#amwriting: Process & Projects

My hopeful attempts at regular blog updates are always derailed by real life, this time I’ve been hopelessly sidetracked by summer (when teaching ends and I become a full-time mom for three months) and moving (twenty-one years of STUFF) to a new house. Now that we’re finally getting settled in and it’s almost time for everyone to go back to school (but it’s only July!), I’ve decided to start going forward with some writing projects.

There are three, to be precise, because three is the magic number, right? I’ve also heard from some time management experts that it’s good to have more than one project active (so that you can work on ones that require different levels of time and energy as needed), but that more than 3-5 projects at a time is a bad idea.

The projects:

An academic research paper, which I’m submitting for funding in a few weeks and then trying to turn into an article. This is simply to keep my career afloat, but I do like the process and I’m interested in what I’m writing about, so I can’t really complain. I’m so lucky in this day and age to like my job.

My novel. This hairball has been building for almost a decade and I’m ready to cough it up and spit it out. I’ll soon be looking for beta readers for this one, so keep your ears open if you’re interested.

Finally, I’m working a project called Timekeeper Stories, an interactive storytelling project/alternate reality game that I’ve been working on since last year (the idea came to me the day after the election-HA HA). For those of you not familiar with the genre, typically the PM (puppetmaster) stays hidden and anonymous, and the game is played is if it’s not really a game, but taking place in real life (“this is not a game”). However, this time around I’m experimenting with the genre a bit and trying some new and different things, so the frame story itself will be somewhat unconventional in that it will be autobiographical, and I will provide different different entry points to each story over time (trailheads), which will allow varied levels of participation and immersion. People will have the option to just read the story installments as they are posted, OR they can also interact with story characters and work to solve mysteries and puzzles which appear in the stories.

My motivation for this project is to include a broader audience for the stories (typically ARG audiences are a a very small, select group of people), and to play around with the potential for using this genre for educational purposes.

Why share and discuss these projects before they are completed? I recently read a book called Jay Lake’s Process of Writing, which is a distillation of his blog posts on writing. I found his blog and was sad to learn that he passed away from cancer a few years ago, but his blog is still there and I was captivated by how completely and honestly he shared his writing process: the ups and downs, the good with the bad.

There is little discussion of the writing process itself, and I think this kind of transparency not only helps writers, but students as well. There is certainly no transparency in academic writing, which is something I have struggled mightily to do and have failed at miserably, filling me with a sense of shame and isolation in my career. However, I’m determined to learn the craft and plan to share what I’ve learned here, in the hopes that it might help someone in the future.

Finally, I need the discipline of a daily writing practice, and I like the idea of creating a small amount of public accountability. Already I’ve had some feedback on social media which has greatly boosted my motivation and resulted in an extra long writing session this morning.

I’m off now, to write.

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Early

Aria woke me as usual this morning at 5:30. She just wants to be covered up and then she goes back to sleep. Sometimes she waits until 6:00 or 6:30, but then she usually wants to get up for the day.

This morning I headed back to bed in the hopes of getting some more sleep, but when I got there I realized that I might as well stay up and do some writing. I really didn’t want to, but most of my favorite writers do all of their writing in the early morning. Because when you’re a mother and you work full time, is there any other way to get anything done?

I made coffee and managed to write 300 words, which is not a lot but more than I wrote yesterday. The rest of the day will be spent getting Oscar ready for school, going to work for a meeting about a course that I’m designing for the College of Education (my first stint as a curriculum consultant), and then working on getting my summer course ready, which begins in less than two weeks.

Most people think now that school is out I have nothing to do. HA!

Back to writing…

Parenting from the Trenches

I’ve been having a bad case of the comparisons lately. When I see how much other people do with their kids (witnessed by social media but also personal conversations) I ping back and forth between a variety of emotions, from jealousy to anger to anxiety to frustration. I want to be super mom, but I also want to be realistic. I also resent the fact that what I do with my kids is compared to mothers who don’t work full time. There are plenty of people who claim these comparisons don’t exist, but they’re kidding themselves. I get comments from family, friends, other mothers, and my own kid.

It prompted me to write this post on Facebook. I’m always deeply comforted when other parents admit to their struggles and shortcomings, because social media is full of pictures of family outings on beautiful summer days, kids participating in all kinds of enrichment activities, parents out on the town at all hours of night (how can people afford to eat out AND hire a babysitter?), and perfect marzipan birthday cakes as the centerpiece to huge parties with homemade decorations, games, costumes, etc. Every single kids party that I go to resembles something from Pinterest. Every. Single. One.

