How can I motivate myself at work?

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Dear Cary,
I need your help before I really mess things up for myself. I’m a single woman in my early 50s, I enjoy my job, nice people, understanding boss, etc. Earlier this year I spoke to my boss about a promotion/raise. She felt it was worthwhile to pursue and said we’d address it during the year how I could achieve that. In June a BIG PROJECT (BP) was suggested to me that two others in my department (at much higher pay levels) made feeble attempts to complete. One never did anything with it. The other put a few big patches on the problem. While it technically provided a solution, the project requires much more finesse and detail. The Big Boss wasn’t happy. And it turns out that this is a pet project for the Big Boss. He thinks well of me (he gave me a bonus potential when he came to the company three years ago and since then I’ve always gotten the maximum bonus) and I’d like to keep it that way. The only downside he has, IMO, is that our department truly needs someone to do the “little things” (make copies, process invoices, prepare FedEx, filing, etc.). We have three colleges within a half mile that offer majors in the line of work our company does. Yet the Big Boss is adamant that we not hire an intern a couple days a week to help out and get some experience. We (my boss, another woman who I also do a lot of work for, and myself) are baffled by his stance even though he knows it would be an asset to the entire group and free many of us up to more important work.
As most companies coming out of the recession, we have been doing more with less for a couple of years (hence no intern). However, in the last three years three more “chiefs” as I like to call them have been hired. There are only two “Indians” in my department and we have distinctly different job responsibilities. So my days normally range from A-Little-Free-Time-To-Cruise-The-Internet to Dear-God-Help-Me-Before-I-Go-Freaking-Insane! For the last six months I’m about 60% up that scale. In the meantime, the company has decided to change a major vendor that directly affects my job. That decision has and still is taking up a great deal of my time. There is a tremendous amount of detail to a move like this and I’m struggling with going to that level of minutiae even though it’s required. I’ve been diverted with some other projects and am having major difficulty in getting back to the remaining big parts and ALL the small parts of this switch that need to be addressed.
On top of that, the BP that will virtually guarantee my promotion and accompanying raise in the spring collects dust. Not just because I’m busy, because I have no idea where to start, how to start, or even if I WANT to start. I find myself doing all the things I want an intern to do – copy, file, update databases – rather then touching the BP. My therapist asked me if I’m afraid of success. Maybe I am a bit. But I also know that if I get this BP done (and I need to make “major progress” by year-end to be considered for the promotion) I don’t really want to have to “show up” for work in that capacity every day after that. Many years ago, I spoke with a lover about this subject. He was in upper management on his job of many years and enjoyed what he did. He knew I was/am smart and more than capable. I asked him if it was okay not to aspire to the corner office, or the office next to that…or even one along the window wall. He said, “Not everyone can be in charge. Not everyone wants to be.” It made me feel better at the time and remembering that still gives me a certain level of comfort in my discomfort about this promotion/project.
The thing is I really need the money that this promotion can bring me. I haven’t always been the best with money (and at 51 I’m still learning) and with more working years behind me then ahead of me, I have to be more conscious about my earnings (& savings). I’m able to pay my bills and have no creditors after me, but I also have no savings except for a couple hundred bucks in the bank. I don’t have a partner to split expenses like rent, food, utilities, etc. so I have to rely on my capabilities to bring in additional income. I’ve thought about looking for another job and have applied for a couple, but nothing has come through yet. However, a new job that would offer enough money to make a difference would also require me to commute to a major metropolitan area about an hour east of me. Taking a job in the city would mean a change to my daily life. Getting up 90 minutes to 2 hours earlier, no morning workouts (while I would love to have a reason to stop them, I’m over 50 and know that exercise is a must), getting home at 7 or 7:30 every night. I tell myself that after a few years of commuting I could move closer, into the outer neighborhoods of the city and take mass transit to work. But I’ve always lived in suburbia and don’t know how I would transition to living in an apartment building with neighbors on possibly 5 sides of me! And I also know that getting a new job right now is merely running away from a problem and that wherever I go, there I am.
It’s still early October, but not for long. My new vendor is asking me to send them more information so we may continue with the change. I’ve been putting them off, but can’t do it forever. The steam I had before we started the switch is depleted. I leave work at night, go home and want to watch TV and forget about it all. I find myself going to bed at 1 or 2 in the morning even though my eyes are closing and I fight to stay awake. I recently realized that I don’t want to go to sleep because I don’t want tomorrow to come! And the BP! What about the BP! It’s Ebenezer’s chains haunting me. Reminding me. Taunting. I know if I do nothing and don’t get the promotion I will probably hate myself for being lazy. Another part of me says I’m being true to myself by being content as a worker bee and not the queen bee. I don’t know how it might effect my bonus and I know you aren’t supposed to rely on that money, but I’m human and have come to count it as part of my income.
Where do people find the wherewithal to do stuff they don’t want to do, or are afraid to do (whatever my issue is) to move ahead in the world? Most people have families…kids they love, a partner they adore (if they are lucky). I suppose that kind of love could motivate anyone to do something they don’t want to do. But I don’t have that. No kids. No sweetheart. Heck, not even a date in the last year! It’s not like I’d be overachieving by completing the BP. After all I have a college degree. I’m well-read. My friends would say I’m thoughtful, conscientious, smart. I’m well-liked in my company and as I said, I do like my job 80-85% of the time. I think that’s great considering most people hate what they do or despise their boss. My commute is 15 minutes. I go to the gym before work, see friends after work, go to club meetings and such. Life is busy, mostly with good stuff. (I won’t go into Mom and Dad’s failing health and the pressure that is putting on my siblings and I since neither of them are able to drive any longer.)
What is wrong with me? Is there anything wrong with me? How can I overcome my inertia? I often wake up in the morning and make a mental list of the things I will do today at work. And then either some new “need-it-now” project comes my way, or this cloud of why-the-fuck-bother surrounds me and simply makes me move paper from one side of the desk to the other…fiddling while Rome burns. I need some good clear advice. NOW. Please!!!
Afraid or Lazy?

