Day Seven: The #1 Creativity Killer

If you’re in Boston (or New England), you’re probably aware of the current stand-off between employees of Market Basket and the company’s Board of Directors. To briefly summarize: the employees are protesting the ousting of their beloved CEO by shutting down the delivery warehouse so the stores have no refrigerated foods (produce, dairy, meats), and banding together at all levels, from store managers down to baggers proclaiming they will not work until the CEO is returned to his position as head of the company.

This morning I was listening to an interview with a store manager who was passionate about his love for Market Basket (he’s worked there for 40 years) but equally passionate in his belief that the fired CEO needed to be reinstated immediately before he would work there again. He explained that he was not asking for more money, or more benefits, or anything financially driven. He just wanted his boss back. When asked by the interviewer why this saga has struck such a chord with people, he answered that people were sick of being pushed around by corporate types hellbent on profit. They were tired of being used as pawns and not valued.

I stood in the kitchen listening to this interview with goosebumps prickling my legs. He is right: it is incredibly hard to be optimistic about being valued in the workplace. Most employers are relatively open about the fact that you are not indispensable, which coincidentally provides them the additional benefit of getting you to work super hard to constantly prove your worth.

But this is not a missive about corporate greed. I want to talk instead about what it does to creativity when you work in environments that are toxic. This is a time in my life that I am extremely fortunate to not have to work for anyone but myself (another story), but from the time I graduated college until two years ago, I worked full-time for either hospitals or universities. For me, creativity ebbs and flows in direct proportion to the functionality and healthiness of my workplace. Maybe it’s the same for you?

When I started working at MIT, the Dean of Students was an intelligent, friendly, caring man who could greet you by name within a month of your being hired. During the four years that I worked under him, the various departments he oversaw had little employee turnover and a general belief in their own efficacy. He hired people to do their jobs and then let them do it. Sure, there were bosses who were difficult and coworkers who no one cared for, but by and large, people took care of each other and they were happy.

For me, this happiness during my 9-5 workday also led to my after-work life: I took an evening course in creative non-fiction, I went to yoga in the mornings, I tried new recipes, I read voraciously, I kept in touch with friends through drink and dinner dates. I look back at my writing during that time and see multiple stories and article ideas and journal entries, varied projects that speak to the freedom I felt to pursue any number of paths. My financial needs were being met with a minimal amount of day-to-day stress, which allowed my creative side to flourish.

This wonderful Dean of Students retired after four years of my knowing him and he was replaced by a corporate drone. Immediately, he began to micromanage the various department heads who were used to their own autonomy: he challenged them to defend their budgets and their practices and their methods of interacting with students. He didn’t listen to their answers. He fired a long-time, well-loved senior leader (who went on to become president of a nearby college). He reorganized various departments that led to department heads being demoted and forced to report to colleagues who had previously been their equals.

Almost imperceptibly at first and then with the speed of an impending avalanche, things began to change. Our bosses were tense so we were tense. We felt under attack about our work. We spent our days worried about who would be let go next. Our conversations with one another, previously about families and hobbies and vacations began to sound like a broken record: Did you hear what that asshole said today? Did you hear who he wants to push out now?

We met after work and drank together, sharing our sorrows. We deserved the release of happy hour since our days were increasingly tense and stressful. I talked about work incessantly with my partner, E. I stopped going to yoga since I could not rouse myself any earlier than absolutely necessary to drag myself to work. When I got home, I had a glass of wine immediately upon entering to release the stress of the day. When people began leaving for other universities and positions, one by one, my stress hit new highs. When my much loved and respected boss left, I assumed his role as department  head and dealt with the asshole head-on.

I stopped writing. There was nothing to say. I was drained emotionally and stressed out. I stopped reading for pleasure. I drank more. I ordered dinner in because I could not face the task of making dinner. I was perpetually angry.

