Category Archives: writing

The (Bargain) Price of Freedom

Image by blue2likeyou

On Sunday afternoon, I bought myself 60 minutes of Freedom.

I clicked on a small icon on my desktop – a clock with a shield in front of it. A pop-up window appeared and asked, as if it were the simplest matter in the world:

How many minutes of freedom would you like?

Hmm, I thought to myself.  All three kids were napping – hallelujah! – and my husband was upstairs, watching the Eagles and the Redskins, ready to attend to whichever child woke up first.  And there I was, just me, alone at my cluttered desk in the basement.

How many minutes of freedom would you like?

60, I thought.  60 would be enough to get some writing done before I had to get back upstairs to fold laundry, to wipe runny noses, to start chopping the onions for the soup.  60 was the right number.  Less than I wanted, maybe more than I should have asked for on that rainy afternoon with a house full of sick kids.

How many minutes of freedom would you like?

I entered “60.”  I clicked “OK.”  And just like that: Freedom.

Or a 21st century version, at least.  Freedom, you see, is a computer application that disables your Internet for as long as you ask it to – up to eight hours!  My iPhone upstairs, Freedom running on my computer, my kids asleep, my husband on guard.  Just me and my computer-rendered-typewriter.

And here’s what I did:  I opened up a Word document with an old, ailing essay and polished it up.  I wrote.  I edited.  I added some words.  I took others away.  I tried to shape a story out of a collection of anecdotes.

While I was writing, my monkey mind prattled on as it always does.  And my right little finger twitched toward the Alt key and my left index finger toward the Tab key so that I could escape from my writing into the wilds of the Internet.  To shoot off that email to Stephanie about dinner on Saturday, re-categorize last week’s blog post into “parenting” and “writing” instead of “living,” update my homework assignment on Meagan’s Facebook page, check the YourTango writer’s guidelines to see if this essay would be a fit, look up how to spell contrapposto, look up the definition of ad hoc to make sure I was using it properly.

But Freedom wouldn’t allow it.  Freedom kept my fingers where they were and my eyes on my essay.  And, oh, the liberation – the freedom! – of being able to just write – no chance – no excuse – to stop.

I first learned about Freedom from Dani Shapiro at our writing workshop at Kripalu.  Afterward, my friend Elizabeth pointed me toward an essay Dani had written about it and about the ways the rabbit warren of the Internet threatens to derail her writing.  First an e-mail, then a thought about a chest of drawers in the novel she’s writing, then a form for summer camp.  She writes

Had Jane Kenyon (or Virginia Woolf, for that matter) lived long enough to be told to build a twitter platform, she might have resisted. She might—as many of us do—have found ways to build a fortress around herself, a cathedral of peace and silence. She would have emerged from that cathedral…only in her own time, and at her own bidding. Or so I like to think. Yet, whether rose quartz, blindfold, earmuffs, spiral-bound notebook, or a small cabin off the grid, still, we all need help, sometimes. The noise in our heads is growing louder, and louder still. We all have good days and bad days, don’t we?

I feel like I need that help Dani writes about.  And I’m grateful to know that Freedom can be mine for the bargain price of $10.  I’m still in the midst of my free trial now and am certainly tempted to shell out the money for the full application.

But I’m left wondering: how free am I really if I need to pay an invisible man inside my computer to grant me what my will power can’t?

Do you have will power where the Internet is concerned?  How much would you pay for freedom?

The Waiting Game

Image by me'nthedogs

I am bad at waiting.

And there’s good reason for that, I think.  Indeed, there is a way in which my whole pre-parenting life was an exercise in gaining independence and then control over my life.  I followed my parents’ rules and my teachers’ directions.  I studied hard and got the job I wanted.  I lived on my own and ran my own classroom.  Boom.  Independence and control.  And in these settings, I grew accustomed to things happening at my own pace.  Yet I now find myself at a moment in life when I am playing the waiting game far more often than I’d like.

