Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Free" is Easily Wasted

I’ve been noticing lately how a remarkable amount of my “free” time gets mysteriously wasted each day. I start off with the best of intentions: exercising first thing, showering and dressing before my husband leaves the house, getting my daughter to the school bus on time with (usually) everything she needs.
Then it all falls apart.
While my little one catches his favorite Disney Junior shows, I check e-mail. Two to three hours later, I finally get off the computer, having answered e-mails, investigated several lucrative e-mail offers, checked Facebook, “liked” several posts, replied to several more, clicked on one too many YouTube links, checked CNN and the Weather Channel for major happenings, and caught up on my blogs.
Yep. Two to three hours of nothing, really.
Then I’ll get up and do a few chores before lunch. After little one has eaten and is lying down for his nap, I repeat an abbreviated version of the morning computer routine before starting to write. But wait – before I start to write, I need to play just a couple games of solitaire, you know, to get the creative juices flowing.
An hour later, I start to write. By then, I only have maybe an hour before little one wakes up, my daughter gets home from school, and the homework/dinner/bedtime routine kicks in. Many days, as I’m anticipating my darling husband’s arrival, I have to wonder, “What did I really do today?”
It’s been said a million times: we all have 24 hours in the day, and none of us knows how many of those 24-hour days we have in front of us. So why on earth would I squander a single moment of any of them? Let alone many, many, many moments?
So here’s the deal. For the next week, I have created a schedule for myself (no, I will not post the schedule as I’d like to keep that little bit of crazy to myself) on which I have blocked out every minute of every day. Some of the blocks are for things like checking e-mail and blogs, reading, and working on my Sunday crossword. But other blocks are for actual seriously productive activities, like tackling the spring cleaning list I never got to in the spring. Or working on the Christmas stocking for little one that’s been sitting in a box under my bed for three years. Or – gasp! – writing. And for the entire week, I will avoid at all costs playing solitaire.
So who’s with me? What activities are sucking the time and productivity from your life? Could you swap them for activities that are more meaningful and fulfilling?
Let’s live every day – every moment – to the fullest. I don’t expect anyone ever cried from their deathbed, “If only I’d played more solitaire!”

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Grab Your Butterfly Net!

I have many teacher friends, and even more mom friends, who are buzzing about the same thing right now: back to school season.

I remember anticipating the start of school when I was a kid. I enjoyed school for the most part. (Except for junior high. I mean, no one really liked junior high, did they?) I was a high achiever, involved in activities, and had a good core group of friends. And yet, despite all the good feelings I harbored for school, the start of the year always loaded my stomach with butterflies. What if I hated my teachers? What if my classes were too hard? What if I had to sit next to someone I didn’t like? What if I didn't have any classes with any of my friends? What if this was the year I finally passed out in front of my entire class during the Presidential Fitness Exams?

I feel those same emotions now on behalf of my children. Will their homework be overwhelming? Will their teachers be understanding? Will their friends be kind and true? What if they get picked on? Teased? Bullied? What if they aren’t on the bus when it comes by our house in the afternoon?

Okay, maybe these aren’t exactly the same emotions. But the trepidation is still there. That’s always the case when we start something new.

And yet, not new. Let’s face it, after the first week or two, it will be as if they never left school, as if the past eleven weeks of no schedules, constant playing, and trips to the zoo/beach/park were a glorious dream. Everything will be back to “normal.” We’ll get back into the groove, establish our momentum, and coast through the year as if summer never happened.

Isn’t this true when we start anything new? Whether it’s a new job, a new exercise regime, moving to a new city, or starting a new project. First there are the butterflies. Will I be good enough? What if I hate it there? What if my idea is really stupid? What if I fail?

But we start anyway, because we’ve made that commitment (to our new boss, the seller of our house, ourselves). And yes, the first day can be awkward and uncertain and fraught with anxiety. But the next day is better. Better still the day after that. And before we know it, the new routine is just as routine as the old one, but at a new level. We’re improved and enlightened just for having gone through the process.

Happy Fall, folks. I hope the new beginnings that await you this season prove energizing and fulfilling. Just grab your butterfly net and embrace the experience.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What's Your Guilty Pleasure?