Dear Afraid or Lazy,

The reason you can’t do these things is that there’s no boat ride and there’s no torture chamber.

If you were crawling on your hands and knees under barbed wire in the rain toward a checkpoint where armed guards were peering into the night, ready to shoot you on sight, and I stopped and asked, in my breezy way, just out of curiosity, why in heaven’s name the urgency, in the mud and all, your answer would be some combination of the boat ride and the torture chamber. You’d be avoiding life’s most awful pain, or you’d be so full of desire for something that you are willing to endure great danger and discomfort to acquire it — or both.

You’d be highly motivated.

Motivation isn’t fake. You have to really want something, or really want to avoid something.

What do you love more than anything in the world? What would you die for? What is the most awful fate you could endure? Are any of those items involved here? Evidently not. Life will go on much the same.

At school I drifted off in class and woke with the faint imprint of the desk on my cheek. There was no boat ride and there was no torture chamber. Life would go on regardless. What was the point?

“Where do people find the wherewithal to do stuff they don’t want to do, or are afraid to do (whatever my issue is) to move ahead in the world?” you ask. They find it in deeply motivating passions. Like how dads look at pictures of their kids before going into a boring meeting: I’m doing this for those little critters whom I would lay down my life for.

You recognize the benefits of doing this thing but that’s not desiring it with animal urgency. That’s not keening with desire for it. Keening desire and animal urgency are at the heart of powerful motivation. I don’t think you really, truly crave to become the exalted leader of many office workers. The notion bores you and fills you with dread. So naturally you are not motivated to try to achieve it.

Would a bigger bonus motivate you? What about the prospect of achieving this one project success in order to bank it on your résumé and look for a new job? You have to find something tangible and delicious to link this thing to. Then you can say to yourself, Once I get this done, I can have that.

What would that great, delicious thing be? That’s why I ask, What is your mission in life? What is the thing that matters to you most? It’s not a silly exercise. It’s like finding out where your compass points, so you can go in that direction.

How do you find that out? It sounds like your therapist at least has some notions, though this business of being “afraid of success” is kind of vague: Are you afraid of being resented, afraid of being praised, afraid of having to tell people what to do, afraid of having to rub shoulders with people of higher social status, or afraid of having to work this hard all the time? Those fears make sense. “Fear of success” has to get down to the specifics — the boat ride, the torture chamber. Say you are afraid that on your congratulatory boat ride you will have to act chummy with bosses. That’s a real fear.

So exploring your deep motivations with your therapist might be useful. Focus on the things that truly, deeply drive you.

