Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Significance of Other Voices

As we move through the processes of creativity one of the things we will sometimes encounter is unintentional plagiarism. As I wandered through the day yesterday I had a phrase stuck in my head.  I wrote the phrase down in my notebook and then, in quiet moments through the day, I played with it – tried in direction formats, tried building around it, tried using it as the kernel of a greater writing.  Slowly, it seemed to take form as a lyric.  That form is what must have tickled my brain, because I dropped the phrase into Google and there it was.  It was a song lyric from a Van Morrison song.  As soon as I identified it the rest the song came flowing out.

Inspiration, transformation, and imitation are all kissing cousins.  They all move about closely together.  One of the risks when you read powerful writers (or listen to them, as in the above case) is that their voice can begin to overwhelm your voice.  I had a rather radical thought this morning that I am rolling around in my head.  I thought about using my October writing exercise (which starts tomorrow) and combining it with a “seeking my own voice” exercise.

I thought about spending the month of October and not reading anything containing the significance of other voices. No external poetry.  No external fiction.  No external literary non-fiction.  I considered, very briefly, the extreme of trying to not read anything, of excluding the daily paper and the news on the web, but I quickly realized that level of reading abstinence certainly wouldn’t work for me. 

I have to read things for work and my profession requires that I maintain an awareness of the developments in my industry and my field.  I could conceivably go to that level of isolation from external written influences, but I think that would be too far and I doubt I could sustain it.  I am not even sure I can sustain not reading anything of any literary value – but I can make a run at that.

Maybe.  I say maybe because even as I contemplate the idea, I can myself entering withdrawal!  It may very well be one of those interesting ideas that doesn’t manifest itself.  But, it is something I am contemplating if only for the joy of contemplation and a simple fact of math.  If I removed from my daily schedule the time I spent in leisure reading, I would generally free up at least an hour, perhaps more, per day for writing.  I would briefly still the other voices in my head to allow my own voice to come through.  I like that idea. I surely do.


Paused to Admire while Walking

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Thirty One Days of October

We’ve slipped into the last three days of September.  The month flew by, but I feel as if I am in a good position to slide into October.  I’ve writing about struggling with writers block and I thought that I would make a concerted effort to “write my way into a creative spot” during the month of October.  I was discussing it with T.R. the other day and she suggested that I take a deliberate time each day, as small as fifteen minutes, and simply write. I think that is a good idea and so that is my plan.

For the thirty-one days of October I am going to set aside a deliberate amount of time each day to write for a minimum amount of time – perhaps only free writing, but with the intention of taking the space in time and then filling that time with writing.  I am going to try to find a way to do it at the same date and time each day.  I think I will delineate what is written “in the window” and what is written “out of the window”. 

I’m going to call this little exercise “The Songs of October” – I thought it might inspire me if I had a cool title.  I attempted a similar thing back during Lent, but only made it about a third of the way into the Lenten season before I lost the momentum.  At the time, I had restricted myself to flash fiction and poetry, but this time through I am not going to put any artificial restrictions on it, in order to, hopefully, prime the creative pump.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Thoughts on the Power of What We Think

I went to the podiatrist today on a follow up visit after the hammer toe surgery of early August. It has been seven weeks since the original surgery. I had a pin through the toe for four weeks and I’ve been wearing what I refer to as my “toe bondage device” – basically a sort of sling-for-toes that held the toe in place – for the last three weeks. The toe bondage device was inconvenient but not uncomfortable, with the exception of one day when I managed to get it twisted around and strangled my toe.

Today, I got a clean bill of health. The toe looks good, it is laying back down flat, alongside the other toes. It isn’t perfect and the podiatrist stated that if it is not flat enough, we can have a second, follow on, minor surgery to lay it down flatter. It may not be perfect but it is probably 95% better than it was before, when it was scrunched up and hammered. When I stand flat footed it is slightly higher then the other toes on that foot. Inside a shoe I don’t even notice it. I have one more follow up in about a month, but essentially this excursion into the world of corrective surgery is complete.

Though the elapsed time between me walking into the office, the doctor examining the toe, and me walking out of the office was about thirty minutes. Yet, walking out, I felt significantly better. Sitting here at home the toe feels significantly better. There is probably no real change, physically, between yesterday and tonight – but, in my mind, in that wonderful realm of psychology, I am suddenly no longer carrying the weight of the toe. Now, it is just a toe. A toe with a clean bill of health.

