On losing time and building our inner temple

I’ve just finished reading a great article I stumbled upon while checking out my Facebook feed, something I don’t like to do often, as I can usually feel how this automated action makes me unaware of time as it flies inexorably by. The article, published in an old issue of The Atlantic, and written by Nicholas Carr in 2008. addressed a similar issue, as it tried to answer to one of the most anxious questions of our time: is Google making us stupid?

Same as the author of the article, and as some of the people he quotes, I too have experienced this: being unable to concentrate long enough on a long article or a book the way I used to, simply because my mind refuses to dive deep enough into what I am reading, jumping instead from one idea to another, finding and forming new links to stuff I know and urging me to follow all those mental roads at once instead of allowing myself to contemplate one idea at a time. It creates a sense of urgency that can be productive, depending on what it is you do, but that can also lead to feel as if you’re spinning and losing control over your own mind.

Even more than the symptoms and the problems described in the article, I experience something that I would identify a new kind of procrastination, a frantic procrastination, if you will. If the end goal is to get something done, then does the way you do it really matter? Or the impact it has on your other activities? For example, if I have to remove the paint from my nails,  and, in the same day (let’s imagine it’s the day before work), prepare a presentation, or a lesson, if you’re a teacher (my case). Those a two completely different tasks, the importance of which has almost nothing in common, to me, anyway. I know that preparing my lesson is more important than painting my nails, but still, when I take a short break from my work and go to the bathroom, I automatically tell myself: “hey, I’m in the bathroom, let’s remove the paint right now, this way, I won’t have to do it later and it’ll be one thing less to do today”. It’s true: one less thing to do. But in the meantime, I have completely disrupted my work process, the one I had going on before the bathroom break. I can return to it, of course, and I will, but without me even realizing it, it will take me a little more time to readapt to the writing / working state.

You could tell me that those kinds of interruptions are just a way to procrastinate, and you’d be right. As John Perry describes it in his famous book on procrastination, procrastinators are “passionate” people who can spend hours on the Internet following every new link they see pop up in front of them. It is a form of curiosity of course, and it is also a way of avoiding the task that needs to be done, and that needs to be done in quiet and peace.

So, either it is because I am a procrastinator, or because I am getting more and more used, as are millions of people today, to a “google” way of thinking by association (I am in the bathroom, i.e., I can remove the nail polish; I am going out i.e., I can take out the trash) and through pop-up windows, I have a really hard time concentrating. And on the one hand, I get a lot of small things done (like painting my nails, getting our the trash, sewing that button or writing that e-mail), but when it comes to more serious things, that cannot be done without “going under”, “diving in”, if you will, I’m constantly trying to find ways to interrupt myself. So this makes me a quite effective person that has, as a result, some free time, free time that can (and should) be used to get into deeper projects – my dissertation, my book, even my lessons actually, that would benefit a lot from being prepared fully in advance. Instead of this, I ofter lose my free time by surfing on the Internet, unable to switch my google brains off and my writing brains on.

There is some hope, though.

This weekend, for example, I decided to take a break. So I forgot about work and all the things I had to do and watched old episodes of The Good Wife, drank good wine, ate and slept. I completely disconnected with the rest of the world and, although it was the hardest part, didn’t feel guilty. When I finally emerged, I had the feeling of just returning from vacation. For a few hours (some would say they were lost, of course they were. I could have taken this time to dive into a great novel instead of watching TV, but I did what I did. Diving into a good novel is harder than diving into a good tv-show, but essentially it is the same thing) I would be concentrated only on what was in front of me. My world wasn’t bigger than the one depicted in the show, my mind didn’t wander outside of what was on the screen. In other words, I was concentrated really hard on one thing, something that doesn’t happen a lot.

Then, the ultimate question is: how to achieve a similar level of concentration when working on something? When you are active, instead of being passive? When, no matter how interesting what you’re doing is, it is always easier and therefore nicer to watch TV (or read a book or go outside or do whatever you like unconditionally, whatever you are passionate about) than to work on something.

Because as soon as we think of something as work, our brains automatically refuses to give it full attention. Thinking of your work as leisure is one way to do it, but I haven’t really succeeded at it yet. Exercising your willpower is another way to go. Constantly reminding yourself that concentrating on what you’re doing is best for you and will give you better results is, in my experience, the thing that works the best.

What does it mean ? It means actually being aware of your concentration problems and doing everything in your power to create an environment that would make it easier to concentrate. Very often I think of it after the free time is over and I have to work very fast to at least do something before the deadline. But I’ve decided to put the ball in my court and keep it there. I’ve decided to remind myself as often as possible that I can take time to breathe deeply, segregate myself from the world and allow myself to take this time I have to think deeply on a subject, to stop all the haste and to take a short time off from the world around me. I know that if I go to a café for example, to work, instead of staying home, I will achieve this state much faster. I know that if I create a soothing environment for my ideas (like a glass of wine, for example), it will be less hard to allow myself to contemplate and slow down a little bit. And most of all I know that if I write a little bit everyday in my diary (or on the blog), I allow myself to go deep into my own thoughts and reemerge cooler and more relaxed.

