Category Archives: writing

Incremental Redesign For Your Life

I was talking to a friend today about all the things we want to do and the people we want to be, but we don’t and we aren’t.

It always amazes me how difficult it is to do the things that you truly want to do. We put so many obstacles between ourselves and the things we want. But a routine, however distasteful, is comfortable, easier and “better” than change. Change is hard. Change is also scary. The fear of failure — whatever definition of it we have imprinted in our brains — is a powerful counter to our great desire for change. The result is paralysis.

Doing anything in life takes discipline. When it comes to upending the status quo, you might as well be talking about shifting tectonic plates with your pinky finger.

The thing that’s easy to forget, though, is that we’ve all done this before. We’ve all accomplished things that, at one point, we believed were impossible, whether it’s a marathon or a New York Times crossword. We’ve all overcome those moments of conviction in our own limitations, leaving accomplishments in their place. If we could only bottle that understanding and recall it when our doubt returns.

Just after parting ways with my friend, I read this blog post by Chris Brogan on tiny revolutions. It seemed impeccably timed. “Every step towards success requires a tiny revolution,” he says:

Planning for “someday” is ineffective. You have to decide what your revolution looks like on the day-to-day scale. Have a vision and keep it far out in front of you, but give yourself daily tasks that will accomplish it. … The American Revolution had several events that brought everything forward. It didn’t just start with the “shot heard round the world” and then we all sat down and wrote the Constitution. The same is true of your own tiny revolutions. … The KEY difference between your revolution and letting life live you is that YOU start making these events happen, instead of just letting them happen to you.

I was saying earlier today that to make major changes in your life, it takes a giant, bold action. That’s not really accurate. To the outside observer, the difference between today and six months ago may look dramatic. But packed into those 180 days were 180 small but significant changes that all added up.

This seems simple, but it’s really important. Success is about 90% planning. Fulfilling your innermost desires to be the person you want to be has little to do with wanting, and almost everything to do with doing. How do you “do” to the level required to effect real change? How do you self-sustain? You plan. You start an incremental revolution. You set up a schedule and a to-do list of manageable tasks that build toward the ultimate goal.

(At the Stamats higher ed web conference I went to last week, I attended a session by Edustyle’s Stewart Foss on incremental redesign, which has planted that phrase in my head. I think the same premise can apply here — use an informed plan to architect gradual change.)

Thinking about all of this stuff is all-too familiar territory. Last month, I posted about overcoming the fear of failure by remaining childlike (adaptable and curious) and accepting the need to make mistakes in order to learn. Back in August, I wrote about the need to own your own life and not just be a self-starter, but a self-sustainer.

I could write on and on, that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing. This is all an open exercise in trying to understand how to make my life what I want it to be.

I guess in a sense, my life starts with a single shot. The space between when it begins and what it becomes is up to me. Tiny revolutions.

Photo by Marxchivist via Flickr/Creative  2.0

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When Your Faith in Life is Gone, Come and Speak to Me

IMG00058-20091113-1908On Friday, my friend Chris and I saw Mike Doughty live at Regattabar in Cambridge. After many missed opportunities, this was my first time seeing Mr. Doughty live, either solo or as Soul Coughing. He did not disappoint, filling the (somewhat sterile) cabaret with good vibes and amazing music. It helped, of course, that Chris and I were seated in the very front, to Doughty’s left.

Many of Mike Doughty’s shows feature the Question Jar, where people can submit questions that Mike will answer throughout the course of a show. My question was what his favorite toy was as a kid (Death Star playset), while Chris asked what was the deal with Miley Cyrus (Mike said he knew, but he could not tell). Two of the questions, though, particularly stuck out in my mind.

“What do you say to writer’s block?” one question asked. Mike Doughty’s response? “Fuck it.”

“What’s a girl to do?” asked another. Doughty: “Party!”

