Reset

Tara Mae Mulroy, a former editor for The Pinchblogged the creation of a poem one recent morning, and also invoked the issue of scheduling writing, the problem of finding a suitable block of enough quiet to compose. There’s little I love more than the process conversation, and the idea of process, specifically the cultivation of writing habits (and others), has been at the forefront of my mind all summer.

For the first time, I feel like I actually got there, wherein “there” is some basic state of satisfaction with what I’m doing with my brain and my body. I’ve written about my writing process before, at least in part, and that isn’t really the heart of this entry. This is mostly about un-fargling my fargle-bargling tendency to do things that I know don’t work for me and that result in deep wells of startlingly boring malaise [1].

This past winter was all about becoming really, really attuned to what doesn’t work, moreso than usual. At the end of last summer, I burned out on yet another novel, one I’d been working on (ish) for three years. That brings the count to two 300-page unfinished manuscripts and a completed novel draft that could use a good beating revision that are in a drawer and are staying there for the foreseeable future. (I hope these all count toward the requisite failed novel count that every novelist I know racked up before The One That Worked.) There was the semester, too, and grading and the same sad violin I keep playing for myself. That song remains the same.

One thing from autumn that did work pretty well, though, and that was that I joined a CrossFit gym. Yeah, I know. I barely believe it, either. It was actually a lot of fun, in that way that it was fun to go to practice for high school sports: friendly competition and shared misery. Apparently, I sincerely enjoy those things. The bigger deal is that, for about five months, I was in the best shape I’ve been in since high school. And despite experiencing Jell-O leg syndrome every other day and learning a vicious hatred of overhead squats that I am still not over, I felt completely jazzed. It was also one thing, at the end of three days a week, I could say I had done. For once, I paid attention to that feeling: that was a good thing.

Then the gym moved and things got wonky and that was that. Cue February and March: Nemeses. There’s nothing dramatic to relay, just high-functioning flatlining. The work associated with my job got done, I didn’t hoard cats or half-empty pizza boxes, I only resorted to wearing sports jerseys instead of “teaching clothes” once a week or so. Still no writing, and I started sleeping up until the point that I had to leave for work, and there was nothing after that. I taught at eight a.m., but sleeping until almost seven is not something that works for me. That has been true since I was twenty-one. After having been in the habit of working out and then abruptly not being in the habit, the dearth of energy–coupled with the internal litany of failure: silence, sedation–became the paralytic that so many of us know so well. The longer I went without doing any of the things I knew worked well for me (writing, eating/sleeping properly, doing something useful with my body),  the harder, of course, it was to start back up with any of them. The task becomes monumental.

What I did have, though, and this isn’t to be underestimated, was the NHL season. It sounds frivolous, I know, but it made some serious differences. On one hand, it was something to look forward to, something to get excited about (which is important in that long dead space where baseball had been). It was another community for me, too, centered mostly on Twitter–not that I interact with it a great deal, but it lead to discovering a lot of great hockey blogs and their authors, the You Can Play Project, and a lot of fantastic information about teams and players. For a collector of trivia like myself, for someone who loves and lives for the internal narratives (real or imagined), the whole social media aspect of sports fandom is a dragon’s hoard.

Where there is engagement, there is communication, too. As winter trudged on, I wasn’t writing, but I was trying to convey some sense of what I felt, that energy, to people who didn’t get it at all. When that didn’t work (and apologies to the colleagues and family members who are completely sick of me talking about the Penguins), the words turned inwards. That wasn’t new. I’d been monologuing to myself, in all of the wrong ways, since January. But this time, the narrative was different. It wasn’t my narrative. It was the story of everything else, at least the hockey-centric version. By the time it all built up around the end of March–the playoff race heating up–it all slipped sideways, into fiction. That’s where I live. It was good to be back, though it was, at first, hard to recognize the place.

This project has done a lot of things it wasn’t supposed to do. It started in short stories. That’s extraordinarily rare for me. This project actually became the glue for the first batch of short stories I can think of as a real collection, one I actually sent out into the world as a collection[2]. Then it became the kind of project I dream about: the kind that won’t let me alone. It has changed its trajectory in some unexpected ways, too, and has gone on longer than anticipated (no one is surprised), but it also muscled everything else into place.

