Gold star and a hippo stamp

©careerusinterruptus

Yesterday, I received the greatest, most precious gift of all: Time alone, at home.

Alone time is rare enough; our situation is such that I used to only get two hours a week when I went to the library to write. COVID stopped that and although it’s now pretty safe here, I haven’t got back into the habit.

Especially after a week like the one just gone, where I’ve been OUT OUT OUT SOCIAL SOCIAL SOCIAL from first thing to late afternoon, every day: driving all around town for homeschool classes, looking after mum, piano lessons, shopping, appointments, spending a day with a friend. Come Sunday, I find myself thoroughly begrudging the idea of getting dressed and going out in the hot and the public, AGAIN.

Yep. Even if it means forfeiting the only two hours off duty I’m likely to get.

But as it happened, the off-duty time came to me. And four hours, not two.

All I had to do, was decide how best to use it.

I mean, a treat like that, you really want to make the most of it. Maxiumum benefit.

SO MUCH PRESSURE.

SUCH A CONUNDRUM.

What to do? How best to use all this glorious FREE TIME??

I’d written lots during the week, sitting in the corner of the homeschool class and during TV o’clock, so although writing is always my first three favourite things to do, it wasn’t exactly burning with urgency.

On the other hand, lots of other stuff, was.

There’s Christmas, charging at us like a wounded rhino. The kids are super excited and surprisingly this year, I am, too. We’re having three days away mid-December so I’ve set the goal of having it all done and wrapped before we go. (Voice in head: BWAHAHAHAAAA! AS. IF. Other voice in head: Shut up, you.)

I could go shopping, unencumbered, and enjoy some lovely air-conditioning. (Both voices: Although…shopping. UGH.)

I could rootle around online without distraction or fear of anyone asking what I’m looking at and why and here’s another six pages of their wish-list.

I could – ooh, I know what’d be smart – I could unpack the stash and see what, if anything, I’ve already bought, and for whom. Maybe even start wrapping. How great would that be for executive function and forestalling some pressure next month, eh?

Ooh! Or, OR, I could do tidying! I could tackle one of the Epic Messes that are driving me and the Skeptic out of our tiny little minds, and which I haven’t touched all week. I could – be still, my heart – I could THROW STUFF OUT without anyone wailing, reprimanding me for not recognising its intrinsic dearness, and carrying said stuff off to repose peacefully with its mates, on the floor in a different room.

Hell, I could do tidying with loud music. That’s fun! Therapeutic loud singing, sans criticism! And at the end of it there’d be Clear Space! HOW EXCELLENT WOULD THAT BE?!?

Although… One of the kids cleaned their entire room and – wait for it – threw a heap of their own crap out last month, all by themselves, without even crying. (Why is this not a milestone in the development books, eh? It bloody should be.)

In fact, they’re both levelling up. One of them is complaining regularly of boredom while resisting all change. (Hello, anxiety, you miserable bastard.) The other is hell-bent on solving it all by themselves now yesterday faster, but guess what? Also anxious, so SCREAMING.

I have a lot of fucking research to do, getting my head around all that – and if either of them catch me doing it, the consequences will be shitty. So this time would be ideal. Hell, if it reduced my stress at all, I might even be able to sleep. (Voice in head: suuuure. You’ll just magically start sleeping. That’s riiiiight. Other ViH: stink-eyes first ViH)

Orrrr, given that this time is a gift to me, perhaps I could use it to do some more reading about self-publishing. Chat to that lovely writer from the facebook group, who offered any help I could think of. So many questions!

But, god, I felt meh.

I was tired and it’s hot which makes me stupid. I couldn’t find any skerrick of mojo, anywhere. And I suppose there’s just the teensiest, weensiest chance I was over-thinking.

I dithered over the decision for a solid hour before they went, in between collecting and putting away groceries, hanging out laundry, and 999 questions from CraftyFish about Christmas. Once they left, I dithered some more. Two cups of tea didn’t help and the music, on when I started, was too loud. It got turned down, then turned down again, and when it disconnected itself, I didn’t restart it.

Instead I heard a third voice in my head, the quietest one, the one way down deep underneath all the shoulds and coulds, saying, “girl, you need a nap.” I heard it and I heard the ghostly whispers of all the good, smart, women I know, those amazing advocates of self-care, and fuck me, I did it. I pulled the plug on productivity. Took my hearing aids out, put the fan on, and lay down for a nap.

I’m not sure I slept. The shoulds, coulds, what-ifs and what-abouts are so bloody insistent. There are so many of them. And, I’m really not very good at this ‘rest’ business. But I tried. I lay down and shut my eyes and used my precious alone-time to Do Nothing.

