Who’s Afraid of Writing Class?

Without a doubt, it’s me. I want to be a better writer and I respect my teacher who doggedly pursued his profession from non-fiction magazine writer to fiction author–it was a tough climb from the way he tells it. He learned a lot along the way and he takes his teaching seriously. His dedication is unquestionable. He reads everything we write closely and gives specific, personalized feedback. And the feedback is uncomfortably spot-on, to the point where you’re saying “Goddammit, I really did accidentally switch POV here!” Even so, it’s not him I’m afraid of.

I’ve always been protective and secretive about my fiction. I find my stories embarrassing and I find my rendering of them even more embarrassing. Why? My stories aren’t any more outlandish than others. My style could still use polish to elevate it, but right now it’s serviceable for mainstream or genre fiction.

I think this is partially linked to my fear of picking out the books I wanted from the library when I was a tween. I fell in love with The Hobbit and there was no looking back. But there was my mother not directly saying anything, but obviously disapproving of my taste, the way she grudgingly humored my father’s collection of vintage ’50’s and ’60’s sci-fi. In a crushing dose of irony, she read romance novels. As an adult, it boggles my mind.

I also wonder how much of my secretiveness is inborn. My daughter is secretive, even though we’ve never invaded her privacy. She’s high-functioning autistic and needs her time alone with her music and she needs to maintain control of her bedroom fiefdom. That means parents are strictly forbidden. She locks the privacy lock every time she goes in her room and squeezes out like a snake exiting an impossibly small crack, pressing her back to the doorjamb and pulling the door tight against her front. I wish she wouldn’t do it; it’s hurtful that she doesn’t trust us but there’s a very real possibility that it’s not about us at all. Just like my embarrassment may not be due to my mother’s aversion to elves and dragons.

Where does this leave me? People ask what my genre is and I can’t really peg it. I’ve got 600,000 words in genre limbo. When people ask me to summarize my book, I can’t because I’m afraid it will sound stupid with all of the subtlety taken out. I wrote for a long time as a way to control my bipolar mood swings–a vacation from my own moods into my characters, an externalizing of what I was feeling. Am I embarrassed about what I needed to write during my bipolar? I don’t know.

Regardless, I’m going to have to dig up two scenes for workshopping. Some commitments you just can’t wiggle out of. I owe my classmates the chance to become better readers and writers by workshopping my writing, because we all have different strengths and weaknesses. That’s part of the requirements of the class and even though there’s no grading and no real consequences, I still feel that the stakes are incredibly high.

How do I get out from under this anvil of embarrassment? Frankly, I don’t know. I can’t even self-publish unless I have some degree of confidence. It all comes down to who and what I’m afraid of. I haven’t figured that out yet. All I know for sure is that I need to figure it out before I spend all of our savings on writing classes.

A Disneyland Travelogue

Every year, my son’s high school band travels to some kind of festival or competition. The hard work is mixed with fun and independence for the kids and is a good growing experience for them. I have another blog post to write wherein I geek out about being a band mom.

This post is about my daughter who, between first and second grade, was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. Aspergers got wiped out in the last upgrade to the diagnostic manual, but I don’t think she would have qualified as that high functioning due to the language regression she experienced between one and three years old.

She’s high-functioning enough that I don’t say “she has autism,” I say “she is autistic,” the same way I say “she is artistic,” or “she’s a good reader,” or “she’s hilariously passive-aggressive.” She is quiet. She has a hard time making eye contact and speaking to waiters or other people she doesn’t know. We worked for months on desensitizing her to eye contact. She likes her alone wind-down time after school. She guards her privacy with the zealotry of a tiger protecting its territory.

I love her all the more because she’s hard to know, hard to share time with, hard to talk to. I put conscious effort into it. But it’s not easy and I’ve had periods of despair.

