Hiya, friends. Life in Brain Cancer Land has been frustrating this week. Mom is declining again, but we’ve been forced to revoke her hospice benefits in order to allow her to keep receiving the every-three-week Avastin infusions that help keep brain swelling down. We’d signed on with hospice with the understanding that she could keep receiving Avastin, but the provider’s pharmacists raised the red flag a couple weeks ago: even though the treatment is only palliative at this point, our buddies in the office recognized it as a chemo and refused to allow it because it’s still considered a life-preserving treatment. I get it, I suppose, but it’s hard not to get the impression that Mom’s not dying enough for them: her hospital bed was removed from the house within four hours of me submitting the revocation form.
But this post isn’t about my mom. It’s about, well, me. It’s no surprise that the past year and a half has been a struggle. But a lot of it is my own doing. Let’s start with this: many of you know how my writing career started, then sputtered, like so:
1. My first novel became my debut novel (yay), which Penguin Random House published about a million (i.e., four) years ago.
2. My second novel took forever to write and didn’t get picked up by any publisher, big or small (not yay).
3. I was working happily on my third book, which was something more mainstream and very exciting, when Mom got diagnosed and our worlds screeched to a halt. Every thing I’d been working on, both personally (Writing! Relationships! Keeping everyone in clean underpants!) and professionally (The book! A workshop! Keeping up with writing friends!) all fell to the wayside with that single phone call.
Healthy Mom would’ve had a fit about all this.
My book club recently read a self-help book called Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, by James Clear. I listened to it on Audible, which is what I usually do with non-fiction books these days, and learned some good tips about building habits while understanding that change comes in the long-term, not in the immediate (this is solid advice for any of us who go to the gym for a month and wonder why we don’t have arm muscles yet).
But the anecdote that got stuck in my head is what Clear said regarding identity: that we need to identify the individual we want to be and work backward from there to set our habits in small steps. Do you want to be an athlete? Then forget about jumping first into marathon training and just get up and start walking every day. You’ll become an athlete. Do you want to be a good husband? Then forget about roses and weekend trips and just make a point to really listen to your wife when she sits down to chat with you each evening. You’ll become a good husband. Do you want to be a writer?
(Oof. Hang on. This one hurts.)
Do you want to be a writer? Then don’t fret about publishing a novel, and just focus on getting words down every. single. day. You’ll become a writer.
I am a writer–I keep this blog going, and I go back to working on that third book whenever I can get the brainwidth (that’s like “bandwidth,” but about my brain: get it?!)–but am I a working author? No. My head is so wrapped up in fights with hospice providers and phone calls with caregivers and making sure my mom has enough protein shakes in her fridge. I’ve felt like I can’t get out of my own tiny world to create another, fictional one, even as much as I want to. My agent gave me the go-ahead to pursue this idea I’d been working on, so it’s not the publishing world that’s stopping me: it’s just me shutting down in the face of All the Things. And when that happens I do what any modern adult does when she’s trying to avoid the inside of her own head:
I stare a lot at my phone.
But here’s another book to which I just listened: Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport (I’m on an audiobook tear, I know, but remember that I spend a LOT of time alone in the car these days). Many of you have seen his Ted Talk on the topic: he’s a professor at Georgetown and computer scientist who has famously never held social media accounts (the author in me wonders how in the world he ever promoted his books). I’ve been wanting to read Digital Minimalism since I saw that talk, and while Newport never addresses the all-important question of sustaining one’s “platform” as a working creative (which is something so encouraged and expected in today’s publishing world), he’s hit at something that’s been tugging at my conscience: how much of my headspace isn’t actually cluttered by just grief and worry and multitasking as I’ve thought, but by the voices in my social media apps and text messages and online accounts? How much of my anxiety has been exacerbated not because I’m a sad daughter taking care of her dying mother, but by the voices I turn to to help me escape those worries and fears?
I know. I’m throwing a lot at you, here.
Concentration needs, well, concentration. Success needs time for creativity, and creativity needs time to simply exist. I wrote easily and often when my babies were small because I was home so much, before my smart phone took over my life, when I was so desperate for an outlet that writing was what I turned to rather than my big dumb iPhone 8 Plus (yes, it’s enormous. I have terrible, terrible eyesight). But now, I’m back to being restless and lost. I’m back to being a caretaker first most and me second. And instead of writing when I need to process those feelings, I turn to the internet to escape them.
This all unproductive and sounds super depressing. But here’s what I noticed in this Digital Minimalism, as well: Cal Newport, like James Clear, asks his reader to address her identity: what are her values? Who does she want to be? And: are her actions with the phone/internet/social media subverting or supporting that identity?
That one, frankly, smarts. But it also gives me a little sense of hope–hope that I can somehow get back to where I was before, caregiving duties notwithstanding.
Here’s the third thing that happened recently (because like bad news, epiphanies always happen in trifectas). Last week I met up with my friend Orly Konig to see another acquaintance, Mary Kubica, at Mary’s book signing in Sykesville, Maryland. Orly is the author of two novels and the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, which is the organization that helped lead me to my publishing contract (you can read about how that magic happened here). We got to know each other on a long plane ride from New Mexico to Baltimore a few years ago. Mary is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of six novels, her newest of which is being made into a Netflix feature film. She is, like me, a former high school teacher, and I got to know her way back through WFWA before either of our debut novels were published (she is absolutely lovely, and currently on tour promoting The Other Mrs., and if you have the chance to see her, please do).
