Categories
blog

Don’t burn your bagel

We have a finicky toaster oven. The done-ness indicators on the dial are basically meaningless. I have a suspicion it’s collecting data on our use and reactions for a psychological experiment.

So when I put a bagel in the other morning, I knew I had to keep an eye on it. It’s also the moment Sprout decided she needed a refill on her Rice Krispies. And more banana.

And we had the radio on, which I was semi-paying attention to, since they were doing a news update.

Then Button decided to drop his teething chew thingamajig. This displeased him.

With these competing demands and draws for my attention, it would be very easy to forget the need to watch my bagel. The more I paid attention to these other inputs, the more likely it was that I’d be spreading cream cheese on a charcoal-tinged disc.

I won’t belabor the metaphor: This is all about avoiding burnout.

The repeated mantra somebody sent me that I’m keeping close to heart right now is “You’re not working from home. You’re at home trying to work.”

My job teaching at a university is not one designed to be done from the corner of my house over a webcam. Even if it was, the added complications of schools being closed, needing to be socially distant from our primary child care providers (aka, Sprout & Button’s grandparents), and losing just about every pressure release valve getting out of the house can provide… It can be easy to take your eye off the bagel.

Honestly, it got to the point where I wasn’t even sure where the bagel was, or what the bagel was.

P.S. “The Trip” is one I’m rewatching as mental comfort food right now.

But in this case, the bagel is what sustains you. It keeps you going. It gives you energy and pleasure and a reason to get up in the morning.

And right now, that bagel is jammed in an unpredictable toaster oven of a world. There’s no telling from moment-to-moment what the day or the week will try to do to that bagel.

You’ll miss the signs that something is going wrong if you get distracted.

And right now, it is very easy to get distracted.

Maybe it can help to use a timer, like the one on the toaster oven. To tell yourself that for X amount of minutes, this next thing is your bagel, and it’s going to have your complete attention. It’s one step I’m trying.

For me, it feels like my focus is an important tool to sharpen right now. Maybe you feel it, too.

Categories
blog

When writing feels like cutting teeth

My son is teething hard. I had a dream that he suddenly went from no teeth to eight teeth overnight, and some days it seems like he’s determined to make that a reality.

“nom nom nom”

It’s a hard process. Each tooth needs to erupt from the gums, which takes a lot of time, force, and pain.

And when it’s all done, and they get those baby teeth in, that’s not the end of the story. There’s a second draft of that mouthful of teeth, waiting on deck.

If you’ve never seen an image of a child’s skull with both sets of teeth inside, it’s… something else.

I’m a little sorry if this makes you horrified of small children.

I’ve been focused on new projects lately. First drafts and new collaborations. Ideas pushing hard, trying to break through and emerge.

And there are times when it feels painful. Like things aren’t moving fast enough, and you just wish you could force things along faster, (like how I imagine Button feels when he’s gnawing on a teether).

Yes, it looks like a coffee cup. I am relentlessly #onbrand, even when picking out baby stuff.

Or when you know that you need to choose to put your butt in the seat and get some ideas out onto the page, but you have to choose that over other things that might also be be fun or important.

But I have to remind myself that the work can continue, and the pages will come, and then… well that’s when it’s time for the next draft.

Which brings me back to that baby skull full of teeth.

Because getting the idea out into the world isn’t the final act. Those pages and ideas fall out and get cast off to make way for bigger, stronger ideas.

But trust that even before that first idea has broken through, the full shape of what’s to come is there, in your head. And it just takes time, and force, and pain.

Categories
blog

My Daughter Thinks She’s Getting Better At The Floss

The other day, my daughter started dancing to Fred Schneider’s cover of the Harry Nilsson song “Coconut,” and wanted to show us how she could Floss.

It went something like this:

 

Sprout Sort Of Flossing.GIF

Mid-way through her dance, she squealed, “I’m getting good at the Floss!

She’s kind of correct.

I mean, sure, it didn’t look exactly like this,

anigif_sub-buzz-29832-1542385259-2.gif

but she’s got the right attitude about trying to work at something that doesn’t come easy.

Confidence and momentum build from seeing your progress.

She’s not focused on the distance between where she is and where she’d like to be. She’s looking the opposite direction and seeing how far she’s come from where she started.

If you get stuck in the unending Zeno’s Paradox of constantly getting closer to your goal, but never actually reaching it, you wind up with anxiety, frustration, and shame.

You stall out. You feel like a fraud.

It’s something I see in my students, my peers, and myself.

That pull between the optimism of seeing how far you’ve come fighting the pessimism of the long, unclear road ahead.

It’s easy to let that pull you into the mental trap of contrasting and comparing yourself with others.

But when you celebrate your progress, you focus on your personal bests, not on how far you are from achieving a world record. You can measure what you’ve done and add to it.

And you can make the story you tell yourself about how this is moving forward — This is what getting better looks like.

Categories
blog

You’d listen to yourself if you were somebody else

Early on in the semester for my Introductory writing class, I like to bring in motivational and inspirational quotes from other disciplines. I’m looking for examples of strong writing that also offer an opportunity to segue into discussing the work of writing.