A wise man, that Mike Doughty. And as a bonus, he even played one of my favorites from his solo work, “Your Misfortune,” quoted in the title of this blog post. All in all, a stellar evening.

Running Down a Dream

IMG00481-20091101-1123

This past weekend, I went down to New York to visit my brother. I hadn’t seen him since our roadtrip in July, and I wanted to see him at least once before the holidays. It was a really good trip, and not just for some of the peripheral benefits — much needed zone-out time on the bus, a change of scenery and some fun meals. It was a good opportunity to get perspective. I chatted with him about The Project, and just talking over the issues I’m having moving forward helped me sort out a possible plan (or two) of attack. We had a few other conversations that were really, really good to have, some more meaningful than others. For instance, I chatted with him a little bit (though, in retrospect, not enough) about writing process. I sometimes forget that we are both writers, albeit in different forms and styles, and it’s something I should take advantage more often. Especially when, like lately, I’m at a bit of a fork in the road with my writing. It’s in my blood; it’s just a matter of keeping the blood flowing.

One of the more interesting moments of the weekend came toward the end of the run we went on Sunday morning. The New York City Marathon heads right down 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, right past where his apartment is. When we set out, the stream of runners had not yet hit 4th Avenue, but as we looped back, we saw that they had arrived. Thousands of marathoners stood between us and my brother’s apartment, hot showers and a trip out to breakfast.

s_Frogger_2I had no idea how we were going to get across the street. But my brother knew exactly what we were going to do: we were going to Frogger our way across.

Here’s where the arteries of that shared blood split off: I’m a goody-goody, and he’s a rule-breaker. I saw cops posted on every corner and median in sight (heck, his apartment is around the corner from a substation), and I saw no way of stepping into the thick of the NEW YORK CITY MARATHON without getting collared. But for Andrew, it was no bigs. He stood poised on a cop-free corner, while I stood nearby wringing my hands. Before I knew it, he had burst off the sidewalk, keeping pace with the runners while sidling his way across the southbound lane. Upon hitting the median, he did it again, crossing the stream in the northbound lane while maneuvering toward the opposite curb.

Dumbfounded, I had no choice but to follow. I felt much like I did the time we broke into the abandoned Rhode Island School for the Feeble Minded, half-expecting a cop to jump out of the shadows and slap cuffs around my wrists.

But, much as I did in that abandoned school, I soon realized there was nothing to fear. I simply minded how I navigated myself through the crowded field of runners, and before I knew it I was across the avenue, standing next to Andrew. And hey, maybe now I can say I’ve run in the New York City Marathon (twice — we had to do this a second time to get to breakfast).

If you’re careful, my brother has taught me more than once, you can break a rule or two every now and then and it’s more than worth it — whether the reward is a hot shower, a good meal, or just the reminder that the world is more flexible than you may think.

A Dispatch from the Early Hours

IMG00474-20091027-0702Earlier this year, I bumped my wake-up time up by 45 minutes. I did this because I realized I needed to find more time in my life to do all the things I wanted to do, and since the day wasn’t about to sprout extra hours, I needed to recover them from somewhere.

I thought it would be difficult, but since I am a morning person already, I adjusted to the early wake up time fairly well. Typically, if I don’t hit snooze too much, I am at my computer with my cereal and banana by 6AM, WERS on the radio. I give myself a half hour to eat and catch up on the internet. Then, it’s either time to write or go for a run. (I wrote about this a bit on my three-month blogaversary.) It’s worked out great. I can relax, get stuff done — writing or fitness — and usually still afford to walk to work (a 45-minute endeavor) if the weather is good.

The advantage I had in starting this when I did, of course, is that in the spring, each day brings a minute or more of additional sunlight than the day before it. The dawn gets earlier, the sunset gets later, our days are increasingly enriched by daylight.

By the equinox, we enjoy such an embarrassment of daylight riches that we barely notice as those minutes begin slipping away, until one day we’re standing at the bus stop after work, not too late, and we notice the sun almost dipping below the western horizon. Then we remember the hole in our pocket that let those minutes of sunlight slip away the whole time, unbeknownst to us.

