Got Crayons?

Who inspires you?
Don’t you just love it when you meet someone that really inspires you? Maybe it’s someone famous, but maybe not. Maybe it’s someone from your community, or maybe it’s even someone you work with. But you know that feeling you get, when you realize, wow, this person is pretty amazing and I really admire them and they make me want to be a better person?
Yeah, that feeling. It’s pretty great, isn’t it?
Well that’s the feeling I got when I met children’s book author Drew Daywalt during my recent SoCal visit.

I Found My Crayons!
Drew is the author of “The Day the Crayons Quit,” which has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for, oh I don’t know, TWO YEARS. He just released a sequel, “The Day the Crayons Came Home,” also currently on the NYTBS list. It turns out he’s good friends with my ex-brother-in-law, Jim. Jim invited me to the book launch for “The Day the Crayons Came Home,” which just happened to be the day before I was leaving SoCal. I said yespleasethankyou.

the day the crayons came home

We drove out to Camarillo, which was about an hour away, for the very first book signing, the very first day the book was available, which took place at a children’s / young adult bookstore. We arrived in time to see Drew thronged by small children and “children’s book groupies” (I didn’t know that was a thing! I now have another goal in life – to have groupies). I got to meet Drew, as well as his charming wife Marichelle, and a few of their friends. It was great fun, and as I was standing there with my books, waiting for my chance to get them signed, I realized that wow, this is really something. Here is someone who started out writing screenplays (just try finding someone living in SoCal who HASN’T at one time or another written, or attempted to write, a screenplay), worked hard to find a children’s literature agent, waited 6 years to get picked up by a publisher, then another 2 years for the illustrations to be finished, and then – released a book that’s clever, funny, beautiful and – as it so happens – successful.
Drew was very kind, very funny, and was a real pleasure to meet. As was his wife. I ended up emailing with her once I got back to Tulsa, and she was very kind and gave me some suggestions for getting started in The Game. Oh and here’s one of the coolest parts of the story! It turns out that Jim had given them a copy of my book, “The Thunderstorm,” for Christmas. You know, that book my Uncle and I self-published last year. And they LIKED it! Ooooo! So I really feel I’m on the right track.

Step One: Find Inspiration. Step Two: Do the Work.
I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. I know that Drew’s kind of story doesn’t happen very often. Nonetheless, it’s a story of perseverance, hard work, talent and patience. It’s a story that reminds me of the most important thing about being a writer: to write. Oh, and getting an agent never hurts.




Blank Journals – Possibilities or Paperweights?

Anything is possible…
We all are attracted to things that allow us to see possibility in our lives.
New Year’s resolutions promise the dawn of a whole new era – more exercise, better eating, less annoying habits. Birthdays, once you reach a certain age, can scare the shit out of you as you realize you may possibly be running out of time at an alarming rate, and you’d better get your act together and make this the year you finally take up yoga or skydiving or vegan eating (as soon as you finish off the birthday cake). And my favorite possibility – springtime. When the plants are growing, the birds are happy, and by golly everything looks fresh and new and promising…

Paper, possibly?
And so we take that attitude of possibility with us when we go shopping. For example, how many times have you bought a new sketchbook, notebook or blank journal and taken it home, all excited about your new purchase? There’s a good chance you’ve done this, because there seems to be a huge market for blank books. Someone must be buying these things! (The only statistic I could find on the interwebs was one web site, that in 2011, estimated that maybe 1 million Moleskines alone were sold each year*. And Moleskines are just a drop in the bucket of the entire universe of blank books…)
I’ve bought quite a few notebooks over the years – just sitting here at the kitchen table, I can see two sketchbooks and 2 lined journals. I’ve bought new ones to take on trips. I’ve bought new ones because the cover was pretty. I even received an entire BOX of lined notebooks from a financial product wholesaler, so I am SET with about a billion First Trust Advisors blank books. I’ve bought sketchbooks for drawing, one for watercolor, some for art journaling, and not just a few for the hell of it.
How come we do this?
OK, there may be a few other words that come to mind, like “I need a blank book to write notes in for my anger management class,” or “I need a new journal because that other one I bought last week doesn’t fit in my ______.” [purse] [backpack] [glove box]
But if you follow these statements back, back even further, always asking yourself why you bought that notebook – it always ends up at one answer – possibility. You are gonna fill that notebook up with your awesomeness from cover to cover.
Any day now.

