Monster Mash 3: Forget It!

One of the challenges with a new project is that it’s not entirely clear what it wants to be, and the already-existing projects and responsibilities, with built-in expectations and demands, are already taxing.

I’ve got a new monster lurking around me this week. He’s given me trouble before. I haven’t named him yet. Every time it occurs to me to notice, he goes, “Forget it!”

That’s his thing, forgetting. Not the kind that makes you wonder where you left your keys, but the kind that makes it easy to forget where you were in a new, not-yet-realized project, and what the next step is supposed to be, and why it matters. I think I know why he’s showing up now. One reason is because I am now moving to focus my evening writing time on developing a new manuscript, the outlines of which are not yet fully realized. And the second is because the return to school (full, unmodified schedule of the like that we haven’t seen since early March 2020) means that the pace of expectations and outside-world responsibilities in a given day is about to increase dramatically. My work as a teacher is work that I care about deeply, and it is also true that achieving a balance between these and other responsibilities and a writing life is a constant tension. Already there are team events, extracurriculars, a great deal more meetings and noises and last-minute events and lesson planning and homework help and lots of new things to learn, make, and do–– all of which matter.

And yet, this other thing I am trying to make, which is somehow tied to the very essence of my life, matters also. But the thing about creative work like this that you are putting your energy into something that does not yet exist. It’s an act of radical hope. And this kind of hope is often under attack. 

Some of the challenges with a new project can be that no one’s asking or expecting anything, that it’s not entirely clear what it wants to be, and the already-existing projects and responsibilities, with built-in expectations and demands, are already taxing. As I’ve been noticing this week and feeling a creeping low-grade anxiety about my slippery grasp on this thing I am trying to make. I use the mornings for early pages and usually these posts, and then comes the day, and all the activity that comes with it, and then, by the time afternoon writing hour strikes, I am often sitting at my desk trying to find my way back to something that seemed very urgent and clear when I was in a space of more focused attention.

That’s all I can say about this creature so far. I don’t have a face for him, or a name beyond Forget It. What I am developing now is a plan to deal with him. I am called back to one of my biggest takeaways from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: how it can be helpful to treat the artist-self as a child, in a spirit of play. Sure, I think, but when I’m tired and under stress I tend to also be too tired for play. Thinking of this I am prompted to consider how, as a teacher, I have plenty of experience working with young, usually reluctant and generally insecure writers, who also tend to be tired and under a great deal of stress. I know that reasonable demands paired with consistent structures and gentle encouragement can be most helpful in these situations. As I remember this now, I realize that while I may not have a full grasp on this monster’s anatomy, mannerisms, and preferences, I can grasp how easily he might win if I do not employ thoughtful proactive planning into my afternoon sessions. With this in mind, I begin to develop a plan that employs the best of what I have learned from working with students, who I always expect, even if I saw them one day or a few hours beforehand, will tend to arrive with a certain glazed-over sense of overwhelm and a sense of confusion or disorientation as to what, exactly, we are doing here. Well, I think. When you put it in those terms, we actually do know what to do, when it comes to this “Forget-It” force:

1. Post an agenda. Anticipate that at the end of the average “crazy” day I am going to need a written reminder as to what I am doing, where I left off, and what needs to happen in the day’s session. I would never think of having students begin the day’s work without reminding them back to it, and setting a clear purpose, time and length parameters, and some scaffolding tools and/or examples. I can write this the night before, as with lesson plans, and leave on my desk or desktop to review before I begin.

2. Provide an example when possible. An insecure writer or artist needs models. I can be on the lookout for these. This is something I have not proactively done with myself before, which recently struck me as rather absurd. Only when I was recently challenged to do an imitation exercise, did it occur to me to notice how I had foolishly resisted such practice, which made me realize how often I had been giving myself a challenge that went something like this: spend a lifetime reading what has come before you, and then, in a bold act of self-affirming will (whatever that is), reject it all and reinvent the wheel. Even though I have written about the value of Learning by Imitation, I need to give myself regular reminders that I don’t have to start from scratch. This can seem difficult with some projects, but there is always something that can be used (a prompt, a passage, a model of excellent dialogue, even a mood-setting song or work of art).

3. Set clear parameters. Just as I would with a class, I can be clear with my confused, possibly recalcitrant, and possibly insecure artist-self. As in,“By the end of this period you will have . . .” I will be specific and detailed in these instructions: how long, what’s included, how much time allowed. 

