the magic of finishing what you started

Hi everyone! It feels good to be back in this space. I did not intend to miss my post on Tuesday—I was so busy writing something else, that I did not have time to write a blog post here. But what happened on Tuesday spawned the idea for today’s post, so in a way everything is connected.

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you might remember that I’ve been working on a new novel. In fact, a key cornerstone of my word of the year—FOUNDATION—has been vowing to make time each day for writing projects that nourish me: this year, my goal was to finish my new novel manuscript. Back in January, the Word document on my computer contained nothing more than a title, a handful of scenes, and a burgeoning sense of great possibility.

The idea for this novel was birthed last summer when I took a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time. I fell in love with the island and soaked up many new experiences, like snorkeling with manta rays and hiking waterfalls. When I returned home from my trip, I jotted down a few ideas for a novel that took place in Hawaii. But then, as life tends to do, it got busy. That was an especially hectic time in my life. I got married and honeymooned. I developed and began teaching a weekly creative writing class for high school students. I helped students brainstorm and edit their college essays—my workload in the fall always tends to pick up for that reason. Allyn and I navigated our first holiday season as a married couple, balancing time with our two families.

The novel idea sat on my computer in a Word document, twiddling its thumbs.

In January, I felt burned out and exhausted. I had been so consumed with my work as a writing teacher and editor and coach, helping other people bring their beautiful words to life, that I had neglected to carve out and guard time for my own creative spirit—and, thus, I felt depleted. I decided that 2017 would be different. I read a lot of articles on setting boundaries, recommitted to work-life balance, and made a promise to myself that my mornings would be for writing. My own writing. I knew that I would be a happier and better teacher for others when I was making sure to give time to myself.

In January, I attended a wonderful writing conference to work on a separate novel idea. I still do like that idea, and I might return to it in the future. But my characters in Hawaii would not leave me alone. This idea kept pushing its way to the forefront of my mind, like a rude child who refused to be ignored.

Does that ever happen to you, with ideas? One thing I have learned is that ideas may behave like children, but you do not have to treat them as such. You do not have to teach them to be patient and wait their turn. If you have an idea that keeps “cutting in line” so to speak, begging for your attention, poking and prodding you all day and refusing to leave the back of your mind—you must pay attention. That is the idea you should pursue. No matter if other, less vibrant or less exciting ideas have been lingering around the corners of your mind for a long time. Life is short, and we will not have time for all of our brilliant ideas. We need to give time to the ones that make us come alive.

So it was with my novel idea. When I returned from the writers conference at the end of January, I kept slogging away for a week or so on the other novel that I had been working on. But my brain kept drifting to Hawaii. Eventually, I gave in. Reluctant {and feeling slightly guilty} to give up the other one, I told myself that I would work on BOTH projects simultaneously. Perhaps some writers can do that. But I have a hard time holding together two expansive, spilling-over, messy novels in my head at the same time. Perhaps some writers birth neater, tidier novels than I do. Mine are always a chaotic overflow. Trying to keep on top of two volcanoes at once was not sustainable.

And so, before too long, I was working solely on my insistent novel idea. My subconscious was living in Hawaii. I was fully invested. I was excited. Actually, more than excited—I was obsessed with my idea.

I think that is a good rule of thumb about whether you should pursue an idea. Are you obsessed with it?

I began riding along the path I had chosen. Nearly always, I begin new fiction projects by thinking about the characters. Their voices came out onto the page in quick bursts, but I still did not know them very well. I still had many questions. This was the fourth novel manuscript I was embarking upon, and the beginning—while exhilarating—is always the scariest part for me. I have some writer friends who love the beginning of a new project. They find energy from the huge wide-open landscape of blank pages before them. For me, those blank pages cause anxiety. At the beginning of a novel, I feel like I am diving into a huge body of water, tentatively beginning to swim to the other shore. At this point, I cannot even glimpse the other shore that I am heading towards. There is only mist and water as far as I can see. Who knows what I will find underneath the surface. There is no other way to go but forward, and so I start to swim. I start to write. Stroke by stroke, keystroke by keystroke. I know that if I put in the work, eventually, I will reach the other side.

This novel progressed much more quickly, and more joyfully, than my previous three novel manuscripts. Some might say it is because I am “getting the hang of” writing a novel, although in my experience every novel is different. I don’t think writing a novel is a formula you ever truly “get down.” Each novel is a whole new animal, a whole new experience—and, for me at least, that is part of the fun!

