Writing Resolution for 2015: Let’s All Stop Arguing with Our To-Do Lists, Shall We?

Have you ever kicked a fire hydrant? Pleaded with a cell phone’s dying battery? Shrieked mournfully at that spinning, rainbow-colored pinwheel on your MacBook screen that almost always portends the certain death of the last hour’s worth of work? How well did it work for you?

Perhaps you’re more the pragmatic and even-tempered sort, slower to frustration and ire. Perhaps, unlike the majority of us, you’ve never fantasized about throwing a recalcitrant printer out the office window.

If so, congratulations on your mettle and measure. But don’t start smirking just yet.

You may well be doing something just as silly.

Here’s the thing: most committed writers labor under the aegis of a bigger picture; a closely or even loosely described set of goals for their work: where it will end up, how it will get there, what steps they need to take to make headway on that big idea.

And no time are such Grand Plans more lauded and more discussed and more cherished than at the start of a brand new year. Many writers use the occasion as an opportunity to recommit to doing more and better work, to achieving a few long-sought milestones and taking things to the next level, writing-wise.

And then, January 1 fades into the rearview, life kicks back into Crazy-Normal, and those heartfelt resolutions get left in the dust.

Oh, we still think of them. We still love them. We still scratch out their little footsoldiers – micro-goals – on our weekly to-do lists:

Write for two hours Saturday

Submit three pieces to literary journals

Send out four magazine pitches

Finish draft of novel by spring

And then, life intervenes, family and friends come calling, better-paying work distracts us, laundry piles up, and those very noble intentions get pushed to the bottom of the list before falling off it entirely for another year.

Cue guilt, and annoyance at feeling said guilt, and guilt at feeling annoyed at feeling guilty, and is it really any surprise that, for all intents and purposes, our Grand January Writing Plans are often quietly abandoned before we’ve even turned the calendar to February?

Here’s a thought: in 2015, why not resolve to stop arguing with your Writing To-Do List?

It isn’t a neglected friend to whom you ought to apologize and resolve to revisit next week or next month or next year.

And it isn’t negotiable. And you, in turn, aren’t a bad partner, friend, or parent because you insist on prioritizing its contents.

You’re not selfish. You’re not dreamy. You’re a writer, and your writing goals ought to be approached as inanimate, changeless little buggers. They are to be hewn to; not argued with, talked to, negotiated with under your breath. That’s as silly as chucking a piece of electronic equipment out a second-story window, and you’re above all that nonsense, right?

One last question: have you ever thought about what it is, really, that separates us humans from the rest of the beasts?

One of the biggest things, to my mind, is our ability to store our knowledge for future retrieval. To plan against a reality that doesn’t yet exist. What a gift! And our To-Dos help us to execute this small miracle.

With the ability to make big plans based purely on faith in ourselves comes the ability to fret and worry and lament when we fall short.

I hope you’ll join me, in 2015, in my writing resolution: to stop talking at little bits of paper and get down to work!

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Tough Truth for Writers #1: You are not Don Quixote

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

I am currently finishing up the first draft of my first-ever e-book! The backstory: three years ago, against the advice of many, I left a budding career in journalism to build my own freelance copywriting and editing business, and since then, I’ve fielded a regular stream of emails from and about people searching for a way to make writing pay.

Most of the emails go something like this:

“Hi, Erin! My brother/friend/co-worker needs some help. He’s always been a great writer. His teachers told him so. We tell him so. But he’s lost. He hated his last job and now he’s unemployed. Do you have any advice for him?”

Yes. Yes, I do. And I am currently in the process of fashioning what I’ve learned into a short guide for newbie writers. The first hit is free! And I’d love to know what you think.

Tough Truth for Writers #1: You are not Don Quixote.

