My Year of Writing: Five Months In

My Year of Writing: Five Months In

I am officially five months into my year of writing and by all outward signs, it hasn’t been very successful. As I attempt to make a number of changes in my life, I’ve learned that unlike what most habit gurus say, 30 days of a new behavior doesn’t cement a habit for me. Instead, my willpower begins to wane around the 30 day mark, and before I know it, it’s completely disappeared.

January was strong, great even. Despite my usual busy-ness, I was writing every day. If I didn’t manage to wake up in the morning to write, I found time to write over lunch or just before bed as my eyes were fluttering shut. Towards the end of the month, I could sit down at my computer and rattle off entire paragraphs in a matter of minutes. For the first time in a long time, things were looking good.

Then February came, and my writing went down the tubes. I firmly believe that February is the worst month of the year. Nothing good has ever happened to me in February.

March was busy. Too, too busy. As was April. (Seriously, where did that month go?)

And now it’s May, and I’m once again trying to return to at least a semblance of a writing routine. Rather than focusing on sitting down to write, I’ve shifted my focus to my evening and morning routines—going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, doing some morning meditation for concentration and intention setting, making time for breakfast instead of rushing around like a crazy person, and ultimately, sitting down to write for about 45 minutes before or after work every day. I’ve also worked on reducing my travel and planning writing into my schedule by blocking time on my calendar in advance (a la productivity blogger Cal Newport), and then making that time non-negotiable, as I would if I’d scheduled a doctor’s appointment or meeting with a friend during that time. We’ll see what the next month brings, but for now, I’m focusing on the small, small signs of progress.

For the first time in 7 years, I’ve started writing fiction again, and that feels really exciting.

I’m rereading the fabulous In the Land of God and Man by Silvana Paternostro and luxuriating in the memories of Ecuador that have been resurfacing as I read. Her adept descriptions and analysis of Latin America seem to unearth my own lived moments in a way that nothing else can, and I’ve been frantically recording them as I rediscover them.

I also recently read The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, which reminded me that if you’re going to wrestle with words, at the very least, you might as well try to write something important. As she says, “[W]riting sentences is difficult whatever their subject. It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick.” I love writing blog posts, here and on another secret project I’ve been working on. (To be announced soon!) But I realized that I’ve been using blog posts as a way to avoid more complex writing about the topics I truly care about: feminism, culture, politics. Reading Dillard’s book reminded me that more often than not writing is a slow, difficult slog. It is rowing against the tide, but eventually, if you keep rowing, you will arrive.

I, too, am determined to arrive.  Onward and upward!

Reading to Remember

Reading to Remember

Last May, I moved for the second time in a year. Anyone who has moved knows that it’s a special type of hell. My belongings seemingly doubled before my eyes as I attempted to jam everything into so many cardboard boxes and trudge them a whopping 3 blocks south. Such is the life of a city dweller; most Chicagoans have moved once a year for as long as they can remember, and I’m no exception.

At that time, I’d just begun reading Marie Kondo’s now infamous book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Although I still think she could benefit from a deep breath and a bit of therapy, following her parameters for successful decluttering  brought me to a big realization: I desperately needed to pare down my book collection.

Yes, you read that right. Allow me to explain.

I’m a person who loves books more than all other possessions. Since college, I’ve dreamed of having a large and extensive book collection that would transform any apartment into the most magical and cozy of places. For a long time, my primary strategy for achieving that goal was to keep every book I’d ever owned, including textbooks, compilations of works by authors that I detested but had been required reading for some class or another, childhood books that I’d long outgrown, books that I may have liked at one time but whose plot I could no longer recall, books that made no impression on me at all, and so on.

As I stared at my collection, no doubt trying to figure out how to fit it into as few boxes as possible, I realized that at least half of my books fell into those  aforementioned categories—books I had no emotional attachment to, couldn’t really remember, or flat out didn’t like. The most basic of all of Marie Kondo’s decluttering principles is to keep only that which inspires joy. I imagined a library full of only books that I enjoyed, books that inspired and moved me, or taught me something deep and true. I felt my heart flutter.

It took me two full days, but eventually I sorted out the books that didn’t bring me joy, and I donated them. My collection was whittled down to half of what it was. I felt relieved, lighter, truer to who I was as a reader and a writer.

However, throughout this process, I realized that I had also become a very lazy reader. Although it was liberating to clear out my bookshelf, wasn’t it also sad that so much of my reading time had been lost in the ether? Why were there so many books that I simply could not remember?

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr suggests not only reading books in your genre, but studying them.

Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Compose a one-page review with quotes. Make yourself back up opinions. You can’t just say “Neruda is a surrealist”; you have to quote him watching laundry “from which slow dirty tears are falling.” And you have to look up something about surrealism to define it.

