Image woman with burning paper

Writing during a pandemic

The appropriate content for such a title should be a blank space. How can I write while trying to make sense of the What If’s and the What Actually’s of this pandemic?

It is an irony that I now have more time to write thanks to an extended spring break at the university where I work part-time, yet it is harder than usual to write. I open up my laptop, intending to work on something, anything, but instead I find myself bouncing from Twitter, to Washington Post, to the New York Times, with a dash of NPR and the New Yorker. Hours pass. My daughter comes in, wanting to go to the climbing gym, and I jump. Doesn’t she know what’s going on? Doesn’t she know all the permutations of social distancing and how we are all supposed to act as if we might be contagious if we have any hope of preventing… I take a breath or two before I speak. But that was a few days ago. In less than a week, enough has changed that she knows almost as much as I do because everything is closing down. And everything that was normal to do even a day before is now inappropriate or somehow sinister. And as I both planned and feared, I can’t visit my mother at her assisted living center for the foreseeable future.

I would say it is distracting if it weren’t such a failure to find the right word. All-consuming? Immobilizing? Unlike an approaching hurricane, this disaster inches forward, and in my country, invisibly until testing is universally available.

Yesterday I took a break from pandemic news to read a nice NY Times Article about how to manage procrastination. The author shared the theory that we procrastinate to avoid negative emotions. And he shared other tips to manage procrastination that reminded me of some of my favorite strategies. What was most helpful for me was to journal about the emotions that are interfering with my writing right now. Nervousness about what is happening. Even more than that, a FOMO (fear of missing out) in which I worry that there will be some important announcement that I need to know that I won’t know if I don’t constantly check the news and Twitter. Even worse, sometimes that seems to be the case. I took a much needed nap the other day and woke to find out that the governor was closing schools for the next two weeks.

So how to get myself to write when I am torn between staring at my screen with dark circles under my eyes or hiding under my covers? I will fall back on some of my old favorites. Write first. When in doubt, write first. Even if I cheat and look at one or two headlines, stop and write first. Looking at Twitter, for example, could be a reward after I get some work done.

Right now, I can’t stop thinking that I should check news reports more than once a day, but I could deliberately limit how long I allow myself to do so.

Finally, I have been remembering my first year of teaching middle school, years ago. It was one of the most challenging years of my life, and for the first few months, I would replay almost everything that happened in my head, constantly trying to figure out what I should do differently. At some point, I realized that I was obsessing about work every minute of the day. While I am all for reflective practice, I had to admit that I wasn’t gaining any benefit from endlessly worrying about how my job was going. So I made it a goal to stop work at a certain time each day, including thinking about work. And what helped me the most in stopping the overthinking was to pick up a favorite book to read and force myself to dive into another world.

So, that’s my plan for now. Write first, set time limits each time I peek at the news, and read for fun once I declare my work day over.

Write on, my friends. And hang on. May we find reason for hope in the face of so much to fear.

Slow Down

Today’s affirmation arrived over a decade ago. I was attending a professional development workshop that included an optional visualization activity in which you identify an obstacle to your success. For me, the obstacle itself was unclear, but my reaction was to whisper to myself, “Slow down.”

Those words made sense to me. In order to achieve goals that matter to me, I need to slow down rather than hurry up. Not stop. Not avoid. Not hide. Keep working but accept that it takes time for the work to unfold. It reminds me of when I took art classes and the goal was to look again and again at the model to see what I was missing in my attempt to draw what was in front of me. It took hours.

I’ve heard and read similar advice in recent years for writers specifically. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard not to feel a bit sulky about this advice. I don’t want to slow down. I want to be some kind of super-writer, soaring across the pages, generating enviable daily word counts that amaze every reader. Every reader! (Ha. I had to rewrite that phrase because it reminds me of another thing that makes me sulky as a writer is the fact that I won’t be able to connect with every reader. In fact, the only way to connect with every reader is to say almost nothing, and that seems, um, pointless.)

This advice also reminds me, at least as a caution, of one of my favorite pieces of advice from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He describes a man leaning his ladder against a wall and climbing up the ladder as fast as possible. The man appears to be moving quickly, but what good is this effort if the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall? In time management terms, you have to slow down at least long enough to find the right wall. Make sure that your efforts are leading you in the right direction.

