In-Between Place in Life and Fiction

By Lisa Alber

A few days ago, a friend sent me a recording of her pastor’s sermon. She thought I might be interested in the discussion about “liminal spaces.” In a world where the old normal is gone, yet we don’t know what the new normal will look like, we’re caught in a liminal space. A waiting place. Transition. Hopefully, transformation. This space is bewildering and disorienting and highly uncomfortable. Feelings of anxiety, crankiness, and demotivation are normal.

I’m not a religious person, but I like Richard Rohr’s description of the liminal space as “God’s waiting room.” Rohr is a Franciscan friar and writer. In this post, he wrote: “This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.”

“Idealizing normalcy” is interesting, isn’t it? I’m assuming this means idealizing the old normal. We all know people who talk about good-old-days eras in their lives, whether that’s high school, or the Obama era, or even further back when things were “simple.” (Often code for before life got complicated with civil rights and equal rights and Black Lives Matters and Me Too and LGBTQIA and saving the environment and so on.)

Many of us are using this in-between time to ponder our lives. For thinking people, this strange place we’re in can lead to profound change.

I think about the folks affectionately (heh) known as “covidiots,” who refuse to wear masks, who go to rallies and packed bars, who protest their right to live free. (Sigh. No use telling these dummies that with our freedoms also comes civic responsibility.) I’m thinking these are people who hold on to the past, who avoid discomfort at all costs, who aren’t using this time to look within.

Whatever the new normal will be is coming at us at a rate of change that’s scary, and I suspect a lot of people aren’t going to adapt well. Discomfort is part of the dealio with the liminal space. I use my journal to face the discomfort, but then on other days I use Netflix to avoid the discomfort. A rollercoaster, but to be expected. I try not to beat myself up about the Netflix days. I also spend hours gardening, talking to friends, cuddling my pets. Coping mechanisms, and that’s OK.

Fiction is a huge solace for me. In fiction, we call the liminal space a “threshold.” This comes from the hero’s journey plot structure, which itself is inspired by Joseph Campbell’s HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. Our stories would be pretty boring if we didn’t force our protagonists to grapple with transition and uncertainty and stress.

A while back, I landed on an oral storyteller’s website. (I wish I’d noted down the website so I could credit her now.) She described threshold moments as turning points in your life when you face a difficult decision or life event, or a surprising pivot that changes your life forever. Same goes for characters. We write stories about turning points. Perhaps living through a global/national turning point will help us with our stories. Like actors, we can mine what it feels like to live through this historic moment to deepen our characterizations.

Here’s an article on the in-between space that might interest you. Stay safe! xoxo, Lisa

Free Time in the Time of Corona, Let’s Bitch About It

By Lisa Alber

I see many optimistic and supportive posts out there about how to survive — no, thrive during! — shelter in place. I’m past all that. I want to see posts by people who are flailing and not doing their best and going a little nuts. People, where are those posts?!?!? Those are the posts that would truly help me. Just to know I’m not the only one, you know what I mean?

(I live alone; this might be a factor. Heh.)

I re-read my last blog post, dated February 26th. Oh my god — seems ridiculous and hilarious now. I’d just gotten laid off from the day job and was full of hope about my new writing journey. Then a few weeks later, the Corona virus arrived and the shite hit the fan. My life didn’t change all that much — I was at home anyhow — yet it did.

The 2/26 post feels like a lifetime ago. I’ve been writing/revising most mornings, so that’s good. Yet it’s amazing how little I’ve accomplished. I like a desultory pace of life, but something about being forced into this pace has dulled my brain. I hear this is called “pandemic fog.”

There’s a difference between being at home building a new life and being forced to stay home feeling uncertain that I can build a new life (given the economy, etc). My neurotic tendencies are on high alert, ready to send me into a stressed state for no good reason. (Case in point: Yesterday, my inability to find the Cancel Subscription button on the sundancenow.com website.)

