Tag Archives: never enough time

A Buffet on Cheat Day

I used to steer away from nonfiction books the way you steer away from cliffs or angry moose. What, read something that isn’t about story? Something from which I can’t learn about character and plot and structure and all things writerly? Nonsense. I only have so many hours in the day; that’s time wasted.

And, well, I used to be a lot dumber than I am these days, too. (Which is not, by the way, to say that I am not currently dumb. I am currently very dumb about a great many things. But not, I think, as dumb as I used to be.)

Because if fiction books are good (we hope!) for learning about all those things in that top paragraph — awesome, deep characters, twistedly perfect plots, etc — nonfiction books are infinitely better for learning what your stories are really about. The world we live in. The private worlds that exist inside our heads. The nuts and bolts of reality. The often harrowing stranger-than-fiction stories that have really happened to real people.

I can’t believe I used to turn my nose up. Thanks to my re-discovery of the stunning awesomeness of libraries, I’m diving into nonfiction with a passion.

But the time! I hear my former (and current) self crying. Reading a book is such a significant investment of time and mental energy — how do you pick?

Well, here’s another secret I’ve learned about nonfiction: you don’t have to read the entire book. (This goes for fiction, too, but the sense of commitment to characters is a lot harder to overcome.) In fact, it’s a rare nonfiction book that I’ll read cover-to-cover, unless the writing is just dynamite (in which case there are things to learn there outside the subject matter of the book itself).

I treat my nonfiction books like a buffet on cheat day. Sure, the salad bar is there. And I’m welcome to fill up a plate with the leafy greens of statistics and deep technical jargon of astronomy or sociology or the mechanics of religious faiths. But what I really want are the slabs of steak and greasy chicken with piles of mashed potatoes and everything that’s fried: the raw, personal anecdotes and shocking first-person accounts and fascinating glimpses into the invisible.

So when I pick up nonfiction, the first thing I do is scan the chapters like I’m scoping out the buffet on the way to a table. Ooh, I definitely have to have some of that. Maybe a nibble from over there. Not going anywhere near those. And I’ve got to save room for dessert.

Not only does this make reading nonfiction — which has a bad rap for being a bit dry and tasteless — more fun and mentally engaging, but it paradoxically encourages me to read even more widely on things I might not have bothered with. I know I’m not making a week-long commitment before I even crack the cover; I know I can put the book down and move on to something else if it isn’t moving me.

All of which leads me back to one of my personal axioms not just as a writer, but as a teacher and a human as well:

All reading is good reading.

At best, you’re learning new things and improving yourself in the process. At worst, you’re learning what not to do and what to avoid. Win-win, baby.

Pass the mashed potatoes.

(Actually, don’t. Tomorrow is cheat day — I’ll just take them in a doggy bag.)

Lots of Time, Not Enough Time

Summer is weird for my writing process.

I do my project writing at work — arriving early and carving time out of my lunch break to get my daily word count in. Which is great. It’s regular, it’s very rarely disrupted, and it’s (for the most part) uninterrupted. The big problem with it is: I’m a teacher. Which means that, for two months out of every year, and on the odd week here and there, my writing routine hits a speed bump. Except it’s less speed bump and more an entire clutch of trees fallen across the road.

trees see GIF

Because when we’re on vacation — and man, I’m not complaining about vacation! — so many of the elements I like to have in place are out of place. I don’t have my usual space. I don’t have the relative quiet. I definitely don’t have the lack of interruption.

Instead, I’m trying to work on the sofa in the living room, or the desk downstairs, with the kids running laps through the house and asking me endless questions. There’s no such thing as quiet. There’s no such a thing as even an interrupted five minutes.

I have all the time I could want, but I can’t buy the moments.

Like having reservations to a fancy restaurant on the night of my kid’s graduation.

Or having a membership to a swanky gym on the opposite side of town.

The thing is there, but it might as well be behind bulletproof plexiglass. I just can’t get to it. It’s frustrating as hell. I have so much time in the day, but I can’t — or at least, haven’t figured out how to — use that time.

Which means that, yet again, the project is stalled, until I can find a more reliable way to work on it. Which may well be going back to school in the fall.


This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.

The Summer Rhythm

Teaching is weird.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great; having those two months off during the summer is fantastic, and it’s enviable to people who don’t work in education. (It’s maybe the only enviable thing about the job, but hey, you take what you can get.) And I’m certainly not complaining about the time off: that time translates into lots of opportunities to sleep in, go running during earthly waking hours (during the working months I’m out there before the sun is up, which has its own sort of ethereal calm about it but also sorta makes me feel like a vampire  — NO I MUST AVOID THE SUN), be a dad who’s actually present in his kids’ and his wife’s lives, check out some horrible daytime television.