Not only does this make you a crisper thinker, according to Karr, but it grounds you in your craft. Plus, I think we’ve all been in a situation where we struggle to relocate an impactful quote from a book we once read. (It took me 15 minutes to track down the quote I cited above, for example. But I’m working on it!)

As part of my year of reading, I resolved not only to read a book a week this year, but to take copious notes. I began in earnest by creating a Reading Bullet Journal.  If you’re at all connected to a planner community, you’ve probably already heard of the Bullet Journal. It’s taken the UK and the US by storm, and I am fully ensconced in it myself. Over the past 9 months, I’ve been using the Bullet Journal system to keep track of every facet of my life—daily appointments, my endless to-do lists, books I’ve read this year, notes about my day, shopping lists, and so on. The best part of bullet journaling is that it’s completely flexible, meaning that its principles can easily be applied to a reading journal. So I started one!

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I kept it simple, writing the title of the book, striking quotes, and a summary after I finished reading. However, as I ramped up to reading a book a week this year, I realized I couldn’t keep up with this handwritten system. For one, I do most of my reading while on public transit. When you have a book in one hand and the other is holding on to a stability pole, there’s not much opportunity for underlining your favorite quotes or jotting down thoughts. Instead, I found myself taking pictures of the pages so I could easily relocate the  quotes I wanted to remember later. In short time, my reading journal became another unopened notebook collecting dust on my shelf, and I was back to square one.

Until I stumbled upon James Clear’s blog post on strategies for retaining more of what you read. I love using an analog method to record my daily world, but I realized the ingenuity of Clear’s suggestions as soon as I finished reading his post. Clear suggests using Evernote—a platform that allows you to keep searchable notes in multiple notebooks across various devices—, or another digital note keeping system to do two things: make notes as you read and summarize the book. Using a digital system makes your notes searchable, and summarizing the book and how it intersects with other books you’ve been reading or subjects you’ve been learning about ensures that you will retain more of what you just read. I started using this system a few weeks ago. When I finish a book, I quickly write a summary, attach my quote pictures, and move on to my next book. This has been so revolutionary for me that it’s as if I finally realized why Evernote exists.

When you’re reading a book a week, your mind quickly makes connections between subjects that are seemingly disparate. It’s the most lovely part of reading so frequently and the part that I can never seem to capture. I’m excited to finally start making these connections in a way that I can easily reference later (or so I hope). To me, the intersection point between disparate ideas is where truly good writing comes from. With this new strategy at hand, I’m hoping to find more of those intersection points and jump into a truly great year of reading and writing.

 

Still Here, But In the Moment

Hi. Remember me?

Despite nearly six months of radio silence, I’m still here.

As it turns out, getting married, moving a week later, unpacking, frantically planning a second wedding, trying to keep up with a chaotic work schedule, and 10 consecutive weekends of summer plans are enough to completely shut down my writing muses. Hell, it’s enough to shut down everything. My morning writing habit dropped off the routine in April. We finally managed to unpack the last box a month ago, but our decorations and miscellany are shoved away in empty drawers and any spare inch of closet space we can find, because there’s no time to decorate or organize our house right now.

That musical is still waiting.

All those story ideas that I’ve scribbled in my journal are fading from my memory.

And as I sat down to compose this post, my husband looked over my shoulder and said, “Oh, you still update that blog?” Yeah. We’ve been busy.

More often than not, I’m frantically bouncing between a dozen different things. At any point in my day, I’m completing a work task, pinging V. about dinner plans or a smattering of random wedding details—what color should the suits be? when can we Skype with the officiant? how much should we spend on flowers?—while also trying to find time to keep up with normal life tasks.

I’m excited about our wedding. I am more than thrilled to see so many dear friends and family from all corners of the country. Having a wedding is wonderful and exciting and such a great privilege. But planning a wedding sucks. (Hey, no one said I had to like this stuff.) It’s death by a thousand inane decisions, and each decision only produces a thousand more. What color will everyone wear? And should the dresses be long or short? What color shoes should the ladies wear? Are the men wearing suits or tuxes? And how do we guarantee that everyone gets the same shade of red or grey? Make a decision on what time you want to start the ceremony, and you have to decide if you’ll do pictures before or afterward. But wait—the wedding package only includes a 4 hour ceremony so do we want to lengthen it by an hour? How will people get home? And speaking of that, how should people get there?

I can barely decide what color shirt to put on in the morning, much less plan a huge event with hundreds of moving parts. More than anything, I want the wedding to honor my relationship with V., and I want people to have a good time. Can someone just tell me what to do to make that happen? *

* This is a rhetorical question, for the record. Thankfully, we’ve mostly figured it out by this point. 

