Acting My Age – Take 2

time

While it may be cliché, it is nonetheless true: the older you get, the faster time passes. As I was walking to work this morning, I became keenly aware of this very concept on a number of levels. The first happened as I was thinking about writing this blog. I realized I hadn’t blogged in a little while. As it turns out – it’s been six months! Those common and all-too-real words popped into my head: “Where did the time go?”  Like everyone else I know, my life is filled with an endless variety of things which take my time and run away with it. Some of these are wonderful – my time with my grandson, my oldest daughter’s wedding, working on my yard. But some of them are not as enjoyable – my hour-long commute twice a day, a job that is financially rewarding and emotionally draining, and my seemingly endless struggle to balance the things I need to do against the things I want to do.

As I was making my brisk walk from the parking lot to my office (about two city blocks), I became very aware of both time and age. There had been an accident on the freeway which had slowed me down considerably, and I was feeling frustrated at being late when I had every intention of arriving early.

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It felt as if some unseen monster was taking a bite out of my valuable time pie, and I grew tense and angry. When I finally reached the parking lot, the temperamental machine required three attempts for me to make my payment. More time wasted, more frustration. By the time I parked and gathered my things to start walking, I could feel the tightness of anxiety in my chest and across my shoulders. My jaw tensed, teeth clenched, I started my walk toward work.

A few paces ahead of me was a young woman making her way to her office as well. She wore the requisite uniform of a young executive: a grey skirt, pale yellow blouse, grey sweater, and tennis shoes so she could walk faster on the uneven sidewalks. A leather bag hung from her shoulder, the heels of her beige pumps sticking out from one side. She stared straight ahead with fierce determination as she prepared to storm across the intersection when the light changed. Her hair was pulled back in a tight twist and I tried not to laugh as I wondered if her brain felt as tight as her hairdo.

blurred shot of business executives in a hurry

blurred shot of business executives in a hurry

As I watched her launch into the cross walk and move with quick, steady strides, I developed a kind of sadness for her. She was speeding up her world and rushing through time in a way she would one day come to regret. I instantly felt myself slowing down. I lost the urge to rush to the office building and instead took a moment to enjoy the shade of the trees that line Main Street. I listened to the clacking and squeaking of the light rail train that rounded the corner to head to the university. I watched a robin hoping along the steps to the great grey building that is now a courthouse, but that I remember as a kid as being the huge post office we came and visited in fourth grade.

I found a good pace and realized that the young woman who’d been hard-charging ahead of me had disappeared into a building. I thought about her uniform as became aware of my own choice of clothing for the day: white, knee-length shorts; a reddish shirt with an imprint of the Hindu deity Ganesha on it; a beige sweater (it gets cold at my desk), and gold sandals to match my gold jewelry.

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There was a time I would have dressed exactly like that young woman. It would have seemed appropriate. Uncomfortable, but appropriate. All the time that has passed by me has brought with it the opportunity to dress how I want. I’m happy to have landed in a place where suits and skirts aren’t expected – but even if they were, I’d put my own spin on the uniform.

I realized another thing as I reached my office this morning: I’ve survived enough work environments to know that being true to who I am is far more important to me than trying to conform to what I think others expect of me. It’s far easier to relax (usually) and to allow the world to just be what it is than to allow myself to get upset about things over which I have no control. I didn’t cause the accident that slowed traffic, and I surely couldn’t speed that up. I didn’t cause the silly parking payment machine to be persnickety and uncooperative. Allowing myself to become frustrated by it was a waste of energy and time that I could better use somewhere else.

This is truly one of the benefits of learning to act my age. And the Ganesha tee-shirt doesn’t hurt either.

Conflicts of Interest

I think I’m beginning to dread summers.  For the past three years they have been chaotic times for me, and they are coming to represent chaos on a larger scale than ever now.

There is the family chaos of kids and spouse that is ongoing, but seems to somehow intensify from May to September, that drains much of my creative energy away.  Then there is the chaos of extended family which contributes the stress affecting my family and my ability to focus on the needs and priorities of  my home.  Much of this I simply have to resign myself to because – simply put – I can’t get rid of the members of family just because they annoy me at times.

There is the personal chaos of having too many things on my plate at once.   am aware that I need to be more selective in the activities I take and the commitments I make.  I love being active and involved in things, but the ability to say no to some requests is a skill which continually needs developing.  There are times I’m better at this than others.  Now isn’t one of the better ones, and I find that I am committed to the gills for weeks and weeks.

Now there is the employment chaos – again.  I believe God laughs when we make plans because they represent an opportunity to have a little fun with human lives.  God, the universe, (insert the deity of your choice here) must look at our well-crafted planning as a means for personal entertainment.  Not that I honestly think God personally sets out to have fun at the expense of humans, but it does on occasion feel that way. 

