The 24-hour writer (or, “It’s not you, it’s You of the Past”)

food log (with bowel movements noted!)

Warning: while this essay is really about writing, it contains highly descriptive talk, and quite a bit of it, about poop. If you’re very sensitive to poop-talk, you may want to skip it. Plenty of other stuff for you to read on the interwebs!

Back when I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and trying to figure out this crazy new way my body was functioning (or not), I kept several diaries.

The first was a diary-diary, where I’d blather about what was happening in my brain and my heart because of all the upheaval in my gut. This is the diary that kept me sane, along with a few very carefully chosen friends who were good at dealing with illness and could either look at me without draining of color or talk to me like this was just something I was going through, not something I was destined to be.

Within this diary, I also kept a kind of secondary diary-slash-visualization-map of my gut healing, drawing my poor, broken colon every day with all of its current inhabitants: the Asacol, prednisone, Cipro, and mercaptopurine; the “bad” bugs that had taken up camp and brought me to my knees; and the “good” bugs that I was now sending in via massive infusions of SCD-legal yogurt. I added callouts and anthropomorphized the bugs with little faces and talk bubbles, using a lot of gentle encouragement to usher them out, with plenty of “Thanks for the help, we’ll take it from here!” reassurances from the new troops.

But in addition to all of this fairly squishy emotional stuff, I also kept a ridiculously comprehensive third diary of input and output. By which I mean I wrote down everything that went into my body and everything, including the quality and consistency, that came out. We called them “food logs” in SCD parlance, but let’s face it: they were poop journals, filled with page after page of Mr. Hankeys and the stuff that made them.

I kept this diary daily for well over a year, refining and finessing it as I went along. As I became sensitive to things that might impact my intestinal health, I’d add them: my menstrual cycle, my sleep (both quantity and quality), my external stressors. After a while, it became ridiculously obvious what worked and what didn’t, what I needed to do more of and what, or whom, I needed to do my best to avoid.  Toward the end of the first year, my father’s Crohn’s took a severe turn for the worse, and his organs began shutting down. The day I got the call, almost immediately, I started bloating and cramping. And sure enough, the next morning I was gifted with an enormous explosion of diarrhea lurking behind the perfectly normal poop that had formed in the chute before the bad news.

The good news, however, was that I’d determined what bad news, or too much broccoli, or too few hours of sleep, would bring.

* * * * *

I have a friend who is a sort of Program maven, by which I mean she has spent a lot of time figuring out how 12-step thingamajiggies work, and the patterns they tend to follow. And one of the central tenets of all Programs is bringing your full attention to that which, up until now, you have not. You start with the obvious thing, your drinking, your beating yourself up over someone else’s drinking, your sexual fixations, your spending, and you note it. All of it. She told me that in Debtors’ Anonymous one of the mandates is that you keep a diary noting every penny that goes in and out of your life. Every penny, no rounding!

What it does is bring awareness to the actions you likely had been sleepwalking through before: picking up “just” a pack of gum at checkout, sticking a couple of quarters in the parking meter, blowing a month’s rent on the third race at Santa Anita.1 As an experiment in untangling my own clutter around money, I test-drove an index-card hack my friend Alison came up with, for two weeks, I noted every expenditure or bit of income, and any emotions that bubbled up around it. It was illuminating and not a little alarming, seeing all the anxieties secretly embedded in each transaction. Were I to do it long-term (like the Debtors’ Anonymous tool) and add a lot of surrounding detail (like my poop diary), I’m guessing I’d start to see some pretty helpful causal connections.

* * * * *

Writing is physical. There’s an emotional component, certainly, and maybe even a mystical one. When I get cranking, it certainly feels like I’m channeling something that’s not exactly me.

But physically, it’s your ass in the chair and your hands at the keyboard (or on the pen, you freak, you). Even the rogue, fairy-dust stuff is fueled by whatever keeps your brain floating in a happy mix of water and salts. And none of those things work as well, your ass’s ability to stay put, your hands’ ability to move, your gray mass’s ability to process, unless a whole series of things have happened before. Things like eating and drinking the right things in the right quantities. Things like exercise and rest and full-on rest, a.k.a. adequate sleep. And high-quality sleep: sleep begun and ended at the right times, uninterrupted, if possible. I have written enough and long enough that I can power through a crappy body day, but it all goes much, much more easily if, for at least 24 hours before I sit down to write, I have been living right. Because writing takes literal, physical energy.

If it didn’t, Laura Hillenbrand would have 14 amazing books written by now and I’d feel even worse about my inability to produce a single one.