Here I should make a note: I can only speak to my daughter’s experience on the spectrum. I feel that autism is something that varies so much from child to child that you can infer some things (sensory issues are very common, but what they’re sensitive to and whether they seek or avoid it is individual) but I don’t dare claim that I speak for any other family with an autistic child other than ours. I know no other autistic children and what I say is only about our experience. Please never presume to generalize what you know about one autistic child to another.

When we found out her brother’s band was traveling to Disneyland to play in the park, I knew my daughter and I had to tag along as band-groupies. You don’t take one child to Disneyland and leave the other behind. And with her father traveling along as a chaperone, I was not about to be left behind either.

I was excited. Traditionally, Disneyland brings my daughter to life. She speaks more, interacts more, and is generally bouncier and happier. She’s able to withstand crowds and boring lines and it stretches her capabilities.

Not so much this time; I found myself disappointed. I had hoped to get her to talk with me and bond a little more before she starts middle school, where I know she will need me as she navigates the passage from tween to teen. She seemed tired and gloomy. I blamed it at first on the omnipresent hoodie: the North Face fuzzy teal hoodie that she wears all the time (even to bed). I felt she was tiring out because she was overheating and dehydrating at a rate she couldn’t replace.

We had flown in on Wednesday to get some “girls’ time” in the park. And it worked to a certain extent. I put my daughter in charge of our expedition in the parks, letting her choose rides and when to return to the hotel to encourage independence and decision making. But that girl really came alive when her father and brother arrived on Friday evening and we met them at the bowling alley in Downtown Disney (kudos to Splitsville Luxury Lanes for handling a huge group of teenagers pretty darn well).

Particularly, she has a good dynamic with her brother, who is six years older. He has always treated his sister with kindness and indulgence. For his sake, Nora removed her omnipresent headphones (yes, she wears over-the-ear headphones under her hoodie to keep the world at bay) to listen to the two Ballard bands play in the park. We met for dinner that night and then her brother went on Big Thunder Mountain with us and she sat with him and had the best time. There’s a special connection there and I’m frightened of my son going off to college in Fall of 2020 while my daughter enters seventh grade.

When my husband and I parted Saturday night, I bawled like a baby. My husband and I are very attached and spend little time apart save for the workday. Once we parted and were on the way back to our hotel, my daughter wrapped her arms around me and did her best to comfort me with a running litany of reassuring words. Listening to her empathy (which is difficult for kids on the spectrum), I started crying even harder, because I know there is so much potential that’s still suppressed inside her. All we can do is to continue to shape her behavior, extinguishing alienating quirks and encouraging her strengths. And isn’t that the same that any parent does with their child?

Wow, So What’s With the Gag Order?

So, to recap from last season, a shrunken budget dislodged me from the job I loved and separated me from the co-workers that I cared about. I retreated to a co-working lab for a month or two to have a real space to pursue another job and to work on a side project to keep my skills alive.

Then I thought I found the perfect job. When they described the job, I heard: “We work on a large, complicated software application.” I thought I’d finally broken out and was being invited to work with the big boys. I was swooning. I didn’t ask enough questions. I blame my bipolar mania for erasing any caution from my mind (nope, not my fault–I pretend anyway).

What I got was somewhat different. By the third day when I had not been introduced to the code repository or code base, I realized there was no repo and there was no codebase. The large software project that I had imagined existed, but was the property of a vendor. “Working” on the application consisted of writing “if” statements that would do custom validations on records.

They are nice people, but there was no “team” and I went days where the only human I spoke to was the barista in the lobby. I was deeply siloed and had little interaction with the other programmer–nice guy whose laid-back attitude suited his job (he’d been there ten years and was responsible for all of the more complex systems running).

I decided to make the best of what I had and worked hard to reform myself into someone who could do the job and do it well. But I missed coding. I missed coding a lot. That part of my brain started to atrophy. I spiraled into a deep depression (hello, bipolar!) My husband was supportive but also kept nudging me to change my circumstances because what was happening obviously wasn’t working.