4. If time is a parameter, watch it. In the evening hours, it’s generally unreasonable for me to expect uninterrupted time. I’m a single mom and there will be practice pickups, meals to make, math homework to check, and various other welcome responsibilities that are going to need my attention. I am also going to occasionally remember that there is an urgent email or phone call I never responded to. During hectic times like this it can be useful to use a time-tracker app which I start when the work session starts and pause every time I go off-task. It was eye opening when I first started using it last year. I learned that when it came to the evening hours, three hours of scheduled writing time tended to mean more like ninety minutes on task.  So, I set a time-on-task goal and tended to be more effective.

This monster is especially pernicious, and I can already tell that I will need more than one post to make a plan for dealing with him. My gut tells me that the antidote to this “forget-it” force goes much deeper than task management. Until then, Remember. 

This is the third post in the Monster Mash series. The other two are here: #1: “It’s Nothing!” and #2: “Meet Dr Blob”

The Freedom of Self-Imposed Constraints

If it is true that nothing is more terrifying for an artist/creative than the blank canvas or blank page, then it may also be true that the faster we get something on there, the more quickly we can free ourselves from such terror.

Before I learned to write every day, I spent about a decade either trying to write for too long (as if I could finish my opus in a month or something) or putting it off and feeling sick ––and who wouldn’t, with stakes and expectations so unrelentingly high? I started and stopped what I was trying to make a practice, more times than I can count.  Needless to say, I rarely finished anything. 

Write to save your life, is one prompt that I would never give to a student. But that’s exactly what I did to myself when I was trying to “be a writer” then. I was full of a destructive sort of “no pain, no gain” mentality, which I thought meant you were “serious.” If the point is to talk about the dramatic moment staying up all night, I suppose it could be effective. But if the point is to develop something lasting and long term, such as a body of work over a lifetime, it’s disastrous. In high school and college, I tended to apply the same model to my athletic training, and as a result, I was chronically injured and unable to compete for numerous seasons. 

I suspect that I was at least partially influenced by the incredible expectations I was feeling, from many areas of dominant culture, about the supremacy of youth. A writer I admired once said to a class, “If you haven’t made it happen by twenty-six, forget it,” and while there must have been some context for this, it was lost on me, and all I could feel after graduation was the pressure of “It,” and I think Stephen King made a brilliant choice for a title of one of his most well-known horror novels. Turning a creative impulse into an “It” is a great way to create a lot of drama, but it’s a horror and a disaster to live through. I had no practice to sustain any creative “vision” I could dream, and I had yet to learn that the daily practice of growing the work over time was what I really wanted. It’s much less glamorous, much more accessible, and much more sustaining.  

Then I stumbled on the idea of 15 minutes a day. Then 3 pages. Then I tried adding one hour in the evenings. Now there’s no drama about whether or not writing is going to happen. It’s no longer a big deal. It just does. To learn this, I needed to limit my expectations. This meant being humble, honest, and patient. I had to drop the unreasonable vague product-oriented timeline, and just grow. Not so I could be some superstar, but so I could live. 

 “Waiting for Summer” by Nicholas Erwin on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license

I keep having to adjust the parameters and re-teach myself this lesson. When I started this daily blog project, it was a big step for me. I noticed that while the posts were generally short (the sort of thing that could be drafted in 15-20 minutes or less) I could easily not get them done until late in the day because I would decide I wasn’t “ready” or “didn’t have an idea.” In summer and in-between writing projects this might work, but in a few weeks, I am going to revert to my “normal” schedule with all of its typical demands and then some, plus I’ve added this. Plus I want to begin work on a new manuscript soon. I realized I had a choice: either plan on being unable to sustain it at some point or make a strict limit. So now I am limited to 15 minutes to think, 15 to write, and the rest of an hour to type, find (most) typos, add links and an image, and post. That’s it. Some are better than others, but all are the best I can do in a given time frame. No time for grand ideas or clever concepts. Just a daily offering, and no longer a big deal. I’ve scaled down my expectations some to make it so, and now I do not have a doubt that I can do it for a year (then two, three, and so on . . .), even during very hectic days. If all I have to work with is an hour, and it gets sidelined in the morning, I’ll find it later. But usually, I can control the early morning, so most days this is doable.  

Since trying this, I’ve noticed that I’m already able to dream other projects more fully, because my mental space is freed up after my morning post. I’ve been more relaxed, and I am learning to trust that something can always be made “from scratch” the next day. This post is written on a day that I admittedly have “no new ideas,” just this thing I was noticing all last week, after implementing a new constraint, which now limits my ability to plan on finding a “better idea.”

If it is true that nothing is more terrifying for an artist/creative than the blank canvas or blank page, then it may also be true that the faster we get something on there, the more quickly we can free ourselves from such terror. What comes after that is so much more interesting, anyway. 

