same thing as being selfish. What are your views on this?

I think it would be a bad thing to ALWAYS put yourself first. Part of being a human is learning to balance your own desires with the needs of others, and think beyond what you want. But I think most moms take it too far in the other direction–always putting everyone else first, until they wind up exhausted, spent, and resentful. Being a good mom requires enthusiasm and energy and commitment, and it’s hard to to drum up those qualities if you’ve been ignoring your needs for sleep, good food, socializing, exercise, and an inner life of your own. Also: being completely selfless has a way of turning into martyrdom, which isn’t the greatest example to set for your kids.

2. Is there anything moms do in an effort to improve their lives that paradoxically causes more distress and makes them more unhappy?

I think we tend to deny our own personalities sometimes in the name of self-improvement, and it doesn’t always work. We can’t all be loosey-goosey earth mothers or super-ambitious go-getters. That said, I think sometimes adopting a little more structure can make a laissez-faire mom a bit happier (it was easy to get by without a reliable bedtime before you had kids, but after they’re here, it might just make you crazy) and on the flip side, women who were super structured before having children might find that “going with the flow” a little helps them keep their expectations in check.

3. What’s your best tip for moms who want to have a happier relationship with their men?

Realize that your life won’t be like THIS (whatever rough stage “this” is) forever. Having small children is incredibly stressful to a marriage and you won’t even have time to work through some of the growing pains you experience during that time, because they keep changing! (Unless you have a large family, in which case you’ll probably start to get it figured out by, oh, kid number four or so…) But the good news is, infancy and toddlerhood really go by so fast. In a few years you’ll be sleeping again, your child won’t be hanging on your legs all day, you’ll be able to more easily plan time together or keep from snapping at your spouse because it’s been at least a week since you had any time alone. Or maybe you’re in a rough spot because of a layoff or a troubled teen or (fill in the blank.) Either way, the hard time you’re having probably won’t define your entire life together, so work on staying as connected as you can, as loving as you can, as forgiving as you can, and then dig in your heels and ride it out to smoother waters.

4. Any secret tips for getting your spouse to pitch in more without having to nag or hear him groan or roll his eyes?

Oh gosh. I wish. I think depending on the guy, he may respond to requests, he may respond to lists, he may respond to outright sexual bribery…but he may not respond to any of those things. Here’s the thing: I have found a lot more satisfaction in my marriage by working on myself and adjusting my own expectations and standards than I ever did trying to get my husband to change. Once I stopped viewing my husband’s failure to do the dishes as a personal insult, I realized it’s really not that big a deal to just take care of it myself. Especially when I stop to really consider all the things he does around the house–like acting as our family’s unpaid IT consultant–that I don’t always take a moment to notice when I’m mad about the wadded-up towels on the floor.

5. You’ve managed to juggle a demanding career, have 5 kids, and stay sane. What’s your secret?

It might sound Pollyanna-ish, but I really believe that looking at my life in a positive light helps me stay on top of things without unraveling. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I’m way too busy this week, I don’t have enough child care, my house is a mess…” I try to think about things in more positive terms: “I’m looking forward to this exciting time. Wow, I am so efficient, I can handle this schedule without a lot of help! I wonder how clean I can get this house this afternoon…”

Perception is reality. If I think of myself as tired, overwhelmed, and unhappy, that’s how I’ll feel. And vice versa.

To win a copy of The Happiest Mom, just comment on this post. You can either share your best happiness tip, or you can tell us how parenting or marriage destroyed your peace of mind. Or you can just let us know why you need this book. I’ll pick two winners by Sunday night.

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How to stop fighting about dirty clothes

I guess you might call this Housekeeping Week here at Yesterday you got tips on bathroom organization. Today another guest poster will offer tips to help you stop fighting about dirty laundry. I met Sarah Welch while we were both waiting to be interviewed for the 10! Show in Philadelphia. We have a lot in common. I’m guessing her house is a lot cleaner and more organized than mine. But, hey, it’s not a competition and she’d be the first to tell you that. Sarah is the co-author of Pretty Neat and the co-founder of

Yes, honey, there is an inside to the hamper

By Sarah Welch

I have a problem.