* * * * *

It’s easy to mock the body optimizing movement: Tim Ferriss has done some pretty extreme and even borderline creepy things in the name of getting the most out of his original-issue equipment. What’s more, he’s done it in such a way that it would be equally easy to chalk it up to hubris, a need for attention, a desire to cheat death, a lust for winning. But that would be me (or you, or anyone else) judging: even if he was completely forthcoming and totally forthright about his reasons, it’s still him articulating them, and there’s still some part of the spectrum we’re all unable to be completely honest about because we can’t access it: we have a blind spot, we don’t know what we don’t know, and because we’re constantly evolving, we can’t know everything about ourselves. (Although with time and practice, we can get a lot better at guesstimating.)

But I’m starting to get it now, on a deeply personal level. While I don’t fear death, I live in abject terror of a long, slow, decline. I am wild at the idea of not being able to get all the music out before certain music-making parts of me shut down. What a cruel joke, that I finally start to “get” it, and another “it” is taken away. So I stay in and soak in a hot bath when I might rather go out. I forsake my beloved espresso for weak black tea, and slowly work in green instead of even that, though it always and forever will taste to me like drinking a wet lawn. I note the days when the writing comes well, and what I have and have not ingested/done/experienced in the hours leading up to this.

I am not just a writer when I sit down to write: I am a writer three hours before, in my last REM cycle. I am a writer 10 hours before, when I forgo another half-hour of BBC porn on my laptop for a (fiction, non-self-improving) book to wind down with. I am a writer 14 hours before, when I make my worker-bee self stop for the day.2 I am a writer 18 hours before, when I elect to do my stupid Nei Kung instead of answering another 10 emails; I am a writer 20 hours before, when I stop myself from eating a Medjool date, yes, that’s what it’s come to, and have some yogurt with applesauce instead. (No one can say I don’t know how to live it up, baby!)

The gift of operating a writing business from a rapidly decaying, overused-and-abused bag of aging parts is that I see with far more clarity what works and what gums up the works.

To be a better writer today, I had to start yesterday.

Fortunately, to be a better writer tomorrow, I can start today.


1Hey, I don’t judge, I’m the lady who spent the better part of a year divesting herself of (mostly, for nothing) what it took dozens of years and thousands of dollars to mindlessly acquire. And when Brooks helped me bring my awareness to the tangle of emotions I had caught up in my clutter, he did it the same way: we looked at each item, one at a time, and asked whether I still needed it or could let it go.

2If you’re doing the math as we go, I usually start writing at 9am, which means I’m still stopping my work day late, at 7pm. Worker Bee is working on it, okay?

How to be a better writer

young girl pausing with a pencil in hand

A good friend of mine has some issues with language.

She is, by her own admission, a lousy speller. While her vocabulary houses more than a few five-dollar words, they’re as likely as not to turn up as malapropisms when hauled out. Her sentence construction can be choppy, her grammatical structure inelegant and her punctuation, when she uses it, would most charitably be described as “creative.”

My friend is one of the best writers I know, and I’d read almost anything of hers I could get my hands on.

* * * * *

I get asked sometimes how to be a better writer. Me! Who, if writer prizes were being handed out would almost certainly win the one for Least Aware of Her Own Process. (Note: I’m currently taking pains to change this. They are painful pains. More on this shortly.)

Sometimes it’s the earnest request of a person wildly capable in another arena, or someone who came up in another language, then moved to the U.S. and got by on things like wit, smarts, hard work and the acquisition of practical skills. Usually, anyone who bothers to ask me this isn’t half-bad at writing already, but is frustrated with not being as good at writing as they are at their core competency, or is embarrassed by their lack of facility in arcane areas like grammar and usage.1

Other times, it’s the annoying non-question of the dilettante. They don’t really want to know, or rather, they have no interest in actually doing the work required to get there. They’re looking (maybe) for a class or a book or a coach, a silver bullet.

But I tell them the same thing I tell anyone who really wants to be a better writer: (1.), read more good stuff; (2.), write more, period; and (3.) if you’re already doing quite a bit of both of those things, consider taking an acting class or an improv class or something that will get your stubborn head connected to your damned heart, along with the rest of your organs.

While good teachers and coaches and classes can absolutely help move things along (and make the moving-along way more pleasant), there’s really no avoiding numbers 1 and 2. (You can get around #3 via other kinds of emotional education, either on a shrink’s couch or in the classroom of life. Budget accordingly.)

* * * * *

This how-to-get-better-at-writing business has been much on my mind lately.

Partly because I have been getting a lot of very nice compliments recently via the electronic mails about my own writing. (You know who you are, and thank you. They have been lifelines to me lately, especially given my low spirits from the Crohn’s flare.) I usually look at my own writing with a giant shrug of “Meh.”, because I’m always looking at other people’s writing and comparing it to that. Yes, Mark, I know comparison is from the devil. But I’ve only recently been made violently aware that I am actually comparing my struggles with writing to other people’s finished writing. Talk about your a-ha! moments.