It is very easy to beat ourselves up when we don’t pursue our creative passions. There is an entire industry of self-help books and workshops devoted to unlocking the inner artist. But art can’t blossom and grow when your soul is not nourished. We all hear the stories about artists and writers and musicians who worked their 9-5 jobs and diligently pursued their passions outside of work. They make it seem like a matter of willpower: If you love it enough, you will do it.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. I had to go to work to pay my bills. You probably do, too. The place where I worked was an emotional minefield: I didn’t know if I’d be fired, I had no idea if my department would be downsized, all of my (previously respected) ideas were ridiculed by the new Dean of Students. Every day felt like a new trial by fire.

The sad truth is that the pursuit of creativity is a privilege. Like growing a garden, most of us need a minimal amount of nurture and care and respect to thrive. Most of us do not have the privilege of working in a soul-fulfilling job but for creativity to grow, at the very least, we need to have a work environment that is not actively soul-killing. It’s incredibly hard, if not impossible, to be emotionally beaten down for 40+ hours each week and then, through sheer willpower, create art or prose or music. I, for one, am not strong enough to do it and I see no need to beat myself up over that fact.

So the Market Basket stand-off: I am so impressed with these devoted employees and I hope they get their CEO back. I have no doubt if they are willing to risk their livelihoods for him, then he’s probably the type of leader who values them greatly. I can’t imagine the number of artists and musicians and writers and builders and PTA parents and community headers and devoted daughters and sons and husbands and wives who thrive and create and give back because they have a work environment that nurtures more than it hurts.

We should all be so lucky.

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Day Six: In Which I Finish a Project Early

Well folks, I did it. I am applying for a long-shot writing program and I finished the required 10-page writing sample and the personal statement two days ahead of the submission deadline. This is like college me all over again, people. I like finishing things early. I like having time to rewrite and revise and generally stew over everything I’ve done until the last possible minute.

I know I started this experiment wanting to explore the relationship between alcohol and my own productivity and I think I’m coming to a conclusion that I wasn’t quite expecting. I generally believed that drinking with my decreased tolerance was contributing to a general malaise that didn’t foster any type of creative work. Whew. Got that?

What I’m realizing is a bit more nuanced: it’s not the alcohol that is the problem here but the fact that I’ve been using it for the past year and a half as a stand-in for facing the question of what I’d like to do with my life. It’s a hard question to face. It’s one that I am still struggling with but somehow feels easier to face now that I’m not hiding behind a couple-three glasses of wine a night.

In college, exams would be returned to us in our campus mailbox. The tests would be folded in half and stapled shut so only our name showed which allowed the mail service to route them to our boxes. Upon getting my test, I would rip it open regardless of whether or not I thought I had done well: I just HAD to know what I got. By contrast, I had a friend who would take the tests and tuck them into her bag and sometimes not open them for days. DAYS. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to know but she said she liked that if the test wasn’t open, then the possibility of a perfect outcome still existed. When she explained her rationale, I got it on some level but mostly just thought she was engaging in a form of ritual self-deception since the test score was ON the paper; not opening it didn’t change the fact that there was a score that had been assigned. The mystery of her score, good or bad, had already been solved.

In a lot of ways, I think I’ve been living as that college friend of mine. I claim that I want to write and then I don’t do it because the conditions aren’t perfect: maybe a wall needs painting, or a light fixture needs hanging, or my daughter kept me up the night before, or I’m feeling some sort of gross malaise that I attribute to drinking (which does happen, don’t get me wrong). But generally, what I think has been happening is that I haven’t been ready to face the possibility that I could very well suck at this. By not writing, the possibility of easy success still exists.

