On the Paradoxical Nature of Unlimited Time

You’re probably wondering how the experiment is going.

(If you don’t know what the experiment is, go read this. I’ll wait.)

(Are you caught up now?)


Last night, I went to bed around 11 p.m.; this morning, I woke up a little after 7:30. By 8:30, L and I were side-by-side in our matching bathrobes, digging into the Ruy Lopez. We hadn’t planned on playing chess this morning, but we had been studying chess last night (after we went through the five Peano postulates and how they related to Hofstadter’s typographical number theory) and the board was already set up, which made it easy.

But everything we’re doing has become a lot easier now that we’re integrating our lives together instead of trying to fit each other into our free time.

And — impossibly — we’ve both ended up with more free time. To spend together, and to spend on our own.

How did this happen?

Some of it has to do with logistics. Now that the two of us are going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time (instead of me going to bed and waking up two hours earlier), our circadian rhythms are more in sync, which means we are more likely to want to do the same things at the same times of day. This, in turn, makes us more likely to do them.

I also did something ridiculously simple that completely transformed the way I slept — I swapped out my cheap, synthetic “down alternative” comforter for a cotton quilt. Technically two cotton quilts, since it’s getting colder at night; one that my mother made for me when I was a little girl, and one that L made with his grandmother when he was a little boy.

I don’t want to say “this one weird trick cured my insomnia,” but it did stop me from waking up in the middle of the night covered in sweat, which means I’ve been sleeping better than I’ve slept in, like, years.

But the real reason we’ve ended up with more time than ever — somehow, impossibly, improbably — is because we’ve started giving everything we do as much time as it needs.

And life shouldn’t work that way.

But it might.

I mentioned, when I started blogging again, that I had experienced an “unexpected, almost mindblowing artistic growth moment at the very end of August.” Then I told you that I would have to write about it at some point — so here you go.

After we moved into our new home, and after we got the piano set up so that I could start practicing again, I began working on two new pieces: Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major (K. 332), and Schumann’s Papillons.

L, who is a piano teacher, often compares the process of learning music to solving a series of problems. The trouble is that many musicians, even reasonably accomplished ones like myself, don’t solve each problem in full. They get the piece to the point where they can play through it well enough, accurately enough — even though many of the technical aspects are still unaddressed and/or unspecific.

Maybe they haven’t finalized a particular fingering, for example — or maybe they’ve decided on a fingering but haven’t worked out the accompanying arm weight, or standardized which part of the finger attacks which part of the key.

Maybe they’re still fudging a tricky articulation.

Maybe they’re leaving out a rest because they’d forgotten it was there (or never paid attention to it in the first place).

Maybe they can play that chromatic run most of the time, which nearly counts as all of the time, because nobody can play it right all of the time — unless you take the time to look carefully at what you are doing, figure out why the run isn’t coming out the same way every time, and make the necessary adjustments.

And taking that kind of time takes time, for lack of a better phrase.

So I decided to take it.

As much as I wanted.

I told L that I was going to learn these pieces until I had solved every problem in them, and I wasn’t even going to play past the first eight measures until I’d solved every problem those measures presented — because I knew that if I got in the habit of playing “well enough” and telling myself I would get more specific about solving problems later, I’d have to unlearn all of that unspecific playing.

I told L that if it took me the rest of my life to learn that Mozart sonata — to play it the way he and I thought a piece could be played — it would take me the rest of my life.

I don’t know how much longer I have to live, but so far I’ve spent nearly four months on the first movement and am just starting to address the second.

The idea that I would not let myself play past the first eight measures until I’d solved all of the problems in them worked, in theory — but in practice (pun intended) I quickly discovered that every stage of the learning process generated a bunch of new problems.

In other words: you learn eight measures and tell yourself that you’ve got the fingerings and articulations and dynamics all solidified, and then everything changes when you speed up the tempo, or try to play from memory, or begin the transition from measure eight to measure nine. I just realized this week that the reason I wasn’t able to consistently play a chromatic run wasn’t because my fifth finger wasn’t always striking the same way (even though that was part of the issue); it was because I was using a fingering that created a problem with the interval leap at the end of the run, and switching to a non-standard chromatic fingering (the one recommended by the editor, coincidentally enough) also solved the fifth-finger striking problem.

And if I hadn’t told myself that I had unlimited time to work all of this out, if I’d been trying to get the piece put together to play for an audience by a specific date — or if I’d been trying to have something to show a piano teacher by the end of the week, to “prove” that I’d “practiced” — I wouldn’t have taken the time to address and readdress every tiny inconsistency.

I’m playing better than I’ve ever played.

The idea that you have unlimited time is, of course, not true. Certain aspects of life, including the length of it, come with deadlines — and everything you take the time to do takes time away from everything else you could be doing.

And, although disconnecting the idea of time from the idea of the clock and the calendar has given me the freedom to be more present in the present, telling myself that I have unlimited time to learn K332 or work on this piece of music I’m composing — or, for that matter, that L and I can take as much time as we want to talk with each other, or linger over dinner, or cuddle — has also prompted me to think seriously about whether the life I’m living is worth the time I’m giving it.

