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#38 How do you get back on your feet again?
and again, and again, and again...
In case you haven’t noticed, this project is about what keeps us going, and is born out of my irrational need to write a novel. I am on the third year of a 10-yr commitment that I continue to carve out of my life for my writing journey.
Writing a novel is not easy, but neither is excelling at work, nor having deep meaningful relationships. Today I will share three dilemmas that I have to face, every time life has swirled me around like a crab in a crashing wave.
What keeps you going when life tries to knock you down? What keeps you motivated to stay in the marriage, to go to work one more day, or to write another chapter?
I just turned 35 a couple of months ago, and I am going through my third major life shift of the past ten years. A major life shift for me, is when my work, relationship and housing situation change significantly, all at the same time.
That to me is the trifecta that comes at me with its sword of transformation.
“And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on The Shore
The first time I went through this, I was 25. I left medicine, moved to San Francisco from Cairo, and had a significant breakup. It was quite destabilizing because I had nothing to take with me beyond those three things.
The second one happened when I was 32. I left my beloved house in the Mission district of San Francisco, my full time consulting job, and ultimately got married back in Egypt. This is when I started working on the novel, and had the space to create for the first time.
Now at 35, I am still settling down back in the Bay Area after 3 years away and going through a divorce. The novel is now 3 years old too, and is the most grounding force I have in my life. That and the routine around it.
Today I share with you the three dilemmas I faced every time I had to get on my feet again, in both the novel and in life.
Dilemma #1: When, what and who to remember and when, what and who to forget
Dilemma #2: When to build routines and when to break them
Dilemma #3: When is something ready to be shared, and when should it be protected?
1- Remembering and Forgetting:
Sometimes I need to remember certain things to keep going: My purpose, the first spark of inspiration I had for the novel, the thrill I get from recording a podcast episode, the childlike joy that pops out of me when I write a good scene. The fact that I am a writer, and that I am becoming a better one, and that no one can take that away from me.
Remembering these things helps me write everyday.
Other times I need to forget. To forget about my past failures, to forget that some people won't like my work, to forget my conditioning to value scientific method over art, my expectations and expected outcomes, and last but not least, to forget my scarcity perception of time.
Between remembering and forgetting, is a mystical space that allows us to bring forth ideas into our consciousness, and to use them as sails that propel our ships in the direction that we want to go.
The same goes for knowledge and ignorance: I need to learn a lot about history to build a character for instance, but at some point I need to let my ignorance lead the way because that’s where innovation happens. Otherwise, I'd just be regurgitating a history book, not writing a novel.
Things I do, to remember:
- Sticky notes with validating statements from people who read my work
- Physical objects such as a typewriter and a writing space that give me a visual cues that I'm indeed a writer.
- Printed books about writing that I can see at my desk, to remind me of both my heroes and their wisdom.
- Writing as a daily habit that I do regardless of where I am or what I'm doing.
Things I do to forget:
- Experiencing novelty through people, places and ideas.
- Extended hours away from social media
- Being aware of ideas that are mine versus ideas that are implanted by others (tricky for empaths).
- Long walks in nature.
- Playing with kids or dogs.
2- Building routines and breaking them
I always knew that routines were good for me. However a large part of me defied them for a very long time.
Before I started working on the novel in 2019, I had no healthy routine. I lived the larger than life intergalactic dream of prosperity. I had no time for routines, I was the anti-routine, anti-conformity, and the anti-hero of my own story.
It was writing that gave me a need to create a structure around my life. I needed to carve out space, and that required discipline, and a change in lifestyle. I needed protected time to write, to learn about writing, and to share what I wrote.
I started by Sundays
I blocked off my Sundays from any time vultures: work, family events, brunches, friends, Netflix, you name it. The plan was simple: I want to create, and Sunday is when I will do that. I started off by writing and playing the piano. Writing quickly dominated all the Sunday sessions, and the piano faded into the background.
Sundays produced more and more chapters, I was hooked on writing more, and started giving myself a few hours on Wednesday as well. The pilot for the novel was done in a few months. That is when I read The War of Art.
