December in January: Using constraints to free yourself

houdini graphic stenciled on public structure Just before the end of the past year, I decided to forgo my usual habit of cramming my annual planning into the most riotously busy time of the year. Hence, "December in January," where I spend the first month of the chronological new year planning my own, to begin in February.

I realize that logically, there must be as many people who excel at true blue-sky thinking as there are people who can only function within very narrow constraints, although I imagine it's terrifying to run across either.*

Like most people who enjoy thinking of themselves as Very Special Snowflakes, I really fall in the vast, lumpen middle: yes, I'm creative (so are you, whether you like it or not) and no, I don't do too well when that creativity is not applied to certain tasks.

On the other hand, I flourish within constraints! There are few things I enjoy more than figuring out how to maximize in a box**, whether it's moving furniture and doodads around a living space to get my feng shui'd (thank you, Karen Rauch Carter) or bending Robert's Rules of Order right up to the breaking point (a.k.a., how a nutjob-wacko-freak learned to love Toastmasters.) Rules and processes can be very soothing to the scrambled, easily stimulated brain; for the afflicted, the quickest route to making one's world a little bigger is often to make it a little smaller.

The catch, of course, is getting the mix of free-swim to drills just right, or in the ballpark. I tend towards all or nothing thinking, which is most likely rooted in some early training (and which doubtless saved my ass on more than one occasion), but which, as an adult with true autonomy, is now more of an artifact than a useful modus operandi. To paraphrase a former acting teacher , if the choices are "all" and "nothing," the answer will most often be "nothing."***

I've written a lot about the structures I've adopted to wrangle my chaos into some kind of order so I won't go over them again here, other than to say they range from simple things like calendaring writing time to multiple sources of accountability (because I yam a slippery devil!) to simply throwing out tons of crap. As I move forward, I'm looking to employ more strategies like these to free up mental and physical energy for what's feeling more and more like an intense period of creative work around the corner. Here's what I'm looking at doing:

1. Creating more structure for the blog.

When I first started blogging, I wrote about whatever struck my fancy, and mimicked whomever I was enamored of. Go back and enjoy the schizo qualities of communicatrix, circa late 2004: it will make you feel oh-so-much better about your own chances for success! I can't tell you the relief I feel these days knowing that Poetry Thursday is right around the corner, or that I have a Referral Friday feature to fall back on. I may never lock myself into a rigid floorplan, but like Gretchen, Havi, Chris and any number of friends who do this regularly, I finally see the value in some kind of publishing "schedule." They're just smarter, since they saw it way before I did (even though they all started blogging after I did, which doesn't make me feel any better about my stubborn face, but there it is.)

2. Pirahnimals.

This is the term Dave Seah, my partner in the Google Wave with Dave™ project, came up with when I said I was considering an adult version of Garanimals to help streamline my wardrobe. For years, I've resisted uniforms of any kind, probably because of the eight years (1967 - 1975!) that I chafed in one. My favorite dressing style has been "costumes," by which I mean dressing for the day's physical and/or emotional needs, not "gardener" or "slutty nurse." It was fun for a long, long time because it fed my needs for change and expression, and also my love of rag-picking (i.e., thrift/sale shopping). These days I have plenty of room to express myself via writing and speaking and performing and no end of material, I want to allocate more resources toward the creation of art than the fabrication of frame. Frames are important, L.A. Eyeworks built an iconic ad campaign around this simple, brilliant idea a couple of decades ago, and I'm expending a goodly portion of thought about suitable ones for my needs. More on that as I have it.

3. Streamlining "external" communication.

There are only so many hours in a day, and I'm finally accepting that I need to spend a certain number of them on stuff like eating, sleeping and relaxing if I want to have the life I say I want to have. I've already dramatically pulled back on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, I rarely talk on the phone and I try to restrict commenting on other blogs to conversations where I can really add value or situations where it's appropriate to show appreciation. (There should always be time to be nice, but I'm going to have to learn to be pithier about it.) I'm hoping that creating some structure around the types of things I write about here on the blog will allow me to continue writing here as often as I do (and maintain the newsletter and actors' column), but I'm (reluctantly) open to the idea that I may need to cut back if I want to write books, too. And yes, I want to write books, and yes, one of them is a collection of poetry. God help us all.

Other things I'm thinking about are:

  • Creating a budget (something I've never done in my lifetime!). This is about dragging monsters into the light, to get a good look at them. Hard to start, usually not as awful as I think it's going to be once I see it.
  • Moving to an even smaller/cheaper place to conserve money (and energy, it takes a long time to clean a 1BR apartment in a filthy town like L.A.).
  • Taking a "real" job. This is the weirdest of all: I haven't had a job-job since I quit my Stupid Day Job (which was really a great job, and thank you, Uncle Dennis!) back in 1999. I have a lot of pride mixed up in this decision, so it's hard to see it clearly right now. The more time I spend away from consulting, the happier I am: it's exhausting work, as I performed it, and not sustainable, and definitely not compatible with my desire to write even more (writing is exhausting, too, but in a very different way). I have no idea if I'm even employable any more, or what for; I'm in the musing stages about this right now.

I'm still in a very open place about all of these things right now, weighing ideas, possibilities and (nice, informed, positively-phrased) suggestions. My multiple nodes of collaboration have also shown me how much stuff there is to me that I can't see: you are in a position to hold a (kind, helpful, positively-angled) mirror up to me, or pluck a stray hair from my jacket, that I cannot.

I'm specifically curious (yes, again) as to why you read the blog, assuming you read it with any regularity. I threw this question out a couple of years ago and received so many generous, helpful answers it was deeply moving. In the interest of giving something back as I did then, I'll donate a dollar to the relief efforts going on in Haiti for each reply (up to $500.), via comments or email, that offers some thought, feedback, illumination or idea to move me forward on any of the six areas above.

These could be anything from exercises for "writing shorter" (without adding more work) to great hacks for streamlining process to the best post you read in 2009 about x. It might be better if you shared stuff that's really helped you rather than guessing at what might help me; experiences related honestly and kindly (and with humor, if one can muster it) are my preferred method of learning. I love biography; I consider "self-help" a necessary evil when there's not a readily available biography illuminating the topic. But hey, as long as you comment with good intentions, I say "yay!" and Haiti gets another of my rapidly dwindling pool of dollars.

Thank you for providing this tremendous outlet for growth and change, for helping me feel less greedy about it by allowing me to kick in some (more) dough for a worthy cause, and for helping me take it to the next level.

Whatever the hell that is...

xxx c

*For me, spending time with fully unbridled creative thinkers is exhilarating and exhausting; doing the same with people who have nothing but rules is, well, okay, usually just exhausting, but kind of fascinating, too, like observing an alien species.

**The Chief Atheist has a great phrase for this exercise as applied to excursions which he calls "going to the Museum": anytime you have to go somewhere you might otherwise find tedious, off-putting or overwhelming, go as an anthropologist collecting data. Guaranteed to turn even the most moribund gathering into a series of excellent adventures, and helps keep you from jumping out of your skin during the occasional stumble down rabbit holes into alien worlds.

***Eight years later, I note there's no small irony in my having left his tutelage after being presented with exactly those two choices.

Image by Daquella manera via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.