Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lessons Learned after Procrastination

I am working my way through the interview I did about a month ago now with Mario about his creative process (yes, it’s actually been that long - how I dislike summer because it is so difficult to get anything done during these months) and noticing some interesting things.

1) it’s not as painful as I thought it would be to listen to the interview. Part of me has been cringing, both because of hearing my voice on the recording and also because, in my memory, I talked way too much. Usually, I hate listening to my voice. When I was freelancing, I tried not to listen to my questions too much. I took copious notes as well as writing down the time when certain comments occurred that I knew I would want to use as quotes, so I didn’t have to listen to myself too often. The interview with Mario evolved as more of a conversation and limited my ability to take notes. So I knew I’d have to suffer through hearing my own voice. But it’s not awful. Maybe it’s the quality of the recording. A couple of years ago, I invested in a high quality audio recorder that allows me to encode the data files as MP3 files (it was for a reading series I was curating, so the readings could be recorded and put up on the series’ web site - because of recording glitches, it never worked out, but I now have a great audio recorder).

Which leads me to the second thing I’m noticing.

2) Transcribing the interview like this is forcing me to pay more attention to the actual language being used. I’ve never done transcriptions of my interviews before, but I’m noticing that often, I think I’ve got the phrasing right, but when I listen to it again, I’ve substituted my own diction for that of my subject’s. It’s an interesting exercise in noticing how individual dialogue can be. The placement of words in a sentence is very specific to the speaker.

I know that’s probably fundamentally obvious - every writer knows this. Every writer has been drilled in the idea that dialogue has to reveal character. But it’s one thing to know it, it’s quite another to see it in practice and to recognize how my listening is dictated by the rhythms of my own speech, how I will subtly mold Mario’s speech into my own patterns and think I’ve recorded it accurately, but, when I go back over that sound segment to check my accuracy, I find I haven’t gotten it quite right.

This intense scrutiny has me eager to do more of these interviews just so I can listen to the way more people speak. It also has me thinking about the dialogue in my novel and the ways in which I can tweek it so that it is more representative of the speakers.

And just a note about the interview itself. Mario Mendoza is an MFA playwriting student at San Francisco State and one of the most extraordinarily gifted writers I’ve ever met. It often left those of us in class with him speechless. I told him, when I asked him to do this interview, that I often watch his work and think, “I have no idea what it’s about, but I like it.” Mario’s pieces are often as full of silence as they are of sound, part performance art, part stage play. I have seen other pieces like his, but they often leave me cold with a sense of “WTF?” Mario’s pieces never have. We talked about why that is, and what he’s trying to achieve with is work, as well as how those pieces come about. He’s got amazing insight into his work, which is even more astounding when you understand that he’s only 25 years old. I’ll have the interview up in another week or so. I promise.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Everything Sucks for the First 30 Minutes

This is my new mantra. I’ve found it quite useful this past month as a way of getting over that awful, deadening “I don’t wanna” feeling that often interferes with me actually doing things I really want to do. I discovered this new philosophy while on the treadmill. Walking on a treadmill is not often something that makes my top ten list of enjoyable activities, but it had become a necessity in the past month after I had one of those doctor’s visits that included the words, “if your blood pressure were any higher, I’d be sending you to the emergency room right now.”


That got my attention really quick and definitely provided the motivation I’d been lacking to get back into workout mode and start dealing with the results of the last three years. Between grad classes, writing, teaching and taking care of kids, exercise usually remained unchecked on my to do list. I literally went from the doctor’s office to the gym and hopped back on a treadmill. I also reupped my subscription to Weight Watchers online later that day and went back to counting points and measuring serving sizes. Both are things I’d been trying to get myself to do for months, but, somehow, it wasn’t happening.

Since that fateful day, I’ve lost 7 pounds and have walked more than 25 miles, most of them alongside the San Francisco Bay while Kid 2 has been at chess camp. Let me pause for a moment and say that, if you are looking to lose weight, WW online is an AMAZING tool. I lost a significant amount of weight using it about five years ago, but trying to track everything while on the go proved to be really tough. I now have WW mobile for my phone (it works for Droids, Blackberries, and iPhones), which makes it sooooo easy to keep track of what I’m eating. What I love about WW online is that you get to eat what you want. I mean, I love good food. Emphasis on food. I attended a few WW meetings a couple of years ago, but, when the leader told us that if we wanted apple pie, we could slice up an apple, shake it up in a baggie with cinnamon and Splenda and microwave it for 15 seconds, I quit. I’ll just have the smaller slice of REAL apple pie, thank you, very much. Which is what WW lets you do. It also is a nifty way for keeping myself in check at restaurants - that entrĂ©e is probably worth about 15 points, which is all the points you’ve gotten for all the walking you’ve done in the past 2 weeks, is it really worth it? Really? Okay, end of commercial.

Anyway, the revelation came to me while I was on the treadmill. Earlier in the week, I’d done two walks of 4 and 5 miles each. I was TIRED. I set my workout for 45 minutes, but 10 minutes in, my legs were complaining, and then my feet, and then my brain was suggesting I cut the time down to 30 minutes because, really, I’d done enough that week, I didn’t have to kill myself. I had recently finished the book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by the novelist Haruki Murakami. In one of his chapters, he talks about running a double marathon, more than he’d ever run before. At one point, pretty far into the race, his various body parts started complaining, one by one, of all their aches and pains, but, while acknowledging the pain, he never gave into it or allowed it to distract him from his focus on the race. So I tried that, telling my body that I was going to do the 45 minutes no matter what, suck it up. No good. I was still hearing that “do I have to?” whine in the back of my head. So I gave in, 30 minutes, that would be it. I’d do the 5 minute pre-programmed cool down and head for home.

But just before the 30 minute mark something amazing happened. I felt great. My body stopped complaining, my energy level shot up, and I was suddenly and enthusiastically changing my time back to 45 minutes, and even upped it a second time to make it a full hour. I got off the treadmill with another 3 miles under my belt and felt, not only the endorphin rush from the exercise, but the satisfaction of having accomplished it.

I also realized how much like writing my day on the treadmill had been. Those first 30 minutes are sheer torture with my brain telling me how awful everything I’m writing is and wouldn’t my time be better spent doing something like, oh, I don’t know, making bread? It’s also why I think it’s so difficult for me to write during the summer. I often have only half an hour to an hour of time to write, if half of that time is spent with my brain complaining how much it hates the activity at hand, why should I bother? I’m going to spend all of my writing time wrestling with my brain the way I’d been wrestling with my body, trying to cajole it into leaving me alone long enough to actually get some decent words down on paper.

More than likely, I’m probably going to choose not to even start rather than put up with the chatter inside my own head and the awful, nagging sense of dragging myself through molasses.

Which is where my new mantra came in.

I realized that the first 30 minutes of just about everything suck. It’s not just the writing. Everything. It’s probably a variation of Newton’s law. Objects at rest stay at rest until acted upon. Something I prove to myself over and over again every time I put on my walking shoes or pick up my pen.

Knowing this has made a difference over the past couple of weeks in both walking and writing. It’s a lot easier to get myself to do something knowing that it’s going to suck for 30 minutes, but after that, it’s going to feel great.