In truth, I am realizing that staring at a blank page and creating worlds from scratch, and forcing myself to blog every workday, and generally being accountable to my dreams by sitting down and actually WRITING EVERY DAY may not guarantee success. But it does stop that gnawing feeling that I’ve been hiding behind every night for the past year and a half. With every day that I wake up and do the work of pursuing this dream, I am banishing the demons that had me convinced that a couple glasses of wine and Netflix each night was fine, and that TOMORROW I’d get down to the hard work of writing. Tomorrow, I’d submit my my work knowing that rejection would be the likely response. Tomorrow, I’d write prose so treacly that I wanted to shoot myself for actually committing it to exist. Tomorrow, I’d query that editor. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.

It’s a lot easier to languish on the couch with a drink, huh?

So I’m slowly learning to face things today. I had a small gin and tonic while I was grilling dinner tonight to celebrate my completed application. Tonight, I am blogging and editing my application and reading a novel that I’m seriously loving.

Tomorrow, I’ll do what I’ve been doing every day for the past week: I’ll get up and work.

Day Four: A New Week

Last night, E and I went to a show at the Burren. It was a session of friends from the early-aughts (I still hate that term but what can you do?) who had “grown-up” into marriages and kids and graduate school and big jobs who got together to recapture the open mic days of their 20s.

One of the women is someone I know from work who would likely describe herself as neurotic and Type A and a bit of a control freak. I met her when she was pregnant with her first child (she now has two) and knew her primarily as a work friend who seemed to have a difficult time negotiating work and parenthood (who doesn’t?). After the birth of her second child, she left work and we lost touch until E and I bought this house in the neighborhood next to hers.

Her youngest child is four, about to go to kindergarten and she is working outside the home again, as a postpartum counselor and doula. Though she had shared one-off stories of her days busking in Harvard Square and trying to make it as a musician, I hadn’t fully realized that this meant she likely had musical talent since I saw her as a professional mom-advocate (which is silly of me to admit but there it is).

When E and I came into the back room at the Burren, she hugged me tightly and the joy in her face was mixed equally with a nervous fear. “How are you feeling?” I asked her. She looked lovely in a simple black dress, a far-cry from her usual attire of v-neck t-shirts and slouchy JCrew pants.

“I haven’t done this in 13 years,” she said, grimacing and smiling at the same time. “I’m so fucking nervous.”

E and I settled in at the bar and ordered drinks and food. The mood in the room felt convivial and familiar, like a high school reunion with hugging and exclamations and a lot of people who looked like older family members of the four performers who gathered near the stage talking closely to one another.

When the room dimmed, my friend sat in the center of the stage, holding a guitar easily. On stage, her neurotic energy was charming and she was self-effacing and openly grateful to be back on stage after her long hiatus. When she began to sing, I felt a shocking strong wave of pure emotion wash over me and tears rolled down my cheeks. Her voice was lovely; her presence luminous.

After giving birth to my daughter, the biggest change I’ve noticed in myself is my openness to emotion. I have always felt very deeply but now I am effusively emotional: I cry when I’m happy or sad; I laugh easily; I am often overcome with tears when I feel love in a room full of people. I know this sounds incredibly cheesy and overwrought but having my daughter in my life has connected me to some part of myself that finally understands the ephemeral nature of life,

So sitting in that bar, listening to my friend give space for her talent to bloom again, I couldn’t help but cry. How many of us sit on our talents? How many days and months and years go by when we forget the music or words or art that live inside of us? How long does it take before it’s gone forever? When does the lack of attention to our talents cause them to atrophy permanently?

I didn’t have these thoughts at that moment, of course. In that moment, in a room full of family and friends and watching four former friends reconnect with a part of themselves that had long lain dormant, I felt incredibly lucky to be there. To be witness to their renaissance and to have been a part of it. A lovely night.

