The #1 Lie I Like To Tell Myself

As a professional procrastinator, I like to put everything off until the last minute. My experience with myself is that, if I begin working, I don’t know when to stop. I have tried to compensate by telling myself that I’ll do this thing for myself now and get to the work later. As long as I’m the only one I have to worry about, this is a fine plan.

The problem is that I am not the only one that I have to worry about. We don’t have kids so this is usually the case. However, I do have an elderly parent with pain issues that seemingly Will. Not. Go. Away. My mother has spent the last 14 months in and out of an excrucating amount of pain. My family and I have dropped everything at the last minute to see that she gets the care and medication that she needs almost every single month, sometimes for a week at a time.

Due to complications from an autoimmune medication that my mother was taking, she discontinued an otherwise effective medication. We didn’t really know how effective until she had to stop taking it a month ago. The medication continued to work for a few weeks. Into our fourth week, we now clearly see that it had been working more than we realized when a highly intense form of sciatica hit.

I called her doctors and picked up a prescription. My husband worked from home today so I could take a memoir writing class this afternoon. In my place, he called 911 to advise on my mother, had the prescription filled at their instruction, made lunch for my mother, and ensured my mom took her medication that thankfully worked within the hour. I felt better that she seemed to be in less pain.

After I came home from class, I checked on mom: sleeping. I had my own dinner and then got her up to take her medication again. My husband stayed with me, helping mom with dinner, clean up, and getting around. I set up a commode on the toilet my Dad used to use because it means she doesn’t have to bend down as far.

I wrote a medication diary so I can keep track of the pain meds that she’s now taking. She had mentioned she was chilly so I took her temperature, which was raised. I gave her an additional Tylenol only. We will check her temperature as well as ensure that she eats and takes her medication on an alternating basis.

I put a lamp in her room so she doesn’t need the bright overhead light. I set her up with throat drops, her phone, and water. She drowsed and I came up upstairs to our apartment to have some lemon ginger tea and write. As I sat down, I asked myself, “When are you ever going to learn? When in doubt, write.”

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Bumps in the Road to Writing

On March 15, I began writing every day. Some days I blogged. Some, I wrote in my novels. Others, just a page. I marked every day off on a calendar to see the X’s growing across the months. I felt really good. I managed not to procrastinate into the next day. I kept my promises to myself.

August 31, I was in the midst of a dental crisis with my mom. I completely forgot. Five and half months of an unbroken chain of writing something, anything every single day. Gone in a flash. Whatever, I started again. And then missed another day. And started again. And missed another day. I figured I must be needing a break and should just start again.

In the middle of this forgetting and restarting, my old friends Procrastination and Dread came back on the scene. I started to feel like I was dragging my heart through mud. I wanted to move forward so I pulled myself. But I resented and felt hopeless. I started feeling like I wanted to give it all up. This working on your passion thing takes forever. I’ll never get there. What’s the point?

So, yesterday, I started over. I had given up marking the calendar in the last couple of weeks. I drew lines through them like I did when I started mid-March. I began the marking again. Getting back on the wagon. Not giving up because of hopelessness. I have dealt with it in all my artistic endeavors. I don’t see it as a sign I should stop what I’m doing. I like writing. I have stories in me that I want to tell. I will tell. Am telling.

I know I am not alone in this despairing. Ask Polly recently had a column wherein the writer asks her, “Should I Just Give Up On My Writing?” Polly goes on at length as to why writer should not give up. The answer is that it is for the writer to do, not achieve.

I have been an achievement-oriented obsessed person. Everything I did was for the reward. School makes this an especially easy trap to fall into. Grades, awards, scholarships, and honor rolls. Whatever is at the end is what I usually strived for.

When it’s an art that your heart desires, things are different. Oh, maybe you want to hang your art in MoMA. How do you get there? Nothing you choose will get you in a direct path to the museum. You have to work on your art. Make mistakes. Try new things. Adapt. Change. Grow.

