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Friday, December 13, 2013

Success and the Inner Rabbit

November is over. NaNoWriMo is over. And apparently, so is my writing habit. I know, say it isn’t so. Well, look, I accomplished the goal of writing 50K words of a first draft in November. Fifty thousand words - and some. I wrote at least 1,667 words every day but one. (1,667 X 30=50,000). It felt great. And then December hit. 

What happened? I thought I’d developed my habit. A habit takes about twenty-one days to establish. The daily words didn’t even take all that long, since what I was writing mostly was drivel. I say that without having looked back over my work, yet; but I am sure most of it is drivel. And I haven’t finished my draft. Therefore, I need to produce more drivel. I can work with drivel. Drivel I can revise. But now that the companionship of the other 300,000 people who signed up for NaNoWriMo has dwindled, my writing habit has gone pffffft. Part of it has to do with the busy season. The children have started all their end of semester performances. There are all kinds of things that end up sliding into the work week hours, therefore, because the weekends are taken up with rehearsals and performances. Also, the husband is on call right now, which means interrupted sleep on top of perimenopausal interrupted sleep.

But these are excuses. The real reason is that fear has slowed me down. Once the artificial deadline and word count goal of November 30th passed, my structure disappeared. November was squeezing through a narrow passageway that took all my focus to inch through, doubts and fears about my eventual accomplishment notwithstanding; and then December was
One of many distractions....
coming out the other side of the passage into a vast open space. I’m like a little rabbit, paralyzed by the shadow of a predator overhead.

I’m not sure, in this analogy, what the overhead predator stands for in my life; but you get the idea, Readers, don’t you? My point is the wide open spaces and the blinding light are too much for my Inner Rabbit. The answer seems to be to dart hither and yon until I can create another tunnel-like situation for myself, a place to burrow and write that squeezes the self doubt and fears, if not out entirely, because frankly that seems impossible, to the side.

The question becomes, then, how to do that? Recently, I read a book called Saved, by Ben Hewitt, a journalist who spent a year hanging out with a friend of his who lives off the grid. The financial crisis of 2008 awakened in him the realization that he didn’t know anything about money. So he wanted to follow around this happy go lucky dude who had almost zero of the filthy stuff. Anyway, my takeaway from Ben’s experience was a new understanding of the phrase, “Time is money.” When he looked closely at his friend Eric, bartering for whatever he couldn’t do or get for himself, he saw a free person. Free because he chose what was important enough for him to spend his time - his days, his hours, his minutes doing. Most of those things had nothing to do with earning money. There were many, many ways he could spend his hours and end up earning money; but they weren’t worth the trade off to Eric. Hanging out with Eric, Ben began to think about how many hours it would take of money-earning work to afford, for example, a new car, and began to consider whether that trade was worth making. Because, how you spend your time is how you live. It’s how you pass your life. Maybe a used car would be better. Or a bike.

Whatever we need to do to get that sense of urgency, maybe we should do it. Maybe it’s procrastination. I know, that sounds just plain contrary. But maybe scrunching up against a deadline is the best way to produce a result. I don’t really think so, actually, and I just read somebody’s article about realizing how procrastination was damaging her career because she never produced her best work, just work that met the deadline.

So what would be best would be to have that understanding of life being finite all the time, so you can make sure you focus. That sounds awful, just like those lifeline timers you can download to your desktop that tell you how much longer you have to live. Yikes.

I’m conflating two needs here. (I’m allowed to do that. It’s my blog.) There’s the need to accomplish stuff. Stuff seems to get done best with a sense of urgency, a looming deadline breathing down the neck. I can just hear my former housemate from East Germany ridiculing my very American emphasis on progress and producing. Is it possible not to have a need to accomplish at least something?

The other need is to appreciate the value of life. This could actually lead to ignoring deadlines altogether and channeling one’s inner Ferdinand. Smelling the flowers, being in the moment, or – of this my former housemate from East Germany would approve – drinking beer and having involved conversations with friends about appreciating the value of life. Appreciating the value of life, unfortunately, often requires a shock involving realization of mortality. The beautiful mundane never seems so beautiful as when you wake up after surgery, for example, and discover you are still here.

Good thing I don’t like beer. Because if there’s one thing that sidelines my drive to accomplish stuff, it’s fear. Which brings me back where I started. I do want to finish my sh**ty first draft. So I will simply have to find another tunnel.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Am I a Millenial?

Too much luggage under the eyes to show my face...

A couple months ago, I decided I needed to read actual news articles, not just opinion pieces about news. I thought, since I’m a big girl now, that it might behoove me to read facts presented to me and draw my own conclusions about them, rather than let other people tell me what to think about selected facts. That meant that I resisted what had been my favorite section of The New York Times – the Sunday Review – in favor of that thing in which they wrap the Sunday Review. I think it’s called the front page?  

