November 29, 2015

Learning imagination: a week at Arvon at the Hurst

One of the biggest challenges I've been struggling with over the, oh, last decade, is finding my imagination. For a long time I didn't think I had one—mostly because, through my entire education and working life, I'd never been expected to produce any imaginative content. All the original thought and work I've ever done has been product of extensive research, scientific method, collaborative thinking, and were, more or less, grounded in logic and reality.

On the flight back from London yesterday, I listened to the episode of NPR's TED Radio Hour podcast which includes an interview with Sir Ken Robinson on how modern education doesn't help foster creativity and imagination:

Here's the part of his talk I keep thinking about (emphasis mine):
Our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there's a reason. Around the world, there were no public systems of education, really, before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas.

Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don't do music, you're not going to be a musician; don't do art, you won't be an artist. Benign advice—now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution.

And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn't valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can't afford to go on that way.
It made me feel better to hear him say that because at least now my struggles with this feeling-of-something-missing makes sense. I just don't know how to reconcile it with the other voice in my head: the one that tells me I have 100 stories to tell, 100 books to write, a whole entire life I haven't tapped into yet, but I'd better hurry up and do it because I'm not getting any younger here.

Last week, I booked myself into The Hurst—playwright John Osborne's former home in Clun in Shropshire—for a five-day writing workshop with poet Michael Laskey and novelist Jess Richards. Every morning at The Hurst, attendees are put through a intense rapid-fire series of writing exercises (afterwards, you wind up reading things you've just written aloud—it's kind of like group therapy) and every afternoon is dedicated to individual writing (or long walks). Going in, my ultimate, loftiest, pie-in-the-sky goal was to come away with two or three first-drafts of complete chapters of a fiction novel—and, because of this notion that I'd be able to run before walking, by Wednesday I was already completely stressed out and not sleeping, trying to commit to a book idea.

Instead of landing back at JFK with two or three perfectly polished chapters to immediately send off to Mel, my agent, I left The Hurst with something completely intangible—and a little bit of a personal breakthrough.

I really underestimated how much blockage I have around imagination. I'm still pretty sure it's in there—but it's buried a lot deeper down that I'd originally thought. Every morning, when I'd sit down at that big round table with all the other writers, I'd panic. My work was bad; there were a lot of writing exercises I couldn't complete (at all); my imagination failed me over and over again; reading my crap poems out loud at the end of workshop made me break out in cold sweats. Every afternoon at 1 when we'd break for lunch and individual writing time, I'd be so emotionally and intellectually drained, I'd have to lie down and turn everything off for at least an hour (read: nap).

But by Friday morning, our very last workshop session, I felt something give. It was a teeny tiny little something. That morning, I could complete all the exercises the tutors threw at us; what appeared on the page surprised me as my hand was writing it; and there was even one moment where somewhere in between my brain and my fingertips, I was pulling thoughts and ideas out of thin air—and writing down names, characters, plots, actions, and images that had never occurred to me before that very second. Tl;dr: I think I opened a new synapse, you guys.

So yeah. That's what happened. And it only took five days of self-imposed isolation in a country manor house, a few sleepless nights, a lot of bad poetry, and some truly dark existential moments where I seriously questioned everything I'd ever believed about my own abilities and purpose. The only problem now is that I want to keep going, see where this leads. Stay tuned.

November 21, 2015

The Magicians: Syfy's newest press kit

It's my favorite thing to stop everything in the middle of the day and unbox something random for 5 minutes. Today it came down to this or Godiva chocolates.

November 20, 2015

Before coffee thoughts: "Splendid Literary Isolation"

Having a quick coffee right now before an early morning load of laundry and a full day at work, dinner with a friend, and then maybe one more load of laundry late tonight. Then I have a few things to tidy up around the house tomorrow before heading overseas for the week—where, from what I understand, I'll have no wifi or cell service. Am simultaneously excited and petrified at the prospect of complete digital shutdown.

What I'm taking a stab at next week is Serious Writing. It's been 10 years since I wrote How Not to Look Fat—and that was prescriptive non-fiction (i.e. something I wrote out of my head during one particularly hectic September fashion week every night between midnight and 3 a.m.). For a decade I've convinced myself—using every excuse I could think of—that I don't have another book in me. But the truth is, deep down, I know I do. Maybe I even have three books in me...somewhere...I'm not sure. I think they're fiction, even though I've long suspected I have no imagination.

So this weekend I'll be in London. And then on Monday I'm heading off into the countryside to sequester myself in, what I read on another writer's review of the place, "Splendid Literary Isolation." It's one way of testing my theory, or, at least the thing I tell myself most, that I "don't have time" to write and pursue my own creative projects outside the office. I know a lot of people who feel the way I do at this age and stage in their careers—a little stifled, a little is-this-it? I'm hoping I can turn out a few chapters of solid work while I'm away in the middle of nowhere with no distractions. And if I can't, well, then I think it will be time for me to reevaluate what I've always held as a glimmer of distant hope in terms of a creative outlet/project.