This one went so much faster—six months from start to finish, as opposed to a year spent meandering around trying to find a storyline and write the very rough draft of my thesis in grad school, and two-plus years drafting my other novels. It was also a much more enjoyable and less angsty process. I believe this is for two reasons. One, I have wholeheartedly embraced the advice that novelist Elizabeth Berg gave me many years ago at a writing conference: “First, please yourself.” Unlike grad school when I was writing a novel to impress my thesis committee, or in college when I was writing a novel hoping to become A Famous Author, now I write simply to please myself. I follow my own internal compass—especially during the drafting phase. Of course, I still hope to eventually get published and please readers. And I know that my writing is far from perfect and that editors, now that I have completed the first draft, are invaluable gifts. But I believe it stifles the creative process to think about any of those things when you are birthing your story.

The second reason this novel was different from any I had written before is that I truly committed to my schedule of writing time. For the past six months, I have been immersed in the story, thinking about it all the time both consciously and subconsciously, because I wrote at least a couple hundred words five days a week. “Work on novel” was the most important thing on my daily To Do List. I treated my creative work with respect. And my idea responded generously. There were parts of the novel that were more difficult to write than others—I always feel stuck in the “muddy middle”—but I never struggled with writer’s block. I always had a sense of where I was going, and new ideas and connections were sparked constantly. Our creative brains are so incredible, once we give them our time and attention and let them do their thing.

Which brings us to Tuesday. I was getting very close to finishing the first draft of my novel. I had written the ending already, and just had a few scenes I needed to finish up. It felt like a puzzle with only two or three patches of blank space left to fill in.

I woke up on Tuesday morning with a searingly clear thought: “Today is the day. Today I am going to finish my novel.”

I don’t know why the thought struck or where it came from. I don’t know why it felt so necessary to finish that day as opposed to later in the week or next week. But it did. I felt like my creative subconscious had sent me a mission.

I didn’t have any teaching appointments scheduled that day. I had emails and grading to do, but that could wait until later. I made myself a mug of tea, sat down at my computer, and dove in.

I wish I could fully describe to you the magic of that day. It felt like getting a “second wind” and sprinting the last mile of a marathon. It was like when you are reading a book you love, and you speed through the final pages because you are so excited to find out what happens. I knew what was going to happen—I was writing it, after all—but at the same time there was still this miraculous sense of discovery. My characters fully came alive. They leapt off the page. By noon, I had written more than 3,000 words. I had to break for lunch because my hand was sore from typing.

I could have stopped there. I knew I could always come back to the novel the next day. I could finish later. But I didn’t want to. I couldn’t stay away. I dove back in and kept typing.

I finished at 4:43pm. I texted my family and sweetie and shared the news. My final word count for that day was close to 5,000 words, or about twenty pages double-spaced. I don’t think I’ve ever written that much in a single day. If you had asked me on Monday, I probably would have told you there was no way I could do that.

{My sweetie left a note for me on our kitchen bulletin board.}

It’s funny. I spent the whole day sitting by myself in front of a computer. But I didn’t feel alone at all. I felt like I spent the whole day in Hawaii with these two people I had come to know so well over the past six months. That final sprint to the finish felt like a last hurrah with them. It was perfect.

It was 4:45 pm. I sat down on the couch. I felt so many things. I felt sad to say goodbye to my characters. I felt exhilarated and exhausted. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace that I had made good on my promise, to my characters and to myself. I had finished telling their story. I had stayed with them until the end.

There is such profound magic in finishing what we begin. In staying true to our promises. In following through with our ideas. No matter what eventually happens with this novel—no matter whether it eventually gets published and sells thousands of copies, or never leaves the hard drive of my own computer—I gave a huge gift to myself when I typed THE END on page 256 on Tuesday. I felt such extreme satisfaction and pride in myself. I had said I would do it. And I did it.

When we finish what we start, we build confidence in ourselves. That confidence keeps growing and growing. We begin pushing ourselves further. We wonder what else we might be able to start and finish. The limits of our world expand and, eventually, fall away. Our pride and confidence and imagination become limitless.

I still have a lot of work and editing to do on my Hawaii novel. But I’m already excited to start a new novel manuscript. I can’t wait to see what my creative spirit comes up with next!

