Sunday, November 30, 2008

Routine Matters

My son, Max, attends a local Sunday morning basketball clinic put on by Jim Brogan, a former NBA player and current coach/motivational speaker. Those who are familiar with Jim know already that he has an unorthodox and eclectic style. He pushes the kids – literally and figuratively – to be leaders as well as good athletes. And he does it with a mix of interactive coaching, conventional shooting and ball-handling drills, and bold “in-your-face” challenges and questions. At the end of each Sunday workout, the kids cluster on the gym bleachers, all sweaty and sucking on their water bottles, to listen to Jim’s “Thought for the Week,” which he prints out on colored paper and distributes after his talk. These talks are the best part of Jim’s Sunday sessions because that’s where he draws on his celebrity status as an NBA player, along with his fiery and determined personality, to drive home important truths about basketball and life.

Jim has been a fantastic source of inspiration and learning not just for Max and his fellow athletes, but for me and all the other parents who huddle close to the kids at the end of the Sunday workouts to hear the weekly thought. Of course, Jim doesn’t just aim his talks at the kids – he focuses on the parents, as well, and there are some weeks when his words are meant more for us than for our offspring.

Today’s talk was one of those “Parents, listen up,” lessons. Jim spoke about a former student who had stopped by and confessed that he was failing his freshman classes at UC Berkeley. The former student told Jim that he was partying until three in the morning every day and had lost his motivation and his ability to stay on top of sports and classes. Jim pointed out the obvious lesson for the kids – that we all have choices to make about how we behave and what we do with our time – but he also mentioned something that made me sit up and listen a little closer.

And that was the concept of having a routine. As Jim told the kids, any of us can go out every night and party and hope we get by on talent and luck. But, he asked, wouldn’t it be better to commit to a routine that’s good for you? He made some suggestions (ones that he’s mentioned before) about good habits for basketball players, including coming to the gym every morning before school and shooting one hundred free throws. But, he also pointed out that having a routine is an important part of life. Even more important, he said, was to use our routines to build up our lives. When life gets boring, or throws us a tough curve ball, Jim suggested that the best way to adapt and adjust is to add a new routine to our repertoire.

This idea hit home with me, especially after a holiday week, when a lot of my normal routines were disrupted. My husband was out of town, the kids were home instead of being in school, and my writing group, which normally meets on Thursdays, had to skip because of Thanksgiving. Even worse, I was involved in some pretty hairy dental work, which left me with a misaligned bite and a lot of soreness. All of this put me off my usual routine of making calls for clients every morning, working on my novel, meeting with other writers, and spending time with my family. I hadn’t realized how much I treasured those daily rituals until they were disrupted this past week.

But most striking to me is the idea that when things get tough, and the going gets boring, one option for getting over the hump is adding a new routine to our repertoire. Who among us writers hasn’t hit the proverbial wall when working on a book? And how many times have many of us, especially after a rough critique or another rejection, considered giving up all together? Jim’s solution, which can keep us in the writing game, is to add another routine. Stuck in the middle of that nonfiction draft? Add a routine of writing an essay or a blog entry on a similar topic every week. Can’t come up with a subplot for that historical novel? Consider adding a daily research or reading timeslot that might provide some answers. Run out of images for that new short story? Why not spend fifteen minutes every day reading a poem by your favorite poet. Creating new routines, I’ve realized, is just as important as having some in the first place.

We writers have all heard about the importance of writing every day as a means of becoming better at our craft. Even those of us who can’t, or don’t care to, write daily usually have some kind of ritual and/or routine that keeps us on our game. A weekly free-writing session, a meeting with a group of writers, an annual retreat or residency – there is typically something we do regularly that keeps us in touch with ourselves and gives us the momentum to keep moving forward with our work. I hadn’t realized how crucial my own routines were until this week, when they were disrupted. Thanks to Jim Brogan, I’m reminded of the value of the every day routines in my life, and how much we all stand to gain by doing those same things – as long as they’re things that are good for us – over and over. Even more important, I’m now going to consider adding new ones when the old routines wear out.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

What Makes Writing Worth Doing?

