NaNoWriMo Tip #5: Stay Off Social Media

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In a reverse of my usual trend, I have some advice on what NOT to do for NaNoWriMo.

Yeah, this is what self-sabotage looks like: I have a scant 512 words left to write before I am, officially, a NaNoWriMo winner. Little Bro is watching a bonus episode of Bob the Builder. “Sweet,” I’m thinking to myself. “I can get this done before Big Sis even gets off the school bus.”

But wait! First I should go on Facebook. And then I should click on an article in my newsfeed guaranteed to send me into an ideological spin. Oh, but that didn’t make me anxious enough. I know! I’ll go on the comments section so that I can flood my brain in despair over the torrent of incivility represented there. And then, instead of writing, I can stare off into the middle distance and wonder if the Internet has completely and eternally killed our ability to engage in thoughtful, constructive discourse. Instead of feeling happy and victorious over a personal accomplishment, I can stew in an overwhelming sense of gloom and futility. Clearly, that’s a much better choice. Yes, I’m definitely pursuing a wise course of action now!

Sigh. If I could force myself to follow any advice, it would be this: I’d kick my addiction to social media, especially when I’m trying to write. I don’t know why this is so hard for me. It’s not like social media yields these amazing, soul-stirring rewards to my life. And yet… I keep coming back to it, even when I know that’s a terrible idea.

How do you resist the siren call of a status update or a newsfeed scroll? I’m definitely hoping to implement your practical suggestions!

NaNoWriMo: Those Last Few Miles

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Just a few more days to go, folks, and I don’t know about you… but I’m struggling. I’m less than 5,000 words away from my first ever NaNoWriMo win and I’ve begun to wonder (constantly) if it’s even worth it. Clearly, I’ve got a bit of self-sabotage going on here and yes, I’m determined to work through it. But I also need to be honest with myself. Part of that mental ho-humming comes from some serious creative and emotional fatigue.

I’ve been running near empty for awhile now. Once upon a time (in the beginning of the month, which I vaguely remember) the words flowed freely. I’d sit down at my computer, pound at the keyboard for awhile, and feel joyous shock when (a) a whole hour rolled by unnoticed and/or (b) I managed to effortlessly exceed the day’s word count.

That is sadly no longer the case—far from it, in fact. These days, writing feels much like climbing a mountain of pudding. I find myself staring into space, agonizing over where to go with my story. I resort to going backwards in my draft and adding tons of adverbs that will only come out again in later revisions. I’m updating my word count in painful increments… 87 words here, 102 words there. And yes, every word counts. But this is not the “flow state” I was hoping to achieve at the beginning of the month. Nor does my writing feel like a sustainable practice I’m adding to a rich, well-balanced life.

Don’t get me wrong. A whole hour can still roll by unnoticed. But I often spend that hour doing ineffectual research or anesthetizing myself with a “quick” trip on social media… anything to avoid the tedious work of trying to figure out what happens next in my story.

Clearly, my brain is telling me that I need to take a little break. But if I want to return to my work rejuvenated, then whatever I do has to feel like a peaceful pause… and not like guilt-inducing procrastination. Here are some sanity-preserving activities I plan to reincorporate into my life this week:

  • Move my body. Just standing up to stretch can help, but working out or doing yoga would be truly restorative.
  • Go outside. Fresh air tends to clear the cobwebs from my heart, soul, and brain.
  • Enjoy free family time. I’ve been losing unscheduled hours with my family, and it won’t hurt my writing to claim a few of those back. Quite the opposite, in fact!

What about you, fellow writers? What helps you to rejuvenate and recommit to a project? How do you plan to power through these final days of NaNoWriMo? I’d love to hear your thoughts!   

Self-Reflect to Simplify Christmas

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It’s Christmas time, people, and all too often I head into this season of hope with an anxious scarcity mentality. This has to be the most perfect holiday ever, I tell myself. And usually conscious thought stops there as the emotional hyperventilating commences.

