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How to Climb Out of a Hole

Today, I sat down in my room and closed the door. I lit a rich, purple candle – I think it’s some sexy plum scent, but I’m really not sure. I put on my best sound-cancelling earphones and turned on Maxence Cyrin. I closed the fifty bajillion tabs that were opened in Firefox, sacrificing all the myriad of amazing things I was reading about (Sherlock, largely, and maybe Thor…oh, and Facebook. Like I said, amazing).

With my fingers poised above the keyboard, I let them drop to write about…not writing.

“Well, that’s a waste of time,” that annoying backseat driver voice said in my head. “If you’re writing anyway, you should be working on something.”

I didn’t pay attention to the voice, instead letting myself realize that this was the writing I needed to be doing.

Why? Because I had discovered I was in a hole.

Absolutely not a Hobbit hole, dear reader. One of those holes where you find yourself paralyzed by the desperate realization that you have no idea how to get out. This is Shadow-and-Chance-muddy-pit-at-the-end-of-Homeward-Bound kind of hole. Oh, that’s right, I went there. Go get a tissue; you’re a mess just thinking about it.

I wrote and wrote and I carved out little handholds in the wall. My fingertips clawing, I slowly made my way up. I wrote down things without any intention of getting anywhere, waiting for the moment I was sure would come, where I would sliiiiiiide back down into anti-production.

It didn’t come.

Suddenly, I was on the other side. I blinked. I looked down at the hole – looked up at my clock – and realized that it took no time to actually fix this stupidy stupid feeling I had been having.

So, followers new and old, I’m going to share with you how to get out of your own creative hole. I’d like to think this could work for any area in which you are feeling stuck in indecision, uncertain how to move on and out with projects you may be working on.

1. Get out how you’re feeling. My ramble-fest started like this:

Where am I?

I feel like I’ve been drug through a labyrinth with a bag over my head. Like I know who I was before but I really just don’t know who I am right now or what I am supposed to be doing.

In one word, the answer is obviously “write.” (Survive, the brain jabs at me).

But I feel aimless. What do I write? What do I work on? (Do I look for water first or food? Should I sleep?)

2. Acknowledge what you need. Maybe you need a break. Maybe you need to do something else for a while. Maybe you need a kick in the ass. Maybe you need direction. That’s what I needed.

I need to organize. I need to know what I want to finish and how.

3. List out the things you feel like you have to do to get back into the swing of whatever it is you’re trying to tackle. For me, it was putting down the projects that I see as the most important. Limit yourself to 3-5 items. It would be easy to say, “I’m just going to write down everything so it’s all there!” but…then you’ll just be stuck again, drowning in the muck of words.

(I won’t go into all the detail I did in my document, but for example) a. My blog. b. A novel I’ve been finishing. c. Half of a novella that’s been sitting around. d. A series of short stories. e. A short story I’ve wanted to submit.

4. Explain to yourself why these certain things are important. What is it about the items you’ve chosen that make you pick those out over everything else you could be doing? Why is it worth your time?

My blog: of all the things I’ve been putting down on paper, I absolutely feel that what has been connecting me to the most people has been my blog. People are really drawn to what I have to share.

5. Prioritize by ease of finishing. For this, I’m using a rule you may have heard in the context of finances. When you have multiple things you’re trying to pay off, you should pay off whatever has the highest interest rate and the lowest balance. This way, you’re tackling something that is having an impact and that will make you feel accomplished in conquering. All I did here was put the items in order according to what would be easiest to finish.

Now, get to work! That first item is going to feel amazing when it’s done. Trust me.

 

Do you have any tricks for tackling difficult projects? Leave a comment below and share!   

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Hobbies and Careers

Recently, I’ve been going through one of my soul-searching writer phases. It’s something that happens every now and then when I find myself going, “Am I really a writer? What does that mean? Do I really love to do this? Wouldn’t I do it more if I really loved it?” You know, the normal questions artists have every now and then.

I keep coming across a phrase that I’d really like to just…wipe away. Plug into a Cerebro machine and remove it from everyone’s list of negative-nancy-isms.

“If you can’t make a living off it, it’s a hobby. Not a career.”

I feel like I just bit into an ice cube. I think this is one of the belittling, deprecating things to say. Obviously, we’re not talking taxes here, so just…don’t say it.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

American Heritage defines a career as “a chosen pursuit; a profession or occupation.” A hobby, meanwhile, is “an activity or interest pursued outside one’s regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure.” Okay, so now we have this common word. Let’s go even further. An occupation is “an activity that serves as one’s regular source of livelihood; a vocation.”