Lately, at 6:30AM, it’s still practically pitch dark — not exactly enticing weather to go out running around Somerville. So I’ve taken to running from my office after work, around 5PM. But after this weekend, when Daylight Saving Time ends, it’ll be pitch black at that time, too. But then, if my calculations are right, 6:30AM should be well lit enough to encourage me to step out of doors for running again. What a yo-yo.

Then there’s the writing. Lately, work has picked up, and I’ve been doing more e-mail-checking and task-completion here at the home office. I am trying to sanctify this early morning time, but it’s easy to see it as a great time to knock items off the ol’ to-do list. And that’s an even more tempting diversion when you’re at a crossroads with your main project, unsure how to proceed.

So, what does all of this mean? It means that no matter how you schedule your life or attempt to reclaim your time, forces outside of your control — be they astronomical or mundane — will intervene. No matter what plan you put into place, you have to be willing to adjust if you’re still committed to your goals. And if your goals seem insurmountable, you’ve just got to find some way of chipping away at them, in whatever space you can find to do so.

Here in these early hours, it’s easy to become pensive. I’m awake a long while before my husband and many of my friends, and the world around me is dark and still, so it’s a very solitary time. I hate overhead light, so I prefer to sit in the dark by the glow of the monitor until the natural light begins to filter through my window, gradually illuminating my space. But if there is one abiding advantage of waking up this early, it is regularly seeing the sunrise out my kitchen window. The picture above was taken this morning. Sure, it ain’t over the Atlantic Ocean, but for a view from Winter Hill, it’s not too shabby at all. And while the amount of time we get to see it each day is ever-changing, the sun always comes. Everything else may change, but you can always can count on that.

My Three-Month Blogaversary

Saturday will be the three-month anniversary of this blog. With this post, I creep above 40,000 words written in this space during that time, over the span of more than 60 posts. I am also bumping up against 4,000 views since launch. Sounds great, right? Well, believe it or not, I am somewhat ambivalent about this accomplishment.

When I wrote the About page for this blog, I paused when thinking of how to describe what exactly I was trying to do here. I ended up using the vague term “personal writing project,” which may look like it means nothing, but it actually means a lot of things.

I have a Livejournal that I’ve kept for seven or so years (it’s easy to find but impossible to read, muahahaha). My activity there had dwindled over the past year or so, probably owing to Facebook and Twitter and a host of other distractions, including writing features for the Boston Phoenix. Back in February, I decided to port my Twitter updates over to LJ, and the reaction was vehemently negative. LJ should be for LJ, the prevailing sentiment declared. Leave Twitter over there.

About a week later, I wrote a thoughtful post about appreciating my non-hip neighborhood in Somerville (which I republished here by request, since it’s friends-locked now on LJ) and got a lot of positive feedback, summed up by my friend Joey who said, “That was a very nice tale and a reason why you shouldn’t give up on LJ.”

The next day, someone anonymously gifted me with 12 months of paid LJ account time. This is a $20-some investment, no small shakes. I still don’t know who it was, but I owe them big time. It jolted me into realizing that This Was Important.

That whole chain of events came during a relatively crappy time, when things on all fronts of my life were at varying stages of chaos, panic or transition. The Twitter Backlash of ought-nine reminded me about the one thing in life I have to hold onto no matter what: writing. Nothing can take that away. I’m good at it, and people like reading what I write. And I should give myself the space to let it happen — on a personal level moreso than freelance. For my own sake, if nothing else.

But, as I began recommitting to my personal writing, there were other factors in play, as well. Mainly, there was the developing story of my family — both my most recently acquired family in England and the family I am gradually rediscovering here in the states, families that my brother and I have been getting to know in one way or another over the past seven years, since we started getting to know each other. Our upcoming trip to Florida and West Virginia is another chapter in that story. I’ve known for a long time that I was going to need to write this story, to try to figure out what it all means and share it. I realized in April, after returning from my most recent trip to England, that it was time to get serious about this. But to get serious, I needed to find time in my life to commit to writing, and I needed a mechanism for holding me accountable.

