Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Finding the Right Mental Space

With New Year's a day away, I decided to repost this one from August of 2008. Time to consider those New Year's resolutions! Look for my top 10 books of 2009 tomorrow.

How do you manage a busy daily life and still get some reading and writing done?

It's not easy. Since I started working for TWC I haven't really done much of either, though I steal snatches of time here and there to read. Once upon a time I wrote some fiction. Now I don't. When I sit down to try and write something, what comes to mind is all the stuff I need to get done that day. Thoughts zip around inside my brain--checklists of assignments, deadlines, work-related ideas.

I imagine this is not an uncommon experience for most people. How, again, do you counterbalance this effect? I've been trying to fight the lethargy by clearing my mind, giving myself a mental space in which to work. I've set up a daily plan that seems to be working.

1. Establish a routine. Each day, no matter what, I get up early and I read for at least 15 minutes. A good day is when I can read unencumbered for a full hour. (These are rare.)

2. Find a really good book. Three or so weeks ago I tried picking up three books that I just couldn't get into. Pattern Recognition, The House of Sleep, and BlackSwanGreen. They're all good books, I'm sure, but I wasn't quite up to the task of reading them; rather than taking me away from my problem, the books only exacerbated the problem. I think that's because you can approach some books better at certain times of your life. I read as a writer, which means that if I'm writing something that requires a youthful narrator I might go back to BlackSwanGreen to get inspired. But I'm not writing anything right now, so I just want to be entertained and learn something at the same time. Now those books sit together as a pack on my bookshelf. I see them staring at me now. There's no shame in starting a book and not finishing it. Remember, there are tons of books out there and more coming out daily. Over 400,000 books were published in '07 alone. Reading is an investment of time, and if you don't really like the book you're reading, why invest time in it?

3. Don't force it. If you sit down to write one day and it doesn't happen, accept it. Don't keep pushing. It'll only make you spiral into a bad day. Trust that there will be good days ahead. That's the nature of writing. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn't. Obviously you want to get the ball rolling so that each day is a good day. But stressing through a bad day won't get that ball moving. Which leads to #4.

4. Let go of the anxiety. A German friend of mine once told me that, when you're stuck on something, you need to just let it go. Find something else to do. What happens is you release whatever's bothering you. For a writer, this might mean stopping writing when you're stuck on something that you can't get over. Doing laundry, taking a shower, going for a brisk jog--all these things can take you away from your "stuckness" and actually get you back on track. BECAUSE by letting your mind wander you give it the chance to come back around to your dilemma and answer it for you. Albert Einstein, I'm told, got some of his best ideas while chopping firewood.

5. Be good to yourself. Find something fun to do when you're not working. I'm obsessed with baseball and, especially, the world's greatest baseball team: the St. Louis Cardinals. And my wife and I use Netflix to find good TV shows or movies we miss 'cause we don't have cable: "Homicide," "The Wire," "The Office,""30 Rock," "Battlestar Galactica," etc. Things that are entertaining (though educational for writers still). It's GOOD to have mindless activities from time to time. (I have some very smart and capable writer friends who play their Wii a lot.) No embarrassment or shame at all. I think this is a continuation of #s 3 and 4.

It's not always easy to follow these suggestions, I admit. I don't have kids, just an 11-year old lab, so when I get up in the morning I have the freedom to sit on my duff and read. But it's number 4 that is especially difficult for me. But I try. Right now my morning read is The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio. At first, I didn't like the book. The first two stories didn't grab me, but it's grown on me as the stories got better. The title story is excellent, and so is "Up North" and "The Scheme of Things." Worth checking out. My "night" read at the moment is Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. I'll write a blog post on this later on. This is one of those GREAT BOOKS that every writer (and American) should read.

So I've cleared my head enough to finish another translation. This one is by Jytte Borberg: a classic 1950s-style story in the vein of Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." Borberg was a Danish author who died last year. Remarkably, she didn't start writing until she was in her forties--until that time her path had followed a "traditional" line; she'd raised a family, kept house, etc.--yet somehow, once she got started, she managed to produce over 40 books in her lifetime! As far as I know, she's never been translated into English. Regretfully, I began this translation before she died (she was 88) and I'd intended to write her and say, "I love this story and here's my translation!" But I was stymied by the language, to be honest. Her sentences, the rhythms, cadences are put down in a stylized manner which isn't in vogue anymore. And I was stuck for the longest time; I loved the story and loved the idea of translating it, but just didn't have the patience to sit down and try. Luckily, being stuck in my own fiction has opened up a channel of creativity on others'. Getting back to her story now just seemed right.

Eventually I'll get back to my own, but this is a good start.

1 comment:

Serena said...

some very good advice. I think that I have the same issue with anxiety. I get anxious about certain projects and have a hard time letting go of that.