Thursday, July 19, 2012

Recovering from life-induced whiplash

So, my last post was March 28. It is now July 19. A friend of mine sent me a message the other day asking me what had happened to my blog. I thought to myself, yeah, it has been a while. Probably over a month. Turns out, it’s been almost 4.

I know we’ve all said it: “time is flying by”… “how is it [insert month] already??”... “there aren’t enough hours in the day”. I know I have these thoughts at least a few times every year. But this time, the where-has-the-time-gone thought really rattled me. I made a commitment to write this year, and I completely abandoned it for 4 months. That’s a third of the time commitment. Not a single word written.

How did this happen?

I went back to my last post to see if it offered a clue – and it did. I was talking about time traveling. How easy it is to spend time re-living (or re-hashing) the past or thinking (worrying) about the future. How easy it can be to miss the moment – right here, right now – by spending too much time traveling to the past or the future.

At the end of the post, I made a commitment to spend more time in the now. And, have I ever. The last 4 months, I’ve had a blast celebrating with friends – weddings, babies, reunions. I’ve travelled - for work, for fun. I’ve loved every minute. But, in those same 4 months, I’ve abandoned my workouts, my writing, and my savings goals (turns out, living in the now costs a little more than I thought. I can always get back on track saving for emergencies and retirement next year, right?).

I miss the sense of security and fulfilment I got from those more planned, routine, activities. Turns out, reflecting on the past really helped my writing. And planning for the future really helped my bank account. But, I also feel completely energized by living much more in the moment, seizing opportunities when I can.

The issue, I think, is emotional whiplash. Going from one extreme to the other.

They strike all of us at some point – events that jolt us from one way of operating to another. It could a new job; a new baby; a wedding; buying a house; getting laid off work; a break up; a marriage. Suddenly we’re forced to abandon our usual way of doing things and adapt, virtually overnight. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe you’ll hate it, or maybe you’ll just accept it. Regardless, that event thrusts you somewhere new – and life as you know it is suddenly very different. Emotional whiplash.

The suddenness of the event then passes – and there you are: remembering your old routines, and living with your new ones. And, at least from what I’ve experienced myself, or witnessed in others, the whiplash can leave you feeling any number of ways.

I guess recovery from whiplash involves finding some balance. So that’s what I’m going to do – reflect on the best of the old routine and the best of the new one and, hopefully, land with the best of the best.

So…have you been whiplashed lately?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Whether you like it or not, you're a time traveller

I'm sure you've experieneced this - you learn a new word one day and suddenly you hear that word everywhere. It's suddenly in every book you read, uttered in every conversation you overhear, on all the tv shows you watch. It's everywhere. Maybe you simply didn't pay attention to the word in the past. Maybe you glossed over it because you didn't recognize it. Maybe it's a new popular word. Or maybe the universe is just messing with you. Who knows.

It happened to me this week. But not with a word; with a phrase. Suddenly every voice, every show, every article, every workshop - they were all telling me to be "in the now". To be "in the present". To be honest, when I first heard it, it irritated me. I don't have time to look at the trees right now and ponder my existence, I have about a zillion things that need to get done today, let alone this week, this month, this year! And, really, if all I did was focus on the right here, right now, wouldn't it lead to chaos? Everything would be so...disorganized. Wouldn't it?

In a novel, the past, present and future play a critical role. You need to provide perspective about your character's past, and give some sense of intrigue about where they're headed in the future. I mean, really, that's what plot is all about. It feeds the climax - it's what keeps us readers reading.

But what about all of us, in real life? How does our perspective on our own past, present, and future play into our daily lives? How much time do we spend "in the now" versus re-living our past and stressing about our future?

It was then someone I really respect said something - something that made me stop and think: "we're all time traveling," he said, "either living (read: dwelling, re-living) the past, or thinking (read: panicking, rushing, stressing, planning) about the future. Occassionally we can be found here - now - in real time"

When you think about it, he's right. We're very rarely right here, right now. Taking in the moment that is here in front of us. We're all time traveling, most of the time.