At first, I was all bustle and vigor. Hey, this is a lark! This is quite the fun little period! It’s peaceful and there’s no traffic and people are friendlier than usual! I have so much time and I’m going to accomplish all my dreams!

Now, it’s more like: Which streaming channel has the longest free trial period?

As a friend said last week, “This isn’t cute anymore.” The bloom is definitely off the proverbial rose, and I’m feeling it. (I WANT TO HIT MY LOCAL FOR A PINT, WITH FRIENDS OR NOT, I DON’T CARE!)

I have a half-baked theory that the protests surged when they did, in part, because people maxed out their tolerance for “me” time. God forbid we have time to ponder our lives, really THINK about who we are, what we want, and so on. It can be uncomfortable, even painful. Some people will do anything to avoid discomfort, no matter how short-sighted  and idiotic.

I have a high tolerance for “me” time. Even so, to lessen the impact of shelter in place on my psyche, I journal every morning. I’ll burn the journals after all this done, that’s for sure. Witness this gem from today’s drivel-fest: “Yep, got up earlier to get going, so that’s cool.”

Uh-huh. What’s the point of getting up earlier, anyhow? Who cares that I’m succumbing to nocturnal tendencies, lights out at 1:00 A.M.?

As the days pass in a blur of uniformity, I’ve also succumbed to binge-watching obscure foreign crime dramas. (Recently watched an Icelandic one called “Trapped.”) At first, I diligently walked the park every day to get out of the house, keep sane, randomly chat with people (socially distanced, of course). Now I don’t care so much.

A few days ago I realized I’d reached my lowest point when I bought a jumbo bag of Red Vines. Jumbo. Bag. One thing to eat Red Vines at the movies — which I don’t do anymore, anyhow — another thing to plop the bag on the coffee table, readily available while I binge-watch.

When all this was a lark, I grooved on cooking, and even baking. Now I’d rather go pick up a Papa Murphy’s pizza, or on a healthier note, Trader Joe’s ready-made salads. Not doing so well in the food department, generally. Standing in line to enter grocery stores feels too Soviet Russia, and who wants to be reminded of that country given the upcoming election? I surely don’t.

On that sourpuss note, I’ve officially reached the end of my tolerance for bitching. FOR NOW. Hope everyone is keeping healthy, mentally as well as physically, xoxo

Getting Started Guide for a Lost Writer

By Lisa Alber

Two weeks ago I got laid off from my day job as a technical writer. After the initial shock and anger and slumpiness, I’m now in the process of adjusting …

So, now I’m in this scary position of creating a new life. Is there a perfect permanent position for me out there? Or, could I re-fashion myself as a contractor with enough time to write fiction? It’s a scary proposition, this thing called the “gig economy” — and paying for my own health benefits too?

As a technical writer, I sometimes write getting-started guides. In fact, I recently wrote one related to creating data strategies for analytics efforts. (I’m here to confirm that it’s all about data, folks. No joke. All the companies are doing it now.) What’s my getting-started guide for myself right now?

Please join me in a thought experiment.

1. Context and Vision

Why do I need a strategy — what will be my return? — and what’s my high-level aspirational vision?

I need a strategy because I’m a lost puppy right now. My return will be that I will have a higher quality life working from home with a flexible work schedule, and, most importantly, have time for my passion: fiction. I envision myself completing works of fiction and feeling immersed in a creative lifestyle while earning a flexible day-job living at the same time. (Notice that my vision doesn’t include things I can’t control, like landing that ultimate publishing contract.)

2. Core Information Model and Principles

A core information model in the world of data analytics is a definition of how a company will treat its data. Principles are like the guiding practices for doing so. For my purposes, this model is how I will treat my time and principles around that.

In my model, time is a raw material. Time is useful to the extent that you actually use it well, transforming those minutes and hours into productive output. What are my principles around this?