With so much going on, my creativity meter has been at zero lately. Five months of craziness has left me mentally exhausted. Nearly-thirty-one-year-old, out-of-my-mind-with-work-and-wedding-decisions me curses twenty-five-year-old-too-lazy-to-write-Peace-Corps-volunteer me. When I had copious amounts of time, and an exotic world at my fingertips, I did absolutely no writing. Instead, I pissed it away on reruns of the L Word and hours of internet surfing. (When you live in a country where you’re paying by the hour to use the internet or using someone’s rare in-home wifi, that’s a pretty astounding feat.)

Normally, I would shame myself relentlessly for not writing during my every spare moment. I’ve been working towards a daily writing habit since graduate school, and I have to admit that I’ve never fully mastered it. When I succumb to laziness or exhaustion, I berate myself, which, naturally, leads to more of the behavior I’m trying to avoid. A riveting TV show or a nap are a great way to shut your mind up when all it wants to do is guilt you. But, no more. Writing is important to me, but no one will die if I don’t do it, and I refuse to look back with regret and guilt on this time of exciting transformations. Years from now, when I recall setting up my first home with my new husband, do I want to remember being riddled with anxiety because I couldn’t squeeze in writing between unpacking, wedding planning, and work? Or do I want to remember the simple joy of finally merging our lives, the pure elation I felt at setting up a shared space and officially starting our married lives together? For now, I choose to live in the moment. So, I have a different plan.

I’ve always thought that part of being a successful writer is having the brain space to let ideas percolate. But with no time or energy for brain space, I’ve decided to take on other creative endeavors, as a means to inch myself ever closer to the creative world I want to live in.  One of my favorite quotes on creativity comes from Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve quoted her here before, but the words are wise, so one more time won’t hurt.

Whatever else happens, stay busy. Find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure…. In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else.

Go walk the dog, go pick up every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with brightly colored nail polish and put them in a pile. You might think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t; it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.

So wave your arms around. Make something. Do something. Do anything.

Call attention to yourself with some sort of creative action and—most of all—trust that if you make enough of a glorious commotion, eventually inspiration will find its way home to you again.

Most of me wants to do nothing but lay on the couch these days, but I’m making an effort at making a glorious commotion, even at work. This week, I went to a two-day, work-sponsored Illustrator training to learn how to make computer graphics. By hand, I can barely draw stick people, but few things give me more pleasure than creating a visually appealing infographic or instructional video. I even managed to impress myself with a few of my creations! I created a very spiffy replica of the Salesforce logo, and I even managed to freehand a donut graphic!

 

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Admittedly, it looks like it was done in MS Paint, but not bad for a first attempt!

I’ve also taken up cross stitching; I already have over 50 patterns saved on Etsy and a list of potential gifts for family and friends.

 

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My first cross stitching project
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It doesn’t look like much now, but just you wait….

And fancy hand lettering and doodles have made their way into my journal. Calligraphy classes are also on the horizon.

These are small things, but the effect is big. I feel like I’m slowly growing closer to my creative self. At this point, any creativity is a much needed break from the pull and grind of daily life.
Soon, very soon, I’ll be back to my writing routine. As always, I’ve got big plans. Until then, I’m living life from one moment to the next, no regrets.

Memories Once Forgotten

 

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I’m attempting to write an essay, just one freaking essay, about my time in Ecuador. I say attempting because I haven’t made a break yet. I jot a lot of notes, write little scenes in a notebook that I carry in my purse, scribble down random thoughts and flashes of memory, and I spend a lot of time thinking about why I want to write these essays and what Ecuador meant for me, then and now. Yet, at the end of the day, I have nothing complete, nothing even close to a comprehensive picture of my time there. So I keep digging deeper into my mind, desperately collecting all the memories I can and translating them to the page, hoping that the right one will trigger the waterfall that causes my essay to just, well, flow.

About a month ago, I was once again staring into space as I tried to piece together the blurry details of a distant memory when it occurred to me that I didn’t have to rely on my recollections alone. In fact, I had a wealth of written records of my time in Ecuador. I had my own Facebook posts as well as hundreds of Facebook messages exchanged between friends and family near and far, including fellow Peace Corps volunteers, my sister, close college friends, and Ecuadorian friends and students and love interests. I also had the long, detail-packed emails I’d intermittently exchanged between friends and family in the States, the mode different but not entirely unlike the longhand letter writing of my grandmother’s generation. And Gmail logged all of my chats during that time, capturing the banal and heartbreaking moments alike.

