What I Learned From Writing a Novel in a Month

Last night I finished a novel that I started on November 1st (novel as defined by 50,000 words, not a cohesive or moving story line). It’s the second time I’ve played this game, and here are a few things I learned, in the order that I thought of them:

  1. Novel writing is hard! I am reminded that I generally like to do things that I’m good at (#perfectionist) and I’m generally better at things I do often. I don’t write fiction often and I’m not very good at it, so most days, I didn’t want to work on my novel. That said,
  2. Novel writing is fun! Even when it’s painful and I’m annoyed by my own ham-handedness. It reminds me of what Ira Glass said about being a beginner and still having good taste. There’s a gap between what I like to read and what I’m capable of writing. Next step is crossing the gap.
  3. I have time to write. I wrote an average of 1,667 words each day this month, but really I was behind almost from the start, so I wrote closer to 2,000 words and sometimes 5 or 6,000 a day on the weekends.
  4. Nothing good comes from reading the internet. There are blogs I really like and people I really like on the internet. And then there’s Jezebel and Facebook. And where do I spend most of my time?
  5. I want to write more. Maybe not more fiction, but more in general. For some time, it has felt like poetry fits better into my writing life right now because I have time to write poetry. It’s short. It’s just one moment in time, one single thought (at least the way I do it). But this month demonstrated that I do have the time and energy for a more sustained work. Maybe that starts as just a 500 word essay. Maybe it is more frequent blog posts. Maybe it’s just an idea.

I’m glad to be finished with NaNoWriMo, in the same way that I am sometimes glad to be done with a run or a fourteener. In the moment, it is more tough than fun, but afterwards, it is satisfying to look back across a valley and see how far I’ve come.

What I’m Grateful For

In high school and college, I struggled with depression and anxiety. While the depression has mostly resolved itself, the anxiety is still something I’m working on. One of my friends once described anxiety as a little monster always following her, and that’s how I picture my anxiety now: like a cross between a dog and a sea anemone tethered to me. And most days, it seems like I’m holding the leash, and some days it seems like my anxiety monster-puppy is holding it.

I look back on how I felt sometimes in high school and I am so grateful that I have a different perspective now. I remember walking around the lake by my childhood home one day between junior and senior year, and realizing very suddenly that I was happy. It was a revelation, just to be able to enjoy the walk, the lake; to need nothing special to feel at peace. It was such a relief to leave the monster-puppy at home.

I have a lot in my life for which to be grateful: the amazing musical Hamilton, great friends and family, a good job, the privilege to travel, but above all else, I am grateful to be happy. With that, everything else becomes easier, richer and better.

Another wise woman once told me to choose happiness. When she first told me that, I didn’t get it. I didn’t know how I could possibly choose happiness. Happiness was something that happened. It took a few years of working on it to figure out that sometimes choosing happiness means working to be happy.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Hopes and Dreams Revisited

I was going through some old notes when I found a list I’d made back in April of 2012. It seemed worth sharing, so here it is:

Financial Goals & Responsibilities, Hopes & Dreams

1. Pay off student loans
2. Pay off car
3. Have own car insurance
4. Have health insurance
5. Rent/food/etc.

Roller skates
A cat
A 3 day vacation with Scott somewhere nice-ish
Food processor
Nice blender
Trip for Kate by the time she graduates

What struck me about this list was that I’ve managed to accomplish all of it, and that’s a good thing to remember.

I wrote this list a year before I paid off my student loans. I wrote this list just as I was starting to get into roller derby. I wrote it long before I adopted Hillary, whose butt is by my hands as I write this. I didn’t exactly accomplish all these things on their original timeline, but I did each one.

This week I crossed off #2. I sent in my final check to my grandmother for my car, 610 dollars. It feels good to have taken care of this, and even better to think of the $500 each month that can go straight to savings now. I’ve had that car since 2011 and even though I only started seriously paying it off recently, I still can’t believe how long it’s taken me and how much relief I feel to have that debt gone (even though there was 0 outside pressure associated with it).

#3 came quickly after moving to San Diego, though apparently not as quickly as I remember. I think I was on my parents’ car insurance until the time came to get California plates, and then my insurance was in my name. This is not something that gives me wild satisfation, like paying off a loan does. It’s a little bit of a pain actually because it reminds me that I still drive way more than I would like to, but it also reminds me that I’m responsible about it.