The Drinking Update: I had a couple of gin and tonics last night but surprisingly, there is no effect on my productivity today. Perhaps there’s more going on than simple drink=no creative energy? We will see…

Day Three: Four AM Wake Up

My partner, E and I are trying to teach our daughter to sleep through the night in her own bed but like most things with toddlers, she is superbly resistant to the idea. Most of the time, he puts her down for the night in her bed and then I’ll move her to ours when I go to bed between 12 and 1am. If I don’t move her, she gets up in the early morning hours (usually between 3 and 4am) and wails until we bring her to our bed, where she proceeds to whine and sing and chat until the sun comes up. If she’s been moved in her sleep to our bed, she will stay asleep until 7:30 or 8am every morning without fail.

So. I move her.

In all honesty, part of the reason that I move her is because I’ve noticed that I cannot handle a sleep disturbance in the middle of the night and I’ve long thought this was part of the whole getting-older-and-not-handling-my-liquor-so-well change of life. If I don’t get enough sleep (about 6 or 7 straight hours), I feel sluggish and irritable and unable to express myself clearly at all.

It turns out (spoiler alert) that I was right about my sleep being more affected by liquor now than when I was younger. Last night, E and I left our toddler in her bed and she got up calling for dada at 4am. He got her and then she lay on me wiggling, moved to the bed to kick her legs around, sang “Five Little Ducks” softly, told a story to herself, lay on E for a bit while we whispered, “Shhh,” and “Go to sleep,” to no avail. At 5:30am, E got up to take a shower and he took her downstairs with him when he was done. They had breakfast together and at 6:15am, she came back upstairs and promptly fell asleep next to me until I woke her just before 8am.

I woke up at 7am, exhausted from being up for so long in the middle of the night but the feeling was manageable. I washed my face, got dressed, and checked my email while I let her sleep for a bit longer. By the time I woke her, I was fine.

This realization about alcohol and sleep seems very mundane and almost mind-numbingly obvious and it is. The inherent humor in a former alcohol researcher realizing the extent to which her sleep is affected by alcohol is also not lost on me.

The reason that I’m mentioning this here, in this vaguely public sphere, is to record how easy it is for me to get trapped in a mindless pattern of alcohol use. (I am not talking about dependence here, and I firmly reject the idea that thinking critically about your alcohol intake is a sign of a problem.)¬† I am thinking instead about the ways we get trapped in cycles of consumption, be it alcohol or food or shopping or going out or whatever. It’s almost easier to keeping doing what you’ve always done than to take a step back and assess whether or not this is really what you want to be doing. Do you really want a drink every night at 5 o’clock? Do you really want that adorable pair of sandals? Do you really want to go out every Friday night?

I think a lot of the reason that it’s difficult for me (and maybe you?) to think critically about these things is because there are almost no examples of how to live mindfully without engaging in acts of deprivation or abstinence. There is a pervasive belief that the simplest way to cut out unnecessary habits or patterns of consumption are to ask yourself if you “need” it. Obviously, you don’t need much of anything. You never need a cookie. You never need a pair of gold shoes. You never need a cocktail. Framing an analysis in this way just sets up failure from the outset, doesn’t it? Here’s how this “all or nothing” approach to analysis usually plays out for me: In order to assess my drinking, I need to CUT IT ALL OUT for a set time period. In order to see whether what I eat is good for me, I need to abstain from everything that is supposed to be bad for me (Whole 30 comes to mind here). If I’m questioning my social life, I need to stay in for a month and see how I feel. Predictably, all that ever happens as a result of deprivation is a pervasive itch to just get back to IT, whatever it may be.

So this experiment in mindful drinking is about my wants. I want to keep drinking wine. I also want to establish a career as a writer. I want to work from home where I’ve created a lovely workspace. I want to learn how to work efficiently. I want to enjoy my time with my family. I want to be productive when I’m working. I definitely want to eat cookies forever.

So at the end of my first half-week of work without nightly drinks, I can say unequivocally that I’ve been more productive during the days, writing and researching and reading more than I have in weeks past. Does this mean I’m NEVER going to drink during the week? Not at all, but it’s nice to know that I should have some work options ready that factor in my decreased creativity the day after consuming alcohol.

