Two Stories About Waiting

These pieces harmonize in an interesting way—not the part where the Baffler piece gets nostalgic about My So-Called Life, but the idea that there are certain stages of life that involve a lot of waiting, and that we can still make choices about what we do while we wait.

LitHub: Kate Mulgrew on the Work of Waiting, in Acting and in Life

As I climbed the stairs bearing a tray on which rested a glass of ice, a washcloth, and a can of Ensure, I realized that my father’s imminent death had filled me with a purpose not unlike the two-hour one-woman show I had been performing for more than a year. The process was surprisingly similar: both were physically as well as emotionally challenging, both called on certain unique skills, and both promised a closing. I could address my father’s dying with the same concentration I brought to playing a difficult role, a discipline acquired over many years of practice. Most important, the waiting was ameliorated by the intensity of my daily workload, self-imposed or otherwise.

The Baffler: Girl, Uninterrupted

In the pilot episode of My So-Called Life, Angela spends an evening in the parking lot of a cheesy dance club, waiting for someone named Tino—who, Rayanne vouches, can get them past the ID-checkers at the door. Waiting for Tino, Angela, Rayanne, and Rickie pass the time laughing and gossiping. Hours later, the girls try on each other’s shoes to entertain themselves. Tino never shows. Monday, at school, Rayanne boasts about their amazing night out as the chords of the show’s theme swell. “I’m telling you, we had a time. Didn’t we? Didn’t we have a time?” Angela smiles in return, “We did. We had a time.” The scene closes on Angela’s beaming face, the music cresting. It’s a brilliant dénouement—the teen years are mostly about waiting, and elevating the mundane to high drama.

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Where I Got Published Today: Lifehacker

How to Manage Game Day Anxiety

Whether you’re playing a sport, preparing a speech, or getting ready to sing in front of an audience, it’s nearly impossible to control the pre-game jitters.

That’s fine. In fact, it’s expected.

Where to Shop This Memorial Day Weekend

If I were planning a big shopping trip this Memorial Day weekend, I’d be most interested in the Tempur-Sealy Memorial Day Sale, where you can save up to $700 on select mattress sets. I don’t need a new mattress at the moment, but I love my Tempur-Pedic Tempur-Cloud pillow—and if you have a different favorite mattress brand, one that doesn’t include “pressure-relieving material originally developed by NASA to absorb the G-Forces of astronauts traveling to space,” it’s probably offering a few hundred bucks off its mattresses too.

Friday Open Thread

Time to discuss anything you want!

I’ll start off with this: I was at the library the other day, looking for Jennifer Weiner books (since she’s visiting Cedar Rapids in June), and I saw a copy of The Princess Bride in a featured display—so of course I grabbed it.

And of course I’ve read it before, but it was when I was, like, twelve. I remember it included the scariest scene in any book I’d ever read (it involves a spider, and it’s not in the movie) and I have this mental image of me sitting on my bed—which is how I know this took place when I was twelve and not fourteen, because my bed was still next to the window at the time—and literally tossing the school library copy away from me because I did not want to turn the page and keep reading.

And then of course I did.

(And then I was too keyed up to go to sleep, which is what I was supposed to be doing all along.)

Well. It turns out that the scene in question isn’t that scary anymore, at least not from my 37-year-old perspective, and it’s also a lot shorter than I remember it being.

Honestly, I don’t think I’ve been scared by a book in a long time. That might be one of the privileges of youth (also, these days I tend to read fewer books that include full-page illustrations of young girls with spiders crawling out of their faces*).

But it was also kinda fun to throw the book away from me—like, on my bed, I knew it wasn’t going to get damaged or anything—and then decide to steel my nerves and pick it up again. ❤️

*If you don’t recognize what book I’m referencing by that description alone, it’s… not The Princess Bride. But it also includes some horrifying spiders.

Limiting My Screen Time Increased My Productivity as a Writer

Akanksha Singh is a journalist, content writer, and editor based in Mumbai, India. She writes about travel, culture, social justice, and her experience of being raised as a third-culture kid. Essays and journalism have appeared in Bon Appétit, CNN’s Parts Unknown, HuffPost, The Independent, South China Morning Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, and many more.