Is this particular Mozart sonata worth an unlimited number of hours of study?

Is my relationship with L worth an unlimited amount of time in each other’s company?

Is the house we’ve bought together worth the unlimited amount of time it takes to make a home?

Is the piece of music I’m composing worth an unlimited number of revisions?

Interestingly, the only question I’d answer no to is the last one. I told L, when I started arranging Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18 for tenor and piano, that I was doing it mostly because I wanted to make something, and literally making anything might help me figure out what I wanted to create next.

So I’ll finish it, because I’m pretty much done — but if I weren’t, I might give it up. The composition is fairly pedestrian, a little bit derivative, and not worth my unlimited (and also very, very limited) time.

An original idea, on the other hand, might be worth it.

I wrote, when I began this experiment, that L and I would have to “figure out how to integrate our time in a way that balances both discipline and indulgence.” That has turned out to be the easy part.

The harder part is choosing which disciplines, and which indulgences, to pursue.

I started this new method of practicing by trying to study both a Mozart sonata and a Schumann waltz suite, for example — but even though I told myself I had unlimited time to solve all of the problems both composers presented, I only really had enough time to focus on Mozart.

Likewise, L and I went from trying to study chess, go, and bridge simultaneously to focusing just on chess — and then focusing on chess openings, and then focusing specifically on the Ruy Lopez opening.

Which is what we began our day with, at 8:30 this morning.

Not because we planned it — but because we chose it, together, and decided to give it as much time as it needed. ❤️

Thoughts on a 39th Birthday

I turn thirty-nine years old today.

It won’t be today, of course, the day you are reading this. It’ll be a few days after today. Probably Friday.

Today’s today, the day I am writing this, is November 4, 2020 — which means that nobody will really want to read this today, the only thing any of us really want to read is some kind of confirmed statement about the presidential election, and none of us are going to get that today.

Probably not even by Friday.

Every year on my birthday I take a picture of myself, generally tagged “this is what 39 looks like” or whatever the appropriate age is. A borrowing of Gloria Steinem.

Here is what 38 looked like:

And here is 39:

I could have taken a posed one, like I did last year. With a respectable professional-person blouse and very red lipstick. I could have taken a series of selfies until I hit one that I was happy with.

I took this one, instead.

If I look a little wan in this photo, a little tired around the eyes, it is only partially because of the election.

I mean, it isn’t really because of the election at all, but I feel obligated to say that it is because I know that’s what everyone else is thinking about right now.

I’m not thinking about the election. (I did vote; at this point, the rest of it is out of my control and no amount of thinking will change the outcome.)

I’m thinking about the adventure I find myself called towards.

The adventure I have to choose whether or not to accept.

If you know anything about me, from any of my writings on The Billfold or Lifehacker or Nicole Dieker Dot Com, it’s that I love structure and order and the kind of discipline that eliminates a lot of decision-making. Wearing the same basic outfit every day. Eating the same basic meals. Knowing what I am going to do at 6:30 every morning, and at 6:45, and at 7:15.

There’s a comfort in this kind of ritual — that every day I will rise before dawn and light a candle and write three pages and drink a cup of hot lemon water with cayenne and compose two measures of music and put on NPR’s Up First and begin doing sun salutations on my yoga mat.

And after that I will practice the piano and open my laptop and start sending out invoices and replying to emails; I’ll have breakfast and then lunch and then go for a walk and then finish up my freelance assignments; then it’s a half-hour dumbbells routine on alternate days and then a quick tidying of the house and then dinner, all before a terribly early bedtime.

That might have worked when I was 38.

It will not work when I am 39.

You do see what is missing, don’t you?

Or, more accurately, whom?

At first I thought that L and I could have the hours between dinner and bed, and I could have, like, all the rest of them.

And L, because he actually loves me — which is still uncomfortable, I am still not used to this — was actually on board with this plan.

It would seem to be the same kind of plan that many people have, especially couples without children; out of the door every morning with a quick kiss on the cheek, back at the end of the day for a couple hours of relaxation and/or television before starting it all over again.

It would seem to be the kind of plan that could work. It is not an unfair plan, not necessarily.

But it is not the plan that either of us want, which means I have to consider The Other Option.

It all started to fall apart when L and I invited a few people over to socially-distance themselves around our new fire pit. Although L had originally planned for the evening to end early enough for me to keep the kind of bedtime you’d give a fourth-grader (because he loves me, because he knows these kinds of things are important to me, because I still cannot believe all of the care this man is giving me), the gathering lasted until nearly 10 p.m.

This is where I start feeling embarrassed on my own behalf. Ashamed, that I should be so loved and behave so poorly.

Because I left the party early. I went up to bed to give myself enough time to relax and wind down before my disciplined little bedtime, which meant I said goodnight to everybody at an hour that had an 8 in it.

Which could have been fine. It was not an unfair thing to do. L and I had agreed, beforehand, that I could do it.

But it wasn’t fine. If it had been fine, I wouldn’t have spent the next four days losing sleep over it.