But enough complaining and bitterness! This is what I always teach my education students about observing other teachers or reading about teaching theories and methods: take what works for you and your students and leave everything else behind.

What works for me? A combination of listening to my kids and drawing on my own experiences. As a kid I hated being behind my peers in all things physical. So I’m encouraging Oscar to learn to ride his bike with confidence and I’ve enrolled him a series of swimming lessons at NAU over the summer (Another comparison: everyone else in Flagstaff goes to a place called the Aquaplex, but I am baffled as to how people can afford it–another instance where I feel like I’m wandering hopelessly lost in a foreign country). In addition to biking and swimming, my son has expressed interest in some science-y things, like planets. We are indulging these interests with planned visits to the observatory and various museums in Flagstaff and Tucson, along with visits to the library.

In contrast to planning activites, it’s very important to me to give my kids plenty of time for free play and downtime. In all my years of babysitting I saw MANY overscheduled kids, and I still do, and there is nothing more depressing than small children being dragged to activity after activity. As a family, I want us to find a balance.

It helps me to focus on prioritizing the things that really important to me. Right now, having a nice house, throwing parties, and traveling extensively have to be set aside.

It also helps me to enjoy small moments of calm. These are almost always in the mornings–my new favorite time–when we make oatmeal or pancakes or eggs, watch cartoons, play, read books, and lounge around in our pajamas. I relish the calm and quiet of having nothing to do and nowhere to go, and my kids love it too.

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I don’t think I’m tall enough for this ride…

Spoiler alert: I use the word “boob” in this post. You may want to excuse yourself now.

Here’s an old cliche: Life is a roller coaster.

Everything seems up and down for me lately; I live with extremes. One moment I’m savoring a predawn cup of coffee and reading about what Gwyneth Paltrow packs for a flight to London (as if) and the next minute I’m juggling two cranky kids, one of whom wants to be permanently attached my boob and the other who can’t decide whether or not he wants jam or honey on his peanut butter toast.

Today when I left the house there were crying kids and diapers that needed changing, and let me tell you, it was wrenching. Then I drove in relative peace and quiet to my office (the fifteen minute drive to work is the only time I am truly alone). Then I advised a few students, none of whom have the faintest idea what they are doing. Now my office is quiet and I’m boiling water to make coffee. I drink a LOT of coffee.

Roller-coaster.

I sit down at my computer to write. I open the file that contains my novel and get downright giddy as I nail a sticky plot point. Then I open the file containing feedback from my editor on the academic book I’m writing and I feel like jumping out the window. Then an email alert pops up and I see that I have another stupid and pointless meeting tomorrow. Academics love to call stupid and pointless meetings at the last minute. Then I take a peek at a fashion site to see what all of the hip people are wearing this fall.

Roller-coaster.

I used to think of this way. You enjoy the ups and endure the downs. When you’re miserable you think, “This too shall pass.” Then I saw the following quote:

“Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

If we wait for life to get good before we enjoy it, we will be waiting a long time, and it will be over before we know it.

I felt a sense of peace when my five-month-old woke me at three o’clock this morning. I brought her to bed and smoothed her sweet fluffy head and let her nurse. I was deeply, deeply exhausted. I started thinking about all of the things I have to do, about all of the things I want to do, and about all of the things I will probably never get a chance to do. And then a voice in my head said, “You’re doing the most important thing you could be doing, right now.

I’m doing what I should be doing when I take care of my children. They love me and need me and I will be the center of their universe for such a short time.

I’m doing what I should be doing when I grade papers. My students value my feedback and I have the opportunity to help them become better writers.

I’m doing what I should be doing when I read and swallow the difficult feedback I get from my editor. This will make me a better writer. My editor values me enough to keep pushing me through this project.

I’m doing what I should be doing when I read People Magazine and drink Starbucks. We all need downtime and mindless entertainment.

When we took Oscar to the fair this year we put him on his favorite ride, a little red roller-coaster made just for kids. Last year he loved it. This year he cried helplessly in fear for the first few minutes of the ride. It was so hard to watch! Then something happened. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and endured. Finally, he looked around and smiled. And when he got off the ride, he wanted to go on it again.

Early Riser

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.  ~Benjamin Franklin

I’ve always hated that quote.

