Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why I Stopped Following My Bliss, and What I'm Doing About It

Today, this post is all about me. I hope you'll forgive me, and indulge me. If not, that's okay, too.

One of the reasons I started this blog, and wanted to think about what it takes to follow one's bliss is because I was fairly certain I'd found something worth pursuing. For me, that something was writing, and especially creative writing. Because I'm so verbally wired, and because I love reading and because I love the way both writing and reading make me feel, I determined pretty early on that I wanted to be a Writer.

For a long time, I wasn't sure how anyone really did that. I stumbled around, writing bad poetry, taking classes that had the words "creative" and "writing" in the title, and spending time at night and on weekends doing something that seemed to be natural for me. Putting words down on paper.

I started to think that maybe there was something more formal one could do to achieve this goal of being a Writer. I had a friend who wrote, and who talked to me about writing, and one day he unveiled an entire pathway I didn't know existed: He said he was going to get his MFA. I didn't even really know that you could go back to school for writing, so this was tantalizing. Then, he got in. To the Iowa Writer's Workshop, which is only the most famous MFA program of them all. (I went from not knowing about MFA programs to quickly understanding where they all ranked. How American of me, right?)

Well, after this, I had a new bug up my butt. I too, was going to go get my MFA in writing. I was working at a miserable job, where I slaughtered language for political purposes, doing so for humorless ogres that looked like this. I had to get out, and that was that.

So off I went, into the application process--which is not easy, I'll tell you that--burning with the desire to get minted into a Writer. Eventually, I got a few acceptances, and even some generous offers of funding and teaching, and settled on the University of Arizona.

The next two years were a blur. I moved to Tucson, sacrificing proximity to my boyfriend (now husband) because he couldn't find work in Tucson and I desperately needed to be a real Writer. I gave up a lot, is the point, to do this.

My experience is probably pretty typical. I breezed in, thinking, Hey, I must be pretty good at this writing thing if they let me in and gave me money and a teaching job! Of course, I quickly realized that what they let me in for was based more on potential than on actual skill. This caused some major paralysis, but I got over it once I remembered that I was there to learn, not to just show them all how great I already was.

Incidentally, Tucson is the place where I began seriously understanding and contemplating what ego is, and how it can make us so crazy.

Eventually, after some very, very tough semesters, I came to the end. People began to say things in workshop that were very, very encouraging. Accomplished writers and professors were admiring my work, telling me how much I'd grown, how things I was writing were close to publication. Then, that last semester, I got my first story accepted at a journal. I felt like a Writer.

But after graduation, things slowed with my writing, and I got discouraged. No matter how many revisions I made to these stories, I couldn't seem to get another one accepted. No matter how hard I tried to understand what was missing, I couldn't. I got rejected a lot, and the worst part was I had to wait months and months to get rejected. It was agony.

In the meantime, good things were happening in my personal life. I was getting married. We'd bought a house. I had friends and a comfortable job with a nice salary. It became harder and harder to tear myself away from these things, with all their attendant positive feedback, to do something all by myself that no one much cared to see.

Also, by then, it was becoming obvious that the entire publishing complex was undergoing an earthquake, and there were fewer and fewer print venues with each passing day.

I thought, I'll just put my writing aside for a little while. That was in 2006.

And I've been telling myself that ever since. While there have been some bursts of activity, it's time to face facts: I quit.

I never said so formally, announcing it. But that's what I did. I closed the door, unofficially but definitively, on my creative writing efforts. I stopped trying to be a Writer, or a writer.

I'm here, telling you this story today to tell you that I'm recognizing that I'm unhappy about this. I'm facing it. I've been lying to myself and others so long, pretending that there were *reasons* I wasn't writing. Too much going on in my life, or a fear of the post-print media landscape or a million other things that seem perfectly plausible.

While plausible, making art, writing creatively, doesn't arise out of reason, doesn't depend on circumstances. And I, of all people, should know that. But I've been afraid. I think I've mainly been afraid of the enormous effort that writing every day requires, especially as it means I must give up time for things and people I enjoy. The sacrifice, again, for something no one seems much interested in.

But, I found a quote by Stephen DeStaebler yesterday in David Bayles' and Ted Orland's book, "Art & Fear," that sums up the situation: "Artists don't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working."

