Writing Challenge: 250 words for 25 Days

I’ve not been writing. Not creatively at least, and certainly not regularly in a long time. Mostly because I’ve been struggling with some emotional issues that have gotten in the way of focus, creativity, and discipline. While I still have those struggles, I think it’s time to give myself a small enough challenge that I can feasibly meet it, even with diminished energy. 250 words is a really small amount of writing to do and there is no reason I can’t manage to accomplish that for the next 25 days, even if what I write is stream-of-consciousness blather, I can make 250 words.

The last time I did a series of writing challenges like this they helped get me back into the habit of writing and I always feel better when I’m am writing and creating regularly, so this is part challenge, part therapy. So, from today until August 11, I will write at least 250 creative words (story, script, poem,, monologue, etc.) each day.

The Shape of Summer Days

The shape of my summer days shall be:

morning

  • get up by 7 am (shift over time to 6:30 am)
  • do NOT check email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. as the very first thing I do
  • some kind of movement – at the very least stretching and a few yoga poses, but more often alternate between my pushup and situp routines and the Couch 2 5K program
  • write something
  • write anything
  • it doesn’t matter if it is a blog post, a letter, part of a script or a short story or a poem or lyrics for a song and for now, there is no word/lenght minimum, no matter how small I will put words to paper or computer screen
  • breakfast – where I am allowed, if I choose, to check email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • go to the library
  • write 250 – 300 words of my Zombie/Butoh article that is due July 16
  • edit my Into the Woods paper that is due May 27
  • research/read for comprehensive exams

afternoon

  • lunch
  • read for comprehensive exams
  • go to gym
  • read for comprehensive exams
  • practice guitar/ukelele

evening

  • dinner
  • watch a movie or read for pleasure or compose music or spend time with friends
  • go to bed by 10:30

That’s the plan. There will be some hiccoughs, there always are. And my trip to RI and Maine will be focused on mostly socializing, though I will try to keep my morning routine intact (sans most of my comprehensive exam work). These will be my weekdays and I hope to use my weekends for music making and exploring Pittsburgh a bit more and hopefully doing some camping or hiking or kayaking or other activities that get me out of the city when I can, spending quality time with people I like when I can, and generally enjoying some of what life here can offer beyond the ivory tower.

Pursued by a bear

One of my mantras that I offer to myself and my friends and colleagues at school is “a bear is not going to eat you.” Taken from Merlin Mann, it’s the notion that we respond with fight/flight reactions to many things in our lives that are not, in fact, actual threats that match such a response. Stress then “eats” at us because we spend so much time in a physiological state that is designed to help us avoid being eaten.

A bear is not going to eat you.

So, you know, relax a bit. Breathe. Don’t let stress settle into your body. Of course all of that is easier said than done, especially when overwhelmed by work or stressful environments or expectations to perform. I wake up and am instantly flooded with panic about the work I have that is coming due at school, about the fact that leaving a complex podcast production to the last minute has potentially let down my editors, about my ability to get everything actually done on time and with a modicum of care and attention. My body is flooded with all the chemicals that prime it for a fight or to run like hell away from the large and devouring beast that wants me for breakfast.

But the truth, the fragile and delicate and necessary and so easily forgotten truth, is that a bear is not going to eat me. Embarrassment is NOT life threatening. A missed deadline, if it comes to that, is not the end of the world. People will forgive me if I fuck up, or at least anyone worth my trust and consideration will, just as I would for them. If I let the imaginary bear dictate the conditions of my experience, I am allowing a misplaced physiological response to damage my health and my equilibrium. If I’m running from the bear, or trying to fight it, I am fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of my environment and making myself a slave to stress, allowing such conditioning to become my default emotional and physical state.

Of course, I say all this, but my body remains tense, my muscles tight with fear and worry and stress and I think I hear the low growls of the bear and feel its hot breathe on my neck and all I want to do is run.

A bear is not going to eat me.

Today is a day I think I’ll need to remind myself of this fact quite often. Actually, I have a feeling that the rest of this semester will be a struggle between finding perspective and balance and breathe, and the feeling, near constant, that I am being pursued by the bear.

I’m willing to bet money, however, that I never actually get eaten. So maybe I will, occasionally, remember that.

Making things

I recently saw a blog post about making sure that the first thing you do in the morning is produce rather than consume. Now, my typical morning starts with me reaching for my phone and checking mail, or my rss feeds, or Facebook or Twitter . . . or, actually, all of those before even getting out of bed. **Last year I’d gotten into the habit of stretching and exercise first thing in the morning, but then lost the habit when I broke my ankle and never got it back. Yesterday, I switched things up a bit by making tea and sitting down to write my Kiva Han farewell before starting on anything else. Putting off the consumption of information felt quite good and making something, even if only a blog entry, definitely gave the morning a sense of accomplishment that reading email doesn’t offer. Today, because I’m waiting for and worried about an email to do with PodCastle, I did check my email very first thing, but then managed to put the phone down and start composing this entry.