The most frustrating part of the whole work thing is that, with the collapse of each well-crafted plan, each new step I seem to be facing is a step away from my heart.  Every time I have to shift my employment to a new set of circumstances (for very practical and important reasons, I assure you), I watch my writing time diminish, and my writing goals slip further and further from my hands.  I go weeks without making serious progress on a manuscript, and the stress of not being able to spend the time I want and need on my writing is beginning to take a tole on my mental health.  It’s like the old “I Love Lucy” episode, where Lucy and Ethel go to work at a candy factory and everything starts to go wrong:

Everything is backed up, spilling off the conveyor, and Lucy and Ethel have to struggle to make things look as if they are normal.  Of course, that only results in a bigger set of problems.

That’s where I am now.

Bigger problems.

There seems to be an enormous difference between what I want to do and what I have to do.  That difference creates a conflict that is elevating my stress level to dangerous heights.  Trying to resolve this is overwhelming me, so the result is that very little is being accomplished to any reasonable degree. It feels as if my brain is in a blender set to “frappe” right now.

It’s a truly frustrating place to be, and I’m hoping the answer makes itself known to me soon.

Writing on Paper Towels

This time of year, time is a precious commodity.  Between giving finals, grading, attending parties with family and friends, and supporting children in their holiday programs, the time to write is limited to what I can sneak in for a few minutes here and there.  Often these minutes come very late at night.

Many years ago, when my children were quite young and I was new to writing, I learned to write in fits and spurts while they were at preschool, or napping, or occupied for ten minutes with a toy.  I learned to keep a  notebook with me everywhere so that I would never lose an opportunity to write down an idea, a snippet of dialog, a character description.  I had notebooks stashed by my bed, in the kitchen, in my car, in my purse, in my laundry room (I get great ideas doing laundry).

It was my normal way of writing, grabbing a few minutes here or there, writing from the top of my head.  It was by no means easy, but it was what I could do.  It’s how I wrote the first book I ever had published, and I learned valuable skills from it.  I learned to focus quickly.  I learned not to waste time daydreaming, I learned not be get distracted by the phone ringing or the dog barking.  These skills have served me well for a lot of years.

Then, when my children were all in school full-time, I discovered the luxury of writing full-time, of spending hours and hours at the computer and creating.  I had days where I would start as soon as the kids were at school, and I would work until they came home at 3:00 in the afternoon. I would work and rework a scene.  I would develop complicated, in-depth character studies, and I would write until my wrists were numb. I had a lot of success with magazine and internet writing, and I sold a little project to Klutz publishing this way.  I also went back to school for my Master’s degree (and met Alison McGhee, whose blog I’ve added to my blogroll!  Check her out!).  After starting my Master’s I wrote two novels in my first six months!  I got used to having my butt firmly planted in my chair in front of my computer. But after I graduated, I had to figure out a way to pay for my student loans, and my royalty checks just weren’t enough to make the payment (the degree cost about $30,000).

So I started teaching English at a private business college.  Part-time worked into full-time, which worked into full-time and paying for our medical insurance (that’s a long story for another blog). Once again, my writing has been reduced to fits and spurts that I fit in whenever, and wherever, I can.  I’ve had to go back to the strategies that I used when I first started out.  Once again, there are notebooks stashed all around my house.  There is a notebook in my purse, and one that I carry in my rolling cart that holds all my teaching materials.  And yes, there is one in my laundry room, which my kids use to leave me messages that we are out of milk or they want me to buy cookies the next time I go to the store.

On rare occasions, I get caught without a notebook handy, and I have to resort to whatever I’ve got.  I’ll write a description on the back of my bank receipt.  I’ve got envelopes with dialog written on them, and a paper towel that has a scene outlined for a s/f book I’ve started work on.

There are some advantages to working this way.  When you work under time compression,each minute you have is precious, and you are less inclined to waste time.  This is why I don’t post a blog everyday.  Some days I just need to focus on the book, and there is nothing to spare.  Working this way also cuts out a lot of the bulls**t.  I can’t rewrite a scene three or four times, so I work it out in my head before I commit it to the computer.  It will get revised later, but it won’t get rewritten.  I strive to make it as good as possible before I put it on paper.

Working this way also forces me to think about the common mistakes made by me and other writers.  I can’t afford to commit verb tense shifts because I don’t have the time to go back and find them.  I keep a sharp awareness of pronoun use, of melodramatic language, and of dialog tags so that I don’t waste time fixing beginner mistakes over and over.  Not having that time makes me more aware of my writing style.

I met Kate DiCamillo during my Master’s program. She is a funny, self-effacing young woman who tells a delightful story of working full-time for a book distributor while writing her first novel, “Because of Winn Dixie”which received the Newbery honor.  She would get up at 3:00 in the morning so that she could write for an hour before going to work.  She would only have a few precious moments each day to spend on her manuscript, so she made sure to make each one count.  While she was at work, she would think of ideas, jot herself notes, and then go home and do a little more work on the book before going to bed.  I forget how long it took her to write the novel, but she worked this way for quite some time, and she said in her visit that she knows it made her a better writer.

