It's been a while since I posted anything... I've been busy with some new and exciting projects (I'm writing a book! More on that in a few weeks or so).
Since most of my more intensive writing energies are being spent elsewhere, I thought I'd kick off the year with a roundup of a few things that are making my life easier or happier right now--professionally, personally, creatively, whatever. Maybe my mistakes and discoveries help move you forward with something similar in your own life--we're always learning, right?
So here we go.
1.) "Removing Barriers"
This was the theme I chose for 2017 and I have to say, I really like it. So much of the time, what stands between me and something I want/ need to complete or stay accountable to is not "laziness" (as I so often attribute it to) but rather some small barrier I just don't take the time to dismantle. Sometimes it takes time to figure out what that barrier might be. For example, over the fall I was in a rut with cooking and meal prep and kept copping out and ordering Thai (not that anyone is complaining about having to eat arguably the most delicious ethnic cuisine on the planet, but #budget. Also, thighs.) Anyway, I finally realized that if I took some extra time to plan out some meals and shopping lists, and search for some recipes that excited me again, I might be enticed out of the rut. Sure enough, I taught myself to cook lasagna and promptly fell back in love with cooking again. So, this year, I'm trying to apply this principle more globally when I get stuck. Instead of shoulding all over the place and forcing myself to muscle through something that's not quite working, I want to be more mindful of what exactly it is I don't want to face and figure out what I can do to encourage myself and others.
I like how I feel when I exercise regularly but I don't like the exercising part. At the beginning of December, I started lap swimming again and have really gotten into a groove. I've noticed that my body feels healthier than with other forms of exercise--my back seems stronger and I've noticed I have fewer backache days, possibly because the cold water helps reduce inflammation. An added bonus is that the indoor swimming pool I use has plenty of windows and in the mornings, the sun rises at an angle where everything is super bright--the sunlight really energizes me on these cold Canadian days.
This year is the first year I'm doing an annual reading challenge on goodreads. I enjoy reading but I often put it off in favor of less edifying activities (oh hello there, Netflix). A related problem is that I promptly forget about books I've read or why I enjoyed them. I thought I'd give goodreads a try because it lets you keep track of books you've read, and you can right mini-reviews or random thoughts about the book as you go. So far, I've really enjoyed it and find myself looking forward to finishing a book so I can record my progress. It's also been neat to see what some of my friends--I get good ideas and suggestions on what to read next any time I log on.
Lately I've been learning and thinking a lot about what love actually is versus what it's not. Not that I've had any deep epiphanies or anything, but I just feel like I'm learning in new ways that love is not about me (I feel like I'm always learning that, every day. Every hour.) Uncovering new layers of the self-sacrificial aspects of love is both a freeing and vulnerable/ predicament; I constantly find myself trying to edge my way out of that vulnerability. Ultimately, though, I think the things I am trying to wrap my mind and heart around right now are good because they open me up to others, as tricky as that can be.
5.) Slow Cookers
And from a universal existential quandary back to food... I recently got a new lease on my culinary life. But first we need to back up. 2016 was, largely, the year I tried to deduce why everything I cooked in my crock pot smelled and tasted slightly rotten to me (but not to my husband, strangely enough). At first I blamed it on the rubber gasket that lined the lid of our fancy wedding-registry crock pot, which seemed to absorb the scent of whatever I cooked. But even after purchasing a new lid (read: a new crock pot so that I could get a new lid) without a rubber part attached to it, the putrid smell/taste continued. Folks, I tried everything: Baking soda soaks, vinegar washes, I tried cooking water to absorb smells from the ceramic. But still, everything I cooked tasted totally OFF to me. I thought I'd have to give up slow cookers forever, which sucks because they make life so much easier.
But then last week something happened. I cooked a soup on the stove that gave off the same gross aroma/ taste (though much fainter) than food from my crock pot. The culprit? Onions! And garlic! Specifically onions and garlic that have not been sauteed or caramelized before being boiled (e.g. in a soup or crock pot meal). To translate what I gleaned from several websites into my very limited knowledge of chemistry: apparently they release a compound when boiled that tastes really bad to some people.