Matter of fact, neither am I. And neither is that guy in your writing group who just scored his first book deal, or your sister’s friend who made a zillion dollars off ads on her Quirky Mommy Blog. I’m not trying to be harsh. In fact, I don’t even blame you, Dear Writer, for hoping that maybe we were Don Quixote. (It would certainly explain our rumpled clothes and the wheezing chariots we drive ourselves around town in.) After all, every culture since the dawn of the alphabet has romanticized Itinerant Dreamy Creative Types.

Every good movie has one, and so does every interesting family or group of friends, and we love them for their wandering ways. We let them sleep on our couches. We sometimes lend them cash. We fawn over their adventuring spirits and invite them to all our dinner parties because they’ve got, like, the best travel stories ever.

But as you may have noticed, especially if you’ve tried to nominate yourself for the position, what our culture doesn’t do is pay anyone to be an Itinerant Dreamy Creative Type.

Even IDCTs with multiple writing degrees and a good measure of natural talent are unlikely to find anyone waiting at the foot of their bed each morning, offering up wads of cash in exchange for the first rights to trumpet their eloquent observations far and wide. Even when those observations are really, really fantastically crafted.

We are not Don Quixote. But like him, because we are writers, we feel irresistibly, cosmically compelled to seek out strange and interesting fodder for our literary reveries, to chase shadows and inspirations to the far corners of the earth, or, at least, the far corners of our minds. So, like his, our paths will inevitably wind and twist. And this is where the trouble can start.

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

For many would-be-writers, the first part of the story goes something like this: Your sister wanted to be a lawyer. So she majored in political science, earned admission to a respectable law school, took out her nose ring, wrote for the law review, and eventually landed a cushy government job. Your best friend wanted to be a legal secretary. So she scored a filing job at a downtown law firm straight out of undergrad and worked her way up over the course of half-a-decade, taking advantage of free on-the-job training and saying “Yes” to every promotion until, voila! Legal secretary at 26.

And then there was you. Maybe you majored in English, communications, or creative writing, or at least you fantasized about it during those interminable, soul-sucking chemistry labs. Maybe you stayed up all night reading Raymond Carver short story collections and writing bad fiction that became, over time, slightly less bad and maybe even eked its way into the realm of good. Maybe you wrote a column for the college paper and thrilled at the rush of being published – and read, and discussed – by your peers. Then, graduation. By default (and the need to, like, eat every day) maybe you ended up working in an office doing corporate communications or managerial work or some other thing that was only tangentially, if at all, related to the written word.

Or maybe you reformed your writerly ways earlier on: you penned poetry and plays all through high school, then opted for the fast-track into early adulthood and became a teacher or a cop or a construction worker or a cocktail waitress. Now you’ve woken up five or 10 or 20 years older and you are longing to reconnect with your youthful love for the quiet craft. You mightn’t have written, I mean really written, anything in years, but the itch is back and worse than ever. It’s not too surprising. If you’ve got writing in the marrow of your bones, it will always call you back, eventually.

Or maybe you are just starting out your career, and determined to give the writing biz a shot, because you like working with words and you figure it’s worth it at least to try.

Whatever your story, and whether or not you’ve ever even read Don Quixote, I’ve got some good news. The happy reverse of this rusty coin is that you wouldn’t probably want to be Don Quixote anyway, even if you could. Because he’s so wrapped up in reveries that life ends up happening to him and not for him, and that’s no way for a creative person to live.

Now it’s your turn: Any other Bohemian archetypes you find yourself pledging questionable allegiance to as you fashion yourself into a writer? Dean Moriarty? Truman Capote, perhaps? J.D. Salinger? I’d love to hear about them, and about how they  help and hinder your progress.

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

 

Good work, career crap factors, and the “Is-ness” of it all: Thoughts on finding meaning in a creative profession

Two full weeks here in Barcelona and I’m finally settling down to the primary task I’ve set for myself during our time in Spain: rejiggering my worklife, and rethinking entirely what I want out of my career as a writer.Yes. So. What do I want? It’s such a huge, bloated, amorphous, nebulous, terrifying, wonderful, impossible, fascinating and inevitable question, isn’t it?

