Monday, May 22, 2017

On planning to be happy

I’ve been thinking a lot about reaching my writing goals, and my last three posts discussed the basics of establishing a mission, setting goals, and managing time.

But there is so much more to life than writing, and I need to remind myself of this on occasion. I’m sitting by one beautiful example of this so-much-more as I write this; while I do my work, he does his—he’s watching an episode of Peppa Pig and eating his cereal.

My shorthand way of thinking about the so-much-more is to call it happiness. That’s a very wiggly word for it, though. Is happiness the same as joy, or am I low-balling when I revel in the simple pleasure of having my best little friend by my side? Is this contented feeling happiness? 

And as I write this, and always, at every moment, there is gut-wrenching torture and pain and sorrow in the world. Someone I love is consumed by worry that he can’t pay an important bill. Another person I know is doubled over in pain at the death of her sister. And people I’ll never meet are starving and suffering and hurting in ways I can’t even imagine. This is always true, and there’s something problematic about happiness or joy under the circumstances.

I teach composition at the university level, and in recent classes I’ve been pursuing a happiness theme as a research focus. My students and I try to pin down a definition of happiness. We talk about the relationship of happiness to work, to love, to place, to the spirit, to art—any connection we can make to untangle the idea (or to further complicate it). We ponder what our nation’s founders meant when they said we had the right to pursue it; we probe why polls find significant unhappiness in the U.S., despite our wealth and apparent opportunity.

I’m embarking on a new class, and I just posted some journaling themes for my students. These were pretty easy to generate, because they’re the very same questions I’ve been ruminating over. Here are some:

1. To what extent is happiness a choice?
2. What did our nation’s founders mean when they said we had the “right to pursue happiness”?
3. Is joy just extreme happiness, or is it distinct from it?
4. In what ways is sorrow relevant to/necessary for happiness?
5. How can we best address sadness in another?
6. Why do some polls find U.S. citizens unhappy?
7. What is the main ingredient of your own happiness?
8. How do you deal with sadness?
9. Why do we sometimes laugh in inappropriate settings, like funerals?
10. How can you increase your happiness?
11. Should you try to be happier?
12. Do you ever sort of revel in a mood of melancholy, and if so, why?
13. Does activism require anger?
14. What’s up with people telling us to smile?
15. What is the role of religion in happiness?
16. What is the role of work in happiness?
17. What is the role of family in happiness?
18. What is the role of romantic love in happiness?
19. What is the role of home in happiness?
20. What is the role of mindfulness or meditation in happiness?
21. What is the role of pets in happiness?
22. What is the opposite of happiness?
23. Why do some people feel happier in a tidy or clean setting?
24. What good can you say about sadness?
25. What is one thing you can do right now to improve your level of happiness?
26. Read any article about happiness, scholarly or otherwise, and respond to it.

One thing I tell my students, and something I believe very strongly, is that sustained happiness is not an accident. We may feel a burst of pleasure when we win some money on a scratch-off lottery ticket or we run into an old friend, but it seems to me that a happy life is the result of planning. We have to set ourselves up for it. Luck helps, too—if we have good health and a job we enjoy, we’re mostly just fortunate, although health and employment, too, are things we can strive for.

So as I’m planning for a summer of successful writing, I’m also thinking about soaking up all the happiness I possibly can—and about supplementing the happiness of the people I care about (and I like to think that’s everyone, although I may fall short in a few particular instances).

What will happiness require? I have an idea that I’ll need to write things I care about, but also that I must have time in nature, time with my family, time for navel-gazing and relaxation. My gut says that multitasking is working in the wrong direction, and that to be fully happy, I have to inhabit my life and be fully present in each moment.

I anticipate some disappointments, and maybe some very harsh ones. But right now, I’m reaching for joy, and I’m doing all I can to be ready for it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Making the most of a writer's time

Badger, Sir Thomas Browne, 1658

To reach our goals, it’s important to have a mission and a plan. Even more than these elements, though, we need to have time—and time, in fact, is the only absolute necessity.

