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.

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Finding Focus

Despite good intentions, my year of focus is off to a rocky start. After a visit home for the holidays, a few glorious days of fun with friends and family, and an unexpected trip home again for my grandmother’s funeral, I’m struggling to get my schedule back on track and myself back in motion. I’ve spent most of this month catching up on the work stacked on my desk, the dirt layered my floors, and all the random-yet-pressing obligations scribbled on random pages of my Passion Planner (which I finally got this week!). In the meantime, my downstairs neighbors have taken to screaming at each other in a manner that quickens my heartbeat—partly out of frustration, but mostly out of fear—and my upstairs neighbors continue to walk incessant laps around their apartment, taking extra care to hit the squeakiest spots.

In this the first month of 2015, I’ve barely managed to squeeze in a half hour of writing once or twice a week, if I’m lucky, and I run so little now that I can’t even call myself a runner anymore (or justify my monthly gym fees). Sometimes, most times, I feel like I am descending into madnesss, that I will forever be swirling in this tornado of chores and overflow work and frantic running here and there. But I keep reminding myself that small, consistent actions lead to big rewards, so I continue to seek focus in all aspects of my life.

At work, I’ve relegated personal emails and texts to my lunch hour, so I can focus all my attention on work tasks. I’ve imposed a strict 8-5 work schedule and I’ve quit checking work email when I’m not in the office. Instead of giving 110% to all of my tasks, I give 100% to the things that matter and let everything else wait for the next day or the next available person.

At home, I wake up an hour earlier than before to sneak in some writing time before work. Unfortunately, like the true night owl I am, I often wander about in a half conscious state until a half hour before I need to leave the house. Sometimes I end up using those early morning minutes to pack a gym bag or consolidate leftovers for lunch. Sometimes, I sit at my computer and write a mish mash of run on sentences, half complete thoughts, and notes for later. It’s slow-going at best, but at least it’s going. I’ve moved my computer from my comfy couch to the more business-like table. I’ve created an editorial calendar for the year, outlining both my blogging deadlines and estimated completion dates for a collection of approximately 7 essays. I’ve written the first sentence of my first essay on Ecuador, and I’m picking out a handful of writing residencies that I’ll apply to later this Spring.

In the meantime, I continue my attempts to gain control over a life spun out of control. I map out my work engagements and writing times, coffee dates and bed times. A queasy, regretful feeling spreads in my stomach every time I think about my neglected running practice and my quickly deteriorating Spanish skills. I hate prioritization, for the impossibility of its nature and the anguish it causes me. But I continue to do it, because life is short and my goals are big. So stay tuned; I’ve got some exciting things in the works.

One day at a time.

I can and I will.

Public Service Announcement

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Today, I broke down and bought a passion planner. In spite of its suggestive name, a passion planner is a yearly agenda that combines an appointment calendar with pages for journaling, to-do lists, goal setting, reflecting, drawing, mind mapping, and logging gratitude. This is the kind of organization my wayward schedule requires these days.

Upon returning from Ecuador, I looked at my life and saw nothing but large swaths of time. After two years of living off the “American grid,” it was as if I didn’t exist in the adult world. With no job, no commitments, and no pressing social engagements, I wallowed in days filled with endless hours of reality television, luxurious runs, and extended visits with friends. It was a wonderful existence, a continuation of Ecua-time that I simultaneously cherished and longed to replace with a real schedule.  Now, I can’t begin to account for the minutes of my day. Every Sunday night, I look at the week before me and mentally plot out when I’ll do my writing, my reading, my workouts, my meetups with friends and boyfriend. Then a dinner with colleagues pops up, an early meeting appears on my calendar for Tuesday, then again on Wednesday and Friday, an empty fridge leads to an impromptu shopping trip, and before I know it, the minutes have somehow slipped away until what appeared to be an ordinary week has once again become an overwhelming one.

It’s no secret that I’m not good at balance.

More than anything, my life lacks focus. I spend my work days jumping from one task to another while texting with friends about after-work plans. Tasks small and large escape my view. At any moment, there are fifteen open tabs on my internet browser and three partially-drafted emails on my smartphone. I make lists on lists on lists—of people to call or write, errands to complete, forgotten tasks to follow up on. I can’t finish a blog post. (This post alone took me over a month.) I can’t finish a book. And yet, I can’t tell you where my time goes. I’m running as fast as my little lungs will allow, but the horizon never seems to get any closer. (Of course, the ultimate irony of this statement is that I struggle to fit running into my schedule at all these days.) And, as always, when the week gets busy, the first thing to be compromised is my writing. Or as Jay McInerny writes in Bright Lights, Big City, “But between the job and the life there wasn’t much time left over for emotion recollected in tranquility.”