It sounds so bossy and goody goody to me. I’ve never been a morning person. Night, when everyone has gone to bed, has always been my time, a time to read, reflect, and rest. I always get my second wind around 10:00 or 11:00 P.M. One of the reasons I went into academia was the possibility of setting my own hours, not being chained to the routine of 8:00-5:00. Because if there is anything I hate more than getting up early, it’s having to get dressed and drive somewhere early.

Recently, I’ve decided to revisit the possibility of getting up earlier. For me, it’s a process of trial and error. I’m finding that I absolutely love getting up at around 7:00, and I’m going to experiment with 6:30. For those of you who have to get up earlier than this for work, I sympathize and apologize if my quaint resolution fills you rage. I offer you this consolation: as a teacher my work is never done. There is always a pile of papers to grade or another class to prep. My inbox is always packed with student emails and advising questions. These things press on me even after I get home from teaching. I often fantasize about having a job that has no homework. A flexible schedule is nice, but it also comes with a price.

6:00 or 6:30 is my ultimate goal, because this will give me about two hours of solid writing time before Oscar gets up. This morning I got up at 6:55 and wrote nonstop for an hour. It was an astonishingly productive time.

Steve Pavlina recommends 5:00 A.M., as do many other self-help gurus, but I find that getting up too early ruins me for the rest of the day. I’m completely exhausted from about 10:00 A.M. on and can barely keep my eyes open after supper. So far, 6:30 is great. I haven’t pushed myself to get up at 6:00 yet, but I will. That, however, will be as early as I go.

I changed my mind for a variety of reasons. Most of the successful writers I know get up before their children. Sylvia Plath called it “the blue hour.” She wrote her best poems between 4:00 and 8:00 A.M. I can see why. I have found that this is really the only time when I can write without interruption, and constant interruption is death to good writing.

There’s another quote from Benjamin Franklin about the early morning. This one I like:

The early morning has gold in its mouth.

Pencil Me In

I’ve been struggling lately to get done everything I need to get done. I need more time, but who doesn’t? I constantly admonish myself with that old adage, “We all get the same twenty-four hours.” Some people are just better at managing it than I am.

I think having a schedule will help me.

I was recently rereading one of my favorite old self-help books, Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want. The author, Barbara Sher, believes strongly in the power of a schedule. She believes you should schedule everything, including frivolous activities, or what she refers to as avoidance patters. For example, if you tend to surf the internet instead of writing or grading, she believes you should actually write it into your schedule. Pencil in an hour of grading followed by an hour of web surfing. Most of us don’t want to admit to our avoidance patterns, whether it’s napping, reading magazines, playing Facebook games, socializing, or whatever. She writes,

“Setting a definite and regular time for getting certain things done makes it much likelier that you will do them.”

I tend to live, not by a schedule, but by inclination and deadlines. This is a recipe for procrastination, stress, anxiety, and failing to achieve short and long-term goals. That’s because inclination is pretty fickle. For me, it usually goes like this:

  1. Collect papers
  2. Tell myself I have a week to grade them and so why not get started on reading that new novel I just picked up
  3. Stare at pile of papers all week, feeling anxiety in the pit of my stomach as I turn away from the pile and mindlessly read blogs to quell my anxiety
  4. Wait until the last possible minute to grade, staying up late, or grading frantically before class begins
  5. Lather, rinse, repeat

This is not a healthy cycle.

The idea is, if I have a week to get my grading done, maybe schedule 30-60 minutes each day to grade, followed by the frivolous activity of my choice.

I have a friend who schedules each week and each day, right down to when she wakes up, does dishes, tidies the house, feeds her son, etc. I am full of admiration for this, but it won’t really work for me, because I don’t have a consistent schedule. During the school year, I teach two days a week, have one class online, do drop-in academic advising, and travel to supervise student teachers. Some weeks I see student teachers and some weeks I don’t. Some weeks I have meetings and some weeks I don’t. On certain days, students will call or email asking for an appointment, and if I have time to squeeze them in I will make an effort to do so. Sometimes a colleague or student will drop by to chat.

So, I’m thinking of solving the problem by making a new schedule each week or even each night before I go to bed, blocking out certain times for writing and grading, and not allowing myself to be free during those times. It’s not a perfect solution, but one that I hope will work for me.

I would also love to set aside time to write very early in the morning, and very late in the evening, but this requires a kind of discipline I don’t know if I have. Maybe if I actually write it down, like Barbara Sher recommends, I will be more likely to do it.

How do you manage your time? Do you use a schedule or go with the flow?