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Pep talks for the creatively blocked

Dear Captain Awkward:

I’m a grown-ass woman who has been through a few cycles of therapy that have (along with medication) helped my stress, anxiety, and ADHD. I’ve gotten to a point where I am financially self-sufficient, comfortable in my life and community, and blessed with a strong friends network. I’m not in a relationship and have no desire to pursue one. I’m ok.

Now I’m at the point where therapy always screws me up. It’s time to talk about setting long term goals. And…I don’t know what my long term goals are.

I’ve tried career counseling and I run into the same thing. I’d like to make more money. I can list things I’m good at. I don’t understand how to translate those into a better or different job and when I try to articulate this people tell me I have a lot of options and it depends on what I want to do. And there is nowhere to go from there. I have been at the same job for 12 years with no advancement even though as far as I can tell I am dependable and do good work. (I’ve applied for other positions in the same organization and never gotten one, and my precise job description is not one that transfers to another field or organization).

It seems like trying to do something else professionally is within my reach — a general overview of my accomplishments is greeted with ‘oh there are plenty of ways to use that’ but everything misfires at the point of ‘what do you want to do?’ ‘Oh I’m willing to try lots of [soft skills, writing and communicating, etc]’ ‘But what do you want to do?’ Very quickly I feel like a fool.

This doesn’t just apply to my personal life but creative work (writing, blogging) etc. The thing is I’ve been involved in some extremely fun and fulfilling projects and organizations but they always seem to result from serendipity. They’re not things I can ‘complete or ‘sell’ in the long term. Occasionally I’m jealous of people who have creative success or large audiences but generally speaking I don’t want the payoff enough to do it.

Basically, I’ve never had long term goals in my life and I don’t know how to start now. I don’t know WHY to start now, I just know that when I talk to my therapist in a couple weeks, I will cry and feel bad because I don’t have good answers (or I will make some shit up that I don’t really want to do.)

PS this has nothing to do with lockdown, I’m actually less stressed out working from home than I have been for a long time, and even before the economy tanked I felt the same about planning the future.

-Not Ambitious and Why Should I Be
(She/her)

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My inbox has at least 40 questions with the theme “Dear Captain Awkward, how do I stay productive right now?” stacking up in it right now.

Maybe…you don’t?

We are living through a collective trauma on a massive scale. People are dying. The right wing government in the USA is making it worse and gaslighting and abusing us daily. Every routine and touchstone that we used to count on is being upended, many of the things we took for granted to make life easier and more convenient (and free up brain space to be “more productive”) are unavailable, as in, it sometimes takes me about four days to figure out how to safely and ethically get groceries.

My executive function is sketchy at the best of times, and please know that sometimes when I open these emails about productivity I am roughly four days away from a shower at any given time and have just had to reset my email password – again – because I keep forgetting things I used to know handily. And I am a relatively lucky person who can stay home and make choices about what I do with my time and mostly in what order, since I’m not doing exhausting shift work, nor am I not trying to provide round-the-clock childcare or suddenly become a one-room-schoolhouse teacher responsible for multiple grade levels like many of you are.

I do propose a method for you to try to try to regain some control of your days, if you are willing to take advice from a naturally disorganized person. This is not as ridiculous as it sounds, since advice from competent, organized people who make goals and then make lists about those goals and then diligently do the lists to achieve those goals has never really worked for me (if any of it worked it would, like, work already?). No,  I need the advice from people who are like “Here is how to maybe claw your way out of the depths of your own failure and outrun your self-sabotaging urges at least some of the time, godspeed little doodle.”

The process has distinct steps and it’s actually important that you do each step on its own without combining them or peeking ahead. You’ll need some blank paper (or a blank spreadsheet or word processing document) and something to write with.

Step 1: Make four columns.

Step 2: Label the first column “What”

Step 3: Ignore the other columns for now. We’re doing this one at a time.

Step 4: In the “What” column, write down everything you need to do, have to do, want to do, think you should do, wish you could do, aspire to do, or worry that you’ll forget to do over the next month.

It is okay to mix work, home, personal, parenting tasks up in any order. Do not attempt to prioritize tasks or organize them logically at this time, I promise you will get to do that later. It’s actually important (to my thinking) that this be a brainstorm where you have permission to write things down in the order they occur to you without having to triage or feel anything in particular about them at this stage. Work fast, you can always add more things later if you forget something.

I realize that freaks some of you out a lot, and if you are one of those people, a spreadsheet or table (vs. a sheet of paper) is going to be your best bet because at the end of this process you can add a fifth column for “work” “home” “body/health” “kids” etc. and use that to sort later.

Stop reading until you’ve done this part.

I realize it is going to make some of you feel insane to start designing something without knowing what the end product is, but I promise you that “one column at a time” is important and it will make sense later and that I will not leave you hanging with this mess.

Got your list?

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I’m writing this from an inexpensive AirBnB not far from Awkward Apartment, where I took a few days to be in a blank slate, away from cats and laundry piles and human conversation, so I could sit in quiet and solitude and think about how to get my ambitious projects off the ground this year. I wasn’t going to blog but this question jumped out at me and I’d like to shoot it like a fiery arrow across the horizon for me and my fellow creatives who are trying to figure out how to go from the hard drive or the manuscript drawer to the world. Here is my 2020 Note to Self:

NO MORE SHITTY LIFE-HACKS OR PROCRASTINATORY MINUTIA AROUND FORMULATING “THE PERFECT MORNING ROUTINE FOR BEING AN ARTIST” OR WHATEVER

GET TOGETHER WITH OTHER PEOPLE WHO LIKE YOUR STUFF

AND MAKE YOUR STUFF

AND SEND IT OUT INTO THE WORLD

AND THEN DO IT AGAIN

THAT’S IT, THAT’S YOUR ONLY JOB

STAY ALIVE AND MAKE ART

And now, the first letter of the year:

My dear Captain,

I have been reading your blog for many years, since the early days. It’s been so exciting watching you grow! I’ve often been able to find something in the archives applicable to my general situation, or the forums have been a help. Now, though, I’m in a fix, and I don’t know what to do or whom to ask for help, and I’m hoping you might be able to provide some guidance. I’m desperately hoping you will, in fact. I feel like I’m about to have a baby and I’m looking for a hospital.

