Month: February 2013

Fragments from Today

We put chairs in our front room. It is part of the ongoing project to remodel the room; a process that started with paint and will not be complete until I’ve done some woodwork. The paint was nice, but the addition of a pair of chairs from IKEA transformed the space into a welcome place to sit. We had a chair and a horrid little love seat, but mostly the room was used as a dumping ground and staging area. The effect was magnified today when the new couch was delivered. Now, instead of squished seating for three, we have pleasant seating for five or lounging space for a smaller number. Someone has been sitting in the space pretty much all day long. I sat in one of the chairs in the sunshine, glad for the sunshine, glad for the chairs, and looking forward to doing the finishing work that will make the room be nice. I also feel a small measure of joy that the chairs are are a little bit bouncy and they are named Poang, which is a bouncy sort of name. People keep flopping in the chairs, bouncing a bit, and then proclaiming “Poang!”

I don’t always have answers or solutions, sometimes I feel that as a gaping void that I ought to be able to fill somehow. There are times when I weep because I can not fix the troubles of my beloved people. Other times I see the void and I stand back because I know I can not fill it. This is a new capability for me, to stand back at a safe distance while sympathizing and agreeing that things are hard. It feels uncaring. It feels like I am locking my heart away and being selfish. Except, my previous habit of throwing myself across gaps meant that the gaps did not feel so challenging. They seemed a small thing, part of the patterns of our lives. When I learned to stand back was when we began to see that the gaps as problems to be solved; when we began to fill in the gaps, change our routes so we didn’t hit so many, change the landscape so that they closed up. The moment I stopped rushing to fix everything is when I learned that love means letting others struggle and grow.

I’m starting to see the end. The snow is melting, the sun is brighter, and daylight is coming earlier in the morning. Winter is drawing to a close. Howard is in the final stages on two large projects. We’ve exited the muddle in the middle and are beginning the final rush to the end. I got my redesigned copies of Cobble Stones 2011 back from the printer and they look good. I’m doing a final editing pass on Cobble Stones 2012 before sending it to the copy editor. Howard’s kickstarter has funded and is in a stable pattern until the final rush at the end. I began the process of setting up the kickstarter for Strength of Wild Horses. These projects have been brewing and simmering for months and we’re finally starting to finish them off and call them done. It feels good.

An Audio Interview over at Black Gate

It has been a long day full of things done and I’m at the beginning of a week where I have many things yet to do which I don’t want to forget. So my head is a bit full. Fortunately I can point you at this interview that Howard and I recorded with Emily Mah. It is long, an hour and 11 minutes, because we talk about all sorts of things. It is a good thing I was able to say good things then because my brain is out of words today.

On Being Over Burdened

I sit in church with my journal open on my lap, writing the thoughts that come into my head. The page fills up with things done and things yet to do. The pieces of my life tumble out and I try to put them into order on the page. I begin to plan the week to come, surely this is a good use of my Sabbath contemplation time. I shuffle the pieces and assign them to days, half listening to the speaker at the pulpit.

My pen pauses in its track on the page. Where do faith and peace fit into this schedule I’m creating? Where are the spaces for contemplation and inspiration? Mine is not the only plan for this week. My Father in Heaven sees more hearts than I can. He knows when I am needed to solve a problem for another person. Yet I have constructed a schedule with all the hours defended and assigned. I erect barricades to prevent anything else from adding to the load that I already carry. No. I can’t do that. I’m too busy. And thus I shut out not just people who carelessly ask me to expend my energy on unimportant things, but also God whose errands are always worthwhile.

I look at my neatly arrayed task list and know that I need to be open to inspiration as I sort my plans for the week. I need to be prepared for my plans to change at a moment’s notice. I tap my pen next to the first item. Does it really matter? Is this thing I intend to assign myself really important? Does it serve a larger goal. My pen pauses for a moment and I reach for answers. Yes. It stays. My pen points to the next item and pauses. No. It is busy work. I cross it off. Pause by pause down my list.

