It won’t be different this time

A comment from ellisinwonderland on a previous post got me to thinking.

‘When the going gets tough, I go on to something else.’

Ah, how familiar this whole process (culminating in the above) is to me.

I always hold out for it being ‘different this time’ but it never is.

One of my symptoms (or habits, depending on how you think about it) is my cyclical interests.  I have several hobbies or interests (again, depending on whether I get paid for them or not).

My hobbies include guitar, woodworking, photography, computers, blogging, yoga, meditation, bicycling, running, hiking.  My (professional) interests include teaching with technology, poetry, contemplative pedagogy, faculty development.  I would include Buddhism as a hobby too, because I fall in and out of practice.

Within each hobby or interest, I have cyclical motivation.  When it comes to creative writing, for example, I move between working on poetry, blogging, creative non-fiction, and a novel.  Even within poetry, I vacillate from writing to criticism and book reviewing.

Unfortunately, one of my habits is not finishing what I start.  I don’t publish much poetry, for example, because I don’t often enough get my act together and submit my work.  Likewise, I renovated the kitchen myself and only have to finish the trim, but I haven’t finished the trim, and I haven’t worked on finishing the trim in about four years, even though most days when I go into the kitchen I think “I need to finish the trim.”

To live in modern society, you have to finish things, unless you have someone to finish them for you.  It was a big step for me to admit that I can’t keep up with the mowing and snow shoveling and that we have to hire someone to do it.  It was also a big relief.

So, finishing things, following through, is definitely something I need to work on.

However, I wonder if there is a way to live in the world I live in and make this cyclical interest work for me?

In many ways, my job as a professor caters to this cyclical interest.  I work at a teaching institution, so publishing is not a required part of my job (but it helps me get promoted).  Also, publishing is broadly defined, so I’m free to pursue my interests.  If I chose to become a hard-core scholar, publishing only heavy-duty peer-reviewed journal articles and scholarly books, that would be recognized (although some might question how much time I’m investing in teaching).

So, I can do quick little works here and there (I’m doing a presentation at a local conference on Friday for example). I can also change my teaching from semester to semester.  I can change readings, assignments, textbooks, etc.  If you follow my blog, you know that I’m cyclical.  I’ll have a super productive period for a few weeks, and think this is my thing, it will be different this time.  And then, my interest takes a new track, and suddenly I’m really into playing the guitar and blogging seems like the old me.

The question is whether to fight it or work with it?  Buddhists who practice mindfulness say to accept it.  From that perspective, a sudden compelling interest, a minor obsession, is a way of distracting oneself from the present moment.  A hobby can be seen as a form of clinging, either to a future image of oneself (as a star blogger, for example) or to objects (such as a guitar or a set of bookshelves that I might build).  Both cases are a sort of fantasy, and a fantasy is about the future, not the here and now.

A more mundane interpretation is that I don’t want to do things that aren’t fun, so I absorb myself with things that are fun.  One thing that’s fun is this fantasy world where I am a novelist, an accomplished musician, or a star teacher.  It a long journey to get to this realization.  I spent years in talk therapy trying to figure out why I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, like pay bills and grade papers and answer email, why there is a fundamental resistance in my soul to doing some simple things sometimes.  I spent years exploring what these things represent, and how my experiences contributed to this resistance.  I never found a truly satisfying answer then.  My diagnosis was Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  That explained the results of this fundamental problem, but never satisfactorily explained the underlying cause.

The cause is much simpler.  I have AD(H)D.  One of my symptoms, simply because of my brain wiring, is that I have trouble getting motivated to do things that I don’t want to do, more so than the average person.  Sitting down alone and grading papers isn’t fun, so I don’t do it.  Anxiety enters the picture.  I have to grade papers. It’s my job.  The whole thing gets complicated then, by my long history of anxiety over grading papers (I’ve had to grade more than 23,000 in my life).  The longer I put off something, the harder it is to get started.  And so on.

My short experience with medication, just since last November, underscores this model of my experience.  With the right Ritalin level in my system, I can just do things that were terribly difficult before.  It has been tricky trying to get it right, and I’m still not there, and it’s not medication alone, but medication in combination with good body habits and working conditions, but when it’s on, the experience shows me what’s possible.  For example, going to professional gatherings is much easier now, as is talking to people I don’t know that well.

With every interest, every hobby, something happens to complicate it, and I move on.  With the kitchen, for example, I don’t know how some of the trim is going to work, so I put it off.  Now the garage is full of stuff, and I can’t get to my table saw and miter saw, so the kitchen project is now a clean-the-garge and work on the kitchen project.  More often than not, though, the complicating factor is guilt.  I have trouble putting down the new toy to do my work.  Last night, for example, I worked on my guitar instead of doing email that I felt I should be doing, so this morning I feel guilty about the time I invested in that hobby. Add up enough of those experiences in a row, and the new toy doesn’t feel fun anymore.  In fact I rarely feel when I’m doing something fun, that I should be doing it.  I almost always feel as though I should be doing something else, my “real” work.  That’s why I like work that involves meetings.  After a long meeting, I feel focused, because I was doing what I was supposed to be doing for  a good stretch of time.

Anyway, back to the question at hand.  How to work with this changing interest?

I think there are a more poets with AD(H)D than any other genre.  Poetry lends itself more to short bursts of creative effort.  Writing novels, not so much.  Each time I work on a new poem, its a new world.  I’m reinventing my idea of a poem, and my idea of what one of my poems is.  With the novel, you’re stuck with what you’ve already built, unless you’re starting over.  There has to be regular work.  You have to write through the dreadful periods.  With poetry, you can go silent and come back much more easily.