Then it was Halloween. We dressed as foxes and built a candy chute off our front porch. I was already several days sleep-deprived and I ate much more candy than was good for me and it came around to 8:30 p.m. and L asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with him, to say hello to the neighbors and see the full moon.

And that could have been a wonderful experience. We could have had a wonderful time.

But I was tired and unhappy and overstuffed with chocolate, and after our walk, when we should have been celebrating how well our first Halloween had gone, I started complaining about how miserable I felt.

And L, because he loves me, did not say you are ruining the goddamn evening.

But I knew I was.

The next morning. Samhain, and the time change — though it didn’t matter because I barely slept that night, and by the time the sun was up I had made my decision.

“The way I am living isn’t working,” I said. “We can’t have the life we want if I need to be in bed by 9 p.m. every night. We’re going to want to have more parties, we’re going to want to go to the symphony, we’re probably going to want to play with the symphony or do theater again or take a dance class or something like that.”

“What about your early-morning writing time?”

“I wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People between 9 p.m. and midnight,” I said. “I only changed my schedule after that because I started doing freelance jobs that required me to be ready to pitch stories by 8 a.m., and I don’t have any freelance jobs like that right now. I could switch my schedule around — go to bed around 11:30 or midnight, wake up around 7:30. It could work.”

L agreed. “It would put you more in line with the rest of the world.”

“Plenty of people wake up before 6 a.m. and go to bed by 9,” I said. “But this schedule would put me more in line with the world you and I want to live in.”

I’ve always said that you should begin as you mean to continue, so that day I stayed up until 11:30 p.m. by the new clock. Midnight-thirty by the old one. Nearly four hours after I usually went to bed.

The next day I woke up with a plan for every hour — same old Nicole, just chrono-shifted and slightly jet-lagged — and it all went beautifully until 9:30 p.m., when I had slotted in work on the composition I’d been previously tackling at 6 a.m. and L picked practice the piano and we discovered that you cannot do those two activities simultaneously.

The day after that I woke up ill and exhausted; I spent much of the day in bed and almost missed a freelance deadline.

Then my birthday. Up and at ’em and time to light the candle and write in my journal and — no, wait, L is also up now, he’s inviting me to join him for a cup of tea, I want to have tea with him but I also want this little precise comforting life that I have created for myself, if we have tea and it goes a bit too long I might miss the time I’ve set aside to practice the piano — and at this point, still jet-lagged, I become completely discombobulated.

So we talk about it. Because L loves me, we talk all the way through it.

And I realize I have two options.

The first option is to remain as I am. To assign a task to every hour and to keep myself attentive to those tasks. L will support this plan, if I choose it.

The other option — or, since I capitalized it before, The Other Option — is to begin to integrate our lives. Both of us are self-employed, and at this point in our careers both of us have workdays that require approximately five consecutive hours of sustained focus. L’s workday is fixed; he teaches piano online in various time zones, and he’s got nearly all of his lessons batched between lunch and dinner. My workday is more flexible, but I could adjust it to overlap.

Which means that we could have our mornings and our evenings free. Literally. We could go to bed when we were tired and wake up when we weren’t. We could have tea for as long as we wanted, or we could say “This morning is too beautiful to stay indoors — let’s go for a walk.”

We could play chess at 9 a.m. if we wanted to, or at 10 p.m., or keep a board open and alternate moves all day long. Currently I have “chess” blocked off for Monday evenings only, and before you start laughing, keep in mind that before I created that schedule we weren’t playing much chess at all — we were just saying I think we should play more chess and then watching television instead.

That’s the first challenge of The Other Option (or, as I called it this morning, going “Full Artist”) — that we’ll spend our days dillying and dallying instead of thinking and creating. We want to make things on our own and we want to make things together, and we will have to figure out how to integrate our time in a way that balances both discipline and indulgence.

The second challenge is that I might not feel comfortable asking for the time I need to make the things I want. When you set a schedule and tell yourself “this is what I am going to do with my day,” you save yourself the trouble of having to make decisions — and when you tell your partner that you are going to run your days by a certain schedule, you save yourself the trouble of having to ask permission.

Not that permission is the right word, but there’s going to be some morning when L asks “would you like to go for a walk” and I’m going to say “well, I really wanted to work on this piece of music I’m composing,” and my worry is that I won’t actually say that.

But I’ve already written paragraphs and paragraphs proving to all of you just how much L loves me and how ready he is to give me the time I need to do the things I want to do. Proving to myself, in a way I didn’t realize until I wrote it.

So it seems obvious what I should choose.

The Other Option.

The integrated life.

The call to adventure.

And — let’s be honest — the call to growth.

I don’t know what other gifts L has gotten me yet (we’re going to do presents later this evening) but I think this may be my favorite one. ❤️

On Creativity and Perception

We’d been living in our new home for two full months before I noticed the birdhouse.

I saw it, finally, when I was practicing the piano — I was trying to solve a problem, some bit of Mozart or Schumann or Chopin that was at the edges of my abilities, and I turned from the bench to the window and there it was.

Sometimes the window is what we look out of when we’re actually trying to see something in our mind’s eye.

Sometimes we see a birdhouse, instead.