Now what?
I BUY blank journals and sketchbooks and whatnot, but then I take them home and sit there and look at my purchase and think, “but it’s so _________.” [fancy] [empty] [intimidating] [big]
“I can’t write in that! What if whatever I put in there sucks! I’ll mess it up!”
And so the blank book sits on the shelf and I end up with stuff on 12 scraps of paper and 27 post-its scattered all over the house instead.
Do you do this? I suspect that at least half of all people who buy blank books don’t actually use them. I seriously doubt I am alone here. How many of these things do you have sitting on YOUR shelf? Come on – be honest now!

not ALL of them are empty...
not ALL of them are empty… of course I don’t think this is all of them, either…

Taking pencil to (spiral bound) paper
I will report, however, that I’ve been making progress lately. Ever since I became self-employed, I write things down a lot more. A few months ago, I took the first step and wrote something down in my journal. It was hard to get over that “I’ll mess it up” feeling but I avoided that by actually leaving the first page blank – so when I open it I don’t see whatever possibly stupid thing I wrote down.
Soon I progressed to writing down whatever I was thinking, but then tearing out the page because it really was STUPID. Baby steps y’all.
Now I just write stuff down. In my notebook. Maybe it’s just 3 words that help me clarify a thought. Maybe it’s part of a story that I’ll never get back to. Whatever it is – it’s in the journal. And it’s ok. I actually have 3 journals around the house, just so if I am thinking of something I have a place to write it down. Because when you write something on a piece of paper, with a pen or pencil, you are making it more real. I really do believe that committing something to paper is much different than committing it to phone or tablet or computer. (No, I didn’t write this article out on paper first, but I DID write notes for it in my journal!) And if you write it all down in a journal, your brilliant (or mediocre) ideas are less likely to end up in the laundry or stuck under the table.

Journal as history
Last spring, when I went to Texas for my 2015 Spring Coffee Tour, I took several blank books with me, including a small blank journal that I had made by hand. I cut the paper, glued it together, and made a cover. I put it in my bag, and used it to take notes about all the places I stopped for coffee. It was such a great exercise to write down what I was seeing and tasting and hearing and feeling. Maybe there’s no brilliant words in there, but they’re my words, I wrote them, and I’ll have them when I look back and reminisce about Coffees I Have Loved. (Hey that’s a great book title, wait a minute…)

I think I’ll make another book like this and take it along with me next week on the 2015 Summer Coffee Tour. What possibilities wait for me in those blank pages…

my 2015 spring coffee tour notebook... good times!
my 2015 spring coffee tour notebook… good times! (artwork by karen bates of course!)

Do you have blank journals at home? Leave a comment below, and let us know how many, and if you use them or not – I’d like to know! Whoever has the most, wins a prize!

“Moleskine Monday: A Million a Year? Or More?” from “Notebook Stories” published 6/6/11


The Story Behind the Story

There are those Things that get you in The Zone.
Everyone has their “thing.”
Your thing might be Cooking, or Yoga, or Bicycling. Or Tree Categorizing, or maybe Weaving With Hair – whatever. The point is, you hopefully have that one thing (or maybe more than one?) that when you’re doing it, you’re in THE ZONE, and time stands still and you are happy, and you know you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing right at that moment.
My thing is Writing.
Well, not just any writing, but specifically, short story writing. Every so often, everything falls together just perfectly and a wonderful piece of art is created.
Sometimes I find a piece of a story idea, and I’ll think Eureka! The Next Thing! I’ll sit down to write it, and it’s a struggle. The rest of the pieces don’t come together, and I have a half page full of words that aren’t really going anywhere yet. Most of these ideas are still good ones, and do eventually turn into nice stories, but they’re a struggle and often require quite a bit of work.
But then I’ll find a story that seems to write itself, from beginning to end. More accurately, the story finds me, and I sit down and write it without even knowing where it’s going. It just shows up and I write it. The process still amazes me, every single time.
This happened last week, and it all started with a photo on Instagram.