I’ve read a number of books that say one has to either make peace with the impulse toward silence (make it an active silence) or find a way to work through it anyway.  Both of those are laudable goals.  The third option, berating oneself for once again being a screw up is crazy making.

I don’t know the answer.  If I did, I would be more at peace.

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

Writing’s the Thing

I’ve had this idea, since I was about ten, that I had to find my Thing in life.  I had to find the role that would define me, that I could settle into, that would make my name known to the world.  All through school I had the label “gifted.” I always took advanced classes, read at the top end of the highest reading group, had special classes and groups designed for the gifted and talented.  From age ten on I knew that I had to do something in life, and that I would succeed at that choice, fill my special role in the world.  I just had to choose what my Thing would be.

I thought it might be computers.  Inspired by the TV series Whiz Kids and the movie War Games, when we got our first computer, a Commodore VIC-20, I set out to learn everything about programming in BASIC, and eventually write my own computer games.  I bought books and graph paper and came up with lots of ideas (trying to create War Games on the VIC-20, for instance) but it proved too complicated and I gave up.

Commodore VIC-20 Computer with later revision ...

1980's awesomeness!

My mom bought me a subscription to Writer’s Digest, so as a thirteen year old I started reading about agents and crafting dialogue and how to research markets.  I read lots of J.R.R. Tolkein and Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert and I imagined penning my own novel, how I would appear on the dust jacket photo in my pinstriped shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a knit tie loosened at the collar, my hair adorably mussed and overhanging my smart glasses as I posed thoughtfully in front of my trusty typewriter.  But that writing never happened.  I read and read, preparing for the day that the great flow of pages would begin, but it didn’t happen.

So I decided that it was not my Thing, that instead, my Thing was just preparing to go to college while having as many hobbies as possible.  I built models, played keyboards, ran cross-country and track, got serious about bicycling for awhile.  Those were all diversions from the Thing I sort of resigned myself to do: become an electrical engineer.

I don’t know how I decided to be an electrical engineer.  I didn’t really know what they did, even after years of visiting colleges in high school.  My thinking was that they did something with electronics, which seemed cool, and they made a good salary, and you had to be good at science and math, which I was.  It made sense.  My Thing, then was just to get good grades.

But I did really well in my writing classes too.  I even went to a two-week-long summer institute in creative writing.  I kept getting invited to these academic summer camps.  I did one in biology and one in engineering, so I thought I would have a lark and do one in creative writing.  I had a lot of fun, but it didn’t change my life.  I had a vague notion about writing a book once in awhile, but like mullets and acid-washed jeans, that whim passed.

My senior English teacher, Mrs. LaMothe, took special interest in me.  We college-prep kids had a capstone class called Creative Composition.  Our special honor was that we could bring pop and snacks to class to help our process.  Some of us actually got to write on a computer!  (It was 1988.)  She said to me “I wish we’d discovered this talent sooner.”  I never thought I had a “talent” for English class.  I liked writing, but the literature classes pained me.  I could read faster than anyone, but had little patience for slowing down to tease the meaning out of a poem, or wading through page after page of the Elizabethan English of a Shakespeare play, both of which were litmus tests of the English student specialty.  I fit in more on the Math/Science side (Captain of the math team!).

Anyway, I went to college and met true failure for the first time.  After switching to creative writing as my major, and then earning an MFA in same, and teaching for 17 years, I still struggle to find my Thing.  Mostly I need focus, and cannot garner it, unless I am taking a class or workshop.  Today, for example, I woke up with the resolve to be a better poet, but I can’t decide how best to invest my time.  Write new poems?  Revise old ones? Prepare submissions? Read?  If I decide to read, read what?  Contemporary poems? Canonical? Literary criticism?  Journals? Poets & Writers? Should I network with poets on SecondLife and Facebook? Apply for funds to go to another conference?  Work on my oft-rejected book manuscript again?  All these things seem equally important to me, and I couldn’t decide, so I read political blogs and played Angry Birds until I got disgusted with myself and started this blog post.

The thing about ADD/ADHD, at least as I experience it, is that when you don’t know you have it, you can’t understand why you have such a hard time doing things that other people do easily.  Like decide what part of being a writer to focus on today, this minute.  Like how to plan something and then trust yourself that you will do it.

Another thing that happens is that you finally find your flow, and say, this is it, this is my Thing, this is who I am, and it works for awhile because it is a new project or new challenge or you have some structure supporting it because you started taking a class or a workshop or joined a group or something, and everything seems focused and clear until something happens, something that taints the new Thing, a problem that you can’t resolve easily, or a drawback that you never considered, and suddenly it’s not new and exciting anymore, it’s one of the five hundred old things that you’ve discarded, and you’re lost again.  The more this cycle repeats, the taller the pile of discarded selves weighing on your mind until it’s difficult to find anything to get optimistic about anymore.

So I write, and stow it away, and write some more, and stow it away.  Or I don’t write and I feel bad.  Writing is flow, forward momentum.  When I start a day by writing—and I mean composing words, not editing or submissions or whatever—the rest of the day seems a bit more workable.  When I go for a week or two without writing, I’m lost.  I start to think I’ll never write again.

The formula for feeling well is simple.  Do my work, write, exercise, eat well, take my supplements, meditate.  All these things are easily available to me, and yet, when I’m in a funk (I have often called it a freeze, because I feel frozen, unable to move) none of these things happen.  I do their opposites: stay up late, not working or writing, sit around, watch TV, eat junk.  The constant way out is writing.  When I’m dead and gone, if I have any sort of success as a writer, whoever’s left to examine my papers will surmise from my journals that I was an unhappy dude.  I always turn to the journal when things are really bad, almost never write, “Had a good day, did my work, got a poem accepted, and paid the bills on time!”  Mostly because good writing is about conflict and it’s hard to be both happy and interesting.