the allure of the vending machines

Last week, I taught an all-day camp in writing and public speaking for fifth graders. The camp was held at a community center and there were a variety of summer camps going on at the same time—down the hall was Crafts, outside was Nature Explorers, and the next room over was a Dance Camp for adorable five-year-olds in pouffy dresses. {They danced to the theme song from Moana over and over and it became the soundtrack of my week, looping through my mind on repeat.} One thing that all the camps had in common was that the kids were obsessed—I mean, seriously obsessed—with the vending machines.

There were two vending machines in the narrow hallway next to the public bathrooms. One was filled with drinks and the other with snacks, but they might as well have been filled with gold for how they mesmerized all the kiddos who wandered past them en route to the restroom. The other teachers and I would share sympathetic smiles as we coaxed and herded our respective students away from the vending machines and back to class. Often this required physically positioning our bodies between the kids and the machines, blocking the view through the glass.

Sometimes, after camp ended for the day, I would leave the restroom and see a small child proudly showing off the vending machines to her mom or dad, pride in her voice as she named the various options. “But what did you do at camp today?” the parent would ask in confusion. I always sent home notes to the parents of my students, detailing what we did in class, urging them to look through the binder and see all the progress their child was making. I could envision, when asked what they did all day, a student answering, “We played on the playground and Steve got Hot Cheetos!” It was true: I always took them to the playground during our lunch break.

The same kids who announced, “I’m bored!” within seven minutes of a classroom writing activity could easily spend twenty minutes just staring up at the array of salty and sweet choices {perhaps, for some, forbidden choices}, their faces awash in the fluorescent glow, imagining ways to con the machine into giving them free food and chattering about what they would choose if their parents let them bring money the next day. I quickly learned not to let a student go alone to the restroom—that hallway would snag his attention and stop his legs like quicksand, and he would never return. Sending pairs of kids was not any more successful. Those vending machines were like the Vegas Strip to a gambler; they just could not help themselves. I pretty much always had to walk down the hall myself and drag them away from the colors and lights.

What is it about those vending machines? I wondered to myself, driving home midway through the week. Some of the kids bring Fritos in their lunch—why do the same Fritos have so much more appeal behind the glass?

I arrived home, exhausted, and sat down at my computer to answer a few emails before starting dinner. However, I soon found myself clicking over to Facebook. No news or notifications. Nothing to see here. Still, that didn’t stop me from checking again on my phone two or three times while making dinner. It was the allure of possibility—maybe the next time I checked, there would be a new notification and my brain would bask in that dopamine hit.

And, just like that, I realized—I was caught up in those same vending machine lights. So many of us are. We may not be standing in front of actual vending machines, giddily contemplating the choices, but metaphorically we are just like those kids staring up at the sodas and chips. We are sucked in by the possibility and the glamour of what we don’t have. Once we do get it, often the appeal melts away. The excitement of the Facebook notification disappears once we click on it. One of my students, who had been salivating all week over the beef jerky packages in the vending machine, was finally given money by his mother on Friday to buy something for a snack. I was shocked when he only ate a little bit of the beef jerky, then tossed the rest in the trash. “It tastes weird,” he said with a shrug when I asked him why he threw his prized snack away. All week long he’d been staring at the package through the glass. Then, when he got what he’d been dreaming about, it was no longer special but ordinary, and he was disappointed.

air hockey, guys, games, guys weekend

Teaching kids, I’m always struck by how much they remind me of adults. How much do we ever, truly, grow up beyond our child selves? Both kids and adults find creative ways to avoid discomfort as much as possible. And, guess what? Learning and growing and evolving are uncomfortable.

So many times, when teaching a new concept, I would watch a student make great progress: write an amazing hook for their essay; analyze the author’s purpose of an editorial; prepare a list of pro’s and con’s for a persuasive essay. But then, discomfort would hit. The student would feel tired. The student would want a distraction. The student would raise his or her hand. “Mrs. Woodburn, can I go to the bathroom?” Of course I would let them go—I never prevent students from going to the bathroom if needed—but, 9 times out of 10, what they would really be asking was: “Can I go look at the vending machines, and dream about the possibility of a snack I might get tomorrow, because that is so much easier than muscling through this sticky learning process right here, right now?” After a few minutes, I would walk down the hall to check on him. I would find him gazing up, awash in the fluorescent lights. I would gently prod him back to class, back to the discomfort, back to the growing.