So what I want to say in the end is this: living in our fast paced world, where information runs so fast it becomes difficult to just stop and think about one thing without feeling guilty for missing out on all the other stuff that’s going on, the way to stay sane is to cut yourself from the world sometimes, concentrate on one subject at a time, force yourself in the beginning and help yourself by creating a soothing environment. Concentration can only be achieved in silence. It doesn’t have to be outer silence, but inner silence. That’s why I work best in crowded places, because I retract myself from the humming around me. On the contrary, working in total silence can be daunting, because your mind drifts very easily from one thing to another.

What do you like to do to achieve maximum concentration? Do you struggle with your mind going to all kinds of places instead of focusing on just one thing? Do you create a special ritual to stay focused and concentrated?

I’d love to hear your feedback on this!

 

Advertisements

2016 (non)resolution

Goodness, it’s been so long.

Last time I had something to write about on this blog was just before my birthday, on November 2nd, 2015. I wanted to recap all the things I wanted to leave behind me in the 26th year of my life, and all those I wanted to bring with me in my 27th.

One of those things consisted in not waisting anymore time and doing things in an efficient and productive way. A “said and done” kind of mantra I wanted to implement right after my birthday.

The irony of it all is ever so full of wisdom.

There are, of course, some things I want to leave in the past, where they belong. In the year 26th as well as in the year 2015.

The feeling of imperfection and inadequacy.

The constant worrying.

The internal belief (and source of enormous stress) that if I try hard enough, I can change people and make people be what I think they ought to be (because I know better, obviously).

The things I want to bring with me in the new year are things that wouldn’t exist if I didn’t have those flaws to begin with. Overcoming your own shortcomings is, I believe, the very best part of being alive as a human being.

So, what I want to do in the next year is simple:

Let things be. (Let my life unfold the way it should, let others live, eat, drink, move or not move the way they want to, let my students figure out their own shortcomings for themselves and make them better for it, etc.)

Be the change. (Go to the gym if I want a perkier butt, which I know I’ll get as soon as I start to train regularly; Finish my PhD, which I know I can do if I write regularly; Inspire my students by being myself and always seeking to be better at what I do, etc.)

There are lots of other small stuff, that said out loud sounds much easier to achieve than these two mostly psychological goals. Eating less carbs and ditching industrial sugar, going to the gym at least every other day, sleeping at night, writing every day, going outside, ditching Facebook, etc. etc.

Those are means, and some of them are useful. The thing is to implement all new habits one at a time. Take them as they come. Step by step.

This will be a great year, I’m sure of it.

Happy 2016 to everyone!

 

“When this is over, I’ll get on living…” How to stop this kind of thinking and be productive.

