Time for a Turn

An exercise from a short story workshop I’m taking: Think about a time you had an opportunity to turn left, but chose to keep going straight. Write a story in which you decided to turn left instead.

As soon as the instructor gave the assignment, I knew what my topic had to be. It’s actually something I’ve written about in the past, and thanks to a writing habit I’ve maintained for close to four decades, I have a good record of the moment I kept going straight.

Since my sophomore year in college, I have maintained a journal in a series of spiral-bound notebooks, which I’ve kept with me through the years. The journal has served a number of purposes over the decades; should I ever grow curious about my monthly expenses from 1991, where and when I went on vacation in 2012, how I felt after the first day at my new job in 2004, or my general emotional state from just about any year, I can pull out the notebooks from that time and see what a younger version of me thought at the time.

Although I didn’t recall the exact date, I was pretty certain the moment about which I wanted to write occurred sometime during the notebook started at the end of 1986:

After flipping through a few dozen pages, I found the journal entry which began this story: March 17 of the following year. If you look to the upper right, you’ll see a few words that show that yes, this story is about a girl who I let get away.

But what makes this moment so right for this exercise was that, several years later, I used my journal to imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t let her get away. I knew it would be interesting to see what I thought back then, and see how those thoughts may have changed in the following years.

Problem was, I couldn’t recall when I wrote that “what if” scenario. It definitely seemed like a multi-page entry (most of my journal pages contain two or dated entries), and I was pretty sure I had made it after my children were born. By starting at the turn of the century and skimming forward through my notebooks for lengthy entries, I figured it wouldn’t take long to find that entry.

Several hours later, I was flipping through the 2016 journal, and starting to wonder if I had skimmed past that entry. Surrendering to my fatigue, I set the journals aside and went to bed resigned to the thought of abandoning the search for that second journal.

But on a whim this morning, I went backwards from the turn of the century, and quickly found a reference to “that ‘what if’ exercise I went through a while back about me and Marie” (and yes, I’m changing her name for these blog posts). Inspired, I kept flipping back, and eventually found it: multiple pages, over several days, a fully imagined scenario where she and I stayed together. The journal was from the year between my two children were born — several years earlier than what I believed, but I was relieved at not having to go all the way back to the 1980s.

Later tonight, I’ll read those journal entries. Much will be very familiar, yet I’ll be surprised at what I’ve forgotten. The “what if” scenario I wrote a decade after the event will be my starting point, but now that I’m more than two decades older, this will be a new story. I feel fortunate to have so much material to work with, and also excited to start with an empty page:

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Long Trips

I’ve been asked to write about myself in several different contexts lately, and I’m posting my responses on this blog. Here’s one that I did for a church I recently jointed, with much of the identifying information removed.

In March 2018, I was fortunate enough to go on a tour of Israel. The tour was co-hosted by this church and a synagogue where my family are members. My wife and children are Jewish, while I am… well, it’s complicated.

Here’s the short version: I was raised in rural Maine, where my family attended a Congregational church in which I was baptized. Never placing much emphasis on religion, my family stopped active participation in that church around the time I started school. I considered myself a proud atheist until I attended college, at Northwestern. I was a small-town boy in Chicago, half a continent away from home, and in that era before mobile phones and social media, completely isolated from family and friends. That is the best explanation I can give for joining a fundamentalist evangelical student organization at the start of my sophomore year.

I will most likely marvel at my five years as an evangelical Christian the rest of my life. My intellect was never comfortable with the movement – many people I met at that time believed Earth was 3000 years old, for crying out loud – and I now recognize much of the spiritual comfort I believed I felt from the group was actually little more than companionship. I don’t regret my time as an evangelical, and have started to use my experience from that time in my fiction. But when I finally did muster the courage to leave, I felt a relief that has lasted to this day.

Years after making that break, and still living in Chicago, I met the woman whom I would eventually marry. She had been raised in a conservative temple in Cleveland Heights, and since were were from very different religious backgrounds, we talked at length on this topic as our relationship advanced. She was committed to Judaism, and while I was still a believer at heart, I had grown too cynical about institutional Christianity to impose my belief on anyone. By the time we were engaged, we had reached a mutual decision: our wedding would be officiated by both a rabbi and a minister, and were we to have children, we would raise them Jewish.

When the youngest of our two children was still a toddler, we moved to Cleveland to be closer to Debbie’s family. After a brief membership at a large temple in the area, we became one of the founding families at a small synagogue in our town. When they folded after a decade, we joined the synagogue where where our children knew many of the temple youth. And when we heard about the interfaith trip to Israel last year, we signed up with enthusiasm.