That is what we need to do for ourselves, too. We need to be the teacher coming to check on ourselves. When you notice yourself craving a distraction—wanting to take a break from a project you’re working on and check your email, or browse Facebook, or scroll through Instagram, or even do something “productive” like wash those dirty dishes or organize your closet—ask yourself what the root of your desire truly is. Are you actually at a good stopping point, with that joyfully wrung-out feeling, when a break to recharge and rest your mind is needed? Or are you simply feeling uncomfortable or afraid, craving the “easy out” of a quick distraction, that will only leave you feeling restless or depleted when you eventually make your way back to your important work?

Of course, it is necessary and fun and important to daydream about the future. Sometimes we all need to take time to bask in the glow of the vending machines, and all the colorful options and choices that we might make tomorrow, or next month, or next year. Sometimes we need to celebrate the allure of possibility.

But we can’t spend all of our time there. We can’t live in our daydreams for the future. We need to do the tough, uncomfortable, sometimes boring, sometimes grinding, day-in and day-out work to get there. Only then will we turn our exciting dreams into reality.

And once we do reach those dreams? Once we do feed the quarters into the vending machine, make our selection, and watch the item fall from its perch and into our lives? We need to appreciate it. We need to look around at our lives and be grateful for what we do have—for all that we once coveted and now might take for granted. We need to savor every bite of that beef jerky. And then go run around on the playground with our friends. And then head back into the classroom to keep learning and growing, learning and growing, always.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • What are the “vending machines” in your life?
  • What is one daydream you have for the future?
  • What steps might you take—starting today, right now—to make that dream a reality?

the magic of finishing what you started

Hi everyone! It feels good to be back in this space. I did not intend to miss my post on Tuesday—I was so busy writing something else, that I did not have time to write a blog post here. But what happened on Tuesday spawned the idea for today’s post, so in a way everything is connected.

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you might remember that I’ve been working on a new novel. In fact, a key cornerstone of my word of the year—FOUNDATION—has been vowing to make time each day for writing projects that nourish me: this year, my goal was to finish my new novel manuscript. Back in January, the Word document on my computer contained nothing more than a title, a handful of scenes, and a burgeoning sense of great possibility.

The idea for this novel was birthed last summer when I took a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time. I fell in love with the island and soaked up many new experiences, like snorkeling with manta rays and hiking waterfalls. When I returned home from my trip, I jotted down a few ideas for a novel that took place in Hawaii. But then, as life tends to do, it got busy. That was an especially hectic time in my life. I got married and honeymooned. I developed and began teaching a weekly creative writing class for high school students. I helped students brainstorm and edit their college essays—my workload in the fall always tends to pick up for that reason. Allyn and I navigated our first holiday season as a married couple, balancing time with our two families.

The novel idea sat on my computer in a Word document, twiddling its thumbs.

In January, I felt burned out and exhausted. I had been so consumed with my work as a writing teacher and editor and coach, helping other people bring their beautiful words to life, that I had neglected to carve out and guard time for my own creative spirit—and, thus, I felt depleted. I decided that 2017 would be different. I read a lot of articles on setting boundaries, recommitted to work-life balance, and made a promise to myself that my mornings would be for writing. My own writing. I knew that I would be a happier and better teacher for others when I was making sure to give time to myself.

In January, I attended a wonderful writing conference to work on a separate novel idea. I still do like that idea, and I might return to it in the future. But my characters in Hawaii would not leave me alone. This idea kept pushing its way to the forefront of my mind, like a rude child who refused to be ignored.

Does that ever happen to you, with ideas? One thing I have learned is that ideas may behave like children, but you do not have to treat them as such. You do not have to teach them to be patient and wait their turn. If you have an idea that keeps “cutting in line” so to speak, begging for your attention, poking and prodding you all day and refusing to leave the back of your mind—you must pay attention. That is the idea you should pursue. No matter if other, less vibrant or less exciting ideas have been lingering around the corners of your mind for a long time. Life is short, and we will not have time for all of our brilliant ideas. We need to give time to the ones that make us come alive.

