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.

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Finding the Novel Cure

A few months back, as my bus trundled along Lake Shore Drive, carrying me to another hectic work day, I opened an article—entitled Can Reading Make You Happier?— that one of my most wonderful English professors had posted to Facebook. I already knew my personal answer to the question, but I love reading articles that confirm my anecdotal evidence, so I opened it on my cell phone and dove right in. (If you haven’t read it, stop right here and click that link immediately. Seriously, hop to it!)

To my surprise, the article that I thought would be full of statistics and scientific evidence on the mood-lifting effects of reading was actually an article on bibliotherapy, the practice of using books as therapy in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders. Despite having both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English, I had never heard of bibliotherapy. The idea was immediately enticing. Using books to cure one’s ailments? What could be more magical and lovely?

Like most avid readers, I’ve been experiencing the power of the written word since I was young. Despite my interest in books from a young age, the first time I can remember the saving grace of words was as a junior in college. I studied abroad in Ecuador for a summer, and as I boarded the plane to go to a developing country alone, the words of Christopher Robin from the Winnie the Pooh series kept echoing in my head: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Those words became my mantra that summer, lending me courage as I teetered above the Andes mountains in a small propeller plane flying from Quito to Cuenca, mimed my needs to my host family while trying to speak a foreign language that felt like speaking with a cork in my mouth, and navigated foreign streets in a city 15 times bigger than any city I’d ever lived in. They say that you are the stories you tell yourself, and Christopher Robin assured me that, despite my doubts and fears, I could do this on my own.

Since then, there have been plenty of times when the words of literature have surfaced from the dark of my mind, right when I’m experiencing something difficult, like a whispered thought from God. When I’m taking on a new project or I feel nervous about putting myself out there creatively or professionally, I remember “I had to do it for myself” (Everything is Illuminated). While mourning the death of my grandmother and watching the terror of the January 2015 Paris attacks, I thought of one of my most beloved protagonists, Oskar, and his “heavy boots” (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). When I’m struggling with anxiety, I think of Sylvia Plath’s “I am, I am, I am” (The Bell Jar). When I feel jealous of others’ success or find myself sizing up my accomplishments with those of my coworkers or friends, I remember Amy Poehler’s “Good for her, not for me” (Yes, Please). When I’m trying to find the motivation to write or exercise or simply follow through, I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory that “any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion,” and I push myself to simply keep moving (Big Magic). Needless to say, after many books and many experiences, I’m inclined to believe that books can help with anything.

For weeks after reading that article, I’d found myself idly thinking about The Novel Cure, a sort of medical dictionary put together by two bibliotherapists, and wondering what sorts of great book recommendations lay within. So, for Christmas this year, I bought myself a copy! There’s never a time that I couldn’t use a good book recommendation to cure what’s ailing me.

The day the book arrived, I sat on my couch, leisurely paging through the list of ailments and their novel remedies. There were many that I felt applied to my life; some were concrete and diagnosable medical ailments—anxiety, having; panic attacks; flying, fear of; claustrophobia. Others were more general, abstract, and even funny ailments—Monday morning feeling; brainy, being exceptionally (an ailment that I totally understand); writer’s block; tired and emotional, being.

I continued to peruse the pages, searching for the perfect diagnosis to start with, confident that I would know it when I saw it. Then it jumped out at me. My soul gave a little gasp of immediate understanding before I even read the description for this ailment, and I knew this was where I needed to start.

City fatigue.

It is exactly what it sounds like. In my case, it’s not being able to truly nap in over two years. It’s wanting to ride the bus without having to listen to the prattling, inane conversations of 20 strangers yapping on their cell phones. It’s every time the bus doesn’t show up and it’s -25 degrees outside. It’s the drug-addled person shouting on the train while you’re locked in a tiny car in a tunnel beneath the earth. Or listening to your downstairs neighbor relentlessly blast his bass for literally 10 hours without reprieve on the day after the Paris attacks when you are hungover, weary, and sure that all of humanity is spiraling into a pit of absolute madness. It’s that unending craving for space, quiet, and delicious solitude. Yes, city fatigue and I are well acquainted, but it’s time to finally distance myself with this constant companion. So I’m starting with The City and The City by China Miéville, the recommended cure for city fatigue and a murder mystery that focuses on the tiring matter of “unseeing” those around us. With any luck, maybe I’ll learn a few coping mechanisms.

This year, I’ve resolved to read at least 27 books, or one book every other week; it’ll be challenging given that I’m planning 2 weddings and trying to establish a daily writing practice on top of regular adult duties. Moreso, the goal is to remind me of the importance of reading during every available opportunity. With The Novel Cure in my library, I know I’ll have plenty of great recommendations at my fingertips. For those of you who aren’t so interested in the physical index, you can also find plenty of good advice, book recommendations, and inspiration on The Novel Cure website. Incidentally, they also do “surgery,” or provide customized diagnoses for readers who write in with their ailments.