In closing, I offer you two things. One is the insight that to find your motivation you must connect with some vital value or desire. And the other thing is this: Remember that every day is precious, that your job is not the most important thing in life, and know that somehow, through the mysterious grace in the universe, regardless of what happens, you will be taken care of.

Knowing that: You’re 51. You might as well go for it.

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Extraordinary Friends

Over the past six years of writing workshops and retreats we have met so many extraordinary people with extraordinary stories to tell that Cary and I decided to feature a person every week and share their writing or other creative project with rest of our writing community. My pick for this first column is Archana Kalegaonkar. We first met Archana at our 2013 writing retreat in Tuscany. After this adventure she started a blog in which she paints beautifully rendered, intimate portraits of life in India. Here is a link to her site. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.


Her vagina smells like spoiled cabbage

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Dear Cary,

How do you tell your vegan girlfriend that she smells like spoiled cabbage, and sometimes the smell “down there” is revolting? Hopefully you can pull this out of the archives, I hate to see people work for free.


Let’s Come Together for a Better-Smelling World!

Dear Let’s Come Together,

First, before you say anything to her, I suggest you learn as much as you can about the possible sources of vaginal odor. The Mayo Clinic site is great for solid, general information.

Then bring it up, but gently. Don’t mention spoiled cabbage. Don’t mention her vegan diet. Tell her that you noticed an unusual odor and that while it may have many causes, you are concerned, lest it be a health issue for her. Suggest that if it persists she should see her doctor just to be sure it isn’t an infection that needs to be treated, or one of a few more serious conditions.

While food doesn’t directly cause strong vaginal odor, according to this piece at the site Woman4Woman, “it can contribute to changes in the vaginal environment and affect the scent of your vaginal secretions.”

The fact that you mention that she’s a vegan indicates a couple of things. You may have noticed food-related odors on her skin and breath, and diet may have something to do with that. You may also have certain negative feelings about her vegan diet that you haven’t fully shared with her. So this could be a tricky subject, maybe as touchy as her vagina. So be careful and keep in mind that the most important thing here is the relationship. And the sex. Without condemning her diet, you might mention that certain foods really do change how she tastes. You might mention that the sex is very important to you, and you want to continue to have a good sex life, and then see if perhaps you can bathe together first, or something like that. Or ask if you can wash it. She might like that, actually, if you put it the right way. It might feel pretty good. It depends on the person.

And definitely, if it persists, she should see a doctor.

Also — and here we get to the emotional part: If she objects to your bringing it up, or seems not to care, or thinks it shouldn’t be an issue, then you might get mad. You might want to break up with her. You might want to make hypothetical statements about some perceived connection between her vaginal odor and her vegan diet. If that happens,  just take a deep breath and tell her that it feels like she’s not taking your feelings seriously.

Seriously. I know that sounds all kinda California and all, but give it a try. Focus on the feelings, not on the cabbage.

I am indeed as you say “working for free” on this column now, until we can figure out a revenue model (O Holy Grail of Internet commerce where are you?) so I cannot go into as much detail as I might like, but I hope this is helpful. And if this reply isn’t helpful, try Dan Savage. Our many wise readers will also, I hope, comment with their experience and knowledge.

Thank you, O Great Readers and Commenters, Many of Whom Have Come Here From that Other Land We Remember Fondly but Also with Concern …


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Advice from Cary: How to apply for that job you don’t really want but just to be on the safe side since your own job doesn’t feel all that secure and you haven’t had a raise in a long time you think you should probably apply for anyway just in case

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Hi Cary,

I’m in my 50s with a career in my chosen field. The pay isn’t great — never is in this field — but I love what I do. I consider myself very lucky to have found this job. However, the recession and continuing economic mess have not been good to my employer. I’m watching the business incrementally slow down, employees leaving and not being replaced, less and less work to do, bills not getting paid, paychecks late … well, you get the picture. I know things may turn around, but it’s pretty scary right now.

As business has slowed, so have pay increases. I can’t remember the last time we got raises, but it was at least five years ago. Yes, I’m lucky to even have a job in this economy, I realize that. We also lost our health insurance as a consequence of the company not being able to pay the bill. I don’t hate my employer, because I know she is doing everything she can to keep the place afloat.

