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!

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.

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.

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

 

If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.

Ray Bradbury, on writing

For me, writing a novel is like climbing a steep mountain, struggling up the face of the cliff, reaching the summit after a long and arduous ordeal. You overcome your limitations, or you don’t, one or the other. I always keep that inner image with me as I write.

—Haruki Marukami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Essay Collection Titles: How the Colon Got Its Groove Back

I’ve been thinking lately about writing a collection of essays. In her book, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg writes: “When you want to write in a certain form—a novel, short story, poem—read a lot of writing in that form. Watch how it is paced. What is the first sentence? What makes it finished? When you read a lot in that form, it becomes imprinted inside you, so when you sit down to write, you write in that structure.”  

With this in mind, I promptly began researching essay collections to read for next week.  Below are a few of the collections that came highly recommended by strangers all over the Internet.

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems by David Rakoff

And the list goes on.

Thus far, I’ve learned that when writing a collection of essays, your title must involve a colon and a subtitle. 

Do you have a favorite essay collection that I should read? Leave it in the comments for me so I can check it out!

We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter. . . Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer’s task to say, ‘It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a café when you can eat macrobiotic at home.’ Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”

—Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within