Tuesday, January 25, 2011

writing habits

I've had unusually prolonged success implementing a new writing habit these past couple weeks. The rule started out like this: no internet until I have written at least 250 words.

I've tried daily writing quotas before. I've also tried systems of deprivation and reward. Most things seem to work for me temporarily, and then something always goes wrong. I get frustrated, or I skip a day, or I make an excuse do go ahead and do something I said I wouldn't do until later. So far - and I should probably knock on wood - that hasn't happened with this routine.

Why does this one work when others have failed? I have theories.
  1. 250 words is not a lot. Sure, some days when I'm just not feeling a flow, it can seem like endless agony to get them down on paper. But really, it's a very small amount, and if I am having a good day, I can bust it out in less than 20 minutes. (Okay, make that a really good day, but still.) Attainable goals are awesome. They make you feel good about yourself. When you achieve them once, you become confident that you can achieve them again. If they seem easy, you start wondering how much more you can do.
  2. Rewards are great, especially when you actually get them. See above about 250 words not being much.
  3. Deprivation methods start to fail when you get carried away with them. It becomes easy to make excuses to take shortcuts when it seems like you'll just never get there by the long road. I could wake up in the morning and remember that I'm waiting for a really important email, and think to myself, "Oh, it couldn't hurt just to check quickly, even though I haven't done my writing yet." I could do that, and probably justify it, if I had a really huge initial writing goal to meet. But... 250 words? How am I going to justify skipping such a tiny writing stint? (For your reference, this post is already 349 words long at this point.)
So, these theories all seem to come back to the fact that I'm meeting a small goal. The downside of this, of course... is that it's a small goal. I am being successful at getting a small amount of writing done.

But I don't think that diminishes the success. For one thing, 250 is not a daily goal. It's a kickstart to my writing for the day, after which I can take a break to do some other things, knowing that I've at least accomplished something. (Achievement Unlocked: Internet Access!) Sometimes the day goes on and I don't have the time or energy to write more. That's fine; at least I'm writing every day. Other days I get some real momentum going and write quite a bit more. For the past few days, in particular, I've been coming out between 600 and 1200 words at the end of the day. That's not too bad.

Another important point is that this morning goal is not actually just about writing. It's about stopping myself from feeling like I'm wasting time. Before I started this, I realized that many mornings I went straight to the internet and spent a lot of time doing a whole lot of nothing before getting around to whatever I really wanted to do that day. If I let myself, I am perfectly capable of wasting hours on my computer in the morning before doing anything of consequence. Not anymore, though. Now the very first thing I do most mornings is grab my computer and start writing until I've hit 270 words or more. (I've been gradually increasing the goal as it gets easier to handle.) Once I've done that, I feel free to check my email and catch up on what the internet has been doing without me all night. And then, because I've gained some momentum of mental activity, I don't have as much trouble getting up and getting on with the rest of my day. It's quite nice, really.

...I actually intended to write a post about the scene I wrote today and how I had to fix it, which was going to lead into some things I've learned about writing lately. I wonder how I ended up on this subject instead. Oh well, maybe next time. :)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

life: I'm doing it wrong

I used to think that college was the place where you figured out what you wanted. At the time, it certainly seemed to be packed full of important decisions. What will you major in? What will you do with that? Are you going to grad school? How are you going to spend the entire remainder of your life after graduation? Sometimes it seemed like the decisions we were making right then and there were going to set the rest of our lives in stone.

I suppose some people really did do things that way. Some studied material that led them to viable careers, which they began directly after graduation, and then stayed on that path. Some chose graduate programs that prepared them for careers they had a passion for, and worked toward concrete goals so they could have the life they wanted. And, hey, good for them.

I’ve been out of college for nearly three years now, and I still have no fucking clue what I want. Forget a career path; I don’t even know what sort of person I want to be. Not the one I am, certainly, with this accommodating nature that the stronger-minded members of my family find mildly contemptible; this obsession with making a good impression; this caution-first attitude which dissuades me from taking risks; this “everything is hopeless” mentality leading me to set myself up for failure, repeatedly, in multiple aspects of my life, just so that I can continue to tell myself that everything actually is hopeless.

Yesterday I made a crack online about how I wish I could rewrite my character sheet - just erase the whole thing and start over from scratch. Well, I don’t actually want that. For one thing, I’d have to know what changes I’d like to make on it. Besides, in some ways I’m pleased with the way things turned out. I like being bookish, for instance. All those hours I spent as a kid (and later) reading the most interesting books I could get my hands on? Wouldn’t trade them, not even for all the eyesight I’ve lost. Forays into epic fantasy, where you spend over a decade waiting for a single story to conclude? Totally worth it.

You know what, though? I could have done more than that. I could have reacted differently to the world around me. I didn’t have to listen to everything that people told me.

That’s what I’m really disappointed about, looking back at past-me: the number of times I listened to people when I probably shouldn’t have. I also regret some of the times I listened even when I should have. A healthy round of try/fail cycles would have been a valuable addition to my life experience. Instead I stayed very, very safe as a child, and a teenager, and a college student, with the result that I now have a very, very boring life.

Near the end of my college career, when I was in the middle of reading The Artist’s Way and felt like I was finding the key to unlocking all the things that were holding me back from what I really wanted, I wrote a short piece on creativity and God, mostly based on what I had just been reading. I remember being all full of excitement, thinking, “God wants me to be creative!” Like it gave me some kind of license to stop feeling guilty about loving writing so much. You know what I should have been thinking? “How could I ever have believed in a God who would give me desires for the sole purpose of requiring me to give them up in order to prove that I love him more than anything else?”

