I am a chronic maker of lists. You should see the chaos that is my Google Keep, a mess of immediate and short-term and long-term and unknowable-term tasks all jumbled together with lists of ideas and movies I want to watch.
When things get really hairy, as they did during law school, I find myself making to-do lists that get as granular as “eat breakfast” and “shower.” Even, on dismally rough days, “go to class.” Because there is an unmatchable joy that comes from crossing something off, even if my life is otherwise a dumpster fire.
It has never so far gotten quite as bad as having to remember to “breathe” and “sleep,” but never say never.
There is a push-pull relationship between me and the lists. Part of me delights in writing them down, because in that moment it feels like proof of the delicious possibility of the future. Look at me—I’m going to run five miles and write five chapters of a book after work on Tuesday, after I cook myself dinner! God, I’m unstoppable.
But then, inevitably, Tuesday-after-work shows up, and I’m exhausted from work and also pretty cold and hungry, and I rebel against that taskmaster who assigned me the run and the writing project and the cooking assignment. I eat packaged ramen and watch Netflix and feel both free and kind of nauseous.
It’s November, as you might have noticed. As a writer who exists on the Internet, I know that November can be a time of great pressure and great disappointment. November is “National Novel Writing Month,” abbreviated to NaNoWriMo, and many hundreds of thousands or maybe billions of people (who knows, really?) participate by pledging to write a full novel in a month. For NaNoWriMo purposes, a full novel is anything 50,000 words or longer. It does not have to be, and indeed is probably not even supposed to be, “good.” It’s just supposed to get us out of our perfectionistic delay and onto the keyboard.
Several times, including his year, I’ve half-committed to doing NaNoWriMo. This has produced a few stunted partial novels in previous years, books I had semi-planned but which I didn’t have nearly enough juice to complete, especially when there’s a target of at least 1,667 words every day to stay on track. If you skip a day or two, the writing debt piles up and the lure of a blurry, Thanksgiving-induced tryptophan oblivion becomes too much to resist.
1,667 words a day is a lot. When I was writing Book One, a good day was 500, and an incredibly good day was 1,000. So 1,667 is basically inconceivable, like an ultramarathon or a layer cake. A blinding effort that’s just going to make me sleepy to consider.
Nevertheless, I’ve been trying (until the last few days, when things have gotten away from me, as they have a tendency to do). Sometimes it’s good to push toward a difficult goal, and other times it is good to relax into enjoying what’s already present, and maybe the real work is in figuring out which times are which.
Anyway. I’m thinking about writing again, so here’s an update:
Book One is sitting in limbo at the moment, but at some point in the not-too-distant future I think I’ll do another round of edits on it and then start shopping it around to various literary agents. People on the writing internet call this upcoming stage the “trenches,” which feels a tad overdramatic even as someone who wrote a book involving a higher-than-average amount of literal trench warfare (and, after all, it’s Veteran’s/Armistice Day, to boot). But I haven’t been there yet, so what do I know?
Seeking publication, whether through the traditional course (finding an agent who sells to editors and publishers) or self-publishing, is inherently about self-promotion. So this, shoving my words into the world, is practice. Thank you for being present as I practice.
Speaking of which, here I am—writing. Over the past three or so months, I’ve written something north of 25,000 words here, which basically means if I keep this up for a year I’ll have written 100,000 words—a hefty novel’s length. What is this blog? Why is it? We’re still not sure. But that’s okay for now. Whatever it is I’m heading for, I’m practicing for it, I suppose.
And then there’s Book Two, the one I’m sort of trying to NaNoWriMo my way through. Until a few days ago, despite the gremlin who had been plaguing me previously, the draft was flowing fast out of me. I was writing a ton of words without terribly much wailing and gnashing of teeth, which is pretty ideal. It’s a low-stakes, low-drama endeavor, and it’s something I don’t really ever expect to do anything with. So that makes it easy to go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and just keep at it (which, coincidentally, is as close as I have to a life philosophy at the moment).
There are times when I get a little tipsy on self-pity during my commute or my work day and I wish I could just be a book person all the time. But then I shake myself and realize: I am. Through tremendous fortune, I am able to read and write constantly, both for leisure and at my day job. And I go home in the evening and work on my novels and write this blog. In what way am I not a book person? It’s so easy to see the lack, even in the midst of abundance. Ain’t that always the way.