With my husband’s support, I quit. I didn’t go in that morning thinking I was going to quit. It was something my husband and I had miscommunicated about for a couple of weeks: he was supportive but in my depression, I twisted his words into an injunction to keep working to help keep the family stable. That was me–my fear and guilt–filtering what he said. Married essentially 21 years at this point, I still have trouble understanding sometimes. (Can’t wait until that period just before we both need hearing aids and literally can’t hear each other.)

Over a lunch hour IM session, my husband and I finally got on the same page. I had something I wanted to build on the side to build my skills which had slid in the fifteen or so months I was in that job that didn’t suit me. My husband finally got it through the haze of my depression that yes, he saw me suffering, couldn’t handle it anymore, and wanted me to quit.

So I wrapped up the last few small requests I had and wrote an email notifying my supervisor of my resignation. She didn’t exactly shed any tears or anything; I think we all knew I wasn’t a good fit for the job. I’m happy now, driving my own boat and reporting to no one while I work full time on my web application and I’m pretty sure they’re happier too after hiring someone more suitable to the job. I like to think that both parties came away all the better for my resignation. I wish them well–nice people, nice place, just not the kind of work that I do.

Why the silence? I couldn’t commit myself to saying anything about my job-related depression. I didn’t want anyone to know while it was happening. Once it’s in the rear-view mirror, it’s important to be honest about it, but while it’s happening, not only are you less motivated to do anything, you’re less open to hearing well-meaning people trying to perk you up and give you advice. The world is full of nice, well-meaning people who, for all their good intentions, can’t break through your depression.

Where’d My Badge Go?

I had the worst sensation at my daughter’s bus stop this morning. I had my hands in my coat pockets because it was chilly and my left palm realized that my badge holder was not clipped to my front left belt loop. My palm passed this critical message on to my brain and I had a sudden sinking stomach sensation.

Then I realized I don’t have a badge anymore and I got to experience a completely different kind of sinking stomach feeling. The funding for the position that I held for eight-plus years ran out on August 31, 2017. They took back my Orca card and my badge. I carried a banker’s box of the last cruft from my desk down to my car. I had to have a friend badge me out of the garage. We said goodbye and…that was it. Very matter-of-fact, this-happens-every-day, none-of-this-is-out-of-the-ordinary.

I am now safely ensconced in a co-working space that is, mercifully, filled with quiet adults who are serious about getting work done. It is the most positive peer pressure that I’ve ever felt in my life.  There’s a big wall of windows to let in the light. I’ve learned to use the La Marzocco GS3 that’s sitting in the kitchen and I make an awesome Americano.

It all helps me stay focused and keeps the pressure on to be doing productive things (I’m currently taking a break after writing two cover letters, which I find particularly draining). I have a place to be out of the house, away from the undone dishes and the dust puppies and the bed that is calling out, “Just give up and take a nap instead…”

After a couple of weeks of reflection, I’ve come not just to realize, but to actually experience how working with people forty hours a week for eight years has an influence on you. In fact, it changes you forever. You learn from them. If you’re lucky, some of their best positive qualities will rub off on you. I’ve learned to be less intimidated by casual social interactions. I’ve learned to be more independent in my work (where independence means a willingness to just dive into the unknown head first). I’ve learned more about time management, project management, and “cat herding” from the best.

I’ve walked away from this job a better person and maybe, even though it hurts, it doesn’t hurt as much as I expected because I’m still carrying these gifts around with me and these people will, in that sense, always be a part of my life.

This makes getting a new job very intimidating. I know that if I stay too long, I will again start to pick up qualities from my close coworkers. Will they be positive qualities? Will they help me grow as a person somehow? Will I accidentally land myself a step backward in terms of maturity and cooperation? Will I feel isolated, dark, bitter, and lonely among a team in which I don’t really fit? My responsibility to assess the people whom I’ll be working with seems more critical now than it ever has before in my life. The trite “you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you” now feels much less trite and much more salient and I feel it in a way I never had before.

