I bought a new planner for 2021, slimmer and less extensive than my 2020 planner, which had a third of its pages left unfilled. On one page in the spring, I realized when I went back to look, my son had scrawled in his third-grade penmanship: Nothing matters! We’re all going to die!
So, 2021 is starting cautiously, at least in my planner.
But like everyone, I have a lot to do alongside surviving. Edits for my October 2021 novel TRASHLANDS are due early next month—and it’s the biggest, most ambitious book I’ve ever done, with multiple narrators telling the story of a community in a junkyard. I have a grant from National Geographic to report upon the pandemic, virtual readings and book club visits lined up, and of course the business of trying to pay the bills.
Despite being smaller, my 2021 planner has a new feature. After Main Goal for the Month, it has a blank for Reward.
Reward? Isn’t the reward for accomplishing your goals … accomplishing your goals?
I’ve never had a problem being motivated. Having to write in order to eat will do that to you. But well before that, I was independently driven. In elementary school, several of my teachers let me “work on my book”—whatever I was currently scribbling in the Mead, spiral-bound notebooks I went through like candy—rather than listen to announcements. When I was in grad school, one of my professors said his main job was getting out of the way.
But the grind we’re in now—the never-ending pandemic; the constant stream of trauma, violence, fascism, lying; the lack of socialization or breaks or childcare; the increased drudgery and hypervigilance—it can wear even the sharpest knife down.
My reward for finishing my work has always been … more work. Other work. A new writing project or idea waiting for me, shiny and new, on the horizon. I’ve got that now. I churned out a new book draft last fall during my son’s school Zoom meetings. I had to leave it waiting while I switched gears to TRASHLANDS edits.
But I finished the first pass of those edits late last week, and I found I needed something else, not just an immediate jump into more work, even different work. I needed something that is actually a break.
My reward for finishing my work now is rest, which can take many forms: reading, cleaning (I’m a nerd who loves to organize), watching dumb TV. And maybe sometimes, though not all the time, that reward can be material. Uncertain what to write under Reward in my planner this first month, I wrote buy witch books. And I did. Three material things helping me through this pandemic winter have been: a velvety electric blanket, CBD lotion, and $18 sweatpants.
Maybe you need to order wine. Maybe you need to get yourself a plant. Maybe the way to get your work done now is to change the reward system, to have a reward system. Other rewards I’m planning for myself in the future include candles, hiring a redesign for my website, and getting a tattoo when it’s safe to do so. Rewards don’t have to be indulgent, expensive, or self-destructive. My whole family will appreciate these electric candles, and an updated website would be good for my career.
My creative process has always included walks to think. But in these dark and difficult days, I think I need something waiting for me at the end of the walk too, something kind.
Early in the pandemic, a longtime friend who is a poet contracted the virus. She mentioned lion’s mane as the only thing helping her “brain fog”—the confusion, disorientation, and just mental sluggishness that is now a well-known component of the virus. She said she had picked up some of the lion’s mane, a mushroom sold powdered in capsules, on a whim at the health food store, but was glad she had listened to her intuition.
I had just bought lion’s mane myself in error, meaning to pick up my favorite mushroom, cordyceps, and misreading the label in my haste to get out of the store.
But my family has found that the lion’s mane I got by accident really helps when we’re having a hard time concentrating; feel out of it, tired, or worn-down—feelings that most of us are cycling through now. You can forage lion’s mane of course if you’re careful, or find it whole in some stores and cook it like any mushroom. Listen to your intuition, and maybe have some on hand.