For example, when I talk about the process of revision with students, I bring in Max Weber:

“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.”

Writing can feel that slow. It’s hard, focused work, and I tell my students that they need to respect the process and prepare themselves for the slowness of it.

But it’s not always easy to take your own advice

I recently chucked out about 40 pages of a script draft. I was treating a character as a throwaway gag, but I realized there was more dramatic and comedic value in bringing them into the story properly.

Normally it feels a little easier to toss pages aside after an exciting discovery like that. If I kept going without making the changes, I’d only wind up doubling back and starting over again as soon as I typed FADE OUT.

So why not save myself some effort and get going with that new version now?

But I’ve recently started a new semester of teaching. I have a new baby in the house. I have a child starting kindergarten. I’m starting to give some of my bandwidth to the promotional side of the writing project I worked on for the past year. I’m learning to re-wire my brain so I spend less time fighting against it. And so on.

There’s momentum for my writing, but less of it. I have less energy, and I need to spend time learning new ways to adapt.

Take the new baby (Button). Before, I started pushing myself to get up earlier to try and carve out an hour to an hour and a half of solitude for coffee and work before the rest of the house would wake up. Now, Button usually starts stirring mid-way through that time.

At that point, I bring him downstairs so Dena can get some more sleep. Sometimes Button will fall back asleep quickly, but sometimes he just wants to wiggle. Other times he demands to be held.

Austin Kleon offers artists with newborns the advice to “find a one-armed miniature version of what you do.” Not everything I have to do is easily accomplished (or workable) while holding a baby, but most of the time I can shift gears. Re-prioritize, or break something into smaller tasks.

Totally sensible, but my brain says “Nope.”

I fight, resisting the need to change. I deny that I should lower my expectations for myself. I tell myself I need to hustle harder, sleep less, and juggle faster.

In an episode of Jocelyn K. Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast, she talks about the very kind of impulse I’m fighting against and gives it a name:

When you commit to a schedule or a workload that you intuitively know at the outset is unrealistic and is destined to result in overwhelm. And then later on, you beat yourself up when you are unable to meet that schedule. That’s productivity shame.

When you set an incredibly challenging goal for yourself without creating any structure for emotional support or accountability, and then you blame your failure to meet those goals on a lack of personal willpower. That’s productivity shame.

I’ve been trying to introduce some other ideas into my head to populate my brain with counter-arguments against that inner Productivity Monster.

Image of Sam the Eagle with the caption 'The Productivity Monster is a lot less intimidating if you imagine them as a Muppet.'

For example, I read Atomic Habits by James Clear, where he uses a great example to demonstrate the idea that small changes and tiny, consistent actions can still lead to big results:

The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.

Small actions can lead to big results if you add enough of them up. It sounds logical enough. So lately, my Write Sprints have gotten shorter, but they’re more consistent than they have been in a while. I’m not having any days where I can knock out 5+ pages, but I’m having more days where I wind up with 1 or 2 new pages of material.

Close up, that effort doesn’t feel like much motion at all. And it can be frustrating to feel like those little drips of writing aren’t connecting into a larger, coherent whole.

But there’s no point in measuring just one day

You can’t write a screenplay or a book in a single day. Anything you can completely finish in a single hour (or less) probably won’t be the thing you hold up as an example of what you’re capable of.

Reading and listening to the work of others reminds me of the idea that you need to take the long view with finishing a larger project or building up a habit.

There’s one quote about writing (and geology) gets used in the second day of the semester. It’s one I like to refer back to throughout the semester as a thematic pedal point for the class:

“When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.”

-John McPhee (from Annals of the Former World)

It’s a reminder to students that great things can come from humble beginnings: That which was once deep in the lowest part of the surface world, through time, pressure, and imperceptible movement, rose high above all else.

That the only constant on this planet is the act of change, and that how any situation looks at the moment is only temporary.

It’s something I use to remind them that no matter where they come from, or how they feel about their ability as a writer, given time and effort, they too can rise up.

Right now, it feels like it would benefit me to look at my work and my efforts as if I were one of my own students.

Categories
blog

Other uses for seeds that don’t sprout

This morning, I watched a squirrel eating helicopter seeds off the ground.

Look, when your mind latches on to an analogy, and the world around you seems to be prompting you, just run with it.

The tree made the seeds to try and grow more trees. Instead, that tree was feeding a squirrel, so that squirrel had the energy to keep running around, being a squirrel.

When the helicopter seeds come raining down heavy, on a windy day, or in a storm, sometimes they can clog the gutter on a house. Maybe that causes the owner of the house to climb up on a ladder to clear the gutter, changing the shape of their day. Maybe they go to a home improvement store to buy some gutter guards, creating another project that takes some of their time (and moving money around in the economy).

The seeds aren’t fulfilling their intended purpose, but they’re not without purpose.

Pages might not make the finished draft of a story. Your script might not make the cut for the next round of the competition. Your tweet might get a lackluster number of Likes.

Only attaching value to an action if it gets the desired result diminishes your ability to see inherent value in the action itself. It diminishes your ability to see value in yourself.

Don’t get discouraged. Do the work. Clog the gutters.