Many people are asking: how do you do it? How do you write novel(s) and this award-winning weblog while maintaining a full-time job and friendships and other activities?
Well, I say, leaning back knowledgeably in my chair, it’s all about discipline. For example, it’s very important that before I finish this sentence, I open several new tabs to check the news. The news is terrible right now, so it will definitely upset and distract me, which is important for my process. In general, stopping mid-sentence or even mid-word a good deal to change tasks is highly recomm
And by the way, don’t think that I don’t actually practice what I preach. Look: in the last two minutes, I opened thirteen new tabs in my browser, and had a momentary blackout where I had no idea where I was or what I had been doing before. The system works, people.
Coming to you live from this confusing crisis. By the day and the hour it’s expanding while our lives are contracting, staying home if we are able, avoiding our communities.
This isolation is absolutely for the best. It’s also hard, surprisingly hard, even for a confirmed introvert who often craves more unstructured quiet time alone, and whose ongoing bout with walking pneumonia should have made her very accustomed to working from home, resting, and avoiding exposure.
But there’s a problem, reader. I need routine. Badly.
The first day of resting with my pneumonia saw me pulling all the books off my shelves to arrange them in some non-librarian-approved order. This was exhausting. But it wasn’t to last. Before too long, I was binge-watching Love is Blind on Netflix late into the night while my eyes and brain turned to compost, no doubt wondering what they’d done to deserve this fate.
Without a bit of structure, I turn into a listless puddle of a person. I forget to brush my teeth until dinner. I don’t put on real clothes. I play Civilization VI, turn after turn after turn, unable to stop, until I get genuinely depressed.
The self-quarantine we’re all doing will be this kind of structureless time on steroids, and the situation is making me anxious for people I love and for people I don’t even know. The anxiety makes the puddle-self grow even puddlier. If I don’t change my ways, I may achieve many types of victory on Civ, but at what cost?
I need to meet myself somewhere, not just watch myself melt through my own fingers for the duration. However long the duration of this turns out to be.
So. I have a plan. Due to overwhelming demand,* I will be posting something here every day until…someday.
The thing is, in spite of the listlessness and my recent aversion to writing and my general slide into feeling as though I have no bones or muscles at all, I’ve been on a bit of a tear when it comes to ideas. Early this morning I started listing things I want to write about, and there were a few dozen that came up.
An interesting side effect of listing these ideas out, and committing to writing one a day, is that I’m forced to wonder what life will be like 11 days from now, when I might be writing something my audience has been clamoring for (my thoughts on various conspiracy theories.)*
So, watch this space, if you wish. I’ll see you tomorrow. But finally, some words for solitude from the wonderful Henri Nouwen:
Solitude is not a solution. It is a direction…Every time we enter into solitude we withdraw from our windy, earthquaking, fiery lives and open ourselves to the great encounter. The first thing we often discover in solitude is our own restlessness, our drivenness, and compulsiveness, our urge to act quickly, to make an impact, and to have influence; and often we find it very hard to withstand the temptation to return as quickly as possible to the world of “relevance.” But when we persevere with the help of a gentle discipline, we slowly come to hear the still, small voice and to feel the gentle breeze, and so come to know the Lord of our heart, soul, and mind, the Lord who makes us see who we really are.
There is a nightmare image every writer knows: the cursor blinking at the top of a blank page. Or, somehow worse yet, the cursor blinking at the end of a bit of text, when all the steam has run out and there is no way forward.
Several times before I wrote Book One, I had tried to write novels. I never got very far beyond page 10 or so, because I inevitably ran headfirst into a wall of horrible inertia at the end of the first idea. The rest of the story vanished in front of me like smoke. I could sort of see it, but only if I squinted, and by then it dissipated.
This phenomenon is a bit like the paradox of choice: if the story can become absolutely anything, then the horizon is so completely open that my poor little human brain starts to overheat from all the possibilities and I get a paralyzing case of the vapors.
I’ve been bothered lately by war. I feel closer to it than I’d like, through my location amid the bland-yet-menacing military-industrial office parks of Washington suburbia, and due to my job. And like a borderline conspiracy theorist, I begin to see trappings of ubiquitous war everywhere in our politics and society.
Annoyed and anxious, I look forward to a world wherein war is not always simmering at a low level, forgettable, stable, unpopular and yet generally uncontested.
