Saturday, September 27, 2014

Morning Light

Morning light is the best light. It's the time of day I'm most productive, hands down.

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This means some prioritizing. I write the best in the early morning, but it's also when I find it easiest to run. If I run, I mean. (Which I've been doing again successfully for a grand total of two weeks. Holler.) This morning, writing won though. All week I've been setting my alarm for 4:00 (Yes, 4:00) just so I knew I'd do the work first. (I'll run later, BTW. I made myself a promise.) (Parentheses!)

I realized as I carried my coffee over to the couch to open the window and start working: even the smell of morning air makes me think of that kind of productivity. I wish I was able to focus on things for the rest of the day the way I can focus on them in the hours before 7:00. Even reading has become a morning activity. I've been having trouble finding time to finish a book for a review, so I made that my morning task for a while, and it worked. Focus times ten.

Yes, this means I need to get to bed before most people are sitting down to Must See TV. But (thank you, Benadryl) I'm not having too much trouble with that. Usually after teaching all day, I'm just counting down the hours until I get to return to my nest of blankets and memory foam.

I spent some time this week talking to a bright high school senior who wants to be a writer (the rare unicorn of my high school English world) and we talked about how unique each person's process and habits can be. When I hear myself talk out loud about having two kids (one, ultra tweeny lately), a full-time job, a household to run, etc, I feel like it doesn't make any kind of sense that I'd be able to get any of it done. Somehow, it's all working. For now. Talking to the student made me think about how flexible it all is, though. How much it changes.

I wrote a review this morning on the couch by the open window, and Henry snuggled up next to me with his 3DS. I've been reading in my car as I wait for Addie to get out of school in the afternoons. But the working-next-to is lessening. When I do get to spend quality time with them--watching them swim at night or when we sit together as a family for dinner, or when we chat on the way to and from the myriad schools and activities, it's good. Easy. And I'm happy in those undistracted moments that I'm not trying to scramble to finish some kind of writing task like I was when I was in school. This year post-MFA has mostly been about how to work the same amount but to calm the freak down about it.

I have to say, it sure helps that the kids are not tiny anymore. One of my friends with a small baby is struggling to find work-life balance. I remember how it made me feel broken all the time. When mine were babies, infants, toddlers, I split in two. And not for anything good like writing that would have filled my soul. At the time, anything other than work-work (read: anything that did not fill the bank account) came with guilt. Just the daily demands of work cut at me--that unforgiving obligation of a job that brings a necessary paycheck--which made me feel constantly at war with my biology and hormones.

One of the things I see my daughter struggle with now is the idea that if something hurts now--or is difficult--now, she thinks it will always be this way. And that's not specific to teenagers. I fall prey to it, too. When things are hard or are not happening successfully it's easy to feel like I'm never going to figure it out or get it together. This week, it worked. Next week one of the monkeys will probably forget they have had a project to work on for four weeks, and the whole thing will crumble. For this week I'm happy I was able to drag myself out of bed to get things done. For today, it's enough.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour 2014

My friend Maggie Downs was kind enough to tag me in the Writing Process Blog Tour. You can check out her answers to the same questions here, and you can read our other friend, Maggie Thach's, responses here.

Here's a little about my process:

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What are you working on?

I am usually working on several things at once. I shoot for a balance between reading for book reviews (which isn't writing, but still feels like my writing life), writing book reviews, and writing short stories or essays. Probably an even third each.

Currently in the reading for reviews category, I'm about to start reading The Hollywood Trilogy by Don Carpenter for a review. I reviewed Fridays at Enrico's for The Rumpus a few months ago, and I enjoyed that. I'm hoping I feel the same way about THT.

As far as review writing: Tuesday night I started collecting quotes from Justin Taylor's Flings  and organizing my notes so I can write a review. I'm sort of midway through the process, which is to say I've been doing all the grunt work before I sit down to actually write anything. But assuming I've done all my work in the reading and note-taking and organizing, the act of writing reviews is usually very enjoyable. I'm hoping I can carve out a few hours after work and before I pick up my kids today so I can get a draft done.

I'm busy, so my creative work is suffering a little bit. It's always the thing that I put off when I have a deadline for a review or a lot of grading at school, but I make an effort to work on something each week. Lately I've been alternating between nonfiction essays and short stories, but I don't feel like I've had enough time (or attention, maybe?) to do a good job of starting anything new. I've mostly been revising old things for submission and keeping notes in my phone for new stuff.

