Category Archives: Writing

The Plan Is There Is No Plan

Over the past week, I packed up my entire life. I donated about 70% of my things to various outlets, stored 20%, gave away 5% in the form of specialized care packages for my close friends, and packed the rest into two suitcases and a laptop bag. This morning, I left New York.

So long, New York!

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Let it be known that when I say I’m going to do something, I don’t fuck around. As someone who tends to get paralyzed by her tendency to over-analyze things, probably the most helpful thing I’ve learned how to do as an adult is how to light a fire under my own ass. I highly recommend it.

The second most helpful thing I’ve learned is how to wing it. Which is in large part what I’m doing. So apologies to all the people I’ve dodged or maybe even gotten irritated at for asking me what my plan is. Who needs a plan? I’ve got everything I need to live and the desire to do so to the max. There is no plan.

However, there is a goal. I am going to go completely around the world — with no plan other than to not stay in any one place for longer than a month.

Today I arrived in LA, my starting point. Hello, LA!

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For those of you who have stayed up at night ruminating over where I’m going because I pointedly ignored you when you asked (sorry!), I will be writing about my journey. Surely you didn’t think I was going to just go totally off-grid for a year like that guy, did you? Don’t you fret, my darling friends. The Millikan Daily will persist, and I’ll continue writing formally at all the usual outlets and a few new ones I’ll fill you in on soon.

For now, I’ll give you a few peaks of my starting point. I’m rolling in style (obvi) in my new Portovelo Shoes (courtesy of my friends at Small Girls — thanks Mal and Bianca!). I bought a magazine for the first time in a while today because this cover was all too awesome for an aspiring cyborg/technophile such as myself.IMG_20130528_001524

For the next two weeks I’ll be staying at the Advance Camps loft in Downtown LA, working with an amazing team of architects, designers, and builders who are creating North America’s premiere nomadic camp for creative exploration. I’m here to teach, but also here to learn everything I can about being a nomad.

First order of business: napping in the alpha dome :)

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Photo by Carson Linforth Bowley

Second order of business: Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen! A reminder to keep my eye on the finish line: Japan.

IMG_20130528_001907 Third order of business: catching up on sleep.

Over and out.

Thinking about writing

They say those who can’t do teach, so when a writer writes about writing, you know something is awry. At this moment in time, I am generally happy: I’m healthy, I have great friends who have gone out of their way to do incredibly sweet things for me ever since I announced I’m leaving New York, and I just spent a lovely evening coordinating a fundraiser for the Museum of Math at Science House and was able to come home and put the money I earned in my parrot fund. However, there is a cloud that has been looming over me for the past month — the deadline cloud.

While I was an editor at Wired, I gave my freelancers deadlines all the time. Miraculously, I picked amazing writers who turned in quality work on time with only a few exceptions. But actually being on deadline is pretty new to me. I wrote articles at Wired, but they were never on deadline because it was understood that my writing was basically free time work that came secondary to my editing responsibilities. Nobody was going to ask that I put their request for me to write above my own job, so the things that I’ve had published at Wired were all kind of random passion projects.

Now though, I do have deadlines. Deadlines given to me by editors I respect just as much as my freelancers respected me. I’m not complaining about the fact that I have deadlines. I love deadlines. I love them because writing is fun and all but publishing is the really rewarding part. I mean, I write on this blog and sometimes it’s good and makes sense, but I’m mostly writing to think here. That’s probably the core of why I’m a writer, because writing helps me think. All my life I’ve been getting into these confusing situations and I can’t make sense of them until I write them down.

Which is the whole stupid conundrum I’m having lately. Writing helps me think, but when I think too much about writing, I can’t write.

I never understood why print magazines let their writers take so long to write feature articles. I figured the writers had to be milking the system — jerking off, playing games on their computers or something while they were supposed to be working. But now I get it. When someone gives you a topic and tells you to write the best thing that you possibly can in an hour, that’s easy. You just do it, and it’s done in an hour. But when someone gives you a 2,000 word goal and wants you to write something epic and evergreen what will withstand the scrutiny of millions of misogynist commenters and reddit trolls, that requires a lot of thinking. I mean, is there ever really enough thinking to prepare one for that?

I’m sorry I doubted you, feature writers! It’s true, writing feature articles takes a long time. I just wrote this essay about cholera in Haiti, finally, after thinking about it for a whole year. A year. And when I actually sat down to write it, it took a day. But it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t on the page for a year, so it took a year to write. That’s what most of writing is for me: thinking.