And it was good. Indeed, just two weeks ago I read an incredible story about a death that appeared to be suicide, but may have been murder from domestic violence. This story, which I saved, would make a fantastic novel. And just before I saw that article I was thinking about how I’d love to write another novel, only I don’t have a plot. I am not good with plot. Well, this front page article contained a plot, let me tell you. I wish Elmore Leonard were still around. He would write a doozy of a novel about that.

Does that sound callous? It does, doesn’t it, Readers? I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be callous.

My point is that last weekend I caved and read the Sunday Review. There were two pieces that resonated with me. One was about the Real Humanities Crisis. Here is it is, if you want to read it. The other one was about the Millenials, who are, FYI, defined as people born between 1980 and 2000, which also means they are Generation Y, which means there are two names for them, which seems unfair. Although come to think of it, there are two names for my generation, Generation X. Namely, Gen X and Slackers. And before you whip out your calculators, classmates, I know that technically I am a Baby Boomer, but there is just nothing about baby boomers that relates to me, and everything about Generation X that does. Here is that article for your edification.

One article is about how the Millenials are searchers, looking for a new definition of success and for lives full of meaning. Which means that perhaps I am actually a Millenial, because – hello - I am a searcher and I’ve been reframing success. This article, by the way, starts out by characterizing the millenials as the”most self-absorbed generation, ever.” But I distinctly recall the Me Generation being called that. And come to think of it, just who are the Me Generation? I have a sinking feeling that is also my generation.

The conclusion to draw here is that every older generation looks at the twenty somethings coming up behind it and thinks these twenty-somethings are the most selfish ever. That's simple envy: underemployed twenty-somethings have a lot more time to dawdle in cafés and grow beards than fully grown up folk.

But the article goes on to say that in fact these Millenials have been “forced to rethink success so that it’s less about material prosperity and more about something else.” And that something else is, apparently, meaning. They want to make a difference. They want to do good. Indeed, more than happiness, they want meaning in their lives.

And my researches on success lead me to conclude that, therefore, they will succeed.

Then there’s the other article, called, “The Real Humanities Crisis.” This is about the plight of most creative people, as well as about jobs in K-12 education, which should fall under the rubric Ways for Creatives to Earn a Decent Living Doing Something Meaningful.  Sad to say, now those jobs are being strangled by standardized testing, and any parent of a public school student knows how beleaguered The Arts are, since there’s not a direct link between arts education and friggin’ test scores. There is a link, though – don’t get me started. I don’t have room here for that discussion.

“Most creative artists, even successful ones, are not able to earn a living.” That’s what the article says. You know, it’s good to see that in print. And bad. Most of all, it’s a relief. Of course it’s the final dousing of any idea I had of, um, making a living from my writing. From my creative writing, that is. But it lifts one burden of failure from me. If most creative artists can’t make a living from their creations, then failure to make a living is not a sign of failure as a creative artist. It’s just failure to make a living.

I am sure I’ve mentioned this before, but when the financial crisis happened in 2008, New York Times columnist Judith Warner wrote about commuting into NYC on the train surrounded by Wall Streeters and lawyers and how she had come to feel diminished or unappreciated for being a journalist. She saw herself as surrounded by people who felt that choosing to do a job that didn’t maximize one’s income potential was morally suspect. Or at least idiotic. Now that these people, some of them, were out of jobs, she thought maybe people like her, or people who had chosen helping professions that didn’t have super high incomes, might come to be respected again. At least that’s what I think she wrote. Memory does strange things, though. Perhaps she said nothing of the sort. Perhaps I’m putting my own words into her pen.

I certainly relate to that sentiment. I’ve both imbibed that message and struggle against it. It’s one of my biggest conflicts: choosing to do what I love and think is important (writing and being a full time mom) makes me feel that I’ve done something misguided and foolish. Sometimes. The opportunity costs seem too high. Sometimes.

Maybe the Millenials won’t struggle with the same conflict. As the article says, they have been forced to look beyond making money to find satisfaction. According to the article, studies show that when economic times are pinched, young people turn to helping others. When economic times are expansive, I guess, they tend to fill their pots with money - screw meaning.  But times are not so expansive. Thus, people are reconsidering how they spend their days. “The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive,” says philosopher Gary Cutting. “Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives your life meaning.”

Hooray for the searchers, I say! I also say thank you in advance, since they – those Millenials – are the largest generation since the Baby Boomers and they’re going to have to help support me when I’m old.  I’m pretty sure the government isn’t about to start handing out pensions to mothers and writers. But I could be wrong.