Writing Whims (1)

This morning, I sat down and started brainstorming ways to follow my writing whims. It sounds like it makes sense but it doesn’t. I opened my planner and tried to come up with “writerly” activities and assign them a date and time. This is a logical action on a Monday morning, but it runs counter to what I’m trying to do.

What feels right is a moment to moment update. I can’t write down to work on my journalism class on Tuesday. I might not feel that way then. Would it still be a good idea to work on my class? Yes. I have a habit of letting go of pursuits that I am drawn to in favor of more mundane activities, like zoning out and watching tv. But the way that I attempted to “plan it” is counter to what I’m seeking here.

I did manage to follow what I consider my writing feeling for a while last night. I wrote nearly 1200 words in my private journal and 400 on this site. Then I did a couple of karaoke songs and attempted a bad portrait of my dog. Whatever feeling I am chasing, it seems limiting to call it “writing whim.” It pulls me to dancing, jumping around, drawing, and singing. Perhaps creative expression is a better term. Of course, judgement kills it off. At least for me. Reviewing my drawing pretty much ended the whole experience.

In short, I am now trying to plan how I will follow my creative whims, which implies that I misunderstand what the word “whim” means. Whims come and go. Whims are by definition unplanned and often illogical. I chose the word for a reason. I want to accept the unplanned and illogical more readily into my life.

Observation: I’ve noticed that I write this blog in a really clear and concise way. But I also pull out the stylistic flair that I often infuse into my writing when I know that no one will see it. My obsession with metaphors is not at all clear in this blog. Perhaps that will change over time. Or maybe the metaphors are the inauthentic part? Perhaps. But I want to add them here anyway because I like them.

Chasing that “Writing Feeling”

I will preface this post by saying that I write it under duress. A large part of me doesn’t want to commit to the project that this post represents. But I know that making this commitment will change the way that I write.

Are you confused? Me too.

Here’s my problem. I only ever write with a plan. Every page has an outline. Every outline has three bullets. Every bullet has links to references. Without a fleshed out plan, my fingers freeze and I can’t make the words come. Worse, when I have a plan, I write and judge the words harshly. Everything falls short of the plan. What I imagine and plan always seems to exceed what reality can provide. When I deviate from the plan, it’s less an exciting turn and more like a failure to plan correctly. Burdened with the need for a plan, my writing is slow and clunky.

This experiment is about writing without a plan. There is only one rule to follow. I must follow my writing whims. I often squash my obsession with poetry (due to lack of public support for poetry, including my own). I often prioritize other things over a whim. I focus on the items that seem “publishable” rather than what intrigues me. Who prioritizes a whim? Me, apparently. Starting now.

This post is a whim. But it’s also larger than that. It based on the powerful idea that committing to a change can make it so. By publicly stating that I want to write without a plan, perhaps I can give myself permission to do so.

I fully expect it to be terrible. I expect my back to clench and my teeth to grind. I expect to face the difficulties of trying to change a long ingrained habit – the rebelling body and mind against a new reality.

I fully expect that I will struggle to even proofread because re-reading my words can be agony. Especially when I’m being honest.

But I want to learn to write without a plan. Because I trust that, without a plan, I won’t get lost. Somehow, not having a plan will allow me to go where my writing has always wanted to go. Where that is? I especially do not know – as I’ve spent most of my life teaching myself to follow logic and reason instead of whims.

But I’ve learned over the past two years.

Whims lead me to more interesting places. Places that feel truer and more real than where all the logic has taken me.

So, every morning, I commit to asking myself where my writing whims want to take me. Perhaps they will take me to this WordPress blog. Perhaps elsewhere. I promise nothing – other than that I will ask this question and struggle everyday to answer it. Until one day, following my writing whims is no longer a struggle, but a way of living.

How Content Writing is Eating my Soul but I Still do it Because My Perfectionism Won’t Let me Quit

Every morning I deluge myself in positive phrases, but by evening I always know they are bullshit. When I slide out of bed in the morning, I overwhelm my brain with a shot of happiness. “I am a professional writer.” “I get to write for work today.” “All of my client scrounging has paid off.” This glow suffuses me as I make an opulent breakfast, enjoy coffee with a cat on my lap and do the next day’s Yoga with Adrienne in the 30 day series I’m trying. (This is procrastinating, by the way). But when I sit down at the computer, my heart gains 30 lbs and slides into my gut, which suddenly needs a pastry.

I cringe at the description of my content writing assignments. “Salesy content,” the lover of words within me throws up a little at this misappropriation of an already disliked noun. I try to console myself with the idea that I am going to be an expert of arcane topics. Ask me about truck customization, clay chimineas or the latest in detox diets. I can tell you everything. While that knowledge fills me up with a small glow, it dims at regular intervals.