As for me, by the time of my next post, I’ll hopefully be ready to face the city with abandon once again. If not, there’s also a novel cure for misanthropy, so that may be the one to check out next.

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.

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

 

Like Moths to a Flame

Last night, I went to a story slam. Those who know me know that I generally steer clear of literary events that involve the word “slam.” Cue Leslie Knope.

But this was The Moth, a podcast often referred to in reverent tones by trusted friends and of which I’d heard short, funny, and interesting clips on NPR’s This American Life. So when a few coworkers suggested we go after work on a Monday night, I happily agreed to tag along. When we arrived an hour before the event, the bar was already packed; the walls were lined with people in tall chairs, groups of friends sipped beers around crowded tables, and the bar was abuzz with waiters scurrying back and forth between customers. My coworkers and I found an open space on the hardwood floor where we sat cross-legged in front of the low stage. A microphone stood alone at its center. Behind it, a small poster board sign announced the rules of the event.

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Picture courtesy of http://moth-stories.tumblr.com.

1. Your story must be true.

2. It must be on topic. Each StorySlam has a different theme to which the storytellers are strictly bound.

3. It must have stakes.

4. It must be your story to tell.

5. And, lastly, it must be on time. Each storyteller has 6 minutes to tell their story and not a second more.

The sign also made it clear that the Moth was not a place for stand-up routines, rants, confessions, or gratuity. Instead, it was a place to tell a truly good story, one that makes us care about the storyteller, explores fears and desires, introduces conflict, and, more than anything, demonstrates that the storyteller has been truly changed.

Three groups of ordinary listeners were designated as judges, and then the storytelling began. The theme of the night was snooping, and while many of the stories followed the conventional story line—purposely reading a significant other’s emails to see if they are cheating or accidentally finding a loved one’s porn stash—a few others resisted the ordinary and stepped into truly wonderful territory. One storyteller, a medical student, described the “snooping” he’d done to discover who his med school cadaver had been before death and the touching facts you can discover about a person’s life through the small details of their appearance. Another woman told us of the time she snooped through her neighbor’s encyclopedias when she was in 5th grade, frantically searching for more information on a topic that her family refused to talk about: the ominous arrival of her period. Another woman detailed the awkwardness that ensued when her husband discovered that their son and his girlfriend had exchanged nude pictures. Finally, my coworker’s husband riveted the crowd with a story of how spying on the cops led him to an active crime scene and a misunderstanding that left him in handcuffs.

Some of the stories had clearly been rehearsed, told and retold aloud until the teller could say the lines without thinking. However, the ones I liked most were off the cuff, stuttering, a bit halting, both serious and funny, casual and yet structured. As the night drew on, I also discovered that the stories that truly captivated me were the ones that made me worry. I wasn’t worried for the guy who recounted the series of supposedly funny occurrences that led him to discover that his couch surfing host was gay. There was nothing at stake, and so I was indifferent from the beginning. However, I did worry for a number others—that they wouldn’t finish their stories in time and I’d never hear the ending or that they’d be caught in the act or that a simple misunderstanding would lead to physical harm. My anxiety deliciously crested as the storyteller zigged and zagged towards an ending that I simultaneously craved and dreaded.

After every story, the judges presented their scores, which were inconsistent at best. They often awarded points based on sympathy and a well-rehearsed delivery when I would’ve awarded points based on the amount of stillness in the crowd, whether or not the story made us collectively draw a breath, the vivid details that can only come from a lived experience and truly give life to the story. I walked away from the event disappointed with the chosen winner—a Guatemalan guy who told of every sadsack story about cheating that I had ever heard while living in Ecuador—but I was still deeply satisfied with the experience. What a luxury to be so thoroughly riveted by strangers’ stories. What a privilege to live in a culture where StorySlams even exist. I’ve already taken to the internet in search of other storytelling events. Hopefully I will soon be a teller as well as a listener, because I, too, have stories that are just waiting to be told, to strike a quiver of anxious energy in the listener, to draw others into the unique set of circumstances that makes my experiences so different and yet so utterly human.

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.

To Be A Creator

“Remember, misery is comfortable. It’s why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.

Also, courage. It’s incredibly comforting to know that as long as you don’t create anything in your life, then nobody can attack the thing you created.

It’s so much easier to just sit back and criticize other people’s creations. This movie is stupid. That couple’s kids are brats. That other couple’s relationship is a mess. That rich guy is shallow. This restaurant sucks. This Internet writer is an asshole. I’d better leave a mean comment demanding that the website fire him. See, I created something….

Whatever you try to build or create–be it a poem, a new skill, or a new relationship–you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who will trash it…. Just remember, they’re only expressing their own fear, since trashing other people’s work is another excuse to do nothing.”

6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person; I can’t say I agree with everything in this article, but it made me reflect on the risks and rewards of creativity and why it’s important to silence the critic and press on.