There are no destinations that you grandly arrive at. No final treasure at the end of the journey. There is only the journey. My goal for 2019 was to write a novel even though the only fiction I’ve ever written is a short story, one that I never attempted to share or publish. It’s 2020 and though I haven’t finished writing, I’m much further along, not just in my novel but in what I have learned. I would love for you to accompany me on this, a writer’s journey. It starts at Day 1.
Welcome to The Book Life, September Edition. It’s 106 degrees today here in my corner of California and the searing, dry heat has sent most people inside. We were already spending more time inside as we sheltered from the pandemic but now, we are forced to stay indoors even more. Pandemics, lightning complexes that triggered wildfires in all parts of the state and intense heat waves have all become our new normal. The entire area was blanketed in dense smoke and there has been loss of lives, injuries, damage to property, and evacuations. Anyone here can tell you that it could’ve been worse but for the tireless work of everyone involved: firefighters, doctors, nurses, emergency technicians in the health care field, emergency crew working to restore power and countless others. There was a children’s book that I read to my kids with the title It could’ve been worse. I remember thinking that the book title sounded pessimistic, a kind of expecting the worst, but after reading it, I realized that it’s about gratitude because as 2020 has shown us, things can always get worse. So, taking time here to express gratitude for everyone and doing what I can, as a volunteer, to help.
The theme for Day 6 of the 30-day book photography challenge was “book bokeh.” You probably already know what the bokeh effect in a photograph is but in case you don’t or want more detail, here is a link to an article that describes what it is. You can see my contributions (above, below) to the book with bokeh effect photography challenge. The books is William Dalrymple’s The Age Of Kali, Indian Travels and Encounters that I’ve just started reading.
In the light of all these events, my writing has slowed as has my reading because both require more bandwidth than I can currently expend. But they haven’t stopped. I hope you are doing well.
First, here are a few lessons that I’ve learned/ had reiterated to me and some thoughts on Day 11 of my writing journey:
1. I need to remember that journeys are long because I don’t think it’s implicit in the meaning. I’ll have to remember to compare it with a word like trip (e.g. my writing trip which sounds short and sweet as opposed to my writing journey which has been long and arduous.)
2. As for so many of us, my 2020 has felt like one day in March, repeated ad nauseam. Ad infinitum. The repetition doesn’t imply that the days have gotten easier. Instead, I think I put up less of a struggle. I have a working first draft of my first book but the more I read it, the more I want to correct and fix. Write. Scratch out. Rewrite. Repeat.
3. Being a writer means you veer dramatically between moments of joy because you think you have written something that sounds good and may move someone to emotion followed almost instantly by moments of scorn that you actually believe that someone will read this tripe. Write. Critique. Rewrite. Repeat. (Interspersed with hysterical laughter and tears)
4. It is my fervent wish that there is a direct correlation between the quality of the work and amount of work I’ve put in. (Amount of work= persistence (in believing that I can write and showing up to do the work) + struggle to effectively write the story (aka doing the work)).
5. If you’re reading this, and you are working on your own writing project,here is what I think has been the most important lesson of my fiction-writing journey: As a writer, it’s not your job to tell your reader everything. Write enough that the story pulls the reader in but leave enough out that the reader’s imagination comes alive to fill in the gaps. It’s as much about what you don’t tell your reader as it is about the magic your words weave.
I hope you and your family are doing well. Welcome to The Book Life, a type of post that I’m hoping to be more regular with. It talks about how things are going but from a reader’s perspective. It’s August and I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all gotten used to a new way of living. I’m a biologist and to me, the shelter in place has felt like an incubation reaction: we’re forced to sit with our individual circumstances, to grow where we are, and hopefully, we will emerge with new tools for life. Again, there are so many individual circumstances and I want to steer away from generalizations, but it does seem like we’ve had to weather our personal storms, enjoy our triumphs in ways that may not have seemed possible or desirable prior to this year and grow, albeit in different ways. Have we always done this? Maybe. After all, we live individual lives, each with unique sets of circumstances- no two people have exactly the same lives. Maybe we have always lived like this but 2020 has brought it into focus.
As a reader, I’ve noticed that my reading has diverged to include two distinct groups: 1) books I’m reading to learn something and to engage with life in a more informed way, (all kinds of non-fiction) and 2) books that have guaranteed happily-ever-after endings (e.g. romance novels).
There is a quote attributed to Nora Ephron: “Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.” The words brought home yet another beautiful contrast: reading as a way to escape the immediacy of our life, and reading to learn, so that we may be more present and more engaged with life. I have always thought of my reading as a happy escape into adventure or as a way to educate myself but in 2020, it’s apparent that it is also a coping mechanism, helping with anxiety about the uncertainty in the world today. There is immense comfort to be found in reading a novel where you know everything’s going to work out in the end but I have also found myself dipping in and out of Rilke’s Letters to a young poet and the translated Rumi because they assure me that others have navigated the up’s and down’s of life and found, in Frost’s words, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.“
What have you noticed about your reading habits in 2020? I would love to hear from you. Take care!
