Pattern Interruption

Over the past weekend my partner and I went on a brief vacation to a bed and breakfast up in Traverse City. It made for a lovely, simple break–we made some tentative plans, but for the most part we played each day by ear, cruising around and stopping whenever something novel caught our eye. For her it was a needful respite from work, which can become stressful during the summer months, and for me it was an effective jolt, as I’d fallen into an existential rut.

Late in April, just as exam week was starting, a headache settled in. It was mild, all things considered, but distracting enough to make my days more complicated. After I muddled through exams I took a week off (another valuable break) to dial in my plans for the summer, but once again I fell into a rut by mid-June. It’s been a pretty productive rut, but it was clouded over by the headache and the daily pattern it yielded. My early morning workouts tended to clear my head, so they usually set the stage for some good writing time before lunch. But on more than a few days I opted to tackle stray errands before most folks were out and about instead, which was often A Bad Idea. I’d use my mornings kindasorta well, but I’d wind up frittering away my afternoons instead of dealing with whatever was on my existential checklist, which is for me generally bad policy. The headache, the malaise, and my tendency to dwell on bits and bobs over which I have precious little control (an impending promotion, the prospect of student loan forgiveness, enrollments in my fall classes, my exasperation with local medical care providers, and the like) bogged me down, mostly because I allowed it to.

So the trip to the upper yonder was valuable in a couple of ways. The route we took involved driving along roads I used to take to visit a former partner, an absolutely lovely woman who brought out some of the very best bits of me. There was a bit of reminiscing and existential recollection, which helped me to think differently and more critically about the progress of my current pattern. Additionally, and more importantly, some cranial tumblers apparently fell into place. On our return I started to fall back into an old, positive pattern, a tendency to focus on what I can do rather than what wasn’t happening for me.

In hypnosis, pattern interruption tends to be a transparent mechanism: a hypnotist will help a subject to shift their perspective, to examine patterns they inhabit, and then intervene at the point where a break and change might do some good. The persistent headache makes for a decent example. Heading into the summer I did my due diligence. I started out with an eye exam based on my limited observations at the time (the headache, a bit of double vision, moments of feeling slightly off balance), then went to my primary care physician, then went to a neurologist. After imaging and blood tests ruled out a bunch of potential issues, I figured I was pretty much done–it was simply pain I was going to have to live with. That felt like a settled fact by mid-June. When we went up to Traverse City, in fact, my sole focus was on keeping mum about the headache, making sure I didn’t do anything to prevent my partner from having a merry, relaxing time.

The break itself, however, prompted me to think a little differently about the world when we returned. On Wednesday I focused on doings–taking care of the laundry from the trip, tackling a couple of tasks I’d tabled, and emptying out my many inboxes, which consisted primarily of messages I could easily address but had deferred answering. Along the way I also called an older optometrist for a new eye exam. I figured a bit of fresh perspective wouldn’t hurt, and attempting something I could do rather than fretting about all the stuff that’s out of my control did my noggin some good. It would cost me a little time and money, but (since I had more info about the way my headaches, double vision, and vertigo behave after three months of living with them) the visit would help me lay to rest a few doubts about the sufficiency of that first eye exam. The doing, in the abstract, promised to relieve a little lingering stress and tension, but as it turns out it also identified a probable cause the first eye exam missed.

Pattern interruption doesn’t always work that way, of course, but the headache example makes for a fine illustration of the essential mechanism. We all get caught up in ways of thinking about things and doing things, and over time–assuming that the habits are essentially successful in helping us to get by–those patterns can become fixed, rigid, stagnant. To shake ourselves free we often need only a little time and distance to conceive of matters differently. And from that point of reconceptualization, it’s often possible to make change step by step, to climb out of those old ruts, to move somewhere new.

On Time

I’ve been chipping away at several projects lately, though the going has been unusually slow. The causes of the slowdown? Time, timing, and timekeeping.

Time, of course, is something of an ass. Though it feels like this summer has been unfolding slowly (perhaps because I’ve been awaiting the outcome of Several Significant Things, and the suspense has stretched out the hours), each individual day passes by far too quickly. I rise at about 5:00, have a pre-workout drink before heading to the gym, come back around 9:00, have a proper breakfast between 9:00 and 10:00, take a second shower, run whatever errands need to be addressed, eat a light lunch, and then sit down to the keyboard. Though I know that I write best in the early morning, this is the schedule I’ve been obliged to settle into, that makes the best use of my time overall. Last summer, when the gym held odd hours in light of COVID protocols, worked very well for me, as it shifted my gym arrival time to 11:00 and gave me a few hours of drafting time in the morning as well as a few hours of productive revising time in the afternoon and early evening before my partner came home from work. This year has given me more room for self-determination, but the result has been less than ideal.

That’s the view from the world outside my fiction and poetry. But the inside is where things have become both sticky and tricksy of late.

The novel I drafted last summer, for instance, plays out over the course of six narrative weeks, with two sides–and multiple actors on each side–conspiring and acting against one another. Much of my revision, alas, has centered on making the time line simpler and clearer while trusting the reader to follow along a little more gamely. I suspect that when all is said and done I’m going to strip out a few thousand words just to get some excesses in temporal reckoning out of the way. The same hold true for the novella I’ve recently begun, which hinges on reflection and retrospection. For the story to work I need to fix the central story events at a specific point in time, then count forwards and back to attend to the aftermath. I can skate on historical details to some extent–the narrator/point of view allows me to dispense with most of the period particulars–but I need to make sure the timing works out for the young protagonist, for the life events that ultimately shape their older self, and for all the bits and bobs in between. In the drafting process that leads to quite a lot of spot research when I want to mix in a historical point of reference to enrich the context and enhance the realism, which means the going has been slow. It’s not a bad thing–the researching and dreaming stages are important portions of the program–but at day’s end I always wish I was working a little bit faster.

To offset the tension that come with slogging progress I’ve been writing poetry, but that, too, has come with its own snags, snarls, and opportunity costs. Normally when I compose a poem I’ll knock out a few lines, arrive at an impasse, and step away from the keyboard for a few minutes (or hours) so my noggin can resolve the problem with some background processing. When I’m working on multiple pieces, however, I wind up using my working memory to deal with some new issue that arises in the interim. I can’t count on background processing when I’m preoccupied by objects in the foreground. That means that my mind is trudging haltingly along parallel lines. I know the solution–to deal with one project at a time like a grown-up–but that’s a hard ask when all the work is equally intriguing.

Today I intend/hope to rethink things and settle on some short-term priorities, though my long-term prospects will probably hinge on refining my habits of mind. I’d rather be writing, of course, but devoting some of my writing time to roping coltish notions in the cognitive corral is probably time well spent.