I’ve written a drag rock opera of Bible stories about the bad women in the Bible, whores, killers, and evil queens. It came out really good. Really good. The issue is that I did it as a self-taught nobody by myself in my bedroom, and now it’s just sitting here in my lap with nowhere to go. I have no money or connections, and no way to produce it. We (husband and two young daughters) moved to a very large city a couple of years ago, and while I would never have had the scope to fully form and finish my project as it is if we hadn’t come here, I’ve never really adapted to big city life. I’ve had trouble connecting with collaborators. They way people operate here just isn’t what I’m used to. People are just so insular.

While everyone I’ve played my material for loves it, I haven’t been able to connect with anyone who can make the whole project happen. The couple of people (one drag queen and one belly dancer) who I’ve connected with seemed really excited about working with me, but they wanted to do one or two pieces at a time in a small venue. No. Would you agree to viewings of only two minutes of one of your films?

This is a piece. It’s meant to be performed as one big thing, from one end to the other. The songs form a progression and tell a story about oppression of women and queer people. It’s a whole thing! It’s not just music.

This wouldn’t be a *problem* (hence this email) if I hadn’t lost my job in September. I’ve spent my entire marriage of 17 years supporting and following my husband as he got his career going, really never having any focus of my own. I had a short-lived local career as a singer-songwriter in my youth that fizzled as I never really liked that kind of music that much, or the kind of work it entailed going it alone. I always wanted to do something different as an artist. I piddled around in a series of jobs that didn’t really mean that much to me, spent an ill-fated year in law school, stayed at home with the kids for a few years, worked as a paralegal…and when I found myself looking for work, it felt so demoralizing to be digging through job listings when I have a masterpiece sitting in my lap. But what do I do with it?

I have some friends who advise me to get on Twitter and reach out to people, but I am a ghost on the internet and have zero social media presence. When I created a profile, it didn’t go well, and I’m worried my clumsiness will only sabotage me, so I hesitate to start contacting people. And let’s say I get it sorted out and do contact people, what direction do I take that? Social media just gives me all kinds of anxiety, way more than my regular social anxiety. I don’t even want to be out there under my own name. I have kids and I spend most nights at home, but even if I were to go out and start “pounding the pavement,” I don’t know where to go. Most drag shows start when my eyes are getting heavy these days. Do I start with drag shows? Or am I looking for theater? I have no idea anymore. I feel like this strange hermit living in a cave with a golden egg, polishing it and loving it, but having nowhere to take it.

I had a plan before I lost my job to use my Christmas bonus to buy equipment to produce tracks to perform to, but even the first step went bust before I could take it.

The material is ready. I’m ready. I feel like I’m about to have this baby. What do I do?

Please help.

Thank you

Bout to Pop (she/her)

Dear ‘Bout to Pop:

Your musical sounds AMAZING and I want it IN MY EYES AND EARS right NOW.

To get it there you are going to have to:

1. Copyright your stuff. It protects you legally, it forces you to record/document it in some kind of tangible way and send it out of your house. This is a good step for someone who is where you are.

2. Make a monthly budget called “Get my show made.” If it’s a small budget right now, that’s okay, but you need a line item in your budget & your family’s budget for this. This is a big deal. This is you. This is your work.

3. Make a sacred weekly time on your schedule called “Get my show made.” During this time, you are not Mommy or Honey, you don’t give a fuck what’s for dinner or whose turn it is to pick the music in the car today. You’re getting your show made. You are working. Treat it as seriously as any day job.

4. See shows and meet people. What theater company where you live does the best/most musicals? Their directors and producers might salivate to get their hands on new work. Would they workshop something for you – stage/light/costume design a few numbers? Howabout producers in your local drag scene? Could you jointly crowdfund a fringe festival pilot? Time to hire a babysitter and drink caffeine after 3:00 pm, ’cause once a month you have a date with THE STAGE.

5. CALL THOSE PEOPLE WHO WANTED TO DO A COUPLE SONGS A WHILE BACK, APOLOGIZE, AND LET THEM PERFORM SOME SONGS.

FYI this was the part of your letter that made me yell “NO!” and “OH MY GOD!” and HAVE TO answer it.

I will stop yelling but I needed to BIG FONT yell for a second. I understand wanting to be protective of work, but I would absolutely let someone screen a single episode from a web series or a short film or read the first 10 pages of a feature script before committing to the whole thing. Your work is “too big” right now, so make it smaller!

I believe you that your piece is great and best viewed in full, but a) workshopping parts of a larger show is a standard part of the creative process (Have you ever seen your work performed? Have you ever seen any of this piece performed with lights and costumes and an audience? You will learn so much omg do it just do it please just do it.) b) “Get a short digestible chunk that people can love in front of them so they’ll ask you for the whole piece” is one of the bedrocks of getting content seen by pros in the entertainment industry. If you continue to insist that people who don’t know you or your work have a choice between “all” or “nothing,” you may get lucky someday but you’re going to encounter a lot of “nothing, sorry” on the way.

Staged readings are a thing. Workshops are a thing. Showcases are a thing. “Viral” videos of works in progress are a thing. Make them your thing. You did the hard, lonely part of having an original idea and putting it on a page. To get it on a stage, you need other people. Their enthusiasm and love for your work is not a threat to you, it is the engine that will make it real. A short version or excerpt is not a threat to the whole, it is the “trailer” that builds anticipation and excitement and shows off what you can do. Big productions evolve out of small moments, ideas, sketches.

Furthermore, “This is a show that started as a few songs performed here and there in drag clubs” is the best damn origin story imaginable, not something that will ruin the eventual “Julie Taymor presents…” on the fancy marquee. Your idea about a show about the Bible’s bad girls intrigued me, the prospect of that show originating with and piloted by drag performers completely SOLD me. Collaborate with and harness and trust the enthusiasm of these people who love the work when you are a “nobody.” What you’re telling me in your letter is that your work is great and you’ve already made some strangers love what you do and want to be a part of it. THAT is a success and THAT IS where this starts. These people who fell in love first will invest their time and love now and make it happen with you and for you through the whole life of this project.

