Why an upset mind leads to an upset stomach.
My OCD is off the chart. It steals hours of my day as I unlock, lock and re-lock doors, clean and re-clean the kitchen, make and remake the bed, mop floors (in the house and van), pack away work stuff and pull it out again. This is nerves, the result of living in two places, between my home and camper-van and feeling unsure of myself, like I’m on the move but going nowhere.
I can’t remember where anything is, am constantly looking for something. Some days my brain just doesn’t work. I can’t plan, can’t see what’s right in front of me, not even my own limbs. I keep bumping into things, so much so my body is now a patchwork of bruises and cuts. I’m tired yet I’m wired, poised for action, willing to respond to whatever the day throws at me, expecting the worst.
Yet, by start of week 6 of my new van-life, I have managed to install some routines, and a daily rhythm is starting to take shape. After weeks of moving stuff around, my belongings have settled in. The van is clean, her water and petrol tanks full. Three visits to the mechanic later, her engine is tuned. She drives like a nimble Jeep.
There are more clothes back at my house, along with pre-prepped meals in the freezer, waiting for me until I need them. To keep the dog happy, I spend the weekends in the van, and the weeknights in the house. The dog is 14 – that’s 98 in human years! – and totally unwilling to forego home comforts. And though I’ve discovered tricks to keep her calm, I might be losing my mind.
I’m always searching for time to write. In 2020, I cleared my schedule and used my savings to spend the year writing and pitching a novel. I pitched it last November and got three positive responses from accredited agents but no firm bites. In 2021, I began to rewrite it (for the 13th or 14th time, have lost count) but about 20,000 words in I started losing the will to live.
It didn’t seem challenging to face the same plot problems that have hounded me for the last seven years, it seemed insane. I had an overwhelming urge to clear some mental space. The book felt staid, belonging to a part of me that no longer existed. One of the hardest things any writer can do is abandon a long-term project. The grief comes in the form of hellish questions, chief amongst them: what the fuck do I do now?
Part of my solution was to move into the van to relight my creative fires. But I keep making the same mistake. I keep trying to find ways to shirk day-to-day responsibilities in the belief I’ll have more time to be creative. Yet, I also know from experience and from talking to other authors that true creative freedom comes from workaday discipline.
Different authors have different approaches. Walter Mosley gets up at dawn and writes for three hours. Hemingway also wrote in the morning, standing up. Jeanette Winterson writes in her barn next to a wood-burning stove, and at the end of the day she burns the pages she considers bad. T.S. Eliot was a poet who had a day-job as a banker. Routine de-clutters the mind, allowing it to be creative.
THE ENDLESS TO-DO LIST
Last month, my days were nothing but clutter. I cleared the mould from the interior of my house and painted the walls; cleaned, painted and re-arranged the furniture, stocked the bathroom and the kitchen. In the van, I repaired the leaks, sorted the engine so she starts without a fuss, fixed the water pump, patched up the damp spots on the exterior of the roof, and painted the interior ceiling.
I finished stage I of my kettlebell trainer course, and am set for stage 2. Many years ago, I used to read Tarot cards but gave it up because I felt I was too immature to do it. During week 1 of van-life, the cards were calling me, so I pulled them out, re-read my textbook and re-acquainted myself with the deck to the point I can do readings for other people again.
I’ve been to the hospital for a mammogram, and the podologist to sort out my feet. I treated the dog’s skin problems with regular showers and an assortment of creams, disinfectants and vinegar. I sorted her stomach issues with regular walks and smaller meals. The car passed her road cert, the taxes are paid on both vehicles, and I secured planning permission on my house.
I launched a workshop, and am also writing, working on this blog and an essay. But I dearly miss having a bigger writing project in my life, a set of plot problems that dog me like a clingy child. In Women Who Run With The Wolves, the author Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés talks about the creative life, and says there’s nothing like housework to distract the mind because it never satisfies but the to-do list is endless.
THE CREATIVE (READ: WAYWARD) PATH
This is real source of my OCD, the thing I’m not doing. How many of use us repetitive tasks as a way to distract from the bigger project or goal playing on the back of our minds? Repetitive tasks, housework, admin, dental appointments, while all these things are important, they’re not the job. There are no hard and fast rules to being creative. But if you have creative urges, you have to create.
If you don’t those urges will mutate, coming out of you in other, usually, destructive ways. The sense of longing turns to dissatisfaction with self and eventually bitterness. The psychologist Jordan Peterson warns again and again that one of the most harmful states is bitterness because it builds to resentment and eventually, misery.
In Liz Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, she breaks down an approach to the creative life, saying, take care of the small stuff first. If you need to clean the kitchen before you write, make time for it. But always show up for the muse, the job. It doesn’t matter if you only write one word, paint one brush-stroke, read one page, sew one stitch, or send one email. What matters is that you show up for a set time every day.
When you want to get more done, the trick isn’t to do the same thing over and over – though that’s what the brain wants, to stick with the familiar and inhabit a false sense of security. As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett points out, the brain is predictive organ, making predictions based on that past because that’s all it knows, where it feels secure.
But at some point, it’s necessary to make a choice between what’s familiar and the thing that brings you closer to who you think you really are. To stop the habit of my brain fretting over mindless tasks, I have to commit to my big project. Psychologist Benjamin Hardy refers to it as the 100% Rule: until you’re 100% committed you’re just fucking around.
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Do you have a big project playing on the back of your mind? Do you find yourself too busy to give it time? Could you give it 10 minutes a day? Try that for one day. Then, try it again.
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