Parkinson’s Law

Since I started this blog last year, I’ve learned something about myself. Basically, that without a solid schedule, self-imposed or otherwise, everything in my life grinds to a halt.

Case in point: my blog postings, and lack thereof. I can write everyday, if I want to. I proved that in Taiwan, when I blogged daily for an 11-and-a-half-month stretch, Internet access or no, with minimal damage to my sleep schedule or mental stability. Then I came back from Taiwan, engines raring to go, and started this blog. And Idid well at it at first–I posted often, and I was Freshly Pressed after just a month on the scene. I was elated.

But, over time, my life got more cluttered, and my postings got more erratic, to the point where they stopped for months together. I’ve just come out of one of those stretches, in fact. Looking at my archives links now makes me depressed.

My posts have lost all meaning...

My life has lost all meaning…

So what happened? I lost the structure in my life.

In Taiwan, I blogged. Daily. It was what I did. It was a murderous self-inflicted posting schedule, an imperative I had dared myself to do because it sounded hard, and I knew I would never be willing to let myself down by failing it. And, rain or shine, eventful day or dull one, I would sit at my computer and I would write–something. Anything. Sometimes good, sometimes laughably bad. This, they tell you–and, indeed, I told myself–is what writers do. They write, full stop.

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I didn’t realize, though, that writers write because of a decision they make to write. Writing will never just happen. Writing must, always, be a choice, a challenge, a conviction that writing for the sake of writing is worth it. It needs dedicated time, a dedicated mind, and a dedicated purpose: to improve.

After last summer, I lost that. I forgot. My life came at me willy-nilly, and I left it at that. I started freelancing, with my clients rarely sending notice beforehand, on the expectation that, whenever their manuscript came across my desk, I would drop whatever else I was doing and finish their work, pronto. And I did. I skated from deadline to deadline, indulging myself in the luxuries of unspecified work schedules by wasting hours of my time and spending late nights finishing things I should have finished days ago.

I never missed a deadline. My work was good. But, by ignoring the necessity of structure in my life, I lost hours upon hours of my life, hours that could have been spent with friends or reading or in advancing my career or writing blog posts, all poured down the drain of unstructured time; all left at the altar of procrastination.

All lost in the sands of mixed metaphors...

All lost in the sands of mixed metaphors.

Yet even then, I did at least have my class schedule. I knew I had to be somewhere from 10:30 til 3:45 daily, and my freelancing work had to fit around that.

But my classes ended in mid-May, and as the last vestiges of my structured life fell away, I noticed something: I was getting less done. It made no sense. For the first time since I began freelancing, I was having trouble meeting my deadlines. Sure, some of them had shifted up a bit in the week, but that wasn’t enough to explain it. I could actually feel my work getting less efficient. Simultaneously, I felt myself growing bored.

And then it struck me: I’d lost my structure. I’d suddenly been handed my days, wide open, on a platter, and I had no idea what to do with them, so I did nothing. I was experiencing Parkinson’s Law, and the answer to my dilemma suddenly became clear: make myself a schedule. Put in place artificial time constraints. Maybe install Anti-Social.

Yes, we are now at the point where society has dubbed it necessary to pay people to stop us from social networking...

Yes, we are now at the point where society has dubbed it necessary to pay people to stop us from social networking…

So I began blocking out my days, with specific and achievable work goals for different portions of the day, and the same sorts of work at the same times of day. Now, for instance, I write my freelance articles after lunch. I wake up around the same time everyday, and go to sleep approximately eight hours before that. All my work is set to be finished on an orderly timetable of my own device, and well before my official deadlines.

What productivity looks like.

What productivity looks like.

And, already, it’s working. This post, in fact, is part of the fruit of it.

Blogging is important to me. Blogging well, and constantly improving my writing, is even more so. And I am now making the decision, once again, to blog regularly. Not daily this time, but at least twice weekly: I will now publish at least one post on Tuesday, and one on Saturday.

(Yes, I know this is being published on a Sunday. I couldn’t wait til Tuesday. Besides, I said at least twice weekly!)

I refuse to waste my days, or to get done in four hours what should be done in one. In high school and college, I overloaded my days with classes, work, and extracurriculars, and became an expert in getting a lot done with no time. (This is not an uncommon effect; it is part of why studies show that students who work get better grades than those who don’t.) I spent years learning to multitask and learning how to get a lot done with no time; now, I am learning to get a lot done regardless of how much time I actually have.

Paradoxical? Perhaps. Necessary? Definitely.

My life is now scheduled again, and my stress and boredom levels have dropped as my productivity has skyrocketed. Case in point: this is my second post in three days. With my structure back, my life has returned to regular operating capacity. Life is as it should be.

And even if it weren’t, I’ll be back to a regular daily routine next week, as I start a new job. Parkinson’s Law, your days are numbered.

