How many of you have gone to sleep at night or woken in the morning thinking, “I’m going to be more productive and prioritize my time better.” Whether it’s because you have been procrastinating lately or maybe you have had a never ending “To Do” list for some time now and work, studying, or something equally important kept getting in the way. The point is that you made this promise to yourself and you meant it. You honestly and wholeheartedly wanted to change. The only item you wanted on your list when you were given the opportunity of having free time was to simply relax and do what you wanted. You looked forward to a better day.
Now, how many of you failed within those first few moments, hours, or at most a week into your mission to “change” when you picked up that “To Do” list. Mmhhmmm.
That has pretty much been the story of my life for the last three months since I graduated. No matter how much I cross off my lists (one is never enough), I find myself constantly adding to it. It’s not that I’ve been unproductive. If fact, AlhamduliAllah, I do get a lot completed, but it always leaves me feeling scattered because there’s still so much to tackle.
Islam teaches Muslims to be balanced. We can truly have it all as long as what we seek is beneficial and we are satisfied with what is in our possession. I don’t believe in settling for less, but I do believe that we must recognize the blessings we already have and build on them to better ourselves, not because we want to outshine others but because we are determined to reach and triumph to our full potential. We must conquer that overwhelming feeling of never having enough time in the day. (I wrote about the importance of time in an earlier post.) We are not burdened with more than we can bear.
“Allah does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity.”
Quran, Surat Al-Baqarah [2:286]
I have reached the point where I throw balance out the window and focus on what I feel is important for the day. This puts me in a long loop, which unintentionally has me neglecting either my writing or personal needs, like sleep. Yes, I actually have sleep on my “To Do” list.
For those of you who know me on a personal level, you are aware of my OCD perfectionist ways. Hence the title of my blog. I’ve been trying really hard to move away from my OCD perfectionist tendencies, but I realized this summer that being in control of specific aspects of my life (regardless how insane it may make others or even me feel) are what provide balance to my life. I need the control in my life with moments or even days of spontaneous outbursts. When these spontaneous eruptions occur, the aftermath isn’t so severe. I can just jump back on track.
I know that the waves of imbalance easily can take over my life as a writer. Take my blog. When I created my writer page on Facebook, I promised myself I would at least share my writing more often. My goal was to post on my blog every Thursday. I also wanted to post little things here and there on my page a few times a week. I was solid with my blog for two weeks before a disruption to my schedule occurred. It was family related and in my book, family always comes first.
To tell you that I just let it slide and thought, “whatever, I’ll just post again next week,” would be a lie. I felt very guilty for breaking my own promise. I tried to find a legitimate excuse but couldn’t put myself at ease. I looked back at what I had spent my week doing and found that I had been very productive. I’m proud to say that I even got into a high energy writing flow with my next novel. I still didn’t feel like I deserved the rest. If not for family, I would have secluded myself to write. Instead, I was meant to take a break from writing for the weekend.
I’ve come to accept that I can potentially control most things that are present in my life… Except for my writing. My writing, like the sea of thoughts in my head, cannot be tamed. Placing my thoughts into writing is like capturing snowflakes on the tip of my finger and believing it will let me examine it’s beauty before melting. I have a lot more similes and metaphors to writing, but I’ll spare you the pain.
"There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter—and bleed."
If this is the case, how do I organize my time in such a way that writing can still be a priority? This post is mostly dedicated to my fellow writers. I made a list of how to stay sane while at war with my writer self. My lists never have numbers because I understand that my priorities continuously shift around based on significance to me in the current moment. In this list, I chose the largest aspects of my life and went a little further by defining what each one means to me and how I will factor it into my life. Most importantly, I have an understanding with myself that when my writing itch calls, I find a way to answer it between whatever I’m doing, even if just to jot down notes.
