In the last two years, we've been living in what you might call "Survival Mode." We opened Disney's twelfth theme park and moved from one Shanghai flat to another (in the same week as the Grand Opening! With house guests!). Michael's contract was up for renewal which meant we had the opportunity to make a change in location (country) if we wanted to, and we hit our fifth year in China so we had to leave the country for 32 days for tax purposes (#expatlife, yo). Michael had a very frightening health scare, a creative group I'd facilitated for 2.5 years was drawing to a natural close, and more friends than usual were unexpectedly repatriating or moving on. Then we moved to Hong Kong and lived in a hotel for a month while our dog went to live in a third country for 45 days to be able to enter Hong Kong from China. Our boys, who attended a local Chinese boarding school in Shanghai, had to adjust to a British day school. And we had to adjust to having them home every night. Through all this, we were much like the balls in a pinball machine... getting flung here and there, bouncing off obstacles, reacting to whatever came our way with lots of noise and flashing lights rather than deciding where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do.
And let's be real: that isn't a bad thing, really. The ability to be flexible and roll with the punches and still get stuff accomplished each day, week, month, and year despite massive chaos is no small thing. But it does take a toll on a person's body and mind. One of the biggest unintended consequences of living life in "Survival Mode" is knowing life doesn't have predictable patterns and you absolutely have to take respite whenever you can get it. You learn guilt-free self care.
Have a brutally hard morning? Just take the rest of the afternoon off to relax and recover with a good book. Have the week from hell of appointments at immigration with no time for lunch a single day out of the seven? Indulge enthusiastically in a calorie-laden dinner of your favorite food, followed with late night snacks because wow was that hard and you deserve it. Can't sleep because your mind won't shut off after the late night call from your parents? Get up and watch Netflix until you're drowsy and then sleep all day the next day. And then do it again the next night because now your body thinks this is when you're supposed to be awake after just one bad night.
Sometimes that is what you absolutely have to do to get through. There is zero shame in that. But there may come a point where you haven't even had a hard morning at all, you're just taking the afternoon off to read because you want to. And the late night snacking is now just a habit and you're eating more because you feel bad because your pants don't fit. And there's really no point in even going to bed anymore because you know you won't sleep anyway so coffee and sleeping pills become your BFF's (not at the same time) just to get through the day. Where does it end? At some point you have to pluck the quarter from the hand of the pimply teenager wanting to play more pinball and say no more.
For quite some time I've been working on writing two different books. One is a fiction novel and the other is filled with real life stories from our experiences around the world. I haven't made much progress on either because better things (or more important/pressing/urgent/emergency things) keep popping up.
My best writing process is to fully immerse myself in the story and let it flow out of me in long stretches of uninterrupted time (I think this is every writer's preferred process). This is a great process if you do not have kids or a husband but do have a giant pile of money and someone else to do the cooking and cleaning for you. I, however, am a proud mom and wife, who has to feed my family at regular intervals (teenage boys and their ever-empty stomachs, amirite?). And living in Asia with tiny refrigerators and no pantry means near-daily grocery shopping. At some point, even though writing a book is a real, actual job which can bring in an actual paycheck, I stopped treating it as such and let everything else take priority above it. There's a season for everything, and I figured I just wasn't in the right season. My time would come and this just wasn't it.
And then a few months ago I was presented with an interesting opportunity. I was commissioned to write a play for a director who already had a cast and a string of dates booked in a theater in California and just needed a compelling script. The timeline was absolutely bonkers, it needed to be completely done with all edits and rewrites by January 1st, giving me just two months to give birth to a work I'm not even going to see in rehearsals or during its initial run. At first, I thought nope, this isn't for me. Let it go. But there was something that kept pulling me back... I started out in theater and have written ten plays or books for musicals which have actually been produced. I've sold a handful of scripts for sketches which have gone into anthologies or publications. My business cards say Storyteller instead of Writer because of my background in the theater... the ultimate vehicle for telling stories. But it is very difficult to make a living as a playwright, especially if you move around the world every couple of years. It is far easier to make money as a copywriter, which is telling stories of a different kind (buy this product! click this link!). So I decided long ago I wouldn't pursue writing plays full time, but just enjoy it whenever I got the chance to. And this was a big chance. So I said yes, even though it was more than a little inconvenient, and even though I wasn't set up or ready to devote the time and energy to it. What's a little more survival mode when you're already used to it?