“As soon as I’m done with this project, I’ll return to my normal routines.” “Just wait until this is over, then I’ll be thriving.” “I just have to get this over with, then it’ll be all good.” Sounds familiar? These kinds of thoughts pollute our minds more often than it is bearable, and once we get in the state of “as soon as… then”, not only do we not enjoy the thing that needs to be done itself, but we actually lose a lot of time on stress and unproductive behavior, jeopardizing the very chances this particular project gets done in the best way possible.
An example. Last Friday night I had to attend a cocktail party at my High School. It was the first one of he year, all my students and their parents were to be there and, as a teacher and the head of the department, I had to make a speech. It didn’t have to be long, and no serious matters had to be discussed. Only greetings and thanks. Then there were to be other speeches, and food, and drinks, and some of my students actually had prepared some kind of a show. So really, there was almost no reason for me not to enjoy it. That’s what I had been telling myself for hours before the event. And every time a voice in me head had replied: “I don’t want to enjoy it, I want to get it over with.”
It wasn’t only that I longed to finally get some rest after an eventful week, or that I was a bit scared of the speech, and also at the though of having parents come up to me and ask questions about their children. As I was writing the first draft of this post, I understood I had very few things to fear, virtually none.
Still, I’d rather been anywhere else but there that night.
The cocktail went very well, and, the day after that, my first field trip with my students went smoothly as well. I had nothing to worry about. Of course, you always “have” to worry about small stuff, but shit always happens, so it’s not even that. I was new to all these events, but the process itself of worrying sick about something that was planned ahead and that I had to wait for to happen wasn’t new to me. Actually, this is how I’ve lived for the past few years. Being a PhD student didn’t help: I had a weekly schedule, sure, with courses to teach every week, and scientific gatherings to attend, and my thesis to write “in the meantime”. That is where it went wrong. Because instead of making the writing my priority (lots of reasons there, but now I’d like to tackle the particular problem of planning), I kind of lived from “event” to “event”, occupying myself sporadically with other tasks that seemed important too, but mostly waiting for the week/class/conference to be over so that I could finally sit at my desk and write uninterrupted. 
With experience comes wisdom, sometimes. The experiences of the past few weeks, as I now have a full schedule, lots of time demanding unimportant stuff, and still my thesis to finish, not to mention other projects and things I like to do (like going to the gym and writing my novel), have finally taught me something precious.
There never will be a time with no distractions. It is an illusion to think that “once this is over”, you’ll have time to do what matters. Life always happens, and if it isn’t an “important” e-mail, or some kind of certificate you have to get to the administration asap, or a real emergency, it will be picking your clothes from the dry cleaner, or making dinner, or picking up that phone call from a friend you haven’t heard from in ages. Life throws a lot of unexpected things at us, some of which we have to deal with right away. These are states of emergencies. There aren’t a lot of those. Most of the time, the things that get thrown at us are expected, we just choose to ignore them before they happen, even if we know they will, and we live in a delusion thinking we will always have time to get to our most important project and set us up for deception and guilt.
So I’ve decided to ditch the “I just have to get this over with” way of thinking. Instead, I am implementing a new habit, one that I expect will make me more productive and happy in the long run.
Here are the foolproof rules:
  • Don’t be a hypocrite. Same thing as when planning a budget, if you choose to ignore some the monthly expenses you make because you firmly believe that some of those can be cut but end up dealing with them anyway, there are things we do every month that take up a lot of our time and yet we don’t plan them ahead. Like making food and eating it. Like responding to e-mails. Like dealing with administrative stuff. Or laundry. Or going to the gym. Include all this stuff in your schedule and then you’ll see more clearly how much free time you really have. Some people choose to only check their e-mails twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. It is a good habit, as there is rarely such a thing as “urgent e-mails”. I haven’t yet mastered this habit, but I’m getting there.
  • “Free” time means time to think, and when something important is scheduled, it only means time to stress. Occupying yourself productively during this time is not only a great way to reduce stress, but also to get things done. Knowing ahead of time how you day will go and how much time you’ll have to spend on preparing the said event (it may be an important meeting, or a drink with a friend), how much time the commute will take (and what you can do during – so many books can be read on a train if only we didn’t automatically reach for our phones to check the latest word events and cute kitties pictures…). Don’t set yourself up for failure: so often do we expect too much of ourselves, thinking that when we have an off day we can get a lot of things done, and then something else comes up and we believe the whole day is ruined. It isn’t.
  • Make time every day for you most important project, the one that has a deadline, the one that is important to you. To me, it is writing my dissertation. I have classes to prepare, and meetings to attend, and e-mails to answer, like everyone else. But I know it would be delusional for me to think that there will be days where I could only write. So I try to spend at least an hour every day on my thesis. Make your most important project part of your schedule. And know that an hour can go a long way, especially if instead of doing this you’re waiting for some “free time”: you might be waiting a whole lot, get nothing done, and when this free time comes eventually, be too tired from everything else to do it.
  • Make time for yourself. You’re most productive when you’re rested. Don’t underestimate the power of sleep and exercise. Plan activities that will make you relax and stop obsessing. When we obsess about the things we have to do, we only stress and get nothing done. It is important to take the time, even if it is just for ten minutes a day, to breathe.
  • Be realistic. This all comes down to this simple fact. Planning means being realistic. It means knowing the things you have to do in the day, it means scheduling the time to do them and, most importantly, knowing that there are always things you cannot predict. It also means setting your priorities and mustering the courage to decide that some things will have to be dealt with later. You can’t do everything at once. We live in an over connected world where we can be reached at any time and where our routines run the risk of being disrupted. Accept this. Do the things you can, one at a time, and you’ll see that more often than not, a lot of “urgent” things that you might have tackled right away, if you let them be for a while, actually resolve themselves. Be a hero when it comes to your most important projects, the ones you’re in control of. Take the path of least resistance with the things you’re not the one of being in control of. You’ll see how shifting not only your priorities, but your responsibilities, towards the things that matter the most will make you the most productive version of yourself you’ll ever be.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

The power of music

Right now, I’m sitting in the train, waiting for it to reach it’s final destination, which is where I work. It’s 6:46 am. I’ve been up since 5.

What makes it a fun ride is The Cure going at it in my earphones, singing “Don’t you cry tonight”. There’s especially one moment in the song, where Robert Smith makes this kind of hissing sound with his mouth that always makes me smile. It’s a sexy song. It’s far from being a Monday morning song. But that’s what makes it so perfect to listen to on Monday at 6 am.