I suppose this affirmation relates well for where I am right now. I have been taking stock of my writing and re-assessing next steps. It makes me feel restless and uprooted. I am much happier when I am in the thick of a longer writing project. The direction is set, and I can move forward, sometimes quite rapidly. Even then, though, I reach a point when the work grows unwieldy, and I have to navigate more choices and search for changes to make it better. No matter where I am in the process, I always observe other writers generating a constant flow of polished, published works while I move at what is sometimes a snail’s pace within an endless round of not-yet-finished drafts.

Our culture is not a fan of slowing down. I am a bit amused by the memes of people outraged that someone in front of them in traffic is moving more slowly than necessary. The sight of someone paying by check rather than a card seems to wound the people waiting in line at the grocery store. The assumption is that if we aren’t moving quickly, we are falling behind.

But what if the only way to do something well, to say what you mean to say, to fix a problem rather than put a band-aid on it, is to move slowly, thoughtfully, forward? Of course there will be moments when the best response is a quick response, especially in an emergency. And then there’s the siren song of procrastination, so I guess I need to remember that slowing down is not the same as NOT doing the work. It is okay to be slow. This is not a race, not if “this” is something meaningful.

Let others pelt down paths that might lead nowhere. Find your own path. Take one step forward. Another. Breathe. That one step forward is the destination, no matter how small or gradual the movement.

Revision Redux, Round 3

Just wanted to report on my progress on the revision. I finished the over-700-page (!!) Douglass biography this week and took some notes that may be helpful in thinking about my novel, plus a few that I may blog about later.

I make steady progress when I set to work on the novel revision, but I did catch myself putting it off, too. There was an article I quite liked on NY Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self-control.html that suggests if you manage your mood about a specific task, you are more likely to complete it. So I spent a little time asking myself what may have affected my mood about this revision because overall, I have been interested in seeing what emerges by shifting Point Of View.

I realized that I have FOMU—fear of messing up. As much as I am inspired by this idea to revise and re-vision how this book should unfold, I can’t shake the fear that I am going to mess it up. In some ways, that fear is hard to counter because while I don’t think I am going to mess it up, I can’t guarantee I won’t. I can’t guarantee that what I am writing now works, so how can I guarantee that this revision will work? The best I can do is to remind myself that I write not to achieve writing success, as pleasant as that might be. I write because I love to write. And if I love to write, why not see where this revision might lead?

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How I make time to write

Trying to find time to write is one of the main ways I learned time management, which I went on to teach to college students for over twenty years. I thought I might share some of the strategies that helped me most, with the YMMV caveat (Your Mileage May Vary, that is, your experiences may be different).

1. Write every day. If possible, save one specific time each day to write. Or vow to squeeze in at least fifteen minutes every day.

The power of daily practice amazes me. When I write every day, I find myself solving problems in between writing sessions; little ideas or insights appear as if by magic as I do random activities such as washing the laundry or picking up the kids from school. If I spend time with a writing project every day, the project itself begins to marinate, and even the time in between writing becomes fruitful.

I have also noticed that writing each day makes it easier for me to write.

Note: In order for me to implement this habit, I have to accept that my daily writing results may be meager. On some days, I might put in ten minutes just to honor the commitment. Or I might write for a decent amount of time, but I accept that what I am writing is mostly a warm-up rather than anything worth saving.

2. Identify then eliminate/avoid time wasters.

This was the most helpful strategy for me. A time waster is any activity that takes up time that I did not mean to spend in that way at that moment or that I did not mean to spend as much time doing.

My best example is when I first started teaching full-time, and I identified 8 pm each evening as my “time to write.” Weeks passed. “Why am I not writing?” I asked myself. I replayed my evenings in my mind and saw myself turning on the TV just around 8 pm “for a minute.” The next thing I knew, hours had passed.

So I tried this experiment: Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t go near the couch. Sit down in front of my computer or journal. Suddenly, I was writing every night.

So I tried this experiment: Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t go near the couch. Sit down in front of my computer or journal. Suddenly, I was writing every night.

A miracle.

3. Don’t wait for inspiration. Don’t try to get the perfect mood or atmosphere for writing. Just write.

I admit I love to indulge myself in writerly treats—a beautiful journal, a cool writing app, a well-stocked desk. But I don’t need any of these things to write. I don’t even need to be in the mood to write. Once I learned that, I spent far more time writing.

4. Identify a portable system to capture ideas on the go. A scrap of paper works as well as a high tech gizmo. Just make sure you have it with you at all times.

