Ch-ch-ch-changes

It’s back to school time. The Little Prince (who is not so little, anymore, being fully as tall as me) has his schedule, his supplies, and today was the last piece of the puzzle–clothes. Schedule flexibility is a working writer’s friend–I can only imagine the zoo the stores must have been the last weekend day before OMG FIRST DAY OF EDUMACATION.

This year the Prince is in high school, and right glad to be out of middle school. Both he and the Princess firmly consider middle school the very worst, though I’ve cautioned the Prince not to decide until both are over. Still, I am hoping the thought that the worst is behind him will ease the transition.

So this week is about adjusting to school hours again, though I don’t have to drag my weary self from bed to drive him like I did for elementary. (Like, when his school actually BURNED DOWN, omg.) It’s bittersweet, the little markers of your kids growing up. Like the liberation that happens when you can say, “Get in the car and put on your seat belt,” and there’s no monkeying about with carseat, booster seat, or anything else. Just a check to make sure they’re buckled, and away you go.

This is the first year I won’t have to get up when the kids do at all. I’m not sure quite what to do with myself, really. Technically I suppose I could go back to my night-bird schedule, which is what my body’s really built for. I’m happiest when I resurrect a little after noon, settle to work around 2pm, and go to bed around 3am-ish. It’s been decades of working against my biorhythms, and I used to long for the day of freedom.

Unfortunately, the dogs are on a set schedule too. So…yeah. Probably not ever going to be able to sleep when my body really wants to.

So. Both kids have smartphones, and their own lives. After so many years of guarding every breath they take, it leaves one a bit at sea. The only help is that the process is gradual, it doesn’t hit you all at once. Or, after a long sea change, you look up and notice they’re…if not adult, then damn close, and the shape of the person they always were and the one they are going to become have gradually overlapped. Wonder of wonders, they actually seem to like hanging out with their mother, even when it’s not the obligatory evening dinner. That’s the best thing of all, when your children can stand you.

I’m sure I’ll cry on the first day of school. I always do. Don’t tell anyone, though. I have a reputation to maintain.

photo by: Alan Smythee

Feathery Pinhole Shadows

Tree shadows, acting like pinhole cameras during the solar eclipse. The kids went down to a local athletic field with eclipse glasses to see the totality, and came back afterward so I could use the glasses. Man, science is amazing.

The birds and squirrels are still not quite sure what the fuck, but I suspect they’ll be making their normal racket soon.

Creative Irritation

I’m hitting that part of a creative spike where things like eating and sleeping fill me with irritation, because they take time away from writing. Anything that calls me out of the other worlds I’m building tap-by-tap is resented. Well, not quite anything–the kids and the dogs get a dispensation, but even when I’m with them or tending their needs, a part of me is running over a story or two in the back of my brain, shake-tapping the pieces so they’ll fall together when I can sit down and write again.

It’s funny, but now that the kids are older, they’ve started attempting to take care of me. The Princess will bring in fresh soft pretzels, the Little Prince will keep the dogs occupied while I’m hunched over my keyboard, alternately chewing my fingernails and typing at high speed. They’re bloody thrilled to take care of supper one day a week, and slightly less thrilled to keep the kitchen clean but they do it anyway. It is an exotic thing, to have one’s children call you to the table for supper. It’s like the moment they can buckle their own seatbelts. The pride in their achievement is married to a sneaking sense of mild loss and a larger wistfulness, hoping against hope that one isn’t forcing them to grow up too quickly.

Another symptom of the creative spike is intense, color-saturated, extremely fragrant dreams. Last night it was a particular classroom I haven’t thought about in years, but every detail–including the nasty short orange-flecked nylon carpet–apparently stayed inside the recesses of my gray matter, as well as the particular smell of chalk and the brand of fabric softener the teacher used on her slightly sour clothes. You know the smell–when they sit in the washer for a while, and finally they’re run through the dryer, but that tang of mildew remains? I always wondered why she smelled like that, and apparently my brain is still pawing lightly at the question. And dream-me is still running her fingertips along the edge of my desk in that room, every chip and crack familiar.

Anyway, the classroom started to crack and shiver, and neon-green jungle vines crawled in through the sides. I sat frozen as my classmates screamed in terror. All I felt was weary delight that finally school was out for the day.

