The secret to productivity as a creative type? Do less for the win.
See also: Why everyone needs a giant Box of No.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Because I've been doing on-task writing all my life -- first as an English major, then reporter, then lawyer -- by now, the process of committing words to paper is not difficult.
Writing is not some fraught, mysterious process in which my ego is at stake. It is simply what one does when sitting at the computer, after reading Carolyn Hax and making sure no important celebrity marriages have occurred in the past twelve hours.
So, writing is what I do for a living. And writing is what I do for fun (along with a few other things). Why didn't I just go "all in" and be a Writer?
College is typically an exciting time of making new friends, "partying," indulging in a buffet of romantic options, and pulling wild stunts you'll fondly recall for the rest of your days. For me, college was about staying in my rural hometown, reading British novels in my room (or I should say, continuing to do so), and taking Sunday drives to nearby Clovis, NM with my professor dad, debating our respective philosophies of life.
My dad was of the go-to-law-school-and-get-a-job mentality. He had given up on the dream of my being a doctor, and was making an honorable compromise with the whole law school business.
(Plus, I seemed to like reading and writing quite a lot. After pre-med, getting a B.A. in English Literature felt like roller skating. In the advanced classes, all we did was sit around the professor's house drinking box wine and gossiping about the sex life of Lord Byron. He was a real rogue, that one! He and his adorable club foot.)
I was skeptical that my dad's dad-like take on things was right for me. Certainly I did not relish the prospect of trying to sell magazine stories and random excerpts from my journal, while living in my car, in New York City. Rather, I wanted a comfortable life in a small English village in the 1930s, inhabiting an Agatha Christie novel without succumbing to murderous impulses or being offed. As a side note, I wished to do exactly as I pleased, forever.
Long story short, I tried out various things -- learning in the process that I was too young and clueless to be a Writer -- and by age 28, was ready to spend three years in sunny Berkeley doing something productive.
Eventually, it all worked out. I did not become a U. S. Supreme Court justice, which my dad -- around the time of the Ginsburg nomination -- seemed to believe was a reasonable career goal. I, too, weighed ninety pounds soaking wet, wore a lot of black, and had been known to scowl. All that was left was to apply myself! But it was not to be.
Instead, I work in a nice office, in a flowered dress and cardigan, while drinking tea, among gentle eccentrics. Sometimes the Vicar stops by to chat, or who I think may be the Vicar. So far, not one of us has been found slumped across our desks: poisoned to death by a traceless, odorless substance.
Box, checked. And I think Dad, who died in 1993, would have approved.
* * * *
Not long ago, I took my daughter to the park. As she has always done, she climbed into a swing and began swinging. For a while I pushed her, and then she pumped herself as high as she could go.
Last year, her pre-K had a swing set in the yard. Every afternoon, I'd find her soaring away, singing songs to herself. Sometimes another kid was swinging next to her, and sometimes not.
Now, she looked over at me with a beatific smile and said: "Mom! You know what?"
"In preschool, I loved swinging so much, sometimes I broke the rules and did tricks on it."
And I thought: That's it.
And I thought: That's it.
Friday, March 27, 2015
The English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously wrote his trippiest poem, Kubla Khan, after its verses came to him, fully formed, in an opium dream.
Nothing like that ever happened to me. Oh, except for that one time:
It was the winter of 2007, around Valentine's Day. I was spending my days at home with the baby and cat. Not much was going on. Twice a day, I took a tab of the painkiller Vicodin, prescribed by my doctor. It did not affect me at all.
(By the way: If anyone currently is making their Birth Plan and would like the experience to resemble being pushed out of a helicopter, may I recommend the Emergency C-Section? Basically, you will undergo major surgery, on ten minutes' notice, while fully conscious, and the first words out of your mouth will be: "Is the baby okay?" As an introduction to motherhood, it is perhaps the most direct.)
The only difference from my usual self was that I was quite emotional at times. And that -- move over, W. S. Gilbert, Cole Porter, and Howard Ashman of Little Mermaid fame -- I was suddenly the best musical lyricist in the world.