But this year, I’m forcing myself to fully explore my insane thought process. It goes a little something like this: The kids are growing up. I can’t waste these prime magical Santa years! Before I know it, they’ll be out of the house. What if they never realize how much we love them? What if they have no positive childhood memories? What if I fail in this whole parenting gig and they grow up dysfunctional, unable to carry out a fulfilling and self-sufficient life? What if they have no moral or spiritual center? What if, as adults, they’re just relieved to escape me and never want to come home? Mr. M and I will be abandoned on Christmas! We’ll be abandoned in general! Clearly, if I don’t hand-make a gorgeous Advent calendar from reclaimed pallet wood RIGHT NOW, the children will be irreparably damaged and I will die alone and unloved.

Oh, crap. I’m uncomfortable using power tools. We are all SCREWED.

 Okay. So actually articulating it makes me realize that it’s crazy. And yet, this crazy and often subconscious inner monologue is exactly why I commit to too much Christmas activity and then berate myself for not following through (or for following through with bitter cynicism instead of oodles of genuine goodwill).

This year, I’m determined to step back from the ledge.

For me, that means visualizing my ideal future and setting specific holiday goals that will move me in that direction. Oh Kate, you might be thinking. Isn’t that a little extreme for holiday planning? Can’t you just put up some decorations, make some hot cocoa, and let Bing Crosby sing you through the season?

Theoretically, yes. I’m sure that’s how reasonable people do things. But as indicated by the anxious emotional spew above, I tend to be far from reasonable. So according to my backwards logic, I need a complicated plan to ensure that my December stays simple. (Feel free to judge that all you want. Heaven knows, I certainly do!)

So I’m stepping back from Pinterest. Instead, I’m considering my holiday plans in light of the following question clusters.

  • When my family someday looks back on this year and/or time, what do I want them to remember? How do I want those memories to affect their/our future? What special memories do I have regarding the holidays of my past, and how have they shaped me into the person I am today? What can I carry over from these memories and share in the present? What new kinds of memories do I want to create? How do all of these memories connect to my larger goals and values? How do I hope this year’s holiday celebrations will influence my family’s future?
  • What realities must I acknowledge in my holiday planning? What non-holiday obligations do I already have on my plate (work, school, volunteering, etc.)? Are there holiday traditions already in place that I need to uphold? What limits do I need to respect?  How many activities, traditions, or obligations can I honestly take on while maintaining my wellness?
  • With whom do I celebrate the holidays and how should this impact my planning? What are their ages, temperaments, and needs? How must I account for this as I plan? (Confession: all too often, I’ve had a “fun” experience go irredeemably south because I ignored the likely possibility that my two-year-old would, in fact, act like a two-year-old.)
  • What do we gain and what do we lose by attempting any particular holiday tradition or activity? How much time and energy will it take? What are the potential benefits of taking this on? What are the potential costs? Is this worth it? How does this tradition or activity relate to my larger goals and values? Are there other ways to put those goals and values in action—and if so, would one of the other ways be a better option for us at this time?
  • What motivates me to even consider incorporating a particular activity or tradition into my holiday season? Will this really add value to my life and holiday experience? Will it really bring value to my co-celebrants? Or am I once again making decisions with an anxious scarcity mentality? Am I “shoulding” all over myself? (James Martin SJ suggests of that last phrase, “Say it aloud and the negative meaning becomes clearer.”)

What do you think, readers? I’m hoping this little litmus test helps to guide my family towards a more peaceful and rewarding holiday season. Here’s hoping that some small part of it may do the same for you!

NaNoTip #4: Call Out Your Inner Critic

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For the first time ever, I’m reaching my daily NaNoWriMo word count goal. People, I might actually hit 50,000 this year! I’m generating forward momentum on a long-term fiction project. And I’m overcoming the excuse I’ve used for years to justify my artistic laziness. Namely, “You can’t do this right now. You don’t have time. It’s better to just wait until life settles down.” Yeah, it’s all super groovy.

So why don’t I feel better about my progress?

Instead of celebrating, I spend an inordinate amount of time telling myself that I’m doing a crappy job, that I’m not living up to my potential, and that I’m “not a real writer.” Part of this cruel self-talk comes from my hyper-critical Type A personality. And part of it may be gendered. (Read this article, “The Confidence Gap,” for some further thoughts on that score.) But part of it, I think, is also just par for the course of being a struggling creative person.

