First grief, then work

One could also rewrite that with verbs: First grieve, then work.

I woke up at 5:45am, my body still not adjusted after the daylight savings time change. I went to sleep late, only intellectually grasping what was happening in the election. I woke up and, even before consciousness, I could feel my heart broken.

It’s noteworthy, isn’t it?, that the feeling called ‘broken’ is heavy like cement, or like I swallowed six hard-boiled eggs without chewing. A broken heart does not feel like shards of glass. It’s a fullness that jams your esophagus.

Next, crying. I had to do that, and a few texts to my friend Lisa. I called for a Day of Mourning. I was still in bed, and I lay there.

“First grief, then work.” I read that right before I made plans to give up on social media (that betrayer) and the New York Times and the radio. The phrase was tweeted by Ada Límon, a writer I don’t know, yet.

It’s true: I did flirt with the idea of not going to work, or of going to work and refusing to work, or of going to work and telling someone else whose fault it is. Because it’s not mine.

I sat up and wept some more, my back against the pillows I put there to prop myself up. I thought of my children, one at a time.

Then I thought of cleaning out the fridge. Really. And I thought of emailing someone I teach with and promising, “Tonight I will download all those papers and put them in our dropbox.”I imagined the downloading, the renaming of the poorly named files.

The list started to form after that.

Once, at least 25 years ago, when I worked at Harvard University in fund raising where the theme was always leadership — “We are training the future leaders of America, and the world” (I got so tired of that) — I said to my friend Joe that I regretted I was no visionary. He reassured me that there would be no movement without people like us to schedule the troops, order the supplies in advance, and make enough coffee to keep everyone energized. Everyone would also need a tshirt or uniform in a size to fit their width and height. I am good at logistics, and so was he, and there would be no progress without us.

I don’t know why that anecdote popped into my mind. I have no plans today to join a movement. But, you know, logistics. Continue reading

Skating, not skating, and learning to jump

Many times over the winter I almost quit figure skating.

I would go to a lesson and not practice.

I would practice and then push back an upcoming lesson.

I barely went to the rink hours for the MIT Figure Skating Club, of which I was an enthusiastic member last year and the year before.


In my head, I practiced quitting, crafting the excuse, and finding something new and safer to do, like tennis, which I played in high school.

I didn’t quit, although it seemed many times — when a week or even two weeks went by without skating — that I paused.

This was after a long year of being tired. Work seemed too hard, and it was tiring. I was always pushing myself to get it done in the time expected to meet important deadlines and not to let anything drop. I had pushed myself skating, taking the test and failing it. I joined the group fitness challenge at work, and for 12 weeks in a row I met the incrementally increasing time goals. The first week it was 150 minutes. By the end of 12 weeks, we were expected to be exercising and logging 300 minutes a week. A few of those weeks, I went beyond, and exercised almost 500 minutes.

I was proud. I was tired. I felt as if I stopped I would lose ground.

During my summer vacation from teaching last year I worked as a grant writer for a nonprofit organization. I really liked the work and was successful at it. However, my life had little free time. I longed to sit on the couch and do nothing. I longed for an absence. My friend Jessie looks at this as a presence and calls it “rest.” I couldn’t. (I mean, I dreamed of rest, but the list of stuff to do called more loudly than the couch did.)

Last summer, I also took weekly skating lessons, but there was not enough time to practice in between. Yeah, I felt bad. Bad student. Not doing enough homework. But I kept going, half keeping skating alive.

I made no progress. It was like a review, remedial, over and over and over. The teacher was very nice and smart, yet I felt discouraged. I had hit the brick wall of my own ability. There is the reckoning that comes when you realize, and only adults over 40 can realize this, that it is not all onward and upward. There are limits. There may be back falls. There are ends. Continue reading

The David Sedaris method

3882941631_b1929e63a6_mI recently read the 2013 collection of essays by David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. It made me laugh; it made me think; and it made me write a review: link.

One of my favorite essays, which unlike many of the other essays has not been previously published in a magazine or journal, is “Day In, Day Out.” He describes his faithful practice as a diary keeper, beginning September 5, 1977 when he and his friend Ronnie were hitchhiking along the West Coast. He was mailing letters and postcards home to friends, but had no fixed address and so they could not write back to him. “And so I began writing to myself,” he reports. For a few months, he used paper place mats that he picked up at the diners they ate at. Eventually he switched to sketchbooks and “began gluing things around [the] entries: rent receipts, ticket stubs–ephemera that ultimately tell [him] much more than the writing does.” In 1979 he started typing his entries and recording details of his daily life, “writing down things that seemed worth remembering.”