As I attempt to cobble memories of my Ecuadorian life together, I read through hours of random emails and chats. It’s a phrase that’s used too often, but sorting through these written records can only be described as an out of body experience. As I read those words, emotions that have long since vacated the sights and sounds still lingering in my memory came flooding back with full force. It’s bizarre, how blurry certain memories are, and yet these little snippets of time are forever frozen in the words exchanged through an unreliable internet connection spanning between Ecuador and the United States (or Facebook’s servers, wherever those lie). If I could find the palm-sized, 90s-era Nokia cell phone I carried during the last year of my service, imagine the records I’d have!

As I sort through these flashes of my Ecuadorian life, my thoughts span the gamut. In some instances, I am immediately transported into the moment, suddenly inhabiting my 26-year-old body again like a time-traveling character in a science fiction TV show, and in others, I am completely foreign to myself, unrecognizable in my culture shock and compassion fatigue. Over time, you can see the state of my mind shifting in the text; I have fewer substantive conversations. My correspondence is filled with the surface level, vague notions of what I’m doing and how much longer I’ll be in Ecuador. In these cases, the text conveys next to nothing, but I can see myself drowning in the whirlpool of my own emotions, too involved in my own struggles to perceive anything of my friends’ and family’s lives. The longer I’m in Ecuador, the bigger the gap between my understanding of their lives becomes and their understanding of mine.

At some point, I find myself thinking of Ira Glass. Recently, I listened to an episode of This American Life, fittingly entitled Captain’s Log, which discussed the hidden histories behind the random notes and snippets of our lives that we leave behind. In it, Ira Glass casually mentions that he and his wife  once had an argument via text that was so intense that his wife suggested that they delete the texts afterwards. She didn’t want any living record of the hateful words they’d exchanged, even though they had long reconciled and the hate had gone out of those words now. I thought that was strange—after all, who would be casually reading their texts?—until I started paging through all of these emails and chats. While listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the hundredth time, I finally notice a lyric that I had never truly heard before, despite my repeated listenings. In the song “Burn,” Eliza describes her heartbreak at being betrayed by her husband, then defiantly tells Hamilton that she’s “erasing myself from the narrative. Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart. They don’t get to know what I said. I’m burning the memories, I’m burning the letters that might’ve redeemed you.”

On any given day, we snap off 140-character opinions and plaster the internet with pictures of our lives with little to no thought about what happens to that information years from now, when it’s buried in the depths of our Facebook news feeds but still accessible to anyone patient enough to click through all your old posts. And as I continue to write through this confusion and darkness, I can’t help but wonder: what will I make of all these words already thrust into the universe, these detailed records of my life that I was barely aware of? I can’t burn them, like Eliza does in Hamilton; long after they’ve been deleted out of my inbox or news feed, they will always exist on a server somewhere. So what becomes of them now?

The Hard Work of Becoming a Morning Person

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This year, I resolved to start a daily writing practice. It’s something I’ve resolved to do and failed at many times before, but here I am, attempting it again.

In the past, I told myself that I would simply write when I got home from work. No matter what happened, I would make myself do it; it was just a matter of making time for it. As it turns out, I was right, but only partially. Despite my best intentions, I never did establish a writing practice, because while it was just a matter of making time for it, I never had the energy to produce anything by the time the hour before my bedtime rolled around.

Years later, I’ve finally resigned myself to the fact that, whether I like it or not, I can only establish a daily writing practice if I  write as soon as I roll out of bed in the morning. The only time I’ve come even close to maintaining a daily writing schedule was for a month last year when I woke at 5:30am every morning to sip coffee and blindly type until the very last minute before I had to go to work, until I literally had to run for the train to make it on time.

The purported habit-guru Gretchen Rubin—who apparently only had to do some pseudo research and write a book full of anecdotes to become an expert on habits (who knew?)—asserts that in order to master your tendencies and establish productive habits, you must know yourself first. You have to fully understand your predispositions beforehand so you can, essentially, account for your shortcomings when you establish your goals and plan them in a way that makes you the most likely to succeed. For example, if you are a night owl, she says, you will never be able to simply turn yourself into the type of person who wakes up early every morning to exercise or write. Instead, you’ll fight against your night owl tendencies, try to wake up early for some time, then eventually give up once you fail a time or two. Yes, she admits that if you’re night owl and you also happen to work a regular 9-5 job, your options for establishing good habits—i.e. habits that work with your night owl tendencies—are limited, but oh well. Onward and upward! Try your best.

For a whole month, I lived the life of a true morning person: getting out of bed upon the first sound of my alarm, eating breakfast at my table like an adult, and sipping on my coffee while I wrote for about 45 minutes. No matter how tired I was, I plopped myself in front of that computer. Eventually, however, my good habits slipped. I’d still wake between 5:45 and 6:00, as per usual, but then I’d spend an hour between my cozy sheets, scrolling through my Facebook feed, then my Instagram feed, then perusing the headlines on NPR before finally dragging myself to the shower. I spent weeks waking at that time only to scroll through anything and everything I could find on my phone, anything to avoid the hard work of getting out of bed and getting my day started. Eventually, I gave up. I didn’t, I told myself, wake up that early every day to look at my social media. Gretchen Rubin was right, I reasoned; my long-time night owl nature was simply working against me. I was never going to win in this situation.

