So That Still Didn’t Work

If you read my last post or any of the posts linked therein, you’ve probably come to know me as a demented workaholic who is so Type A she pencils things like errands and showers and taking out the recycling into her planner (and then color-codes them by category of activity. Really). However, as you may also know if you’ve been following the saga of M-struggles-to-find-a-work-life-balance, the freakish level of organization with which I have learned to manage my life, while useful when it comes to meeting deadlines and juggling responsibilities, often makes me miserable.

Over the last week and a half my entire planner was blocked out in pastel shades of Academic Work and Writing Work and Housekeeping and Social Obligations and Stuff I Don’t Really Have Time for but Agreed to Do Anyway Because I’m a Chronic Over-achiever Who Doesn’t Know How to Say No. It was a mixed bag of excitement and exhaustion. I saw a lot of friends and did a lot of work and absorbed a lot of new information. I was also so burned out after twelve straight days of sunup to sundown stuff that last night when I finally reached that 5-o’clock-on-Friday finish line, all I could muster up the will to do was lie on the couch and stare at a screen and let its soothing blue light numb my brain into momentary hibernation.

This morning, this glorious Saturday morning when I had nothing–nothing!–scribbled in the relevant column of the ubiquitous planner, I sat down to fill in my day. Then I stopped, snapped the planner shut, and said to myself (sorry, Mom), “Fuck it.” Why am I planning my first free day in two weeks down to the minute with stupid things that don’t need time stamps, like reading a book or writing a blog post or running the dishwasher? Folks, my brain is BROKEN.

This is not exactly news. Obsessive tendencies have been my dear companions since middle school and are largely to credit/blame for the number of plates I manage to spin on a regular basis. But it has occurred to me recently–and with surprisingly sharp clarity this morning–that some of the anxiety I feel is entirely self-generated.

In college I realized that I was much more likely to finish things I started when I only worked on one thing at a time and stuck to a schedule I figured out based on how much I wanted to accomplish by what date and how much work I had to do each day to get there. It was such a successful formula that I banged out like five novels and two theses in about six years, which is to say nothing of all the other stuff I managed to fit in in between. Because it was working, I didn’t question it–until now.

To be clear, I do not regret cultivating this kind of discipline. Without it, there’s absolutely no way I would be able to juggle writing-as-a-career with the demands of academia. However, the time seems right to entertain the possibility that there is a limit to how much hard work can help you. My solution to every setback has been to work harder and work faster and hope like hell that it all pays off. Some of it has. Much of it hasn’t. And in the meantime, I’ve become such a basket case that I need four hours of binge-watching the TV I’ll never catch up on because I’ve got work to do, damn it, just to recover from two weeks of normal.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. With that in mind, the way I’ve been trying to solve problems looks not just dysfunctional but downright delusional. And the closer I look the clearer it becomes how much of the stress I experience is partly self-inflicted. Working harder and faster has made little material difference in how much sooner I reach my goals, and may even be part of the reason I’m not reaching them sooner. Which raises another question: what’s the point of pushing myself to accomplish these things if I feel more like a hamster on a wheel than a person chasing their dreams?

It sounds corny because it totally is. We could blame Western culture or Walt Disney or the Founding Fathers who instilled in us the desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it’s so easy to get caught up in the pursuit you forget about the happiness part. To be fair to myself, it’s not entirely my fault. I work in two industries where it is notoriously, demonstrably difficult to succeed. Getting ahead feels like sheer fantasy, when the reality of every day is a race to keep up. But it’s equally real that I am making things worse for myself.

Looking back through the first pages of the planner to the beginning of 2020, it’s obvious I’ve crossed the border from dedicated to delusional. What sane person plans to write a conference paper and a dissertation chapter and the first draft of a new novel and a series of articles and reviews while working full time and a half and still trying to sell the last novel she finished, all in a matter of three months? It’s objectively insane, and yet it was something my January self not only fully intended to do but had calculated down to the daily wordcount.

Today is February 29th, which feels like a liminal space, an unreal day of unusual possibility which we only see on the calendar every four years. Something about today made me stop and think and decide to break the cycle. Of course, old habits die hard. I will never be a person who flies by the seat of her pants, but that doesn’t mean I need to run my own life like a helicopter mom, either. So this morning I loosened some of the straps on the psychological straitjacket.

