Today is the first day of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.
For the past few years, I have promised myself I will “win” NaNoWriMo by meeting the goal of finishing a 50,000+ word manuscript. The idea is not to edit, not to get a book published, but simply to write down the whole damn thing and get that first draft to exist at all. The new year is the time for revising and querying. November is for writing furiously, frantically, every single day, in an effort to get that draft done.
But I haven’t won. I’ve abandoned all my past stories after a few days. This year, though, relatively soon after NerdCon: Stories and with my PNWA and feminism publishing connections behind me, not to mention a bunch of free time on my hands, I’m swearing to at least write something every day this November. I might not finish my manuscript. It would be nice if I could. But I will put words on the page once a day for this whole month.
Or at least I’ll try!
I potted some plants the other day. I pulled on my brand new neon orange gardening gloves, scooped Miracle-Gro into an azure blue pot, and settled some spiky purple blooms around a central plant with trumpetlike white flowers. Promptly forgetting the names of the plants, I have dubbed the spiky purple ones dragonsbane after a plant described in Dealing With Dragons. I haven’t come up with a name for the white ones yet. There’s also an adorable tiny succulent on my windowsill, which I have named Junior after the asparagus from VeggieTales.
I was proud of this attempt at gardening. I was adding life to my home (and the plants seem like they’ll probably survive!). That burst of productivity even extended to vacuuming, cleaning the kitchen, and balancing my budget. It was a good afternoon.
Then the next day I came home from work and didn’t move from my couch for the entire afternoon. Dinner was forgotten. The dishwasher did not get unloaded. Nothing happened except that I sat on the couch, coloring, until Netflix asked, “Are you still watching?” (a message I can’t help but read with a judgey inflection, even if Netflix is truly just concerned for my wellbeing). Even my mindfulness coloring book didn’t seem to help my mood.
And all I could think about was, “I never do anything anymore. I am so unproductive. I’m going to completely fail this year” – and there I went, slipping and sliding down a Stress Spiral. Basically, when I get into this self-overwhelming mindset, I use my current mood/emotion/situation to build illogically dramatic visions of the future. In this case, it went something like:
I’m not feeling productive today ⇒ I’m falling behind on all the things I wanted to do today. ⇒ I’m going to fall behind on all the things I wanted to accomplish this year. ⇒ I won’t get any writing done. ⇒ I will be a failure at achieving my dream of being an author.
Looking at this through a logical lens, of course, the extrapolation falls apart. For one thing, this year is not the only year I have in which to become an author. I have my whole life to do that; this is just some time I happen to have set aside to work toward that specifically. Scaling it back down, the dishwasher could conceivably be unloaded the next day. And a bout of unproductive-ness one day does not mean I’m that way all the time – just the day before, I’d potted plants! I’d budgeted! I’d been an adult! But the funny thing is that on those Good Adulting Days, I never think to myself, “I am always like this.” Those thoughts only come on days when I am not being who I want to be.
My favorite counselor once told me, “Emotional states are not personality traits.” It’s a helpful thing to repeat to myself when I’m scrabbling for a toehold in a Stress Spiral (and not just because it rhymes). At some point I developed the habit of mistaking my darker moods for reflections of my Core Self, and as painful and overwhelming as that is, it’s a difficult habit to break. So I journal, because sometimes just identifying the twists and turns of the Spiral helps me unravel it. I talk to the Engineer, whose belief in my abilities is dazzling and unwavering. I text my friends, who tell me I’m putting too much pressure on myself. And I stand at my window and see that Junior seems to be doing just fine. So odds are I’ll be fine too.
I can’t work in clutter. My room, in the upheaval and un-routine-ness that accompanies a new semester, had been in an Uneasy State of Chaos for a while, and I was sick of it. So, working counterclockwise around my room from the door, I Cleaned – and yes, the capital is warranted, because it was no mere 10-second tidying up. I dusted and organized and rearranged and adjusted until everything fit Just So.
I was on a roll until I got to my nightstand. One of the Random Things that had come to rest in obscurity right next to my bed was a pickle jar with the label peeled off and many slips of multicolored paper inside.
My Blessings Jar.