My life is over full. I have more things to do that I should reasonably be able to manage. When I am done with checking my items, I add a few more. They are things which I feel should be added to my long list. As I do a calm confidence fills me. When I over burden myself, I struggle with my load. When I am open, when I take on additional burden because it is right and needed, then I am also granted the capacity to carry that burden. The new burdens, and all the others I accumulated for myself, are made light. I face the week with hope and joy rather than worry and stress.

At Saturday’s End

The wind blows snow everywhere today. I see it misting off of rooftops as I drive past. Then the gray of the sky grows darker and more snow falls so that in the next cloud clearing the wind will have more to send flying sideways across roads and fields. I watch the snow, interested in the combinations of wind and water. Deep inside me there is a sense of waiting, part of my heart is hibernating, laying in wait for the world to warm and flowers to begin blooming. Some years we have crocus by now. This year we have wind blown snow.

The dryer buzzes, it is time for me to pull warm clothes from it and feed it the next pile of wet. That buzz has accompanied my day as I try to catch up on a multitude of tasks that were left languishing in the past two weeks. Our fridge is fully stocked because I finally made a list before going to the store instead of making a harried dash for things we’d run out of. The boxes of books and convention supplies have migrated out of our front room and down to my office. Soon I will find energy to disperse them into the storage room where they belong. All the merchandise unpacked and waiting to be organized into orders from customers, or perhaps to be re-boxed and shipped off to conventions. The spaces in my house are beginning to emerge out from under the things that were stacked in them.

I should be putting the kids to bed now. To be honest, I should have begun that process over an hour ago, but at the end of the day I have little energy left for making things happen, even things I know will make life better tomorrow. Once we go to bed Saturday will be over. I need another Saturday to finish all the organizing and putting away. Instead time marches onward into Sunday. I like Sunday, having a Sabbath for resting fills my soul. Yet beyond it I can see the edge of Monday and I know that work is waiting for me there. I like my work, but there was such an onslaught of it last week that I would like a little more time before getting back to it. I just want a bit of a pause. I wish I could sit in my hammock swing surrounded by the greenness of my garden, but all is white and bleak out there. Instead I’ll take a few last breaths of scent from my fading hyacinths. Then I’ll go downstairs and declare bedtime.

Returning to a Calmer State

Life slowed down today. Finally. Howard was able to get a solid amount of work done. I finally had time to sleep. I’m close to paying off the sleep debt. I’m sure I’ll rack up more again next week, but tomorrow is Saturday and I get to sleep late. Even better the flow of incoming tasks was smaller than the flow of outgoing tasks. For the first time in almost two weeks I feel like I ended the day with less to do than I began the day. A survey of my calendar for the next few weeks shows lots of empty spaces. They won’t actually be empty, but there are no events to disrupt the flow of ongoing tasks or to unleash a flood of new ones.

I’m starting to feel my thoughts slow down. Instead of trying to track and manage a dozen things, I begin to trust that there will be enough time to do them in sequence. The prioritization engine is also humming along nicely. Instead of feeling it all has to be done right now, I’m assigning tasks to future days. This lets me forget about them today.

My thoughts have slowed, but I’m still distractable. Time to sleep and reboot my focus.

Morning After the Schlock Kickstarter Challenge Coin Launch

The challenge coin Kickstarter is a bit like jumping out of a plane knowing that the backpack you’re wearing is at least a parachute, but that it might unfold to be a hang glider. But when you pull the cord what unfolds is a jet pack. Right now this thing is zooming fast and we’re trying to learn how to steer while not crashing. Then in 30 days we have to stick the landing.

Happy. Grateful. Terrified that we’ll make some horrible error.

