Friday, November 17, 2006

Day 17: creeping toward Thanksgiving

I'm about 10,000 words behind where I should be with NaNoWriMo, so I'm looking forward to next week--Thanksgiving--to catch-up. It seems a bit masochistic to look forward to a holiday so you can catch up with both noveling and grading, but that's the reality of life right now. Any opportunity for catch-up is a welcome relief, so I'm creeping word by word until I have time to make more substantial progress.

Words themselves are coming easily enough, but I've reached the point where I'm growing frustrated with the quality of my writing. My favorite bit of writing advice is William Carlos Williams' oft-quoted dictum "No ideas but in things." Unfortunately, my So-Called Novel is chock full of ideas (think pages of dry exposition) and paper-thin when it comes to things (think vividly described scenes with dialogue, human interest, and sensory detail). As I'm writing, I keep thinking of my least-favorite passages in Natalie Goldberg's Long Quiet Highway and Kathleen Norris's Cloisterwalk, two spiritual memoirs that are popular with readers but which at times drive me crazy with something I call "preachiness": passages that tell me about belief in a theoretical sense rather than showing me belief-inspired behavior in its specifics. Don't tell me how much God or Buddha has changed your life: show me your transfigured self, and I'll fill in the gaps for myself.

As I'm writing, then, I keep realizing how "preachy" my own writing is becoming: in a rush for wordcount, I'm sketching out the vague outline of belief, and what my narrative woefully needs are some things to flesh it out. I've never been one to care much for theology; what excites me is praxis. Don't tell me what you believe; show me what you do. At this point of playing perpetual catch-up with the So-Called Novel, I'm realizing how much revision this piece will need when it's (someday) done.
Word count: 18,852
Where & when:
in bed after checking in with my online classes
Last line: Who cares what you call your meditation beads or how you use them; what's important is that you use them now, not later.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Day 16: more setbacks

I came home from a full day at school today exhausted and looking forward to spending some serious relaxation time on my couch...and perhaps spending some time working on the So-Called Novel. But instead, I came home to sick dog and the necessary (and repeated) clean-up. So here's a report from last night's late night brief stint of NaNo'ing...and here's hoping doggy's tummy settles soon so "Mom" can get some rest, with or without noveling.
Word count: 16,569
Where & when:
in bed before going to sleep last night
Last line: This was my official coming out as a Buddhist at Northeastern: after you've chanted in front of your work colleagues, there really isn't any going back.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Day 13: as slow as molasses

This weekend I'd intended to play NaNoWriMo catch-up, envisioning a daily goal of several thousand words a day to bring myself past the 20,000-word mark today. My best laid plans for this weekend, however, were in no way connected to reality.

One of the downsides of teaching a double courseload at several different institutions--necessary moonlighting since my full-time adjunct job doesn't provide health insurance or enough salary for me to save to retire someday--is the sheer exhaustion of coming home from one job only to begin another. On Friday, I had to catch up with grading for my online classes; on Saturday, I had plans to go walking followed by dinner and movie with a friend. (The hours I'd intended to spend on the So-Called Novel on Saturday morning were spent instead fixing a technical goof whereby with one errant mouse-click, I'd replaced one of my "live" online classes with an archived version of a past course: ooops!) On Sunday, I had more online grading as well as an appointment to meet a that's the story of how I wrote less than my minimum 1,667 words per day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, finding myself so sleep-deprived from last week's teaching and grading catch-up that I couldn't stomach the thought of staying up late or getting up early to write.

Today I've made better progress, already having written a couple thousand words amongst the usual grading and hoping to write more tonight before bed. But now that another busy teaching week is about to begin, I realize I'll probably fall even further behind this week, with the week of Thanksgiving, when I'll be driving home with dog and laptop to spend time with my family, being my next and biggest chance to play Serious NaNo Catch-Up.

So, progress has been as slow as molasses...but that's simply a matter of scheduling. The writing itself, when I find the time and energy for it, is moving at a tolerable pace: the prose itself is clunky and "first draft-y," but I have confidence the overarching story with its various fits and starts can and will clean up nicely when I have time (after November) to go back and revise.

In the meantime, I find myself envying folks with 9-to-5 jobs: folks whose full-time jobs provide insurance and pensions and thus don't have to arrive home from one job only to start another. One bit of advice for any unpublished writer is "Don't quit your day-job," to which I'd reply, "Which one?"
Word count: 13,362
Where & when:
sitting on my bed, in several segments between grading
Last line: But like Christ, I only fell three times, and from there I dusted myself off to walk on.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Day 10: one small step sideways

Although I intended to write yesterday's 1,667 daily words after finishing a full day's teaching, that didn't happen: by 7:00 on a standard Thursday night, I am in pajamas with a book or magazine, my mind miles away from anything remotely resembling "work," and last night was no exception. So when I awoke this morning, I was even further behind: about 8,700 words shy of today's target of 16,670.