Problem is, when I’m working, I have this routine, and over the summer, that routine is shattered. Not just shattered, but then stomped on by little toddler feet and flung at my face by little toddler hands and then not only do I have to deal with the shards of shattered routine embedded in my corneas, I also have to stop the toddler and the infant from swallowing the broken pieces and…

By the way, can you still call a three-year-old a toddler? It seems idiotic to do so, all of a sudden, since “toddlers” are named for their toddling, that wobbly, baby-goat stumbling gait that’s the hallmark of an uncoordinated, top-heavy biped learning to walk. But sprout #1 is well past wobbling. He can still lose his balance and go crashing into a table edge or fall down the last stairs, bouncing off like he’s made of rubber, but when it comes to walking, running, galloping, skipping… I mean, he’s mastered it. So he’s not toddling anymore, but what is he? Still too little to be a boy, I think. Is there a word for that? Fargo, the kid is going to be in preschool next year. Look, let’s just dial the clocks back a little bit…

Okay, enough of that sentimental diversion. (Seriously, though. Kids grow up FAST.) I was talking about routines and how over the summer my routine breaks down worse than my old Chevy Malibu (god rest its hunk-of-junk soul). I’m trying to find the routine for getting my writing done over the summer, because even though my 9-5 job is on a little hiatus, the writing dream NEVER SLEEPS, and its hungry maw must be fed a steady diet of word count, despair and whiskey.

Nice thing about doing my writing on and around the job is, there’s structure there. Typical work day: Wake up, exercise, get to work, do the teacher thing for four hours, break for lunch, write for about thirty minutes while pounding down a salad or a sandwich, do a lightning session of grading papers and planning the next day’s lessons, and write for another fifteen minutes or so before my last class of the day comes in. Patterns. Regularity. You can plan for that and the body adapts nicely to it, not unlike it adapts nicely to a bowl of raisin bran in the morning and a visit to the crapper in the afternoon. Easy to plan your day that way.

Over the summer, there’s no such luck. One day, my wife’s at work, so I’ve got the kids for nine hours, then a spot of cleaning and cooking in the evening, then it’s time for a glass of wine with a nice TV show in the evening, and then, whoops — it’s bedtime again. (Here my wife is rolling her eyes: “I still find time to get things done!” and that’s true, honey, you do. But you have superpowers, and I don’t, and it’s virtually impossible to maintain the focus needed to hold a narrative together when you’re constantly stopping to make sure the sprouts aren’t devouring a bucket full of chalk, or shaving the cats, or trying to feed your lunch to the dog, or taking markers apart to see how they work and then smearing the magic ink on their faces, or pretending to be dinosaurs and stomping all over creation and, again, eating everything in sight.) Next day, wife’s home, but we’re prepping for a yard sale. One minute we’re taking sprout #1 to Grandma’s house for the day, next minute we’re hauling stuff out of the garage, next minute we’re hauling stuff into the garage, a bit later on I’m off to the Home Depot to get some cleaning supplies, then it’s more sorting and prepping and cleaning and don’t forget changing sprout #2’s diaper and keeping her from sticking her fingers in it as you do so (her new favorite habit, and there go my wife’s eyes again because I think she actually cleaned more diapers today… again, she’s just better than me at handling that stuff promptly, whereas I’m maybe better at letting things be), then holy carp it’s time to put sprout #2 to bed and hey did we eat yet, no we probably should so it’s time to cook and whoops the sun is down, hey let’s go to bed. Which is a fine day, very productive and all, until I realize about 9pm SHARKNADO I forgot to write today.

Do you let it slip? Or do you gird your loins for battle and go in to do battle with the Word Monsters when all you really want to do is go to sleep to prepare yourself for the unpredictability that tomorrow will surely bring?

Problem is, as I may have mentioned once or twice before, momentum matters. I know that if I let the writing slip today, it’s twice as easy to let it slip again tomorrow (well, I missed one day this week, what’s one more — I can rest up and hit it properly next week), and so on and so forth until whatever dubious progress I’ve managed in this little endeavor is lying in a twisted heap at the bottom of the chasm, smoke pouring from its innards as I crawl toward the couch for a nap.

Anyway, I’m looking for that rhythm, that pattern that will let me get my writing done during these oddball summer months without feeling like I’m taking away time from the wife and kids. And yeah, I know these are totally first world problems, and I own that. But, privileged problems or no, when there are things throwing your life out of balance, I think it’s worth slowing down a little bit to see if you can work toward restoring that balance, rather than just riding it out. We humans, we seek the path of least resistance. Unfortunately, nothing worth having is easy.

So, the question: when your regular routine is thrown off, how do you make sure you get everything done? Technically I have more time than ever in my days now, but it feels like those hours just slip away.

%d bloggers like this: