#digiwrimo check-in

November is flowing by, now 2/3 gone.

I started #digiwrimo with the goal to write everyday.

Technically I’ve done that.

But the real intention was to spend at least half an hour everyday writing for myself. I’ve come (surprisingly) close to that. The time is not always the most focused. I might feel like I should have gotten more produced in the time. But that wasn’t part of the deal. The deal was about making the time, not volume or quality of writing.

I’m (re)discovering things in this process:

  • I am not a fast writer – even when I think I know what I want to say.
  • I often write things two or three before I actually get it down. I write. I tweak. I re-write.
  • I edit and revise as I write. This is probably not the most effective approach. (Maybe someday I will learn to just write and do the other bits later.)
  • I sometimes have a lot to say. But for my writing process (and for digital reading), it’s often better to break it into pieces.
  • I can get tangled up in my own writing and ideas. When I write, I just start writing; I don’t organize my thoughts first. This process works when I’m not sure where I’m going, less so when I have a clear topic with many facets.
  • Words are first. Always. Images are often afterthoughts, trying to find something that works with what I’ve written, when I even bother to pull an image.
  • Words are my primary medium. I’m comfortable with Twitter and blog formats. I’m looking for a a little something more. Once upon a time, photography was a bit of a hobby. I wonder if picking it up again might do something for my digital writing.
  • Connecting – with others and the world around me – is an important part of creating. Connecting sparks ideas, provides motivation, offers new viewpoints. I need to make figure out how to build, nurture, and discover connections through digital media again.
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Failure is an outcome

Failure.

A simple concept.

Yet there is vast complexity embedded in how we interpret and treat failure, particularly in how the term applies to our own lives.

Failure comes in many forms. Standards go unmet. Objectives aren’t fulfilled. Deadlines are missed.

Things fail. Projects fail. Even people fail.

At its core, failure is an outcome, the result of an event. Simple.

But when I listen to how people (myself included) use it, it often becomes something more.

Failure becomes a personal trait. A character flaw.

It’s not that I failed to accomplish something. It’s that I am a failure.

In the deep darkness of loneliness and fear and anxiety, failing to meet a goal suddenly becomes a reflection of who and what we are. It’s no longer about what we have done or are doing. It’s a thread of our character, bright and gleaming for all to see, much as we long or try to hide it from view.

And sometimes we define “success” in such a way that it’s might be nearly impossible to achieve. We adopt narrow, detailed ideals of how our lives should look. We set unrealistic deadlines. We make no allowances for how factors beyond our control might call for reassessment of definitions or deadlines. We leave no room for our lives to change.

We look for perfection that none of us can deliver.

So failure becomes messy. Complex.

We set ourselves up to fail, and then we internalize that failure as a part of who we are.

But that’s not failure.

Failure is an outcome.

I have failed at many things. I will fail at many more.

Failure is a part of life. A part of learning. It shapes my experience. But it is not who I am.

I am many things. But I am not a failure.

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What I’m doing for #digiwrimo 2014

November is a month for writing, at least judging by the virtual pledge campaigns. There’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo), and Digital Writing Month (DigiWriMo).

Writing has long been one of my outlets. I hadn’t been writing for myself lately, and I missed it.

Writing is also part of my job, but it’s different. There’s this pressure of writing for an official thing. It adds gravitas, in my mind. It also adds overly complex structure and stilted language to my work. That’s not how my writing (even my work writing) is supposed to be.

What did I need to change?

Recently, I attended a training about storytelling and plain language. One of the speakers, Kathryn Sosbe, has been working in newsrooms and government agencies for decades. Within a minutes, she came around to the list of what it takes to become a better writer.

The first thing: Read. Widely. (I can hear my PhD advisor saying this, as he sat across the conference table from his new crop of students.)

The second thing: Write. Everyday.

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That struck a chord.

I checked in with Digi the Duck. Sure enough, DigiWriMo was set to start in a couple of days.

Maybe this confluence of events was a sign – a nudge to get my ass in gear just as a community was taking up the banner.

The DigiWriMo Launch Party was the next night. I committed, if only to myself, to participate in some way. It came time to fill in the “roster”, a Google doc where people posted the media they worked with and their goals for DigiWriMo.

What should my goal be?

I’m a glutton for unrealistic expectations of myself. I create endpoints and timelines that are often ludicrous. I plan with this impossible ideal of what I can accomplish if the rest of the world – and my own brain and body – just behave. Perfectly.

Lately I’m trying to be more aware of where I am. I’m trying to be more grounded in reality. That’s not to say that I don’t want to stretch beyond that, that I should or will never try to reach further. It’s just that, at this moment, what I need in some parts of my life is to set my mind to something and actually get it done.

It had been a while since I’d written, consistently, for myself. Sometimes writing is slow. If it’s about science, even more so. Sometimes I end up down rabbit hole. Sometimes the things I write are just too personal for public consumption.

