Learning to work, revisited

Today, I reread Virginia Valian’s long essay “Learning to Work” (1977), and thought about my own attitudes about writing. You can find the complete essay at Pauline Nestor’s website, “Writing is My Drink” http://writingismydrink.com/learning-to-work/  It was originally published in a book called Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work (Pantheon Books 1977).

“Learning to Work” is about the avoidance of creative work and what lies behind it. I believe any artist will resonate with what she has to say; I find this essay to be eminently practical and true about the obstacles that prevent us from doing what we love, especially the work that we feel defines us. Because Valian was trained in a scientific field (psychology), she approached the problem with her scientist’s mind, using observation, experimentation and checking results. In the essay, she stands back from herself, observes her behavior and picks apart the forces behind it. Her approach is wonderfully refreshing for someone like me, who has probably read one too many writing books with tips such as “pour it all out on the page” or “write about what you fear.”

“I could last five minutes of difficulty and anxiety,” she wrote, so she set a timer, wrote, and when the bell went off “threw myself on the bed, breathing hard and feeling my heart race.” From this first scary attempt, she built up to writing a full fifteen minutes.

Valian wrote the essay after her experience in writing her dissertation in the 1960s (she is now a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Hunter College), which she achieved by changing her attitude to work. She struggled with anxiety and a feeling of ennui about tackling her dissertation, and instead found herself napping and reading novels. Her partner, who seemed to have no problem working on his academic projects, made suggestions that only made it worse.

She wrote that she desired “to live an integrated life that included doing intellectual work, having close relationships, being politically active, and developing other interests such as playing the piano. But that integrated life couldn’t happen unless I got rid of my work problem.”

Valian bravely set out to explore what was behind her “work problem.” Work, in her case the immersive mental work of reading, doing research, and writing a dissertation, was a mountain to climb, something she perceived would have to become a miserable forced march. She realized she had to change her mind set completely; she needed to find a way to make the work enjoyable and the doing of it to be its own reward. She no longer wanted the work to require rewards or punishments to get her to do it. Her goal was to reinvent work for herself into something enjoyable, even fun.

Valian’s strategy was to ease herself into working on her dissertation by establishing brief work times, very brief work times that she “could live through.” She started with fifteen minutes.

The anxiety about working is reduced when the time period is fixed.

After spending her first fifteen minutes doing preliminary planning and reading, she realized that the amount of time she could tolerate in actually writing would need to be reduced to five minutes. “I could last five minutes of difficulty and anxiety,” she wrote, so she set a timer, wrote, and when the bell went off “threw myself on the bed, breathing hard and feeling my heart race.” From her first shaky attempt, she built up to writing a full fifteen minutes. She set out “rules” for herself:

  • Each fifteen-minute period has to be spent solely on working. No frittering.
  • Official increases in the amount of working time are to be in fifteen-minute chunks.
  • Work every day.
  • Ignore thoughts about the end product, including what others will think of it.

Her strategy led her to analyze her interior obstacles to enjoying writing: the underlying fear of exposing herself and competitiveness with others in her field. She resented how the work made her swing between feeling worthless to being envious of others.

I’ve been known to say to writing friends, “No one is waiting or expecting something from me. What does it matter if I finish anything?” In other words, what’s the use? Choosing not to even try because the world isn’t waiting is a tempting argument, but Valian argues that a person who chooses to work and stick with it isn’t doing it for the rewards at the end—the people who will read your story or article and the praise you might receive. The reason to do it is because it’s your work, and you simply need to do your work.

She writes about the familiar fear we all have of making a mistake, that paralyzing attitude towards work that can stop us cold. It’s easy to say that the way to “get over yourself” is to buckle down and write or make other kinds of art, but as she describes in her essay, the psychology field was going to be her career, and she was acutely aware that her dissertation had to be her very best work. Perfectionism, fear and envy should be acknowledged, but they can’t be allowed to prevent you from forging ahead. In fifteen-minute segments, Valian learned to work through (or around) each obstacle, to commit fully to her work, and to overcome the familiar feelings of panic, boredom and fear about finishing her dissertation.

