Dispatches from Quarantine 2020

Tanya

As I wrote on Facebook earlier, today is tentative. Today, I was supposed to start my (much-needed) two-week spring break. My goal was to sit in my home office and work on my book. I spent the weekend relaxing and reading, hanging out on the couch while my son played Minecraft. Any time I thought, “oh, maybe I should go get started on some book edits?” I paused and told myself it was okay to do that later.

Then my son’s school district announced at 6:30 last night that there is no more school for 3 weeks.

We’re very fortunate: with my two-week break, we don’t have to worry about childcare. My reality may look different than I planned, but it’s okay. (Or it will be: in all honesty, I’m struggling to wrap my head around everything and feel more than a bit panicked at times.) Even when my “break” ends, my school will also transition to online learning, which will also alleviate childcare concerns for the most part, but synchronous learning will present its own new challenges.

For the time being, I’m going to try to settle in. I was homeschooled for most of my own education before college, and helped raise several of my (much-younger) siblings. I’m a teacher, although admittedly I don’t usually teach first grade. On the plus side, I’ve been paying close attention to the Singapore Math they’ve been doing, and I think I can get my son more practice on his reading and math, with a few more side adventures, in the next couple of weeks.

Today is tentative; my self-care focused on breathing and not setting expectations too high. I’m hoping for fun and cuddles with my kiddo, laughs, and – probably the highlight of his day – my first-ever Minecraft tutorial, which will turn the teacher into the student.

 

Lynn

As Tanya stated above, I feel that my own success during this ordeal will be achieved by keeping realistic expectations and having appropriate responses.  As a newly immunocompromised person (only 3 weeks of chemotherapy to go!) I oscillate between concerns that I’m too worried and not worried enough, feeling prepared and then panicked. 

So far, I feel that I’ve been rolling with the punches fairly well.  When colleges and universities started moving online I was ready with my web based courses.  When local schools closed I was prepared to work from home so I didn’t have to stress about childcare.  However, with both I’ve had to make adjustments with my expectations. Due dates for students have to be more fluid as we all work together to continue despite new challenges that none of us have ever faced and I can tell in our electronic communications that students are stressed so I’ve tried to keep that in mind in my responses. I’m trying my best to focus on compassion and kindness.  I’ve been trying to do the same in my own home as I’ve quickly discovered that my attempts at home-schooling a 1st grader will have its own unique challenges, as well. 

I’m doing my best to take it easy on myself and those around me.  That’s all I can do, and hope that everyone can come out of this safe and with a renewed appreciation for teachers, nurses, those stocking shelves, delivering supplies, and everyone keeping us all on track as best they possibly can.

 

Raquelle

What a month. Less than two weeks ago, Nashville was hit with a tornado that barely missed my campus and ravaged our neighbors. Now, my students have to be out of their dorms by tomorrow at 5pm because of covid-19. The original date for move-out was Saturday evening, but administration has hastened the deadline in anticipation of increasing governmental restrictions.

I’ve mostly been in states of shock and stasis, frankly. I sit down to get started on work only to get distracted by an article on travel bans, an email that another of my conferences has been cancelled (and now I have to attempt the reimbursement circus), or a text from a connection in France with updates on the total lockdown or who is suffering from decreased access to medical services. Today, I was finally able to type out a plan for the rest of the semester. My motto? Simplify. I’m taking a step back, reconsidering my course objectives, and cutting out material that doesn’t directly meet them. I don’t have the emotional or mental ability to do otherwise, and I also want to be compassionate toward my students who have widely varying priorities and access to technology. So, we’re going to keep it simple. In an uncanny turn of events, the adjunct professor of another French course at my university passed away, so I’m also absorbing that (now online) class. Today, I created and sent a video message introducing myself to those students in hopes of striking up a human connection. To give some semblance of stability, I also shared a plan for moving forward––which I instructed them not to even think about until next week, because they needed to focus their time and emotions on getting themselves home and attending to loved ones.

For now, I’m totally operating from home. I’m trying to act out of compassion by self-isolating (with my spouse/housemate) to flatten the curve and attempt to care for those who are most vulnerable. I’m not worried about catching the virus, but I do not want to spread the virus as an asymptomatic carrier. I’m really lucky to be able to work from my apartment, as so many I know do not have this luxury. 

