Three Articles About Doing THE WORK

I’m going to start doing Sunday link roundups, first because I wrote “daily posts” at the top of my blog, not “weekdaily,” and second because I look forward to the Seattle Review of Books’ Sunday Post all week because they always share a collection of thought-provoking articles that I might not have found on my own, so… why not share a few thought-provoking articles myself?

Make a Living Writing: Stop Whining: How to Crush Your Freelance Writing Excuses

Not a huge fan of the headline (it’s not as much “whining” as it is “time-management issues” and/or “not understanding how to break a freelance project into easily-completed components”), but Linda Formichelli’s advice is exactly what I’d give an early-career freelancer:

Q: What if you get bored with an assignment and don’t feel like writing?

Formichelli: I’ve heard that kind of writing excuse from freelancers a lot. “I don’t feel like doing it.” “I’m not in the mood.” “I’m not inspired.” “I’m tired.” “I’m sick.”

If any one of these things makes you want to put off writing, don’t just do nothing. Choose tasks you can work on based on the amount of time and energy you have. If you have a half an hour and you’re really tired , maybe you update your website, or file your expenses, or just do something that doesn’t take a lot of brainpower.

But if you find that you always have the time and energy for research or posting on social media, and you never seem to have the time and actually writing, you know you’re in writing excuse territory. If you want to learn more about how to deal with this problem, go read this blog post by Mark Manson: F*** Your Feelings. It’s perfect advice for this situation.

Afford Anything: The Incredible Power of 10x Thinking

I have become obsessed with Paula Pant’s Afford Anything blog, because personal finance and the way you can use money and skills to shape the life you want will always be my jam.

Also, the tagline is “You can afford anything… but not everything. What’s it gonna be?” which means it’s all about making choices, and that’s my peanut butter.

This particular “making choices” post focuses on taking actions that support your goals:

Better questions yield better answers. So ask yourself: How can I separate what’s worthwhile vs. a waste of time?

Try this:

Step #1: Write a five-year goal.  For example:
* I earn $45,000 per year in passive income.
* I run a company with $1 million in annual revenue.
* I manage a nonprofit, no-kill animal shelter with capacity for 25 dogs and 40 cats.

Four tips to help you craft this vision:
* Write in the present tense — “I earn,” “I manage,” “I run.”
* Focus your goal into one sentence.
* Shoot for specific numbers.
* Read this aloud daily (in present tense). Your mind will believe its a foregone conclusion.

Step #2: Judge every activity by a single question: “Is [X] the most important step I can take towards my 5-year goal?”

Elizabeth Strout: How I Paid the Bills While I Wrote the Book

This interview is part of a Medium series titled Day Job, in which Mike Gardner asks various authors how they earned the money to support their writing (especially during the early stages of their career). If you aren’t a Medium member, you’ll only be able to read three of these pieces before you get hit by the Medium paywall; I was a particular fan of the Elizabeth Strout interview because she and I made nearly identical educational decisions for nearly identical reasons:

Medium: Did you study writing in college?

Elizabeth Strout: I studied theater. It was like writing, because I was always trying to be another person. But I never took a creative writing class. I can’t say anything more than my intuition was “it will not be good for me to sit among my peers and hear what they have to say about my work and to say things about their work.” But I was always writing. There was one professor who knew that, and he was the chairman of the English department. He believed in me. I would show him my stories, and when I had a paper due for his class, he would give me a short story instead. It was our secret.

If you have other articles worth reading that you’d like to share, leave ’em in the comments!

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Dana Sitar on Making Sure Your Creative Work Fulfills a Real Person’s Needs

Continuing our discussion of building THE AUDIENCE — this morning, The Write Life ran a must-read post by writer and editor Dana Sitar titled How the “Ideal Reader” Myth Hurts Your Writing Process:

When you set out to define your “ideal reader,” you’ve probably already decided what you want to write — maybe even written it.

You’re sitting on that romance novel, self-help book or blog about what cats have taught you about love, and now you’re ready to market it. So you dream up a reader who fits the bill. They’re male orfemale, between ages 18 and 54, probably own cats and are single. So, obviously, they’ll love your blog.

Voila. You’ve got your ideal reader.