I still had no interest in joining any church, and my motivation for visiting the nation of Israel was more historical than spiritual. Yet when you spend nine days on a bus with a small group of people in a foreign land, you almost have no choice but to get to know your fellow travelers pretty well. And while I was hardly surprised that the church members I met were not anything like the evangelicals I had known in college, I found it reassuring to know there were Christians who believed in science, intellectual honesty and curiosity, and a productive engagement with society that included the belief that people were born perfect the first time.

Upon returning from Israel, I began attending services and social gatherings at this church, which I found to be very similar to the Congregational church my parents had been loosely associated with in my youth. Unlike my earlier experience with evangelicalism, I asked a lot of questions, and only after arriving at some very good answers did I choose to become a member, a decision wholeheartedly supported by my wife, who by the way has just been hired as the interim musical director at another temple. I had to travel half-way around the world to find this church, but now that I’m here, I feel like I could stay a while.

Showing Another Me

A little over a year ago, I literally walked away from a good career, to pursue a life-long ambition of making a living as a writer. Since that time, I’ve published articles on transportation technology, pursued opportunities that didn’t work out well, made significant progress on my novel, and made a commitment to my short fiction.

I have a long way to go to reach my ambition, mostly because I’m still figuring out what I should be doing. But while there’s been a great deal of uncertainty so far in this journey, I have not for one second regretted my decision to take that first step. I wasn’t happy being the person I’d been the first three decades of my professional career, and everything I’ve done since walking away a year ago, even the mistakes, has been positive.

The person I used to be knew exactly where he was, and where he was headed, while the person I’ve been the past year makes things up as he goes along. This other me isn’t content, but he’s happier than the person he replaced.

Two Lessons

In my latest writing workshop, I was assigned to write the story of my writing life. Ten minutes later, I came up with this.

Towards the end of my junior year of high school, my English instructor told me I was not a strong enough student for our school’s senior Honors English class. This was devastating news, as every student in my small rural Maine school knew that Honors English was the key course for getting accepted to any school outside of the state. It was only when the instructor of that class, who had taken a liking to me in her freshman class, overruled my junior class instructor, in her typically brusque manner: “That dumbass is taking my class.”

Three years later, a college composition instructor told me I wrote like a pinball machine, my prose bouncing among topics wildly, propelled by force and gravity rather than logic. This evaluation was equally devastating, as I had decided to abandon my original college major, journalism, and hoped to apply for the school’s program in nonfiction writing. I applied anyway, defying the advice of my instructor, and, in a decision that today seems not at all surprising, was rejected.

These experiences taught me two things: first, never become satisfied with the quality of my prose. Second, and more important, writing was the only thing that really mattered to me. This wasn’t like being bad at sports, or lacking any mechanical ability, or having no clue how to talk to girls — all skills that interested me, but not enough to make me want to overcome my shortcomings in those areas. Having my writing dismissed made me feel like lying down and not getting up again, like a horse with a broken leg. Failing to overcome the problems of my writing would be the death of my spirit.

A year after being rejected to the nonfiction program at my school, I applied again. Taking to heart advice I received from more conscientious instructors, I submitted a more polished piece. And this time, I was accepted.

Planning Sheets

When you’re working a “real” job, you never run out of things to do. Those things may lack any inherent interest, you may have to do things which are self-evidently counter-productive to the larger mission, and all the effort you put into getting all your tasks done may lead you nowhere — but you’ll always be busy.

One challenge I’ve faced since leaving that world behind has been organizing my time. With the only person telling me what to do being myself, I soon found a need to have some planning tool, a way to record goals for my days and weeks, and review accomplishments as well as missed opportunities. I used my journal for a while, but never got comfortable using it for both my writing and planning. I tried several planning journals, but found their format too restrictive and overly focused on corporate work.

Then one day a few months ago, I was tossing out clutter from my basement when I found a roll of dry erase graph sheets, 24″ x 32″, that cling to walls like giant Post-It notes. Having no idea how this roll wound up in the pleistocene strata of our family’s belongings (though I strongly suspect my wife took it home from her own corporate job), I was about to shove it into the big black trash bag — then decided it was time for an experiment.

I went up to my home office, tore off a sheet, grabbed a few dry-erase markers and began writing dates. After several weeks of trial and error, I developed a system that’s been working pretty well for me.

