Finding My Center

Many years ago, I took a ceramics class to satisfy an arts requirement for my college degree. I made a lot of really bad bowls and figurines and stuff that have since all been smashed, disappeared, or distributed to family members who feel too guilty to get rid of them. It was an entry level class and I was awful at it, but it was fun.

However, I never used the pottery wheels. I probably would have broken them, and the more advanced students were on them all the time, and I was too garbage and well aware of it to properly beg for wheel time. To this day, I have never tried thrown pottery.

But my ten-year-old has. A few weeks ago, his class went on this weird mish-mash field trip where they went to a rock climbing club, and then a ‘50s style diner, and then a high school pottery studio. Not sure what the educational aim was here (or why this teacher is so set on expensive field trips and activities like all the time), but my son had a lot of fun making a little bowl that I’m probably going to have to buy off the teacher later, to prove that I love my child, in order to help fund further field trips. (I’m not bitter.)

My boy told me in such exquisite detail about the potting process that I think he might want a throwing wheel for Christmas. He told me all about tucking his elbows, and keeping his hands wet, and maybe most important of all, centering the clay.

When throwing pottery on the wheel, one of the biggest problems beginners have is failing to properly center their lump of clay. It might seem centered (enough), but once the wheel gets up to speed and you begin to craft your masterpiece, the wobbly tower of clay suddenly ruptures and flops over dead like an overwatered cactus in fast forward.

A lot of creative work is like that, including writing. Sometimes we start a project before we’re quite ready. Sometimes we don’t see the problems until we’re well along. Sometimes we have to scrap and start over, even when something starts out so promising.

I am the queen of false starts. And messy starts. And oh-gosh-I’m-going-to-have-to-change-all-of-this-later starts. Lately, I’ve been feeling like the empress, though. This last year has been a weird year for me. I’ve been reasonably productive, and pretty successful by some metrics, but I haven’t felt creatively centered, if that makes any sense. So I’ve ended up with some preeeetty wobbly stories, structurewise.

I think part of my problem may be in the sorts of projects I’ve been working on this year. More about this later, but a much higher proportion of my writing has been for either nonfiction or ghostwriting on other people’s creative projects. So a smaller chunk of my creative brain power has been spent on the sorts of projects I enjoy the most (which is mostly people running around getting stabbed in the woods, apparently). This has put me a bit off so that when I do get around to those projects, my head isn’t in the game. This is probably further exacerbated by how busy I’ve been with life in general. My time for art in any form has shrunk considerably as we welcomed a new foster child into our home late last summer. He’s an awesome kid, but takes a looooot of time and attention. I basically doubled my kid load, meaning that most of my time for feeding my creative soul now happens between ten at night and… whenever I go collapse into bed. Sometimes that’s ten, because I’m tired. Sometimes it’s one in the morning because I really want to work on something that isn’t kid related. But then I’m exhausted in the morning and I pay it back for days. So yeah, I’ve been off-balance lately.

So how to center myself a bit more?

Honestly, I think the biggest thing may be to accept that, at least for a little while, I’m just going to have less time for art. I can’t not take my kid to his appointments. I can’t ignore my natural children, either, who are needing more attention than ever as we navigate these emotional waters together. But rather than just settling for less art, I think I should also shift the focus of what time I do have for art. I’ll have to do a better job of reserving my art time for the art that I find most fulfilling. And I’m going to start doing more of my visual art out in the midst of the kids instead of only while holed up in my Tortured Artist Cave. (Writing will have to stay in the cave, though. I cannot write with any distractions whatsoever, unfortunately.)

Giving myself the breathing space to make art without the guilt is probably the key here. Maybe I can’t produce the same volume of work that I have in years past. And maybe I don’t have the same amount of time that I have in the past. But letting myself create for the sheer joy of creating, rather than worrying about deadlines and output and word counts and dollars, should help bring me back to center. I’ll write more in a couple weeks about my goals for this year and how those shaped up, and then I’ll roll out a shiny new set of goals for next year.

Until then, happy (happy, I say!) writing!

Stealth Workouts

Twice a week, I find myself driving twenty minutes across town. I drop off a child. One hour later, I pick him up again. It’s not worth the gas to go home, and the place is pretty remote so there is nothing else within miles for me entertain myself with, except for a connected gym and a trampoline park which are both wildly overpriced.

When these appointments started, I would sit in the foyer on a squeaky plastic chair next to a fake plant and a table littered with board books, old issues of Highlights Magazine, and pamphlets about how to talk my kid out of doing drugs. I mostly chatted with the security guard or played solitaire on my phone, since I couldn’t ever seem to remember to grab a book, but if I was really on it, I would bring headphones and take French quizzes to win fake internet money with which I could buy little outfits for my avatar, a green cartoon owl named Duo.

It was low-grade terrible but could have been a lot worse. I could live with it.