For nearly a year, I used Rubin’s “research,” or a handful of stories about how her acquaintances had tried and failed at their own habits, as an excuse to justify not waking up early to write. Eventually, however, I realized that there was simply no other way around it. I needed to write every day. Not doing so would mean wasting a talent that had been granted to me by pure grace. And I clearly needed to write before work, because experience proves that I never find the time or energy later in my jam-packed day. And in order to write before I go to work, I have to become a morning person. Oh well; I never really did believe much in Rubin’s theories anyways.

So I began reading articles about how to become a morning person, noting strategies that others had tried, inventions that help you to wake up naturally, the science behind sleep, how people wake, and the best way to wake for productivity. Then I resolved to do it, with some rules and strategies to help me along.

  1. Throughout the week, I will wake between 5:45 and 6:00 am. During the weekend, I’m allowed to sleep in and write at my leisure, as long as I actually do it.
  2. Immediately upon waking, I will sit up, then drink the tall glass of water sitting on my night stand, all in one breath if possible.
  3. At the very reasonable recommendation of another writer and night-owl-turned-morning-person, I will not use my phone as a way to wake up. Instead, I will leave my phone face down on the night stand while I stumble to the kitchen and do something routine, something that requires no thought, gets my hands working, and allows my mind to slowly wake up in the process. In my case, this is throwing out the coffee grounds from the day before, putting new ones in, and getting the coffee brewing. Added bonus: After I slowly join the living, I get coffee!
  4. I will sit down in front of my computer and write something, anything, for thirty uninterrupted minutes.The faster and fiercer, the better. No internet surfing. No answering emails. No flipping through my Spotify list. No checking my work calendar. Only writing.
  5. I will stop writing after 30 minutes, even if I have more to say, even if my mind is running wild with inspiration. This has nothing to do with becoming a morning person, but I read that doing this reminds you that that sitting down to write is about showing up daily and working, not about the muses being on your side. Conceptually, I know this, but it’s something I still struggle with.   While I would like to build up to writing for an hour every day and also allow myself the freedom to continue when I feel like I’m tugging at the strand of something wonderful, I think I can benefit from showing myself that writing can happen even when inspiration has packed its bags and left, even when I’m typing with one eye open and there’s not enough coffee in the world to get my brain running. So the typing stops after 30 minutes, no matter what.

Thanks to Murphy’s law, I woke up with an awful head cold on the first day of my new morning routine. Determined to succeed this time, I walked myself through the steps, escaped the allure of my bed, and completed my 30 minutes of writing. And I’ve written every day for the past month. Through sickness and fatigue, dark winter mornings and mornings so cold that I have to wrap myself in a blanket and sit between two space heaters, I write, write, write. At first, I could barely focus my attention on writing for more than 10 minutes at a time; the seconds seemed to crawl. After a month, though, I can already feel the difference. My fingers fly over the keys, and before I know it, it’s time to wrap up and run out the door. It’s a tiny step in the right direction, but it’s something.

On top of building up my writing muscles, establishing a morning writing practice has brought more calm to my life. It affords me at least an hour of quiet and order before I step into the madness of the world. It’s time just for me and my creativity, an hour to leisurely eat my breakfast like an adult, sing along to my jams, sort through my albeit muddled thoughts, and put the words bouncing around in my head in some semblance of order. It’s hard to believe, but 6:00am has become my favorite hour of the day.

The general pseudoscience behind habit formation is that it takes at least 30 days to form a new habit. After a full month of writing daily, it looks like this night owl has discovered the hack to becoming a morning person. So take that, Gretchen Rubin! I’m officially a morning person now, and soon I’ll be a morning person that can say she’s truly a writer, too.

Living Big in 2016

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I’m a big fan of end of the year posts, New Years resolutions, and big goals. Although most find the habit of resolution-setting to be silly—after all, what makes you more likely to stick to a goal if it’s set on the first day of the year rather than the 135th?—I find that big goals and resolutions help me to keep track of my life. They also help me to keep pushing for my dreams, even when the minutiae of every day life sucks me into the black hole of eat, work, sleep, repeat. This year has been full of ups and downs, and while the ups were really high, the lows were really, really low. I am, for the most part, happy to leave 2015 behind.