I’m thinking of writing, although “mission” feels like more of a corporate term than an artistic one. As long as we devote some time to writing, we can muck around without a mission or purpose, and we can feel our way without a plan. But there’s no substitute for time. Writers have to write down some words, and this happens in a unit of time—a few seconds spent scrawling on the back of an envelope, an entire day drafting at a desk. You can take away the envelope or the desk, but you can’t subtract time from the equation and still say that one has written.

This formula for achievement of goals—mission plus plan over time—works for every goal, even beyond writing. We could have a mission to get fit and a great exercise plan to follow, but if we don’t spend time exercising—if we don’t act on the plan in real life—nothing changes for us. There is power in having a vision, but most of that power has to do with the way it changes our actions. I have a lot of desires, but I can’t think my house clean; I need to dip into my limited pool of time to pick up toys or scrub the shower.

My last two posts here have talked about mission and planning as ways to make the most of summer writing time that academics frequently have high hopes for. Summer, I’ve found, can get away from us if we do what we feel drawn to—sleep in, laze about, soak up the sun. With an idea of what it is we’re about, and a plan for what we’d like to accomplish, we might be tempted to go with what feels good. Sometimes that’s exactly what we should do—and it’s undoubtedly a good idea for at least some part of our free time.

But a big part of the plan is how to execute it with the resources we have, and our most important (and most limited) resource is time.

The outset of summer is a perfect time to craft a schedule for meeting our goals (and perhaps for starting a habit of intentional use of time, even though the schedule might change). Here are some steps to consider for making the most of time:

* Take a realistic look at the twenty-four hours in a day. Figure on eight hours for sleep, even though eight full hours of sleep is a pipe dream for me; still, that’s a healthy target, and I wouldn’t advise low-balling sleep, or making a plan that steals from our need to be good to ourselves.

* Start to chart out a calendar, with the understanding that your Mondays are different than your Thursdays—each day brings its own commitments and challenges.

* Make a place on the schedule for those elements that can’t be omitted—like childcare or work. It helps to know the difference. We actually can let the dishes stand in the sink for a day. We can forego a shower or a favorite show. Children are going to need to eat, but we can forego an hour-and-a-half of cooking in favor of a frozen pizza in the oven, at least on occasion.

* Look at what’s left—and again, we can do this even if we have to steal time that we might prefer to use for another purpose. I love to woolgather in the morning before the family is awake, but that’s my best chance at a few hours of uninterrupted writing time, and if I’m focused on meeting my goals, I need to be thoughtful of what I do with pockets of time.

* Give yourself permission to regard writing time as one of those immutable elements, and place it on the schedule. For me, I might make the immutable writing time that pocket I regularly have from 6 to 8 a.m.—or I might know that I’ll be waiting out my kid’s karate class or sitting in a car line for a pocket of time. I suggesting giving a regularly available pocket of time to writing, and trying to find the best pocket available for the purpose. Sometimes we’re dealing with ten-minute increments, but sometimes we have the benefit of an entire unscheduled hour or more.

* Be both ambitious and practical about the amount of time you can dedicate to writing. If you can give eight hours to it, do! But that sounds like an unusual day to me, and the kind of overly ambitious planning that dooms a goal to failure.

* Because theoretical time has a tendency to disappear, try to identify a secondary time you might use for writing if your primary spot is taken. Mark it down, and if you find it’s necessary look for places to economize on time (the frozen pizza trick) and expand the secondary pocket.

Busy people really can’t count on writing time popping up accidentally, although waiting for (and recognizing) this kind of opportunity is sometimes my method. If we are to look back on the summer with the satisfaction of knowing that we made progress on our goals, we need to have the resolve at the outset to identify who we are and what we’d like to accomplish, and then to chart a course that takes the best advantage of available time.