Often times when I’m working on a story, I’ll tell people about different parts of it first. Friends, strangers, doesn’t matter. They’ll ask “what are you working on?” and I’ll say “a story about so-and-so,” and they’ll say “oh, what about it?” and I use that prompt as my test bed. I’ll tell them about it one way, and if it makes sense than I remember the explanatory process I used and incorporate it into the narrative thread that exists only in my head. I weave these threads in my head constantly. There are thousands of them, all tangled up with each other, waiting for the moment I find the end and tug it out of my head onto the page so it can exist there forever. When I finally find an end, it just comes out like a spool unraveling. It’s just a matter of looking for it, and getting it, and sometimes it takes a really long time.

Sometimes though, things stop me from looking. It’s an irrational fear. A fear that maybe the thread that exists in my head isn’t worthy of paper or even internet space. Like my new boyfriend David Foster Wallace once said, people who worship intellectualism are always worried about being found out for being some kind of fraud. But then most of the writers I respect say they constantly worry about being found out and this is how they know they’re good journalists. They say that if they every stopped worrying about that, they would then know that they’d lost it and should quit the profession immediately.

I think that good editors know this, because they have all gone through it, which is why they’re considerate with writers going through it. But how does one learn how to stop thinking about writing and just fucking write? How do I put aside all the little things that are easier and more immediate and less about fulfilling of my own professional desires, and work that thread into something awesome without thinking about it until I go insane with deadline-pushing guilt?

Le sigh. I guess the key is to stop thinking about writing, and blogging about writing, and just write. In the time it took me to write this blog post, I could have written most of the other thing I needed to write. At least now I feel a little more clear on what I have to write. I will hammer it out! Sorry for being so meta.

Late night lucubrating

I have a shit storm of stuff to write and do tomorrow, so obviously when I drank a cup of Sleepy Time tea and went to bed at the responsible hour of 12:30 my brain was like, “LOL, YEAH RIGHT.” Now the lights are back on and I’m finishing all the good long-form articles I started and never finished in order to eliminate some browser tabs. Starting the week off right.

If you’re interested, they are:

This Was Supposed to Be My Column for New Year’s Day — a NY Times article about positive procrastination from John Tierney which I started the day it was published, a month and a half ago. Go figure.

What Does ‘Getting Laid’ Really Mean? — By Emily Heist Moss on a publication called Role Reboot which I’ve never heard of but looks interesting.

Operation Delirium — A look inside the military’s post-cold war super sketchy chemical weapons tests, by Raffi Khatchadourian

Death Will Tremble — not an essay, but an online sci-fi video series I’ve been meaning to watch, even though I don’t usually watch things especially if they come in a series.

The Ghost Writes Back — Amy Boesky on ghost writing part of the Sweet Valley High book series for Francine Pascal, the series that I was completely and utterly obsessed with as tween.

The Slate review of Domenica Ruta’s new book, With or Without you. Had to check out the competition in the crazy mom contest. It’s really no competition at all.

Many fewer tabs, but still awake. I’d hoped that the insomnia tendencies would subside when I quit smoking and started trying to be healthy, but it looks like this one is here to stay. A few months back I read an essay by Kathryn Schulz called Writing in the Dark, in which she discusses her life as a literary night owl. The first time I read it, I tweeted at her to say I thought we were brain chemistry twins. I’d never heard of my insomniac tendencies described so accurately, and from the perspective of a female writer. I said the word “lucubrate” over and over to myself. I love that she provides an evolutionary explanation, because now I don’t feel so guilty about having such a disposition. If I can’t sleep because I can’t turn my mind off, I’m going to turn the lights back on and hash it out, because this is my productivity zone. If you’re an early bird nine-to-fiver, you have the societal advantage since this country still operates like electricity hasn’t been invented. Good for you, but do me a favor and don’t hold it against the night owls in the workplace. Let them do their thing when they want to do it, and everyone will be better off. And remember — in the caveman days, you would have been eaten by wolves in the middle of the night if it wasn’t for our kind, so show a little gratitude.

I began re-reading this essay before I started writing this blog post and closing the browser tabs, and I will leave you with an excerpt before attempting to sleep again:

There is a word for that, etymologically if not literally: the wonderfully lascivious-sounding lucubrate. It actually means to write in an overly academic fashion, but it comes from the practice of writing at night by candle or lantern. There are, as you might imagine, a lot of lucubrators out there. Proust and Joyce were both self-proclaimed night owls. So was Shelley; so, one assumes, was any self-respecting Romantic. George Sand claimed to routinely start writing at midnight. Edna St. Vincent Millay must have been a late type, with her burning candle and her wonderful “Recuerdo”—surely the best poem ever written about staying up all night on Staten Island. I sometimes make a game of guessing other writers’ hours. Gerard Manley Hopkins: night owl, for sure. Robert Frost: lark, with occasional spells of insomnia. Jonathan Franzen strikes me as a morning bird (and no doubt he knows precisely which species).

