July 14, 2008
I had great plans for today, because I got so much done yesterday morning, outdoors. I finally got more seedlings in the ground — not the easiest task for someone with arthritis and fibromyalgia, who’s out of shape, and who’s working in hard, rocky soil. But I paced myself, got a lot done, and I felt good about it afterward.
I was so happy with the result yesterday that I planned to do more of the same today. Then I wakened later than usual, and not in the best mood. I dealt with kitty behavior issues right away, then I went to the store instead of starting work in the yard. Finally I came home to a hot late morning promising an even hotter day. So I canceled my plans to do more spading and planting, and here I sit indoors with the air conditioner on, wondering why that seems to happen so often. Not the hot weather. That’s to be expected this time of year. But I’ve noticed with many other things I do that when I make specific or detailed plans, they often fall through. Not just gardening tasks.
I realize now that even though I fooled myself for years, dutifully planning my work, both on the job and off, I’m really, at heart, not a planner at all. I’ve told my husband time after time how I like to plan things. But truth to tell, I’ve never actually been much for committing to anything. What I was really saying was probably that I didn’t like anyone else to make plans for me that might keep me from finding my happy accidental tasks. I think it’s because plans seem so often to change — and often for the best — that I’ve discovered this. Plans change. So why bother planning? Of course in the workplace that wouldn’t have flown. In any cooperative effort, plans make sense, because we depend so much on others getting their work done on time.
On my own, who needs plans? Maybe it’s something to do with being a generalist, not a specialist. But in a way I’m like this little cat, self-directed and easily distracted — by the right distractions. Those distractions often become momentary passions, obsessions that frequently happen to turn out really well.
Yes, I could tell myself, “Just get out there and do the damned gardening, like you planned.” But then the joy wouldn’t be in the effort, and instead of feeling good about what I accomplish, I’d be dehydrated, overheated, and feel terrible the rest of the day, possibly tomorrow as well. I know better. So I threw some water on the little transplants, and came inside. Maybe tomorrow morning. . . .
Still I wonder. Why do I get the most done when I don’t plan to? When it’s a spur of the moment, “I think I’ll do this right now” kind of thing? That’s what yesterday’s effort was. I woke up, got dressed, and started right in, because that was exactly what I wanted to do that morning, as soon as I woke up. I woke up inspired. This morning I didn’t. At least not with that inspiration, not with the one I expected.
I notice this is especially true with creative work of all kinds, and with learning, where it’s not the weather that changes things, but something unknown. Just when I wouldn’t think I’d even be in the mood for it, I get a whim and do that different thing, whatever it may be, and that’s when I get the most out of it. I seem to be most productive when I haven’t planned anything at all, when I pay heed to momentary flashes of inspiration or that sudden opportunity. Happy accidents and spontaneous productivity. Do you have them? My life seems full of them. They’re what makes me happy.
Here’s the real mystery: I don’t think it’s just about my mood or how I’m feeling, or the weather. It sometimes seems almost more like a synchronous universal dance of some kind. Sometimes all the pieces are in place, inside me and outside of me.
And it’s not just me. I think there are lots of people, like me, who’ve struggled all our lives to conform to a world that likes plans, schedules, rules. So much so that I grew up, and spent thirty years of adult life, thinking I was more comfortable with plans, schedules, and rules. Actually, as a kid, I never felt right about it. As an adult, I bought into it. Had to, to keep a job. But if that’s the way we should live life, how does one explain all those happy accidents by inventors, scientists, and discoverers through the ages? Granted, a certain amount of preparation took place before those historical happy accidents occurred. But many important discoveries in history weren’t planned. Not the way they turned out. Someone happened by chance to be in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing, or paying attention to what turned out to matter most.
Were they in tune with the synchronous dance of the universe?
For some people, I know this doesn’t work. Planning works for them. That’s great, more power to them. We need planners in the world, and maybe that’s their part of the synchronous dance. Someone has to read the music and keep the time. For me, not planning works. It’s about time I realized it.
Instead of gardening today, what will it be? I won’t know until seconds before I start, or perhaps after I’ve already begun.
March 15, 2008
Have you ever had trouble deciding which topic to read about next, or what to major in in college? Has anyone ever told you that you have too many hobbies? Have you ever thought about leaving a perfectly good job to look for something else that might interest you more — even if it doesn’t pay more? Maybe you’re a generalist.
This past Saturday, Dave Pollard at How To Save the World linked to an essay in his Links of the Week that he described as brilliant and liberating, and I agree.
The essay, by William Tozier of the Notional Slurry blog, is titled, There are exactly two ways: one, and many. The two ways he discusses are specialization and generalization.
William Tozier proposes the notion that we’re all evolved to be generalists, that specialization isn’t normal. I tend to agree when I consider that many of our forbears were more general in their skills and knowledge than we are. Even today, skills tend to be more generalized in humans living closer to nature, and survival in a wilderness requires a lot of flexibility.
