I left my project for two days to help clean out my childhood home in the wake of my father's death. I thought my writing project would be okay for just a few days unsupervised. My reason for leaving was justified. The project would be kind and forgiving when I returned, I imagined.
Now, back in front of my computer, the project seems to have - not quite gone ferrel as Joan Didion warned-- but instead, it kind of sealed up.
The project felt like a small house that, in my absence, had closed its windows and doors and I feel uncertain as to how to get back inside.
I think projects can do this...they can kind of close up in our absence. To get back in, sometimes you cannot just push the door open.
Today, it feels better to knock and wait patiently on the stoop to see if the project responds. Not everyday is the day to charge in. I am now, for the moment, a guest to my own project. By the end of the day, we likely will have found our rhythm again. I will feel at home. But next time, I'll remember to leave some kind of key under the mat to help myself get back in after I take some time away.
Today, we had class here, the Lower Barrakka Gardens in Valletta, Malta. While sailboats with black sails & flags from various European countries competed against one another on the windy sea, we sat in a circle and discussed the challenge before the students... "the thesis."
We talked about research questions, literature reviews, ethics review boards, and timelines. And we also talked about the challenge of writing without immediate reward.
Thanos, my co-instructor, reminded students of something so important. He said, when you're in class you're used to getting a grade on a paper or a pat on the back for a good presentation. But when you're in thesis mode, "there's no one there to give you a cookie."
For long periods, you hear nothing but the sound of your own thoughts.
One of the hardest parts of writing is that you don't get any immediate rewards. No "ding" from your iphone saying you have received a new message. You get no "likes" or "retweets". You just get radio silence and you gotta live with it.
It's just part of writing. The good part is, you start to train yourself to not need positive feedback every fifteen minutes. Ok, you may still want it, but it's a really good practice to try to give it up a little bit. In exchange, you have the opportunity to get swept up in some spectacular intellectual journey. You become so connected to your material and your writing, you start to develop a greater internal world.
This internal strength you travel with you throughout your life.
But how do you survive while you're getting stronger?
One of the students joked about he and another student working together every night and then giving each other a cookie.
He was actually on to something.
You may need to team up with a friend and cheer each other on. Unless you are like Yoda, able to hide yourself away and be fulfilled you might want to find a friend who can pat you on the back and hand you a cookie while you're in the throws of writing...
We often say things to ourselves like, "I need to write more" or "I need to spend less time on social media."
But does this actually help?
September 30th, I presented at the Capital Coaches Conferences to an audience of over 50 top coaches. We talked about how we talk about our stuck places affects whether we advance or not. Words matter.
Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question and former NY Times correspondent, argues we are better off inviting ourselves to change with a question.
For example, instead of telling yourself "I need to write more."
Ask yourself, "How can I write more?"
This week, reframe your inner commands as questions and watch the results. Your brain is like Google, it will search for answers if you ask it a question.
So ask your brain and let it spend the day finding solutions.
Why not give it a try?
I don't know about you, but transitioning from the dog days of summer to the rush of September has taken a bit of adjusting.
The final weeks of summer, for me, mean a week volunteering at a bereavement camp. In between the activities, the camp organizers give the staff plenty of time to lounge in bathing suits on the farmhouse lawn, listening to music after taking a long swim in the lake. Those moments which seem to extend for hours and demand nothing, sit in sharp contrast to schedules, Skype meetings, traffic and...yes...deadlines.
For many writers, this might be the time again when you need to create a writing schedule that fits into your work life. Here are a few tips. Please add your tips to the comments section to help others along.
1. Start Slow
If you have not been writing in several weeks, do not expect that you will be able to sit for six hours and crank out a few thousand words. Think of writing like exercise. When you have stopped for awhile you need to start slowly, because you may no longer have the stamina and you may burn out. Start with just short sessions. I also don't want to you get frustrated with yourselves or beat yourself up. This leads to tip 2.
2. Forgive yourself for what you did not accomplish this summer
Via Skype, I coached a woman in Tanzania on her thesis. I realized in just five minutes that the most stressful part of the thesis for her was believing that she should be further ahead than she was. No matter what she started doing she would tell herself, "I should have started this months ago."
I told her to let it go. Just drop those thoughts and say, "I'm at the perfect place at the perfect time." This releases the stress and allows you to get back to work. So, if you must, take five minutes and beat yourself up for summer failures and then drop it...for good. It does not matter and self criticism can really just be a way to stall.
3. Grab a Buddy
I always advocate for writing buddies. Mine have been especially critical these past two weeks getting back to work. Writing can be a lonely business and having that friend next to you for breaks (strolls, coffee, lunch) really helps. A writing buddy helps me write for longer periods and check my email and Facebook less often. I don't need to seek human connection every 20 minutes, if I know my friend and I will take a walk in 45 minutes.
With summer closed,
Sarah Federman, PhD