After quitting my job as a copywriter in a big-name ad agency, I decided it was time I took the plunge into full-time freelance work. I’d been freelancing while working my “real” job and had earned bylines in a handful of publications I admired. What’s more, the freelancing paid the bulk of my bills—and was more enjoyable work.

So I went full-time.

It was the best decision I’ve made to date.

At first, all was well: I had a routine, a workspace that flipped between the local café, my shoebox apartment, and one of those coworking spaces. Then I hit my third month of “being my own boss” and burnt out. I wish I could say I didn’t see it coming, but in the months prior, I pushed myself daily. Sleeping at 2 a.m., waking at 8 a.m., and staring at a screen for at least half the day until I’d go to bed exhausted.

Occasionally the brain fog would disappear—but the moment I sat in front of my laptop, there it was again.

I tried everything. Hydrating, eating better, working out, sleeping more. Nothing worked. Eventually, it clicked: Between the ten tabs open in Chrome, checking Twitter on my phone, and keeping BBC News on TV for “background noise,” my concentration levels were worse than a kindergartener’s.

I’d read about people who embraced “screen-free living” but dismissed them as over-privileged hippies with too much time on their hands. But after I came by a heap of research on the subject, I decided to give it a go and settled on a schedule which involved being screen-less for the first half of my day.

Apparently, all those claims about how multitasking is changing our brains, screens are making us lazy and moody, and social media is killing creativity are true.

Within days of implementing my “no-screens-till-noon” rule, I realized how much of life—the stuff we actually have to experience before we can write about it—I’d been missing out on. While I was never one of those writers who boasts about how I don’t “have time” to read, before my no-screen ritual started, my memory was spent to the extent that I’d almost forget what a book was about as soon as I finished it. Scheduling time to read gave me the quietude I needed to distill the words in front of me. Ditto journaling or listening to music or making a morning run to the bakery just because I wasn’t allowed to touch my phone or my laptop until later in the day.

Things that I’d considered a treat, like brunching with friends on a weekday, became feasible. Rather than scold myself for doing something other than work, I came to embrace my mornings and early afternoons. My morning routine became less of a series of tasks to get through so I could start working and more of a “get out of jail free” card that gave me permission to procrastinate—and procrastinate well.

Typically, while I was out of the house with a book for my morning coffee, or out to breakfast to meet friends, or to take a pottery class, ideas would trickle into my brain. I’d scribble them down, along with related questions that I wanted to Google (but couldn’t because, uh, screens), and wait until after lunch to get to work.

By the time I actually sat down to write, or to pitch publications, I was bursting with thoughts and excitement—the latter of which I’d lost temporarily during my burn-out phase (but which is so imperative for someone new to this career). I’m not sure if my speed increased as a result, but I hit my five-pitches-per-day goal within a couple of hours throughout that first month.

Miraculously, my brain fog went away, my writing became more coherent, and my pitches less anxiety-inducing. I also doubled my pitch acceptance rate.

Maybe this sounds like common-sense advice. (And, arguably, it is.) But the fact remains that, as writers today, we’re not always aware of how much we consume in our digital worlds. I’m constantly reminded by editors and literary agents and fellow writers that a social media presence is important. That checking emails, reading text messages, and being “in the know” is essential to our livelihoods. I can’t refute any of those points.

But I also think that if writers aren’t mindful about restricting our screen times and what we’re consuming online, we’re not exercising the sort of care we need to maximize both our productivity and our creativity.

Personally, I know I work better after a day well-spent. I’ve also found that, perhaps on a subconscious level (or some weird metaphysical serendipitous plane), whatever I’m writing about later in the day comes up in the first half.

I realize, as I write this, that a lot of these beliefs are in line with those in Eastern ethics and philosophy. There’s a classic book called The Importance of Living by writer and philosopher Lin Yutang that serves as an introduction to Taoism. The concept of wu wei (which literally means “doing nothing”) speaks of action without expectation and exertion, likening it to the gentleness of a river that bends and erodes and shapes all in its path through persistence and passivity.

Perhaps in “forcing” myself to live, I’ve let go of my previous expectations of perfection and just gotten on with life—only to be pleasantly surprised by its results.

And in the age of social media, of clicks and likes and shares and views, where manufactured image is everything and where algorithms largely rule readership, choosing to limit my intake and control my digital vices feels like it could supersede “becoming a full-time freelancer” as my best decision to date.