Is this my desire to bury my head in the sand, to pretend the world is a different place than it can ever be? Am I simply naive? Or is my peace-seeking a virtue?
For the last several weeks, I’ve had company everywhere I go (which, for reasons that will soon become evident, has not been many places). Walking pneumonia. Sounding like a cross between an exotic, possibly sentient, plant and some sort of CDC PSA, it’s not very interesting. It’s the sort of illness where there’s not much to say or do about it. You’re just sick for a while. You have pneumonia in your lungs, for a while. You have little energy and little appetite. You have a low fever, on and off, for a while. You cough it out. There’s no cure or secret to it, as far as I can tell.
I keep thinking it’s over, but the reports of my restored health have been greatly exaggerated. It just keeps coming back in the form of unpleasant fevers after a few days of activity. This sends me back to slug mode, barely leaving the house and infrequently putting on real pants.
You may have noticed that the months September, October, November, and December contain clues that they used to be at a different spot in the calendar: September was once seventh, October eighth, November ninth, and December tenth. You may also have heard that this was because July and August were added later, to honor Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, respectively, knocking the whole calendar askew in the process.
BUT DID YOU KNOW
…that this is a lie?
July and August weren’t additions to the calendar; they were simply renamed from Quintilis (5th month) and Sextilis (6th month). The renaming spared them the embarrassing fate that the following months suffered, spending eternity with misleading prefixes.
No, the reason for the shift is that the latest additions to the calendar were January and February.
Bear with me: the original Roman calendar had ten months of 30 or 31 days, starting with March and ending with December. This only took 304 days. The other 50 days in the lunar year were monthless.
A time so dark and slow it didn’t even bear naming. Just the long wait until time would finally resume in March.
Eventually, the Romans deigned to allow time to go on, even in winter, and January and February were born.
I’m struck, though, by the notion of living without time, but only for a while. Now, we are able to free ourselves from day and night, winter and summer, through the magic of electricity. A single hour of a lightbulb’s worth of light from an animal-fat candle used to require 60 hours of work. For most average people, then, night was simply dark. There wouldn’t have been enough spare labor lying around to justify lighting the night. And in winter, the nights are long and dark. Imagine sitting inside, struggling to stay warm, in the dark, for sixteen hours a day.
That is life without time. That is a taste of eternity.
Now, I’m not an ancient peasant. 60 hours of my labor can buy me actual decades’ worth of light. My HVAC system means I can stay at 70 degrees all year long, if I want to, except if I dare to go outdoors. I should be immune to winter.
But I’m not. It gets into me anyway. It feels endless, especially when the frigid wind is whipping right into the seams of my coat, and when I’m taking the train only in disorienting darkness. When there’s no hint of living green, just brown and grey through bare trees. (West Coasters: you fortunate green-winterers don’t understand).
Maybe there’s some wisdom in letting this be non-time, rather than trying to count down the days until it ends. It’s just a pause, an empty lung, a long sleep.
It’s been quiet here lately. I’ve been up to my neck in editing Book One, in between tinkering with other writing projects and sleeping off a persistent case of walking pneumonia (not recommended).
In editing Book One, I set out with the conflicting ambitions of cutting 34,000 words (85 single-spaced pages), while at the same time fleshing out certain characters and themes. As it happens, I’ve cut quite a lot of words, but I’ve also added quite a lot of words, so it might just end up still being a Large One.
That’s a problem for future me, though.
For now, I’m interested in what it means to be “editing,” anyway. This process turns the book into a Ship of Theseus. If not a single word remains the same from draft one to draft two-point-five or three or wherever we are, is it the same book?
When I started draft two, I set out only to edit draft one, not to rewrite it. I was using software that color-coded new words green, contrasting with the black text of draft one. By the end of draft two, virtually the whole thing was green. So did I write a new book? Or edit an existing one? I think the answer is “yes.”
And now I’m editing again. It’s somewhere on the spectrum between a thorough rewrite and a check for typos. There’s quite a lot of new text, quite a bit of cut text, changed names and revised dates, but the basic book is more or less the same.
If you listen to writing advice, which I often do, you’ll hear that you can never ever do anything with a first draft. Anne Lamott specifically calls first drafts “shitty,” which is liberating, because then you can just write the thing with the knowledge that it absolutely will not be perfect. But my overthinking mind then wonders: if I realized after my first draft that I needed a new section, and then I wrote that section, is that section a first draft of that section? Does it needs its own second draft? Is each new paragraph a mini-first draft, even if the surrounding text is on draft three or four?
