One Piece (Word) at a Time

IMGP8409Last fall two trees came down on our acreage and this spring two more needed to be removed—three tall fir and hemlock trees bordering the creek plus an alder that resided in its midst. The trunks were chainsawed into chunks and transported to our driveway where the pile of wood grew to a daunting height. Splitting and stacking the weighty pieces seemed like an overwhelming task. The gnarled and knotted grains resisted axe, maul and sledgehammer. We discussed the possibility of renting a woodsplitter but days went by as we procrastinated.


Today was the day. By 7:00 a.m. my husband was on the road to town to rent the splitter. By 8:30 a.m. he was hard at work. He split; I carried; friends helped. By 4:00 p.m. the pile of logs was reduced to useable lengths of firewood. The job was accomplished by making a start and working at it one piece at a time.


Similarly, writing happens one piece at a time–one word, one page, one scene. Only when we tackle the task with the goal in mind and commit to working systematically toward it will the end be realized. Don’t look at the overwhelming pile. Reach for one piece at a time.


Goals versus Challenges and Resolutions versus Intentions

Is a goal really a goal if you have no expectation of reaching it, or is it just a pipe dream? That question returns with tongue out and fingers flapping in ears to taunt me whenever I consider accepting a challenge.


The first time was when I agreed to participate in the 2006 NaNoWriMo insanity. I’ve launched myself towards a 50,000-words-in-November goal on three occasions now but have yet to make it to the finish line.


A friend and I long ago gave up on New Year’s Resolutions. We agreed that making ambitious “resolutions” that we probably couldn’t keep is just setting ourselves up for failure, so instead we settle on sharing our “intentions”. Intentions aren’t promises in the way resolutions are, so breaking them isn’t quite as devastating to the morale. The trick is to identify the category to use at any given time.


Then too, it’s important to identify our capabilities. I’ve said it before: there’s no sin in being good to yourself. It’s okay to ease back on the throttle when life’s multitude of priorities threatens to overwhelm. So why, when I have more on the go than I have time or energy to cope with, do I accept more challenges? I suspect it’s because I know I work better under pressure. The more I absolutely have to get done, the more efficient I become.


With that in mind I recently took up Jennifer Hubbard’s Summer Reading Challenge, pledging to read ten books before September 21st. I don’t expect to have trouble meeting this challenge because I  l-o-v-e  to read. And that’s the reason I’ve also accepted Tristi Pinkston’s July Writing Challenge. It’s much too easy for me to read to the point of procrastinating on my writing, so these two challenges should balance out my efforts. I’ve committed to edit (revise yet again) at least 200 pages of my current novel and also organize the haphazard thoughts for my new w.i.p. – get them out of my head and into some kind of outline on paper – during the month of July.


I’m not sure where challenges fit into my interpretation of goals. Are they resolutions or intentions? Either way, I’m getting psyched up to accomplish great things this summer.  Oh, but I have to stock up on Diet Coke before I do anything else. It’s pretty hard to read or write without a cold one near by. If I share my supply with you would you like to join me for either or both challenges?

Who is a Writer?


In writing circles the question of who is a writer slides onto the menu board with predictable frequency. Just when an explanation seems to offer a tidy answer such as “someone who writes”,  complications crop up. Words like “finished manuscript”, “author” and “publication” are added to the mix.


Last week I came across a blog entry by Lauren Lise Baratz-Logsted in which she shares her own version of what it means to be a writer. I applaud her honesty and the wisdom of her interpretation.


She reports that she wrote 34 pages that day. “They may not be perfect pages, or even good pages, but for me it’s all part of growing a book and it’ll give me something to edit when the time comes. I don’t write 34 pages every day, just so you know. But I do set the bar every day and I’ve been doing so ever since I started writing seriously almost fifteen years ago. In the beginning the daily goal was three pages….


“Everyone I talk to has their own definition of what it is to be a writer. Some say that if you’re writing at all, often or rarely, published or not, you’re a writer. I’m not here to dispute that. But my own personal definition of a writer, just for me to live by, is that to be a writer, when I’m working on a project I need to show up every day and write. Sometimes projects require a gestation period before getting started, but once started there’s no waiting for inspiration or the Muse. There’s just me, and the computer, and whatever bar I decide to set myself.”


