What I’m about to share may seem strange, but it really happened, and it was really just before Halloween, which may make it even more spooky.
I was alone in my home office, writing Chapter 83 of The Girl Who Writes Her Thesis (where Chapters 1-30 are what I call “Book One: Rising to the Challenge”, and were what I wrote for last year’s NaNoWriMo; “Book Two: The First Great Handing-in” is still in progress, and “Book Three: The Race To The End” will be starting very soon). I was feeling physically and mentally weak at the time, kinda beating myself up a bit even as I was trying to convince myself that everything is fine, and that I just need to get writing the thesis already, dammit.
Setting up for the Strange
Then, suddenly, I detected an inner dialogue that was ready to spill out into my writing. This is not the strange part though, because it was a direct result of being inspired by Havi Brooks (of Shiva Nata fame) and what she does on her Fluent Self blog. She has been sharing her conversations with monsters (or whatever they may be), and providing some great guidance of how we can interact with our own monsters too.
I have tried this out a few times now, and it’s really interesting to see what kind of responses I give to things I ask of myself. (It sort of reminds me of playing chess against myself, but it’s way more rewarding.) However, until this recent one, I never felt much like sharing any of the conversations because they just didn’t jump out as things anyone else would find interesting.
But this conversation… well, not only did it practically demand to happen, but a few things in it caught me completely off-guard. For one thing, I knew exactly what to call this monster the moment the conversation started. (Meanwhile, I am ‘Girl’, as in, the Girl Who Writes Her Thesis, since that was the role I was in at the time of the conversation.) For another surprising thing, well… let’s just say I figured out a lot, and if you want to read about how it happened, please do continue.
The Conversation Begins
Girl: Oh, hello, my resistance to doing what must be done, to writing what must be writ.
Boo: What? No, I’m not chasing after you, taunting you when you’re not looking, then pretending to be an innocent statue as soon as you look at me. I mean uh… hi! uh… nothing to see here! [Turns invisible.]
Girl: I see what you did there: you acknowledged that it’s okay if I call you Boo, confirming my first impression of you as being like those ghosts in the Mario Bros video games. Interesting… and yet, at the same time, you also managed to sneakily distract me from looking at you too closely, by reminding me of something else I had intended to do, something which is STILL not the thing I’m trying to write about here.
Boo: I’m still invisible. You can’t see me.
Girl: But I know you, and I knew what you are like, but I’d like to know more about you.
Boo: Shhhh, you’re talking to something invisible, which makes you seem crazy!
Girl: There’s nobody here but you, me, and Tuxedo, and he already knows I’m crazy and loves me anyways. And besides, you’re only transparent, not invisible. I can see your outline, and I know not to run into you!
Boo: Ah good! So you’re afraid of me!
Girl: All I said is that I know I should avoid you. However, I need to talk to you, and so I’ll just have to keep my distance and try and see if you can help me figure something out.
Boo: Oh? Why would I help you?
Girl: Because I have a feeling that you are just a part of me who is just as scared as I am about some things that are going on.
Boo: I’m not ascared of anything! I’m a BOO! I DO THE SCARING!
Girl: Does it work?
Boo: Does what work?
Girl: The scaring. Does it serve its purpose?
Boo: It’s supposed to have a purpose?
Girl: Sure it does. Pretty much everything has a purpose. So, why do you chase after me, taunting me when I’m not looking, then pretending to be invisible when I try to see you better?
Boo: (I’m hiding again!)
Figuring Stuff Out
Girl (sighing, tired, trying not to sound exasperated): So what do you want me to do?
Boo: Find me! It’s a game!
Girl: But you’re right there! I know where you are!
Boo: But you don’t know why-y~! Or what I’m really do-ing~!
Girl: This is true. I guess I’m supposed to figure this out, then. Do I get any clues?
Boo: Nope! No clues! That would give EVERYTHING away!*
Girl: Okay, so I guess all I have to do is divine from what I know of you, anything else I can figure out. I am on the right track already, I can tell, even if you’re not allowed to say.
The Girl looks away for a moment, and turns back in time to see Boo making a silly face.
Girl: Hmm, so let me think more about the Boo idea. You do most of your creeping up on me when I’m not looking. If I get past you, you turn and follow me. I just don’t know why!
Boo: Maybe it’s just what I do.
Girl: AHA! A CLUE!
Boo: OH NO! WHAT HAVE I DONE?!