I’m sure there’s some sort of message there, but I’m just going to call it a sort of mental upchucking to make room in the belly for other things. The only trouble with those dreams is that they’re not quite as restful as plain sleep, so I wake feeling frayed and even more irritated, desperate to get back to writing.

So. It’s Monday, I almost carried the French press and my clothes into the shower with me, I am fractious and longing to lose myself in imaginary worlds. It could be a lot worse, really.

Time to write.

Protecting Your Work, Part II

I’m a sucker for a good bodyguard story. I pop those narratives like candy, they hit all my kinks. There’s something seductive about the idea of being protected, of someone caring enough to want to keep you safe. I can, black-hearted and stone-faced bitch that I am, be brought to soppy tears by a good peril-bodyguard-romance.

Unfortunately, I live in the real world, and I learned long ago that there’s no such thing as a bodyguard, really. There is nobody waiting around to save me. In the end–all the way down the line, really–I’ve got to take care of myself.

Don’t ever wait for someone else to protect you and your writing. You have to be your own goddamn bodyguard, babe, and look out for your work as well. How? Here’s a few ways.

* Admit that the world does not want you to write. There’s always going to be something you can procrastinate with. There’s always going to be life getting in the way. The world is not built for our comfort, my friends. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and you can spend a lot of time bemoaning it. Don’t. That time is better spent giving the world the finger by actually getting some writing done. Go ahead and be mad about the unfairness of it all, as long as that anger energy is spent on actually writing.

* Prioritize. Confession: I’d rather be watching a K-drama and eating chocolate than writing this blog post. I’d rather do zero drafts than revise, I’d rather pitch a fit about how nobody understands my geeeeenyus than admit an edit letter’s right. It doesn’t matter. Writing this blog post, revising, and swallowing the harsh bits of an edit letter are priorities today. Set aside five minutes or so every week–I suggest on a Monday–to just think about your priorities. You’ve got five minutes, set a timer and just…think about it.

My children? Priority. My mortgage? Priority. Working rather than faffing about on YouTube? Priority. I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever decompress, but take a week or so and log your time. If you’re spending hours doing things that don’t advance your (small OR large) goals, it’s time to rethink.

* Put the inner asshole to work FOR you. There’s a long passage in IT where Stephen King, via Ritchie Tozier, talks about grabbing the wild internal asshole who’s fucking up your life and putting him to plow. “He works like a demon once you get him in the traces,” is, I think, how King put it. Example: I spent most of my young life as an adrenaline junkie. That’s hard on your body and your life, so I pour that addiction into my work (combat scenes, anyone?) and running. I get the same kick, but I’m not using unsafe behavior to get it.

Figure out who your inner bitch is, and get to know her. Not only will she pull the plow fast and far once you figure out who she is and where to point her, but you can also use her for perhaps the most important thing of all, which is…

* Practice saying no. Saying “yes” isn’t a bad thing. What’s damaging, though, is the “uhhh, I really don’t want to, but emotional blackmail…so I guess I will.” Saying no to protect yourself is hard, hard, hard. Do yourself a favor and start with little things. Sugar in my coffee? No, thanks. Do I like *band of the moment*? No, I really don’t. Work up to the big “no”–no, I can’t kill myself turning around those copyedits in three days, no, I won’t respond to this fan who thinks he’s my soulmate, no, I won’t answer the door while I’m working. Practice letting your “no” be enough. If you need help or guidance on how to do this, I suggest reading some Captain Awkward, who is sixty different flavors of amazing, gives great life advice, and is hella clear and easy to follow on creating boundaries.

Your “no” can be a weapon, and it can be a gift you give yourself. Don’t be afraid to use this marvelous gift to protect your writing time.

* Build your habit. I get a lot of flak for saying “write every day.” I understand that doesn’t work for some pro writers and some pros have other views. That’s okay. You’re here on my site reading my advice, and my advice is: write every goddamn day. Set a kitchen timer for five minutes and write. Set it for ten and write. Do it every damn day.

