Changing the Rules

I have been busy in my head of late assem­bling a (hope­ful­ly small) col­lec­tion of new rules for myself vis-à-vis blog­ging (in par­tic­u­lar) and mak­ing stuff for the inter­net (in gen­er­al). This has been fun, excit­ing, a lit­tle mad­cap, but most­ly sober­ing. I am real­ly crap at per­sist­ing in mak­ing any­thing, online or off, almost entire­ly due to an absence of dis­ci­pline in my inter­nal life, with an over­whelm­ing amount of mun­dane life com­mit­ments piled on top.

My life is not going to mag­ick­ally become less crammed full of demands and com­mit­ments. Far from it. In two months I will be done with grad school and back home work­ing full-time once again, in a demand­ing posi­tion as head of two depart­ments. So it will do no good to wait and wish for things to calm down. Instead, I need to calm myself down, to tame my mon­key mind and re-devel­op, from square one, the “mind like water” that David Allen speaks of. And after way, way too long spent most­ly just feel­ing sor­ry for myself and/or pan­ick­ing, I am at last climb­ing out of my rot­ten rut and mak­ing a real effort to dust myself off and get charg­ing for­ward.

So here are, in no par­tic­u­lar order or rela­tion to each oth­er, sev­er­al new rules or para­me­ters I intend to imple­ment and enforce for myself. I don’t expect any mir­a­cles to hap­pen as a result, but if I put in the effort, I do expect them to be the first steps down the path to a more bal­anced, pro­duc­tive, and cre­ative expe­ri­ence of liv­ing.

  1. Make stuff. I have to lead off with this, because it is the eas­i­est thing to com­plete­ly lose sight of. How many times do we (and I include myself as the poster child for this) get lost in a for­est of incred­i­ble-sound­ing tips and tricks and tools and meth­ods and oth­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty porn, and nev­er end up mak­ing a damn thing? That’s right, too many. I fan­cy myself a cre­ative per­son — a writer, if you will — and I have let too much moss grow on my tired back. Even while my world is in flames around me, I am tak­ing up my writer’s torch again and start­ing once more to write myself to safe­ty, or at least to sense. While I have quite a range of writ­ten projects in the off­ing, per­son­al blog­ging is the most imme­di­ate, and offers the most direct path from effort to com­ple­tion and grat­i­fi­ca­tion. So here we go, and no stop­ping. Even if it is crap (and when isn’t it, real­ly?), it still needs to ship. The lights are com­ing back on.
  2. No more com­ments. This one has been a long time com­ing. The only hon­est rea­son to allow com­ments on a blog post, even mod­er­at­ed ones, is sim­ple: the blog­ger needs to prove to him­self or her­self that peo­ple are read­ing their stuff. I will with­out hes­i­ta­tion admit that is what I have looked to them for as long as I have been blog­ging. I’m not say­ing I am beyond that now — I crave atten­tion and affir­ma­tion as much as ever — but blog com­ments are hard­ly the way to get that in any mean­ing­ful degree. I have a lot more to say on this point, but we will have to save that for future post. For now, it is enough to announce that I’m switch­ing them off.
  3. Build up a reserve before launch­ing any­thing. Too many times over the past, well, whole life, I’ve had an excit­ing idea, done some ini­tial burst of work on it, then imme­di­ate­ly dashed about to friends, fam­i­ly, and the cute barista to get them all to take a look at it forth­with. Even when the response was enthu­si­as­tic and reward­ing, my cre­ative sta­mi­na was so low that, in every case, my out­put rapid­ly fell behind my self-imposed expec­ta­tions, and I just gave up and quit. This time, before I light up a neon sign point­ing to my lat­est endeav­or (yes, there is some­thing new in the works), I want to make sure I have the shelves stocked, so to speak. Tak­ing the extra time and effort to stack up a few weeks worth of con­tent means I can open the dig­i­tal doors with plen­ty for folks to look at (and judge if they want to keep com­ing back), and might help me cement the habits I need to keep mak­ing stuff at the same pace once the thing is live.
  4. Work in nine­ty-minute blocks of time. This is entire­ly behind-the-scenes to my read­er­ship, obvi­ous­ly (unless I opt to set up a live web­cam of my “writ­ing process” but that thought is incred­i­bly nau­se­at­ing to me), but I still feel it is worth men­tion­ing. I have only just begun to try it, but I agree with my guru Mer­lin Mann so far: nine­ty min­utes is a good, sol­id chunk of time, and I think it is fea­si­ble to shut down the nat­ter­ing dis­trac­tions of Face­book, Twit­ter, and real life for that long and real­ly knuck­le down on one thing, make real progress, and then break before I start rab­bit-hol­ing or fall asleep. I’m going to start set­ting a timer, and we will see if such a self-imposed con­straint can help me push out of the lethar­gic bub­ble I have been drown­ing in.
  5. Embrace the tools I need to suc­ceed. Yes, this trans­late to new stuff — tools — and this is still dif­fi­cult to jus­ti­fy, even to myself. Most of me thinks I should just hun­ker down on the back steps with a Mole­sk­ine and a Mont Blanc and write a whole new world. And some days I will still do that, I hope. But so much of the writ­ten work I intend to do is bound for elec­tron­ic for­mats, it makes more and more sense to work at a key­board, and while record­ing words in elec­tron­ic form is among the most basic of tech­no­log­i­cal tasks, there are also such things as tools that real­ly, real­ly work; that give me every­thing I need, noth­ing I don’t, and then get the hell out of my way and let me just make stuff. I have a good start on this (Scriven­er is still my cor­ner­stone, roof, and foun­da­tion), but I intend to exam­ine what tools will real­ly and tru­ly assist me in my work­flows, (pos­si­bly) go ahead and get those tools, and then for­get about every­thing else that is out there for a god long time. Obvi­ous­ly much more detail on this point will appear in future, as well.