Except that’s useless. All you’ve done is reverse engineer an audience for yourself, and you can’t do that with real people.

If you want to attract actual readers, you’re going to have to do it the other way around: Learn what real readers want, and write it for them.

Go read the whole thing.

Read it twice.

Read it eight times.

Sitar’s formula for making sure your creative work fulfills a real person’s needs — or, as I described it earlier this week, convinces a person to give you money in exchange for an emotional experience — is applicable to nearly every creative project, from the artistic to the commercial.*

I’m not going to share the formula here, because I want you to go to The Write Life and read the entire piece.

But I am going to start applying it to my upcoming work, whether I’m drafting NEXT BOOK or completing a freelance gig.

I should probably even figure out how to apply it this blog.

*I can hear you thinking but what if I just want to create something from the heart and see what happens? DO IT DO IT DO IT, nobody is stopping you! Those kinds of projects are often amazing because they come with a level of emotional connection and personal vulnerability that are absent from more calculated works. BUT BEFORE YOU PUBLISH, remember the difference between play and performance. Make the thing from your heart. Make it just for you, if you want. Then figure out how to turn it into a gift for an audience.

Jane Friedman on Strategy vs. Tactics

First, a weather update: as predicted, I will not be flying to NYC on Thursday. (Both Chicago and NYC are experiencing EXTREME WEATHER — as is Cedar Rapids, for that matter — and the flights have already been canceled.) Depending on how all this rescheduling goes I may still make it there on Friday, which should give me plenty of time to make it to the Maggie Stiefvater writing seminar on Saturday.

We’ll see.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to suggest you read Jane Friedman’s article “How to Reduce Marketing Anxiety and Confusion” at Publishers Weekly, because even if you don’t plan to self-publish your book you’re still going to need to think about the marketing component, and even if you aren’t ready to think about marketing right now this advice also applies to the work you are currently doing on your creative project.

In short: there is strategy, and there are tactics.

Tactics are the steps you take to achieve results, and strategy is why you take those steps.

Why you make those particular choices, knowing that any individual choice both limits and shapes your remaining choices.

Friedman argues that most people launch into tactics without first creating a strategy, and I agree with her.

Some tactics may seem essential—because everyone is using them and thus they are required to play the game. But always question and assess. Is Amazon advertising going to be effective for the book you’re trying to sell (factoring in your book’s pricing, packaging, and positioning)? Is social media a suitable tool for your genre/category, given the amount of time that you have to wait to see results? Do you know enough about your target readers to understand how they discover books to read?

For example, I’m repeatedly told that I should get into podcasting because it’s big and growing. But should I adopt that tactic when it would require me to stop accepting paid work or stop other activities that are effective and even growing? Possibly—but only an evaluation of my strategy would lead to an informed answer.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever, like, try things just to see what happens. TRY ENERGY can be a powerful thing, and you’ll learn a lot from putting a harebrained scheme into action.

Sometimes your TRY ENERGY is inspired by what a specific audience needs at that very moment — I’m thinking of Twitter user @leftistthot420, for example, who made a joke about how someone would create a Twitter account featuring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing to every song and then immediately created the @aoc_dances account herself.

Sometimes it’s just something you really want to do, and you can’t not do it.

So do it!

But if you’re thinking about taking on some best practices (whether for the novel you’re writing or the marketing campaign you’re creating) simply because you’ve heard they yield certain results, it’s best to consider your overall strategy, and how each tactic might help or hurt that strategy, first.

As Jason Fried of Basecamp (one of my favorite productivity softwares) wrote about the myth of low-hanging fruit:

In my mind, declaring that an unfamiliar task will yield low-hanging fruit is almost always an admission that you have little insight about what you’re setting out to do. And any estimate of how much work it’ll take to do something you’ve never tried before is likely to be off by degrees of magnitude.

In other words, don’t start a podcast just because you’ve heard that podcasting might get you an audience for your next book. You have to get a whole separate audience for that podcast first,* and that takes time away from the work of building the audience for your book (unless your readers are the type who are likely to try out new podcasts).

