On ADD, anxiety, decision trees, and an abundance of projects

On ADD, anxiety, decision trees, and an abundance of projects (book and otherwise).

So a few years ago, I was talking to Benjamin Rosenbaum, about all my various book projects and story projects and poem projects and he basically said that multitasking was a big lie, that I couldn’t actually work on all of those at once, and I should pick one. At most two. But he strongly recommended one.

And then he persuaded me to go up to my office, where I sat in a chair with my computer and read him off the names of projects, and he wrote them all on sticky notes and then made me put them on a kanban board.

(Avoiding a long segue here into kanban — please look up if not familiar. Essentially project management tool, designed for workflow. Key for this: only one ‘active’ project in any given category, such as Drafting or Revision or Production or Publicity at a time.)

I complained and resisted and made him put 2-3 items in some categories, but we did sort of winnow it down. And then I put BIG sticky notes over the ones that weren’t actively to be worked on immediately, to try to hide them from my brain. It actually helped. (Photo 1.)

Two years passed without me looking at the board. But I think that winnowing / focusing project helped, because when I came back to it, I found that I’d actually completed one project (Feast), and a few smaller ones, and that there were several that were done in one way or another, and could be removed from the board. (Photo 2, left.)

I spent a pleasant hour rearranging the board at that point. Among other things, I rewrote the book-length projects onto bigger sticky notes, to make it more intuitive how much time various things might take. And it turned out that there were 3-4 projects that mostly required staff time, but not necessarily *my* time, so those are in a new category, and as I have time to organize and can afford to hire staff to work on those (getting older work back into print, for example), I hope to get those accomplished.

So this is all helpful, yes. But the fact remains that I still have WAY, WAY too many projects on the board. And I don’t know what it is, whether it’s a midlife crisis or a mid-career creative ferment or what, but it feels like I come up with a new, good, compelling idea every few days now. These aren’t just throwaway things — these are all worthwhile projects, many of them feeling urgent. It’s very intense, and also stressful / exhausting.

I’ve been waking up panicked many days, freaking out about how much there is to do, and that’s no good.

The creative idea-generating part is fine in theory (though I have enough, now, brain, please take a rest), but I’m having a hard time managing the stress. I’m planning to go have a fourth session with the new psychiatrist tomorrow — the first three were basically getting her up to speed on my complicated life; this is the one where I lay this problem out and hope she can help me figure out what’s going on, ideally with some tools for addressing it.

Some of those tools may be medical. It’s definitely true that once I take my Vyvanse in the morning, some of the stress eases. I think that’s the brain starting to work properly again, and instead of a thousand wildly blinky lights exploding all over my brain, I get a row of quietly glowing lights instead. A row that I can turn off, light by light, as I check things off the task list. It’s better.

We’re trying to tweak the meds. She had me try adding 5 mg of Adderall to my 20 mg of daily Vyvanse this past week. The plus of that is that I avoid the Vyvanse ‘crash’ around 4 p.m., when it wears off and I get super cranky with the returning tension. I was generally quite a bit happier on those days, and could productively work and also cheerfully hang out with my family into the evening.

But I’m not sure if it’s a good choice. As she’d warned me might happen, I had trouble sleeping — three days of adding the micro-dose of Adderall, and each day, I got 6 hours of sleep / night instead of 8. I *couldn’t* sleep more; if I lay in bed, I was just wide awake.

I didn’t actually feel tired, interestingly enough — amphetamines do that, it seems. But I’m really wary of building up a long-term body sleep debt; there *has* to be a health cost. This is not a sustainable model, surely. I took two days off from the Adderall Monday and Tuesday, let myself sleep normally. Probably good for my body, catching up on sleep. They were pretty stressful days, though.

I’m going to go back on it today, and I’m planning to tell her that I do want to keep trying Adderall for a month. In part because I’m also trying to ramp up to regularly exercising again, and I’m hopeful that if I’m lifting weights every three days and doing some cardio every day, my body will be much more productively tired and will be able to sleep deeper and longer; that’s usually been the case when I was actively exercising in the past.

Of course, that kind of exercise also usually calms my brain some in itself, so it gets complex figuring out exactly what’s going on. Hard to isolate the variables!

One thing the psychiatrist is trying to help me figure out is whether the stress and anxiety I’m feeling is primarily ADD-based, or whether there’s an actual anxiety component that should be addressed through therapy and/or meds. That makes sense to me as a logical, medical approach, but I’m not sure if we can actually figure it out without incurring more sleep-debt than I want to.

I suspect there is a bigger issue here, because even if ADD is making the row of blinking lights go all explode-y, and even if ADD meds can calm them down again, the fact remains that there are just too damn many lights. The row is too long.