And here’s the thing: you’re probably a writer, too. Compared to any of your ancestors, even as recently as your parents, you write all the time. You write emails, and texts, and maybe tweets and Facebook comments, and Google reviews and who knows what all else? As linguist Gretchen McCulloch writes in the very worthwhile examination of online language Because Internet, we’re all writers now. We’re all experts in tone and nuance, learning together in a worldwide, real-time experiment when periods are passive-aggressive and when lowercase letters are ironic. We are all creative, producing brand-new combinations of words all the time, fresh additions to the English corpus. (McCulloch suggests an experiment: Google the last text message you sent containing more than ten words, and put quote marks around the whole thing. You’ll likely find no results, meaning you more or less invented that particular sentence).
Any one of us can coin a word or compose a sentence that has never been said before, and it now exists in the language as soon as we utter it, whether it winks in and out for a single moment or whether it catches on and endures in the minds of people yet unborn.
McCulloch, “Because Internet,” 269
So say it with me: you’re a writer. I’m a writer. We’re all doing it.
We funneled into 100 Hutchins Hall for orientation. A few hundred first-year law students (1Ls, in law-school jargon) lined the rows of the auditorium, each clutching a slim blue copy of the U.S. Constitution. We were to sign it, signifying our commitment to a future of ethical lawyering.
I only half-knew what I was getting into. Like so many bachelors of arts, although concrete skills were few, my verbal abilities were highly satisfactory, and there wasn’t much for me to do in a down economy than go to law school. But unlike a lot of my new classmates, I didn’t already know much about it. I knew next to nothing about the curriculum or the legal field or how to get a law job or how to prepare for a law school final. I had to frequently double-check the names of the current Supreme Court justices to avoid severe embarrassment.
In other words, as I still often do, I had one foot in and one foot out of the place I am and the thing I’m doing, with often frustrating results. But that’s a different topic.
Anyway, the presentations started. Various deans introduced us to our new career and shared anecdotes of when they were in our shoes. They told us something that surprised me: they were not there to teach us the laws. Oh, no. Instead, their planned instruction was simple, and they repeated it over and over:
“Thinking like a lawyer.”
“You will learn to think like a lawyer.”
“It’s amazing, the most important part of law school is how you begin to think like a lawyer…”
Think like a lawyer.
And then there we were, tender 1Ls, beginning to repeat this line, like the hypnotized diners Eddie Izzard imagines beginning to request a certain salad dressing:
Where the heck did balsamic vinaigrette come from? … Balsamic fucking vinaigrette. How long ago? Ten years? Ten years ago?
“Would you like a dressing? We have thousand island, we have 970 island, we have 400 island, we have 3-mile island,—or balsamic vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette…”
“I would like the balsamic vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette…”
It was just some suggestive thing.
Eddie Izzard, “Sexie” (2003)
Helpless in the face of this prophecy, we took our oath and then set out from that auditorium, freshly on our path to thinking like lawyers. We tucked into our textbooks and took assiduous notes in lectures and awaited the change.
I didn’t know what it meant until I was studying for finals that first semester, and I found my trusty brain working differently. The transformation is now complete enough that I can barely remember my former, unconverted state, but I do recall the sensation of changing: I was beginning to feel a bit like a computer.
Things that used to be connected no longer were. There were great chasms between concepts that used to feel related. And there were relations between concepts that had not been comparable before. But the more notable sensation was of a linear progression I hadn’t been aware of before. Questions were all multi-part: there were steps everywhere. Every possible inquiry had a number of associated sub-inquiries, which must be separated and arranged in a certain order to arrive at the right answer. The only alternative was a dreadful, murky chaos.
But this didn’t just extend to the concepts I needed to study for that semester’s grades. It infiltrated even my personal life, even emotional matters. Not only could I now take a far more rational approach to any question, but I could not not. I began to say “actually” a lot more.