Music surrounds us. Music is our most faithful companion at all times. Music deserves our outmost attention, almost as much as the clothes we choose to wear every day. Selecting your work playlist, your morning, evening and gym ones is an occupation that can prove to yield the most effective results:

  • When we start our mornings with music that’s energizing and makes us smile and want to shake it, there’s no way we’d want to stay in bed more than needed. One advice though: make sure you switch your morning music every so often, so that it doesn’t become boring.
  • The same playlist played at strategic moments of the day also has it’s perks, motivation wise. Once we’re used to accomplish certain tasks when we hear certain songs, the Pavlovian response is almost immediate: the next time you’ll hear that song (lately, for me, it’s been “London Calling”), you’ll know it’s time to work.
  • In his famous book on procrastination, John Perry advices to choose energizing music to listen to every morning so that the routine: “wake up, make coffee, get to you desk, write” becomes not only more pleasurable, but much easier.
  • Whatever your music preferences, the only thing to make sure of is that the song you choose to wake up to, the one that puts some boogie in your commute, the one that gives you the cue to pick up your project and start thinking or writing puts you in a good mood. Every song or melody we listen to becomes associated with a particular time and place we’ve listened it to in, and sometimes with people and particular emotions. Music is almost as powerful as smell to make you take a stroll down memory lane. It’s up to you to use it wisely to create that perfect space in which you’re most comfortable to wake up or work.

What about you? Do you use music to motivate you? How do you compose your playlists? Do you make sure you don’t listen to the same songs every day or do you enjoy the repetition?

Let me know in the comments below and have a great day!

How writing can help you overcome feelings of regret. The “fanfic approach”

Regret settles in when things don’t go as planned and you don’t act the way you were “supposed to” in a given situation. When instead of doing something you had to do, you procrastinated and gave into unproductive activities. Regret comes when you realize you have not much time left before your deadline and you’re faced with harsh choices: either working your ass off until you get the job done or not do anything and be disgusted with yourself. But no matter how much you regret acting the way you did, you can’t go back in time. And maybe it is for the best. Because although regret is a nagging and highly unpleasant feeling, it is also a reminder for the future and, most importantly, a feeling that can be addressed and even serve you well.

How to get rid of regret:

  • Go back mentally to the day everything began to fall apart and you made the “wrong” choice. Now imagine yourself making the “right” choice and living on as you used to. You might have been more productive. You might even have achieved something great. You might have not missed rare opportunities. But you wouldn’t be there today thinking about it. You would have been a whole other person. Now, I’m not saying you don’t wish to be that other person, you probably do, but now you know more that this other version of yourself ever did. You know how it feels when you do things “right” and you know how it feels when you do things “wrong”.

It’s all about learning from our errors.

  • Use this feeling in a creative way. Write down what would have happened if things didn’t go wrong, if you kept your promises, if things went as planned, if you didn’t have to regret anything. Sometimes, all it takes to feel better about yourself is to go by the “fanfiction approach”. What do I mean, you ask? When I hate how a show I like treats its characters and storylines, I go to fanfiction and write my own version of the story, being truthful to the characters and the main plot. Sometimes all a bad episode needs is a twist. Sometimes relationships can be salvaged by one short sentence. In life things tend to get more complicated, but they aren’t really.

Sometimes all it takes to turn a bad situation around is just to get up and move in another direction. Sometimes all it takes to end a fight is to say “I’m sorry”. Little twists now and then that prove that not only you are the writer of your own story, but also that most of the time, the things that happen to you are the best things that could ever happen.

Writing is a cathartic exercise, it always helps to put things into perspective, either in order to make new plans or stop obsessing about past choices.

It’s easier to live by the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy if the things that happen to you are more than just love quarrels or unfinished college papers. If it is sickness, or death, or a hurtful relationship. But whatever it is that makes you regret your past choices, you can always pick up a pen and paper and write a story about how things would have been instead.

Asking yourself the question “what if ?” and trying to apply it to your own life is one of the ways to overcome feelings of guilt and regret by giving into them in a creative way.

Let me know what you think!

How to built a friendly relationship with your writing project (and stop sleeping with the enemy)

When it’s been quite a long time since you’ve stopped doing things the way you used to, that is when your routine has been disrupted, feelings of regret might get overwhelming. When things don’t go as planned, either because life happens, or because you’re too lazy to stick to your schedule, regret comes roaring in and, again, prevents you from moving.

One of the ways to get out of this vicious circle of guilt and self-pitying is to ask oneself the question: when did my writing project become my worst enemy?

  • When I stopped writing consistently and allowed myself not to write, even for an hour, every day.

Writers write, it’s just how it is. There is no shortcut and no way around it. Calling yourself a writer and not writing every chance you get is the same as, for instance, calling yourself a wife or a husband but cheating on your other half five days a week, only to be loving and present on the weekends. Relationships don’t work that way, and writing (whether it is a novel or a dissertation) is a relationship. And when you cheat, well, that’s not a good one, and chances are, it’s not a real one.

  • When I lost track of the big picture. 

