I can play the piano. So can my Dad. When I was growing up, he would critique my playing while I practiced, which was every. single. day. Let your imagination run wild on how well that worked for our father-daughter relationship (and then imagine how much everything improved when he finally stopped trying to teach me, because that's how that story ultimately ended).
But when it was still happening, it would generally go like this:
"You're timing's not right in this measure. Play it this way."
Just saying those words was usually enough to start a fight, because there was nothing that infuriated my Dad more than an attitude of "I can't." In our house, you got in less trouble for letting a swear word slip than saying "I can't."
Yeah, it was extreme, but there was a grain of truth to it. There was no physical reason I couldn't play a note a certain way. And I certainly understood what to do. Saying "I can't" was just a defeatist attitude that did nothing to help me.
I wish my Dad had taught me not to say or think "I can't" in a nicer way (he has a temper, so do I, it wasn't pretty), but now that we're past all that fighting, I'm sort of grateful he made an effort to excise that phrase from my vocabulary. Honestly, I don't think I say "I can't" much if ever when it comes to trying to achieve something. I know I can, in theory, it's just a matter of learning how, working hard, and having a little luck roll in my favor.
So I don't say "I can't" anymore.
But you know what I do say a lot?
"I worry that..."
I think I say this phrase at least once a week, and that's being generous. It's probably a lot more often. It's this constant refrain in my head: vocalizing worries.
And it helps nothing. It's as bad an attitude if not worse than "I can't."
So I'm trying to stop saying or thinking it, because I wonder if it will have the same effect as getting rid of the phrase "I can't" from my vocabulary. Maybe I can stop worrying so much if I stop using the words that make it possible to do that.
Because the worries are driving me crazy, and yet I have this suspicion that I can control this if I make the effort. I'm pretty sure I can, and I think I'll be a lot happier if I do.
I'm done. I quit. It's not working, and I finally realized it. You have my permission to quit too.
I know I've talked about the benefits of meditating before, but I've also talked about how it seems to hurt the language side of my brain (purely anecdotal of course).
In fact, I'm beginning to believe it's a bit of fad. I confessed this to my mother last month, and she was in total agreement.
"When you get as old as I am," she told me, "You start to notice these trends periodically come back."
And in her day it was all about transcendental meditation, and she had some pretty good stories about what a scam that was (it cost a lot of money, I think it still does too). Apparently, some of her friends who really got into it (like meditating for HOURS a day) kind of lost their minds for a while. Obviously, that isn't something I want.
Before I came this conclusion, I tried to meditate daily for over a year (trying different apps, Headspace, YouTube videos), and it never got easier. I kept wondering what was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I do it? Why couldn’t I focus? It just made me feel restless and annoyed.
And then I had this epiphany – dude, I am GREAT at focusing, just not on nothing. The sensation of my butt sinking into the chair is not interesting. Of course my mind would wander, which would lead to this palpable sense of failure each and every single time. Kind of defeats the purpose doesn’t it? (This New York Times article does a great job of describing that particular trap of mindfulness.)
However, I am good at focusing on my body when I do yoga. I’m good at focusing on music when I play the piano. I’m good at focusing when I read a book, or take a stab at writing a story. I used to notice this when I was a kid – when I would play the piano, it was like I would “disappear.” That obnoxious voice in my head would finally shut the fuck up. And that was half the attraction of playing.
Realizing this, I recently gave up even trying to meditate (or putting in on my endless to do list), which freed up more time to do stuff that I enjoyed AND actually made me feel more grounded and focused (like yoga, reading, piano, etc.).
Anyway, I just think this idea that EVERYONE SHOULD MEDITATE is just another fad, like skinny vs. boot-cut yoga pants. Different styles work on different people, which is why it’s so infuriating when the powers that be decide what’s best for everyone.
So I say, if meditation isn’t working, find something else. I think we’ve forgotten that any creative activity (dancing, cooking, gardening, painting, writing, etc.) can be just as meditative (if not more) than sitting in a chair trying to think about nothing.
Plus, then you also get to enjoy the benefit of your activity (exercise, good food, fresh vegetables, beautiful pictures, stories, and so on) instead of opening your eyes and realizing you literally just spent 10 minutes of your life doing nothing at all. What a waste of time. (Also, side note, when did the imagination become the enemy? That’s kind of fucked up, right?)
Sorry for the novel-long length of this post. I obviously feel passionately about this topic. I've been thinking about it a lot lately. Fuck meditation. The last time I meditated really “well,” I tried to write afterwards and ALL THE WORDS WERE GONE. I literally couldn’t think of individual words. That can’t be good! So screw it. And I’m not going to feel bad about it either. If it works for some people, awesome, but it doesn’t work for me, and that’s fine. I’ll do my own thing.