After this month, I’m just grateful to be alive and grateful for the human connections that I have, both beautiful and terrifying. My students and I had no idea that we would be sitting in the same room with each other for probably the last time last Wednesday. I’ll be excited to reconvene virtually with them next week–synchronously and asynchronously–and imagine that I’ll hesitate to take such relationships for granted in the future and will learn a whole lot about my teaching (and about myself) during this phase.

Angela

Just two weeks ago, on March 4, 2020, an EF3 Tornado ripped through my neighborhood of North Nashville, taking out homes, churches, businesses, and power lines. It happened early in the morning, and there was no warning. I woke up, ran to the bathroom, and crouched next to the bathtub as my house shook and the sound of a roaring freight train drowned out the clanging of debris battering the roof. I was unbelievably fortunate that the damage to my home was minimal, but the house 8 doors down the street from mine saw utter devastation. Trees older than this nation had been ripped out of the crumbling sidewalks and dragged through houses. Nearly all of the neighborhood was rendered uninhabitable. 

For over a week the entire area was left without power, and people slept under tarps or in cars in front of their ruined homes, trying to figure out what to salvage and how to navigate the complicated and emotional web of disaster response and relief. 

We were already aware of Covid-19, but back then (I say, as if this was long ago, because these past two weeks have been the longest year of my life), few Americans feared it, or understood its potential for spread. We couldn’t think about a virus when people’s most basic needs weren’t being met. Dozens of families struck by the tornado with no immediate shelter travelled by foot over wrecked houses and downed trees and powerlines in order to join the survivors at the Farmer’s Market makeshift overnight shelter. When damage was discovered to the sanitary facilities there, the shelter was moved to the Sportsplex. Their beds were just a few feet apart: certainly not far enough to meet social distancing recommendations. Meals came from generous donors everywhere, and were served by countless volunteers. There was so much touching, and so much in the air.

In the aftermath of the tornado, competing concerns drowned out awareness of the virus. You see, people in North Nashville live in one of the most rapidly gentrifying communities in the country. The historically black, mostly working-class neighborhood with three HBCUs in its area code, is just a mile from downtown, and so it became inundated with opportunistic developers who posed as tornado relief volunteers. These predators knocked on doors of ruined homes with offerings of canned food and bottled water in one hand, and a business card in the other. 

Every time I leave my home (which is getting rarer and rarer these days), I pass a sea of blue tarps waving in the wind, barely concealing the fragmented remains of my neighbors’ homes beneath. Yet  I’ve stopped seeing news about one of the biggest natural disasters of the decade, because Covid-19 has taken over all media. Many articles are chiding people for not being cautious enough (which is true), but how can we be? 

In a way, the story of this virus reads almost like a fairy tale: billionaires in bunkers notwithstanding, no one person can securely protect themselves against the virus, but each person can protect everyone else from it. Self-isolation and obsessive hand-washing and disinfecting isn’t so that I don’t get sick- it’s to stop me from giving the virus to someone who can’t survive it in case I’m already infected. This virus is showing us how tightly we are bound together- if I don’t take care, I could hurt others. Those who aren’t taking care are endangering me, and everyone else. 

But when a tornado has taken your home and/or your job (many of the businesses here hire from within the community), and supermarket shelves are bare, and you were living hand-to-mouth to begin with because gentrification has raised property taxes and rents in the area, there’s no space to think about sanitation and self-isolation, even if those things were affordable and available to all. Which they are not, at all. 

These are the thoughts that consume me during my Covid-19 self-isolation in North Nashville. I’ve read the Imperial College Report. I know what’s coming, and I know how North Nashville will once again bear more than its fair share of the brunt of the awfulness. I know that we are nowhere near prepared to deal with any of it: the racism and classicism and ageism endemic in the private healthcare industry, or the vast number of deaths this nation will sustain. 

We are all going to lose someone that we love. 

That someone is going to be older, and hold a wealth of experiences and knowledge vital to the community.

Many of us are going to lose more than one someone. Especially up here. 

When this is over, nothing is ever going to be the same. 

If you are in a position to help, please do. Gideon’s Army has my strongest vote of confidence to always make the right decisions for people affected by the tornado and by the virus as they help rebuild North Nashville. 