And here I am, several years on from that mental conversion. I want to connect with my fellow humans when they discuss a matter of law or policy or the Constitution, but they just do not understand! Their eyes glaze over when I explain to them the all-important steps. Poor souls, they think of a matter all at once: they see it as an item to be discussed and to have feelings about. It saddens me, and I live in hope for their timely conversion.
And yet, something troubles me. In moments of dark doubt, I begin to worry about this setup: those of us who have been taught to think like lawyers can indeed think like lawyers—but no one else can, not without three years of pricey study at an accredited institution. But law is not like, say, engineering, which (I assert with blind confidence) can be left to the professionals. I can know blissfully nothing about how bridges are constructed, and yet generally drive over them fearlessly and without consequence.
But you non-lawyers, with your unconverted brains—we ask you to live in our law world at all times, and it isn’t as simple as driving over a bridge. You’ve got to avoid violating the countless thousands of civil and criminal statutes that apply to your every move. You don’t know about most of them, but if you violate them, we will generally pretend that you did know. Or, perhaps to put it more precisely, it doesn’t matter if you did or not, for various very-good reasons that we all learned about…in law school.
Does that seem unfair? Like you might need some assistance in that perilous field? If so, you might want to seek a lawyer’s counsel. Yes, it will cost money (how much? It depends) but it is a much better idea than waiting for the other side (that spiteful neighbor who hates your fence; the copyright holder of the TV show from which you borrowed a reaction GIF; the federal librarian who looked askance at you for bringing your kazoo to the Library of Congress) to lawyer up. Your lawyer will get you into the least-worst position against their lawyer, on your behalf—and yes, legally, it will be you doing it, because it was your responsibility to follow the laws all along.
Which—doesn’t that basically sound like a protection racket? I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job here, but I get a little nervous when it feels like I am trained to be some kind of mental bodyguard, ready to size up the other guy’s mental bodyguard, especially when we start growing our team because the other guy started growing his team, and now we’re basically in a mental bodyguard arms race, which obviously is really good for the bodyguard industry, although admittedly the excess bodyguards do nothing for the body-guarded.
Plus, I have a theory—on which more later, perhaps—that this setup fuels kooky DIY law theories like sovereign citizens. After all, if we make law seem arcane and volatile, we can hardly blame people for thinking that all they need to do to beat the system is to get a little arcane and volatile.
Okay, I hear you, lawyers: my argument teeters on that dreaded slippery slope to the suggestion that we eradicate lawyers, which doesn’t work for several reasons, a few of which are: (1) vigilante justice will be the remedy to future disputes (imagine: IRS agents beating up tax evaders); (2) who if not lawyers will enforce the ban on lawyers? One shudders to think; and (3) I’m not here to take jobs away from hardworking Americans who aren’t prepared to do much else. So let’s not even go down that path; it’s not what I mean.
What I do mean is: I’m troubled by the feeling that there is a wall between the people—to whom the laws apply and belong, whom the Constitution protects—and those laws and the Constitution. To the extent that you can’t really understand the laws or the Constitution without a law degree (if then), that is a failure on the part of those documents. Meanwhile, those who write new laws, regulations, and legal rulings interpreting them (🙋🏻♀️), are almost always lawyers. We understand each other, and we trust that the gatekeepers and interpreters of what we write will always be others from our guild, other future people who have sat in 100 Hutchins and been told that their brains were about to change. We’re basically a club with boring initiation rituals and steep annual dues, but we’re everywhere, and we don’t let you ignore us.
I suppose I could start to be the change. I could be the lawyer who practices in a way that is more accessible to non-lawyers. I could say “actually” less. I could dig deep, see if it’s still possible to access that pre-transformation brain that was able to think unlike a lawyer, even about law and its practical side, the way it actually affects people constantly.
So from my side of the chasm to yours, non-lawyers, I’d like to request some thoughts and prayers for the recovery of my old brain.
It’s been a strange bit of time, lately. (Isn’t it always, though, in a way?) I often get the feeling these days of being stuck in between one thing and another, or of waiting for something, or of an itchy feeling like I’m ready to run. As though there’s a soundtrack playing music quietly that makes you feel that something is around the corner, not having revealed itself just yet. And you get antsy waiting for it. A heavy restlessness.
