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.

No-write November?

So here’s the deal: I’m about to disappear for a while.

Or, at least, that’s what I’m guessing might happen. I’m actually not sure. I’ve never done this before. Done what before, you ask? This. NaNoWriMo.

For the uninitiated (or the still-uninitiated–I mentioned this briefly back in “Confessions of a (Nonfiction) Writer”), NaNoWriMo (na-no-wry-mo) is short for National Novel Writing Month, which, in America, is actually a thing, and also happens to be November. So, every November, a giant group of wannabe/lapsed/functioning/experienced (maybe?)/aspiring writers take on the totally-unrealistic-yet-somehow-still-achievable goal of writing a 50,000 word novel–in a month.

The rules are simple enough: over the course of a month, write 50,000 words that add up to a single, completed story. You cannot begin before November 1st, or finish after November 30th. You can research and outline ahead of time (I’ve done neither, unfortunately), but that’s it. If you stick to the schedule, you write an average of 1,667 words a day. It’s a bit strenuous. It’s a bit insane. It’s also a bit of a time-suck.

Which brings us to the topic of today’s post: I’m doing it this year. Yes, me, she who feels accomplished if she somehow manages to post once a week; me who hasn’t actually accomplished that feat since August. Me, whose one post deemed by the blogosphere to be worthwhile was one describing just how difficult and painful writing fiction can be. I’m going to write a novel. In a month.

So, maybe, don’t expect to be seeing a lot of me this November. Unless you’re on NaNoWriMo yourself, that is. Then, expect to see me posting daily, adding to my word count like (famous sports person) adds (points/goals/scores/touchdowns) to their (set/match/game). Because YES, I’m going to finish this thing. Time to conquer my fiction rut, with the help of the writer friend who got me into this and the massive writerly community that will judge me if I fail. Peer pressure for the win!

And, if you’re a NaNoWriMo-er, feel free to look me up–my handle on there is bekahg. I’m sure we’ll all need a little encouragement at some point of the month! Sixteen-hundred words a day is a lot no matter what’s going on in your life; with my schedule, it might just mean the end of every nonessential behavior, like blogging.

Or, you know, the beginning of every nonessential behavior. As I write this post, I’m very aware that I’m doing it solely because I have something else more important to work on that I don’t want to do. Procrastination is a powerful force, too.

Peer pressure versus procrastination: which will win? Stay tuned to find out.

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.