My songs were clever, with interesting rhyme schemes, and took a variety of forms: the Sousa march. The jazz improvisation. The country-western ballad. In the "nursery rhyme sing-song" category was a winsome number called "Sweetie-Cake." If I so much as warble a few bars today, both children will beg me to stop. ("His little nose is as cute as a button / I wouldn't trade him for no one or nuttin' - what?") Honestly, it was a really good baby song. A classic!
Months later, I documented our early weeks:
"Scene 3: Propped up in bed with two-week-old on my lap. This was the setting of my most fantastic and amazing song, a ditty about all the animals he would have as pets when he got older. . . . Perhaps the wittiest thing about this song, in my view, was how the small-boy narrator enthused over his pets against the backdrop of a skeptical and humorless presence called 'my mom':
"I'll have an elephant, an ocelot, a parakeet who talks a lot,
A spider and a leopard too, a monkey with a golden shoe,
A dog, a frog, a wildebeest, a hundred goldfish at the least . . .
"Etc., for twenty or so verses. The chorus:
"They'll make a mess! But I digress --
They'll be the very best of friends!"
Ah, those were the days.
But for the fact that it is a Schedule II narcotic, has unpleasant side effects, is medically unnecessary, would make me a terrible mother, and would likely result in my arrest, a part of me can't help but wish I was on Vicodin right now.
Occasionally, you think of a joke so blindingly obvious that you immediately realize people all over the world are "making up" the same joke. In a way, the joke pre-exists human discovery like a Platonic form or mathematical proof.
Today, that joke is:
"I think of myself as a cross between Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling. So basically I'm . . . Faling."
Today, that joke is:
"I think of myself as a cross between Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling. So basically I'm . . . Faling."
Thursday, March 26, 2015
If day-to-day life seems a bit of a bore, and you are anything like me, you have already sought an answer to this problem from the obvious source: the academic lectures of a long-dead German theologian, first delivered in Bonn in the summer of 1947. Am I right?
I can't remember when I first read Leisure, the Basis of Culture, but there is a good chance it was during law school, when I was avoiding -- with long, searching trips to the library -- doing my homework. (It was not during the summer before the bar exam, when I required quicker, stronger hits of procrastination, like Us Magazine.)
"This is my favorite non-fiction book," I told everybody I knew. "This is the best book I have ever read." Then I would flip to a random page to recite its life-changing contents, only to find a section called: Excursus on 'Proletariat' and 'De-proletarianization.' (p. 39)
And that's when the few law school friends I had would back slowly away . . .
In his more down-to-earth moments, Josef Pieper spoke eloquently on the themes of "functionality," idleness, and true leisure. This last has nothing to do with vegging out or being passively entertained. Rather, it involves elements of freedom, generativity, "not-knowing," "not-giving-up," and joy. (He's drawing heavily on Aristotle, so there may be something to it.)
The takeaway from this book, as I read it, is that there is nothing wrong with functional work -- which is a natural human endeavor -- or resting, or distracting oneself with amusements. But there is something wrong with a society that thinks life consists solely of either working or "recovering" from work. If that's all you do, something important is missing.
Pieper was a Catholic religious scholar, so his definition of leisure had elements of silence and contemplation, in order to apprehend "the real."
But another definition was suggested by a blue-haired young woman covered in tattoos, whose blog, The Dainty Squid, I ran across today. She says:
"I've finally accepted that it's okay to make things for no reason. It's okay to make things no one else will ever see. It's okay to make things for YOU and you alone. It's okay to make things that aren't perfect. It's okay to try new things for the fun of it. It's okay to make art that no one else understands. If it makes you happy, inspired, excited, or any other positive emotion that is all that matters."
As someone about to graduate law school, I felt this information was important.
Now, as someone who likes being a lawyer, I'd say it still is.
(Photo by Dave on a recent trip to Germany.)
Monday, March 23, 2015
Lameness is like everything else, except a lake or solid object: You can't go around it. You can only go through it.
In my experience, it helps to find one -- very patient -- person and tell them your lame idea 100 times. (Or you could find 100 people, and tell each one your dumb idea one time. Or, I suppose, 50 people who -- well, you can do the math.)