And while, yes, it can be very helpful to reflect and learn from our past experiences...if we're really being honest with ourselves,  how much reflecting and learning are we really doing when we re-visit the past? Versus complaining about it, or wishing we could change it somehow?

And, yes, making plans for our future retirement income, or career paths is a very worthwhile use of time travel. It helps us properly prepare. But, again, if we're really being honest with ourselves, how much valuable prep work are we really doing when we travel to the future? Versus worrying about things that may happen, that are completely out of our control?

So, I've decided to really pay attention to my time travel. To catch myself in the act and make sure that I am using the travel for good. For me, the future is where I spend most of my time - which means I'm often missing, overlooking, or not enjoying what is happening right now in front of me. After all, right now is the future I was planning for last week, last month, last year. In fact, I think I'm going to take a two week vacation in the present. Save the time travel for my novel.

So...where have you been time travelling most lately?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

I'm scared or sad, just ask my 4-year old psychologist

So, I've been committed to my writing routine for what, now, 3 months? I'm making  headway; I’ve developed a writing habit. Instead of being excited about this, though, it seems I've taken to worrying.

I worry that I should be spending my time elsewhere. I worry that my writing isn't smart enough, interesting enough. I worry it’s just plain, boring crap. I worry about whether my back up system is actually working. I worry I'm wasting my time. I worry about what happens when I actually finish the first draft.

But what is worrying, really? It's such an odd state. And, I must say, a very annoying and uncomfortable one. The fact is, it wears us out emotionally and physically, and accomplishes nothing. It can also paralyze us from moving forward with decisive, deliberate action. That's a fact. Yet, it’s really tough to kick ourselves out of worry mode once we’re in it.

I first remember experiencing worry at age 6. I vividly recall waiting for my mom to pick me up from school. And before she even had the chance to show up late, I was worrying that  she may be late and what may happen to her on her way to pick me up.

Compare this to my earliest memories, which I can trace back to 2-3 years old. I don't remember feeling worried. Yet I can remember feeling happy, sad, mad. My own special brand of logic concludes, then, that between about 2-6 years old, "worrying" doesn't really exist. At least, it didn't for me.

So I decided to check in with my 2 to 6-year-old contacts. When asked, "what does worry mean?", here is what they had to say:

"It means you're scared"
"You feel sad"
"It means you're scared"
"It means you're in trouble"
"upset or sad"

So, listening to these wise 2 to 6-year-olds, the penny dropped. Of course. The root of all my worrying can be categorized into one of two buckets: “scared” or “sad”. And, when put in those simple terms, it is much simpler to pinpoint the issue. Sure, I’m feeling a bit scared/fearful about this new thing I’m working on. I’m scared of failing.  The 2 to 6-year-olds nailed it. I am scared.

And, scared is somehow much more easy to work with. It puts me in a much better frame of mind to problem solve. I can address fears, alleviate fears, overcome fears. Worry? Not me. Not anymore. I’m going back to my 2 to 6-year old roots.

So, have you received any great advice from 2 to 6-year-olds lately?

Friday, February 17, 2012

It's time to add "feel emotions" to my to-do list

I think we've all had this experience: the nagging feeling you're forgetting something. It may jolt you awake at night, or hammer away at your mind all day. Then there are those times when you know exactly all the things you are forgetting to do (read: can't find the time to do). To-do items, and reminders, race in and out of your mind, leaving you feeling somewhat (sometimes, completely) overwhelmed.

And these reminders usually jump into your head at the most useless times: when you are standing crammed in the subway; or in the shower; or in the middle of a Board meeting at work. At least, that's when they strike me - when I am least able to jot them down on one of my running to-do lists for the week.

