For example, I was listening to Tim Ferris the other day. He cited a study by the folks who created the Nike+ app, which tracks your workouts. The magic number they came up with for whether or not someone stuck with their work out routine was 5. Work out 5 times and you were much more likely to continue to work out. As I heard this, I was suddenly shuttled back to bygone days of my life in San Francisco. I had signed up for a bootcamp that met five days a week at six am in the morning at Chrissy Field. I made it through about three weeks of the bootcamp pretty successfully. Got there on time, ran with everyone around the grassy square between a parking lot and some bathrooms, and then did my best in the work out.
I made it to about 20 workouts before things started to fall apart.
You see, I’m the kind of person who has a brain that doesn’t simply get bored by repetition, but experiences it as emotional torture. Knowing what I’m supposed to do over and over will at some point make me cry. And I only cry at movies, funerals, weddings, some commercials and my children’s school performances.
So hearing this magic number five brought back all the decades of shame I had experienced since school. I was that kid who wasn’t living up to her potential; I was that kid whose friends would say, You could do better if you just tried. I spent years in therapy trying to understand my fear of success. That magic number five sent me right back to my bootcamp and the day it began to fall apart.
Each morning, we would arrive and do our laps around the grassy square. The coach did a great job varying the work out, but the warm up was always the same. And because I did not know then what I know now, it did not occur to me what it meant when I started rebelling in week 4. Because I could not stand running in the same direction, I began to run against the flow of the other workerouters. (We weren’t really athletes, what is someone working out called??) And for two brief mornings, that saved me. But after that, I couldn’t stand the idea of going and I didn’t know why.
So, Nike+, five session might be enough for most people to change a behavior, but it’s not for me.
If I’m an artist who can’t write every day or an athlete that gets bored with the same workouts, will I ever succeed? Absolutely.
As I reconsidered this bootcamp in light of what I now know about myself and have learned to forgive myself for, I have a new take on my shame about not getting things done. I’d failed, not because I was incapable, or lacked drive, or because I wasn’t smart enough. I had failed, when I failed, because I had been trying to force someone else’s ideals into my way of being. Efficiency, inbox zero, fifteen minutes a day and most crazy of all, doing it on my own are all ideas that will kill the hopes and ambitions of some one like me. I love social interaction, I need variation and I also need to know that I am making progress.
In looking back on this bootcamp, certain things are clear to me. I do well with projects that last about a month if I’m going to do them everyday. My limit is not 5 to cement the habit, but 24 to burn out on it. Now, I can design my projects, films, novels, short stories, by looking at the parts that draw my enthusiasm and literally delegate the rest. Now, if I break my tasks into sessions, I have a better chance of succeeding. Those sessions might stretch over more than a month, but I know that there is a countdown clock, a finite number of times when I will have to sit down and do this thing. That makes it all the easier to bear when boredom inevitably sets in. Now, I can look at my work process and see where bringing in social interaction will make all the difference as to whether or not I show up.
I can’t give myself this insight if I don’t forgive myself my failures, and get honest with myself about when I was successful how I was successful.
Take a minute now and think about a big project you took on and failed. Can you pinpoint the moment it fell apart? Now think about a big project where you succeeded — what made the difference? Forget writing every day. Write your way and give yourself the gift of succeeding the way you were meant to.]]>
After the election, I found that in the political arena, I was also left feeling confused and unsure about how to move forward. As with the political world, my artistic world when I reviewed it was littered with actions I did not take. Each of these actions in and of themselves did not amount to anything in particular. Taken together they added up to the failure to complete a large project I was very excited about doing, or the failure to do more to achieve political outcomes that feel really important to me. Applying some self-reflection, I took a great deal of time to try and figure out what was the thing that stopped me. If I am honest, the thing that stops the very often, more often than I’d like to admit, is that I just don’t know what the next step is.
