Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Loving My Inner Perfectionist

I came to an interesting conclusion today. There's a lot of talk about our "inner child," and how he or she can sabotage our well-intentioned efforts to lose weight, eat well, stay within our budget, or even get out of bed in the morning.

The theory goes that instead of beating this inner child into submission, we need to embrace her (or him), reason with her, and allow her the occasional treat. And we need to learn to love her.

Folks who do this say it really works. They've managed to control the urge to overeat, overspend, and oversleep that comes with the simple immaturity of their inner child, all without feeling the grief and anger that comes with beating their inner child (who is really them) up.

I can see the wisdom in this approach, and practice it myself on occasion. Athena is the fun, kiddie part of me. She's important -- she allows me to be silly, to enjoy kiddie entertainment, to relax. I can control her the way I controlled my own flesh kids when they were little -- by being aware of her needs and not exceeding her capacity for endurance or understanding, by giving her the occasional treat, and by explaining in simple language exactly why we need to exercise control. I control her with love, not fear.

But when it comes to "perfectionism," we tend to have a different attitude. FLYLady in particular is against our inner perfectionist. When we find our inner perfectionist gaining control, instead of treating her with love, we treat her like a dirty rag. "The 'P' Word," she calls it. It's a swear word!

FLYLady's the most recent example (for me) of this attitude that I've come across, but certainly not the only one. "It doesn't have to be perfect!" we say.

And we're right to say that -- most of the time.

Look at it this way. If I'm a student, and I score 95 percent on a math test, that's not "pretty good," it's excellent! If, however, I am a surgeon, and 95 percent of my operations go well, and in 5 percent I make a serious mistake, that's 5 out of a hundred patients who are facing serious medical problems, because I, the surgeon, thought 95 percent was good enough.

Or if I, as a writer, only spell 95 words out of a hundred correctly in the book I'm writing, it will be rejected out of hand by any professional editor, and scorned by critics and readers alike. That's one reason why self-published books aren't highly regarded -- the folks who write them are so in love with their own writing that they don't see its faults, and are in too much of a hurry to get published to deal with the perfectionism that is part of producing a truly excellent book. (And I've read a couple of good self-pubbed books that could have been outstanding had the writers gone to the trouble of getting them professionally edited and published.)

We as writers need our inner perfectionist (which the NaNo folks call our "Inner Editor," and who gets locked away during the whole month of November) as much as we need our inner child.

If it's wrong and counter productive to beat your inner child into submission, it's just as wrong and counter productive to beat your inner perfectionist into submission. The way to deal with her, I think, is to give her a name, love her, and explain why she can't always have her way. Give her a chance on occasion to express herself, but set firm limits.

Just as you do when you're dealing with your inner child.

This morning, my inner perfectionist (I'm pretty sure that this is the real Yeshanu, by the way) helped me clean my living room. I started out only wanting to sweep and mop the floors, and realized that I had the time, the energy, and the will to do a bit more.

So I set the limits (we will NOT patch and paint the walls, refinish the coffee table, or buy a new lamp or TV cabinet!), and let her run wild.

The floor got swept. Then she decided to dust (I know, it should have come first and we did end up having to sweep again after). Straigtened out the pillows on the couch. Took down some tacky pictures. Loaded the broken stereo into the car to take to the dump tomorrow. Decluttered some stuff, and put up my creche. Tidied up the toys and hid them behind the TV cabinet (the little kids don't visit very often). Cleared out the old magazines. Mopped the floor.

And the living room looks fantastic! After we finished up, we sat down for a break, and were truly able to relax in our lovely living room.

November is a hard month for my inner perfectionist. NaNo means she's got to be quiet about a whole lot of writing going on, and the pace of everything else in my life means I don't really have time to listen to her. But allowing her out, for a limited period of time and to deal with a single, well-defined project, was a wonderful experience.

I feel a real sense of accomplishment right now, and we had fun, albeit in a very adult kind of way.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Numbers that Shock: One-half

Yesterday was Remembrance or Veteran's Day, depending on where you live. Today, November 12, is another kind of Remembrance Day today.

Today should have been the day my younger sister turned fifty years old. But she'll never get there--at thirty-one years of age, she killed herself.

She will never see her neice and nephews graduate from university and graduate school, just as she never saw them graduate from high school. She'll never hear David preach a sermon, or Allison play in a concert. She wasn't there to celebrate my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary, and she wasn't there for dad's eightieth birthday.

She was a writer, but her poems and stories will never be published. She won't ever win NaNoWriMo, or write a novel. She won't ever acheive... Well, what she would have acheived had she lived.