Overall, while I have ups and plenty of downs, I’m feeling positive about my skills in finding a good fit for me. I’m mature enough to really know who I am and what I need. Sometimes, I read job listings and get excited about who these people are and what they’re doing and how they’re doing it and if this could be THE ONE. Sometimes, I read listings and my instincts say right away “that’s not for you.”

I’m not desperate. I don’t need to act desperate. Some opportunities that I’ve been excited about have passed me by but new possibilities open up almost every day. And maybe, just maybe, you’ve landed on this page because you’re a potential employer wondering if I’m right for you. I would like to think that would happen–that someone would be curious enough to look around for my presence online (which is almost nil for complicated reasons). That kind of curiosity and thoroughness in a potential manager or coworker would certainly appeal to me. As always, I hope I’ve made a good impression.

The End of an Era

On Thursday, June 1, 2017, I received the bad news that my position had been eliminated from the renewal of the SSGCID (Seattle Structural Genomics Center for Infectious Disease) government contract. The grantor of the contract, NIAID (the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) had, in anticipation of the cuts in the upcoming national budget, ordered deep budget cuts across the board, a directive they had received from their parent, the NIH (the National Institutes of Health). My position will go unfilled and that money distributed across the scientific staff so that they can be retained as FTEs and do the actual science, which is–after all–the point of the whole thing.

My position will not be filled by someone younger and/or cheaper than I am. It simply does not exist as a line item in the next SSGCID budget. The web application that I’ve labored on for the last eight years will be left without a caretaker for the final five years of its life. I’m confident in my manager’s skills and familiarity with the underlying database to be able to curate the content of the database through manual SQL manipulation. However the front end? The middle tier? She has neither the desire nor the time (she’s a real scientist and works on real, awesome science stuff for the good of the contract) to take over my web app and so it will languish.

Eight years is the longest period I’ve spent in any job. I’ve been held here by golden handcuffs. One of the greatest of these has been the no-drama friendliness and delightfully geeky intelligence of my coworkers. If I geek out about some aspect of programming, I can appreciate a lab researcher geeking out over some new process they tried in their experiment and vice-versa. SO. MANY. NEAT. PEOPLE! This was especially valuable to me because they hired me after I reentered the workforce after taking two isolating years off with my second child.

Another aspect of the golden handcuffs is the mission behind the SSGCID endeavor. Its purpose is to take genes that are potential drug targets and discover the shape they make when the protein they produce is crystallized. The crystal shapes then suggest pockets and other landing points where medicinal compounds could block the protein from acting, sending a chain reaction through the bug (SSGCID works on bacteria, fungi, and viruses) and kill it or at least render it non-harmful. My web app is a tiny cog in the works, tracking the genes we were studying (over 14k of them have been selected) and helping to push them through the pipeline. However, it is critical in helping to produce the numerical evidence needed every six months to provide to NIAID that we were still worthy of our funds.

I am sad to leave this position behind because I feel this chemistry of people and mission and corporate culture will be hard to find. However, I am also somewhat relieved. I knew I couldn’t stay for the whole thirteen years. That seemed like too long in the same spot, especially if I didn’t get a chance to dig into new technologies as they arose. A part of me is really looking forward to a new opportunity to grow my skills and to work as a programmer among other programmers.

Even though I’m still somewhere in the stages of grief and couldn’t FizzBuzz to save my life, I am starting to apply for jobs. Even though many look quite tempting, I’m finding myself feeling a twinge of terror each time I do it, because each application leaves you vulnerable to rejection. How many interviews will it take before I finally don’t choke at the whiteboard? How many interviews will it take to find a team that feels like I “click” with them and would be a good addition (I’m not exactly a stereotypical coder)? I’ve learned so much about being more at ease, more “me” when around strangers by observing some of my more socially gifted coworkers. Will it be enough?

