Repentings, etc

So I gave Pinterest another shot over the weekend after your comments, and I kind of think I get it now. You can watch me figure out if I want to use it here.

Here’s an answer to a question that I’ve been asking: Why are we obsessed with the 1960s? Gopnik says there’s a forty-year rule. I think he might be right. (Would love to know what my criticism students think.) 

On that note, I read most of Patti Smith’s Just Kids over the weekend. It is compelling, but I think it’s a good example (students, take note) of a memoir that is compelling largely because of the people in it, and not because of the arc itself. I’m actually not sure it’s that compellingly written. But it did win a National Book Award. (Speaking of: what’s up with no Pulitzer fiction prize this year?!?)

Let’s talk about Pinterest.

Hey guys. I don’t get it. What’s up with the Pinterest obsession? I have read about eleventy billion papers from students on the topic, and I even wrote about Pinterest (before it was popular, mind you, because I’m just that hipster) when I was the tech columnist for WORLD, and I still don’t get it.

Every so often I start feeling like I must be missing something. I’m hardly a late adopter. People ask me to write / talk about technology. I buy Apple products. So I log into the site and poke around and leave saying meh.

Enlighten me?

Descending Theology: The Resurrection

(I post this every year, but it never gets old.)

From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in—black ice and squid ink—
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now

it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.

— Mary Karr

Thinking the Twentieth Century

I’ve been reading Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder this week – and finding it totally engrossing. Here’s a bit from what I read on the way in this morning (Judt’s narrating here):

In 1995, I was offered the Nef Chair of Social Thought at Chicago; after agonizing for a while, I turned it down. Looking back, I now realize that I was beginning to see myself in a different light: not just as a historian, nor even as a “public intellectual,” but rather as someone who might apply his skills and energies to a new task. I was drawn to the idea of forging an institutional forum to encourage the sort of work I admired and to bring together the sorts of people I found interesting and whom I wanted to support. This, as it seemed to me then, was more readily achieved in Manhattan than in Chicago, much less in the rarified atmosphere of Hyde Park.

New York, after all, was special. Until I moved there I had spent my entire adult life in Cambridge [England], Berkeley and Oxford: each, in its way, an isolated ivory tower. But here in New York the universities – NYU, Columbia, CUNY Graduate Center – could not pretend to separate themselves from the city. Even Columbia, gloriously isolated upon its little hill on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, could hardly deny that the reason most of its faculty and students were drawn there (rather than to its competitors in Princeton, New Haven or Cambridge, Mass.) was precisely its location in what was still, if perhaps anachronistically, thought of as the world’s most cosmopolitan city.

From an academic point of view, New York resembles the continental European model rather than the Anglo-American template. The most important conversations in town are not those conducted among academics behind college walls, but the broader intellectual and cultural debate exchanged across the city and taking in journalists, independent writers, artists and visitors as well as the local professoriate. Thus, at least in principle, universities are culturally and intellectually integrated into the wide conversation. In this sense at least, by staying in New York I could also remain European . . .

What I wanted to create [at NYU] did not even have a name. Above all, I was setting out to facilitate an international conversation: providing it with an institutional infrastructure and practical resources . . .

And also this:

The consequence of the impossibility of both the Whig and the moralizing approaches [to history] is that historians don’t know what they’re doing anymore. Whether that’s a bad thing is a different question. If you asked my colleagues: what is the purpose of history, or what is the nature of history, or what is history about, you would get a pretty blank stare. The difference between good historians and bad historians is that the good ones can manage without an answer to such questions, and the bad ones cannot . . .

Of course I don’t agree with everything in the book, but I find it immensely interesting – and I’m fascinated by the idea of doing intellectual history by setting it within a specific person’s experience and, in a fairly explicit sense, exploring that person’s own intellectual history.

Book me

Friends, followers: I am starting to construct my summer reading list, and I could use some of your suggestions. At this point I have very little non-reading work to do and so I’m hoping to tackle three books per week, in three main categories: political philosophy/ethics, history/biography, and novels (particularly ones I should have read by now).