My dear husband seems to miss the point of hampers entirely.

Perhaps that’s unfair. What he seems to miss is that there’s an inside to the darn things.

When he sheds his clothes for the day, they always end up on top of, hanging over the side of, or balled up next to…but never in…the laundry basket.

Invariably when I go to toss clothes of my own into the basket, my biceps get a little workout as I struggle to lift a lid weighted down by several pairs of jeans and fleece jackets. A baseball cap often flutters to the floor landing next to some balled up boxers or smelly socks.

It’s a constant source of frustration.

I’ve tried ignoring the problem, gently reminding him of how hampers work, removing the lid, lobbing dirty socks at him…wailing and gnashing my teeth.

All to no avail.

It’s not that he’s trying to make me nuts. He simply doesn’t see the basket as anything more than a flat surface, despite its cylindrical shape.

And the occasional floor dropping? He doesn’t “see” those either.

In the scheme of things, it isn’t that big of a deal. It only affects our room, and it only takes me a few seconds to either deal with or work around. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a significant source of marital tension.

To be fair, my tendency to shove groceries willy-nilly into the fridge and pantry drives him equally batty.

Like it or not, our individual organizational tics can create minefields in our marriages. The little things, like dirty dishes that never make it into the dishwasher or dirty clothes that never make it into the hamper, are the cavities of our unions. Little holes that, if ignored, will eat away and eventually rot something once solid.

The key is to catch your organizational cavities before they cause serious damage.

Stop complaining & fix it already.

Tired of complaining about my husband’s clothes-dropping habits and hearing him grumble to me about what a mess the fridge was, we agreed recently that we needed to stop whining and do something about it. Complaining is so darn impotent; there’s an inherent resignation in every complaint that things will not change.

We both needed to figure out ways to trick ourselves into doing things we didn’t think we liked doing, such as putting the groceries away neatly and yes, getting clothes inside the hamper, on autopilot.

It turns out the fix for his hamper-myopia was relatively simple. We put a little basketball hoop right over the opening and, voila, it was transformed from something he just didn’t see into a fun game he plays twice a day. I have to admit I really enjoy the thrill of sinking a sock from across the room now too, something I’d never have experienced if it weren’t for his shortcoming.

Addressing the grocery pit ended up being simple too. I created some pretty stickers to indicate where items should go, and can now not only put things away faster but shave minutes off of meal prep every, single, day. Not a bad thing. I also love seeing him smile whenever he opens the pantry.

The bottom line is: actions speak louder than words. Nothing says “I love you” more powerfully than addressing the one or two tiny little things you do on a regular basis that make your spouse nuts (and not in a good way).

So what about you? How do you currently handle your organizational differences? How might your union be improved if you stopped complaining about each other’s organizational tics and actually thought creatively about how to solve them with minimal effort?

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Gretchen Rubin Dishes About Her Marriage

A few years ago, several publishers turned down the opportunity to publish Project: Happily Ever After(that’s my new book in case you are new here) because they said it was too similar to The Happiness Project, at the time a soon-to-be published book by Gretchen Rubin. The Happiness Project went on to become a #1 New York Times Bestseller and be translated into several languages.

If I was an enlightened human being, I would have been happy for Gretchen’s good fortune. I would also have been happy for her readers who were benefiting from the spread of her message and able to improve their lives as a result. I wasn’t. I’ll admit: I was filled with envy. I wanted what Gretchen had.

Flash forward roughly two years. My book is about to be published. A friend asks me if I’d like to join an author’s group. Gretchen is a member of said group. Gretchen and I trade emails. Gretchen says she’d like to read my book. I mail it to her. She says she loves it. We meet for coffee. We become friends. I feel guilty about ever feeling envious of her. And we agree that our books are similar in the following respects:

* They have many similar words in the titles.

* They are both memoirs with a “project” theme.