My inherent impatience reared its ugly head when I was first trying to get pregnant.  It was hard for me, conditioned as I was as an educated working woman to being in control, to surrender to the fact that there is no rushing pregnancy.  Either it happens or it doesn’t and there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it (other than the obvious, ahem).  And if it doesn’t happen, you’ve  got to wait a month – a month!? – to try again.  You mean planning and effort and good intentions don’t seal the deal!?  How could this be!?

And the challenge of impatience has extended right into motherhood.  When the pace of my days is largely dictated by the health and whims of three very short people.  By the chronic cough of my four year old.  The snail’s pace at which my toddler eats.  Whether or not my daughter takes a good nap.  Sure, I can outline a skeleton schedule for each day, but my kids determine the ways that the skeleton breaks, its bones fractured by an early wake-up or a bad dream.

And now this impatience has surfaced again in my writing career.  I send my essays and query letters off into the ether and then I wait.  I check my e-mail every hour, then every half hour, then every five minutes and, somehow, the responses don’t come any faster.  Eventually they trickle in: a question, a no, a yes.  But in between the sound of crickets can grow deafening.

And I’m left wondering if this parental crash course in patience has really left me any better at playing the waiting game.

Are you a patient person?  How do you occupy yourself when waiting for someone or something?

A Song of Myself

Image by andyarthur

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

I spent this past weekend at a remarkable place, studying with a remarkable teacher, with two remarkable women by my side.  I learned so much about myself, about writing, about the ways my body (or maybe my brain) craves Diet Coke and chocolate after a few meals of tempeh loaf and steamed kale.

As I reintegrate into the rest of my life – coming home, as I did, to find a wonky Internet connection and sick kids – I feel like I’m just beginning to process the lessons of the weekend.  Dani shared so many delicious morsels about memoir and emotion and writing from “the memory of feeling,” but one question in particular is buzzing around at the front of my mind today:

As writers, what do we do with the contradictions in a life, especially when that life is our own?

Dani led us this weekend in an exercise called “I Remember…” based on Joe Brainard’s book of the same name, a collection of his one or two sentence reminiscences of his childhood and coming of age.  As I recorded my own stream of consciousness reflections, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which that kind of off-the-cuff writing flows without input from the inner critic.  My ideas moved from brain to pen without judgment or analysis.  What I was left with was a collection of moments which, almost accidentally, started to tell a story about my past.  And the story was full of me and full of my many contradictions.

I decided last night to play with the exercise, to change the prompt from “I Remember…” to simply “I…” and to write uncensored for five minutes.  Here’s what I came up with:

I am a mother.  I am a wife.  I am a daughter, a sister, a friend.  I used to be a teacher.

I am a writer.

I am a vegetarian.  I run sometimes.  I do yoga sometimes.  Sometimes I make a bag of microwave popcorn, dump chocolate chips on top, and eat the whole thing.

I subscribe to The New Yorker, but, a lot of the time, I prefer to read People.  After I read People instead of The New Yorker, I sometimes feel guilty about it.  I talk more about reading The New Yorker than I do about reading People.

I love to read.

I love to talk to my husband about where we might be in five years, in ten, in 25.  I love to dream together.

I feel calmest in a tidy house, in a quiet place, in a room alone.  I rarely feel calm these days.

I like to be by myself.  And then I like to come home again.

I understand that there are things that are good for me.  That make me feel good.  That keep me connected to the people I love.  I’m not usually good at making those things a priority over, say, folding laundry or playing “Angry Birds.”

I get grumpy when I’m hungry.

I love my kids, but I’m never as happy to see them as I am the moment I return after being away from them.

Contradictions again.  And all of them equally me.  I took so much away from my weekend of writing, but my first priority is to think more about what the story of my contradictions tells me about myself, to keep writing my way into understanding.

Who are you today?

The Write Stuff

Image by Francois Schnell

I’ve been writing a lot lately.