As a teacher, I know what happens when students fall behind with deadlines. Some students can dig themselves out of a hole by diligently devoting themselves to their work, but other students--many or most of them, in fact--feel so guilty and hopeless about being behind, they can't bring themselves to start working. It's not that catching-up isn't's that these students feel so bad about their situation, they can't bring themselves to begin chipping away at what seems to be an insurmountable mountain of work.

I know this pattern well. Much of the time I spend "working" on my dissertation was actually spent in the downward spiral of procrastination: because I felt so bad about not having worked on my diss, I'd avoid even thinking about it. Even though the only thing needed to step out of a downward spiral is one small step sideways, for a long time I couldn't find the wherewithal to navigate even that.

These days, I know how slippery a slope the downward spiral of procrastination can be. Although I've been looking forward to this weekend as a time when I can spend a healthy chunk of time working on the So-Called Novel, this morning I felt the niggling stabs of guilt and self-doubt: "I didn't work on it yesterday, so I'll never catch up now!" Today is a beautiful autumn day here in Keene: the temptation, of course, is to procrastinate the Ugly Business of catch-up in favor for a sunny stroll. And yet, since beginning is the most difficult part of breaking the procrastinative cycle, I made a compromise with myself: if I wrote 1,000 words after breakfast, I can take a walk and return for another round or two of writing this afternoon or evening.

And so, this morning after breakfast, I took one small step sideways, chipping a 1,000-word chunk out of a 8,700-word deficit. This afternoon after walking--or tonight after the sun's gone down--I'll make another chip, and tomorrow another, and the next day another. Chip by chip, word by word, is how procrastination is defeated and another So-Called Novel written.
Word count: 9,007
Where & when:
after breakfast this morning, at my kitchen table
Last line:
Practicing at X for me wasn’t a matter of practicing with a like-minded community of spiritual seekers; it was about trying to polish a thin veneer of mock spirituality, as if whispering, keeping my eyes downcast, and following several steps behind my ex-husband could make me a “mindful bodhisattva” rather than a young and uncertain soul trying to find her spiritual home.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Day 8: a new direction

Over the past few days, without really trying, I've cut my current NaNoWriMo word-count deficit from about 7,000 to about 5,000. I say "without really trying" because I haven't been pushing to catch-up; instead, I've simply been trying to write each day's requisite 1,667 words so I don't fall further behind.

Monday saw the first breakthrough of this year's attempt. I've never fancied myself a novelist; I'm much more comfortable writing about real rather than made-up things, so coming up with a plausible but adequately expansive storyline has always been the biggest challenge standing between me and NaNo greatness. During my first NaNo attempt, I worked around this difficulty by writing an interconnected series of short stories, and last year I made a wretched attempt at writing a mystery thriller. This year, I started with absolutely no premise at all, simply sitting down to write whatever words, sentences, and silliness my fingers felt moved to explore.

On Monday, though, I started in a new direction. Realizing I'm not and probably will never be a Novelist even though I can gamely plunk out novel-length batches of word-count, I sat at my laptop and began by heeding my own favorite advice to Start Where You Are:
Memoir isn't a genre that comes naturally to me, and neither is fiction. I seem preternaturally unconcerned with other people, and I can't remember much about my past. If it isn't happening right here, right now, I don't give it much dreaming up fictional characters and scenarios is as difficult as recalling the dimly distant details of my own past.
I've toyed in the past with the idea of writing a memoir, mostly because several blog-readers have suggested it. But I've always quickly abandoned the idea for various reasons: my life isn't particularly interesting, I don't know where I'd begin, I'm not comfortable sharing intimate details of my life with strangers (blogged bits notwithstanding), and I don't have many vivid memories of my childhood.

Regardless of these reasons why I shouldn't write a story from my life, on Monday I let my typing fingers consider the possibilities, if for no other reason that the container called "memoir" would give my NaNoWriMo rambles some much needed material:
Instead of fiction, what interests me is the play of my own consciousness, the stuff that's happening in my head right here, right now. It’s no accident, then, that I practice Zen with its focus on the present moment…but actually, it is entirely accidental, or at least serendipitously fortuitous, that I practice Zen since it isn’t a place you’d expect a good little Catholic girl to be.
And that last phrase is where the lightning struck. "What's a good little Catholic girl like me doing in a place like this?" It's a question I asked a Trappist monk several years ago during a Christian-Buddhist retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center, where I was living and practicing. As I typed the line that triggered that memory, I realized I have plenty of memoir-worthy stories from my life as a Catholic born-again Buddhist. How did a good little Catholic girl go from being a Bible-banging fundamentalist in college to a Zen Buddhist in grad school and beyond? If that question isn't worthy of a spiritual memoir, I don't know what is.