And that’s it. Her book is about happiness. Mine is about marriage. You could read both and never feel as if you just had a deja vu moment (unlike the folks who read my Facebook feed and who have deja vu moments all the time because it’s broken and always feeds the blog posts in twice). Several people have told me that Project: Happily Ever After has saved their marriages. I’m telling you that The Happiness Project just might save your peace of mind. It’s coming out in paperback. You can find out where to preorder it. Gretchen is giving away a free copy of her Happiness Paradoxes to everyone who pre-orders. To get it, just email her with “I pre-ordered” in the subject line.

What follows is my interview with Gretchen about marriage.

1. How has the Happiness Project (the book and blog and not the actual year long project) impacted your marriage? Does writing about happiness lead to marital happiness?

Absolutely. One of the main goals of my happiness project was to have warmer, more romantic, more light-hearted atmosphere in my marriage, and that has truly happened. It’s a sad fact about a happiness project that you can only change yourself, but when I changed, my relationship changed, and my husband changed. We’re a lot more patient with each other, more affectionate, better about doing the little annoying tasks that the other wants us to do. Also, we “catch” happiness from each other, and as I boosted my happiness, it lifted my husband’s happiness as well.

2. You worked on nagging in the book. That’s a big one for a lot of readers here. What do you think was the most effective technique you used to get yourself to stop doing it?

Alas, the most effective technique was…to do a task myself. I realized that I was nagging most about assignments I gave to my husband, without much regard to whether he thought they were tasks that needed doing at all. For instance, I realized that he didn’t care about sending out family Valentine’s Day cards, so he didn’t want to help. Valentine’s cards were something that was important to me, not him — so why did I get to make him help?

3. What is your favorite piece of marital advice?

Before I got married, someone told me, “Leave something unsaid every day.” That’s good advice!

4. Is there anything you do for your marriage every day?

I give my husband a proper hello and good-bye. I have a little conversation, give a kiss — not just a “Hey” shouted from across the room while I’m busy checking my email. I do the same thing with my daughters, too, and expect them to do the same. We call this “warm greetings and farewells” as in “Come on, I need a warm greeting.”

5. During those frustrating moments in marriage, what do you tell yourself to help yourself get back to a positive place?

I try to keep a sense of humor. This is so, so hard for me. But if I can joke around, or talk in a more light-hearted way, it makes me calmer and more constructive. I suspect that my husband has figured out that if I’m angry, he should wait for a few minutes before engaging, to let me my better instincts kick in.

Gretchen has offered to give away one free copy of the Happiness Project to a PHEA reader. I will choose the winner from the comments this Saturday (2/26) using In the comments, let’s discuss: What can you do to boost your happiness without the help of your spouse?


* POOF BOOKS reviewed PHEA saying, “While the book does indeed have a happy ending, boy it was a heck of a ride to get there.”

* I will be on WBFF Fox 45 Morning News in Baltimore this Friday around 9:20 talking about marriage. I understand that viewers will be able to call in and ask me questions. If you live in the area, I’d love to hear from you while I’m on air.

* I finally cracked the 100 site mark for the PHEA virtual tour!

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The Fabulous PHEA Giveaway

You will soon find out how you can get a free 83-page ebook plus enter to win a Kindle, romantic vacation, free marital counseling and much more.

But first, some back-story.

On December 28th, I will celebrate the birth of my book Project: Happily Ever After. This book, my dear friends, means a lot to me. I’ve made my writing career as a ghostwriter and book collaborator. I know it sounds like a great big giant oxymoron, but I’m almost famous for my ghost writing abilities. I’ve been a part of 7 bestsellers, only one of which had my name on it (as a “with” line.)

Project: Happily Ever After is my first solo authored book. My name is so totally on this book cover, and it’s not underneath anyone else’s name.

This book was scary for me to write. It has a sex scene. I cringe at the thought of my mother in law reading those pages. I just might take a sharpie to her version. It also is as fearlessly honest as this blog. In it, you will read about a woman (me) during her lowest point in life. I did not like myself at my lowest point in life. You might not like me either. Still, I felt it was important to get over my fears because I do believe that this book is a good thing. It will help people.

It will help people feel normal.

It will help people feel less alone.

