Writer’s Log, August 15th: The Mental Load

I’m usually not a big fan of pithy phrases to describe the human experience, but I make a pointed exception when it comes to the mental load. If you’ve never come across this phrase, it stems from an effort to define that condition so many primary caregivers suffer from; namely, the psychological weight of being constantly preoccupied with the thousand-and-one behind-the-scenes details of keeping a family and household together.

It’s been an enormously useful concept to me as a parent, but I’ve also found it useful to see it at work in my writing. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that we’re susceptible to mental overload in any arena where our passions and ideals far exceed our capacity. And while I generally embrace the idea of shooting for the stars, it can be ever so slightly demoralizing when you realize exactly how many of them there are in the sky. And that they’re all glittering and mysterious and enticing and fascinating, and before you know it you’ve stopped reaching and are lying in the grass, dumbfounded and immobilized.

This has never been truer for me than now, six months into writing my first historical novel. It’s usually pretty challenging to juggle the mental load of a book-length fictional work-in-progress, but now I find myself navigating over five hundred volumes that comprise the existing body of work on my topic. Needless to say, there are days when all I really manage to do is play whack-a-mole with all the seemingly critical information I’ve got to sift through, but when I’m on my game, I remember two important things. One, the mental load is something I’ve had a large hand in creating, which means it’s also something I can significantly reduce; and two, when it comes to doing meaningful work, doing it all has nothing on doing it right.

To my first point: It’s tempting to feel as if the mental load is something being imposed on you. What’s worse, the more strenuous the mental load becomes, the more it feels like it’s something beyond your control. But the truth is that what we pay attention to is largely under our control. We might stop briefly at a light and feel like we can’t help but be consumed by concerns over what’s for dinner and who’s getting the groceries and how much money you’ve been spending and whether or not that mole on your daughter’s foot is really something you need to worry about and whether that stubborn bit of fat between your armpit and bra strap is ever going to go away, but you don’t actually have to. Similarly, we might feel like we’ll never get anywhere in our novel if we don’t first read everything ever written on, say, Asian tea ceremonies over the past 5,000 years before even thinking of letting our characters share a cuppa, but we don’t actually have to.

Which leads me to my second point. When it comes to doing meaningful creative work, it’s never about checking all the boxes. If it were, anyone with any kind of personal connection to their work would go lie in the street, because the more you care about something, the more you see ways you can devote your attention to it. This is true in parenting and writing and in life. The truth is, though, that one, good family dinner a week – even if it’s only twenty minutes long – is so much better that a week’s worth of menus if it means you’re able to really laugh and listen while you’re there. And knowing when to set the encyclopedic volumes or maps or voices aside to devote your attention to one thoughtful, authentically written moment is a thousand times more productive than however many more reams of paper you might have used up to flush out your notes.

Sure, things will get left aside. Important things, sometimes, in work and in life. But not getting hurt or disappointed and never hurting or disappointing anyone are unrealistic goals. Instead, set your sights on what’s manageable, which is knowing that at any given moment, you can return to the core of why you do what you do, and embrace even the smallest of victories you find there.

 

Art: Roy De ForestAutobiography of a Sunflower Merchant, 1962-1963

Writer’s Log, August 2: Decompression  

In general, those of us who set out to write novels tend to be ever so slightly Type A. Maybe you think I’m making a gross overgeneralization here, but keep in mind that our idea of fun is create entire worlds in our heads and mold them into complex stories that require 80,000 words or more to be told.

So maybe it’s no wonder, then, that don’t always handle stubborn obstacles well. I certainly know there’s little I find more frustrating than dealing with a work-in-progress that just refuses to budge. And in the past, I tended to respond to such frustrations with all guns blazing, bearing down on whatever was bugging me with all the force of my high standards, extreme work ethic, and the sort of disappointment that balloons as progress stalls.

This made a certain kind of sense. When I did less creative work, I could simply force my way through obstacles, mental or otherwise, and while my bullheaded ferocity might have made me ever so slightly unpleasant to be around, muscling through seemed to get things done. The problem was that after years of such literal and metaphoric grunt work, I was spent, disconnected, edgy, and unhappy.

Finding my way to creative work was part of the answer, but the bigger picture shift had to do with how I approached work in general. Instead of trying to conquer all challenges, I needed to learn how to flourish while in the midst of challenge, not as a result of overcoming it. This makes a certain amount of logical sense for anyone trying to get to the next level, no matter what their field – after all, most of us spend more time working than enjoying the fruits of our labors – but for writers, there’s this lingering sense that we either have it or we don’t, and when it isn’t coming easily, we can easily become haunted by the sense that it might never come at all.