I can’t throw out the planner because I do need to keep track of what day it is and where I need to be, but I made some other changes. I deleted my Goodreads challenge so I’m no longer getting guilt-tripped by the internet for not reading fast enough. I scrapped the writing plan I made in January that had me trying to bang out 1,000 words a day on a novel on top of everything else in favor of something more flexible. I said no to a job that I probably would have said yes to yesterday because I knew it would be more stress than it was worth. I decided not to try to cram travel into the month of March just because it’s spring break so maybe I should. I want to leave more room in my schedule for spontaneity and relaxation and exploration and enjoying moments of this life I’ve worked so hard to build. And maybe, paradoxically, that will actually bring me closer to all those long-term goals. Maybe part of the reason I’ve been struggling to do good work is because I’m just trying to do too much–even if it is, like all those things I mentioned in my last post, positive. Maybe all work and no play really does make Jack a dull boy. And maybe a little time to breathe won’t make me brilliant, but it might make me healthier and happier, and that’s not bad as consolation prizes go.

So that’s my suggestion for Leap Day. Cut something loose. Self-sabotage might just be a great place to start.

M

Writer’s Toolbox

This week in a conversation with my fellow MA students about the upcoming hellmonth of term papers and preliminary dissertation work I realized that a lot of the apps and tools and Chrome extensions I use for writing, research, and productivity aren’t necessarily common knowledge. So here, for anyone who wants it, is a collection of writer tools.

Productivity

  • Momentum: Chrome extension that helps organize your daily goals
  • Strict Workflow: Chrome extension based on the Pomodoro Technique; blocks social media to keep you focused when working online
  • Pacemaker: highly customizable tool which helps you form a plan of attack for various drafts, projects, rewriters, etc.
  • f.lux: freeware which gradually adjusts the colors on your computer screen to make working after dark easier on the eyes
  • Coffitivity: app and website which provides ambient background noise to fake that coffee-shop feeling and keep you focused
  • WriteChain: app which reminds/motivates you to write every day

Outlining & Word Processing

  • iMindMap: mind-mapping software
  • Scrivener: word processor designed for writers (who also happen to be Mac users; seriously if you’re on a PC don’t bother)
  • Evernote: online workspace which can be synced to your laptop and smartphone 
  • Final Draft: script and screenwriting software that does the formatting for you
  • Celtx: the free version of Final Draft
  • LitLift: online outlinging tool and way to keep track of all your projects

Names & World-Building

  • AutoRealm: free mapmaking software; there’s a learning curve but it’s not rocket science
  • SketchUp: 3D modeling software that helps you create imaginary buildings and keep them consistent
  • Google Earth: great for working in real-world locations
  • Stellarium: lets you get a real-time look at the night sky in any location on Earth
  • Ambient Mixer: free tool for creating custom soundscapes; or you can listen to soundscapes other people have already made
  • City and Town Name Generator: a lot of great resources here for fantasy/RPG writes but this also provides examples of real-world place names based on geographic data
  • Ever-Changing Book of Names: freeware which creates random names, also based on geographic/linguistic data; geared toward fantasy but extra sets can be downloaded individually
  • Names by Decade: US census data of popular baby names by decade

Lit Agents & Query Letters

  • QueryShark: blog run by ruthless lit agent Janet Reid who will teach you how to write a query letter, and how not to
  • QueryTracker: online directory of lit agents and agencies
  • Writer’s Marketplace: the paper version of QueryTracker
  • #mswishlist: agents open to queries and what they’re looking for
  • MSWL: a more organized website which keeps track of the above hashtag

Other

  • Calibre: free software which lets you create your own ebooks; a great way to read later drafts and look for errors on the go
  • Mendeley: for organizing research/resources if you don’t want to pay for Scrivener
  • timeanddate.com: calendars for any book you might be writing that takes place in recent history; also provides solar/lunar info
  • Dropbox: document storage so you don’t literally lose your shit

This is a very short list and I will probably expand it as other tools and tricks I use on a regular basis occur to me. But in the meantime, I hope this is useful to other writers (and grad students) out there.