It would be easy for me to whine about not having the time I want or need to do what I love, but the truth is it wouldn’t change the reality.  I have what I have, and right now, I’m content with that.  I believe that it makes me a stronger writer both technically and emotionally.  Of course, if I win the Idaho lottery next week, I’d go back to writing full-time in a heart beat.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or extra cash to drive to Idaho and buy the tickets, so I guess that’s not going to happen anytime soon!

Until then, or until I win the Prinz award next year, I’ll be happy doing what I’m doing, and scratching notes on stray pieces of paper.  At least I can take pride in knowing that I contribute to my family, do something I believe in, and still have time for things I am passionate about.  Now if only I could learn to play the Celtic harp sitting on my window seat . . .

Writing vs. Work vs. Writing

It’s been a grueling month, one which I hope not to repeat any time in the near future.  Unfortunately, the remaining two months of the year are looking mighty similar to what I’ve just been through.  It’s frustrating.  I’m not writing enough.

I can always tell when I haven’t spent enough time working on stories.  I feel off balance, as if part of me is weighted down and unable to move with the fluidity and speed I need to have.  Sluggish, that’s the term for it.  Like I’m dragging, or grinding gears.

It’s not that I lack the desire, or the discipline.  I lack the time.  In a recent heated discussion with my significant other, he suggested what I needed was better time management.  I retaliated that what I needed was a little more understanding from him about what I value in my life.  Then I sat down and produced for him a schedule of exactly how well-managed my time is.  I calculated the number of hours I spend in the classroom teaching (33 hours per week), the amount of time I spend preparing, grading, and reviewing for class (15 – 20 hours, except at finals when it doubles), the time I drive kids to and from activities (5 hours), the time I give to my writing (10 hours a week on a good week, far less than I need) and the time I take to spend time with him (5 hours a week – again, not enough). 

Fully 1/3 of my week is devoted to work.  Before I continue, I want to clarify that my teaching is just a job.  My writing is my passion, it just – unfortunately – doesn’t yet pay the bills. Thus my dilemma, and my recent complaints leading to the heated discussion.  Trying to remember that it is “just a job” is often difficult because I approach everything I do with commitment and dedication.  Even my first marriage, despite what my ex-husband might say, I went into with whole-hearted belief and dedication. But that’s another story for another time.

The problem is that, once again, I find my life in conflict between what I do and what I love.  Now, lest my students read this and somehow think I don’t like them anymore – let me state for the record: I like teaching, I love my students, and I enjoy what I do.  For a job, it’s not a bad way to go.  I appreciate that I am paid well for what I do, and I have always liked being in an academic environment.

But I am a writer, not a teacher.  Writing nourishes me in a way that nothing else can.  I don’t want to say that “I live for writing,” because I don’t.  I live for all the varied, interesting things I  have in my life.  But writing is a vital organ.  It is a necessary part of who I am.

I did get a bit of encouragement and understanding from, of all places, my mother-in-law.  Save the jokes – I absolutely adore this woman.  We just celebrated her 82nd birthday a few weeks ago, and this lady hasn’t missed a step.

I was helping her with a mouse problem.  I was setting traps and cleaning cupboards, bemoaning my situation when she put some things into perspective for me.

“It doesn’t matter what you choose to do,” she said. “There will never be enough time for everything and if you start worrying about, you’ll spend more time worrying than actually doing.”

She went on to tell me about when she switched careers at age 48, “just as a temporary situation.” My father in law was struggling to earn enough to support the family (he was 50, mind you) and she went from a part-time accounting job to a full-time accounting and human resources job for a local property development company.  It was just supposed to tie them over for a little while.  She stayed almost 30 years. She retired at 73.

Her point to me was that life will never give you exactly what you want, and if you spend all your time worrying about it, you’ll waste what precious time you have.  “Do what you need first, do what you want second, and don’t waste time on the rest of it.”

She’s a sharp cookie, that one.  And I hope she lives to be 120.  At the rate she’s going, she might do just that.  And I hope I live to be old enough to be there with her.

I applied her advice, stopped worrying about how much time I didn’t have and focused on the time I did have.  I got 2 hours of quality writing on a new novel done. It’s still not as much time as I would like ideally, but it’s better than thinking I didn’t have enough time at all. I wrote faster, too, because I wasn’t worried about the other things I should be doing.  For too long, now, I’ve treated my writing time as though it were an intrusion into other things.  I kept fussing about how it was important to me, but I hadn’t really given that time the priority it needed.  Attitude adjustment.  Long overdue.

I look forward to greater productivity from hence forth.