I’d forgotten about it, failed to keep up the habit, since last year when Bird gave me the idea (which I think she got from Pinterest). As I swiped the dust rag over it, I thought now might be a good time to empty it, start fresh, swear to myself that I would chronicle at least One Good Thing each night from now on. Settling criss-cross-applesauce on the floor, I poured out the tiny scraps and began to read. Some made me chuckle, like liquid dishwasher soap from when the Commodore and I finally ran out of that awful powdered stuff and bought a gallon of the liquid we preferred.
Some, like Bird’s smile when she saw me in the chapel after her retreat, made me cry.
It amazes me, sometimes, the magnitude of things that can be tethered in tiny characters inked on paper. The moments I had found worth recording were instances of love, support, and shared strength from my parents, my sister, the Commodore, the Southern Belle, the Engineer and his family, my friends from church, and my coworkers. All the people in my life had contributed to these scribbly bits of paper showing me how many families I have looking out for me.
So often it’s easier to remember the one bad thing that happened at the end of an evening, or late in the afternoon, and let it erase all the silliness and contentment of the morning and lunchtime. A whole day can be colored by just one negative thing. But when I force myself to think of just One Good Thing, it’s funny how more Good Things start to come out of the shadows, shyly raising a hand to say, “Remember me? You didn’t have such a bad day after all.”
I tucked the old blessings away in a box and set the empty, hopeful jar on my freshly dusted nightstand.
I think this is a habit worth attempting again.
I’m facilitating four 1-credit English classes this semester. These are meant to be workshop times, a space for students to bring their writing in and get peer feedback, with a slightly more trained supervisory peer (me) keeping track of attendance and offering clarification along with the general class discussion.
Which means that when students are determined to remain taciturn, I struggle a little for something to fill our 50 minute sessions.
It doesn’t seem that hard to me to talk about writing for 50 minutes, but I recognize that not everyone is quite as
obsessed enthusiastic with words as I am.
So I usually end up doodling on the board.
At the beginning of the summer, I bought a pack of Expo markers specifically for these classes. I keep them separate from my workplace’s other, dried-up, capless, mismatched markers. I encourage my students to write on the board, to color code, to use more visual representations of their ideas if words aren’t working for them.
“I don’t know about you guys,” I say, “but writing on whiteboards always gives me a feeling of power.” They nod, smile a little, and sometimes it works. Sometimes they write one word and then sit back down, but sometimes it works.
And sometimes I end up just writing on the board so they’ll see the fruits of their discussion, the growth of the list, the effects of the edits we recommend to each other.
Or I just doodle while they read. (I’m a speed reader.) And I end up with things like this:
If I’m lucky, this leads to even more discussion, with everyone swapping organizational ideas and sharing how they get from prompt to polished paper.
Or, “Can we play Hangman?”
But even when I think class hasn’t been terribly productive, one of the students will toss out an absolute gem of a sentence, or just a quiet, “Thank you,” as they walk out the door. That, even more than the chance to write on a whiteboard, makes it worth it.
When you find a truly congenial pen, you don’t just let it go. You mustn’t fling it around carelessly, let it ride barely held in by the mesh pockets of your backpack, allow it to sink to the bottom of the jumbled pile in your desk drawer. You keep track of it, digging frantically through your room whenever it’s lost for a day.
But neither do you use it for just any purpose, like jotting down grocery lists – or maybe you do. Maybe it’s that sort of pen, the sort that lends itself to making ordinary life flow a little smoother like ink from a perfectly poised ballpoint tip. So its ink spreads over your life, through your planner and the torn-off bits of paper on which you write notes to yourself and your family, across the margins of newspapers where you doodle while you try to think of that last crossword answer. Maybe it’s that sort of truly congenial pen.
Or perhaps it’s the kind that you store right next to your journal, because your thoughts just seem to write out better, even the tangled ones, when you have it in your hand. It makes your darkest daydreams more palatable, your most confusing stressors more bearable. Fond memories, written in its ink, become golden tinted. It never runs out in the middle of a paragraph, never abandons you while you’re ranting to the page about your job or your crush or the people who live above you who stomp around like elephants in a Conga line. Perhaps it’s that kind of pen.