hashtag - cute [cat emoji]
hashtag – cute [cat emoji] (photo courtesy of Christina Gandolfo)
How the story begins…
One of my favorite photographers on IG is Christina Gandolfo (on IG as @gandolphoto). She’s an a-MAY-zing professional photographer and posts lots of great personal photos on Instagram – including lots of cat photos! No, I don’t think she’s actually hit “crazy cat lady” status – at least it doesn’t appear that way on IG – but they do show up pretty regularly (they’re so cute!!)
Last week, she posted a great photo of her cat Lucy. And here are the comments below the photo:
@gandolphoto: Lucy and the paper lantern.
@ac_neil: This is a great title for a kids book. Just sayin.
@gandolphoto: I’d read it!
@ac_neil: OK, I’ll write it.
@gandolphoto: [book emoji] [thumbs up emoji] [cat with heart eyes emoji]

And there you go.
I have no idea what she might have been thinking at this point, because we don’t actually know each other. Maybe she was thinking that some nut job named ac_neil was going to have to be blocked from her account. I don’t know. But I’ll assume a better scenario.

Write on.
Anyway, I set out to write the story. I got a little CRAZY and actually started with an outline, which is unusual for me. It really did write itself. I then sent the outline to my friend Cynthia, who is an awesome illustrator (seriously, she has super powers), asking her if she’d be interested in illustrating it. She said, Sure! OK, that’s settled.

some of Cynthia's beautiful work!
some of Cynthia’s beautiful work! (artwork courtesy of Cynthia Frenette)

Then I wrote the first draft of the story in a couple of hours. Yep that’s right – it wrote… itself. I sent it to Cynthia to see if she still liked it. Her response: “Eee I love it! I got goosebumps!”
Had she just said “I got goosebumps” I would’ve erred on the side of caution, assumed it was so bad it was mutating her skin somehow, and put the story away, into the Recycle Bin. Fortunately the 3 E’s and “I love it” indicated a green light.
Next I sent the story to Ms. Gandolfo. Whaddya know – she likes it! And she said Lucy likes it too. Well that seals the deal. Game on!

To be continued!
Sadly, you are still a little ways off from being able to read it, as there’s quite a bit of work yet to be done. Cynthia and I need to figure out the layout and illustrations. And then there’s the whole question of publishing. Do we self-publish, or could it be good enough that we could shop it around?
I’m not really sure where to go with this yet. But as the story takes shape, maybe the next step will present itself. And if you have any ideas or suggestions, please let us know…!

I am, to put it mildly, really excited about this project. Not only has a great story shown up, but a super cool illustrator is going to bring some life to the words. I also named the other main character Yuri – after my friend by that name who lives in Japan. We haven’t seen each other for over 10 years but she remains, to this day, one of my very best friends. So there’s that.
Oh and it looks like I may get to actually meet Christina “@gandolphoto” Gandolfo when we head out to SoCal in a few weeks. Here’s to bringing people together and making new friends!
Thanks, interwebs.

You can find Cynthia online at Green Couch Designs and, and on Instagram @cynthiafrenette
You can find Christina Gandolfo online at and on Instagram @gandolphoto
And I am on Instagram @ac_neil – come follow us!

andrea and yuri, circa 2004
andrea and yuri, circa 2004

Writing down my stuff

I’m totally kidding!
Have you ever gotten called out on a behavior, either by someone else, or yourself, and then just kind of laughed and said something like, “Oh yeah, well, you know, I’m OCD, hahaha…”
So why does this happen? Is OCD funny?
Um, no.
Maybe it’s because we just got called out on something unusual and are trying to make light of it, and make an excuse that’s a little more light-hearted than, “oh yeah well it’s true I am very weird.”
Or maybe you don’t do this at all, and it’s just me…
Maybe you’ve said the same sentence but substituted “ADD” in place of “OCD?” Which is no more or less funny, just a way to describe a whole different set of behavior.