But go read Jane Friedman’s post on strategy vs. tactics, because she’s got more to say on the subject than what I just summarized, and then go read her blog because it is full of excellent information about both writing and publishing.

*This comes after the work of learning how to create a podcast that doesn’t sound like amateur hour. One of the reasons I stopped doing my Writing & Money podcast was because I wasn’t able to get my kitchen-table recording to sound professional enough, and I knew that taking the time and money to create a better podcast would take away from the bigger goals I wanted to accomplish.

Paul Harding’s Thoughts on Writing, Publishing, and the Self

Today you need to read Pulitzer-prize-winning author Paul Harding’s essay about how he created Tinkers, which is to say that I needed very much to read this essay today (it was published this morning at LitHub), and I’m pretty sure I’ll need to read it tomorrow and the next day as well.

Here’s your link: When a Very Small Press Wins a Pulitzer: Paul Harding Looks Back at Tinkers, Ten Years On.

Here’s your excerpt:

My wonderful writing teachers, Marilynne Robinson and Elizabeth McCracken, always urged never to confuse publishing with writing, that they were two very different things. I took the rejection of Tinkers by the market to mean that if I meant to continue, it was possible that I would be a writer who wrote but did not publish. Rejection, then, freed me from thinking about publishing.

At first, of course, it didn’t feel a thing like freedom. I despaired at what I thought of as my fatally quaint and antique interest in and capacity for lyric pastoral, for birchbark metaphysics. But really, I’d been given the privilege of working my way out of the self-consciousness that comes from evaluating one’s natural artistic inclinations against prevailing conceit and fashion and into the self-awareness that makes for intellectual and aesthetic autonomy.

Here’s your other excerpt, because this hit me SO HARD:

Few things interest me less than myself as a subject for my writing. But few things interest me more than the experience of being a “self” and portraying the experiences of selfhood through literary characters composed of words.

Read the whole thing. Read it twice. Bookmark it so you’ll have it when you need to read it the next time. ❤️

On the Ticking Clock (and How It Affects Our Best Work)

So I keep telling myself that NEXT BOOK doesn’t have to be good.

I mean, obviously, I want it to be good. I’m going to try my hardest for it to be good, which is to say that I’m going to try my hardest to do my best work. *

But NEXT BOOK is also a big experiment for me. I’m approaching it differently than I’ve approached previous writing projects. It feels more exploratory, both in the way I’m building it and in the sense that this could be one of those stories where the characters lead me somewhere I wasn’t expecting.

It feels kind of like play, both in the spontaneous, generative sense and the “there is a difference between playing and performing” sense.**

Which means it could turn out to be good, in the way that these types of experimental from-the-heart projects do occasionally turn out to be good, or it could turn out to be derivative and indulgent and all kinds of things, since our hearts are also often derivative and indulgent.

Which is fine, and some of this could be worked out in revision. The book will become what it is becoming, and if it turns out to be not my best work, in the sense that it isn’t as good as The Biographies of Ordinary People or whatever, I’ll still have had the joy of writing it and I’ll have learned important skills that I can use on the NEXT NEXT BOOK.

Except.

I was doing some reading into the aging process (as part of the NEXT BOOK research process) and I came across this article by oncologist and bioethicist Ezekiel J. Emanuel called “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”

Despite the headline, which I am going to attribute to The Atlantic rather than the author, Emanuel doesn’t actually want to die at 75. Instead, he wants to stop receiving certain types of life-extending healthcare:

Once I have lived to 75, my approach to my health care will completely change. I won’t actively end my life. But I won’t try to prolong it, either. 

[…]

At 75 and beyond, I will need a good reason to even visit the doctor and take any medical test or treatment, no matter how routine and painless. And that good reason is not “It will prolong your life.” I will stop getting any regular preventive tests, screenings, or interventions. I will accept only palliative—not curative—treatments if I am suffering pain or other disability.

I’ve seen this philosophy pop up in a few different places, most recently Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer — but while the books share similar themes, Ehrenreich writes from the perspective of someone trying to avoid both the expense and the discomfort/indignity associated with, say, getting a colonoscopy in your 80s.

Emanuel tells a different story.

American immortals operate on the assumption that they will be precisely such outliers. But the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.