Let Me Tell You About My Day

This was a day doomed to fragmentation and distraction before it even began. First there was the doctor’s appointment I had to schedule for a child in the middle of the morning. It was for one of those not-emergencies, but have checked as soon as convenient type issues. Middle of this morning was the soonest non-emergency appointment, so off we went. As suspected, nothing alarming, just some routine blood work and advice. Except “blood work” never feels routine until you’ve had lots of experience with needles, which my kids thankfully have not. So we got to deal with post-adrenaline reactions that required extra food and attention. Again, not a big deal, just important. We went almost six years with hardly ever seeing a doctor, but in the last twelve months it feels like we’re making up for that in minor complaints that still need attention. Whee.

So my plan for the day was to work on scout stuff (about which I will have many words in a moment) for the hour between kids off to school and the doctor appointment. Except then the Kickstarter approval came in. Howard has spent the last month thinking about a challenge coin project. He’s agonized over price points and possibilities. He had spread sheets and kept adjusting them. He had everything ready to go, except that Kickstarter likes there to be a video to go with a project. Howard asked me to help with the video. So as the kids were getting ready for school, I rearranged the furniture in the front room to set up a mini-film studio. This included setting up our convention banner and book display. It also meant shoving aside all the boxes of merchandise that I still haven’t put away after LTUE. I even brought up a stand lamp to provide some additional lighting. The kids waved goodbye and we were ready to film when Howard’s friend Richard called to talk about the Kickstarter project. Richard is something of an expert, so the call went on for awhile. I went downstairs to work on scout things while Howard conversed.

I am our scout troops Advancement Chair. This means I hold the password to the online record keeping system and the responsibility to make sure that all paperwork is filed correctly. I hold this job as a service to the men and boys in my congregation who love scouting. When I speak with them and hear the boys talking about their experiences, I’m glad to give the service. However, the BSA loves paperwork. It is crazy with the quantity of forms, reports, and signatures. Each level of achievement has its own process. In theory I can do all of the work from my house on my computer. The actual amount of work should take me 30 minutes of data entry. The online system is so very slow that I sometimes have to wait five minutes between page loads, and the process requires many page loads. If I’m loading a roster, that can take twenty minutes. It is ridiculous and infuriating. I could use more words to describe exactly how I feel about having my time wasted, but I think that’s all I’m going to say about that.

I began scout things, accomplished no scout things in forty minutes, helped Howard film video, went to the doctor, came home, and spent an additional thirty minutes attempting scout things from home. I was more successful when I drove over to the scout office where I was very nice to the local scout employees who did not build the system and do not deserve my ire. I did make extensive use of the online survey which asks about my experience with their system. It asked me once for each report. I had to do five reports. I used different words each time that survey box opened up. I doubt it will do any good. But I departed the office will all my scout work done and ready for Boards of Review in the evening.

My brain was then fried. But kids had to be retrieved from school. Patch had to immediately turn around and head off to cub scouts. Link needed direction to some money earning jobs around the house. I was supposed to supply dinner, but mostly threw a pizza into the oven. Then the start time for the Board of Review had to be adjusted earlier to accommodate a scout. Also two additional scouts needed rank advancements, and there were three merit badges which had not been mentioned to me. Tomorrow will feature another trek to the scout office, three more reports, purchasing all the badges, and assembling everything for the Court of Honor.

I came home just in time for Howard to start his Kickstarter. Three minutes later it had funded and five minutes after that it had surpassed all the listed stretch goals. Howard and I spent the next hour frantically updating with new stretch goals, adding funding options, and triple checking to make sure we did not accidentally over-promise anything. Having a project fund quickly is really exciting, but kind of scary because there is no time to consider calmly. We had to throw things up in a frantic hurry to keep up with the demonstrated enthusiasm. We’re still playing catch up. We need to add tiers and stretch goals, but our brains are tired from all the math. Howard’s spread sheets were useless in the first fifteen minutes. Now we need to make entirely new spreadsheets and Howard has to design additional coins that he didn’t expect to have to do until at least next week. So we can put that into tomorrow along with our regular work.