Brothers

I have dozens of brothers. No, not biological brothers–I’m not a part of one of those 20-person families that get reality shows based around them; of biological brothers, I have just two. But men who I care about deeply and who I know care about me? Of those, I have dozens. If only I hadn’t wasted nearly 20 years getting back here…

This is decidedly NOT my family.

I started out alright. Growing up, I was a tomboy. I had two brothers, no sisters, and we lived in the country and were homeschooled when we were young–what else was a girl to do? (For the record: NO, I did not get to do school in my pajamas, and NO, we were not one of those families who dressed in matching denim and never left the house. See caption, above.) But as a result of hanging out with my brothers a lot, for the first many years of my life, most of my close friends were boys. It just wasn’t a big deal; we had a lot of fun together, and that’s all there was to it.

Until I reached 2nd grade, that is. In 2nd grade, my already-logical mind came to an apparently logical conclusion: I was a girl; therefore, my friends should be girls, too. So one Sunday after Sunday school, I marched up to my best friend at the time, Micah, and told him I was going to start hanging out with girls instead of him.

Sooooo, never speak to me again. Mmkay?

Potential psychological scarring to Micah aside, I was pretty happy with my decision for the next couple of years. I became more “girly”–though not much, as my hatred of dresses, pink, and other stereotypical “girl” things proved, together with the “tomboy tests” I put my friends through–and pretty much avoided the boys who had been my best friends before. I learned to live in a world where girls were friends, and boys fell into one of three categories: relatives, cute boys, and my brothers’ friends. (For reasons related to the growing up and ew-gross-my-brothers’-friends-have-cooties process, those two last categories were–usually, though not always–kept pretty separate.)

This lasted for far too long. I kept guys in boxes well into high school; looking back, I can think of one good male friend from high school (another Micah, oddly enough), and just a few male “friends” of any sort. Mostly, the guys I was friends with were my friends’ boyfriends.

And then we would stand around posing for color-coordinated group photos.

College was hardly better. Like many small liberal arts schools, my university suffered from an ever-increasing gender inequality, by which I mean that when I entered school, the women-to-men ratio was roughly 60-40; when I left, it was rounding 70-30. Then there was the fact that I was an English major, further skewing the numbers to the point that, as my floormates and I joked in an on-campus skit competition, I would see more male landscapers on campus than male students.

Add to that the fact that it was a small private Christian school in which a good portion of the women attending (not me) were determined to get a “ring by Spring,” and what you got was not exactly a healthy environment for making male-to-female friendships. Any contact with the opposite gender had the question of a romantic relationship implicitly present; I rarely saw girls and guys hanging out together for any other reason, though I was jealous of those who did. And, as in high school, most of my own male friends were my friends’ boyfriends.

It’s only awkward if you make it awkward!…or if they break up during the photo shoot and you’re left just standing there…

As an upperclassman the dynamic shifted slightly, as I drifted into a few extracurricular activities where there were–gasp!–men involved, but in general, my paradigm for male friendships was very much as it was when I was 7: I was a girl (or “woman,” as I would now be quick to point out), so obviously I hung out almost exclusively with other girls.

As it happened, this was one of the only areas in my life that was not shifted by my time in Taiwan. Our group of ETAs in Fulbright consisted of 12 people, of whom just two were men–and I rarely saw them. Apart from them, my friends and I had a guy friend in Taipei we would visit occasionally, but that was it. My co-workers and roommates were all women, and so were the vast majority of people I got close to there. No brothers to be found.

A small portion of our group. Note the overwhelming female majority...

A small portion of our group. Note the overwhelming female majority…

Then came this year.

I spent the year (after much deliberation) at a ministry school in California, and my one year there taught me more about having brothers than I had learned in my previous 23 years of experience with *actual* brothers.

It’s odd, really: ministry schools are notorious for the same spirit that permeated my university; even the school I was at is jokingly called a “school of marriage” instead of “school of ministry” by some of its attendees.

But that was not my experience. No; instead, for my nine months at school I was surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of some of the most quality men I had ever been in contact with–truly incredible guys, who were confident in who they were, knew how to take responsibility, knew how to respect and love others well, were proactively improving themselves, and were incredibly attractive, to boot–and I wasn’t dating them. Any of them. Ever.

Instead, I was forming some of the deepest and best relationships of my life. I was learning to be a sister, and learning what it was like to have men who valued me deeply for who I was, no strings attached. And I learned how incredible it is to have wonderful relationships with men–to have brothers. If any of them were interested in me, I don’t know, and to a larger extent than ever before in my life, it didn’t matter*: I just loved, and love, these men, regardless, and I knew they loved me.

And they just kept adding to the ranks. There were the guys from my “brother” house, an obvious addition. Then the guys from the newspaper crew we formed. And the guys from our core group of 70. And friends of friends. And friends of roommates. For the first time in my post-7-year-old life, the men in my close group of friends may actually outnumber the women.

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A few of the amazing men (and women) in my life…

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A few more of my awesome friends…

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…and a few more!

