Eight-Week Challenge Final Report

Eight-week challenge final resultsWeeks Five through Eight did not vary enough from the previous four weeks for me to have much to say worth sharing. In this final report I will focus on what I learned through setting out this personal challenge.

Again, a reminder of my goals:

  • eat more nutritious food with fewer empty calories,
  • walk at least 5,000 steps per day,
  • spend one day a week reading the backlog of magazines sitting on the end table, and
  • write at least 500 words per day for at least five days each week.

Lesson One: It’s good to be humble.

I set out this challenge with the hope I could repeat my success with joining Queen of Blank’s (real name, Danielle) Eight-Week Challenge almost a year ago. My goals were the same. Why would my success level be any different?

That’s where a bit of humility comes in. Last year I joined a challenge set out by someone else. I wasn’t the only person to join her challenge, so I thought I would see similar success with others joining my challenge. But that didn’t happen.

Last year the challenge followed shortly after I took part in the April A to Z challenge. I discovered Danielle and a number of other talented writers through that challenge. I followed many of them and many of them followed me.

But then I didn’t do much posting to my blog once I completed Danielle’s Eight-Week Challenge. By the time I set out my own challenge, I suspect many of those blogging friends I met the previous year were no longer looking for information from me. I had been silent for too long. I should have taken part in the A to Z challenge again this year.

Lesson Two: Without peer pressure, I don’t follow through very well.

I managed to meet my first goal–eating nutrient rich food–throughout the eight weeks. My success with the other goals was not so good.

I managed to increase the number of days I walked at least 500 steps over the course of the eight weeks, but overall I walked less during this eight-week period than I did last year.

As for goal three–getting rid of the magazine backlog–it looks like I did well if you focus on the green cells on the chart. But the truth is that I read all the short, easy ones first. I got ahead of the goal very early. But those longer magazines, filled with meatier articles that I want to savor and not just flip through, those magazines are still on the end table, waiting for me to pick them up.

Goal four–writing at least 500 words a day at least five days a week. That’s where I really slipped up. This is the one I hoped I could jump start by having others comment on the challenge, boosting my motivation. My posts only garnered one true comment (thank you, Dana Ellington) and three correctly spelled and punctuated comments that I identified as likely spammers–clever ones indeed to get past the spam filter.

Lesson Three: Quality is not improved by greater quantity

Another challenge I have taken part in for the past two years is the Goodreads Reading Challenge. Last year I set my goal to read 50 books. I finished that number of books with months to spare, so this year I set my goal at 75 books. And I found I sometimes picked up thin books just to be sure I would reach my goal. I went for quantity instead of quality. I finished reading 75 books this year by the middle of July. But some of those books represent wasted time.

The one success I can take from my failure to produce at least 500 words each day, my fourth goal, is that I didn’t just put something together to turn the white space with a 0 in it green. I knew I wasn’t in the right frame of mind every day to produce something, even as a first draft, worth putting on paper or screen. So I didn’t settle for quantity.

This lesson makes me wonder if, in the end, setting up the challenge may have been a negative influence instead of a motivating one. I’ll have to try keeping my goals to myself for awhile.

 

 

Eight-Week Challenge: Weeks Three and Four

Weeks Three and Four: small improvements from Weeks One or Two. Again, a reminder of my goals:

  • eat more nutritious food with fewer empty calories,
  • walk at least 5,000 steps per day,
  • spend one day a week reading the backlog of magazines sitting on the end table, and
  • write at least 500 words per day for at least five days each week.

My first goal, eating more nutritious food with fewer empty calories, continues on track. I did learn, however, that relying on nuts for nutrition isn’t as simple as pouring them from the giant bag of pecans, almonds, or walnuts I bring home from Costco. They need to be soaked first. And just dipping them into a bowl of water for 20 minutes before eating them isn’t enough of a soak.

My writing teacher pointed out the practice of soaking nuts to me when she assumed I already knew about it because it is commonplace in the parts of the Middle East she knew. I managed to live eight years in Middle Eastern countries without ever realizing the nuts people served had been soaked first. That’s likely because once soaked, the nuts were dried for storage.