ACCEPT THEIR GIFTS. And take them with you when you “make it.” Opening night on Broadway I want to see you give an interview like, “Me & a bunch of drag performers started this together when they took a chance on me and performed some of my songs in clubs and laundromats and wherever people would listen, now we’re all on Broadway together, singing about the Bible’s Baddest Bitches, because they believed and made it possible.”

6. Hire/recruit the best audio & video people you can to document any and all performances, have them put together a polished cut of each song and a video of the whole showcase. I put audio first for a reason – if you can only afford 1 pro and 1 student/talented newbie helping out, make the pro the audio person. Make a website with a synopsis, photos, all your information before you push the videos online. When this hits you want people to be able to find you easily.

7. Figure out this social media thing so that those songs get seen and heard and loved and sung along to. Lots of awkward, shy people are on social media. Here’s a starting point: Friends-of-blog Julie & Jessica of King Is A Fink wrote a book called Social Media Charm School for social media neophytes who are trying to harness social media specifically to network and promote and make creative projects (in their case, films). There is an older, pre-social media resource about film-funding (movies are expensive and also more my wheelhouse than theater, apologies) but I really like Shaking The Money Tree: The Art of Getting Grants and Donations for Film and Video by Morrie Warshawski. He has lots of advice about raising money through overlooked and unexpected ways but probably the most valuable advice is about crafting your pitch and using your passion and skill in how you tell the story to connect with people who might give you money or want to work with you. You are the expert on you, you are the expert on your story, you can translate that passion even if you are nervous or shy. It’s okay to be a beginner at “Show Business.” Everyone in show business started as one.

Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work are both valuable and inform the ways I first approached social media for promoting and networking. Using Twitter as an example, the people who do what you do the way you want to do it are on Twitter. You could follow them and listen to them and get to know them. Fellow aspiring goddesses of musical theater are on Twitter. You could follow them and listen to them. You don’t have to say a thing for a while, never mind crafting and pushing the perfect pitch for your project. Just listen. Who inspires you? Who draws you in? Who makes you feel encouraged and excited? Where are they submitting and promoting their work? Those are the seeds of community and fellowship, interacting like a friendly human with other friendly humans who are doing the same work you are, cheerleading each other on. [Beeteedubs Chicago, I have a 60-90 min ‘sustainable, positive social media for indie creators’ talk/workshop I will happily bring to your school or organization, lmk if having a person who hates the term ‘personal branding’ and who found ‘selling Girl Scout Cookies, a thing people love and look forward to every year’ stressful but somehow makes a whole entire living by engaging with audiences online would be useful to you or your students/colleagues/members].

I repeat: Leverage the community you already have (beginning with the people who wanted to put on a short version of the piece), follow and listen to people who inspire you, and get going.

8. Research how new musicals get made. I don’t know how they get made and can’t tell you, that’s your research to do. Hadestown started with a concept album and a small performance. At least one reader submitted their amazing-sounding piece to a contest a producer runs every year. Seed and Spark (where the above-mentioned Julie worked for a while before getting her MBA in saving the world) is a good place to start researching crowdfunding options. Where you live, what theater companies routinely present new work? What fellowships, grants, mentorships, panels, etc. for new playwrights and composers exist? Who routinely directs and produces musical theater where you live? Meet them. And RESEARCH.

9. If you must get a day job, get one where you have a regular schedule, the lowest-intensity-to-highest-money ratio, steady Internet access, and a printer. Last time I had an office job with any regularity, I got my work done in about four hours every day and I also had at least four hours a day where I was trapped at my desk and had to “look busy” but really had nothing to do and that’s part of how I became a writer. Dress well, show up 5 min early every day, and do your paid work with so much competence and integrity and efficiency that nobody will notice when you have 20 browser tabs open and 19 of them are “fringe festival submissions” and “artist residencies for emerging playwrights.” You’ve got to put food on your table somehow and that might be the somehow until this thing breaks.

10. When you get discouraged or depressed, consider “Cats.” 

“Cats” is a real thing in the world. It was ridiculous poems. Then it was a ridiculous show. Now it is, for some reason, a ridiculous movie. If “Cats” can do it, YOU CAN FUCKING DO IT. Approach your creative endeavors with the audacity of every single person who thought “Yes, ‘Cats’ is a thing we will make with our time.” The next time I see the words “worryingly erotic” I want them to be about you and your show.

Let us know when there is video/audio to share so I can smash that “retweet” button, we at Awkward Dot Com Enterprises are rooting for you. ❤

Continued from the previous post to give me more time to think and help you rest your scrolling fingers. Click below the jump for: Not automatically taking on new volunteer responsibilities when others pile them on, talking to kids about fatphobia and disordered eating, supporting a friend with an alcohol addiction, and bouncing back when you fail at what other people think is your dream job by finding a better way to tell the story.

Additional content note: I mention pet death (RIP Beadie) in the last answer, because she’s part of my story about leaving a job.

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Dear Captain –

I (she/her) am a middle-aged wife of a man (he/him). We’ve only been married three years (together 8) but it has turned out to be rather nothing like what I wanted marriage to be – and I was not unrealistic! He’s emotionally constipated and may also be more intellectually my inferior than he first seemed. He’s kind, not a monster, but he doesn’t manage stress well – at all – and I don’t manage money well. He’s sexually inexperienced compared to me, but he’s still interested whereas I am completely dead from the neck down. Right now hugging him is like hugging a pillow. I am so tired of managing his emotions, explaining things to him, taking the lead on any decision-making because he can’t manage it, quelling my frustrations, enduring his inept pawing, trying to explain my dissatisfactions and needs without somehow making him feel blamed, I’m exhausted. In addition, my work situation has gotten more isolated, difficult, and stressful. Plus there’s the news cycle grinding us all down slowly.

I believe strongly in the campsite rule of relationships, leave them better than you found them; I think if I vanished he’s in a better place: he’s in touch with his creative side, has a wide and non-toxic pool of friends who love him, and a homier home and healthier diet. However, I used to be creative and horny and enthusiastic and I did performances and made things and wrote things, I kept up with my projects and bills and friends, and now I just want to watch TV or maybe play World of Warcraft, though it’s too much bother most of the time. Definitely depressed! But, if he vanished, I would be worse than when he found me, but I’d feel free.