Anxiety has made my life very small in the past year. I’ve been afraid to fly, afraid to travel in general, even within the city, suddenly afraid of small spaces and crowded places, and generally afraid of the many bad circumstances that could befall any of us at any moment. My past year has been one of primarily fear, and that’s not the way that I will live the upcoming year. Instead, I will live a life that is big and plentiful, rich in friends and family, bountiful in creativity and an attitude of adventure. I don’t want to live a life of scarcity, as Brené Brown says. Instead, I want to live from a place of giving and love and faith, from a place of complete abundance (something that is especially difficult for a realist like me).

I have many lofty goals for 2016. I want to read 27 books this year. I want to become more of a leader at work. I want to run a 10k and create more healthy eating habits. The list goes on and on.

Of my many resolutions for this year, the most essential is to write daily and to focus on writing rather than on simply blogging. That doesn’t mean I’ll quit blogging. On the contrary, I’m working on an editorial calendar to keep this blog on track next year. Instead, I want to focus more on pieces outside of what I post here, something I always tell myself I’ll do but never make time for. I’ve also found myself falling into the trap of using that frilly, frou-frou writing style that so often sneaks into mainstream blogs. It’s popular because it’s easy for both the writer and the reader; using this style, the writer can easily prattle off a couple posts a week and the reader can then mindlessly scan through them.  It’s a fine style of blogging and writing—it fulfills its purpose—, but it’s not me. This year, if I’m not doing the hard work of examining and analyzing, then I might as well not be writing.

As I head into 2016, full steam ahead, my general goal is to take a page out of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Big Magic. This year, I’ll be focusing mainly on motion, of any kind. When you have anxiety, your first instinct is to stay in the place you feel most comfortable, to be still and quiet and safe. This year, I’m using Elizabeth Gilbert’s strategy for generating my own creativity and calm.

Whatever you do, try not to dwell too long on your failures. You don’t need to conduct autopsies on your disasters…Move on. Whatever else happens, stay busy. Find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure…. In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else.

Go walk the dog, go pick up every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with brightly colored nail polish and put them in a pile. You might think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t; it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.

So wave your arms around. Make something. Do something. Do anything.

Call attention to yourself with some sort of creative action and—most of all—trust that if you make enough of a glorious commotion, eventually inspiration will find its way home to you again.

Above anything else, my goal is to keep moving in a direction that is always positive, even if there are short failures and detours, and to trust that inspiration and creativity and Good will find me along the way.

Despite the difficult times of 2015, I’m also grateful for this past year; it was a transformative year in my life and one that helped me realize many of the things I don’t want, which I’m told can be just as important as knowing what you do want. I’m happy to have a new job and a new fiancé. I’m happy to be 30 and ready to usher in a new decade of badassery. With two weddings and a trip to India on the books, this year is bound to be anything but dull and safe. So let’s go, 2016; we have a lot of writing, reading, and moving to do.

I Believe

Last year, the Tony-award winning musical, The Book of Mormon, finally made its way to Chicago and V. and I sat enraptured through every single moment. As expected when you watch anything written and produced by the co-creaters of South Park, parts of the musical had me literally guffawing while other parts had me squirming with discomfort. At the end of the night, I once again left the theater absolutely inspired and in awe of those who write and perform musical theater. That is, perhaps, one of the biggest privileges of living in a big city: the endless opportunities to see good (and even not so good) art.

Six months later, V. and I started speaking seriously about writing our own musical together based on an idea that he had months ago, and since then, I’ve listened to this song almost every day. It sounds crazy, I know, but this song just…inspires me. When I’m bored to death at work and drudging through the day, I turn this song on. When I feel like this project might be impossible and fearing inevitable failure, I turn this song on. No matter the time or the situation, this song instantly lights me up with thoughts of hope and possibility.

It’s a funny thing, inspiration. The song is clearly meant to be comical; I still laugh at its preposterous lyrics.  Yet, if you look past the lyrics and to the music, the melody is beautiful and downright compelling. And the idea of having faith in something that seems unlikely, well, that speaks to me.

As always, the first thing I do when embarking on a project that I don’t know how to approach is read a book about it. Once we decided we were serious about this idea that we’d been joking about for months, I promptly searched the Kindle store for good reads on how to write musical theater. Although I took a playwriting class in college and have participated in plenty of theater, musical and not, I’m a complete newbie to writing lyrics and a script (or a book as they call it in the musical theater world). On top of that, I’ve never collaborated with someone on a creative idea before. As a blogger, essayist, and sometimes fiction writer, I’m more accustomed to pursuing my own creative inklings, content to wander in the darkness until my ideas turn into something new and exciting or fizzle out and disappear. Working solo is one of the most liberating and lonely things about being a writer. Working with another person’s vision and unique creativity is certainly going to be an adjustment.

If there’s anything I know for certain, though, it’s that both of us feel this is an important idea, an idea that needs to be made into something whole, whether that be by us or by someone else. In the end, we just hope it’ll be by us.