So grand, and yet so essential, to put one’s wants – not one’s needs – at the center of things, to shout them out to the huge, busy, noisy universe and confidently, cosmically await a reply. Just who do you think you are, asking for all that happy, being that you are so very tiny, and in case you didn’t notice, this is the Milky Way, not the Hilton, thank you very much; you knew that long before your birth and you chose this galaxy anyway and just what do you expect the gods to do about any of your carbon-based woes?

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My kingdom for a book!

Books - Erin J. Bernard

Books – Erin J. Bernard

It’s 8:56. In 24 hours’ time, we’ll have passed through four countries and landed in Barcelona. I hope the future Erin and Emiliano are enjoying a drink and not suffering too mightily from kinky neck. I’m sure they’ll let us know.

Our ride to the airport will be here in approximately 139 minutes (Hi, Em!). I need to make the beds, finalize packing, take a shower and hopefully do a few minutes of yoga. And get dressed. And call my grandmother. But there’s always time for a little writing. Speaking of that …

Some big changes are on the horizon for me … Man, I feel like I say that a lot. I feel like I feel that a lot. Change, change and more change. But what’s ahead is more about slowing down than speeding up. I am pondering a radical reorganization of my weeks that would carve out fully half of my work hours for personal writing projects. For my essays. It’s time to get serious about them. I’ve been so caught up these past two-and-a-half years in the cycle of writing-and-editing-for-money. I am thrilled that I’ve had success with my little freelance business, and the fact that I get to shoot photos on the side for extra cash is like the sweet little syrupy cherry on top of it all. But I can’t help but feel there’s something I’m forgetting. Why I started all of this in the first place: to send my essays out into the world. I love helping others become better writers. I love helping them tell their stories. But my stories end up on the back burner way way way too often.

This summer in Spain, I am determined to change my workaholic ways. I’ve vowed to work only half-time in Barcelona, and to spend some serious time pondering and clarifying my goals as a writer. I’ve been threatening to make a book for a long time, now, and maybe it’s time. This little website has been my touchstone for more than a decade. It’s held me up when I could barely move, let alone stand. Having a place to land my fears and hopes and successes and failures has kept me sane through some pretty bad crazy stuff. I think I’ll always write here. But lately, when I post essays, I find myself despairing that they disappear into the void. If I’m lucky they’ll get 200 views. I appreciate every single one of those views and wonder immensely who out there is reading my writing. But it doesn’t feel like enough. I want a book to hold in my hands. I want a book you can hold in your hands and pass on to a friend when you are done.

So, yes. I’m saying it here. Book! Time. Now. Good.

Stay tuned.

To Dos

Beer night with Emiliano - Erin J. bernard

Beer night with Emiliano – Erin J. Bernard

Heard on the radio this morning that the vast majority of rich people keep regular to-do lists. I’m a big fan of TDLs, and I always have been. But for some reason I haven’t gotten rich yet. Maybe I’m doing it wrong? At any rate.

Lately, I’m up early and cranking out work all morning. (I’ve already worked 6.5 hours and gone running and it’s only 2:30. Not being required to commute or get dressed really cuts down on lost productivity hours.) The afternoon is for loose ends and creative writing. As of Tuesday afternoon, here’s what’s on my personal to-do list. I feel like this list is an interesting microcosm of the larger arc of my days as a freelancer. Lots of little things.

Hold me to it, friends!

To Do | Jan. 28, 2013

• Skype meeting with Irwin

• Find retainer

• Clean kitchen

• Apartment hunting in Barcelona for next summer

• E-mail friends I’ve been neglecting

• Send photos to lady

• 1 hour of writing/querying

• Organize office/room

• Write note to idiot postman re: misdelivered mail

• Meet Mom for tea

• Update planner

• 20 pushups

• Text L re: photos/hops

• Update blog

Radio journalism level one UNLOCKED!