The other day, I was searching for a piece of writing I’d done a while ago. This is usually an easy task, because I’m meticulous about organizing my electronic files. I utilize folders and subfolders religiously, and have each piece of writing filed not only by subject matter, but by title and draft number. So it’s usually pretty easy to find files.
But then I noticed a folder I’d created a while back called “other writing.” I honestly had no idea what I had tucked into this folder, so I clicked it open. In it, I found several projects from an undergrad public relations writing class I took about ten years ago, and a file I titled “momlit.”
Oh, yes. My attempt at a chick lit novel.
Now, for those who aren’t familiar with it, the “chick lit” genre became popular within the last ten years or so, and incorporates the many aspects of modern womanhood. They tend to be lighthearted and humorous, and often feature career and/or relationship entanglements that get their heroines into marvelous scrapes reminiscent of a good romantic comedy. Think Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones books, Sophie Kinsella's Shopoholic series, or the Emily Giffin Something Borrowed series. They tend to be wildly popular, and yet are generally frowned upon by the literary community as commercial, sub-par fluff. A guilty pleasure, if you will.
 A subgenre of chick lit, “mommy lit,” takes a similar lighthearted look into the unlikely antics of young moms. This is what I had started in my file, “momlit.” I started working out a storyline for this book back when my 7-year-old was still attending Gymboree and my world was all about new-mommyhood.
When I peeked at the file this weekend, I was pleasantly surprised by my own diligence. As a compulsive planner and thought-organizer, I had not only sketched out the overall idea of the book, but had created a sixteen-page chapter-by-chapter outline that explored character motivations and followed the progression of various subplots. Yea, me! Why had I put aside a project on which I had already spent so much time?
And then I remembered – grad school. Once I started grad school, I not only increased my writing workload, but I also became more critical of the writing I produced. MFA students, after all, don’t write chick lit.
But why not? I enjoy reading it. In fact, when I allow myself to read it, I devour it at about twice the rate as the healthy “literary” stuff. It’s like drinking Shamrock Shakes at McDonald’s every March. I know they’re filled with all sorts of artificial ingredients, calories and fat, and yet when they come back each spring, I consume as many as possible. They make me happy, like a guilty pleasure should.
Why are we embarrassed by our guilty pleasures? Why can’t a grown woman admit to enjoying a Shamrock Shake? Or a vampire romance? Or watching people eat toilet paper on reality TV? And why shouldn’t a perfectly respectable MFA student write a humorous novel about the wacky, tumultuous life of a new mom? I say there’s no shame in guilty pleasures. We should slurp them down with our heads held high.
So what’s your guilty pleasure? Shout it out and own it. Then, you have my permission to go indulge.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Switch Off the Auto-Pilot

Did you ever have that experience where you’re driving somewhere, and you’re completely engrossed in thoughts unrelated to where you’re going or what you’re doing, and suddenly you find yourself at an intersection, and you realize you have no idea how you got there? Sometimes – hooray! – it’s the right intersection, heading in the right direction. But sometimes you find you’ve taken the turn to go to work when you were supposed to go to a doctor’s appointment, for which you’ll now be late and receive the look of death from the stuffy receptionist who would never, in a million years, allow such a thing to happen herself.
It’s because most of us, a lot of the time, are flying on auto-pilot. We go through life acting out the same routine day in and day out, never wavering – God forbid – or who knows where we might end up? Have you ever had a phone call or a question from a child disrupt your morning routine only to realize hours later that you to forget to put on deodorant? Or brush your teeth? Those routines can be powerful things.
They can also be dangerous. They can – quietly, insidiously – keep us planted in our place, never really moving forward, but only getting by. Marking time. Treading water. Revving our engines. Pick your favorite metaphor.
I’ve noticed this with my writing. I’ve been writing children’s and young-adult fiction for several years, never really wavering from that medium until a couple of months ago when I started this blog. At first, it was daunting. I spent hours upon hours planning my first post, rewriting and revising it, scrapping it and starting over. It had to be just right, a masterpiece of wit and poignancy, something my friends would tell their friends about, and they’d tell their friends, and so on, and so on, and so on. After all, these were my thoughts, not the thoughts of some character I could hide behind.
Then I posted a few entries, and a funny thing happened. I found I enjoyed it. I enjoyed thinking of topics and scribbling thoughts. I became less concerned with perfection and more interested in where my ideas would lead, what topics I could explore, and whether anyone would share my views. I broke out of my routine and enriched my experience as a writer as a result.
I took this a step further this week by writing a short story for adults, a genre I haven’t attempted since undergrad (and we won’t talk about how long ago that was). Again, I felt paralyzed at the start. I couldn’t decide on the first words, first sentences, first paragraph. But I began. Soon those first words turned into second and third words, and thirtieth and one thousandth words, and suddenly I finished. And, again, my writing was enriched because of it.
I encourage all of you this week – today, even – to break the mold of routine. Whether you do something as simple as drive to work a different way to make your brain work a little harder, or whether you do something as dramatic as sign up for those college courses you’ve always talked about but never pursued. Take up a new craft. Go someplace different of vacation. Cut your hair. Take up dancing.
Then open yourself up to the adventure that will surely follow.