As we attempt to plan two weddings and a trip to India, keep up with our demanding jobs, and maintain a health regimen, I can only hope that this idea will be patient with us while we slowly grow it into something more. In the meantime, I’ll continue to believe that V. and I will write this musical. I don’t know what will happen along the way or after it’s finished, or if anything will happen at all. But, still, I believe.

EDIT: This post was brought to you by approximately 10 hours of watching musical clips on Youtube.

Settling Back Into Writing

It seems like everyone but me is writing and publishing and diving head first into their creative endeavors these days.

I follow a blogger who has a 5 month old son and a full time job and still manages to blog three times a week. Many times, the content of her posts aren’t to my tastes, but she’s a good writer with over 40,000 blog followers and every time I see a new post from her all I can think is fuuuck.

While I have much more time to write than before, I still struggle to actually sit down and do it. This past summer was a particularly dry time for creativity as I moved, changed jobs, and tried to focus on slowing down and settling in after a particularly out of control time in my life. Having a panic attack opened my eyes to a new, all-encompassing world of terror. Anxiety drains everything from your life. The only thing left after a panic attack—the only thing you can even think about—is anxiety. Every day is a never ending string of frightening thoughts. What if I have a panic attack on this bus? What if this train gets stuck in the subway, and I can’t get out? What if I don’t pass this test and I lose my job and I have to start the job hunt all over again and I can’t support myself and I get evicted from my apartment and I have to move back in with my parents and…and…and…?!

You know how it goes.

Luckily, as I settle into my new apartment and into a new routine, I’ve also been able to gradually stabilize my anxiety. And as anxiety finally takes a back seat to my regular life, I find myself turning more and more to the things that fill me up with hope and peace, including, and especially, writing.*

In my college days, I could sit at the computer and write for hours without moving. In fact, that’s how I preferred to write. If I didn’t have a long afternoon to sit and think before frantically typing my inspirations to the page, then I didn’t want to begin in the first place. Now, I can barely sit at the computer for more than 10 minutes before my mind wanders elsewhere. This is partly thanks to my adult life, which no longer offers me the freedom to sit and ruminate; I often write in the spare minutes I have before going to sleep or going to work, sitting at my desk in the dark, my eyes barely open and my fingers stumbling over the keyboard. I’m also greatly influenced by our internet-driven, ADD culture. I write a paragraph, then check my Facebook. Buy a Groupon, then scribble another half page. I change the song that’s playing, shoot off a quick email, then get back to my piece for another 10-15 minutes. It’s a type of schizophrenia, writing this way.

Ultimately, for me, part of getting back to writing is getting back to the habit of putting my butt in the chair and words on the page—no moving, no tab collecting, no coming back to it after the dishes are done or the laundry is finished, no picking it up tomorrow when I will be less tired or distracted. (There will never be a day when I’m less tired or distracted.) My desire to write is coming back in full force, and I want to take advantage of this momentum. Even when I’m struggling, when I’m frustrated and annoyed by my lack of ability to capture the right words, writing is the only thing that truly puts my soul at peace.

In the past year, it’s become abundantly clear to me that my future must involve a career in writing, even if it means writing the boring stuff. As Truman Capote said, “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” The satisfaction I get in placing one word after the other is unlike any other, and ultimately, scrambling to fit writing sessions into a typical corporate American workday is just not working for me.  I’m 30 now (!). It’s finally time to create a 5 year plan that brings me closer to that reality.

In the meantime, I’m wracking up ideas for writing projects and setting milestones for myself, albeit flexible ones. I’ve got big plans for this blog and a collection of essays on Ecuador, and I’ve been looking into volunteering for a writing-based nonprofit in the city. My boyfriend and I have also been talking quite seriously about finally bringing our idea for a musical to fruition, and although I’ve never attempted to write musical theater, I can’t stop jotting down little snippets of dialogue, dreaming of putting lyrics on paper, and ultimately pitching the idea to producers. (Is that what you even do?)

For now, I’m relieved and immensely grateful to have the time and mental capacity to write.  More than ever, I’m also confident that if I keep believing in this dream and keep writing when I can, my dream of producing beautiful work will soon be a reality.

* Those who live with anxiety know that stabilizing that anxiety is not as easy, natural, or effortless as I make it sound, but that’s another post entirely.

Ecuador Calling

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For a long time after returning from the Peace Corps, I didn’t really want to talk, or even think, about Ecuador. What I wanted was to simply return to the U.S. and snap back into my former American life, to completely forget about my Peace Corps experience for a little while.