 

Process-based Goals Create Progress

“But what are you going to do with that?”

Every time I write something, a well-meaning friend asks me that.

It makes sense: audience is key. To help critique someone’s work, it’s best to know who the intended audience is. But implicit in this question of “what are you going to do with that?” are issues of final product. It implies that if you’re going to bother going through the hard work of writing something, then you had better do something with it. I don’t disagree with that notion (though I will say, sometimes writing for its own sake is a worthwhile process), but I do think it can lead to some unhealthy thinking when it comes to writing. Namely, it promotes thinking of your writing in terms of products, and that leads to product-based goals.

We’ve all made those before: I want to write two dissertation chapters this semester. I will have finished my novel by September. I will write an article each month this year.

I used to set goals like that for myself at the end of each year. I’m pretty driven, so I achieved most of them, but when I didn’t, I felt like I let myself down.

So last year, I didn’t make any product-based goals at all. Instead, I switched to process-based goals. Instead of having a goal of x number of pages written, I asked myself if I could make a commitment to show up to the page for an hour 5 days per week. Rather than running that 7 minute mile, I wanted to see if I could commit to physically changing into exercise clothing and moving in some way four times per week. They were very low-stakes goals, great for not provoking anxiety.

Continue reading “Process-based Goals Create Progress”

The Best Workout is a Done Workout

The best dissertation is a done dissertation. When you turn it into a book, “Good enough” is good enough. Your work is never finished, it is merely abandoned. Every writer has heard this, and has experienced it. Once you’ve experienced it, you know that it’s true. Fitness works in exactly the same way. Tanya’s last post here was about her fitness goals and inspired me to share with you a bit about how and why I move my body, and why the best workout is a done workout.

Continue reading “The Best Workout is a Done Workout”

Goodreads: Finding Writing Inspiration Through a Monumental Year of Reading

by Lynn Clement


Aging and birthdays are usually not a big deal to me which, now that I really think about it, likely stems from childhood.  Having a summer birthday meant I missed bringing treats to school and birthday parties were useless when everyone was out of town.  Thus, I’ve long been accustomed to marking my journeys around the sun with minimal celebration even at major milestones.  This was the same with turning 40, which I did in August.  While my lovely friends made sure I celebrated properly later, I spent that actual day taking a 7 hour road trip from an indoor water-park hell-scape to home.  The day itself may have felt lackluster, but the anticipation of this monumental number did inspire me to make some challenges for myself months prior.  On New Year’s Day I was making plans for my 40th year. I had planned to run my 6th marathon and a total of 2019 miles in the year, had planned to take a big trip, for fun and for research, and I had planned to read 40 books.  While life shenanigans interfered with the first few, I am happy to announce that I am on schedule to celebrate my 40th year with 40, completed and contemplated, books.

book page
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

I am also happy to announce that most of the books I’ve read this year (currently working on numbers 33 and 34) have been wonderful.  I decided to be choosey about the titles so I would not get derailed from my goal, which can often happen since I am stubborn and hate to give up on any book, no matter how terrible.  In addition, even though cancer treatment made exercise and travel almost impossible, it did afford me some uninterrupted time for reading.  The hours spent in cars, waiting rooms, infusion chairs, on radiation tables were given to memoirs, biographies, historical fictions, historical non-fictions, true crime, poetry, etc., etc., etc.   They provided much needed escape, and I must take a moment here, dear reader, to assure you that I didn’t just choose short stories to help reach my goal.  In fact, one of the more enjoyable of the books was The Goldfinch by Donna Tart, a 771 page journey detailing lost lives, lost art, and lost souls.  The story centers around a lost painting and equally lost young man, and although it was not without its faults, it was worth the effort.

Fabritius-vink

The Goldfinch was recommended to me by many because of its connection to art history. I usually shy away from these types of books because of my background, but I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. I have to admit that it was fun to think about art in a new way.  Contrary to my expectations, the visual details of the painting and its history amounted to only about 2 pages of the more than 700.  The Goldfinch (aka Het Puttertje) is an actual painting Donna Tart saw during a visit to the Mauritshuis museum at the heart of the Hague. Measuring little bigger than a sheet of paper, and depicting an even smaller, chained, pet bird by the little known artist Carel Fabrutus, the reader might initially question the value of a work such as this, especially when it enters the narrative amidst Vermeers, Hals, Rembrandts, and other master works of the Dutch Golden Age.  However, our understanding of the value of this work is established on a personal level as it anchors itself to times, places, and people that mean so much to the main character.