In researching for my articles, I stumble across my twins, the other writers who scratch out a living using their amazing word synthesis and writing skills to blog for someone else. Looking up yard machinery leads to a wealth of summary articles. This is what an earth auger does. As I read it, I suspect the person who wrote it was like me, writing content for a pittance. It’s well-written, correct and yet obviously devoid of any love. No one played with those words, twisting them into fantastic shapes. They plopped onto the page like nuggets of poo, the excrement of a writer’s brain. Or at least that’s what I think is happening. Because that’s how I feel when I write this content.

There is a draw to this type of writing, but it is small to me. I enjoy searching for other writers’ content to supplement my views. Linking to authority sources like the Mayo Clinic or The New York Times connects me with a network of writers, a community of hyperlinks. I love when the words flow seamlessly from my fingers. But I cannot help feeling as though writing this way stifles me. When I want to do my favorite things, make the words dance across the page, use sentences in ways that they are not meant to be used or come to an astonishing conclusion that only makes sense in my mind, I don’t. Because it’s not the place nor the time. Nor is it worth my time. To make enough to pay my rent, I already have to move on the the next assignment.

So why do I continue? I like attaching the label “professional writer” to myself. I can’t envision myself as the sensitive artist who only wants to write “art” and speak from her soul. I can’t pay rent, which is already subsidized by my boyfriend, without this gig. Giving up seems like failure. Retreating is a fatal personal flaw.

I used to retreat because I thought I wasn’t good enough. I left my dream job after 2 years because I couldn’t fix a broken mission. I couldn’t make the engineering work or the vendors back down or do anything that I needed to do to make the mission succeed. Or so I thought. I ran away because I couldn’t grapple with the fact that I couldn’t do it. And here I stand again, on similar ground, but something within me feels changed.

When my heart drops into my stomach, I want to leave content writing forever. Those of you who don’t know me well might not recognize the key word in that previous sentence. It’s “want.” I “needed” to leave my old job. I needed space to piece myself back together. I needed time to convince myself that my failures weren’t enough to drown me. Now I just want to go. The leaden feeling in my fingers and the ache in my heart is not directed at my own failings. I suspect it’s actual distaste for the work.

But using “distaste” makes me feel like a pompous asshole. The hole in my heart seems the work of someone too sensitive to survive in this world. This isn’t good enough for you? A large part of my brain demands an answer. A tiny bright part answers ‘yes.’ Am I allowed to say that? Am I allowed to say that writing about titanium wedding rings sucks? Am I allowed to ask for a job that makes my soul sing and my words dance across the page once more? Better, am I allowed to abandon my guise as a professional writer and return my work to the place in my heart where it used to reside? Can I do something else as “job” and let my writing be something else?

My perfectionism says no. This is what you have always wanted, it claims. You are a professional writer, it says. I say that I am starving, not for food in my middle class existence, but for something to fill me up. The word “professional writer” is not as nourishing as I believed it would be. It tastes hollow and stale, this version that I have baked.

The small bright part of me tastes the emptiness in what I have created. It gives me permission to go seek that which fills me up. It says to let go of the content writing. It says to embrace the unknown and jump in. It calls me back to my pages I’ve deserted for others’ needs. It calls me back to myself.

Can I give myself permission to go?

Becoming a Professional Writer

This week, I can call myself a professional writer. I have written an article and received $10 for it. I am not hitting the big time; I am working for a content mill.

Yet, strangely, it makes me happy.

For a long time, I avoided the content mills. I thought, “I have a $100,000 college education. Why would I do that?” Then my situation changed. The choice became planting my butt in a car seat for hours a day as an Uber driver or try to work from the comfort of my own home (with a small gray cat in my face). To be honest, the pay isn’t that different. For each, $20 an hour is a good day. But, as an Uber driver, I sometimes sit around waiting, hoping for a rider. As a content mill worker, I know I have my $50 worth of articles to write and I can do them as I please.

The fact that I’m having fun working at a content mill has been eye-opening. For one, I thought myself above researching fashion trends and moonshine regulations. I’m not. It’s actually quite fun to learn about a random assortment of items and try to compose a narrative article. I’ve looked at webpages that I never would have seen otherwise. What do I do with my new knowledge that Adidas has created bioengineered yarn for shoes that can be dissolved with a catalyst and water? I don’t know. But someone is paying me to look up weird things online and write about it.

Isn’t that kind of awesome? Doesn’t every millenial want a job like this?

Maybe not.