IMG_1974

Tonight marked my debut as an evening news anchor on KBOO FM, Portland’s community radio station.

I’ve been volunteering in the PM News Department for a few months now, dipping my toes into the choppy, untried waters of radio journalism, learning to write and record and edit for radio and just seeing what I think.

I spend each Thursday afternoon at the station cranking out little stories, and when the reg’lar anchor called in sick today, I volunteered to pinch hit for her, rather meekly and unceremoniously, and out of desperation and the strange conviction that I “have a voice for radio,” the producer and news director agreed to let me give it a go.

Several times during the past few years, I’ve run across different iterations of the same bit of advice, often from career-minded women who’ve had to scramble to see their aspirations through, and it is this: walk through every door that opens. Or this: say yes now, panic later.

Despite appearances, I am not an impulsive sort. I move slow, as a rule, and I take a good measure of time to decide what I think about most things. The plodding and stubbornly systematic tortoise, to be sure, dressed up in the fuzzy finery of a rabbit who flits from place to place with hardly a second thought. It only looks that way. My impulses are, to a one, carefully orchestrated.

All the same, I had a good case of the mental jingly-janglies when I sat down in the studio and put on my headphones. The news department was running late, as per usual, and my “orientation” consisted of having a script handed to me – still warm from the printer – along with about a minute’s worth of frantic descriptions and explanations, barely half of which I’d absorbed before the engineer patched me and my co-anchor On Air.

And we were off. The first thirty seconds were sort of surreal and terrifying, heart in gullet and all, but then it was lots of fun. Would it make me look like too terribly much of a Media Nerd if I called it a “rush”?

Reading out shorts of the day’s various happenings for 45 minutes might not sound like everybody’s idea of a happenin’ Thursday evening, but I freaking loved it.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am minorly obsessed with Ira Glass of This American Life fame. (If you haven’t listened to this amazing radio program, DO!) And during the past few years, as print journalism stumbles and crumples, I’ve been trying to take a longer view of the kinds of stories I want to tell.

I’ve been a writer since I was old enough to string together five words (true: my first story, written in grade one, was titled, “The Clown Who Couldn’t Smile,” but that’s another essay entirely), but I want to explore storytelling that goes beyond the mere humble written word.  Which is how I ended up volunteering at KBOO. Radio journalism is a different beast entirely, and has been a bit of a transition from the newspaper and magazine journalism to which I’ve grown accustomed.

For example, nobody cares about your clever headline. In fact, radio stories don’t even have headlines, which is rather mindblowing for an ex-newspaper editor.

Also, radio people hardly appreciate a bold alliterative license when it comes to the guts of the story itself. “The latest papal precept is packing a punch among members of the priesthood” would be a terribly fun line to include in a print story of any sort, and would please editors and readers alike for its prosy pith.

Such a line, fired off the tongue of a radio anchor like so many little gilded bullets, would merely sound idiotic.

So I am learning, and though the whole thing is a bit of a caper, it’s one of the enormously interesting sort.

Letter to a friend: Life since J-School

So I wrote this letter to an old professor of mine.

Professor Vos:

So I’ve been thinking the past week or two about the request you made in your previous e-mail – for to tell you about my travels since I left the J-school.

I’m always sort of baffled and intrigued by the premise of Summing Up. As you may recall, my grad thesis was 178 pages long, when 78 may well have sufficed. Brevity has never been my strong suit. Despite that, or perhaps even because of that, distillation in any form strikes me as a useful, if slightly maddening, exercise. So I sat down and started writing out an answer and I guess in the end it was mostly a letter to myself but I’m going to send it along to you for posterity and whatnot. Onward!

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Haik-ooooh!