Girl: Just kidding! I don’t know what that tells me, except that you might not necessarily want to be figured out. I also think it means you are just acting in a way that is natural for what you represent. Some words are coming to mind… denial… avoidance… guilt… regret… but none of these are YOU.
Boo just snickers softly.
Girl (frowning, contemplating, reviewing her thoughts): The future? The past? Time itself? Am I getting closer?
Girl: So if you say I’m not getting closer, and these latest ideas are not quite the same as the previous ones either, I must be getting farther from the truth. HEY! Was I right about you being REGRET?
Boo: Shit. I mean uhh… nah, I mean shit. Shit! That’s totally me! Whoa…
Girl: So, Regret, I guess it makes sense that you like taunting me, especially when I’m not looking or when I don’t know what I’m looking at. I also see why you pretend to be invisible or even harmless when I do look at you, because you probably don’t want me to get rid of you. Whenever I do get past you, I never can get very far away, because you keep following me forward into anything I do. This is exactly what regret does, just because that’s its very nature… and your catchphrase of “Oh no! What have I done!” is absolutely classic!
Boo: Yeah, I can’t believe you totally tricked me. That’s… I was going to say “that’s mean!”, but I’m actually kind of impressed! You didn’t even know then that you were tricking me into giving you a clue! That’s kind of funny! Hah!
Girl (grinning too): I swear, it was a total accident, but I really appreciate this opportunity to get to know you better. And you did give a little bit away by saying “Nope!” so quickly when I asked if I was getting closer, because that made me go back and look again at what I had already said.
Boo: Yeah, I guess I know what I am regretting. But do you know what you are regretting?
Getting to the Ouch of it all
Girl: Um… wow, I totally don’t want to think about it, which must mean you’re trying to turn invisible on me again. It hurts to face what I’m regretting, but I do want to try, because I want to know what we can do to make this easier. So here goes… I’m regretting the time I’ve lost, and the fact that I’m not done yet and thus still have to spend more time (maybe a lot more time) working on my thesis…
Boo: No no no, what about the changes you make to things? Or [shuddering] deletions? What about when you change your mind about how to do things? That’s like THROWING USEFUL STUFF AWAY! Opportunities that could turn into beautiful paragraphs! Great ideas of how to approach the things you’re doing! It’s like little parts of your effort are dying when you change them! That’s where the real waste of time is! You’re redoing stuff you’ve already done! Just staple it together already!
Girl: So, I’m confused… you’re slowing me down to tell me to hurry up?
Boo: I— what? No. That would be silly!
Girl: You are known for making silly faces, you know, and that doesn’t quite go with the scary idea you were trying to push on me. Maybe you are a little contradictory yourself! And if so, there’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, I think it’s kinda cute!
Boo: You’re changing the subject! We were talking about terrible things!
Girl: No, we were just talking about changes, particularly ones with good purposes! Like fixing messy paragraphs to turn them into beautiful ones! See, if we were talking about terrible things, and we were to change them so they’re not terrible, that would logically be good, right? Anti-terrible would remove the terribleness!
Boo: Auntie Terrible?! I like her already!
Girl: Hah! I like your silly ways of looking at things, because I like looking at things in a silly way too. I bet we could do terribly silly things if we worked together on them!
Boo: As long as you don’t turn into Auntie Silly, because she doesn’t sound fun at all.
Girl: Well, I wouldn’t have to be anti-silly, just a silly auntie who is all sorts of awesome fun! And I could pretend to be all serious about everything, and get all mixed up about it, and turn out even sillier because of it!
Boo (giggling): Now this is getting terribly silly!
Girl (giggling): PERFECT! So now that we have silly grins on our faces, what can we do about our situation?
Boo (starting to look worried): We have a situation?
Girl: Wait, don’t worry, one sec, I have an idea—okay. Now I’m wearing my shiny gold-sequined Silly Hat, so we don’t have to get TOO serious here. In fact, let’s say worry is not allowed.
Boo (pouting): But worry is one of my favourite tricks!
Girl: I’m sorry, but worry makes me sad. I’m glad to hear you say that it’s only a trick though, which must mean you really don’t mean to make me sad on purpose.
Boo: Yeah, that’s true. But what trick can I use instead?
Girl: That’s a very good question. What are you trying to achieve with the reminding me of regrets?
Boo: I want you not to do things you will regret!
Girl: But what if that means I don’t do anything at all? Won’t I regret that too?