One day I had a dream, followed by another dream, which resulted in writing a 200,000 word book in three weeks. I didn’t want to do anything else, I was utterly engulfed in this project. He keeps asking what I am doing but I just can’t tell him, “Writing!” but he’s convinced I have to share every phase of any project like he does because he’s so insecure. Anyway, all I want to do is work on these books. I have control of that little universe on the page, and I don’t want to engage with him at all. He’s trying to be sweet but it’s too little too late. He’s always been terrible at communicating any kind of emotions besides stress. Any time he has stress he crawls up his own ass and neglects everyone around him, particularly me. I am exhausted beyond belief. We both have therapists, but it’s still too early to be experiencing results, and we definitely need couples therapy. A bitter part of my brain just knows he’s not asking her the right questions.

I am in despair and I just need to know how I can communicate “please fuck off” while I am working on this project, which is tantamount to an emotional affair (the first book involves me meeting and getting together with a famous person; the second is a meta response). I feel guilty not telling him, but I know he’ll take it personally and then those emotions he cannot express will be my problem too. I am his mother more than his wife and I don’t even know what a proper relationship looks like. But it ain’t this. If I knew it would be like five years from now, I would be gone. But I am hoping therapy/Wellbutrin will help.

I guess my question is: how do you tell the husband you are currently utterly burned out on that you are writing a story about being in love with someone else, and you’d much rather do that than talk to your husband? My book lover is not some Hemsworthian hunk but is the opposite of my husband in all the important ways, and a very nerdly sort of beau. My regular crush on him has definitely blossomed into something unhealthy, but I’m in no danger of acting out on it, so it’s more of an escape than a manifesto.

Sincerely,
Writing A Book With Dream Boyfriend

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Dear Captain Awkward,

Thanks so much for this blog! I read most of the archives during a recent overnight hospital stay and it really helped keep me entertained. I (she/her pronouns are fine) was a year away from completing my dissertation when my body rebelled. I have two very large liver adenomas, larger than the doctors have seen before. Thankfully my parents live in a city renowned for its hospitals and took me to consults. I had to immediately go on medical leave in September but was hoping to return in the spring. Unfortunately the adenomas are extra stubborn. I’ve had two embolization procedures and I’m in for another two before the surgeon can operate (one of them is in a really risky place and she could hurt me if she tried). With the extra hospital time, she recommended that I extend my leave, so I did.

Everyone congratulated me on how well I’m handling things, but I don’t feel that way. I feel constantly fatigued, I’ve been in a lot of pain, I feel like I’m losing my identity as a scholar and I’ve been living with my parents during the week in case one of these stupid things ruptured. I’ve had to spend a lot of time away from my wife, which has killed both of us. Luckily the surgeon says I should be safe to go home for longer periods now. I’m just wondering how I stay afloat. With a massive surgery looming in May, applying for summer jobs is now unlikely. My father has been helping me financially and I am so grateful. I’m just depressed. I’m done with hospitals, needles and the whole mess. I’m even getting depressed over stupid things like getting denied for a credit card. I feel like I’m a drain on everyone around me and I can’t even contribute academically anymore. I’m writing a 3500 word paper for a big conference in April and even that is a struggle.

My advisor has told me not to worry about the dissertation unless I feel completely up to it, but I would feel better if I could bang out a chapter draft. Therapy would probably help and I was seeing someone before this went down but she wasn’t very effective and then I’ve had to spend so much time in my parents’ city that I haven’t been able to go to appointments anyway. I am also on medication and have been since I was 16. I know that what I need to do is be nice to myself and for the first few months I could do that, but now I’m having trouble. Thanks for everything you do.

Signed
Eeyore’s got a bum liver

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Hello all!

You can submit short questions at Patreon or on Twitter (@CAwkward, #AwkwardFriday) until 11 am Chicago time today. I’ll answer as many as I can before 2pm.

Holiday and non-holiday related questions are okay, with following parameters:

  • I’m not answering questions about abuse in this short answer format.
  • I think we’ve covered just about every flavor of “How do I deal with my [politically difficult] relatives over the holidays?” in past posts & discussions.

Looking forward to your questions!

Q1 Hello! My job is pretty horrifying right now – they outsourced our team and we both therefore have new jobs but they haven’t actually hired anyone to do our old jobs yet. We hopefully (hopefully!) start training replacements soon after a series of delays and false starts including our entire role being forgotten when planning replacements. I’m doing OK but my friend/coworker is obviously burning out and she’s getting increasingly snippy and rude with me. How do I extend her grace when I’m fighting my own burnout too? Can I talk to her about this somehow?

A1: Oh yeah, time to talk to her! It might be as direct as “Look, I know you’re really stressed out, but do you realize how much you’re snapping at me? Are you okay?” or as general as “Hey friend, I know everything is so stressful at work right now, can we talk about how we’re going to get through our ridiculous workload for the rest of the year? Let’s make a plan.” 

Q2: I’d love another list of what you’ve been reading recently!

A2: I finally read Gaudy Night and loved it. Trying to read some of the other Sayers, verdict so far is “Gaudy Night > Harriet Vane Books In General (will def read all of these, only one left) > Not Harriet Vane Books (eh, these probably aren’t my thing unless I happen across them in a B&B somewhere someday, they’re not bad but I only care about Harriet, Miss Murchison, Miss Climpson, and sometimes Bunter).

Additionally in the past month: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss, The Apple Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed, Hand To Mouth: Living In Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado, All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung, All of the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart.

If you don’t know about Library Extension for Chrome, I’m here to tell you the Good News About Library Extension for Chrome. Search for a book on Amazon or Goodreads or other book searchy site and it will tell you if the book is available (+ how many copies and in what format – hardcover, audio, e-book, etc.) at your local library*. Since I have a Kindle, I click, click, click and then it’s like “free books reading all the time yay.”

*If they participate. If they don’t, you can suggest them!

