Lexical Gap No. 25: Kaizen

Burnout, the baseline temperature of my generation


I've been thinking a lot about burnout recently.

I suppose I could say it all began when I read How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen (an excellent read, by the way, and I also highly recommend all of Anne Helen Petersen's writing, especially her stuff about celebrity), but in all honesty, burnout had been a persistent, niggling little worm in my brain for most of 2018.

Burnout manifested itself in little ways, signs so small that I could have overlooked them or found any number of excuses. Why I suddenly fell off the earth in terms of maintaining this newsletter. Why Kelly and I went on a very extended and unplanned hiatus for our PubCrawl podcast. Why I couldn't seem to read anymore.

Why I found myself completely and utterly unable to write.

I had no time! I could say. And that was certainly true. Between travel and promotion, finding long enough gaps of time in my own house to work was hard enough, let alone time inside my own head. I'm a crazy person and wrangling my bipolar disorder is harder than being stuck in a cage full of ravenous tigers! Also true.

But I think that's only part of the story.

It's the second month of 2019 and I've already started my second bullet journal for the year. In the process of transferring old lists and collections into this new one, I started looking back on the journal I had kept earlier in 2018. Last year was both interminable but also entirely forgettable, as though I had spent most of it in a fugue state. How strange that a year which felt so long was also entirely unmemorable, and I didn't know why. It wasn't until I came upon a few passages I had written that I understood.

Sometimes kindness hurts
more than hatred

—June 11, 2018

Some days
the weight of my thoughts
imprisons me in my body
when I would rather float away
to this life

—June 14, 2018

My mind is a sieve
and I am drowning
in the floodwaters
of my soul

—October 4, 2018

I'm not much for poetry. I'm a prosaic person—in writing, in style, in life. I love reading poetry, but the art form eludes me. Someone as verbose as I am needs several novels to contain all her thoughts; I have neither the discipline nor the subtlety to compose poems. But short phrases, incomplete thoughts are easier to write down—easier to bear—when the labor of grinding day to day becomes too exhausting. When you are heinously, horrifically depressed.

Looking back, I think I better understand why I was unable to write. This isn't to say I wasn't writing; I churned out a very, very terrible draft of my next book, but everything felt distant. Slightly unreal, as though I was observing my own characters from behind a plane of glass. Perhaps it's just this book, I told myself. Every novel demands to be written differently.

But deep down, I knew this was a lie. While the process of writing differs from book to book, what remains the same for me is a sense of connection. Of immediacy. To my characters, to the world, to the story. When I'm not writing, I'm often thinking about writing, if not always consciously. Thoughts and ideas and emotions will bubble up from the deep recesses of my brain, percolating like coffee as I go about my mundane tasks. Cooking. Cleaning. Showering. Exercising. A song I hear on the radio (or Spotify, let's be honest) will remind me of a scene. I'll doodle and sketch my characters. I'll hear their voices as I fall asleep and write them down when I wake.

None of these things were happening for the first Guardians book.

At first I was terrified that I was writing something I did not love. The book I shelved before writing Wintersong was a retelling of The Magic Flute that had felt like this: distant, unreal, behind glass. Mannequins in a display, not living, breathing people. Never mind, I said. I'm a writer. This is what I do. I'll finish this book because it is my job, even if I don't love what I do.

It wasn't until the fog began to lift that I knew that to be a lie as well.

Depression is a strange thing. Ever since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I've more or less lived in fear of my manic episodes while forgetting about my depressed ones. Perhaps because my depression is self-destructive, while my mania is destructive to others. And perhaps too it is because I often forget what it feels like to be depressed, while mania is as memorable as a lightning strike to the brain. Whatever the reason, I kept working through my depression, somehow convincing myself that I was fine, that the fact that everything was hard was actually normal.

It was not normal. I kept going when I had nothing left to give. Hence, burnout.

I don't know when or how depression lifts. For me, it's the flick of a switch, the blink of an eye. At some point over the holidays, the lights turned on.

It was so, so tempting to rejoice. To jump headfirst back into writing and creativity and living. But the mind is a muscle. To start working out so soon after healing from an injury is dangerous. I had to tell myself to slow down, to recover, to heal. To rest and recuperate. I didn't want to injure myself again.