It’s a hot summer Monday afternoon in June. A case of perfectionism, wanting the writing I share here to be perfect in relevance, length, clarity, and emotion, has led to my not posting at all. I’ve battled these before and obviously, continue to do so. The number of hours spent reading has also gone down. When I think about the reasons for this, I can narrow it down to two- 1) I am spending more time writing (if you have read this blog before, you may know that I am working on a novel); 2) with the realization that certain life changes, courtesy of the coronavirus, are here to stay, we have entered into an adjustment phase where we have to plot a new way of living. What routines, habits and ways to work and relax will we bring with us or create for this new life? Just asking myself this question has helped as an effective reminder that I always have agency over my life regardless of external circumstances. For more on agency, you may want to read this article from the Greater Good magazine at Berkeley. I’m currently reading the book mentioned in the article, The Power Of Agency by Drs. Paul Napper and Anthony Rao (more on the book in another post).
The Book Life
People who regularly practice meditation often talk about how meditating allows them to show up for life in a more resilient, and less reactionary, way. That is how my writing practice currently feels, as a necessary refueling that allows me to meet life’s other responsibilities. (While there are many articles on how meditation can benefit creativity, I didn’t find anything on writing or a similar creative practice as an effective substitute for meditation.) If writing acts as fuel, a reading practice helps find answers, introduces new ideas and ways of thinking, and also serves as a necessary escape. (This is what I mean by the book life: a life where I’m held upright by books!)
What tools are you bringing as we enter this new way of life? Here are some items on my list: daily exercise, establishing a short yoga and meditation practice, a robust reading practice. I expect this list to keep growing as we navigate these changing times and currently the latest addition is this: to consciously engage with life such that challenges are seen for the growth opportunities they are.
It’s May 16th, 2020 as I type this and we are at about two months of social distancing amidst the coronavirus pandemic. I hope you and your loved ones are doing well.
Lessons learned from creative projects: Present Day
It’s a time of contrasts, the most obvious one being the difference in how each one of us is affected by the pandemic, scattered as we are on a spectrum that ranges from bored and inconvenienced to despair and devastation. For some, this has meant a time to reconnect with home and family and for others, their lives are altered beyond recognition. The other striking contrast has to do with time itself: each day appears the same, a monotonous repetition of similar activities and sometimes seeming to drag with loneliness and yet, entire months are slipping away quickly. Like characters in a storybook, will we emerge from our homes to find the world a completely different place?
The one thing that has helped me the most is being engaged in a creative project: writing a novel. It’s been something as flighty as helping to pass the time and as important as serving both as a refuge, while we navigate the uncertainty of the present time, and as a mission that guides me into the future.
The journey is the reward.” – Steve Jobs
Engaging in creative work is to live knowing, in Steve Jobs’ words, “the journey is the reward.” Please note that I use creative projects and creative work interchangeably. The goal is to talk about work that involves creativity. It is to enter the realm of muses and inspiration, and to pair it with hard work. I have now been writing for nearly 2 1/2 years and it has been an experience like no other. I say that not to make it sound more grand than it is but to share that this project has required me to believe in its worthiness to persevere at it for so long. It has meant a daily battle with self-doubt and to approach the work much like a conquering general. I am sharing lessons that I’ve learned from being engaged in some creative project or other for more than a decade as well as lessons learned from others (writers like Steven Pressfield, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rollo May, among others) who have shined a light on the process:
1. This one is so simple: find something you like doing. So many times we are engaging in creative work that we feel we ought to like or have someone hand it to us. Find something you want to do.
2. Of course, if it was that simple, everyone would do it. It’s been my experience that wanting to draw, write, design, sing, make music, figure out a creative solution etc. is usually mixed with a fear of not being good enough to achieve the kind of results you want. If we compare the creative project to a hot air balloon, unhooking it from the weight of your expectations will allow it to rise. So, be open, be curious, and let go of any expectations. It’s an experiment and you don’t know how it will turn out and that’s okay. There is no goal except to engage with the creative process.
3. Practice, and then practice some more.
4. Show up to do the work. This may seem obvious but showing up day after day allows you to tone your “creativity muscle”. And showing up to do the work allow you to start building: words add up to become paragraphs, pages, chapters, and ultimately, a book. Remember the Margaret Atwood quote: “A word after a word after a word is power.” More importantly, showing up repeatedly to do the work allows us to reach a kind of tipping point: I have seen this with establishing new lifestyle habits such as exercising regularly or eating veggies. When you do it repeatedly and for long enough, you cross this tipping point where it’s now become second nature.