Today I had a work day with a writer friend. We sat at her tiny kitchen table, typed on our computers, chatted about writerly things, then ate hummus with veggies (my contribution) and a chocolate cupcake (hers). I watched her dog do some tricks and then hump a stuffed polar bear with utmost concentration. Afterwards, I drove home and decided to take a break from my work day to nap and make haikus. I went into the backyard to make some pictures and found Emiliano gardening. He’d just gotten a haircut he did not care for. I watched him pull out squash and beets and a single stalk of rhubarb. We tried to think of things you cook with rhubarb but weren’t sure. All of it was a nice intermission from my regular work day. Spare and elegant. This afternoon, I will drink tea and finish my editing, then meet a friend for dinner.

Here is what we found in the backyard:

Here is my favorite haiku:

Hearts mended

My life, a loose thread

You, the needle, pulled me through

A stitch, switched, for truth

Petits Cahiers

A recent list – Erin J. Bernard

As a writer, I am forever scratching out lists.

During the past decade, I’ve become religious about carrying little miniature notebooks around with me in which to capture all my random, bizarre-ass story and essay and art project ideas. I even keep one in my nightstand for those occasions on which my dreams are so particularly strange and wonderful that I am afraid to fall back asleep and forget them forever.

There is, in fact, an entire episode of Seinfeld devoted to this bedside notebook concept, in which Jerry wakes up in the middle of the night with some hilarious comedy bit having come to him fully formed in a dream. He quickly scratches it down, and then wakes up to find that his writing is illegible, which of course sends him into paroxysms of crazy. It’s pretty hilarious. I digress …

I’ve kept a journal since I was five, but I guess I probably inherited my religious fervor for the pocket-sized notebook in particular from one Madame Henrig, an only-just-ever-so-slightly-unhinged French teacher I studied with when I lived in Paris back in 2002.

Am I lower class? Erin J. Bernard

She called them her “petits cahiers” – little exercise books – and she loved nothing better than showing her students all the weird shit she jotted down in them throughout the course of the week while waiting in line at the post office, riding the metro, sitting in her apartment, which I always imagined was filled with cats and ashtrays and empty wine bottles: Grocery lists, new vocabulary words, the run dates for art installations and shows, particularly touching song lyrics.

We rolled our eyes at her abiding Frenchness (that and the huge hunks of lipstick and toilet paper that clung inveterately to her chin and teeth), but she forced us to purchase and use our own petits cahiers, and it quickly became a prized habit for me.

By now, I’ve amassed a whole multi-colored collection of little notebooks full of the detritus of my 20s. They are studies in abject randomness – little love and hate letters to various boyfriends who would become exboyfriends, social observations, recipes, threads of  particularly interesting conversations that I hope never to forget.

(In fact, one of the best conversations I ever had, years back in a bar in Korea, is still retrievable to me at least in summary thanks to the following scratchy lines: “Mob mentality. Shame teaches. Visually distinct.”)

These are not journals, mind you. In fact, the finished products bear little resemblance to any kind of full-sized journal into which one might pour one’s most personal thoughts. They are, by nature, slipshod and messy and therefore lack the abiding self-consciousness that often creeps into journal entries. They are a record of the immediate, the pressing, the mundane.

Ideas – Erin J. Bernard

Just yesterday, I came across an essay idea I’d forced my sister to jot down for me while I was driving us around Seaside two years ago.

It said: “Soul patch: 20 year increments.”

This nonsense phrase is a reminder that I would someday like to write a piece about those strange cultural trends – such as soul patches – that enjoy brief popularity every few decades or so before being re-relegated to the Incredibly Not Cool camp. Haven’t done it yet. But someday.

It’s like words are like these magical little breadcrumbs we throw down to help us grope our way backwards in time, to help us remember who we were, and who were in the process of becoming when life intervened.

Because really, it’s so easy to go off track. It’s so easy to wake up one day and to realize – to your own private horror – that you are running away from the thing you swore you were running toward, whatever it was. I swear it happens to me like every two years, right on cue. Man.