I recognize these will be mostly “academic reads,” not deep reads, but right now I’m just trying to fill in the gaps. (All of my school-related reading in the school year is creative nonfiction, so hold off on that.)

So please comment with suggestions?

Whidbey, I hardly knew ye

After a shuttle bus, ferry, cross-country plane ride, and cab, I landed safely at home last night after ten days on gorgeous, green Whidbey Island, a magical land populated by bald eagles and driftwood and Frighteningly Dumb Deer and, for these days, Rambunctious MFA Students, to whom I belong. Here is where we were.

I know.

We discussed Shakespeare and craft and truth and poetry and teaching and metaphor and life, and also everything else in the known universe. I learned things about myself, like for instance, I have almost no need for sleep, and a great fondness for snow-capped mountains (which peeked out around Wednesday and stayed the rest of the time). We listened/sang along to umptymillion late-night mandolin renditions of such classics as Ms. Spears’s “Toxic”; we went from acquaintances to BFFs; we ate and drank well, roasted faculty in the poetry competition (I turned in a mediocre but heartfelt impression of Lauren Winner), made Shakespearean-inspired jokes and drinks, and read and wrote. I found direction for my work and identified the spot in my writing I need to press into, and thought about my upcoming theses. I also wandered along the beach before dinner and let the wind blow my hair into wild curls and just watched the sun set over the water.

Basically, perfect.

I have some more substantive thoughts brewing and at some point they’ll boil over and onto this blog, but for now, I’ll just write my overdue class lecture for tomorrow, and pine for the island.

Books I've Been Annotating, Pre-Residency II

So I’m headed off to my second MFA residency tomorrow out on (I suspect) rainy Whidbey Island, and in preparation I’m putting together my projected annotation list for the next quarter. (Footnotes: There’s another correspondence quarter from now till June, because SPU, being on the West Coast, does that weird quarter-instead-of-semester thing; part of each correspondence quarter is ten two-ish page writerly “annotations” on various books in my discipline, most of which I choose, some of which are chosen by my faculty mentor [presently Paula Huston, then, for my second year, Lauren Winner], and the program director, Greg Wolfe, who chooses common readings for each residency that everyone in every genre reads – you know what, if you’re confused, just go look at the program website.)

Right, so: I thought I’d post what I’ve got here. Asterisks indicate they were assigned by Paula or Greg.

First quarter annotations (submitted in December):

  1. *Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  2. *The Lady and the Monk, Pico Iyer
  3. Life Work, Donald Hall
  4. The Florist’s Daughter, Patricia Hampl
  5. The Discomfort Zone, Jonathan Franzen
  6. Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon
  7. An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis
  8. Looking Before and After, Alan Jacobs
  9. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
  10. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
  11. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
  12. Blue Arabesque, Patricia Hampl

Second quarter annotations (just submitted last week):

  1. Tete-a-tete, Hazel Rowley
  2. *Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt
  3. Air Guitar, Dave Hickey
  4. The Best American Essays 2011, Edwidge Danticat (ed.)
  5. Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography, Amy Frykholm
  6. Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan
  7. *For the Time Being, Annie Dillard
  8. *Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
  9. *King Lear, William Shakespeare
  10. *The Tempest, William Shakespeare

Some books I’m thinking about for the third quarter (which ends in June; assigned books will probably supplant some of these):

  1. Thinking the Twentieth Century, Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder
    (Just arrived and realized it’s half memoir, half history, which is so awesome it makes me grin)
  2. Let’s See, Peter Schjeldahl
    (Which I’ve been teaching; super fun.)
  3. The Broken Estate, James Wood
    (I like Wood’s criticism, and this is his early work)
  4. When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson
    (Just arrived!!)
  5. Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens
    (It’s time, and, so.)
  6. The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers
    (I shamefully have never read this, though I’ve referenced it.)
  7. Dakota, Kathleen Norris
    (I’ve read everything else she’s ever written.)

I’ve also been slowly working my way through Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, which will probably end up in a fall annotation, along with a Really Thick Book of Updike’s criticism.