But it’s illuminating to see how happy I am. Because I am having more fun working for a content mill than I did reviewing safety requirements or collaborating with customers as an engineer. This makes me think that I am on the right track. As I wrote in my journal earlier this week, “…at this moment, the “right track” fucking sucks. But I’m finally there.”

Why does it suck? Well, even driving Uber for almost 30 hours a week and taking on every article I can find, rent is still an impossibly high number. I was surprised by $1100 in unexpected heating costs (thanks to the sunny cold days in Seattle and our oil heated house). My boyfriend and I talked about the heating costs earlier this week. I said that we needed to have another $500 in the joint account. He asked who should put the money into the account. I nominated him…because I didn’t have it. That’s a first for me. My savings are about gone.

With this lack of money plaguing my mind, I applied for 4-5 other content mills. Indeed has become my go-to site, and I applied for five other random writing jobs.

In some ways, this is awesome. I threw out my rules regarding how much I was “supposed to” make per hour. Now a whole new world of writing opportunities has opened up to me.

But getting rejected by a content mill because “we have too many writers and not enough projects” is sobering. I also received a phone call from a company that wanted to check that I was a native English speaker. These things remind me how precarious my situation is, and Uber is not the cure-all that I hoped it would be. Uber is like any freelance work; sometimes there is work and sometimes there isn’t (though getting a ride on a weekday morning at 8am is practically a given in West Seattle).

My new method is to gather these flexible freelance writing jobs. Once I have a handful of them, I can jump around, taking whatever work is available to me. $80 here, $60 here and $200 there eventually add up to the money I need for rent.

And, yes, technically, I can call myself a professional writer.

Getting an LLC Up-and-Running in Two Weeks

If you have been following my posts, you know that I recently talked to a business owner, who had been interested in hiring me a contractor. He still wanted to hire me, but there was an obstacle, I had to create a LLC (Limited Liability Company) instead of Sole Proprietorship.

The main difference between a single-person LLC and a sole proprietorship is that an LLC protects your personal assets if you are sued. It separates your personal and company assets. Most entrepreneurs (and online forums) have recommended using an LLC company structure instead of a sole proprietorship. I founded a sole proprietorship in July, because I just wanted to overcome the (daunting) obstacle of “having a business.”

However, motivated by the potential to make money, I figured out how to create an LLC quickly.

  1. Apply to the Washington Secretary of State
  2. Grimace at the $200 cost of filing with the Washington Secretary of State
  3. Get a new EIN (employee identification number) (Note: I didn’t do this and realized that I needed to because my old EIN for the sole proprietorship may not work for the LLC since the name is different)
  4. Use the Secretary of State-provided UBI (unified business identification) to apply for a license with the State of Washington (-$20)
  5. Apply for a license with the City of Seattle (-$110)
  6. Be grateful that all of this is online

Even with the holidays looming, I managed to receive all my paperwork (state and city business licenses + LLC certificate of formation) by the beginning of year. It’s amazing what you can do when you are motivated.

On a personal note, I am strongly motivated by a lack of money. Uber has become my savior, providing a constant $15/hr before expenses. While I hate the alarm at 5:15am every morning, I know that driving Uber will earn enough money to survive until my first science writing client comes through.

That said, I don’t like driving as much as science writing, so I’ve also been motivated to cold call aerospace start-ups (by email), offering to create a blog and other content for them. I also pulled together a website for my new LLC (which doesn’t share my name) within about 24 hours (minus the time for the DNS to propagate).

I’ve learned that I can get a lot done in a short amount of time – because I want to avoid making $15/hr and instead move into more lucrative contracting.

The Boss you can Say “No” to

I have a problem with saying no, even when I should. This tendency used to serve me well. As a college swimmer, I rarely missed a day of practice. One cold January afternoon, I went to swim practice without eating because I didn’t have time. My coach nearly had to fish me out of the pool. I collapsed on a bench and he gave me a chocolate Chewy granola bar. After the requisite five minute break, I jumped back into the pool.

Despite my conviction that this was a good trait, I burned out and quit swimming in both high school and college. I did not want to keep repeating this pattern in my work.

At Pratt and Whitney, I barely brought my laptop home for the first few months. However, this job required travel, so I was bound to yes to months-long stints in other states. After I was sent to Tennessee for 4 months, I demanded a return to Connecticut. My managers actually obliged me and sent me home. I felt like I had lost four months of my life, but I was able to reclaim my boundaries.

I was not as successful at my next job, though I tried. My major battle was with answering emails. It was mandatory that my work email was accessible on my phone. In an effort to stay sane, I set my phone to manually update, so I wouldn’t see notifications about work emails unless I clicked on the icon. Once an evening, I would check it and respond to anything I thought was necessary. It seemed reasonable to me, until my lead engineer sat me down and calmly explained to me that I must answer the President’s emails, at any time of day, within an hour. Saying no was not an option if I wanted to keep my job.