And I’m hoping that it will help people save their marriages.

I want this book to sell. I want it to sell so I can help others, and I want it to sell so I can follow up and write another book. I already know what I want the second (or 31st depending on your perspective) book to be about. I’m walking around with a Table of Contents in my head. But I need to prove myself with this book, first, before anyone will invest in the second one.

And, being the honest person you know me to be, I must admit that I want it to sell so I can prove a few people wrong. There were people who told me that this book could not sell. They thought it would not sell because I did not have a PhD or because I was not famous enough (or at all, really). I want to prove them wrong.

Will you help me prove them wrong?

You don’t have to do it only as a favor for me. Even if you don’t know me (say, this is your very first time on this blog), you can do it for yourself.

The Giveaway

When you buy Project: Happily Ever After before January 31st, you get a second book, free!

I’m giving away a FREE 70+ page ebook with proof of early purchase of Project: Happily Ever After. Called 5 Months to a Better Marriage, the free ebook is a daily marriage devotional. You can use it like a workbook to take small baby steps toward a better marriage.

Don’t stop reading. There’s more! When you show me proof of purchase, you not only get this FREE ebook, you also will be entered into a drawing for a host of really awesome prizes including a romantic getaway, a Kindle and more. More on the prizes in a bit. First: how to enter.

All you need to enter is proof of purchase of Project: Happily Ever After. You may purchase the hardcover OR the ebook–both of which are currently available for pre-order at online retailers. Email your proof of purchase to this address before January 31st. (Lost your receipt? No worries. Keep reading. You can still enter!)

What is Project: Happily Ever After? Check this page to read more about the book, see some early praise, and watch a trailer.

You may enter this giveaway UP TO 10 TIMES. That means, if you purchase 10 copies, you get 10 chances to win. It’s my goal to pre-sell 5000 copies before Jan 1. If 500 people buy 10 copies each before Jan. 1, I will reach my goal. Will you be one of my 500 closest friends?


Due to shipping costs, you may only enter the giveaway if you live in the US. You may, however, get the free ebook no matter where you live in the world.

Project Happily Ever After releases Dec. 28, but you can pre-order it now. To enter, just send a receipt, a photo of you with the book, or the correct answers to three challenge questions to this email.

I’m taking entries through the end of January, so if you’ve already pre-ordered and have already lost your proof of purchase, not to worry. Just wait until your book arrives, find the answers to these challenge questions and then email those answers to me.

The Challenge Questions

1.    What did my husband (then my boyfriend) ask me to never read and then I read it anyway? (HINT: it’s on pg. 43)

2.    What’s the name of the sex toy shop we visited in New York? (HINT: it’s on pg. 151)

3.    According to my husband, what is the purpose of life? (HINT: It’s on pg 202)

The Prizes

I will pick the winner by random drawing. The prizes are:

1.    A Romantic Getaway! 2 free nights out of four in a Cape Cod Mass B&B.The Chez Sven Bed &Breakfast  is beautiful, hospitable and eco-friendly. Offer is good Sunday through Thursday Valentine’s Day through April 30. Retail value $400

2.    A Communication Styles Consultation for Couples! Get a free consultation with couples counselor Robert Keteyian, who is a regular here at PHEA. Retail value $300

3.    A Kindle ereader (3G)!Retail value $189

4.    A 3 Month Membership to the online marriage enhancement program Power of Two! Retail value $54

5.    Nookii couples board game! From Retail value $49.95

6.    A 6-month subscription to E-mealz! the cost-cutting and meal planning site. Retail value of $30

7.    Sexy Love Sox! They keep you warm. They teach him how to give you a good foot rub. Retail value $14.95

8.    A Waterproof Pocket Rocket! (That would be a vibrator, folks) From Retail value $13.95

Read all of the small print on the Official Promotion Rules. Please order your copy (or 10 copies) of Project: Happily Ever After today! Please use this email to enter the contest.

In the comments area of this post, discuss this. What would you do with 10 copies of Project: Happily Ever After? Who would you give them to? Would you use them for a creative non-reading use? Dish. 

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