What does this have to do with my writing routine, you ask? Well, when I sat down at my computer last week to write, I simply could not get in the moment and focus. This isn't unusual...sometimes it takes me a few minutes to get into the rhythm. But this time, the to-do items and reminders were completely overpowering. I was in a battle with my nagging thoughts, and the nagging thoughts were winning.

Finally, I got so frustrated, I decided to embrace my inner David Allen (if you’ve read Getting Things Done, you know what I’m talking about). I moved to the couch with a giant pad of paper and pen and decided to write down anything and everything I could think of that may need to get done. From the major (those 2 reports I need to get finished for work) to the fun (watch all the Oscar movies in time for the big night) to the fairly trivial (buy those walnuts for the salad I’m making in 2 weeks).

I was hoping this very detailed list writing would put an end to that nagging voice in my head. It did not. Tossing the pad across the room, I caught a glimpse of a family picture on my dresser and felt my stomach double over.

It was then that it struck me. My mind wasn't actually trying to remind me of a task. It was reminding me of my Dad. Five years ago at this time, my dad was battling brain cancer. It was a short battle – he died 4 months later in May. My body/mind/heart was trying to remind me to sit, reflect, and be sad for a minute. Turns out, despite my best efforts to hide and distract myself from sad emotions, my subconscious was not letting me get away with it. 

So I sat there, on the floor, in my den, and had a good cry. And thought back to my best times with Dad, and smiled. Then one of his jokes popped into my mind and I laughed. Turns out, letting myself "feel" wasn't as scary as I thought it might be. While it did evoke sadness, happiness was there too. I remembered things about Dad that were already starting to fade in my memory - all the stories, adventures and fun we shared. By letting in the sad, I opened myself up to the happy as well.

My lesson this week? Make time for my emotions. Especially the ones I may not want to face. They’ll creep up on me anyway. And, some good (maybe great) ones will creep in there too. So, this week I’ve given myself permission to skip the writing routine. Maybe go back through some old photographs; write down some stories about my Dad. Just sit with it. I already feel better – and slept for 10 uninterrupted hours last night.

Are there any emotions nagging away at you this week?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I'm sorry...I'm busy being lonely

When I started this blog, and seriously committed to a writing routine, I made a promise to myself that I would never write or utter the words "writer's block". So...I am going to honour that commitment I made to myself, and not write those words. However, for the last two weeks, I have been stuck.

Writing 101 tells you to write what you know. Miriam Toews (one of my favorite authors, who I refer to repeatedly) grew up in a Canadian Mennonite community. She writes about children growing up, and struggling, in Mennonite communities. Her characters may be fiction, but I’m guessing she draws on personal experience and observation when developing her characters. Which is why, I’m guessing, her characters are painfully and wonderfully real.

For me, I’ve felt my fair share of anger, success, failure, passion, joy, sadness, fear, frustration, heartbreak, love, grief, devastation, and excitement. I know these emotions – I’ve weathered or enjoyed all of them at different points in my life. So, it makes sense that my character, while fictional, is influenced and shaped by my own experience with these emotions.

But, it seems I am now stuck. She (my character), has reached a point in her story where she is completely and utterly alone. And, really, I’m expecting this to be the climax and turning point in the story: how she weathers this will determine the outcome of her story. As I sat in front of my screen two weeks ago, it struck me. I have never felt completely and utterly alone. I mean, sure, I`ve had the odd night or weekend by myself where I have wished for company. But completely and utterly alone? Never. Which is why, I reasoned, the words weren't coming to me. 

So, I decided to embrace loneliness. You know, in the name of research. I dined alone, sat in food courts alone, went to the theatre, movies and ballet alone, sat home alone, avoided phone and email. I tried to immerse myself in loneliness. Going into this, I prepared myself for the worst…I may end up feeling depressed, hopeless. I may spend my evenings crying alone. Bring it on, I told myself, it’s all in the name of research. Strangely, though, it felt fine. I didn’t feel lonely, I actually felt empowered. And enjoyed spending some time by myself.