Q3: I find a fellow volunteer somewhat difficult. We have the same goals, but they typically seem irritated with everyone and often complain about how people aren’t doing enough or doing it right. I’ve taken on more with our group partly because they needed a break, but it bothers me when they prod me to do things with the same speed and in the same way they would. (I have a job; they’re retired). I’d be fine stepping down and letting them be fully in charge, but there are policies about not having the same nominal leader for too long a stretch. I’d like advice for dealing with their conversations about who’s doing what wrong and with my own sense of being micromanaged.

A3: This is a difficult one. I suggest an informal, in-person conversation where you say some version of “I know you care so much about [cause] and I really respect your experience and hard work, but you stepped back from running things b/c you needed a break and I need some time to grow into the leadership role and fit it around my full-time schedule. Change is always awkward! Can we agree to check in with each other once a month to make sure we’re all on task, but skip these frequent reminders? It isn’t helping me get to things faster, and I’m feeling micromanaged.” 

They’ll say some stuff, listen to it, don’t argue, thank them for the conversation, and then [this is key] do what you were going to do anyway, even if they do nudge you all the time. Like, it’s okay to filter their emails to a box you check once every week when you’re calm & caffeinated. It’s also okay to set that as a clear expectation, like, “Saturday mornings are when I go through my inbox and deal with [cause]-related stuff, if you don’t hear back from me right away I promise I’ll get to it on Saturdays.” And then follow-through with that schedule. If you’ve been responding right away to every little thing, you’re sort of training the person to expect that you will respond right away to every little thing.

Advanced diplomacy: After the initial conversation, I want you to make a list of things where you do actually need this person’s insight and also a list of things you can safely delegate to them. Every month, during your check in, make a point to ask their advice about something (even if you already know what to do, maybe you’ll get something useful and at worst you’ll make them feel useful). Also, feel free to delegate stuff to them! You have a full-time job, they don’t, they want to do the work, so it’s within bounds to say“I’m not going to be able to get to x as quickly as you’d like – can you take that on for me?” 

Q4: I have a full week off work at the end of the year. How do I politely decline social invitations from people who know I have time off and no plans? I need that week to recharge, don’t want to fill it up with social plans.

A4: Invitations are not commands, so, try “Oh, thanks for thinking of me! I’m really trying to schedule nothing that week so I can rest and recharge. I’ll let you know if that changes and I can make it after all, but for now don’t count on me!” 

It’s okay to be enthusiastic about having down time! If people try to insist on you joining them for whatever after being told something like that, they’re the ones being weird.

Advanced reciprocity and kindness around social plans making: Do keep track of who invited you to stuff and got turned down, and when you’re feeling more social, invite them to do something with you in the New Year. It’s your “turn,” and it will send the message that you really like them and that it was just about scheduling.

Q5: My dear friend is in the late stages of getting her undergrad degree at a primarily online (but not entirely) state university program (not-for-profit school) and has just now found out that some of her credits from a previous school didn’t transfer over into whole courses, so it sets back her graduation date. It sounds to me like her assigned advisor isn’t very helpful or knowledgeable. She is not in the same state as the school and it’s not possible for her to visit campus in person to try to get anything straightened out. What would you recommend as a path of escalation around an academic advisor?

A5: If your friend can pull together all the documentation she can about the courses she took (course descriptions, syllabi if possible) and the equivalent courses at her current institution – whatever she thinks will make the case that the courses should transfer – that’s a good starting point. It can take some time to pull this together, but it can’t hurt.

Then she can try the advisor once more, with questions like, “What is the process for appealing a decision about transfer credits? Can I have detailed feedback as to why certain classes didn’t transfer? What documentation does the school need? (’cause oh look, I have some!) and if the advisor can’t really help, try asking them directly: “Ok, thanks so much. If you can’t sort this out for me, who do you suggest I talk to?” Be very polite, ask questions, be persistent, follow up every conversation with an email outlining what y’all talked about. After that, it really depends on her program. A professor she gets along with very well might have ideas, the department’s admin (someone you should ALWAYS make friends with) might be able to sort it. When/if she does escalate it around the advisor, she’ll probably do better if she doesn’t complain about the advisor (that person is gonna work there lonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnng after your friend has graduated), phrase it more like “Advisor helped me as much as they could, but I still have some more questions and they suggested you might be able to help. Are you the right person to talk to?” 

I’d also suggest that your friend prioritize her list of transferrable courses privately, like, know which ones are “these MUST transfer, I am not fucking taking that class again” and “Eh, if I had to go over some of this material again to get to the classes I really wanna take it wouldn’t kill me” so there can be some negotiation. Best of luck to her!

Q6: Very difficult question, only vaguely related to the holidays in that I want to read some more books between now and the end of the year. Where should I begin in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga? In chronological order of the events in the books? Or is there another book in the series that is an especially good entry point?

A6: I started with the “Young Miles” omnibus, (which starts with The Warrior’s Apprentice) shoved into my hands by my friend L. one New Year’s in Massachusetts and then shoved into other people’s hands by me, and it was fun as hell. Then I went back and read Cordelia’s Honor (two books about Miles’s parents and how they got together). I think if you swapped the order there – Cordelia’s Honor & then the Young Miles books – you’d love that, too, because CORDELIA IS THE FUCKEN BEST.

Q7: I’ve been having a hard time at work since the beginning of September, for various reasons. Right now I’m slammed at work, which is likely to be the case for a while (I expect/hope that things will settle down by the first full week in January, but probably not sooner). I already have a vacation planned and have been making an effort to be diligent about self-care, including paying attention to sleep, eating well, and exercising a little more than usual to help with stress. I love the short answer chats and am grateful for any advice or wisdom you have for how to get through an extra-busy time!

A7: You’re doing great with the self-care stuff, that’s good news!