A Small Thought On Sci-Fi

I have recently realized that my great love of Battlestar Galactica (the newer one, obvi) and my obsession with The X-Files has grown into a full-blown crazy love of good sci-fi. Not movies, so much, but TV. My Postmodern World students this semester (that’s a class, not a commentary on them) have probably gotten tired of it, but that’s why I’m the professor, and also, sci-fi is ideal for illustrating things like postmodernism. (Hey, how have I not found a way to work Firefly in yet?) It’s gotten bad enough that I unprovokedly admitted to Tom a few days ago that it’s now time for me to start watching Star Trek. I squealed, more than audibly, when I noticed Quantum Leap showed up on Netflix. Oh no, and Dr. Who as well. It’s bad.

This seems to have some corollary with my growing obsession with superhero movies (which has yet to spread to comic books, but I’m just waiting passively for that swamp monster to sweep in). And also, dystopian fiction, which started in a highfalutin’ way when I was in my first master’s program, but now is basically just me reading Hunger Games and trying to explain why dystopian fiction is awesomer than full-on post-apocalyptic fiction, which is a conversation I found myself inexplicably having last Wednesday night in a crowded room of intelligent acquaintances. 

I sit outside myself, looking in, at some loss to explain what the frak is going on. I mean: I still harbor no particular affection for Star Wars, and I don’t think I’m in any danger of starting, like, Farscape, although I doubt I’m out of the woods. But seriously, self. What up?

Well, I’m starting to think I’m just happy to immerse myself in a genre where you can actually say things about our world, almost didactically, without having to worry about realism. I’m sort of loving that you can twist things, turn them on their heads, unsettle our assumptions, and make us look at our (real) world differently – but do it obliquely. I also love that good sci fi (and superhero stories and dystopian fiction and all that) is unabashedly entertaining, even when it’s being quite explicit about its intentions. 

Oh well. I tried to put up a fight. Happy surrender.

Break?

For those following along at home, this (upcoming) week is spring break at King’s, which means the students are all off merrily relaxing/writing papers for the professors who are evil enough to assign them over this break. In my world, this means scrambling to finish a project that was delayed beyond my control and then heading off to Whidbey Island early Thursday morning for my second of five ten-day MFA residencies. In the sea of what has turned out to be a fantastically rewarding but also wildly stress-filled semester, ten days of school where I am the student sounds like a welcome relief (even if I fear I’ll end up grading on my free day): hanging out on a lovely, damp, green island discussing Shakespeare and craft and each others’ work with some of the finest folks on the planet? Yes, please.

Somewhat relatedly, I recommend to you this piece from the NY Times Magazine‘s blog: How to Write a ‘Lives’ Essay. It’s about how to write for their section entitled “Lives” (clearly), but every bit of it is apt advice for writers. (Most of it sounded like they’d eavesdropped on my College Writing 1 class. I know, I know: I’m so original.)

A sampling:

• Don’t try to fit your whole life into one “Lives.”

• Don’t try to tell the whole story.

• Do not end with the phrase “I realized that … ”

Oh, and the students at the school newspaper interviewed me, which is sort of fun. You can read the piece here.

Recently Published

I’m trying to get better about updating this blog when I publish things, so here we go: the kind folks at The Gospel Coalition asked me to contribute to a series of articles on “the church and the cultural challenge,” and my piece went up on their front page today. Here’s a small excerpt:

Perhaps the problem is that we’ve too long thought of testimonies as stories that must move along the same path: I was terribly broken, and Jesus turned me around. Though this is a vital form of testimony, there are others, too. Jacobs refers to these as “life genres.” The Christian life can take the form of many different genres, just like a novel: there’s the fantastical adventure epic, the quiet domestic drama, even the enigmatic mystery . . .

There is the testimony of fall and redemption; there is also the testimony of the Christian scholar, lawyer, parent, friend, husband, wife, student, artist, and many more. We each inhabit several genres, and telling those stories is vital to the continuing health of the church.