Anyway, sometimes the nice things are just nice things, but sometimes they come bundled with a query for writing services. While I know there’s gold in them thar hills (and I also know the only thing I’ll never say “never” about again is saying “never”), I’m afraid that’s off the table for the foreseeable future. Call me superstitious, but I couldn’t write a damned thing of worth until I’d put a fair bit of distance between me and copywriting, and I’m terrified that picking it up again might the writing equivalent of shaving Samson. Or worse, something of more lasting or even permanent nature, a really, really strong depilatory or a laser or something. Besides, at this point, my voice is so my voice, I would probably be a rotten copywriter. I think the best ones are great mimics who thrive on perpetual new intake. So not me anymore.2

But another big reason it’s been on my mind is that finally, FINALLY, I am preparing to teach what I know about writing. A very particular type of writing (blogging, natch), but still, writing. I feel woefully ill-equipped for the task. I feel stupid and ungainly and lost. I feel 100% certitude that I am worse than every other teacher of writing who ever taught.

In other words, I feel like those people I’m always fielding the “how-to-be-a-better-writer” question from.

* * * * *

So that thing about pain I brought up, above? We’re back to that. Lots and lots of pain and shyness and anguish and nervousness. As I slow down to look at the things I already know. As I bring my full attention to all the things I do not know. The good news in this is realizing I’m actually a better writer than I give myself credit for most of the time. The bad news is everything else: The unknown! The fear of failure! In public! The anxiety over not feeling good enough!

And at the same time, I know that putting myself through this not only will teach me how to teach, but will teach me more about writing. And probably speaking. And definitely learning.

Everyone who is any kind of a writer worth being always wants to be a better writer. The reading changes, and should keep changing. The form the writing takes changes, and should keep changing. But it keeps on keeping on.

Everyone who is any kind of a writer worth being is also, on some level, balls-out terrified. Because if you are really becoming a better writer, while you are certainly building on what you have done, you are always, always, always doing something you have never done before. You are living, you are improvising, you are making it up as you go along.

Which is why no matter how great a writer you are, you should have a few butterflies scattered around the joint. Because if it ain’t butterflies, it’s probably buzzards.

Remember my friend, the great writer with wobbly vocabulary and the rickety foundation of grammar and usage? She is a great writer because when she writes, she is 100% alive. She is living, which is to say growing, changing, in that very moment. So life pulses through her writing, and flows through you as you’re reading.

* * * * *

Read more (good) stuff. Write more, period. If necessary, please do get some improv training or qigong lessons or your head shrunk.

If you really want to be a better writer, though, learn how to make friends with fear and open your heart to change.

And then get yourself used to the idea of doing that forever.


1And I get why they sweat it, some people are horrible snobs about usage. I wish I could remember who said it, but someone big, like, Seth Godin-level big, went on record as saying a lot of our grammatical and usage rules are b.s., elitist, kept in place to make people feel bad about themselves. English is crazy plastic (callback alert!); we’re adding “bad” pronunciations and rules along with new words all the time. I can be a little on the snobbish side myself, dangerous in someone who plays pretty fast and loose with rules she’s not 100% sure of, but only time it really bothers me when people “break” English is when they are trying to make themselves seem more educated than they are. Even then, I mostly just feel sorry for them now that I am all grown up and full of equanimity and stuff.

2I do have an inkling of how I can employ my writerly skills to help you out, though, so if you’re interested, watch this space. Better yet, get on the newsletter mailing list.

Image by milena mihaylova via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Making allowances for the way you work

photo of Colleen Wainwright

Yesterday morning, I finished reading Unbroken, the true-life story of Louis Zampirini’s triumphant, plague-filled journey from punk kid to Olympic runner to WWII Air Force bombadier to POW to haunted veteran to redeemed hero. It’s an amazing story.

As I tore through it on my Kindle, the only way for the spindly-limbed gal to fly when it comes to oversized books, I kept thinking three things:

  1. Damn, this is an amazing story!
  2. Would I have what it takes to make it through this?
  3. How in the wide, wide world of sports did Laura Hillenbrand write this with CFS?

The joke answer, of course, is “very, very slowly.” It would take a wildly robust writer a long time to research and write a compelling and historically-accurate 400-page book about a series of events in a time when everyone’s last sneeze was not recorded for posterity*; it took Hillenbrand 10 years.