Those who think this sort of attachment to a writing utensil is ridiculous have obviously not found a truly congenial pen of their own. Those who agree with me know, as the Bard said, that pens are mightier than swords – so just the right one, in the right (or left) hand, is a formidable weapon indeed.
“Tell me, right now, what you want.”
I sat in a springy armchair in a slightly musty room in a retreat center, twisted sideways to face my friend in the tweed armchair on the other side of the end table. I had asked her advice, or her listening, I suppose, because she is my peer, in a similar place in life, and because it was a retreat. You do things like this on retreats, I thought, even if you’re leading them. You have these conversations with yourself. It’s inherent. Walking away for a weekend, leaving behind homework, shedding those surface attachments, it all leaves room. Quiet, quiet room in my mind for those wonderings.
What I want?
There have been too many voices contributing to that conversation; my own was drowned out long ago. I don’t remember anymore, without any outside influences, what I want.
I want my colorful planner to be already laid out for the next five years, the way it has been all my life, but it isn’t.
What I want?
I want to work on my writing, to be near those I love, to simply go to work and come home and have time to do what I love and maybe enjoy my job as well, small things, really, when I list them like this, but I cannot want them, because they are not what I have said I wanted, what I claimed for myself, what others want for me.
I want not to be found wanting. I desire things of my own, but worry that by fulfilling my own wishes I will become deficient in outsiders’ eyes.
What I want?
I’d like to know that too. Or be able to admit that I know it, and that I want it at all. That I think it’s what God wants for me, too, because I wouldn’t still feel this way otherwise.
I sat in a springy armchair in a slightly musty room in a retreat center, twisted sideways to face my friend. She wanted to know what I wanted.
And somehow, I told her.
I hate having people I know witness me exercising.
Surprisingly, this is not due to my general clumsiness or lack of physical acumen. I’m not nearly as awkward at exercising as I used to be in high school (I actually had to convince a skeptical PE teacher that no, I wasn’t holding back, yes, I was putting in every effort, and yes, I was really just that terrible at sports – she raised my grade after I nearly passed out trying to run faster). I can make it through a Zumba class with zeal, and the Southern Belle has gotten me better at strength training too.
But I do all this semi-secretly, waiting until my mom is out of the house in the morning and making sure Bird is either asleep or going to join me. I just don’t like having bystanders. (The Southern Belle is an exception.)
I get the same uncomfortable feeling of being under a microscope when people (well, most people) ask how my writing is going. If I don’t have anything super impressive to tell them, or if in fact it’s kind of at a difficult point and I’ve been stuck on the same scene for 2 weeks, I don’t really want to talk about it. Even if I just hit an awesome word count milestone, or I finished a scene that I’m proud of, there’s something about sharing that part of my internal process with others that just makes me cringe.
I would often prefer to simply present my finished product (manuscript, weight loss, whatever) to the world and say, “Look at this thing I made.” The process of getting that finished product, however, feels too imperfect and messy, too personal, to willingly share with more than a few people at a time.
Some of this could be from academic pressure spilling over into the rest of my life. We are well past the point of turning in an outline, then a draft, then a revised draft, then a peer review, then at long last the final draft. My professors don’t want the process – they want the results. In so much of academic life, the interest lies in the polished version of whatever you’re supposed to accomplish. So maybe I want to present the same perfect face in other areas.
Or maybe it’s to do with responsibility. Goodness knows I have plenty of obligations filling up my color-coded planner already; I neither need nor want to be accountable to anyone but myself in any more parts of my life.
Or maybe it’s like when I was learning to drive and it made me incredibly nervous to even go to the grocery store because every trip of a few blocks felt like a huge test. I knew my parents were watching everything I was doing, which made me overthink it, which made me wonder if I had gotten something wrong, which is not a good thought to be having when you are directing a two-ton metal object along a road filled with other people in other two-ton metal objects. The mere fact of observation, even when we got home and I sat shaking behind the wheel in the garage while my mom told me what a good job I’d done, made the whole ordeal ten times worse.
I don’t actually have an answer for this. That’s okay, though – I’m pretty content to continue working out and writing as quietly and unnoticeably as possible.
I quit something!
