Stringing Together the Pieces

Part of my mindfulness training has seen me bringing together aspects of my life that I have often held as separate.

The most difficult act of inclusion has been uniting my job with my creative endeavors. In those initial floundering years post-college, I very actively and forcefully separated the two so that my job was a miserable march to earn a paycheck while my creative endeavors—writing! music!—were held as sacrosanct activities.

I suffered for forcing this separation. My personal life was unfulfilled (he wrote, summarizing multiple agonizing years of failed relationships in a mere phrase), and in retrospect, I know that my art wasn’t exactly flourishing.

The act of separating is more subtle these days, but I still do it unconsciously - even as the lines between work-self and artist-self are blurring because of how I work (at home or on the road), whom I live with (wife and children), and more self-awareness.*

To live my best life (as the kids say), I recognize that not only do I need to bring my presence to that life, no matter what it is I’m doing, but I also need to be who I am in all of those areas, which requires acceptance and confidence. Hence, I suppose, the word ‘practice’ that often cabooses the term ‘mindfulness.’

*It’s not easy.

Dysfunction Junction

It’s not too much of a concern, but at some point in my self-development process I might actually get better at managing how my emotional responses lead to my actions.

I’ve been self-studying mindfulness for several years now. I’ve been meditating about as long. And like some kind of self-aware lab rat, I’ve been observing how these additions to my life have impacted my creative interests and artistic output.

Or approached another way: Can self-actualized and balanced humans still create viable art?

I suspect I’m not alone in having anchored my creative ways to that Dysfunction Junction within, that dingy place inside where I store my most painful, shameful, guilty memories.

So what happens when I—to continue the metaphor—move out those rusty cars full of stale regrets, shameful feelings, stagnant fears and clear the tracks?

And even worse to consider: do I keep that Dysfunction Junction operational because I’m afraid if I shut it down that I’ll lose my creativity?

I really don’t know how this will turn out.

On Advice of Council

I used to be better about taking time out for purely aesthetic experiences.

Granted there are legitimate obstacles to doing that these days: I have two young sons, a more than full time day job, a home and family which are certainly blessings but they bring with them more responsibilities and tasks in a given day than I once had.

Days, as you all well know, have a tendency to flow one to the other in a rush if we don’t pay attention.

Still and all, I should like to be better about taking time out to listen to music, take in a film (do they still make films; not movies, like the kind that I take my kids to, but actual films?), read some poetry or spiritual texts and contemplate.

It’s not fair to compare my life now to when I was in college, or to those rough years immediately afterward when I was apprenticing my writing (and being absolutely broke in the process). And yet I do miss giving over entire hours if not days to creative, artistic and aesthetic experiences. I miss that primal hunger.

The world being what it is, chasing beauty while we can is essential.

Creation Anxiety

As you know, I follow the One You Feed podcast. An emerging concept from the multiple guests and discussions over the past few months is the impact that Depression has on project-related work.

Specifically: Depression causes paralysis.

For those of us who willingly or unwillingly partake of project work (and I’m not just discussing creative project work here), paralysis—by which I mean just the idea of performing project-related tasks stuns us into non-activity or distracting behavior—is terminal.

We procrastinate, we crank our mental cogs, we keep ourselves awake at night, all because the idea of doing the work is a fifteen story tall, one hundred acre wide monolith that we can’t see over or around.

So we don’t do anything.

For me, being exquisitely hardwired for anxiety, I vamp on the above a little differently. When I bloody my nose against that immense project monolith, I don’t go into paralysis mode; I go into worry mode. The specific next tasks for the project—be they researching, drafting, holding meetings, or just getting my ass in a chair—blur into a fog of self-doubt and ceaseless self-talk about how I can’t possibly ever get what needs doing done.

The solution that Eric Zimmer recommends in several One You Feed podcasts is to break up the many tasks into smaller, easier-to-complete items. This gibes completely with the discipline of Project Management, whereby the Project Manager creates a Work Breakdown Structure and starts chipping that monolith into 8 hour increments.