Health insurance took a long time to get. I was on my parents’ health insurance for awhile and worried about getting sick because it was a pain to use in California. I had health insurance when I worked at the law firm, so I must have just gotten it around the time I wrote this. It was good to have, but I didn’t like using it then either. It’s actually only recently that I’ve started to feel okay about using my health insurance. Girl Scouts offers a good policy and I like my doctor and my dentist, so I make appointments (well, I make dental appointments, but I would make doctor’s appointments if I thought I needed to).

#5. Rent/food/etc. It’s a responsibility. An ongoing one. I always had enough to make rent (it was the worst when I worked part-time for G.S., but I still made it). It’s only recently that rent’s become an easy thing. After I started working for Girl Scouts the second time, I just set an automatic transfer for my part of the rent payment. No more thinking about it. Now the money gets transferred on the first of every month and nobody has to remind me and I don’t have to think about which check I’m going to use. I’m going to use the money that’s in the account already. I feel like this makes it sound like I was always on the edge when I was paying rent before and I wasn’t; I just acted like I was.

Those were the responsibilities. The unnumbered part of the list were the hopes and dreams.

Roller skates–still one of the best purchases I ever made. I haven’t been skating much recently, i.e. in the last six months. I haven’t been going to practice and I haven’t been skating. I’d like to say I miss it, but I think I’d have to go back in order to realize if I miss it. So I’m planning to go back to practice and I’m hoping that once I’m there I’ll miss it. But I don’t know. I still love my skates though.

A cat–she’s been on the list for a long time. And she’s so so great.

A three day vacation with Scott somewhere nice-ish. We took a three day vacation for my 24th birthday in 2012 to Joshua Tree and we stayed in an adorable air-stream trailer. Mission accomplished. For awhile we only traveled to weddings, then we went to Glasgow and almost stayed forever (real talk: I almost stayed forever, Scott was ready to come home). What I’ve learned in the ensuing years is that three day vacations are important for me, not so much for him. I remember wanting this vacation, being so excited to be on the road after work even when we were stuck in traffic. I needed the break. And I needed the break this weekend when I took a couple extra days off. It wasn’t for us. It was for me. It feels good to know that.

A bike. I used Scott’s bike for awhile and then it was stolen and now I have my own bike! It’s great. I love my bike.

Food Processor/Blender. I have both now. Part of me thinks I only need one, and then I think that’s silly. They are very different. I wouldn’t say that I have a nice food processor or blender, but they also didn’t cost $400 so I don’t really care. They get the job done.

Trip for Kate by the time she graduates. I didn’t get this done by the time she graduated, but this year I took her and my grandmother to Washington, D.C.  It was important to me to do that with my grandmother, while she’s still with us and still mobile enough to travel, and it was also important to me that my sister come with us. It seemed unfair for her to miss out on that time with our last grandparent, who loves us both so well, just because she was still paying off loans and getting settled. So I took her too, and it was entirely the right idea.

My current list of goals & responsibilities, hopes & dreams is just as long if not longer than this one, so sometimes it seems as though I’m not making any progress. I’d like to be saving for a down payment on a house (why? it just seems like the next grown up thing to do). I’d like to be putting more toward retirement, like double or triple what I’m doing now (#dreambig). I’d like an emergency fund and a next-car fund, and a second bookshelf and some better knives. It’s easy to forget with all those other dreams out there that there was a time when I just wanted to pay off my student loans and get a food processor.

We’ve come, if not a long way, at least a long time, from those days.

What My Cat Taught Me

Hillary knows what’s up.

I took today off. I’m taking tomorrow off too, making this the longest break I’ve had in months. I’m trying to avoid the urge to work while I’m not at work, to believe that the world will continue to spin if I don’t watch a webinar until next week.

I spent most of the day with Hillary, trying to get caught up on the novel I’m writing this month (I’m about 10,000 words behind where I should be according to my schedule…of course I have a schedule) which meant a lot of cuddling and only impeded my ability to see what I was typing a little bit. Before I left for the library, we played a long game of “chase the yarn ball” and then I gave her a big pile of bonito fish flakes, her favorite treat. And I had this thought that has stayed with me the rest of the afternoon, that her life is too short to skip playing a game or giving a treat.