For this idea to have legs, it needs several convincing parts. The musically-minded may imagine a symphony of lameness, beginning with a few inauspicious notes and slowly building to a magnificent crescendo.
For me, the opening bars were mild expressions of ennui.
Next would be a wistful remark along the lines of: "I wish I had the time to . . . " Or: "I remember when I used to . . . "
Warming to my theme, I would venture that, sadly, such a thing was impossible.
It would never work.
Suddenly ablaze with conviction, I would point out the obvious in a know-it-all tone:
Because single working mothers just don't bang out creative projects on the side. It simply doesn't happen! We are like desert lizards: built to survive harsh conditions, without waste. By 9 p.m., all we can do is rip open a bag of Skinny Pop and escape into Sherlock. Nor can we wake up before dawn, because we need our beauty sleep. (This sounds better than "sanity sleep.") Get real!
No one can name one person who has achieved what you -- in your accusatory silence -- challenge me to do (also silently, as you are saying nothing):
TV actress Isabel Gillies wrote a gritty, funny, inspiring book about how her husband left her for another woman when her two sons were toddlers. She had a rough patch as a single mother, but by the time she actually wrote the book, she was remarried to a boyish reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
J.K. Rowling famously wrote the first Harry Potter novel in a café while her infant daughter slept, jobless after a failed marriage. It is not clear to me how she supported herself, probably by going "on the dole."
These examples are not, as we say in the law, analogous to the instant facts. So what's your point?
Occasionally you pose questions such as:
- Aren't the kids with their dad sometimes?
- Is there some way I can help you?, and
- Ok. Can we watch the movie now?
All of these serve to indicate you just don't "get it." Because we will have this tiresome conversation, in which you fail to appreciate my plight, many more times, I will rewind and put this tape away for later. Never mind!
* * * *
As in a fairy tale, this has to recur a magical number of times. (Three? No: One hundred.)
On the 101st time, you listen to yourself. And are like: Dude. Seriously?
Just like that, you are through.
(And now, off to Safari West. Spring Break!)
Saturday, March 21, 2015
In olden times -- by which I mean, on Downton Abbey -- people had housefuls of liveried servants to attend to the mundane tasks of life. This allowed them to spend their days wandering the grounds under a parasol -- flirting, deploring the Labour Party, and mulling how to make "the estate" profitable without turning it all into a giant pig farm.
Today, however, if a normal person is going to find time to be creative, or even sink into the idle contemplation from which creativity flows, she is going to have to cut some corners.
The good news is that nobody will care.
My first real test of this theory came when my oldest child was born. In the weeks that followed, a bevy of lactation consultants, the culture at large, and my own husband, sought to convince me that I was doing him a terrible disservice by not breastfeeding. They constantly worried aloud that he would fail to thrive, to bond.
My son and I both hated breastfeeding, and we bonded just fine: Each time I peeled back the foil on a disposable bottle of Similac, he'd raise his tiny palm and we would give each other a high-five.
Eight years later, this child is not a sickly dullard who cannot look me in the eye, but a bright, healthy, affectionate boy whose only flaws are an adorable lisp and a birthmark. To the naked eye -- and what other eye is there? -- the thing I didn't do didn't matter, and all was well. I call this sort of thing doing less, for the win.
Still, I am not immune to the nagging sense -- peculiar to modern life, because Lady Mary didn't have it, and she did literally nothing -- that I am not doing enough. Surrounded by high-achieving people who have banded together in a cunning alliance called "marriage" to raise their young, it's hard to escape the feeling that I'm functioning at about 50 percent, on a good day. Whatever I do, it's not what two people can do. It isn't even close.
In a funny way, this fact has freed me up: to do less, for the win. Summer evenings find me sitting outside in a lawn chair, reading a magazine, while the kids play in the street with their friends. If there is something else I should be attending to in the hour after dinner (the laundry? "budgeting"?), I can't think what.
Even the kids do less, in what I believe is known as a "life hack": Not long ago, my son explained that he never checked out library books at school, so that he didn't get in trouble for not returning them on time.
