Writing: Slowing Down

After almost a decade of writing fiction everyday, I’ve decided to slow down. There are a number of reasons but I think it can be summed up best by something I heard at a family dinner recently: “If you hate it, why do it?”

I don’t hate writing. Far from. In fact, I’m finding that my current writing is some of the best I’ve done yet. And I’m beginning to wonder if that’s not a direct result of slowing down.

This is far from certain. It could just be that I’m continuing to improve over time. Regardless, I’ve gone from writing seven days a week to about four, which is allowing me to spend more time mulling over scenes while simultaneously leaving me a lot less frustrated.

I can usually turn out a complete manuscript in a year (including four or so drafts). This new schedule means it’s going to take almost two and that delays my next shot at getting an agent. That’s the real crux of the issue. But I’ve started to think agents don’t want what I’m writing. And that could be what’s really slowing me down. I’m not only second-guessing what I write but whether or not I even want to be a writer.

Even if pessimism concerning my future prospects is the driving force behind this slow down, I’m feeling pretty good about my decision. I don’t feel rushed, so I’m able to savor the work. And, oddly enough, with the writing a little less crammed into every corner of my life, it feels more like a priority.

That may sound strange but I’m finding that reserving Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 6:30 AM as “Writing Time” gives the activity precedence and frees me up to think about other things (besides my lack of success with agents) the rest of the day.

If nothing else, slowing down is helping me avoid burnout. That’s a good thing. A great thing. And whereas the slow down might not permanent, it’s a good exercise. A little like pressing reset.

photo: Matthew T. Rader

Routine: Morning Prep

About a year ago, I started prepping for my morning the night before. I follow a fairly simple routine. I place a bowl and a glass on the kitchen table. The glass is to remind me to have start the day with 8 oz. of water. The bowl is for my oatmeal.

I’ve found that putting the bowl out and putting the oatmeal in it helped me in two ways. It allowed me to streamline my breakfast preperation but it also led to better choices. Since the oatmeal was already out, I choose to eat it over a highly caloric cereal or grabbing a quick and easy granola bar.

The other thing I do for the morning is fill my coffeemaker with grounds and water. That way all I have to do is turn it on in the morning. I’m hoping to upgrade to a coffee machine with a timer in the future but that will have to wait until we have more counter space than what’s available in our current apartment.

These are small things but I’m nearly incoherent in the morning. So, I tend to make dietary choices on impulse rather than with intentionality, and like many others I can’t enjoy my morning without a good cup of joe.

The point of my morning prep is to get me into my chair to do some writing as soon as possible. On a perfect day, I’m up at 6, eating by 6:15, and then sitting in front of my computer with a cup of coffee no later than 6:30.

It doesn’t always work that way and I’m currently taking Wednesday mornings off from writing but I find that by preparing the night before makes my morning go a lot more smoothly.

photo: Isaac Benhesed

Writing: Bourdain

I’ve been inspired by Anthony Bourdain’s work for years. He was an award-winning writer and an extremely effective one but his travels might be the real reason I considered him one of my heroes.

When I was around twenty years old, I set out on a career in photojournalism. I was shooting for the university paper and about to move onto freelancing for a small circular.

For better or worse, I got distracted by filmmaking and found my path deviating from this initial goal. But that didn’t stop me from being interested in far-flung areas of the world. And I never saw anyone cover those areas quite like Anthony Bourdain.

Over the last twenty years, I’ve thought about having my own travel show… a lot. But now that I’ve seen Parts Unknown, I’m not sure there’s any point. The kind of mastery that that program displayed was truly beyond compare.

Of course, this level of perfection came from years of practice that started all the way back with A Cook’s Tour. I’m not sure I’ve watched every episode of that first show but I have watched every one I could get my hands on. And a number of them twice.

Anthony Bourdain was fearless. I couldn’t imitate that if I wanted to, which leaves me with a dilemma. Do I just give up my goal of producing television? It’s hard to say but we’re all lucky Bourdain took a shot at it.

His death was tragic and I’m disappointed that we’ve missed out on more years of living vicariously through Bourdain. But I am grateful that we got what we did.

photo: Matthias Jordan

Organization: Surfaces

There are only a few reasons surfaces become cluttered. One of them is that things aren’t put away after they’re used. That one is fairly simple to remedy. At most, it requires redefining when tasks we begin are finished.

Sometimes there isn’t a place for a particular item. This can be a common situation in a home that is already filled to the brim with stuff. The item can only go in an overflowing closet or drawer that’s a little too hard to close. Clearly, keeping surfaces clean requires a little work on the front end.

That work is worth it to me because an uncluttered space decreases my anxiety. Living in disarray causes both stress and negative emotions. It can also cause you to lose things. Having a place for household items eases the process of putting things away and finding them later.

If you need some motivation, consider the wisdom I heard from the restaurant managers I worked with during college. They’d round a corner to see a server slacking off and say, “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.”

I don’t want to feel like I’m working a part-time job while I’m at home but I do want to keep my home clutter free, so I tend to take a more laid back approach. I clean as I go. Each time I get up, I put something away.

Ideally, the end tables in my living room and the counters in my kitchen would always be free of clutter. I prefer to have only one item (a lamp or valet tray) on small surfaces and maybe two or three items on a larger piece of furniture like a TV stand or desk.

In order to make this possible, everything I own must have a place (that’s not on a surface). And things need to be put away in a timely manner.

photo: Michael Mroczek

Essentials: Black T-Shirt

I try to keep my style fairly simple. Solid colors, mostly. I don’t have a problem with stripes or primary colors but I typically try to cull my wardrobe down to what is absolutely necessary.