Then, while spying on the security guard, I realized that of all the surveillance cameras he monitored—the halls of all three floors, the elevators, all doors in and out, several views of the parking lot—none of them were watching the stairwell. So with his blessing, I went to check it out.

Concrete steps with metal and rubber grills on the edges. Painted metal handlebars. Three dusty buckets of mysterious construction materials stuffed under the bottom flight. You know this stairwell, I’m sure. You probably have one at work, or your apartment building, or your doctor’s office. These are actually all the same stairwell, dimensionally connected across all space and time no matter where you enter or exit, from the florescent lights at the top to the patterned carpet at the bottom, covered with dust and the powdered remains of ten-year-old leaves, with maybe a skittle or two and a crumpled plastic juice bottle to liven up the scenery. You’ve been here before, but maybe you didn’t stay long because it looks like the kind of place that a homeless vampire from the 1700s might skulk while he tries to figure out where it all went wrong and what the heck ‘yeet’ is supposed to mean anyway.

Inspection thus passed, I sat thoughtfully in the foyer again the next visit. “You know,” I said to the security guy. “I should probably go walk stairs or something instead of just sitting here.”

“Do it.” He was probably tired of me hanging around making small talk while thumbing curiously through wall racks full of pamphlets about AIDS or safe sleeping positions for babies or how to make friends when you feel like nobody understands you. “You won’t be able to get back through the doors at the top of the stairs, but if you come back up before the elevator shuts down at five, it’s not a problem.”

Now, this building is literally connected to a gym. But as I have mentioned once or twice (or a thousand times), I am the cheapest of skates. I compare the price-per-ounce of every grocery I buy, every single week, just in case they went and changed it on me. I will always choose to languish sick at home an extra week than spend the ten dollars to see a doctor at my husband’s work’s health clinic. Every time. So why would I go to the gym when I have this perfectly serviceable creepy stairwell at my disposal?

It started out small. I clomped up and down the steps in my oversized winter boots for a quarter hour before coming back up to wait for the boy. But why stop there? If you have three flights of stairs, some buckets, and a pile of floppy plastic wall trim, you’re only limited by your imagination.

Things got more complicated. I started timing exercise sets on my phone—squats, stair sprints, planks, crunches, and so on. I wore tights and sports bras under my street clothes. I ditched the boots under the stairs. Then most of the outer layers of clothing as well. The workouts stretched in duration and intensity. But as that happened, I started to look more and more like a crazy person—especially considering that there was a fully equipped gym three feet away on the other side of the wall. I started to get self-conscious. Then, on the rare occasion that someone else was actually using the stairs to go up and down floors (who does that?), I started hiding. With the squeak and slam of a panic bar, someone else would come in the stairwell and I had moments to assess if they were above or below me, going up or going down, and then, drenched in sweat and wearing crazy tight pants and stripey socks, I dove beneath the stairs to squat pressed against the wall like a startled Gollum in a cave (except his hair is better than mine).

Then things started to get really weird. I mean, time is hard to come by and I’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I would do French quizzes while getting sick glutes on the stairs. I texted ladies from church about their ministering assignments and upcoming enrichment activities as I did wacky belly-dancing core workouts. I brought my laptop if I was behind on my word count for NaNo, and did this awful plank-while-sprinting thing where I had to get so many words before I could stop (which really just made for bad words and bad exercise form). I would max out the volume on my phone and listen to scriptures, running up three flights of stairs at a dead sprint while blasting the commandments of God handed down from Mount Sinai in this weird stairwell that I was making waaaay weirder by the day. I would do all these things in the same workout session, waiting for my kid to finish his appointment and never quite having enough time to finish everything I started. I was multitasking on a whole new level. And if that squeak-bang door announcement ever sounded, and it did at least once a session, I would instantly kill the volume and flee to the bottom of the stairs, squeezing down into a sticky ball of social anxiety wedged between a bucket of paint and a half-used box of powdered wall spackling, just add water.

I was being so incredibly weird, and I loved it. Man, it would have been miserable and mortifying if someone caught me at it, but good golly, it felt like I was getting away with a crime every time someone went through that stairwell and didn’t spot me. Just earlier today (no, this hasn’t stopped, and it’s not about to), I didn’t turn off my French quiz quite fast enough and the last echoes of “Avez-vous apporté-” were still sounding in the stairwell when someone came in. They paused, silent, then came uncertainly down the stairs. They paused again at the bottom of the flight, standing just before the door to leave.

Maybe they heard the labored breathing I couldn’t quite stifle. Maybe they could smell the scents of fresh sweat and discount-bin Lärabars. And then maybe they decided I was that 1700s vampire and it was best not to investigate. They left, leaving me feeling like I had just reached a whole new level of got-away-with-it rapture.

You know that NaNo Badge you can earn for writing where you probably shouldn’t? Oh yeah. Badge unlocked.