[…]

Dean Keith Simonton, at the University of California at Davis, a luminary among researchers on age and creativity, synthesized numerous studies to demonstrate a typical age-creativity curve: creativity rises rapidly as a career commences, peaks about 20 years into the career, at about age 40 or 45, and then enters a slow, age-related decline. 

There’s even a chart accompanying the article, titled “Productivity of People With High Creative Potential,” and although I’ll make you click through to The Atlantic to see the chart (’cause that’s the right thing to do), I’ll note that according to this research, as a thirty-seven-year-old highly creative and productive person, my next project might in fact be MY BEST WORK.

Simply because of how brains work.

This feels so unfair, like I barely got a chance to start doing my best creative work, and taking a couple years out of my prime creative time to work on this experimental thing that might turn out to be just another derivative fantasy story because I haven’t written enough fantasy to get past the derivative phase yet might be a bad idea because the CLOCK IS TICKING, like, this is not what I wanted out of this project AT ALL.

I mean, obviously, you just have to keep working and doing the best you can with what you have, the way we all do, and then if you want to look back and say “well, I guess my brain started to lose some plasticity right about here,” well, that was going to happen anyway.

Also, the whole “am I at the phase of my life where the world will start leaving me behind” thing was one of the emotional motivators for creating this story in the first place, STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY, so might as well take this feeling and give it to my characters.

We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow. ❤️

*How does one know that they’re doing their best work? Or, more specifically: how does one know that they’re creating the systems/structure in which they can do their best work? Sounds like something I’ll have to explore in another blog post, because I’m not sure I have the answer.

**Yes, I’ll do a separate blog post about that too. For now, keep in mind that playing is a gift you give yourself and performing is a gift you give an audience.

Problems Have Solutions (h/t Seth Godin)

This week is going to be a “things I’m thinking about” week, so let’s start with a recent Seth Godin blog post called Problems and Boundaries:

All problems have solutions.

That’s what makes them problems.

The solution might involve trade-offs or expenses that you don’t want to incur. You might choose not to solve the problem. But there is a solution. Perhaps you haven’t found it yet. Perhaps you need to do more research or make some tradeoffs in what you’re hoping for.

If there is no solution, then it’s not a problem.

It’s a regrettable situation. It’s a boundary condition. It’s something you’ll need to live with.

(I love Seth Godin’s blog, go follow his blog, also his post on what a good personal blog does was one of my inspirations for shaping this current iteration of Nicole Dieker Dot Com.)

So. Problems vs. boundaries is something I’ve been thinking about in my own life and — not at all coincidentally — one of the focuses of NEXT BOOK.

The examples of boundary conditions Seth gives in his blog post are along the lines of choices eliminating other choices: if you have committed your time to event X, you cannot also commit to simultaneous event Y.

I’m fine with that. I LOVE that. Even the part that comes with hard tradeoffs.

But I’m curious about larger-scale problems (climate change, socioeconomic disparity, etc.), the point at which they turn into boundary conditions, and what that implies.

Worldbuilding Is About Making Choices (and Understanding What Those Choices Mean)

So this week I want to look at worldbuilding, mostly because that’s where I’m at in terms of THE NEXT BOOK.

Unlike The Biographies of Ordinary People, where the world of the story was not only “the real world” but also a specific place in a specific time period, THE NEXT BOOK… well, it isn’t set in the small Missouri town where I grew up during the time period in which I grew up, so I’m having to do a little more thinking about where this story takes place and what that means.

Before we get into that, I want to share this excellent conversation on worldbuilding, from The Ezra Klein Show:


Speculative fiction author N.K. Jemisin, who recently won her third Hugo Award for the third volume in the Broken Earth Trilogy (volumes 1 and 2 also won the Hugo, and it was the first time an author won three years in a row), takes Klein through the initial steps in creating a world.

Klein, like many of us, bases his world on something he’s already familiar with — in this case, the Black Rock Desert where they host Burning Man. But even if you know an area’s topography, and even if you know what it feels like to watch the stars come out over the playa, you still might not know how the society who lives in this similar-but-fictional desert gets their food. Or how they practice basic hygiene in a land with very little water, and what that implies about beauty standards and what they find beautiful.

