I have been thinking about challenges lately. Different varieties of challenges, but challenges each in their way.

When life gets challenging, complicated and messy, the first thing to lapse is whatever I do for myself. When we are only responsible to ourselves for a thing, it is easy to let it slip, even when it is something crucial, like self-care, exercise, or our writing routine. This past year I have been greatly dissatisfied with my yoga practice because it had slipped. I had let it slip. I had deprioritized it because it was only important to me.

I decided about a month ago that I would assign myself a Thirty-Day Yoga Challenge. I have to hit the mat for thirty consecutive days and each day perform a minimum of three surya namaskar (sun salutations). The idea is that I won’t get away with only spending a few minutes doing some light stretches without ever actually warming up a muscle. And, if I do three surya namaskar, I’m going to feel good enough and enthused enough to continue.

Prize? None. I have no reward in mind for when I hit Day Thirty. Consequence? None. If I miss a day, I have to start the count over. That’s all. I got through two weeks and then hurt my neck—slept funny or something—and had to take a break. I have since started over. Yesterday was day twelve of round two. The first few days, I have to nudge myself onto that mat because if I miss a day, it’s no big deal to repeat two or three days. After day five, I start to worry that if I miss a day I’m losing something special, ground gained. My pride gets involved. If I miss a day at that point, I feel like a wussy-girl. Lame. Uncommitted. Incompetent.

Besides not wanting to be a wussy-girl, I am feeling the benefits of a regular practice, which is to say a practice because if it’s not regular, it doesn’t count as an actual practice.

A deadline is very different from a goal. Deadlines are enforced and come from without. Goals are unenforceable and come from within. My goal for the summer is to finish my novel, Saving Annabelle, with time to spare. Time to work on stories, submit things, catch up on the rest of my life. My goal is to keep writing at a regular pace that does not include a loss of momentum or eventual panic when fall comes around. My summer class is almost over and that means no one will be enforcing deadlines for a while. That means, once again, my writing will only matter to me.

But I have been hatching a plan. A Thirty-Day Writing Challenge. Same rules as the yoga. Well, almost. Instead of hitting of the mat for three surya namaskar, I’ll have to hit the keyboard for a minimum of one hour. I often spend several hours working at a stretch, but one hour seems reasonable for the worst days. The days when it’s stifling hot and my daughter wants me to take her to Lake Nokomis and my real work for the day is to cruise the parkways looking for free mulch (thanks to Mpls Parks & Rec), which I then shovel into my recycling bins and yard bags, then haul home, amazed by how much a body is able to sweat. I’m sure you understand how hard it is to write when there are kids and lakes and mulch to deal with. The challenge is not in practicing writing, but in having a writing practice. It’s in getting that hour minimum in no matter what, no matter who happens to be vying for my attention.

I have also been thinking about the challenges I face in the writing itself. We read ZZ Packer, Junot Diaz, Alice Munro, and Denis Johnson this month in a short story class. One of our assignments is to imitate or parody one of these authors. Of these four, I write the most like Munro. I enjoyed and admired the work of Packer and Diaz. So I chose to imitate Johnson because I don’t like his book.

I made a list of qualities that stood out in his writing, that interested me, and then wrote my own story with those in mind. I wrote an amoral first person, young male narrator who is very aware of sensory input, lives moment to moment, and is most concerned with pursuing his own pleasure drive. I did not want to write someone in a drugged fog, so the source of my character’s amorality is his own personality deficiency. The story is about a sexual encounter.

I have written a sex story.

It’s like a confession, isn’t it? I have written sex into stories before, but the sex has been embedded within a larger context and is part of a much bigger whole involving complex characters. This is a five-pager and it’s all about this one sexual encounter. Thinking about the story in that way makes me uncomfortable, and I am the author. A friend gave it a quick read the other day, and I believe she was blushing! It’s not raunchy or all that explicit. Rated R, not X. And if there is one thing I find unforgiveable in art it is gratuitousness. Challenge me by all means, but have a purpose!

Jerome Badanes said of his work The Final Opus of Leon Solomon, “I have sex in my book but I’m not sitting down to write sex. I’m sitting down to write something else. The sex is a vehicle to get to that other place.”

In my story, I am using sex to illustrate how two people come together, in this case in a potentially damaging way. I want the reader to feel ambiguous about the encounter in the end. I expect the reader to be made uncomfortable and if the reader feels a bit sexy while reading it, all the better. Badanes also says, “…and that can make you feel a little bad, because you’re feeling sexy about something horrible, but of course I wanted the reader to feel that too. That itself is a paradox.”

Creating that paradox was the challenge I set for myself as a writer, that is creating an encounter that could be read either way depending on the lens through which it is interpreted. I expect, hope, that it will challenge the reader by confronting him with that paradox.

There is one more challenge I have been thinking about. On the last class we are supposed to read something. This story is the right length and I wrote it in this class. Do I dare read it aloud? To an audience of peers? It is one thing to read and discuss a published work that includes sex. To have everyone look at me and know that this work came out of my head and judge me…I haven’t decided yet.

Of course, if I don’t read the sex piece, I will have to read the piece about the freak show!

 

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