Once again, Julia Cameron (author of The Artist’s Way) offers some insight that I find painfully familiar. She writes, “There is a recognizable ebb and flow to the process of recovering our creative selves. As we gain strength, so will some of the attacks of self-doubt.” Um, yes. Unfortunately, that’s it exactly.

Here’s a little sample of how my mental dialogue has run for the past 21 days:

Kate: Wow! I’ve gone from never writing to working consistently every day. That’s a huge win!

Inner Critic (snorts derisively): Huge? A huge pile of crap, maybe. Can you really call it “working” if you’re not actually producing anything worth reading?

Kate: Hey, quality comes later. For now, I’m just happy to be keeping pace with the NaNoWriMo word count challenge. I’m probably going to write 50,000 words this year.

Inner Critic: That’s because you’re cheating. You’ve got multiple projects going simultaneously and you’re also counting some of that brain puke you have no intention of ever trying to publish. You shouldn’t count worthless words! And remember, all of your words are worthless! So not only are you a bad writer, but you’re also a fundamentally dishonest person.

Kate: That’s not fair. I have tons of integrity! There’s nothing wrong with making headway on several pieces. And that “brain puke” is an integral part of my process, so it counts.

Inner Critic: No it doesn’t. Also, you don’t count. Nobody wants to hear what you have to say. You should just stop. Stop now.

Kate: I can’t stop. I’ve got four chapters done on the first draft of my novel.  And I actually know where I’m going next with it!

Inner Critic: Who cares? This is not the novel you planned to write.

Kate: So what? I’m writing.

Inner Critic: Yeah, but this novel is just a fluff piece. The work you’re doing is totally pointless, and in such politically charged times you should really be investing your abilities in a more altruistic project. Be an activist, why don’t you?

Kate: Good idea! Maybe I’ll tackle something like that next!

Inner Critic: No, no, no. You can’t. You’re not qualified to have a political opinion, and whatever you produce will be horrible.

Kate: But what if it’s not? What if it’s actually good?

Inner Critic: If it is good, it doesn’t matter. Nobody will read it anyway.

(And so on, ad infinitum…)

* * * * *

Does this sound familiar to anyone else? For your sake, I hope not! But for my sake, I hope I’m not revealing some special brand of individual insanity here.

The thing that makes my inner critic so tough is that she’s always evolving. So it’s no surprise that I’m still learning how to deal with her. In the past, I’ve just desperately tried to ignore her… and in doing so, I’ve given that self-doubting voice way more power than it deserves. Now that I’m listening, and I’m noticing a pattern. My inner critic wants to shut me up. Why? She will say anything to stop me. Why is this sour, vocal part of me so afraid?

Suddenly, this all got a whole lot more interesting.

Clearly, I’ve got a lot to think about. And while navel-gazing my inner critic to death is so tempting, I can’t indulge right now. I’ve got words to write, no matter how crappy they may be. Yes, that’s what I’m going to do this November, and that’s how I’m going to win: I will write no matter what, and I will reach 50,000.

Pep talk me, fellow NaNos. How do you deal with your inner critic? 

A Very NaNo Thanksgiving: Pumpkin Pie

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Last year’s pumpkin pie!

Thanksgiving is coming right up, my fellow NaNo writers! Is there a way to celebrate without losing total control over your word count? I’d like to think so! My biggest recommendation would be to plan ahead so that you can lock in an optimal location and a simple food contribution. Also, make sure to bring home enough leftovers that you don’t have to cook the next day!

Of course, this entire post is predicated on the fact that I’m an extrovert deeply embedded in family life. I also happen to live within easy driving distance of many loved ones, so take everything I’m saying with a whole shaker full of salt!

Location: I’m grateful that my mom is our annual host. I don’t have to clean my house! She only lives 20 minutes away! She does the bulk of the cooking and coordinates all potluck items! For me, going elsewhere reduces stress. Could it do the same for you?