Boo: Yeah, that too! You should regret the regrettable things you do, and regret the things you don’t do too. That’s why I reminded you about that other thing you intended to do today: so you don’t regret not doing it, the way you regret not doing it yesterday.
Girl: Oh, okay, well that’s totally self-consistent still. What does this have to do with resisting the work on my thesis?
Boo: Well, you’re going to regret it when you hand it in, because you’ll finally have to face whether you have to do a whole lot more work on it even after you think it’s pretty good.
Girl: That kinda sounds like perfectionism to me… but if it is, why can’t I just spend the time working on it instead of avoiding it?
Boo: Because that will be a waste of time, and you’ll regret it even more if you put more time into it! You’ve already spent too much time! You’re in time-debt!
Girl: Ouch! That doesn’t sound good! I can totally see how it can seem that way, but what about the idea of a time investment?
Girl: But what if it works? The time I’ve taken out of my life is being put into something that can give me a great return in the form of a feeling of accomplishment. And a degree.
Boo: Worthless. Both parts.
Girl: Well, I am not doing the project, or getting the degree for that matter, to raise my own personal worth, so sure, you’re right, it is all worthless if I don’t build on it. But what if it’s the first big project that I practice putting my effort into, over a long period of time, and what if the practice helps my future projects go way more smoothly, and with way more fun?
Boo: Smoothly sounds nice… but those future projects are a long way away. There’s a lot of rough before that, and you’re going to regret ever getting into this at all. You probably already do regret it, which might be why I’m here.
Girl: Oh, yes, of course, that makes sense. So that means I now know why you’re here! You’re here because I regret the fact that I am in this situation at all.
Boo: You make it sound so sad!
Girl: It is sad, and I think it totally makes sense to be sad in this situation, but I would definitely much rather find ways to make the most of where I am instead of moping about it.
Boo: Yeah, that would be better. Writing about it probably helps! I mean, is probably helping!
Girl (smiling): Yes, it is definitely helping, because I can look back at what we’ve discussed and figured out.
What To Do About It
Girl (continuing): Hmm. Okay, so part of the problem is that I am already regretting some things, and there are going to be some things happening soon that I’m going to regret setting myself up for. I think this is true no matter what happens: either I’m going to succeed in what I’m trying, and regret that it took so long or that it isn’t going to get as much attention as it deserves, or I’m going to fail and have to pay for my regrets for a very long time.
Boo: Ugh, that sounds ugly, but at least it’s pretty clear what one to choose.
Girl: Indeed. So how can we reduce what regrets I’d have by moving forward with the thesis writing and thesis figuring out and stuff like that? Even though moving forward will mean that I’ll have to change some things around, and sometimes even delete them—
Boo gasps, cringing.
Girl (continuing): —but I promise, I will only delete things that I know I’ve written better, or that I know is misleading or incorrect in some way. Everything else I will save in something I will label as temporary, but it can be permanent if I don’t find another use for it.
Boo: But but but there’s big things like organizational structures that will be destroyed if they are changed!
Girl: But organizational systems aren’t the things themselves! They are just the scaffolding that helps build the things! So it’s okay if they are dismantled as we go along, because the outline of what they were will still be present in the final product. Plus, if I write about what happens as the process moves forward, none of the scaffolding will be forgotten, and none of the time that goes into it will be wasted.
Boo: I don’t want to be forgotten either… or my efforts to be a waste!
Girl: Ditto! But by hounding me with regret, you are making it difficult for me to move forward in the thesis, because you’re encouraging me not just to second-guess myself, but also to third-guess and fourth-guess my second-guesses, which ends up being like seventh-guessing myself eventually, and that hurts my ability to even get started on checking whether my second guess was the place to stop guessing and start writing. I really need to get the writing moving, you know, or else I’ll regret it.
Boo: I know… and that makes me sad, because you’re already knee-deep in the shit I want you to not have to experience at all. It’s not comfortable to be encouraging about your trudging forward through something I don’t want you to have to face.
Girl: You can fly over all kinds of shit, right?
Boo: Well… yeah, but I can’t carry you. I’d only damage you.
Girl: I could try a spin-jump!
Boo: Wha—? Oh yeah! If you do that right, it won’t hurt either of us! What does that mean for dealing with this, uh, situation?
Girl: I’d say it means I might be able to find a way to put just the right spin on things that we are both happy with the results. I just have to spin-jump off of the regrets, moving a little forward with each jump, and I also have to let you move forward too so that my next spin-jump is from a position that is slightly farther ahead of where we were previously.