Later, when I reflected on this (worrying that I would never be able to write my character properly. She needs to be drowning in the depths of loneliness, dammit!), it hit me: thanks to my friends and family, I have never – and can never - experience true loneliness. When I`m dining, walking, theatre-going alone, I'm never truly alone. I know one of them is only a call away. So I have the luxury of enjoying those alone moments, knowing they can come to an end at the push of a button. Huh.

Whenever I've faced all those other emotions - anger, success, failure, passion, joy, sadness, fear, frustration, heartbreak, love, grief, devastation, or excitement…one or more of my friends or family members have been by my side. I am so grateful for, and so fortunate to have, the people I have in my life. Thank you to each and every one of you.

So it seems that in trying to learn about my character, my character had me learn something about myself.  Turns out, she seems to be writing me as much as I'm writing her.

So, what have you been taking for granted in your life that you are oh so grateful for?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

I’m penny pinching, and a better writer because of it

So, I have a list of 33 New Year’s resolutions. As an aspiring writer, you’d think one of them might be “write more often” or “finish a first draft of my novel”. Nope. There is not a single writing-specific resolution.

There are, however, about 10 financially-related goals. And by financially-related, I mean ones that include the following words and phrases: saving, cutting back, spending wisely, trim, budget, expenses, retirement, emergency, and down payment.

Ok, it’s only mid-January, so it is a little early to feel smug about this but…I have to say that my 2-week-old penny-pinching ways seem to be sticking. And have created quite an unexpected domino effect: I believe I am writing better because of them. 

One of my resolutions is “make maximum use of what I’ve already paid for before spending on something new.” For any of you who have read my previous postings, this means the end of having 12 unread books on standby on my bookshelf. That’s right – I am not allowed a new book until everything on my shelf is read (or, as someone very correctly pointed out to me the other day, until I actually use my library card).

I also already subscribe to the Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and about 25 different writing-related blogs. And to a gym. And there are about 10 unwatched DVDs on my shelf, and at least 20 unread books.

What this resolution has meant to me so far is this: before I go and spend money on a book, magazine, or entertainment of any kind, I have to be able to say that I have exhausted all of these other options.

Already, my inner critic has been sparked by an article in the New Yorker about Sarajevo, Chicago, and feeling at home. The article is called Mapping Home by , and appeared in the December 5, 2011 issue (

Had it not been for my resolution, this issue would have found its way to my recycling bin (given that I was 4 issues behind with all the craziness of the holiday season). Reading the article, it dawned on me that I don't know my protagonist well enough: I can't tell you where she truly and honestly feels most at home. And, to be honest, the story just won't work, nor unfold believably, until I figure that out.

And, as my mind clears (well, overheats) on the treadmill, it is free to properly think this through.

I’m now reading, running, questioning and, as a result, writing more than I ever have before. I'm inspired by what I’m reading, consolidating thoughts while I’m running and – now that I’m no longer busy spending money – I have more time to put those consolidated thoughts down on paper.

Ok, let’s face it, most resolutions don’t last past February. The optimist in me, though, is hoping that two months may be all it takes to really crack the backbone of this novel. We shall see…

So, which of your resolutions are creating domino effects?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

I resolve to...resolve

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are two of my favorite days of the year. Probably for the same reason I love strategic planning meetings at work. It gives me the opportunity to look at the big picture, reflect on what’s happened – what’s worked, what hasn’t – and imagine how things could be… a year, 5 years, or 10 years from now. And put together a plan to make those things happen.

I have my best sleeps with a freshly completed plan on my bedside table. Or, a carefully thought through list of resolutions for the year. Last night I slept soundly.
I believe it was Dr. Suess who wrote, “You have brains in your head, and feet in your shoes. So you can guide yourself in any direction you choose.”