For a split second, I considered lecturing: "Well, you should just return them!" Instead, after a thoughtful pause, I said, "Good thinking. Way to go." He is busy with school, after-school care, homework, playing outside, patiently building the most fearsomely awesome Pokémon card collection ever assembled on this planet, and making sharp Pokémon trades. He was doing enough, and didn't need the extra hassle. I totally got it.
(For my daughter, we still have to remember to pack her library book every Wednesday, because she is damn well going to check out another one in the exercise of her God-given rights as a kindergartner. And it will be about butterflies!)
For 2015, my New Year's resolution was to focus on only four things. None of them involved the various tasks I should be doing -- or doing better -- but one of them was joking around (or "goofing off") with the kids.
For the past three months, I'm not sure I've been doing less. But it feels more like winning.
Monday, March 16, 2015
No one has time to write, or paint, or do anything frivolous. I get it.
For me, the 7-Minute Workout has become the two-minute plank. In an effort to make dinner faster, I was microwaving so much plastic I had to put all the old dishes away and buy new ones, so as not to give us all cancer.
In the late summer of 2013, I decided it was time to "get back out there." Everywhere I looked, people were having barbeques, reunions, anniversary parties, and vacations with their large -- or at least, intact nuclear -- families. Meanwhile, I had two young children and a love-hate relationship with Netflix. It felt thin.
Of course, I had no time to "date." The Onion nails it, as usual.
Still, I had the distinct sense that the Universe was telling me to give it a try, right now. The Universe was like Jerry Maguire, cornering me in a bathroom and repeating urgently: "Help me help you."
Creative endeavor is like online dating in the following way: If maintaining your dignity is super-important to you, you should just stay home, turn on the TV, and forget the whole thing.
Personally -- having absorbed its mannerisms from countless BBC productions -- I have always found dignity easy to come by. It is an inexhaustible resource: If some is lost, you simply square your shoulders, raise an eyebrow, and say, "Well, that was interesting." And presto! It's back.
So I swung the bucket, and a bit sloshed out.
Two weeks later, I met a man who lived less than a mile away. (We were practically neighbors, so why not?) After two more dates, I couldn't tell whether we "liked" each other or whether it was all just a polite misunderstanding.
On the fourth date, we went to a movie I chose, but which, over the course of two hours, I came to intensely dislike. On top of this unpleasantness, my date didn't even try to hold my hand! He seemed to like the movie fine, so what could we possibly have in common?
Back home, I sat alone in my parked car in the driveway for fifteen minutes. I had done this on all four dates, since I could not quite figure out what was occurring.
I knew this much: Dating was difficult. It made me feel nervous and off-balance. Quite possibly it was stupidest idea I'd had in years. ("Well, that was interesting!") I didn't have time to do it properly. I didn't have time, period.
The next morning, he sent me a sweet email: a little bit shy, and a little not. We've been very happy together ever since.
Is it just me, or is the parade of animal mothers getting ridiculous?
First there was the Tiger Mother. Then the Dolphin Mother. And lately, the Elephant Mother.
As anyone can play this game -- with or without a publishing contract -- I have a few more moms to add to the menagerie:
The Turtle Mother. Everything seems to be going fine until one day, for no apparent reason, this mother digs a deep hole, deposits her kids in it, and scuttles away without a backward glance. When picked up, some months later, on charges of child endangerment, she turns an ancient yellow eye on the mugshot camera and, for the next one hundred years, refuses to explain her actions.
The Anteater Mother. An ungainly, hairy beast who dwells in a dark cave, this mother is characterized by her terse interactions with her kids. E.g.,
"What's for dinner?"
"What's for dinner?"
"What's for dinner?"
"Hey! That's not funny. Now settle down and eat your ants."
The Octopus Mother. Often mistaken for a minor Hindu goddess, this mother is amazing. She can do everything for everyone at once, has two hearts, and requires little in the way of food or stimulation. After about six months, she dies and is absorbed without a trace into the ocean floor.
The Old Woman Mother. The Old Woman Mother lives in a shoe. She has so many children, she doesn't know what to do. Eventually, tired of her inept management of the household, the older children band together and depose her, in a coup.