Here are some of the books that L and I are currently reading and/or re-reading:

  • Godel, Escher, Bach (Douglas Hofstadter)
  • Better Chess (William Hartston)
  • Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Betty Edwards)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)

It took us two full weeks before we realized that all of these books seemed to be sending us the same message:

It is an inherent property of intelligence that it can jump out of the task which it is performing, and survey what it has done; it is always looking for, and often finding, patterns.

One must develop the technique to calculate such [chess] sequences through to the end, even if it is ten or twenty moves deep. Only when you’ve calculated the calculable, and no clearly advantageous continuation emerges, is it time to move into the fuzzy thought of looking for the most promising path through the forest of incalculable possibilities.

Many of my readers have intuitively understood that this book is not only about learning to draw, and it is certainly not about Art with a capital A. The true subject is perception.

The often-used phrase “pay attention” is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.

Paying attention — perceiving — looking for patterns — finding possibilities.

I was playing Hanon Exercise #31 (the wrist rotation one, where the hands start a third apart) when I stopped to write down it’s all perception in my notebook and then got up to tell L that I had discovered another “secret to life.”

“Everything we want to do depends on perceiving what is actually there,” I said, “and then figuring out how to understand it and build on it.”

It’s the same for piano as it is for writing and composition and chess and drawing and acting and math. You have to work as hard as you can to see what is actually in front of you. You can’t make assumptions or take shortcuts — I mean, you could, but that’s how you get the type of creative work that is just a little bit imprecise. A game of chess that loses its fun because you’re moving pieces instead of playing. A line drawing that captures more of the idea that everyone knows what a chair looks like than the reality of the chair in front of you, the one with a specific height and depth and light source. A section of music that you’re always a little nervous about because you know you didn’t really solve the problem; you’re just hoping that tonight will be one of the nights when you play all of the right notes instead of a few of the wrong ones.

And — let’s be honest — deciding to keep reading beyond GEB Chapter 7, The Propositional Calculus because you get the gist, you know how Boolean logic works… and then deciding to go back and really, truly learn it.

“So how can we strengthen our perception muscle?” I asked. “I mean, maybe it’s in the second half of the Kahneman or something and I just haven’t gotten to it yet.”

Then I said “No, wait. It’s in Cal Newport’s Deep Work. The secret to sustaining periods of deep work is to take deep breaks. Not, like, scattered-thought breaks where you check Twitter or email or whatever. They can be social breaks, you can have a conversation with someone you love, but he says the best kind of deep break is the kind that is performed without the influence of other minds.”

I paused.

“So, essentially, walking without your earbuds in. Or meditation.”

The trouble is that I like to use my walks to study music, and I like to use my yoga practice to listen to NPR’s Up First and other podcasts, so my actual alone-with-my-own-thoughts deep break time is somewhat limited.

That might have been why I woke up at 3:30 a.m. last night and did not get back to sleep until it was time to get out of bed.

Which, in turn, might be why I’m making this blog post just a little bit imprecise by doing the easy work of adding section breaks instead of the more difficult work of writing effective transitions.

What I need is obvious — and for once, it’s tied right in with what I want.

To give myself the kind of life where I can do my best work, as a writer and a teacher and a pianist and a partner and even, if we go far enough down the list, as a chess player.

Which means I have to build the kind of perception muscles that can both understand how the game is played and be able to create the game anew, every time.

This all goes double for my freelance work, of course, and it may be one of the reasons why I’ve been able to thrive as a freelance writer; I’ve developed the ability to understand how a piece should be structured and to create a piece that goes beyond the structure to communicate something compelling and informative and new.

But to work this hard, on freelancing and Mozart and everything else, means I have to build in better breaks and deeper rest — to take care of myself, so that I can put my attention towards what truly deserves it.

There’s one more thing.

One more “secret to life,” as I like to call it.

Nobody cares if I can play Hanon Exercise #31 in every key, or if I learn how to draw a chair, or if I finally beat L at chess. The world will keep spinning whether I understand the Propositional Calculus or not, or whether I keep working at the secret writing project I’ve started tackling at 6:55 in the morning. I am an ordinary person who is trying to make art, and there’s something heroic about that (as L would put it) but also something admirably inconsequential.

Because the actual consequence — the reason behind all of this creativity — is that creating makes you more perceptive.

It’s the other way to strengthen your perception muscle, besides walking and meditation and yoga and whatever turns out to be in the second half of the Kahneman.

And all of that perceptivity, in turn, makes you more receptive — to a new idea, to a new person, to what you actually want and need. To change. To growth. To everything.

Practicing the piano, if I may put too fine a point on it, helps you turn around and see the birdhouse.

Even though it was there the entire time. ❤️

Does Love Make You More Creative?

I suppose I should tell you a bit about what’s happened to me this year.

At the end of July, I bought a house with someone — no, he can’t be “someone,” we can’t go around calling him that until the end of time, so we’ll call him L.

I’ve known L for a long time. The first time I knew him, he was one of the most important people in my life. We fell out of touch for nearly twenty years, and then I had a dream about him; the two of us, standing together in his front room, just talking.