Jemisin urges both Klein and, by extension, all of us to think seriously about the worlds we are creating. Does a desert society need to develop a relationship with a society that has water? What does that relationship look like? How are governments organized? Who is systematically oppressed, and in what way does that oppression benefit those in power? What happens to individuals who try to step outside of the roles society has set for them?

Jemisin also urges us to do our research. Even if we are writing books set in non-Earth worlds, there’s still a lot we can learn from how societies on Earth have interacted; like, if you want to know how a desert society and a water society might interact, there are real-world analogues throughout history that you can study.

She recommends Jarod M. Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which I will admit I only read half of before I had to turn it back into the library (it’s not a quick read).

I’ll pair this recommendation with a different type of worldbuilding guide that I am also only halfway through: Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel.

This book, written in Lonely Planet-style, takes readers through what they might expect to find in your typical, cliché, not-fully-thought-out fantasy world:

HORSES are of a breed unique to Fantasyland. They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water. They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the DARK LORD are only half an hour behind. They never otherwise stumble. Nor do they ever make life difficult for Tourists by biting or kicking their riders or one another. They never resist being mounted or blow out so that their girths slip, or do any of the other things that make horses so chancy in this world. For instance, they never shy and seldom whinny or demand sugar at inopportune moments. But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them. If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a VALLEY while you talk. Apart from this inexplicable quirk, Horse can be used just like bicycles, and usually are. Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no STALLION ever shows an interest in a mare; and few Horses are described as geldings. It therefore seems probable that they breed by pollination. This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals. It also explains why the ANGLO-SAXON COSSACKS and the DESERT NOMADS appear to have a monopoly on horse-breeding. They alone possess the secret of how to pollinate them.

I’ll stop here for today, because I’ve given you a pile of resources and a 90-minute podcast to listen to (and please please please listen to all 90 minutes, the last bit goes into the ways Americans rank each other and there is this whole section on why people feel nervous around their favorite authors that I very very much want to unpack*).

One final note, which will lead us into tomorrow’s discussion: just because you’re setting your book in “the real world” doesn’t mean you get to skip the worldbuilding process. My NEXT BOOK is real-world-based, but I’m still asking myself questions like “will this take place in an actual time period e.g. 2018 or a generic present, and what do both of these choices imply for the story and how it might resonate with a reader?”

That’s where we’ll start on Tuesday. ❤️

*I don’t think we get nervous around authors because we’ve culturally decided authors are more important than other types of people, as Jemisin argues (and finds baffling) — or, more specifically, I don’t think we get nervous around our favorite authors just because of that. There’s also this element of “you have created something that became very important to me, and I want to tell you how much I appreciate your work, and I know I only have 10 seconds to do this before you move on to the next person in the signing line and/or before it becomes socially inappropriate for me to continue talking to you in the airport/supermarket/wherever.”

Plus there’s often an extra dash of either “I have a parasocial relationship with you thanks to what you’ve posted about your life online, and maybe if I say the right combination of words you’ll find me interesting too and we can be friends”** OR “I don’t want you to know how much I know about you from reading your Twitter because I don’t want to come across as a creep or weirdo, so I am going to try to avoid making that obvious and that’s also making me nervous.”

**I have navigated the fan-friend route, though it did not derive from a single ten-second conversation and I doubt it ever could; it came from repeated positive interactions, the way most friendships form.*** It was also unexpected, in that I did not go in with the goal of forming a friendship. We just kept ending up at the same professional and social events, and there you go.

***NO YOU CAN’T FORCE THE REPEATED POSITIVE INTERACTIONS, THIS IS CALLED STALKING.

On Becoming

I’m going to close out this week’s discussion of THE WORK and THE LIFE by suggesting you read Lauren DePino’s “In My Own Voice, Redefining Success and Failure,” at Longreads:

It didn’t take long for me to learn that the real story of life is that it is filled with rejection. You can know with certitude what you want to become and how you want to become it and have it all fall away. Whatever it is in you that you know you can’t let go of, whatever it is, you might have to let it go. But be aware — because it might just come around again. Its form may not appear how you first thought it would. It may knock in disguise. But if you open your eyes just right, if you open your eyes — it can become you. You can still become who you want yourself to be.

