A Deceptive Addendum

Not long ago, in the waybackwhen, I posted about some of the ways I try to get myself sorted, especially when I’m shifting gears into a new season of stuff. I thought it would be worthwhile to add, however, a brief description of a habit inside the habit, one that tends to give my mental health a gentle upward nudge.

I’ve invariably got an array of to-do lists up and running, but of course some things fall through the cracks. Itemizing life in advance is a mug’s game, however nice that might be. At the end of any given week, however, it sometimes feels like I’ve seriously underachieved. While there’s a semi-healthy part of me that understand that life ought not be measured in feats and written proofs of my existential effectiveness, there’s a less noble component of my programming that likes to see a few items ticked off the ol’ checklist at week’s end.

And so I add them.

As a rule, if it’s something that requires a little foresight and an investment of time, even if I forgot to mention it while planning out my prospects, I’ll put it on the list of the week and cross it off retroactively. It makes for a decent reminder that I haven’t been as indolent as the checklist otherwise might suggest. Today, for example, I remembered in passing that I probably ought to wash my hoodies and long-sleeved shirts now that temperatures have dropped. It wasn’t something I originally planned to do, but it’s something that will make life easier for Future Me. By the same token, one of my tasks for early October involves identifying some clusters of readings for my composition classes. Yesterday I had a bit of spare time while my students huddled up for a peer review workshop, so I hunted some down there and then. When I got home I added both items to my list of Weekly Things and crossed them off.

On Sunday I’ll make a new list, but instead of looking back and imagining I managed just the bare minimum (lesson plans, paying the bills, etc.), I’ll actually have a more accurate reckoning of what I’ve done. It makes me a feel a bit better; if nothing else, it convinces me that I didn’t squander the week gone by. And, to a meaningful degree, it also raises the bar. Instead of having 8-12 accomplishments in my back pocket, I’ll come away with twenty or so, which persuades me that maybe I can be a little more active and ambitious when mapping out the weeks and months ahead.

I might not ever be a Man of Action, but it pays to be honest with myself about my daily activity–even if that involves adding something done to a to-do list after the fact.

Tales of the Unexpected

This morning I read one of those “Where do your ideas come from?” threads, which are always a delight. Some accounts are pointed and precise (“I had this experience, and Book X arose from that experience”), some are redolent of metaphysics (“I open myself up to the Higher Mind and let it fill my imagination”), and some are fraught with shenanigans (“I leave sugar cookies on my nightstand and the noggin goblins bring me ideas”). It can be an imaginative exercise in its own right, though I think if we’re being honest with ourselves–or at least when I’m being honest with myself–creative fecundity seems to abide by two principles.

The first (for me, at least) is The Ebb and Flow, which follows laws that can be at once understandable and utterly mysterious to us. We just started the semester here, for example, which means I’m doing my best to get my teaching off to a flying start, preparing and overpreparing for every eventuality I can think of. In my composition classes, for example, we’re just about midway through our planning for the first formal essay, and I’m already drafting materials for the second. It’s pretty pragmatic stuff, and it means that the creative currents, at least in terms of poetry and fiction, are running slowly at the moment. I think that’s a normal and natural part of the process: ebb and flow, drought and flood, feast and famine. Sometimes our minds are preoccupied by other things, so when we lower the bucket into that spring-fed mental well it comes back empty. There are plenty of tricks to get those currents moving once again, but in some cases it’s simpler to concede and adapt to the pattern of our creative lives. I generally try to get one or two more sizable projects up and running during the more flowing moments and hope that the current will carry me to the next generative stretch.

The second is more exasperating, at least for me, and sometimes seems more pernicious. I’d call it The Unexpected Guest, although in my creative life it’s something more akin to a series of serial visitors. I know some writers who conceive of a plan and go at it from start to finish, then edit and expand, rethink and revise with single-minded purpose. In contrast, I tend to be at the mercy of fleeting obsessions, with one impulse preoccupying me for a short while before cascading into the next. It’s exciting and delightful at one level–the cascades keep on going for as long as I chase those impulses–but pretty dang annoying at another. It takes real effort to take those waves without being bowled over, but that’s the only way I can see a project through from start to finish.