I think that’s all I’m going to say about that. When you share your life with another person, there are some parts that you don’t necessarily want to share with everyone else.

But I’m still going to share my ideas. What I’m thinking about. What I’m working on, and the problems that I’m trying to solve along the way.

This week, for most of the whole week, I’ve been trying to figure out whether love makes you more creative.

There’s not going to be a conclusion to this, btw. If you were expecting one. This is a question that I am still answering.

Because my first thought was that no, love does not make you more creative. It still has to come from you. You still have to make the decision to make the thing, and you still have to decide that you’re going to set aside time to make the thing, and you still have to come up with the focus and fortitude to see the thing through to completion.

And then my second thought was that, well, love can help with all of that. If you’ve got someone (we’re not calling him “someone,” we’re calling him L) to support you, either morally or mentally or simply through sharing the day-to-day work of living together. If you’ve got another person to help you process what L calls the “threat matrix” — the big worries about health or family or pandemics and elections that can get into your head and become the thoughts that occupy your thoughts. If you’ve got a first reader, as it were, to respond to your work and help you make it better.

But that answer’s kind of a cheat, because most of it is about logistics and very little of it is about love. Does being loved, which I am still trying to define because it is so new to me — and which I am currently Venn-diagramming as some intersection between “being seen,” “being cared for,” and “being stimulated” — does that experience actually inspire you to produce more interesting, more complex, more honest, and/or more vulnerable creative work?

And what about the other end of it? Does loving someone else make you more creative?

Here’s where it gets very interesting (and complex, and honest, and vulnerable) because I wasn’t very good at loving L at first. I thought I was — in fact, we said our life felt like a honeymoon — but I didn’t really know what I was doing. You can see it, in my journals. They’re still about “me” and “him” as if we were two separate things that needed to be balanced and negotiated. What’s best for me vs. what’s best for him, and so on.

Then I realized that I was thinking about it all wrong. It has to be what’s best for us. What will make our relationship stronger, and what will weaken it.

And somehow, loving the relationship — seeing it, caring for it, and stimulating it — made me better at loving the person.

There’s a song L and I like to sing to each other, from the musical Once Upon a Mattress:

Yesterday I loved you

As never before

But please don’t think me strange

I’ve undergone a change

And tonight I love you even more…

I used to think that song was about the emotions associated with love. Now I think it’s also about the actions. The little choices you make, every day, intuitively or deliberately. To love, after all, is a verb.

And I am not sure whether love makes you more creative, or whether either being loved or loving someone else helps you produce better creative work. The results are not yet in.

But I am fairly sure that love is a creative practice.

And I only figured that out this morning — which means that if creativity is defined as “making connections between things” (which might not be true, but it’s how I defined it in my last post) this particular connection might be one example of love making me just a little bit more creative. ❤️

In Which I Restart My Creative Practice

I don’t know about you, but my creative practice kind of stopped mid-March.

It took me until the end of August to start doing anything that even resembled a serious creative endeavor. I made a few attempts at getting back into the creative practice habit this summer, but it was kind of like “Nicole goes through the motions of being serious in the hopes that creativity will result,” and it didn’t. I was doing for the sake of doing, but it was unfocused and deprioritized and I didn’t really know what I wanted.

I found my way back in through journaling.

At first I simply wrote about what was going on.

Then, exactly like Julia Cameron suggested might happen in The Artist’s Way, I started making connections between things. (You might say, if you were of a profound turn of mind, that making connections between things is the essence of creativity.)

I began to prioritize my journaling. Made it the first thing I did every morning, before checking email or the news or anything like that. Just a few minutes with the blank page and as many thoughts and emotions as I could jam onto it.

I had an unexpected, almost mindblowing artistic growth moment at the very end of August — and oh my goodness I really should write about that, shouldn’t I — and after I realized what I needed to do next, getting back into the daily creative practice routine was relatively easy. (The hardest part was, of course, figuring out where and how to schedule it.)

Although, as I recently told a friend, this newly revived practice was all about studying other people’s work (at the piano, in this case). Not generating anything new.

“Maybe it will be a technical year,” I told her. Sitting down with Mozart every morning can teach you just as much as writing something of your own, after all. Maybe more.

But then I saw this tweet from Atomic Habits author James Clear:

For the last week, I have started each day by writing “What do I want?” at the top of a blank page.

It’s surprising how useful it is to keep asking yourself this question. Each time, my answers get more precise.

Once I know what I want, I translate the answer into action steps.

I added the question to my daily journaling ritual, and kept coming up with the same few responses over and over. One of which was “I want to make things.”

And then I had an idea — it came to me, literally, in a dream — and I woke up and I wrote it down.

And then I started waking up a little bit earlier every morning so I could have time to work on it.

Which brings me to now, 6:55 a.m., the sun still yellow at the horizon. (My new office faces east, which is one of my favorite things about it.) I’ve done my journaling and my making-something-new, and when I’ve finished with this post I’ll do some yoga and share a cup of coffee or tea with the person I love and get ready to sit down at the piano.