Words are incredibly powerful things. Today, T.R. got a bit of good news of her own, one card that, when turned, fell one way and not the other, in this vast game that is life. When she relayed it to me mid-morning I felt the weight of that lift as well, though I am sure what I carried was a fraction of the weight she was carrying. Words are astounding things. The weight they carry. The weight they can release.

It leads us, I think, to consider carefully the words we utter – good, bad, and indifferent. Whether it is the weight of a life or the weight of a toe, all wrapped up in words. What we think is a powerful thing and the role the words we think and hear and say play in that powerful thing is pretty amazing. I guess today I am moving through life pretty amazed, with a lighter heart and a lighter toe and perhaps a lighter soul. All due to the power of words.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Things My Counselor Reminded Me Of

One of the advantages of seeing a counselor, as opposed to confiding in your friends or relying entirely on your support network, is that a counselor sees everything with a fresh set of eyes, hears everything with a fresh set of ears, and doesn’t assume you’ve covered the basics.  On Wednesday I made my first visit to the counselor I was referred to by the company’s employee assistance program.  It was a typical first visit to a counselor – we did paperwork and then she did the intake screening, where she worked through a series of standard questions and then we talked.

The principle challenge area for me is work stress. To paraphrase an observation from the counselor “my resilience is worn down”.  Think of your resilience as a cushion between you and the bumps in the road.  The thicker and stronger your resilience cushion the better able you are to ride out the bumps on that road. Over time and under high stress that cushion starts to wear thin.  As it wears thin you start to feel the bumps more and more.  They types of things that you previously just ridden over start to jolt and jar you. They can become painful.  For me, my frustration threshold is reset very low.  When I bang into the normal bumps and jolts of the working world I don’t bounce like I did three years ago. I personally found it a very workable analogy.

One of the things a counselor can do is focus you back on the basics.  I am no stranger to stress.  I’ve worked in a high stress field for years. Perhaps all of my working life has been in a variety of high stress fields. I’ve been through a wide variety of stress management classes and training seminars over the years.  A lot of those techniques and tips helped through the stress of the last couple of years. But, in conversation with the counselor I realized there were two very simple techniques that, in my tunnel vision, I had forgotten to use.

The first was so obvious that, when she asked about it, I figuratively kicked myself in the rear end because I had forgotten it. It is the most simple and basic stress reduction technique in the book.  Breathe.  Simply breathe.  When you encounter a stressful event, simply take a moment and breathe.  Take three minutes and breathe.  Use your stress management, or yoga, or meditation breathing. Just remember to do it.  It was quite a realization to me that I wasn’t breathing like I should be and specifically that I wasn’t using the meditative breathing techniques that I know very well in direct and immediate response to stress inducing events. I simply forgot.  Stress induces tunnel vision and I think I was deeply in the midst of it.

The second was almost as equally obvious and that is use guided visualization techniques to protect yourself in the midst of stress.  Visualize yourself surrounded by a protective field.  Visualize yourself as waterproof and the stress as rain drops.  Visualize yourself in armor.  There are a wide variety of visualizations that you can use, whichever strike your personal fancy or appeal to you.  Use whatever works as you try and manage the stressful events.  It is another very basic thing that, in my tunnel vision, I was forgetting.

I think one of the main differences between your personal support network and a professional counselor is the absence of basic assumptions.  When I’ve talked with those people in my personal support group we’ve never talked about the very basics. Perhaps I would have had the moment of realization if I had. But, most likely, I assumed I was doing the basics and they assumed I was doing the basics. 

Additionally, since my stress is primarily focused around work, it is not as prominent or pervasive while I am off work.  I very rarely have stressful incidents outside of the work environment.  I usually wake up in the morning, run through my morning routines, and enjoy that time.  When I finish the working day I am generally very good at leaving that stress behind me, since I know it is going to be there on the next day for me to pick up.  Consequently, in conversations outside of work – I often simply don’t bring work up, except for the occasional commentary.  For the folks in my support network I sincerely enjoy their company, so work stress tends to be farthest from my mind and I find myself focusing on the good things in life, the things I love, the things I enjoy, the constant state of amusement and amazement that is the very fabric of life.