And we miss her. We have a gaping hole in our family that will never be filled, no matter how many babies are born, birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated. A part of each of us is dead.

And it has shocked me to learn that over one-half of all violent deaths in the world are due, not to terrorism and war or drug cartels or domestic disputes, but to suicide. More than one half of all people in the world who die violently do so at their own hands.

More US military personnel kill themselves than are killed in combat, and I suspect the numbers are similar in Canada and around the world.

So today, I remember. I remember when life was bad for me, and I thought at times my family might be better off without me. What saved me was remembering my parents at my sister's memorial service and afterwards, trying to cope with their grief, and thoughts of my children, left to grow up and struggle on their own, with no one to help them understand.

A plea, heartfelt from me to you.

If someone talks to you about suicide, TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY. With Mary, the clues were all there, but the rest of us were clueless. In her writing, in her comments to us, she left little clues, quite probably hoping we'd notice. We didn't, and I for one wish I had, and that I'd told her how much she meant to me.

Even without talk of suicide, tell your family members and close friends that you love them, that you appreciate them. Be specific, and tell them what they do that's so important for you. It will make their day, and it might save their life.

If you are depressed, and feel like killing yourself might be a valid option, GET HELP. And if the first person you talk to can't or won't help, keep on asking until you find someone, anyone, who will listen. Ministers and priests, teachers and counsellors, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, police officers, doctors, nurses, firefighters. Me. Someone from amongst the many people you meet each day will listen, and take you seriously.

Remember that you are loved, and you have love to give. There is help out there. And life will get better, and you WILL be glad you lived through this moment.

All my love and prayers,


Friday, November 11, 2011

The Most Famous Guelph Writer, and A Secret

Today, of all days, I am reminded that no matter how famous I become, I will never be the most famous writer from my hometown. At least I hope not. Even Robert Munch does not have that distinction.

Instead, Guelph's most famous writer is know for one single piece of writing that takes up less than a page. It's a poem, and if you live in North America and have English as your first language, chances are good you know it off by heart:

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Guelph understandably has one of the biggest Remembrance Day observances in the country. About 4,000 or so people convene in the Sleeman Centre to watch a ceremony which involves a couple of hundred participants (vetrans, militia, cadets, wreath bearers, police, fire department, EMS, postal workers...), and which is timed pretty much to the second. If one goes to the Sunrise Ceremony at Colonel John McRae house, it starts at nine in the morning, and we finished just after noon at the cenotaph.

Our guest speaker today was a veteran who had signed up as a "boy soldier" during WWII, and who spent a lifetime in the military. He introduced his son, a retired major, and his grandson, a major currently on active duty. He spoke of some of his experiences during the wars he'd been involved in, but he was a very self-effacing and engaging speaker, and he was more intent on highlighting the contributions of others than he was on "blowing his own horn," so to speak.

For that, Colonel Bayne, I salute you.

He then went on to say that some who served don't count themselves as veterans because they never saw active combat, and told us that if we'd served and been honourably discharged, we were veterans.

And I began to see myself in a new light.

At age 15, I joined Army Cadets. At age 18 or 19, I enlisted in the Cadet Instructors List (CIL), the unit of the armed forces that trained cadets. I was a commissioned officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.

I don't know what my official status is right now. I never formally resigned, instead transferring to the Supplementary Reserve List. I strongly suspect I'm still on it, because I haven't received any discharge papers.

So I'm probably not a civilian at this point. Certainly I haven't considered myself one since I was sworn in as a new officer cadet.

But I've always denigrated my service. Looking around the arena today at the young men and women serving our country, I realized that in my day I had trained many such young people, and that some of those I helped train are still serving.

I began to see my small service as something that had real value for my country.

I have thought for a while that I was born twenty years too early. I know that if I had been born twenty five or thirty years ago rather than fifty-one years ago, I would have given serious thought about serving overseas. I probably would be a real combat veteran by now. Such is my temperament.

So that's my secret. As dedicated as I am to peaceful conflict resolution and restorative justice, I am also a warrior. I would give my life to protect those I care about and those I don't even know, but I won't do it by being a sheild that gets shot at without fighting back.

To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.
A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill and a time to heal ...
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance ...
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to lose and a time to seek;
a time to rend and a time to sew;
a time to keep silent and a time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

I have been priviledged to live in a peaceful place and time. It is my hope that by my words and deeds and by the words and deeds of other, that peace will spread throughout all the world, until one day, the occupation of warrior is no longer needed.

Until then, I honour those who give their youth, and sometimes their lives, to protecting the rest of us.

I will remember.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

I'm Committed!