This is what helps me, a person with ADHD who has a limited attention budget that must be respected because when it runs out it runs OUT: Rituals at the beginning and end of each work day. This list is definitely for office-y type stuff, I don’t really know what you do, but that’s where a lot of my experience is:

  • Beginning of the workday: DON’T LOOK AT YOUR WORK EMAIL YET IF YOU CAN POSSIBLY HELP IT. EMAIL IS A TRAP. (Social Media/Twitter/News etc. is also a trap. NO CLICKY.)
  • Instead, take 15 minutes and look at your to-do list/Make or remake your to-do list.
  • What’s the most important/biggest priority/takes most attention on that list? What are your deadlines?
  • What are a few small quick things that you could do and cross off quickly (to give a sense of momentum and accomplishment).
  • Are there a few things that, if you did them, you could call today a “win” and let everything else be extra credit?
  • Great, you’re doing great. Now, block out your day a bit and make specific time slots for reading/answering emails, any meetings or calls, when you want to work on big important thing vs. knock out a few small things, breaks. Over time, if you do this daily, you’ll hopefully start being able to match tasks for when you have the right energy for them. For example, I know I have the best zone of concentration between about 8 am and 2 pm, so whatever is most important to do that day should be done then.
  • Set a timer for 30 minute chunks (or whatever focused time interval is useful to you).
  • Cool, now you can look at your emails (in the time slot for “read emails”, right after your “review to-do list” time slot) and see if there’s anything else you need to consider. Sometimes emails will be really important, but for me, looking at them/answering them/reading them before I know how I want to use my day is a trap. I need to make a plan and then adjust as necessary.
  • Get your stuff done to the extent you can. Your plan will change. You will get interrupted. It’s okay. The plan is a safety net, not something to beat yourself up with.

20 minutes before the end of your workday, STOP. 

  • Look at your to-do list. Cross things off it. Look at what you did!
  • If you have to track your time in some way, this is a great time to enter your timesheet. It can’t pile up, you’ve got your schedule and list right there.
  • Make your to-do list for tomorrow. Don’t think about it too much, just make note of what didn’t get done today and if there’s anything specific you need to prep for, like, “dress nice, client lunch” – You’ll do your thinking in the morning when you’re fresh.
  • Tidy up your work area. Make sure computer files are saved correctly (with descriptive names, in the right place on the server, so other people could find/use them if necessary), put loose paperwork in folders (you can label this shit with a post-it note, just, organize it and put it away if you can, you’ll be less stressed out if you don’t have a chaos pile when you come in tomorrow morning).
  • GO HOME, YOU DID WHAT YOU COULD, YOU CAN STOP THINKING ABOUT WORK NOW.

I hope that helps. I used to think I was “too busy” to stop working and organize myself and it was a lie.

Q8: I’m about to start a new job. I’m 28 and have had several jobs since college where it just wasn’t clear what i was supposed to be doing or where my boss was upset with me for something they never clearly articulated. I know the people I’ll be working with pretty well but i want to start on the right note. How do i ask for expectations to be clearly defined from day 1 and keep lines of communication open?

A8: First, check out the answer about daily rituals, above. I think it will ground you to have some kind of daily practice.

Second, presumably you’re going to have some kind of training period where people tell you what to work on and you observe and get the lay of the land. Keep the job description from when you applied handy. This training period is where you figure out which parts of the job description are real and what secret other work is part of your job.

Third, if possible, carry a notebook and a pen everywhere. If you go into your boss’s office or walk up to them to get instructions, bring the notebook. Your boss tells you to do something, or how to do something, or who to talk to, write it down. Someone gives you feedback about something you did, write it down. If you have questions, write them down. (Ask them, but also, write them down and the answers, too). You discuss something over the phone with a client or supplier? Make a note of what you agreed on. Write it down. It gives you something to do with your face and your hands and it helps you keep track of things. “Hold that thought, let me get my notebook.” 

Fourth, consider a ritual for weekly check-ins with your boss. (This can also be useful for people who need to “manage up” or for bosses who have no freaking idea what you do). You’re new, so it’s expected that you’ll want to check in a lot.

One way it could work:

Mondays, make your to-do list (as you understand it) and share a short version of it with your boss, by email if possible, though it’s possible to do quick status meetings, too. “Hi Boss, hope you had a nice weekend. This week it looks like I’ve got x, y, and z on my plate. Anything else I should focus on?” 

Thursdays, last thing before you leave for the day, send an update email, like:

“Hey boss, x is all set. For z I’m still waiting for approval. Whenever you have notes on the draft of y, I’ll knock out the edit! Anything else we need to knock out before the end of the week?

The Thursday email is also where you could say stuff like “So sorry, x took much more time than we initially budgeted, y and z will have to wait until next week. Is there one I should prioritize?” 

IMPORTANT STUFF:

  • BE BRIEF. Detailed to-do lists are for you. Have mercy on your boss’s eyes, time, inbox.
  • Your boss might not say much about or even answer these emails. That’s okay! This isn’t like school where you get a grade & feedback on every single thing you do. You’re giving the boss a general sense of what’s getting done and the opportunity to course-correct if they have different priorities.
  • If your boss doesn’t get why you’re doing this or it feels a little needy to them, try saying “I don’t want to make more work for you – don’t need you to do anything or even respond, unless you want me to do something differently – This keeps ME organized.” If they really don’t like it, don’t do it obviously. Instead, use your detailed to-do lists as a record of what you’re up to for yourself, give them quick verbal status updates as necessary.
  • If you work different days of the week, extrapolate. Assuming a 5-day weekday workweek, I say do these check-ins on Thursdays (vs. Friday) for several reasons: 1) If there’s something urgent, you still have a workday to work on it. 2) Don’t set up the expectation or the habit or even the idea that you or others would be thinking about work over the weekend. Some companies and industries do expect you to be thinking about work all the time, but that doesn’t mean that impetus has to come from you!
  • Over time, this will create a written record of what you actually work on. You’ll be able to see how much and what you accomplished, what you spend the most time on, where the friction points are, when your boss alerted you to different priorities. Also, should something go wrong, like, it’s performance review time and your boss has a different idea of what you should be doing, you’ve created a structure and the documentation to say (way more politely than this), “LISTEN, BUDDY, I CHECKED IN WITH YOU EVERY WEEK FOR A YEAR, IF YOU WANTED SOMETHING DIFFERENT YOU COULD HAVE TOLD ME THAT AT LEAST 104 SEPARATE TIMES.”

The version you’d say out loud is more like “Are the weekly status check-ins not working for you? Is there some other system you’d like better?” 

Good luck! People want you to do well and want to help you do well, mostly, I think.