I don’t know if it’s cancer+impending mortality (probably at least in part), but it’s clear that I have enough work I desperately want to do for ten people’s lifetimes, and or a hundred, and that is obviously not possible.

A lot of the rest of what I’ve been working on this past year is figuring out how I can convince other people to do some of this work for me.  Sometimes that’s by paying them to do the routine time-consuming tasks that don’t actually need *me*, but do need to be done. That’s going well, though management also takes time, and it’s definitely been a process figuring out just how to expand my reach that way, effectively.

Sometimes that’s by trying to talk them into taking on some of the save-the-world projects. (Want to run for office? Want to join the SLF’s volunteer team? Talk to me.) That also takes time to manage, but it’s helping.

Our three interns at the SLF this semester are making progress on tasks that have been nagging at me for YEARS, which is a great relief. In theory I could’ve had interns all the way along my time teaching UIC (they get course credit), but in practice, someone has to manage them and make sure they’re learning worthwhile things.

It was only in the past year that I’ve decided to try to raise enough funds to hire someone (Karen Murphy) to do that. It’s working, slowly, though I need to raise funds again soon if we want Karen to continue over the summer, and fundraising also takes time. (Join the SLF as a member for $2 / month and alleviate Mary Anne’s stress levels! Will that work as a fundraising campaign theme?)

And I know, some of the answer is just to abandon projects. All those stickies on the wall instead of the board? A good half of them are abandoned projects. Plus, I put the Makerspace on the backburner until we get either more funding or someone else to direct it (preferably both), and that was a relief. I even decided the SLF translation projects could wait a year or two, until the Portolan Project was up and running, and that was good too.

Maybe I need to just go look at the board once a month and say, “Mary Anne, do you REALLY need to write this book? Do you REALLY need to do this project?”

Right now, the answer is generally YES, DAMMIT. But perhaps repetition will wear me down.

No real conclusions here. But I’m going to have plenty to talk about with the psych person on Thursday, clearly.


Evidence that things are actually improving: Making the time to actually find psychiatrist, go to appointments. Setting up session with trainer at gym this Saturday. Having Sunday dinner with family once a week, and Thursday date lunch with husband once a week. Finishing reading books. None of which were happening last fall, so I feel like I’m on the right track, I think. I hope.

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A commentary on “The Privilege of Rage” by tangerinejones

As a note, this is all new to me; I’m pretty sure I hadn’t heard the term ‘rage baking’ in any context until a few weeks ago.

But despite the fact that I cook a lot and think about cooking a lot, there are lots of food spaces that I haven’t spent time in, and I don’t mean my ignorance to undercut tangerinejones’s frustration and valid points here.

[The rest of this will make more sense if you read her piece first, then come back to my commentary.]



I do think it’s somewhat surprising that a major publisher coming out with a book wouldn’t have done a better social media search and found her work earlier in the book composition and publicity process.

…but that said, I also wonder whether it’s primarily indicative of the sloppiness, haste, and insularity of much of big press NY publishing.

Keep in mind that ‘big’ publishing is still and increasingly done on surprisingly shoestring budgets — esp. as the forces of neoliberalism, the collapse of the distributors, and the takeover of publishing houses by media conglomerates have all come together to create an ecosystem of frantic churn. (See also, what’s happened to the American economy generally in the last two decades.)

At big houses, many books are tossed out on the public waters every month, with the expectation that the vast majority of them will fail, blood in the water, with a few reliable bestsellers and the occasional unpredictable wild success carrying the company for another month.

It’s a terrible business model in many ways, breaking the hearts of many debut novelists, but it’s what we have at the big houses right now, I think. And I expect there’s very little in the way of ‘due diligence’ being done — far less than there might have been a few decades ago, when margins weren’t nearly so tight (and there was far less competition).

I’ve always done open calls for the anthologies I’ve edited, as a matter of principle, and tried to push those calls to the relevant spaces, but I’m sure I missed some. I knew about the big SF market listings, but are there black-only SF writer spaces I wasn’t aware of, where I should have pushed my anthology call? Probably. Should I have tried harder to do that? Probably. But all of that takes both will to reach out, and the time and ability to do so.

As a scrambling small press editor whose last edited anthology was a massive loss, financially, I have some sympathy for those small press editors who want to reach out more broadly and just can’t find the resources. (Esp. for anthologies, which are one-shots and not something like a magazine where you can put in a little measured extra effort every month for years, until you’ve really built a robust and diverse knowledge of the field.)