Then of course it hit me that I can think that for my cat, but not myself. I’ve worked the last two weeks with one Sunday off, and I still had a hard time leaving work yesterday, knowing that there was still more undone. Where is the playtime? Where is the rest? Like the rest-rest and also the rest of my life?

I spent the weekend in the mountains with forty-some high school girls talking about power, and particularly the power of thoughts. And there’s a lot to say about that weekend, but I’m still processing most of it. It was a tough weekend in a lot of ways, very draining, and then I went immediately back to work as though it hadn’t happened at all because I “had to.”

In my session with these girls we talked a lot about our thoughts and whether they are true or helpful. I could ask them if their thoughts about their bodies or their intelligence were true or helpful, but I don’t ask myself those questions about my “have to” thoughts.

This weekend was also the first time I’d been in the mountains in probably close to a year, and the first night we were there, the stars overwhelmed me. It’s easy to forget how many there are. It’s also easy to forget how good cold air feels, how necessary and refreshing it is. I wandered between my cabin and the lodge asking myself “how could I forget this?” But it had been easy.

When I woke up this morning, not going into work, taking an actual day off to do “whatever” (write, read, hang out with my cat, cook, run) I asked myself the same question. How is it possible that I’d forgotten how good time off feels? But I had.

What I tried to share with the girls this weekend is how easy it is to get caught believing that nothing will ever change, that the way we think of things is the way things really are. The way I think about my job and my performance, the expectations that I have for that, is not based in actual reality. The way I think about my fitness, what I want from my body, is often not based in actual reality. Probably the way I think about money and what I need/have is not based in actual reality. There’s a lot of unreality that I need to spend some time sorting out.

I feel like I’m not fully explaining what I mean, so I’m going to summarize and get back to making dinner. This post is half about relaxing and enjoying yourself (like my cat) and half about the negative thoughts that we hold (me and these girls and probably you) and figuring how to let go of those thoughts. I don’t know how. I do know that I’d be happier (and so would those girls and probably so would you) if we could just be kinder and gentler to ourselves and take a day off once in awhile.

When I was in the woods this last weekend, it was so obvious how much I needed that time outdoors that I couldn’t believe I’d been living without it. When I woke up this morning, it was so obvious how right everyone had been that I needed to take a day off that I couldn’t believe I’d fought against it. I guess what I’m beginning to think is that maybe my own perception isn’t really accurate, so maybe I should trust the advice of the people who love and care about me.

Which is what I spent all weekend trying to tell the girls. And what I didn’t really realize until I was playing with my cat this afternoon.

Thanks, H.K.

October Update

Happy Halloween! I worked today and spent most of the rest of the day running errands to prepare for an extremely busy (but probably also extremely fun) work week ahead. I’m looking forward to next Tuesday when it will all be over.

I’ve decided not to wait for fall weather to enjoy fall foods and have root vegetables roasting in the oven, one of my favorite, very simple meals.

It’s been a long time (a whole month!) since I’ve posted… something I’m hoping to get better about again in the future. Remember when I used to write everyday? I still do, most of it just doesn’t end up online anymore.

Let’s see, exciting updates:
I am 27. A year older, a year wiser (or just closer to death).
Next month, I will have paid off my car loan from my darling grandmother and will be honestly debt free.
I got a raise, which I appear to have already absorbed into my grocery budget. Yikes.

Since it’s October, my birthday month, I’ve been pondering a lot about what I want to do and learn this year. In January (ish), I started thinking hard about family, work and fun. I actually feel like I’ve made the most progress on fun. I have had more fun in the last month than possibly ever before. I read books that I really enjoyed, hung out with friends and played scary games, explored north of San Diego.  I work a lot, but I like my job and I like my coworkers, so work is usually pretty fun too.

Work–which for me means money-work and creative-work has been good this year too. I changed jobs, much to my increased happiness (I was reminded of this last weekend when I was up in LA volunteering with my old organization–still a great crew and I was glad to see them all, but I’m also glad to work for G.S. now). I’m having a poem published. I’m writing a lot of poetry these days, much more than blog posts anyway.