Initially, I assumed the soaking was to make the nuts (or beans or other whole grains) more easily digestible, but a woman from my church filled me in on the most important reason nuts and grains should be soaked before eating: nuts are covered in enzyme inhibitors. Their purpose is to prevent premature germination and to store nutrients for plant growth. But when humans eat foods with these chemicals, the enzyme inhibitors reduce the absorption of important minerals and proteins causing nutrient deficiencies. Soaking and sprouting bypass this issue as they activate the seed and neutralize the inhibitors.

For a handy chart of how long to soak nuts, beans, and grains, check out this post from DaNelle of weedemandreap.

I’ve been working on how to soak and then dehydrate nuts and grains one at a time, starting with pecans which require four to six hours of soaking (add salt to the filtered water) followed by dehydrating. The dehydrating instructions DaNelle referred to (Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions) recommend placing the drained nuts on a cookie sheet and then placing it in an oven set no higher than 150 degrees for 12 to 24 hours. My oven won’t go any lower than 170 degrees, and so far I’ve been satisfied with drying the nuts in the oven for two hours. At that point they are crispy, slightly salty, and can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for at least a week.

In Week Two, I met my goal of walking at least 5,000 steps each day only twice (Monday and Tuesday). In Week Three I upped that to three times, and in Week Four, four times. And I increased the number of days I met my writing goal from one in Week Two to four in Week Three, but I fell back to three in Week Four.

I’m still reading other women’s stories about living in (and leaving) Iran. I’ve knocked off four of the eight library books in the reading about Iran series. Well, I finished reading three, and I read enough of one more to decide I probably wouldn’t learn much from it, so I moved it to the bottom of the pile, to be picked up and finished only after I read the two remaining books.

Journey from the Land of No: a girlhood caught in revolutionary Iran, Roya Hakakian. Hakakian’s story touched me more than others because her family is Jewish, as is the Iranian family I spent most of my time in Iran among.

While I lived in Iran, I saw no evidence of anti-Semitism or discrimination against Jews. But I was an outsider, an observer without enough common experience to notice the subtleties in behavior. I didn’t know how well known certain members of the Jewish community were, especially since many of the family names appeared Armenian.

Through Hakakian’s story, I learned I knew only half of the story of Habib Elghanian‘s arrest in 1975 shortly after I arrived in Iran. I knew he founded Plasco, a company that sold anything and everything made of plastic. In 1975, when the Shah’s government imposed a freeze on prices throughout the country in an attempt to stop runaway inflation, Plasco raised its prices anyway. And Elghanian was arrested, an action we Americans understood telegraphed a message to other businessmen that the government meant business. That’s the half of the story I knew. What I didn’t know is that Elghanian was a leader among the Tehran Jewish community. He was released within a few days, but less than four years later, after Khomeini returned to Tehran and established the Islamic Republic of Iran, Elghanian became the first Jew to be executed by the Iranian revolutionary guards, on May 9, 1979.

Hakakian’s story touched me so deeply because the third Jew to be executed by the Iranian revolutionary guards, on July 31, 1980, was my friend, Abraham Beroukhim. After reading Hakakian’s story, I searched for information about Abraham, Abie as I knew him, and I found an interview with his nephew and other related pieces. The research suddenly became very personal.

Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth—A Memoir of Iran, Camelia Entekhabifard. Entekhabifard’s story is similar to many other tales of how the Iranian government mistrusts journalists, both those from outside the country and those who took on the role as loyal citizens. Imprisonment seems inevitable. Even after being released from prison, the former prisoners are not free. They are expected to spy on others, to report on anything suspicious they see or hear.

Even After All This Time: A Story of Love, Revolution, and Leaving Iran, Afschineh Latifi. The most impressive character in Latifi’s story is her mother. No more than a few years older than I am, she was widowed and left to raise four children when her husband, Col. Latifi, was executed by the Iranian government in the early days of the revolution. Latifi’s mother is not the first strong woman to appear in the series of books I am reading, but her resolve, determination, and devotion to ensuring her children grew up as their father wanted are inspiring. She kept her eyes on the future, never sinking into the pit of remorse or disappointment about the past. When faced by a setback, she dug until she found the gold nugget of joy, an opportunity.

Oh, and I did read a few magazines, too. Making progress.