Changing my focus from achievement-oriented to process-oriented is the hardest thing I have ever done. My struggles to reestablish my schedule are part of that. It’s as if I cannot be proud of myself unless I achieve anything less than a perfect score, an unbroken chain. My achievements can never permanently buoy my self-esteem. Esteem must stand on its own, regardless of life’s turbulence. Any break in the chain results in an utter collapse of my inner sanctum. It’s not just a bump in the road. It’s an entire bridge swept away in the storm.

What can I do but get back up in the midst of this internal shit storm? I know no other way. I can only pick myself again. Stop listening to the internal smack down. And write.

Old Haunts, Great Friends, and New Faces

I am sitting at the Crema Cafe bar in Harvard Square while I await tonight’s book reading. Mary Karr, author of The Liars Club, will be signing and talking about her recent book The Art of Memoir. The Liars Club is a memoir; The Art of Memoir discusses Ms. Karr’s process for writing one. I’ve read memoir, but not hers. Not yet.

I recently devoured a piece of bread pudding made with cherries and bourbon. An iced chai latte keeps me company at the bar. A couple stands chatting next to their food at the bar on the other side of their chairs. Her voice comes directly at my ears, an unwelcome distraction.

I drove to Massachusetts yesterday for this event. My friends – The Bs – graciously offered to host me for two nights and a gathering of friends so I could see a whole bunch of mutual friends at once. Some friends I last saw at our own going away party; others, much longer than that. I love it when you haven’t seen friends in a while. Then you meet up. It’s like you never left. I had that last night. Thank you, dear friends!!

After breakfast, I took a leisurely half-milk walk down a shady street to Fawn Lake. I took the walking path strewn with pine needles and gnarly tree roots. The path wound near and away from the edge of the lake. Some lily pads already turned peaches and browns. One lily made its way back and forth away from the pad depending on the strength of the wind. I crouched down near the water, peering into murky depths. I thought I saw vermicelli down there.

On one side of the lake stood a small island. Mallards looped their heads under water and back again before diving up and down. After soaking their wings, they beat the surface of the water to shake them out. Tufts of feathers stretched out from them as if chicken had just been roused from their coup. A section of elm tree trunk was set up as a natural bench to rest on.

As I came around the bend, the shore came close to the geese. They stared at me like a bull in a ring. A triangle of them floated toward the shore at me in case I decided to make any sudden moves. I realized that I still held a fear of geese. I imagined myself racing away in terror as they beat at me with their wings and bit my hands. Wherever I saw a clearing, I stood and took in the sights – the tree line, the lily pads, the rippling water, and the partially cloudy skies.

Near the end of my path, I saw on a bench in the shade and closed my eyes. I let myself be lulled by the rustling of the leaves by the wind all around me. Sitting, I almost fell asleep. After I returned, I lay down for a nap before lunch. I accompanied my friend on an errand before driving myself into Cambridge MA for the book talk and singing. Tomorrow, I return home. On my way, I’ll take my 93 year old aunt out to lunch first. Who knows when I’ll get to see her again?

For The Love of Libraries

When I was in elementary school, I went to the library frequently. I would take out as many books as they would let me. I’ve seen it even now. Children walk out with a pile of books in their arms as their mothers hold open the door for them. I know I’m not the only one who tried to read entire sections of the children’s library because I loved reading so much.

As I grew into middle school, I started visiting the adult section. I remember sitting upstairs on the floor while thumbing through philosophy books, such as Kant and Kierkegaard. Hidden among these stacks was where I first encountered the atheist writer Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. I loved that library.

After I went to college, I no longer had time for recreational reading. All my spare time went to reading the subjects I studied in Business School at BU. Even when I had time off, the last thing I wanted to do was use my brain. I stopped using my home library.

