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?