Lauren isn’t saying that her formula is the right one for you or for me, only that it works for her. Her straightforward admission becomes my light bulb discovery. It tells me success as a writer is a very personal achievement. Each of us must establish our own blueprint and with an architect’s precision adhere to the discipline that allows us to attain whatever measure of success has become our goal.


There is no one universal answer. There is only the response we give to the voice within.

There’s No Sin in Being Good to Yourself

A blog called “Toil, Solitude, Prayer: Writing as a Practice” caught my attention recently. It is a secondary blog for author Patry Francis who is returning to her writing after a six month hiatus following surgery for cancer. The blog is recording her attempt to add several daily disciplines to her life that will help her finish her next book. It’s such a commendable goal and I settled in to read all of the posts.


I found myself wondering how, just six months after her surgery, she can have the mental stamina to tackle such a regime. Four years after my surgery I am still not there. Yes, the body is healed. But the mind? Having cancer, regardless of its severity, is a life-changing experience. Hearing that diagnosis does a real number on your mind. For a long time after physical recovery is complete the mind will continue holding you hostage in places you don’t want to be. Overcoming that inertia is a bear!


As I read Patry’s daily account I know what she is attempting would have been too ambitious for me.  Setting achievable goals is important but the operative word for me is ‘achievable’. Compounding a series of goals over a short period of time is putting additional stress on a mind that isn’t ready to handle it. It sets a person up for failure, and failure is devastating to the morale.


My remedy for getting back into my writing was to set one reachable goal — to write something every day – with no pressure to rack up a specific number of words or do it within a set time frame. Maybe it was only a minor challenge but by not being overwhelmed with the immensity of a more impressive one, I succeeded. It was satisfying to look back after each week and see the word count growing. And with each success came increasing optimism and energy. I finished that manuscript and the sense of achievement was wonderful.


But first I had to give myself permission to find the one goal that was realistically within reach. I also had to accept that there are times in life when there’s no sin in backing off a bit and being good to myself.

Tenacity despite the odds

“If you will it, it is not a dream.”  That’s such a crappy platitude! It suggests we can achieve anything if we want it badly enough but reality shouts otherwise. There are some circumstances we simply can’t change. Does that mean we shouldn’t try?


Consider Terry Fox* and Jeneece Edroff**. Consider Albert Einstein***. Each faced significant obstacles but still achieved great things. If they allowed the negative aspects of life to tempt them into a fetal position where navel-gazing was their main preoccupation, none of their accomplishments would have materialized.


How does this apply to our writing? Whether or not a person will be a writer is not something determined by anyone else. A writer is someone who writes, someone who transfers thoughts into written words. Dreaming about writing won’t get anything written but reaching for the pen (or keyboard) will, because every journey begins from where we are and proceeds one step at a time. Tenacity keeps us moving.


I try to remember this when the words won’t come or seem trivial and I am tempted to give up. 


* “Terry Fox was only 18 years old when he was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma (bone cancer) and forced to have his right leg amputated 15 centimetres (six inches) above the knee in 1977. While in hospital, Terry was so overcome by the suffering of other cancer patients, many of them young children, that he decided to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research… To date, more than $400 million has been raised worldwide for cancer research in Terry’s name.”


**  Jeneece Edroff lives with neurofibromatosis, a rare and painful genetic neurological condition. Despite her own medical obstacles, she has a desire to help other kids who have special challenges. With the help of friends and family, she organized a penny drive, which has spread across the province. In 2008, the province-wide campaign raised over $600,000 all of which stayed in B.C. Since starting the coin drive, Jeneece has raised over $1 million.”


*** In 1896 Albert Einstein entered the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich to be trained as a teacher in physics and mathematics. In 1901, the year he gained his diploma, he acquired Swiss citizenship [but] was unable to find a teaching post, [so] he accepted a position as technical assistant in the Swiss Patent Office…
During his stay at the Patent Office, and in his spare time, he produced much of his remarkable work… Albert Einstein received honorary doctorate degrees in science, medicine and philosophy from many European and American universities… In 1921 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.” (From Nobel Lectures, Physics 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967)