Hi Sternal Journalists,
Let’s get a few Oscars things out of the way:
After my light takedown piece on My Octopus Teacher last week, it won an Oscar tonight. Yet another victory for the Julian Stern Failure Vortex.
I have such a love/hate relationship with awards shows, in that I grew up completely loving them (imagine a 9-year-old Julian asking his friene-bully if the friene-bully was planning to watch the Tonys that evening, and then 9-year-old Julian explaining what the Tonys were, and then not being totally respected for being able to do that), but now they represent a lot of things I am ideologically against in terms of creativity and/or art.
I did watch tonight because it’s still the pandemic for a limited time and I thought it would be fun. Exactly four fun things happened, : —Jon Batiste gave a rousing speech whose central point was how fucking cool it was that everybody has the same 12 notes to make music with; —Daniel Kaluuya, in a moment of distilled gratitude expounded on how awesome it was even that his mom and his dad “met and had sex,” and they cut to his mom who you could clearly see saying “What’s he on about?”; —Yuh-Jung Youn gave a perfect speech where she teased Brat Pitt for being a producer who didn’t come to set, and she told the other nominees that she was luckier than them; —and Lil Rel moderated a great bit where Andra Day said it was “some bullshit” that the academy didn’t nominate Purple Rain and Glenn Close did Da Butt.
And did we dress up? Sure did. Thought it would be fun.
(Photo cred: Kristen Layden. Helping me achieve my dream of finally wearing a turtleneck and chain with a suit cred: also Kristen Layden.)
Crip Camp shoulda won Best Documentary. Watch it, especially if you’ve already watched Octopus!
And with that out of the way… I’ve been talking to a lot of friends about how to actually get oneself to write or create recently. I think with the changing of the times, people are trying to (a) race to finish whatever their big pandemic project was, and/or (b) attempting to set themselves up for a more sustainable creative schedule as things start to open up again. Which is wonderful!
And, while I’m no productivity expert at all, I like messing around with productivity habits and I’m always chasing guilt- and funk-proof ways to keep up a schedule. Some of those are very specific to me. For instance, creating a newsletter that is committed to being weekly above all else (e.g. quality, timely, needed, wanted) is something that I wouldn’t necessarily suggest everyone do. But it’s a good way to hold myself accountable and make sure I’m writing at a minimum one glorified email every week.
But I like to do more than that! And I’ve been talking to a few people this week about more generalized, very scalable and modifiable habits; and I wrote some of them an e-mail detailing those habits as best I could; aaaand frankly, I have nothing else to talk about this week (“weekly above all else”).
So here I reprint the salient bits of that email, in hopes that they may be helpful to others in the final sprint of their pandemic project, or considering a more creative life post pandemic times:
(ed. note: I had been talking to these friends in the context of stand-up, so there is mention of writing jokes and punchlines and the like, but this could just as easily be replaced with novel/sentence, screenplay/scene, song/chord progression, basically any creative endeavor and it’s components. I challenge you to tell me, in fact, if these don’t work for a medium you work in or want to. I’d love to know!)
“We talked a bit about fighting the shame spiral of not writing. There are endless ways to do this, only some of which work for any individual. My offerings are:
Break down incomplete tasks. Say you planned to write for two hours today, and you completely whiffed it and wrote for 0 seconds.
Rather than tell yourself you have to write for four hours tomorrow (two for today and two for tomorrow), break down the task. Listen to your body/fate/whatever saying "two hours wasn't possible. Can we lighten the load a bit?"
So tell yourself tomorrow you'll write for one hour. Maybe you whiff it again. Then break it down again, and the next day make it thirty minutes.
Eventually, I promise that you will get to an amount of time that you're able to complete.
Maybe it's just fifteen minutes a day. That's very okay. Then you can keep writing for fifteen minutes every day, or you can build back up.
It's a difference between attempting to maximize output and optimize output.
Say you go with the maximize model and tell yourself you have to make up any two hour chunk of writing you miss. By the end of Wednesday if you haven't written shit, you tell yourself that you have to write EIGHT HOURS (!) on Thursday. That make me wanna puke with anxiety just thinking about it.