The city I live in has other employers, including one right up the hill. There are many, many jobs available there, though not in my field. Jobs for which I am qualified, though; jobs I should be able to get. Not-awful jobs. What I’ve been thinking is I should apply for something part-time, something that would get me some benefits and steady income, a job that would allow me to keep the career I love until or if business improves. So I’ve been thinking of applying …

… for months. Three, four months have gone by, months in which I have not opened the file with my résumé’, have not rewritten it for the jobs I should be able to walk into, have not applied for the many part-time jobs I see online. My current job is no less shaky, no less scary. It could all fall apart in an instant. And I have the possibility of this reasonable compromise that would put me, at least, on a better footing.

So what’s the hesitation? Why don’t I move forward? I don’t know. I do know I have always procrastinated when it comes to looking for jobs. It’s not that I lack confidence — not at all. I don’t think it’s that I’m lazy, though I am in other ways. I guess I don’t really much like change — yeah, that’s an understatement. But I would look forward to a new challenge and think I could do these jobs well. Still, when it comes to looking for jobs, I sort of have to be pushed, more or less to the brink, to make that move. What is going on in my head? How do I make myself move forward now, rather than wait for catastrophe?

Looking forward to some insight, or a push.

She Who Hesitates

Dear She Who Hesitates,

Find an hour and a half of free time. Mark it on your calendar. When the appointed time comes, begin by meditating for 10 minutes to get calm. Just sit for 10 minutes and breathe in and out and notice your breath. Do that for the first 10 minutes so your mind is clear and you’re not distracted or worried. Then look at the clock and confirm to yourself that you have one hour and 20 minutes left of free time, and there is no rush and no one calling you and your phone is off and you are not looking at your email. Have some paper and pencil or pen — a notebook or pad, whatever you prefer. Write at the top of the page: “Just A List”

Then use the next hour to make a list of all the concrete actions you need to take in order for your résumé and application to go to this company, and for you to work there. Be detailed and “granular” with this list. List everything large and small. On the list will be, of course, the action of opening your résumé file. On the list will also be the item looking at your résumé. You might think about where you are going to look at it — at home, or at a cafe, or at the beach, or on the back porch.

On the list will also be interacting with the company. List how you might do that — email, etc. It might even mean a personal visit to the enclosure in which you would encounter other physically embodied humans who receive regular automated monetary payments and in return carry out duties under the company’s direction and supervision. In other words, you might have to actually go there. Put that on the list.

Each item may have things associated with it — looking at your résumé will include printing out the résumé, marking it up, changing and/or verifying contact info, verifying contact info of references and contacts, putting in your changes, printing it out again, proofing it, etc. All these little items are important because they take up time and energy. Put them on your list.

Some things may seem obvious but just put them on the list. If you might wear something different from what you usually wear for an interview at this company, or to work at this company, put that on the list. If you will shop for that, put shopping on the list — where you would go, what you might spend. If there is someone you want to speak with about an item on your résumé, or about the company you wish to work for — for instance, if you know someone who works there already — put that on your list.

List possible feelings — regret, shame, nostalgia, fondness, anger, loss, etc. — that might come up when looking at an old résumé or in an interview. Don’t shortchange the emotional part of it. Emotions take time and energy to feel. They are also full of information. You might might ask yourself why you feel that way. You don’t have to answer. Just put that on the list.

Don’t do anything about it! That’s key. Just make the list.

Making the list may exhaust you. That’s OK. You’re doing something you don’t want to do, something that uses your weaker side. That might be all you can do in the first session. So schedule your next session in your calendar. Begin it the same way, with the 10 minutes of meditation and the turning off of the computer and phone, etc.

At your next session of work, your task will be: Find some motivation.

It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be something you want, something that seems delicious and enticing. It might be the extra money. If it’s the money, then think about that money, how good it would feel, what you could do with that money, how much money it might be. It might be just that the building is at the top of the hill and you’d like to be up there on the top of the hill. It might be the lawn. You might think of lying on the lawn of that company and eating lunch. It doesn’t have to be about the job. It just has to be something you feel good about. Whatever it is that you would like about working there, let it become big and vivid in your mind so you can taste it. Write these things down.