My funding runs out at the end of August. I’m not bitter–they didn’t really want to cut me from the budget but I don’t actually do the science and without the science happening, I’m useless and I know it. I know others who are still on the contract have made sacrifices, such as cutting back their hours to save money. They will still do the same amount of work, but only be paid for a fraction of it. This makes me sad because they are good people who do good work and they deserve to be compensated appropriately.

So, let’s wish them luck on a successful next five years as well as wish me luck on finding a good new job to call home.

“Stretched Too Thin” Follow Up

I’ve been meaning to follow up on my post about feeling overwhelmed with a mere summary of what I did and how it’s been working for me. The fact is that–when everything’s counted up–I am pretty close to overwhelmed and so it’s taken a while for me to get around to this. Note that this is the weekend between the winter quarter and the spring quarter of my C++ course and finally getting around to this during this break is not a coincidence. The C++ is a huge investment when viewed in light of my available free time.

What I did to address my sense of being “stretched too thin” was simple and–when I looked back at what I’d done–based on the core premise of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: establishing “balancing thoughts” to the ones that trouble you.

On a simple steno pad, I listed on one side all of the things that were bothering me or weighing on me in any way. I broke up large problems into the smallest pieces possible. Turns out I had a whole two pages’ worth of things on my mind–and I probably could’ve broken some of those down even further.

The first thing I did was to go back through the list and cross out all of the items that stemmed from my outsized sense of anxiety and insecurity. Those are issues I’m already actively dealing with and I could put those items aside.

Then, I recopied the curated list over again. One by one, I addressed each item thoughtfully, writing a brief note on how to counter that worry. I found that either:

  1. I’d done as much as I could about that item and should let it go
  2. I hadn’t done as much as I could and made a brief note on how to address it
  3. I had no control over the item and should just accept it as it is

Interestingly, I found that many more things fell under category 1 than I would have ever guessed: I have a lot of balls in the air, but damn, I’m doing a good job juggling them–keeping a gentle pressure on them to get them to a resolved state. This alone made me feel much better. The items that fell in category 2 turned out to have either simple remedies (hire a gardener for that stupid, knee-deep lawn!) or such long-term remedies that I didn’t realize that I could get an adequate handle on them. Category 3 was the saddest, as there are some things I would rather be able to take a direct hand in that I simply can’t butt in on. These were things I had to accept and let go.

So I learned two things: one, that I’m much more on-the-ball than I give myself credit for and, two, I am stretched pretty thin: I’ve got a full-time job and a full-time family and a full-time self to take care of and even with the tireless efforts of my husband, there’s just not enough hours in the day. I had to come to terms with that, too.

Following this exercise, I immediately felt a wave of relief. And the feeling continues: every time I feel like things are falling apart, I think back to my list and realize that I’ve got everything much more in hand than I think. Once the list loses its power, I’ll probably sit down and repeat the exercise. It’s that effective.

In the meantime, I’m busy juggling balls and making plans and reminding myself that the sense of exhaustion and chaos is part reality but also part illusion.

Stretched Too Thin?

I have to admit that I’m feeling stretched thin as of late, uncomfortably so. Aside from all of my real-world commitments (which are many, some of which I don’t disclose here), I’m holding on to too many worries that either a) I can’t do anything about or b) I’ve done as much as I can on or c) aren’t even my problem. Tonight is the night I intend to list them out and convince myself to let go of as many as possible. Why? Because I’m at the point where I can’t pay attention to any one thing for any decent stretch of time.

Being a worrier can play against you. One thing on my mind right now, with the end of our government contract looming, is interviewing–it’s hard to play worrying up as a strength and it’s nothing short of a curse during the process. However, in some ways, it makes me a better coder: it makes me more alert to potential conflicts, problems, and risks. It even contributes to the team: I make a great devil’s advocate and am a pretty decent rubber duck. Sadly, these are soft skills that I’ve never been asked about in an interview and I think that’s a real shame. It seems like something people should care about in a team member.