Where I Got Published Today: Lifehacker

Don’t Let Boredom Get in the Way of Your Goals

We all know how exciting it is to start a new habit. Today we’re going to be the type of person who wakes up early! Packs their lunch before work! Goes to the gym!

We also know how exciting it is to experience something that pulls us away from the daily grind. Today, we get to sleep in! A coworker suggested we try the new pizza place! The weather’s too nasty to make it to the gym, so we get to stay home and watch Netflix instead!

There’s nothing wrong with skipping the gym now and then, of course. (Rest days are just as important as workout days.) However, when your habits are in that tricky stage where they’re no longer new but not quite routine, it’s crucial that you stick to them.

On Making Sure Your Story Answers Its Own Questions

I got stuck again with NEXT BOOK—which seems to be happening every week-to-two-weeks, now that I’m in the part of the story where I have to put all the pieces together, balance and resolve the tensions, and get everyone to the end.

Then I read a Time Magazine article about the end of Game of Thrones that included this quote:

A happy ending isn’t the same thing as an ending satisfying enough to keep you up at night, thinking about how the show’s elemental questions were resolved (see: Six Feet UnderMad Men and, just this week, Fleabag).

This made me ask myself what elemental questions were at the core of NEXT BOOK. I’d always known it would be a story about “stuckness vs. possibility,” as well as “what would happen if an adult with responsibilities found herself in the middle of a portal fantasy,” but as I’d been writing the draft, I’d also realized that this was a book about family, and that many of the questions re: stuckness and possibility were tied up in my protagonist’s experience with her extended family.

So I decided to do this exercise I learned in theater school, where I break down every “scene” by what the protagonist wants, what the protagonist does to get what they want, what the other characters do that gets in the way, and how that reaction changes what the protagonist wants.

I mean, the big thing the protagonist wants generally stays constant throughout the whole act (that’d be the superobjective) but the thing the protagonist wants in each scene (the objective) is generally different.

With that in mind, here’s how I broke down the first big chunk of NEXT BOOK. Spoilers ahead, but not too many:

Because Ellen feels stuck in a caregiving role, she wants to find ways of separating from her extended family and its responsibilities/routines.

She tries doing a Solstice ritual to celebrate her own winter holiday and bring magic into her life

But the ritual doesn’t make her feel better.

Ellen assumes she will be tied to her family forever.

***

Because Ellen assumes she will be tied to her family forever, Ellen wants to connect with her family.

She tries inviting her sister to tour the Banner House holiday decorations

But Grace (who is newly pregnant and not feeling well) stays in the car.

Ellen takes the tour by herself and connects with Robin instead.

***

Because Ellen has connected with Robin, Ellen wants to learn more about Robin.

She tries asking her grandmother, her friends, and the Banner House staff

But they do not give her answers.

Ellen decides to return to the Banner House and find Robin herself.

***

Because Ellen finds Robin herself, Ellen wants Robin to be as interested in her as she is in him.

She tries flirting and following Robin upstairs

But then he asks her to follow him into his world, which is something she is not ready to do.

Ellen goes back to her unsatisfying life and its responsibilities.

***

Because Ellen is unsatisfied with her life, she wants to know whether Robin’s story is true.

She tries asking her grandmother why she always claimed to have been brought home through a fairy door,

But learns that the family story was put in place to hide Grandma Trudy’s true parentage.

Ellen is angry that it’s all about family again.

***

Because Ellen is angry, she wants to be alone.

She tries going for a bike ride

But Robin finds her and asks her to follow him again.

Ellen says she will think about it and arranges to meet Robin later.

***

Because Ellen said she will think about it, she wants to get a few more questions answered.

She tries asking Robin for details about his world

And he provides them.

Then she asks for a favor and he agrees.

Since Ellen has what she wants, and since Robin has shown that he will care for her needs, she is ready to ask herself how to separate from her family and move forward.

So. Writing this out showed me where my scenes didn’t match up with what was in my draft—that is, the “because this, then that” is either unclear or nonexistent. In other words: as I was writing this, I was making notes to myself like “we need another conversation between Ellen and her friends HERE,” or “we need to make it clear that the reason Ellen accepts Robin’s invitation is because he is providing care to her, which nobody else in her life is doing at the moment.”

