I can’t reach escape velocity
My mind is simultaneously antsy and lazy — I should be DOING something! I have an exam to grade! I could be creating advertising materials for my book! I should be — my brain can’t focus. I feel like laying in my bed all day watching House episodes on my phone.
The tired part — end of the school year
I understand the tired part — I just got off a full semester without any Spring Break, after a year of severely restricted activity due to COVID. I made it without more than one or two sick or mental health days all year (due to the ability to teach over Zoom). With finals all that are left, I find myself slumping my shoulders and relaxing.
The antsy part — in need of flow
It occurs to me that the antsy part is the craving for flow. Flow is a psychological concept that refers to the state of being completely captivated in an activity that uses your abilities at an optimal level. Writing is a flow activity for me, as is editing. Designing (with my limited abilities) is another. Most of my flow activities happen at a computer and fit in with my writing, which is probably why I write.
No challenge is optimal when I’m just coming off a brain-numbing school year. I’ve been challenged out. I’m still dealing with three exams to grade this week and unhappy students.
Antsy part 2 — in search of accomplishment
Another part of my always needing to do something is the feeling of satisfaction I get from accomplishment. I delight in making things happen. I love finishing a chapter, a novel, a cover letter. I get motivated by the finished product as well as the process (the flow). Again, my mind is having none of that.
How to take care of myself
This is a time where perhaps doing nothing (or next to nothing) would be the best thing to do. It’s hard for me to do, because I’m always trying to wrap myself in flow activities and completing projects when I’m not working. Although I’m addicted to flow and accomplishment, maybe I could use something more relaxing but inspiring like daydreaming or meditating. Or maybe I should just read reruns of House and see if I can diagnose those disorders.
Saturday morning, and I am wondering what to do with my time. My husband is going to work, and I am done with the following: work for my class in improving my online class; the manuscript in both paperback and kindle; the cover to my book; several advertisements for the book; revamping my new blog; fixing some errors in the new blog …
Oh, yes, I remember now. I need to start plotting Kringle in the Night. Even though it’s still September and NaNo is a month and a half away.
Times like this I wonder if I’m on a hypomania binge because I’m SO productive. I still seem to be sleeping; in fact I slept in this morning.
If this is normal, I’ll take it.
So, yesterday’s introspection left me at an interesting place. I’m considering a concept I teach in positive psychology called the hedonic set point. The concept is backed by research, so it’s not new age hoo-ha.
The theory goes like this: whenever something good happens to us, we feel great for a while, but then we get used to that feeling and it fades until we’re back at our set point. When something bad happens to us, we feel bad for a while, but then we start feeling less bad and then it fades until we get back to our set point.
So, if I get rejected, and I don’t beat myself up over it, I will feel better eventually. If I beat myself up over it, I generate bad feelings and will feel bad for longer. But I will find myself once again at the set point.
Conversely, if I get accepted (for my manuscript or by an agent), I will feel great for a while, and may try to make the feeling last longer by celebrating and telling all my friends, but I will eventually fall back to the set point.
In other words, it’s folly to look at happy-making moments in order to become happy. In a lifespan, major achievements don’t reset our hedonic set point.
What does reset our set point higher?
- Practicing gratitude
- Significant relationships (friendship, family, intimate)
- Building self esteem = success/hopes and expectations
- Giving back to community
- Regular meditation
So, given that, there is one thing about getting published that could permanently put my set point higher and that is building self-esteem. I get that.
Building self-esteem can be done in two ways: More success and modest hopes and expectations.* I’m working on it.
* My fantasy of getting published is pretty modest. In it, I have to find an entertainment lawyer, look over a contract, argue the contract, go through all those intermediate steps that might take a year or four, have a modestly attended book party, travel a few places on my money, and make less than $40k. None of my friends will be particularly excited. My university will not count it as academic achievement. I’m okay with this.
I manifest resilience in my life, and I find it’s one of my most enduring characteristics.
There are many ways in which my life has been privileged — I was born into a white middle class family, I have been gifted with a good deal of analytical and verbal intelligence — but I have had to overcome a childhood of bullying, unstable parenting, sexual abuse, and the beginnings of what was later diagnosed as Bipolar 2. I have made it to 55 years old with a reasonably well-balanced life.