To be sure, it’s a rather imprecise and one-dimensional method for capturing one’s experience of a dynamic reality, and like Jerry, I make myself crazy sometimes trying to figure out what in the hell I was semantically pointing to when I scribbled down certain words and phrases.

But even when they lose some of their coherence, words are unchanging. It’s only we who have changed. Words can’t lie, don’t lie, and that’s somehow comforting.

More Words – Erin J. Bernard

The other day, I was thinking about how my life might be different if I never wrote a single thing down, if I didn’t have this infinite storehouse of extentional memory, if I were illiterate. The thought was sort of hard for me to wrap my brain around, but really, it’s not too much of a leap to consider a life without the written word – the literacy rate in many parts of Africa falls below 30 percent. In the Middle East, it’s barely over 60 percent. Some people can’t even sign their own names, let alone tell their day-to-day stories.

I think if this were the case for me, I would most certainly have a different sense of myself as an evolving being, and perhaps far les insight into who I’ve been at previous moments. Anyone who has ever had the experience of reading a story or letter they wrote as a six year can likely relate. You look at the big, loopy lettering and the simplistic lines of reasoning and think, “Who is this strange little person with my nose and eyes and first name?”

I guess if I didn’t write anything down ever again, I’d probably focus on the future more and on the past less, which might well be a very good thing. But a life without written words also reads like an eternal present, and the Zen Buddhists might well smack me on the back of the head for saying so, but how dull would that be?

Old friends, new ideas and the ides of late spring

Well, well, well. Hello old friend! It’s been a minute.

Oh, I’m talking to the blog. Not you. I don’t even know you. Anyway.

After a long afternoon of sending interview queries, researching such scintillating topics as casinos and coastal art organizations for a few freelance stories, and attempting to navigate the quagmire that is government employment and labor statistics for an independent data-gathering project I’ve been commissioned to, I figured I’d drop in for a visit. It was either this or do push-ups, the last thing on my goals list before I get to quit working and eat dinner. So here we are.

I can’t help but feel a little shamed by the sour note you and I left things on last month, when I used our time together to publicly air a few personal grievances and to generally complain about a nasty and oh-so-persistent case of low-grade malaise – the same one that seems to hit me every time this year. Call it spring fever, call it whatever. I always get an itchy heart when the April rains come.

Now, it’s May. It’s still raining on the Oregon coast, but I’m in better sorts, these days. Although: dreadfully busy. This month marks my sixth as a freelance journalist and I am almost afraid to think/talk about how well it’s going. I don’t want to jinx my good fortune, but I will say that I’m actually at the point of possibly needing to start turning down work, which feels like a milestone, definitely.

I’m doing all manner of projects, from commercial photography to newspaper and magazine features to governmental research, and the variety is definitely keeping me on my toes. But I feel ready to hone my focus a bit. I am bummed about the fact that I haven’t had any time lately to devote to my personal writing projects, including this blog, but I’m already working 6-7 days a week and I’m in training for the Hood to Coast relay this August, besides, which eats up another 10-12 hours of my time each week.

So all of that equals me needing a stunt double, or possibly some performance enhancing substances. KIDDING!!

It does mean I need to work harder at balance. I’ve been hitting yoga class three times a week, which goes a long way toward that end, but I know deep down that it’s going to take something bigger for me to stop fretting. I’m heading to Indiana in a few weeks to spend time out in the country with family, so that should help. I think.

In other news: I’ve become completely fascinated with the political philosopher Michael Sandel, and, praise be the digital gods, many of his lectures are available on YouTube, including a Harvard course he teaches called “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to do?” I’ve been listening to the lectures while I edit manuscripts and the ethical dilemmas they invoke are seeping into my dreams, my speech, my everything. It’s great. I recommend: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBdfcR-8hEY.

I’ve come to philosophy and jazz – two of this planet’s greatest ideas, EVER – relatively late in life, but better to be fashionably tardy to the party than never to arrive at all, right?