Normally I’m not the type of person who shouts this from the rooftops, or even whispers it across a table in a noisy coffee shop. But in this case, having gotten overwhelmed and exhausted and emotional and angry and just generally drained on the second day of school, not to mention having three separate friends ask if there was any way I could cut back on my activities – well, something had to go. I didn’t have many options; most of my time is taken up by classes, which qualify me as a full-time student, and work, which brings me a little money and which I also happen to love. One of my internships is technically being taken for credit, and I only need 5 more hours to earn it. So that left the newest internship, the one only a few days old.
I felt like a traitor, because I had pursued this opportunity myself. I felt like a slacker because I had only completed one task (she had only given me one task, but that didn’t make me feel any better). I felt like I always do when I have to make a perfectly legitimate excuse for bowing out of something, which is to say that I was certain my professor would think I was flaky, irresponsible, and ungrateful. It took me a full five minutes of staring at the email I’d written her, analyzing its professionalism, to work up the guts to hit send.
And you know what I felt?
This internship thingy had to do with organizing writers’ visits to my university campus throughout the year. Now I didn’t have to worry about sporadic weeks of hectic stress cutting into my already packed routine, nor did I have to shove aside activities to make room for writers who may or may not have even worked in my preferred genres.
But even though I knew it was the smartest decision for me and my mental health, I still found myself justifying to all my friends who asked about it. “Oh, yeah, I just didn’t have room for it in my schedule,” I would say, hastening to add that I was still very busy, not slacking off, not flaking out on all my other obligations.
My friend wrote a wonderful column in our university newspaper today about the problem with perfectionism, particularly in college students. She points out that many of us strive for perfection in order to avoid shame; if we’re perfect, no one will chastise us. The size of the failure doesn’t matter because the shame is always looming, gargantuan, disproportionate to most of the ways we fear “failing.” I thought pulling out of the internship would undo all the good work I had done in that prof’s class last semester. Even as I happily marked down the hours I could now spend relaxing or doing, I don’t know, the homework I hadn’t had time to do, doubt poked at the back of my mind. What if she got mad? What if my thesis advisor thought I’d flake out on him too? What if this was the beginning of my new slacker lifestyle?
I realize this is illogical. The thing is, when it comes to shame and perfectionism, logic has very little to do with it. Hermione took All The Magic Classes Ever in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I tell myself.
Yes, the more reasonable part of my brain answers, but she needed a magical Time Turner to do it.
As it happens, I got an email from my professor a few days ago. She said that my schedule did look demanding, and she hoped that I could join the group for dinner with one of the writers anyway as a thank-you for the work I had already done.
I think I can pencil that in. But if I can’t… it’s no big deal.
This might be my last first day of school.
Well, sort of. I realize that I’ve got another semester after this, and technically those will be all new classes, but I only get the true Back To School Sensation when, as Fitzgerald says, “life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” It doesn’t matter if school starts in August or October – on the first day of school, I view everything through a frame of rustling, reddish leaves. Back To School smells like the spice of crunching foliage underfoot, like the fresh wax of a new box of crayons, like the curlicue wood shavings emptied from a pencil sharpener. And Back To School has all the potential of a freshly sharpened pencil, smoothing perfectly from school-bus-yellow barrel to graphite spear point.
Never mind that I haven’t actually used crayons for school since 5th grade, or that it’s August and smells more like a campfire than spicy leaves outside (thank you, wildfires). No matter what year it is, Back To School is a comforting blend of fresh start and familiarity. Everything is new and clean and open, but I also know already that I’m good at it.
Some of the comfort has departed from this particular First Day of School in that it is no longer one in a reassuringly lengthy series. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing next year. Even during other transition years in my academic career, I knew, in broad terms, my plan. High school, whether B or C (I picked B). College, whether B, P, or W (I went with W). Essentially, the plan was always More School.
That’s an option here, too. I could go to grad school. I took the GRE in the hopes of keeping that avenue open. I could choose to stay at my undergrad university or go somewhere else. I rather like the sound of an advanced degree.
But it’s not a given, like all the other times have been. The decision is no longer a formality. And depending on which choice I make, this could be my last first day until my own child dashes off into a kindergarten classroom, backpack full of crayons and safety scissors.
So forgive me, fellow college seniors who are too cool for school, if I ruin our collective jaded image by joining Nemo in excitedly chanting “First day of school! First day of school! First day of school!”