It’s no wonder that we get all tangled up in our own leashes. But I have found a few ways out, and one of them is through physics. While it might not be the most obvious choice for creative inspiration, there’s nothing like the cool certainty of the natural world to calm an overheated mind – and remind it that there are forces at work out there far greater than anything it can generate on its own. One of my favorites among them is decompression. You see how it works all the time in nature – the way a thing cannot grow if it is squelched, or energy cannot travel if it is too condensed, or things collapse if too much pressure is placed upon them. The need for decompression can be just as essential in creative work, but we tend to forget this. Our sophomoric tendencies lead us to believe that the worse a problem becomes, the more effort we need to bring to it. But frequently, the solution often lies in the wisdom of knowing when to take a step back.

This is different than stepping away. Stepping away from something suggests turning your back on it, or giving up. Stepping back, on the other hand, means giving it the space to do what it needs to do. It’s the art of giving hands-off attention, much like ego-free observing, or good listening. And rather than thinking of it as pouring less energy into the work, you can rightfully think of allowing the work the kind of expansiveness it needs to flow.

Operationally, this stepping back might mean rereading what is flowing instead of what isn’t, and considering the differences. It might mean deleting a scene you’ve been struggling to eke out and asking yourself where the work is without it. It might look like beginning in the middle when the actual beginning eludes you, or throwing a character into a scenario you’ll never use just to learn more about him. What would Gatsby do at Costco? Or Lear at Target? Sacrilegious, I know, but great art has never been made by people who tread too carefully. And there’s a lesson in that, too. When we allow our desire to get things right to outweigh our desire to create, we sentence ourselves to an infinitely neater and smaller universe. The creative universe, on the other hand, is the one that allows for unfathomable expansion. Sure, we might never get a grip on its parameters, but we’ll never outgrow it, either.

 

Art: Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhone

Writer’s Log, July 16: Le Setback

It’s a crime that so many of us persist in evaluating our creative success along linear lines. I struggle regularly to remind myself that progress is not restricted to moving in one direction, but even though I’m pretty good at remembering that, I still feel ever so vaguely demoralized when I discover I need to return to a place in my work I thought I’d left behind for good. This is better than how I used to be, but like most humans on earth, finding the time to write is always a challenge, so I’m constantly striving to rid my practice of unnecessary energy sucks. And much as knowing that writing isn’t linear has helped, it’s not quite enough to keep my sails from flagging when I find myself face to face with a block I’ve both generated and need to dismantle. So lately I’ve been wondering: Is it possible to learn to welcome setbacks? And not in that trying too hard, Pollyannaish, head-in-the-sand fashion that makes it feel like you’re one step away from joining a nudist colony or cult?

Last year, I accidentally gained twenty pounds. When I was younger, this would have been devastating, but now I kind of think I like that in a person. I grew up underfeeding myself on many levels, and the fact that I spent twelve months grossly overestimating the amount of food I need is a sort of accomplishment. Sure, I’d much rather continue to eat peanut butter recreationally than go on Weight Watchers, but there’s that small but sure sense of what this extra flesh represents that makes losing it not seem all that bad. Yet while I see the parallels between how I see this setback and how I might see my writing setbacks, the transfer of attitude is not a simple one. For one, I don’t really care anymore what the scale says, but it’s also true that falling behind in my writing is so discouraging in large part because I’m always anxious to leap ahead.

The irony, of course, is that the non-linearity goes both ways. Sometimes I’ll find myself punching out nearly whole chapters in quick succession with little warning that they’re on their way. And it’s unlikely that I’ll get to enjoy that aspect of the writing experience without also incorporating its opposite – those weeks when I can’t seem to pull together a single sentence I like, or, say, when I realize that the first 7/8 of my new novel needs to be entirely restructured.

As I write this, I wonder if part of my own trouble lies in a failure to completely trust this process. Engaging wholeheartedly in a linear process seems so logical and intellectual, while committing to a non-linear one feels like a shaky leap of faith I might regret later. But there must be a profound sensibility to non-linearity, too, given how often it appears – and flourishes – when allowed to run its course in creative work. So maybe the trick isn’t so much to learn to welcome these setbacks, but to see them as a fundamental part of a larger system, to understand that it’s the meaning I attribute to the process that often gets in my way, not the process itself.

