Writing, Act 2: Back in the Habit

These words aren’t going to be perfectly laid out, and I’m okay with that. Actually, that’s kind of the point. Here’s the deal (there’s always a deal): last winter I got into this amazing habit of writing 1,000 words everyday, rain or shine, in sickness or health, where ever in the world, or in Portland, I was at the time.

Sometime around March or April, I fell out of the habit. But not before finishing the first draft on an entire book and drafts on several shorter eBooks. One of those has since become an actual virtual thing: Kickstart Your Home Meditation Practice. I haven’t put much love into my full book since then, but I’m planning to kick off draft two this winter.

But more importantly, I’m committing to get back in the writing habit. Okay, fine, I commit to things like this all the time, and they don’t always stick. I hope this one does. In fact, I would love to have some accountability partners on this one to get it going again. Let me know if you’re interested.

So what got me back to thinking about this? I found this reddit post. Classic. It’s a nice description of what my work could look like right now if I had kept up the practice all these months. Hundreds of thousands of words. That’s an immense amount of practice. Sure, most of them wouldn’t be that good, but they do gradually get better and better.

This reminds me of a rather cheesy self-help book I’ve read, The Slight Edge. Let me sum up 150 pages for you in a few sentences: The only way to work on big things is little by little. If we do a little bit to reach our goals every day, we’re bound to get there. If we improve our life by a tiny amount each day, before long we’ll be realizing our greatest dreams.

Cheesy, but absolutely true. The reason we don’t often see these dreams realized is because we stop working on them. We allow ourselves to slightly decline each day, rather than growing. I have to say, it feels like that’s the direction I’ve been going over the past couple months. Wasting time, not keeping up with the things I do care about like writing, running, yoga, and art.

Do you want to be an artist? Do art every day and at some point you’ll have created so much art that some of it is bound to be good. You’ll gradually amass so much practice and experience that more and more of it will be profound and meaningful.

Do you want to be a yoga teacher? Do yoga everyday. I’ve done it, and it’s amazing. After three months of daily practice, you’ll be more than prepared for a Yoga Teacher Training. To be a good yoga teacher, at that point you’ll also have to add teaching every day (or close to it).

Do you want to be a writer? Well you’re probably getting the point here. Last year when I was writing 1,000 words every day, I started to feel like a writer. I started to say that I was a writer. I started to believe it. Now that I’ve let the practice languish, it feels less true. My LinkedIn page still lists it as a primary occupation, but my heart hasn’t been in it. The practice hasn’t been there.

So I’m back on it. Here’s the reality of writing 1,000 words. It takes between 30 and 60 minutes, unless you allow yourself to really get stuck on some wording or a specific idea. Sometimes the last couple hundred words feel hard to get out. But if you allow yourself to flow, eliminate other distractions, and just let your fingers type away, it happens fast and painlessly. It becomes wonderful and (often) easy.

And it adds up. Standard book-length is about 50,000 words. Taken as a whole, that feels insurmountable. Taken in 1,000 word chunks, in 30- to 60-minute increments, it’s less than two months of work for a first draft. That’s six books a year. From there, a whole other world of challenges opens up, but getting that draft done feels amazing. They might not be masterpieces. They might need a ton of work to even be readable, but they are all fantastic practice.

This is what I did last winter, and it’s my plan moving forward. I’m not sure if the writing will take the form of another book, or some shorter guides, or what. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to write so many words that I’ll be able to fill whatever kinds of pages I want.

A quick word on comparison. Ira Glass has some beautiful words on this. If we allow ourselves to compare our work to existing, published, vetted work by established authors, artists, etc, etc, we’ll become too discouraged to even start. That’s because our work is not going to be good. Their work is already great. And as Ira says, those masterpieces shaped our taste, so we know that our work is bad in comparison.

Guess what. That novel you read and loved that seemed so well put together, with such lovely language? That took a LONG time to make. It took so many drafts and revisions. Dozens, even. Literally written and rewritten over and over and over and over and over again. Years in the making. And it wasn’t only the author who did it. The agent helped, the editor helped, the test-readers helped. It was tried out and changed, and probably looks very little like the first draft from whence it came.

So be gentle! I know I need to do this. Not all my writing will be great. Some of it will be awful. That’s a great place to experiment. If it’s already bad, going off the deep end can’t make it much worse, right? Picasso produced more than 50,000 pieces of art. I guarantee they aren’t all good. And if you or I produced 50,000 pieces of art or writing or anything else, I also guarantee that some of them would be amazing. The trick is actually sitting down and doing it, every day.

Love the Practice, Not the Result

Everyone’s heard that we’re supposed to enjoy the journey, not the destination. It’s trite to repeat it, but somehow that phrase has never done it for me. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, or maybe the words just don’t sound right in my brain. But the sentiment is 100% crucial for growing in positive direction. For me, it’s much more useful to think of it in terms of practice and results. Love the practice, not the result.