* * * * *

I didn’t pick up Unbroken because Laura Hillenbrand has a chronic illness and I have a chronic illness and hey, why not be inspired by a writer whose chronic illness is a thousand times worse than mine to get off my lazy, relatively well ass and write, dammit; I picked it up, well, downloaded it to my electronic reading device, because I’d heard people rave over and over about what a gripping tale, what an immersive experience it was. Hard-core lefties, Republicans, old folk, youngsters, literati. Enough of a spread to render the thumbs-up agnostic.**

I picked it up because I had a long plane ride ahead of me and, thanks to tailwinds, a longer one back, and I fly in the back of the bus, where postage-stamp-sized trays jutting out into what could only laughably be called “room” preclude any sort of real work, much less 15″ laptop-opening. It’s a situation that calls for books one would describe as “gripping” and reading experiences one would call “immersive.”

I picked it up because, after a rough three weeks patching myself up from a foolhardy near-crash outside of San Francisco, I knew I’d be spending more time alone in my hotel room resting when I wasn’t strictly needed in order to spend the energy my job called for when I was.

* * * * *

Toward the end of my talk, I got a question that comes up so frequently, I may end up adding it to the presentation proper: How do you do all of this?

You see, I’ve just spent 50 jam-packed minutes going over Right Behavior online in our fast-paced-and-rapidly-changing modern media landscape (and indicating that much of it is now expected, if not required, in real life). All the ins and outs of tweeting and Facebooking and policy-creation and email-sig-shortening that you need to know so you don’t fall behind, or worse, come off like a thankless jackass online. Understandably, this is overwhelming to people at the beginning of the learning curve. Just the idea of doing it is overwhelming, never mind the actual learning and doing.

I get this; I do. And while I answer for myself, because really, that’s all one can do, I am really giving the answer for everyone, everywhere, regardless of the condition of their health or the state of their business or the vigorous and very real demands on their life: you make accommodations for what is important to you. My work is important to me, so I don’t do or have a bunch of things normal people have. Lately, I’ve realized that my health is important to me, so I’m learning to accommodate that, too. Slowly. And, if I’m honest, as much because I’m terrified at the thought of not being able to work as I am not being able, period.***

It may help to remember that while I’m relatively facile at this whole being-online thing, I have my own c*cksucking boulders to push up my own motherf*cking hills. For example, I have always just been lucky enough with money and modest enough in my desires that I didn’t have to learn anything about it to get by in relative comfort. Now the economy is squeezing me along with everyone else, AND I’m (almost) 50, AND I want a couple of bigger things that are simply not going to be possible without winning the lottery or changing my rhythm. And I don’t play the lottery.

* * * * *

Everyone has their basket. The older I get, the more I think that most choices boil down to love or fear, and most of the pain in the world is caused by choosing the latter. It is much, much easier to do the scaredy-cat thing and peer into the tippy-tops of other people’s baskets and become covetous or enraged or pitying or what have you. It is much harder to look at yours, get down with what’s in it, and get to work. However you work. Whatever your “work” is.

But that’s what’s required: complete honesty looking inward, and complete love looking outward. Honesty and love. No more, no less. Not very sexy, but there it is.

I’d be surprised if anyone gets all the way there, ever, before the lights go out. I have a looooong way to go, which is why I’m spending more time in hot baths liberally sprinkled with Epsom salts than I am at the discothéque. (Well, and also because I don’t think there are such things as discothéques anymore.)

Give yourself the room you need to live the life you want. That’s what all this stuff about decluttering and streamlining and goal-setting is really about. Room to do what’s right, and what feeds you, and what saves the world. Once you have enough room, see about what you can do to provide someone else with some before you get yourself more. (Because really, beyond a certain point, how much room do you need?)

We all know what’s best for ourselves. And we can all start making sure it happens right now.


*Actually, another thing I kept wondering while I read was how these men in the Japanese prison camps managed to keep diaries at all, much less preserve them for 60 years. Their ingenuity and stubborn determination made me ashamed of my dithering over writing software programs and WordPress glitches.

**Speaking of agnosticism, I almost certainly wouldn’t have picked it up if I’d known there was an actual religious redemption in the story. In the context of Zampirini’s life, though, it not only makes sense, you’re happy when it happens. I’m wary enough of organized religion to say my own, little “hosanna” when one of the good guys turns up.

***I know, I know, it’s messed UP. I’m not saying this is a good way to be, or that it’s a place I want to stay. I’m just being brutally honest about where I am. Because in my experience, skipping that first step really makes the whole thing go farkakte.

Photo © Addison Geary Photography.

The good news is the apple kicks your ass

an apple on the grass

Pulling out of a flare is a tricky business.

You get better on a very slow upward trajectory, with occasional “two-steps-back” days from eating too volatile a mix of ordinary ingredients (oh, BOY, do canned tuna and hard-boiled eggs not mix) or too “advanced” of an item. Yesterday, after weeks of not tasting an uncooked vegetable or piece of fruit, I broke down and got jiggy with half an apple. Look out, world! I’m eating an entire HALF of a raw apple!

A half-hour later, I was soaking in a hot Epsom bath to ease the cramps shooting across my lower back.