Then came drug addiction (crystal meth, he says), and six diaries in a row amounted “to one jittery run-on sentence, a fever dream as humorless as it is self-important.” Re-reading the diary entries by his former drug-addicted self, he “wanted to deny him,” but couldn’t.

That’s the terrible power of a diary: it not only calls for the person you used to be but rubs your nose in him, reminding you that not all change is evolutionary. More often than not, you didn’t learn from your mistakes. You didn’t get wiser but simply older.

Since the first day of daily diary writing in 1977, he has been “consumed” by the habit. He has skipped, “on average, maybe one or two days a year.” The diary is tied to his practice as an essayist. He spends the day recording observations (e.g., “a T-shirt slogan”), overheard conversations, and thoughts (e.g., about an argument with Hugh) in a notebook, and the next morning he tries to do something with them. “Over a given six-month period,” Sedaris writes, “there may be fifty bits worth noting, and six that, with a little work, I might consider reading out loud.”

4372725422_461681d55dIn more than 35 years, he has filled more than 136 diaries, which he keeps in a locked cabinet. He has also indexed the volumes, and the index itself is 280 pages. He worries that: “I’m so busy recording life, I don’t have time to really live it.” Once, after his laptop is stolen, including eight weeks of his diary that he hadn’t backed up, he exclaims, “Two months of my life, erased!”  Hugh reminds him that he “had actually lived those two months.” It wasn’t his time that had been stolen, Hugh asserts, just the record of it. After years of diary-keeping, this was “a distinction” that Sedaris “was no longer able to recognize.”

Image of notebook stack by See-ming Lee on Flickr via a creative commons license
Image of red notebook by Jean-Jacques Halans on Flickr via a creative commons license


Hovering over a lake of words

We gave ourselves an assignment: write every day for a week, minimum two minutes each time with an ideal goal of 30 or more. This was in response to our constant wailing, in our weekly chats, about how work and life get in the way of writing.

James will have to report on his own results, but mine showed that, even though I write for work many hours every day, I don’t write for the creative projects I claim to be longing to do. Words are all around me — they are the stuff of how I make my living — but I am not immersed right now in any creative project even though I often feel as though I am on the verge of one. Ironically, instead of using this self-imposed writing week to dive into a creative project, I felt compelled to interrogate myself daily with the question that could be boiled down to this: With all the writing I do, why am I not ‘writing’?

tree branch, Jamaica Pond, August 27 2013, photo by Lydia and editing by Grace

tree branch, Jamaica Pond, August 27 2013, photo by Lydia and editing by Grace

Below the jump I have published an excerpt from each of those seven days. Even though these reflections and rants are not necessarily essay-worthy, I did enjoy seeing how my unpolished, unstudied writing could yield some straightforward insights in unfussy language. Too often I feel my prose is the product of too much crafting. My free writing is free of my cool pose, and I like that in places.

Next assignment? If we are to continue with the daily writing, James and I will put aside the fretting about not writing and, instead, do the writing. My topic this week is anger. My hope is to jump start an essay I started and put aside a couple of years ago.

Continue reading

Precise, and soft at the edges

Red chairOverheard: A young instructor, after lab this week, to a another instructor, “My relationship to perfectionism has changed since I’ve become paralyzed.” She is in a wheelchair.

I hadn’t yet been part of this conversation. My ears perked up, I shuffled over, and I said to her, “You could write about that. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything with any personal insight into that topic from your point of view.”

We talked for a while about laundry folding and kitchen arrangement. Except for me, the group was made up of engineers, people whose work depends on attention to detail. When does attention to detail become perfectionism? I suspect there’s a continuum.

When I have been characterized as perfectionist, it feels like an accusation. The person saying it doesn’t admire the trait or its outcome (e.g., neatly folded sheets in the linen closet, a well-edited memo). Or it’s a way of distinguishing him or herself from me, as in, “You (Jane) are so uptight. I am easy-going.”

I don’t think of myself as desiring perfection, per se. Yet I do desire — and like, feel peaceful with — order, thoroughness, and the well-wrought detail.