Actually, that’s not true at all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and talking a lot about writing and reading a lot about writing.  I’ve even been studying writing with a great teacher.  But sitting down and actually writing?  Not so much.

And this not writing all the while learning about how to have a career as a writer has left me feeling disjointed, like I’m busying myself sprucing up the outside of a house that has cracks in its foundation.

I’m making time for the idea of writing, but not for the act itself.  And why is that?

Well, first there’s the fear.  As long as I don’t put myself out there, I can never be sure whether or not I can really succeed.  I can go on thinking that this dream is viable, that editors will love my writing and readers will too.  I’m not used to being unsuccessful so the idea of receiving rejection letters – and, yes, I know they will inevitably come – doesn’t sit easily with me.  I want to steel myself for them and prepare myself for the pep talks I’ll have to give myself when they do.  And, if I’m honest, sometimes I convince myself it would be easier not to try at all.

And then there’s the work.  Thinking and talking and reading and studying writing are all a lot easier than writing itself.  Writing is not a task-oriented undertaking.  It isn’t about highlighting and taking notes and checking things off of Post-it Note to-do lists, tasks at which I excel.  Instead, writing takes orginality and focus and insight, all of which are even harder to come by than time.

And then there’s the question of voice.  I’ve written before about my ability to play lots of different roles, my comfort with lots of different kinds of people.  This trait – which I usually think of as a good thing – has made it difficult for me to figure out which version of me I want to be when I write.  The down-to-earth me?  The moony intellectual me?  The snarky critical me?  Any why try to be any of those things when others have already done them – and done them better?

There are so many minefields that keep me from putting pen to paper – the practical, the emotional, the mental.  But it’s time, I realize, to stop futzing (yes, futzing) around and start writing.

Because you know what?  The only way out is through.  Writing is what helps me get through.  I need to write in order to write.

I was watching my daughter yesterday as she gnawed on Sophie the Giraffe.  Everything she does, at seven months old, is an exercise in making sense of the world.  And right now her mouth is the vehicle through which she comes to understand things.  If it’s within her reach, it goes into her mouth.  She’s learning smooth, crinkly, bumpy, rough, gumming her way toward what she likes and what she doesn’t.

Ever since I started writing, putting my words down on paper has been how I’ve come to make sense of things.  My pen is my vehicle for understanding.  So when I don’t do it enough – when I worry about the machinery of writing, talking about writing and buying pretty notebooks rather than actually writing – I deprive myself of my chance to understand what’s going on in my head and in my heart.

So excuse me, if you will.  Enough talk.  I’ve got some writing to do.

What role does writing play in your life?  Are you more of a consumer of words or a producer of them?  How do you procrastinate?

The Correctionistz

This week’s Correctionists post features a pet peeve rather than an actual error:

I’m not sure if the creator of this sign knows the actual spelling of the word “cruise.”  I suspect he does.  But it almost irks me more if he willingly chose to spell it incorrectly.

Why spell something wrong on purpose?  Is Z that much cooler than S?

The Correctionists.  Keeping the blogosphere safe from grammatical and spelling errors, one post at a time.  For more from the Correctionists, please visit Amy, Jana, and Kelly.

Guilty Boredom

Image by Caitlinator

I’m lucky.  I know that.  I really do.

I have three lovely, healthy kids, a wonderful husband, loving and supportive parents, financial stability, great friends.

So why do I find myself in a lingering “Mom Funk”?

I think it has something to do with time, and my slowly sinking realization that there are, in fact, only 24 hours in a day.

I want to spend all day reading.  And all day writing.  And all day playing with my kids.  Eating snacks and tweeting about Wallace Stegner.  Getting reacquainted with yoga.  And – of course – hanging out with Husband.

But during this season of life, there’s only a hint of time for each thing each week.  And instead of making the most of the time I do have, I find myself shuffling wildly among my choices until my days disappear into a series of half-finished e-mails, cryptic notes scrawled on Kroger receipts, and my kids asking for more of me while I’m looking for more too.