It’s not a lot, this entry. It’s not like I’m getting up and writing a novel (not yet) every morning. But making sure that I get up and produce something, some set of words and thoughts in the morning can only be a good thing. I don’t know that I’ll always write something for the blog. Maybe I’ll get back to working on the half dozen or so stories that I have in various states of un-finish. Or maybe, I’ll work on a paragraph or two of a paper or write an abstract. Or finally get around to working on an essay for DoctorHer. Maybe I’ll take a picture and do some editing and post it. The trick isn’t to necessarily be writing creatively, although if I can get back into that habit, I’d like to. Rather, the trick is to simply make something that wasn’t there before and to step back from the constant craving to know what’s on the other side of the screen.

Small steps, but forward steps.

Broken, Part 1

I’ve been putting off writing this essay all day because I am rather frightened of putting these thoughts into words and putting those words out to the world. But I have done nearly all my other work for the day and I need to maintain my current goal of writing 500 words every day. So, here goes.

I think I’m broken.

Stop. Hold on. Let me back up to how I was originally going to start this essay as if formed in my head this morning at 7 am while I was struggling to get motivated to get up . . .

The thing about Hawaii is that each and every morning I was there, I was eager to get up, to see the sunrise, to feel the wind, to smell the air. Each and every day I was up early and excited for the day. I’m sure that the time change had something to do with it, even Joya, who is decidedly not a morning person was getting up early. I’m also sure it was the newness and excitement of being on vacation. Still, days when I’m genuinely excited and looking forward to the day are . . . well, let’s just say very, very rare.

So that’s where I was going to start. A safe place, a positive memory. So why start with “I think I’m broken”? Because, I think it’s true and I think I need to work on fixing it before I go back to Hawaii because if I don’t, if I go to Hawaii and find that, after the newness wears off, I go back to dragging myself out of bed each and every morning instead of embracing the day and feeling excited . . . well, I just don’t know what I’d do.

Now, what do I mean by “broken.” I honestly don’t quite know exactly. I know that I’m not clinically depressed: I can laugh when I’m with people I care about and trust, I can deeply enjoy books and movies. I am able, despite the fact that I am never actually excited by the day, to get up and to work and to create and to get some regular—if not enough—exercise. I have started playing my guitar again and am thinking of even attempting an open mic night before the summer ends. I am very happy with my new apartment and feel so much more positive about my surroundings on a daily basis because of it. Although, while I say “very happy”, I’ll be honest: I don’t know what that means. I certainly appreciate my new apartment and even love it in some ways, but happiness . . . happiness seems like it’s something other people do. I have moments of joy, moments of laughter, and moments of great contentment. Most of those moments have to do with being around people I feel safe with and who I genuinely like/love. But they remain moments. Happiness . . . happiness . . . I don’t think I know what that means. At least not in any kind of real, sustained way.

“Are you happy,” Emily asked me when we met for lunch while I was in RI.
“I’m working on it,” I replied.

We talked more, though she was asking most of the questions. At one point, she asked if I’d considered getting help. The word “drugs” was mentioned. She wasn’t the first to have mentioned getting help. Joya had suggested, several times, that I might benefit from either talk therapy or, possibly (and she would broach the subject carefully), some combination of drugs might be in order. I wouldn’t hear of it. I mean, it’s all my fault: I don’t get enough sleep, I don’t exercise enough, I don’t maintain a decent creative output, I don’t meditate, I don’t do yoga, I don’t seem able to find the right group friends who will spark me in the right way.1 If I just did all the things I ought to do, I’d be happy. Right?

Right?

“Are you happy?”

I’m reminded of the scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall when, after breaking up with Annie, his character approaches a beautiful looking couple and says that they look like a happy couple, very much in love, what is their secret? The woman responds, “Uh, I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say,” and her partner follows her with, “And I’m exactly the same way.” But, as much as I might find that scene amusing, it’s cheap and cynical, and exactly the kind of defensive maneuver that . . .

wait.

No. Wait up. Hold on. I’m avoiding the issue.

The issue is I’m lonely. The issue is I can’t remember the last time I woke up genuinely excited and looking forward to the day. The issue is that I am constantly struggling to do the things I love to do and to be the person I know I want to be. The issue is that I prefer staying in my apartment, alone, because the feeling of being alone in a crowd when I’m surrounded by others is getting to be so heart-breakingly difficult that I sometimes want to cry while walking down the street and watching all these people, this whole other species of beings that seem to have figured out (or at least that’s how I am perceiving them), how to do this life thing.