That’s when I decided to start a blog. I wanted to keep LJ as a space for more personal musings among friends. The purposes of this blog were to get me back in the practice of personal essay writing; to get me used to writing about my life in a public platform; to try out ideas and share snippets and vignettes from this broader writing endeavor.

For a long time, a quote by Anne Lamott that I had cut out of the newspaper was taped to my computer monitor: “You just sit down and write everyday for three or four hours. You do it like piano scales until you have a story to tell.” Well, I didn’t have three or four hours a day, but I did realize I needed to make time in my life in order to make this goal a reality. So, I start setting my alarm 45 minutes earlier each morning, giving myself just two options: write or run. This has worked out remarkably well. Most of my blogging gets done in the mornings before work. (And sometimes, I actually run!)

As far as the piano scales part goes, some of my blog entries have been about my family (the ones self-importantly tagged “The Project”), but I’ve also written about the Boston Globe, music, various things in Somerville and topics ranging from relationships to swine flu to the merits of iTunes vs. Amazon MP3. I am of two minds about this. In one regard, any writing is worthwhile writing — any writing is writing I wasn’t doing before. But in another sense, am I getting distracted from what I should be writing about? As I look at the numbers with which I led off this post — particularly the 40,000 words one — I can’t help but think, did I spent 40,000 words writing about the union woes at the Globe when I could have been working on The Project?

Maybe there is no “should” or “could.” Maybe there is only “write.” After all, you can’t write your symphonies unless you do your major scales, or something. (There’s a reason I quit piano lessons.) These 40,000 words would not have been written had I not started this blog, and without them I would not have gleaned the lessons I have about presenting a well-reasoned argument; writing with purpose and not for the sake of filling space; not being afraid of putting personal information and reflection out into the public sphere; diligence and discipline that, surprisingly, are needed even to do something you love and need to do to survive.

That said, I know I have a large task ahead of me, and I won’t lie and say it’s not scary. It’s scary, alright. It’s not only a test of my abilities, but of my fortitude in confronting a life — the parts of it both known and unknown — and trying to make sense of it. Skeletons, closets, etc. But there’s no turning back now.

I recently taped another quote to my wall, this time by Michael Chabon:

“It seems kind of magical and mysterious,” he says, but in the end, writing is a job.

“You sit down in your chair and you put in the time until you get 500 words or 1,000 words or whatever your personal target is. … It’s a habit and it’s an occupation. Inspiration really plays a minor role.”

This quote may seem kind of deflating, but it actually helps me. I don’t want writing to be magical and mysterious. I have a goal. I have things I need to do. And I need to sit in this chair and do them.

Here’s hoping that the next 40,000 words of this blog bring me closer to telling the story I need to tell. I may still write about the Globe or my latest musical obsessions, but I know I need to focus more on the bigger goal. So I’ll keep on trucking. Note by note, word by word. Until the story is told.

The Poet That Was


My poetry collection

Originally uploaded by radiofreegeorgy

Nowadays, my writing is focused on mainly journalistic endeavors — freelance newspaper articles, coverage of the university I work for, personal essay projects and of course this blog. I am pretty happy on this track and looking forward to further success along it. But if you asked 18-year-old me if she would like to be in this spot, she would likely recoil and shake her head. “Nuh-uh, no way.” Because, in my heart, I was a poet.

I have always been a writer. Whether it was short stories, essays for school, taglines and puns on the fly or for a project, you name it. I could write it all, and well. Since middle school, though, my energies had been focused on poetry. That could, of course, have had something to do with being a hyperemotive teenager. But there was more to it than that. For me, poetry wasn’t just a medium; it was a language, a fundamental way of understanding and translating the world around me.

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