Of course I know it is all fine and dandy to spout some half-digest­ed pro­duc­tiv­i­ty tid­bits I’ve picked up from some pod­cast. I still have to prove — first to me, and then to you — that I can step up and put some or any of these wor­thy rules into last­ing action. For now, it’s just more talk from a chron­ic under­achiev­er who is rapid­ly run­ning out of chances to get it right.

I need to buckle down

Oh, to strike out bold­ly, suck­ing in deep ded­i­cat­ed draughts of knowl­edge and digest­ing rapid­ly and ener­get­i­cal­ly, then turn­ing and plac­ing with both hands, as far out into the world as I can reach, my own craft of words and think­ing. This is my goal, this my desire: to light a fire in my own bel­ly that will know no quench­ing, to burn with ideas, to labor long and fierce­ly into the night and before the sun ris­es, to be a schol­ar who admits no dis­trac­tion until his work is done. I want to punch myself in the face so hard I cry for a week at the ache of it, to slam my fist against weak flesh and bone and wake me up to the plow­man’s labor I need to have set my hand to years ago.

What? Yes, I want to be a writer, and I have many avenues of that craft that I want to chase my words down, herd­ing them like rabid preg­nant cats, cor­ralling them into the shape of sto­ries, his­to­ries, insights, and truth. We know how dear­ly I still want to tell my sem­i­nary sto­ries, the sto­ries of my jour­ney of faith and reli­gion, and noth­ing would bring me more sat­is­fac­tion than to see that project con­sum­mat­ed, per­fect­ed, and chas­ing around in search of a prof­itable avenue of pub­li­ca­tion. That day will come.

The now of my writ­ing, how­ev­er, is the now of my career — my voca­tion — in canon law. I have not emerged as a stun­ning schol­ar in this my cho­sen pro­fes­sion as of yet, and I rec­og­nize cer­tain sig­nif­i­cant lim­i­ta­tions that will prob­a­bly con­tin­ue to bar me from the high­est flights of my field. But that does not mean that I have no con­tri­bu­tion to make, and if I can amend even one of those innu­mer­ate lim­i­ta­tions — my fail­ure to apply myself to my work — then I know that there is a depth to my God-giv­en skills and tal­ents that will tear a hole in the veil of obscu­ri­ty my habit­u­al indo­lence has drawn over my aca­d­e­m­ic years. No more of this. It is way past time to put to proof my asser­tion that I have been worth edu­cat­ing. It is time to emerge from the shad­ows where I have been laz­ing and throw my mono­grammed hat into the schol­ar­ly ring. It is time to read hard and heavy, and to pen some jour­nal arti­cles, like a boss.