Why do you write what you do?

I like what Joan Didion says:
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
I think I write narrative for the same reasons everyone writes narrative. To figure out what I think about what's happened to me, and to imagine myself into other people's lives, which is both fun and a challenge. And because I can't help myself.

But in the last few years I discovered my niche of the literary world. Or, at least what I want my niche to be. I love writing critical work. Book reviews. My background in teaching English and my love of reading and my desire to be creative somehow combine to make this something I am suited to do. I heard David Ulin speak at my first residency about how critical writing is creative writing, and something just clicked. As I worked my way through my two and a half year MFA program, I began to notice I was one of the only students who didn't hate writing critical papers. I found that I even enjoyed writing about books I didn't like. I loved the act of writing in order to figure them out. It was a lot like teaching, which I love. My thesis advisor, Tod Goldberg, suggested I should start writing book reviews. At that point I didn't even know being a literary critic was a thing. But once I figured that out, I felt very strongly that critical writing was a thing I should be doing. I spent all the time I had left in the program trying to learn as much as I could about critical work.

Now I write critical work because I love it. I want to be a part of the literary conversation with so many writers I admire. I want to push myself as a reader and as someone who can organize her thoughts into something worth reading.

How does your work differ from the other works in the some area/genre?

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One thing I learned from reading John Leonard's Reading for My Life is that a critic's work is only effective if it's filtered through the writer's individual voice and experiences. I was really moved by how unique his reviews were, and how together they became a kind of autobiography in books. I like to think about my own work like this. It's really only about my own experience with a book, and nobody else's. In the very beginning I struggled more with why anyone might want to read what I think about a book. I worried too much about getting it "right"-- What if I misunderstood a book and identified something about it that was different than what other people thought? Reviewing is an exercise in standing up for your own opinions. It's a struggle still, sometimes, but I really try to let that go. And I try to just write from my own little corner of the world.

I suppose my work is different because I try to specifically speak to my own experience and perspective. That's all I can do, anyway. It reminds me of when I was dancing. You can only work effectively if you embrace your own movement style. Worrying about how you're different from others doesn't accomplish anything. You just have to do good work and hope you keep improving. Eventually you figure out how your body moves and it works better. It's being different that makes you interesting, anyway.

How does your writing process work?

I have such a routine, because my life is so busy that if I don't I won't get anything done. And oddly enough, the thing that helped me the most for creating a writing routine was training for my first marathon. I learned a lot about how I need to know what to expect, and how I need small, manageable deadlines to get anything accomplished. I also learned that if I try to force myself to do something and it goes against my natural rhythms, I will fail. Miserably.

And writing is supposed to be enjoyable, right? I wanted to make it possible for myself to enjoy it.

No idea where he gets this behavior.
Beautiful distractions.

Anyway, I'm so driven by routine. This is good, because book reviewing is a complicated dance of pitching to editors, requesting advance review copies from publishers, reading, and meeting self-imposed deadlines. I map out reviews and pitches months in advance. I sit down every Sunday and look at what I have "due" in the week ahead, and then I break the work down into hourly increments. I probably work somewhere between 10-20 hours a week on writing and writing-related tasks, depending on how much work I have.

I know it will take me about an hour to read 50 pages, and I know about how long it will take me to write and edit a review, based on length. I schedule everything on my calendar. Things like read 50pp Taylor or write review Carpenter. Or sleep. The benefit of this is I never wonder what I should be doing to get everything done by Saturday. I don't have to look too far ahead and get worried. And this way I never feel overwhelmed by a whole task. If I just wrote TO DO: read and review The Hollywood Trilogy, that would make me want to die (respect to the author, it's not about him, it's about the 450 pages he wrote), which would make me want to read and write nothing.

Once I've carved out the time, it's not so hard. It is something I enjoy, after all. And if I tell myself I only need to read 50 pages or write half of a review, it's not overwhelming. I can relax and enjoy the book or relax and let myself be creative. Often I find myself doing more work than I need to accomplish, because I'm so into it. This is dorky, yes? But it works for me. I think once I realized how I work I have been a much happier writer. No more trying to finish something at midnight, because midnight is my sleep time. If I'm awake and trying to write, I'm probably going to be crying, and whatever I'm writing won't be any good.