I’ve written earlier that one of the ways to push yourself might be not to dwell on the big picture (and even forget it while you’re writing), but the only way to go back to writing is to never let go of the bigger picture. When you go through your day, when you make the choice of staying up late and watch movies, you have to keep the big picture in mind. Because if you don’t, all the choices you make are just another exit strategy, and days go by, and you’re nowhere near the finish line, and life still happens. So, to pick up the relationship metaphor again, all the choices you make every day have to be consistent with the big choice you’ve made once: exactly like the times you make the choice of putting an end to a fight, even though you believe you’re right, and the other person is wrong, just because you know that winning a fight is not as important as being with the person you love, you have to make the choice of going back to your writing even if it frustrates you and makes you miserable for some time, because you know it is worth it.

There is nothing easier than shifting our expectations to fit our lazy habits. Up until the point when our back is up against the wall, there is a million ways to justify a lazy behavior. When something big is at stake, lazy habits are not as powerful. If your project comes with its own gratification, great. When it doesn’t, you have to think again about what finishing the writing project means to you. 

What do you think? What are the things that motivate you to write ? What are your strategies when your routines get disrupted and you have a hard time going back to your old (and effective) one?

I’ll be happy to know what you think!

About gratifications. How to invent one for yourself and why it is important.

Sometimes, we lose track of what matters and find ourselves procrastinating only because the project we’re working on doesn’t seem like being worth it. When this happens, it is useful to remind ourselves not only of the final goal, but of what is at stake. Because every time we commit to something, there is a reason behind it, and this reason is the gratification we hope to get by the end of the task. It can be a pay raise, it can be a vacation, or something really small, like a piece of cake or a bubble bath. Some gratifications are built into the projects we decide to tackle. Some others are more difficult to spot, because the gratification isn’t material. When this is the case, we actually have not only to remember what the ultimate gratification is, but to built one ourselves. This way, going through with a project will become a much nicer process.

For me, my biggest project right now is to finish my dissertation. And every day I battle with procrastination, and procrastination wins almost every time. This is why I have decided to spend some time thinking about the reason why I got into this project in the first place and what my ultimate gratification is.

  • First of all, there is the obvious gratification of finally finishing something you’ve been working on for years and showing yourself and the world that you can do it. It’s the easiest and the hardest reason at the same time. The easiest, because there is nothing worse than waking up one day realizing all the effort you put into a project was for nothing, because you didn’t finish it. All the time you’ve spent was for nothing, even though you’ve learned something in the process. Making mistakes only leads to failure if you don’t learn from them, but isn’t it better to learn from your mistakes while you’re still in the process? If you don’t finish your project, the mistakes you’ve made might become helpful once you start a new one, but isn’t it better to pick yourself up while you still have the chance and put your knowledge to use right now? Accomplishing something you’ve put your mind to is the best gratification there is, but it’s not easy to do the adult thing all the time.
  • The ultimate gratification is completing the job itself. That means living up to your own expectations. Not in the sense of becoming something other people wait for you to become, although the fear of failure and shame works wonders for some of us. But in the sense of being able to tell yourself that you are the person you’ve dreamt of becoming. If you think of yourself as a writer but never write anything, well then, you’re not a writer. If you think of yourself as a successful businessman (or woman) but don’t put in the necessary effort to start up your own business, well then, you’re not a businessman (or woman). If you think of yourself as a scholar but never publish papers and let alone drag your PhD dissertation for years on end, well then, you’re not a scholar. It’s not about how people see you. People in the sense of your family and friends will love you no matter what, and people in the sense of people simply don’t care enough. But you care. You can hide for so long, procrastinate and find excuses and think that tomorrow will be the day you’ll suck it up and get the job done, but while you’re hiding, you’re not a writer, you’re not a businessman (or woman), you’re not a scholar, you’re just someone who hides and finds endless excuses. We are what we do and what we do defines us. And all of our actions are choices we make. So it’s not even about living the life you want to live, it’s about being true to yourself and constantly asking yourself the question: what kind of person does that make me if I make this choice instead of another one?
  • When the (writing) project you’re working on is not your bread and butter, it becomes very easy to put it aside and concentrate on lucrative activities. But it’s not as simple. In my case, even if I don’t want a job at the University, having a PhD will be very useful, no matter what career path I choose. One way of looking at the bigger picture is to imagine what life would be like if you don’t get the job done. Of course, there are many ways to reach a goal (a better job, a bigger house, etc.), but isn’t it easier to follow the path you’ve chosen once and see where it gets you? This path might be a difficult one, but it’s nothing compared to what other paths may look like. So stick with it. And one day you might think back and realize that the project you though was your hobby (isn’t it wickedly fun to think of a dissertation as your hobby?) was, in fact, the most lucrative project you’ve even worked on.
  • When you need a mood lifter while you’re struggling with your project, envision yourself having finished it already. It might be just a short fix, but it is a good way to get you motivated. Close your eyes and take a deep breath, and try to imagine yourself the day you put the final touch on your project. What do you feel? Imagine yourself sitting at your desk and pushing the “print” button, then waiting for all the pages you have written materialize in front of you. Do you feel content? Do you feel satisfied? Do you feel proud? Imagine now holding your manuscript, feel its weight on your hands, imagine, if you like, what you are wearing, how you look, feel the smile on your face. Imagine yourself after you’ve submitted your manuscript and got a green light. Feel the butterflies in your stomach as you imagine yourself in front of your jury (or your publisher) while the people in front of you congratulate you for your work. Imagine the earth-shattering mind-blowing hell of a party you will throw afterwards to bash in your own success. Imagine all your friends gathered around you, smiling at you, and gratifying you with their love. This kind of happiness is rare, it is overwhelming, it is the ultimate feeling we all live for. And the best part is, to reach this state of happiness, the only thing you have to do is to keep doing what you are already doing, just write.