Going in to DigiWriMo, I had no particular direction in mind. My ideas were scattered.

I came back to Sosbe’s comments about how to make writing seem easier.

Write everyday.

She talked about getting up at 4:30 every morning, preparing her coffee, and sitting down to write. Anything.

Something sounded strangely decadent about that (the “just writing” part, not the 4:30 am part).

Maybe it was time I finally took the advice I’ve heard again and again. Write everyday, and see where it takes me.

So here I am. A week later. I get up a half hour earlier, fix my coffee, and write for at least half an hour. (Weekends are more flexible.)

I have now written every day in November.

I’m finding that it’s a good way to start my day. It wakes up my brain. I get to kick off my day with some time for me, rather than stumbling groggily into whatever the day may bring.

Even after this short time, the roadblocks to writing feel less substantial. I have more momentum, including for my writing at work.

For my personal writing, this will be my third blog post during DigiWriMo. The posts aren’t well-crafted, carefully polished pieces. But that’s not really the point.

The point is that I’m reclaiming another space for myself. And I’m sharing part of the process with a community that has supported and encouraged me for the past five years. Maybe I’ll discover a grander scheme along the way. But for now, just exploring this space again is enough for me.

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Redefining parameters & priorities

When I moved to a new city and new job, I had this vision of the things I would do with my newfound time and cash flow. It was rooted in the things I’d done outside work over the past few years – things I thought I wanted to continue or recommit to or expand.

Reality didn’t line up with expectations. I felt at a loss. I was frustrated. I felt lazy and unmotivated. I was disconsolate.

Gradually I began to realize that I had failed to grasp how disruptive this new experience could be.

How new environments would alter what I was getting in my usual routine.

How changes in the present could pull up things of the past.

How the newness of everything might amplify persistent self-doubt and a host of other things.

I had never considered that, in a new environment and set of circumstances, my wants and needs – or the forms they took – might change.

Taking stock

Recently I started talking with someone and taking a sort of inventory. We discussed priorities, the things I wanted to be spending my time. The list wasn’t meant to be exhaustive, detailed, or immutable. The intent was to start with four or five broad categories that were at the forefront of my mind.

My initial list (in no particular order) came down to:

  • Work and career
  • Relationship with my partner
  • Physical fitness
  • Social interactions
  • Home life

The first few are pretty self-explanatory. They came easily. They connected to long-held priorities.

I was a little surprised to find myself adding “social interactions” to the list, with face-to-face contact in mind. I’m an introvert. In the past, I hadn’t sought consistent connection outside work.

But things were different in Boston. When I moved there I was married, so there was human engagement outside work. I worked in labs where we shared workspaces and interests and break areas. Sometimes those interactions extended beyond the lab. I found connections with people through Twitter, as waited on data acquisition or wound down at home. Even after my spouse and I separated, much of my network was still in play. I had housemates. I found some additional community where I needed it.

Now I live alone. My project at work is pretty solitary, with much communication done via email. The layout of the workspace and the nature of work people do makes it harder to connect with people who aren’t working on the same project. I spend my day reading and writing and planning, so the snippets of time for checking in on Twitter are rarer (and the way I interact online has been shifting over time).

Home life is basically about making my space comfortable and livable. It covers a few things – planning and preparing meals, keeping things clean, getting my space organized, keeping a budget. Most of this isn’t new – and yet it is. I have a much larger space, my own space. There’s more to do. Locations and logistics changed. My capacity changed. Not long ago, I could walk into a grocery store without a list and emerge with what I needed for the week. Now I can find that overwhelming, so I have to prepare and/or be mindful of my mood.

What are you doing?

Next we took the list and discussed how I wanted them to rank. Which one did I want at the top of the list? What seemed to be dominating time now?

We started talking about my schedule, day-by-day.

After I get up, I get ready and head straight to work. I’m usually home by about 4:30. Work is pretty solidly covered.

So what do I do after work? And how do those things relate to my priorities?

One day a week I go to a running group. That addresses physical and social aspects.

I usually run at least two other days during the week – additional points for fitness.

Sometimes after work or running, I’ll cook dinner and clean up. A contribution to the home life.

Typically I attend a discussion group each week. Every week or two, I end up going out for a couple of hours with a friend after work. More social time.

My partner and I talk on the phone every night, and we see each other most weekends. So I’m investing time in that relationship.

Most of these things don’t go into a calendar. They’re just things I do.

Building on the present reality

Sketching out my schedule, I realized that I’m not just abandoning my evenings to nothingness, as I thought. I’m regularly doing something almost every day of the week. And the things I’m doing directly feed priorities I had identified.

It also let me see what pieces might need some more time and attention.