So, yes, the sometimes-control-freak side of my personality loves the discipline of sitting down and mapping out plans, setting budgets, and giving a sense of order to my (what often feels like a very chaotic, random, and out of control) life.
But, this year, as I sat there on Saturday night reflecting on 2011 and what really stood out for me – what I was most proud of – it was interesting what I listed. They were things I actually hadn’t planned. Instead, they were the things that either got in the way of the plans, or changed the plans, or had nothing to do with any plan whatsoever. The things that just jumped out and demanded attention.

And it wasn’t the actual thing that I was proud of – but more the way I handled the thing that threw the wrench in the plans, or came out of nowhere.

Now, I’ll admit – I didn’t always handle the situations with decorum and grace. I had my moments of reactivity, whining, complaining, procrastinating, getting angry, making excuses, and flailing in frustration.

But, there were occasions when I actually sat back and thought about these unexpected twists –  took the time to think about the options, the possibilities. I actually saw the opportunity these issues provided: a chance to reflect, innovate, change or make better.

So, I am now determined to spend more time resolving any and all unexpected twists that 2012 may throw my way, than I spend whining and complaining about them. In fact, I will welcome them. Resolution #2 of my 33 resolutions: I resolve to resolve.
So, how are your resolutions coming along?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Writing (3500 miles) outside my comfort zone

So, I’ve traded my writing desk in the Annex, Toronto for the seaside town of Brighton, in the southeast of the U.K. Greetings from the sunny (yes, sunny!), and mild, British seaside. Outside the window, the fields spread out for miles and miles, with sheep and horses grazing on green, lush grass. Someone just walked by in shorts.

Since I’ve only just committed to my daily writing routine, and it has been going fairly well, I have to admit I’m a bit worried about what might happen while I’m here. To my writing routine, that is. I’m 72 hours in to my vacation, and this posting is the extent of my writing.

When I consider the gym routines, vegan eating plans, weekly Economist reading goals, and other commitments I have made in the past (only to abandon 2 months later), my 3-week-old writing routine is in serious jeopardy.

I must say, though, that while the last 72 hours have not fared well for my keyboard, I’ve spent some real quality time with my camera. Which is now rammed with scenes that spoke to me on some creative level. If you ever visit the U.K., you will suddenly see how A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, and Harry Potter came to be. Bricks that have weathered centuries, the structured gardens, the wind whipping through alleyways…for me, the U.K. was put on earth to inspire story-telling.

If Toronto has such story-inspiring hot spots, I’ve never stumbled upon them. Toronto has oh so many wonderful things it can boast about, but mysterious passageways, underground cities, drafty stairways, and medieval lore, are not among them.

So, I am feeling very inspired. I just need this inspiration to lead to some actual creation. Which…isn’t happening.

Number of words written towards my novel? 0. Number of ideas dreamed up neither related to my novel, nor fleshed out or outlined in any useful way? ~ 100. So, it would seem I am better able to lose myself in my own imagination this side of the Atlantic, but focus and put word to e-paper I am not.

So maybe the point of the next two weeks is to note-take without discipline – harvest my inner story dreamer-upper…take it all in while I can. And write at least 2 paragraphs a day – even if they are complete rubbish. Perhaps a break in my routine is exactly what the editor doctor called for.

So, how can you break your routine this week?

Monday, November 21, 2011

I want to write better, so I read more.

When asked for writing tips, Chuck Palahniuk advises: write the book you want to read. Sounds straight forward enough. But for those of us (like me), who enjoy literary fiction typically shortlisted for awards, this advice has the power to paralyze.

But, now heard, I knew this was advice I would be incapable of brushing aside. So, I’ve been mulling it over. And it occurred to me: now that I’m falling quite comfortably into my writing routine (an hour or so before bed, an hour or so at sunrise) and meeting my “other job” commitments from 8:30-6:30, I am spending virtually all of my time in front of one computer or another.

To make this schedule possible, something had to give. The stunned and helpless victim? My bookshelf.