Of the necessity of closure and good characterization. Thoughts on screenwriting.

Have you ever found yourself binge watching a tv-show? Or better yet, re-watching?  Have you ever wondered why you do this? Why it gives you pleasure and a feeling of satisfaction? But if it does, why do you keep going back? Is it because re-watching a tv-show feels like re-reading a good book, one that asks so many questions you feel compelled to ponder them again and again, drawing different answers each time as you grow older? This is something that happens a lot, especially with books we read for the first time at school, and then reopen once we’re adults and are able to reflect on our own life experiences through our favorite author’s eyes.

But a book is a book, meaning once you’ve read it, it is over, and unless the author is still alive and planning on writing a sequel, this particular book is an emotional experience you might want to relive only at the risk of questioning your mind and soul, and your identity.

A tv-show, however, is something entirely different. A show (especially a comedy one) exists for your entertainment, and it’s main goal is not to have you think. Still, it is sometimes a quite enjoyable experience. One would think though, that if it is only there to cheer you up, you can use it like a chewing-gum, smack your lips a few times, throw it out and go on with your life.

But then you start obsessing. You wait until the next episode. Then for the next one. Then one season is over, and you can’t wait until September again for the following one. Then, when it’s finally over, you have a hard time to move on. Not all of us are obsessive freaks like me, I’ll admit. Not everyone who enjoys an episode once in a while, or even watches a show religiously becomes a die-hard fan. Fandom is something entirely different. But in the last few weeks, I have found something about myself while (re)-watching a show I used to love, and that used to bring me peace and joy, and that this time around has made me totally obsessed with the fate of its characters. I’m talking about That 70’s Show, the one that ran on Fox for eight seasons beginning in 1998.

Something that started as a “guilty pleasure” became a full-on obsession within a few days. I couldn’t think of anything else than the storyline of the last seasons, couldn’t bring myself to let it go, that is my frustration with the way the series ended (disrupting all storylines built from the beginning of the show, ruining six or seven years of characterization, breaking up my favorite couple Jackie and Hyde). And even though I felt quite ashamed (because, let’s face it, obsessing over That 70’s Show is not very PhD student-like), I kept digging and digging, trying to find answers, before finally admitting it: the writers of the last season (and maybe even those of season 7) weren’t that good.

What’s a good recipe for on-screen storytelling? Well, it basically boils down to this: you have to keep your audience on their toes but from time to time strategically throwing it a piece of bone. It’s all a matter of teasing. But as too much of a good tease can be too much in real life and lose it’s appeal, too much of a tease can weaken the whole story. Screen writers play with the audience’s emotions, perpetually releasing and pulling, pulling and releasing. Of course there is no fun in watching over and over a happily ever after. But when one thing falls apart, another thing has to “fall” together: if your story is about two couples and you intend on splitting up one of them, you don’t go and do the same with the other simultaneously. Why? Because the secret to good storytelling, and it’s not news, is that a good story is a story that challenges the widest range of emotions. Joy, sadness, pity, anger, compassion, and the more the better. If things get out of balance, that is to say if one emotion is more often triggered than the other four (or more), then things fall apart, because a disbalance has been created. And without balance, the audience cannot experience any catharsis. A show, and, on a smaller scale, a season, and even a single episode, has to be cathartic: it has to leave the viewer emotionally drained, even if it’s claimed purpose is to make you laugh. No laughing experience will be satisfying if other emotions weren’t involved.

The obvious thing is, that most show runners don’t really want the audience to get closure too soon, well, because, if they do, they won’t be coming back for more. There is also a subtle balance to be reached between giving just enough to make someone want to keep watching a show and making an episode satisfying on its own. The shows that achieve best results in this department are those who combine single episode intrigues with bigger story arcs that last for five or more episodes.

But in the end, when a show is almost over, it has to give the viewers closure. It means it has to wrap up all loose ends. It has to answer it’s own questions following simultaneously logical and emotional guidelines. And it certainly can’t ignore the full range of emotions, especially if it once lived up to its own standards.

What makes a show go bad?