At roughly the same time the writing came back–No, stop, I am lying. It didn’t go anywhere. It never goes anywhere. I just fail to pick it up, I put my head in the sand, I close the door tighter, all out of sense, all out of reason. I have learned that much: I don’t suffer from writer’s block. I am never at a loss for things to write. When I don’t write, I am choosing not to. To know that I have chosen that–that I have also then elected to feel like hell for weeks and months–is a hard thing to know. But this series of posts is about loss and ending and I acknowledge the time that I lost and now I say I am ending that.

Reset.

At roughly the same time I chose to write again, my desire to do things again picked up. My beloved garage gym remains a thing that probably won’t work for me again (timing, now, most particularly), but I’ve joined another. I work out by myself, or at least it seems so from the outside. But I have a head full of company, all of these characters living and working and yes, also working out, and everything is connected and the (completely invented) people I am writing about critique my music as I get back to the good place on the pull-up bar. I’ve found out that I can–if necessary–write notes while running at a fair clip on the treadmill. I’ve also found out that losing my balance and somehow managing to drag my shin across the spinning treadmill belt results in a really spectacular brushburn. These last two things, of course, are totally unrelated.

In the months of April and May, I baked my own bread. Throughout the summer, I took an active interest in making sure the food I was eating was actually food. I’ve never been a fast-food aficionado, but I would happily eat breakfast cereal and delivery pizza for the rest of my life. That leads to a lot of two p.m. face-plants for me. Throughout the summer, I never quite made it back to my five a.m. wake-up, but I managed six or six-thirty consistently. I had two thousand words by nine, most days. Many days, I kept going. In the afternoon, gym. I kept that. For most of three months, excepting the Montreal trip and a weekend with friends, I managed to do the things that keep me whole (and the two trips had, of course, other ways of doing that, including reminding me of the real, actual human beings I know and that I like them and enjoy leaving my house sometimes).

It is a really short list of things:

  • wake up early, no matter what
  • write, goddammit
  • eat food with food in it
  • make the body do something
It shouldn’t be a hard list to manage. The last two of those points seem to be universally recommended and endorsed. Still, I have my share of anxiety about it–because they’re so simple, they’re easy to push away. They don’t feel important because they are basic, and they certainly don’t sound important to many other people. And I have a job. I am blessed with a full-time teaching job, and I am grateful to have it. I love what I do. I also know, though, that my brain is wired to put the needs of the many (my five classes of students) before the needs of the few (me). I have classes every day of the week, office hours every day, too. When the system breaks down, it breaks down here.
What I managed this week–in the three days my college has held classes and last week when the days were full of administrative and committee duties in preparation for the semester–was to keep those four points. Since classes started, I’ve managed the five o’clock wake-up. I’ve unraveled big problems with the book. I’m not making the big two- and three-thousand-word leaps anymore, but the progress is steady. The progress has to tread more carefully because now we have to know where we are going. We tread more carefully, this progress and I. 
Three days is, of course, absolutely nothing. These are three days when I have nothing to grade, three days when my students are still in their late-summer bloom, deciding, too, that this semester will be different. 
But these three days have been the reminder of what each day could be like. That seems a foolish thing to lose.
[1] The fargle-bargling comes from Zoo With Roy, my favorite Phillies blog.
[2] Congratulations to Lee Upton, winner of the BOA Editions’ 2nd annual short fiction prize!
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2 thoughts on “Reset

  1. Your short list is pretty awesome. A completely sane plan for good livin'. But, you are wrong about this one thing: Three days is EVERYTHING. Yesterday, today and tomorrow. That's all there ever is.

    Like

  2. Your short list is my short list, exactly. (Do you hear Joan Cusack in Say Anything at number three, too?)

    Once I again, I say <3, and that your post comes at an excellent time for me. Tomorrow, my feet hit the floor at 6 am again. I did that for two weeks and had three pages written and 40 laps swum by ten every day. I want it back.

    Ta, mate.

    Like

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