And when I’m done practicing, with the rest of the day still ahead of me, I’ll start my freelance work. ❤️

In Which My Career Is Profiled in a Book About Art and Artists

In 2017, award-winning essayist and critic William Deresiewicz emailed me and asked if he could interview me about my life, work, art, and finances. (Those are four of my favorite topics to discuss, so of course I said yes.) Deresiewicz explained that he was writing a book about “arts careers in the new economy” — and this summer, The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech was published.

A lot has changed, in terms of my life, work, art, and finances, since 2017. Even back then, I wouldn’t have said I was “struggling to survive” — I think my last official “struggle” year was 2012, and I spent half of it living off the $10K I’d saved up (and the other half going into $14K of credit card debt that I finally paid off in 2016) so it doesn’t even really count.

That said, the way I am profiled in The Death of the Artist is lovely, honest, and insightful. Here’s how it begins:

Nicole Dieker is pretty much the ideal person to have tried to self-publish a work of literary fiction. Dieker grew up in small-town Missouri, the older of two daughters of a piano teacher and a music professor. Her upbringing taught her to value the arts, but above all, she told me, it taught her to practice. “The idea that every day you’re going to sit down at your instrument and you’re going to try to get better at it—that taught me as much about how to be an artist as the actual art itself.”

If you want to read Deresiewicz’s thoughts on why my freelance career has gone so well — and his analysis of The Biographies of Ordinary People both as a text and as a marketing project — you’ll have to read The Death of the Artist for yourself.

The other artist profiles are pretty good, too. ❤️

On Investment Portfolios and Financial Privilege

So I’ve been paying attention to my investment portfolio, even though that is the one thing personal finance experts are telling everyone not to do right now — if you don’t look at it, you can’t worry about it, right?

Well, let’s look at it:

It's a bar graph. A very very downward curving bar graph.

My current net worth, which includes not only my investments but also the $15,450.84 I’ve got saved in various bank accounts, is now $138,011.15.

That’s down $29,020.70 from the beginning of 2020.

And yes, that’s all investment-related. (I didn’t, like, go buy a car or anything.)

I’ll be the first to note that I am still in a very very financially privileged situation right now; I’m still freelancing, I don’t have to worry about where next month’s rent is coming from, and I have a cash emergency fund that will cover me for six months if I’m judicious with it.

The financial independence calculators now estimate it will take me 7 years and 9 months to FIRE (and yes, I ran those calculators with just the past month’s market data, so they wouldn’t be tricked into thinking we were still in a bull market). I’ll remind you once again that I’m not looking at these calculators as an actual predictive tool; they’re just fun to play with — and now it’s interesting to think about how much of that theoretical FIRE money might come from actual earnings and not investing gains.

Because that’s what the calculators told me this morning: that I could FIRE in a bear market if I continued earning at my current level for the next eight-odd years.

That said, I am well aware that employment of any kind is always tenuous (you might remember me writing the “treat your salary like it’s temporary” post for Lifehacker last summer), especially right now.

So I’d love to hear your thoughts on where I should be donating my money at present — is it better to do, like, a Red Cross thing, or to find a few GoFundMes and help fund them?

Because I do very much want to do something. ❤️

UPDATE: There was something that was still bugging me about the FIRE calculator’s numbers, and it turns out it was that the calculator wasn’t pulling current stock returns; it was autopopulated with an automatic 7% percent return.

I adjusted the calculator to run the 3.8% return that my portfolio has actually gotten since I opened it in 2018 (at the end of 2019 it was getting a 9% return; currently it’s getting something like a negative 30% return, although Vanguard won’t calculate negative returns because maybe that doesn’t work mathematically), and the calculator adjusted my theoretical FIRE timeline to 9 years and 1 month.

For whatever that’s worth.

How I Do Money

I’m writing this up by request, though I don’t think there’s anything particularly new about the way I do money; on the other hand, there are probably a lot of you reading this who haven’t yet caught up on the (subtracts from 2012) eight years of How Nicole Does Money internet content out there.

Not that I would recommend looking it up, either—even though the Tumblr on which I used to share weekly financial updates was kind of essential in launching my freelance career. (Or at least the personal finance side of it.)

But how do I deal with money these days, especially now that I’m earning well over what I need to cover the basic costs of living?

For starters, I’m still trying to keep myself at an average of $2,500 in personal expenses every month, or $30,000 for the year. (Those would be post-tax dollars, which essentially means I need to earn $1.30 in freelancing income for every $1.00 I spend on, like, rent.)

I’ve been capping my personal expenses at $2,500/month ever since I started using YNAB, which did in fact completely change the way I viewed my finances. It didn’t change the way I did money, per se; it just changed the time horizon through which I viewed my income and expenses. With YNAB, I could see exactly how far my net worth might take me if I never earned another dollar in my life—which made me want to see how much of my future I could get my savings and investments to cover.

And of course I was always going to aim myself towards FIRE at some point; I’d been interested in the idea ever since I graduated from college and found a copy of Your Money or Your Life at the library. I know I’ve told this story before, but that was the book that made me start tracking every penny I earned, spent, and saved—a habit that has stuck for (subtracts from 2004) sixteen years.

