Hi, loves. 🌿
100 days of something equals something else.
Surely many of you read The Isolation Journals, yes? (If you don’t, please do yourself a favor by checking it out.) Created by the writer Suleika Jaouad in the early days of the pandemic, it’s been a place of creativity and respite and life-affirming reminders that it’s possible to make beautiful things in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. Every week she offers writing prompts and visits with artists and all number of other wonderful things that make the internet feel like a good, kind place.
A few weeks ago she announced the start of a 100-day project: One hundred days to commit to a creative pursuit. Anything! Writing, planting, gardening, drawing, painting, haiku-writing, singing, walking in the woods. Whatever. Just fully commit for 100 days. I emailed all my writing students and said, let’s do it as a group. I’ve learned that having others at your (virtual) side goes a very long way to actually sticking to any kind of artistic commitment. So I started a spreadsheet where we could tick off our days (doing whatever we chose), and we were off to the races.
My first thought: Use it as a chance to burrow inside a fiction project I’ve been tooling away at — and avoiding — for some time. A 100-day commitment would move me along in a way that felt necessary. A kick in the pants. An outside structure I couldn’t provide for myself.
But almost immediately something about this felt rigid. More of the same. More writing. Another fucking goal. I did not want more goals. I did not want to get better. I wanted to feel something other than a slog, a steep mountain under my feet, an arm forever reaching for the same golden ticket. I wanted this to feel out of the bounds of normalcy; I wanted it to add something new to my life. I wanted to have fun. Fun! Remember fun?
So I went back to Suleika’s original post to see if there were any guidelines I’d skimmed on my first read, and alas, there they were:
But here’s the thing about a 100-day project,” Suleika writes, “the whole point is to get into a more liberated, playful creative flow state—not to reinforce the pressure of constant striving, or the compulsion to be productive, or to create some kind of grand masterpiece. Of course, something will come of your 100-day project. Whatever you choose, it will be useful in ways you can’t even begin to predict, I promise. But going in with an end goal destroys the magic. Instead, the project is a process, a journey sans predetermined destination.”
There it was: I was again turning something open-ended and liberating into a project with a goal. A product! More pages! That will! Amount! To Something! When had I become like this? Not the point, Abby, I said to myself gently. Find something else something entirely divorced from your reality, your job, your identity, divorced from accomplishment altogether. Can I find something more whimsical? More ephemeral?
What is whimsy, anyway? Isn’t that what I need right now? Don’t we all?
I’ve forgotten how to have fun. This is perhaps the most oft-repeated sentence I utter to my husband. We never have fun anymore! The pandemic took it away from us, and we’ve been mostly unable (unmotivated? afraid? too lazy? too tired? too beaten down?) to get it back.
I stooped so low as to read part of Catherine Price’s The Power of Fun. I only say “stooped” (it’s good!) because, dear God, why do I need a guidebook to explain fun to me? When I found myself on the couch making a chart (!!!!) of what is True Fun (her words) to me (Dance Church) vs. what is simply pleasurable (reading in the bath), I looked up and thought, Have I forgotten how to be human?
Which brings me back to the 100-day project. I needed something that brought me back to my humanness. Because isn’t that ultimately what creativity is? A human act? (Can monkeys be creative? I guess they can, but perhaps not with, like, a paintbrush.) I remember so clearly Suleika writing somewhere — or saying in an interview — that survival itself is an act of creativity. And while she was referring in that instance to living through leukemia (and all that came after), it can be applied to any of our lives. Living with chronic pain involved creativity. Living with a newborn involved creativity. So does living through a pandemic.
So in a moment of synchronicity, which can only be explained (yet again, I’m sorry) by Julia Cameron (she is all about synchronicity; I swear it comes up in every chapter of The Artist’s Way), I finally turned on Jon Batiste’s WE ARE. (I say synchronicity because Suleika and Jon Batiste are married.) And, God help me, I could not keep myself from dancing. Day after day, when I turned it on, I got up from my desk to move.
As many of you know, I was a professional dancer in my twenties, until my career ended in injury and years of chronic pain. Since then, I’ve never really learned to re-incorporate any kind of dancing back into my life. Yes, I’ve gone to Dance Church (felt ecstatic in class and left in pain) and danced at parties and with my daughter, but it rarely ends in the ecstatic joy and exhaustion I used to feel at the end of class. Too often it ends with that nagging nerve pain slithering down my leg. I haven’t quite learned to trust myself when music comes on. I just want to fly, but I can’t without later suffering the consequences.
But I thought: what if I just danced a little each day, here, in my living room, as I did every day as a child? Alone, with my bare feet on the wood floor, gently, at my own pace? For no one but me? Like, really for no one else?
Oh, but I wanted to show my work.
I realized, sort of shamefully, how desperate I was to show my work. Isn’t this what far, far too much of contemporary life has become? Let’s show each other our work! Our lives! Our fantastic, far-away vacations! Our fabulous dinners you weren’t invited to! Our trips across the globe with friends that aren’t you! Our happy, healthy families! Our books and publications and successes! SHOW IT ALL OFF.
When you dance, at least the way I do now — and how I did as a kid, with Sergeant Pepper blasting from the record player and my mother in the kitchen making dinner and my dad sorting through mail in the entryway and no one paying me any mind — there is no showing your work. There was only a place and a body and the music to return to, a communion with only those three things, the audience entirely imaginary. Dance doesn’t exist outside the very moment it’s being experienced (unless you record yourself, but then it’s only a sad replica).
Maybe, I thought, there’s something, for me at least, in doing a creative act that cannot be shared and that brings me back to my oldest, more childlike self. To simply play.
There will be no proof of anything at the end of these 100 days. Dancing is embodied but intangible. You can’t hold onto it. I will not have written a piece of a novel, or 100 poems, or made 100 drawings, or planted 100 seeds, or even written 100 postcards (this one I did contemplate). There will be no showing my work.
I will also not become a better dancer. I say this with absolutely no judgement and almost a laugh: that ship has sailed; it is as far from relevant as can be. When it comes to dancing, my ambition is now nonexistent. What is less than nonexistent? It burned out all those years ago, along with my broken body. If I can dance without pain, with some sense of joy and freedom and ease in my bones, that’s a monumental win. It is enough.
Perhaps I need this dance practice more than anything else because it is entirely process-oriented. Being inside it is the thing; it is the only thing.
What might any of us learn from simply being inside our lives?
WRITING CLASSES! April’s class sold out so fast, I’ve added a pop-up class to the spring schedule on May 22. People on the waitlist get first priority but sign ups will open this Thursday, April 14th. Can’t wait to see you there!
ALL THE THINGS
Oh, Melissa Febos’ Body Work is so fucking good; a must-read. Since it’s Spring Break over here and I wanted to get into vacation mode (hahahahaha), I’m reading Emily Henry’s Beach Read. And also just started Celeste Headley’s Speaking of Race. “Contemplating Beauty in a Disabled Body” by Chloe Cooper Jones (thanks, Kieran); her book Easy Beauty is out this week. Bill T. Jones and Eiko in conversation with Wendy Perron. I am so, so moved by the (public) sisterhood around Justice (!) Brown Jackson. Four law students on what her appointment means to them. Senator Raphael Warnock speaks about KBJ’s confirmation (watch starting at 5:00). President Zelenskyy was on 60 Minutes this weekend.