What’s really odd about this particular flare is that while I wouldn’t say I’m overjoyed to be dealing with it, neither is it bothering me as much as the past few have. For whatever reasons, age? wisdom? resignation?, I’ve adopted an attitude that much more closely matches that of my initial recovery, back in the fall of 2002. Or maybe it’s just that this time, I’m back to me being able to rest on my own in my sweet little apartment, all tidy and peaceful and filled with the comforts and treasures that soothe me. While I no longer have the huge financial cushion I did (not to mention the assumed easy earning power of a robust economy once I was well enough to rejoin the living), I have enough, thanks. (And I’m probably even more deeply grateful to have it.)

Work is another thing, and an exceedingly interesting one. I haven’t not been working; I’ve just been working very carefully, chipping away at things here and there in the background. Pulling things off the home page of the site. Tweaking things quietly, in the background. Writing, writing, writing. There is more time for this because I am not getting out much right now, but I’m still capping things at a reasonable (for me) 7 or 8pm and climbing into my salty tub. On top of a, shall we say, leisurely-paced day. The work comes more slowly when I’m impaired, but I am able to pay closer attention to the way it comes as well as the words themselves, if that makes any sense.

For instance, I notice myself getting upset over getting stuck in certain places (a “way” thing) and I notice myself (over)using the same words or construction (a “word” thing). Slowing down to see this has created room for me to relax and let some other solution bubble up, getting up and moving to my analog desk, or grabbing a stack of index cards to do my version of my friend Daphne Gray-Grant’s excellent advice to mind-map pre-writing. (If you sign up for her newsletter, you’ll get a copy of her mind mapping instructions. It’s plenty to get started, and the newsletter is consistently useful if you do any sort of regular writing, or just want to understand how writing works.)

Slowing down is just outstanding for noticing things, period. Those of us who operate in overdrive probably do so at least partially to blow past certain parts of the scenery we find a little unattractive. My personal adopt-a-highway program has made great progress along certain stretches of road, but when I slow down, I’m embarrassed to see the junk I’ve allowed to accumulate near certain scary underpasses and dark tunnels.

I feel a little guilty bringing up the feeling poorly. I find myself impelled to do so, though, because I’m not good enough at saying “no” sans explanation; I almost always feel like “no” is not enough, that “no” needs some accompanying excuse. (And I know that’s not true, I’m just saying that so far, that’s how I’ve operated.) Inevitably, it brings up expressions of sympathy, because people are kind and empathetic and such.

I am coming around to the idea, though, that illness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is just a thing, like tallness or shortness, bigness or smallness, oldness or youngness, singleness or marriedness. There are times when it is better to be tall than short, and being very short, I can enumerate them with alacrity. On the other hand, “tall” is a distinct disadvantage in the context of “commercial aircraft.” I have been single and married and everything in between and guess what: so far, I prefer single. Try traveling back in time and telling 25-year-old me that, though. You couldn’t: she was too busy doing actuarial calculations to avoid ending up chairless when the music stopped. (Hint to 25-year-olds: the music always starts up again, there are all kinds of nice chairs nowhere near the ring, and you may not be the sitting type.)

Do I very much look forward to having a great deal of energy again? I do! Even more, I look forward to using it wisely, so that it comes in a steady, sustainable flow, not pedal-to-the-metal bursts followed by a blowout. I look forward to it so much so that I am moving hyper-slowly now. It is not exactly pleasant, all this noticing, but it is one of the most fascinating shows in town…


P.S. One of the crazy little things I did was to put up an FAQ, something long, long on my to-do list. More on that later, but man, do I ever see how a well-done FAQ might significantly reduce drag on the average one-woman operation. Talk about enhancing sustainability!

Image by iMaffo via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Why I never pass up an opportunity to quote Beverly Sills

upward shot of someone climbing steep rock face

A good friend of mine recently decided to quit smoking.

She’d quit before, which obviously means that the quitting didn’t quite “take.” So this time, she decided to quit differently.

First, she’s investing money in the deal. For them amongst us what is on the cheap side, money can be a powerful motivator. As my friend said, “I’ll be damned if I’ll spend this much and not quit.”

Second, she’s spending it on hypnotherapy. I quit the cheap way, but I’d raved to her about my experience with using hypnotherapy to get back on the diet for my Crohn’s last fall: one session, one recording that I listened to for about two weeks, and done. I still look at potatoes or rice or a McDonald’s drive-thru sign with longing, but the impetus to go for it is gone. It was a singular and fascinating experience which I’ve not shut up about since.

