Art is relentless. It’s hard to break free.
Through March 3, the audiobook of Road Out of Winter is on sale for $4.99 at Apple Books, part of their '“under 5” promotion. Audiobooks are expensive, and this one is so compellingly read by award-winning actor Brittany Pressley—who reached out to me for more insight, researched southeastern Ohio, and was my very first choice for a narrator—snap it up while you can.
Just Watch TV
I missed a deadline recently. That almost never happens. This wasn’t a deadline for something I was contractually bound to write, but a themed issue for a magazine that fits well with my next book, so I was hoping to pitch a story. And I wrote the date down wrong.
I hadn’t worked ahead because I was too busy meeting another deadline, this one for a fellowship (I made that one!). One trick I learned early in my career—or maybe early in single parenting—is to mark deadlines a few days in advance of when they actually are, to trick myself into making sure I get done in time.
But this time, I failed.
I am so very tired. We all are. Tired of waking early and getting a reluctant kid ready for school where he can’t play and just be a kid. Tired of the no breaks—not even small ones: my mom taking the child for the weekend, a playdate with friends, dinner out with friends, dinner out at all.
And the deadlines. So many deadlines. The deadlines were there before, but not compounded by the isolation and total drudgery of the pandemic. The unrelenting sameness of it all. I love our house, but it’s the same house. I take walks, but there are only so many directions I can go. Every night I look forward to peering up through the skylight to see what the moon is doing. I rearranged my office just for the hell of it the other day, even though it meant I lost a day’s work.
And the work. The work is unending. It has to be, because I don’t get a regular paycheck. I go from deadline to deadline. And then I faltered, misstepped and missed one.
I needed a reset.
A year into the pandemic, one of the patterns my small family has settled into is that after dinner and dishes, the child takes a bubble bath, my partner plays a video game, and I watch TV upstairs on my laptop. It’s a little thing and a very small amount of time, maybe forty minutes if we’re lucky. Still, it’s the only time all day we have to be alone.
But I don’t just watch TV in my time. I answer email, I write things down in my planner, I work on social media. I work.
I don’t rest. I never just rest. And then something happened the other night.
A Discovery of Witches was particularly engrossing, my phone ran out of battery, or the pen I had brought with me to bed didn’t write. Something happened and I didn’t work when I rested. I just watched a witch show for forty minutes. I can’t remember the last time I did that.
I have dismissed advice about overworking because I don’t feel like what I do is work. It’s less and much more. It’s hard but it doesn’t feel like it, even when I’m under time constraints and trying to pull a more analytical piece of journalism together.
At the artists’ colony, where I hung out with visual artists, so much so that my photographer friend asked if I could leave the writers’ house and move my desk into the studios, I learned the phrase artistic practice. (I was embarrassed not to have known this before, but I did grow up next to popcorn farmers.) Right away this phrase appealed to me.
Practice. Something you do every day. Something at which you are constantly striving.
But the downside of that is the constant part. Art is relentless. It’s hard to break free. Sometimes a walk isn’t enough. Sometimes switching genres isn’t enough. Sometimes you need a real, turn-off-your-brain break.
You need to just watch TV.
You can’t go—I can’t go—from deadline to deadline, article to grant to essay to book, without a small pause in the middle. A real pause of nothingness. A reset. Just a few moments for the switch to recalibrate, for you to, without working. (Even the relatively mindless work of updating social media or looking at your phone is still work.)
Just watch TV. I recommend teen supernatural shows, network dramas, historical ridiculousness. Don’t think. Don’t be for forty minutes, thirty, twenty—whatever you have. Don’t be so that later you can be present for your work, for your practice, for when it really counts.
If you need help to rest or feel calm, common skullcap, like valerian, is a great herb. The flowering plant is part of the mint family, and can be taken for sleeplessness as well as for anxiety. One of its older names is mad dog weed because it was thought to be a cure for rabies (it’s not).
I don’t suffer from insomnia often, but when I do—usually because I’m worrying and can’t turn my brain off—I really do. Skullcap is good for turning off that racing mind. You can find skullcap in teas in many grocery stores, or as an extract in health food stores. I find it has an almost immediate calming impact.