November 19, 2015

My new favorite new late-in-the-day activity

Pretty much nothing makes me feel more zen and calm near the end of a super-stressful busy day than to stop everything, unwrap some new snacks, and share them with my colleagues. Thank you colleagues.

November 13, 2015

Bath blogging

Every night, or whenever I have time, I try to take a lavender Epsom salt bath. I do this so often that sometimes I get concerned that I might be overdosing on magnesium (as absorbed through the skin), but then I google "Epsom salt bath overdose" and I'm pretty sure no one's ever died from it so I feel OK. I buy Epsom salt in 20-lb. bags, dump two cups into a warm bath, dropper in pure organic lavender oil, and soak and read for 20 or 30 minutes. It's the only thing I do all day that helps me sleep.

Some thoughts on-location in my lavender bath tonight:
— I want to make lunch for my team in a 7-quart slow cooker Black + Decker sent to my office, but I'm not sure what to make
— How will I get through all the emails I need to get through tomorrow?
— Should I buy a new point-and-shoot camera and maybe a taller tripod
— Can I justify going to bed at 10:30?
— Really I want to write a novel this weekend. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I feel like I can at least crank out a few chapters.
— I also really want to do Crest White Strips this weekend but I'm finding it hard to commit to two solid hours of no eating or drinking. 

November 12, 2015

Before coffee thoughts: What a mess this week

In a cab heading to an all-day offsite. What a week it's been—every work day this week has started at 6 or 7 in the morning (insert wide-eyed emoji here)—and it's only Thursday.

Whenever I get super-overwhelmed, stressed, or frustrated, I always think of this, written by Edward St. Aubyn in one of the (amazing, brilliant) Patrick Melrose novels:

Observe everything. Always think for yourself. Never let other people make important decisions for you.

November 09, 2015

Before coffee thoughts, Day 6: Strategic mornings

On days when I wake up tired and need to hit the ground running, I try to be as ritualistic and strategic as possible. Like right now. It's 5 a.m., I woke up at 4:30, and I had just under five hours of sleep last night (and the night before, and the night before that). I've already eaten a few tablespoons of black beans, have scrambled three eggs, and am waiting for my coffee (Illy, Moka, Bialetti—my favorite) to brew. I need to wake up as soon as possible and the caffeine should hit me within 25 minutes of drinking it. No carbs or sugar this morning. This timing should give me exactly three hours of buckle-down-and-work time before I absolutely have to start answering emails. Emails are the biggest brain/time-drain in my life right now.

I can't believe that just a few short weeks ago, I was in South Dakota, rounding up buffalo. The closer I creep towards middle age, the more I come to terms with how much I crave and value freedom.

November 08, 2015

Before coffee thoughts, Day 5: Weekend insomnia

I'm up eating eggs and black beans at 5 a.m. on a Sunday because I woke up at 4 a.m. and lay there quietly in the dark until I couldn't bear it anymore. The most difficult side effect of weekend work stress insomnia is that it sets me up badly to handle work stress the rest of the week—cycle, repeat. This week is going to be pretty hectic, so I'm just going to buckle down and get through it, then everything will hopefully go back to normal and I'll be able to breathe (and sleep) again. Thank god for coffee.

November 07, 2015

South Dakota Pizza

Here's my pizza video from when I was in the Black Hills region of South Dakota in late September.

Before coffee thoughts, Day 5: Weekend not weekend

Lots to do this weekend, work-wise. I really need to get around to editing this pizza video I shot a month ago. And I have a couple dozen stories to build before Monday night. Tomorrow I'm going to spend some time in the morning with some of Glamour's The Girl Project girls, which will be awesome. Right now I've already had some coffee and breakfast, but I still feel sleepy.

I'm obsessed with the idea that our next president could be the first Generation X commander-in-chief.

November 06, 2015

Before coffee thoughts, Day 4: Shallow Friday

Late start this Friday morning, but so far here is what I've accomplished today: scrambled and ate eggs, made a coffee, paid some bills, played one round of that alien-slug-tennis Apple TV game Beat Sports that I love and can only stop playing when my arm cramps up or my hand falls asleep.

Other things I'm currently thinking about—mostly in a very shallow way, thus the list format:
— The possibility and logistics of writing a novel on my phone
— How much of my weekend I will need to set aside for work
— Why it's so hot in November
— How many massages is it reasonable for one person to get in one month?
— Where to escape to the week between Christmas and New Year

November 05, 2015

Before coffee thoughts, Day 3: Readiness confidence

Currently eating organic-paleo almond-crusted chicken fingers left over from my Hu Kitchen dinner last night for breakfast and waiting for my coffee to cook.

For a few hours this past weekend, I fell into an internet black hole of Casey Neistat YouTube videos—they're kind of amazing. One that's really stuck with me and that I can't stop thinking about over the past few days is the episode right before the NYC marathon where one of his friends surprises him with a bib and he realizes he has to run a marathon the next day without any targeted training.

It's this video:

This is the thing Neistat says that I can't stop turning over in my head: "It's not that I can't run a marathon, I can run a marathon anytime. I maintain a permanent state of marathon readiness."