Then even every word becomes suspect: let’s say I initially wrote that “Joe smiled,” and then in draft two I struck “smiled” and said instead that “Joe beamed.” The phrase “Joe beamed” is now in draft two, but the word “beamed” is brand-new. Does it need a second draft of its own?
Obviously not. But this is where the mind loves to go.
It turns out that editing is not the process of replacing every word with a different word. It does mean “killing your darlings,” an overused and misunderstood bit of advice that you often have to delete the little phrases and moments that you absolutely love but which are not serving the story or the characters. You might need to get rid of that long, beautiful meditation on the sunset when there’s a car chase going on. For me, this often entails wiping out sentences and phrases that have been echoing in my head for three years but just do not belong in my book.
Editing means writing the book as a reader, and reading it as a writer. Someone in my writing group shared an idea that helped her in moments of overwhelm, when she wasn’t sure she knew how to create the book she had in mind: she looked at a picture of a potter throwing a pot, to remind her that the potter is always bigger than the pot, just as the writer is bigger than the book. It can feel sometimes that the work is far larger than the worker, that it can’t be tamed, let alone perfected. But at the end of the day I’m like that potter at the wheel, shaping bit by bit until the whole is some compromise between what I wanted the book to be, and what it wanted to be.
But at some point, the potter has to fire the clay. Stop shaping it and commit. Likewise, the writer at some point has to stop editing, stop tweaking words and shifting dialogue, and decide that the thing is done.
A brief post on procrastination, unrelated (I’m sure) to my ongoing attempt to write three novels at once:
I’ve always been a procrastinator. In high school, after I got home I wouldn’t dream of starting my homework before chatting with everyone for a while (this was during the great age of AIM), putting up a perfectly despairing away message, and probably also spending some time surfing the dearly departed pre-social-media Internet. As a direct consequence of this behavior, I would end up having to stay up past my bedtime to do my actual homework, and the next day always started the same way: bleary-eyed at 6:30 with twenty minutes to leave the house on six hours of sleep. Not ideal for a teenager.
Similar patterns followed me all through college, law school, and into my working life, even after the sad demise of AIM. Even if I had a morning off from class, I didn’t think to treat it like work time: it was time for running, rambling, or even watching TV guiltily in my room. No, work time was that brutal late-night race against my body’s ability to stay awake. Later, in my office jobs, the best hour of my day was always the last one, when I felt as under the gun as possible.
(Now, part of this might just be that chronobiologically I’m more of an afternoon/evening type than a morning type, and that would be fine, to the extent I’m not actively sleep-deprived, which I nearly always have been).
I came to think of myself as someone who has some weakness of will preventing her from just doing things at the right time, whose only hope was a tight enough deadline that things would actually happen eventually.
But let’s go back to that first thought: that I’ve “always” been a procrastinator. Logically, “always” can’t start in high school.
I’ve truly always been someone who does things–but only certain things. Things I want to do. I procrastinate only sometimes, on some projects, and only in some circumstances.
I notice: there are things I jump at doing and don’t put off. And then there is everything else, for which I drag my feet.
Procrastination was, I thought, a problem I needed to fix. Simply figure out the right way to coerce myself into doing stuff earlier.
But recently, with some assistance, I turned my attention to the why of it all. Why do I delay some things, sometimes? Why is it that, sometimes, I can get started right away on a task, whereas other times I sit around until the eleventh hour to begin?
The problem of procrastination turns out to be a problem of the assignment itself. I found that I can fix it by tasking myself differently. Two steps here have helped immensely:
Make sure it’s the right task. Is it something I want to do at all? This has been helpful in creative writing. I sometimes think I know what sort of writing I “should” be doing, based on so-and-so’s recommended method, but if I find that I’d rather reorganize my sock drawer than try so-and-so’s method, maybe it’s just not the right task. Is there a way of altering the task so it actually appeals? On the other hand, if the task is something I must do (say, filing taxes, or work for my employer), making sure I really believe in the “why” behind it is helpful for motivation.