Some people need a minimum balance in their bank account to feel calm…me? I need at least 10 unread books on my shelf. Otherwise anxiety kicks in. When I stood before her (er, my bookshelf) the other day, there they were: the same 10 unread books that were there three weeks ago. My newly empowered inner writer had a few choice words for them: I don’t have time for you, sweet alluring titles. I’m busy upstairs trying to write a book I want to read.

It was then I had to stop her. If I am really to take Chuck’s advice to heart, then reading needs to be as much a part of my writing routine as, well, writing. As I’m reading, as I'm losing myself in the pages, I need to be asking myself: what sentences stop me dead in my reading tracks? And why do they jolt me so?

So, I picked up 2 of the 10 on the shelf: Irma Voth and The History of Love. And, of course, I found myself jolted on virtually every page. These are two talented authors, and great books. You land upon sentences like these, and you can’t help but reflect on your own life:

“That to truly know happiness is to know the fleeting nature of everything, joy, pain, safety, and happiness itself.” (Irma Voth by Miriam Toews)

“She [Alma] was gone, and all that was left was the space where you’d grown around her…for a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it was filled again, you knew the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren’t for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it.” (History of Love by Nicole Krauss)

I read these sentences (and, honestly, anything Miriam Toews writes), and I feel both inspired and hopeless. Inspired because I am reminded of the power of words; hopeless because, really, can my words ever find such strength?

I choose to feel inspired. So, now, when I’m sitting in front of the screen, it is these sentences that I strive to create. I may never get there, but with the greatest of bars set, I hope I’ll create the very best I am capable of.

So, which authors set the bar for you?

Monday, November 14, 2011

I can't write until I have my perfect writing desk! Essential, indulgent or just an excuse?

Given that creative writing is not my full time job, I have very limited windows of time that I can dedicate to my novel. Saturday mornings are usually when I accomplish the most. But as we head into holiday season, I know that my weekend writing time will be eaten into. Also, now that I am really getting serious about my book, writing one morning a week just isn’t enough.

So, last week, I committed to add weeknights to my writing “routine” – spending an hour a night (8:00-9:00pm) with my keyboard and creative self. I made a deal with myself…if my inner writer and I were getting along, I would extend the writing time past 9pm. If we fought, I would walk out on her right at 9.

Turns out, we didn’t fight. But I really struggled to give her my full attention. My focus was constantly being interrupted by a series of whines: this couch is uncomfortable; it’s too dark at the kitchen table; this chair is too stiff; I need a window; hmmm…isn’t House Hunters International on? Then the dog would walk over and nudge my leg. Or I’d suddenly feel thirsty and grab some juice. The hour passed quickly and two sentences were all I had to show for it. And they weren’t even critical sentences to the story.

I got angry with myself. Told myself I was making excuses. Who needs a special writing chair and desk to write successfully? Am I just not creative on weeknights? Needing a specific creative space…it’s just so…pretentious, indulgent, precious…isn’t it? So I did some research.

I stumbled upon an interesting posting from Chapter and Verse, and it confirmed the experience I have been living ( A routine signals to our mind that it is now time to focus. Which explains my issues writing at my dining table, or on my couch. When on the couch, my brain is getting the signal to watch tv. Suddenly House Hunters is all I can think about. At the dining room table, I am suddenly getting signals that I am thirsty, hungry. Those items of furniture – couch, dining table - already have routines and signals attached to them.

So, I needed a space that signalled nothing but creativity and writing.

After some almost back-breaking work, I managed to transform my old dining table (which I have been trying to get rid of on Kijiji forever; now I know why it wasn’t meant to sell) into a writing surface, and hauled it – by myself - up my winding staircase to my second floor den. It fits perfectly in the corner, in front of the window, right next to an electrical outlet. Go figure.

And then, I sat down at this new table, looked out the window, and wrote non-stop for 2 straight hours. 10 sentences finished. All critical ones. And I'm excited to go back to it tonight.

So…what’s critical to your writing routine?