The introduction of a professional counselor into the mix allows that fresh set of eyes, both as they look in, and as you look at yourself in an attempt to share as much of yourself as you will or can with the counselor. That vision from two different perspectives is a valuable thing.  Perhaps it is simple the value of vision from a different perspective. Perhaps it is simply telling our story anew that empowers the insights.  Whatever may underlie it, I think that if you are contemplating whether or not you need to see a counselor, give it a try.  Worst case scenario you waste a little time and money.  Best case scenario you gain a little insight.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Two Anxiety Dreams

Dream One:  I dreamt that I was riding in a car that was going down a freeway.  Ahead was a complex intersection where we were going to turn around and go back the direction we had come from. In order to make this turn, it was a case of getting into the right lane and than making a pair of left turns – right to get off the freeway, then left and left again to get back on the freeway going in the opposite direction.  The driver of the car, whom I never actually saw in the dream, reversed the directions, attempting to go left and then right-right. This made the already complex turn even more complex.  Eventually we made it through the intersection, but it was time consuming and frustrating.  The dream ends once we are safely turned around and heading back in the direction we came from.

Dream Two:  I am in the parking garage on 3rd street in downtown San Jose, near the Camera 3 theatre. I am coming down one of the stairwells on my way to my car.  I am apprehensive because, in the dream, there have been a series of robberies at knife-point in the stairwells of the parking garage. I am not so much afraid as I am apprehensive.  As I go from each floor to each floor I am mentally playing out response scenarios if I encounter a robber.  “If they are here, then I am going to do this and go here…”.  I play out each scenario in my mind as I go down each floor.  Eventually, I reach the floor where my car is parked.  I walk to my car without incident and the dream ends just as I arrive at my car.

Following this pair of dreams I awake at about 3:30 AM.  It feels like it is later in the morning, so I actually check the clock to see if it is time to get up.  I briefly consider getting up, but decide it is way too early, so I lay there in bed, trying to go back to sleep, thinking about the pair of dreams.  They were both classic anxiety dreams and they ramped up my anxiety a little bit, but not significantly.  They were not high anxiety dreams or nightmares.  Both dreams had a successful resolution after a period of apprehension.  In the first dream, we were able to successfully and safely turn around following the wrong turn.  In the second dream no robber appeared and I was able to make it safely to my car.  In neither dream was I denied the opportunity to reach the goal, in fact I passed through both dreams and arrived at my destination safely after the period of stress and anxiety.  After a while I was able to fall back asleep.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Working through The Wall

In two separate incidents in the last couple of weeks I’ve hit what I have started to call “The Wall”. I’ve been through a lot of stress in the last couple of years, from “The Project That Almost Broke Me” to the health issues that led to the amputation of my toe. Anyway you cut it, that is a lot of stress, layered on top of all the other incidental stressors of life in the modern age.  Now that I am through the worst of both of the above the stress that I had so tightly clamped down is starting to find its way out.

I never totally repress my stress.  That is very counterproductive.  But, sometimes I simply set it aside, focus on the things at hand, and then deal with the stress at a later point.  Well, I’ve reached that later point.  Last week I called my companies EAP (employee assistance program) and spent some time on  the phone with one of their phone screeners and then subsequently set up a follow up session(s) with a therapist, starting this Thursday.

The two pronged trigger event was what I’ve taken to calling “the wall”, since the experience of it is very similar to hitting a wall.  Other similar events have occurred since I’ve been under such stress levels, but these two occurred in rather close proximity, and all things considered, I figured this was a good time to visit a counselor.  Basically, what happens is this.

A couple of weeks ago I was socializing with some friends and as the conversation turned passionate I suddenly realized – I simply didn’t care. At a deeply profound level I simply didn’t care. I wasn’t interested.  I wasn’t engaged.  I was simply done. I excused myself, got up, and went home.  It was a rather abrupt departure. 

Then, about a week ago I was at work and I got a call from the company health plan, which has a “condition care” program for people with long term medical conditions, to help you manage them. I’d consented to participate in the program, which basically comprises of a nurse calling you every six or seven weeks and checking on how things are going.  It’s fairly unobtrusive and helps keep you focused on managing your long term health condition.