And I wrote, even though my kids and the dog wouldn't leave me alone (funny how when you're not as accessible everyone wants your undivided attention).
|(Actual photo of the boys + dog just "hanging out" in my office|
after school while I'm trying to write. If I was trying to ask
them about their day, they'd be no where to be found.)
|(Actual photo of my screen taken the night I was writing|
instead of making merry during my favorite time of year.)
And I got the script completed, edited, and submitted before the January 1st deadline, and there was never a feeling so great as knowing you did something big and saw it all the way through to the end and really like what you completed. Ask my husband if he's ever seen me happier than the night I finally said "It is finished and submitted! Now let's celebrate!" I was walking on air, and only partially because of the celebration...
As the remaining days of 2017 and our trip to America counted down, I kept thinking about that great feeling. It wasn't just about crossing the finish line, it was about making the choice to put my butt in a chair and my hands on a keyboard and spill words out onto the screen, even though there were so many other things I could have been doing, maybe even should have been doing (if you asked my hungry sons who wondered if their uniforms had been laundered). It was about choosing one thing over another instead of just going with the flow and hoping for the best.
Yes, I want to finish writing the books I've started. Or start a new one altogether. Yes, I want to tell more stories, here on my blog instead of just over at Instagram. Yes, I want to improve my writing and grow my audience. I want that awesome feeling of having completed a big project to the very best of my ability with a celebration afterward.
But here's what I want most of all: I want to already be ready the next time a big exciting project falls into my lap. I want to have deep habits of writing daily so ingrained that taking on something like a commission to write a play doesn't mean giving up time with the kids or having to turn down Christmas parties. I want to have that "best writing process" I mentioned up above whether I have a glorious, quiet, uninterrupted full eight hours to write, or whether stepping straight into that full immersion when it's literally just a single hour between loads of laundry while I have a headache and the housekeeper is vacuuming the floor under the desk I'm trying to write at. And let's get real, the second scenario is most often the one I'm dealing with, so how in the world can I make that work? With discipline.
It's not sexy or glamorous at all. It lacks awe and wonder and magic. But just wanting that "finished product feeling" isn't enough to get me to the finish line. I have to develop the habits which will get me there.
When we got back to America on January 2nd, my jet lag was fierce. I usually only sleep when I'm jet lagged (or sick), so I crave the feeling (of jet lag, not sickness). I was falling asleep by 11:00 p.m and waking up naturally by 6:00-7:00 a.m. I decided to just go ahead and set my alarm for 7:00 a.m. (even on the weekend) to try and turn this jet lag into a pattern, and the pattern into a habit. And to use those extra hours in the morning for writing. I'm not a morning person, so it's not the most ideal situation. But using a couple of hours every morning to write is training me to be able to write under less than ideal situations. Putting my butt in my chair and my fingers on the keyboard is definitely an activity, exercise, or regimen that will develop or improve a skill. It's training me to write when I don't have a major deadline flying at my face. Every day I get up to write, I get to have a mini rush of good feeling. Even when whatever I write is lame and awful and I hate it. It doesn't even matter, because a year from now I'll be able to know more about what I love and won't have to waste as much time writing the lame stuff to get to the good.
When I decided Discipline was my word for 2018, I thought I'd make mini goals in many categories, like health, housekeeping, etc. Discipline across the board, yeah let's do it 2018! (I'm either 100% in or not in at all, a blessing and a curse.) But as I spent time this week thinking about that, I realized that as with the unintended consequences of words I've chosen in the past, choosing to be disciplined in the area most important to me will naturally carry over into the other areas of my life that could stand to have a little more order. I know it's a struggle to get up at 7:00 a.m. if I stay up until 3:00 a.m. reading. So I gotta turn off the light by 11:00 p.m. I know it's a struggle to get back into writing a story if I only devote time to writing it over the weekend or the occasional Wednesday. So I gotta keep it close enough it's like walking through a doorway into the story instead of swimming upstream in an icy river and then climbing a wall to get in.
Because it is.
And I'm ready.
Discipline in 2018.