Funny, I just had an impulse to make an annotated inventory of what parts of life or the physical world seem more pleasing to me if they are in line with my standards. It might start like this:

  • kitchen cabinets: stuff should be categorized, not stuffed-in randomly
  • closets and bureaus: neat, folded, unstuffed
  • desk: clear surface, things put away
  • yard: neat, trimmed, branches picked up — however, I don’t like a precise, manicured look — there has to be softness around the edges… and yet there are edges…
  • natural world: I like to see fallen branches, puddles, rusted cans among leaves, and yet I usually get to these places via a well-made path, which I like
  • writing: I prefer a fully-explored draft, even over-stuffed with ideas or information and long sentences, yet I want a finished piece to have shape, flow, grammar, and an absence of cliché, which to me is a kind of inexcusable clutter

Toilet outdoorsAs time passes, and therefore there is less time in front of me, I let some perfectionist tendencies go. One does this also as a parent, as soon as you recognize that your infant is a wild thing. Students, too, have minds of their own.

But I hang on to others — performance at work and art and in the primary relationship(s) — and in some ways exacting standards are hampering.

To chew on some more.

Photos taken October 21, 2012 at Allandale Farm by me.

Bounty of writers’ insights

Sweet autumn clematis (link) reaches its full beauty in early September and then lasts. I have a few spots of it in the yard — over an arbor in the front, along both sides of the chimney, and climbing up the neighbor’s fence — and this summer it exceeded its usual proliferation while I wasn’t looking. Suddenly, it seemed to explode into my attention. One day I said to a member of my editorial staff, Grace Guterman, “Please, when you have a moment, go out in the yard and take some photos for me!” I wanted to preserve the lushness. She did.

Also this month I have noticed in the news a proliferation of commentary from writers on writing that surprised me in some way. So that I don’t lose these good finds, I’m going to catalog and excerpt below the three that made the greatest impression on me.

1. Brian Martin recommends that writers train like athletes. Excerpts from his article in Tomorrow’s Professor:

Write for 15 to 30 minutes every day. Yes, that’s it: the core requirement is daily writing, at least five days a week, preferably seven.

Coaches expect their athletes – swimmers, runners and so forth – to train daily. Junior athletes are expected to show up for training every day, at the same time. Swimmers put in the laps and runners put in the miles. This sort of training enables dedicated high school athletes to achieve times better than world champions a century ago.

So what were top athletes doing back then? Those were the days of amateurs, usually from the upper class with spare time and access to facilities, who trained when they felt like it, typically on weekends. Very gentlemanly. But their performances weren’t outstanding by today’s standards.

What about writing? Most academics seem to be operating like the gentleman athletes of the past. They wait until they feel like writing. That usually means when they have a big block of time, or are forced to meet a deadline.

Most academics learn binge-writing from doing assignments in high school or undergraduate years. Binging becomes increasingly dysfunctional as tasks become larger. Writing an essay overnight is possible, but completing a 300-page thesis requires planning and sustained work. Continue reading

Weeding and thinking

The crabgrass is an invader. Not only has it staked its claim on various islands of the lawn, it has mingled with the flowers in the front yard too. What we call “weeds” is socially constructed, you know. Crabgrass is simply one kind of grass, equal to others, but we don’t like it, we can’t control it, so we think of it as a weed: undesirable and to be eradicated.

I’ll live with it on the lawn — and it only grows out front, where there’s sun — but I dislike crabgrass among the flowers I planted intentionally.

Weeding is good to do early in the day. It focuses the mind and then clears it. Was I procrastinating the semester prep I need to do when I put on my work shoes and gathered the bucket and tools? Yes. If one is putting off something else, though, it is good to at least accomplish another task. Recently I read that the highest-achieving people always do their most difficult work first. Ah, not me. I like a little puttering first, sort of like walking around the block before a run. The warm up, the loosening.

It is satisfying to grab the head of a clump of weeks, pry the dirt a bit from below, and then pull, feeling the roots of the weed pull back and my own gentle force eventually overcome their tenaciousness. Is this similar to the satisfaction dentists, doctors, and even aestheticians feel in their work with the human body? The organism resists; the professional — wilier, and with tools — overcomes. This may also lead to the despair that is sometimes felt in working with the human body, with nature in general: ultimately, its own force or fragility asserts itself and the counter force we apply fails. The river overflows the bank; the freckles proliferate; illness has its way; children grow and become themselves; we age.

Working with one’s hands — and typing does not feel like work with one’s hands, although hand writing does — focuses the mind on the task. There are a set of small decisions to make as well as continual adjustments. To any passerby, I probably look quite still as I weed, just my hands and fingers busy, but I inch my way down the front walk and my mind, meanwhile, buzzes with thought: about the flowers and which ones to plant again next year, about the fall tasks around the corner, about water and my access to an abundant amount of it, and about the burden and pleasure in owning a piece of the earth.