Some details work against others. I need my home to be a welcoming space, which has required some new acquisitions. I need structure and accountability for fitness beyond running, which I addressed with a gym membership. This pull directly against my desire to budget and pay down debt. There are choices and compromises.

And then there’s the part of me that always wants to do more. I’m beginning to feel that I have the time and energy to do more things. But I don’t have the time and energy to do all the things. I have to reflect. How do I choose?

I have to take a long view. No gimmicky quick-fix scheme is going to get me where I want to be. I have to put in the work. I have to adjust to my present reality, and I’ll have to keep doing that.

But as I adjust to the present reality, I get to begin building on it, rather than shells of the past or of fantasy.

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Fantasy, reality, and learning to be

Four months.

Four months since I took the time to see a post through to the end and hit publish here.

I sigh, embarrassed that it’s been so long. A bit ashamed that I haven’t done more.

Resigned to accepting that fact – and the possibility that I had set expectations for myself too high. Hopeful that maybe, this time, the lessons will stick.

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Flying high

Eight months ago, I was making plans. I had accepted a new job in a new city, taking my career off in a new direction.

Somewhere in my head, I constructed this vision of what my “new” life would be. A fantasy, really. My new job would bring two things that had been in short supply as a postdoc: time and money. It was going to be amazing!

I would analyze data from my postdoc project, work on manuscripts, write posts for my blog and a couple of pieces for other outlets. I’d pitch in on other online projects and maybe some local ones.

Hell, maybe I’d pick up another hobby (scrapbooking the photos and tickets from the Japan-Korea trip would cool, wouldn’t it?).

Oh, and I would lay waste to my debt. I would cook most of my dinners at home and pack my lunch everyday. I would run and use the tiny gym in my apartment building to stay fit.

I’d be sensible and responsible. I’d do the things right, because nothing and no one would stop me. I would give myself a month or two to settle in, but then I would turn the fantasy into reality!

Oh… will I ever learn.

Coming back down to earth

In the midst of the excitement for changes to come, I had forgotten two very important things.

First, reality doesn’t care about my fantasies. It doesn’t care about anything. It just is. Reality is a state – a collection of circumstances, events, people, mental and emotional states. It’s the system in which I exist and move and live. My choices and actions influence this state, but much remains beyond my control.

Second, change (in the “major life event” sense) is hard. Even when it’s what we need. Even “positive” changes, the ones that move me toward the life I want. Change is tough. Stressful. Disruptive.

There have been immense changes in my life in the last couple of years. I got divorced. I found a new relationship. I moved – locally, but into entirely new circumstances (no longer married, living with strangers). In my career, I decided to do something entirely different from what I’d been doing for 10 years. I converted the decision to real change, moving to a new city and taking a new job. I’m living alone – essentially for the first time in my life.

And, of course, while all of this was going on in my life, the lives of the people around me weren’t static. My friends were settling down – getting married, buying houses, having babies. My dad started dating. Then co-habitating. Then eloped. My partner bought a house, and he’s flourishing at work (a position he’d just started as we began dating). My nieces, who I get to see once or twice a year, are growing up. My grandparents are growing older.

The things in my life and in the lives of those I care about contribute to my reality. They’re the circumstances and events.

Hitting turbulence

Change brings disruption, and some are tangible and predictable. Moving to a new city means packing things up, leaving the comfort of the known, finding the places and things you need. A new job means new people, new culture, new responsibilities.

But I wasn’t prepared for the emotional disruption. Some of the prior big changes in my life had come in the midst of, or created, significant turmoil. This time would be different, right? I thought, “I’m moving in a positive direction. Everything is going to be great!”

The first couple of months after the move were so disorienting that I don’t think I really noticed. And I cut myself some slack. I’d done some big things. It was understandable that I was maybe a little shaky, that I couldn’t just plunge right in to doing all the things.

And then the weeks continued to pass. Most of the things in my fantasy were not getting done. I didn’t have the mental or emotional energy to do them, it seemed. Much of my spare time in the evenings was spent just zoning out. I might mentally obsess over the things I “should” be doing or wanted to do, but I couldn’t clear the barrier to getting them done.

Abandoning the comfort and routine of life as usual disrupted my emotional equilibrium (such as it was). It intensified emotions and reactions. Things that had, for the most part, prowled quietly in my mind, now sometimes bound out from the dark.

Adjusting approaches

Things are good. I’m happy with my choices. But my life has changed. So have my needs and my capacities.

I still have those aspirations from my fantasy. But I’ve had to take a step back – to assess my new reality, to reevaluate my needs and desires, to adjust priorities.

I need more structure for my fitness.

I need more human interaction, face-to-face, outside work.

I need to find ways to tame – no, to coexist more serenely with those prowling creatures in my mind.

And I need to keep finding the patience and gentleness to continue taking care of me. To be realistic. To let myself be something other than perfect. In part, because it’s better for me, and in part, because it helps me better connect with the world.

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