For some reason, that idea—maintaining a permanent state of marathon readiness—has been super-motivating for me this week. I've always believed that one of my biggest weaknesses is that I've never maintained a permanent state of any physical readiness for anything. Mental readiness, yes—put me in any meeting, any brainstorm, nearly any strategy situation within a reasonable content scope, and I would feel fairly confident about taking whatever information's available and parsing it into something solutions-oriented, outside the box, creative, strategic, organized, well-argued, and well-reasoned. But for anything physical—athletic, aesthetic, first-impression-ish—I'm at a complete loss, I need days/weeks/months notice, and I'll probably procrastinate prep and training until 36 hours beforehand, wherein I'll crash-diet and maybe manage to get to the gym once...maybe. So tl;dr, watching Neistat do stuff in his videos—and seeing how he approaches daily life in his vlogs—has made me think a lot about what I can do to get to a similar place of readiness confidence.


November 04, 2015

Before coffee thoughts, Day 2: Wednesday

I dislike starting the day with a problem, but last night the hot water valve in my building broke, so we only have cold water. I've been trying to decide whether or not I should just shower at the gym after a run this morning, but I really don't want to. I mean, I'm going to run. But I think the underlying issue here is that I really hate showering at the gym—i.e. I'd rather shower at home in cold water than shower there in hot water. When I think about that, then I start to think about why I didn't just join the fancy gym next door instead—and then I start questioning all the life decisions I've ever made up to this point.

Coffee, now.

Most weeks I start out strong. Monday isn't usually terrible for me—I'll have had the weekend to retreat into a deep reclusive state, gather my strength and thoughts. Wednesday, today, is the day where things slowly start to unravel—at this point my patience has worn thinner and my nerves are a little bit closer to being raw. By Friday, all bets are off and god help anyone who asks me a stupid question or throws me a curve ball. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I think it's funny that lipo costs as much or more than a custom built-in bookcase.

November 03, 2015

Before coffee thoughts, Day 1: Inside-head thoughts only

Every morning, I can tell immediately how the day is going to go as soon as I look in the mirror. Well, maybe this isn't completely true, but it's usually the first thing I ask myself when I brush my teeth—How is today going to go?—and I check my skin tone, how bloated I feel (which is usually directly related to what I ate for dinner the night before, it was fried chicken last night, so I have fried chicken face today), whether my eyes look tired, and if my brows need a once-over with some tweezers.

I'm going to try a new routine this fall. It's inspired by YouTubers who commit to vlogging every single day for a set period of time. I can't imagine doing that because I just don't feel like I have the time to edit a video every single day—not to mention I'm not even sure what I would vlog about (Day: I got up, I went to work on public transportation or on foot depending on how ambitious I'm feeling, now I'm at work, then I ate something, now I'm sleeping). But what I can do—and what I think would be a useful exercise to get me to organize my thoughts and take some time for myself everyday instead of springing out of bed and immediately veering into job-task mode—is type something in the morning.

The thing these days is meditation. People ask me all the time if I meditate. Usually these people are my friends from LA. I don't meditate. I'm not sure I could do that. I would probably fall asleep. Not sure if that's a bad thing, I haven't Googled it. But maybe typing things out can be my meditation moment. At least for now.

The only catch here is that the only time I have to myself, really, is way early in the morning, before my coffee is ready and while I'm drinking my coffee. So maybe these thoughts will be completely disjointed (which, at a glance, so far, they totally are) and random and embarrassing to read later on. But I'm thinking of this as an exercise for my brain—to get it back into writing about things that aren't culled from my RSS reader or sourced from outside my head. Inside-head thoughts only.

Here are some things I'm thinking about this morning.

WOTY: Glamour's Women of the Year Awards are coming up in a week. I'm spearheading the digital content arm of this year's organization and it's been epic, but one of the most rewarding things I've worked on in my entire career so far. I've been in rooms with some of the best minds in both our business and the political/newsmaking world at large. Sometimes I can't believe how far removed I feel from my near-past as a fashion editor.

Coffee: I'm really glad I finally organized my kitchen this weekend. I haven't really cooked anything in my kitchen since before I left for South Dakota last month, because it's been a mess and I haven't had the patience. But this weekend I put things on my new spice racks and put all my dishes away and now I'm back to making coffee in my Bialetti again (Illy coffee, my favorite) and so now in the morning when I wake up I don't feel an overwhelming sense of despair at having to go outside to get an unsatisfying coffee. Glad to be self-coffee-sufficient again.

Gym: I have a lot to do. I've had a lot to do over the past 10 months, and I haven't really had enough time to do all of it. So I've been skipping out on things I need to do for myself to do the things I need to do for work. tl;dr I haven't been to the gym in months because I haven't had time or energy. But I need to figure out how to fit normal things into my day. Instead of starting work at 7 a.m., I'm going to block off my mornings and start work at 8:30 instead. A tiny bit of compartmentalizing will maybe help me keep things in line.