What you will have, when you are done, is a way to make a concrete list of step-by-step instructions for putting your résumé together and applying for this job. That should help you relax a little bit. You will also have a proven method for scheduling time to work on the application. So repeat the process in order to actually apply: mark time on your calendar, eliminate distractions, meditate beforehand, then carry out your instructions by following your list and checking off the items.

If you do these things, you will accomplish the task of applying for the job. That will take it off your mind. You won’t have to think about it, or wonder why you’re not doing it. Later you can decide if you actually want to work there. That should be easier.

One other thing interests me about this; it may be evident why, as I also am in a period of transition:

Change requires transition and transition is uncomfortable so I’m thinking about vulnerability  and I’m thinking vulnerability can be delicious too if you don’t fight it but just surrender, if you accept that in this moment of vulnerability and surrender you are truly in the bosom of the life-giving universe and at its mercy; any belief that you’re in control vanishes and you must truly accept the capricious beneficence of the universe, this universe which provides the air you breathe and the food you eat.

Surrender simplifies. It gets you down to basics. Vulnerability and transition can be really lovely. But not if you fight it. If you clench up and fight, you might break something.

So plan, be vulnerable to change, meditate, take these little steps, and with warmth, curiosity and an open heart, accept what happens next.

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I thought I was so systematic but really I’m not at all!

I found out how truly unsystematic I am by setting a schedule for myself and not following it. That happened because I invented Finishing School. I invented Finishing School because I wanted to finish things I start. I wanted to finish things I start because I feel crummy when I don’t. Crummy is a polite word.

Also I’m too hard on myself. I had two therapists in one day tell me that. I think I just try to see things as they are and not be crushed by them. To others that looks like being hard on myself. So I try not to be too hard on myself about being too hard on myself. But it’s hard, because I want also to know the truth about myself.

The truth is that I am not very systematic. I just think I am.

But I am inventive. That sometimes makes up for not being systematic. If I find a vexatious shortcoming I cannot mend, then I make up a program around it and involve others and then it becomes a service to humanity, not a character flaw.

Tonight we gather again in the living room, seven of us each saying, this is how I break my gargantuan task into doable weekly pieces; this is the part I am finishing now; this is my goal.

And lifelong wishes get built piece by piece.

I know that for me the obsession with finishing, and the fear of not finishing, stems from my fear of repeating my father’s shortcomings. If I could finish the things I start and also be as smart and funny as he was that would be better but I don’t think so. At least I get to finish something — in this case the novel. Ha ha.

I say Ha ha but it is getting done. And the ways I am solving the problems in the novel may be interesting to others. Perhaps I will share some of that as I get closer to finishing.

So: To recap: We do finishing school by deciding every week what part of whatever gargantuan impossible project we want to finish this week and telling people. We mark out time on a calendar. We get assigned a creative buddy and we call or email or text our creative buddy before and after each creative session.

Here is the part where I find out how unsystematic I am: I write down on a calendar what I am going to do and then don’t do it. I get to watch myself not doing it.

But here is the other part: I set this goal and say I am going to do it at one particular time and don’t do that but then wake up at some other time and do it. It comes upon me unbidden, and I buckle down and disappear into the work and emerge hours later as if out of a trance, and work has been done.

I try to be systematic and instead I encounter my essential anarchic nature. But the work gets done!

Advice from Cary: Service to others helps us feel whole

Dear Cary,

A friend just posted an old family pic on Facebook of her and her mother on a swing in the woods. My friend’s legs were wrapped around her mother’s waist, and her mom’s hair was flying like a black silk cape on the downswing, the look on her face the essence of motherly adoration. They were fully engaged in life and love. I commented, “They say it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. Is it too late to have yours?”

She replied, “I already had one! And I’m still happy!”

I clarified, “No, dear, is it too late for ME to have yours?”

“Oh….happiness is a choice,” she reminded me. “I forgot it was that easy!” (She “liked” that.)

Is it, Cary? Is it that easy? Because when I look at that picture I am delighted that such motherly love exists for some lucky folk, but mourn my own lack of it when I needed it most, in my infancy and young childhood. All the love my mom tries to heap on me today does nothing to fill the hole of not being given the love that we all deserve as our birthright, upon our entry into this world, without, perhaps, every understanding why. The details don’t matter. She was distracted by other things, other people, other agendas, and I was left in the cold, feeling unloved, unwanted, and unworthy.