In my private life, worrying can work as a real motivator to get things done and to plan, plan, plan. I do things like plan our summer vacation a year in advance. I make spreadsheets to track the kids’ Christmas presents: what are we buying? has it been ordered? has it arrived? been wrapped? My packing list spreadsheet is a multiple worksheet wonder, copied from a prototype spreadsheet and then lovingly customized for each specific trip. And though spreadsheets have their place tracking minutiae, nothing beats the family Trello board for day-to-day life management.

So tonight I will take my awesome planning skills and apply them to analyzing everything that seems to be weighing me down, breaking down worries into categories so that I can put everything into proper perspective and cut the dead weight from my mind. I don’t believe that I’m stretched as thin as I feel and if I’m wrong, some good planning is my best defense. I’ve got a passel of sticky notes and some large sheets of paper to work with to make it a tactile and thus, for me, a more visceral process. I do believe I can turn this around and even have some fun while sorting it out in the cheerful company of my husband and a glass of beer. Lemons to lemonade? Definitely.

C++ Is More Fun Than You Think

A little over a month ago, I wrote about starting a C++ course as a structured way to challenge my brain. The nice part is that C# is a C-based language (the “C” is not merely coincidental), so a lot of the syntax is familiar to me. The bonus part is that it’s forcing me to learn, from the ground up, about all of the keywords and language features that I take for granted, even though they don’t map directly from one language to the other. In short, learning C++ has inspired me to dig in under the hood of C# and learn more about the language itself.

What’s it like? There are ten “modules,” one for each week. Every module has assigned readings, an hour and a half long online session with the instructor, a dedicated forum, and (in most cases) a homework assignment.

How do I work it into my busy life? With a lot of enabling from my husband. He helps me carve out time on the weekends and in the evenings to do my readings and my homework. He even set up a special, out-of-the-way place in the house for me to use while I watch the online sessions.

Homework is due Friday night. I try to start it the weekend prior and have it done by Tuesday or Wednesday so I can review Thursday night and tweak anything I don’t like before turning it in.

Online sessions are Tuesday nights, so I’m missing every other one, as it conflicts with my writing group. Never fear: the session is recorded and I watch the ones I miss on the following Wednesday.

I try to complete the readings before that lesson’s online session by plowing through them on the weekends. I even take down hand-written notes in a little notebook as I grind through the texts to help me remember key points. How quaint!

But you hate reading tech books…how do you manage all this reading? I have to say that I’ve never been able to sit down and read a tech book cover-to-cover. It just dulls my brain and nothing sticks and it makes me feel misanthropic. Why is it working now? The key seems to be that the readings are focused and limited. Not to say that it’s not a lot of pages to cover and not to say that it’s not heavy weather sometimes, but there is benefit (for me) in pacing the book, instead of trying to suck it down all at once as if it were some confection of a novel.

We’re reading Scott Meyer’s Effective C++, which has a format I really enjoy: 55 short “items” on centered on basic best practices in a gently proscriptive approach that still allows for nuance towards exceptions. This format really clicks for me.

We’re also reading the C++ Primer by Stanley Lippman, Josée Lajoie, and Barbara E. Moo. It’s a thick book (I can see why it took a team to write it). It’s very in-depth in the way I typically find very difficult to just sit and read (instead of referencing). However, with the assigned reading skipping around and dovetailing with the other reading and the other pieces of the class, I’m gradually warming to it and to the level of detail and depth of understanding that it provides. Sometimes I lament that I can’t keep ALL of it in my head, as the details are so fascinating.

So how do you really feel about this class thing? Making time for it is tough, I’ll admit it: work/life/class/obsession balance is very hard. But I’m really enjoying getting the technical understanding of the language and it’s made me want to learn more about my own language and understand it more deeply and take better advantage of its features. My wish list at Amazon is now filled with tech books that I long to read and my only lament is that the course is so in-depth that it won’t conclude until September, meaning I have to wait several months before I can really start to bury myself in all of the studying I want to do.