Notice I made that second word bold, because I want it to stand out.

So let’s translate this and you’ll see how this phrase feels to writers, artists and other people whose success and happiness you like to judge:

“If you’re not making money from this, it is not your calling. It is a past time. It’s something you do for fun.”

Honey. This isn’t fun. Fun is going for a drive. Fun is watching Netflix in my underpants. Fun is reading kids books and petting puppies. Fun is the beach or the airport or a platypus.

If you aren’t a writer or an artist, you will never understand how it feels to move through the day and try to ignore the burning urge to create. It’s like having to pee, but, see, you have time to stop and pop a squat. You can tell your day job, “I need to run to the restroom real quick.” I can’t tell my boss, “I really need to get this story out of my head.”

You will never get how much guilt there is when you don’t sit down and write something. It feels like going without food, like your soul is dehydrating.

Lucky you, that you have a day job where at the end of the day, you’re getting a paycheck. You aren’t showing your work to someone and having them a) ignore you, b) tell you it’s “not for them” or c) tell you outright that it’s garbage. Every time we write something and put it out into the world, it’s like we’re putting out our hand for one of those horrible bar games where someone tries to jam a knife between your fingers as fast as possible. It’s not a question of will you get hurt but when and how badly.

And don’t get me started on the blank page and the writer’s block and the stress and depression and the manic episodes and the insomnia and the Google searches for ways to die and…

It’s not fun.

Is it rewarding? Yes. Would I give it up? No.

Can I give it up?

No.

Conclusion: I don’t care what your measure of success may be, but don’t try to tell me that what I wake up every day thinking about doing, failing to do, doing over and over and over and then starting it all over again is not my life’s work.

Because I am greater than the sum of all your paychecks, and my power has nothing to do with you.

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Inevitable Supernovas

Sunday afternoon, we sit outside our house in the car. We’ve just come back from lunch, but we are listening to Fresh Air on NPR. It’s quiet except for the sound of Alain de Botton’s voice, talking about the culture of Americans and their perceptions on success. We fell back last night, and the extra hour has given the day a magical quality, a lengthiness not usually present.

I reach out for my husband’s hand. He takes it, softly, just a few of our fingers touching. It’s the slightest slip of contact, a breeze, a single tone of music, like almost nothing at all.

Twenty-four hours before, we were fighting. The tension in the house made it seem like the walls would buckle. It was the kind of powerful bad that makes one feel like they could be buried alive in it. When he left on an errand, I buried my hands in the freezing water and peeled hard-boiled eggs. Occasionally, I would hold the shells in my hands and squeeze until they broke into tinier, sand-grain-sized pieces. The rain pattered on the window, like it was trying to get in and reach me.

Nobody tells you these things, when you’re considering spending your life with someone. Nobody tells you that there will inevitably come a day when the chemicals of your emotions will create such fierce reactions that it will light the world on fire. They will try to say, “All couples fight” or “You’ll occasionally get on each other’s nerves,” but it’s nothing like the reality of the feeling of that moment.

“We are both moody, passionate people, and this will always happen.” He said it after he came home, and the storm had passed, and we were eating burritos together. We were touching. Our wounds were wrapped, the bleeding stopped, the battle done. Stalemate.

Never let anyone say that they have never fought with the love of their life. What they are actually saying is, we are an atomic bomb in the belly of a ship. We are in a holding pattern. We are still now, but when we fall, we’re going to take the whole world with us.

I look over at him today. On the other side of his smile, I can see the starburst colors of the leaves, the placid backdrop of blue sky. An unfamiliar sight in Pittsburgh autumn.

I smile too.

I understand why some people can’t stay married. It requires a patience unlike any other. It means waiting for the moments between the every day life and the blinding explosions of self-righteousness, anger, stupidity for the touch of warmth, the Sunday afternoon, the magic of the stolen hour. It’s not just “for better or for worse”; it’s all the time in between. It’s the best and the worst. Not so much I do as I will

I will forgive you. I will hurt you. I will let things go. I will forget. I will remember. I will cry. I will sit with you under a sun that only just touches the cold. I will burn with you when our star explodes. I will stand by your side until another one blinks into existence.

I will try.