This is what it looked like:
Islam is not a religion to me as much as it is a way of life. Being a devout Muslim and adhering to my faith is my number one reminder to constantly go after what I love. As I said in my last post, I write to educate and entertain both others and myself. Above all, I write to set myself and others free. Writing is my intense concoction of caffeine, yoga, serenity, and deep breaths. To me, writing is my ocean. My faith keeps me grounded. The simple pleasures of my faith, like prayer and dua’ (supplication) are my avenue for rest and rejuvenation. Adhering to my religious responsibilities forces me to slow down and appreciate my life.
To all you writers out here, regardless on where you stand with your beliefs, you must have faith in something. There’s a reason you write and share words with others, even if it’s just to breathe. Don’t stop. Don’t stop believing in your work. Don’t stop believing in your writing.
No matter where I am or what I’m doing, my family never fails to be there alongside me with support and love. I can and will work my entire life to give back to my family, but I know it will never be close enough to what my parents have given me. I know I’m incredibly blessed with the family that Allah swt has given me. My family always comes first. If I’m needed, I put down what I’m doing and free my time to them. Everything does have limits and my family understands this.
If you’re reading this and thinking, I don’t have anyone I call my family, I find that very hard to believe. I don’t consider family to just be those I share my bloodline with or genetics. Family can be that one person who did not look past all your imperfections, but instead chose to accept them and provide you with love, support, and dua’/prayer/good thoughts to only better yourself. As much as I would drop what I’m doing to answer my family, I would do the same for my best friends and loved ones. I may not always receive the same consideration back. That’s okay.
"Do not be people without minds of your own, saying that if others treat you well you will treat them well, and that if they do wrong you will do wrong to them. Instead, accustom yourselves to do good if people do good and not to do wrong (even) if they do evil."
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
Reading & Book Discussions
As writers, we began as readers. The more I focus on my writing, I find myself forgetting the piles of books I have waiting for me to read. I have actually arrived at a point where I buy more books than I read. I recently came upon this realization was beyond depressed. What happened to my habit of devouring at least a book a day?? I’m a fast reader and a book a day means spending a measly three hours reading, which is nothing compared to how much time I find myself staring into space when I’m trying to decipher an idea that struck me for one of my stories. When I feel like punching my computer screen or pain starts to spread through my fingers and wrists, I shutdown my computer, silence my phone, and put both out of sight for at least twenty-four hours.
The purpose is to help me refocus my attention on relaxing. Since I have no understanding of relaxation, I pull out a pile of books and disappear from the real world, coming up for air only to pray and sometimes eat. (You may have noticed by now, sleep is never a top priority and you’ll know why later.)
I finally took my writing a bit further by taking part in my first live book discussion last Sunday. A group of my friends from graduate school and I decided to stay in touch and create our own project periods. We swap our writing and provide feedback. One a month, we take part in a book discussion on a book one of us has chosen. I can’t tell you how fun it was. To connect ideas, discuss elements in the story through different perspectives as individual readers, and find connections brings you together as writers on so many levels. I have never actually been a part of a group of writers.
When I wrote live book discussion, I didn’t mean we were all in one room, dressed in girly summer dresses with our books having a cute little tea party. Does that sound like me? Of course not! I would be wearing jeans… We started out on Google Hangout, each sitting in our cozy homes with a mug of something warm and our books by our side. When technology started to fail us (as it always does), we jumped onto Facebook message and used it chat-style. I think we were on for four hours.
I firmly believe that every writer has to be a part of book discussions. If anything, it will keep you reading and strengthen your writing. No excuses. If you’re a writer, you MUST have friends who love reading almost as much as you do. Suggest a book and plan a day to meet up for coffee in person or online. Trust me, you’ll never regret it!
Agents & Querying
As writers, we know that sending our work out into the world whether it be to online journals or in hopes of publishing our novels, is scary, painful, and makes us feel like we’ve lost all sanity in the process. We expect a flurry of rejections or worse SILENCE, which in my case makes my migraines bearable because searing pain exploding throughout my head becomes easier to handle than feeling like my writing is worthless. As writers, we must come to accept all of this. I don’t think others realize how strong and thick skinned we become. It doesn’t mean that we’re not hurt and don’t spend days moping around our room bags under our eyes as black as our sweatpants. Reality comes knocking and we are forced to pick ourselves back up and keep writing.