Boo: That sounds… very reasonable. It might actually work! So I can be helping you, while doing my job of following you to make sure you don’t have any regrets!
Girl: Yes! We just need to figure out how we can encourage you to move forward with me each time. After all, if my spinning around means I keep looking back at you, you might go back into invisible mode and not end up moving forward at all. So what I need to do is not look at you too much. But I don’t want you to feel neglected and have to demand my attention! What do you think we can do about that?
Boo: Well… this conversation we’re having is helping me feel better about what I have to do, so maybe this won’t be such a problem. But just in case, I think you should take a quick peek back at me every once in awhile so I know you’re still making sure I’m with you. I really don’t want to be forgotten!
Girl: That makes sense. I had been ignoring you, which means your attempts to keep me away from regret weren’t helping me avoid the regrets at all. I’m really sorry about that! I will do my best from now on to acknowledge how much I don’t want to regret my experiences, and spin-jump off of my acknowledgement of you to propel myself forward.
Boo: Okay then! You’re really going to have to pay attention in order for this to work. At least you already have this habit of writing about your thoughts, so you just need to make sure to keep doing it and pay extra special attention to the parts that can encourage you to succeed.
Girl: Excellent! And if this all works out, maybe all those regrets you worry so much about won’t be as bad as we think!
Boo: Maybe, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Things still have a chance of going very, very wrong, and that would definitely be regrettable.
Girl: Agreed. And I also think it’s important to realize that some regrets are bigger than others, and sometimes I’ll have to accept that there are little regrets to allow myself to have as I work towards not having a great big regret. For example, this upcoming National Novel Writing Month is something I’ve been thinking I’d regret if I don’t do, but it isn’t as big a regret as would happen if I don’t succeed in the thesis-writing that is the purpose of the story of The Girl Who Writes Her Thesis.
Boo: That’s a very good example, and it even helps me realize that I don’t have to be a bad ghost! I can be ghostly and haunting but not necessarily evil! I can help you make decisions that will be good for you! This makes me very happy!
Girl: Me too, and I’m glad for the help, I really am. I’m also extremely glad we’ve had this talk, because I’ve realized that some of the regrets just need to be considered a bit more carefully, so good choices can be made as a result. I think we’re about done here now though, and since I don’t want to have regrets about the rest of my day, I’m going to spin-jump off of this idea and launch myself another step forward! So, Boo, please follow me, and help me keep moving forwards!
Boo: Okie dokie!
The afterwards, after the words
I reread the conversation a few times, and then went to the top of the chapter to see what prompted it to begin. Amidst a lot of other meandering discussion, I spotted something that might have been what enabled the conversation to take place: I had actually acknowledged that I was feeling regret, noting that it is perfectly reasonable to feel that way given the situation I was in.
Whoa! Havi always says that one of the best first steps is to give legitimacy to feelings, giving them permission to exist, even if it’s not much fun to be feeling them. Acknowledging the feelings leads to ways to understand them better, and ways to help them transform from uncomfortable things (monsters!) to comforting things (fuzzy cute things that just want to promote safety!)
There is always a reason for every feeling, even though sometimes the reasoning may seem a little convoluted. Delving into the reasons behind the feelings can help sort out which parts are useful, and which parts just need a bit more assurance in order to ease tension.
The conclusions I got from the above are mostly discussed within the conversation, but there was a bit more that I figured out in the next day’s writing. I did a lot of assuring myself that it’s okay to notice these regrets, but it’s also okay to try and minimize the intensity of the feeling of it while acknowledging the lesson. There was also a bit of confusion regarding past regrets and things I worry I might regret in the future: the future regrets not only involve perfectionism, but also fear of change or commitment, sprinkled liberally with a whole lot of fear about how difficult it is to improve from how things were in the past. But now that I’m looking at these feelings more carefully, I think I should be able to get through them without them strangling me.
I’m not quite sure yet how to diffuse the tension regarding time (cue the Mario Bros “running out of time” music). Actually, wait, there IS something I had figured out that seemed to be working for me, something called the Pomodoro Technique, but I had been forgetting to apply it lately! It amazes me sometimes how many tools and techniques I have at my disposal but forget to use when I need them most! I suppose awareness is, as always, the first step.
The next step is putting that awareness towards a tangible result, so it’s time for me to go do some thesis-writing!