  1. When I’m working, I’m really working. When I’m not, I’m really not.
  2. Not all time has to be used productively; quality of life is a factor too.
  3. For fiction, the time allotted each day will be sacrosanct, and this schedule will be fairly rigid and for those hours, fiction trumps the day job.
  4. The day-job hours will be worked flexibly and for as long as needed to get tasks done.
  5. Use a consistent Monday through Friday routine. Allow weekends to feel like weekends; even if I’m still getting work in, do so in a looser manner.
  6. Social media is not time well-spent. I will need to establish clear limits.

3. Current State Assessment

This is a scored assessment of various dimensions that make sense for you. Score 1 (worst) through 5 (best–wish list level).

Organization: 3
Fiction output: 1
My health: 3
WIP status: 2 (solid start on first draft, but needs a re-think)
Contracting status: 2 (have some stuff lined up)
Infrastructure: 3 (I don’t own a proper desk!)
Technology: 4

4. End State Characterization

Same dimensions, but what they need to be to say that I’m achieving my vision. For example, my infrastructure will never be a five, because my house isn’t optimal. My office is small and kind of dark, rather than large and airy and bright.

Organization: 4
Fiction output: 4
My health: 4
WIP status: 5
Contracting status: 5
Infrastructure: 4
Technology: 5

You may ask, why not set the end state to all fives? Well, you’ve got to be realistic and think about what the original goal is: completing works of fiction, feeling immersed in a creative lifestyle while earning a flexible day-job living at the same time. I don’t need to be all fives to achieve this.

5. Architecture

For my purposes, the architecture is the architecture of my life such that I can close the score gap and move to my desired end state.

Organization: 3 to 4. I’m pretty organized, but I could improve. This means actually using my planner — create goals for the week and write things down. I don’t need to be 5 because I don’t need to be a project management guru about it.

Fiction output: 1 to 4. Heavy lift here. This is bum glue, and getting back into the habit. No five here because in my world a five output can only occur if I didn’t have to have a day job. Not that this couldn’t be a goal, but I’m where I am now. That goal can come with some future, updated strategy.

My health: 2 to 4. I’m still getting over the medical stuff, so I’m aiming for a solid four. That seems realistic right now. Lots to do with this one: lose weight, get good sleep, gain strength, do PT exercises, etc.

WIP status: 2 to 5. Five is the completed state. If I use my time wisely and consistently I can get to five.

Contracting status: 2 to 5. This is getting enough contracting clients so that my income is consistent and livable. At a five, I’m even earning enough to save a little back. So this is a long-term goal, for sure.

Infrastructure: 3 to 4. Get a new desk and optimize my office given its restrictions, and I’ll be good.

Technology: 4 to 5. This is the easy one. I’ve already got all the equipment: big screen monitor, good all-in-one printer, laptops (yes, a Mac AND a PC). I just need to think about ergonomics–ergo keypad, wireless mouse, etc. No big.

6. Roadmap

The sequence of tasks to perform over time. This is fairly high level. The timeline isn’t some set thing. Some aspects may take longer (like feeling like I’m a healthy four) than we’d expect. For me, this is a chunking exercise. I’m going to set the roadmap for 2020. Break down the above things into various tasks. Some things are short term and easy: buy a danged desk. That’s a next-week task.

Some things will require further breakdown. Like what do I mean by “livable”? So then there needs to be a budgeting exercise too, which will include trimming the fat.

The WIP status is another thing altogether. Since I’m not trying to kill myself, I’ve decided that I’ll aim for WIP being completed by the end of the year. But, what do I mean by “completed”? Let’s imagine completed is first draft, revisions until I’m ready for beta readers, beta readers, then more revision, and then my final detailed self-editing process. You can imagine — working backwards, come up with a schedule.

7. Execution Plan

The nitty gritty. This is the kind of thing were you break down the roadmap into even more granular chunks, maybe on a monthly or weekly schedule. So for WIP status, let’s say March’s tasks will be: print out manuscript, read what I have so far, brainstorm the plot line that I already know is a problem, re-write that plot line up to where I am in the first draft overall, get an early trusted reader to give me story development feedback.

This is where I’m at. Writing up this blog post as a thought experiment has proven quite inspirational! Wish me luck!