Well, we played a bit of phone tag last week and then I finally managed to get through.  I spoke to a person on the help desk, we routed my call to a care nurse (or so I expected).  Instead, the call was routed to someone who tried to get me to participate in some other program provided by the health insurance that was a little more comprehensive.  And suddenly…I didn’t care. I told them to take my name off any list because I was done.  I thought the call was deceptive marketing and I was no longer interested in participating.

Inside of me though, I had slammed right into “The Wall”.  When I hit the wall I am incapable of rationally moving forward. I am just finished.  I am through.  I am no longer interested. I profoundly don’t care. I am not mad.  I am not losing my temper. I just…don’t…care.  Once I hit the wall – I don’t care about anything. I am just done. It usually fades after a couple of hours and I can resume my normal activities.

Though it is a “larger than work” challenge, it primarily manifests itself at work. During those times when I am up against the wall, at work, I am simply and completely disengaged.  When I hit the wall at work I basically stop doing anything productive and simply – get through the day so I can go home.  I literally have to struggle to answer work related email.  I will literally sit there and stare at the phone while it rings and have an internal debate on whether or not I should answer the phone.  I’ll sit at my desk and look at some project and just…stare at it.

I can do other things.  I can do other non-work related things.  I can even do a few peripherally work related things, like read material, or attend a meeting, that sort of thing.  But if it requires any significant level of engagement, I just can’t do it.   The feeling (or more accurately the lack of feeling) always eventually fades, but while in the grips of it I am essentially paralyzed and completely disengaged. I am going through the motions of work, not actually working.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Thoughts on Writers Block

I thought I would take a couple of minutes this afternoon and write about writers block. I don’t have a total case of it.  I can and do write.  But, when I write I have the sense that I am writing around things, not about things. Like I have a subject, I have content, and instead of addressing it directly, I just kind of skirt the edges.  It is not a very satisfying experience and I am not really sure why I am doing it.

Every now and then a bit of inspiration manages to make it all the way through and become a finished piece of work. Every now and then something that is inside, waiting to get out, slips out and makes its way to the page as a finished piece.  It seems kind of rare to me.

I find myself self-censoring because I just don’t quite like what I am writing. It is not related to the subject or the content of what I’m writing but rather the form and structure o fit. Almost everything seems to be a near miss.  It feels like I am just slightly off center, just slightly off kilter.

I can’t seem to get back to the center though.  I wonder sometimes if it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I don’t write and because I don’t write I don’t like the quality of what I write. In order to move my way through the writers block, I need to simply write more, but I can’t write more because I have writers block.  It is the experience of being slightly off center and hesitant to move back to the center.

All in all it is unlike any prior experience of writers block. Previously when I’ve been blocked there has been a reason why I was blocked, usually some subject or content that had worked its way to the head of the writing queue and was stuck there, backing everything else up until it resolved itself.  I really don’t feel like that this time. I think what I might need to do is simply practice writing – practice, practice and then practice some more until it starts to flow again.

I am not sure that is the solution. But, I did write about it, so that was a step in the right direction.


Thoughts on Frustration

Frustration arises when two conditions are met.  First, we have the expectation of a different outcome and second, we perceive that we have done everything necessary to realize that expectation.  Frustration arises at either the known or unknown quantity that we perceive as preventing our expectation from being realized. I am sure there are many individual manifestations that fall under the umbrella of frustration. Though they may vary in details at the specific levels they all result from that generic sense that our expectation was not met.

My frustration bubbled up over the last weekend. I was socializing with my friends and I was expecting a certain level of courtesy during a rather heated conversation. I perceived that I was being treated without that level of courtesy, despite the fact that I felt I was clearly extending the same or greater courtesy. I  started to develop the feeling that I was being manipulated into a position where my only recourse was to be even more discourteous then the other people were being and I didn’t like it.

There were a variety of ways to deal with it. I could have waded into the conflict.  I could have simply ignored it. I could have taken any one of the many options that lay between those two ends of the spectrum. But I could feel my temper starting to boil and I decided, rather suddenly, that the best thing for me to do was express my frustration and excuse myself before I lost my temper and said things that I might later regret.  How many times have you seen in life where an argument breaks out and the original point of the argument is lost in the harsh words tossed about?  Where the prick of a thorn becomes a wound? I wanted to avoid all of that, so I excused myself, expressed my frustration and headed out the door.  It was the wise choice.