As you may know, I am on a kick to streamline my life. To make clear to myself each of the steps that I don’t want to have to think about. I’m bringing this idea to you in the terms of your own writing workflow: This week take a minute and write down everything that you do before you start writing. Once you’ve made a list of activities that you do before you actually start writing, hold onto that and then think about what would you like your writing process to look like. Keep breaking down the tasks into smaller and smaller parts. For example, I like to have a plan when I sit down, so I know what my goal is. And I like to set goals when I am writing in terms of scenes, rather than words. It just gives me more of a sense of completion. So my task list might look like this:
Even as I write this, I can tell there are things I could move around and change, things that depend on my having planned to make this set of tasks achievable (making playlist in advance, having hot water and tea and cup easily accessible). David Allen might call this the next available action,;I would call it the list that keeps me focused on writing, and not on how to start. Let me know in the comments below how you use routine and task minimizing (or not) in your writing process.]]>
This NaNoWriMo I have very little in the way of an outline. It feels a bit like starting to write without anything. Each day I sit down there are so many decisions I have to make. What am I going to write? Whose point of view is it in today? What’s the most important part of any of this? Is it okay if I just sit down and see what sticks later?
Every time I sit down to write in these past few days, I keep coming up with the image of a raw egg. There are some boundaries, but not nearly enough to make this a coherent, cohesive whole.
Lately, I’ve been reading a book about automating your routines. The author of this book is not the first person that introduced the idea of the decision fatigue. For those of you who don’t know what decision fatigue is, it is a form of mental fatigue. Your ability to expend energy on making decisions has a limit. Each time you introduce a new question that you must answer, a decision you must make, you deplete a limited resource of decision-making muscle.
This author goes so far as to suggest that for her, the perfect eating plan is to eat the same thing for breakfast every day, to eat the same thing for lunch every day, and to eat the same thing for dinner every day. In doing so she decreases the amount of energy she needs to spend on what she’s going to eat at each meal, but in addition she also decreases the amount of thinking she needs to do how she’s going to prepare the foods. Actions are consistent. In doing that, her theory goes, she is able to save that finite reserve of decision-making power for more important things.
As an artist, you have two choices. One: Develop a routine outside of your work that eliminates decision making, allowing you to be full of all the decision-making power you need in your creative work. This way, you can allow yourself to have an exploratory process that doesn’t require outside constraints. Two: Create a process for your work that also limits the number of decisions you have to make. For example, in a StoryMakers podcast interview with artist Adam Wolpert, he describes a project where he limited himself to the same view at the same location over the course of the year. For that year, he painted a single spot at the pond where he lives, from a single angle, on a single-sized series of canvases. He generated a series based entirely on that on frame. Having made so many of his choices once for the whole year, he was then able to have the space to organically sense the how of his paintings each day. He was not choosing the what.
There is, of course, a third way, which is to find the places in your life where you’re making unnecessary decisions and look at ways to streamline. What decisions can you get rid of in your day-to-day life that will open up more space for your creative decisions? At the same time, ask yourself what part of your creative process can you streamline, or constrain, again to continue to open up your creative process. Let me know your ideal approach in the comments section below. I look forward to hearing your views on creativity and decision fatigue.
As I listened to my students, reflecting on my own depression leaving such events and the hopelessness I have felt in the face of one more rejection, a little voice inside of me piped up and suggested: It doesn’t matter if you get published. Ever.
Needless to say, I found this confusing.
Getting published, you imagine, will shut that crappy voice in your head down. And the crappy voices in other people’s heads when you talk about writing. YOU NEED TO BE PUBLISHED otherwise you’re not a writer, you’re just someone who types. Maybe fast, maybe slow, but, let’s be honest, you’re just typing. So, what the hell was that little voice in my head talking about?
Of course it matters if you get published. But it does not matter to your long-term financial stability if you get published, statistically speaking. It does not impact your wittiness at cocktail parties no matter what is going on in other people’s heads, which probably isn’t about you anyway–you’re just being paranoid. Getting published says nothing about your ability to be a good parent, or a good friend, or whether or not you’re good in bed. It merely means that through a particular kind of search you have connected with one small part of your audience; that is, an agent and an editor and a marketing department liked your book well enough to take a financial risk on it.
How big an audience do we need? Ironically, we might consider someone who had only connected with that agent, editor, and marketing department as more successful than someone who had without benefit of vetting from a publishing house, connected with an audience of thousands — through Wattpad, or Kindle or blogging, for example. You have all heard of books that sold for way too much money, and whose returns were way too small. And success may not look like what you think it does if you do get picked up for publication. An article on npr.org last year has some surprising statistics regarding the sales of award worthy books. To be concise, the number of books sold by authors nominated for the Man Booker last year was of the scale a midsize blog can easily boast if not best. For a new author without a pre-existing social media platform, with the support of marketing and the publishing world, 9,000 copies is a really solid sales number.