Thus, black t-shirts are a staple of my wardrobe. I throw one on at night after work and wear one out and about on the weekends. It’s a simple choice and one that I think looks pretty good.

I wouldn’t say I value variety in clothing but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate having choices or fashion. As I write this, I’m wearing a t-shirt I bought on a work trip to Berkeley. It’s yellow and there’s a navy bear on it. I don’t feel the need for a great number of novelty tees, but I will buy one from time to time.

Besides black t-shirts, I have a couple navy ones and occasionally one that’s charcoal gray. Maybe that’s boring. But to me, it’s just simple.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t have that many opportunities to wear t-shirts. I can’t wear them to work, and I rarely wear them out at night. So, I just don’t need that many.

The white t-shirt used to be considered classic: think Paul Newman, James Dean, or Marlon Brando. But I think the black t-shirt is the new classic. If that’s like saying black is the new black, then that’s what I’m saying. (Although after taking a look at images of those actors, I’m thinking of buying a few white tees.)

I wear my black t-shirts with dark jeans and black boots. Sometimes I’ll even put on a pair of sunglasses. It’s not extravagant. And it’s not supposed to be.

photo: Štefan Štefančík

Health: Weightlifting

Building muscle takes time. But the physique can be transformed through sweat and consistency. Of course, it also requires real dedication (and often a team of people) to obtain model-like aesthetics or the level of fitness obtained by professional athletes.

Faced with these high standards, it’s important to remember that perfection doesn’t have to be the goal. Exercise can be performed with the desired outcome of increasing health and vitality. How that end is pursued is up to the individual but I prefer weights over cardiovascular exercises like running or biking. I also believe regular lifting is superior to a cardio-only routine.

Resistance training has shifted weight from my midsection to my arms, my back, and my chest. It’s also led to less back pain when I roll out of bed in the morning, which was a chronic problem prior to starting my training. Furthermore, strengthening my legs and core has made the little bit of running that I do that much easier.

As far as specific exercises are concerned, dumbells are a part of my routine but the majority of my workout involves bodyweight. I do several sets of each of the following:

  • Pull-ups
  • Push-ups
  • Dips
  • Planks
  • Sit-ups

Whereas this isn’t necessarily the kind of workout that leads to incredible gains in muscle size or bulk, it does provide tone and shape and that’s what I value. I’m not interested in bulking up so much that muscle weight pounds my knee joints while I jog.

There’s an endless number of exercise tutorials available online and my workout is composed of parts of many of them. As I stated, I supplement the bodyweight work with various dumbbell sets. My goal is to target areas that require more strength (e.g. shoulders and legs).

I also change the order of my exercises every six weeks or so in an effort to prevent adaptation… and/ or boredom.

photo: Cyril Saulnier

Essentials: Whiskey

It was Ernest Hemingway who said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” I suppose that’s why I felt I could drink while I was writing this. The only problem is that you may know that this quote has been widely debunked.

If that means whiskey and writing don’t mix, then when exactly should you pour yourself a tumbler? Certain social gatherings come to mind, of course, but I like to do something else with my bourbon.

I recently bought a bottle in preparation for the birth of my first child. I drank a glass when she arrived. Admittedly, it was several days later. Weeks, actually. When things finally calmed down a bit.

I plan to drink another tumbler on Father’s Day. (It just so happens that this is the next big milestone.) The purpose of this way of drinking is to mark an occasion. It’s not necessary to become inebriated. Although, a little buzz wouldn’t hurt.

Whiskey should be enjoyed and savored. I believe this so much that I’ve invested in set of my own sphere-shaped ice molds. I’ve also been gifted a few whiskey stones. I’ve yet to try them but I will.

Having a drink is not about achieving drunkenness. It can be an event. If I wanted, I could use a Sharpie to mark each of occasion on the actual bottle. And it could become a sort of liquid journal.

When it comes to drinking whiskey, I look forward to fall the most. The first day of the season itself may be reason enough to indulge. Thanksgiving certainly will. And for Christmas… Well, this year, I’m eager to try a recipe for Whiskey Eggnog. And, to be perfectly honest, I’m not even that big a fan of eggnog.

photo: Michael Mroczek

Introduction

Admittedly, some of the topics addressed in these essays are unremarkable or even banal. But much of life is nothing less and, ultimately, I feel that even the most mundane elements of life deserve attention.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the motivation here is a belief that by briefly focusing on the little things, I can avoid letting them get in the way. Another way to think about it might be an understanding that when our requisite duties are executed efficiently, energy and attention given to life’s more compelling pursuits can be increased.

I do, of course, spend time focusing on life’s foremost issues (goals, dreams, etc.) in these short writings, but I find that these are greatly benefited by examining the tasks we tend to perform absentmindedly. I believe the minor goals I set for myself facilitate the achievement of the major ones.

Besides increased time and energy, refining mundane tasks can be an important tool in learning to set standards for ourselves when it comes to larger ambitions. Thus, I make an effort to explore the small endeavors in detail (except when I’m being purposefully vague).

Perhaps too much detail but the writing on this site is an effort toward self-examination. I am simply making a record of my own habits and behaviors. If someone else finds benefit from it that would be great but it’s not necessarily the aim.

It should also be noted that much of the routine tasks I describe are purportedly performed on a daily or weekly basis. The reader should be aware that the habits I describe are sometimes still in process. Even when they have been successfully ingrained, I can fall short and fail.

photo: Tim Mossholder