Do you talk to yourself out loud? Loud enough for others to hear?
Maybe it’s the result of getting older, but occasionally I mumble to myself. It’s as if my brain is so full, to make room, the excess thoughts need to come out somewhere. Or it helps me remember something if I hear it spoken. Or the sound of my voice is soothing.
My landlady, who’s older than me, talks to herself constantly. She mutters when she takes out the recycling, spouts monologues as she waters the garden, argues as she heads to the grocery store, jaw jutting forward. “Are you talking to me?” I’ll ask. But no, it’s herself she’s talking to. And she always sounds pissed.
If you’re going to talk to yourself, at least be kind.
What if you could talk to your future self? And what if, in the future, those words arrive?
It happened to me.
I wrote myself an email in 2018. Last week, it arrived in my in-box.
This reminds me of the movie Frequency. It’s about a father living in 1969 who, through a freakish weather event, is able to communicate to his son 30 years in the future via ham radio. Together, they solve a decades-old serial murder case. If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s fantastic.
Rather than people traveling through time, in the movie, it’s information that’s traveling.
Just like my email. Although I’m not solving any murders.
On the site, you compose an email to yourself, choose a date in the future for it to arrive, and click “send to the future!” It doesn’t cost a dime. No need to create a login. Just type in your message, select a date, and send it on its way.
Think of the possibilities!
Newlyweds, on the day of their wedding, can compose messages to their future selves about how they doubted whether they made the right choice, and say: “Aren’t you glad you didn’t let doubts get in the way?” Worrywarts can list everything that plagues them, finishing up with: “I’m so grateful you rose to the challenge, and it’s all behind you now.” A struggling artist can praise their future self for finishing a project, and ask for guidance.
Go ahead, try it.
Here’s what I wrote:
I love you.
I don’t say it enough, but I love you!
I love that you got a new job.
I love that you’re putting your fiction first.
I love that you’re exploring the possibility that copywriting might not be the path you want to take, but you’re open to taking it anyway to see where it leads.
Here’s what I hope for you:
I hope you set boundaries with people, so they know that you deserve respect and breathing room and the opportunity to learn from your mistakes.
I hope you allow yourself to make those mistakes, and that you love yourself anyway.
I hope you strive to maintain balance between work and what your heart longs to do, between what your heart longs to do and play, between play and rest, between rest and physical movement, between physical movement and reflection.
I hope you say I love you to the people who matter most in your life, and that you allow them the space to work, play, rest, be active, reflect, make mistakes, and do what their heart longs to do.
McNair Wilson, Disney Imagineer and creative consultant to notables such as Apple, Universal Studios and Sony Entertainment, says: “Let’s guess that you are not a cupboard for the storage of God’s ideas. If that’s true, let’s open that cupboard, get that stuff out and start using it. Life is going to be scary and hard and challenging no matter what we do. Why not do you. If you don’t do you, you doesn’t get done, and the world is incomplete. So start chipping in and completing the world.”
As a writer, I churn out material on the page, and that’s my baby. My creation. If I send a short story off to a publisher and it gets rejected, that hurts. But guess what. Whoever rejected it is only one person. One guy. It might be someone who ate pizza for lunch and had heartburn when reading my piece. It might be someone who read 50 manuscripts before mine, and felt burned out. It might be someone…we just don’t know. So it comes back. Sorry, not a good fit for us. Good luck!
It might be just that: not a good fit.
I send it off to someone else. It’s rejected again. That’s just another guy. Or gal. It’s not the whole publishing house of 100 or however many people work there, it’s not the 5 who work at the literary magazine. It’s one person.
Maybe one of those someones gives feedback. Suggestions on how to revise the story to make it stronger. That’s good! Embrace the feedback. It’s how we become better writers.
Rejection is part of the game. You’ve heard it before: the more “no’s” you get, the closer you are to “yes.” It’s the law of averages. It’s gravity. Whatever. The point is, I can’t let rejection doubt my voice as a writer. I can’t make it extinguish me.
It’s tempting to want to write like the authors I admire. I’d love to be as literary as Louise Erdrich, as uplifting and breezy as Alexandra Franzen, as homey and wise as Robert Fulghum, as funny as David Sedaris, as concise as Raymond Carver (and Chandler), as free-flowing as Jack Kerouac, as imaginative as Ray Bradbury, as poetic as…well, you get the picture.