I will say this, however. I do believe meditation can help when you're feeing REALLY out of whack. I think it's pretty good at resetting your emotional equilibrium. I noticed it helped me a lot when I was struggling with marriage issues last year (I really liked this YouTube video). But once my husband and I resolved those issues, and I wasn't feeling quite so bad, I honestly don't think meditation helped anymore. Instead, I think gardening and yoga helped me more. Just different ways of practicing mindfulness, I guess.
So meditate, or don't meditate. Just don't feel like EVERYONE HAS TO MEDITATE, because I think that's b.s.
What do you think? Do you enjoy meditating? Totally cool if you do. But if you don't, I totally get it now. I'm chalking this up to a learning experience about fads. Just because everyone says to do something, doesn't mean it's actually/automatically helpful.
p.s. This post was partially inspired by this great read at All & Sundry. You should check it out, made me laugh, because it's so true.
Since I started running my editing business full time, I've been sitting a lot more than I used to. I spent the majority of the day on my feet at my old job, so I never really had any back issues before. But now that I sit in front of a computer all day, I've been dealing with some pretty nasty upper- and lower-back pain. Even though writing is just about my favorite activity to do in the world, lately it's been just a little less fun because it can feel quite physically painful. I never really thought of writing as a sedentary job, but it totally is.
My father has pretty significant back issues, so this is a problem of mine that I wanted to nip in the bud. Taking editing/writing breaks (see step 6 of my work from home tips) and moving around certainly helps, but honestly you can only take so many breaks in the day before you start killing your productivity, and plus, it doesn't really fix the underlying problem, which is a lack of flexibility.
At the beginning of the summer, my upper-back pain was the biggest issue. It felt like someone was driving a knife between my shoulder-blades. I adjusted the ergonomics of my desk, and that helped a little, but not completely. Eventually, I did some research and found that tightness in your chest muscles is what actually pulls your shoulders forward (especially for desk-workers), which causes the area between your shoulder blades to feel tight and painful. Thankfully, it's very easy to solve. I used this gentleman's website as a guide for correcting bad posture and found it very helpful, particularly stretch number 7. I do that one daily, and it has made the pain between my shoulder blades completely go away. I've also noticed that my shoulders look much less rounded. Win-win :)
But as soon as I fixed that issue, the pain just migrated into my lower back. After editing all day, I'd stand up and feel like an old lady hobbling around. Everything felt so stiff.
For whatever reason, my thoughts instantly turned to yoga as a solution. I've done some yoga in the past, usually whenever I happen to belong to a gym (right now, I don't), and I've always enjoyed it, though I've never practiced very regularly. Now that we have internet again, I decided to check out some Yoga videos on YouTube - and have LOVED IT. It's made a huge difference in my back issues.
My favorite is the Yoga by Adrienne channel. She has a really nice blend of vinyasa (flow/strength) and hatha (stretching/flexibility) routines. I really like her teaching style, which is more relaxed ("no yoga-robots"), not too woo-woo, but also just woo-woo enough to help me feel focused on the breath (and not mentally ticking through my never-ending to-do list).
After trying meditation off and on over the past year, and feeling like it wasn't really helping me as much as I wanted it to (for whatever reason, it seems to kill my creativity), I've found that yoga works a lot better at improving my mood. In addition to feeling calmer, I also feel a lot stronger. Even doing mundane stuff, like cleaning the shower, is easier because I'm just better at moving around on my hands and knees. I've always been a very inflexible person, but even I can tell that my flexibility has significantly improved.
Anyway, for you writers and desk-jockeys out there, seriously, consider adding a yoga video to your daily routine. Or, do some sun salutations while you watch TV with the family. I do that quite a bit now and it feels so good to get that body moving around.
Yoga + Writing = :)
Every morning, at 4:40 am, I wake up, get my coffee and sit down at my desk to write. Except my brain is still not quite awake yet, so I scroll through my twitter feed, read some blogs, or the Washington Post as I sip my coffee to ease myself into the day.
At 5:30 am, I force myself to put the phone away on the opposite side of the room, and that's when the writing really happens. I'm a morning person. This is the hour is when my mind feels the sharpest. I'll get steadily stupider as the day goes on, but right then, I feel like I know exactly what I want to say and how to say it.
At 6:40 am, I close my laptop and race around the house to get ready for work, because I really should have stopped at ten minutes earlier if I wanted to avoid getting stuck behind the school bus on my way to work.
It's my routine and it works. I average about 900-1000 words a day, which I'm very happy with, BUT, because I'm descended from puritans, I always feel some lingering guilt because I know I could have been writing since 4:40 and doubled my word count as a result.
It doesn't matter that I really enjoy my coffee/reading time. It doesn't matter that I still get results I'm pleased with. 4:40-5:30 am is still a non-productive segment of my day and I always feel like it's something I need to fix.
So I tried something new this week. Instead of reading my twitter feed and descending into the rabbit hole of longform article links, I left my phone in the bedroom, pounded my coffee, and sat down to meditate. If I needed the time to wake up, then I figured the least I could do was attain inner peace.