Reblog: 8 Things I Wish I Knew When I was Writing my First Novel

Ahhh, the month of wacky reblogs continues! When I asked my writing pals what their favorite writing videos were, this one from Hank Green floated to the top. (And if you like it, it links to more in-depth videos too! Into the rabbit hole we go!) In all my fantastic ignorance, I only really knew Hank Green from SciShow (which I’ve linked on this blog before), so I’m intrigued by a book being out there too, with another on the way! Who knew?

Next week is the last week of month, and then we’ll get ourselves back to usual and I’ll stop just reposting other people’s content. Until then, happy writing!

Self Care in the Pit of Despair

Trigger warning: mild reference to self-harm, suicidal ideation, anxiety, mood disorders, and vampicorns.

Well, folks, looks like it’s that time of year again, when I want to sleep 16 hours a day and fantasize about a truck wheel rolling over my head. Ahhhh, autumn…

My mood tends to tank pretty quickly once we pass the equinox. With more darknight than daylight, it can get tough to stay chipper and I didn’t start the season out being very good about spending time with my happy light. That, and it’s been pretty stressful for a lot of darned good reasons that aren’t about to go away.

But I am determined to not have another really bad winter already! Determined!

…Yeah. It’s great to tell myself that, but I haven’t been doing much about it lately. Last week, I was busily shelving books down at the library before school got out when I suddenly felt sick to my stomach, lightheaded, and hot. I stripped off my jacket and whined to the librarian, who immediately asked me if I’d eaten today.

She knows me pretty well, that lady.

So yeah, there’s room for improvement, and I’m ready for a revamp. Just deciding not to be depressed doesn’t usually work for me, but altering my behaviors can definitely lighten (and shorten) the mood. And perhaps the first thing on my alteration to-do list should be:

Eating and drinking. Even when I don’t feel like it. Even when I’m busy. Even when there’s ‘nothing to eat’ in my fully stocked disgustingly-privileged-middle-class-American kitchen. There is something to eat. Eat it.

The light. It is easy. It is mounted on the wall right next to the desk I sit at every day. For normal people who live in normal places, it is right outside that window that your normal house has. Embrace the inner kitty. Bask.

Compliment all the humans. This is a bit of a weird one, but I swear it helps me. When I get to where I absolutely despise myself, it helps to turn some of that focus outward. I compliment cool earrings and swanky clothes. I compliment smiles and hair and jobs well done and beautiful laughs and anything. People love it. And it makes me feel less loathey. (Another way to turn focus outward? Public service! There are always people in need! Check out justserve.org if you need ideas.)

Doodley-do. Again, this is weird, but it works for me. Sometimes when I’m really down in the dumps, I scrape, cut, and pinch myself. I tend to do it on my arms, particularly my left arm. But if I take a sharpie or one of my inking pens and doodle beautiful patterns on my arms, I don’t do it. I don’t know if this will help anyone else, but it helps me.

Stretching, meditation, and/or yoga. I feel like a doofy, entitled, time-wasting hippie every time I start, but I always feel calmer by the end. I’m terrible at meditation when I get in low moods or when the anxiety’s running hot, but I can still stretch out and I feel better afterward.

Reading with loved ones. Usually my kiddos, but often students at the school too. They love it, I love it. ‘Nuff said.

Busy, but not too busy. This is a very fine line to tread. Sitting around moping because I don’t feel like doing anything isn’t going to improve my worldview. But being so busy that I’m stressed out of my mind won’t either. The trick is to be busy and useful, but not so much so that I’m at a dead sprint from one thing to the next and feel like I’m going to start dropping balls at any moment. Balance is key.

Actual sleep. I just want to stay up until I’m passing out from exhaustion because I can’t bear to be alone with my thoughts in the dark, and then sleep until two or three in the afternoon the next day. Is that too much to ask? Well, when I have a million children to get to school, it is. Go to bed, Jill. Future You will thank you.

I’ve had this idea rattling around in my head for a picture book about a little unicorn who goes to a Magical Creatures Convention to get her hoof in the door with the elite GOODLI club, buuuut accidentally gets bitten by a vampire instead. Not quite the impression she was hoping to make. Her hopes and dreams vanish in a puff of sparkly purple smoke and she’s left trying to figure out where she fits in now.

Sometimes I feel like that little vampicorn. I want to be all glitter and cupcakes all the time, but sometimes I’m just not. Sometimes I’m bats and hematophagy instead. And that is okay! I will always have these mood cycles that make it hard for me to know where I fit into the world when I feel like a different person from one month to the next. It’s. Oh. Kay. My mood disorder is such that I know I’ll come around again, even when I don’t feel like it. The badness won’t last forever. And until it goes away again, taking better care of myself through the badness will make it all that much more liveable.

So as the seasons shift from summer to winter, and maybe you’re getting ready for another harried month of NaNoWriMo, just take a minute to check in with yourself. Maybe you have a little room for improvement in your own self care too! Your alterations to-do list will probably look a little (or completely) different from mine, and that is great. Know what helps you, and do it!

Until next week, happy writing!