|Every once in a while, it's time for a blank slate.|
I've been thinking a lot about habits lately, especially as I am currently developing some new ones and shedding some old ones.
For one, I changed jobs a few weeks ago. It wasn't a sudden change--it was well-planned, expected, and full of goodwill. I'm still working with people experiencing homelessness, a population I care deeply about. Instead of working on the housing side, I'm now directing a program centered on mental health supportive services. I'm working for a community mental health center with whose staff I have collaborated for years with numerous shared clients. Long before I took this job, I knew that lobby like it was my own bedroom: where the most comfortable waiting chairs were, the best time to arrive to keep from having to wait too long for the lab, and that The Price is Right and Let's Make a Deal, always on the waiting room TV, make good conversation fodder to keep waiting clients from getting too antsy.
As comfortable as I was with the center, I didn't know how much I didn't know. Even transitioning into a job you already know how to do at a place you are already familiar comes with some new territory. There are the things all new jobs come with--new people, new rules, designated parking spaces, and new workspace. Then there are the things you don't think about before you make the switch, the million little habits you will find yourself making anew, and all the ones you end up breaking cold turkey.
My first week, I drove to work a different way every day. I bobbed and weaved my way through so many different roadways looking for the fastest, most efficient route I started to feel like I was playing a really boring edition of Grand Theft Auto: Commute or Die. I learned one thing on my attempt to carve myself a new rut in which to carry myself to work everyday: Memphis traffic is a strategy game that cannot be won. A few times, I caught myself "homing pigeoning" and getting onto the interstate at the same place I used to for my old job. It was just second nature, and depending on the amount of coffee in my system, a harder habit to break than I would have reckoned.
I eventually found what I would call "the path of least resistance," but it took a while before it was really comfortable. After a while, the landmarks weren't so weird anymore. The signs were familiar, the lane changes expected, and some fellow commuter cars recognized. I found a new pack to run with.
Of course, getting to work is only half the battle. There are a million new habits to forge once in the office. It took a while to stop reaching in the wrong drawer for my stapler, and to get used to the new squeak of my desk chair. I found myself carving out times when I could beat everyone to the microwave at lunch, and to avoid peak times at the restrooms. I noticed myself making new habit after new habit, finding comfort in the turning of new to old. Likewise, I've visited my former office a few times to staff cases with my former colleagues, and I was surprised to find that even when it felt so much water had flowed under our bridges, I sunk right back into the rhythm there.
It is human nature to develop routines and habits in our homes and in our jobs. They carve their way into our behavior, silently at first. Sometimes they bring comfort and the certainty of safe passage. Then, when they get near the bone, they can ache a little.
The patterns we create are part of what it is to live and interact with the world around us. Writers and artists need their favorite tools, their favorite spots, their go-to music and muses in order to create. Routine is often the friend of hard work, and creative work benefits from structured practice as much as anything else. Likewise, the creations themselves benefit from the structure of the world around it, either as context or something to riff on. If you're writing a character whose life is nothing but routine, it's probably smothering him or her to death. Break the mold, shake them up, and watch them navigate the transition. If things are already topsy-turvy in his or her world, look for the little anchors that would realistically crop up--is it that he or she uses the same bathroom stall every time, even in the midst of great angst? That he or she notices what time the coffee runs out at the office? Maybe it's just noticing that they see the same gray car at the same intersection twice a day. Even if these mundane details don't make it into the text, as always, it is these things that inform your writing backstage, and that allow your characters to come to life when the curtain is up.