My biggest experience with this recently is with yoga. Yoga is nothing but practice. That’s all there is. No goal. Let’s face it, we’re probably not making it to samadhi/nirvana/ultimate reality in this lifetime. Maybe it’s cool to be able to do a handstand or put your foot behind your head, but yoga isn’t the fastest way to achieve those goals either. It’s a way to slowly improve the mind and the body, and the pleasure is in the daily experience of the action.

The same is true of art, writing, anything creative. If I ever think about painting in terms of “I need to paint something awesome that people are going to love and put in a museum and make me rich,” I’m never going to paint. I’ll be stymied with fear of failure, because not reaching that goal would be failure if that was my only reason for doing it. Instead, I sit down to paint because I love the feeling of painting. The brush moving over canvas, leaving a bright color in its wake. Sometimes it evens ends up being a piece I like to look at when it’s done. Not always, but often enough, and more often the more I practice.

You’re probably saying, “Yeah right, but some of us have jobs” (that’s fair, but sometimes I do have a job, too). There are definitely times when we need to put the nose to the grindstone, get some hard work done just for the sake of finishing it. Doing your taxes, final exams, the presentation for a client meeting tomorrow. That’s all well and good, and we do need to find the energy to make it happen. But for the bigger things in life, the ones that take up most of our time and most of our emotional energy, we need to enjoy the daily practice. There’s no reason to try to be a professional musician if you hate to sit down with your instrument and hammer away at etudes for hours a day. If three hours of yoga practice everyday sounds like the most boring and/or exhausting thing ever, maybe yoga teacher is not the right direction for you. And it turns out that loving the practice does lead to being great at something. It takes time, and sneaks up on you while you’re busy focusing on the thing itself, not the goal.

What do you love to work on? Art? Writing? Programming? Some people love Python, and that is awesome, go for it. Sharing your knowledge with others? Helping people make ends meet? Brewing beer? What can you sit down to do, be fully present in the act of the practice, yet removed from some distant outcome? I believe this is one of the most important components in a life lived consciously. I certainly have a way to go to answer these questions, but it’s a journey worth being on.

Taking the Plunge: It keeps getting better

This is an update on my new life of self-employment and -empowerment. Previous entries include: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Whew. Life has been a whirlwind. I’ve been out of Seattle about 80% of the days and nights in the last two months. Most of those have been outdoors, which is totally excellent. I’m on track to blow out of the water any of my previous records on number of nights slept under the stars, and total hours not spent under a roof. Much of this has been through my new job leading backpacking trips for middle and high school boys with the YMCA. I just got back on Saturday from an 8-day adventure through North Cascades National Park, which got me thinking about a lot of what’s happened in my life lately.

Here’s the gist. For a long time, I’ve made a lot of the big decisions of my life on something of a whim. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, and it has worked out extremely well thus far. I’m pretty sure I majored in physics in college because I was good at math and I had a great professor my freshman year. It seemed like a good idea, but I never really though about the reality of the field: hyper-competitive academic environment, lots of colleagues with poor social skills (sorry physicists, but I doubt you’d disagree), a life spent in a lab working primarily on intangibles. It could be a really a good life, but it doesn’t mesh well with a lot of my core values.

I had pretty much realized these things by the time I applied to grad school, so I decided to do geology instead (not coincidentally at a school with a great ultimate frisbee team), expecting most of those qualms to be remedied by the nature of the field. If I had played my cards differently, I think it could have worked out really well, but I ended up pigeon-holing myself in geophysics, and spent most of my grad student years on a computer looking at satellite data. Good intention, but I didn’t quite follow through with it. This led to a lot of exploring which was hugely valuable, and which fluctuated on the intention-whim spectrum: sustainable agriculture in Italy, various construction projects, an office job in green building consulting.

In the past year I’ve gotten better at making intentional decisions, and basing those decisions around my core values. It helps that I have made big strides in actually clarifying my life values. So when this job to lead backpacking trips came along, I pretty much knew I had to take it. It still wasn’t easy, and it even meant parting ways with my most excellent band, Pocket Panda (check them out anyway!) because of the amount of time I’d be out of the city. But the job meant a lot of time in the woods exploring national parks, working with kids, sharing some of my biggest passions, constantly working on healthy relationship building, and taking some big steps out of my comfort zone. I even got to throw creativity into the mix, as the trips I’m leading have an additional focus on art, music, and cooking (seriously, this might be the best job ever).

The focus I’ve put on my creative endeavors lately, primarily painting, has also been filled with intention and alignment with my values. But it has lacked a lot of the positive characteristics of outdoor education, so it has been a revelation to find a way to do both things part of the time. I still have the mental space to go paint at my studio this week, knowing that I’ll be in the woods for weeks straight very soon. I’m sure this will all evolve in impossible-to-predict ways, but for now, I’m continuing to live the dream. And make a little bit of a living in the process!