Happy New Year, from the oldish country

This is just a little hello to say that we’ve been over here in England since Thursday, visiting some friends, hanging out in Bath and Oxford, seeing things that range from sorta-old stuff (clothes from 1800 and onwards at the Fashion Museum here in Bath, chapels in various colleges at Oxford) to really-old stuff (like the antiquities at the British Museum), and, in a day or two, to very new stuff (we decided to make the trip scarcely a month ago because we didn’t want to miss the Richter retrospective and the Tacita Dean installation at the Tate Modern).

Otherwise, we are just filling up on crumpets and chocolate-coated biscuits and reading books and enjoying a few days away before the semester begins next week. Jolly good.

Descending Theology: The Nativity

By Mary Karr

She bore no more than other women bore,
but in her belly’s globe that desert night the earth’s
full burden swayed.
Maybe she held it in her clasped hands as expecting women often do
or monks in prayer. Maybe at the womb’s first clutch
     she briefly felt that star shine

as a blade point, but uttered no curses.
Then in the stable she writhed and heard
beasts stomp in their stalls,
their tails sweeping side to side
and between contractions, her skin flinched
with the thousand animal itches that plague
     a standing beast’s sleep.

But in the muted womb-world with its glutinous liquid,
the child knew nothing
of its own fire. (No one ever does, though our names
are said to be writ down before
we come to be.) He came out a sticky grub, flailing
     the load of his own limbs

and was bound in cloth, his cheek brushed
with fingertip touch
so his lolling head lurched, and the sloppy mouth
found that first fullness — her milk
spilled along his throat, while his pure being
     flooded her. (Each

feeds the other.) Then he was
left in the grain bin. Some animal muzzle
against his swaddling perhaps breathed him warm
till sleep came pouring that first draught
of death, the one he’d wake from
     (as we all do) screaming.

Five Years

How to start this post?

Today, it has been five years since my father passed awaysuddenly, from a fast relapse into an aggressive leukemia that took him at age 47. Next week Tom and I will celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary, so even if you didn’t know me then, you can sense how difficult this week was, five years ago. And how it’s still tough five years later, and will be in five more, and fifty more.

Last night I was thinking about this anniversary, of sorts, and wishing I went to the kind of church that lit candles in remembrance of our dead. He is my only “dead”I have all four grandparents, still, and all other relatives.

What I can do now, five years later, with less pain, is remember all of the things that I can see that I inherited from him. I didn’t inherit anything material from my father. He didn’t have much, and he didn’t live long enough to acquire much in the way of heirlooms, and the things of value he hadhis guitars, mostlywent to my little brother, and I’m glad for that, because he plays guitar like a rockstar.

So when I think about my inheritance from my father, I think about the things I learned from him, the things that shaped me into who I am. Most of them weren’t things he said to me: they were things he embodied, things he lived and practiced in front of me.

From Dad, I learned that fathers are good. Last year at the Glen Workshop, I workshopped a long essay about this very week. Several of the participants said they’d read the first two pages and thought, Oh no. Another story about a horrible father. And then they were surprised to discover it was about a wonderful father. Our culture is saturated with stories of bad fathers, and not for naught: there are many, and they have destroyed many lives. But my father was good, and he was good despite growing up in a home without a father. He struggled and didn’t know how to do it right a lot of the time, but he tried his best, and from him, I learned that our past does not dictate our future, and that calling God my Father would be something I could do and be glad about.

I learned to delight in creation and culture. Creation, in the real “nature” sense: Dad loved thunderstorms. He’d pop popcorn and sit on the back porch, like it was God’s cinema. This week, as the hurricane blew by and I realized with gratitude that at least for us, the effects would be minimal, I allowed myself to think about how excited he would have been to sit and watch the lightning and the wind and the rain. And culture, in the real “human” sense: Though Dad never put words to it, I first learned about common grace by sitting in his van as he drove me to some choir practice or another, listening to Prairie Home Companion or Nickel Creek or talking about a movie we’d seen.

I learned to love the church. And not some idealized version of the church, either, but the real thing, the kind made up of broken people who love one another. Dad’s life was the church, though he never worked in traditional full-time ministry. But there was nothing he cared about more, outside his family, than the people in the church. You could barely get him out the door before everyone was gone; the pastor’s kids would have gone home before we did. And he stuck it out at a very specific local church through some really bad times, and really good times, and from him I learned what it was to commit.