So it was with my novel idea. When I returned from the writers conference at the end of January, I kept slogging away for a week or so on the other novel that I had been working on. But my brain kept drifting to Hawaii. Eventually, I gave in. Reluctant {and feeling slightly guilty} to give up the other one, I told myself that I would work on BOTH projects simultaneously. Perhaps some writers can do that. But I have a hard time holding together two expansive, spilling-over, messy novels in my head at the same time. Perhaps some writers birth neater, tidier novels than I do. Mine are always a chaotic overflow. Trying to keep on top of two volcanoes at once was not sustainable.

And so, before too long, I was working solely on my insistent novel idea. My subconscious was living in Hawaii. I was fully invested. I was excited. Actually, more than excited—I was obsessed with my idea.

I think that is a good rule of thumb about whether you should pursue an idea. Are you obsessed with it?

I began riding along the path I had chosen. Nearly always, I begin new fiction projects by thinking about the characters. Their voices came out onto the page in quick bursts, but I still did not know them very well. I still had many questions. This was the fourth novel manuscript I was embarking upon, and the beginning—while exhilarating—is always the scariest part for me. I have some writer friends who love the beginning of a new project. They find energy from the huge wide-open landscape of blank pages before them. For me, those blank pages cause anxiety. At the beginning of a novel, I feel like I am diving into a huge body of water, tentatively beginning to swim to the other shore. At this point, I cannot even glimpse the other shore that I am heading towards. There is only mist and water as far as I can see. Who knows what I will find underneath the surface. There is no other way to go but forward, and so I start to swim. I start to write. Stroke by stroke, keystroke by keystroke. I know that if I put in the work, eventually, I will reach the other side.

This novel progressed much more quickly, and more joyfully, than my previous three novel manuscripts. Some might say it is because I am “getting the hang of” writing a novel, although in my experience every novel is different. I don’t think writing a novel is a formula you ever truly “get down.” Each novel is a whole new animal, a whole new experience—and, for me at least, that is part of the fun!

This one went so much faster—six months from start to finish, as opposed to a year spent meandering around trying to find a storyline and write the very rough draft of my thesis in grad school, and two-plus years drafting my other novels. It was also a much more enjoyable and less angsty process. I believe this is for two reasons. One, I have wholeheartedly embraced the advice that novelist Elizabeth Berg gave me many years ago at a writing conference: “First, please yourself.” Unlike grad school when I was writing a novel to impress my thesis committee, or in college when I was writing a novel hoping to become A Famous Author, now I write simply to please myself. I follow my own internal compass—especially during the drafting phase. Of course, I still hope to eventually get published and please readers. And I know that my writing is far from perfect and that editors, now that I have completed the first draft, are invaluable gifts. But I believe it stifles the creative process to think about any of those things when you are birthing your story.

The second reason this novel was different from any I had written before is that I truly committed to my schedule of writing time. For the past six months, I have been immersed in the story, thinking about it all the time both consciously and subconsciously, because I wrote at least a couple hundred words five days a week. “Work on novel” was the most important thing on my daily To Do List. I treated my creative work with respect. And my idea responded generously. There were parts of the novel that were more difficult to write than others—I always feel stuck in the “muddy middle”—but I never struggled with writer’s block. I always had a sense of where I was going, and new ideas and connections were sparked constantly. Our creative brains are so incredible, once we give them our time and attention and let them do their thing.

Which brings us to Tuesday. I was getting very close to finishing the first draft of my novel. I had written the ending already, and just had a few scenes I needed to finish up. It felt like a puzzle with only two or three patches of blank space left to fill in.

I woke up on Tuesday morning with a searingly clear thought: “Today is the day. Today I am going to finish my novel.”

I don’t know why the thought struck or where it came from. I don’t know why it felt so necessary to finish that day as opposed to later in the week or next week. But it did. I felt like my creative subconscious had sent me a mission.

