Lost Dreams and To Do Lists

IMG_0890I recently spent a lot of time by myself in the car, driving to a writing conference. This means I spent a lot of time in my head. And I was reminded that there is a lot of scary stuff in my head. I was reacquainted with my obsessive thoughts about work, especially related to circumstances I really can’t control. I encountered many of my of my deep fears: Do I suck as a writer? Am I terrible at my day job? Does anyone even like me? Will I end my days sad and alone?

And that was all in the first thirty miles outside of town.

The truly scary stuff came later, namely this question: Do I still have dreams, even, or just a to do list?

Since I became a parent, I certainly feel like life is a checklist. I’m responsible for myself and two small people, not to mention tending a marriage, working at my day job and taking care of a house. I am not doing this alone – I have an amazing spouse who splits the “second shift” with me. But I still feel like I’m mediocre at everything at best. (I’m not alone – the New York Times reports findings from a Pew study that many families feel like this.)

This post isn’t about my obligations, which are more than some but much, much less than many. It’s about whether or not I still have time time and space to create and discern dreams. Writing is my dream – so in so many ways, I’m pursuing that dream. But it doesn’t have the lightness or joy that I expected. And I’m not sure I have other dreams on the horizon, but that’s mainly because I never feel like I have the time to ponder those dreams.

Which leads me back to the to do list. I certainly don’t make that time for myself. I have a to do list at work and at home. It’s supposed to go like this: Once I finish the to do list, I will have time to write. (Can you see where this is going?) Yep, since the to do list is never done, this means I never have time to write. Because I never make the time. I prioritize everything else over writing time.

It’s funny to write that now, since I’m still at the writing conference. I’m not at work. I’m not bathing the kids and putting them to bed. But it was also because I prioritized going on this trip that I came to realizations that had eluded me for months.

For the past few months I thought I’d lost my creativity. The answer is much more banal and (fortunately) easy to fix. I have dreams but I never prioritized them. Time for a new to do list, perhaps, one that actually reflects my priorities.

Rejecting Compulsion

Perhaps it is a function of age, but I’ve been slowing down and living with more simplicity over the past few months. It’s surprisingly countercultural, especially when we’ve agreed that being busy = being important, thus slowing down = risking being irrelevant. I’ve written before about simplicity being a guiding value, and this summer I began to explore what that looks like in my life.

I started the summer with a great deal of anger, mainly caused by challenges at work. (The usual challenges libraries face: “But why do we even need a library if everything’s online anyway? We’ll just go ahead and cut more staff & budget.”) In response, I imposed a crazy mandate on myself: write every single day for hours NO MATTER WHAT in order to write AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE before returning to work at the end of the summer.

Not a good formula for quality writing – or for enjoying writing, for that matter. Or life. Following this compulsion only made me angrier.

So I slowed down. I reminded myself that writing is more than just accumulating (and bragging about) word count. I reflected more on the shape of the story. I bought a notebook where I sketched out scenes & chapters & made helpful notes to myself like, “don’t forget about the [illegible script].” I woke up in the morning & asked myself what I wanted to do today.

The great thing was, more often than not, what I wanted to do was write. My anger dissipated and I found joy on the page.

In the end, I didn’t blast through an entire novel rewrite in 10 weeks, as I had foolishly planned, but I somehow produced wrote 8 (really good) chapters. And I enjoyed my summer a heck of a lot more than if I’d forced myself to write.

Writing isn’t as easy now that the semester has begun. There is less time to think, less time to reflect, less time to be still. This hurts my library work, too, as I’d do a better job with more time to think and plan. Slowing down isn’t particularly easy with small children, either, but even on the crazy days I am able to remind myself that stillness & simplicity are indeed virtues – no matter how countercultural.