Eight-Week Challenge: Week Two

Week Two: not much difference from Week One. Again, a reminder of my goals:

  • eat more nutritious food with fewer empty calories,
  • walk at least 5,000 steps per day,
  • spend one day a week reading the backlog of magazines sitting on the end table, and
  • write at least 500 words per day for at least five days each week.

A summary:

  • Food: Close enough.
  • Walking: Not enough.
  • Magazines: Whew!
  • Writing: Oh well.

As for my last two goals: I am writing, though I’m in the research phase, not the putting words to paper phase.

I’ve been struggling with whether my story of life in Iran in the mid-1970s (what we now know were the good old days) is worth telling, or more precisely, what audience may be interested in the lessons I learned during my 28 months there. As part of my survey of comparable or competitive books, I’ve requested a hold on every book in the San Diego County Library on Iran if it deals with the period spanning 1950 to the present, with an occasional book dealing with history from before that time. All those books are showing up at the same time. I have eight checked out right now. Reading those must be my priority. Those magazines can wait.

This week I’ve read the following:

Sky of Red Poppies, Zohreh Ghahremani. A coming of age novel of two schoolgirls from families professing opposite political viewpoints in 1960s Iran. It was my great luck to meet the author this week at an event sponsored by San Diego Writers, Ink, where she read a portion of a short story included in SDWI’s 10th anniversary A Year in Ink anthology. I’ll be reading more of her work. The Moon Daughter is on my to-read list.

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America, Firoozeh Dumas. A memoir focusing on the humor the author sees, perhaps only in hindsight, about her years as an Iranian émigré. Her comments regarding the prevalence of Iranians having nose jobs reminded me of the fact that nearly everyone I met in Iran asked how long ago I had had my nose done. Apparently, the one I was born with was the Iranian ideal. I contacted the author via Twitter and exchanged flattering comments, mine about her writing, hers about my nose.

Esther: Royal Beauty, Angela Hunt. When I expressed surprise that there were Jews living in Iran, my new Persian friend, Abie Beroukhim, explained that Esther of the Bible was Queen Esther, wife of the Persian King Xerxes. She and her guardian, Mordecai, who served in King Xerxes’s court, were part of the Jewish diaspora that chose to remain in what became Persia instead of returning to Jerusalem from Babylon when Xerxes’s predecessor several times removed, Cyrus the Great, released them from captivity in 539 BCE.

(An aside: Having read this story, I conducted a Google search for Abraham Beroukhim, Abie’s full name, and found this interview with his nephew of the same name. I’m glad that I had previously learned the sad news that Abie had been arrested in the early days of the revolution because reading—or hearing—about it from this link would have been too much of a shock. What happened to Abie is one of the reasons I want to complete my story—he was a major player.)

Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, Shirin Ebadi and Azadeh Moaveni. This is the first of Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi’s books detailing her struggles in Iran to defend those facing political persecution or the uneven impact of Iranian legal judgments on women who are considered worth only half the value of men. The most heartrending story in this book concerns the rape of a girl by three men who were arrested and charged. One of the men committed suicide and wasn’t tried. The other two men were tried and sentenced to be executed, but the girl’s family was expected to pay blood money to cover the value of the two men’s lives. In their struggle for justice for their daughter, they lost all their possessions, still failing to come up with the amount demanded of them. As a result, the two men were released.

Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran, Azadeh Moaveni. The author grew up in California as a result of her parents being caught there when the revolution broke out. In spite of her parents’ objections, she returned to Tehran, intending to remain, working as a journalist for Time. She fell in love, married, and gave birth to a child while in Iran. Nonetheless, the challenges of remaining true to her profession while not crossing lines her security services minder continually reminded her of proved insurmountable.

Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran, Shirin Ebadi. The most recent of Shirin Ebadi’s books explains how and why she now lives in exile, unable to return in spite of having earlier chosen to remain in Iran, fighting injustice from inside, no matter what machinations the government devised to frustrate her in their attempts to get her to stop her advocacy for human rights in Iran.

So I’m writing through the research and reading I’m doing. That’s good enough for now.

Eight-Week Challenge: Week One

It’s time to report on the results of my first week. As a reminder, my goals for the eight-week challenge:

  • eat more nutritious food with fewer empty calories,
  • walk at least 5,000 steps per day,
  • spend one day a week reading the backlog of magazines sitting on the end table, and
  • write at least 500 words per day for at least five days each week.