The restlessness has some apparent causes that I won’t get into here and now. But it’s such a pervasive feeling, almost like a physical sensation, that it refuses to be broken up by logic or planning. (In any event, planning and I are on a break.)
Rob Bell did a podcast about something like this: “An Anatomy of Restlessness.” He touches on all of it, the whole feeling that has been lurking at my shoulder for a while: the guilty feeling at not being satisfied even in the midst of such a lucky life. A gut feeling that “the cloud has moved.” A stirring like in the first days of creation. The difference between the forms (the material facts of life that surround us) and the spirit that animates them: even if the forms haven’t changed, and they used to satisfy, they may no longer, once the spirit has moved.
Rob has some questions that I found helpful, and you might too, if this restlessness thing is following you as well:
Is the restlessness calling me to do more, or to do less?
Do I need to walk farther into the thing (whole-ass it, as Ron Swanson might say), or step away?
Is it about accepting that the situation is fine, or is it about recognizing that it really isn’t good enough?
Is there another challenge to take on, or is rest calling?
Is it about new birth, or about doubling down on what already is?
Is it about finding a break, or finding continuity?
For me, the answer to a lot of those questions is: yes; both; sometimes. Do more, yes, but of the right things. Let the others go. Walk further into the right things; step away from the things that no longer fit. Take on the challenges that get me excited; walk away from the challenges that only cause the joyless stomach ache.
It feels a great deal like a trip through the middle. If I take a stroll to look around at the smattering of pieces that make up my life, I can tell that the kinks are getting worked out of a few of them. Others are marinading, not ready for prime time. Others are hopping along in their juvenile way, learning to ride their bikes. Others are extremely good at the routine, doing it so automatically that they forget how they got home in the evening. And so on. It’s not glamorous, and it has a way of sagging, just as the heavy middles of so many novels do, sandwiched unceremoniously between sparkling beginnings and ends.
But in novels as in life, I might be better off to lean into it, to give the middle a bit of a sense of character. Give it a pizzazz all its own. Welcome it in. Because it’s a piece of the life, too. The restlessness, the middle, all of it, every day, forms the whole. Some day this, too, may be a joy to recall.
This morning, I took a moment to write down all the changes for the better that have happened in the last year: all the successes, learnings, adventures, small and large joys. Damn, what a year. It still feels like the middle. Just a little sparklier.
“But then time came for us too. We weren’t who we used to be but we also weren’t who we would be next, either. There was this awful in between. And we had to stay in it for so long.”
It’s a time of plenty, friends, by just about any measure (which isn’t to say that this plenty is properly distributed, or that there is no room for improvement, but that’s another matter). And yet I notice quite often that my mind has a habit of seeing scarcity everywhere. See, for example, my almost perilous aversion to wasting food, culminating in narrowly avoided tragedy in the glass-shard soup incident of 2015. My grandparents lived through the Depression, yes, but why is its hold so strong on me still, when I grew up wanting nothing?
Scarcity looms everywhere, though, probably as a form of the common human negativity bias. It tries to keep me alive by telling me to make hay while the sun shines, (seriously, get out there, it’s sunny, what are you doing, the sun will go away and you won’t have enough hay, dummy!) It keeps me alert to potential danger by reminding me that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush (and, hey, you’ve only got one bird in that hand; what are you going to do when you’re next in need of a bird? You think birds grow on trees?)
Pretty obnoxious, really. And one place it comes up in this kind of meta way is when I am working on an idea: some little voice in the back of my head is piping up: “Hey, what about the next idea? Is this the only one you’ve got? You might never have another. Just thought you should know!”
It is, to say the least, hardly helpful. There’s nothing less creativity-inspiring than worrying about the potential future scarcity of creativity, just as there’s nothing less satisfying to the stomach than fretting about where one’s next meal will come from. Yet even as I’m working on picking what I like and seeing how it grows, the little scarcity gremlin looks over my shoulder and warns me that I’m probably going to run out of ideas soon, and probably half of the ones I’ve got are going to fizzle out before I can finish…just trying to be helpful!