Q9: My partner has to go on a work trip somewhere not very fun for Christmas – New Year’s. So I’m on my own. Don’t wanna see biological family because reasons. Do you have suggestions for how to spend solo holidays?

A9: Off the top of my head:

  • Is it possible for you to get a change of scene and travel somewhere, too?
  • Eat/drink/watch/do things you like but your partner doesn’t particularly like. I’m sure your partner is lovely, I’m also decently sure that sometimes you compromise about how you spend your time when another person is involved.
  • If you’re a “HOLIDAYS, YAAAAAAY!” person, check out all the free craft fairs, concerts, museum talks, plays, singalongs, etc. that tend to accumulate at this time of year.
  • If you have time off, and friends have some time off, can you catch up with them informally/not at peak HOLIDAY times, like, Boxing Day Brunch.
  • Find a ritual of kindness to do, like, write to your old teachers/mentors and thank them.

Q10: There’s a lot of family dysfunction behind this question, but for a short question…. my parents in general treat myself and my sister like they are still authority figures and sometimes literally says things like we are children (we are in our 40s and have professional jobs). When we visit they literally says things like “turn off the lights before you go to bed”, “don’t forget to lock the door”, “help your mom with the dishes” [which I always do], “do you know how to get yourself a snack? [mom mentions about 5 possible snack items]. I have tried sarcastic replies and saying things like “I am not 5 years old”. No help. Any other suggestions?

A10: They are not gonna change. They really aren’t. Like, sometimes it is worth having the “Hey, did you raise me to be a functional adult or not?” talk (in my case it’s the “I moved out in 1992, sorry, if your toilet handle needs a complicated set of jiggling motions after each flush for the last 20 years, maybe fix it instead of yelling at me for not having the knack?” talk) and sometimes it isn’t.

So what you need is, absolute eye-rolling solidarity with your sister, very clear boundaries about what they have authority about in your own life & decision-making when you’re not in their house (i.e. zero authority), and the words “Ok Mom” “Okay Dad” said with as much humor as you can manage when you can manage it and “I don’t know, I might literally die if you didn’t show me how to make snacks, Mommy!” when you can’t.

Finding something you do have in common with each parent as adults can’t hurt in the “making new memories and patterns to push the bad ones down” process, but yeah, they’re gonna remind you of this shit literally forever, sorry.

Q11: I work at a college library and it’s Stressing Time around here. Any tips from you or readers on how college staff can support students who are struggling? What do you wish your library had available (supplies, food, events) during finals season? Thanks!

A11: I think my institution brings in puppies for students to pet from some kind of shelter or volunteer organization, and it’s pretty popular.

What I think students could most USE during final students are 30 minute “Hey, buddy, you’ve procrastinated on that essay and now that you actually have to do it you have no idea where to start, it’s okay, grab a cookie and let’s take you through three basic ways to find sources” orientations, maybe in very small groups. Or “Ask A Librarian” office hours where they can get individual help. Like a safe, friendly, no-shame redux of that stuff they should have come to at the beginning of the semester but did not. Publicize it through professors – “Could your students use a quick research strategies refresher?” – Maybe even collaborate with profs in certain subject areas to help students walk through that section of the library.

IDK, I teach a lot of students who come from under-resourced high schools that have no library, no librarian, who don’t know what’s available or even where to start, and I’ve long ago learned not to assume about what they know. I’d LOVE to send them to something like “Ok, you found 10 books/articles about your paper topic and you don’t know which one to read first and you don’t have time to read all of them. That’s okay! Let’s look at the bibliographies real quick – Is there a book or article that all or many of the books mention? Great! Start there!” 

I love libraries and librarians. You’ll do something great, I know.

Q12: I broke up with a dear friend over the summer who is a lovely person, but spent ~2 years ignoring/not responding/declining requests to hang out. I’m starting to do that thing where I wonder if it was the right decision. Logically, I think it was the right thing, but emotionally I’m still hurting, especially since she was a pillar of Team Me and I really need those pillars right about now (I’m going through the end of my degree program and dealing with marital problems; we’re not breaking up, but there’s a lot of work to do and it’s triggering all kinds of “well, I don’t really deserve love/affection/sexual attention anyway” self-talk). And I’m starting to worry that other dear friends will “abandon” me the way that she did. My question is: what are some scripts I can tell myself to re-write this story in my head? Right now I’ve got “everybody leaves” playing in an eternal loop, with the occasional “you’re not good/lovable enough” jumping in as accompaniment.

A12: It sounds like the friend broke up with you, not that you broke up with them, is that correct? Either way, it’s natural to miss people who were important in your life in a stressful time, even if the relationship has run its course. So first step is to stop beating yourself up for having feelings. You can’t outrun or outthink feelings, sometimes the most you can do is identify & name them, like, “Oh, I’m having anxiety that my other friends will ditch me the way ___ did” and then sort of triage them, like, “Do I have to do something about this feeling right now or can I just let it be.” 

Other practical suggestions:

  • Can you vomit out some of the worry in a journal? Write letters to the absent friend of the things you would normally like her help with? Get as angry as you need to with work, spouse, absent friend in a private, low-risk way?
  • When the “I’m not good enough” thoughts intrude, could you try speaking to yourself and your feelings the way you would to a good friend, and try to be as gentle with yourself as you would with that person? It takes practice but this can really help.
  • Can you make some plans with the other dear friends in your life that are about pleasure (not necessarily about support/venting, though some of that will happen, more about relaxation and/or knocking out tasks with a buddy). Think low-key, low-commitment, treating yourself (“let’s grab breakfast and get some holiday shopping done, let’s get our nails done, I grabbed this massage Groupon, can I treat you? I want to see your face and I need to schedule some breaks from school/work”). 

In combination, having the outlet for free form venting and feelings and shame and weirdness can reassure you that you’re not just, like, feelingsbarfing everything on your friends, and having the friend-dates to look forward to will give you some bright spots and rewards for doing the hard work. I hope things get better soon, and congrats on finishing your studies! Everything is hard, but you’re working hard and you deserve to be nice to yourself. 