This, I’m learning, is adulthood: a constant battle with tedium and minutiae. I have the distinct feeling that if I’m not careful, this constant struggle to eat three meals a day, keep up with laundry and cooking, follow a budget, sleep enough to function, and stay on top of work will carry me right to the end of my days before I’ve even set down a single word worth reading. On a daily basis, I am paralyzed by the fact that I cannot write fast enough, learn fast enough, or even think fast enough to accomplish all of my life goals. And I don’t even have kids or work two jobs or take care of elderly parents or commute an exorbitant amount by today’s standards.

I’ve tried to write as much as possible given my hectic schedule, but it’s been less than successful. Every day, I wake up at 5:30am to write unintelligible sentences with my eyes still half closed. Even at that unbearable hour, I feel the pressure to get it right the first time, because who has the time to rewrite anything with all the early morning meetings, phone dates with friends (on this continent and beyond), and boring adult things to tend to? And even as I’m attempting to write the perfect first draft—ha!—I’m scrutinizing whether I should be spending my valuable time on this particular writing task at all. Would my time be better spent on a different essay or short story? I think as my fingers move blindly over the keys. If I were to die tomorrow, is this the last piece I’d want to be working on? With thoughts like these bouncing around my brain, there’s not much energy left over for creative fission.

I realize that being an adult means making choices. I just never imagined that I’d have to choose between advancing my career, maintaining friendships, and building a writing practice. I certainly never thought that these grandiose life moves would boil down to such common place decisions. Do I spend my few hours of free time after work writing tonight? Or do I wash my stinking dishes and iron my work clothes for tomorrow? Do I sleep till 6 so I can focus on my long day of meetings and stave off that imminent cold for another week? (Thanks, public transit!) Or do I get up at 5 to eke out a few garbled lines before hopping on the train?

No matter what I choose, it always feel like the wrong decision.

Part of my problem is—and always has been—that I want to excel at too many things. This, of course, is not just my problem, but a larger societal issue. Our newspapers and social media are full of articles on the “disease of busy” and the somehow newly discovered importance of sleep. We’ve all seen these articles, and yet we continue filling our schedules to the breaking point. A  couple weeks ago, though, I came across a Thomas Merton quote in the On Being blog that made me see the busyness of my life in an entirely different way:

“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist…most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his (or her) work… It destroys the fruitfulness of his (or her)…work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Violence? Destroying the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful? That’s some heavy stuff, and yet, that’s exactly what it feels like.

Now that I’ve had time and space, I yearn to write a collection of essays on my time in Ecuador. Despite my best intentions, I’ve yet to begin. I’m terrified that by the time I cobble together enough time to write the first draft, the details will be tarnished and dull, lost in that black hole where memories go when they are too often unthought of.

Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell says that to make time for writing you must first neglect everything else. I instantly prickle at the thought; my heart pounds a little faster and my obsessive need to be good at this “being an adult” thing sends me into a spiral of rationalizations as to why this approach won’t work. What about that pile of laundry, the multiplying dishes, the vacant refrigerator? I already struggle to keep up with friends; what will they think when I’m even more unavailable than before? How can I excel at work if I’m not willing to stay extra time, always go that extra mile? It’s when I’m exhausted and panting from a crazy week that I feel the need to see where my time is going, to reclaim those fleeting minutes for myself.

As I look towards the new year, I know that something has to change.

So this is a public service announcement: The be-good-at-everything, surrender-to-too-many-demands me is out of commission. If you don’t hear much from me in the coming weeks and months, know that it’s not you; it’s me.  The focus of this past year was reading a book a week; the focus of next year will be focus itself—on the right people, the right goals, and the right projects. So if you haven’t heard from me in a while and you begin to wonder where in the world I am, know that I am squarely in front of my computer, desperately putting digital words to digital paper. Because I can’t keep living in a reality of tomorrows, and I can’t keep putting my writing on the back burner. I officially proclaim 2015 the year of wrinkled shirts, mile-high dishes, bags under the eyes, and pages and pages of writing.