“A fulfilling writing life is one in which the creative process merges with other necessary processes of good living, which only the individual can define.”Melissa Febos, Body Work
Noticing and gratitude are two things which spring to mind here – two things I am trying to practice with more attention. Or better said, two things I am trying to practice. To do every day so I get better at them.
Recently I’ve gotten better at living with less discipline and rigor. These are supposedly good traits but they have a tendency to produce moralism and rigidity. I am not interested in an inflexibility of spirit in my life or creative work and yet that’s the kind of structure I had erected around my life. Post-illness (covid), I don’t have the energy to rebuild those edifices – and approaching mid-life transition, I’ve got other places to be in my mind right now.
Without my structure though, I find it hard to fit in everything I want to do, let alone should be doing. I’ve had to narrow down on things somewhat, or simply practice them half as often. I don’t weave and sew every single night anymore. Sometimes I write instead because I didn’t get to it in the morning. Writing and physical exercise have remained as daily non-negotiables – though I am treading water with both a bit right now.
It’s interesting to see what remains when we get more spare with our lives.
This week I went to a ceremony for new judges being welcomed to the BC Supreme Court, as a friend of mine was appointed to the bench just prior to the start of the pandemic. We had been invited to this ceremony back in March of 2020, but of course it was cancelled in that flurry of early days when no one knew what they could or should do in the face of a deadly virus. Walking the Vancouver streets at rush hour on Monday I noted that even with many activities having resumed, the city is not nearly as busy as it was when I still lived there and went from office to home by public transit or bicycle every day.
This becoming-a-judge thing seemed like a big enough deal to travel over for, to see this old friend in their robes in an official proceeding, and congratulate them in person. I am impressed, of course. It’s not a simple thing to achieve this kind of social standing – and it’s a big commitment to public/civil life. As a judge, you give up a certain right to a private life in the sense that what you do reflects on the office, which is a big responsibility to carry around.
When I was in regional union leadership, I felt a shadow of this in my own life. Putting oneself in front of others in any capacity invites appraisal and criticism after all, and I found that aspect of leadership exhausting. I also found that my time was no longer my own, and that the role demanded I spend time with a people who I sometimes didn’t like very much. At a certain point I had enough, and I left union leadership at that level to pursue a Master’s degree and spend time with my partner and his child – all things that were much more satisfying to me on a day to day level than flying back and forth across the country and living out of hotels. It was 100% a choice that I made – to step out of office and off the treadmill of political ambition – nothing that was forced on my through losing an election or any other mechanism.
And yet…… sometimes when I see people in political or civic office these days, I feel a kind of envy, or perhaps it’s more that I feel like I have not done enough with my life. I’m not really sure if that’s the right way to describe the feeling. What do we call it when we feel we have not achieved anything of importance in our lives? And further, what do we call that feeling when it is groundless – based on social ideas that we don’t find particularly relevant to our own beliefs about society and how life should be lived? I feel like there must be a Japanese word that describes this combination of envy and disdain for accolades of life, but when I Google that phrase nothing turns up.
I have long struggled with the feeling of not being enough, and having quit my big career opportunity in May (for excellent reasons and I am not sorry I did), I am once again facing feelings of inadequacy. It’s ridiculous, as my partner likes to point out, especially as I have a good job to return to and another opportunity that I’m trying out at the moment. I want for nothing material, nor do I want to make more money or have more things. But I suppose it comes down to being at this mid-point of life, almost fifty, and wondering if anything I do is relevant, or carries weight outside of my own tiny sphere. The answer to that is not really, but that is true for almost all of us on the planet, and so I’m not sure why it should be any different for me.
My union is having its convention virtually this week and I’ve been watching the speeches and debates off and on in the background while working. I know everyone running for office, having worked with most of them in years past, and I know what it feels like to be in front of a large audience answering questions about what one brings to the leadership table. When I watch them perform for the audience, there is no part of me that wishes I was in that spot, or that I had made different choices in my life years ago. When it came down to running for the next political office, I chose not to so that I could spend more time with my partner and his step-daughter, and then I went on to get a Master’s degree which lead to meditation and Zen Buddhism, writing, weaving, and eventually (somehow this is all connected), moving to Gabriola Island.
And this is what I have to remind myself when I feel a bit unaccomplished – that I could have spent my life in a single-minded pursuit of one thing, but by nature I am a generalist and I would never have been happy doing that. Instead I’ve wandered all over, using my (sometimes boring) job to fund the rest of a life that has kept me engaged, and hanging out with people I actually want to be around. Though these regrets are transitory, they remind me that so often we struggle with the what and why of existence. We seek things that are unhealthy; we strive for things that take us away from our purpose and our joy. And in so doing, we fail to be present for the real truth of our life. This is a lesson I return to over and over, hoping one day I’ll learn it so I can move on to the next one.
Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start.
I haven’t posted here in awhile and that’s really due to several factors, including (but not limited to): work stress, another writing project, covid, more work stress, family aging transition stuff, post-covid exhaustion, throwing a 50th birthday party for my partner, quitting my work assignment, and starting a new job in another organization.
In other words, a lot has been flying around over here, and it hasn’t all quite landed in a way that I’m satisfied yet. It’s made it hard to write, let alone get all chatty about my life.
But I suppose the main news is that I’ve taken a 2-month assignment with my union as a way of escaping a very stressful job situation in which I felt I could not succeed. The assignment has me in Victoria three days a week, so I’ll be staying in my trailer on my brother’s property while I decide if this is really what I want to do with my life, or whether I should just go back to my pre-assignment job which is still open for me and allows me to work from home full time.
I would feel stupid about all of this if the decision to leave my last job didn’t feel so imperative. After only eight months, I had hit a full-on burnout/anxiety wall and couldn’t imagine what that feeling of constant pressure was doing to my heart (let alone my mind). And while I could have returned to my old unit straight away, I felt strongly that I did not want to give one more ounce of myself to an organization I was so disappointed by (my latest work crisis was driven by poor leadership which lead to improper tasking and unrealistic expectations, not to mention toxic internal dynamics), at least not if I could take a breather somewhere else for awhile.
This is not to say the new job won’t be busy, or that this organization is without issues, but at least they will be different issues than the ones I’ve been dealing with. (Retirement would be my preferred option, but I’m still a few years away from that.)
Two days in, and things are moving along. This week I am fixing up my trailer a bit (cozy new electric fireplace pictured above) and am trialing different options for gym workouts in the vicinity of my new office. I am not one who loves new routines, but I’m taking this as an opportunity to get off my tiny island and see friends a bit more – maybe even go out to a decent restaurant or two. On the work front, this is really just an orientation week, but already I can see what I’ll be working on the next little while and there will be plenty to do.
I don’t know where this move will take me next, there is definitely a chance I’ll end up back in my old job later this summer, but there is just as good of a shot that I won’t. This is not at all what I expected would happen at this stage of my life, but here I am and it feels weird but not bad weird… which is really all I’m looking for at the moment.
Often when I sit down to write I have no idea what I want to say before I start. Writing is one of the ways I discover what my subconscious is working on, and it’s through putting words to the page or screen that I formulate my opinions about the world much of the time. Truth is, I’m really a verbal thinker (talking helps me think through sticky problems), but in the absence of other people writing is the next best thing.
Because of this tendency to think and write at the same time (rather than planning out what I’m going to say), I delete a lot of what I write. Every remaining sentence is one I have tinkered with, re-written, and re-ordered innumerable times. It is a frustrating and slow process, and as I’ve aged, one I find hampered by brain fogs – a kind of internal weather subject to settling in when I least expect it (particularly when my B12 isn’t in check). Whenever I am struggling to get a good sentence on the page, I think about Edna St. Vincent Millay, the celebrated poet of the early twentieth century who is said to have composed her perfect stanzas so thoroughly in her head before writing them down that they needed no editing. I only hate her a little bit for this – though I expect her famous mind for writing declined in middle age when she developed the morphine addiction that would contribute to her early death at 58.
In writing practice there is an often-discussed divide between the “pantser” and the “plotter”–the former being someone who flies by the seat of their pants and does little or no planning before sitting down to write, the latter being the opposite–someone who meticulously plans out their work before committing anything to the page. Apparently there is also a middle way known as “plantser” but I have never heard anyone identify themselves in this category.
I would very much like to be a plotter, as deep in my heart I do feel it’s most correct to sit down with a structure and an outline before one starts writing. However, I am just not that way, and it’s not for lack of trying. My friend Kyla identified my problem with plotting when I was attempting a novel during Nanowrimo some years back when she said “If you’ve worked out what you are going to write in some detail, the actual writing part becomes a bit pointless because you already know what is going to happen next.” This, I find to be as true with non-fiction as with fiction writing. If I’ve already worked the problem out in my mind, I’m ready to go onto the next thing, not elucidate more on the thing I’ve figured out. Of course there is always a lot of editing, but my outlining process happens in long-form writing. It’s time-consuming because there are a lot of dead-ends, but given my attempts to change my writing “personality” over the years, I’m not sure a pantser can become a plotter (and vice versa).