I didn’t realize when I began tracking my money that I would not be able to turn my telemarketer earnings into a stable income that derived primarily from U.S. Treasury Bonds; by the time I figured out how much interest rates had changed since YMOYL was initially published, I decided I’d continue to track my income and expenses just in case. This took me through the year I was on food stamps, the year I saved my first $10K, the year I got myself into $14K of credit card debt, the year I became debt-free, and the year I earned six figures as a freelance writer.

The ledger moved from a physical notebook to a customized spreadsheet to Mint, then to a different spreadsheet, then back to Mint, and now to YNAB—but it still exists, and I take a look at it every morning.

So… basically I track my income and expenses, and I try to keep my personal expenses at $2,500/month.

I also maintain a $10,000 emergency fund in cash, tucked into a high-interest savings account—which, these days, is 1.70% APY.

Then I invest any money that doesn’t go towards personal expenses or my freelance business (or taxes, a lot of it goes towards taxes).

It sounds so simple when you put it that way—and I have been putting it at some variation of “that way” for a while.

Billfold readers might remember, for example, that I committed to living on 50% of my income until I paid back my parents the $14K they loaned me to cover my credit card debt (this was, I always feel like I have to mention, an unsolicited loan—though it’s also a reminder of how family and privilege and everything else fits into financial decision-making). The idea that the majority of my money won’t be spent on my day-to-day life was a mindset I signed up for during my telemarketing days, when I told myself that if I got $500 together I could rent a black-box theater for one night and put on a play that I would cast and rehearse in a public park (yes, I was very young and very foolish and had no idea what was involved in artistic production of any kind). Even the $14K of credit card debt wasn’t spent on, like, me; I got into financial trouble trying to make it as an independent musician, and I didn’t even have the good sense to put that debt on a business credit card where the interest would have been tax-deductible.

Now that we’ve covered that aspect, I also have to remind you all that I got darned lucky with my current career (and, as noted above, some of that luck was absolutely due to privilege). I also took some financial risks, like choosing to make the minimum payments on my credit card debt while I worked as hard as I could to pick up freelance articles and crank out 5,000 words a day. I could have gotten another office job (I’ve had plenty of office jobs) and made more money than I earned during my first two years of freelancing and content writing. But I saw that I was earning more money as a freelancer month over month, and that I was rapidly building and expanding my client base, and I wanted to see how far I could take that.

And then I just combined my freelance earnings with my inherent frugality and love of, like, tracking stuff.

And it helps that I live alone, in a beautiful-but-small apartment in Cedar Rapids, and do not have any children.

Is this what you wanted to know? Is there more stuff you want to know? Do we want to get into the way I choose my investments or how I meal plan or how I live in Iowa without a car?

Keep asking questions, and I’ll keep answering them. ❤️

Goals and The Scatter: Cultivating a New Year of Creativity

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the first in an ongoing column about the creative practice.

In the past year, I’ve gone a bit sour on cruising the internet, and gotten back into curated newsletters. (Side note: if you have favorites, please share!) A friend of mine, the lovely and thoughtful San Francisco Bay Area poet Allie Rigby, publishes a monthly one called The Herd. In this month’s issue, while admitting her ambivalence about New Year’s resolutions, she encourages her community to think about what they want creatively in 2020—and to share one intention with the group. “There is magic,” she points out, “in sharing a goal.” So I’m going to do some magic right now; you’re my witness. In 2020, I’ll write my second book.

Also, I’ll get the first one in front of a series of publishers I think are right for it, until one of them agrees. Plus, I’ll do some serious vocational discernment, work daily with a plan I’m designing to mitigate the frightening ways my body handles stress, and spend a full day, once per month, in silent retreat from all tech and to-do lists.

I was going to share just the art-specific goals with you here. But that contradicts something I’ve been learning for years, which crystallized in 2019: everything you do feeds—or eats, or a little of both—your art. Maybe also this: your life is your art. 

I wrote my 2020 goals while driving up the central coast of California on my winter holidays. During those same holidays, I interviewed for a new job, then received the news that they want me to start this month. Change has been coming in this department for some time, a distant storm I’ve been feeling just over the horizon, charging the air. I’m relieved to feel the rain falling. The inevitable thunder and lightning both excites and worries me: a new employer and colleagues to learn, a project I’m helping to invent as we go along, some travel, work dreams, changes to my daily routine. And as all of that whirls around me—oh right, I’m writing a book and managing my stress so it doesn’t kill me.*

Most creatives don’t live by our art alone. Writing is a full-time job, for which I need another such to pay the rent and take vacation and buy good wine and feed the cat, et cetera. I suspect I’m preaching to the choir right now: you read a blog about the art and finance of a creative life. You know this is a balancing act. So how does one actually balance?

I don’t know. But following my earlier bit of magic, I’m going to set in motion another. I’m going to tell you about The Scatter, and how I’m using it to build a creative life that aligns with my goals and my values, while respecting my limits and also the essential mystery of being human.** And I’m going to let the shared statement of that intention roam free in the world, and see what good work it can do. 