Q13: Doing the art/dayjob thing but it’s the dayjob part giving me grief. Working with a job coach but I’m still stuck. 29 with a thin resume. Graphic design is a dud but I have no other skills. Failed at teaching and STEM. How do I figure out my career and set myself up for success?

A13: Let me point you at three resources and once piece of wisdom:

  1. Recent thread about a process for figuring out what you want/what you’re good at/where the middle of that Venn diagram is. 
  2. Commander Logic’s guide to becoming unstuck.
  3. Heather Havrilesky’s beautiful piece this week, about art and shame
  4. It is okay if what you do for money does not match up with your deepest self – for the next little while, possibly forever. All your favorite artists had day jobs, most did not match their field of endeavor. 

Q14: What toys and treats have your kitty kids, present and past, absolutely gone nuts for? I want to give mine a great “Kitmas!” 

A14: This thing is the most-loved thing in our house.

We can be upstairs in another room and hear them play with it for HOURS. Literally hours. 

Rainbow tunnel is also pretty darn great. See below:

Henrietta lounging inside the Rainbow Tunnel. 
Daniel being all Coraline in the Rainbow Tunnel. (He was so tiny!)

Daniel loves all toys that can be carried in the mouth (crinkly balls, catnip mice, etc.), and sometimes he will push toys under the bedroom door when it is closed to try to entice us out. It is the best. Henrietta likes a wand toy with feathers at the end. They both love the Cat Dancer, which, you can’t beat that price! Beadie also loved any wand toy, any crinkle-ball, but her most-loved thing ever (like, it might be her actual soulmate) was a pet-safe heating pad. 

Q15 Do Daniel Jason Mendoza Striped Tiger and Henrietta (Kim Wexler) Pussycat have any holiday-themed costumes and may we see pictures?

A15: No, they did their 60 seconds of costume duty for 2018 at Halloween. Halloween 2019 is another year! All the catnip and treats! Sixty seconds or whenever they figure out how to take off hats (which are tied very loosely). 

 Q16: How do I avoid the topic of my job hunt/being recently let go? I straight up don’t want to discuss anything about it (and I’m hoping I have something in place) but it’s tough.

A16: I’m so sorry. You don’t have to tell people about it at all, if you don’t want to and it’s not public knowledge. You can also say, straight up, “Oh, it’s still kinda raw, I don’t want to talk about it at all right now, especially since we’re celebrating!” + change the subject to something you do want to talk about. Non-assholes will follow your lead. 

Q17: How do I handle being burned out on my chronically ill partner’s health talk? I know she doesn’t get a break but sometimes I just can’t handle getting hourly updates on organ functioning, and I feel talked over a lot of the time.

A17: This is so hard. Keeping in mind the principle of “comfort in, dump out,” does she have a counselor or other safe outlet where she can vent about health stuff at will? There’s a great site called Chronicbabe for young women with chronic illness, there might be other communities like that where she can find not only solace but solidarity.

Does she have all the support and help she needs to manage the condition, and is it time to revisit some of that (incl. perhaps involving professional carer), like, “Hey, the frequency and severity of these episodes seems to be escalating, is it time to revisit your care plan?” Can you make a structure where there are certain times of day that you both check in about health talk and give each other your full attention? 

Having as much support in place as possible will make it easier (not easy, but easier) to say, “Hey, love, did you realize you’re talking over me right now? I want to support you, but I am tuning out from some of these real-time detailed updates. I don’t want to tune out from you, can you give me an idea of what you’d like me to say or do when you tell me x?” It’s possible that they don’t need you to do or say anything, but they do need to say whatever it is, if that makes sense.

Q18: What do you recommend for a family member whose need to be “helpful” turns “Thanks. I’ll think about that,” into “Go buy me the thing we were talking about, even though I don’t know if I want or need it yet”?

A18: Try Oh, what a nice gesture, but I don’t need x – please don’t buy things without checking with me, I’d hate for you to spend money on something I can’t use.” 

Advanced Halping Evasion: Consider an information diet around this person – it sounds like even mentioning or brainstorming about a problem you need solved sends them into Helper Mode, try not even mentioning stuff you’re thinking through in this vein to them for a while and change the subject to other topics. 

Q19: My d&d group used to drink&play but 1 guy is now sober&requested dry games in May. Happily did. Last game someone asked, got his ok& brought wine. I wasn’t there, but I want to check in w him &support but we’re newer friends. And he did say it was ok? scriptplz?

A19: You weren’t at the game, so maybe how you go about checking in depends on how you know about the wine. I would assume he did say it’s okay unless you have reason to know otherwise, so maybe try saying “Hey, I saw that _____ asked if they could bring wine last time. I just wanted to check in with you again – I think the switch to sober games has been good for us and I’m happy to keep that in place forever. If you want us to keep that as an absolute rule going forward, it’s okay! You don’t ever have to say yes to wine if you’re not comfortable, and I’m happy to remind people not to mess with it.” 

Just be kind and direct and treat him like the expert on his choices. 

Q20: NaNoWriMo has happened, and it’s been great for me to iron out some problems with my WIP.
But…I was way below my word count thanks to procrastination. Not so bad in itself, but I lied to my partner about it almost daily. What do?

A20: No one’s reading this WIP but you, right? At least not until it’s done, whatever that means. This was a fun thing you did to motivate yourself. So, examine why you felt the need to lie about a fun, optional thing that was between you and you, and then come clean!

Q21: Productive response for when ppl keep doing & apologising 4 smth w no behaviour change? This just pisses me off.

A21: Good recent discussion of apologies here

I guess my question is, what would happen if you showed how pissed off you are? 

“You keep saying that, but the behavior doesn’t change, so, apology not accepted.”

My other question is, how much access do you want to keep giving this person to the part of your life they keep fucking up at? You can wipe the slate clean and still remember what was on it and act accordingly.

Ok, that’s all for this week! Comments are open, with the caveat:

  1. BE KIND. If you can’t be kind, be quiet? We’ve had some real unpleasant ableist and victim-blaming bullshit lately and I don’t care for it. Site policies are here if you need a review
  2. I’m about to skive off for the rest of the afternoon and have lunch and see a movie with Mr. Awkward, so moderation will be haphazard. If your stuff gets trapped I will release it this evening.