Why? Because getting into that habit will help you prioritize writing. Carving out a little bit of time, no matter how small, to do something every. damn. day. sends the signal that you’re serious about it. It’s also a way to game yourself into producing words. Often–like, 95% of the time–the timer will ring but you won’t stop, because the pump has been primed and you can write for a little longer, a little longer. And before you know it, you’ve horked up a chunk of text.

You can fix ugly writing. It’s much harder to fix a blank page.

* Recognize toxicity. We all know how I feel about writing groups. There are going to be people who don’t like you writing, either because it takes your attention away from them or because they fear what you’re going to say, or–you know, who the hell cares why they don’t want you to write? Fuck them. Look out for toxic people–those who undercut your confidence, make you feel like you’re unlovable or hard to like, who always seem to have a crisis while you’re in the middle of a project. Now, there are genuine Life Crises that arise while you’re writing, and those deserve to be priorities. But be watchful for emotional blackmail and the people who do not want you to write, or worse, want to vampirize your writing energy for their own purposes.

I don’t speak about it often, but I lost a few people I thought were my friends when I finally got published. My achievement felt threatening to them, and the emotional blackmail rose to epic proportions. It was so bad I didn’t trust my own perceptions until my husband at the time (there was a reason I married him) validated them, and supported me in cutting those people out of my life. Had he not, it would have taken me a lot longer to activate my inner bitch and let those people go, and I’m grateful for it. I’m even grateful for the lesson in how to spot people who only like you when your dreams are out of reach. Life is too short for that crap.

* List, list, list. I love making lists. A master to-do list for overarching projects, daily lists to help me with the bite-size stepping stones to those projects, grocery lists. If you get overwhelmed by lists, you can always redo them. A list isn’t set in stone, YOU are the smart monkey with thumbs who made it.

Every time you update a list, put one thing on it you’ve already done, so you can get the dopamine hit of crossing it off. Set aside one day a month (or week, if that’s your jam) to update your master list, and feel good about every damn thing you’ve crossed off EVER, not just on the current lists. Lists are powerful. There’s a reason we’ve been making them ever since cuneiform.

* Admit your worth. One of the most effective ways to guard your tender inner self and your work is to admit you’re worth it. If you’re reading this and have any suspicion that you may not be, in fact, worth it, let me put that to rest right now in the strongest possible way. YOU ARE FUCKING WORTH IT, TAKE IT FROM ME, I AM TELLING YOU RIGHT NOW. Read it as many times as you need to, my friend.

The world may not care, but it really does need your writing. It needs you healthy and producing, even though it may not seem like it. Other human beings who need stories need you to fight to take care of yourself, even though the whole universe is seemingly set up otherwise. You are the only person in the world who can tell the stories lining up at your skull-door, that’s why they chose you. You are also the only person who can take care of those story-babies, who can make your writing time a priority, who can liberate your inner bodyguard bitch and make her work for you.

So. We’ve gone over burnout, and how to bodyguard yourself. Let’s do a small experiment: I’d like you, my dear Reader, to hop on down to the comments and give one concrete way you can protect yourself this week.

I look forward to hearing it.

Protecting Your Work, Part I

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “protecting the work.”

I ran across the concept years ago, in this essay by Jennifer Crusie. Much like my beloved writing partner’s “it makes me tired,” it’s a phrase I absorbed and had to spend a long time learning to apply.

I’m slow, yes, but I can be taught. Just ask said writing partner.

I ran up against a wall last week. A high creative spike collided with some…unfortunate news. The energy I’d been using to create a new world from scratch evaporated into Dealing With Bullshit, and I ended up drained to transparency, my nerves raw exposed sparking wires and my fists aching for the heavy bag I still haven’t had the time to hang up. (Even though we’ve been in this house for *mumblemumble* years now.) I knew the signs–I’d hit burnout, and in a big way. Self-care was called for, so I took the weekend off, read a few books, hung out with the kids, brushed the dogs, did housework, and only wrote 200 words each day. *sigh*

What do you do when burnout is a real and looming problem? Here’s a few strategies.