Some of my best ideas come to me when I am far from my writing tools. It has been difficult to make myself record these ideas as they arise because I am so sure I will remember that great idea later. Spoiler alert: I don’t/I won’t. So now I always have something with me to capture ideas, which is also a way to sneak in more writing time without even realizing it.

#amcranky

I have discovered that if I am not immersed in novel-writing, I am very cranky. Be glad that you are reading this online and not hanging out with me right now. I’m getting on my own nerves.

What I find ironic is that when I am in the midst of novel-writing, I long to be free to dabble on whatever I wish. Technically, that’s where I am right now. As I seek feedback on my novel, I have time to explore, to work on short fiction, to build my blog, to tweet, to research markets, etc. It turns out none of these small actions are especially calming, nor are they less time-consuming than the novel. I also find it daunting to decide what is top priority. When I work on a novel, it’s easy, and I save my prime hours (or minutes, as the case may be) for the novel. Indeed, any other goal for the day waits until I work on the novel.

I don’t have that same focus right now, and it’s making me terribly irritable. I have plenty to do, but apparently I’m not a fan of plenty.

I know, I know. This concern is very low on the long list of Things Deserving Concern right now. My goal is to seek a rhythm and routine that might help me surf through my shifting priorities.

Reframe your words to boost success

In my work with college students, I have become a fan of Carol Dweck’s concept of the Growth Mindset. Here’s a youtube video on the subject that I quite like.

When all is going well, it may not matter how you tackle your endeavors–a fixed mindset won’t necessarily get in your way. When you face setbacks, however, adopting a growth mindset may increase your ability to overcome them… or at least feel better in the face of them.

One strategy for cultivating this mindset is to change the way you speak of your challenges. Here are a few examples:

Fixed Mindset Language: I am not good at Chemistry, and the professors cover too much material too quickly.

Note–the above statement may be, more or less, factually true. You may not have experienced success when working on Chemistry content, and your faculty may indeed move very quickly. Yet this statement would inspire me to do… very little. It feels as if there is no reason to try when I speak of my challenge in this way.

Here’s the same factual information reframed:

Growth Mindset Language: This Chemistry class is very challenging for me *right now*, therefore I will need to approach this situation differently. I need to dedicate more time every day to working with the material, I will seek out tutoring or study groups, I will visit my professor’s office hours as frequently as I can, I will find extra review materials in the library and online, and I will ask for advice from students and faculty who enjoy Chemistry.

Same facts. Different way of looking at this challenge. Note the phrase *right now*–growth mindset means that we can imagine a future in which there is change.

Sometimes, students run into setbacks because of huge challenges–health issues, family crises, financial woes. Those are the kinds of challenges that can be very difficult to overcome. Yet even when the challenges are significant, and the near future does not look very hopeful, the language you embrace can affect your ability to move forward.

Fixed Mindset version: There’s no way to succeed under these circumstances.

This is an understandable perspective. Indeed, this may be 99% factual. But this language will again inspire me to give up rather than move forward.

Here’s a growth mindset version: I am managing some severe challenges, so I need to be strategic in prioritizing my time and connecting to resources.

This is factually true, and indeed, I did not make any overly optimistic claims about how soon the challenges will be overcome. But I emphasized actions that I can/should take that make sense given the challenges I face. I don’t know what the future holds, but I am focusing on what I can do rather than on what I cannot.

 

New Year’s Resolutions

It’s a new year, and as those who know me might predict, New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday because of the chance to make resolutions. I actually set goals as often as every day, every week, and/or every month, so of course I like having one more reason to resolve to do something. I am drawn to the potential of the blank slate that lies ahead. Even though people like my husband are often eager to tell me that no one ever keeps New Year’s resolutions or similarly dire insights, I believe it is never wrong to hope or to resolve. I can’t control how it all will unfold, and I may have to adapt or start over, or even fall down and get up again more than I would like. Yet how inspiring to imagine something better and move towards it.

I have taken a bit longer this year to sort out my resolutions due to some kind of sinus infection, but I think I am ready to make a few commitments.

1. I have a list of several books that it’s high time I read, and I will tackle them this year (and buy them, if possible, from our local bookstore). If I love them, I will share more on here later.

2. I have finished the (I lost count)th revision of my novel set during the 1898 Wilmington race massacre, and I have begun seeking feedback from readers. While I work through that process, I will use the time to research and reflect on how I might seek to publish this book.