This is not a plug for boosting your social media outreach. It’s a plug for making an intentional choice about how you perceive success, to define it in a way that builds from what really matters to you . Because, as our existential friends know, there is no meaning to your publishing but what you ascribe to publication.
If all you crave from publication is recognition, then, off with you. Chase the market, and I wish you luck. If what you need is the connection writing can offer, consider who and where your audience is because it might not be along New York’s clogged avenues. In fact the door behind which your audience waits may have itself moved from the office of a big publishing house to the front door of a local coffee shop.
I believe one of the reasons we seek to publish is not just the vetting, but that external permission publication can give us to continue this weird activity that soothes and consumes our souls. What if instead of seeking that hard-to-get asshole who will love us as long as we’re useful, we cultivate a friends-with-benefits thing with the earnest, well meaning neighbor in smaller spaces? With sales numbers outlined in the NPR article mentioned above, you could connect with a similar number of people by reading out at open mics or starting an account on Wattpad and writing your novel as a serial, just like good ol’ Charlie Dickens, as you conceivably could through a standard book contract. And could we allow the response from that audience to be enough to give ourselves permission to keep at our weird activity? Can you choose a model of success that will keep you at the work, without succumbing to the heart-numbing pain of rejection?
What is the meaning you give publication in your creative life?]]>
Then one day I realized that in those dreams, my sleeping body was trying in real life to respond to the urgent command to move–but it was asleep, drugged by the body’s chemistry that keeps most of us fairly settled and still through the night. I realized that if I were awake and needed to run, I absolutely could and would.
The voice that says you might write badly, that you are writing badly at this very moment as you type or move your pen across the page? That is the voice of the sleeping body that says you will not run in the face of danger. It’s the voice of your fear–and it can’t write, can’t create (other than obstacles–and actually, it’s enormously creative at imagining obstacles and painting them so realistically you believe in them).
Here’s a crazy, important secret: You can always write at about the level at which you write. And over time, with practice, you will steadily improve. Your writing is not going to soar or sink in the way you fear or even feel, in the way that voice threatens.
Writing is like running. You go. Move. The voice says, Maybe you aren’t moving at all. Maybe you only think you are moving. Maybe you are stuck, still, static. The voice is wrong. You are in motion and that’s success. You are putting down words and that’s victory. You are jamming up the hill, cresting the top, you are at the zenith of your powers, every time you take the action to write. You are free.]]>
The way you say yes to your writing is always on the page. Pen moving. Fingers can-caning. To think about the act of writing is painful, terrifying at times, boring at times. That thinking has no relation to the experience of writing. It’s easy to dread a certain type of experience–meditation, exercise, writing–that pushes you deep into this moment, now, into a physical being, up against the concrete gestures of the world.
Whistle and chatter of birds outside. Three stone steps climbing from a wide bed of pebbles. Glass doors smudged with dirt stretching along the entire back wall of the one great room made of redwood in my otherwise ordinary ranch house. I am here. A stack of magazines sits on a folding table, one of three. My partner, Angie, is running a kids’ stop-motion camp here the week I am writing this. I’ve gotten up early to say a quiet, active yes to my writing, claim my small, intact corner of this room that’s been turned into a working studio. Outside, a silver bucket hangs from the treehouse window on a rope. Green apples scatter below thick hanging branches of leaves.
I fell in love with this yard. I could not imagine living here. They accepted our offer, even though it was not the highest offer they got, and we moved in. At first I loved it–a quarter acre, fruit trees, a bush that blooms with different flowers all year round. I learned to love the dying parts, the crusts of dirt, the spiders, too. To look closely with my eyes opened not only for what I want to see but for the whole great cycle of life, the scary parts, the ugly parts, the parts I do not understand.
I took this looking to be a form of prayer. Sometimes I did it on my knees, to be right sized below the looming redwood trees in the distance, the stretch of sky going from black to violet to tinged white.
Then I got used to the yard and also neglected it. It changed. I changed. No longer was I a city girl happy with a bit more room Now I saw how others in the area, even in the neighborhood, had more land, better views. I left a little trapped. I started visiting open houses, trolling online for what was for sale.