And I am very, very proud of myself.

New writing, old tricks

To say I found academic writing difficult is a bit of an understatement.

The trouble is, I’m all heart. I fling myself into things without any much consideration: an idea either lights my rockets – in which case, liftoff is pretty much instantaneous – or it doesn’t, in which case, liftoff will never happen.

A lot of academic work I found pretty combustive. The vast array of ideas is fertile ground for a brain that likes bolting in eight different directions at once. I suspect this is why I ended up in media studies: at 24 frames a second, you can pack in a lot of ideas, even in short, throwaway texts like ads and pop videos. And the more academic work you read, the deeper you see into any given text and the more connections you can make to other texts. This is your classic gifted ‘deep dive’, and my brain threw itself at that stuff like a pig into wallow, gleefully.

But conveying what I saw, in writing, was a whole different story. Academic writing is WHOA, NELLY. Before you even start you must locate your text, choose your theoretical planks, craft them into a sea-worthy vessel, pack supplies, toss extraneous stuff overboard, and then navigate from island to island keeping the passengers from mutiny until you get to the New Land. (Where, yes, some set about slaughtering the inhabitants, though I’m more of a ‘settle peacefully’ kinda gal.) That’s a lot more orderly and restrained than gleeful wallowing, you know?

I struggled to get it. Could not shove my brain onto those rails. When my poor supervisor finally made me begin writing, I sat on the floor of my office surrounded by notes and literally moved scraps of paper around until a structure blossomed. Then I gave a presentation titled, ‘My Thesis Is A Flower’ (with diagrams), which caused her to laugh nervously and left everyone else in the room wondering what had happened to Introduction, Question, Methodology, Results, Conclusion. But it made perfect, theoretical sense to me.

In fact each petal (and in the end there were fourteen of the bastards) was a mini-thesis. Every single one had to cover where we were, how we were travelling, where we were going, what we’d find when we got there. Even once I had that plan, it took months of meticulous outlining to ensure I made each step in order, filled all the holes, and forged links between neighbouring petals. And then I could get to writing.

The whole thing took nine plodding years, and it thoroughly ground my gears. It felt like I’d travelled the whole way in first.

So I was thrilled to finally be freed from academic constraints. Now I could write whatever I wanted, full speed ahead. No references! No argument! No thinking – just writing! EASY! Flinging off the straitjacket, I galloped headlong into my novel about ten minutes after my last full-time contract ended. My glee at being back in the mud can be measured: the first draft was over 270,000 words, and getting it to float has taken 14 years.

(How many metaphors have I brought into play so far? That in itself is probably an apt metaphor for how my brain works!)

Quite a lot of that is down to loss of brain function over that time, but some of it was down to the fact that when I started, I knew only that I was headed west-ish. Turned out I was on little more than a raft. It shipped water, ran into countless reefs, someone had smuggled a llama onboard, and I stopped to observe every fish and seagull we passed along the way. I’ve spent easily half those years chucking stuff, reshaping planks, plugging holes, re-rigging, and shifting ballast, so that now I’ve got an actual, working vessel. This last draft cruised into port with the bunting out.

It was a terrific learning process, but for goodness sake, I cannot spend 14 years on each project. They’re light romances, not War and Peace, and I would actually like to sell one or two before I die.

So here I am, six chapters into Number Two and I’ve stopped again. Because I’ve remembered an important fact, dammit: novels have structure, too. (I’ve taught narrative often enough; you’d think I would have remembered and thought to apply it, but no. That’s not how gifted works. Gifted is either all on or all off, and wailing on the floor if you have to work at it.)

And while I am, clearly, 100% a pantser by nature, that really only works if you have sustained or at least regular writing time and a functional brain, one that remembers where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. (That is not my life, and it sure as hell ain’t my brain.)

So even though this book on writing annoyed the hell out of me triggered a giant attack of SAF, I do realise that the author is absolutely correct. If I don’t want to be at sea for another fourteen years, I need to set off knowing which islands we’ll be visiting, who’s on board, and a route that avoids the doldrums.

Alas, it turns out, I still have to do all the prior planning and preparation that prevents piss-poor performance, as my husband puts it so charmingly. I have to do – SIGH – plotting.

Luckily, I have the skills. And a generous supply of coloured pens and paper, tape, and scissors.

Lament for my lost EF

Ahh, Executive Function: the ability to plan, break tasks down into steps, prioritise, execute, and … what’s the last one? Oh yes: finish.

I remember that.

It used to be one of my superpowers. Once upon a time, my life looked like this:

I was enrolled full-time on a Masters degree, coursework plus researching and writing a 30,000-word thesis. I was also working 18hrs/week as a research assistant, collecting and analysing a range of print and video publications for someone else’s project. And I was also working 9hrs/week as a grad teaching assistant. The effortless tidiness of my office attracted colleagues’ admiration.