Or maybe not.
I’ve “joked” about having OCD for a while and recently started “joking” about being ADD. I thought I was just “joking” except for when I last visited my therapist, and I said something like “well you know, I’m OCD and ADD so it’s not surprising that…” (fill in the blank with something of your choosing as long as it’s not a criminal activity or anything mean) – and she said “Yes, you are a little OCD and ADD…”

The math doesn’t look good…
(OCD + ADD)(finding life purpose)/quitting your job = FREAKOUT
It’s true, I’m a walking bundle of nerves. A Chinese acupuncturist I used to visit mused that perhaps I was dropped on my head when I was small, and something went wrong, because I am just wired this way. I could make a typo here and say “maybe I am just weird this way” and it would be just as apt. But I digress.
So toss in some OCD and ADD, multiply that by working hard to find what my purpose is and how I can give more to others, divided by having left my comfy spot in Korporate Amerika and what do you get? A really happy human who is grateful to have this chance to turn her life into something more meaningful… AND WHO IS ON THE VERGE OF A FREAKOUT AT ANY MINUTE!
I wish I could say I was totally relaxed and chill all the time. It’s true I’m waaaaay happier, and a little healthier. But all this freedom and all these ideas for things to do and things to write, and people to talk to, has left me a little adrift.

oh look! interwebs!

New math
I’ve had to search to find a new way to structure my work. I spent over 20 years as a Desk Hamster, working for a salary. Whether I rushed through a project or not – I got paid the same. So how to move over to a different model? It hasn’t been easy. I still like to procrastinate even though I’m trying hard not to.
This is all a work in progress! I’m collecting information – reading books, listening to podcasts, talking to other people – and putting together something that will work for me. I think it’s coming together…

What’s YOUR equation?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far, is that like learning styles, people’s organizational styles are also totally different. So what works for one person, may not work for another. Some people are all-digital, some are all analog (oh I mean paper).
Fortunately, there’s so much STUFF out there that there’s something for everyone!
Unfortunately, there’s so much STUFF out there that it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Solve for X!
So I don’t want to add to the clutter, but I did want to share with you one thing I’ve come up with for myself. I made myself a little to-do / idea sheet, that I use every day (at least Monday – Friday).
I use both electronic organizational tools as well as paper. But one thing I believe for sure is that there’s just no substitution for paper. The act of writing something down is powerful. So every morning, I write down mah stuff.
I developed this little tool based on conversations I’ve had with a few people, as well as thinking about what I need most. Here’s what my to-do list includes:

  • What are the top 3 things I need to do today?
  • What are some other things that if I could get them done, that would be fabulous?
  • Have I done the 3 things today that I should be doing EVERY day?
  • What other ideas are floating around in my head that I might want to jot down?

It’s been great! I start my day by prioritizing my top 3 tasks. I write down other things I’d like to do, time permitting. If I don’t get them done, I add them to my next day’s list. If I end up never getting to them, chances are they weren’t that much of a priority and my time was ultimately better spent elsewhere (hopefully not on Facebook).
This small act has helped me make more sense of my day, and has alleviated some of my FOS (FreakOut Stress).

I’ve put 4 of them on a full-page PDF file, so when you print one page, you can cut it up and have 4 days’ worth of lists. It’s small enough you can tuck it in your pocket and keep it with you all day.
You definitely don’t have to be OCD or ADD to use this! If this to-do list looks like something you’d like to use, you’re in luck! I’d be happy to send it to you.
All you need to do is sign up here for my Super Cool Newsletter! It comes out about every 2 weeks, and includes thought-worthy tidbits, blog post recaps, and absolutely NO spammy stuff! And I’ll send you my handy PDF as a most heart-felt thank you!

For a limited time, I can even personalize this to-do list for you. If you don’t like “Eat Healthy,” “Exercise,” or “Relax” as your check-boxes, you can choose 3 that you do like and I’ll customize the sheet just for you.
So sign up here, and I’ll send you this handy little doo-dad!
You are totally rad. Be sure you’re doing everything you can to let that shine through.

If you’ve already signed up for my newsletter (thanks!) and would like the PDF, just contact me and I’ll be happy to send it to you, too. 


What’s Your Personal Brand?