As for my own schedule, best to call it like it is: crazy. Those who have shared my bed—when I am in it to share it, anyway—have observed my nighttime habits with reactions varying from indulgence to incredulity. (Almost all of them have been stellar sleepers: not something I actively look for in a partner, but, given my lifestyle, terrifically convenient.) It starts, as I said, around 10 p.m., when something ticks over in my mind, as if someone had walked into a shuttered cabin and flipped all the switches in the fuse box to “on.” For the first time all day, I get interested in writing. As a corollary, I get a lot less interested in everything else. My normal indiscipline, the ADHD-ish inability to keep my head inside my work, finally drops away. For the next few hours, I write steadily, cleanly. If my body is producing a drug during that time, it is a natural methylphenidate—a dose of pure focus, side-effect-free and sweet.

“More than kisses, letters mingle souls”

This past summer while sitting in the sun on my rooftop, a friend told me he still writes letters to people. I thought this absurd, as nobody writes letters anymore. Then he quoted a dead author, as he tends to do:

Letter writing is the purest form of communication between two friends across a distance, as it’s the only way you can capture who you are in that moment and share it with one person.

What the guy, John Donne, actually said was that writing letters to friends is “a kind of extasie, and a departure and secession and suspension of the soul, which doth then communicate it self to two bodies [SIC]“, but I like my friend’s version better.

With status updates, texting, IM, twitter, and the rare phone call, letter writing for the purpose of  bringing those at a distance up to speed with the goings on in one’s life is now pretty obsolete. But letter writing on the whole is still really important, and totally underrated. During those times where there is an abundance of emotions and confusion bouncing between two people, sometimes a letter is the perfect prescription for clarity. It allows time for thoughtful consideration in the age of instant transmission. The skillful writer can use a letter like a surgical spreader, which is inserted into a moment to allow for inspection of a sequence in time. Like when you’re looking at a graph of the electromagnetic spectrum and there’s that one magnified portion of the visible light spectrum, because that’s what’s relevant. It can be the tool that saves a friendship that’s on the brink of total collapse because of misunderstanding. I hope.

Kind of funny that in the past people used to write letters to friends to condense long spans of time into the same physical space that I’m using now to expand a really confusing moment in time. We’re so 2013.

The title of this post comes from one of John Donne’s musings about letter writing with one of his buddies that he had a serious bromance with, but it’s even more relevant when kisses caused the confusion to merit the letter writing in the first place.

How to Quit

…Then a friend put an arm around me. I found my way to some edge, thin as a thread, where the panic turned into laughter.

This is the diamond in the mind, this ability. A lot of people know about it, but I didn’t know about it.

From then on when panic crept in I could just push over the thread-thin edge to the other side, feeling the way to joy.

Joy is the knowledge that the thread is there.

A thread runs through the middle of your life, and if you find it, the second half can be comedy instead.

A place can make you want to die and then you can turn it over into the sweetest thing. You can do this yourself, if you have found the diamond in your mind.

Addiction is sometimes the attempt to raise the dead by returning to the scene. If you can’t yet abandon the dead, at least you can practice abandonment, and will perhaps in that way be on your way to finding the world.

-Excerpt from How to Quit, by Kristin Dombeck, n+1

I’m still learning how to find that thread. I saw it once, but I don’t know where I was when I saw it and I don’t know how to get back there from the place where I’ll be when I need to find it again.

Wanted: Mildly sadistic editor with egg timer

In my 11th grade AP English class, we used to begin every day with an exercise in response writing. Mrs. Smith would write a word, phrase, or provocative quote on the black board and set an egg timer for three minutes. In those three minutes we had to write a “journal entry” in a notebook solely dedicated to those exercises. The deal was, we could write about anything, and she would never read our journals. She would just flip through the pages a few times throughout the semester and check them off to make sure we’d actually been writing while the timer was running.

The point of this exercise was to build up confidence in our ability to churn out content. It was a skill that was highly necessary on the standardized tests we were all constantly preparing for, but I had a hunch that Mrs. Smith had other reasons for her assignment as well. After all, this was the teacher who one day, after we had all gotten situated and were waiting quietly for class to begin, blared Barbara Streisand’s “People” on the CD player, to our horror, to break us of the habit of using the word repetitively as a subject (people think this, people do that, etc..). She once broke the sacred “teachers don’t swear” rule to illustrate her opinion of how the word “fuck” was the epitome of classlessness and that there was always a better word choice. She tended to go to extremes to drill important lessons into our heads.

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