An unusual frame, 4 feet X 2 feet, hangs on one of the walls of my bedroom. It is not a painting, nor a photograph. It is unusual for two reasons, Firstly, because it is made of an embossed sheet of aluminum that depicts a man in a chariot drawn by five horses. And secondly, because it was made by me. Like any piece of furniture or art that you see everyday, I hardly notice it. Except when it demands attention.
Last night a gust of wind swept the frame off the wall. It fell on the floor with a loud noise, sufficient to rouse me from deep slumber. The light frame was no match for the winds that had driven away heavy rain-bearing clouds that had ushered in the new year in Singapore. Since there was no shattered glass or broken pieces, I returned to bed.
I studied the damage to the transparent laminated sheet that covered the frame. It had ripped and broken in multiple places. I tugged at the jagged edges of the clear plastic and exposed the metallic surface. It looked clean and pristine, its shiny glaze belying its true age.
A creative summer of everyday effort
Almost three decades ago I had made this frame. It sounds awkward to claim it, even though it is true. Always a nerd, I had not shown much interest in arts and crafts, knowing intuitively that I would not do well in non-bookish pursuits. But I remember this particular experiment.
One sultry summer during my college days in Mumbai my friends and I had spent a month (or longer), each of us creating a similar-sized frame from scratch. It wasn’t my idea. But I wanted to hang out with my friends. I wasn’t there for the joy of creation but for the opportunity to participate in a group effort. The slow afternoons soon turned into the most anticipated part of the day. I was content to follow the lead of my artistic friends and tried hard to keep up by mimicking the actions required to create this complex piece.
I was quite certain that mine would not be the most outstanding creation. Although each design was slightly different, the technique was the same. I had no idea how my product would compare against those of the others. Free from the stress of competition, I was happy to learn something new each day. One day I traced a design using stencil. On another, I used the back of a pencil to push the metal surface into the desired shape. One day I used a tool to make tiny indentations, careful not to pierce through the thin sheet. How would today’s activity add to the one from yesterday? How would it all look at the end? I could not tell. All I could do was show up.
The simple joy of showing up
A quote attributed to Woody Allen claims “Eighty percent of success is showing up”.
All I remember from that happy summer is turning up every afternoon at my friend’s place, spending a couple of hours on the task at hand, having a good laugh, sometimes a snack, and returning home smiling with the satisfaction of having tackled something diligently.
The frame reminded me of my current efforts at writing.
Time is a precious commodity. It slips through our fingers even as we set goals and make plans, keeping the pot of gold at the other end insight.
What if you just showed up each day with only a nebulous goal in mind?
During 2020 I insisted that I want to write my memoir in 2021. But it was foolish to believe that on the first day of January, the stars would magically align with a cosmic click and create my book. I had to get into the preparatory mode first.
It is believed that 5 a.m. is the best time to initiate and inculcate practices that require great devotion. Setting lofty goals is like making promises, easy to make but difficult to keep. Mindful of my own limitations and the constraints of my life, I decided to scale back my goal to a sustainable level.
I chose to wake up an hour earlier than usual to fit in fifty minutes of writing before logging on to my day job which involves research on a topic of global interest, Covid-19.
A sustainable daily routine
Why fifty minutes?
In Lori Gottleib’s book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, she mentions that a typical therapy session lasts for fifty minutes, a length of time that minimizes small talk, motivates both parties involved and helps them get to the heart of the matter quickly. Even though it is clear that one session will not solve the issue, the duration is short enough to be productive without causing fatigue or burnout.
I began my experiment in early December knowing that I would have a few easy days towards the end of the month before getting back to a full-speed work schedule in the new year.
Each morning I took my cup of tea, my phone and my laptop into the spare room which has a desk and offered morning sunlight and seclusion, set my timer to 50 minutes and began writing. Some days it took a while to get into the flow, on others I hit the ground running, picking up from where I had left off the previous day. When pausing for the right word or figuring out the next scene, I took a sip of tea, a couple of deep breaths and scanned what I had written.
I type straight into a google doc, preferring to skip the pen-paper process of transfer unless my wifi or my laptop is acting up.
There are benefits to writing by hand and I do use that as well, but for efficiency, I have tuned my right brain to respond equally to a keyboard as to a pen.
The word count varied but I stuck to the fifty minutes, extending only to complete a sentence or capture a thought. On weekends, if I was on a roll, I would set the timer for another session of fifty minutes, doubling my output but feeling no pressure to do so.
Forty days later, when I look at the number of words that make up the first draft of my memoir, I am amazed. Not because it’s beautiful but because it is tangible. I have something to show for an hour of my life. The output is undeniable. That fact alone is enough to motivate me to continue.
What will the book look like? Will it change and evolve? Of course it will. But none of what I have done so far will be wasted effort. It all adds up. All I have to do is show up.
Do you have a daily habit that you are devoted to?
Photo credit Ranjani Rao‘s personal archives