I've also learned lately that it's important to take days off. If I plan to work 365 days a year, I'm going to fail. This is also like running... I think you get stronger when you take a rest day, sometimes.

Continuing the blog tour: I tag Jenn-Anne Gledhill and Emile Barrios.

About JA: JA has called Chicago "home" since June 1, 1995. She relocated from Orlando after receiving a "message" to do so during the Winona Ryder/Susan Sarandon version of the film "Little Women." (She is fully aware it could have been the booze fumes talking, but those fumes were on to something if that's the case...) She sometimes works on her novel tentatively titled "The Branson Novel," but so what, right? Everyone is working on something. She wants you to know that she digs you. Like, kinda hard.

About Emile: Emile Barrios is a graduate of UC Riverside Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program. He the author of the memoir Nub: Story of an Ex-Cripple, and is currently at work on a novel about his native South Louisiana. Emile’s writing career began after thirty years as a TV news producer, industrial filmmaker, corporate executive, and PR consultant. He lives and works in San Diego.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Avoidance and Other Behaviors

My brain is a lazy jerk. You might look at me and go oh, Heather is getting shit done, she seems like she is making it happen. She gets up every day. But really I am playing mind games with myself just to do the things I'm required to do. All my brain wants to do is go to sleep and maybe wake up to eat some gummy bears and then go back to sleep again. My brain hasn't changed in the last few years; I've just gotten better at tricking me. It's all a game. This all has to happen if I want to -- I don't know -- keep moving and have some kind of career as a book critic and/or writer. Remain employed. Earn a paycheck.

You know what I learned in grad school? How to work ALL. THE. TIME.

So it's all a big sham, I'm saying. This "motivation." Ninety nine percent of the time if I'm getting anything done, it's because I am avoiding something else. I can generally make this work for me.

Day-long, boring teacher inservice?
Write three months of daily lesson plans. 
Stuck in the car waiting for kid to get out of school?
Read 25 pages of book for review.
Don't want to grade papers?
Write essay.
Don't want to do submissions?
Grade papers.

I survive by making my avoidance behaviors just other things that need to be done. How dorky. I know. I have to have a to-do list, and sometimes doing something else on the list feels like more fun than whatever I'm supposed to be doing. Avoid, avoid, avoid. Yes, this makes me the same as the kid in my class who is trying to do her math homework when I'm not looking. I was that kid, anyway. The irony is not lost on me.

I bring this up because on Sunday I went off the rails. Avoidance reached critical mass. Well. Backing up. I think I lost the first wheel on Wednesday night when E was out late after his softball game, having a beer with the guys. I couldn't sleep and I needed something to do, so I organized my closet. As one does. And in the middle of organizing my closet I had this idea that maybe I should have a list of, like, just exactly how many cardigans I own and what colors they are. For science. And then maybe blouses and tanks and pull-over sweaters. This is a thing I needed to know, you guys. So I start writing it down on some binder paper (no joke!) and I think to myself that damn it, this is 2014 and if Clueless taught me nothing, it is the fact that we should all have digital closets by now. So a little searching proved that there's an app for that. Of course. There are actually a bunch.

Cut to me spending all day Sunday taking iPhone pics of each shoe, accessory and clothing item in my possession. Why? Because I needed to be able to create digital outfits and catalog my stuff. Because cataloging my clothing in photos was the biggest emergency, ever.

Or maybe I was avoiding reading for a book review. And writing said book review. And talking to humans. And doing anything other than sitting in the middle of my bedroom in Soffe shorts and an overstretched tank top, watching reruns of LOST for the umpteenth time just so I didn't have to think about real life. Sometimes a project feels like an emergency feels like it's easier to think of than your actual list of responsibilities and/or feelings.

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This all comes up now for two reasons.

1) My work schedule changed. I was only part time for five days. I picked up another class. I'm back to full time teaching, which means I'm back to no time for writing, thinking, and doing all the little organizy shit that constitutes the rest of being a writer. My strategy of avoidance won't let me get it all done. There's too much.

I'm having to find time to do work when I can't just pretend I'm avoiding other things. The only free hours in my day are morning hours, so I'm getting to work at about 6:30 AM. The only thing I am avoiding is sleep. It's okay, but it's not my normal deal. Pros: nobody else is at school at 6:30 in the morning, so it's real quiet. Cons: 6:30 in the morning, dude.

2) This post is avoidance of actual work that I should be doing. As always, there's a ton.

I better go.