I learned to love learning. Dad only took a few college classes and I don’t think he was at school much in high school, either. He drove long, long hours for work and didn’t have much time for reading. But he checked books on tape out of the library and learned everything from basic Russian to Civil War history, and he knew the strangest random facts about everything from science and math to history and literature. I remember studying for the GRE and being staggered at his vocabulary. He never stopped learning and loving new information. So I learned, too, that learning doesn’t stop after graduation. (Or in my case, graduation, and graduation, and graduation . . . )

I learned to love coffee. Which probably means I owe every one of my accomplishments to him.

I knew, beyond any shadow of any doubt, that he was proud of me. They say when you lose someone, it’s a little like losing a limb: you keep going to scratch it and it takes a long time for the itch to finally disappear. Well, I no longer expect to see him when I go home, but I will say this: every time I write something and it’s published, every time I get asked to do something exciting to me, every time I’ve started some new pursuit and done well at it, my first impulse, still, is to call him. (The same holds for every time I discover a new band I think he’d like.)

It’s no small thing for a girl to have a father who knows her and loves her unconditionally, and makes that fact known to her. It’s the rarest of gifts, and it’s the sort of gift that gives a girl confidence to go out and chase down a dream. It’s the sort of gift that makes a girl have high standards for the other men in her life. It’s the sort of gift for which I am grateful, every year, on August 30, and every other day, too.

Doing It All

I’ll tell you a secret: I’m kind of a productivity freak. I love new software and systems for keeping track of what I have to do and where I have to be and what I have to buy. The Productivity category in the App Store is my favorite. I’m a nerd.

Until last year, I was pretty good at keeping on top of those systems, but it all kind of went to pot when the fall semester started. I had a hard time keeping track of my schedule, because it varied so much, and I just wasn’t used to what teaching was like.

But now I’m experienced (haha), so I’ve spent a fair amount of time this summer thinking about how to implement practices and disciplines, using those systems, to bring more order to my life next year. And that’s important: I’ll be a full-time student, full-time professor, part-time editor, and frequent freelancer, plus I’m coordinating the writing program at King’s and chairing a committee and advising a student house, and presenting at least one conference paper, and finishing this book I’ve been editing all summer for contract, and finishing a proposal for (and hopefully starting work on) a co-edited book, and probably other stuff I forgot about. Also, my husband and I like to eat dinner and have clean laundry and relatively clean floors and dishes, and we also like to spend time doing things we enjoy together, like watching movies and going to performances and drinking good beer.

I can already predict what will go by the wayside if I’m not careful: cooking, and exercising, and packing lunches, and reading poetry, and all the stuff that makes us sane, rounded human beings. But building on things I’ve been thinking about as I’ve read both articles on discipline and books like Desiring the Kingdom, I’ve been committed to developing some disciplines and habits that automate the process of getting through the week with a maximum of fun and minimum of crazy. It seems like trivializing it a bit, but bear with me: I heard N.T. Wright speak on virtue a couple years ago, and one thing he said that stuck with me is (and this is an inaccurate paraphrase) that developing virtue and character are kind of like forming grooves, so that when it really counts, you automatically go on the right track. It’s hard to learn to ride a bike without using training wheels; it’s difficult for an EMT to administer CPR if he has to pull out the textbook and read along. But if it’s innate, if it’s developed through practice, then the skill is there when the rubber meets the proverbial road.

And, I guess, discipline and living well is character just as much as integrity and honesty and kindness. So that’s what I’ve been considering as I think about this subject.

I kind of hate hearing that perennial question: “How do you do it all?” I dunno. I just make lots of list and do the things on those lists. I think my work is less taxing than, say, raising small human beings full-time, or being a farmer or an investment banker. I don’t own a house and don’t have to spend my weekends doing things to maintain that house, and because I live in a one-room apartment, it takes about twenty minutes to clean it. A lot of my work bleeds into other aspects of my work (teaching writing, for instance, is awfully useful to an editor, and editing makes writing go more smoothly . . . ). And I like pretty much everything I do, which makes it seem fun, not exhausting. And academics know that the rhythm of academia helps tremendously in alleviating tedium and boredom.