I have felt alarmingly alone all my life–and that has both strengthened me and saddened me. There was no one to consult about why I didn’t fit into my own family. I’ve cultivated an interesting life for myself, mostly because I’m willing to take chances and risks to remove myself from situations I don’t want to be in–my family, the city of my birth, jobs I’ve hated, relationships I was done with, etc. But every day I awaken with the same feeling of the emptiness and loneliness of the unloved. It’s not true! I am loved. I am blessed with great friendships worldwide. But I shy away from intimate, romantic relationships and truly prefer to be alone. But can I claim to be happy?

No. I’ve been under medical treatment for bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder for nearly 20 years. I have many interests and passions, and feel positive and hopeful about the future, although I am unable to pay my October rent and may have to leave both my apartment and San Francisco any day now. I am self-employed with a variety of talents, but the SF cost of living is what it is. So what advice do I seek? Upon your recommendation I picked up David Burns book Feeling Good–and it does make me feel better, now and then. I had made some strides with cognitive behavioral therapy, but for all of 2013 I have been unable to find part-time work … not because I am unqualified for the many openings I’ve applied for … but because I’m pushing 60. I was outright told I’m “probably not a good fit” by a manager whose staff of 55 includes not one face over 30.

And again, for all the wrong reasons, I am feeling unwanted and not a good fit, despite copious evidence to the contrary, and all my resources are tapped out. I have no idea what the future brings — no one does, but most have a pretty good idea what the Tuesday following this Monday will be like. I do not want to be forced out of this city, and I can’t just walk away; I have a family of three cats. I’m looking for a roommate. But always underneath it all, however strong or adventurous or bold I have been in my life, how seemingly confident or aggressive or vivacious, I get laid low by feelings of worthlessness. Do I really just need a strong dose of attitude adjustment? Is it that easy to be happy, Cary?

Desperate in San Francisco

Dear Desperate in San Francisco,

I know this feeling you speak of, and have found ways to live with it and counteract it, by performing acts that take us out of worthlessness into hope and out of loneliness into community. Helping others is one such act. It kindles gratitude in others, which fills us. Yes, helping others can do that. Being essentially immature and self-involved, I spent my youth wondering why people bothered to bring hot dishes to neighbors and help old ladies across the street and ladle out noodles to ragged beggars in worn church kitchens. But now I sort of know:

It’s like a bucket you fill with gratitude. People say thank you and the bucket fills one drop. People say, you helped me and the bucket fills another drop. If in the evening you recount to yourself the ways you have been useful during the day, before falling asleep, in the morning you will awaken with a different feeling.

It’s true. So find ways to voluntarily help other people. In this way it is possible to forget the self, that grinding pit of insufficiency. For the self will never be filled. Yes, your friend says her childhood was happy. There is nothing that can be done about that but to work in the present, feeling what you feel now, and reaching out your hand to others.

I could go on and on about our contemporary obsession with self and safety, and I do fear that on our deathbeds many of us will see mainly how much music and dancing we missed, how many times we might have gone to the zoo. But it is a relatively simple thing to fix. If you were an addict it would be simple: Just join a 12-step recovery group. If you are not an addict you can still identify maladies of the self sufficiently grinding and painful to justify enrolling in a 12-step group. Our grinding maladies are so numerous and we are so inventive in labeling new ones that there must be something you could use to join a 12-step group. If your life has been at all touched by the alcoholism of others, or even in general their insufficiency to your needs you could probably find welcome in an Al-Anon group. Just go and announce yourself as someone trying to get over a lifelong sense that you missed something in childhood. For at the root of all these 12-step groups is the essential human condition of powerlessness and obsession, obsession with impossibilities, the impossibility of changing others, the impossibility of changing the past, the impossibility of being enough onto ourselves without community and reverence.

I do not have the mental illnesses you have but I do know well that presence of absence, that melancholy, that aching for something, that loneliness that walls us off from others, that ever-present lack, that dim certainty that in some primal moment of loss we were tossed out of salvation into this grinding pit of cold, echoing solitude. I know this pattern of longing for completion, this need for some enveloping touch or presence, this raging and implacable incompleteness, and I like you have sought ways to slake it, to fill it, to cover myself in enveloping warmth, to fill myself, to find my place, to be loved, to be comfortable, to just relax for one moment in a room and feel at home. And like you I have had mixed success. There have been days when I wanted to kill myself but those days would pass and mostly I have gratitude for love and color and comfort and beauty.