* * *

Hypnotherapy done right is part of a larger self-excavation process: getting at the “why” sandwiched between the smart, true part of you that doesn’t want to smoke or eat or do crack and the part of you that has, until now, reached for a cigarette or french fry or crack pipe regardless. My friend’s “why” is her business, but anyone old enough to want to read this blog has more than a passing familiarity with the many, many shapes and sizes a “why” can take. “Less-than” Why. “Angry” Why. “Social Anxiety” Why. “Why, Oh” Why, a.k.a. “Woe Is Me” Why.

If any of these look like variants on “Fear” Why, it’s because they are, of course, every last damned one of them. My god, what won’t fear stop us from doing? Or keep us doing, depending on whether the action is salubrious or not. Based on my own experience in talk therapy and reading eighty bajillion self-help books, it’s pretty clear that fear is the biggest “why” there is. Fear lies underneath feeling less-than, underneath social anxiety and anger and woe. If there’s one thing I’d like to impart about fear, it’s that if you scratch pretty much any kind of yuck, you’ll find fear under there somewhere.1

My friend knows from fear. She’s lived long enough to experience several expedient fear delivery systems, plus she’s done time on the couch. She gets it. But when you start looking at your fear through the finely-ground lens of doing one monumental thing, when you slow down and take the long way home, you learn a few things you didn’t know. The depth of your fear, for starters, and a peek under the tent at a few other ways fear might be stopping you that you didn’t even realize. It’s fascinating stuff, this just paying attention. And an excellent value proposition, so much more bang for your buck.

Even if it is painful and dull and embarrassing. Which, if you’re spending a significant amount of time and money, there’s a very good chance it will be.

* * *

There is a very strict order of steps involved in quitting smoking this particular way. There’s no jumping ahead, no skipping steps. Instead, there is an intake date, an agreed-upon quit date (or “start of your smoke-free life” date for you optimists) and a whole lot of exercises between. A lot of looking, a lot of thinking, a lot of noticing. My friend said she was ready to quit a week early. Her hypnotherapist said sorry, but she was not.

* * *

Which brings me around to the title of this here piece. My favorite quote and main mantra for the past four or so years, well, other than THAT one, has been this one:

There are no short cuts to any place worth going.

It is attributed to the American opera singer Beverly Sills, and if the “opera singer” part of that last phrase wasn’t enough, read a bit of her history and you’ll know that the lady knew whereof she spoke. Whether the ass-end of your proposed journey is being healthier, happier, wealthier or wiser, there’s no getting there faster. 10,000 hours. Rinse/repeat. Park your ass under the Bodhi tree, bub, and make sure you do plenty of wandering first.

If it feels a little grim, I assure you that it is far less so than the mood I’m usually in when I conjure up this line. Remember: practice is painful. Change is excruciating. Feeling stupid feels awful. (To me. Although if they didn’t to you, you’d probably have clicked away long ago to see what was happening on Facebook.) Sure, I could find a happy-happy saying full of cheer and sunshine and optimism. But you know what using it under those circumstances would entail?

Skipping steps.

On the other hand, when you resign yourself to this way of thinking, or rather, when you surrender to it, the way women of grace do with time and gravity, you bring yourself back to plumb pretty quickly. Of course I feel this way, you realize. That is what feeling is! The depictions of change we see in movies and books blip over a lot of this stuff, or make it look sort of sexy-frustrating, with lavishly-produced montages or deftly-condensed metaphors which are, wait for it, boring and time-consuming to produce, at least for long stretches. As I said in last month’s newsletter2, when you see something good, you’re not seeing the mountain of shit someone shoveled to uncover it.

* * *

My friend Brooks3, who calls himself a clutter-buster, uses the simplest process possible to help his clients to let go of things that may once have served them well but now are serving only as impediments. He has them hold up one item at a time and asks the same question of each one: “Do you need to keep this, or can we let this go?”

This is how you went from being a person who’d never experienced smoking to one who could not imagine life without cigarettes. This is how you get from “good” to “bad” and back again. (And for the record, “back again” isn’t necessarily better, but done thoughtfully, it’s far richer.)

Look, I am doing this. Why am I doing this?

Can I let this go?


1With “and EVERYONE is scared about something, even people you’d never dream of.” For more cogent and inspirational stuff around this, read Krishnamurti and my friend Ishita’s monthly magazine.

2It’s not up on the archives page yet, but if you subscribe, the nice Emma robot will automatically send you a copy.

3Brooks has a really good post up today on how he clutter-busts over the phone.

Image by mariachily via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Lessons from 2010: Maximal joy, minimal hoo-ha

still life with note: "find the thing you love to do and do the shit out of it"

I have been thinking a lot about love and friction, only not in the way your mind maybe-perhaps just jumped to, if you are like me and we are both, like, 12.