  • Unfinished character development. Worse, a character that returns to an undeveloped stage and thus displays OOC (out-of-character) behavior.
  • Switching genres and styles. A show is defined by its atmosphere. Although change can be good sometimes, some things have always remain the same throughout episodes and seasons, mostly protagonists characterizations. As always when it comes to entertainment (books, theatre, tv, radio), the unspoken goal is to make things believable, real. If the style, characters and genres aren’t consistent, it throws off the audience.
  • Choosing to play on one or two emotions instead of exploring a full-range: joy cannot be derived only from punchlines, sadness cannot be experienced if the audience is forced into it only by tear jerking scenes and storylines, compassion doesn’t run deep enough if the only thing set to trigger it is a never evolving pitiful character. The more emotions are at stake, the better.
  • Not knowing when to stop. Back to That 70’s Show again. Not knowing (or not willing) to wrap up when all the circumstances are gathered for it is the biggest mistake a show (or a novel, by the way) can make. As with everything fictional or otherwise written, the ending is where loose ends finally wrap up, that is when all the questions that have risen from the story are answered. Not when an external cue (like the lack of audience, or the ball drop on December 31st, 1979) says it’s over. External cues end stories in real life. People who lived in Pompei saw their life end when the Vesuvius erupted. But that doesn’t make for a story. That is history. The reason this tragedy has drawn so much attention from writers and painters throughout the 19th century is precisely because in real life, closure is not part of the deal. Writers and artists of all kinds are the only ones who can achieve closure not only by inventing stories, but by wrapping them up. So when planning on writing, thinking of the ending is by far more important than thinking of a place to start.

When a story is not only well-written, when it invites the reader (or the spectator) to experience a full range of emotions, when it finds the ideal balance between “pulling” and “releasing” the tension of the intrigue, when finally it draws it to its own logical conclusion (this doesn’t mean the ending has to be predictable), then the show (or the book) makes you feel satisfied, whole, complete, and entertained at the same time.

What do you think?

Have you ever tried to write a script?

Do you allow yourself to think of the ending before the start when you prepare yourself to write a story? Or do you prefer to “go with the flow” and see where your characters bring you?

How to be yourself when writing non-fiction? Thoughts on identity and academic writing.

Another post (hope it will be a short one) in response to something I’ve just read.

Seeing new people coming to the blog (thank you much by the way!), I checked some other blogs and stumbled upon a great post about identity (here), which made me realize a few things about myself and some of the problems those of us who write other things than fiction, that is primarily academic papers.

How can you stay true to yourself while not being able to say “I” while you write? Is this possible to show who you are when you have to be objective and serious? Is this even a problem, considering that when you choose to write a paper or a dissertation, you immediately choose to follow a set of rules that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the rules of writing fiction?

Well, I think that no matter what you write, you always put yourself into perspective and thus, question your identity. The process of writing itself is as much liberating as it is coordinative and constructive. The way you choose to align your words in a sentence says a lot about who you are.

Of course, if you write a dissertation in physics or biology, there might be less room for self exploring than when you embark upon the journey of a dissertation in literary studies. Then again, there is nothing worse than an academic paper that confuses genres and presents an author the way a writer approaches his characters. I am all for the most sober style possible when it comes to an academic piece.

But then again, whilst a novelist gets to “hide behind its characters” (larvatus prodeo), the academic speaks for himself, without the possibility to put on any masks nor play with any riddles. Even more so, the academic has to be as plain as possible so that he is well understood by anyone who reads him. (Of course, some papers and dissertations are not suited for the untrained reader, but the best ones out there are those who convey complicated ideas in an uncomplicated matter. It’s all about pedagogy). So he is made completely bare in front of its readers, with no place to hide, his ideas exposed in the harsh light of University and library bulbs.

And yet, he has to stay completely neutral and never let the passion speak before his rational thoughts.

Academic writing asks the question of what it is that defines who we are (as writers, to start):

  • Are we a sum of our emotions and passions? Any good literary analysis or even theoretical essay stems from a deep belief in something: an idea, a methodology, a point of view. Without morals being involved, the question of right or wrong is always at the center of any academical debate. And a debate about whether someone is right or wrong in his or her treatment of a character, of an author or of a scientific discovery can be quite passionate.
  • This leads me to my next question: don’t we discover ourselves mostly through dialogue? The kind of dialogue Socrates and Plato practiced a long time ago, but also the kind that flourished in literary circles and various societies through the Renaissance and the Modern times? Confronting ourselves to something or someone is one of the best ways to understand who we are and what we believe in. Even more so when we have to dig a little deeper than the obvious emotions of pleasure or rejection. And every time we enter a debate, we take a stand for or against something. That means that every time we enter a debate, we discover or add a trait to our personality, building it brick by brick, idea by idea.
  • The debate is also the place where our ideas get challenged, where we, our identity as a whole gets challenged. Yet another occasion to work on ourselves.

Of course, there are a lot of academics out there who don’t really bother to get challenged by new ideas or new ways of thinking. But there are also those who embrace the changes and adapt to them in a way nature adapts to its own evolution.