Many in big publishing don’t even make that attempt — they don’t want to put in the time to wade through slush (which, to be fair, ends up being masses of time if you successfully push a call out widely. I won’t be able to do it again myself, which means I’ll need unpaid slush readers if I ever edit another anthology, which raises its own class issues about editing work and its value, but let’s put that aside for now. I’m still trying to figure out how to make the economics of that work ethically).

In my experience, editors at big houses also often tend to assume they’ll get better work from people they already know, so they don’t think they’re losing anything by not doing an open call.

*That* assumption is almost always racist / sexist / etc. in its effect, even if not in intent — it leads to those who are already published, already with a mainstream platform, continuing to be published.

You don’t have to be malicious to do harm. Carelessness and ‘this is how it’s always been done in privileged circles’ is sufficient.


And in case all of that seemed like it was meant to let her publishers off the hook, it wasn’t. Harm was done to her, her brand, her work, and I think reparations should be made.

“If Simon & Schuster and the authors want to make this right, I would like to be credited for my work and see sizeable donations made to the Ali Forney Center, The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, and The Campaign against Hunger.”

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Solidly happy

Kev and I mostly haven’t done Valentine’s Day gifts, in part because he was sort of anti-Valentine’s Day for a long time, and then there was the long stretch where we were breaking up and getting back together and everything was terribly confusing and often miserable and definitely not romantic. I had some rough Valentine’s Days over the years. V. disappointing holidays, often somewhat teary, in a resentful kind of way.
Then we settled into this relationship more happily and solidly (about 13 years in?), but also soon thereafter decided to have kids, and so we were very tired and also not very romantic. But finally, almost 28 years in, the kids are older and we’re less exhausted. We’re solidly happy with each other, and he actually got me a gift this year, which was very nice.
Even better, it was the best kind of gift, a gift certificate to one of my favorite nurseries. I got to pick out some roses for myself! Ebb Tide to add to the little bit of formal rose garden in the front garden, Julia Child in honor of Feast coming out this year, and Eden Climber to try on the back porch pergola.
I also got him a gift, but a v. silly one, picked up at Target on impulse when I was buying strawberries and dried fruit for dipping in chocolate. A notebook printed with geometric symbols for my mathematician, and the words “Acute Notebook” printed on top. It is a v. silly gift because he probably won’t even use it on campus because all the other mathematicians will laugh at him. Oh well.
(I got myself the other one, “Written in the Stars” with constellation print — I’m hoping to try actually writing some notes for the SF novel in it, see if it helps me think differently, more productively / imaginatively, than typing does.)
Addendum: All this reminded me of 2001, when Kevin did try to get me flowers, in the midst of a hard time for us, long-distance and not sure we were going to make it through, me in Salt Lake City in grad school, him in Chicago. I ended up writing a prose poem about it.
flowers and branches, 2001
it started on the worst kind of day, the kind of day when your boots pinch and your head aches and there’s an itch on your back just where you can’t reach it. I had no one to scratch it. he was there and I was here and it was my own choice so I couldn’t exactly complain but I certainly wasn’t happy. he had done something, I can’t remember what, to make it worse instead of making it better, and I just hurt. so I asked him to send me flowers. please. he sounded startled but agreed and that was a small victory though bitter too. nine years together and only recently had he decided that it would be acceptable to give me flowers. as long as I
didn’t take them the wrong way.
he had given me flowers twice at that point. firstly: when I was terribly sick, at the instigation of our old lover who was visiting town. she chose them, orange mums. secondly: when we were buying groceries at the small gourmet store and I asked him to buy me some flowers. he agreed. I chose them, yellow daffodils. he did pay both times, so technically they were from him. more importantly, he agreed they were
from him. baby steps.
these flowers that I asked to be sent to me were another baby step. he agreed. casually, and I wasn’t sure that he would remember. when days went by with no sign of them I assumed that he had forgotten. he didn’t often forget things but sometimes he forgot quite important things. then a message on my machine said that they had tried to deliver flowers but I hadn’t been home. then there were three days of missed messages and missed delivery attempts and after three days of this the flowers, all the flowers, started to feel like they were maybe more trouble than they were worth. he was apologetic on the phone, though he really had no control
over the situation.
finally they arrived, only two days before I was leaving town, and so there was little time to enjoy them. lilies, little red berries, tall elegant dry branches. they were rather impressive, actually, and he had chosen them himself, or at least something like them. the web page warned him that they did not guarantee the same flowers would be delivered. I determined to enjoy them, despite everything, and for two days I took very deliberate pleasure in my flowers. then I left. I thought about throwing them out before leaving. one of the lilies was already drooping, and they would be sad and dead by the time I returned three weeks later. I have an unfortunate tendency to see omens in this sort of thing, and expecting to be depressed, it didn’t seem wise to leave them to rot and greet me with foul scent and mold on my return. but they were still beautiful. I left them in the vase.
one week with him. a few days with an old lover. a little more than a week with my family. a miserable cold. when I took the taxi back from the airport I wanted nothing more than to be home, even though being home meant being alone again. I unlocked the door, turned on the light, climbed the stairs. and at the top of the stairs, the dining room, and in that room, the dining table, and on that table, the vase of flowers. the lilies had gone dry as dust, and crumbled to the touch; the red berries were dry and hollow. there was no scent. but the tall thin branches had put out fresh leaves, pale and green and very much alive. once I had cleared away the dust and rubbish, they were lovely.
my first thought was that I should make a poem about these branches, that they were just too good a metaphor to waste. something about not giving up, about how you think something’s dead, but if you just hang in there and clear away the old rubbish, you may find something beautiful, yadda yadda yadda, you know the routine, squeezed into a few lines, some good clean words, maybe some rhymes. but that was no good, really.
it was simpler than that in the end (though longer, too, unsurprisingly). those branches, those leaves — that is how I am, when I think of him. he is green leaves within me. I live in the heart of winter, and despite everything, he is the spring.
January 6, 2001
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A nice end to what started as a hard day.