And that’s just a small sampling of the many, many incredible men in my life. Men with whom I can hang out, and with whom I can share life, and whom I love and know love me, no matter what. And having those friendships, those brothers, is one of the best things I’ve ever discovered.

So, to my brothers: thank you! Thank you for being you; for being my friend; for teaching me so much about what real men look like, and what it looks like to have healthy relationships with them.

And, to my seven-year-old self: What were you thinking?!?!

*A post for another time: why the “friend zone” doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist.

Confessions of a (Nonfiction) Writer

Okay, I admit it: I like nonfiction.

Now this might not seem like too big of an admission for a blogger to make–well, of course she likes writing nonfiction, that’s all she does around here, anyway–but, for me, at least, it actually is a big deal. See, I don’t want to like nonfiction. In fact, I’ve spent the past several years trying to convince myself that I prefer fiction–and, to some extent, I still do prefer it.

(Oh, come on now, Bekah, no need to go into denial here, you’ve already gotten the worst of it out…)

But it’s true. When I sit down to read a book, it’s usually a novel I’m after, or a book of short stories–with the notable exceptions of a few amazing nonfiction books such as Outliers and King Leopold’s Ghost and Will in the World–and, when I daydream about a mythic future in which I’m a best-selling author (with a few Pulitzers and National Book Awards to my name, of course), the book in my hands as I dole out those interviews with talk show hosts is invariably fiction. When I remind myself that I need to spend more time writing, I sit down to one of my several in-progress short stories, and console myself that, come November (aka NaNoWriMo), I will at last begin work on a novel.

Yet, even so, when I just sit down to write, fiction is not what comes out.

It’s a cliche of writing to say that writers write, not because they want to, necessarily, but because they can’t help themselves. Well, as much as I may hate to admit it, I can help myself when it comes to fiction; love it as I may, my writing process in that genre is full of jerks and half-starts and self-doubt. I question my characters, I question my word choice, I question my conflict(s), I question my pacing, I question where, exactly, the story is going, or needs to go. It becomes almost impossible for me to turn off my self-critic and self-editor and just write. I may love the outcome, sometimes, but getting there is often nothing less than painful.

Then there’s nonfiction.

Shortly after high school, I was reading The Writing Life, a book of essays written by famous authors on the subject of writing that a high school teacher had given me, and I remember getting to one entry by a famous biographer, describing his process of becoming a nonfiction writer. The book itself is boxed away somewhere right now, but his general reasoning for his genre choice has haunted me ever since I first read it: He said his life had been too boring, too ordinary, for him to write fiction. I didn’t want that to be me.

I’ll be honest, before college I didn’t even know there was such a thing as creative nonfiction; in my thoughts, writing existed in two categories: fiction, and textbooks. That may be a bit of an oversimplification, but not much of one–if I’m remembering right, I read my first-ever piece of personal narrative, an excerpt from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, during my senior year of high school, and it existed in my mind as an interesting, but isolated, writing form. Besides, even that was an exercise of journalism, and of research, more than of creativity. Creative nonfiction? That just seemed like a contradiction in terms.

Even in college, creative nonfiction flew under the radar with me–I got a Creative Writing degree on the fiction track (the only other option was poetry), and it wasn’t until my senior year that I took my first and, to date, only class in creative nonfiction.

But I was hooked. Sitting down to write was so easy–I just wrote! No questioning my story–it happened! No questioning my characters–they existed! Sure, I still had pacing and word choice to think about, but the primary struggles behind those concerns–namely, the constant preoccupation with setting up my main character’s personality and motivations through tone–disappeared, since the narrator was, suddenly, no one other than myself. My creative voice sprang forth almost without my trying. It was bliss.

And it is bliss–even now, as I type this, I cannot help but remember that that is what I am doing, now: writing nonfiction. And it was what I was doing, all last year, as I wrote my stories from Taiwan. When I want to process something, I write. I can’t help myself. And what do I write? Nonfiction.

What I didn’t understand about the biographer’s description of his entry into the field, but which I understand now, is that nonfiction of any sort is more forgiving than fiction of an ordinary background–but that doesn’t necessitate a boring life. In fact, in the case of creative nonfiction, it requires precisely the opposite: you must go have amazing adventures, or at least be able to dramatize your smaller ones, or you will have nothing to write about.

As a fiction writer, it actually helps if you had a screwed up childhood or identity issues or what have you, because those are the sorts of real human problems that go into making real human characters out of the ideas in your head; those are the sorts of fictional people people want to read about. As a nonfiction writer, reality’s okay–all you have to do is be able to organize it in such a way that it becomes interesting and meaningful. Nonfiction is intensely personal, and it’s that, very intimate, nature, and the author’s ability to bring others into that space, that makes for a good piece. Drama isn’t necessary if you’re doing it right.

So yes, I like fiction–I like reading it, and I want to like writing it. But the fact is, at this point at least, I’m a nonfiction writer–might as well step out of the shadows and claim it outloud.