Don't break the chain

Have you heard of Jerry Seinfeld’s life hack for writing? The idea is that you get out a paper calendar and a big red marker, and you put an X through each day that you write (or exercise, or refrain from drinking, or clean the cat boxes, or meditate – whatever floats your boat). The idea is simple: don’t break the chain. Regular, incremental effort will lead to real outcomes.

I have written every workday since February 8. By written, I mean not simply personal journalling (that habit is firmly established), and not work for clients, but my own stuff. And, for each day of writing, I have given myself a heart on my lovely paper calendar from the Canadian Cancer Society. I even wrote on one weekend day. I’ve written a complete draft of an essay that I’m quite enamoured of, and I’ve started a second essay. I’m aiming for a minimum of 25 minutes of writing a day, minutes during which the Internet is turned off and the phone is away. Ideally, I put in my time well before noon, before it starts to feel like something I’m avoiding.

So far, so good. My writing practice ebbs and flows. I have looked for hacks and applied them for decades. Sometimes they work, for a while, or not. Right now I’m just focusing on that chain of hearts.

Roasting marshmallows in the light of a million finished words

I was going through boxes of old papers last week — you know, the kind of task you can do when a child is home sick from his March break camp and therefore actual writing is impossible. Not that I entirely minded having the sick child around (at least, not until he broke a bottle of red nail polish across the bathroom counter and then attempted to clean it up with a new hand towel), because this going-through of papers was a task I had long neglected.

I have approximately 25 years’ worth of journals, and the idea that all this cringingly personal writing was lying around the house, somehow uncategorized and — more to the point — vaguely available to prying eyes, has been weighing on me of late.

It’s not that I think that anyone would actually be interested in reading through several thousand pages of my handwritten notes. (Actually, I just did some rudimentary math, and it’s approximately 20,000 pages, conservatively. Ye Gods.) It’s not that there’s anything particularly scandalous in there. It’s just that these decades worth of journals are glimpse (more accurately, an exhaustively thorough probing) into the most trivial, boring, tedious, repetitive details of the inner workings of my brain. This is the stuff that I get out of my brain and onto the page each day in an effort to be a functional human being, to write (hopefully) better and more interesting things that people were actually meant to read. These are 20,000 pages of to-do lists and whining and anxieties and ideas and ruminations on my weight, on what I did and what I didn’t do but wished I had. Ad nauseam. These journals are writing for nobody but me. (I’ll be fair: there’s likely lots of happiness in those 20,000 pages, too, but I’ll wager that the happiness isn’t any more interesting than the less happy stuff.)

And, while some people would argue that the above is a precise description of blogging, blogging to me has always been a conscious decision to write for other people. It’s a highly curated, carefully chosen, absolutely non-daily slice of life. And, yes, I strive to be “honest” online, but honesty isn’t the same thing as subjecting any of you to the ongoing monologue in my head about whether there are enough leftovers for the kids’ lunches.

In my organizing, I came across this, the earliest journal I have:

Don’t judge.

The diary has only two entries. The first, dated, Saturday, December 3, 1983, is also, coincidentally, the day I got my first period. It is, predictably, appropriately, histrionic. Thirty-three years (whoa: thirty-three years? Gah.) later, it still feels too embarrassing to read out loud, or to transcribe for you here. Not because of the biological facts of the entry, but because of my tween-before-tween-was-a-thing need to write about it as though I were performing for an audience. It includes lines that may well have come straight out of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, to wit, “‘I am now a woman’ as they say’” and, “I feel so fat. Now I know why I’ve been so edgy all week.” Yeah, like I had any idea.

This is 12-year-old me pretending to write for myself but really writing for other people.

The next entry is a bit over a year later, and my 13-year-old literary critic agrees with me:

This is me. I hate it here. The last entry is a year ago, and it’s stupid. I was trying to write in a dumb way. I’m more open now. I just feel lonely, and wish this whole thing never happened.

Well, then.

I have no idea what “this whole thing” was about now, but 13-year-old me doesn’t care to explain, because she doesn’t need to. She’s writing for herself, in her moment, not for the woman she actually became. And I respect her curmudgeonly little self a little bit more for that, even as I’m trying to applaud the 12-year-old version of her for at least getting some words down on the page. Because that's hard shit.

All my old journals are now arranged chronologically in bankers’ boxes. They have been sealed, with instructions on the top of each box to destroy immediately — without reading — in the event that I die or am incapacitated. Don’t say you weren’t warned. I authorize an Internet posse of you all to ensure this happens.

Or maybe, one day soon, I’ll have a beach bonfire and roast marshmallows in the heat of all those words. I’m not quite there yet, but if I don’t need you to read them, then why on earth am I still holding onto them?

Listing, learning


I’ve taken to making lists of everything I do in a day, a running tally of pages written, important e-mails sent, articles submitted to editors, interviews completed, workouts, queries, the like. I’m not quite sure — no, I have some idea — precisely why or to whom I’m justifying my existence, but that’s what it is: justifying my existence, finding a way to quell the voice that likes to tell me I’m not quite enough just on my own, that I need a string of accomplishments, cookies baked, meetings scheduled, in order to be allowed to be.

And today, I just couldn’t.

I mean, just couldn’t means submitting an article to a new editor, letting go of my perfectionism and doubt (the freelancer’s niggling baseline of I’m not an expert! coursing through my veins) as I steeled myself to hit “send” because deadline and I have enough sense of self-preservation to know when to let go. Within minutes, I had positive feedback.

Just couldn’t means that I managed to get myself to the chiropractor, who wrenched my neck back into some semblance of a place; to a meeting at the school; to feed myself lunch; to move forward on scheduling an interview; to have an important phone meeting. But it also meant flailing around on the blank page of what should be the next short story. I am halfway — half! way! — through this manuscript, five out of ten stories drafted. And I have ideas and fragments for the next five, but each time I sat and set the timer, what came out were doubts and questions, and then the phone rang, and no. Not today. Today there is no focus.

It’s been a stressful week, full of new discoveries and big challenges and even some good surprises. Got sad news about a friend. Manageable news, news far enough away from me that it holds no repercussions on my life, but I could feel myself dissolving when I got it. I woke too early, and was then joined in bed by a snuggly boy and had the presence of mind to relish his presence. I napped today. I couldn’t do much else.

And then I pulled it together to go to the gym, where I got yelled at in a friendly way in spin class, and then I showered and sauna’ed, lying in the dark and quiet heat, imagining the toxins escaping my body in rivulets of sweat, rinsing off in the cool and then doing it again. Now I’m home, little between me and bed but Netflix and some toothpaste.

And today, that's going to have to be enough.