So there I am, clinging white-knuckled to the little list of ideas I’ve got, squeezing the life out of the poor things. But in Big Magic, which I read recently (and you should too, if you want to live a more creative life and could use a little boost), Elizabeth Gilbert has an interesting idea that turns my scarcity gremlin on his head: she pictures inspiration as a sentient force, a personified entity, that goes where it likes, and stays if you entertain it generously. With a straight face, she tells the story of the time that the idea for a novel visited her for a while, then once she’d demonstrated that she didn’t have the space in her life to tend to it fully, entered the body of Ann Patchett the day that they met. Ann Patchett ended up writing this book that so badly wanted to be written. Which is not to say “cling harder and panic when you have an idea, lest it enter the body of a more talented nearby artist.” (That would be our neighborhood scarcity gremlin talking again). I suppose it’s just to say: be grateful when it’s there. Welcome it. Don’t squeeze the life out of it.
Now I’m doing better, taking some deep cleansing breaths and welcoming the friendly inspiration spirit in. I’m living in abundance mode, not scarcity mode. I’m countering that negativity bias. Noticing the plenty, not the lack.
But then–oh no–such plenty. Ideas coming so hot and heavy that I have several different digital to-do lists, like so many crumpled purse-bottom post-it notes, cluttering up the joint. Ideas coming so fast and incomplete that they talk over each other and my mind starts to feel all jerky and fuzzy like it does when I’ve been visiting the portal too much. Each one is a welcomed guest but, “well,” I begin to say to the throng of them in my living room, “I do visit the portal a fair amount, and I have my day job to consider, and my social life, and I’ve got to stay showered and need to shop for groceries now and then, and as it is I’m already halfway through two of you, so I might not get to you” (pointing to one of them in the back, a new arrival staring at me slackjawed) “until halfway through next year, at the earliest, I’m sorry to say.”
How do I pick what I like and see how it grows when I struggle to follow a thread long enough to plant it, and when I like quite a lot of things?
Don’t be fooled. This is scarcity talking. Scarcity of time. Like any other scarcity fear, there’s a grain of truth within it, but it’s hardly helpful to let it run the show.
So you have to conquer the first scarcity, the fear that ideas will come at all; perhaps you do this by trusting that the idea has its own will, and will find you if and when it pleases, no matter how tightly you squeeze or how much you suffer in the meantime, so you may as well relax. Then, when you’ve caught one, you have to conquer the second scarcity fear: the fear of scarcity of ability, the fear that you won’t do the idea justice and shouldn’t even try. You do this by learning to entertain it gently, and just follow it where it leads.
But how do you conquer the third scarcity, of time to follow the many possible leads you’ve got? You’re indecisive. You don’t know which one is top priority. (After all, if everything is top priority, nothing is, and there we are in the bowels of the couch playing Flash games until long after our bedtime). Okay, so just do something. Do literally anything. Print out a list and throw a dart at it, see which one it lands nearest. Use a random number generator. Just start. Just for ten minutes. Just mess around with it on your phone while you wait in line at the pharmacy.
But the fear is still there. The gremlin hasn’t left. It says: “okay, you’ve got a lot for now, that’s great. But what will you do in five years? You haven’t really got five years’ worth on that list, do you? Aren’t you worried that you’re going to to flame out in a while, even if you do find the time to do any of them?”
That’s when I look that gremlin in the eye and go, “listen, buddy, I know this game.” I know all about trying to pin my future down and buy it an insurance policy. It’s a fool’s errand. I look back to what I was dead certain I wanted my long-term future to look like when I was 15, 18, 20, 22, 25, 28…every single time, if I could have locked it in, of course I would have. But every single time, I either didn’t get it, or I got some very different version of it, and thank God for that, because I can’t imagine much worse than being trapped in a life younger-me chose. She doesn’t know anything about me.
So ideas will come. And I’ll entertain them as best I’m able. And I’ll get new ones, or I won’t, because maybe me in several years won’t even want them, and that’s totally fine. And I’ll find the time, here and there, or maybe future me will. She can figure it out.
Recently, at the recommendation of a dear friend with whom I go way back (way back), I read Emily P. Freeman’s The Next Right Thing.
My friend recommended this book a few months ago, after I’d been making a little quiet fuss for a while about not being sure about my long-term plans. The book sat on my total chaos bookshelf (the one where new arrivals languish horizontally, their spines not even showing, no doubt shortening my librarian boyfriend’s lifespan every time he glances at the horror) for a month or two.