Eventually, I said no emphatically and moved to another job. At the new job, I ran into the same issue. My boss told me that I could work flexible hours. I would come in at 6:30am and leave around 3:00pm to avoid the hellish traffic between West Seattle and Redmond. Then that was deemed unacceptable because every else worked more than 8 hours. Silly me, wanting to work 40 hours a week…? My little “nos” did not work here either, so eventually the big “no” came out and I quit.

It seemed like every time I constructed a reasonable boundary, the company that I worked for tried to demolish it.

So I looked for a job where I could set my own boundaries and found Uber. I was excited by the total freedom in my schedule. I could work the exact hours that I felt like working, no more, no less. With this level of freedom, I thought it would be easy to say “no.”

But it was still hard at first.

For the first week, I never declined a fare. I knew from looking at my ratings that declining a fare was bad, so I tried to never do it. My finger popped the screen and I jumped from one rider to another until my bladder was about to explode. Then I discovered that it was acceptable to just go offline (no ratings impact), so I did that.

It was still hard to say no.

Uber sends out messages when you try to go offline in an effort to make you feel guilty or inspire you. My least favorite is “You more money last week at this time than this week. Make $17.64 to catch up!” But I had committed to saying no, so I hit “go offline” anyway.

For days, I waited for the hammer to fall. What would happen if I didn’t do what Uber wanted to me to do? After about a week of going offline when I wanted to, I finally realized that there was little consequence to say no. I lost out on a few dollars, I suppose. But I wanted my freedom more.

On Friday night before Halloween, I got a text message from Uber about the high demand, asking me to go out and drive. I just laughed. I told my boyfriend that I would not be setting down my wine and stopping our movie to go drive around in the dark.

Finally, I have a boss that takes no for an answer.

Dramatic Website Changes!

The blog still exists, but it now a smaller part of my personal website.

In fact, this blog is now a great example of how my understanding of what I want to do has changed over time. First, I began with side projects. (Then, I got consumed with work, so I quit and spent more time on projects). Now I feel like I finally have a good balance. I work 25 hours a week and this website (and some book ideas) are my new project.

Honestly, work has been a fun project too. I think that I may have found my niche, systems analysis. I discovered this by spending hours pouring through all the SaaS products that we have and how they interact. Now I know how our website is linked to email campaigns and the credit card charging system. I see how people flow through the site in Google Analytics. It’s like a whole ecosystem, and I’m trying to figure out all the rules. Once I know the rules, I can make improvements – automate this process, eliminate this old thing that is just wasting space. It’s a lot of fun. I like seeing how the changes that I make impact the whole system (for better or for worse).

This discovery is the source of the website changes. I want to do even more systems thinking! I want to expand to bigger systems and more understanding. For a while, this will probably be personal projects and part-time job. I have an idea for a book that is coalescing in my mind. These projects are fun and they are building up my portfolio. One day, I hope that people will hire me as a systems thinker.

It will hit upon all my favorite things to do:

  • Deeply delve into a system through research
  • Devise tests to see how the system reacts to changes (experiments)
  • Communicate how the system works in written and graphical format
  • Innovate ways to improve the system

To some people, this may sounds pretty boring. But me, ah, I can spend all day jumping from program to program trying to understand how they are connected. In my current job, it’s usually a person connecting the programs, so it’s especially neat to interact with other humans in the system. Other people are more surprising and exciting than software. I love seeing how people interact in systems.

In short, that is why the entire website is now drastically different.

What Happened to Time off?

I re-started writing this blog to showcase what I did while I was not working. Abruptly, I stopped writing. Guess what happened? — I got a job —

Generally, this is a good thing. It’s nice to have money and stability. But, to be honest, I fought being hired for quite some time. It took a very persuasive manager to get me back into an office. It was quite enjoyable being free to do my own thing, and I still had a couple of months of money left.

So how did he convince me?

Well, it’s another startup for one. I love startups. I enjoy being able to make a real impact by my presence. It makes me feel powerful when I see customers buy because of something I did.

He proposed a purpose – to help the company run more smoothly. I will admit that I was lacking a clear purpose during my time off. Suddenly having one dropped in my lap felt right. I like having a purpose. This purpose, in particular, intrigued me. I have spent a lot of my life trying to make processes smoother. I’m the one that invents new ways to drop cookies onto a cookie sheet faster  – I test multiple ways to complete tasks (especially boring ones) to see which is the most effective.

