Saturday, June 10, 2017

Getting Back on the Carousel

I used to think that the way to do things was to "learn discipline," to figure out how to do them every day and never stop. I'm actually great at discipline and habits, it turns out, but that's never been the real answer for me.

So much more important than learning how to do things daily, and so much more important than learning how to make a rigid schedule and stick to it, is learning what to do when that's not what happens.

I call this "getting back on the carousel."

How do I pick up a notebook I haven't touched in a while? How do I go back to the library when I owe them fines for overdue books? I used to go to events that group put on—but how do I face them if I haven't been there for a while?

The reason I call this getting back on the carousel is because the sensation sometimes reminds me of trying to jump onto an object that's already spinning and moving. People have carried on while I was away, or sick, or busy with other things. Nothing is in the place I remembered it being. This is true even if the thing in question only has to do with me. A story I was writing never seems to be quite in the condition I left it in.

For me, it takes a lot of bravery to jump onto that spinning carousel. There's a part of me that wants to go away and never ride a carousel again.

I think this is the source of the admonishments to establish rigid habits and never break them. It's true in my experience that there's an easy flow to following a habit that's solidly in place.

I think, however, that those admonishments are short-sighted. They're so harsh, and they offer little help when it comes to the inevitability of reality: at some point, all of us get off the carousel, for all sorts of reasons, sometimes for a really long time. Sometimes it's a long enough time that when you get back you find out the carousel's been repainted and moved to an entirely different location. Or maybe it just doesn't run anymore.

One of the biggest ways the admonishments don't help me is that they make me feel guilty and afraid—even more than I already am. I learned to write by writing 500 words every day, so you might think I'd like that writing advice. I don't, though, because I know what sort of guilt I lived with when I couldn't maintain that habit.

Instead, I'd say: Write when you can. Write when you want to. Figure out when is a good time for you to write and how you want to do it. Trust yourself. Sometimes rest is necessary. Forgive yourself. Sometimes it's sunny outside or you're sick or there's a book you really want to read or someone else needs your attention. However you do it, though, learn how to get back on the carousel. Setbacks will happen. Give yourself the chance to deal with them. Get the rest you need. Then begin again, gently.

Honestly, I wish I didn't have to say "forgive yourself," because I wish there was a way to not feel guilty at all about setbacks or periods of rest. I wish I could take them in stride and see that they don't actually call for forgiveness. Forgive yourself is a nice idea, but it contains the suggestion that a sin has been committed. And it's not a sin to get sick. It's not a sin to be exhausted.

When I was younger, I read too many stories about writers who woke up at 3 a.m. to write, because that's "what you do when you're really committed." I disagree. It's a way of showing commitment, yes, but over a lifetime what I think means the most is getting back on the carousel, over and over again, whatever that looks like. Seriously. Playfully. Joyfully. Because you hope it will cheer you up. Because your friends are there. Because you hope you'll make friends there. Because you want to. Because you need to. Because you don't know what else to do. Because it's fun.

Commitment, to me, is finding ways to fit what matters to me into my life, however it's possible to fit it there. Maybe I can't write right now, for whatever reason. There are times when I've maintained my commitment by touching the spines of books at the library, just to remind myself that I care about the words that go inside books.

I think things very often get compared to the workplace—and a harsh view of it at that. But what if I compare writing to love? I don't rigidly sit down to breakfast with my partners like clockwork. We live our lives and intertwine them as best we can. And I trust that it's not all going to fall apart just because I don't see one partner for one day—or longer. I trust love to pull us back to each other. These things don't always have to be forced.

Sometimes, I've been uncertain of whether I'll ever manage to get back on the carousel, and then I find myself there, on a cool night, surrounded by the smell of green, and suddenly it feels easy. It's okay to wait for that, if you need to.

I've wanted to say these things for a while. I recently went through a six month period where I couldn't do much beyond basic survival. Not only did I have to forgive myself for not doing more, I had to realize that there was nothing to be forgiven. But it was hard on my sense of self because there's a lot of me that's still wrapped up in that discipline nonsense. The point, though, is that I had to learn to trust my ability to get back on the carousel when I was ready. The things I love don't disappear just because I can't see them. The person I am doesn't disappear if I can't get up at 3 a.m. to do something hard.

This seemed like a good occasion because, after a little over a month of posting daily on this blog, it's now been a week. And I liked the discipline. I was proud of the streak. But I think people put too much stock in the streak, because here I am again, see? Getting back on the carousel. Returning. And if I look at the history of this blog, it's the returning that matters. I've returned so many times, for so many years now. These days, that's something I trust more than discipline.