Not bad for a first week, right?

Day Two: Patterns I’m Noticing

So, I’m starting to notice a couple of patterns about my own working habits in the early absence of a nightly cocktail: I always assumed I was neither a morning person or a night person (I tend to have a lot of energy) but in truth, I am not at all productive in the mornings. We will see how this plays out as the weeks go on but it’s incredibly hard for me to sit down and get going at 9:30am every morning. I want to mess around a bit, relax, enjoy easing into the day, read voraciously.

It’s interesting that I’ve been beating myself up over the fact that I can’t seem to feel motivated at nine in the morning (DRINKS ARE EVIL) but perhaps I need to shift what I’m doing at nine each morning? It’s noon now and I have plenty of motivation to get going and put in some hard time at this desk. I normally would be berating myself for “wasting” the two and a half hours prior but perhaps this is how I work best. In college, I would also start writing papers around noon or 1 and could happily work into the night finishing them. Maybe this new schedule idea is worth some consideration? In the absence of a nightly cocktail or two and with E on bedtime duty (so he gets to see the babe), maybe it makes sense to get in hours at night as well when I’m clearly productive. I’ll try it tonight…

Day One: It’s Wine O’Clock

I’ve been a fan of booze for a long time. I like everything from ice cold beers to crisp glasses of white wine and full-mouthed glasses of red to cocktails both creative and mundane (a standard G&T is fine with me). In my professional career, I’ve researched the impacts of alcohol use on towns and communities, and what predisposes people to become violent or prone to addiction, as well as looking deeply at the culture of college drinking in our country.

Through it all, I’ve remained a happy drinker, albeit possibly an overly paranoid one, since so much of my work has focused on identifying patterns of alcohol abuse. “Am I drinking too much?” is a question that is ALWAYS somewhere in my mind, much like my physician husband always imagines the worse diagnoses for himself after a fall or odd muscle ache.

However, ever since I hit my mid-30s and had a kid, I’ve noticed that I’m not as quick the morning after a couple of glasses of wine or cocktails. It’s a muddy feeling, not a hangover in that I want to sit around all day with greasy food and bad TV but more that my mind doesn’t feel as sharp. I left my professional career a year and a half ago to write a book about my research on the health and safety of college students at elite schools, and to be with my child, and do a lot of home renovations on our 1875 fixer-upper. My daughter is now in a part-time daycare and will transition to preschool in the fall and the house has new appliances and light fixtures, fresh paint (every surface including ceilings and moldings),¬† refinished floors, new windows, new insulation and is a warm and restful place.

It’s time to write both the book I wanted to work on and other projects that are pushing at my conscience.

Through all of the childcare and the physically demanding work of home renovation and especially when I was working, there was no impact that my moderate drinking had on the following day. I could still give presentations or write reports, play all day and care for my child or hang ceiling fans or paint rooms with ease. By contrast, writing the morning after a couple of glasses of wine does not come easily and worse, I struggle to order my day effectively to accomplish creative work and personal tasks. I’m coupling this observation with another that I’ve made of childhood acquaintances of mine who are Mormon: Mormons don’t drink alcohol or caffeine and the Mormon women with whom I grew up have at least four children and (it appears) boundless energy to blog and chauffeur their kids around and make meals for enormous families and run races and refinish furniture and quilt (not all of them all of those things, obviously).

I’m curious enough to try an experiment in my own life. Is this muddy feeling getting in the way of pursuing a creative career? Is it worth it to try and scale back the nightly drinks in order to keep myself as sharp as possible? I have a feeling that (for me) work that requires creative focus is going to require my clearest mind, and that is slowly appearing to be one without alcohol.

I’m not going to go full-on abstinence here (I detest extremes of all types) but I’d like to answer the following question: If I’m pursuing a full-time career as an author, and it appears that alcohol may be hindering my best efforts at creativity, then what happens if I cut back the nightly drinks during the work week?

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