3. I will post on this blog once a week. Or maybe an average of once a week, since some weeks will be busier and/or offer more inspiration for blogging.

4. I will post on social media once a week, too. I have had such mixed feelings about social media due to the terrible ways our data is being used and our politics have been subverted. But this article was helpful https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/10/opinion/delete-facebook.html among others that discuss ideas for regulation, something desperately needed even though, like all solutions, it may take time, tweaks, and political courage. Sigh. I also saw a similar sentiment on Hasan Minhaj’s fabulous Patriot Act, which I just now have started to watch. Our checking out of social media won’t change the harmful effect it is having. So we need to explore ways to reclaim it.

5. I will work a few days a week on my YA/SF series. I seem to have lots of choices of next steps for that project, so it may be a bit like tending a garden, just checking in to see what deserves attention right now.

6. My health and fitness goals will chug along as usual. The general theme is to exercise a bit more and eat a little less. Piece of cake, right?

Back to work

The days before and the day immediately after a break tend to wreak havoc on my ability to get work done at my day job. I move as if underwater, and my brain seems to lock up. I get something done. I really do. But I find myself getting up more often to get a drink of water, find a not-really-essential file, or rearrange papers on my desk. While phone calls at work can sometimes seem like an interruption, today they were a welcome change.

Still, there is something reassuring about the return to work. The rhythm. The routine. The edges that give shape and substance to the ways we fill our days. And perhaps tomorrow I will be more awake, a bit more efficient, even.

And aware that another holiday lies not too far in the distance, too. Which means I’d better get things done while I still can, before the fog of vacation descends again.

The ride

When I was young, grocery stores often provided a mechanical cartoonish animal, sometimes a horse or a dragon, that children could ride at the cost of several quarters, perhaps for being good during the trip to the grocery store. While I don’t think I was particularly naughty, I rarely got to indulge because my parents did not like to waste money. The one or two times they did give in to my pleas, I had to agree that the ride was very short, going nowhere.

Yet I recall a child’s joy at the thought of it, the excitement of the treat, no matter how brief.

Lately this has been a metaphor for where I am in my life right now. On holidays, I am aware that more of my friends can no longer call or visit a parent. I compare notes with my friends about worries we have about various relatives. I look at my own life and circle of friends and feel the tick of time passing.

More and more, I am made aware how short this ride is, how briefly I get to enjoy the time I have with the people I love so much. I also remember as a child that I could never predict when the ride would stop. It was always a surprise, a sudden jerking halt, as if the creature had never moved at all.

When the time comes, I will beg for more quarters, for just a few more minutes.

The Appreciative Lens

I believe I mentioned that I tend to be a glass is half full type person, more or less, so it is appealing for me to express gratitude, that is, to apply an appreciative lens, whenever possible, to the world around me.

It raises some ethical implications, though. If I am grateful for something, am I claiming to deserve it, or even worse, that others somehow don’t deserve it? (Is it enough for me to say, no, I don’t, no, I wish everyone has something joyful which they are grateful for?) In the face of news such as 85,000 children dying of hunger in Yemen, the rising risk of climate devastation, the (this list is endless), is it deeply wrong to appreciate anything?

Yes and no. There is almost always reason for grief and outrage, every day. Yet there is almost always reason for gratitude and joy, every day. Let me never look away from that which creates sorrow or that which diminishes my fellow human beings, so that I might seek action and words to bring about positive changes. But let me also appreciate that which brings joy. Ethically speaking, it seems inappropriate, wasteful even, not to recognize that which is joyful. And this is where I am perhaps naive, but I imagine that by embracing joy and cultivating gratitude, I might expand the possibility of joy.

I may be wrong. The challenges we face deserve humility, too.

Still, let me celebrate the following:

I am grateful for my family and friends. I am astonished daily by how lucky I am to have these good people in my life. And, of course, for the puppy who took over our lives this year.

I am grateful for moments when I can laugh or even smile. There have been times when that was hard, and I missed it. Yet it is easier right now, and I want to appreciate that for as long as it lasts.

I am grateful for the many people who step forward every day to share their thoughts, voices, and talents with the world. I am grateful at how various private and public systems (and the individuals within them) work well, more often than not, even if the attention is given to what goes wrong rather than what goes right.

I am grateful for this sunny morning, the air crisp, the sky blue, the chance to breathe in and be still in the moment. To let wonder fill me.