With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about the logistics of writing a book. Over my adult life, this idea has come up several times, but I’ve always talked myself out of it fairly quickly. The closest I’ve come was the completion of Nanowrimo about a decade ago, from which I emerged with a terrible first draft of a novel at 65,000 words or so. I’ve never been interested in revisiting that project or fiction in general since, though it was a revealing process in many ways. I learned that 65,000 words in a month is 2100 words per day and that if one doesn’t self-edit too much, those words can be knocked out in as little as 90 minutes. I realized that the phenomena of characters making decisions against the author’s intent or plans is a real thing–characters do come to life in the subconscious in a way that gives them their own agency to redirect or drive narrative development. And ultimately, I understood that to turn out something book-length means putting oneself in service to the writing above all else for at least a specified period of most days.
In my usual nod to plotting, I’ve attempted some thoughts towards a book proposal in the last month, but found I got bogged down in questions I knew would only be answered through the writing itself. And so I’ve been writing instead. About 4000 words so far, not very much, but enough to see the process I learned during Nanowrimo works as I remember it did. A few hundred words a day, allowing the writing itself to generate ideas and direction, some dedicated reading that inspires and influences my own topic and writing style – and I can see it’s possible to do this thing, though I shake my head as I type those words.
Yesterday I wrote in my process journal, “If a book is to be, it will come out over a long period of work and I will be confident about it then. I do not have to be confident about it now.” Perhaps a bit of a mantra each time I sit down to the laptop and feel stumped at what is going to come next. The trick is to first get a lot of words on the page which reach towards something, and once I see what that something is, to remove every word that doesn’t actually need to be in the way. So that’s what I’m attempting right now. Getting a lot of words on the page every day. I’m not doing anything as heroic as Nanowrimo so my daily output goal is 500-750 words, except on days when I’m writing the newsletter or this blog. I figure that 10,000 words a month is respectable and doable progress, though it will mean cutting back on textile studio time to get there. Even if there is not a book at the end of the rainbow, I will have figured out a lot of thoughts by writing them down.
As to what I am writing about, I’m not exactly sure yet. Not sure enough to share in any case. I will document my experience here as I go as this is the public record of my inner life, and to some degree the writing I am doing now is connected back to the reasons I started this blog in 2003. So if I’m a little quiet at times, that’s where I am. Working out what I think, word by word, encouraged by the springtime emerging outside my window.
Tomorrow I turn 49. Not a milestone birthday, but a messenger of sorts. A foreshadowing.
As far as it goes, I’ve done well in the last year. My fitness has been on track, I started a new job in the fall, my family is all still living, my partnership is loving, and I’ve put a fair amount of writing and objects out into the world. If I find myself anxious these days (and I do) it’s not because of any lack in my own life, but because the socio-political winds are blowing in the wrong direction and I am not able to prognosticate the future. But then I remind myself, it was ever thus, and there is no period in which humans have been free from calamity or suffering and why should now be any different?
One of the weird coincidences in my life is that my birthday and work anniversary are only a few days apart. As of February 3rd, I had worked for my employer for 24 years which is half of my life. I’ve been thinking about how much I identify with that role lately, specifically as it relates to people in my Facebook feed spewing conspiracy nonsense, not to mention supporting the current protest in Ottawa. While I don’t believe that government does everything right/makes all the right choices, I have grown impatient (angry, really) with the implication that myself and people like me are working in concert to actively harm our fellow citizens, neighbours, and family members. Because for someone to believe in the conspiracies being promoted out there, that is literally what they have to believe, not to mention the fact that nearly every doctor, scientist, and academic must be in on it as well. Whether it is 9/11 or anti-vax, to believe in conspiracy is to actively despise the civil service, or at least some quarter of it. And while I aspire to detachment, I’ve started to take that quite personally.
I am a big believer in the right to public protest, and have participated in many a demonstration in my life. I believe citizens should let government know when they are dissatisfied with policies or are seeking redress, and I’ve always felt that a demonstration outside my workplace is a sign the work we do is relevant to people, enough that communities seek change or inclusion in process. Where things veer off course for me is in demands that democratic processes should be discarded in the face of big trucks, that government should abandon programs or policies without plans for new ones that take all people into account, and ultimately that fascist views should be included in “the tent” of ideas for consideration. If anything is worrying me on the eve of my birthday, it is this.
On the weekend I read about a California couple who got snowed in at their mountain cabin on December 6th, but only recently called for help as their supplies dwindled. I suppose they were used to being snowed in and were just waiting, figuring two months of supplies would last until they could get out again. But as it’s been a historic snowfall year in Lake Tahoe, that didn’t happen and they had to call for helicopter evacuation. Upon reading this I implored Brian to imagine living that far off the grid, and how lucky one would be to not know what was going on in the world. If I didn’t know about current events, then surely they wouldn’t be impacting me the way they are. Right?
In the meantime, Brian bought me an Oculus VR headset for my birthday and I’m finding solace in virtual reality. It’s very clean and trippy in there, surprisingly calming. I seem to have reached a point lately where all I want to do is take low doses of mushrooms and float around in imagined reality. Given the state of the world these days can anyone really blame me?