So I spent the entire month of January tidying up my house.

Obviously I'd been watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix and was inspired, but more than that, I needed to set my house in order so I could set my mind in order. First the clothes. Then the books. Then the paper in my office. Step by step, room by room, I could feel my thoughts folding themselves up and tucking themselves back into the drawers of my mind. I read eight books. I started podcasting again. Soon songs were beginning to remind me of my characters. I started doodling and sketching them. Little by little, I was remembering that I did love my book.

And I do.

Marie Kondo suggested opening a window and lighting incense as you tidy to cleanse and purify the space. I'm not Shinto, but I understand better now the power of ritual. I've opened the windows and letting the fresh air in, and it feels good.

lexical gap: 改善 kaizen

As I've been KonMari-ing my life, I've been watching Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain on Netflix. Bourdain had a long career as an executive chef and culinary expert, but for me, his greatest strength was always in his writing. What I always appreciated about his work was an ability to get at the essence of what food means—to places, to people, to cultures. In the "Japan" episode in Season 8, he explores the more rural areas of the archipelago with his friend, Masa Takayama, and touches on the concept of kaizen.

Loosely translated, kaizen means "virtuous improvement." The word is comprised of the characters 改 kai (meaning "change, improvement") and 善 zen (meaning "virtuous, good"). As a concept, it implies continuous change and improvement, suggesting that kaizen is a lifelong philosophy.

Once in my twenties, I was having a discussion with my roommate at the time about the concept of "happiness." My roommate believed "happiness" was a destination, a state or a place that must be maintained once reached. I disagreed; I said that happiness was not an endpoint, but a process, and that the act of pursuing happiness was happiness in itself.

In January, I went to see Holly Black in conversation with Renee Ahdieh in Chapel Hill for the release of The Wicked King, and Holly talked about the curious phenomenon of lottery winners becoming depressed. "It's like the mind floods your body with so many good endorphins it messes up the chemistry," she said. "Getting my first publishing deal was like that. I had wanted this one thing for so long that once I got it, it was like my brain said, Well, time to die. Your one purpose in life has been achieved."

We laughed, but I believe there is a kernel of truth to this. Human beings want. Working toward that want is what brings us purpose, a reason to keep going. That is how I interpret the concept of kaizen. It is not necessarily to become better at your passion, your career, your life; it is simply the act of becoming.

#AMWRITING: guardians of dawn

the scent of a place

When fantasy writers talk about worldbuilding, we often end up talking about the rules underpinning the universes we create. Does this magic system make sense? Does it adhere to the laws of physics? If not, why? And while I love delving deep into this sort of discussion, I think an aspect that often gets overlooked is atmosphere.

I've said before that I'm not a visual writer, nor am I a sensuist of any sort, yet the first thing I always try to get at in worldbuilding is a feeling. A mood, perhaps. For me, that feeling or mood is not necessarily evoked by sights or sounds, but by other, less tangible things. The sodden silk sensation of a summer monsoon on the skin, soggy and sulfurous—eggy—in a way only the moist, stagnant air of a big city in Asia can be. The tickling trickle of edged excitement as you contemplate a endless azure sky, a summer sky, as day tips into twilight. I rely so much on my memories—of travel, of childhood, and of the shifting feel of my body as I stand in one moment and try to be.

As an artistic medium, writing is one of the most direct when it comes to emotions, but one of the most indirect when it comes to describing something physical. Unlike photography or film or painting, writing must constantly evoke through sound and sensation what more visual mediums can simply say. As I'm writing Guardians, I'm always reaching back into the annals of memory to bring forth a feeling and a mood that I can recall from childhood summers spent in Korea and from my more recent travels to other parts of Asia.

For me, smell is the most evocative.

In the process of writing Wintersong, for fun I came up with a list of perfumes I would make for each of my characters, so this time around I decided to step up my game and see if I can't actually come up with a scent. I've always had an interest in perfumes and perfumery and because I'd run out of procrastinatory things to do, I looked into it.

I'm so very good at finding incredibly expensive hobbies, it turns out.

Thus far my test batches have turned out fairly well. If this experiment is successful, perhaps I'll give away a few bottles? In the mean time, I'll burn a bit in my oil burner as I write to bring to me a place only I know.

For now.