I absolutely agree with DePino’s thoughts on creativity and the creative practice (and rejection and the need to find a way to earn money while you’re doing THE WORK and the rest of it), which is why I’m recommending this essay.

But. Also.

When I read Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, I was struck by the line “I became who I was becoming,” which carries with it the double meaning of ambition and acceptance; Julia wanted to change her life and her self in certain ways, and fought against the other ways in which her life and her self were changing.

In the end, both prevailed.

Which is how it often goes.*

Next week I’m going to start looking more closely at the process of writing, including worldbuilding, story, and style. I will no doubt come back to THE WORK and THE LIFE and ALL OF THAT, so stick around if you’re interested in that kind of thing. It all intersects with each other, anyway, in the sense that the lives we live shape the stories we tell — and, dare I say, vice versa.

See you on Monday. ❤️

*It’s how it goes at the end of DePino’s essay. And that Mikey Neumann video I shared yesterday. And, like, my life. And yours.

THE LIFE Takes Work

I remember exactly where I was (in my dorm room, in college) when I realized that sending a birthday card was not a single-step task.

First, you needed a birthday card. A blank card could do in a pinch, or a thank-you card with the words “thank you” crossed out and the words “happy birthday” written instead, if you were the kind of person who could pull that off; you could even fold a piece of printer paper in quarters and draw your own card, but you’d still need an envelope to put it in.

Then you needed to write the message.

Then you needed to address the card, which — if you didn’t have the address immediately at hand — could become a step of its own. You might have to dig your address book out of the back of a desk drawer (after searching two other desk drawers first, also, I went to college in the year 2000 when people still used address books). You might have to call your mom to get the address, which meant setting aside an hour for the chat that would come afterwards.

Then you needed to put a stamp on the card. If you were the kind of think-ahead person who bought stamps in books, you might already have one; if not, you’d have to go to the post office or to a place that sold stamps (and although drugstores and grocery stores do occasionally sell stamps, they don’t advertise it; you have to go to the special customer service desk and ask).

Then you needed to find a mailbox. I don’t remember exactly where the mailboxes were in college, but when I lived in Seattle the nearest blue mailbox was a half-mile away (which meant that mailing a letter involved a 20-minute walk; also no, there wasn’t any place to leave letters in my janky dump of an apartment) and the nearest post office was two miles away. (There were a few third-party “Sip and Ship” services that were closer, but there are some things you can only do at a USPS.)

So sending a birthday card, if you were willing to pay extra to buy the card at the post office, and if you had the address close at hand so you could write it on a scrap of paper before you left for the post office, could take a single 40-minute trip. (The extra minutes are for waiting in line at the post office to buy the stamp, or book of stamps if you’re feeling flush.)

But it would more likely be three individual tasks: the procuring of the card, the writing and addressing, the stamping and mailing.

I currently have a box of 50 blank cards in assorted designs (though there are probably only 30ish cards left), and although I have three cards that need to be sent out this week, I’ve used up my most recent book of stamps. So instead of being able to write the cards and drop them off in the mail slot at my current (non-janky) apartment, I’ll need to block off 30-40 minutes to go to the post office.

I could order stamps online, but when I tried putting them in my cart and checking out, the USPS said I needed to create an account first, and I instinctively noped out of the tab even though I’m sure creating yet another account for yet another retailer would be fine, just fine.

Except it’s supposed to rain all day today, and tomorrow we’re scheduled for 40 mph winds. (I should mention that I don’t own a car; I walk, bike, bus, and take occasional rideshares.)

Which means I might need to order the stamps online after all.

I’m telling you this story because I, like most of the internet I follow, read Anne Helen Petersen’s How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation this weekend — and in my case I didn’t identify with it quite as much as everyone else on the internet seemed to.

Like, I get that something like “mailing a birthday card” is a task that your brain thinks should take five minutes, so you keep putting it off until the next day because it’ll only take five minutes, except when you finally think “I should write that birthday card” you realize you don’t even have a birthday card to write on, and then you think about the amount of steps it requires to get the card and the stamps and the rest of it and it feels overwhelming so you don’t do it.