In one of my favorite Woody Allen movies, Manhattan, there's a wonderful scene at the end of the film where the main character, Isaac, a neurotic, divorced television writer, finds himself alone at home on the couch, holding a tape recorder. His teenaged girlfriend, Tracy, has left him, he’s blown a relationship with a woman his own age, he’s lost his job and his apartment, and has discovered that fears about his health were unfounded. In that final scene, alone and hopeless, he turns on the tape recorder and asks himself, "What makes life worth living?" He then answers the question, mumbling into the microphone in his hand: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong's recording of Potato Head Blues, Swedish movies, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, the incredible apples and pears by Cezanne, the crabs at Sam Wo's, and, finally, he adds, "Tracy's face." These last words hit him in a way the others don't; he gets up and, in true Woody Allen fashion, runs through the streets of Manhattan to find Tracy before she leaves for college in England.

I won't tell you what happens at the very end (I’ll save that for those who haven't seen the movie), but I love the fact that the final realization in this film comes because of an image. The picture of a young girl's face in a man's mind summarizes her whole being for him: her sweetness, her radiance, her intelligence. It reveals these characteristics in a way that is so monumental that Isaac has to act. And off he goes, to whatever resolution the story has in store for him.

We writers deal in images. And like Isaac, we often find ourselves at a point in our writing lives where we’re on the couch, alone and hopeless, wondering if we can continue to pour our hearts out on the page year after year.

Most of us have been in the situation where something that was at one time important to us - our job, our marriage, a sport, a hobby - changes, and we suddenly find ourselves asking, Why am I doing this? What’s in it for me? In many marriages, this moment tends to occur after some years together (we’ve all heard the warnings about the seven year itch). We reach a point where we ask ourselves why we married our spouse, why we chose to have kids. We imagine what our lives would be like if we hadn’t gone down the marriage path. Or maybe we meet someone who seems like a true soul mate and wonder "what if?"

Writers often experience a similar pattern. We take some classes, win a few awards, find a good writing group, maybe even land an agent. But our first and perhaps even our second book doesn’t sell, so we doggedly write another one. And halfway through that next one, after maybe five or six or seven years of writing and going to classes and conferences and meetings with other writers, we ask ourselves, why are we doing this? Why spend so many hours away from our spouses, children, and friends, to slave over pages of words? Is it worth it?

And this is where our inspiration falters. Some writers stop writing. They begin to doubt themselves, they become more critical and anxious at their group meetings, or they don’t come at all - spending their creativity on inventing excuses: "I had too much work this week," "I’m not feeling well," "I have to go to an event with the kids," "I can’t find the inspiration/motivation/courage,"etc. Even published writers go through times of doubt, wondering why a book hasn't sold despite good publicity, successful book tours, and decent reviews. Why do any more book signings, they ask? Why write the next book? What makes writing worth the effort?

As in a marriage, when a writer's relationship with his/her work starts to falter, it might be time to examine the situation and get some counseling. A good conference or class can be the answer for some, providing a new way of looking at our writing, or offering new grounds for inspiration and camaraderie. Perhaps a stint at a writing residency might do the trick, providing some needed time for soul-searching and reconnecting with our creative selves.

Or maybe it's time to talk with a spouse, trusted friend, writing expert, agent, even a publicist. Anyone who’s a good listener can act as a sounding board. Have that person ask (or just ask yourself), "What makes writing worth doing?"

If you're honest, your answers might surprise you: maybe it's worth it because you love creating a world all your own from your own imagination; maybe it's the exhilaration you feel when you find that perfect word that illustrates exactly what you’re trying to say; maybe it's the admiration you receive from your friends, your family, your readers; maybe it's the friendships you've formed with other writers like yourself; maybe it's the voices of the characters you hear in your head, begging you to bring them to life on the page; maybe it’s an image of a young girl's face. You don’t know what that image means, but you feel driven to write about it, to find out why it haunts you, to discover what impact understanding it might have on your life.

Listen carefully to your answers. If you’re lucky, you just might discover an idea, a thought or, possibly, an image so powerful that it gets you up off the couch and running to create your next scene.

Oh, and for Isaac, I would have added one more thing that makes life worth living: writing.