And here’s the worst of it: I don’t even waste my time on guilty pleasures; I waste it on guilty boredom, clicking here and there, jotting down this and that, and feeling no sense of accomplishment when I’m done.  Just this hollow feeling in my stomach and the vague notion that I could be doing better.

In the past week, I have come up with new ways to structure my days, scrapping them all one by one.  I’ve filled my paper calendar, then my online calendar with various organizational schemes.  Will I exercise and then answer e-mails and then write?  Or will I read and then check my Google Reader?  Or should I forget all of it and just sleep whenever possible?

I hit upon a new idea, only to crumble it up, throwing it away just as I’m throwing away my time.

I was always taught by both of my parents that a woman can do it all – family, career, dreams.  But what I’m only coming to learn through experience is that it’s nearly impossible to do it all, all at once.

Time is a limiting factor.  Especially when you use your time as poorly as I do lately.  With a general lack of motivation and with summer’s lethargy, I find myself doing less even as I lament not doing more.

And I can’t blame my kids for this one.  Not really.

Even as a mom of three under four, I have a fair amount of time to pursue my passions, thanks to their good sleep habits, the aforementioned wonderful husband, and our fabulous babysitter.  But instead of using the hours I do have to write or read or get myself back into some semblance of shape, I fritter them away making plans about how to use my time.

I use my time on guilty boredom.

Sigh.

Do you make the most of your time?  What’s your favorite guilty pleasure?  Your most lamentable source of guilty boredom?

Mentor Wanted: Apply Within

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where I am heading professionally.

As you may recall, I was a high school history teacher for nearly a decade before I took some time off to have my kids.  I had planned to go back into teaching all along, but I’ve hit a few roadblocks since September 2007, when Big Brother was born:

  1. I never got certified to teach.  When I taught public school in New York City back in the days before No Child Left Behind, I worked in a low-income neighborhood where, it seemed, the fact that I was conscious and literate “qualified” me to teach third grade.  After that, I taught at prep schools where certification wasn’t required. So now I find myself with nine years of teaching experience and undergraduate and graduate degrees in history living over an hour away from the nearest private school – and, according to my current state, I am totally unqualified to teach history at a public school without many hours and thousands of dollars of additional coursework.  (Not that there are any jobs to be had even if I were certified.)
  2. I don’t really want to teach anyway.  Now that I am a mother, I can’t imagine teaching as I did it before: staying up till all hours planning and grading, getting to work early to meet with students, staying late to coach.  And now that my heart belongs to three very small creatures, I worry that there wouldn’t be enough of it left to share with dozens of bigger ones.
  3. I think I want to be a writer when I grow up.  Aside from not being able to teach and not really wanting to anyway, I realized that there might be another profession I want to try out.  So, it seems, it’s back to the drawing board (and not to the chalkboard).

And that all brings me to the point of today’s post: I know what I want to do and I know some of the first steps to take to do it, but what I really want is a mentor.  A tour guide.  Someone who has tread this path before and can help me figure out which step to take next.

As a teacher, I always had a mentor.  A department head or a wise and wizened pal to tell me what to wear to Parents’ Night, how to log on to the online grading system, and how to help my kids understand the significance of the European revolutions of 1848.

As a mom, I have mentors.  My own mom.  My mom friends.  All of you.

But as a would-be freelance essayist and writer of creative nonfiction (just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?), I feel like I’m a babe in the woods without a breadcrumb trail to follow.  Don’t get me wrong: I know there are plenty of people out there who have charted the same course.  And even some who have done it while their kids are little and at home all day.

But what I don’t know is someone who has done it and might be able to help me do the same, all the while meeting me for the occasional coffee date, sharing with me anecdotes about editors, shoring me up when those inevitable rejection letters come in, and teaching me about monetization and SEO.

Kind of a tall order, huh?

Do you have a mentor?  Wanna be mine?  Know where I can find one?  And what’s a life coach anyway?

Image: Student and Teacher by Wonderlane via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.