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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.

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“Derek doesn’t have a penis. He has wind chimes.”

We’ve been watching The Good Place with our five-year-old.

Don’t make that face. I see it.

Dena and I are huge fans of The Good Place, just like we were fans of Parks & Recreation, but we were moved to start introducing it to our daughter as a way to prompt discussion with her about being kind, and what it means to think about doing kind things for other people and for herself.

Yes, the show has a lot of fart jokes, but it also has teachable moments about making good choices and being honest.

Some of the stuff flies right over her head, and we’re fine with that. Even when things like this happen:

(Sprout’s grandfather’s iPhone makes the Chimes alarm sound)

Dena: (under her breath, to me) Derek?

Sprout: (enthusiastic, to her grandma) There’s this show called The Good Place and there’s a character named Derek. Derek doesn’t have a penis. He has wind chimes!

Look… I regret nothing.

Yes, watching this show with her means that we have embarassing moments like that, and it also means we have to watch her imitate Bad Janet farts so, so many times.

But it means that we get to talk with her about big, important ideas about being a good person.

It means she gets to watch a show that had a strong commitment to purposefully diverse casting, showing her a more accurate depiction of the different people that make up our world and our communities.

And it will give us a chance to talk about doubt, and fear, and despair, and cruelty. Because there’s plenty of reason to discuss those things, and to start giving her the tools to call them out and rise above them.

We would never stick her in front of a TV and hit autoplay on this show. It’s a lot, even for grown-ups. If we watch an episode, we usually spend time afterward talking through what we saw.

But the act of watching with her is important. So she sees us actively engaging with the story and the ideas in the story. So she can ask us questions. And so she can get into the habit of treating the media she consumes more thoughtfully.

When I was a kid, I watched movies as a way to talk with my dad about atomic bombs and the Cold War. These were heavy topics, but the giant monsters and cheesy effects made it palatable.

But the message of the act of watching stuck with me: Never take a story for granted, and always ask why this story is being told.

That’s a question I want my kids to be confident in asking.

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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.

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It’s not my favorite

My students ask for my opinion on things, especially when I’m covering film and television in class.

Sometimes it’s a litmus test to get to know me. Sometimes they want to hear if I’ve got an opinion so they feel free to share theirs. And sometimes it’s just pre-class chatting about whatever’s trending.

There was a time when I was in their shoes, where I would have lots of insufferably demanding opinions about the things I watched. Since then, I’ve become a little more generous.

Mostly because I just don’t feel like spending energy on being negative.

It’s easier to point to reasons why something works well than to explain exactly what’s wrong with it

You can feel fairly confident in pointing out something that’s working in a narrative and why it works. But if there’s something in a film or show that you bump on; that doesn’t work for you, it’s not always easy to tell what caused that disconnect.

For one thing, pointing out what doesn’t work involves making suggestions for what could have worked better. You can offer opinions, but that’s a conversation about some imagined version that isn’t constrained by whatever realities of production shaped the actual finished product.

Without being there in the midst of the process of making a thing, it’s easy to cast blame, but hard to be correct in your accusations.

It doesn’t do my students, or me, any favors to offer half-assed opinions on what went wrong with something.

One thing I’ve gotten more confident with as I’ve gotten older (and as I’ve gotten more experience with teaching) is not having an opinion on everything.

My daughter has the right idea

It was a vocal quirk that she developed early on, but she’s stuck with it as she’s gotten older. When Sprout didn’t like something, she was likely to say:

“It’s not my favorite.”

What better way to put it when something doesn’t bowl you over? When you can see the flaws, but don’t feel a need to engage in a lengthy post-mortem examination. You can just move on.

Because I’d rather talk about exciting things I think we should aspire to instead of wasting time in discussions that say more about the people in the conversation than the thing they’re supposedly talking about.

What good does it do for me to add my voice to a chorus excoriating something for failing to satisfy its audience?

If I’m going to ask students to write with respect and empathy, then I should extend that same kindness to people who made a good faith effort to make something.

There’s no required response to artistic entertainment.

I’m not required to like it. I can’t be forced to list my disagreements with it. And I shouldn’t point fingers without accurate knowledge of the inner workings of the project.

If given the choice between trying to feel smugly superior to others who have taken on a difficult task, or to admire the work of giants, I know where I stand. I’d rather live in the shadow of the greats, aspiring toward something higher, than spending my time pretending I can trample others under my own feet.

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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.