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • What is a project you have started but petered out on? How would it feel to actually finish? What are some steps you could take to work your way back into this project?
  • Write about a time you finished something you had been working on for a while. What did you do to celebrate? What did it feel like to finally finish?
  • Set a timer for five minutes and jot down a list of every creative idea that flits into your mind. These could be future projects, hobbies, things you want to pursue in your personal life, trips you want to take. Write them down. Which ones jump out at you? Which ones light you up with sparks?

a year of Wooden: final wrap-up

Hello there, friends! Now that we’re into 2015, I’ll be embarking on a new year-long challenge on Monday… but first, I wanted to do a final post wrapping up this amazing year of Wooden challenge.

a year of wooden

  • January: Drink deeply from good books
  • February: Make friendship a fine art
  • March: Help others
  • April: Build a shelter against a rainy day {financially}
  • May: Be true to yourself
  • June: Give thanks for your blessings every day
  • July: Love
  • August: Balance
  • September: Drink deeply from good poetry
  • October: Make friendship a fine art {new friends}
  • November: Pray for guidance
  • December: Make each day your masterpiece

December’s final challenge was to brainstorm a list of activities for each of your three happiness terms. This was really helpful for me — I now have a list of tasks that are guaranteed to make me feel happy and fulfilled. If I ever feel bored or unsure what to do, I can look at this list and come up with a game plan quickly. For example, doing yoga is something that makes me feel connected; volunteering at my church makes me feel helpful; and writing a page of my novel-in-progress makes me feel productive. This, in turn, makes me feel happy.

Looking back over the year, it has been quite a fulfilling journey!

year of wooden collage

I was looking back in my journal from the end of 2013, and I found an entry where I asked four big questions to the universe. These were issues I was really struggling with, causing me uncertainty and worry. They were:

  • How will I know when I meet the person I am meant to be with?
  • Where am I supposed to be living at this time of my life?
  • What is the next step for my career?
  • How can I give more to others?

Now, a year later, all of these questions have been answered for me:

  • I met my sweetheart and felt connected to him immediately, and our relationship has opened up a beautiful new definition of love in my life.
  • I have created a community of friends and connections, personal and professional, in the Bay Area, and — for now at least– it feels like home to me, where I am meant to be living in this season of my life.
  • I feel much more confident in my writing and teaching career, and satisfied with my decision not to pursue a Ph.D. but instead to write what I want to write, what makes me come alive.
  • And I have become involved with a multitude of service and social justice endeavors through my church, which has become one of the cornerstones of my life.

three grand essentials

I thought I was happy a year ago — and I was. But now I feel a much deeper happiness: a happiness that stems from being at peace. I feel secure. I feel connected to my inner self, and to the greater world outside myself. I doubt I would be feeling this way if not for the growth, reflection and discipline of this yearlong challenge. I am so grateful for the insights and teachings of Coach Wooden, one of the wisest human beings to ever grace the world with his presence. Though this official “year of Wooden” is drawing to a close, I will carry these principles with me for the rest of my life.

I want to leave you with one of my favorite-ever quotes from Coach Wooden:

wooden success quote

Here’s to striving, day by day by day, to become the best we are capable of becoming… and celebrating the journey along the way!

Question for the day:

a year of Wooden: week 46

Hello there, everyone! Hope your week is going splendidly, and that you are able to take some time for yourself in the midst of the craziness of this holiday season to reflect on what matters most in your life.

We are into our final weeks of this year of Wooden challenge. For December, we’re focusing on my favorite item of Coach John Wooden’s 7-Point Creed: “Make each day your masterpiece.” In other words, we’re tying together all that we’ve learned and all the ways we’ve grown through the past eleven months!

a year of wooden

  • January: Drink deeply from good books
  • February: Make friendship a fine art
  • March: Help others
  • April: Build a shelter against a rainy day {financially}
  • May: Be true to yourself
  • June: Give thanks for your blessings every day
  • July: Love
  • August: Balance
  • September: Drink deeply from good poetry
  • October: Make friendship a fine art {new friends}
  • November: Pray for guidance.
  • December: Make each day your masterpiece.

Last week’s challenge was to break down what “happiness” means to you in three specific terms. We all say we want to be “happier” but what does that really mean? It’s different for all of us. Last week, your challenge was to rainstorm a list of all the terms that you associate with happiness. Then, place a star next to the three terms that are most important to YOU and your own individual happiness.

After much reflection and soul-searching and self-honesty, here are the three terms I came up with for my own sense of happiness. To me, feeling happy is feeling:

  • connected
  • helpful
  • productive

For this week’s challenge, brainstorm a list of activities for each of your three terms. For example, for me, doing yoga is something that makes me feel connected; volunteering at my church makes me feel helpful; and writing a page of my novel-in-progress makes me feel productive. This, in turn, makes me feel happy.