Simple food contributions: There have been times in my life where I’ve totally mooched off my hosts, but I’m in my ’30s now with an established home of my own. Showing up empty-handed and hungry isn’t really an option for me anymore. But I do have small children, and my family does know that I’m doing NaNoWriMo. So my only contribution this year will be pie.

  • I like to bake my pumpkin pie from semi-scratch. In my opinion, a homemade crust is infinitely more important than roasting my own sugar pumpkins for filling. So I’m putting my energy into this crust recipe and saving some time with canned pumpkin and this filling recipe. That said, Costco makes a great (and huge!) pumpkin pie. So you could also skip baking altogether and just pick up dessert.
  • Looking for something even easier? Offer to bring one of the following:
    • wine, beer, or other celebratory beverage
    • rolls (buy them at the store and bring them in a fancy bread basket!)
    • candied sweet potatoes (seriously, this recipe is so easy)
    • a veggie platter (buy a bunch of pickled or roasted items in jars! Or buy carrots, celery, and cauliflower… then arrange it around some Ranch dressing in a bowl.)

 

 

NaNo Tip #3: Feed the Source

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(Image captured by the fabulous Dorothy Lange)

Oh, November. You are such a long, cruel month. And if I feel like this on Day 10 of NaNoWriMo, how can I possibly survive until Day 30?

I zipped along that first week on a tidal wave of optimism and excitement. But today, my source of creative inspiration feels much like the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the 1930s: utterly depleted and depressing. Where once I had a flood of exciting new ideas, now there are only a few hackneyed tropes clinging like weeds to the dust of my brain.

I’d like to acknowledge upfront that there are several reasons for this, some of them certainly outside my control. First, there’s the shift to standard time. In addition to temporarily messing up my own circadian rhythm, “falling back” has played merry hell with my two-year-old’s temperament (and let’s be honest; it’s not invariably rosy to begin with). Then there’s the fact that I live in a particularly soggy corner of the United States. As the days grow shorter and wetter, I seem to be spending more time in darkness… both literally and emotionally. And finally, there’s the election. Sigh. I’m exhausted from cruising the waves of vitriol and uncertainty. I’m tired. So tired, in fact, that I’m just not capable of discussing it further here.

Those are the factors I can’t control currently contributing to my Week 2 NaNo malaise. But what about the rest of it? Honestly, this didn’t all hit at once. I’ve been noticing my attention starting to wander, my energy slowly fading. Yesterday, slogging through my word count did not feel creative and joyful. I never reached that flow state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has identified as the key to fulfillment. I had to fight for every small gain. What a difference from the steady and exhilarating word flow of last week!

But honestly, this isn’t surprising. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron points out that creative work requires an investment of self. If we aren’t willing to replenish ourselves with truly restful and rejuvenating activities, then ultimately we’ll just leach ourselves of the ability to produce at all. (Aha! Are you getting my Dust Bowl metaphor now?)

Cameron labels this nose-to-the-grindstone work style as “artistic anorexia.” She warns that those of us ignoring short term self-care will experience long-term problems. We will begin “leaching our souls to find images, returning to past work, to tricks, practicing our craft more than enlarging our art.”

Yes, in case you missed the memo: I’m a granola-crunching fan of Cameron’s work. And I find her analysis of the creative temperament to ring very true.

Sometimes, I get so wrapped up in my scarcity mentality. I go crazy with the self-denial. “You can’t afford to just loaf around,” I tell myself. “There are words to write. There are school lunches to pack.” And as a sop to my soul, I pause to steal a bit of my kids’ Halloween candy. There. M&Ms guzzled; you’ve had your treat for the day. Now, go balance the checkbook… that can be your break from writing.

Um, no. I can’t expect to meet my NaNoWriMo goals if my self-care consists of cataloging grocery receipts. That’s horrible. And yes, I am a legitimately busy person. Aren’t we all? But if I get creative, I can carve out a little more time for joy in my day. So this week I’m pondering what I can do to really take care of myself:

  • I want to spend some enjoyable time with my family (nagging them to get dressed in the morning doesn’t count).
  • I want to spend some enjoyable, unproductive time by myself.
  • I want to attend a religious service and/or yoga.
  • I want to eat and/or drink something super delicious.