Family is the piece that still feels the most open to me. I wanted to explore this piece this year because of uncertainty in my relationship to my partner, which I feel mostly resolved on, but the uncertainty is all still there, mostly around “the kid question” as I’ve taken to labeling it in my head. To some degree, “the kid question” encompasses all my questions about the future–will we move? When? Where? Will I ever earn enough? Will I have enough time (for what? I don’t know)? Would I rather go to grad school (as though those ideas are mutually exclusive)? I guess when I call it “the kid question” or the “family” question, what I’m really asking myself about is what my future will look like, and it’s uncertain because I don’t know.

Maybe the answer is getting used to the uncertainty.

Two years ago,I set out (and failed) to do twenty-six things in my twenty-sixth year. Last year, I set out to explore three topics in my twenty-seventh year. Now, having entered the twenty-eighth, I’m compromising/copying Gretchen Rubin: eleven things, one for every month of the year and one month to do it all. I’ve picked out my months, and the first one starts tomorrow.

November: Write a novel for NaNoWriMo. This is scary since it’s tomorrow.
December: No eating/drinking out. This is one of my biggest spending areas.
January: Drynuary! No drinking. I’ve done this before, and it’s pretty easy for me but almost always worthwhile.
February: No sugar–my biggest addiction. I’ve done this before too and found it much, much harder than giving up alcohol.
March: Write an essay. Sounds easy, but probably one of my more intimidating goals. It’s been awhile since I’ve worked in this form and I’ve got a lot of expectations since it was what I studied.
April: Submit for publication (and get accepted somewhere, implied goal)
May: Write a romance (aka NaNoWriMo 2.0). Few people know this about me, but I love a good romance. In high school, I used romance novels to rinse out my brain after the seriousness of the school year.
June: Hike a fourteener. California has some; they’re probably worth checking out. I’m secretly planning for Whitney, but we’ll see.
July: Read Les Mis. It’s been on my list for awhile.
August: Take up weight training. It’s supposed to be incredibly good for you as you age, and I’ve been meaning to try it (I took a class in high school and liked it a lot).
September: Spend less than $135 on groceries for the month. September is Hunger Action Month, so it seems like a good time to do the SNAP challenge, and also, my grocery bill drives me nuts. Sometimes it takes a bootcamp style fresh start to get back into good habits.
October: Everything month! (Probably not writing a novel this month, but who knows?)

Some of my goals this year are very time specific–I want to do NaNoWriMo in the actual NaNoWriMo month, same for Drynuary and the SNAP challenge. But overall, my goals seem to fall into a couple of categories: writing, spending and health. Fortunately, I am usually healthier when I’m spending less and I have more time for writing.

Priorities and thoughts and money… oh my.

Another month gone, and another year as well. My birthday is next week and I’m turning 27. Someone call the old folks’ home. I like my birthday and I’m excited for this one. I’m hanging out with my aunt on Saturday beforehand and going to Santa Barbara with a friend the day after my birthday.

I had a serious conversation with one of my mentors at work this week. She is in her forties and I look up to her for her sense of humor and her emphatic kindness to everyone. We talked a little bit about the goals of the organization and my goals, and she advised me to think about my whole life, not just my work life. She told me that she was at her last job for seventeen years, and it sounds like she made enormous contributions and had incredible experiences, but she also talked to me about the costs of such devotion to her work. I find it very hard to balance work and all the other things I want to be working on, let alone life outside of “work.”

I’ve been tempted (and given in almost as much) a lot over the last few weeks to bring work home with me–reports to read or processes to draft. And at the same time that I’ve felt relieved to be “getting things done,” I’ve also felt angry with myself for making that choice to prioritize work over rest, reading, writing, any of the other things I could be doing with my time. I know that constant work leads to being tired and grouchy the next day, feeling burned out, and making not-so-great choices (like eating Evolution vegan fish sandwiches three days last week… oh right, I was going to stop eating out, wasn’t I?) or skipping workouts and writing to get extra sleep.

It’s tempting to think about the next year in terms of how much work I could get done, the mission-driven things that I could accomplish. And it’s exhausting to even think about what I grump I’ll be if that’s the only thing I’ve got going on. It’s equally tempting (particularly on Wednesdays after poetry) to think about ditching work and writing all the time, which never works out either. It’s like I’ve set these ideas up as mutually exclusive, which a whole host of writers have proved is wrong, not to mention my own past experience.