Overall, the class has made me more excited about programming than I’ve felt in years. I guess that’s the consequence of staying stable at a job for several years where the work can get repetitive. I needed some serious brain-food to jerk me out of the doldrums and I couldn’t be more delighted in getting this inspirational kickstart.

C++ on a Lark?

It’s not exactly a lark but, given everything else happening in my life, it is a bit of a crazy commitment. I signed up for an eight month, three-part course through the University of Washington’s extension program, aiming to complete a certificate in C++ development. And I do have to admit that, while it’s not exactly a lark, my decision to sign up was a bit impulsive compared to my usual standard of thorough over-thinking.

Why C++? Why not C++? It’s a language that’s not only venerable and well-established, but it’s still in demand. However, my biggest motivation is that it’s a more “low-level” language than anything else I’ve dealt with before as a web developer. This means I have to get my hands dirtier than ever before because fewer things will be wrapped up with nice, pretty bows like I get with C#, MVC, and EF.

I’ll be plunged into working with new types of challenges (like keeping track of my pointers and watching for memory leaks) and wrestling with more complicated algorithms through my homework–things my college education glossed over and my work experience has not touched on often enough. This has left me at a disadvantage at the whiteboard during interviews, where I typically freeze like a deer in headlights. I’m looking forward to earning more confidence at that whiteboard in the future through this adventure.

Another advantage is that I’ll have the chance to practice more complex OO design. Having worked at the same job and working on highly similar modules for several years, I don’t have much opportunity to be challenged by new problems to solve with inventive and solid designs. I know that my current patterns have shortcomings but, with my hair often afire and being alone, sticking to convention has become more important than innovation–which is a sad place to be. While features where I could have the opportunity to do something radically different are discussed (D3 and data visualization? Elasticsearch?), these treats have all gotten delayed in my work queue multiple times.

Why a formal course? As a mostly self-taught developer who has often worked alone or in a very small team, I’m craving the opportunity to not just have a once-a-week hangout with other devs wanting to learn the same language, but also to turn in my homework and have my code reviewed! Having other minds against which to sharpen your own is an incredibly valuable opportunity, one that I don’t have at my current job (no one on my team works in my language). Plus, I’m wretched at sitting down and reading tech books from cover-to-cover. I want deadlines and the motivation of committing a large chunk of money for the experience.

Class starts February 1, with our first online meeting on the 2nd. Yes, the meetings are on Tuesdays, sadly overlapping my writing group, whom I’ll be reduced to visiting with for a stingy half hour to forty-five minutes, depending on how quickly I can zip home from the coffee shop. Hopefully a quick Circle of Shame will be enough to keep me motivated on that front. I’m feeling motivated about my class, though: I’ve done my readings, taken notes, and have been practicing small projects to get accustomed to the differences in organizing and compiling the C++ projects compared to my C# projects.

Fingers crossed that the instructor is good! I’ve looked over the lesson plans for the next ten weeks and they seem promising. The first lesson focuses on unit testing as one of the basic components of ramping up. That really earned my respect and, frankly, I was relieved to know that the instructors thought it that significant.

Now all that remains to be seen is if I can carve enough time out of my life to not just keep up, but to squeeze all I can out of the experience.

Post NaNoWriMo Wrap Up

There’s always a little hangover involved in finishing National Novel Writing Month. Perhaps writing 50,000 words in 30 days doesn’t sound intimidating to you at all, but it does involve concerted effort and perseverance to keep slogging when you’re tired or when the story simply isn’t coming together. 50k works out to a mere 1,667 words per day, which is reasonable, even with a full-time job and family.