As I wrote that, I realized that I (as I suspect many do) began to conflate resilience with accomplishment and judging my resilience by the degree of my accomplishment. This transmogrifies an ordinary, developable skill into an attribute of the rarefied few. This is the script of what I referred to yesterday as inspiration porn: ” … overcame a difficult childhood/debilitating disease/life-shattering accident to become a lawyer/doctor/marathon runner/fill in the blank with an accomplishment most of us reading the story couldn’t manage. If I look at what I’ve accomplished (a modest career at a small Masters I university where I’ve made few waves, six novels that I can’t get an agent for/published) I don’t feel very resilient. But if I look at what I’ve survived, and the current quality of my life, I feel very resilient indeed.
If we want people to be resilient, we have to believe that resilience is ordinary, is learnable, is measurable by one’s quality of life and not their level of achievement.
Yesterday, I asked my Facebook friends how to tell the difference between low self-esteem and brutal self-examination.
One of my friends responded with this inquiry: “Always ask yourself if you are being your own best friend. If you were talking to a friend would you talk that way? If not, that voice doesn’t pay rent for space in your head. Kick her out!”
I thought about this — How do I talk to myself?
I spend a lot of time examining my behavior, a running commentary in my head. But I don’t indulge in negative self-talk. I don’t say “OMG, I can’t believe you put that in your query letter! You’re an idiot!” I say, “That went well, but you could have done better with this other thing.” Which I could have.
Would I talk to a friend like that? If they asked. Maybe I would emphasize the positive a bit more, which I don’t do for myself. To be honest, I need to point out more of the positives to myself.
Another friend of mine, a psychologist, pointed out that self-awaqreness correlates with accomplishment but self-esteem doesn’t. This is from research; I haven’t found the study yet to give the citation. It makes sense, though — self-awareness helps people to improve and it also gives them a connection to what they want to accomplish. Self-esteem, on the other hand, may help people feel good about themselves but lies separate from introspection. Self-esteem without self-awareness can become fatuous, a feel good mantra without substance. And self-awareness comes from self-examination.
When I write and I get rejections (which is all I’ve gotten so far), I go through what I’ve done to see where I could improve. This requires me to step back from the story I fell in love with when I wrote it. I think about the publication market versus my topics and ask myself whether I want to write specifically for the market (I want to write and see where the fantasy novel market and I intersect). I improve where I can, honing my skills at editing and using help like developmental editors.
Brutal self-examination isn’t fun. It’s a familiar commentary of “Have you tried this?” and “Next time do that” and “This would have worked better here”. I have to admit I don’t celebrate my successes enough, and I would have to tone down the post-mortem questions if I were talking to a friend. I need to take more time for “You did this well” and “You’re doing the right things” and “Good job!”
Another thing to examine myself about.
About querying time, I wonder what it would be like to quit writing and quit pursuing representation and publication. Querying is brutal — you prepare excerpts of your prized manuscripts to people who will go by their first impressions, and nobody will tell why they rejected you except “It’s not you, it’s me” or “I’m very picky about who I represent”. I would love some real feedback like: “Could you rewrite your query letter and tell me more about x”.
What would my life be like without writing? I think it would feel like having a lobotomy — I would know something important was missing, but have no idea what. It would be like waking up and finding out a loved one was gone — not dead, just gone. In other words, there would be a hole and I can’t imagine filling it up. No other hobbies I’ve had have been this fulfilling, and for my gardening to be close to this fulfilling I would need a working greenhouse with enough room to actually handle my plants. (We do not have the space or money for that.) My moulage (casualty simulation) might become more fulfilling if I could go professional with it, but the outfits that need moulage for training purposes can’t afford a professional.
As for giving up dreams of being published, that’s a little more complex. There are certain things built into my psyche for better or worse. I love to accomplish new things, and everything else in my life lately has been things I’ve done for the last N years, where N is probably around 30. I’ve hit a stagnation point in my job with 8 years until retirement (I’ve tried hard, coworkers, but I’m chronically burnt out and in need of a break). I need challenge, and I need recognition. I need people liking my work, and to do so they have to see it. Esteem and accomplishment are nothing to be afraid of.
What would it feel like to give up trying to get published? I’d be exactly where I am now, except that the challenge would be gone and I would feel like I had given up on an adventure to stay in my stagnation. I don’t know if I can find another opportunity to break the stagnation.
So I do the same thing I’ve been doing every four months for the past two years, wondering if I will ever make escape velocity.
If anyone has ideas of challenges I could try (I’ve already lost 70 lbs, I have some health problems that keep me from running, I don’t want to run for public office, and I have profound hand-eye coordination problems), let me know.