It’s important to remember that when we are rejected or look back at our earlier work and recognize how horrible our earlier writing may have been, we must NEVER stop sending out work out. I haven’t written a short story since my days at UCSD. My current focus is to get my novels seen and published. Researching agents and sending out queries have taken up a lot of my time. While I find the right agent, I keep writing. I continuously edit my first completed novel, because I’ll never be satisfied with it until it’s published. I keep going with my other novels. As cliché as it is, don’t give up on your writing. Just don’t.
Yes, I’m a writer. I wish that were enough, but to me writing is a form of sustenance, like water. I don’t know if it’ll bring me stability, economically speaking. What I know for certain is that I hate being trapped by four walls. Spending a full day at home is enough claustrophobia for me. Even if there’s a storm outside, I’d rather be out there with it than confined inside the house for more than a day. When I say I seclude myself when I write, that basically means I drive to a far coffee shop and hog one table for HOURS to write. I get up to pray (asking for the person near me to keep an eye on my stuff) or order something to drink. I don’t eat when I write. Liquid serves as my fuel.
No matter how old you become, I don’t believe in ever losing hope in reaching that dream job or a career that will make you happy. I have friends who keep insisting I need to just chill and enjoy not having an actual “real” job. My plate is already full. That doesn’t stop me from keeping an eye out for a the position that I want and applying. In the meantime, I keep writing.
To me, I can’t speak for all writers here, sharing my work is terrifying. My writing is basically my thoughts revealed for all to see. That’s why I started this blog. The funny thing is, I still struggle to post on here. I spend a week trying to figure out what I want to share publically. It’s rare that I write my posts earlier in the week. I have dedicated my Thursdays to writing my posts. I spend the first few hours of my day just getting past the first page… and then I can’t seem to shut up. Everything just flows, spilling my river of thoughts all over the pages. That’s okay. As I said before, my blog is my unorganized, informal, mostly uncensored sphere where I just let my thoughts loose.
I originally told myself that if I had a blog, I wouldn’t need to share my personal writing. That’s ridiculous. I do need to share my stories and parts of my novels with readers and writers. I promise that when I can’t find something specific for my blog, I will start sharing a story or chapter of one of my novels. Disclaimer, it will be an unedited version. I do need to share with other writers. I agreed to join my friends in our self-driven project periods because it forces me to keep writing and receiving feedback for my work. I must always be in a constant state of learning to better myself as a writer.
All you writers out there, find one reader and one writer to read your work. Both will see your work differently and provide that balance of creative criticism to what works and what doesn’t in your writing.
My first mentor once told me, “Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage. Just 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery.” I still don’t know who originally said this, but I wholeheartedly believe in these words.
This is how I feel every time I post on my blog…
Yes, I have maintaining a social life at the end of my list. It’s always on my list because I do think it’s important. Truth is, I only keep in touch with a few friends. I rarely see or speak to anyone aside from my best friend. We’ve maintained at least one very long phone call to each other once a week since graduating from UCSD. She’s even called me several times when I was overseas in Palestine last fall. On a daily basis, or even weekly, there are two to three friends I stay in touch with. I have a habit of falling off the face of the Earth when I’m deep into my writing.
I do think you need to stay in touch with the rest of the world, but to each his or her own way. I’m a very private person and have never needed to be surrounded by a large group of friends. That being said, I love my friends and I believe in keeping in touch with those you care about. When one of my friends comes to mind, I’ll simply send a text, joke, Gmail chat, snapchat, picture, just something small to tell them I’m thinking of them. I don’t find the need to go out with a large group of friends to stay in touch. Those I care about know it well.