Interested in maximizing your writing time? Maybe you need a personal trainer. I am pleased to introduce “The Badger,” my service for helping writers and researchers to reach their goals. Check it out here!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Pursuing the mission-driven life

C.F. Tunnicliffe, Badgers

Why do we creative types cede all talk of mission to the corporate realm?

When I was younger, I thought about starting a business, and I attended a few workshops sponsored by the Small Business Administration. Mission was the name of the game. Over and over again, the experts stressed that to obtain capital and to communicate to prospective clients, it was crucial to have both a clear idea and a statement of mission.

I worked on a mission statement for my business. (It was a writing consultancy that I called “Your Wordsworth.” I still like the name.) As instructed, I went for a brief, lively statement that I could put my energy behind—something to say This is what I am, or, more to the point, This is what I can do—the problem I can solve, and my reason for wanting to do so.

Mission statements were also on my mind when I was the editor-in-chief of a literary journal. Journals often seek funding for their efforts, and one crisis in the field is that we all seem to share the same mission. Most magazines seek “to publish the best work available by writers both established and new.” A few magazines specialize and serve a particular demographic or literary style. The word that almost never gets unpacked is “best.” Thus, magazines all seem to compete for the same dollars with the same tired statement, while they also compete for the same work—the best work. Strangely, no one seems to want the crummy stuff.

As editor, I underwent some training with the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses—the folks who brought us the Contest Code of Ethics that most reputable journals subscribe to. Their message was the same as the Small Business Administration’s: It’s critically important to set ourselves apart with a clear picture of who we are, what we want to do, and how we are distinctive in our approach to doing it. If we couldn’t do this, why would anyone choose to subscribe or donate?

These days I’m more tuned in to writing than to entrepreneurship, and I’m no longer at the helm of a journal. However, I’m finding more and more that this notion from the corporate world has relevance to my life. Shouldn’t I be able to state in a clear sentence what it is I’m about? I think I should—and not to coax in customers or sources of capital, but to remind myself of my purpose and to doggedly pursue it, come what may.

What a poet understands better than a trainer from the Small Business Administration is that words are powerful magic, and we tap into that magic by declaring how we intend to function in the world.

For some, it’s a huge step merely to declare oneself a poet. When you love poetry, claiming that title feels like assigning yourself an honorific—might as well ask everyone to call me Lady Gorgeous De Fancypants, because it’s just that ridiculous. But the simple fact of the matter is that if we write poetry, we’re poets. We might be suck-ass poets, but bad dogs are still dogs—we don’t pull the title when they eat a slipper, because it still serves as a useful description of type.

This whole issue is complicated by all the writers we know who never write or publish. I went through a long—as in a multi-year—dry spell in my thirties, and I didn’t stop calling myself a poet during that time, but I sure wasn’t writing. I was editing and I was reading, but I wasn’t actually writing. By the time I figured out I was more of a former poet than a practicing one, I was already starting up again, and the distinction was unnecessary.

This summer, I’m thinking a lot about the power of language and the mission-driven life. Like so many academics, I keep up my writing through the school year, but I wait for the summer for high-concept work—like putting book manuscripts together, or sending out book proposals, or making a publishing plan. Summer, too, seems to allow sustained thought on writing projects, so I feel more inclined to take on ambitious work—a multi-page poem instead of something sonnet length.

But to make that sort of productivity happen, I have to tell myself the right kind of story, and those words become sort of a de facto mission statement. I devote time and energy to my writing. I make the most of unscheduled time to complete ambitious writing projects. I am driven to create in the time that is available to me. Statements like these keep me on track during those non-teaching months I think of as free time but which are really my best writing time.

What follows a clear statement of mission is a process of goal-setting—how am I going to complete my mission?—and then of working to meet those goals. With a mission that feels honest and optimistic, it’s a pleasure to scheme and then to follow through. But a great summer of writing doesn’t happen by accident, and I know that I need to plan now to make the most of the time I have.

I’m a poet. And I’m on a mission.