And I have to say, the pain right now is pretty intense. How often I wish I could let it go, say goodbye to this urge to write! But I'm at the point where I feel like a teenage boy who's been trying for total celibacy, without even the relief of his right hand! A too-graphic image? Perhaps, but we all know what happens, and the point is, it makes a mess of things. My urge to write and create and use words in artistic and interesting ways is nearly as strong an instinct as the sexual one, or the will to survive. I don't know how to explain that from an evolutionary perspective, but all I can tell you is that it's true, and real. If I suppress this instinct for too long, it begins to manifest itself, to surface, and in ways that are not healthy or productive. I get moody. I cry a lot. I feel emotions I don't usually feel: anger, resentment, jealousy, despair.

I don't want to be someone who used to write. I don't want to have quit. But at this moment, I am, and I did. Fortunately for me (and for the people who love me and enjoy my sanity), there is nothing in the world that says I can't start again.

My motivations will be different now, I think, as will my goals. But I will be writing creatively again. I may even share some of it here. If you don't care to read it, that's fine, just don't tell me. Let me put it into the world somewhere, okay? It's so hard to leave it always in the dark. If you don't like it, or don't want it, just skip it. There will be other stuff for you to read, I promise.

And for anyone who's gotten this far, I want to tell you that you and I could be good friends, if we're not already. I appreciate you sticking with me, and hey, maybe you're in the same boat. Maybe reading this will get you to figure some things out about the creative parts of your life. I hope so.

One thing I do know: My efforts from this point forward will be dedicated to my husband. Because for all I've put him through in this writing journey, he has never once--not once!--wavered in his dedication to me and his belief in my work. So thank you for that, pickles. I love you.

Monday, August 10, 2009

How to Be More Productive

If you spend any amount of time on the interwebs, as I do, you will stumble across countless blogs and articles promising new ways to be more productive and efficient. Mostly, these have to do with finding out how to get more done in a day, be it through better organization of lists, or syncing of desktop with mobile devices, or keeping a daily time log. Actually, all of these things are great ideas, and I think these are resources to investigate.

But today, I want to think about productivity and efficiency in a slightly different way. I began thinking about what it means to be "efficient" when I pulled that word out of a bowl at my yoga class. My teacher had placed little "angel cards" into the bowl, each with a word on it, like "love" or "harmony" or "clarity." The idea was that you would use that word as the inspiration for your practice--your intention. I drew "efficiency," and had to smile. Of all the things to strive for in a yoga class!

I didn't think getting more done was really possible in yoga, so I looked at other interpretations. I recognized that one aspect of efficiency has to do with minimizing wasted effort. So, instead of using a lot of extra movements to transition from one pose to the next, one could try to be as streamlined and graceful and efficient as possible. No wasted effort.

What I found in trying to do this was that in order to move fluidly, and with intention, that I had to be extremely focused. I couldn't let my mind wander at all, or inevitably, I'd move more than was really necessary. I'd step out before stepping in. I'd scratch my nose on the way.

What I think I discovered was how important--how incredibly essential--focus is when it comes to productivity. Not just because you don't waste effort and therefore have more time and energy, but also because you don't produce something of poor quality.

After all, what's the point of being productive if all you're producing is crap?

So, how to be more productive in this way?
  1. Before you begin your day, write down what you intend to accomplish. Think of intention as the gentle reminders your GPS lady gives you as you proceed on a planned route.
  2. Before you set out to start your planned activities, make sure you close your eyes and breathe deeply, if only for a minute or two. Beginning your day's journey on calm seas will make you far more likely to meet with success than throwing yourself out there in rough waters.
  3. Once you are on your way, you will inevitably drift off course. But as it is with meditation, so it is with staying focused and productive. If an unwanted thought comes up in meditation, rather than worrying about it, you visualize it as a cloud, simply drifting by. You do not judge it, or get attached to it, but rather, you just let it go. Same with work. You begin to read something you hadn't intended, or you find yourself on a phone call you didn't want to be on, and as soon as you realize it, don't fret, but let it go. Stop reading, and return to your task. Tell the person you've enjoyed talking, but it's time to get back to work. Don't feel bad, just move on.
  4. What happens if you meet with a roadblock that prevents you from completing one of your tasks? Don't let it throw you off course. Decide how important it is. Do you need to complete it today? Or can you return to it tomorrow? Assess this calmly, and then you will know how to proceed. After all, life requires adaptability, but this doesn't mean you have to lose focus. You can simply reroute around the trouble and calmly proceed.
  5. Remember, it isn't about quantity. It's about quality. Don't expend energy on useless or worthless efforts. Don't let anyone else convince you to, either. It's your life, your career, your home.
If you follow these guidelines, I think you'll find yourself moving through life with less friction and with more to be proud of. The rewards of focus, too, go beyond having something to show at the end of the day. The emotional and psychological benefits you'll experience are vast, and in short order, you'll never want to be a distracted, frantic productivity-without-purpose person again.