My friends are the ones who when we do speak, even if it’s after a week or a few months, there are no awkward pauses or silences in our conversation. Quite simply, stay in touch with those you respect and love. Surround yourself with good company.
“A good friend and a bad friend are like a perfume-seller and a blacksmith: The perfume-seller might give you some perfume as a gift, or you might buy some from him, or at least you might smell its fragrance. As for the blacksmith, he might singe your clothes, and at the very least you will breathe in the fumes of the furnace.”
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
Don’t forget to love for others what you would love for yourself. Don’t let jealousy or arrogance take over your heart. This is what I was referring to when I wrote to recognize your blessings and be happy for what Allah swt has given us. We each carry our own hardships and moments of happiness come in different forms.
"None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself."
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)
I call relaxing breathing because I have this tendency to get so caught up in what I’m doing before I realize I am literally holding my breath when I’m stressed out. I’ve had swimmer lungs since I was a kid and holding my breath for long amounts of time is easy for me. When my energy while working on something reaches intense levels, I feel myself begin to shake from how fast I’m typing or how quick I’m working on a task and my breathing slows down until I’m actually holding my breathe, taking silent but large intakes of breaths.
If I sound crazy remember I’m a writer. In my defense, you already knew I was insane.
The reality is we all get caught up in something we believe is terribly deserving of all our energy and attention. At some point, it begins to consume us. My writing does this. I need to stop and slow down. I need to breathe. Once a week, doesn’t matter when as long as it’s one day out of week, I force myself to slow down for a few hours and… just… breathe.
I don’t include sleep under relaxation because I have insomnia. Sleeping comes in small amounts. Sometimes three hours is too much or just enough. I feel ridiculous when I finally fall asleep long after Fajr (dawn) prayer, wake at a time people consider to be late, and have to explain to my parents that I actually barely got enough sleep the night before. Worse is when I wake up in the middle of the night and I’m up for a few hours. I use this time to read Quran or develop one of my novels. Since I have vivid dreams, sometimes I choose not to sleep at all. It’s just easier to tackle sleep the next night.
Read. Drink tea. Memorize Quran. Doodle. Work on photography. Listen to music. Drive around aimlessly. WHATEVER! JUST SLOW DOWN AND BREATHE!
Writing for me comes in intense outbursts – writing like a maniac for 16 hours straight and then BAM. Nothing. A void. Sometimes it takes me a month or more to get back to a story. The novel I’m finally back to working on took me a year to pick up again.
I have writing at the end of my list not because it’s the last priority, but because it’s always present in my life. However, it’s not something I have control over. I can’t force myself to sit down and write. That’s why I have always hated writing exercises in school, yes even at my MFA residencies. As crazy as this may sound, I don’t control my writing. It controls me. I know that every single writer reading his will agree with me. What do I do when that light bulb bursts from a great idea… and I’m in the middle of driving on the freeway or in the shower? Let’s face it, all our greatest life decisions come to us while in the shower.
I just know that there is one soul on this Earth who has come up with THE solution to finding peace in the Middle East while taking a long shower and forgot it the moment he/she stepped out of the bathroom. Typical.
I have come up with a solution. A recorder. My father actually gave me this idea. Since I talk to myself while I’m alone anyways, why not put it to use. In all seriousness, there is not a moment when a writer’s mind is not at work. I have just trained myself to tune it out. If I didn’t, my insanity would be on display at all times. That would be an issue for my choice of being a private person in public. When I can’t have access to a pen and paper or a technological device of some sort that allows me to jot down my thoughts and brilliant ideas, I record it.
Don’t forget, all geniuses throughout history were also insane.
I’m going to cut myself off right here and try not to go back and edit what I have just written. I’m out at a coffee shop writing this. It’s 8:30 pm, my hands are starting to shake from the crazy amount of caffeine I have consumed and lack of breathing I’ve been doing. I have a long drive home, which is perfect. Driving is one of my favorite ways to unwind and breathe.
Until next week… If you’re actually still reading this. You are awesome.