And the hard­est part is going to be, with­out any doubt, shut­ting out the cycle of dis­trac­tion I have bur­rowed my metaphor­i­cal ass into over these past sev­er­al years. Yes, I mean Face­book, and Twit­ter, and LinkedIn, and Goodreads, and Tum­blr, and all the many, many dis­trac­tions that the on-line, plugged-in life I have embraced is built around. No, I don’t want to sev­er myself from any of those tools, for I believe they are tools both valu­able and need­ed. But they are also addic­tive, and my infat­u­a­tion with idle­ness has latched me deep into them, a latch I must break if I am ever to be weaned from the Mobius loop teat of social media to the harsh but health­ful rations of dis­ci­plined self-appli­ca­tion to my own men­tal and cre­ative work. (Ridicu­lous hash of metaphor, I know, but what­ev­er, you get my point.)

I know I can write. I know I can read. I know I can think. I do not know that I am able to sit down at a key­board or a writ­ing desk and just read through page after page of sources, com­pre­hend and syn­the­size their con­tents, and turn to put my own thoughts in an order­ly fash­ion upon a page. I do not know that I can hold myself to any task, I do not know that I can keep myself focused on any­thing that does­n’t have a “Like” but­ton attached to it some­where. But I want to believe that I can do these things, and since I have (for good rea­son) no more faith left in myself as a pro­duc­tive and ded­i­cat­ed per­former of any task, I have no path oth­er than actu­al­ly doing these things — and then doing them again, and again, and again: of con­vinc­ing myself and those I love that I can tru­ly car­ry myself for­ward into a tomor­row in which I star not as a dis­ap­point­ing lump, but as a vital and dri­ven artist and aca­d­e­mi­cian who does­n’t sit in dream of projects he would like to start, maybe some­day. I want to start being some­one who starts projects, tack­les them day after day, and com­pletes them. That is how dras­tic I want this to be.

Blocked? Busy? Either way, still blank

The blank page.

Star­ing back, no mat­ter how long I stare at it.

Wait­ing, with­out the slight­est hint or notion of either patience or impa­tience. Mere­ly wait­ing to receive any words, any words at all, that are placed upon it.

But no words are placed, day after day, week after week, month after month.

The page stays blank.

I keep star­ing.

NaNoWriMo Post-Mortem

I actu­al­ly tried it.

It was a doomed effort, of course, from the start; all odds were stacked against me, as were com­mon sense and human decen­cy. But I rather sus­pect that this is the case for a great many NaNoW­riMo par­tic­i­pants. That’s the point, I sup­pose: you don’t have time to write, but you try any­way.

So I tried, and, unlike last year — where I gave up about ten days in and just past­ed all my pre­vi­ous work on my mem­oir into Scriven­er to see what my total project word count was, then wan­dered off to get a drink — in 2010 I start­ed with a fair­ly con­crete vision of what I want­ed to write and how to write it, and I kept push­ing all the way through the month.

My basic premise: the essen­tial arc, and many of the spe­cif­ic details, of my own expe­ri­ence of sem­i­nary and the lost years that fol­lowed — but made much worse. Every his­tor­i­cal moral lapse would be ampli­fied, every missed oppor­tu­ni­ty for moral lapse would be seized, and more than a few less than stel­lar moments would be imag­ined from the ground up. I approached it more or less as mem­oir meets lad lit, with a mot­to — “as bad as I nev­er end­ed up being” — as my touch­stone.