You may already recognize The Scatter. It’s that daily frenetic task-switching from article to email to work to laundry to existential worry. It’s the inability to focus on knitting or reading or going for a walk—just that, and only that. It’s the compulsion to check Twitter again, or your email, or your stats, even when you lack any specific question or interest, just because you have a free half-minute burning a hole in your brain. It’s the need to check eight things off your to-do list today, and the feeling after you’ve done them that you could really do more. It’s the way you question your competence and worth when you realize how exhausted you are, and the way you still think you can get all of that done tomorrow. 

My Scatter started to show when I took a job that couldn’t provide the intellectual challenge I need to focus for eight hours a day. Humans are great at adapting to non-optimal situations—I got my work done, and well—but all such decisions exact prices, produce side-effects. I did this job for some time, and it afforded me many things, including quite a lot of bandwidth for writing. It also brought The Scatter, dropped on my kitchen floor every day like a critter the cat dragged in, and I have to clean it up. 

I told my (wonderful) therapist recently that I couldn’t find time to do all the things I need. I had already edited out of my life so many things I liked or valued but just couldn’t keep saying yes to without exploding; why hadn’t that solved the problem? She asked if I’d considered not trying to do every important thing every day. Maybe some things are weekly, she suggested, or monthly. 

Around this time, I also discovered that I can do about one thing a day before my body starts throwing stressed-out signal flares. I had to say this out loud to realize its truth, and then I had to figure out what I actually meant by it. 

Every day, I get out of bed and perform the rituals of bathing and dressing. I do some kind of contemplative practice, I do whatever my current project is, and I walk or I dance. Most days I also work (tech Monday through Friday, writing Saturdays and Sundays.) I’m doing, by a conservative estimate, at least five things. 

Outside that baseline, I’ve got one free square in the middle of the day’s game board. So if I want to draft an essay, or submit poems, or volunteer at my library, or have dinner with a friend, or go to the DMV to renew my drivers license—that’s my One Thing. 

So I made some lists. First, every activity I require and/or value. Then I crossed some of those out. What could I edit? I did. (Now I just have to stick to it.) 

Next, I placed those activities into four columns: Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Yearly. (Very quickly, I started writing this out as DWMY.) Daily is my baseline. I make time for each thing on the Weekly list at least once a week. The idea is the same for Monthly and Yearly.

  • Weekly includes items like writing sessions, naps or baths, housework, email correspondence, movie nights, errands and incidentals. Yep, those are all things I used to try to fit in daily or every other day. 
  • Monthly is for volunteer work, therapy and discernment time, silent “sabbath” days (see my 2020 goals, above), manuscript development, submitting individual pieces for publication, outings with friends, seasonal projects, less frequent incidentals like medical appointments, and freelance writing pitches or assignments. I was previously trying to do most of these every week. 
  • Yearly is things like theater, travel, craft workshops, personal or writing retreats, and social visits with out-of-town friends and family. And yes, you guessed it, I was trying to fit all of these in much closer to monthly. 

I’ve been practicing with my DMWY list for about a month—half of which I spent on vacation; that part doesn’t count. So I don’t know yet how effective a tool it will be. I do know some important things already, which suggest this can help me both to control The Scatter, and to work effectively and joyfully toward my 2020 goals. 

First: when I’m feeling The Scatter, I can know that I am doing enough, and doing good things, if I put a mental checkmark by my Daily baseline items, plus one item from my Weekly, Monthly, or Yearly list. This is already helpful, although it’s going to take time to accept that I may simply get less done. Which is ok. 

Second, when I’m feeling exhausted, or having a lot of stress symptoms, I look at my lists: how many extras did I take on today? Yesterday? How does the week ahead look? Soon I’ll be able to ask myself things like: What’s my pattern this month? If I’m feeling unbalanced, I’ll be able to look at my lists for Weekly or Monthly items I’ve been neglecting.

Last, and perhaps most importantly in the long term, DMWY builds unscheduled free time into my day, and reminds me that such time is crucial. Building a valuable day around Baseline+One Thing means there’s almost always time left over. In the past few years I’ve tended to fill that uncritically in the moment: an hour of writing here, a half hour catching up with online articles there, an extra errand, a cat nap, bouts of Twitter. And still I felt I was “getting nothing done.” DMWY has already helped me identify what I truly need and want to accomplish, and set limits on the daily exercise of that accomplishment based on experience of my own traits and limits.

The rest of my day? That’s for play. For “boredom,” which is great for creative life. For refusing to define, or schedule, or quantify or try to “use” every minute of my time.  

I am, of course, capable of doing more than One Thing, and many days demand it. Life is complex and doesn’t often cede authority to my personal plan. But the limit of One Thing is just true for me, and hard-learned. DMWY is an experiment: (how) can I best align my actions and values and limits, and accomplish what’s most important to me in the short and long term? I imagine this will take time. And In spite of my regular feelings to the contrary, I have nothing but.  


*I just said something possibly wise and possibly crap about your life as your art. I guess now I get to find out which adjective applies. 

**This is going to sound a lot like another 2020 goal. I don’t think of it that way because I started it in 2019, but keep reading and see if it doesn’t just dovetail right into my Official 2020 Goals. Calendar years aren’t objectively real anyway.