I, perhaps like you, have tried many things to have this wondered-at and intensely imagined state of well-being and peace. I have tried many things, indeed. I still do.

Now, to some people, such words sound silly and self-indulgent. They will say that everyone feels this way, that you and I are no different from anyone else, that there is no help for this universal feeling and the only responsible thing is to get on with life, that to concentrate on these feelings is morbid and self-indulgent.

But I don’t agree. Rather, I think this exploration is our task here on earth, that by exploring these feelings we will eventually discover our true condition and purpose. And what is that? Our true condition? Our true condition is one of powerlessness over a vast universe we scarcely know. And our purpose? Well, judging from how effectively service to others ameliorates our pain and isolation, surely part of our purpose here is just that: To be of service to other humans and to the planet, to be useful, to be part of what is going on around us

Seriously, I suggest that you become involved in a 12-step group. Not so much because of the 12 steps as because it is one of the few enduring institutions in our culture that can provide the community and connection you so desperately need. If you do not have one of the major qualifying troubles, come up with one. Identify yourself in a way that will open up the 12 steps to you. Because the 12-step life, the practicing of the 12 steps and following the principles embodied in 12-step literature is a workable way to manage the existential state of loneliness and worthlessness. And it is generally free of charge, except for the voluntary donations most 12-step groups accept from their members.

For instance, since you are intensely focused on your past family life, you may be a good candidate for Al-Anon, the offshoot of AA that was originally for family members of alcoholics but has expanded somewhat to serve as a group supporting troubled people through a variety of trials and obsessions. Through doing the 12 steps in Al-Anon, it is possible to free yourself of attachment to old family expectations and resentments, to see the full pattern, to say goodbye to it, and to find some other, outside power in your life that you can rely on.

In short, I think you can live a reasonably happy life if you find a way to be of service to others.

As to the economic pressures on all of us in San Francisco — the rising cost of living, the cost of housing, and changing demographics, especially for minorities and the elderly — well, we are lucky in San Francisco because at least we have advocates. At least we have a dominant and progressive social consensus that is different from the cruel individualistic consensus found in many other parts of the country. We have advocates for affordable housing and for minorities and those who would be discriminated against. If you feel vulnerable there is lots of free or low-cost help. And this help is predicated on the notion that we love our diverse population. This is actually a city of love. It changes but it welcomes newcomers with love.

So now I will close this very first column on my own site by noting that I am glad that the column has moved from to here. Already I feel freer to advocate for specific things, and to communicate one-to-one with people. I feel I can be more open about who I am.

This is only the first day so there is much work to be done on the architecture of the site. We will see how the comments section works, and perhaps build a FAQ and other elements to make this a good home for the column.

For now, thank you for writing, and congratulations on being Letter Writer No. 1!


Cary T.

Write for Advice

Cary Tennis Leaves Salon: Now it gets interesting

Dear Friends,

I have left after 14 years. My unique advice column, which ran on as Since You Asked from October 17, 2001 to Sept. 30, 2013, just shy of 12 years, will now run on my own site, For now, it doesn’t have a new name. I am open to suggestions. Once I get started (letters are already coming in) it will run weekly but if I find a way to make it self-supporting I will run it more frequently. Please send letters to—and tell your friends! The more people who get involved the more likely we’ll be able to keep the column running for the long haul. It turns out that giving advice is a hard habit to break.

And … now that I am free of that welcome but all-consuming daily task, I turn with renewed energy to spreading the Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method around the world, and writing, speaking, participating in conferences, playing music and enjoying life.

Since I no longer work at Salon my old email address no longer works. If you have sent email to me recently and it bounced back, that is why. Please email me personally at, and email questions about workshops, getaways, retreats and other matters of business to

I will be in Baltimore this weekend, Oct. 12 and 13, leading Amherst Writers and Artists workshops from 9 am to noon on Saturday and Sunday at the Idylwylde Hall, 6301 Sherwood Road. I hope to see many of my Baltimore and D.C. friends there. See more here.

That’s all for now. I will be posting more regularly now on our own site, and am looking forward to having a more robust personal engagement with you, my many friends, fans, fellow writers, workshop leaders and family.

