After reading yet another repetitive, tired article this morning about increasing my productivity as a writer, I made a vow. As of 10 a.m., December 3rd, 2015, I will never again click on a link promising to teach me about increasing my productivity as a writer. I feel more productive already.
Worrying about productivity is a task for mindless cogs in a machine. We are not mindless cogs. We are writers. Creators. We don’t live other people’s stories. We create our own. Productive is just an adjective in deft fingers: useful only when we choose it to appear within our stories as needed. It’s nothing more than that.
1. Goals shmoals.
I wander the beach now, at times going shoeless, even in winter, to feel sand beneath my feet. I talk to deer and rabbits and birds as I walk through the woods. I chat with strangers in shops and at the dog park and with my neighbors on the street. I retreat quietly, for long chunks of time, to observe and reflect. I support my family and neighbors struggling with disconnection, heartbreak, violence, and disease. I create coworking spaces: playing with other writers and artists and humans doing other cool things. I love crafting books, poems, and essays. I love trying new things, with new people. Who I am naturally makes me a productive writer. Why did I think otherwise?
2. There is no such thing as writer’s block.
I write all the time. I write to learn. To heal. To play. To mourn. To support my world and my family. To communicate. To kill time. To pay bills. To flirt. To dream. Like a drunken bumble bee lingering among wildflowers at dusk, I write for the pure delight of it. When I can’t write, that’s not writer’s block. It’s writer’s intuition: a gift saying “There is actually something else more important to be done first.” I’ve learned to listen to it. Even when what I’d really rather do is kick it in the teeth.
The “block” might be saying that you really need to eat something. That you need to move or exercise. To work on another project for a while. Or it might be saying something bigger. You need to ask for help. You need to sell your house. Or change who you’re spending your time with right now. Maybe your next door neighbor needs help, or your sister needs a pep talk, and you need to be not writing tonight so that you’re available to notice. Or maybe you yourself need to rest. I’ve learned that if I trust the block/intuition on this one, that I don’t need to get sick to make deep rest finally happen. This fall my parents needed me to drive their car across the country for them and help set up a new home for them here near us. I couldn’t write for a few days before and most of the time while this was happening. That was a good thing. The “block” always gives me time to examine and drop my ridiculous expectations and assumptions about myself, writing, and the world so that I can return to them fresher, as something closer to the real me, instead of showing up completely exhausted and pissed off. If you must believe in the block, focus on learning to trust the block.
3. Everything I do counts as writing.
Just because others can’t see this, or don’t agree, that doesn’t make it less true for me. When I’m taking a walk, I’m pre-writing. When I’m grocery shopping or cooking, I’m feeding a writer. When I’m napping and dreaming, I’m receiving writing ideas from the universe. When I’m listening to music or attending a play or binge-watching Netflix or cleaning the cat box or noticing the sound that boots on a snow-covered sidewalk make, I am a writer. Absorbing. Listening. Learning. Imagining. When I sit in a sunbeam, I’m writing. When I mend, trade, or shop for clothes, and do laundry, I am clothing a writer. When I walk in the pouring rain, without my coat on, or I sit on the ground instead of a chair, or I offer sincere and loud direct reply to an eagle’s cry, I am a poet, poeting. I am writing every single moment of my life now. Only those who have the option to return for another life here get to be more productive than I am.
4. Procrastination is trustworthy.
What writers lack in self-confidence we more than make up for in intuition. Our intuition is rock solid even when it lands us way off course and lost in the wilderness. Especially when it lands us way off course and lost. I’ve learned to ignore people, including myself at times, who say otherwise. My procrastinating self knows that I literally have better things to be doing than the work I’m struggling to do. That struggling itself is the sign. And if that means I need to go watch silly cat videos or lurk on Facebook for a while or bake a cake from scratch for no reason, then so be it. Procrastination is a flashing sign that it’s time for a break, a shift, a move, a change, a rest. Big or small. Your call.
5. I don’t actually need to be more productive. I need to be more fully present.
Spend 5 minutes and write down everything you’ve done this year to make life better on planet earth. Be generous with yourself: pretend that it’s your best friend writing the list on your behalf. I wrote and published three books this year: one about turning your home into a free community coworking space, one for other dementia caregivers about becoming your own respite center, and one for others interested in the process of becoming a poet and an artist. I wrote two mini-books containing tips for working in and hosting an informal coworking space. I also wrote essays and poetry, and blogged them, receiving thanks and feedback, regularly. I wrote offline entirely, just something for myself, almost every week. I taught others about creativity and writing and publishing. I took on temporary writing and editing gigs to help pay the bills. I also supported family dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and the birth of a new baby, supported friends through their many struggles and joined them in their joys, prepared a home for sale and sold it, joined a memory and brain wellness center’s board at a local hospital, started a new coworking space, made new friends, drove a car across the country, helped set up a new home for my folks, took care of my neighbors’ dogs and cats, canned pickles and jams and applesauce and tomatoes for the winter, took care of my spouse and home and pets, started a small business with my husband, and gathered neighbor-offered art supplies and well wishes for the new family that bought our Seattle home.