Signing a contract tonight for an interesting project that I can’t talk about for a year, which is really not the sort of thing I normally do. Secrets — not my thing! But this is for a good cause, so will do. I’m going to try to mostly forget about it! It does come with a bit of cash, so that’s always good. I’ll tell y’all about it when I can.

A nice end to what started as a hard day.

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I’ve been going through old photos

For a semi-sekrit project, I’ve been going through old photos; I’ll probably be posting them occasionally.

– in Sri Lanka, my mom and various relatives; I’m in the green dress near the center
– my parents, not long after coming to the U.S. (1975)
– me, 7 years old, first holy Communion
– me, maybe in high school (not quite sure), in my childhood bedroom
– me in college, around 19 or so, getting a back rub from a friend (the theater crowd I hung out with was very into back rubs back then, so was the bi group in college, to the extent that we ended up deciding that it was *too* physically intimate for monthly meetings that new people might be coming to….)

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I tried something new last night

So, I tried something new last night — I put my laptop in my office at 9 p.m., and didn’t go to get it until 9 a.m. today. I read for an hour and a half before sleep (in the bath, in bed), and when I woke up this morning, I read some more (along with getting kids off to school, watering plants (picture me watering with book in hand), cleaning kitchen counters, etc. It was lovely.

I’ve been running a little too harried the last few weeks for reading much, and I think it’s a bad cycle to get into, because reading (and I mean reading longer work, fiction and memoir, etc., not just little FB pieces) calms me down and helps me think better.

I still felt the compulsion to check social media, so would jump on phone or iPad on occasion (hence the occasional sharing of things to FB), but I am much less likely to lose lots of time if I don’t have my laptop, mostly because I am too lazy to try to write much without a keyboard.

The downside is that when I do share things, it’s such a pain cutting and pasting quotes that I mostly don’t even try, and ditto even commenting on things I post. I’m going to go back and add a bit now to some of the earlier FB shares.

But still, this is better. I have *thoughts* now about Anthony Bourdain’s writing and Ruth Reichl’s. I like Bourdain’s a lot better, and am trying to parse out why. It’s all good.

More soon. 

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The food we ate along the way

A few days ago I was talking with a writer friend about cooking. She wanted to write a cookbook of her family’s recipes, but was frustrated that her mother hadn’t taught her to cook.

My mom actually barely taught me how to cook; she would say “Just watch,” when I asked. She had me chop a lot of onions, and stir a lot of onions, and corrected me as I did that wrong (generally working too hastily, too carelessly).

Amma also told me a handful of recipes (usually without much in the way of measurements), but that was about it, in terms of explicit teaching.

But I ate her food every day for twenty years. More and more, I’m realizing that the real cooking lessons were embedded there. Amma cooks beautifully, deliciously, and as a result of all those meals, my mouth knows how our food is supposed to taste at its best.

Also, sitting around with her and my many aunties after a party, critiquing the dishes, was an education in itself. 🙂

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Wild Cards: Implementing edits

WHEW. I was behind on a Wild Cards revision for George — it was almost done, but I had sent it to a few people to check my protagonist’s Mexican American 3rd generation Spanish.