Close to the end of the summer, for instance, I started lining up the components of a poetry collection that suddenly emerged from the shadows, a theme I’d been unconsciously fleshing out for months but didn’t really recognize as a coherent whole until I had written and revised about four pieces. The moment the bigger picture crystallized, however, I was able to sit down and lay out the ideas for other poems that would belong to that collection…until the idea for a novella intruded. So I set the collection aside, figuring I could chip away at it poem by poem, and drew up an outline for the novella and started in. As I set down the first few pages I grew increasingly fond of my main character and got a much better handle on their motives and voice…and then an idea for a series of hypnosis recordings arrived. I think you get the point. Back in the day it was called the pressure of ideas; today we might call it hyperfixation, though in my case it’s a decidedly subclinical thing. I can interrupt the pattern anytime I like, though it involves an act of will on my part. And at times it’s difficult to commit to that intervention, because it always feels far better to have too many ideas than too few.

Over the next couple of days I hope to see those recordings through, as I’ve done too much preliminary planning to shrug off the possibility. Then it’s back to the novella, I think–until some new impulse rolls in and bowls me over.


Tension headaches normally occur for me as a band of muscular discomfort that’s snuggest around the back of my skull, and right around 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon I felt that old familiar band ratchet tight around my noggin. The source of tension, in this case, was both trivial and knowable: my partner asked me to find another landscaping company to do our annual shrub trimming next fall, as the folks we use had made the same mistake they’d made before.

That is, as I hope you can tell, a terribly small thing. It’s a tenth of a gram in the Grand Scale of Life. But the sudden tightening of that band told me I had just about reached the limit of my working memory.

I’ve had a headache for about four months now, which is of course a cause for concern. (I have some small reason for hope right now, as a second opinion from an optometrist following a couple of months of testing suggests that it’s nothing but the result of some corrective tension in the muscles surrounding my eyes.) But what it means these days is that I can tell almost to the moment when my working memory has reached capacity.

It’s almost always just a little thing, like the aforementioned incident, or someone sending me an email asking me to pencil in a meeting a couple of weeks away. That extra cathexis (a commitment of mental energy) shorts the circuit board and prompts my brain to power down, to idle for awhile. I told you recently about the ways in which I try to manage imminent tasks, but this is the flip side of that necessity. If I don’t keep clearing the queue, and if I don’t actively detach cathexes from things I can’t actually do anything about, then I am essentially sentencing myself to some cranial pain.

It’s easy to neglect that aspect of our processing, like subscriptions we signed up for once upon a time or appliances that are constantly running in the background. We’re not often aware of them. Walk down a hall in the middle of the night, however, and you’ll often find the faces of clocks running in other rooms, chargers lighted to let us know our phones and controllers are ready, appliances on standby. In my life I’ve got new stories and poems to draft, older ones to revise, lesson plans to write, and the like. That’s my day-to-day stuff, always drawing a little bit of energy. But the pending bits and bobs add up. I need to collaborate on a syllabus, though I don’t know when a colleague will be ready to tackle it; I need to make some hypnosis recordings to see how viable they might be as a side hustle, but I need to test some new tech before I do; I need to keep in mind appointments I’ve got on my schedule or plans I’ve made with my partner, though those hinge on a dozen contingencies beyond my control. And of course there are all the ambient worries I have zero control over, which take up a few amps of brainjuice each day. Until I get them off the docket they’ll hang around to haunt me.

No easy solutions to this matter, alas, aside from doing my best to clear projects from my to-do lists as soon as I can. What’s more important, though, is to recognize the underlying pattern and not lay blame on the wrong doorstep. Unless we inform them, folks don’t know, and only we ourselves really know the state of play inside our minds. The trick, I think, is to create a little space to spare so that it takes some really extraordinary new commitment to take us over capacity.

If you figure out how to manage that, do let me know! Until then I’ll try to keep one step ahead of my own mind and see what I can do to make that tension relent.