What ridiculous, nonsensical part of me thinks that I still need to be more productive to be of value? The part of me that needs to shut the hell up.
Productivity as a goal — as handed to me by the industrial world, my own fears, and all others foolishly attempting to turn wonderfully messy humans into less messy machine-type automatons — makes no sense here in my real world. Here, productivity has more to do with getting better at noticing our already amazing world and the journey of trying to leave it a speck more amazing than we found it. Here productivity is a natural outcome of being alive and fully present in the world together. Becoming more fully present requires a whole lot of things that on the surface appear to be the opposite of productive in the large-scale industrial sense (which I now officially recognize as Ridiculous City in my story). Things like wandering the wilderness alone, helping neighbors, talking to animals, daydreaming, sitting on the ground, and doing nothing are what make me, and those I touch, so productive.
6. Receive the world lightly and embrace the consequences of doing so.
Your heroes. Your most respected mentors and teachers. Your friends and family. Your partner. Your manager. Your editor. Your boss. Your client. All your former selves. None of these people know that perfect combination of what makes you more or less productive today, right now. Receive the bits that work for you today. Let the other bits go. Lightly, gracefully, when possible, like a tree letting go of leaves. I now move away from me-specific energy drains, as kindly as possible, and move toward energy-creating-for-me people/ideas/things whenever I can. I’ve had to say “No, that doesn’t work for me.” and “This isn’t working for me anymore.” and “I can’t do things the way you do them.” and “I can’t do this the way I used to do it.” to countless deeply respected mentors, teachers, family members, and personal heroes. People who I trust 100 percent. I’ve had to say “No more!” to all my former selves too. As a novice. As a struggling writer. As a person not making enough money to live on or one who really needed the money someone was offering me for a job I didn’t want to do anymore. As a still mostly clueless (even at age 25, then 35, then 45) human. Even when I had no idea what actually would work in the moment.
For me, receiving the world lightly, gracefully, involves regularly listening to and then visibly using the voice that says “This works for me right now. This doesn’t.” It also involves regularly accepting, and eventually embracing, the consequences of this privilege: 1) allowing everyone around me to do the same, 2) connecting more deeply to others in any given moment, and 3) moving away from people regularly, when the moment isn’t quite right for connection, even away from people I love. It’s about learning to trust our collective intuition. About learning to see and trust mentors-of-the-moment as they change. Some days they’re living people. Sometimes they’re long-dead people. Often they are small groups of trusted others. Sometimes they’re dogs, cats, trees, ocean waves, rain, wind, sunshine, books, poems, songs, paintings, or birds. Some days they are the me I’m saying goodbye to.
7. Prioritize whatever keeps you awake and present in the moment. As you notice valuable results, share them.
I’m learning to honor and embrace those things that keep me aware and present: whenever and wherever they show up. Writing and making/drinking tea consistently do this for me now, so I start my day with them at the moment. Then the dog shows up to play or go for a walk, so I shift and listen to/play with the dog. Then I’m hungry, so I shift to listening to my body. Then a neighbor knocks at the door, so I give her my full attention. After that, I really want to write again. Yet after too many days of writing alone my mind begins to wander. So I follow my desire for human interaction and go to the movies with neighbors, work on a project with friends, or go work in a coworking space where I am surrounded by writers and connect to become re-energized for my own work. Yesterday two dogs came into the coworking space and wanted to play. So I played instead of finishing my work on deadline. I created better work as a result. This is what being aware in the present moment feels like. Enough at ease with disruption, most days, that you are aware that you have a variety of options anytime disruptions happen, including the option of welcoming them and running with them. Those disruptions that push us out of our comfort zones are among the best to welcome and run with, IMO. To me, they are life’s hand-crafted, person-specific, just-in-time training. And if you ignore them, they just keep on coming in ever-louder ways.
For me, this individual prioritizing of what keeps us conscious and present (and willingness to drop individual plans and expectations for disruptions and concede that often the universe or currently present collective has a better idea) is the primary difference between being a creator most of the time and being a consumer most of the time. The fully conscious part is the tricky part. To remain conscious, awake, and aware, I have to be willing to prioritize whatever keeps me conscious, awake, and aware again and again. What keeps me present is different than it is for others. For me at the moment it’s living on the edge of the ocean. Walking in the woods and on the beach. Chatting with strangers. Helping neighbors. Creating coworking spaces with friends. Giving and receiving honest opinions on things with people who appear to have little in common with me. Engaging with others to reveal hidden community and connections. Playing with dogs and cats and friends. Figuring out how to communicate with my mom who has Alzheimer’s disease and a dad who is a far-beyond-exhausted caregiver. Very light business planning (aka, co-imagination check-in meetings). These things keep me present and paying attention today.
This makes it possible for me to spontaneously say “Enough! Right here is a place for me to be writing instead of reading. Creating instead of consuming. Right here my procrastinating is pointing me to what I actually should be doing today.”
For me, today, this was it: writing an article that had absolutely nothing to do with what I planned to do on a subject that I never intended to write about, ever.
Damn it feels good be human.