The Planning Sheet at the Start of the Week

To the right is the Planning Sheet (I guess that’s what I’m calling them, now that I’ve blogged about their existence) drawn up on my office door at the start of the previous week. I put everything on there — work schedules, appointments, household tasks, recreation, and perhaps most significant of all, writing goals, which gets their own section on the lower right. Every Sunday night, Monday afternoon at the latest, I put my plans for week on the board, and due to its high visibility — there isn’t a day I’m not in my office at home, and the door is just to the left of my desk — I always know where I need to be, what I need to do, and when everything has to happen.

I leave five lines between each day, and when creating my plan at the start of the week try to list three or four activities for each day. Having less than three activities in a day inspires me to move activities from other busier days; more than four is a sign I need to offload some activities to another day. I add tasks as needs arise during the week, but try not to delete any tasks, so that at the end of the week I can see which activities were either missed or deferred.

The Planning Sheet at the End of the Week

On the left is the same Planning Sheet at the end of last week. It shows the color scheme I’ve settled on — black for days, blue for activities, green checks for completed activities, and a red X for a miss. Activities were added on some days, and I even identified an extra writing goal early in the week. When I completed an activity on its scheduled day, I gave it a green check; if I completed it on another day, or only partially completed it, I wrote a note in green. I avoided any red X until Sunday, when I got a little giddy at having reached all of my writing goals the previous day and decided to add some extra tasks on what should have been an off day. But this is how we learn, right?

Having a plan is good, but seeing it every time I sit down to my new job as a freelance writer has helped me succeed at executing that plan.

A Good Week

Been very productive these past seven days. Finished a draft of a technical document, sent my story to another publication, updated another story, and signed up for an eight-week class on short story writing. Each a small accomplishment, but being successful in this career probably has less to do with scoring major victories than it does with accumulating little triumphs over a series of good weeks.

Enjoying the Endings

Finished the updates to the first of the seven stories I’m planning to submit for publication by the end of this year. Sent that story out Friday afternoon… and by late Saturday night, I received the first of what will surely be dozens of rejections over the coming months.

Today, I sent the same story to another publication. And this week, I’m going to finalize my submission plan, so that my response to the next rejection will be just as immediate.

I’m at the start of a long journey which will feature several obstacles. Heard it said that you have to enjoy the ride; I think it’s also important to realize you’re the one at the wheel.

Some Experiments Don’t Work

A lot has happened since I walked away from a well-paying but mind-numbing career, and started working the only job I’ve ever wanted to do — writing. But aside from posting links to articles I’ve written, I haven’t said much about my new occupation. And since I’ve enjoyed reading insights into this profession, I’ve decided to provide my own limited perspective

Soon after making my leap into uncertainty, I revisited one of my former occupations — teaching composition as an adjunct instructor at a community college. I knew the pay wasn’t going to be great and I’d have to re-learn how to teach after almost two decades away from the classroom… but I remembered feeling satisfied in the last couple classes I had taught, and it was the quickest way for me to make a steady if unspectacular income. This was going to be a challenge, but it wasn’t like I was starting from scratch.

The semester began in late August, and by Halloween I had come to three key realizations:

  1. Re-learning how to teach wasn’t going to work, because I had never really learned how to teach in the first place. My pedagogical strategy back in the day had been based entirely on improvisation, and that’s not a healthy approach for someone who’d been away from the classroom for so long.
  2. Students respond well to teachers who address their needs. But as I had completely misjudged those needs at the start of the semester, I was not getting the response I was looking for.
  3. I wasn’t writing. Preparing for classes and grading papers was taking too much time and mental energy. A part-time job had become a full-time occupation.

By Thanksgiving, as the English Department at my school asked for my teaching preferences in the coming semester, I knew there was only one good decision. I had to stop teaching. I had embarked on this journey in order to write, and after a few months of failing to write much of anything, I knew changes needed to be made.

And yet, I don’t see my teaching last fall as a mistake, but more like an experiment that didn’t work. There will be plenty more experiments as I continue on this path, and some have yielded more positive results lately — I’m writing, lots, which has always been the priority. But in the coming months and years, there will be many more projects which will blow up, and I’ll by wiping soot off my face plenty of times. Sometimes the only way to figure out what works, is to discover what doesn’t.