This led me to thinking about the possibly for fictional tales centered on factual events and objects. History and its imagery is filled with a wealth of possibility for invented stories and a basic Google search on making the transition from non-fiction to fiction brings up a wealth of sites with advice and success stories.  Would it be worthwhile to approach my own research topics similarly and could these histories be told in new ways? Or, perhaps more importantly, should they? I don’t know the answer to these questions yet, but the thought of this type of experimentation with research and writing excites me.

business calligraphy close up composition
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I have been dealing with a bit of a writing dry spell, particularly in regard to my academic research.  However, the possibility of using what I’ve learned to create a new, imagined story provides the kind of inspiration I’ve been needing.  Writing community, I would love to hear if you’ve tried something similar!  Please comment or tweet your advice, tips, or experiences!  My own updates to come…

 

37208: How the Rest of America Could Be, If We Wanted

Midsummer 2019 was the day I moved into my first house. The sky blackened as I drove a carload of belongings there. I made it to my new neighborhood in North Nashville just as the thunderstorm hit. Pulling into the driveway, a loud snap shook my car. I watched the thick, sturdy tree in the front yard of the neighbors across the street collapse onto the road. It pulled down power lines right across the driveway making it unsafe to drive out. Fortunately, the damage was to property, and not people.

Not 37208, but the tree looked just like this.

Stranded, I decided to make the most of it and unload my things. The rain started up again, and cardboard boxes nearly disintegrated in the deluge, but I got everything in more or less undamaged.

When the electricity went out, I checked my phone and saw that the storm been upgraded to a tornado warning just as the sirens came on. There was nothing to do except wait it out as night fell.

I didn’t want to sleep with no bed, electricity, or water service, so once the warning was over, I considered driving through the front yard to get out. Then I saw that the power lines weren’t just across my driveway, but across the whole yard. There was no way out.

And then two men in soaked hooded sweatshirts and flashlights knocked on my car window. They introduced themselves as Ernesto and Big Will, neighbors from down the street.* They were going house to house checking to make sure no one needed anything. With their help, I was able to reverse out out through the backyard and in the alley.  They rushed to clear away tree branches and garbage cans that the storm had knocked over so I could get home and waved me off. Before I left, they talked about bringing out their chainsaws in the morning and helping my other neighbors break down that tree, so I could get my moving van in, as it might be a while before the city sent someone up here. North Nashville, a historically black neighborhood that is now in the grip of gentrification, hasn’t traditionally been high on the city’s priority list. Or even on it, for the vast majority of its existence.

Continue reading “37208: How the Rest of America Could Be, If We Wanted”

Writing the Maid of Honor Speech

Oh, not everyone takes paper up with them to make their maid-of-honor speech?

Well, old habits die hard.

One of the perks of being a writer is that you’ve always got words- usually far too many- whenever they are needed. This month, I was maid of honor in the wedding of one of my closest friends. Without saying too much here, watching her move through life and appreciating just how much she has grown in so many different directions in the time we’ve known each other has been remarkable. Friendships like that make for difficult speeches, because how can you convey all of complexity in just a page or so?

Only if you are willing to let go of someone for their own good, do you become worthy of them.

While there’s no way I can condense the essence of my friend and our friendship, as well as her relationship with her husband as I understand it into a mere page, I can definitely narrow down the topic. Conventional writing rules still sort of apply:

Theme: One of the reasons why my friend and I are so close is that we see the world in similar ways. We also see relationships in similar ways. Both she and I only want to be with people who are safe to grow with, and who prioritize our growth and their own over other goals or distractions in life. The commitment aspect of a relationship isn’t to love the other person no matter what, but to always ferret out the things that will help them become who they were meant to be, and tirelessly champion them, being their safe place to explore, to fail, and to try again. And of course in turn, they do the same for us. The feeling of being in love can come and go, but the feeling of being with someone who has your best interests at heart and supports those over what is comfortable for them isn’t something that comes along every day. When you find someone like that- someone who cares enough about you to let go of their ego and the need to control an outcome and instead just facilitate your soul’s growth regardless of where it takes you both- you hold on. That’s the theme of the speech.