The Facebook Mother. This mother is the happiest person in the world and spends all her time at the pumpkin patch!
The Guinevere Mother. This mother has actually forgotten she has children, for she believes she is the beautiful heroine of a love triangle between the King (her husband), the World's Greatest Knight (her true love), and herself, in a story played out on the glittering stage of Camelot, of which she is Queen. Eventually this mother will attend a parent-teacher conference or receive her FICO credit report. Then she will be like: "Wait. What? . . . I really need to get my head back in the game."
Sunday, March 15, 2015
Years ago, when I lived in Oakland, my then-husband and I took the car to a mechanic.
I never drove beyond our neighborhood in Oakland (as I explained ad nauseam, my brain was not wired for city driving), and so never really knew where we were, or how we got there, or how to get home. (This is, in fact, a metaphor for my entire time in Oakland.) But even I could tell this area -- wherever it was -- was a little sketch.
On the pavement outside the mechanic's garage was a hand-lettered sign. It read: "KEEP THE JUNKS OUTSIDE."
As a found treasure of the city, this sign was gold. We joked that we needed it in our apartment. We seriously considered stealing it. Somehow the plural form of "junk" -- so many junks! a garbage dump of junks! -- transformed its banal message into a searing life-truth. Keep. The junks. Outside.
Today this warning rings more true than ever, as life is always filling up with junks. Our little house is full of junks. The Internet: some cool stuff. Also, a cornucopia of junks. Even my own brain, in the peaceful silence of early morning (okay, 7 a.m.), is clogged with junks. How might one "keep" some of them "outside"?
This weekend, I hit upon one idea. I'm calling it the Box of No.
Here's how it works:
Stumbling upon some random item (a piece of clothing, a plastic toy, a page of kindergarten art, a vegetable purchased two weeks ago), I am not going think how much I paid for it, or how it may still fit if I lose five pounds, or how one day -- when the kids are gone and don't call -- I might desperately want it as a memento. That is all crazy talk! Instead, that thing will be placed in the Box of No. (As in: "Just . . . no.")
I will not worry about taking it to Goodwill or consignment (though this may happen, some distant day). I will not consider it my responsibility to deliver it into the hands of some as-yet-unknown person who will appreciate it. I will not feel bad that I rejected its nourishing goodness in favor of cheese and crackers, a Luna bar, or something else I didn't have to chop and cook with olive oil, garlic, and a dash of pepper. I will simply thank it for its service, or willingness to be of service -- solemnly, as if blessing a felled elk -- and then deposit it in the Box of No.
It may not actually be a box. (Do I even have that big a box?) It may be a couple of garbage bags. I am excited about this idea, as wading through all this crap -- sorry, these junks -- is impeding my ability to Do Interesting Things.
Yesterday, I told my son that all the cookie trays full of Legos on his bedroom dresser would have go. For one thing, we're not making any cookies. Second, they are incompatible with the Box of No aesthetic or philosophy.
"Are they going in the garage?" he asked. "Yeah." ". . . Okay."
Apparently, they were already filed in the -- quite spacious, in an 8-year-old boy -- Box of Who Cares.
Friday, March 13, 2015
My favorite television show as a child aired Monday nights on NBC. Unfortunately, I had classical guitar lessons on Monday nights. So I was always tearing myself away from the opening credits of "Little House on the Prairie" -- scenes of the Ingalls girls leaping through golden fields in joy -- to schlepp over to campus and pretend, badly, to have practiced ten bars of Flamenco that I clearly had not practiced. It was a bit of a sad night. But when I got home, I could at least catch the final twenty minutes.
Back then, I felt that Little House -- as we called it -- was a window into the excellence of a superior time and people. That the Ingalls family was simply leading a better life than my own family -- despite living in a one-room shack, eating salt pork, and getting buttons for Christmas -- was a self-evident fact to me, though I could not quite explain why.
Now as an adult, reading "Little House on the Big Woods" to my own children, I have the maturity to see that I was wrong about Little House all those years ago.
