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?