Late in her essay, she writes: “Once I began to fit work into the rest of my life, that is, once I began not just working but doing other things as well, I found that I had been denying myself many satisfactions.” She developed other interests—learned to play piano, took up French, started reading more nonfiction for pleasure—and discovered that she had “more room in my life, not less.”

In other words, she finally integrated her life and work, and found pleasure in living fully. And it started in five-minute increments.

My Margaret Culkin Banning project

marguerite-culkin-margaret-culkin-barren-central-07I’ve been collecting information about a minor writer who spent much of her career as a writer in my town back around the 1920s. She was sort of a blueblood — the daughter of a famous Minnesota politician who married a prominent attorney in Duluth — but she began writing novels that would appeal to women (one of her first titles was “This Marrying”) and caught the writing bug. Her books are out of print, but our local library has a complete collection of her books, which mostly collect dust on their shelf in a dark corner. When I moved to this community in 1995, I learned that she grew up in my Hunter’s Park neighborhood when I came across an article she wrote for a 1976 history of Duluth.

Hunter’s Park. My neighborhood is on the edge of town, marked by a tall building (now a home) that was the last streetcar stop up the hill from Lake Superior. Our house was built in 1919, during Duluth’s heyday, and although it’s small, the original plans to the house show a “Maid’s Room” on the second floor. There is even a buzzer on the floor of the dining room, which is astonishing because the kitchen is about three steps away. From Culkin Banning’s chapter, I learned that my neighborhood was settled by Scottish people who came to northern Minnesota during its mining and lumbering boom 1880 – 1900. There’s a gloomy Glen Avon Presbyterian Church just a block from our house, and street names have a Scots sound to them: Mygatt, Kenilworth, Leicester. They built their homes in this part of town, and hired girls from the Italian population who also settled here.

A working writer. Once I started digging, I learned that MCB (my shorthand for her–like I say, I’ve been thinking about this a long time) wasn’t a particularly pleasant person. She wrote about women struggling to make it on their own (MCB divorced from her lawyer husband), women’s rights, birth control — but she sort of lorded it over the locals that she was a woman of letters. It’s remarkable to think she made a living off her writing, but she seems to have lived well, writing regularly for McCalls, Ladies Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and other popular magazines from that time, and churning out her books year after year. I suppose her books and topics would be considered genre fiction or even “chick-lit” today, but I believe she aspired to be taken seriously.

The actual work. Her writing is a little clunky in places; mannered and fussy. She loved dialogue which goes on and on for pages. Yet, sometimes there are passages that are quite good. I’ve collected some of these in my file. These books will never be reprinted. I recall reading Booth Tarkington’s Penrod when I was a kid. Who reads these writers now? Makes me a little sad.

A serious side. There are some interesting parts to her life. She worked as a writer for the U.S. government during WWII, writing articles about the hardships of families in Great Britain, and (I think) travelling to Europe after the war to write about refuges from the war – “displaced persons” I believe they were called.

A decision to be made. A librarian who works for the historical society here isn’t sure this is much of a story. MCB wasn’t a great writer, and her fame came more from her family and because of her financial situation, she was able to live well and focus on her writing. Yet I am drawn to her story. She was a big fish (in her mind) in a small pond (somewhat ludicrous as my town is located on an enormous lake), and she may have looked down on people. But she didn’t live a frivolous life. She got involved in politics. And even if she wasn’t kind to people, for a short time, she put my corner of the state on the map.

And still. Every day, I drive by the rather lovely old building near downtown where she kept her office, where the beautiful windows look out over the lake. Once, I saw a photo of MCB, sitting at her desk, working at one of those heavy black typewriters. Although the photo must have been posed, she looks very focused and happy.

Billions of blogs

I loved it when Anne Frank immediately named the person she was writing to in her diary “Kitty.” Kitty was a girl very much like her; someone interested in boys, movie stars and books, as well as someone who would listen to her dreams and worries and complaints. I’m not sure if I can expect the undivided attention from any reader of my brand-new blog. I’m not sure I want to, in fact. When I started this, I said I was really writing for myself. I know that the first person I want to reach is me. Writing connects me with my true self, and it helps me to work things through, understand myself. I hope this isn’t navel gazing. I keep a paper journal, but there’s a difference between writing in there and writing on my blog. I can’t put my finger on it right now, but this would be something to consider for a future post.