After I graduated, I restarted my use of the libraries. I was at various times a member of the Boston library system, the Somerville library system, the Malden library system, and now again I’m a member of the Floral Park library system. In the early years of the millenium, I worked for a time in two libraries in Massachusetts. But working there affects your relationship with your library. It goes from provider of entertainment to a job.

Since I work from home and writing is my game, I am back to using the library frequently. I’m in there at least twice a week to pick and return the books I’m reading. I try to read something every day, other than the Internet which can only be satisfying on a gossip and time-wasting level. Like eating too much candy, my brain soon craves something more substantial.

For years, all I read was nonfiction, especially psychology, self-help, and self-improvement. I had read some stories that I found wanting, and I no longer wanted to invest or try to find fiction books that would catch my interest. My desire for personal and psychology improvement and refinement was strong enough and satisfied enough that I put fiction reading on the back burner.

I’ve been slowly getting back into reading fiction along with my nonfiction books, although the former now outweighs the latter most often. In my quest to learn about memoir writing, I have read more than a dozen. A topic I once never thought of now captivates my interest. Ditto romance novels now that I am planning one for this upcomign November NaNoWriMo.

My hometown library looks the same on the outside. Inside, it has changed. Where a wall of encyclopedias and two long wooden desks with chairs were now sits wall bookcases light on books, a huge reference desk, a few round tables with chairs, and bigger lounge-style chairs with adjustable table tops like you might see in a college auditorium. The wall bookcases with new fiction, large print, and nonfiction are the same. The front checkout desk is the same. The staff are all changed over, but are just as attentive and helpful as ever.

My life has come full circle. I am living in the upstairs apartment of my childhood home, I can walk a few minutes to get to my library, and I can walk out with a stack of books in my hand as I use my back to hit the push bar to open the door. I once again feel pride and excitment of walking home with interesting books where, once home, I will plop on the couch to read them. The other books wait patiently for their turn in my hands.

Abandoned Books and Rediscovered Authors

As part of my research for my memoir, I have been reading a variety of memoirs that come across my path. My memoir is themed around my struggles with illness since I was born and how they affected my life. Some of the titles, such as Dying to Be Me by Anita Moorjani, are directly relevant; this book is about how a near-death experience changed her life.

Others are tangentially about illness but not memoirs, like Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, by Susan Sontag. I was hoping to plumb the book for insight as to how metaphoric comparisons of illness might have affected how I experienced and interpreted illness, even though Sontag talks mainly about tuberculosis (TB) and cancer, and then later, AIDS.

Sontag’s writing style seemed dense and intellectual, drawing on a truly staggering number of literary references that demonstrated illness (TB and cancer) and its metaphors through fiction, such as in the operas La Traviata and La Bohème. In this manner, the book reminded me of a history tome, filled with date after date after date. Sontag also seems to repeat herself as if there was only so much that she could say about it, but her publisher made her try and stretch the thoughts way past their prime. I mentally pushed myself through about 70 pages of the book before setting it aside. I really hate doing that, but I hate torturing myself through repetitive, difficult to read books.

And in my procrastinations yesterday to avoid writing, I decided the next best thing was to read articles related to writing. This quickly lead me to the essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (DFW). I tried getting into his novels Infinite Jest and The Pale King, but I abandoned both because I could not get into the stream of consciousness that his writing seemed to be. I tried. I had read about how beloved DFW was both to his readers and critics, and I wanted to be one of his fan boys. But I had to come to the conclusion that his writing wasn’t for me.

Until now.

I was sitting at Argo Tea on a corner of 7th Avenue and West 26th Street in New York City with a writer friend. I quickly began laughing out loud and hastening my hand to cover my mouth. You know when you find something so funny that you immediately want to start making eye contact with everyone around you and telling them about it? That was me yesterday at the Argo Tea.

Here’s a little tidbit of his writing after which I had one of many outbursts:

I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeet shooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is. I now know the precise mixological difference between a Slippery Nipple and a Fuzzy Navel. I know what a Coco Loco is. I have in one week been the object of over 1500 professional smiles. I have burned and peeled twice. I shot skeet at sea. Is this enough? At the time it didn’t seem like enough.