 

Art: Wassily Kandinsky

Writer’s Log, July 2: What Do You Have to Lose?

Editing is such a funny business, especially when it comes to parting ways with a line or paragraph or scene or book you once loved. I actually had to find an extremely low-tech, remedial way to manage this in my own life – I made a “Good Leftovers” file for what I wanted to lose but not so much that I couldn’t maybe call it back in the middle of the night if I was lonely. Did I ever make those booty calls? No, not really. I looked, but I didn’t touch. In the end, I never really needed to, but there was comfort in knowing they were still there.

Logically, this reluctance doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In this day of digital everything, you sort of have to work at it to lose anything you’ve written. But there’s so much more to a deletion than simply a blank space where there wasn’t one before. Just because we’ve realized that something doesn’t work doesn’t mean that we know what will, and getting rid of it can feel a bit like stepping off a curb with a blindfold on. Or maybe we’re haunted by the sense that if we write something good, we must hold onto it for all its worth, because there’s a scarcity around our own ability to flourish creatively.

It takes a long time and a lot of deep breathing to recognize that the opposite is actually true. The more you release and the more you risk, the more willing your creativity will be to come out and play, and the more it comes out to play, the stronger it becomes. The nature of healthy creative work is to evolve, which means that you should expect a certain turnover when it comes to what is most vibrant in your work over time.

And yet, like any good advice, it’s all too easy to take the encouragement to let go too far, and sometimes we find ourselves slicing and dicing our way through our drafts like conquistadors in the jungle. (‘m not pointing any fingers, but this usually doesn’t happen when your life is otherwise buzzy along merrily. Just food for thought.) The key, as always, is to listen to yourself – something far easier said than done. The good news is the more you listen to yourself, the easier it gets to sift through all the voices in your head to figure out which one is speaking your truth. Until then, be patient. Wait until you can hear yourself think, and then wait until your creative voice speaks up. Eventually, after your ego gets done yammering on and the voice of whatever frenemy has pushed your insecurity buttons that day fades into the background, you’ll tune into what’s really true for you. And you’ll know, because the impulse will have the unmistakable hum of possibility behind it.

 

Art: Hokusai Katsushika, 1760-1849

Writer’s Log, June 15th: Writing Progress

There’s a huge psychic oppression that comes with assuming that progress only goes in one direction. In my life and in my work, the most substantive progress I’ve ever made looks much less like steps taken along a line than it does a waltz, or a samba – and, in all honesty, there are times when it probably looked like the kind of interpretive dance no one else wants to see. But this only bothers me when I give in to the popular myth that moving forward never necessitates taking a step back. Or, if it does, that those steps we take backward represent a hitch in our progress, rather than a vital part of it.

Like all healthy, long-term relationships, writing progress is not something that flourishes with a particular goal in mind. We don’t, for instance, date until marriage and then consider ourselves done, ready to wash our hands of any struggles that we’ve weathered until that point. Similarly, although popular culture would have us believe that we should work toward the goal of securing a publishing contract/spot on a bestseller’s list/interview with Oprah, if we think signing on the dotted line and opening a bottle of champagne will represent, somehow, an end, I honestly don’t think many of us would bother to write in the first place. I mean, think about it. Who wants to create in order to have created?

I think, like most writers, I write because it scratches the undying itch to learn and understand — and rinse and repeat. In simpler terms, I love writing because it never fails to smack me upside the head and hand me my ass, epistemologically speaking. I went to school for approximately twenty years, and there is still nothing like the light bulb that goes off when I just pick up a book or a pencil and open my mind. And the fact that sometimes the light that gets sparked gives me a shock or makes something I once admired look dim is only something I’ve learned to incorporate as a sign of my dedication to the long haul; an indication that I’m not here to discover the ultimate illumination, but to delight in the fact that no matter how long I’m at this, new qualities of illumination will continue to reveal themselves.

So my wish for all writers out there is that we cease gnawing at the corners of linear progression, hoping that one day they’ll give us nourishment. Instead, I hope we can commit to raising our voices to introduce a new sense of what it means to be successful, one that speaks to the resounding depths of engagement, rather than continue to assume that the tinkling bell of yet another customer through the door is the only music we’re hoping to hear.

 

Art: “Roman Seafood Mosaic,” Sheila Terry