A quick note: I want to make sure to note the difference between happiness and pleasure. Something that makes you happy might not necessarily be 100% pleasurable as you are doing it. And that’s okay. That’s the way it should be. For example, I do not usually feel joyful as I type every word of my daily writing goal. Writing, for me, is happiness, but it is also difficult. Hard work is hard! Work is work! But the right kind of work leads to a greater sense of joy and fulfillment… the sturdy, beautiful kind of happiness that lasts.

Question for the day:

  • What are the terms that you chose for your own individual happiness?
  • What activities could you do to make you feel this way?

a year of Wooden: week 45

Hi, friends! Hope your week is going great! We are into our final month of this year of Wooden challenge. For December, we’re focusing on my favorite item of Coach John Wooden’s 7-Point Creed: “Make each day your masterpiece.” In other words, we’re tying together all that we’ve learned and all the ways we’ve grown through the past eleven months!

a year of wooden

  • January: Drink deeply from good books
  • February: Make friendship a fine art
  • March: Help others
  • April: Build a shelter against a rainy day {financially}
  • May: Be true to yourself
  • June: Give thanks for your blessings every day
  • July: Love
  • August: Balance
  • September: Drink deeply from good poetry
  • October: Make friendship a fine art {new friends}
  • November: Pray for guidance.
  • December: Make each day your masterpiece.

I believe the foundation of “making each day a masterpiece” is having a true awareness of how you spend your day. Last week’s challenge was to take something you didn’t like about how you spend your day, and fix it. The thing I disliked most about my daily schedule was realizing that I try to multi-task too much! A lot of this is due to checking email throughout the day — yet my inbox still feels overflowing and unmanageable.

This week, I made a few small, simple changes. First, I went through my inbox and ruthlessly unsubscribed to mailers. I realized there were a lot of messages I’d get week after week and just delete them, or not have time to read them, so I took the time to go through and unsubscribe. My inbox immediately felt more manageable.

The second thing I did was try to change how I tackle email. I am a big procrastinator when it comes to my inbox. I’ll receive an email, open it to read it, but then put off replying. So the email sits there, sits there, sits there, with me maybe reading and it and putting it off once or twice more in that span of time, before I finally open it yet again and reply {while feeling bad that it took me that long to reply.} I know, as I type it all out here, it seems like an insanely inefficient system — I don’t really have an answer for WHY I would put off answering emails in this way, other than I didn’t always feel like answering them and it was always easier to just put it off “till later.”

The simple change I am doing now is this: I read an email, and reply to it right then, if at all possible. Occasionally I will need to wait to reply because I will need to do something or research something or write something in order to reply, but I am finding that 80% of the time I can reply right away. Then the email is gone from my inbox, takes up no more of my brain space, and suddenly checking email becomes way more efficient!

workstation

On a related note, I stopped having my email open constantly and instead try to check it only at certain points of the day. In this way, I am trying to turn email into a specific “task” I complete, rather than a constant drain on my time and attention.

I’m not saying my email habits have suddenly morphed into perfect stress-free productiveness, but I have noticed a definite change in the past week with these simple changes.

If any of you have tips on managing email effectively, I would love to hear them!

This week’s challenge is to break down what “happiness” means to you in three specific terms. We all say we want to be “happier” but what does that really mean? It’s different for all of us. For some people, happiness might be associated with feeling strong and capable. Others might associate it with feeling needed. Others might associate it with feeling connected to other people. Brainstorm a list of all the terms that you associate with happiness. Then, place a star next to the three terms that are most important to YOU and your own individual happiness.

We’ll build on this in next week’s challenge!

Question for the day:

  • What is something you disliked about your daily schedule?
  • What small change{s} did you make? What was the effect of these changes?

a year of Wooden: week 44

Hi, friends! Hope your week is going great! We are into our final month of this year of Wooden challenge. For December, we’re focusing on my favorite item of Coach John Wooden’s 7-Point Creed: “Make each day your masterpiece.” In other words, we’re tying together all that we’ve learned and all the ways we’ve grown through the past eleven months!

a year of wooden

  • January: Drink deeply from good books
  • February: Make friendship a fine art
  • March: Help others
  • April: Build a shelter against a rainy day {financially}
  • May: Be true to yourself
  • June: Give thanks for your blessings every day
  • July: Love
  • August: Balance
  • September: Drink deeply from good poetry
  • October: Make friendship a fine art {new friends}
  • November: Pray for guidance.
  • December: Make each day your masterpiece.