“This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”
― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle
This liberated me. I realized that it is not about the number of hours I practice writing, as much as it was about adopting a writer’s identity. That was when I started dedicating 30 mins of my morning to writing.
That opened up a deeper question: What does my morning look like and how can I fill it with the things that I care about such as health and writing rather than work calls and emails?
I went from Full Time to Part Time Freelancer, and that allowed me to build up a habitual sequence that made me healthier, gave me happier mornings, and led the final tsunami that got me done with a 130,000 word draft! The novel flooded through me like an avalanche. All I needed to do was show up and drink some coffee.
The routine was thrilling, but after I was done with Draft 1, I realized that I had written the novel at different skill levels, with different depths of my characters, and that I needed a different kind of skillset to actually bring it to life.
I struggled with this for a while, because routine, my savior, and answer to all creative dilemmas thus far, had gone dry and could not give me the kind of output I needed.
So I broke the habits, and with that came magic. I went back to learn about story structure rather than practice freely writing as I did the year before. I also switched my writing time to evenings after work versus mornings, bringing my editorial brain more online than my dreamy poetic side.
That took some time to adjust, but it did the trick. After many grueling nights in 2022, I finally had an outline for the second draft. Only then, was I ready to go back to my morning writing routine, which I already know works great for exploratory writing versus rational plotting and character research.
Building routines creates tempo. Breaking routine creates innovation.
Realizing which one you need and when, is key to maintaining gumption.
Things I do in my morning routine:
Read nourishing literature
When I break the routine I would:
Drink coffee in a new place
Go for a walk outside instead of exercise
Spend time tidying my apartment.
Call a friend or family member
Jump into a call (when I absolutely must)
#3 Sharing versus Keeping to Yourself
The impetus behind starting this substack was to share my pilot chapters of Maskat and Jay's adventures. This step of putting it out there, emboldened me to talk every step afterwards. It was like a rolling slinky down a
staircase, and watching it hop down the steps, in a shape and form that it naturally demands.
When we share things, they gain a life of their own, they stop being within our realm of control, and for an artist, that is usually a good thing. The only caveat here, is that if we share before the work is ready to see the light, then the slinky may not have enough spring to take off.
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”
Since the pilot chapters I released in Feb of 2021, I have been keeping the novel drafts to myself. That is exactly two years of work and drafting without getting the joy of showing it to someone. For someone who has tasted encouraging feedback, this is a tremendous act of discipline for me.
I feel like this has allowed me to build an important relationship between the novel and I. She knows that I will not expose her before she is ready, and that I will be careful with who I expose her to.
So while sharing has been an energizing force behind this project, I continue to learn over time to discern between what is ready for me to post here and what is not.
Projects that are ready for you to read are:
This article and other newsletters.
Gumpcast episodes I have published
An Ode to Heartbreak
Projects that are still in motion and need closed doors are:
The Lamu Diaries Docuseries and short stories
The two Season 2 episodes coming out next month.
Poems I wrote last week
🙏 Sunday Gratitude 🙏
Many thanks to Naveen Rao, who gifted me Kafka on the Shore which has expanded my literature horizons by eons. Highly recommended read.
🫀 Stayin’ Alive…Stayin’ Alive 🫀
I have had many people come visit me which forced me to sway away from a rigid health structure, and open up to the fluid growth that comes with being around people.
I quit habits like intermittent fasting, low carbs and early sleep , and kept others such as Qi gong, reading and writing.
We released Episode 13 of the Gumpcast a few weeks ago about sexual harassment and the wounded masculine and feminine. A key theme in my novel.
Next up we have two back to back episodes on erectile dysfunction and identity struggles.
I keep missing the Artist dates, but have been having a lot of one-on-one dinners with friends that still inspire the inner artist in various ways. I do miss a little bit of solo adventures, which I enjoyed a lot of last year. Still doing quick morning pages, but on and off.
Stay tuned for Episode 14 of the Gumpcast where two dear friends do some vulnerable storytelling about erectile dysfunction and the penis.
Not exactly dinner time content, but will maybe more fitting before you go to bed ;)
See you next Sunday,