I get that.

And part of me wants to say “well, if you implement a system like David Allen’s Getting Things Done then you can identify the birthday card task as three discrete tasks and schedule them as such, ask me how I know,” but I also know that isn’t what Petersen is really writing about here.

She’s writing about the fact that work and life both take work, and that sometimes the work of work and the work of life are so much work that there isn’t any time left over for the actual life.

I’m not capitalizing work or life in these instances because neither are THE WORK or THE LIFE as defined in last Friday’s post — that is, Petersen’s not writing about the work we’d like to be doing or the life we’d like to be living, she’s writing about the work and life we’re stuck with, partially due to economic crises and late-stage capitalism and the increase in shadow work and smartphones keeping us tethered to our jobs and so on and so forth.

I actually liked Petersen’s post on how she wrote the burnout piece a lot better than the burnout piece itself, in part because it included details like (paraphrased) “maybe the reason why we hate running errands is because they take longer than they used to, thanks to companies cutting staff and forcing us to wait in ever-longer lines, etc. etc. etc.”

But the response to the burnout piece made me want to write about the idea that THE LIFE, and this time I mean the capitalized ideal LIFE you’d like to have, where there’s time to do the work you need to do (capitalized or not) and manage your responsibilities without feeling constantly burned out, takes work to create.

In fact, you could call THE LIFE a creative project of its own.

So that’s what I’m going to focus on this week: how to make active choices about THE LIFE we want, regardless of whether we’re “creative people who want to make art” or not.

Because getting THE LIFE we want takes work, though unlike burnout-making work, it’s generally the work of joy.*

***

Two things that are going to come up right away, so let’s deal with them:

ONE. I don’t mean this as “well, I’m not burned out, and I make active choices about my life, so if you’re burned out you must not be making active choices about your life.” That’s your bog-standard logical fallacy, and also I got pretty bogged down in a creative project last year that took me very close to burnout, so not all of my active choices are great! (We’ll discuss later, though what you need to know now is that I ended up making the difficult choice to not do projects like that in the future.)

TWO. It’s going to be hard to discuss the idea of making active choices that lead you closer to THE LIFE without getting into who has the capacity (which we can also call “privilege,” if you like) to make those choices.

I have a lot of freedom right now to make choices about my life, and some of that freedom derived from circumstances outside my control (getting my first entry-level job in August 2007 instead of January 2008,** for example). Some of my freedom probably comes from having built a successful freelance career (and I teach classes on how to do that if you want to learn). Some comes from my decision to embrace spinsterhood, which means I can make choices like “time to move to an affordable Midwestern city to be closer to my parents” without considering how it might affect a partner or children.***

But if you are currently thinking “I can make zero choices about my life right now, thanks Nicole,” I will suggest two pieces of reading, both from Captain Awkward:

First, the Sheelzebub Principle: Originated by Captain Awkward commenter Sheelzebub, this principle acknowledges that some situations feel optionless. In that case, ask yourself:

Can I live with this for another month? Another year? Another five years? Ten years? The rest of my life?

Excerpted from Sheelzebub’s comment on Captain Awkward #353 & #354: Bathrooms, Butts, and Boundaries.

Invoking the Sheelzebub Principle forces your hand, as it were. Maybe it turns out that you have to live with the terrible optionless situation for another six months (I’ve been there), but you can start making choices about what you want to happen afterwards. Maybe you don’t know when the optionless situation will end — which might mean that if you want it to change, you’re going to have to be the one that does the changing (and boundary-setting and job-hunting and relationship-ending and time-reclaiming and the rest of it).

I also suggest reading the Captain Awkward guest post Breaking the Low Mood Cycle, by ElodieUnderGlass.

(In fact, I suggest everyone go read that post just because it’s so great.)

If you’d like some additional reading, I recommend Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, which goes into the socioeconomic reasons why many Millennials are feeling burnt out (and which Petersen references in her piece), as well as Craig Lambert’s Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day, which explains why everyday errands have become so time-consuming and frustrating.

We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow. ❤️

*Or, at least, the work of hope.

**The Great Recession hit in December 2008.

***Either the ones that might have existed now or the ones that might have existed in the future.