I didn’t have any teaching appointments scheduled that day. I had emails and grading to do, but that could wait until later. I made myself a mug of tea, sat down at my computer, and dove in.

I wish I could fully describe to you the magic of that day. It felt like getting a “second wind” and sprinting the last mile of a marathon. It was like when you are reading a book you love, and you speed through the final pages because you are so excited to find out what happens. I knew what was going to happen—I was writing it, after all—but at the same time there was still this miraculous sense of discovery. My characters fully came alive. They leapt off the page. By noon, I had written more than 3,000 words. I had to break for lunch because my hand was sore from typing.

I could have stopped there. I knew I could always come back to the novel the next day. I could finish later. But I didn’t want to. I couldn’t stay away. I dove back in and kept typing.

I finished at 4:43pm. I texted my family and sweetie and shared the news. My final word count for that day was close to 5,000 words, or about twenty pages double-spaced. I don’t think I’ve ever written that much in a single day. If you had asked me on Monday, I probably would have told you there was no way I could do that.

{My sweetie left a note for me on our kitchen bulletin board.}

It’s funny. I spent the whole day sitting by myself in front of a computer. But I didn’t feel alone at all. I felt like I spent the whole day in Hawaii with these two people I had come to know so well over the past six months. That final sprint to the finish felt like a last hurrah with them. It was perfect.

It was 4:45 pm. I sat down on the couch. I felt so many things. I felt sad to say goodbye to my characters. I felt exhilarated and exhausted. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace that I had made good on my promise, to my characters and to myself. I had finished telling their story. I had stayed with them until the end.

There is such profound magic in finishing what we begin. In staying true to our promises. In following through with our ideas. No matter what eventually happens with this novel—no matter whether it eventually gets published and sells thousands of copies, or never leaves the hard drive of my own computer—I gave a huge gift to myself when I typed THE END on page 256 on Tuesday. I felt such extreme satisfaction and pride in myself. I had said I would do it. And I did it.

When we finish what we start, we build confidence in ourselves. That confidence keeps growing and growing. We begin pushing ourselves further. We wonder what else we might be able to start and finish. The limits of our world expand and, eventually, fall away. Our pride and confidence and imagination become limitless.

I still have a lot of work and editing to do on my Hawaii novel. But I’m already excited to start a new novel manuscript. I can’t wait to see what my creative spirit comes up with next!

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • What is a project you have started but petered out on? How would it feel to actually finish? What are some steps you could take to work your way back into this project?
  • Write about a time you finished something you had been working on for a while. What did you do to celebrate? What did it feel like to finally finish?
  • Set a timer for five minutes and jot down a list of every creative idea that flits into your mind. These could be future projects, hobbies, things you want to pursue in your personal life, trips you want to take. Write them down. Which ones jump out at you? Which ones light you up with sparks?

how far will your ripples go?

Last night, I went with my friend Marjie to UC Berkeley to see the Scottish Ballet’s stunning performance of Tennessee Williams’ famous play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It was my first time going to a professional ballet performance—my only previous ballet experience was attending community performances of “The Nutcracker.” I always enjoyed “The Nutcracker” and was always impressed by the talent of the ballerinas. Still, I was not expecting to feel so emotionally moved and enraptured as I watched the performance last night.

The dancers conveyed so much with their bodies and expressions; I forgot they were not speaking in words. Because they were speaking in movement. Even without dialogue, they were able to capture the aching hope and despair of Williams’ play, and bring his story to life in a new way. What’s more, this performance imagined and fleshed out a vivid backstory for Blanche’s character, inspired by the original title Tennessee Williams considered for the play: “The Moth.” The ballet closed with a vulnerable portrayal of Blanche as a moth, struggling to get close to the light. Illuminated in a spotlight centerstage, one of her hands fluttered skyward like a moth’s delicate wings. A hush descended over the audience and some people even gasped, viscerally moved by the image, and then the curtain fell to thunderous applause.

I wish Tennessee Williams could have been there to see this interpretation of his play as a ballet. I think he would have been pleased to see his story brought to life in this new way, filled with the tension and drama of music and dance.