As babies, we learn to talk by modeling the movement of our mother’s lips and tongue, or the lips and tongue of whatever face is bending over our cribs. We see how Mom presses her lips together to say the letter “m,” how Dad touches the tip of his tongue to the back of his upper teeth to say “No.” We model the dialect, rhythms, and word choices that surround us.
I learned to write by modeling great writers. I learned how to play with language, set up story, pare down dialogue, master point of view. I copied lines word for word to get the feel of words in my body. I took it all in like a sponge.
But there came a point when I needed to wring out that sponge so I was left with what makes me, me. Like the DNA from my parents that formed the blue-green of my eyes and the curve of my arms, like the genes that scrambled together to make the unique stride, temperament and laughter that makes up me, my writer’s voice is a DNA-pool of all the writers I’ve studied, all the books I’ve read, all the teachers I’ve followed. Nobody else can do me.
Novelist and teacher James N. Frey, who wrote How to Write a Damn Good Novel, says: “The number of books that became hits after being rejected is enormous. The reason is, really good work is different, and different means risk to an editor. Having an attitude as a writer means you have to take risks, which means you’ll scare the hell out of some editors and you’ll have to suffer rejection as a result.”
Attitude means we don’t quit. Attitude means we don’t make excuses for not doing our art. Attitude means when we get hit, we hit back. We send that story out again. And again. And again.
When rejection comes, I need to remind myself: there are billions of people in this world. My writing will touch more than that one guy judging that one contest. My stories will resonate with more than that one gal at that one journal. When anxiety or depression set in because I’m discouraged and avoiding my art, I need to get back in the writing saddle and let my voice run free. I need to be persistent, continue to develop my craft, keep my head down and write, write, write with attitude.
I need to open that cupboard, chip in, and complete the world.
A writer friend wrote a poem a day during Poetry Month in April. He said, “I get an idea for a poem, write it in the evening, polish it the next morning, and then,” he brushed off his hands, “done!”
Oh, how I envied him, getting to done.
My problem is, I’m always doing. I’m rarely done.
I rewrite the first page of my novel endlessly.
I check out five books from the library, and before reading any, I check out five more. The towering stack taunts me.
I flit from one project to another at work, and if it wasn’t for external deadlines, I’d continue to flit and polish and perfect and whatever it is I do to avoid getting things done, while my To-Do list grows longer than Rip Van Winkle’s beard.
I need to get to DONE!
Part of my brain thinks along these lines…
If I finish (fill in the blank), then what? There might not be another novel in me. The book I want at the library might not be available, so I better check out everything. If I don’t do (fill in the blank) perfectly, I’ve failed.
This is poverty mentality. It’s scarcity thinking. It’s a trap.
Another part of my brain reminds me…
Half-baked is better than burned.
There will always be another book to read.
A job that’s good enough and off your plate is preferable to a job that wears you down in your quest for perfection, which, as the saying goes, does not exist.
And no, you don’t need to take on more than your plate can carry. The eyes-are-bigger-than-the-stomach syndrome results in nothing more than heartburn. No joy in that.
Why can’t I get things done???
I could just throw away my To-Do list. Done!
But then I’d turn into a sloth who watches Wheel of Fortune into the wee hours, if such a feat is possible.
It seems to me, three things are holding me back from getting to Done. See if any of these resonate with you:
1. Lack of Time
I mean, come on! I’ve got THINGS TO DO. Look at the list! How can I possibly get them all done?
Well, I can’t. At least, not all at once.
If I decided to run a marathon, and the most I’d ever run was from the couch to the refrigerator during a commercial, would I lace up my Skechers and line up at the starting block with well-seasoned athletes? Probably not. Besides, I don’t even run from the couch to the fridge, because I live in a miniature playhouse and can just reach over.
But I can run for one minute. And if I add a minute a day, by the end of the month, provided it’s not February, I’m running 30 minutes a day. Or thirty-one, if it’s January.
What if I applied that same logic to the dreaded To-Do list?
Let’s say I start at 10 minutes a day. I can get a surprising amount done in 10 minutes.