A few years previously, I’d helped found an animation lobby group, serving as treasurer and producing the newsletter. We were also managing a film project. I had helped obtain and distribute development funding, I’d drawn and submitted my own storyboard, I was helping assess the other proposals.

And that’s not all. In those days, my fella and I lived in a tidy two-story house; we did jiu-jitsu; we saved money; we cooked from scratch and packed our own lunches; we gardened. I had my own room with art and needlepoint supplies in frequent use. We went regularly to the movies and spontaneously invited people to dinner.

That life ticked all my boxes for intellectual stimulation and variety, physical activity, social time and quiet time. I thrived.

Aaaaaand then there’s now.

Now I have one job – homeschooling my kids, which I manage haphazardly – and one hobby that gets any meaningful attention. Even so, I’ve missed the GHF Writers’ EF-themed month, finally starting when by rights I should be excavating a giant pile of Lego, doll clothes, and dust, to find the source of the cat-pee smell.

Meanwhile this week I got to the bakery where I buy the kids’ lunch, only to discover I hadn’t brought my purse, and made an appointment with the hairdresser that I forgot within the hour. I wanted The Skeptic to come to the orthodontist with me because I didn’t feel capable of grasping it all; this was so important that I reminded him repeatedly … of the wrong time. We visited Mum on a day when it wasn’t my turn. And – shh, the kids don’t know this – but I started a small fire by putting a tray lined with baking paper down too close to a gas flame. Twice.

It has been like this for years. Check out this fun facebook memory that cropped up this week:

The playroom rug has never recovered, and my wallet was gone for 32 days, only turning up (in my son’s Lego box, where, fucking hell, I had put it) after I’d driven off without paying for petrol.

Often when I complain about this stuff with other mothers, they laugh it off. Oh sure, they say, giving an example of a goof that didn’t cost anything, waste anyone’s time, put anyone in danger, or ruin anything valuable. That’s parenthood, they say.

But I wonder. I mean, their kids go to school. They hold down jobs and keep fit and their cars don’t smell like they’ve been driving a giant plastic bag of lawn clippings around for a hot summer month. (Must remember to get that out of there today.)

Do they really live in a thick fog of Chronically Lost Things, Missed Appointments, and Forgotten Tasks? Because their nonchalance, their equanimity, suggests to me that perhaps it isn’t quite the same over there in Regular Shower Land.

You see, it isn’t just parenthood that did for my EF: it’s parenting these particular kids, with their screaming and their not-sleeping, their throwing things and their screaming, their mind-blowing questions and their endless bloody screaming, their separation anxiety and their violent school refusal and did I mention the screaming? Additionally, the past 13 years have brought heavy physical and emotional burdens that punched their own enormous holes in my neural networks, quite apart from the children, who will at any rate outgrow most of that stuff. (I hope.)

And I didn’t just lose my ability to get things done. I lost my whole sense of self, which had, rather unfortunately, been built on high – or at least, lots of – achievement. And on being ‘smart’. I don’t feel smart, any more. Where I used to be all about ideas – all the ideas! Big ideas! More ideas! – now I can find myself standing in the kitchen holding a piece of bread, wondering where the toaster is. (Answer: on the bench in front of me, where I put it just before opening the bread-bag.)

Yet Old Rebecca lingers like a snarky ghost, tutting and rolling her eyes when I’m searching for my keys/sunglasses/hearing aid/that thing I was just carrying that I meant to do something with. Whatever it was. She still counts ‘success’ by the number of things I can cross off the list, whereas New Rebecca is lucky to recall that the list even exists. Also, have you seen my shoes? ‘Useless’, she whispers. ‘FFS.’

It wasn’t until I encountered Jen Merrill’s “Adult-Onset, Child-Induced ADHD” (coined in her book) that I finally felt someone really got it. Then I found some other 2e mums IRL and online, those whose IQs have similarly shot from one end of the bell curve to the other, whose laughter is equally frequent, wry, and a little bit wild. Who celebrate the days we manage to have showers. Yes, that counts as an accomplishment these days. High-fives all round.

They’re awesome, the 2e mums, and I am so grateful to know them. They’re helping me be a better person. Whereas Old Rebecca could be a bit of a bitch, testy with those who couldn’t keep up, New Rebecca has a lot more compassion for those who’ve been trampled by wiring, life, accident or illness. She’ll chuck whatever goals she had for the day to share some cake and listen to your story, so I don’t for a moment regret her appearance.

I just… sometimes, I miss my brain.