Would you like to make the most of your summer writing ambitions? I’m offering personal training for writers and researchers through a program I call “The Badger.” In June, July, or both, I will cheerfully “badger” you every day, by helping you to set and track goals and to stay true to your own mission, whatever it may be. Information is available here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Badger yourself to better writing habits

A friend of mine has gone a long time without writing poetry.

It bothers her. She defines herself as a poet, and because she is well published, poetry feels to her like it is the key to a better future. But nevertheless, she says that she seldom finds time to write, and when she does, the words don’t come.

“I need something to change,” she told me. “I need to make something change.”

I know what she means. This is one of my first regular blog posts in quite some time, and that’s only half by design. Life got busy and I had to let something go. To be honest, I had to let several things go. I’m having a dry spell, too, poetically speaking.

And here I am at the end of a semester of teaching with the summer looming before me. It feels good—no one needs anything from me for the first time in a long while. I have no appointments. My things-to-do list is entirely self-determined, and today it has one thing on it: Write this blog post.

Poetry remains conspicuously absent. Do you ever feel like I do—like your creative work is something you need to sneak up on? Sometimes my orange tabby cat gets out of the house. Escape is always on his mind, but he’s terrible at it. He’ll dash to the neighbor’s bush and stand under it. From that point I just reach in and grab him by the scruff of the neck—something I would never do under ordinary circumstances—and I put him back in his safe, non-bird-killing, unsquashable-by-car space.

The writing is like this, for me, anyway. It seems very elusive, but when I sit down, I can coax it out of the bushes. The comparison falls apart a bit here, because it’s not my desire to put it in a safe space, but rather to play in the traffic of the psyche. I think writing can be a little dangerous when you do it right. Poetry, in particular, is uncomfortable. There are a lot of ways to write a poem, but for me, it’s very much a process of taking my actual pain and making art out of it. Other poets may work differently, but I don’t find the practice the least bit fun.

Is it any wonder we let it slip? If our art form were something like tickle-fighting or sundae-eating, we’d never miss a day.

Maybe there was a time when writers had plenty of minutes to think and to play with words; I’m no historian, but it seems like the Transcendentalists and the Romantics spent their days walking and writing and bullshitting. Having money helped then, just like it does now, and so did having friends with money to mooch off of. But for the average Joe, or more specifically, the average Jane, I do know this: There was a time when doing laundry started with manufacturing soap out of ashes and beef tallow, and it ended with washboard-scrubbing and wringing. When could Jane write, much less ramble and get high on laudanum and swim in the Gulf of Spezia?

And I guess my friend and I are modern-day versions of Jane. While the laudanum and the Tyrrhenian Sea weren’t strictly necessary for writing, no one really wants to read poems about laundry, and no one wants to read about grading college students’ essays, either. Work gets in the way of writing time, and it also gets in the way of having experiences that lend themselves to writing—even the experience of wool-gathering while spotting animal shapes in the clouds.

I know this about writing: It has always taken me back. Like my friend, I’ve had dry days that have turned into dry weeks and months and even, I regret to say it, years. But when I’ve felt ready to go back in to those bushes, they were there—and there was nothing that said I needed to wait calmly to be lugged back to safety.

My cat is very gentle and would never bite or scratch. Maybe he should. Maybe that goldfinch is as delicious as she seems, and maybe he ought to try harder to consume her and her song.

Again, it’s a faulty metaphor. Unlike the typical house cat, killing up to twenty songbirds each year, my poetry doesn’t hurt anyone. Rather, it makes the world better—a little more gentle and less perplexing, at least for me.

The trick—for me, and for my friend—is to set some goals and to make the time to reach them. I am ready to have a word-rich summer, and so I’m starting out by making a plan.


Are you interested in setting some goals for your summer writing projects? I have a new personal training program for writers that I call “The Badger.” For the month of June or July—or for both—you set the goals and I “badger” you every day with prompts, check-ins, light feedback, and whatever other help you need to get where you want to go. Check it out!