I can­not pre­tend that I got far enough to real­ly have a full appre­ci­a­tion for what craft­ing a lengthy work of fic­tion means or entails. But I think I can say that I was able to explore some new modes, to stretch myself as a cre­ative writer, and those exper­i­ments were both reward­ing and instruc­tive. For instance, I had nev­er attempt­ed to write a sex scene before. I haven’t even read that many of them, so giv­en that my prin­ci­ple lit­er­ary exam­ples are The Can­ter­bury Tales and Amer­i­can Psy­cho, I con­sid­er it doubt­ful at best that my numer­ous for­ays into that bit of genre over the course of the month were any­thing short of banal. But it was still high­ly enter­tain­ing to take a stab at it (so to speak).

But it was chiefly a fruit­ful expe­ri­ence, in two prin­ci­ple respects. First, it got me flail­ing away at the key­board again, freewrit­ing (which I have not done in far too long) an just let­ting the words flow. And sec­ond, it was very much, as intend­ed, a way to sneak up on my real mem­oir project from a dif­fer­ent angle. By treat­ing them as fic­tion, I was able to write a few scenes from my his­to­ry that have daunt­ed me for years. If that is all it takes to get an hon­est mem­oir writ­ten, I’ll keep work­ing on this crap nov­el as long as need be. I am sure I can make this char­ac­ter of mine get up to some more mis­chief that will make me smile, even if no one else ever sees it.

Memory to Meaning

Mine is not a hero’s jour­ney.

I have not been a war­rior,(1) nor a war cor­re­spon­dent.(2) I did not track down an entire East­ern Euro­pean nation­al soc­cer team and defeat them at ten­nis on a whim,(3) nor invent the Cos­mopoli­tan.(4) I have nev­er been a vio­lent drug addict, or even pur­port­ed to have been one.(5) I have not strug­gled through a night­mare of men­tal ill­ness,(6) or had my life turned inside out and man­gled by the mad­ness of those I was depen­dent upon for love.(7)

In the end, I sup­pose, the sto­ry I have to tell is no more or less than any of those allud­ed to above. It seems far less to me: far less dra­mat­ic, far less mov­ing, far less dev­as­tat­ing, far less mean­ing­ful. I believe this is large­ly because I am the one who has already lived all the expe­ri­ences that make up my life, my jour­ney, my sto­ry. It will read far dif­fer­ent­ly to those who are not me.

But for them to read it, for them to pon­der the words that tell the tale of a life that has unfold­ed as has mine, I will first need to tell it; I will need to actu­al­ly open my mem­o­ry — open my soul — and put down upon the page, one word after anoth­er, the sto­ry that, of all the sto­ries that have ever been told in the entire sweep of human exis­tence, is mine alone to tell.

It is not enough to mere­ly tell a series of events and expe­ri­ences, either. I must ulti­mate­ly craft my life sto­ry, shape it; I must dis­cern in it an arc of mean­ing, or maybe even more than one. This is what dis­tin­guish­es mem­oir from auto­bi­og­ra­phy: mem­oirs, like the great spec­i­mens allud­ed to at the open­ing of this post, are works of lit­er­ary art. They do more than dili­gent­ly nar­rate the events of a life: they make from the events of a life a work of mean­ing that holds some rel­e­vance to the shared human expe­ri­ence of the read­er. Like a sculp­tor find­ing a stat­ue in a block of Por­tuguese mar­ble, I must find the sto­ry that is in my life. I must, not give my lived expe­ri­ence a mean­ing (for it is rife with mean­ing already), but rather I must dis­cov­er what mean­ing it best con­veys it a giv­en form, and find the form that best con­veys the mean­ing that feels most gen­uine.

These are not small tasks. Then again, cre­ative writ­ing, mem­o­ry work, myth mak­ing — these are not small things to attempt. But they are all worth attempt­ing, and with all my being I look for­ward to the labors, almost as much as the fruits.

1) Antho­ny Swof­ford, Jar­head
2) Antho­ny Loyd, My War Gone By, I Miss It So
3) Tony Hawks, Play­ing the Moldovans at Ten­nis
4) Toby Cec­chi­ni, Cos­mopoli­tan: A Bar­tender’s Life
5) James Frey, A Mil­lion Lit­tle Pieces
6) Kay Red­field Jami­son, An Unqui­et Mind
7) Augusten Bur­roughs, Run­ning With Scis­sors