A few weeks ago, I got the news that a friend died in a bike accident. I was just coming off a meeting that had run over, had opened up my emails, and was checking them and my voicemails at the same time, and then my husband walked into my office and said, “S couldn’t find you, so she called the house line. B.W. died.”
I don’t know how to explain what happened next. I had just opened an email from an editor asking for some edits, and I chose to answer it. Friends, I do not have to tell you that this was probably the worst thing I could do. I think I was, as I told the editor later in a phone call, “trying to multi-task my way out of bad situation.”
I tell you this story because it also brings to mind something I always tell writers who ask me what I do when I get writer’s block. “I don’t get it,” I say, and then I follow up quickly, before they can throw tomatoes at me, “I get busy.” They almost always stop and gawk for a split second, and then they go, “Ohhhhhhh,” with some dawning recognition, because they recognize this behavior.
What I’m talking about is when you have too much on your plate, and instead of tackling the stuff that actually means something to you, the stuff that will make you feel fulfilled and whole and satisfied with your creative self (that essay that’s been burning a hole in your dreams; the next scene in your novel), you choose to seek out and do the “easy stuff” instead – doubling down on your work hours, say. Booking social events, for another.
If you’re me, you pitch new projects. You flail around in volunteer work. You sign up for certificate courses. And, of course, you fire off a note to the editor who clearly wants to work with you on an essay that’s been important to you, saying that you think the two of you want different things for the essay. (Spoiler alert: I’m still working on this essay with this particular editor. I did need to speak with her, but I think we can all agree that answering her email the same split second I’d heard of a friend’s untimely death was stupid.)
Over the past few days, I’ve begun to realize that what was happening was a kind of overload. And that getting the call about my friend was maybe the straw that broke the camel’s back. And if I track some of the other things I’ve been saying to my friends, like “All I want to do is make macaroni-and-glitter portraits,” maybe what I’m really talking about is trying to find a way out of the busywork I’ve built for myself.
So this month, we’re getting back to basics. That is, we’re answering the basic question about writer’s block – excuse me, busywork – and we’re doing it by retreating to some things that we know will inspire us; some things that we’ve tried time and again.
Well. These are things that work for me, anyway. Maybe you will find some things here that will work for you, too.
1. Macaroni and glitter portraits.
You thought I was kidding, didn’t you? What I mean is this: Make a mess. Do it with the instruments of your childhood. Cut things out of construction paper; glue them down in random order; do not worry about how they look. Use the Elmer’s glue to drizzle random designs over a piece of paper and then sprinkle dry noodles over it. Let dry; tap off the excess noodles; get out big markers and trace random designs around the noodles.
Here’s what it will do for you: It will get you back in touch with making things with your hands. It will be something other than writing. It is not earnest, and it does not have to be good. And maybe at the end, you will want to hang it on your fridge. That’s OK, too.
2. Do something repetitive.
The mister and I bought a pickleball set recently. We set up a plywood board against our garage door, and each afternoon lately, I have been taking some time to bat the pickleball around with myself. (My work schedule allows for this randomness; the mister’s does not.)
What will it do for you? This is not the hackneyed thing about getting your blood flowing or getting some different scenery or whatever. This is just so you can feel competent again. Some say that doing the same thing over and over again is the very definition of insanity; I say that if you know you can succeed at a thing, why not do it for a couple of minutes each day, just to make you feel good?
3. Book time off – and mean it.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve taken Mondays off of answering email. I answer those on Tuesdays. I chose Mondays because I was answering emails for my students through the weekend, and I chose to work through the weekends because people are less likely to email you on the weekends, anyway. I got more work done, more efficiently.
What it will do for you: The benefits of this are multiple. First, it shows you that the world will not end if you don’t answer that email now. Second, it gives you some scheduled breathing time. Third, no email means no new things to do. It means no new things to distract you. And finally (this is terrifically pathetic, but I’m going to tell you anyway), it will make you feel really, really good to see a ton of emails in your inbox on Tuesday morning. You know how they say that every time you get a notification that someone has liked one of your social media posts or every time you get an email, your brain processes a rush of dopamine? It’s the little hit that says, “Someone likes me! Someone likes what I have put out there! Someone has felt the need to write to me!” Opening your inbox to 75 new emails, excluding the promotional messages from the things you forgot you signed up for, is like drinking a gallon of dopamine.
Well, OK. I don’t actually know if that’s true. But you get my drift.
I think we all fall prey to believing that busywork is actually forward progress. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I am one of those who sometimes puts things on a to-do list just because I know I’ll get to cross it off: “Call Mom.” “Feed dog.” Reaching big goals does, after all, mean achieving many, many small goals.
But the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed and stuck, ask yourself if you’ve just made yourself too busy.
And then, send me your macaroni portraits. I want to see them.
Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.