Swirling Colors

Easy Decisions

A friend just sent me this article, and it’s really great. Definitely worth a read, even if you aren’t a freshman in college anymore and didn’t go to Stanford. It’s never too late to be who you’re meant to be.

I especially relate to the section on “going with the flow,” the idea that we often choose a path because the decision is easy, even if the path is not. At a number of points in my life, I have chosen to do a specific thing (graduate school, traveling abroad, working in construction and then consulting) not because it meant my life would be the most comfortable, but because the choices were. It’s easy to go to graduate school immediately after college, and it eliminates a lot of hard decisions like where to live and what to do with your time and what to do about money. Deciding to travel was easy, too. I had friends who had gone to Europe to work on farms, and all I had to do was apply for an internship and buy some plane tickets. Not that it wasn’t an incredibly valuable experience; it was life changing. But it was an easy decision.

Deciding to quit my good office job and strike out on my own was a harder decision which opened up all sorts of previously decided variables (location, where to focus my effort, and again, money). But at the same time, it felt right throughout the process. Maybe I had already internalized some of what the author is laying out here, and maybe I’m optimistic enough to think that everything will work out no matter what I do. But it was definitely not the same kind of decision that kept me going on the common path I had already followed to grad school, traveling abroad, and working at an office. It took time and emotional processing and a lot of encouragement to make the decision. Now I am immersed in a world that works much differently than 9-5, one which demands boldness, creativity, and authenticity rather than stability, security, and risk-aversion. I’m still figuring out how to navigate it, and probably will be for the rest of my life. Suggestions are welcome!

Also, I’ve been painting a lot. Check ’em out!

This is Life

I took a long run yesterday and thought about how people recently have commented that I seem to be doing so much with my life despite my unemployment. This seems like a compliment, I think, so thank you! And it’s true that I have been unemployed before and not done nearly so much. But there is something different this time. It’s not exactly a sense of urgency; I think I’ve maintained a sense of taking things slowly. It’s more a feeling of: this is my life.

This is it.

Right now.

I’m not in some transition period between jobs. I’m not transitioning between school and work, or work and travel. I’m deep into the only transition there is, the transition from birth to death, and what I do today and tomorrow and the next day is my life.

My last stint of unemployment was in 2009/2010 for about 9 months. I was looking for a job the whole time and felt entirely consumed by the process. I did a few other things along the way (mostly I got a lot better at guitar and rock climbing, and read Infinite Jest), but I never felt productive or fulfilled. I was able to stay relatively happy through copious amounts of exercise and coffee, but the job search was exhausting and distracted me from what I had long valued in my life. I didn’t feel like I had the mental time or space to make art, partly because I didn’t feel like making art was what I was “doing” with my life. I was looking for a job, making myself employable, and working hard to make that employment what I was doing with my life. I was not an artist. I was an office worker, temporarily displaced.

This time things are different. I am living consciously, and I have a better understanding of the fact that my life is a collection of days lived, routines established, routines broken, people met, people loved, good books read and absorbed, emotions expressed, and beauty created. What am I doing with my life? I’m not “doing” anything. I’m living. Life is not an activity to be completed, rather an adventure to explore, a wonderful opportunity to grow for a while and then fade away.

So I’m spending my time on a lot of different things, enjoying the fact that life is full and vibrant and profound and hilarious. My run yesterday was thirteen miles, part of training for a marathon. It took me through or past eight parks in Seattle and around one lake, and it was gorgeous. I’ve been painting almost everyday, aiming to have a solid portfolio to show sometime in the next several weeks. I go rock climbing two or three times a week, depending on my tendon integrity. I do yoga most days at least once, and try to meditate every day between five and thirty minutes. I’m part of a community garden, a book club, a string quartet, and an indie-rock band that is starting to pick up some steam in the Seattle music scene. I play guitar and sing almost every day, cook meals with my roommates, and spend quality time with them playing games involving throwing dried beans into jars. I go on outdoor adventures and road trips to visit friends and national parks. I just started helping out a friend with his business leading after school music programs, and I’m in the process of starting a hummus business of my own. I occasionally write blog posts.

These are the things I value, and I am so excited to be able to do them all. Not everybody values the same things, and some of those activities might sound awful to you. But here is the main point. Last time I had time on my hands, I forgot what I valued, what was important to me in life. Once I was employed, I had less time on my hands and my forgetfulness deepened. I became wrapped up in routine and busy-ness. Money felt important, as if it were an end goal in itself. My brain got used to frying in front of a computer screen for hours a day. These things were bringing me closer to death at the same pace I’ve always been moving, but they weren’t allowing my life to flourish. Eventually I realized that these were not my values and I worked out a way to change my daily life to reflect what is important to me. So far it has worked. I feel good. I feel alive. I still drink copious amounts of coffee.