So tomorrow already features: Scout stuff. Kickstarter stuff. Putting my front room back together. Picking up the prescription the doctor gave us. Returning the movies I checked out from the library for the kids to watch during LTUE. Signing tax papers. Oh, and did I mention Gleek gets her braces put on tomorrow?

All of this is swirling in my head as I realize I really should have put the younger kids to bed thirty minutes earlier. That is only half done when Kiki realizes that we’ve missed a scholarship application deadline. And I start trying to make sense of it all by writing a really long blog post.

So now three fourths of my children are in bed. The Kickstarter looks like it will pass the latest stretch goal before we get up tomorrow morning. And I kind of want things to hold still for awhile just so that I can see what they all are.

Change is Scary and Necessary

This morning Howard and I made an executive decision, The Body Politic will not have a bonus story in the printed book. Howard has been wrestling with this story for six months, but it still is not working and we can’t afford the three more months that are necessary for the story to sort itself out. We have to have a new book for the summer conventions. So instead of Howard slogging through despair with this intractable story, we’re going to fill the extra space with interesting new footnotes and marginalia. Making the decision lifted a weight from us. Suddenly we are in the last rush to get the book done, which is always a fun part for me. It is the part where every day I can see us get closer to sending the book away for print. So we are relieved, but we feel guilty for being relieved because we know that there are fans out there who love the bonus stories. They will be sad and disappointed. Also Howard spent some time being sad because he hates to break the bonus story tradition even if it is just for this book. There is also some measure of fear, what if this decision is the breaking point where fans decide we’ve sold out and they all go do something else? Happiness, relief, sadness, excitement, worry, and fear fill our heads this morning.

It has me thinking about businesses, creative projects, and change. Schlock Mercenary will be thirteen years old in June. In the course of those years the strip has seen changes in artwork and story telling with Howard’s growing skill. We left Keenspot, joined Blank Label Comics, then struck out solo a few years later. Switching to the new website was a fearful change, as was hiring Travis to be our colorist, and ending the Schlocktoberfest tradition. We knew that each of these decisions was right, but we worried that our fans would not agree with us. People do not like their beloved things to change. Except things must change. Howard and I have to change. Both the Schlock Mercenary strip and our business need to change and grow or else they will go stale. I’m hoping that some of the time freed up by shelving this bonus story can go into the creation of more electronic editions. Even better would be to launch into production on Longshoreman of the Apocalypse so we could put out two books this year and finally be making steps to catch up with the online archive. Funny how a change can be obvious and necessary, but still feel risky.

As Effective as a Jellyfish Swimming Against the Current

My front room is a jumble of boxes which stocked our LTUE tables with merchandise, but which now need to be sorted and put away. My inbox is full of emails all of which deserve considered replies. My to do list is full of things I want to get done. Any time I pull one of these things into my brain thinking that I will focus on it, I instead find myself checking twitter or wandering around the kitchen in search of some unspecified food which will make me happier. I have to face the fact that today is not going to be my most effective day. I did manage to write up my presentation notes. I also got dressed for the day just after lunch. Then I tackled the problem of convincing that we should be allowed to accept payments through Kickstarter, the fact that this required me to put on clothes and drive to a location with a fax machine did not thrill me. The fact that it is all still pending thrills me even less. Howard’s Kickstarter is ready to go, now we just have to wait in administrative limbo. Not a great place when I’m still tired enough that any small obstacle feels like the great wall of China. For the rest of the day I will feel accomplished if I manage to fix dinner, not eat a million cookies, and make everyone go to bed on time.

Structuring Life to Make Room for Creativity

This blog post is a write-up from my presentation notes. I’ve given this presentation at LTUE. I’ll be giving it again at LDS Storymakers in May. As I wrote this from my notes, I noticed a major difference in the flow of a presentation and of a blog post. Speaking to a group is more conversational and I included anecdotes and examples that I’m leaving out of this post, because if I were to include them this post would be 15,000 words long. I’ve chosen not to break the presentation into 10 separate posts because I feel like having these abbreviated notes all in one place will be more useful than a blog series. Not included in this post is the discussion that resulted from the question and answer session at the end of the presentation. A recording was made of my LTUE presentation. I’ll link it when it is available on the internet.