I came across a lovely quote this morning:

There is a difference between interest and commitment. When you're interested in something, you do it only when it's convenient. When you're committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.

Ken Blanchard

It was a bit of an eye-opener, really, as it helped me to realize that up until now, I've mostly been interested in the things that mattered to me, not committed.

True, I have at times shown real committment. I am, and have always been, truly committed to doing right by my kids. And it required committment, not mere interest, to finish those last few assignments and get my degree. In fact, it required a change from interest to committment that I'll never forget: I was four assignments short of completing my degree, and all were overdue, and I had exactly one week to finish them all and submit them.

And I was just about to give up when I sat myself down for a talk, and told myself, "I can do this, and here's the plan."

And I did it.

So now, years later, I'm facing the fact that I have two areas of my life that mean a lot to me, but have, until this month, garnered mere interest, and not committment.

If you're a regular reader, you can probably predict what those two areas are. Yes, I'm talking about writing and music.

At the beginning of November, I made a promise to myself that no matter what happened in a given day, no matter how busy I was, I'd find the time to add at least 100 words to my novel. I've kept that promise so far, and it hasn't been easy. Thursday and Friday were horrendous as far as scheduling was concerned. Thursday in particular I was so exhausted by suppertime that I feared I'd once again drop the ball.

But I did it. I pushed myself and I did it.

Last night, we had our first concert of the season. I had no idea how I'd make it through the night--we played Beethoven's Seventh, and playing a Beethoven symphony is like lying down in front of a herd of charging wildebeast and hoping for the best. It's exhausting, at the very least.

But I made it through, of course. Once I sat down on my chair on the stage, there was no other choice. And I realized that we all have a choice when we're faced with really hard things, like swimming lenghts in a pool or playing a symphony or writing a novel or sometimes even getting out of bed. We can give up when we start to encounter resistance, or we can push ourselves on and see it through to the bitter end.

The first option shows we were only interested, the second shows committment.

The other eye-opener last night was an announcement by a member of the BOD of the orchestra that they were trying to find a way to pay all of the players an honourarium. Wha??? They want me to become a paid musician?

And I realized that the jump from dabbling amateur to paid musician required a step on my part: from interest to committment.

And I realize that I'm ready to take that step.

In rethinking my life these past weeks, I have realized that my main regrets from the past were due to not taking my loves seriously enough. I chose to take a science degree rather than a music degree as a teenager because music wasn't something one could make money at. No one told me that as a violist, I'd be in such demand that I could find employment without having to be the best player in the orchestra!

And I've wasted over twenty years of my writing career, just by being interested rather than committed.

Well, the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

So I'll go for second best, knowing that in twenty years, I won't regret my decision to commit myself.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

NaNo Survival Tips I: Plan Your Days

It's day 3 of NaNo, and I'm already a day behind schedule. And I'm happy about it, because I'm only a day behind schedule. In former years, I would have been two or three days behind schedule at this point.

Not only that, but most often at least one out of the three days would have been a day where I didn't add to my word count at all. Even the year I won has that pattern--of the 27 days on the graph (I reached the 50,000 word mark three days early!), twelve of them, or nearly half, had zero word counts. This year, I'm aiming for a little more consistency. Actually, a lot more consistency. My number one goal this month is not to write 50,000 words, but to write at least 100 words every single day.

It's going to be a challenge, because while November is normally a crazy busy month for me, this month it's even crazier than normal. Instead of one concert in November and one in December, my orchestra has two concerts in November, and two in December. Instead of planning one major ecumenical event in my community, I'm now planning two, one of which takes place the last weekend in November, and the other the first Saturday in December. I have full time responsibility for my autistic son, who is no longer in school, and I need to plan something for us to do together, so he doesn't end up watching television all month while I write. I'll probably have a couple of days of work at the church office, and I'm filling in on the security checks for a few days, and I'm preaching at a friend's church for two Sundays while she's off having surgery, and I might be preaching a third Sunday at a new church, and...

Every day, something gets added to the list. Plus, I'm making an effort to eat at home, which means meal planning, grocery shopping, and washing up in addition to meal preparation. I continue to work on cleaning up my home, and I'm babysitting my friend`s two grandsons on Saturday.

And I haven't even talked about preparing for Christmas yet, have I?

So why, you might ask, am I feeling so good about this year's NaNo? Why don't I just throw in the towel right now, and say I'm too busy? Do I have a secret magic trick up my sleeve? Am I exaggerating my other commitments? Am I going to lie about my word count? Or is my novel secretly all planned out, and all I have to do is fill in the blanks????

No, no, no, no, and no!

