The Productivity Paradox

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I’ve been thinking lately about how my writing career, such as it is, came into being. I’m pretty satisfied with the state of my writing life at the moment: with one essay due to come out soon, another in submissions, and a third in progress, plus an ongoing novel, I’m about as productive as I’ve ever been.

I pay a lot of attention to what other writers are doing as well. One of the nicest thing that’s happened to me in the last twelve months is that I’ve joined an email group comprised mostly of women who write for new media. A side effect of this is that I read a metric fuck-ton of essays and articles every week.

One particular theme comes up in those essays a lot—a theme that intrigues me, because I personally can’t relate to at all. People call it different things. Esmé Wang, a writer and entrepreneur whose work I admire a lot, calls it “hustle”, in this fantastic essay for Elle about the effect of chronic illness on productivity. I tend to think of it as the productivity paradox.

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What Is Invisible

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Solitude is a habit with me, a byproduct of anxiety and distrust that I haven’t really figured out how to get rid of. Since high school, I’ve used the internet as an adaptive tool to help me manage my isolation, but now that I’m in my early thirties, it isn’t as effective as it used to be. The friends who were once available on chat for hours and hours over the course of the day have differently structured lives than when they were finishing up their degrees and looking for full-time work—whereas I’m working from home, still sitting in front of the computer for eighteen hours a day, still just as available as I always was. I used to harangue myself into at least taking my laptop to coffee shops, but since my car got stolen and my damaged tendon started severely limiting the distance I can walk in a day, my already narrow world has shrunk considerably.

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Happy President’s Day, Here Is Some Knowledge About Washington and Lincoln

(George Washington & Abraham Lincoln. You were expecting someone else?)

Lately, I have been paying my rent by ghostwriting history books for a an independent Kindle publisher. I say “ghostwriting”, but, as a friend pointed out, it is technically just authorship without royalties. Once a month, I crank out 35,000 words on a topic set by the publisher, researched for its marketability: the Third Reich, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War. The publisher picks my nom de plume. It’s always a man’s name, by the way, in case you thought sexism was dead.

The publisher pays me more than he pays his other writers—$500 to their $300. This is because the skill level of the average Kindle writer-for-hire hovers somewhere just above blatant illiteracy. I would know, because most of my other gigs involve editing these books. I get paid more than the next slob because, as I pointed out to the publisher, he saves the price of a proofreader on my writing.

Look, it isn’t easy to find freelancing gigs that pay biggish lump sums of cash. The $500 I get for writing a crap history book once a month pays my rent. And it only takes me about half the month to write it, if I hustle, so I have time left over to make money for things that aren’t rent, and to write for my personal projects. I consider my writing these books partly a humanitarian project: when I accepted the offer to write the book on the Third Reich, it was because I was genuinely frightened that it would otherwise get written by a literal neo-Nazi. The direct-to-Kindle publishing world is, like most dark corners of the internet, a dank, humid breeding ground for crazies. I edit a conspiracy theory manual and at least three crank health fad books every month.

So what’s the pay-off for me, apart from being able to pay my rent without having to leave my bedroom and the company of my cat? Well, so far, it involves being able to write off history books on my taxes, and getting to know George Washington and Abraham Lincoln really well. In fact, my due date for the Lincoln book was February 12th—Lincoln’s birthday.

Anyway, since today is President’s Day (for non-Americans, a holiday normally commemorated by mattress sales) I thought I would share my new knowledge about our two most famous presidents. In no particular order, then:

1.) Washington and Lincoln were both ambitious as fuck. They knew exactly how talented they were, and they knew that their states and their countries would be better off with them in charge.

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The 2015 Good Things Jar

I have traditions now. Which is strange to me, because the very idea of doing the same thing over and over again used to freak me out, be it from day to day or year to year. Literally every mental health professional you talk to will emphasize the value of routines in maintaining mental health. But the idea used to make me panic. It was like I’d channeled so much energy into making myself infinitely adaptable to handle the chaos in my life that I’d never learned how to function without chaos.

I also felt rebellious about the notion of routine/tradition/orderly time management because in my imagination it felt so much like submitting to the control of another person. Why? Leftover teenage hypersensitivity, I suppose. Gradually, it dawned on me that establishing some repetition in my life, along lines I was comfortable with, was actually a way of taking things back into my own control. Seems obvious enough, but you try reasoning with my panicky hindbrain some time.

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I’m really proud of the things that I’ve managed to accomplish this year. Which is nice, because pride in myself is not something I’ve felt for a long time. I wrote about some of them in my recent Medium post, but apart from major life events like starting a freelancing career, I’m also proud that I kept a daily planner all year long, and made a 10 point to-do list nearly every day. When I close that planner for the last time tonight, I’ll be able to look back through it and see exactly what I did with my life over the last 365 days. I’ve never been able to do that before.

A lot of good things happened to me this year. I can tell, because for the last few months, I’ve been having trouble stuffing any more folded-up sticky notes in my Good Things Jar. When I first started keeping the Jar last year, I intentionally picked a tiny one. My life was a wreck, I reasoned, and my pathetically small quantities of goodness would seem less pathetic in a smaller jar.

I think I’m going to graduate to a larger jar in 2016. Maybe a Mason jar. We’ll see.

The Second Annual Reading of the Good Things Jar

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Perils of the night

On a very old website of mine, I hosted the text of some writing I’d done in college–twelve years ago, that was what passed for my professional portfolio. I happened to be looking at the site today and I found that one of the pieces I’d uploaded was a meditation I’d been asked to write for a Wednesday evening Advent service at St. David’s, the church I attend when I’m in Cullowhee.