5. This next one is something of a two-in-one and I struggle with it: it’s important to know when it’s time to let something go just as it’s important to realize when something is a block that you have to remove to proceed.
6. Procrastination and resistance to doing the work seem part of the process. I have scheduled dentist appointments, cleaned the house, browsed gardens on Instagram, and tried to organize my books by alphabet, all to avoid doing the day’s writing. It is strange that what bring me to a place of meditative calm and quiet is also a place I resist going at every opportunity. Maybe some people just sit down easily and write but I have to battle my procrastination impulse every day.
7. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of being seen. Fear of being successful. Fear of consequences. Fear of being ignored. Fear of being laughed at. There are many fears to choose from. Fear is okay. Fear is expected. Persevere anyway. More on fear can be found in this earlier post.
8. Let go of perfectionism: Read these two posts for my thoughts on how perfectionism can sabotage creativity.
9. Be accountable. The creative work that you may be engaged in may be a small art project or it may be your soul mission. Regardless of the size and nature of the creative project, hold yourself accountable for the work. if you commit to writing 1000 words a day, keep the commitment. In Nike’s words, Just Do It.
10. There may come a time in creative work when your attention shifts from you, your story, and your need to express yourself, to your audience. It’s like a tipping point where it feels like the story escapes from you and becomes more about the collective rather than the individual. It’s my opinion that this is a desired outcome.
I hope these lessons learned from creative projects and work are helpful to you and if you have more to add to this list, do leave a comment. For more on the topic of creativity, here’s a YouTube video from PBS and another Bookended post on 5 Must-Read Books On Creativity.
I have some fairly disparate things to talk about today but I think there is a thread that ties them together, so bear with me as I try to make sense of it . First: There’s always something, an idea or a perspective, that is obvious to some persons but another person is completely oblivious to it. And then maybe someone says something, and like the shake of a kaleidoscope, there is an inward shift and the new pattern becomes obvious. The person wonders why they never saw it.
All or nothing…
Second: Have you heard of the All-Or-None Law? It’s from physiology and it states that when a nerve or muscle cell is stimulated with a stimuli above the threshold potential, it responds. That is, it either responds completely or not at all. All or none (If you want to read more about it, please google it. I’m using it as a metaphor. I think.) It has come to my notice today that I have been thinking of everything in life from an ‘all or none’ point of view. I can do this or I can do that. I can write or I can pursue that opportunity. If I do this, I can’t do that other thing. For sure, there are cases where I can’t do both. I can’t write and climb Mount Everest at the same time.
I spoke a few days ago about following your heart, focusing on what you want to do, and completing it. I also spoke of ignoring distractions. There’s a new, exciting opportunity that has shown up and I immediately panicked and thought about how I would like to try out for it and also how saying ‘yes’ to something else would adversely affect my writing. My husband gently asked, “Why can’t you do both?” And I thought immediately of my all-or-none approach – do this or do that but not both.
If you are pursuing a creative venture, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether it can be done in addition to something else. Only you can decide. There will be those times when you’ll want to or have to balance multiple commitments (e.g. day job and creative venture or day job, raising children, and creativity, or raising children, volunteering and writing etc. etc.- there are as many iterations as there are people). Other times, you may choose to focus only on one thing. It is my humble opinion that only the individual can make the choice and that choice may vary from individual to individual, on the type of project, and it may depend on where you are on the project. I put the picture of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic above because she talks at length about this. I have read the book multiple times but it’s only when I see it play out in my life that I can understand it better. You don’t have to leave everything in order to be creative (which I correlated with the All or None Law!).
Now here’s what has happened to me- the question “Why can’t you do both?” served as a liberator. I somehow felt myself growing, as if my perception of my capabilities expanded in response to the question. If I make some smart choices and manage my time well, I may be able to do justice to both. It would require more work and yes, would be a challenge, but I might just be able to do it. I needed to let go of my old image of myself as someone who can do this or do that, and try out this new version of someone who can do this and that. We’ll see how this turns out.
Note: I migrated my 2019 posts from an older blog and unfortunately, I lost the Day 9 post. From what I remember, it was a commitment to showing up and writing. I wrote that while I was in the shower, an image popped into my head. I imagined I was in a glass cabin up in the mountains. There were trees everywhere. My view from within the glass walls looked like the picture above. Because this was real life, I couldn’t actually go to a cabin where I could write uninterrupted. Instead, I had to find a way to focus and write as if I really was staying alone in a cabin in the woods. It’s great to come to this decision but I’m finding it a challenge to follow through. Day 10 is here.