I have felt a connection to Tennessee Williams ever since last Thanksgiving, when my family and I traveled to New Orleans and tracked down the apartment that he had lived in during his New Orleans days at the end of his life. Serendipitously, while we were outside, taking photos and reading the small plaque affixed to the front wall, a man who lived there just happened to be returning home. He introduced himself as Brobson and invited us inside for a drink; he had lived there for many years and had known Tennessee Williams. He kindly welcomed us inside and shared many stories, even taking us around to the backyard to see the pool where Tennessee used to relax in the afternoons. {My dad wrote a terrific two-part column about our visit with Brobson, which you can read here on his website.}

Before that day, Tennessee Williams had been larger-than-life to me; a name in a list of Great Writers I Admire; a photo on a Wikipedia page. But seeing where he had lived and meeting someone who had known him turned him into a real person. There were surely days he struggled to write, as I sometimes do. Days when he doubted himself. Days when he wanted to give up. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was once merely a glimmer of an idea on the edge of his consciousness. Thankfully, he wrote the idea down, and he kept writing until the play was finished. Even when it was hard. Even when there were a million other things he could have been doing, or would have rather been doing. Even when he wondered if the words he was painstakingly stacking up, one after the next after the next, would amount to anything at all.

Tennessee Williams had no way of knowing how much his plays would impact people and how far the ripples of his creativity would extend. He had no way of knowing that on a Thursday evening in Berkeley thirty-seven years after his death, hundreds of people would be moved to tears from a new portrayal of the characters he had dreamed up.

None of us know how far our own ripples will go. The gifts we create. The lives we touch. The kind words we share. All of these are stones dropped into water. What was once still is now in motion.

You have no idea how your daily actions might inspire others. What you do and make today might affect someone tomorrow, or next week, or ten years from now. Others in the future might learn from you and build upon what you have done, creating something of their own that is entirely new and wonderful, something else that will launch more ripples out into the world.

Back when I was in elementary school, I wrote and self-published a small book of stories and poems. Nearly two decades later, I received an email from a composer named Alex Marthaler at Carnegie Mellon University. He was creating a song-cycle around the theme of childhood and adulthood, and he had somehow discovered my little book. Would it be okay if he used some of my poems as lyrics for the songs he wanted to compose?

Yes! I quickly responded. Yes, that would be amazing!

Would I be willing to write a few companion poems, responding to the themes of the poems I had written as a child, now from an adult perspective?

Yes, yes! What a fun project!

And it was an extremely fun project, unlike anything else I had done before or since. I looked at the poems my child-self had written with fresh eyes and new appreciation, and I wrote new poems that were in conversation with them. It was like talking to the girl I had once been, and listening to her replies. She helped me remember why I first fell in love with writing to begin with. The magic of setting your thoughts down onto paper, and then releasing those words into the universe. Like launching hundreds of miniature paper airplanes into the sky.

I sent him the new poems, and a few months later, Alex sent me the recordings of the songs. Listening to them, I was blown away with wonder. Who would have imagined that a few little poems I wrote in pencil on lined notebook paper at my kitchen table when I was nine years old, would one day be turned into beautiful songs performed at Carnegie Mellon?

{Me in fifth grade with copies of my first little self-published book}

I love this quote from Brene Brown:

“Creativity is the way I share my soul with the world.”

How will you share your soul with the world? What ripples will come from what you share? One thing I do know is that our world will be so much richer for it.

P.S. You can listen to Alex’s song rendition of my fifth-grade poem “Peanut Butter Surprise” below, and if you’d like a copy of my first little book, it’s available here. And here is a free download of my childhood poems with their adult counterparts, in case you’d like to read them.

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open up a new document on your computer. Here are some questions to get your “free-write” going today:

  • What is a creative project you are currently struggling with or feeling discouraged about? What small step can you take right now to make it feel easier or lighter?
  • Is there a project in your heart that you are afraid to share? What might happen if you released it into the world, in all of its imperfect and messy beauty?
  • What ripples can you create today?
  • Write about a ripple that someone else created that has touched you or impacted your life.