What are you doing to feed your mind, soul, and body? I’d love some tips! After all, we can’t win this thing if we aren’t taking care of ourselves. 

 

 

NaNo Tip #2: Practice Active Hope

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(Book info here)

For this bit of NaNo advice, I’m delving into Beyond Happy: Women, Work, and Well-Being. Beth Cabrera’s book is yet another title I’d recommend reading after November ends. It’s got tons of practical tips and it reads very quickly… but not so quickly that you should pick it up before you hit your 50,000 word count!

Dr. Cabrera is an authority on positive psychology. In this book, she puts her expertise (plus tons of meticulous research) to work analyzing (a) why the culture of anxiety thrives and how we can say no to it, (b) how we can uncover our individual purpose, and (c) how to access that purpose in practical ways that dramatically enhance our quality of life.

Chapter Five of her book is titled “Be Hopeful.” She advises readers to visualize their ideal future and set specific goals that will move them in their desired direction. Hopefully, you have already figured out why you’re doing NaNoWriMo… and how this challenge fits in to your grander plans for that ideal future. (If you haven’t already thought this out, it’s probably worth spending a few minutes pondering your motivation.)

In addition to goal-setting, Cabrera recommends that you:

  • Use if-then planning to help you take action.
  • Identify several alternative strategies for achieving your goals.
  • Keep a victory log where you record all of your successes.
  • Consider the effort it took your role models to achieve success.

For example, in preparing for NaNo I’ve pondered what usually keeps me from writing and/or finishing my work. Here’s what I know about myself and my situation: I’m most productive in the morning, I’ve currently got a case of creative ADHD, and I infinitely prefer starting to finishing a project. I’ve also got an early-rising toddler who no longer naps; a toddler, mind you, who lives for any chance moment that he might get to play on my computer. Busting out the laptop in front of him really isn’t an option.

Next step: I used this self-reflection to drive some if-then planning and brainstorming of alternate strategies. Sure, someday I’d like to be a skilled romance novelist. But I don’t think my current situation lends itself well to linear plotting. So… alternate strategy: I’ve selected a NaNo project comprised of loosely related vignettes. Lots of brief pieces, so I’ll constantly be starting something new. Plus, the compilation-style work should transfer well across platforms. I can have one vignette going via Google Docs on my phone, another on my laptop, and yet another in my journal. Theoretically, I can be working in Little Brother’s vicinity, with or without internet.

The goal is to get as much done in the morning as possible, then log in a couple 10-20 minute writing sprints throughout the day, and finish off my word count after the kiddos are in bed.

Okay, good stuff. I’m planning for success here! But what if something fails to go according to plan? If? Ha. I have children. This plan will derail on Day One, guaranteed. Cue the if-then planning:

  • IF I get behind on my word count, THEN I have several options:
    • I can catch up on my Tuesday evening work nights
    • I can catch up on weekends while Mr. M is home with the kids
    • I can ask a friend or family member to come babysit for awhile
    • I can write at the YMCA while Little Bro’s in the play center.
    • I can access free childcare at the grocery store for up to 60 minutes a day…
    • I can just adjust my word count expectations.
  • IF my day is completely shot and I’m too exhausted to attempt my word count, THEN I have to at least write one sentence to keep the forward momentum going.
  • IF we have a family celebration (Thanksgiving, I’m looking at you), THEN I need to finish my daily word count before said celebration commences.
  • IF my house feels so messy and cluttered that I can’t concentrate on my writing or parenting, THEN I will set a timer for 30 minutes and do a “speed clean.”
  • IF my children start to get all whiny and needy, THEN I need to give them some focused attention before getting back to my manuscript! IF I can write every day, THEN it doesn’t matter whether or not I reach the 50,000 mark.

I will definitely do some “victory log” posts throughout November, because I’m sure I’ll have successes to celebrate as well as struggles to surmount. (Holy alliteration run amok, Batman!) As for the efforts of my role models… hmmm… perhaps I’ll be doing some biographical case studies in December and January!

For now, I’d love to trade tips. How are you setting yourself up for success this November? I’m hoping to hear some of your if/then planning!