I can say for certain, without pretense or hyperbole, that living in Ecuador was a life altering experience. So why was I so eager to forget about it? For more than two years, I was the “cold American,” the gullible gringa offering free help, the one everyone blew off at meetings, the one everyone stared at in the streets (and everywhere else for that matter), the one who could never give, do, or be enough, the “easy” American girl, the rich, dumb tourist, and any number of other preconceived notions. For more than two years, I’d been figuring out how to live, act, and think like an Ecuadorian while also examining and discussing Ecuadorian culture ad nauseam with fellow volunteers. I was exhausted. Simply put, I was ready to do and be something else.

When I finally found myself standing in the St. Louis airport, surrounded by family and friends, the contents of my life stuffed into a backpack and a single suitcase, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how my life was changing.

The next day, I went to my first big family gathering and, naturally, everyone was eager to hear about my experiences. “How was Ecuador?” I heard over and over. It was the question I both anticipated and dreaded. I’d spent the last months of my service contemplating how to answer that question, but I still didn’t know what to say. A short question usually merits a short answer, but I couldn’t articulate the tangled mess of emotions that encompassed my Ecuadorian life in any form, long or short. Less than 24 hours before, I’d moved my entire life from one continent to another in two bags. I’d gone from a world where I only understood half of what anybody was saying to accidentally eaves dropping on conversations without trying. After two years of using a 90s-era Nokia cell phone, I had a mini computer in my hand with full internet capabilities. How could I even begin to address what I’d been through in the past 24 hours much less the past two years?

“It was great,” I replied, that time and every time after that. Everyone seemed more than satisfied with this simple, digestible response.

And with that, I began to put Ecuador away.

At first, Ecuador was inescapable. Every night, it was there in my dreams—the horns blaring in the early morning hours, the viejos sweeping the dusty sidewalks, the heavy feel of suelto in my pocket. Every morning, I’d awake relieved and slightly confused about being in the United States. But, eventually, the dreams stopped. I deleted Ecuadorian acquaintances from Facebook. Unable to reconcile my American life with my Ecuadorian life and craving even more emotional space, I stopped scheduling Skype dates with my Ecuadorian friends for a while. I stopped speaking Spanish, and the Spanglish that was once a staple in my life fell out of my vocabulary completely. With my Peace Corps friends scattered across the country and no daily, concrete reminders of Ecuador, I pushed my Ecuadorian life to the back of my mind until the memories, once fresh and painful and overwhelming, became dull and rusted, easier to handle. Slowly, subtly, Ecuador faded away. As I moved, started a new job, and took on new challenges, the details of my Ecuadorian life fell completely out of focus until my Peace Corps service felt like a dream rather than my once-daily reality.

Lately, though, I can’t stop thinking about Ecuador. As I go about my life in Chicago, moments of my Peace Corps service have been resurfacing in brief, vivid snippets. A man on the bus crosses himself as we pass the Cathedral, and I am transported back to Ecuador, the entire bus crossing themselves twice, practically in unison, as we pass an unassuming chapel on the corner. I stare at parts of the Chicago skyline from my boyfriend’s window and remember the endless afternoons on Joey’s rooftop, chatting over beers while the people of Loja passed on the streets below and the sun streaked through the surrounding mountains. My boss casually snaps, then claps his fist to the palm of his hand, and I recall my Ecuadorian Spanish teacher clasping my hands in his after I completed a similar move, explaining that said gesture is both sexually explicit and offensive in Ecuador. In the past month alone, I’ve stumbled across and recreated recipes from my Peace Corps cookbook and uncovered old emails to friends recounting my every emotion in detail so raw that I can still feel those moments in my gut. At my site mate’s wedding, I reminisced with my closest Peace Corps friends about the hours we whiled away together, eating ice cream, drinking Pilsner, grab-assing, and laughing, in happiness and in sadness, because if we didn’t laugh we would surely cry.

Ecuador is calling, and I can no longer ignore it. I know it’s time to finally put my experiences into words, if only so I have a written record of how and why those two years impacted me so greatly. Even if the resulting pieces are never read by another soul, the details left in my brain need to be recorded so I can finally figure out how to incorporate these two lives: here and there. But I’m scared. As Joan Didion says in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook”:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.

Unable to reconcile my Ecuadorian self with the person I was becoming (again? anew?), I packed Ecuador away until I could no longer feel the details. I am no longer on nodding terms with my Ecuador self, and I’m afraid I’ll never snatch her back from the darkness again. As Didion grimly notes in her essay, “You see I still have the scenes, but I no longer perceive myself among those present, no longer could even improvise the dialogue.” I’m scared that I’ll finally try to delve into my experiences and realize that there’s nothing left to delve into but a set of vague memories and feelings. The loss would be profound.

After avoiding Ecuador for so long, I know that the best I can do at this point is try. Ecuador is calling, and now, it’s finally time to listen.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners; I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good. It has potential. But it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.

—Ira Glass