I picked it up just in time for reading it to coincide with a Big Freakout. Isn’t it funny how that often happens? The universe senses a freakout coming and throws a tiny life preserver out into it. Or maybe I was providing for myself, sensing the brewing eruption. Either way, I was tearing through it on the metro on my way to and from work, waiting for inspiration to strike, waiting for Emily to tell me what to do with my life.
Spoiler: the book doesn’t do that. If you ever find one that does, please send it to me immediately.
And don’t we all think we want that book? A recent poll I saw on Amy Young’s Instagram story had 95% of responders feeling stuck. So there’s nearly all of us in our own private occasional freakouts, wanting someone to come give us a little pull or shove, get us un-stuck.
In parachutes Emily, like a firefighter into the wildfire of my panic, bearing short chapters, each of which is a little inspiration, a little way in to the unknown. She dropped a few buckets of calm water onto me with each chapter.
One, in particular, has stuck with me. Remembering a time she was trying to zhuzh up her garden, Emily tells us her strategy: “Pick what you like, and see how it grows.” You don’t have to have the whole vision for the garden. You don’t have to have all the research done about how each plant will fare in each corner. You don’t have to know how it will work over the winter. You just have to pick what you like, and see how it grows.
Reader, that little line is part of why I’m writing this now. I’d been unsure of how to go forward in my life, how to find my vocation, as though it were some kind of prize hidden under some disguise in some unknown spot, and if I only knew how to find it it would be waiting for me. But it’s not like that. It’s all right in front of me, right in my hands and my head and my heart, because in every moment I can pick what I like and see how it grows. So in this blog, I’m picking what I like and writing about it, and we’ll see where we get.
Even at risk of beating this poor metaphor to death, I’m starting to think of everything in my life as a little seed being scattered. Every conversation, email, interaction with a stranger, passing thought, scrolled-by post, is a seed being scattered across my mind. Some seeds grow. These I chase down, researching further or noting down for future reference, or I get them stuck in my mind and can’t stop thinking or talking about them. Some don’t. These I immediately forget, even if I’d rather not, and I might require reminding. When I notice that something didn’t stick, maybe instead of worrying I’ve done something wrong, or telling myself I should buckle down and force myself to be more interested–maybe I can shift this. Maybe the seed fell on the wrong soil, or it was the wrong seed for the soil, or something. Maybe I can let it go.
And maybe I should save my attention for the seeds that did take root. Sr. Joan Chittister, who has literally written the book on vocation (well, a book on vocation), reminds us of Honoré de Balzac’s words: “Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn’t, bleed, like colors, on the whole of our existence.” Not to light a fire under planting that garden, but it’s worth considering. You may as well do the things you like. Not doing so can have disastrous results.
I’m also going to be gentle with myself about what doesn’t grow, and about what I don’t pick in the first place. For example, here I am writing about The Next Right Thing, rather than Autumn. I liked Autumn, perhaps a little less than I liked another of Ali Smith’s books, How to be Both, but I did like it. Yet as I was reading it, and especially as I thought about writing about it, there was this nagging suspicion that I was being dense, not understanding it on some level that would be obvious to most. So how do I pick what I like and see how it grows? For one thing, by not forcing myself to write about Autumn if I don’t want to. (As it happens, I’ve read more about it now and I think I do “get” it; I just don’t have anything in particular to say about it, and that’s fine.) (Another side note: is this not a terribly Enneagram-9 problem to have, worried that my very thoughts and preferences are wrong?)
Now, when you find what you like, is it guaranteed to grow? Absolutely not. Nor are my tastes guaranteed to stay the same. But just as Emily parachuted into my life with little morsels of wisdom, I’m realizing that there’s no mega-parachuter coming with All The Answers. Or, at least, it’s highly unlikely. So instead I’ll just be down here in my garden, picking what I like each day, and watering it, and seeing how it grows.
A note on the book: Emily comes from what I would call an evangelical Christian background, and the book is pretty religious in its orientation. It might not be for everyone (especially those who don’t particularly want to hear about Jesus or read gospel quotations.)