But in case you’re still tempted to ask, here’s a few of the things I’ve been working on in order to actually “do it all” with a minimum of crazy. I’m not solidly in the saddle quite yet. But maybe something here will be useful to you. And I’d like to know what other people do, too, because there are many people out there who work as hard as I do and lead organizations and write a book a year and raise four children and take care of a house and probably are superheroes in their off-hours, and still manage to train for marathons and read the paper.

I switched back to using Remember the Milk. I’ve tried at least a half-dozen different task management systems (including Wunderlist, Google Tasks, Things, Toodledo, TeuxDeux, and the good old-fashioned paper method) over the years. All of them have ended up having some strange deficiency (maybe it’s ugly, or overly complicated, or not extensible enough, or – and this is very frequent – doesn’t have repeating tasks), and this summer I decided to go back to RTM, which is still the greatest I’ve used. It is accessible from basically any device in the universe. It lets you keep infinite numbers of lists and organize them in the way that works for you. You can set specific times at which tasks are due; you can set them to repeat; the web interface isn’t gorgeous, but the iPhone/iPad apps are; and it’s only about $25 a year for the Pro version, which seems awfully reasonable to me. It has smart lists that let me do things like easily see what I need to do next today, or what I need to buy at the grocery store (and I can repeat items on that list), or “low hanging fruit” – tasks that will take less than fifteen minutes to accomplish, or things I need to write before the end of the week. Plus, its icon is a cow.

I set hilarious things most people do automatically as tasks. I actually still cannot remember to do the simplest things in the morning or at night. Remembering to pack my bag for the next day is a Herculean effort. So I just set a repeating task for 9pm every night for those things, and my phone yells at me if I don’t cross them off before bed. Since those tasks are easy to accomplish, it gives me that nice I-finished-something frisson. It makes my morning so much easier if I did those three things at night. And if I stick to it, I also don’t miss deadlines. (As an editor, I hate deadline-missers. As a professor, I generally don’t accept late assignments. So I have an extreme aversion to missing deadlines myself.)

I am a committed Google Calendar user. Why Google Calendar, you ask? My computer in my office, which is owned by the college, is a PC. I have an iPad and an iPhone; my husband’s computer is a Mac, and I own a wee little netbook as well. Google Calendar talks to or displays on all of those devices without a hitch, and its interface just got updated and is nice and clean and pretty, so I don’t even mind aesthetics anymore. I use it for everything, and I have lots of different calendars in it, some of which are shared. So personal appointments and meetings and things go on one calendar. Another has things Tom and I are doing together outside of work hours, like plays and performances. TKC business goes on a separate calendar, as do writing deadlines and things of that sort. I even take the time to type the group exercise classes at the various locations of my gym into a calendar, so I can quickly look and see if I can fit a class into a particular day. It’s a little bit of set-up, but once everything is in there, I don’t have to think too hard about what to do the next day. I just get up and look at the calendar and it tells me what to do. I, for one, embrace our robot overlords.

And I keep all my documents in Dropbox. I am ever so grateful to live in the digital age, where being an editor of a journal that publishes almost daily doesn’t mean carting around stacks of articles. I put them all in Dropbox, along with anything I’m writing and tons of archives and I don’t even know what else. It means I can find them wherever I am. This is the one tip I need to start giving my poor undergrads, who are still emailing documents to themselves. Dropbox makes my life approximately eleventy billion times easier.

Also, Evernote and Instapaper. Evernote lets me quickly file away research for articles, recipes, receipts, whatever, just by clipping from the browser or emailing it to myself, so when I sit down to write something or do taxes, I can quickly pull up everything I need. Instapaper lets me save articles to read later much the same way. And they talk to each other now!