 

Week One Results

This is not a picture of success. My Body Mass Index (the measure of my nutritious food goal) remains in the desired zone, but the weight figure it is based on has been going up, not down. My failure to meet my activity goal—5,000 steps—contributes to this trend. I must do better.

I didn’t simply fail to reach my writing goal of 500 words per day. Except for the first day, I didn’t write any words at all. (I wrote the four posts published this week earlier and scheduled them for the first four days. It would have been cheating to count those words, right?)

My one success in Week One: cutting down my magazine backlog. Admittedly, I tackled the smallest magazines, the ones I could get through largely by skimming, not reading. That gives me breathing room for tackling the larger issues, Writer’s Digest and The Sun.

Here is some of what I learned from my reading last week:

From AARP Bulletin of March 2017: The median daily cost for long-term care in a semiprivate room in 2016 in North Dakota was $359, the fourth highest in the country. Only Connecticut, Maine, and New York costs are higher. More surprisingly, the median costs in the three states that border North Dakota were $205 (South Dakota), $215 (Montana), and $242 (Minnesota). I think the makings of a story can be found in those figures. I mean, North Dakota routinely appears on lists of the 10 best states to live in, raise children in, and for opportunities. Minnesota also appears on those lists. So what makes it so much more expensive to receive long-term care in North Dakota?

That issue’s “Scam Alert” article defines 19 terms to describe scams, most of which are related to online activity, though one, vishing, the use of recorded phone messages intended to trick you into revealing sensitive information for identity theft, may target someone who doesn’t own or use a computer. AARP often reports on seniors being targeted because of their greater vulnerability. (Did you notice I used “their,” not “our?” Denial, denial, denial.) AARP even offers Fraud Alerts to protect you from con artists’ scams and schemes. Sign up here.

Of more value to me are that issue’s article listing 50 ways to live longer. Those that surprised me include

  • Say yes to that extra cup (of coffee)
  • Eating hot chili peppers may add years to your life
  • Fidgeting is good. A 2016 British study finds that sitting for seven or more hours a day increases your risk of dying by 30 percent—except among active fidgeters, who see no increased risk.

The rest reflect conventional wisdom, not much news, or in my case, motivation.

Eight-Week Challenge: Preparation 4

Write More

  • Write at least 500 words per day at least five days each week.

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and very little writing. I blame the Goodreads challenge. Last year my goal was to read 50 books. That was so easy I met the goal before the end of August. So this year I set 75 books as my goal. Well, we’ve just dipped our toes into June and I’m only eight books short of completing my challenge.

For the remainder of the Goodreads challenge, my goal is to read books that relate to my major work-in-progress: a memoir of my two-plus years in Iran. That’s one strategy for getting me back on track with the memoir.

Last year I reviewed most of the books I read, to keep up the habit of writing. I began this year with good intentions, but few of the 67 books I’ve read so far have prompted me to write a review. I give out stars on Goodreads, but not much else. Writing up reviews of the more memorable books is a strategy for establishing better writing habits.

One new project for me this year is to encourage a group of women connected with my Sons of Norway lodge to write about their growing up years. We met this morning and I gave them an exercise to get them thinking. Our group doesn’t meet during the summer, but I promised (some may think I threatened) to send them writing prompts periodically during the summer to keep up the remembering. I wouldn’t dare send out a prompt without putting together my own thoughts to share. That’s my third strategy for improving my habit of writing.

And my last strategy: I pledge to share some of the wisdom I glean from all those magazines I will be reading. After that, I’ll be sharing the magazines themselves with my read-and-critique group, friends I think might be interested in them, or I’ll leave them in the doctors’ offices my husband and I seem to spend too much time in these days.

IWSG-October

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge
Here we are at the first Wednesday of the Month where many of us bloggers write about our hopes and fears in the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Please visit either site for more info and a list of participating bloggers, to join, or offer encouragement.

This month’s question is “When do you know your story is ready?”

My only relevant experience with determining whether something is “ready” is with submissions to anthologies. As a member of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, I have been submitting short pieces (the limit for the first three years was 1,500 words; this year’s was increased to 2,500 words) since I joined in 2013. In each case, I decided my story was ready when the deadline for submission was upon me. This year I took the additional step of having one of my read-and-critique groups review it with me as part of the revision process. The result was a much stronger story.