I believe the foundation of “making each day a masterpiece” is having a true awareness of how you spend your day. In that spirit, last week’s challenge was to keep an activity log for one or two or three days about how you spend your time — every minute of it! The goal of this was to create an honest assessment of how you spend your days — which is, in turn, how you spend your life.

The past few months, I’ve already started making a conscious schedule choice to get up around the same time most mornings and go to bed around the same time most nights. That has helped a lot with my daily routine, feeling refreshed, and waking up naturally without needing an alarm. I also do not “waste” time watching TV or surfing the Internet; I watch a handful of TV shows very intentionally and do little-to-no online shopping. So those were the “gold stars” of my schedule! 🙂

However, looking at my detailed daily run-down, I saw there in very clear letters something that I already knew about myself, but didn’t really want to face — I try to multi-task too much! Anyone else have this problem? I know productivity experts warn against multitasking, but for some reason I still chase that “busy busy busy” feeling. And what happens? I’m rushed and burned out and empty, feeling like I’ve gotten nothing done all day. A lot of this is due to checking email throughout the day — yet my inbox still feels overflowing and unmanageable. Something needs to change!

Atos - Zero Email - Zen and Stress

This week’s challenge is to take something you didn’t like about how you spend your day, and fix it. Maybe you feel rushed every morning getting ready for work, and a simple change of waking up ten minutes earlier or not hitting snooze will change the pace of your mornings entirely. Or perhaps you’re always saying you want to read more, but you tend to spend evenings watching TV just because it’s on — that could change if this week, you make a conscious choice to turn off the TV and read in bed for half an hour before falling asleep each night.

I’m eager to hear how this week goes for you! And remember, this isn’t about overhauling your entire schedule in one week. We’re all about the small, little-by-little, day-by-day changes here. Pick one small thing to change, do it every day, and see how you like it. We’ll check in again next week!  

Question for the day:

  • What is something you disliked about your daily schedule?
  • How might you make a small change to create a different effect?

a year of Wooden: week 43

Hi, friends! We’re officially three days into December, which means we are moving into our final month of this year of Wooden challenge!

For the month of December, we’ll be focusing on my favorite item of Coach John Wooden’s 7-Point Creed {which you may have been able to guess from the title of this blog!}… Make each day your masterpiece. In other words, we’re going to be tying everything together — all that we’ve learned and all the ways we’ve grown through this challenge the past eleven months!

a year of wooden

  • January: Drink deeply from good books
  • February: Make friendship a fine art
  • March: Help others
  • April: Build a shelter against a rainy day {financially}
  • May: Be true to yourself
  • June: Give thanks for your blessings every day
  • July: Love
  • August: Balance
  • September: Drink deeply from good poetry
  • October: Make friendship a fine art {new friends}
  • November: Pray for guidance.
  • December: Make each day your masterpiece.

Before we move on to December, let’s wrap up November, when our focus was to pray for guidance. Last week’s challenge, in honor of Thanksgiving, was to pray about everything you are grateful for and journal about your feelings. After a week of praying about everything that I am grateful for, I felt filled with abundance and joy. On a related note, I wrote an essay for Chicken Soup for the Soul about the wonderful life changes I experienced from the simple act of counting my blessings each night while falling asleep. You can read it here!

Moving into December, I think the foundation of “making each day a masterpiece” is having a true awareness of how you spend your day. What is your daily routine? Once you know all the details and idiosyncrasies of your routine, you can work on squeezing all the richness out of your days as possible. 

In that spirit, this week’s challenge {which was inspired by one of my favorite bloggers, Nicole Antoinette} is to keep an activity log for one or two or three days about how you spend your time — every minute of it! For example:

  • What time do you wake up?
  • What time do you go to bed?
  • How often do you check your email?
  • How much time do you spend browsing the Internet or watching TV?

It might feel a bit cumbersome at first to keep track of your day like this, but it is an important step. You are creating an honest assessment, there on paper in black and white, of how you spend your days — which is, in turn, how you spend your life. Be as detailed as possible!

And be honest. There’s nothing wrong with watching TV or playing video games; be honest and keep track of how you feel. If you notice feelings of guilt or discomfort about any parts of your daily routine, take note of those feelings. We’ll unpack all of this next week!  

Question for the day:

  • How did last week of praying for guidance go for you?