So, this year's So-Called Novel isn't fiction at all...unless, of course, I pull a Jack Kerouac, change the names of the innocent, and call my semi-fictionalized account of my spiritual quest a "novel." (If it worked in The Dharma Bums, why can't it work for NaNoWriMo?) Already, I'm finding this new direction to be a fruitful one, with one memory leading to another: I remember more about my childhood than I'd thought, and looking at my life through a spiritual lens is bringing many hitherto forgotten moments into sharper focus. Although my memories of the people and places of my childhood are dim and few, my most vivid memories fall into the category of "spiritual," so I haven't lacked for stories to explore when I've sat to write these past few days. I'm eager to see where it all leads.
Word count: 7,952
Where & when: after breakfast this morning, at my kitchen table
Last line: Even then I knew my practical-minded mother would never understand my longing for a spot of beauty in a world of grim practicality, nor would she tolerate the tenderness of a child who wept over something only make-believe.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Days 4 & 5: retreating

After having decided not to do NaNoWriMo this year, I threw my hat in the writerly ring at the very last minute. After having decided that I didn't have to do NaNo this year--after deciding I didn't have time, I didn't have anything to prove after finishing NaNo two years in a row, and I didn't have a burning desire to work on a Novel versus Something Else--I'm approaching this year's So-Called Novel with very flexible expectations. This year, I'm not trying to prove anything to myself or others, and I'm not trying to write something "readable." This year, I'm truly writing for myself, not caring whether the Thing I'm writing even resembles a novel but writing because I think the process is worthwhile.

All this being said, I made a couple of promises to myself when I decided to try NaNoWriMo even though I'm currently teaching six classes and technically don't have time for this madness. I promised myself to keep NaNo on the bottom of my priority list. Although I'm taking seriously my goal to write 50,000 words during the month of November, it's not worth losing sleep over. NaNo isn't paying my bills--my teaching is--and NaNo isn't keeping me healthy and sane--a semi-regular sleep schedule is. When I decided at the eleventh hour to toss my hat playfully into the NaNoWriMo ring, I promised to approach the project with a sense of playful abandon. This is supposed to be fun, after all: the last thing I need during the month of November is more work. If I'm not having fun writing, I have permission to stop writing and start doing something else. And I don't have permission to stay up late, ingest unhealthy amounts of caffeine, or skip out on meditation practice, exercise, or social interactions just because of a silly little thing called NaNo. I've done all of those self-abusive things in the past, and they're simply not worth it.

So, this weekend I didn't work on the so-called novel: instead, I sat one day of retreat at the Providence Zen Center on Saturday and attended a women's brunch at the Cambridge Zen Center on Sunday. These were commitments I'd scheduled before deciding to do NaNoWriMo, so I felt strongly about keeping them: writing a novel in a month isn't worth cancelling retreat days or social engagements. I'd hoped to write on Saturday morning before heading off for retreat, and I'd planned to write on Sunday after I got home. But life intervened, and I didn't fight it. It's not worth losing sleep over, I reminded myself. A month is a short time to write 50,000 words, but it's a long time to be perpetually sleep-deprived. Right now, I'm about 7,000 words behind where I "should" be...but having completed NaNoWriMo two years running, I know that it's easy to make-up word count when you have free time, and this weekend I didn't.

Having spent a lot of my life juggling various large commitments--a dissertation, several blogs, two novels, and more paper-grading than you dare imagine--I've learned the hard way that being productive isn't a matter of how or how much you's more a matter of how or how much you rest when you're not working. Right now, I could worry myself into a frenzy over the 7,000 words I haven't written...and that would probably make me feel so bad, behind, and hopeless, I'd avoid even touching the So-Called Novel. What's better in the long run, I've learned the hard way, is to cut myself the same slack I'd give a panicked student who was convinced she couldn't possibly write Paper X. "Okay," I'd say. "Take a breath. What seems to be the problem, and how can we divide this task into do-able chunks so you feel good about making forward motion rather than feeling bad about being stalled?"

So tonight's goal isn't to stay up all night trying to write 7,000 words; tonight's goal is to write 1,667 words, the same as any other day. Next weekend, after spending another week paying the bills, I will spend some leisurely at-home pajama time making up for word-count. In the meantime, those 7,000 unwritten words aren't going anywhere, and they definitely aren't worth losing sleep over.
Word count: 3,207
Where & when: in bed on Friday night, still tired from a week of grading catch-up
Last line: The quiet giant strong enough to rock her to sleep had succeeded again, whatever his name might be.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Day Two: sleep beckons!

Yes, I wrote yesterday...but I didn't write for a full 40 minutes, nor did I have the strength to blog about what I did manage to write. One lesson I remember from last year is how important it is to rest when necessary. Yes, I have a daily word goal, but that goal is flexible. On days when I teach (especially on days, like yesterday, when I get up insanely early to spend several hours grading before teaching an 8 am class), it's unrealistic to expect myself to be awake and energized enough to write when I come home.

So last night, I spent about 20 minutes writing...but when it became clear (as evident in the last line quoted below) that I was projecting onto my still-nameless protagonist the exhaustion I felt as I succumbed to gravity on my couch, I clicked "Save" and called it a night. There will be time later today and this weekend to play Word Count Catchup, but sleep is more precious than words.
Word count: 2,305
Where & when: on the couch, after a full day teaching
Last line: She too would collapse into the embrace of any natural force large enough to hold and carry her: it would take someone larger and stronger than Atlas, she thought, to carry for an instant the load she carried with her constantly.