Plot: Like with everything good to read, stuff has to happen. There has to be an arc of narration. To ensure the speech hit all the sweet spots, the same rules apply- ensure there’s an opening, the rising action, the climax, and denouement. This gives it emotional roundness, and makes it resonate.  Rather than just listing out things, I told a story that illustrated how her growth and mine have intertwined, to show that I understand the trajectory of her life That puts me in the position of understanding how her husband is facilitating her growth and dreams.

Continue reading “Writing the Maid of Honor Speech”

Legacies

While a lot of people are just getting into the swing of their semester, in my K12 world, our second trimester of the school year just concluded. It’s always strange to say that, or maybe it just feels that way because saying “It’s the end of the trimester!” has made people ask me if I’m pregnant (more than once).

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 No, it’s just how we do things. On the one hand, being on trimesters is great because of the way it breaks up the year. On the other, end-of-trimester is always a busy, stressful time. To offset that, in November, we get a three-day weekend between trimesters. In February, we get a four-day weekend (thank you, Presidents Day!). In both cases, students tend to get a lot of assessments and faculty get the opportunity to give students feedback on their work (also known as grading).

It feels like I’ve had a lot of chances to give students feedback recently, and it’s in those moments that I realize just how much I’m still using from grad school.

Continue reading “Legacies”

Writing a Trade History Book, Part 2: The Proposal

Click here to see Writing a Trade History Book, Part 1: The Introduction.

When I wrote my first Non-fiction book proposals, with all of its moveable parts, I felt intimidated. I had to create an overview, author bio, market analysis, competition, plan for promotion, the table of contents, my chapter summaries, and a detailed explanation of my source materials before a literary agent would even consider looking at my idea for a book.

I definitely can’t tell you how to write a non-fiction book proposal (thankfully others have gotten into that), but I can tell you about my experience creating and revising my first one (I’m now working on my second, woo!), and how worth it it really was.

Of course I loved creating the table of contents and the chapter summaries. Doing that helps you figure out if you’ve got enough material for a book, or if you’re trying to collapse too many elements into one. And the part where I explain my source materials? Really fun- I loved gathering all of my books, microfilms, photocopies, and archival photos into once place and taking stock of all there is. Seeing all the primary sources together like that helped me to ask where the silences were, and where the meatiest parts of the story existed. That caused me to make a few changes to my table of contents. Then gathering up my secondary sources helped me to figure out if my book had a chance of being fair and balanced, or if I over-relied on a handful of historians whose interpretations I enjoy more.

But then there were the other parts. A big shout-out to my agent for being patient enough with me to revise them multiple times before sending it on to publishers. The other parts are much more marketing-oriented. I tried to imagine how someone in the book-selling business would see this book of mine, and how they would sell it. On which shelf would it go? To which books could I compare it? What kind of reader would want it? How could it be made most profitable without losing its essence and integrity?

Writing those parts of the book proposal showed me that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the world of publishing. And that’s to be expected- I’ve spent the past twelve years in academia. While I do read widely and enjoy trade history books (and other trade non-fiction), the majority of the books I’ve gone through in that time have been academic. That means that I have been exposed mostly to books created to fulfill professional curiosity and research gaps, not books created to entertain and teach the public about history. I had to entirely re-orient myself.

Thankfully, that’s where the teacher-brain took over. I sell history to everyday people all the time. My students, whether they are undergrads or older adults continuing their education for fun, do better with historic material if it’s presented in an interesting way. I weave together all kinds of stories for them upon which to hang all the facts and theories they need to know. I’m always picking the unconventional and surprising historic figures in my primary sources and showing students the larger paradoxes of the time periods through these characters’ daily lives. When my students lean forward and stop surfing the net, I know it’s a story that will sell.