Turns out, I completely underestimated how great -- how "badass," if I may say so -- Ma and Pa Ingalls were. They make the chicken-raising, organic food-eating parents of today look like decadent slobs.
On a typical night at my house, we are reading about the bear-killing, butter-churning Ingalls over a meal cooked in the microwave for four minutes, or hot dogs. (No one knows what is in the hot dogs: We didn't kill them. We didn't even trap them.)
This got me to thinking . . .
10 Ways in Which My House is Not Like Little House In the Big Woods:
1. Pa has his own little house -- across town. It's just better that way, trust me.
2. My daughter does not play with a corn cob dressed up as a doll, but with a Samsung Galaxy tablet dressed in a hot-pink neoprene case. She loves it very much. I think she might have named it Pru.
3. Pa's rifle is not hung over the door to ward off bears, thieves, native peoples, or other potential threats. Instead, the kids and I mostly rely on phones to keep us "safe": A landline. A cell phone. And of course, the kids' Galaxy tablets.
4. If I go out to the barn to feed the cow one night, and the lantern light is low, and I reach out to pet the cow and call her Sukey, and it's really a bear, I am going to FREAK OUT.
5. On the Sabbath, the kids can pretty much do whatever they want. Also, every other day. What?
6. When I put on my best dress to go to a dance party occasioned by the running of the sap (and at which sap is made into delicious candy) (by Grandma), it is not dark green with a pattern of strawberries, sweeping the ground with its full skirt. It is a black lace mini-dress designed by Madonna's daughter, from the juniors' section at Macy's. It actually may be kind of tacky. (Memo to self: Purchase new sap dress.)
7. If someone were to sass Pa, they would not get whipped with a strap. They would instead be told: "Enough! Now go play on your tablet."
8. The kids do not warm their hands in sub-zero Wisconsin weather with hot potatoes in their pockets. We took them to the California mountains once to see the snow, and they were stunned by how cold it was. They literally could not believe it. Eventually, we found a pizza place with an arcade.
9. Grandpa was never chased through the woods by a black panther. That is a common misconception about Grandpa. I think he had a dog once.
10. We do not live in the "big woods." The little house part is right, though.
Sunday, March 8, 2015
What's that, you say? No one is interested in TPOATH?
Here's the thing:
Once you accept that you are not a world-traveling law professor or a SAHM with an adorable lifestyle-aesthetic, you're pretty much stuck with what I like to call "the dross of daily life," and a smudged camera phone.
And when you come upon Skipper the Penguin -- hiding under the bed, wearing a diamond necklace, and looking as if he's been caught in some unspeakable act, but also fabulous -- that can actually be pretty cool.
A few years ago, after my marriage broke up, I wrote a short piece called: "In Which the Toilet in My Daughter's Dollhouse Exults in its Superiority to Me."
It was narrated by a tiny white toilet with a duck on it -- an object I had been contemplating for some time, and which inspired and compelled me, like Keat's urn.
In a handful of paragraphs, the toilet mocked our apartment (in comparison to the three-story dollhouse), deplored the fact that my children lacked an intact nuclear family (like the Rabbits), rebuked my lax parenting, harrumphed at our low sense of humor, and concluded that all of our problems were my fault.
By the end of this exercise, I had achieved something like a state of bliss. What could be better than sitting on my couch alone, for hours, while my small children did who-knows-what across town, stringing together phrases that had never before existed in the world, such as:
" . . . where six Cheerios, a purple gumdrop and the remains of an unlucky tick hang suspended in a cobweb matrix while a spider and cockroach battle nearby for the spoils."
Come on (McSweeney's, who rejected it)! That's pretty good. (Or is it? I don't know.)
Eventually, of course, the magic of this feeling ebbed away. Then it was back to laundry, Target runs, and, you know, real life.
Covert Creatives -- unlike out-and-proud Creatives, who flock to places like Los Angeles and New York City -- accept and even embrace normal life. We are as pleased as anyone to complete a work project or make a good slow-cooker chicken. Except for maybe once in a while, we don't regret getting regular jobs and, later, SUVs littered with crackers, school flyers, and shoes.
Still, it's important to keep creating. If only -- simply? -- to generate joy.