That stack of magazines? I’ll plow through them, ripping out articles I want to read, tossing the rest in the recycle bin. Done!
I’ll read two of those articles. Done!
I’ll edit one page of my novel. Done!
I’ll weed out a file cabinet. Vacuum. Make salads for lunch. Draft a blog post. Done, done, done, done!
Add a minute a day, and by the end of the month, I’m spending 30 minutes on tasks. Think of how much I can accomplish in 30 minutes! Makes the head spin, doesn’t it?
There’s just one catch: Anyone who’s read my ramblings for any length of time knows I’m commitment-phobic. I’d sooner watch Wheel of Fortune than commit to 30 minutes on a task, because if I commit to 30 minutes of anything other than TV, I might actually get something DONE. God forbid.
Plus, I have the squirrelly belief that I can do everything all at once to perfection.
Talk about high expectations. No wonder I’m burned out. No wonder I can’t get started. Which brings me to hurdle number two (and three, but let’s not skip ahead):
When I print out my To-Do list at work, it’s as long as one of those receipts from CVS pharmacy. My eyes glaze over. My stomach tightens into a hard ball. I have the urge to surf the net, spiral down the email rabbit hole, or cram something sugary in my mouth.
I’ve discovered I can accomplish three tasks a day. Not fifty. Not five. Three. If I complete three tasks and have time left over, I tackle another. Three items on a To-Do list leaves plenty of white space. Room to breathe. And for an introvert like myself with limited energy to spare, breathing room is good.
Many days, I accomplish more than three tasks. But tricking myself into focusing on three helps me overcome the feeling of overwhelm.
What if my boss expects me to accomplish more? Well, if I work X number of hours a day, and there’s just one of me, and I need to eat and go to the bathroom X number of times during those X number of hours, the math might not add up. In which case I’ll say: “This isn’t sustainable. If you want me to be accurate, and finish the jobs you’ve assigned, something needs to go.”
Yeah, in a perfect world.
Some bosses are open to that kind of honesty. Luckily, mine is. If you’re not so lucky, all I can say is: pace yourself. Remember, doing more than is humanly possible isn’t sustainable in the long run. And no job is worth dying over. At the very least, don’t overload your plate on your off hours. While many organizations expect an employee to be plugged into the system 24/7, it’s my firm belief that we worker-bees need to educate the powers-that-be about what’s realistic, and what’s in the realm of: “in your dreams, bucko.”
But I digress.
Which three things do I choose to tackle on a given day?
Whichever three would keep me up at night if I didn’t accomplish them. Not everything on the list is numero uno. Some are fives. Or sevens. I start with the most important, and work my way up. This applies to my task lists at work and at home.
Sometimes, that number one item is so important, I can’t muster the energy to start. Like submitting my short story to a literary magazine. Or rewriting my novel.
Which brings me to point three:
In his book “The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles,” Steven Pressfield writes:
“Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. Resistance means business. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.”
Yeah. That bugger, Resistance, disguises itself as perfectionism, procrastination, laziness, fear, and whatever it is that keeps us from acting on those projects that feed our souls.
For me, the disguise is perfectionism.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard’s famous command was: “Engage.” He meant, begin. Go forth. Picard never added, “But only if you’re positive you’ll make zero mistakes.”
No, settled in his captain’s chair, legs comfortably crossed, he commanded, “Engage.” It was outer space, fer crying out loud! He didn’t know where the ship was headed, or what lay ahead, or how he’d deal with whatever crisis occurred—and there was always a crisis. Didn’t matter. With a casual flick of his finger, Picard was ready to brave the unknown.
Occasionally, someone on board would request, “Permission to speak freely,” which, if granted, gave the officer a free pass to say whatever was on his mind without being punished.
What if I applied Star Trek logic to those Things I Want To Accomplish that makes Resistance sneer? With those nifty words, “Engage,” and “Permission to fail,” and “Granted,” I might actually get to “Done.”
Wow. What a concept.
So, for those of you who have hung in reading this 1,466-word post, my formula for getting from To-Do to Done is:
Make your task list manageable and realistic
Choose the three most important tasks to work on
Do the work in a set interval of time
Give yourself permission to fail
When you’re done, let it be. It’s as good as it’s going to get.