22 March 2006

Sometimes Eleanor speaks to me...

...And she sounds a lot like Anne Lamott !

[Editor's Note: When I returned home from work this evening (March 23rd), it would seem that some jokester in my family, and all signs point toward my Daddy, placed a Mason Jar, complete with a lid, in front of my keyboard. Cute Daddy, but you were never one of the mice people I metaphorically lifted by the tail and tossed in the jar. You've just never been obnoxious - nor has anyone in my family been placed in there. Good try, though and I'll keep that Mason Jar on my desk as a reminder to shut out those "others" who've earned a rightful place and need to be shut up from time to time. Thanks!]"

No one can make you feel inferior without your permission" ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Who can't relate to that? C'mon, how many of us have had what feels like a billion things to do and only a million minutes to accomplish it? May I see a show of hands? I thought so.

This past week has been a challenge. There have been moments when I felt as if a few of these challenges were getting the best of me, but I'm so stubborn that, while I might have felt a little dizzy by it all, I wasn't about to grant that permission. I couldn't control every situation that felt threatening, I was reminded time and again by dismissing those "stinking thinking" tapes that I did have control over what my reaction could and should be. Thank God for tapes that allow us to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I have had quite a few assignments lately and several editors to answer to, all of whom I enjoy working for, but there are instances when I can be my own editor, particularly when feeling a bit on the overwhelmed side, so I just called for a rewrite. And it worked. In fact, it worked very well.

Right now, I feel like I'm working several jobs and of all the "bosses" I have, I'm probably the most difficult and perfectionistic of the lot. I sometimes find that I'm harder on me than anyone else. When I am difficult with myself, I don't even have the decency to send myself flowers with a gracious note of apology, as one of my bosses did this past week when, following a tense moment, he sent me a vase of tulips with a note of congratulations and expressing, "sorry you have to work for a jerk". I had to admit that it took a pretty big person to do that and I appreciated the sentiment. Being the compliant, eager-to-please employee that I am, I didn't try and tell him that his assessment of himself was wrong. I called and thanked the man and, I even kindly pointed out that he's not a jerk...all the time. I mean, he spends a great deal of time out of the country and I've never found him to be a jerk when he's overseas.

This weekend, after completing my series of interviews for a feature story with a deadline that was fast approaching, I got up Sunday Morning to try and add all of the ingredients together and do what I was being paid to do which was, of course, something I passionately enjoy very much, especially when I get paid to do it. It was time to write.

That's when those annoying tapes started playing in my head. You know, the ones that tell you that you have no business sitting down before the keyboard and hammering out sentences that will no doubt be completely stupid and nonsensical and only provide final proof that you shouldn't be allowed to even write your name, much less a feature story on a very important topic.

My "pre-writing" exercises are wildly productive. I do every single little job that I would be loathe to tackle at any other time. I clean my keyboard with Q-tips and alcohol (Purell). I turn my CPU off and get all of the dust that's covering the pretty colored wires snaking through the guts of my Dell Computers. I take everything off my desk and actually dust it and then rearrange it all, usually placing everything in exactly the same place, but for some reason it feels more orderly. Probably for no other reason than at least the dust is cleared and I can't "finger dust" on the surface.

I clean my coffee maker, taking pains to make sure all of the stains are removed and restoring it to "almost new" condition.

I surf the web and visit all of those sites that I think to visit when I'm busy doing other stuff, you know, internet sites extolling the joy of jasmine tea, or maybe looking for great rates for weekend getaways that I'll never take and, were a deadline not looming, would probably never opt to go anyway. Sometimes I finger my passport, look longingly at the French Customs Stamps and that leads me to check on the current temperature in Paris and imagine French people sitting down to dinner as I sit down to a steaming platter of fresh fear before my flatscreen monitor.

I go back and read old E-mails - some that make me laugh and some that make me angry - anything to get my mind off the real task before me - the thing I'm trying to forget that I have to do. I work about 20 Sudoku puzzles, many times without even cheating or clicking the "hint" button - and then I wonder if I have an addiction to Sudoku and, if I do, is it healthy or unhealthy? Should I be worried?