Here are some constraints I like to use:
•    Set a timer for 15 minutes. Pick up pen. Write. Stop at timer (unless you really can’t). Notice how fast the time went. 
•    Limit a daily exercise to something relevant to the history of a given day.
•    Prompts like this: In today’s short piece, include a childhood object, a famous dead person, and a favorite activity.
•    Start writing. Don’t stop till you fill 3 pages. No lifting pen off page. 
•    Write one page in the voice of _______________.
•    Open the dictionary at random. Choose the first word you see. Write it down (if you don’t know what it means, include the definition). Repeat five times. Now write a short exercise using all 5 words.
•    [for late afternoon sessions] Take a snack with you to the writing table. Don’t make dinner until you do this (short) thing. 

Lesson learned––again. Constraints are freeing and they allow me to focus. They teach and re-teach me to overcome paralysis of thinking. And they are a lot more fun than wondering what to do and listening to that nagging voice insisting that it isn’t good enough. 

I’ll Meet You at the Lost and Found

I’m seeing these lost parts everywhere. In the mirror and on everyone I pass.

*I’m working with new constraints this week, aiming to limit these posts to being conceived and done in an hour or less, with means writing no more than 15-30 minutes, to allow time for finding ideas, posting, images, etc. One of my go-to places to look for ideas is the lost and found section on Craigslist. I’ve done this before in an earlier post. Today’s exercise was infused with some thoughts I’ve been having lately, about what happens to unshed grief.

I have forgotten the names of the titles to these books I once read, and do you know this feeling? In one, a botanist befriends a chosen savior, rides a horse out of town, and finds a special door, which makes a sound like a gong. In the other, there’s a woman in a hospital bed who suddenly develops special powers.

I used to have some of these, too, where I could will a thing to happen with my mind. I’d think, ice cream, ice cream, ice cream––all day, sometimes two, three, four days in a row––and then, out of nowhere, I’d hear it, the sound of the Good Humor truck! It was magic. I coveted the Chipwich, but the firecracker popsicle would do.

The dog is gone again, also the cat. But now I have this chameleon. I hope someone will claim it, as it will not eat standard pet food. I am tired of buying crickets, but I am not sure if it is any good at hunting and don’t want it starving on my watch. I don’t know where it is now, BTW.

I found a wedding ring, a kayak paddle, a Dora the Explorer backpack full of syringes, and a small sandal, sized for a toddler’s foot––all on the bike path near the railroad tracks. There was an open suitcase near the offramp by Broadway and Main, clothes scattered everywhere, my eye was drawn to the colors: blouses in fuchsia, teal, pomegranate, and the display of women’s underthings. 

I lost the number I meant to call. Remember we met on the beach? And the name of that movie I told you about? It was my favorite that year, but after I returned it, I never saw it anywhere else. 

I’m seeing these lost parts everywhere. In the mirror and on everyone I pass. They’re hanging off of us all the time. Sometimes we look like ragged snakes, trying to shed old skins, other times like ragged soldiers in torn battledress, other times just like children who have just left their favorite toys in the park. You can tell, sometimes, when someone’s about to drop their courage. The sight of joi de vivre melting off a face is so particular. When someone stumbles upon their lost sense of humor, it’s infectious, leaking out of their pores.

Then there’s all those things you don’t keep and you don’t hold, that pile of griefs accumulated somehow, stuffed or tossed one by one, in the backs of closets, under the bed, dropped into the abyss of an oversized purse, in the catchall drawer with all the takeout menus and spare hardware––but eventually, you’re not losing and you’re not finding, exactly; they’re just there. And then there are these moments in the produce aisle of the grocery store where you’re suddenly floating over the citrus display, then landing near the parsley and cilantro, eyes suddenly wet, because it was only a moment, but you saw it, how people clutched their carts and baskets to themselves, or out in front, like shields, filling and emptying, an endless stream, searching eyes glazed under fluorescent lights. 

“Osprey” by Laura Pontiggia on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

I meant to list some more things I was finding, but my hands are tired, knuckles white. 

Funny how you can lose the will to hold a thing, even when you thought you could––if you saved up, if you built muscles strong enough, if you never looked down. I’ll come back tomorrow, I’ll open this catchall drawer, I’ll look. While I’m at it, I’ll check these ads again, see if anyone’s missing a chameleon. Then I’ll see about finding the chameleon. But now, I need to find some silence, and a pillow.

Before I do, do you know that the osprey have built a nest in those lights across the field? Do you remember? That song we used to sing back and forth when life was the thing we would keep, between us, if only we held tight enough. I can’t remember the words now. Can you help?