Read-and-critique groups are great!

At the same time, however, I have been struggling to determine just when to ignore the well-intentioned advice from my read-and-critique groups with my larger project. Ignore is not the right word, but I can’t come up with a more precise one. What I mean is that I realized recently that I have been adjusting my goal (an admittedly amorphous goal never committed to paper) as I have received feedback. For example, my original vision of my memoir was a single book packed full of stories of the many adventures I encountered while living in 11 foreign countries over a 30-year period. I had an elevator pitch to describe my project: My journey from seeking adventure to finding a mission. And I had lots of first drafts of the subplots and vignettes. I just needed to find the right order for them. At least, that’s what I thought.

After trying out a number of read-and-critique groups, I found two I felt fit me. I read with one group and then take the feedback to revise the pieces to read with the second group. That way both groups hear the whole piece. The feedback has been fabulous, except for one thing: I allowed the enthusiasm of the participants to make me think I should break up my story into separate books for each country.

And that’s when I got stuck. I don’t have a whole story for each country. And while I perhaps could squeeze out enough from my memories for a whole book on the first country, I don’t feel that wouldn’t make a very satisfying story. At least not for me. Because the story of my experiences in my first country is a story of failure.

I allowed myself to be lured down a path I hadn’t intended to go. But this does not mean I should have ignored the feedback. I needed the feedback to make me realize that I hadn’t done the groundwork to define my whole story. I thought the route would become clear once I began writing. Instead, I should have spent the time drawing the map so that I wouldn’t be tempted down another road.

So I’m backing up. I’m re-reading Marnie Freedman’s 7 Essential Writing Tools: That Will Absolutely Make Your Writing Better (And Enliven Your Soul) (I told her I would never finish it because there is so much in it worth another look) to help me draw my map first. Then I’ll get back to writing the story.

In the end, I hope I will know that story is ready when it fits the map I have not yet completed.

 

 

 

IWSG-September

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge
Here we are at the first Wednesday of the Month where many of us bloggers write about our hopes and fears in the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Please visit either site for more info and a list of participating bloggers, to join, or offer encouragement.

This month’s question for IWSG Wednesday is “How do you find the time to write in your busy day?”

A better question for me would be “How do you fill your day while you procrastinate on your writing?” And that’s easy for me to answer. I read. I read some more. I watch another episode of Midsomer Murders on Netflix. When I have seen all of them, I’ll find another multiple episode series. I check my three e-mail accounts, plus the account of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, to be sure I haven’t missed anything important. Then I check out Facebook, including my personal account, the Guild’s page, my Toastmasters club’s page, all of which I manage. And for good measure, I’ll check out the Meetup group pages for the multiple groups I administer.

Oh, and then there are meals to prepare. My husband eats meat and I rarely do, so that’s two different meals to prepare for lunch and dinner. He takes care of breakfast on his own.

And I have to find time to wash clothes at least once a week.

Oh, and I need to get in 10,000 steps each day.

And there’s that new 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle that I just have to finish. Putting the pieces together helps clear away mental cobwebs I am convinced are blocking my neural pathways to better writing.

These are the activities I have filled my days with recently because I’ve reached the point where I have to decide whether to include some of the tough stuff in my memoir: events I’d rather forget than include or events I’m not sure my colleagues at that time will forgive me for mentioning. Including such subplots might add the tension all my writing instructors insist must be included, but my life has been more marked with incredibly good luck (nothing bad happens while I’m in town, though revolutions may be brewing in the background) so I feel including them as (minor) “inciting events” into the arc of my memoir is manipulative.

The question I know I need to answer at this point is just what message do I want readers to take away from what I write. I should have answered that question long ago, but I’ve been dragging it around with me for the past year as I write, edit, read for critique, and then rewrite.

Here’s what I’m going to do before October’s IWSG Wednesday: I’m going to reread Marni Freedman’s 7 Essential Writing Tools: That Will Absolutely Make Your Writing Better (And Enliven Your Soul) to focus attention on the planning steps I’ve been avoiding while I’ve been balancing my checkbook and entering all my receipts and expenditures into Quicken Essentials. Then I’ll apply the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair and get back to writing.