Aside: This habit often makes people that I am highly efficient. They don’t usually see all the experimentation time before I find an efficient way to do things. 

Also, my co-workers are pretty awesome. I feel appreciated and useful.

So, I am working again.

This leaves me with less time to do cool projects and post interesting things online. But it does give me the funds to go on trips, pay the bills, and take new classes.

Despite having 40 less hours per week, I do commit to doing interesting things and posting about them here. For example, the whole publishing a poetry anthology things deserves a post at least.

More to come…

Complex Systems & Data

Over the past few months, I have been exploring my fascination with complex systems (preferably with a human element). At my previous job, I did deal with complex engineering systems (or logistical systems) on a regular basis. However, it didn’t pique my interest as much as societal or biological systems. While engineering systems do have a tendency to behave in unexpected ways, the surprises that spring from human systems are more intriguing to me. I’ve recently decided to develop a new skill, data science, that can be more readily applied to human systems.

To support this new interest, I have written a few times about studying Python, but I more recently made a big commitment. I will be participating in the Seattle Data Science Dojo next week. It’s a 50 hour course for learning the basics of data science. I’ve already completed 8 hours of preparatory work, and each bit has been more thrilling than the last. Instead of slowly moving toward data science with Python, I decided to jump in feet first. By the end of next week, I hope to know whether data science is a career that I want to pursue or simply a tool in my kit for understanding complex systems better.

I hope it’s the former. The preparatory work got me thinking in new ways that I really enjoy. I keep finding new applications of big data. It also seems like a great way to defend my occasional (very large) leaps of logic. I haven’t been so excited for classes since I began college! It’s been a bit overwhelming – how excited I am. For quite some time, I have not allowed myself to get this excited. It’s scary to do so. The crash if I end up hating it will be so much harder with this much initial excitement. Yet I’m excited anyway. While logically this fits with my known interests etc. (blah blah blah), emotions are the spice of life. I think I’ll enjoy this class a lot more if I allow myself to be truly excited about it.

So, I’m pretty excited.

I do plan to be completely consumed with this for the next week though. 10 hours of class a day plus commuting will eat up most of my waking hours. Please don’t expect a de-brief until I recover next weekend. 🙂

Playing the Violin

I’ve always loved the sound of strings. Escala and Lindsay Stirling are among my favorite artists. Nothing sweeps up my emotions like the violin. This alone is reason enough to want to play the violin. But I have other reasons as well. Sherlock Holmes and Albert Einstein used the violin to help them think. It was an outlet for their body and soul, while their minds tinkered with tough problems. So, the violin is a romantic notion to me.

Yet I’ve tried to learn before – and it didn’t go well. I was in fourth grade, so maybe I ought to give myself a break. The squeaky piercing shriek that I eked out of the violin was so far from my dreams. The two sounds didn’t connect in my mind. I began to hate the violin and quit my lessons after 6 months.

Now I like to think that I have more patience. It was still difficult for me to commit to playing the violin. I couldn’t shake the notion that lessons were no fun (courtesy of my past experience). But I finally found a cheap violin for $100. It came with a bow and rosin. It was a small commitment (compared to a $500 setup or lessons), so I bought a violin last summer. Now I’ve begun to play it.

It was worth the $100. I’ve enjoyed my hours of watching violin YouTube lessons. My favorites so far have been Red Desert Violin, which showed me how to hold the bow and stroke the violin properly. Eddy Chen told me about people use their left hand the wrong way. I’ve devoured the videos; researching temporarily consumed me. But I now understand that this is not a quick process. I spent three days just practicing the bow stroke – and I still practice every time I bring out my violin.

I’ve also learned some lessons – like, I can’t play properly without the right alignment. After days of cramping, a bruised chin, and a unsuccessful experiment with foam and dish towels (courtesy of eHow), I went to a violin store to get the proper chin rest and shoulder pad. It was a bit embarrassing, bringing my Chinese factory-made violin to an exclusive Seattle violin store. In my mind, it showed my new dedication, as I was terrified of entering such stores before. (I hate for people to know how ignorant I am about violins – but I really wanted the parts). My devotion to my new instrument is now nearing $200 ($90 for a chin rest and shoulder pad).

The good news is that I am now set up as a beginner. I cannot think of any more parts that I will need. My factory violin is all I need to learn good technique. All I want to do is be able to play notes well. I don’t need to become part of an orchestra. I still want to be Einstein and Holmes, simply using the violin as a peaceful way to cogitate. I’m certainly not there yet – I can play 4 notes well about 80% of the time – and it takes all of my concentration. But I’m determined to learn and, unlike my fourth grade experience, every time I practice only reinforces this desire.