I am a busy person. I have four children who attend three schools, all of which feel like they can email me. The schools have attached PTAs who want pieces of my time. I also share a business with my husband where I do the accounting, order management, shipping, customer support, layout work, art direction, and a host of smaller tasks. I have a house which gets disheveled if I don’t pay attention. I have to eat on a daily basis as do my people and the cat. I am not exaggerating when I say that I am busy. I’m busy even though I am constantly trying to be less busy. In this I’m not unique, because everyone is busy. Life fills to overflowing with things to do. Yet, last year I wrote a novel’s worth of blog entries. I wrote a picture book, Strength of Wild Horses, which I’ll be Kickstarting in a couple of months. I remodeled sections of my house, wrote letters, sewed. The remainder of this presentation gives some principles which allowed me to make space for these creative things. Not included is the advice to set aside time for creative things, which is good advice, however I feel it important to discuss how to structure life so that the time can be made available.

1. Identify Your Support Network
I could not accomplish what I do without the support of those who share my house. My husband could not accomplish what he does without my support. The first step in adjusting your life to make room for your creative pursuits is to talk to the people closest to you. You need to identify what sacrifices they may have to make and whether they are willing to make them. It has to be a conversation and the sacrificing needs to be reciprocal. Sometimes the people around you will not be allies, they will be obstacles or enemies. Then you have some hard decisions to make. You have to decide whether to value the relationships or your creative dream. The answers will be individual. Sometimes the creativity needs to be put down for a while, other times it is necessary to declare a creative space and let everyone be mad about it until they adjust. I recommend sitting down and making a list of who is affected by the creative space you need, how they are affected, what support you hope for from them, and what you might need to give in return to keep the relationship balanced. Making this list will require self awareness about your creative pursuit.

2. Arrange a Physical Space
You need to have a home for your creative pursuit, the space does not have to be large. For the longest time my space for my writing was contained inside my laptop. That worked really well for me because it was portable. I could take it anywhere, open it up and be in my writing space. Once I entered my writing space, the writing thoughts would unfold in my brain. When Howard began cartooning, we put all his cartooning things in a box on the kitchen counter. Then we shifted things around so he had a drawing table in our front room. Right now he has an office with a computer desk, a drawing table, a crafting table, and a second drawing desk at a local comics shop. Creating a physical space for your creative pursuit declares that it matters, it also provides a visual reminder that you might want to do your creative things. For more thoughts on spaces and how they affect us, I recommend reading The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka.

3. Understand Your Biorhythms
Everyone has alert times of day and low energy points. Learning when yours are can make a huge difference in your creative output. Ideally you will put your block of creative time at your most creative time of day. This is not always possible, but knowing when you are most creative gives you something to aim for. A common pattern is to be high energy first thing in the morning with an energy lull in the afternoon and another energy burst in the evening. Some creators are at their best late at night, others before dawn. Find your pattern.

4. Use Supports for Your Schedule
In general, creative people struggle with creating structure for their lives. Howard and I depend heavily on the imposed structure from our kids’ school schedules. It gives is a required time to be up in the morning. We know that we have to do kid stuff until they are out the door. Then we switch to work tasks. Willpower is a limited resource. This is why I try to set up my creative schedule to require as little willpower as possible. I train myself that right after lunch I write for awhile. That way I don’t have to think about if I feel like it. I don’t have to muster the energy to get moving. I’m already moving for lunch, I just let that motion carry me into doing something creative.

5. Master the Small Stretch
Humans have a tendency to get excited and try to overhaul their entire life at once. They want to put writing in the schedule, and start exercising every day, and always have the dishes done. They want to Do All The Things. Then they wear out very quickly. Don’t overhaul your life, make one small change. Give that change time to settle in and become a habit. Once it does, you’ll be able to see what the next small change needs to be. The accumulation of small adjustments will change life dramatically over time. It can also help unsupportive family and friends become accustomed to creative things when they see that supporting creativity does not require a complete overhaul of life.