Writing the book proposal taught me that the main difference between writing an academic and a trade book is like the main difference between sitting in the archives and standing at the lectern: it’s audience. The “So what?” is important in any non-fiction book, but the other academics who read your academic book don’t need it: they understand the intrinsic importance of most historic research, and if your book has to do with their topic, they’ll give it a glance. In a trade book, however, how well you nail the “so what?” is everything. If you show your readers how everyday people were affected by the thing you’re writing, they want to know more. Just like you’ve got to convince your students that the time and money they have invested in your class will pay off, you’ve got to reassure the reader that your book is worth it. It’s a mental shift that affects every other part of the proposal and your book, and opens up so many exciting avenues to explore.




First Impressions 15 years in the Making

by Lynn Clement


Ah, February.  The month that heralds the final demise of the dreaded January and when I can consider my semester officially off to a successful start.  It occurred to me recently that 2019 marks an important anniversary for me.  It was 15 years ago that I started teaching art history.

A lot has changed in that time: schools, technology, hair-dos, but nothing more than how I approach that first day with my students.

For many of the early years in my career I felt that my main hurdle upon meeting a group of students at the start of the semester was getting through the syllabus without everyone falling asleep, myself included.  However, I now know that addressing the issue of relevancy on that first day is most crucial.  This has become even more urgent as students, and I for that matter, need more from art history.

I begin with a question: “Why does a college require you to take a class such as this?”

In my experience this is a more productive question than those asked of me when I was on the other side of the podium.  Questions like “why are you here?” or “what do art historians do?” or (my most despised) “what is art?” often dead end with answers like “because the college is forcing me to take this class” and “we look at art” and (my most dreaded) silence.  Art history was not required at my university, but I was very lucky to happen upon it completely by accident.  I still feel lucky, but also saddened and a bit angry that it had not been a part of the traditional curriculum at any point of my education.  This is because I immediately saw its worth.  This is what I want my students to consider the moment we meet.

auditorium benches chairs class
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Thus, my class now begins with a discussion of critical thinking.  We talk about what it means to think critically about what we see in the world around us and how we can hone the skills they already have.  I don’t have to search very hard for examples that support how this will help them after they step out of the classroom.  We are bombarded with visual culture at every moment with smartphones, laptops, tablets, television, and on the surfaces of public transportation.  We now also seem to live in this terrible time in which you can see a video or photograph and be told that what you are seeing is NOT actually what you are seeing.  How do we learn to trust our own eyes and our own analysis of what we see?  Hopefully by taking my class.

This discussion leads us to an actual exercise in looking.  Again, I try to pick an image that is relevant, which is why we’ve been spending a lot of time with Napoleon’s portrait in the Tuileries gardens from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  This image easily shows how power can be conveyed through the visual and heavily contrived, also by those in power.

I also try to speak to relevancy in terms of my assignments. It’s just not a hoop, or torture, I put them through because I’m a terrible person!  Really!  I focus less on the parameters of the assignment and instead on why I feel the assignments are important and what skills they’ll strengthen through their successful completion.

I’m particularly proud of the way my final research paper has shifted over the years.  While traditional research papers are still an option, I’ve found that more and more students are interested in researching and assessing how visual culture is presented to them in their communities.

Taking inspiration from the call to decolonize museums (like those made by Olga Viso), the Museums Are Not Neutral movement spurred by LaTanya Autry, and Uncomfortable Art Tours provided by art historian and independent art guide Alice Proctor, I ask my students to prepare a grant proposal, or marketing/business plan that would help to diversify a museums holdings. To complete the paper they need to research the current state of a museum (either the diversity of their holdings, the diversity of what they show on the walls, or how the information provided in wall text or on the museum website might be hiding hard historical truths.)  They have to state the specific problem to be solved or task to be accomplished and explain how do they propose to solve the problem or what questions they need to ask to solve the problem?

exhibit painting display
Photo by Riccardo Bresciani on Pexels.com

Not surprising, my students have gone above and beyond my expectations for this assignment.  In addition to considering how race is treated in their local museums, they are examining gender, access for the differently abled, and issues with conservation and preservation.  What I like most is that they get what I’m trying to do with this assignment and they have used their experiences and creativity to expand what can be done.  Thus, needless to say, the evolution continues.

I’m not sure if I’ll still be teaching in 15 years.  With the state of the college system who know what it will become (more on that in another post). However, I like that I’ve seen this kind of change and improvement in my own approach to teaching art history and it gives me hope for the future…even in the bleak midwinter.