It’s not just his descriptions of things that makes reading the Supposedly Fun essay such a joy. Right away, you come to understand that this essay truly reflects his actual first person thoughts and feelings, uncensored and as they are. How easy it would be for DFW to pretend to feel something that he did not and make it seem real? Very. He shares his impressions of the staff, the other people at dinner Table 64, and his struggles with semi-agoraphobia that teeter him on the edge of whether he is going out of the cabin or whether he shall avail himself of room service.

What hit me deeply in reading this essay by DFW, however, was his repeated mentions of death, despair, and loneliness. In 2008 at the age of 46, David Foster Wallace committed suicide. Pictures of him often show him with a wrap around his head, hair disheveled, and a pained expression on his face. Even in an essay that he wrote when he was sent on a cruise for pay and asked to write an article, the pain came with him. When you have major depression and anxiety, there is no holiday or cruise that you can take that will separate you from the pain. If only there were, maybe DFW would have found a way to be with us still.

Mistakes Were Made

Well, I can only tell you about the one big mistake I made today: I mixed myself a Manhattan to go with dinner before I sat down to writing. I was going to write a thoughtful post about the nuances to bravery, but then I realized that doing so would involve the ability to focus. I don’t really have that ability, at the mo.

Waking up at 5am and not being able to fall asleep again doesn’t help. I feel like I have been awake for two days instead of less than one. My mind was racing with thoughts almost from the moment I woke up. After a little while of trying to relax, I realized it wasn’t going to happen and got up.

I had a small breakfast, then wasted time before running an errand and going to the gym. Gym was followed by shower and lunch and packing and getting my nails done and more packing and dinner and more packing and screwing around online. I kept putting off the sitting down to write until it became much more difficult.

Washing dishes and doing the litter and throwing the garbage out and getting ready for bed all ranked higher than writing. If you are a writer, don’t do this!

Now I just have to follow my own advice.

 

Writing Methods and Progress

As I have been reading YA dystopian trilogies lately, my mind boggles at the amount of work that must have gone into each one of those books. Especially now that I am a writer, I see my experiences devouring works with my speedy reading from the author’s point of view – so much time and effort for a reader to blow through a book in a day.

After each series is finished, I hear thoughts in my head saying, “You’ll never be able to write a book like that.” In the past several months, I have learned better than to listen to those negative thoughts any more. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I have been trying to work out a way of writing a complex story that would work for me.

I tend to be big-picture oriented. Looking at high amounts of detail or data to begin with always confuses and intimidates me. It’s hard for me to get a big handle on lots of little bits. So I thought: Why not start by outlining one big story arc from a character’s point of view? Then, keep layering on character arcs until you have an idea of what characters are together when. Then you can break it down into scenes or chapters. The last steps would be to go in and fill in all the details – the dialog, the descriptions, etc. After I thought of it that way, I felt a heaviness lift in my chest. Yes, I thought, that would work for me.

As I said to a friend today, I have read a lot about time management and getting into some kind of artistic practice. I haven’t found a way to make it work for me until now. The accountability calendar I have been using that allows me to check off that I have written at least one page of journal writing a day, two blog posts a week, and three days of writing for a total of 2,500 words a week really got me going. I must not have understood myself well enough to know that I love to check off a list of things I have completed, that checking off that list makes me feel productive, and that it helps me to stay committed. Now, with my idea about writing big and then working my way into the details, I feel like another thing has clicked into place for me.

What I have learned through my writing practice this year is that each person really does have to find out for themselves what will work. You can read all you want about how other people do it. It helps if you understand what makes you feel upbeat and productive and then work that into your life. That will help you along. But no one else can really tell you what methods will work for you.

It’s just you, your understanding of yourself, and your ability to work with tools that work with you that will let you take that next small step towards your goals.