I use more software than I think, actually: Mint, for budgeting/finance tracking, WordPress for sporadic blogging, the absolutely phenomenally amazing Flipboard iPad app for reading the web painlessly, and a lot of Gmail filters. The key here is that these all replace some process I’d otherwise have to do myself, and not a process (like baking bread or washing dishes or going for a walk) that adds some kind of humanity to my life.

I am trying (and often failing, but trying) to get up earlier. I hate getting up in the morning. I love staying up super late. But when I am up late, I am probably not working. I am probably doing something completely worthy, like watching The X-Files or reading The Hunger Games. But I do need to also do things, and I have a lot I’d like to read that isn’t dystopian YA novels, stuff I could read in the morning quite happily with a cup of coffee. And so I am trying to become one of those people who gets up really early automatically, at the same time every day of the week, without thinking about it, no matter when I went to bed. It is hard. But I am trying.

I outsource. It’s not cheap to outsource stuff in New York City, and I still do my own cleaning, and would probably feel the disapproval of some Puritan New England ancestors if I didn’t. But I do send my laundry out most of the time (which is, thankfully, fairly cost-effective here), and I love love love love that FreshDirect exists and with competitive rates. Little delights me more than buying groceries from my iPhone while I’m waiting for someone to show up to a meeting. (Plus: it cuts way down on impulse buys and makes it easier to budget for groceries!)

I schedule blocks of time in which to do things. I think this might sort of derive from some combination of the Pomodoro Technique and GTD, neither of which I’ve ever really read about in any detail.  But, for instance, I am blocking out a full day and a half (a luxury, indeed, afforded by dear academia) for writing for my MFA program. I plan all my lectures at the same time each week – during office hours, happily. I have chunks set aside to answering Comment emails, corresponding with authors, and editing articles. And I plan to spend an hour or so each weekend chopping vegetables and fruits and putting together a couple of dishes to have during the week. It’s somehow much less odious to get things done when I have the block on my calendar.

I am learning the value of practices and automation. I sort of hate the idea of having devices that tell me what to do all the time. Maybe it’s my quote-unquote free spirit or my general millennial dislike of having people tell me what to do, but I want to take it easy and be all yoga-y and buck the New York system of insanity. But what I’m realizing (yet again) is that I need the systems and the automation to be spontaneous. Not having to think too hard in the morning about what to do when I get out of bed (early!) means I can think about other stuff, like creative ideas for projects and what I want to make for dinner that night. Spontaneity and creativity happens within the bounds of discipline and automation. It’s easier to move things around for special events and activities if I have them in place to move around. I know this, of course. But I need to remind myself frequently of it.

I am sticking to the practice of Sabbath. One day I don’t want to be automated or productive is Sunday. And actually, having that day in my week makes the automation of the other six more palatable. I might live by my robot overlords six days a week, but on the seventh, they rest. And so do I.

Note what I don’t have to deal with: childcare of any kind, mowing the lawn, rigid 9-to-5 schedules, or insane business travel, though I did my fair share of that last spring and will do some more this year. I have a summer off from teaching and a long Christmas break. All of my employers are aware of each other and all of my work complements other work. I don’t have to have a “day job” to be a writer because all the stuff I do is related, in some way, to what I love doing: writing, thinking, and talking about the world.

That’s why this works for me. My friends who have young children have vastly different lives, and I am in awe of them. But I think the ideas of automation and keeping track of yourself are actually profoundly helpful for “doing it all.” (And taking breaks, too: I wrote this on a break from a summer editing project, believe it or not!)

What do you do?

The Storytelling Technique

I prefer fiction to non-fiction because it’s better written. From the time I was young, it was my favorite ficiton writers who inspired me to write non-fiction as if it were fiction. Not faking information or changing information or exagerrating information–the storytelling technique. It was all drawn on my enthusiasm from my favorite fiction writers–Carson McCullers and John Cheever and Hemingway and Irwin Shaw, a wonderful forgotten writer. And of course F. Scott Fitzgerald, my favorite writer of all-time.

Gay Talese

Sleep No More

Last week, Tom and I went with some friends to the highly acclaimed production of Sleep No More here in the city, and it was staggeringly good. I wrote a bit about it at the Cardus blog today.