Tag Archives: UCSF

why it matters to write fiction in the middle of a busy work day

kitties are always in flow...

I still have a houseful of apples — and a freezerful, now, of applesauce packages. The goal for this weekend is to get a couple-three pies into the freezer before I leave for the east coast. Anyone have a good (aka flaky!) gluten-free pie crust recipe?

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So, yesterday I got to talk with Jianda Monique, who does the Lesbian Relationships podcast on BlogTalkRadio, about transformative writing and about the social-change possibilities of writing freely in community and about AWA and the power of a regular writing practice and the workshops and the erotic reading circle. (check out the mp3 of our talk!) At one point, I thought to myself, maybe I should stop talking about this thing (whatever it was) and we can get to some more of her questions; we must have about a half-hour yet, still. I opened the little clock on my computer and it said we only had 8 more minutes! I nearly burst out laughing — how’d that happen? We only got through about an eighth of the great list of questions that Jianda had come up with; I hope I get to talk with her again! (Check out her other shows, too!)

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This morning I’m thinking about the workshops at UCSF, with the Medical Education staff. Our first round of 8 weeks just finished last week, and we’ll start another round next month. What I want to talk about is why it matters to write fiction in the middle of a busy work day. (That is, assuming that writing fiction isn’t your work!)

I mentioned this idea of flow here before. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has several books he’s written about this concept. Flow is a sort of optimal experience that we move into when we are fully engaged in the task at hand (so much so even that we lose track of time), when we both have the skills for the task and are challenged to stretch somewhat to keep doing it, when we have time enough for the task and are able to concentrate on it, when we have clear goals for the task and receive feedback about our progress (either from the task or from outside others). Csikszentmihalyi calls these experiences autotelic: a self-contained activity, one that is an end in itself, that is worth doing because it is so enjoyable and engaging.

I often feel this experience of ‘flow’ when I am freewriting about something important to me (a story I’m working on or that I’m trying to find language for, for example): I will lose track of time, I have the skills necessary for the task and am constantly also having to reach for just there right words (which are, of course, forever just beyond my grasp), I have a clear goal (the story, the telling) and get feedback from the page (amount written, progress) and also from my internal sense of whether I’ve gotten it ‘right’ — I have also experienced this ‘flow’ when working on computer programs, playing around in html, gardening, reading, cooking…

I sometimes experience this ‘flow’ at my day job: when I can cut out the distractions (email, say, or other interruptions) long enough to fully focus on a learning and mastering a new database task, or when I can figure out how to accomplish something that would otherwise be tedious and mindless in a faster, more interesting way (say, only using keyboard shortcuts, or with as few mouse clicks as possible).

But often flow is hard to attain at work: we are, many of us, pulled in lots of different directions at every moment. Multi-tasking has been elevated to a necessity. We have lots of irons in the fire and every one needs tending right now — so we are frazzled and unsatisfied, often, at the end of the day, rather than satisfied with tasks successfully accomplished.

My vision for this workshop with the Medical Education staff is multi-fold (of course, with the multi-tasking still!), but one piece is to give us each one hour in the day when we can focus on one task: first we write about something that has absolutely nothing to do with our day jobs — we push into our imaginations, our creative selves. I’d like us to be able to play with words, instead of fighting against them, for a bit. Then we share our words with one another (if we want!) and receive feedback about what others liked. We leave the hour with a sense of accomplishment, I think: having created a new piece of writing that people honestly appreciated, and having gotten to really appreciate our coworkers for their work (instead of being irritated with coworkers for how they didn’t do this or that like we needed them to do so that we could do that or the other thing, which is so often the even-slightly-antagonistic undertone/culture at many offices, even if you like your coworkers!) —

in short, we get to experience flow for about an hour. And having experienced it for that hour, I think, we are more likely to want to experience it more often — and so we might begin to make changes to our workday (maybe clearing out time to be uninterrupted, maybe turning off our email and only checking it at scheduled intervals) so that this big part of our life is more satisfying for us, more enjoyable. That, I think, transforms us as folks at work, and as folks in other relationships (again, those ripple effects I was talking about yesterday with Jianda), transforms the possibilities of our lives, has us asking for, and believing we can attain, what will make us happiest.

So, yes, writing fiction (or freewriting nonfiction) at work — even and most especially in the middle of a busy work day! — can make a big difference in your other work. Can you take 15 minutes today for some freewriting?

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Yesterday Jianda asked for some initial prompts that I offer to new writers, and I  talked about an open-ended, open-hearted writing practice (which I also think is important!) — but here are some more specific ideas:

– Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and reach out your hands. Let one hand fall onto an object at your desk or writing area (wherever you are). Let that object, whatever you touch (book, keyboard, stone, phone, whatever it is) be your starting place — you might begin by describing the object, and then follow your writing wherever it wants to go.

– a variation on this is to choose a office supply on your desk, write for five minutes about what it is and does, and then write for five more minutes about what it wishes it were, what it wishes it could do. (We did this one at the first meeting of the MedEd writers, and it was great fun!)

– Take 10 minutes to write about your 11th birthday (and remember: you can write however you’re drawn to write about any prompt! if your response is, like mine would be, goddamnit, Jen, I can’t remember that!, then start from there!)

You’re fierce today, and every day, even in (and maybe most especially in, right?) your most frightened, wounded places. You were fierce yesterday, too, and I’m grateful for your presence and your words. Thank you for your words.