Make it small. The smaller the task, the more likely I will be to actually do it. This has always seemed counter-intuitive to me: I think whatever causes my last-hour productivity panic also causes me to chronically underestimate how long something will take. It then seems reasonable to think I could write, say, 2,000 words of a new novel a day. (Note: It is not.) Setting a daunting task like that for myself strains credulity. My brain inherently knows that ain’t happening. So it doesn’t. But if I set out a miniature task, one that seems far too small to even worry about–that will get done. And, to state the obvious, a lot of complete little tasks over time are better than even one incomplete big one.
This is not to say that I’ve got it all figured out, or that I don’t still find myself in a distraction stupor while the day speeds away around me. So when all else fails, well, I’ve made it this far on eleventh-hour panic. I guess that’s good enough, even if I never learn how to fully get rid of the little rebel inside me that just loves to watch me sweat near the deadline.
This post is about drones. The musical kind, not the…other kind. Or the other other kind.
A while ago, something occurred to me: if I completely adore a song on a deep, what feels like a cellular, level, it almost certainly has a drone. A low note on a synth often does it. Could be a piano, too. Or, slightly more literally, a bagpipe. I don’t discriminate.
(And, I should disclose, I think I’m pretty generous when I say “drone.” If you consult the dictionary, a drone is “an instrument or part of an instrument (such as one of the fixed-pitch pipes of a bagpipe) that sounds a continuous unvarying tone.” I mean something broader: whenever there’s a part of the music that is more or less sitting still below whatever else is going on above it, even if it’s not just one tone. Sue me, musicologists).
It’s not always obvious to me what, exactly, is appealing to me, or that it has anything in common with all the other times that I felt transfixed. Instead, it just feels like my brain saying an emphatic, unconditional YES to whatever is going on.
This phenomenon is so pronounced that my boyfriend (much more observant than I am) picked up on it very early in our relationship. As it happens, he often finds drones unsettling. Somehow, through this adversity, we manage to make it work.
Cat Power said something that made this all make sense to me: a drone is a thick cloth to keep the song warm. Yes, that’s it: it’s something that makes a song feel all that much more physical. Like it’s reaching out and holding me still.
Something like a steady mark against which change is measured. The drudge of daily life. The steady heartbeat. But also discord, warning, a ghost at the feast. A hint of intrigue.
Lest I get totally carried away, let me stop and show you some drones I have collected in the wild:
Especially the last few days. I’ve been feeling a little under the weather. This means a lot of lying on the strangely comfortable floor under a blanket.
I nap, and play games, and read, and write a bit here and there, and FaceTime my family, and in moments of tremendous ambition, go out for a meal or some exercise.
There’s some big part of me that feels pretty defensive about this. To answer “nothing” to the inevitable “what did you do this weekend?” feels like a betrayal of conversation itself. It feels almost passive-aggressive, like I’m withholding something, or else it feels like a cry for help with a life that needs filling.
Another driver is the problem with many names: FOMO (fear of missing out). Or, if you enjoy incredible long German words, Torschlusspanik (gate closing panic)—the fear, as night draws in, that you won’t make it back inside the city gates before the gates close at curfew. Much like a medieval peasant with a dread of being trapped outside with the outlaws, I have a fear of time passing and leaving me behind, and opportunities slamming shut before I had a chance to explore them.
This is, typically, irrational and unwarranted. I am not a medieval peasant, and my future is probably not full of bloodthirsty outlaws. But that’s beside the point.
But doing nothing is also, ironically, something I’ve been wanting to do more of. In recent years I’ve had lots of moments of feeling over-committed, and I hate all the resentment and drama that tends to go. along with that. In times like these, I start to fantasize about what it would be like to have nowhere to be, no tasks that needed completing. All the freedom in the world to do what I please and say yes or no to the whims of the day.
So much of my life is spent caught between these poles, trapped in that in-between, nowhere space between action and inaction, between something and nothing, neither pursuing the relaxation that I crave nor getting tasks done, but feeling increasingly awful as I play infinite levels of a mobile game that is throwing my entire nervous system out of whack and making me nauseous.
The goal is to find that space of beautiful nothing-doingness, where I produce nothing of external value and I enjoy the minutes as they pass. Where I’m free to do exactly what is right at that moment.
This weekend, that’s looked a lot like lazy floor time. It also looked like writing this, rather than some rather more involved (and possibly more interesting) posts. But this weekend has also looked a lot like contentment, so I want for nothing.