Rooms that looked spacious and bright in the real estate photographs were cramped and dark when I showed up to see them. Prices had shot up. Mostly, like the Yiddish tale where everyone hangs their troubles on a tree to trade and ends up choosing their own familiar woes again, I kept returning to my house. No other house had everything we had and more.
Then I remembered the days we waited to hear if this house would be ours. How much I wanted it. How I imagined what it would be like to cook in this kitchen, to sit in this great room, to look out at this yard.
Recently, I was sitting with Angie and the kids at an outdoor table at a nice restaurant we don’t go to much. The kids were playing an elaborate card game. The evening, because it was summer, was still bright as if day. I thought, if I were on a first date with this person, and these were her kids, I would long to be part of this family. I would think, this is everything I ever wanted. Sitting at the restaurant, I was aware of all I would not know, the steady weight of the daily effort, sibling fights, spouse foibles, my own persistent flaws–none of which my on-a-date self could even imagine. Still–the fantasy, the desire.
We have to learn to say yes not only to what we want, but to what we have. To learn what it feels like to live in a house, in a family, in a daily writing practice. To say yes not only once, not only in ecstasy or certainty or longing, but each day, through doubt and fear and boredom.
Because what happens next? You write your way to something new or something truer. You make discoveries, go deep. Yes is a miracle that feels so ordinary you could miss it altogether if you don’t look up.]]>
Because you engage daily now, because you are in conversation with your imagination and in the practice of using your senses to capture the world and words to take action, to create and recreate, you have a body or work, parts of it wobbly, imperfect, perhaps even injured, possibly too weak to survive.
Still, you have a body of work. It breathes, moves, is alive as something separate from you. Study it closely, with the curiosity you bring to the beloved unknown–the attention you might give a new lover whose very worst qualities fascinate in the early days, shining with promise.
Examine your work that way, leisurely and up close, looking deep, through layers. Be willing not to know, so you can discover what is there.]]>
Take the risk; agree to the fear. Write. Write your way into and out of it, the story alive the way my dog in my lap tenses to the movement of a bird outside, his ear cocked, his head surveying in mechanical jerks before it settles again for a moment or two against my knee.
Write first thing–on the toilet if you have to, on the couch, in bed. Write in the car, in line for groceries, in the small intersticies of your day.
Write in the kitchen. Open your journal the way you might open a bottle of wine, while you cook.
Write at night before you go to sleep. One line, a questions for your unconscious mind to mull over through the night.
Write down the idea that comes, swift and enticing, that seems unforgettable. It’s not.
Write the questions and invent the answers–embodied as characters or memory.
Write what you know is true and what you’ve never thought before and also, write lies.
Lists, descriptions, pleas, plugs, fairytales, curses. If you’re full of doubt, write about that. If you don’t know how to begin, write about that. If you’re blocked, write about that.
Begin with your tools and your time and go. Let it be bad; try for it to be bad. Only one thing matters, day by day: that you write.]]>
Visualize your writing time, your pleasure in it, the bubbling up of what it is you want to say. The satisfaction of the activity itself and after, when you can spend your day happy, knowing writing lies at the foundation of it.
Visualize your story. Tell it to yourself as you are falling asleep. Let it well up in advance of your pen.
Afraid? What if nothing comes?
Take a minute, a single, exact minute. Set a timer. For that one minute, empty your mind–no people, no desires, no memories, no flashes of the future, worries or fantasies, no pictures or thoughts. One minute. Go.
You can’t do it. Oh, enlightened one, find the image that insists on itself. Stay present with it. See it, touch it, taste, hear, smell. Now write it down.]]>
Write toward it.
Loosen your pen so something can lead other than clear-eyed intention or fear. Discover what you know in the act of writing. Thinking about writing is so entirely different from writing itself, as thinking about dancing or running must be. Writing is kinetic. Taps deep roots in its physical trajectory.
Get the pen moving, the fingers on the keys. See what’s below what you are thinking, knowing, assuming, concluding. Find the underbelly.
Physicist Niels Bohr said, “The opposite of a great truth is also true.” Dig below what you hold dear, what you hold certain. Give your characters strong and powerful occasions for doubt. Write toward the answers you do not yet have in hand but which you need. Probe to the soft, vulnerable core of what you don’t know, there at the heart of your vivid world.]]>