Reasons for Rising

Writing in the Pointed North blog, Brittany offers some “un-advice” for becoming more of a morning person. Being nocturnal myself, I easily took to waking up when the sun gets warm soon after changing careers last year. Some time around December, I became dissatisfied with my lack of productive writing, and decided to explore whether there was value to be had in getting my ass out of bed earlier. Since then, I have been writing more, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

Yet seeing the benefits of getting up in the dark hasn’t made any one morning any easier. This will always be a struggle, and I’ve had to rely on a few coping mechanisms. For what it’s worth, here’s my list of bromides for getting up early:

You must have a raison pour se réveiller

I don’t know how to pronounce it, but that’s French for “reason for waking,” at least according to my online translator. I’ve found it far easier to get up early when I have an appointment, a task, some commitment that I don’t want to avoid. This needs to be as specific as possible, nothing fungible like “I need to start on chapter 2,” or “I’ll feel better if I get on the exercise bike for 30 minutes.” If you have a gym membership, sign up for a class, preferably one that charges a nominal fee if you skip without cancelling within 24 hours. If you have a favorite place to write, challenge yourself to get there when they open, and reward yourself for making it happen. If you meet with someone regularly, schedule an appointment for breakfast. Make getting up early not something you’d like to do, but something you have to do.

Don’t be afraid of being tired

This was a big hurdle for me, feeling I had to be fully rested in order to be productive. It might be true that my best productivity comes when I’m at my energy peak, but it’s also true that those moments are rare. The math I’m going to perform is probably going to be off, but six hours of 70% productivity beats 3 hours at 95%. (Somebody tell me I didn’t royally eff that one up.) I’m not at my best when I get up early, but I’m getting a lot more done than I would while sleeping.

Treat yourself

“You have to get up every day” is common advice given to night owls seeking to change their ways. For me, though, knowing there’s one day a week where I can indulge myself and get up whenever I damn well feel like it helps me get through the tough mornings in the days before. It will likely screw up my schedule for the following day, but the energy I get from turning off my phone, shutting off the alarm, and telling the family that whatever happens tomorrow morning will just have to wait is enough to carry me through a week of rough days.

I’ve been getting up earlier for four months now, and like I said, it remains a struggle. But what is worthwhile without effort?

Bound for Somewhere

[I’m currently taking a writing class that in all honesty has been pretty disappointing. Yet I liked what I wrote for one of the assignments, so at least I got something out of it.]

My high school guidance counselor was a big-city tough woman who, after four decades in Philadelphia, fled the chaos of urban life for the chaos of small-town living. She had broad shoulders, thick arms that looked like they could crush you if she wished (and given her temper, this often did seem to be her wish), and a voice gravelled from cigarette smoke. She did not suffer lack of effort gladly, and would call you out if you didn’t perform up to her standards. Yet for all her brusqueness, students at our school knew she had our best interests in mind, and would fight anyone on our behalf. Which is why none of us ever reported her for using the f-word in class.

I was one of a handful of students who got along well with her, so when my time came to discuss college applications during the fall of my senior year, I actually looked forward to our meeting. At that time, I wanted to attend one of the small liberal arts colleges my father and I had visited over the past month, each of them far removed from my hometown in rural Maine, but no more than a day’s drive away from my family. A good, but comfortable distance.

As I entered her office that afternoon, she was leafing through papers on her desk. Without looking up, she commanded me — “Sit.” I obeyed. “Where are you applying?” I gave her the names of three colleges in New Hampshire.

For the first time that afternoon, she looked up at me. “No,” she said. “Not good enough.”

She leaned back in her chair, and pulled a college guide from the shelf, a book thick enough to cause blunt trauma should it be used as a weapon. She tossed the book onto her desk, and glared across the table at me. “Major.” I stared back at her blankly, and she replied by barking my last name, and asking “What are you going to study?” When she called you by your last name, she was done joking with you.

“J — journalism.” I swallowed. “I want to be a journalist.”

She pursed her lips, evaluating my career choice. She then nodded, and as she opened the college guide, I exhaled.

She leafed through several pages, until finally stopping. “North Carolina. Good journalism school.” She looked up, and pointed a gnarled, nicotine-stained finger at me. “You’re applying there.” She returned her attention to the guide, and was about to turn the page when her eyes found another entry. “Northwestern. I don’t know if you have the grades to get in, but that’s your reach school.”

I raised my eyebrows upon hearing, for the first time, the name of the university which would be at the center of my life for the next two decades. My initial reaction was to the distance. “You really think I want to go to Seattle?”

She looked at me as if I’d asked her if I could apply for college on Mars. “It’s in Chicago, for Christ’s sake. My God, we gotta get you out of this damn town.”