The writing debt builds up. The shame spiral builds up. On Sunday, you technically are supposed to write for fourteen hours to make up for it. You force yourself to write for as long as possible and maybe eek out an hour. You feel like a total failure. You are not excited about next week.
BUT then let's look at the optimize model. Monday, you fail to write for two hours. Tuesday, you fail to write for one hour. Wednesday, you fail to write for 30 minutes. But on Thursday! On Thursday! You finally do it. You write for fifteen minutes. It's nothing groundbreaking, but it was pretty easy, and you're ready to do it again.
So that by Sunday, you've written for four days in a row! Fifteen minutes each day, which adds up to, you guessed, the same fucking hour as the maximize model. But in this scenario, you're proud of yourself and you've built a sustainable routine. You're much better prepared for next week.
Writing an idea for a really great joke into an actually really great joke is hard. But in some ways, writing when you don't have an idea for what feels like a really great joke is harder. The more you can get comfortable with that, though, the quicker the first part gets.
Sleeping and drinking water and meditation apps. All are very helpful for having a clear mind, which helps focus, which makes it easier to do something you tell yourself you're going to do. (You can probably meditate without apps also, but I don't know much about that.)
Going for a walk without your phone. Or turn your phone off, if you're worried about needing it for an emergency. But if you feel like you have 0 ideas, or maybe you have an idea, but you're not sure what to do with it, go for a walk (with a pad and pen if you want) and just think about your idea or open yourself up to new ideas.
Record yourself talking or performing. If you don't want to write, just record yourself doing a bit you've already written. Rewatch or relisten. You will notice something new.
Switching between time-based and task-based writing. This is in the same vein as the maximizing/optimizing stuff, but sometimes I'll switch off days of assigning myself creative tasks versus creative time.
So Monday, I'll tell myself to write a joke no matter how long or short it takes. Tuesday, I write for 30 minutes, no matter how few or how many jokes I write in that time. Wednesday, it’s back to a task (maybe “change something about 3 different jokes”) And so on and so on.
And that’s all you get, because that’s all I’ve got! I don’t want to turn the Sternal Journal into a life hack ~creator life~ thing at all ever, and please tell me if I’m slipping. But I also think practical tips feel so unique and like embarrassing to share (“this motherfucker only writes for fifteen minutes four times a week?”), when in actuality maybe three or four tips total work for any individual so we should normalize sharing as many of them as often as possible—throwing spaghettis at the wall but also each other—in hopes that we all finally wind up with the ones that work for us (I guess in the metaphor, we’re all like peeling spaghetti off the wall and tasting it to see if it’s ours.)
But obviously, only give people your ideas on things like this if they want them or you have a newsletter that they haven’t yet unsubscribed from.
Recommendations! (OSCARS edition!)
Crip Camp. Documentary. I think I recommended this months ago when I watched it, but doubling down because it was my favorite Oscars movie that got no love!
Two Distant Strangers. Short film (won the Oscar). On Netflix! Groundhog day, but about police shootings. It has moments of levity, but deals with the subject matter head on so is not an upper by any means.
The Present. Short film (didn’t win, but nominated). I really liked this one also. It also has moments of levity, but as it’s about a father and daughter living in a Palestinian enclave in the West Bank, so it also has a fair dose of intensity.
The Father. Movie. Dang. This Anthony Hopkins movie about a man suffering from dementia was a trip in a way I wasn’t expecting. It’s a rough watch for any whose life or family has been affected by Alzheimer’s, but the movie (based on a play, which I’d like to read/see now!) centers the confusion of it all in the perspective of the character living with it. It’s trippy and fascinating and extremely moving.
On the Sunny Side Of The Street. Song. Okay, most of those things were heavy, so this is nice. I’ve been learning it on piano, so I listened to a different version every morning this week. I think the Tony Bennett + Willy Nelson version from Duets II is my current favorite.
Alrighty, that’s all for now!