I have been thinking about love in terms of what I love, and whom I love, and how those two things intersect. For example, I love figuring stuff out, reading and taking in and mulling over and hashing out and finally, getting some semblance of a clue. I can do all of these things on my own; I must do quite a bit of it on my own. Maybe the ratio changes as one gets older and, presumably, wiser, but for now, I’d reckon I spend three to four times as much time taking in and hashing out and so forth as I do actually gaining semblances of clues, much less putting them out there.

But while the part that I’m actually sharing with others, the “talking” here, in posts, and in the comments, and in social media, as well as the talking-for-real one-on-one, in groups, during talks, takes up perhaps a smaller amount of time, it delivers a disproportionately large part of the thrill. Which makes sense: We are social beings! We like being around each other! Wherever two or three are gathered! And so on.

So the answer to love seems pretty straightforward: figure out what it is you really and truly love, and move toward it. Do more of it, be around more of the people who facilitate it for you. Relentlessly hew to your love, and ignore that other stuff, or just deal and dispense with it as quickly as possible.1

Friction is more complex. More obviously complex, anyway.

For our purposes here, “friction” is what stops you, or slows you, what creates drag. And the tricky thing is that you don’t want to get rid of it entirely, because some of the friction is good for you, and arguably necessary: who learns from easy? You may like easy; I certainly do.

Trickiest of all is that friction can be fun, in the right amounts (cf. that thing our 12-year-old minds immediately went to). The right amount of push-back in a conversation is thrilling, even (or especially) when it borders on maddening. Worthy opponent, and all that. Ditto solo problem-solving and, jeez, is it just me, or is all of this tinged with innuendo today? Well, you get my point. (Point? Really? Argh!)

In the wrong amounts, of course, friction is dreadful, even deadly. Too much friction will grind you to a nub. For me, advertising shifted from the good, learning friction to the bad, grinding kind. So did acting. So did, I’m ashamed to say, more than one long-term relationship.

Most pertinently to me, so did the confluence of friction-filled endeavors that led to my Crohn’s onset. First, because since my collapse in September of 2002, I can no longer count on Powering Though Shit as a modus operandi.2 Second, because that sucker crept up on me, and while I was, or thought I was, moving toward love. I wasn’t in advertising; I was acting, and in a great play! I wasn’t in an unfulfilling marriage; I was in a wildly passionate relationship!

Yeah, I know. Nothing like a good, clear view from the outside. Or hindsight.

What about the present, though? Because like it or not, that’s where we’re all doomed to live, no matter how much we look back wistfully or project ourselves into the future.

My suspicion is that the clearer one gets about love, what love means to one, what one cares about more than one’s own small human self, the simpler it becomes to discern that line where useful friction shifts into fruitless grinding.

My other suspicion is that for those of us who are good at kidding ourselves about what love is, who are good at “keeping things vague,” as my old Method acting teacher used to say, the very most useful tool of all is the truth. Relentless truth. Gentle truth. Simple truth. The truth at the core of the Method: “Where am I right now?”

  • I am at a party, late at night, having fun.

The first two items are facts; the last is a state of being, or an assumption based on the first two items. Provided we’re playing what we’d call in the Method class a “simple” scene, drama or comedy with a clear who/what/where, as opposed to the kind where there’s a lot of dramaturgy required before you can make heads or tails of it, we start with these tangibles. And we challenge the assumptions.

  • I am at a party, late at night. It is loud, and I am unable to hear the person next to me without him shouting and me straining to listen. I was up early this morning and up late the night before. I am tired. My attention is straying elsewhere, mostly to thoughts of quiet and sleep.

So I am not in a party, late at night, having fun. Maybe I was having fun. Maybe I am supposed to be having fun. But now, at best, I am having “fun”.

This may sound ridiculously obvious: You’re at a party and you’re tired and not having fun? Leave, dumbass! Who’s keeping you there? And who needs an exercise for this?

Well, maybe you do not. In certain situations, more and more of them, thankfully, I do not. More and more I am awake and attuned to my real feelings, and more and more I am inclined to act on them. Still, I have blind spots, both unavoidable, the ones I don’t know about yet, and willful, the ones I’m still, for whatever reason, unwilling to give up. I power through, I blip over, I look away out of fear or politeness (which one could argue is a form of fear).

One big truth at the end of last year was that the way I was working was not working. After a year of both musing and actual, physical testing, I think it comes down to this: I had stopped being truthful about what it was I loved, i.e., the thing I care about more than my own, small human self, and stopped being careful about managing friction, i.e. the physical realities that made it possible to pursue it. Now I don’t have to just guess whether MORE ROOM makes for a happier, healthier, more productive and loving Colleen; I know it.

I know I need a certain number of hours of sleep per night and the right kind of food and enough exercise.

I know I need a ridiculous amount (to some) of time spent alone, and in a quiet, nurturing environment.