8 hour increments function well for us in the work world, but 8 hour increments don’t (necessarily) lend themselves to our creative endeavors where many of us who are creating in-between our other life commitments are lucky to get any time at all.

So piggy-backing on Zimmer’s advice, find a time increment that works for your schedule and fill that time doing something/anything for your project. (In my case, the time increment is somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour) Even if it’s ‘draft Chapter one’ or ‘write two stanzas’ or ‘read about pudding wrestling.’ Make a plan; execute the plan.

Much of project work is giving yourself a sense of control. The way to gain control is to take action. Not action for the sake of action, but directive action. It is amazing how my anxiety level drops at least by half once I figure out the next few project steps, and I get even one of those steps completed.

There are aspects you won’t be able control, of course. I recently had a character emerge in the draft of my WIP who has upended my entire—MY ENTIRE—novel plot outline. Strangely, that’s not the part of the project work that’s frightening or paralyzing. I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t want the work to transport me to places I didn't expect.

No, what causes me anxiety is all the spinning I do before I type one word. My anxiety begets more anxiety.

Every project has its own challenges; every project has its own lessons. There will be mistakes, there will be pain (hell, there will be blood!), but if we examine our fears or our collective paralysis, if we really look at it, we recognize that future suffering isn’t why we haven’t started. The reason we haven’t started is because we haven’t started.

So, even if it’s messy, even if it’s awful, even if it’s (especially if it’s) imperfect, let’s get started.

Traveling the Travails: The Decimation of a Writing Routine

I’ve blogged before that as a traveler, I have much to learn. Not just the mechanics of how to take care of myself while on the road, but more importantly, in maintaining a proper mindset. By nature, I prefer the stability of a regular, non-traveling routine – get up early to write, commute to work, exercise, head home for (chaotic) family time, watch TV, read, go to sleep. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Routine gives my creativity a place to return to; structure gives my imagination a place to ground itself.

In other words, I’ve attempted--however poorly I may have executed it--to live Gustav Flaubert’s quote: ‘Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so you may be violent and original in your work.’

(Note: I make a terrible bourgeois.)

So I’ve carved what we’ll call my Flaubert-ality into the canals of my brain, the tissue of my body, to such a successful degree that I think if I were to die this moment, my body would still shuffle onward, hitting all the points of my schedule perfectly. Triumph!

And now, of course, this is changing.

With my recent job switch, I’m now traveling on a regular basis (this is countered by my now being able to work from home when I’m home, which is another future area of adjustment). The travel, which will likely be weekly or bi-weekly air travel, is disruptive to all levels of my being all at once. There’s the time away from family, the effects of sleeplessness on inferior beds, there’s the impact on diet, there’s the inactivity and hours of sitting and talking.

Then there’s the loss of a defined writing time.

Like almost everything else with me, it comes back to my attitude, to my accepting what is over what I want or need it to be. Where once I would have railed against the torpedo that just exploded my meticulously-honed Flaubert-ality, I’ve decided to embrace this new challenge to my artistic existence. Traveling, and how one travels, is as much a mirror of how we wander this life as our creative or spiritual activities are. If I’m a terrible traveler (which if I’m honest is a fairly apt description) it’s because I allow circumstances beyond myself, circumstances that I ultimately can’t control, to disrupt my mindset.

Rather than despair, which would have been my reaction even a few years ago, I’m leveraging the factors playing in my favor to keep on my writing schedule so that I can get my next novel written. There’s technology, for one, which allows me to access my works in progress from wherever I may be. (Thank you Google Docs and/or Windows 360.) There’s the more fluid non-work time, and although I doubt that I can actually write in the evenings wherever I may be staying, I can at least read and research and otherwise prepare for the next morning’s writing session.

I’ve devoted my post-college years to controlling the activities and relationships surrounding my creative endeavors in the false belief that doing so would somehow protect my art-making time. This didn’t accomplish what I wanted. There’s no way to shield a creative act from the world in which it is made or from the circumstances that gestated it.

What of my lovely Flaubert-ality? What of being regular and orderly? I don’t know, but perhaps discipline—getting words onto the page—has less to do with being regular and orderly, and more to do with how well you travel.