What I have is 24 hours each day. Much of it is used for daily living activities, sleeping, eating, washing, and so on. But I still have lots of time to do other stuff, and I do it all, 15 minutes at a time. Just this evening, I started in on my novel. I wrote for fifteen minutes, then I did a load of laundry. Then I did some dishes. Then I wrote some more. Then I switched the laundry to the drier. Then I finished the dishes. Then I had dessert. Then I came upstairs and wrote this post. The clock just struck ten. Two and a half hours after I started, I've done my daily writing, I've ensured that I have clean clothes and clean dishes for tomorrow, and I've written a fair number of words. And I even managed to get about a half hour of Civ IV playing in there as well.

What I didn't do was waste time deciding what I was going to do next, or how I was going to do it. The decisions were already made and the routines were already in place. I didn't waste time thinking about what I'm going to do tomorrow, or next week, or about what I didn't do yesterday. I'll review tomorrow's schedule (which will be at least as busy as today's) when I get up in the morning.

Nor did I waste much time unproductively staring at a flickering screen, wondering what I was going to write. I didn't have every word planned out, but I knew approximately what was going to happen in my fifteen minutes of writing time. My characters still managed to surprise me, but in the end, I controlled the process, rather than having it control me.

Pre-planning is the key to extreme productivity without stress. When I get up in the morning, I mentally review my day. At that point, the time chunking I do is in large blocks--what is happening this morning, this afternoon, this evening. I get the morning all lined up, the afternoon thought through, but the evening is barely on the radar at this point.

Fifteen minute blocks. Get up, take meds, get dressed, make bed. One block. Go get son from his dad's. May take one or two blocks, depending on how ready he is. Doesn't matter. By the time we get back to my house, it's 8 o'clock, and I have an hour to feed us both breakfast and get things ready for my day. Enough time for me to take two entire fifteen-minute blocks just to sit at the breakfast table and enjoy my cereal. Make my sandwich, tidy the kitchen, gather the things I need for the morning, and off we go!

The rest of the day goes the same. At lunch, I take time to review the afternoon, and schedule my blocks more closely. Travel time is scheduled in--all too often, I encounter those who are late for things simply because they don't build travel time into their schedule! At lunch, I was thrown a curve--I'd signed up to do an afternoon service at a nursing home, and forgotten about it. (Make a mental note to be more proactive about writing things down on my desktop calendar...)

No problem, really. A half hour after that curve was thrown, I was ready for the service (it does help that I signed up knowing that I had a service to do that morning, and that I'd just use the same sermon), and I had time to sit down and have lunch with a friend. In that half hour, I'd outlined the service, and decided what on my afternoon schedule could be postponed, shortened, or cancelled. A meeting at 1:30 went ahead as scheduled, because we had to make some decisions regarding our event at the end of the month, but I went into that meeting have decided ahead of time what precisely needed to be covered, and what could wait for later.

Evening rolls around. I've already planned what to have for supper, and know how long it's going to take to cook. I knew what was in my pantry when I decided on the meal, and I have everything I need on hand. I have time to spare. I'm too tired to write, so I use the time that supper's in the oven to lie down on the bed for a bit and rest up, hoping for a second wind. A healthy supper goes a long way towards restoring my energy. A bath and a bit of a lie-down after supper does the rest. By 7:30, I'm back in action and ready to write!

If you fail to plan, you're planning to fail.

I've always heard that, but never really understood it until recently. I've come to realize that I don't have to go overboard and plan the rest of my life in fifteen minute blocks before I go full steam ahead, but I do need to plan the next day. I need to know, before I leave the house in the morning what I'm having for dinner, and when I have to start meal prep in order to have it on the table on time. I need to know what I'm doing during the morning and afternoon, and what is critical for me to accomplish this day, what is important, and what is merely desirable.

I need to stop at strategic points in the day (I use mealtimes for this), and think about the next two or three hours. At that point, the general becomes specific, and a three-hour block of time gets broken down into fifteen minute sprints.

Then I can concentrate on each task, knowing as I do so that everything I'm not doing at that moment will get done in good time.

So that's my secret to conquering NaNo while maintaining a schedule that makes most other people's heads spin. Planning. Not obsessive-compulsive, perfectionist-type planning (no, I do not have the entire month's meals written down on a schedule somewhere, and yes, I am still, as always, open to a change of plans), but a secure enough outline that I'm not putting energy into panicking and running around aimlessly moaning, "I'm so busy, I don't have time to think!"

I always take time to think, because I know that if I take the time to think before rushing headlong into my day, the day will go smoothly, and I'll get everything done that needs doing.

Happy writing!