And yet I wasted years of my life listening to people who told me things like that, believing myself to be somehow deficient for not wanting to behave the way they told me I was supposed to behave. Years of keeping my mouth shut when I disagreed with someone, because it was so important to at least look like I fit in when even I felt like I didn’t. Why did that seem like the right course to me? Why didn’t I just go find someplace where I did fit in? Why, for the love of anything, didn’t I pay attention to how wrong all of that felt?

I cringe a little bit at the list of things I’ve let myself be talked out of, all because it’s too inconvenient/it’s not safe/it’s wrong/I’m a girl/the timing’s wrong/it’s too expensive/I’m too smart/somebody didn’t want me to do it. My parents, in particular, seemed to think I was some sort of faery creature who would wither and die if exposed to the wrong substance, or disappear without a trace if someone wasn’t watching me. Except that my parents aren’t all that into faery stories, so… a more mundane equivalent of what I just said. The thing is, in their efforts to keep me safe they told me “you can’t” so many times that after awhile I believed it.

This isn’t their fault. I’m not trying to say that it is. Like I said before, I do wish that I had reacted differently to many things in my life. I could have been more of a people person. I could have ignored the words “you can’t” and just done what I wanted anyway. Lots of people do that. I only did it periodically, and not usually with good results. In short, I could have lived a bit more, instead of playing out imaginary lives in my head. And I most certainly did not have to continue putting myself in situations that were comfortable just because they were familiar, even when I knew there was something wrong with them.

The thing about the words “you can’t” is that once you start to believe them, they become a mantra that you follow without even realizing it. “No,” becomes the automatic response to everything, because even if you can’t immediately think of a reason why you can’t do something, you’re sure there’s one lurking just out of sight that’s going to come and kick you in the head if you say “yes” instead. Fun ideas are quickly dismissed as crazy and impossible. In fact, you become so used to having everything just out of reach that you invent impossible situations for yourself. Soon you’re not sure if everything you want turns out to be out of reach, or if you only set your heart on the things you can’t get.

This morning I woke up with the same feeling of resignation to yet another day that I’ve had the past several mornings. I distracted myself for about half an hour with my morning writing goal, but once I’d met that, I was back to blah as usual. And then it occurred to me that I am so very sick of starting my days feeling like that. I don’t like lamenting the fact that I’m awake as soon as I become aware of it. All of this reflection about the past, and how I wish people had treated me differently, and how I wish I had made different choices… none of that is helpful. I can’t change the way I grew up. But, you know what? If I wake up most mornings feeling not in the least excited about my life and what I’m going to do with it that day, week, or month… I am doing life wrong. Right now.

That is something I can fix, even if I’m not quite sure how yet.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

oh, customers :)

This is a story lovingly titled,

Your Drink Is Not the Only One We're Making

My first day back to work after vacation was a Tuesday. I'd forgotten how Tuesdays can get crazy sometimes... mostly because Tuesday is an odd day for that sort of thing. I mean really, why Tuesday? I wonder this a lot.

Anyway, there I am, getting back into barista mode, doing closing stuff, being on bar. I've got a couple drinks lined up to make. I look at the next one in line: a caramel macchiato. I get the milk steaming, pull a pair of espresso shots. I pick up the cup and pump the syrup into it.

"Oh," says the woman waiting at the end of the bar, "that's too much vanilla."

I turn to her. "Too much vanilla?" (I tend to repeat back most things people say to me in the workplace, partly because I have trouble hearing, and partly to get them to elaborate.)

"Yes, I only want two pumps of vanilla. That's way too much."

I look at the cup again. No specification on the amount of vanilla. "I'm sorry," I say by rote, going to the sink and dumping the syrup out of the cup. I figure she'll probably want to avoid this kind of confusion in the future, so I tell her, "A venti caramel macchiato usually comes with four, but you can always tell us how much you want at the register."

"But I asked for two pumps."

"You did? I'm sorry about that. I'll just make you one with two pumps."

"And I didn't ask for a venti. I wanted a grande."

"Oh, you did?" I pull a grande cup from the stack and put two pumps of vanilla in it, nodding occasionally as the customer tells me how four pumps of vanilla is just too sweet for her. By now the shots I pulled are dead. I pull new ones, pour the milk, add the shots, and grab the caramel sauce to finish with a drizzle.

"What's that?" the customer asks, sounding slightly alarmed and maybe even a little scandalized.

I pause. "Caramel sauce," I say, wondering how anyone could order a caramel macchiato and then be surprised at the addition of caramel.

"I didn't ask for a macchiato," she says quite firmly.

"You didn't?"

"No. I asked for an Americano."

I look over at the counter. Sitting there, next in line after the caramel macchiato, is a grande cup marked for an Americano with two pumps of vanilla.

"Ah," I say, dying a tiny bit inside because of the time I just wasted on a hectic night, "your drink is actually the next one in line. This one is for someone else."

"Oh!" She is clearly a little embarrassed. "I didn't realize there was anyone else waiting for a drink!"

No response entered my head that would not have gotten me into trouble. Silently, I remade the caramel macchiato in its proper size and proportion, and then made an Americano. With just two pumps of vanilla.

To coffeeshop customers everywhere: if you feel the need to micromanage the making of your drink, please do ask us which one we're making before we begin. It will save everyone a lot of time. :)