 

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I’ve copied the meditation here, under the read more. I was nineteen when I wrote it, halfway through my second year of college.

Reading it over this morning for the first time in over a decade, I felt a bit breathless. It just so happens that I’ve been more than a little preoccupied with themes of shame and judgment lately. If I didn’t know that writers frequently write things that are wiser than they are, I would be tempted to think I was much smarter 14 years ago than I am now. In some ways, I probably was.

My favorite thing about the Advent service that year was hearing the Collect for Aid Against All Perils for the first time, read out in a dark sanctuary lit by candles:

“Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord, and by thy great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers and this nigh, for the love of thy only son our savior, Jesus Christ.”

Every time I read that, I think about the scene in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising where Will and Merriman have to battle the powers of the Dark in an old church around Christmas.

The build-up to Christmas, to say nothing of the holiday itself, is a conflicted time for me, as it is for a lot of people. But this is my favorite part of it.

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North Carolina doesn’t deserve you.

Homesickness is a big problem for me this time of year. I don’t even mean the “holiday season” in general, but Thanksgiving specifically. I really, really liked Thanksgiving, growing up. It was a low-key holiday, no extra people, no traveling, just me and my dad watching ridiculous movies, like “A Beverley Hillbillies Thanksgiving”, while my mom cooked.

Wendell, North Carolina is particularly beautiful in late November. A friend from Canada who came to visit me there once said it was like an extra week of October for her. There are sunsets to die for and everything one could desire in the way of leaves. I miss it so much that, true to the cliche, it becomes a physical ache sometimes.

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(Downtown Wendell. It’s a small place so we only have the one gazebo.)

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Rage: A Calming Meditation

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Deep down, I know that I am a deeply angry person. But something happened this morning that ended up leading me down a twisty little thought-maze: why does my seething inner cauldron of rage rarely ever boil over onto individual human beings?

On reflection, I think it’s because I’m a big believer in managing your own expectations. I consider this a personal responsibility on par with saving for retirement.

This is how it works: any time I start an optimistic new endeavor, I set aside a certain percentage of that optimism for a rainy day. Especially when the sky is clearly cloudy. I happen to think that surprise is the root of most of my own interpersonal distress, and that anything that comes as a shock hurts me worse than identically unpleasant events that I’ve taken care to be emotionally prepared for. This isn’t always possible in a random universe, but it’s possible on more occasions than you might realize.

Say, for instance, that you’re starting a new job. Day one rolls around, and you find out the guy in the next cubicle has unsavory personal habits, like listening to aggressive drive-time talk radio shows. Later in the week you overhear him making racist comments about a co-worker. Are you going to waste your time clutching your pearls, or are you going to roll your eyes and file an anonymous complaint with HR?

I’m just saying, there’s no point getting angry with a professed Rush Limbaugh fan for saying racist shit. You might as well get mad at a dog for licking his testicles. Why does your dog still have testicles? What kind of irresponsible, non-neutering dog owner are you?

Taking steps to check someone’s bad behavior isn’t the same thing as wasting your precious personal energy in getting angry with them. You should save your anger for things that deserve it. Things like inanimate objects that fail to perform the function they were designed for.

This post was inspired by the fact that I hit my forehead on the corner of my bedroom door as I was cleaning out the cat’s litter box this morning. First, there was pain; then, there was rage beyond measure. I slammed the door harder than I’ve ever slammed a door in my life. A few seconds later, I was calm again.

Not once in my 33 years on this earth have I ever slammed a door because a human being pissed me off. But I have frequently slammed doors because the door pissed me off.

The logic at work here is impeccable. I don’t get angry with people because I take it as read that people are not to be relied upon. This is not cynicism! This is basic respect for human flexibility. People are complicated, and their lives are full of unlooked-for variables. Any intelligent person is going to change their opinion, or their course of action, based on new information and new circumstances. We’re adaptable creatures. People who remain fixed points in a changing age are blockheads. I take care not to associate with blockheads.

Inanimate objects, on the other, are meant to be relied upon. That is literally the reason they exist. A person who decides that a career in A/C repair is not for them is noble and brave for starting a new life as an interior designer. An air conditioning unit that decides not to cool your house in hot weather is scrap metal.

I maintain that there is no more worthy object of furious, blistering anger than a functional object that ceases to function. How dare it? It literally had one job. Failure to perform that job is a betrayal, and that object deserves the fate of all traitors, which is to be wiped off the face of the earth and blotted from memory.

If you’re my friend, and you call me at two in the morning in tears because your significant other is leaving you, I am going to listen with quiet sympathy. I will be thinking things like, You knew she was allergic to cats when you met her, and other justified sentiments that boil down to “what did you expect?”, but I’m not going to say any of them out loud. Because you’re a human being, and you’re complicated, and even assholes like me can have social skills.

But if I’m borrowing your car, and the car breaks down on the side of the road while I’m ten miles from home, then I’m sorry. Your car is now a rusting pile of component parts at the bottom of a ditch. That’s because I tore it apart with my bare hands. But I’m sure you won’t be angry about that, because now you’ve read this blog post, so you knew what to expect when you loaned it to me.

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Brittany’s car is currently an intact pile of rusting parts stranded at a friend’s house because she lacks the money to have it repaired by people who have more patience for non-functional inanimate objects than she does. If you enjoyed this post, please considering throwing a couple of bucks in the hat to help make it function again, as God intended.