 

Writing With A Day Job

How do you make time to write when you’ve got a day job?

I think it’s something every working writer struggles with. Most of my friends write, some of them full-time, and others on the side of a full or part-time job, and it looks really different for everyone. Here’s how I found the best way for my current life:

Radical Honesty

First of all, I had to face that I have many more ideas and dreams than I can feasibly turn into reality. But rather than being sad about all the ideas that won’t get written, I try to be excited that I’m in such a position of opportunity. I have the desire and ability to write academic articles, non-fiction trade books, encyclopedia articles, think-pieces, creative non-fiction essays, novels, short stories, screenplays, blog posts, and more. I have ideas for all of these things, and most of them are exciting to me and allow me to examine something I am interested in or passionate about.

That said, my other goals in life- personal, financial, career- mean that most of my time is spoken for, and there’s not really much I can move around or give up. Every piece I chose to write takes time away from a career development opportunity, time with family and friends, or time I could have spent earning money. Radical honesty means being honest about my shifting collection of needs and how they conflict: my needs for creative expression, versus my needs to feel like I’m doing a good job at work, versus my need to pay bills, versus my need to connect with the people I love.  So realistically, I can only give up about an hour a day to writing projects that are not connected to finances or career.

Knowing that means that I have to pick and choose my projects more carefully. I have to be honest about how many hours something will take to complete and how many weeks that will take at the rate of one hour per day. Or actually, less than an hour per day, because most days I use part of that hour to write morning pages.

Morning Pages

And by “writing morning pages,” I mean, I scrawl some stuff longhand into a notebook, just to dump all the miscellaneous thoughts that are taking up valuable brain space. Morning pages (the idea comes from Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way, and is discussed on this blog) are a way for me to stay connected to the page and explore how I feel about my writing and the things that get in the way of my writing. I don’t fully understand why they work, or how exactly, but I do know that when I write them, my writing goes more smoothly and I produce more of it, and when I get away from that habit, I start to  be more blocked and writing feels like squeezing blood from a stone, so I avoid it. I’ve lived long enough to know that when something works (and doesn’t hurt anyone), you don’t question it, you just do it.

Routine (maybe)

In order for me to wrest that daily hour away for myself and my writing, it helps me, sometimes, to have a routine. I’m definitely not religious about it, and I don’t always need it, but I find that during the semester especially when my to-do list is a mile long, having a routine helps. I take my writing time as seriously as I take my savings- I pay myself first. First thing in the morning, I don’t get online to check emails, I get straight to the morning pages and then transition into my writing project of choice. After an hour, I feel connected to it, and am much less begrudging of the other tasks I have to do for the day.

Squish Expectations

Since I only have that daily hour to write, I don’t have time to waste on projects that I don’t love. If I’m being paid for a project, I don’t do it in that hour- I count it toward my career and do it during the workday. That daily hour is for my passion project. These projects may never see the light of day or result in a paycheck. I write them for sake of doing it- for the sake of being involved in a creative pursuit, for investigating something that is important to me, and for keeping me tethered to my interests on days when my job or personal life don’t do that as much. It’s a creative, artistic, and spiritual pursuit that I do completely independently of expectations. No matter how successful a writer I become, no matter how many publications I rack up, no matter how much money I get for my writing, I want to always set aside this hour to just do what I feel like doing. If it later ends up becoming a viable project that sells, that’s great, but it’s also ok if it never amounts to anything more than my own enjoyment. Ironically, since I’ve been squishing expectations, a lot of my writing-hour projects have seen publication.

Now it’s disclaimer time- I have the type of job (a postdoc) where writing is built into it. I have set tasks I do in exchange for my salary, and then I have more abstract expectations of what I should be doing with the rest of my work week. This gives me tremendous flexibility in terms of my writing projects. It means that once a project I’m working on in that morning hour becomes a viable project that either will further my career or get me paid, I have the flexibility to incorporate it into my work hours and then use that personal hour of writing time for something else. The way I structure my day makes sense for my day job right now, but this won’t always be my job. Writing, on the other hand, will. I think setting up a habit for daily writing outside of my job hours sets me up for continuing this habit regardless of my day job.