6. Learn to Work in Fragments
Creative people tend to want to work in big bursts, to immerse themselves for hours, or days, only to emerge when they’ve exhausted their energy. This is extremely disruptive to a busy schedule. Learning how to open up your creative thing and work on it for ten minutes or an hour is an incredibly powerful capability. This is where having a physical space for your creativity can be so very useful. You can train your brain that when you enter your creative space all the thoughts are there waiting for you. Working in fragments is particularly important if you are a parent of young children, because they cut your time into itty bitty fragments.

7. Ponder the Tortoise and the Hare
I used to hate the Aesop fable about the tortoise and the hare. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized I hated it because I was a hare, and in the story the hare loses. My natural inclination is to tackle a project and not stop until it is done. Unfortunately most creative projects are too big to be managed in a huge burst of energy. You can write a novel during NaNoWriMo, but at the end you are exhausted and the work on that book has barely begun. But if you learn to work in fragments, you can teach yourself to be like the tortoise. You can just keep stepping forward. It feels like you’re not getting anywhere. You work endlessly for what feels like no result at all, but there will come a moment when you reach the top of a hill and can see how far all those little steps have taken you. I truly admire the natural tortoises of the world. They get stuff done.

8. Health and Spoon Theory.
I began with a brief description of spoon theory, which is that we only have limited amounts of energy available in a given day. For visualization purposes that energy is represented as spoons. Those who are healthy are allotted more spoons than those who struggle with illness. Each task of daily life uses up spoons. There is inherent unfairness in energy distribution and this is hard. Sometimes energy which you wanted to go into creative pursuits will have to be spent on other things. I don’t have good answers for this, but I don’t feel like this presentation is complete without acknowledging that health can be a major difficulty. Also I want those who have good health to be aware that not everyone does, and maybe sometimes they can share some of their energy with those who have much less.

9. Get Outside Your Box
Creativity does not burst into spontaneous existence. I think of it as a deep subconscious aquifer full of all the stuff that accumulates from the places I go and people I talk to. I drill a well down into it and draw from it when I am writing. Sometimes when we are trying to organize life to maximize creative output we make the mistake of removing from the schedule all the things that fill us up. Playing video games or watching television may look like a waste of time, but for some people those things are essential to filling the creative aquifer. Each person will have different things that fill them up. I garden or visit new places. Howard paints and goes to movies. Both of us visit with friends. Find the things that fill you up and know that sometimes you’ll need to choose the filling activities instead of the creation activities.

10. Your System Will Break
You’ve followed all the steps outlined above, you’ve crafted the perfect schedule, everything falls into places and flows, but then suddenly it all falls apart. Something changed, things always change. My kids get older, their needs shift, I shift, we enter a different part of the business cycle, school gets out for the summer, school starts for the fall. The list of ways life can change is innumerable. When your system falls apart, just grab the best pieces from it and build a new schedule. In another few months that one will fall apart too. Having your schedule fall apart can actually be a gift because sometimes it forces us to really look at all the pieces and build something that works even better. When I was a young parent it felt like each overhaul of the schedule made something completely different. Now I can see that patterns emerge. These days I don’t have to overhaul very often, I just have to tweak.

This is when we moved into the Question and Answer portion of the presentation. I remember we talked a little bit about how to handle internet distraction and I recommended taking a break to see which parts of the internet you actually missed. Other excellent questions were asked, but I’m afraid that I can’t remember any more. This presentation was followed by two full days of conversations and they all blend together. Each of the points above could be expanded into a full discussion and blog post of its own. Perhaps someday I’ll do that. For now I hope that this set of notes gives people a place to start as they’re contemplating how to fit creativity in with everything else that they are already doing.