I use the Take10 method described in the book, Get Some Headspace, which I reviewed here. You spend 5 minutes doing a mindful check on your body, how you feel, from head to toe. Then you spend the next ~5 minutes clearing your mind by focusing on your breathing.
I really enjoy doing this. It does make me feel more relaxed and chill afterwards. But a funny thing happened after I finished meditating and opened my laptop.
I stared at the screen and not a single word came to mind. I'd left my story in mid-scene from the day before so I knew exactly what should happen next, but for the life of me I could not puts words on the page to make that happen.
And that kind of makes sense, right? I'd just spent the previous 10 minutes pushing thoughts and memories out of my head so I could focus on my present state. I'd made myself go very quiet, and then out of this vacuum I asked myself to verbalize a story. What was I expecting to happen? By 6:40 that day, I'd only eked out a hundred words and that was painful going. Post-meditation, I felt physically and emotionally well, but I also seemed to have forgotten half my vocabulary and how to write a coherent sentence.
So although I recommend meditation if you suffer from busy-brain and constant, low-level anxiety like I do, I cannot recommend you do it just before you write. There might be something to those theories; that an element of self-loathing and craziness may be necessary if you want to write fiction. Maybe the tortured artist cliche is true. Maybe you need strife in order to create fictional conflict.
The next day I went back to my coffee and reading routine, and despite those "wasted" 50 minutes, my word count shot back up to ~1000 when I started writing again.
My need to optimize every minute of the day is partially just who I am, but it's also because there are so many things I want to do and there's never enough time. Even so, I clearly need those mental breaks, and I need to stop feeling guilty for taking them. They're important. It goes against my nature to admit that, but it's true. You have to let your brain wander sometimes. Meditation is good, but I'm not sure clearing my mind of every worry and memory is conducive to writing good fiction.
Do you meditate? Have you noticed any effect, good or bad, on your writing?
I miss life without cellphones.
I used to read a lot more before I could fit the Internet in my pocket. Hell, I planned to finish Childhood’s End yesterday and write a review today, but here I am, not even halfway through the book because every time I’d sit down to read, my phone would appear in my hand, tempting me to read something else.
I don’t play games. I think Facebook is boring. But a link on twitter is like a baited hook.
It’s so mindless, this consumption of information. Whether it’s an Atlantic piece about education trends, or a New Yorker profile, or the Washington Post on yet another article citing Donald Trump’s lunacy; it doesn’t matter that it’s ostensibly well written news, it’s the fact that it competes for every free moment of my life that bothers me. Longform articles are like crack. I could spend hours reading on the Internet.
And you know what goes hand in hand with this mindless reading? Mindless eating. One of my favorite things to do is pop some popcorn or make myself some toast, and then sit, eating without tasting anything, while I read and read and read on the internet. It’s not healthy to eat that way. It soothes the mind, but then my jeans don’t fit so well.
The phone has been affecting my writing too. Each morning, I get up at 4:30, pour myself a cup of coffee, and sit down to write, but again, the damn phone appears. I tell myself I need the time to wake up, and it seems so innocent, after all I’m only reading the news. But before I know it, it’s 5:30 and I’ve lost a precious hour I could have spent writing, or even sleeping.
I want the constant distraction to go away. You know how everyone’s canceling their cable? When we moved out to the country, my husband and I went a step further by canceling our Internet too (or my accurately, we just never bothered to turn it on). We both felt happier without it. All the mindless web surfing on our laptops ended. There was no more Netflix to binge watch. We read more and got further along in our projects.
But we can’t cancel our cellphones. We don’t want to be that isolated. And now it’s not even necessary to have a landline connection to the Internet. A smartphone is perfectly capable of doing just about everything you would otherwise do on a computer. So the distraction has crept right back into our lives.
I’ve started leaving my phone in random places around the house, just to make sure I can’t whip it out of my pocket at moment’s notice to distract me from whenever my brain has to really focus and think about my present task. I’d say I only have a fifty percent success rate though, as half the time, I wind up stopping whatever I’m doing just to find that stupid phone.
I’m about ready to throw it at the wall. Whatever minor convenience it is to look up a faster route home or find a decent restaurant in a new neighborhood could not possibly be worth the Soma-like effects of the Internet.
It makes me wonder what’s really bothering me? What part of my life is so upsetting that it’s preferable to blank out on the addictive combination of food and the Internet?
If I’m being honest, it’s two things: my project at work and my long commute. I’m taking steps to fix those problems, so it’ll be interesting to see how my Internet habits change after I switch jobs this summer. However, I suspect that although those problems will be fixed, there will just be another issue that makes me want to escape inside me phone. We’ll see.
Do you struggle with the Internet? It’s such double-edged sword. On the one hand, I couldn’t expand my editing business without it. On the other, it’s ruining my creativity. Very tricky.
Writer, editor, scientist.