Writing this out also showed me that some of my scenes might not follow each other super-logically. Does Ellen start asking herself whether there could really be a portal to another world because she is unsatisfied with her life, or because SHE JUST DISCOVERED THERE MIGHT BE A PORTAL TO ANOTHER WORLD? Is there ever a moment where a person who made that discovery would legitimately say “sorry, gotta go back to my everyday life and not think about this for a while?”

I’ve faked it a little by having a responsibility that Ellen needs to get back to right away, during which she can remind herself that she is unsatisfied with her life and that she can’t stop thinking about this Robin fellow and his secret door, and that might work.

Likewise, the “because Ellen finds Robin herself, she wants Robin to be interested in her” thing doesn’t match up. I have a scene where Ellen’s friends are all “did you finally meet someone who could be a romantic partner,” so that could be how it matches up: because Ellen’s friends suggest Robin could be a romantic partner, Ellen tries flirting. Either way, I know that section needs more work because the cause and effect don’t quite harmonize yet.

But again—this is why it’s a draft, and why I’m doing exercises like this, and why I’ve given myself a good long time to play with this story.

Because I want readers to end the book thinking about the way the story’s elemental questions were resolved. ❤️

Where I Got Published Today: Lifehacker

Plan to Retire Even If You Don’t Plan to Retire

If you’re one of the people who has decided to solve the retirement problem by “working for as long as possible,” it’s time to ask yourself what might happen if your working days end sooner than anticipated.

You Don’t Need All the Qualifications Listed in a Job Posting

If you’re job hunting and you find a potential job where you only meet some of the requirements, go ahead and apply. Worst-case scenario, you don’t get the job. Best-scenario, you get hired—and find yourself in a position where you can grow.

I’m Teaching Two Online Writing Classes This Summer

It’s time for another round of online classes! Here’s what I’m teaching this summer:

HOW TO GET STARTED AS A FREELANCER

June 25–July 16, 2019

How do you get started as a freelance writer? Is it possible to turn freelancing into a full-time job? Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelancer for nearly a decade, and she’ll teach you everything she knows about how freelancers make money; how to pitch (even when you don’t have clips); how to build a freelancer schedule that combines writing, pitching, networking, and administrative work; and how to grow your earnings over time.

THE ART OF INTERVIEWING

August 8–August 15, 2019

If you want to build your freelance career, you need to know how to interview. How do you find and interview a source when your editor wants your draft by Friday? What questions should you avoid? What do you do when your source wants to approve the interview before it’s published? This course will cover the mechanics of interviewing, including how to locate sources, how to prep the interview, and how to help your source feel comfortable during the process.

Both classes are being run through Seattle’s Hugo House in partnership with WetInk.

These are self-directed courses, in the sense that you can complete the work at your own pace—however, you’ll also be part of a group of students all taking the class at the same time, so you’ll get the benefit of being able to discuss ideas, share thoughts, and build your writing network.

Plus, you’ll have me around to provide guidance and feedback.

On the subject of feedback, here’s what a previous student had to say about my “How to Get Started as a Freelancer” course:

I took Nicole’s freelancing class. By the end of the class, I had submitted my first pitch, had it accepted and the article published. She guided us through the process of building a freelance career, with concrete steps to get started, ongoing resources for growth and answers to wide-ranging questions. She taught one of the most informative classes I’ve taken and she did it while providing individualized information for each member of the class.

Beth Swanson, freelance writer and journalist

Hugo House member registration begins on June 3, and general registration begins on June 11. If you register before June 17, you’ll get $20 off.

Hope to see you in class! ❤️

Where I Got Published Today: Lifehacker, Bankrate

Lifehacker: Want to Be Happier? Live Closer to the Stuff You Want to Do

The next time you’re apartment or house hunting, don’t start by looking for the perfect building or home. Instead, look for the places where you’d like to spend your time—gyms, libraries, restaurants, and so on—and pick a home as close to those amenities as possible.

Preferably, no more than 15 minutes away.

Bankrate: Bye, billfold: A guide to paying with your mobile wallet

If you’ve never used a mobile wallet before, you might be curious about how it works — and why it could be a better option than a credit card. Read this guide to learn how mobile wallets work, the pros and cons of using a mobile wallet, and which mobile wallet might be right for you.