* Admit there’s a problem. It sounds stupid-simple, right? I always think of my therapist introducing me to the transtheoretical model of change–specifically, the precontemplation part, where you begin to think about thinking about changing. A possibility one does not admit is a possibility lying fallow. Admitting to yourself that your work has value, your energy is finite, and you are worth conserving some of said energy to spend on what you want and like doesn’t sound like a big deal, but without it there’s a snowball’s chance in a forest fire you’ll be able to protect yourself. Protecting yourself is part of protecting your work.

* Small wins. I can tell when I have enough energy, because I can look at the master to-do list taped above my desktop and feel excited instead of crushed under a heavy load of pointlessness. When the latter happens, I flip the list so I can’t see it and say out loud, “I need a win.” Which is my verbal signal to start looking for something easy and quick that I can feel good about. Like setting a kitchen timer for five minutes and writing. When the timer rings, I feel good because I did at least that. Or I do three pushups–just three. That’s a small win. There are a couple games I keep on easy mode for when I need the dopamine jolt of a quick victory. Cooking an egg. Pulling a few weeds. The whole point is to take five minutes and do something that gives you a tangible “win,” no matter how small. Stack a few of those little wins together, and somehow the rest of the day’s work doesn’t feel as daunting.

* Retract. I call this one “going into my cave.” There is absolutely no shame in curling up under a blanket for a little while. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your own creative process requires you to put an edit letter in a drawer for a week before getting to work on it. You are not required to be on social media when you don’t want to deal with harassment, or when you’re tired, or when you just plain don’t want to be there. Give yourself concrete and definite withdrawal time; build it into your schedule just as you build in commute time for work or appointments. Note: if you’re worried about becoming isolated, that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax, which is why I say “definite time.” You can always add a few minutes/hours to a scheduled retraction, or decide to re-engage with the world early if you’re feeling super good.

* Clean. Or don’t clean. Housework (or yard work, or any other small chores involved with living) can be therapy. It can also be procrastination, or a “not-good-enough” stick to beat yourself with. Sundays are generally full-family “cleaning days” here at Chez Saintcrow, with the kids and I doing several 20/10s to make our living space reasonable for the next week. I love the 20/10s so much–it’s a version of giving myself a small win. When I’ve finished a zero draft and the flywheel inside my head is trying to slow down, cleaning gives me enough moving around and tangible progress to provide a little relief. Sometimes, when stuck in a scene, I’ll wash dishes or fold laundry until it resolves itself. Chores can be a help to creativity. On the other hand, they can be total procrastination, or you can get overwhelmed and slide down a long slope of “I should be tidier” straight into “fucking depressed because my living space isn’t surgically neat.” In that case, you can use a 20/10 to break out of that despondency and show yourself tangible progress, or you can repeat after me: “Can I get to the exit if there’s a fire? Yes? Good, I’m not going to worry about that right now.” Give yourself permission not to feel like crap over housework.

* Bitch. I’m serious. If you have a trusted friend you can bitch to, great. Set aside some time for a rant session. (Make sure you’re not simply unloading on your poor friend. Have definite time limits for the session, and negotiate beforehand so your friend knows they don’t have to fix it, just listen.) If you don’t have that trusted friend, or don’t want to “bother” them, set a pillow in a chair and rant out loud to it for a specific amount of time. DON’T rant on the internet, anonymously or not–on that route lies shit-stirring, don’t give jerkwads a chance to bite you. DON’T yell at your pets, kids, or houseplants. I like the pillow-in-the-chair because it’s difficult for me to anthropomorphize a pillow. (I tried ranting at a sockmonkey once, and ended up apologizing to it for hurting his feelings.) Don’t ever underestimate the power of a good bitch session for letting off internal pressure and freeing up a ton of energy that can go into your work once you’ve finished complaining. Sometimes, trembling on the edge of burnout, I’ve spent as much as twenty minutes ranting, getting as petty and vicious as I want to be…and, at the end of the session, I feel so much better it’s not even funny, and I go back to work with a tranquil smile.

Dealing effectively with burnout is only part of protecting your work. Tomorrow, I’m going to write about another part–being your own bodyguard.

Big Shape

On our rambles, Miss B and I come across all sorts of things. Sometimes she wishes to investigate them. Sometimes, though, it’s large machinery, and she gives me a sidelong look that says no thanks, Mum, I know better.

Would that humans were as wise as this one shaggy, neurotic little Australian shepherd…