I hadn’t implemented their suggestions yet when George’s e-mail popped into my inbox yesterday, and I admit, I got super avoidant about opening his e-mail, because what if he was mad at my lateness? What if he hated the last revision I’d sent him? I’m pretty conflict-avoidant, though I can usually nerve myself up when I have to.

Today I finally made myself (3 hours after I intended to) actually open the files and implement the Spanish edits (and big thanks to Melody Martin and Luis Aguilar Lopez for the help, all remaining errors are my own), which took, oh, 20 minutes total? I mostly made some dumb grammar mistakes, although they also helped greatly with colloquialisms.

Then I braced myself and opened George’s e-mail, and instead of him berating me for my lateness, there was only nice words about how much he’d liked the revision. (And one note that I’d spelled a name two different ways, which both my Spanish reviewers had caught and I’d already fixed.)

Whew. All done now. I’m still not sure why I get so anxious and often avoidant about the Wild Cards work, because once I’m actually doing it, it’s quite fun. Something else to poke at with the shrink, perhaps.

I did have specific stress about this one, because in the wake of the American Dirt controversy, I was particularly worried that I might not have done a decent job representing this guy, his culture and background, etc. But my reviewers didn’t raise any red flags, and I tried to be conscientious, so hopefully it’s okay. If not, well, I’ll take my criticism on publication and try to do better next time.

I could have avoided it all by just writing someone who looked like me — but I was writing about a bunch of contractors in the 1990s in New York, and there were not so many Sri Lankan American women doing that job back then (and probably still aren’t). Hopefully, I did Jesús (and his grandmother) justice.


“Jesús pushed himself to his feet, rubbing the last of the dirt off on his jeans, pondering the problem. “Why don’t we make you a mosaic? I can swing by Norton’s junkyard, find bright tile and glass. We’ll make a garden of flowers out of them, like your paintings.” His abuelita painted murals for the neighborhood, walls blossoming with brilliant color. You knew when you’d crossed over into Jokertown’s barrio because of her paintings – flowers and fantastical beasts. The mayor had even sent her a certificate, honoring her contribution to the community, and they’d run a piece about it in the paper. She kept stacks of those papers in her spare room….”

image of quetzal mosaic by artist Cynthia Fisher

[image of quetzal mosaic found at the artist Cynthia Fisher’s site here: http://bigbangmosaics.com/guatemala-3.html]

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I survived a critique of my SF novel

So, I survived a critique of my SF novel, again. Someday I’m going to write a novel that people really love, right? One where I bring it into workshop and everyone says, “This is perfect, ship it!” That would be nice. It’s hard not to feel disheartened after two solid hours of critique. (Maybe I shouldn’t schedule this kind of workshop at the end of a long workday. It might be better on a bright Saturday morning instead…)

I admit, sometimes I do wonder why we put ourselves through this. Next time, I’m going to tell my workshop that they have to tell me all the things they like first, before they tell me everything that I still have to fix. I want to be lavished with compliments, please.

The good news is that they actually don’t want radical changes, I think. They mostly want me to make the emotional character arc more explicit, make the stakes clearer, show us how the protagonist changes — I thought I had, but apparently it is not clear to most.

Unpack, Mary Anne. Your readers don’t live inside your head.

The other good news is that as it stands, the novel is only 60K words, so even if I add another 20K words of filling out all the missing bits, then I actually will get to normal novel length. So there’s plenty of space to work with.

I kind of want to dive into this right now, honestly. I still have enough backlog + teaching + meetings that I don’t think I can. But I’m actually completely unscheduled on Sunday — maybe I can block off 3-4 hours, try to start making some progress on it. We’ll see.

I think I’m at the point where on a short story, I would retype the entire thing, so I could be really free with the hopefully final draft, open to changing and refining the language, characters, even plot as much as needed, which is harder to do while just editing.

But oof — typing 80,000 words is a big commitment. I mean, I type about 120 words per minute, so if I were *just * retyping, that wouldn’t be so bad. A little over 11 hours. But of course, it’ll be much slower than that if I’m actually drafting & revising, probably more like 80 hours. Intimidating…

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Kavi really wants to read one of my books

In other news, Kavi really wants to read one of my books. Eep. I gave her Perennial, because even though there’s some cancer stuff in there, there’s no explicit sex, I think. I think it’s reasonably 12-year-old appropriate? It’s hard to remember, but I’m pretty sure it just ends with a kiss. (For those new to reading me, much of my work has quite a bit of sexually explicit material.)

And then she came back home from school yesterday and said one of her friends saw it in her bag and wanted to borrow and read it, and I said EEP. I really don’t want angry parents descending on me!

We told her that after she’d finished it, if she thought it was appropriate, she could loan it to her friend.


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