But back to my audience, besides myself. I suppose  I am writing to a person out there who is nonjudgmental, patient and not a perfectionist. Someone who won’t give up on me if they disagree or grow tired of what I’m writing about. Who in the world would that be? Who doesn’t find enough online to read, and who doesn’t feel overwhelmed by input? Yet the futility of this project doesn’t bother me particularly.

When I think about the billions of blogs out there, it touches me. All those voices. All the individuals behind those blogs. We all want to communicate, to say “it,” whatever that might be. If I find one person in that constellation of people online who stumbles upon my blog and finds that connection, it’s kind of wonderful.

What was that E. M. Forster said?  “Only connect.”

That’s what I’m doing: connecting.

My blogging manifesto: First Draft

By blogging, I’m hoping to get my writing going again. I suffer from perfectionism and procrastination, and the idea of keeping an online journal seems strange, at first. But I’m going to give it a try.

Why am I blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal? There’s something exciting about putting it out there, watching the words accumulate, and being brave. I also love the fun of playing around with the way it looks, the fonts, the colors. Right now, my blog seems like a new toy, rather than a blank notebook that seems to ask for either 1) whining about something that happened to me that day, or 2) beautiful, flowing scenes and characters that have popped out of my head, fully developed.

Topics remain open. I’m hoping this grows organically; that topics occur to me as I get this going. I plan to continue a writer’s notebook and start a topics list. I downloaded the document that WordPress has a great list of 365 blog topics. At the same time, I’m thinking my blog will organize itself around a few topics, some of which could include articles about writing, family and family history, books I’m reading, and seeds for essays. I might try out some fiction, but at the moment that doesn’t feel right here. Keep it to articles, project ideas and what I’ve learned about writing.

Connecting… At the moment, I’m not sure if I have an audience in mind. In fact, I feel I’m doing this more for myself than anyone out there in the blogosphere. Which may be strange, yet it makes sense to me. I want to explore with this blog right now, and think about what I’d like to do with it down the road.

Goals. I hope I can begin to gather content, nurture a writing habit, and have developed ideas for longer projects I’ll do offline. I’d like to write essays for publication, but I’m not going to worry about that now. Basically, I want to write more and allow myself a place to screw up, experiment, go off on tangents, and get my writing mojo back.



How removing filters can make your writing come alive

We’ve probably all had the experience of flying on a cloudy day. At a certain point, the plane ascends above the clouds and we discover there was a perfectly sunny day going on above the gloom.

When I discovered the effect filtering was having on my writing, it was like that moment in the airplane when the sun fills the cabin. The filters I had been using were like those puffy clouds: they were preventing the reader from seeing what I was trying to describe. They weren’t allowing the reader to fully engage with the story.

What’s a filter? A writing instructor once told me:  Filtering is the needless processing of an image through an observing consciousness. Not so clear? A better way to explain filtering is by demonstrating it:

Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.

By removing the filter “she noticed,” the sentence becomes stronger, more active:

She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting.

Filtering in fiction is particularly common because it’s a very natural way to write. As we envision a story, we see the character looking before we are ready to describe what that character is looking at.

One way to notice when you’re using filters is to watch for those places you use phrases such as she noticed / she saw / she remembered. Try going right into the description rather than filtering it through the character.

Here are two scenes, the first with filtering (underlined), and the second filter-free.

Version one

Mrs. Blair made her way to the chair by the window and sank gratefully into it. She looked out the window and there, across the street, she saw the ivory BMW parked in front of the fire hydrant once more. It seemed to her, though, that something was wrong with the car. She noticed that it was listing slightly toward the back and side, and then saw that the back rim was resting almost on the asphalt.

Version two (filter-free)

Mrs. Blair made her way to the chair by the window and sank gratefully into it. Across the street the ivory BMW was parked in front of the fire plug again. Something was wrong with the car, though. It was listing toward the back and side, the back rim resting almost on the asphalt.

Notice how nothing is lost by losing the “filtering” and how much better it reads, how much clearer and less diluted the observations are.