Marketing 101
“Brand Strategy” or “Brand Management” have long been terms associated with the world of marketing and advertising. Since I sometimes geek out on these types of things, I turned to the interwebs to see what’s new. I found a cool little article on the Entrepreneur website, titled “The Basics of Branding.” Here are some quotes from the article (references at the end of the article):

  • Simply put, your brand is your promise to your customer. It tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates your offering from your competitors’. Your brand is derived from who you are, who you want to be and who people perceive you to be.
  • The foundation of your brand is your logo. Your website, packaging, and promotional materials – all of which should integrate your logo – communicate your brand.
  • Defining your brand is like a journey of business self-discovery. It can be difficult, time-consuming and uncomfortable. It requires, at the very least, that you answer the questions below:
    • What is your company’s mission?
    • What are the benefits and features of your products or services?
    • What do your customers and prospects already think of your company?
    • What qualities do you want them to associate with your company?

When I read this, I think of companies, like Coach, LuluLemon, Nike, etc. Companies with recognizable logos, and brand identities with whom people want to associate themselves. I’m sure you can think of a few examples as well…

Let’s Get Personal
Another set of buzzwords these days is “Personal Branding,” or discovering your “Personal Brand.” This, according to Wikipedia, can entail “marketing oneself and career as brands.” Huh! So you could take all of the above info and apply it to… your own career! If you Google this topic, you’ll find oodles of information on “How to Build Your Personal Brand,” including a wikiHow article…
So these types of things come in handy when you are a freelancer, or starting your own business whether it be your main gig or a side hustle. Or even when you’re wanting a promotion at work or looking for a new job. But we could take this all one step further still…

Let’s Get Even More Personal
What if you aren’t trying to sell a product, or a service, or yourself… but you thought of Personal Branding simply as how you present yourself in the world?
For a long, long, LONG time, I gave no thought to my Personal Brand. Or if I did, I’d tell myself I just didn’t care. But now, I think it does.
You don’t need your own logo. You don’t need to sell your own “benefits or features” to anyone or any entity. But some of the information from that Entrepreneur article still applies to Life In General. Like:

What is your mission? What do you really want to do in your life, how would you like to spend your time? What kinds of things would you like to see, when you look back at your life, or how would you like to be remembered? For me, the answers to these questions are becoming a little more clear. I want to help people. I want to help people be awesome! Maybe that’s by re-writing someone’s resume, editing their book – or introducing two people to each other who I feel might benefit from knowing each other. Or helping other people bring their awesomeness out into the world in whatever way is best for them. I know, it sounds a bit vague, I’m still working it out. But these things are starting to happen, now that I’ve started to become more clear…
What are your strengths and best attributes? What do you like best about yourself? Is there a way you can utilize these traits more? Are there ways you could try to enhance them?
I think I’m funny and smart, and organized and eloquent (on paper, anyway). I think those are pretty good traits. How can I bring those to the forefront? Maybe simply by remembering that I AM those things. Sometimes I forget. It’s easy to do.
What qualities do you want people to associate with you? Do you want to be thought of for being dependable and trustworthy? Or for being chronically late or overly negative? Again, it’s about remembering all of your totally rad qualities and then focusing on them more.

so what does this say about me...
so what does this say about me…

There are a few other things you can reflect on as well, such as how you appear to other people, what your speech or clothes say to others. I don’t mean superficially, like “I need 12 Louis Vuitton bags so that I look rich,” but more like “I like to make sure my clothes are clean and my socks match so that I come across as tidy or ‘together.’” Unless, of course, part of how you want to be seen is as a person who doesn’t match on purpose, or whose clothes are always a little wrinkly – in which case, rock on! (I have been known to go for this approach). Same goes for speech – do you cuss a lot? Great if that’s your bag, just be aware. Are you always putting yourself down when you talk to other people? Think about what that “says” about you.
We certainly don’t have to change these things, unless we want to. But it definitely seems worth it to take the time to be aware of what we are saying about ourselves.
Because after all – it’s our Personal Brand.

Williams, John “The Basics of Branding.” Entrepreneur. Entrepreneur Media

Wikipedia definition of Personal Branding:

wikiHow article, “How to Build Your Personal Brand”