And yet it’s not. Sometimes you’re inspired, sometimes you’re tired. Last year, I sailed happily through my novel. I hit both 65k and a satisfyingly wicked cliff-hanger ending. This year was an uphill challenge and I found myself updating my word count every 100 to 200 words, taking solace in the slow upward creep of my statistics for the day, looking eagerly for any discernible height increase in the day’s bar over the previous day’s bar in the cumulative word count bar chart. Some nights, I could only bear putting in 100 words before folding for the night.

I survived only by bearing down on the weekends, pounding out 2.5k or so per day. On Sundays, I went to a coffee shop at its 8am opening (by myself, which was a weird experience; coffee is typically a social event for me) and wouldn’t allow myself to leave until I’d hit my 1,667 for the day. Then I would continue to cram in the most I could for the remainder of the day. Weekends were not always easy: as a working mother with 2 kids, there are always plenty of other things to be done (even with the benefit of a super supportive and helpful husband), but the weekends were my saving grace this year.

The other thing that I couldn’t have done without were the Monday night write-ins that I hosted. As host, I did little more than declare a time and place, bring a power strip and extension cable, try to find seating for everyone, and run the sprints. A sprint is a 20-25 minute timespan where everyone in the group stops talking and writes as hard and as fast as they can. Calling sprints was actually more delicate than one would think: I had to search for lulls in conversations, keep track of people ordering at the counter, and wait for people who had disappeared to use the facilities. The write-in nights (again, aided and abetted by a husband who kept the household running perfectly well without me) were as productive as weekends, yielding roughly another 2.5k.

The best thing about the write-ins was that a core group of 6-8 of us really clicked and came to enjoy each others’ company enough that we’re extending the group year round. I have always been secretive and humble about my identity as a “hobby novelist.” I found that the write-in was a turning point for me and a safe place to declare my avocation as a writer among other writers. I’m not ashamed that I have no ambition for publishing beyond writing a $.99 trilogy to post on Amazon for my family & friends to read and the people in my group don’t look down on that like some groups might (I’ve heard rumors and seen posts on the forum from more “ambitious” groups).

When we started bandying around the idea of going year round, I moved things forward by posting a “baseline proposal” to the regional forum. I proposed a loose association with no agenda and no rules and no requirements (no forced beta-reading and critiquing homework) other than caring about writing and being in the company of other writers. I proposed we continue our day and hours and asked for feedback and counter-proposals. No one had anything to say except “that sounds good!”

We did, several days later, have a post from a woman who lamented that her work schedule had kept her from attending the write-in and she regretted that she would now miss the year round group. So we’re adapting (adaptability was part of my baseline proposal) and trying a Tuesday, with the intent of alternating Mondays and Tuesdays. We had her pick a Tuesday date to meet and greet and even with the holidays impinging on everyone’s schedule, it looks like most of us will make it, so she can decide if she “likes” us and wants to keep coming. I read her profile and she seems like a nice, interesting person. Her avatar shows her holding a cat. Seems like a good fit and the more the merrier—I believe that critical mass is the key to a vivacious and sustainable group and was the secret ingredient to our successful write-ins.

Having the promise of a year round group helps ameliorate the post-NaNo blues a bit but not as much as I would like. I don’t like deadlines as a rule, especially when the work is unpredictable. But NaNo is very different: the goal is clear and simple, with no last-minute surprises. It’s a race between your imagination and the clock and it’s highly motivating, especially when you’ve spread the news around about what you’re trying to accomplish. When it’s over and the pressure’s off, I feel adrift for a while, uncertain to do with my new-found free time, even though I’m a year round novelist and have at least three “after hours” projects I need to work on, but I can’t muster the motivation for a while: there’s a little bit of NaNo burnout.

I’m looking forward to when the blues and the burnout are behind me and I can again turn my mind toward mentally-demanding projects (outside of work) once again. For now, I can’t even read or watch simple action movies. Luckily the holidays are rapidly approaching and will occupy my mind and by the time January comes around again, I should be ready to be swept up in New Year’s optimism (which is mostly relief that the holidays are over) and get back to my beloved “life of the mind.”