So this week, I lightly sauteed some onions before adding them to a crock pot recipe and for the first time ever, the meal did not turn my stomach inside out! Amazing. This re-opens a whole new realm of possibilities that I'm really looking forward to. What I love about slow cooking is that it feels like someone else is cooking for me--by the time the food is ready, I barely remember all the vegetables I chopped that morning. So I'm assembling a list of recipes and getting ready to dive in head first (you can find my list here on pinterest). Hopefully 2017 will be my year of crock pot success!
The gates of summer have opened.
In our household, this is a time for vacations, barbecues, birthday dinners, and long weekends (and... apparently long-and-drawn-out soccer tournaments??? #Iwantmyhusbandback).
On the professional side of things, for academics and post-acs, it's also a time to refocus and clarify writing goals. This is particularly true for the many professors across the northern hemisphere who are coming up on semester- or year-long sabbaticals. For them, the start of summer is a time to map out the coming months (and months!) of research and writing.
A number of my friends and clients fall into this category. Over the coming weeks, I'll be starting new programs with some of them, setting up attainable action plans to sustain their writing through the largely unstructured vista of a sabbatical.
So, these first few weeks of summer, I've been revising and reflecting on some of the questions I ask clients who are trying to manage large, long-term writing projects. One thing I've been thinking about is the difference between being productive and feeling productive.
Being productive is important for us writerly folks, especially when our livelihood depends on writing (whether directly by getting paid for our work, or indirectly via tenure and promotion requirements).
As difficult as it is to be a "productive writer" (whatever that is), I think it is even more important--and often more difficult--to feel productive. To have a sense of what one has accomplished each day or working session, and a sense of how all these tiny, daily accomplishments are contributing to the bigger picture. Perhaps a more actionable way of describing this is being mindful of our accomplishments.
In this day and age, it seems counter-intuitive to stress feeling productive over actually being productive.
Isn't the path towards a sense of accomplishment simply doing more, writing more, accomplishing more? My experiences both writing and working with writers suggests it's the exact opposite. To be productive in the long term, we have to feel it--we have to be mindful of our productivity.
Feeling productive fuels more consistent and effectual working habits, which in turn can yield a greater number and quality of finished writing projects.
When our draft writing becomes haunted by aimlessness, purposelessness or a perceived lack of progress, it will eventually grow stale--it's not a matter of if.
It starts to seem like the whole writing process is some intractable conflict against circuitousness, like we are at the mercy of ideas, sources, dialogues that are outside of our control. We forget that we are in charge of our writing and our arguments--not the other way around. We are the ones building them from the ground up.
Being aware of what you have accomplished--whether on an hourly, daily or weekly basis-- trains your mind to think in a nuanced, goal-oriented way about even the smaller and more mundane aspects of your project.
The more these mental muscles are worked, you start to gain a new set of eyes when you look at your material. This kind of vision helps you sit down to a document or MS Word file folder and see meaningful steps and strategies that are adding up to something tangible, rather than the chaos of disconnected thoughts and aimless writing sessions. This increasing ability to see the opportunities to "chunkify" and strategize in turn leads to more efficient project management, and can also help strengthen the conceptual connections between the various arguments and ideas in your writing.
The awareness I'm talking about is hard to cultivate. It involves striking a tricky balance between being mindful of the smaller building blocks of your larger project on the one hand, while also not getting sucked into the details/ minutia/ ennui that tend to accompany a work in progress.
It is most difficult to find this balance in the middle of a project, when we're "on the ground," so to speak. At the beginning or end of long-term projects, by contrast, it is easier to process our project metacognitively--to fly above what we're doing and take a bird's eye inventory of where we're going, what we're aiming at. In the beginning we do this by way of planning and strategizing, and at the end we do this in a reflective, tying-up-loose ends kind of way.
As difficult as it may be to feel productive, we can and should work on it. This is why the start of summer can be such an important juncture. Many of us are stepping out of old loops and into new ones--starting new projects, new routines, new habits. When starting a project, we can intentionally seek to incorporate mindfulness and awareness habits into our work rhythms. Some of these habits can focus on recognizing and reflecting on specific, tangible accomplishments we have already made within that particular writing projects.
Over the next month or so, I'll be posting further thoughts, tips and reflections on how to nourish a sense of accomplishment in writing, and how to channel this into stronger writing habits and outcomes.
And if you are one of those lucky souls and entering your first official weeks/ months of sabbatical, I wish you lots of clear thinking and inspiration!
Writer's Loom Blog
In praise of tight writing in a world of loose ends.