When I think about it, the only things our earliest ancestors planned was to survive, and they were never sure how they would have to do that. The only things they finished were a good meal when food was available, or a new tool or garment when an old one wore out — often taking time to add improvements or embellishments, so even they were never finished. They paused to take in their world and observe it. They learned from everything around them. They were creative, they were nomads, and they were students of life. They paid attention to what came their way, they took them as signs of what they needed to do, for now.
William Tozier discusses the problem of explaining to specialists what we generalists do, how to label ourselves in today’s world. It can be a problem, and I think this must be why, long ago, I started to think of myself as a writer. Aside from having an aptitude for English and composition, a writer has to read and learn about many things in order to do what she does. Writing provides an excuse to research anything and everything, as possibly relevant to a project. Later still I began referring to myself as a creative person, because that can involve lots of different interests too, even more than writing. It can encompass activities that are finished when they’re finished, or never finished, rather than finished to deadlines. Of course writers have deadlines, if they hope to make money at it, and there the generalist has to adapt to the specialized modern world.
I conformed to the specialized world for years, in being a reliable employee and meeting deadlines. I glued myself to my chair and focused on my job. I met deadlines, and earned awards and promotions for my conformity and work ethic. But I wasn’t happy. I didn’t even feel healthy doing that. Eventually it became habit, and I got so I felt uneasy if I didn’t have a plan. So then I was really stuck — uneasy with my schedule and commitments, and uneasy when I didn’t have any.
After a lifetime of thinking I wasn’t doing life right, that I needed to be more energetic, and get more done, finish more things, I feel relief and satisfaction to realize that I’m a generalist and always have been — and there’s nothing wrong with that. It explains so much. Some people may think of being a generalist as a bad thing and call us dilettantes, or unwilling to commit, and some may even think it’s a sign of a problem, one of those recently defined mental disorders for which there always conveniently seems to be a new drug. (When did we start inventing diseases to match the drugs instead of the other way around?) Heaven forbid any of us should be anything but cookie cutter normal, whatever that means. In our culture it apparently means we have to specialize in something, we have to plan everything out, have goals and deadlines, in order to succeed. We have to finish long lists of things, and fill every minute with structured activity.
Today we don’t just have a work ethic, we have a work ethic on steroids.
I for one am ready to stop the madness. If we were intended to plan everything out, then why do we need artificial planners like Daytimers, Palm Pilots, and Blackberries? If we’re supposed to have jam-packed calendars and meetings overlapping meetings, then why didn’t we evolve to keep our schedules in our heads, and to be in two places at once? If we were supposed to travel the same road everyday, then why do we love vacations so much?
Unfortunately, being generalists brings some of us less material success in life, since it’s much less likely that we decide on distinct, well-defined career paths, and even if we do, we get this itch to change careers now and then. We’re looked down on when we tend not to finish things to a schedule — and I agree that makes sense when others are depending on us to finish so they can do their things. We’re often better off working on our own, to our own schedules, which are pretty much nonexistent, and without anyone else depending on us conforming to a schedule. Sometimes we’re called Jacks of all Trades.
Provided you figure out eventually that this is how you’re supposed to be, that there’s nothing wrong with you for wanting less structure and commitment in your life, being a generalist can bring a great deal of freedom and happiness. After all, what makes you happier than being yourself, no matter how many directions that may lead you?
I’m a generalist, and have been all my life. I’m grateful to finally figure this out. Thanks, William and Dave.
July 11, 2006
The cat’s litter box is clean. That mundane detail isn’t your favorite sentence I’ve ever written, I’m sure. Mine either. But my day often seems to revolve around whether that task has been accomplished, and what comes after it. I go through a list of chores, on the days I think to make one, eventually reaching the line that has to do with writing, after checking off a lot of other stuff. Today writing comes after important things like the cat’s box, which is of utmost importance to her, though slightly less to us except through our affection for her, since we don’t use it and it’s out in the garage, easy for us to forget. Vacuuming comes next, mostly pet hair this time of year. That task must be accomplished while the day is still cool enough to have windows open, or not at all. A late-in-the-day shower will be in order, after all the creepy stuff on the list is done. (Bear with me, I do have a point here, this isn’t merely a run-through of my chores.) (more…)
July 4, 2006
The subject of privilege came up on a forum where I sometimes participate, and it seems a relevant topic for Independence Day, since we tend to think of the US as a relatively privileged nation. The discussion grew out of one person claiming to be oppressed (my word choice, used to boil the idea down), and another saying he was equally oppressed, with a resulting one-upmanship of who was worse off or better off, at one point involving the term privileged. Out of that grew a separate discussion on what it means to be privileged in this world. Here’s what I shared on the subject, with some edits:
To me being privileged means having more than one’s basic needs met, and there are degrees of privilege, and it is relative, and basically meaningless. I’m more privileged than some people I know, and less privileged than some I know. But all I can really say about that is what I see on the surface.
It’s tragic that so few people in the world have adequate food, water, sanitation, shelter, clothing, necessary transportation, education, rest, safety, security, and health care, even some people in the US. Those should be basic, subsistence level expectations, especially considering how far we’ve come technologically in this world. Unfortunately those advances seem to be reserved for the wealthiest people in the wealthiest countries, for those living under certain forms of government and economics. Basic civil and human rights should also be considered subsistence level—everyone should have them. Not everyone does, even in the most economically “privileged” countries. We can’t even agree on what civil and human rights people should have.