On the other hand, it seems silly to think about the amount of dynamic, interesting work I could do in seventeen years’ time and then think “nah, I’d rather hang out with my cat and write instead.” So I guess even though I know I’m thinking in a mutually-exclusive-trap, I can’t seem to work my way out of it.

I’m stuck on this question though. In seventeen years and one week, I’ll be 44. At one point, I would have said  that by 44, I wanted to be able to retire from job-work at that point, but based on my consistent spending habits and persistent habit of aging, that possibility seems to be fading. Depending on the day, I might also have said I wanted to be a CEO or exec of a women’s nonprofit or that I wanted to be a working writer. All do-able things in seventeen years, but the pessimist in me (the one that hasn’t read enough self-help books/Oprah yet) thinks “but not all of them.”

What do I want my life to look like in seventeen years? How do I want to live each day for the next seventeen years?

Freaking Fabulous Friday

Yesterday almost seemed like it would be a non-fabulous Friday (do such things exist?). I woke up late and headachey because of the outrageous heat, then drove up north to work in one of our north county offices. Almost immediately after arriving, I lost a contact, so my vision was blurry and my headache increased, but I didn’t want to drive the half an hour back down to San Diego to get another contact, only to drive back north again, so I stuck it out for a few hours. I knocked out a few things that I needed to, and I basked in the air conditioning. I left early, intending to swing by the apartment before heading to our main headquarters for the big, annual fundraiser.

I didn’t realize that I had left a work laptop at the other office until I was already home. Since no one else was there, I turned around and drove back up and down again. At least I was able to see again.

So I was grouchy. I hadn’t gotten as much work done as I’d wanted, and I was feeling the pressure, plus I was about to work for another eight hours. That said, one of my coworkers had been having an even worse week, so I swung by Starbucks and picked us up two iced chai lattes (yep, my September game plan lasted less than a week). Then I parked in the neighborhood around council, the parking lot being occupied by fundraising activities, and headed back to work. I must have parked further away than I thought because I ended up having to hike through one of Balboa parks canyons to get to work, carrying my purse, my lunchsack, the laptop and two rapidly melting chai lattes, sweating profusely through my work clothes (what else is new?). My grumpiness reached new levels.

I finally got into the air conditioned (hallelujah!) and sucked back my own chai while madly trying to finish the budgets my boss had asked for before getting sucked into the fundraiser madness. But it turned out my boss had already gotten started on the budgets, and the remaining work took a matter of minutes. Whew! A weight off my shoulders! My colleague was extremely grateful for the iced chai and sorry to hear I’d had a rough day, which somehow made the day less rough. We jumped into event mode and had a fairly successful and mercifully smooth auction. I was home by midnight, tired and sweaty (it was still brutally hot), but grateful.

Grateful that I have good coworkers and I work for an organization I like, even when we’re doing my least favorite thing–raising the money.

Grateful that I have good friends at work and elsewhere.

Grateful for the Boy who remained calm in my tempest-in-a-teapot crisis as I worked half blind.

And grateful I think most of all that the next day would be Saturday. And here it is. I work tomorrow, but not yet. For today, I read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, drank copious amounts of iced tea, and relaxed. The weather, still hot, feels slightly cooler, and I’m hopeful that one day we might feel something vaguely resembling fall.

The Challenge of Habit

One of my most frequent goals is to write more. It’s easier to accomplish this when I am on a schedule that has me waking up early. Most of the time, I am a morning person. I like the peace and quiet when everyone else is still asleep. I like to watch the sky lighten.

But there are also mornings, like this one, when it seems impossible to stay awake. The couch calls my name. The bed calls it too. And even though I’m surrounded by talking furniture, I can barely keep my eyes open. That’s when building this habit becomes a challenge.

“I’ve been so good, I deserve a break” I think to myself, and it’s true, I have been good. I have eight ‘x’s on my calendar from all the days I woke up and wrote. That’s more than a week, so why not let myself off the hook? Then I’m back at square one.

This past week, I’ve woken up around 5:25, gotten myself a cup of coffee with milk and sugar, and settled in to write my morning pages. I write three pages of long hand every morning on yellow legal paper. I love this habit, I could never consider giving it up. Then I’d go for a quick two mile run and come back to write. Running in the mornings is lovely and cool, and good for writing because it gets the brain moving. I’ve been reading Lynda Barry’s What It Is and following the exercises she has in the back of the book, so more long hand writing. It’s nice and it feels good, creative and generative.