The underlying issue is this: I’m lost. Lost in a mind that hasn’t let me be fully me in a long, long time. And I’ve gotten used to living on a level that denies me full access to my love of self and of others; to my love of my work and my thoughts; to my courage and desire to be a force in this world instead of running away from it.

As I write these words, with the plan of posting them in public view on my website, I feel sick with worry about my mother’s response, about my father’s thoughts—not that they will judge me or think ill of me, but I don’t know how to face their concern and love in this matter without reading it as pity—no, that’s not quite right either. It’s their sorrow I am terrified of.

I’m also worried about the fact that my colleagues in the department may very well read these words, colleagues who I respect as students, historians, academics, and scholars but who are not, for the most part, close friends. I don’t want people to know, especially people I’m not close to, that I don’t have my own shit together and that I’m not fully and completely capable of being as completely self-sufficient as possible.

Also, this means that I am making a commitment to try to change things. That I am, in public, committing myself to get better and to make an effort, no matter how uncomfortable that effort might be, to regain the me I distantly remember from a long time ago.

But really, the resistance and the pain and the tears of writing this, of posting this for all to see is that I am, here and now, admitting to something that is the hardest fucking thing in the world for me to admit:

I need help.2

  1. I console myself with the thought that at least I’m not blaming the universe for just being a harsh an unfair place like I spent most of my twenties doing. At least there’s that. []
  2. I’m staring at this damn blinking cursor trying to work up the courage to post this and my mind is already thinking of ways to back away from some of what I’ve just written, to pass it off as nothing but too much wine and a lonely Friday night; that I’m being self-pitying and self-indulgent and that my problem is that I’m just lazy and think too much and I just need to work harder, exercise more, get more sleep, and it’ll all be better, I can fix this all on my own, really I can. Really. There’s nothing really wrong with me at all, forget what I just said. Of course, I need to post this for back-pedaling and disclaimers to mean anything. Still staring. I guess if you’ve read this, I have, at some point, hit Control+Command+P. []

Quote for Thought by Merlin Mann

“Why do we end up trying to solve boring problems? ‘Cause we hate impossible problems and we hate scary problems. But on the other hand if we’re scared enough of a scary problem we’ll sit around working on an impossible problem, maybe because it’s a familiar problem.”

I don’t know if this is food for thought outside of the banquet that is Merlin Mann’s appearances on Back to Work, but it definitely brings up some important things I need to deal with. I totally will sit around working on impossible problems (the perfect app, the correct desk set-up, the proper workflow, finding the write long term habit), instead of doing something.

Some New Rules

A few new rules in place for this semester:

  1. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I get up as close to 6am as I can and continue with my 100 pushups program (this is week 2 of the 6 week program.

  2. I follow the pushups with increasing time on my step machine and my rowing machine.

  3. I follow that exercise with creative writing for at least 300 words.

  4. Throughout this, I do not check email, Twitter, Facebook, or my RSS feeds until AFTER I have completed my writing and I listen to either birdsong radio or instrumental music until after writing.

Not Shutting Out the World

Things I heard during the three days I did not listen to music over my earphones when I left the house:

  • birds singing
  • children playing
  • lots of cars
  • louder buses while riding in them
  • human voices

It was an interesting several days: neither all that painful nor particularly revelatory. While I am not forsaking my music and podcasts for all time, I am trying to be a bit more mindful of not needing to plug myself in for every single minute I’m out and about.

Small Habits

As I’ve discovered through my series of writing challenges, I have a better chance of success in starting a new habit if I keep my expectations low and concentrate on making the action a regular part of my life rather than getting a lot of that thing done at any one time. So I’m extending this strategy to a few other areas of my life.

Exercise

For the next 30 days I’m going to be doing pushups 3 times a week and using my step machine for at least 20 minutes every day. 30 days is not that long a time to do anything and finding 30 minutes to exercise is possible no matter what my days are like.

Reading

If you have been following this site for the past year you’ll see that I read quite a bit, averaging about 4 books per month. What you will also notice is that nearly all those books are fiction. For a while now I’ve been meaning to start reading more non-fiction for a variety of reasons. For the next 30 days all I need to do is read 10 pages of non-fiction each day.

Writing

Even though I’m still not quite done with my applications and have an essay that I need to do some edits to for book publication, I’ve started another 300 words for 30 days challenge.

With all of these, I am always able to go past the minimums I’ve set for myself. The challenge lies in reaching the minimum goal for each and every day. Another interesting thing to note is that when I was doing my writing challenges I was also doing pushups on a more regular basis than since I stopped writing daily. I think that maybe having multiple daily tasks can reinforce each other and help build a routine that helps give some kind of shape and pattern to the days. Also, keeping a visual record that shows each task being marked off as complete is a huge help to me and one that I definitely will continue to use as a psychological trick to keep me on track.

If you find any of these ideas helpful, please let me know. I’d love to hear how they work or don’t work or how you might adapt them for different kinds of activities.