Now it gets interesting.

—Cary T.

This weekend! Cary Tennis in Baltimore leads writing workshops in the Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method

Please join me at Idlewylde Community Hall, 6301 Sherwood Road in Baltimore, Md (See on Google map), Saturday Oct. 12 and Sunday Oct. 13, 2013, for two special morning Amherst Writers and Artists-style writing workshops, 9 a.m. to noon each day.

The program is being put on in conjunction with a local effort to bring the Amherst Writers and Artists method to military veterans and survivors of trauma. Several interested participants have already signed up but there is still room in the morning workshops so please email me at with the subject line “Baltimore” if you are interested in attending and I will put you on the list. The per-day price for each morning session is at a sliding scale of between $75 and $125 and will be collected at the event. $200 is the suggested price for the two days.

Please pay what you can to support this effort to bring the AWA method to the Baltimore community of veterans and trauma survivors and to create a model for veterans’ writing groups that can be used across the country and around the world. If you would like to attend both days and pay the median fee of $200 in advance, please click here. (We will also accept checks and cash at the door.)

$200 Baltimore Weekend Workshops Oct 12-13, 2013 [wp_eStore_add_to_cart id=38]



Acclamations, accolades, encomiums, commendations, panegyrics and nice things people say

Even from as far away as Australia, I could feel the relaxed, open atmosphere he created among us and found it surprisingly easy to get writing.

Alice Allan, Melbourne, Australia

I was writing descriptions without events, like jokes without punch-lines. The workshops led me to try more active, engaging and complex storytelling. I gave up some fixed ideas about what kinds of writing I do and what kinds of writing are worth doing. After a while a novel erupted.


I avoid workshops because of the damage they can do to writers. Cary’s workshops are nothing but helpful, quietly and subtly leading writers to do their best in an open and welcoming environment.

Randy Osborne, Author of Big Pinch World, Made of This, and a forthcoming memoir

It was a cozy place with all of us talking across borders. I felt charged, and my imagination took me to various lands. I could be myself.  I had thought I was a certain kind of a writer and then suddenly I wrote about a Pterodactyl and I was like “Whoa… who wrote that?”

 — Geetanjali Dighe, Mumbai

I hadn’t done any real creative writing in years. If only I could find a workshop where my writing wouldn’t get ripped to shreds and I wouldn’t feel like a loser idiot. Cary’s approach is flexible and supportive. The prompts take the work in interesting and unexpected directions.

Lorri Leon, Pacifica, California

Nobody waits with a red pencil, nobody judges. The comments are limited to what rings true, what strikes your imagination. After a while I noticed I was writing to feel that ring of truth for myself.

Leslie Ingham, Palo Alto

We write together. We’re all in the same boat. Now I’m a writer, because here I am, writing. I wouldn’t take a class from anyone else.  I wouldn’t let anyone else see inside my head.

Judy Evans, Los Angeles

The rules protect the often fragile and sensitive nature of writing.  Cary is the ultimate host and leader. I’ve been in writing workshops for over twenty years. This one, by far, is the best. Norma almost always bakes amazing snacks, and the dogs provide a little levity. I would urge anyone to attend a series of these workshops and feel your soul begin to expand.

Julia Penrose, Half Moon Bay, California

The structure is creative and supportive; I like it so much that I’ve been back every week. Writing is part of my life now. I look forward to those two hours of group writing each week, both to spark my own creativity and to hear the amazing things others write.

 — Molly Mudick, Phoenix, Arizona

We write in warm surrounds of vibrant voices from far away places in an intimate cyber-circle. We write of things, ideas and stories that lure and propel. Cary guides us to ways of knowing each other and remembering ourselves. It’s where I breathe deeply and write.

Treva Stose, Annapolis, Maryland

“A writer is someone who writes.” Hearing that line every week and reading my writing aloud, without fear, made it come true. I write. I am a writer. I want to be a surfer… A surfer is someone who surfs. I’ve been surfing since May 2010. I dance harder and smile while I’m moving and twisting my body, because that is what dancers do. I am a dancer. I took pieces of wood from the basement and painted them and hung them on a fence. It’s my gallery. Open studio is tonight. Or tomorrow. Or whenever anyone passes by. … I am an artist.

— Shannon Weber, San Francisco