The writing process, however heated a spoken argument can be, is still a solitary process. And very much so. And the most difficult part is that once you are set to writing alone at your desk, you kind of have to let the voices of the opposition speak, even if it means making them speak in your own mind. The battle against a fellow academic becomes a struggle within yourself, and it is wrenching. Still, one of the best ways to find and affirm your own voice and challenge, yet again, your own identity.

Tell me what you think!

On (academic) writer’s block

Well, here I am. Almost ready to start working again, after several days of numbness. The file with my unfinished chapter is open on my laptop. I have a pot of coffee by my side and I am quite comfortably seated. The temperature outside is just perfect. The air smells nice. I’m getting sidetracked.

But that’s not the only thing that happens. When I go to my chapter’s file, I realize I have to pick up where I started to draw all my ideas to their logical conclusions. That means not only do I have to start working (in the sense of getting to work), but I have to finish the chapter.

Why is it so difficult?

Just today, I have read a great post about the fear of starting on Lidiya K’s blog. Here. It resonated very accurately with what I am feeling right now (not to mention illustrating by writing this post instead of the damn chapter of my dissertation):

  • I get lost and scared in the big picture. I think of why I am doing this and the first answer that comes to mind is that I want/have to finish the dissertation. But I can’t do it in one day. So no matter how much I write today, it won’t be done by tomorrow (I still have a long way to go). Thus I am preparing myself for failure before I even start. The everyday goal shouldn’t be to “write my dissertation”, but to write, period.
  • I get overwhelmed by the prospect of “just writing” because I don’t feel ready. Well, who would be? Writing anything, be it a novel or a dissertation, both genres that have their own set of rules, actually means inventing your own rules as you go. As paradoxical as it may sound, you have to reinvent the rules of writing so they suit your own project, because you are creating something new, and this is an overwhelming responsibility.
  • Writing is extremely challenging, and this is why the goal of “just writing” isn’t quite as good as it might sound. Because chances are, if you spend your day “just writing”, you’ll come back the next and tear everything apart to start from scratch. If have done it a few times already to my current chapter, mutilating it then reassembling together parts that I’m not sure fit any longer. It passes the time, though, but it is pretty much everything it does.
  • Getting scared of the big picture can be resolved by breaking up your goal into smaller ones. This is true, but not as easy as it seems to accomplish. Because tackling a tiny problem bears some resemblance to tackling a huge one: in both cases there is a moment when you have to finish.

My fear of starting comes from the fear of finishing, both because I am afraid that what I write is not good enough to be printed out and put aside, and because I am afraid of what I will have to do next, once it’s over.

  • Because when I finish it I will have no more excuse to linger on it, thus no more excuse to procrastinate. Twisted, I know.
  • Because if I finish it I will show it to my supervisor and I fear she won’t like it. Here the best thing is to play the game of ” What’s the worst that could happen?” In the worst case scenario, I finish the chapter, then I finish the dissertation, I hand it to my supervisor and she makes me do it all over again because it is not good enough. Then, I will feel like a real failure, will have to do it all over again, and never be able to get my PhD. This is a horrible scenario and this is a risk I have to take. It is hard, no doubt about that. But an ever worse scenario would be not doing anything, not handing the manuscript in time and never even taking the chance to get my PhD. Because it is all about taking chances.
  • So the only thing I am left with is my chapter I want to finish. All the other fears melt into the big one: it will not be good enough. Not well-written enough, not insightful enough, not bright enough. Here it is, the biggest fear: what I might write won’t be perceived as being good enough. People will think I am not capable of doing this. People will think I am a failure. People will judge me by standards I have no power on.

The fact of the matter is, and this is the part that won’t sound as depressing as the rest, I am the one setting the rules. What I write about, even if others have written about it before, is something new. The way I approach the problem, my methodology, the texts I choose to analyze, all of this is new. If only because the way I am writing about this subject is my own way. So yes, it means putting my heart into something that belongs to me and having it judged by someone else. But if every writer of PhD student out there thought of his or her work only as of something that had to be judged, no new books would ever be written, no old subjects would ever be approached in a new way and, hell, the only book that would ever find it’s place in a western library would be the Bible.

So to start the writing process, the best thing there is is to break down the big picture into a lot of tiny ones, that is to break the big question into a lot of little ones.

To finish something you’ve already started, the only thing to do is to find your center: ask yourself what you want to say and say it. When you’re done answering the question, you’ll be done writing your paragraph, chapter, or book. Don’t think about how it looks. Don’t think about how someone else might have answered to the same question. Find your own answer. This works for every writing project that comes to mind, be it a dissertation or a novel. Every great writer out there has answered differently to the same few questions: “what is love?” and “why are we here?”

Easier said than done, I know.

What do you think? How do you deal with writer’s block? How do you get yourself to write every day? How do you convince yourself you’re done writing (a chapter or a book)?

I would be thrilled to read your answers below!