The whole night was a strange experience: I’ve let myself fall so far out of the writing loop that I hadn’t even known (until I got a indignant text from Orly) that I’d let myself drop out of WFWA–I’d forgotten to renew my membership, and definitely didn’t notice that I’d stopped getting emails and notifications from the private Facebook group, either. And then there’s Mary, who’s gone a definitively different route: her debut, The Good Girl, came out a year before mine, and she just handed in her seventh–yep, I said seventh–novel to her editor at a major publisher. She is on fire: writing a book a year, promoting a book a year, editing a book a year. I looked at her from my folding seat in the second row of the audience at her book signing and I felt…respect. Not jealousy. Not sadness. Just absolute respect for her. She has worked so hard, and is very talented. She deserves every accolade and film option that comes her way.
It was just on the two-hour drive home from that book signing that the shame hit me: who am I anymore? What have I let myself become? As Clear says in Atomic Habits, it’s the professionals who stick to their habits every single day–the amateurs are the ones who let the overwhelm of life drag them under.
(I know: this is the part where you say, “Leah. Your mother is DYING. Cut yourself some slack.” And you’re right. But I’m talking about all the fuzzy bits around that. Keep reading. You’ll see.)
I don’t like who I’ve become: someone who gets home from school, lets her kids in the house, then plops down on a sofa with her phone for entirely too long before she gets back to her life (not to mention her kids). I’m someone who checks Facebook while on the couch, sitting next to my mom as she watches Judge Judy (though, to be fair: it’s Judge Judy). And the embarrassing thing is, months ago I’d stopped liking posts and commenting as often on social media because I thought by not engaging, I’d want to back off. Oh, no, friends: instead the passivity turned me into a scrolling zombie. I’m online more than ever–but I’m only lurking there. When dinner’s in the oven: I check my phone. When I’m waiting for a prescription for my mom: I check my phone. At night, when the kids are finally in bed and David’s finishing up his work or even sitting beside me: I check my phone. That last one–checking the phone late at night–can cost me an hour or two. I hardly ever actively engage with it–I just stare.
As I said, both of these books–Atomic Habits and Digital Minimalism–suggest nailing down your identity and values and working backwards from that. I didn’t have my smart phone back when I started blogging and writing All the Difference, but I feel the same way now as I did in the year after I left teaching to stay home with Saoirse. It’s what I wanted, but I was lost. That time, thankfully, led me to writing. This time, I hope, will lead me back.
So here’s what I’m about to do: I’m going to jump on Cal Newport’s Real World Wagon (my words and most definitely not his) and ditch out of “optional digital technologies” (definitely his words) for the next 30 days–this includes not accessing social media, music apps, and audiobooks, but also setting boundaries on phone use like texting, internet news outlets, and email. (Because I have to be on my phone so often concerning my mother, this all might be tricky–but also, because I’m on my phone so often concerning my mother, this might be necessary.). After 30 days, I’ll look at what technologies I truly missed for the value they add to my life, and reintroduce those that make the cut, with major adjustments (basically, new boundaries) so that I don’t get sucked back into the digital void again. I have to go all in: if my screen time data says anything about me, it’s that I’m no good at moderation.
Here’s what, outside of Mom Care, I hope to accomplish:
1. Write. A lot.
2. Get back to running.
3. Refocus my attention on the people in my life who matter most.
4. Tackle projects in our house that have been on hold (clean underpants for all!).
It doesn’t sound like a lot, but considering what I haven’t been doing because I’ve been so busy avoiding All the Things, it’s a lot. And you know as well as I do that the roads in Brain Cancer Land are going to twist and turn just when I get comfortable. But whatever I do begin to accomplish (Clear said small habits make big changes, right?) in the next 30 days has got to be better than spending precious hours scrolling past ad after ad for cute Brazilian-made shoes, and Rumi quotes, and memes with funny cats mocking parenthood. Right? Maybe?
Time will tell. A writer colleague, Nicole Meier, did this before Christmas with great success that led me on an initial, short-lived (and admittedly half-assed) attempt at this “cleanse,” but I point to that for leading me here. It also helps that Lent begins tomorrow, which is always the ultimate opportunity for an exercise in self-help. But the bottom line is that I have things to do and read and say, and I’ve been avoiding all of them for much too long. It needs to change.
So thank you to Nicole and Mary and James and Cal: they’re making a lot more sense in the world than the nonsense I’ve been selling myself.
So: tomorrow I’m dropping away from social media for a month. One Vignette will be the one site I won’t avoid–I may actually use this time to make some changes to it–because I love interacting with you here. I’ll continue to write posts with the intention of publishing something new every Tuesday, but I won’t be cross-posting to any of my social media accounts. Please continue to check in here, comment as you like, and I’ll stay in touch through OV and my email (onevignette[at]gmail[dot]com).
If you haven’t done so already, you can sign up on my home page to receive new post notifications by email.
Wish me luck, and if you’re on your own journey out of the void, Godspeed. I’ll talk to you soon.