I know that doing the shit out of something is fine, but that it may involve equal parts pursuing the something and lounging on the bed or in the bath, reading, and not just reading books that will obviously move me toward my goals, but engrossing novels, vivid memoirs, enchanting graphic novels.

I know that it is as important for me to take an hour to walk as it is three to write. It is as important for me to take three hours to shop for real food and prepare it as it is to work on my PowerPoint deck.

Those 16 non-working hours in a day aren’t for squeezing more stuff into; they’re not even for making the eight working hours work better, although you can use them for that, which I confess is largely why I started turning my attention to them. They’re for living. Living! Who knew?

My (slightly) older but infinitely wiser friends Hiro and my First-Shrink-Slash-Astrologer both advocate more being, less doing. In my heart, I know they are right; I also know that to tell a doer to Just Stop Doing It is like telling snow not to fall or water not to move downstream. For the time being, then, for 2011 and beyond, I will continue to look at different kinds of doing. Switching doings. Working, yes, working, on further reducing drag.

Finding ways to discern and describe what it is I love in real terms. Finding ways to reduce drag on my movements toward them.

With joy! Towards love! And as much as possible, out in the open, where it might be seen and made use of. But working.

For now the “being” will have to take the form of “being okay with that.”


1It may take a while to discover exactly what it is that you love, but there are tools for that: The Artist’s Way is a good start for those who self-identify as creative; plenty of tools and exercises for excavating your truest, purest self, for me, the part that is still 10, before my dreams started bumping up against the world’s expectations. Until I was 10, I was an artist, I didn’t have to think about whether I was, or what it meant, or whether I was a good one, or whether (and this is a big one) it was practical or not. I just was.

2This does not mean I have not tried; oh, me, how I’ve tried! Each time, a little less successfully. I tire astonishingly quickly now compared to the rate I did during my 20s and 30s, or even my mid-40s, and my bounce-back rate gets slower and slower.

And we’re back in 5…4…3…

I officially ended 13 months of Self-Imposed Sabbatical this past weekend, in rather a hootenanny-ish way, ergo my delay in actually getting something posted today. I’ll write much more about the event, about the sabbatical, about the lessons I took from them and the ideas that have begun coursing through me again largely because of them, but for now, just a few quick top line observations:

It’s not just you. If there is one thing I learned over this past year in general, over this past weekend in particular, even, it’s that everyone is confused and everyone is learning and everyone is terrified and everyone is cautiously/secretly hopeful (if only spasmodically) and everyone thinks it’s just them, and they’d better shut up and keep their head down and try to look normal, or spout some party line hoo-ha about Tough Times. It’s not just them, er, you. It’s everyone. It’s me, and pretty much everyone I’ve engaged in conversation on the topic, a rather wide swath of humanity. (Note: I’ve been taking the bus more recently.)

I am not sure how much of this we can blame on the outrageously sped-up change cycles we’re enjoying these days and how much is just part and parcel of the human condition. What I do know is that if you can take a little risk to let down your guard and float it out there, you’re likely to find someone to help you carry your load. Or at least commiserate over the size of it.

There is no “done.” You will doubtless find this hilarious, but in my naivete I thought of this sabbatical thing as I did muffin-baking: throw a bunch of stuff together in a bowl, add this or that until it tastes pretty good in its raw form, stick it in a medium oven and 35 minutes, or 53 weeks, later, bing! Muffins!

It is not like that at all. In fact, it resembles quite uncannily what I remembered to be the drawing on the cover of The Artist’s Way, an endlessly winding road carved into the side of a mountain, where at every level the view was somehow different, yet somehow familiar. Only it’s not the cover of The Artist’s Way; it’s some other idea of a mountain I’d heard of or dreamt of from somewhere else. Maybe it was “before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

So there you go: no “done.” Just give that up. (And if you don’t believe me and several millenia of philosophical teachings, check this out. That’s business modeling, baby, no squishy woowoo stuff there.)

The soft things may be the most necessary. This is not the case for you if you are a big lounger on chaises longues, but if you are, you’re not reading this anyway, you’re lounging on a chaise. I hit seven out of ten goals for this past year. (My years now run from mid-February to mid-February, but let’s just say it’s unlikely I’ll publish three books in a fortnight and call it a day, shall we?) All seven were “soft” goals, reading more books, connecting more often with friends, eating right, exercising adequately. That sort of thing. My three token Masters-of-the-Universe goals all tanked. Yet I’ve probably made more progress this one year than I have in the past five or six put together, if we’re going to call “living happily in one’s own skin” a worthy ambition. And I do. And if you don’t, well, I wish you well, but we’re probably going to be spending even less time together in the future. I’m turning 50 this year; I don’t have as much dithering time as I once did.

And finally?

It’s good to be back.


Image by stevendepolo via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.