Eli once said it’s so weird that people can own property, a piece of the planet, and when you stop to think about it, he’s right. Surely, we have to live somewhere, but strange that only Jimmy and I have a claim on these particular 7,000 square feet of dirt in Brookline, Massachusetts. And how far down do our rights go? A foot? Down to the sewer and gas pipes? All the way to the center of the earth? I picture a cutaway view of my house on the earth’s crust and the massive sliver of geological layers on which we rest. And if I do own the sliver all the way to the planet’s core, do I also have responsibility for it?

The parts of life that touch me have this awesome responsibility: if I know about it, or am associated with it, I am implicated in its maintenance or outcome. To not take responsibility (and I don’t, always) is to make an active decision to *not* concern myself, to shut off that part of my brain or body that could act. I won’t help (though I could); I won’t care (though I do); I will leave this to someone else.

I’m not borrowing the rhetoric of the self-help movement to assert my need for “me time” (I hate that expression). Occasionally I have this dialog with myself because I am lazy or tired or even because I lose faith in myself.

Continue reading

Writer’s Dozen: Natalie Goldberg and Bones

Goldberg, pen, and cake

Permission, sincere belief, and urgency: those are what Natalie Goldberg gives to readers of Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala Publications, Boston: 1986). This post is the first of Writer’s Dozen, a series on 13 texts that have meant a lot to me as a writer.

When I first encountered this book, in the graduate-level Teaching Writing course at Simmons College in the spring of 2003, I wondered why Professor Lowry Pei had assigned it. I cringed reading the first chapter, “Beginner’s Mind, Pen and Paper,” and Goldberg’s hokey advice on choosing a “fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand” and purchasing “a cheap spiral notebook” over a “fancy” one so that “you feel that you can fill it quickly and afford another.”

Let’s get to the point, I thought. The pen-and-paper suggestion seemed to be a detour and right at the beginning of the book when I was eager to get started. Clearly, this was for adults, and did they really need guidance in finding these most basic tools? If they do, they’re not going to get too far as writers. The snob in me was having her say in my internal dialogue.

Other chapters describe the timed “egoless” freewrite, writing as daily practice, distance of time, and some more fruitful topics. My position on Goldberg’s method started to soften, though, only when I read her command that we shouldn’t “identify too strongly with [our] work.” Words, when writing them, are “a great moment going through” the writer. Not being a Buddhist, as she is, I didn’t quite understand what she was getting at, but I found it a relief to think that I could write deeply and then move on to deeply writing something else, having left the old thing behind, done.

My initial resistance to Writing Down the Bones and the spiritual dimension to Goldberg’s approach had to do with my age (38), agnosticism, and experience writing and getting writing (for work and school) done. I didn’t think I necessarily needed anyone to tell me to write, write lots, write regularly. At first, I wondered if this book was intended purely for the beginner or the unsure, which I believed myself to be not at all.

But I quickly liked and was intrigued by the ideas of this writing professor, Lowry Pei, who has since become mentor, colleague, and friend, and I thought I’d go along with it and see how Goldberg fit into Pei’s approach. I was still keeping my emotional distance from Bones, not sure it applied to me. Continue reading

The agony of writing comments on student work

That’s me, sitting at my desk at home, which is really the dining room table, where dining rarely happens. We usually eat in the kitchen unless company comes, and then I put away my laptop, power cord, scratch paper, and pen.

Lydia took this candid photo with her phone when I wasn’t paying attention to her. The draft of a report by a student was diverting me from my own students, aka children, and their homework.  Sometimes Lydia and Grace spread their books and worksheets on the same table, and we homework-it alongside each other. Let’s hope this gives me credit someday for being an involved parent.

The past two weeks have been all about final papers and final presentations, and I have been meeting with students, helping them rehearse talks and improve slides, and reading submissions. Have I worked on my own writing? Not really. I have thought about it.

In a recent column on her writing habits, Anna Quindlen, who writes every day between 9am and 3pm — “an elementary school schedule” — argues that a writer must lead “a humdrum life” and not “write other stuff.” If you have a busy life, and you are writing other stuff (like, I infer, comments on student writing), “you won’t write it.”  Here, the pronoun it stands in for all that glorious self-authored work a writer is destined to do, unless responsibility gets in the way.  Too many lunches, Quindlen adds, also get in the way.

She invokes her Barnard writing professor, B.J. Chute, who told Quindlen and her classmates “not to take jobs that involved writing of any kind because there was no chance we would then go home at night and take up our own material.”  Very good point. I do wonder, though, how fiction writer B.J. Chute managed to get her teaching done without writing on student work. Continue reading