I read passages from David Sedaris books that I could probably recite without even looking at the pages. It still elicits a giggle. And then I wonder if I should have exposed my children to quirky writers like David Sedaris, Jack Handy (Deep Thoughts) and I seriously become concerned that too much Al Franken might not have been in Katie and Justin's best interest, but then I quickly dismiss that concern because, let's face it, it's too damn late and even though he's way too liberal for my middle of the road tastes, he's just so "laugh out loud" funny.

I clean out my wallet and arrange everything in almost perfect order, with the full knowledge that I'll mess it all up within 36 hours after the deadline has passed and I've submitted my assignment. But that's OK - it's proof that the act of cleaning can sometimes unclutter my mind even more than it unclutters my desk.

I'll decide that we need a new comforter - one with daisies on a blue background, and I'll surf all of the websites that pop up when one enters the words, "daisy comforter with blue background" in the google search box. I never for one-second entertain the thought of actually buying one. I just like to surf-shop.

Then I'll get really irritated because I'll look at my walls and wish someone would have given me a framed copy of one of the most beautiful prints I've ever seen - "Daisy on Blue" by Jennifer O'Meara. I first saw it in the ladies restroom of "Howard's Pub" on Ocracoke Island last July. I love that poster and I have to believe that just gazing at that exquisite print for a few minutes might have inspired me to the point I wouldn't have to waste time surfing the 'net to see how much it would be if I just bit the bullet and ordered it.

I make a couple of phone calls, usually to people I wouldn't really think I had the time to call under normal circumstances, but suddenly feel compelled to ring up because it buys me more time to procrastinate.

FINALLY, after I have gone through my litany of time-wasters, I reach for my faithful, and most favorite, Anne Lamott book, "Bird By Bird", and I turn to the same pages I read everytime I hit a writer's cement block.

Maybe you can relate to this. I KNOW I can. It's aptly placed in the chapter entitled, "S***** First Drafts" :

"I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all of the same people you do.)."

"Very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, 'It's not like you dont' have a choice, because you do - you can either type or kill yourself.' We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time. Now, Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morning - sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this."

I especially like the suggestion she makes on page 27 of "Bird by Bird":

"Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail and drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won't do what they want - won't give them more money, won't be more successful, won't see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you. Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft."

"A writer friend of mine suggests opening the jar and shooting them all in the head. But I think he's a little angry, and I'm sure nothing like this would ever occur to you."

Don't you just love that and in your most honest moments, don't you sometimes feel like doing just that? You don't have to be frustrated by a deadline to find some solace and completely inappropriate satisfaction by engaging in just such an exercise. I think it's brilliant. I'm happy to report that it works very well, because I've done it a time or twenty. For now, I won't reveal the names of the mouse people in my mason jar, but you know who you are. ;-) If you're not sure of your place on my list, E-mail me privately at: susiewrites@gmail.com and I'll let you know your ranking on that particular day. The queue changes just like the price of an airline ticket on any given day.

After reading what I need to read everytime I feel stuck, and I can get really stuck now and again, I realize that my feelings and fears are completely natural and familiar and somehow, simply acknowledging them seems to take the power out of them and, after looking around and realizing I've done all of the little tidying up things I'd never stoop to on a "non-deadline" day, I get down to business. I look over my notes, and somehow it really works and the stuff begins to take shape. Of course, it's usually five or six in the morning when I'm finished, but it works. It works very well.

And so it did again this past Sunday Night/Monday Morning. I met my deadline and then, last night, I met two more. And tonight, when I swore I would stay as far away from my computer as possible because I think we both needed the break from each other, what do I find myself doing? Writing. OK, I did play two games of Sudoku, but then I decided to blog and I have no idea why, because it's not like I have a "blog entry deadline". Probably if I did, my desk would look a lot more organized because, predictably, it got all messy again, just like I knew it would, although the keyboard is still shiny from the Q-tip/alcohol treatment, though I do notice some of my letters are starting to fade just the tiniest bit. I must have been rubbing too hard.