But I also think many people in the world have a skewed notion of what it is to live under what they consider privilege (i.e. better apparent economic or social conditions than theirs). It looks easier. In many ways it is. It’s no guarantee one will be happy. (more…)
June 18, 2006
Writing is risky. Especially writing fiction. As Forrest Landry points out in his latest post at For The Trees, alarm and ire have arisen over the number of writers who give up these days and self-publish. He pointed to a blog post by E. Ann Bardawill at Something Fell, on The Killing of Mockingbirds. She used Richard Adams’ Watership Down as an example, and that drew me in because it’s one of my favorite books. (more…)
May 30, 2006
A comment discussion at Eric Mayer’s blog post, Putting Ourselves Out of Business, involved the idea of considering one’s writing just a hobby. I have a feeling that most fiction writers, published or not, feel to some degree as if they’re hobbyists these days. After all, there isn’t much money to be made in this business, except by a very few. But they also have to take it seriously in order to get far, it has to be an intense, obsessive sort of hobby.
Late in 1993, after a lot of discouraging experiences attempting to sell my fiction, I decided to “quit fiction writing for good” and I wrote nothing but personal journals and technical manuals for a year. I began writing fiction again early in 1995, but with a difference. I did it, as I’d begun as a girl, to please myself, primarily to complete a story I thought had to be written or it would drive me nuts. That story had been percolating inside me since I was seventeen. I surprised myself then by doing some of the best fiction writing I had in my life to that point. My decision at that point to please only myself with what I wrote carried me through a kind of barrier into a different way of looking at writing fiction. (more…)
April 28, 2006
Far be it from me to judge what exactly happened with Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. I haven’t read it, and I don’t intend to—wouldn’t intend to even if the publisher hadn’t turned around and pulled it off bookstore shelves. But when I read all the off-shoot accounts of the state of book packaging today, I find myself sympathizing at least a tiny bit, as Rachel Pine seems to, with the young author. Not enough to defend her, perhaps, or to excuse what happened, but honestly—what a confusing business this has become.
I recall an old episode of The Avengers on TV, in which a publisher created a computer to crank out formula novels, then passed them off as having been written by a human being. I thought for sure that was pure fantasy until I began reading about this plagiarism case. Kaavya Viswanathan’s name is on the book’s copyright page, but according to what I’ve read so is Alloy Entertainment’s. So who is to blame? How did this happen? (more…)
April 10, 2006
Eric Mayer’s post on Serious Business made me think about how we’re perceived or misperceived by others, when we blog or when we’re face to face. The tangent I take on this has to do with introverts and extroverts. I don’t presume to know which Eric is. His post made me think about this because I’m an introvert, and I picked up a book again just yesterday on this topic.
Introverts tend not to be as outwardly expressive, or to let others deep into our worlds as readily as extroverts. We’re not bubbly, cheery people for the most part. We tend to ponder. We enjoy time alone and many of us don’t like noise or interruptions. Introversion is a natural personality trait, and though introverts are probably in the minority, there’s nothing wrong with being so. We don’t dislike people, but people are sometimes difficult for us to be with. I think this has a lot to do with energy exchange and personal boundaries. It doesn’t mean anyone’s done anything wrong. It usually means we have different styles of interacting. Different people respect varying personal thresholds.
Is either an introvert or an extrovert better than the other? Of course not, and a world of all one or the other wouldn’t work for me. I see this as a yin/yang kind of thing. I hesitate even to group people into broad classifications like this. Each person is unique, a blend of many elements, but most of us lean one way or the other toward extroversion or introversion, some more so, and I think it’s the “more so” people where introversion is concerned who wind up with others trying to change them, and feeling misunderstood. (more…)
March 26, 2006
While changing feed readers today I had to decide how to categorize various blogs. I noticed how often a religious or spiritual blog could also be classified as a political one. I find that surprising on one hand and inevitable on the other. Surprising because when I belonged to a church for a few years in the late 70s we seldom spoke of politics in relation to religion. The blending of the two was discouraged at that time. Yet some merging of religion and politics seems inevitable today. It’s impossible to discuss one without someone mentioning the other. (more…)
March 10, 2006
A recent Washington Post column queried Bloggers on the Reasons Behind Their Daily Words. Reading it got me to thinking yet again about why I blog.
I started my website back in 2000, when Shadows Fall was first published, for the same reason most writers do, to promote my work. Four years later I started this blog as a way to provide up-to-date content on my website and let visitors know what I was working on—basically as a way to keep the website from stagnating when too much time passed between novels. Little did I know at the time that the blog would engage so much of my attention.
The immediacy of this format holds a certain attraction. Type, click a button, and what you’ve written is published. But that has its drawbacks. As easy as email, which carries its own risks, a blog can suck you out into public view in a way that’s scary and in some ways deceiving. It’s easy to forget you’re putting yourself “out there” to the degree we do online. After all, I’m seated here alone at my home computer as I type this into a little window on my screen. It doesn’t feel public at all, at the time I write. (more…)