This morning, my body needs a break, but my mind needs the habit. I still woke up, still wrote my morning pages, dozing off a couple of times, and now I’m writing this. For the practice. For the ‘x’ on the calendar. Because I hoped the computer’s blue glow would help me stay awake, and it has, better than the coffee anyway.

Good morning. It’s hard to come back from a long weekend, back to the routine of the regular work week. But, here I am.

My morning companion

My morning companion

August Spending

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a thorough reflection on my spending, so here goes. I’d like to say that August was an anomalous month, but as Johnson said, “Those faults which we cannot conceal from our own notice are considered [by us], however frequent, not as habitual corruptions or settled practices, but as casual failures and single lapses,” therefore, I know that my spending is more habitual than unusual, even if the particulars vary.

August was a wonderful month for spending. A great deal, $860+, was spent on travel with approximately the same amount to be paid out to come, so all told the Glasgow trip was about $1600, which seems reasonable. On top of that, I went to the dentist and the optometrist, so my medical expenses were unusually high (only unusual if one fails to remember that I was out of contacts and hadn’t been to a dentist in more than a year). I also spent some money on clothes (absolutely necessary and practical for wearing to a Taylor Swift concert), eating and drinking out, and the usual rent, bills, car payment.

I’ve started a new system where I divide my spending by needs and wants, and see which one wins. This month I spent $1,587.85 on needs and $1,045.27 on wants, mostly the travel.

It’s interesting to look back at where I was a year ago, and what spending was haunting me then. Hillary visited the vet, apparently, and I bought plane tickets to a wedding, and a mattress for my sister, plus new glasses. A year ago, I spent $180 on groceries and this August, I spent $160, so not too much has changed.

The biggest difference between this August and last August is my stress level. This August felt pretty wonderful. Yes, there were hard parts and big challenges, particularly at work. But it is nothing compared to where I was last year. I don’t dread going into the office tomorrow. I enjoy spending time with almost all my colleagues, some a great deal. And even though I know that this week will involved many late nights at meetings and culminate in an enormous gala, I feel utterly at ease.

Last year, my goal for September was just to survive. What do I want for this year?

For fun, I’ve challenged myself to reread all of the Harry Potter books by Thanksgiving, then I’ll marathon the movies. In the last two days, I’ve read the first two books. I think I’m finally getting the hang of this fun thing.

For work, I want to keep up my writing every morning using Lynda Barry techniques, and at actual work, I want to avoid eating my lunch at my desk and working through. Take a break! It’s good for you!

For family, I’m not completely sure. What comes to mind is a nice letter to my aunt.

Fabulous Friday #2

I left work early; that was probably the most fabulous part of today.

Work has been intense lately, with pretty long hours, and I don’t expect it to get better anytime soon. I used to wonder how one of my very good friends did it (she works even more than I do) but it is easy. The work is rewarding. Being at work is fun (being in a cubicle with your best friend all day makes being in a cubicle a lot cooler). Even when the work is painful and challenging, or I get yelled at, it’s still not life and death, and so far, that’s meant I’ve been able to leave it behind when I finally do leave the office. All that is pretty fabulous as well.

This morning I woke up early, 5:25 a.m., wrote my morning pages, went for a run, and wrote a little bit more. I’ve managed to do this four out of five days this week (my alarm didn’t go off on Wednesday) and it feels fabulous to be using my mornings so productively.

I even made some not so fabulous-looking chocolate chip cookies during my early morning hours, but they tasted good. #vegan #glutenfree

I braided my hair in Heidi-braids. #fabulous.

My extremely fabulous new laptop arrived this afternoon. It is so sleek and light and fast that it makes my old laptop look like a lumbering behemoth. I’m still figuring out some of the new features and adding the programs I use, but it’s nice to be able to work without fighting with the tool.

I’ll probably go running with the Boy in a little bit, then play with the new toy some more. I work tomorrow morning (#norestforthewicked) and then I’m supposed to be donating blood. I’m very, very glad it is a long weekend–looking forward to some rest eventually.