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?

mt. whitney wednesday: on top of the world

Hi everyone! This post is part of my series the Mt. Whitney chronicles, which is comprised of journal entries from when I climbed Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, ten years ago. If you missed the earlier post in the series, you can read them here.

mt whitney chronicles

Saturday, July 26, 12:16 p.m.

Oh! My! Goodness! I have climbed a granite stairway to heaven. Eight hours and a dozen blisters after we set forth in the cold darkness, I am enjoying the same lofty view Clarence King had more than 125 years earlier.

on top of mt whitney

I am standing atop the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. It took us nearly two hours to get here from Trail Crest, much longer than I expected it would. These last two miles of trail seemed to go on and on and on – I would swear it was a full six miles. Indeed, a mountain sheep would have trouble with the footing on the final two miles to the summit. Add in air so rarefied it makes lungs gasp and heads ache, and each step becomes a challenge. The altitude is definitely exacting a toll as I have had a constant dull headache for the past few hours now.

Another reason we traveled so slowly over this final section is because the trail has become so terribly rugged – we had to climb over huge boulders and cross very rocky terrain, with cliffs dropping hundreds of feet only a few steps away on each side of us. There are no guard rails or ropes as guides, and needless to say I was very grateful for my walking stick. Precarious as it was, I knew I had come so far and trained so hard and had already done so much more than I ever thought I could do, that I never once thought of turning back. The only option in my mind was proudly reaching the top.

This was by far the most trying and difficult part of the whole hike for me. To be so close you could see Whitney’s peak, and yet so far it seemed like you would never get there, was pure torture. The only thing to do was keep going, one step in front of the other, but after a mile or so of this two-mile leg, I began to think that maybe the trail would never end.

And then we saw it. The summit!

The last 400 meters of the trail are a slight uphill to the peak of the mountain. But now you can see the Summit Hut beckoning you along, like a lighthouse guiding ships safely into harbor. After what felt like an eternity, we finally reached it.

Groups of weary hikers lounged around on slabs of rock, taking pictures and having lunch and enjoying the breathtaking view. I signed my name in the Mt. Whitney Summit Book, then pretended to again because Mom wanted to take my picture. She looked like a child with her very first camera, deliriously snapping photos of anything and everything merely for the joy of hearing the shutter click. I smiled at her, glad she had saved some film as I had kept teasing her to do, and also knowing no amount of pictures would ever do Whitney’s summit justice. It’s just something you have to see and experience for yourself.

signing the book

I walked around, soaking in the “Inn,” as Cervantes put it, of our journey. Clouds were obscuring some of the view, but it was still incredible to look down from this castle in the sky.

Unlike Clarence King, Mom and I took a cell phone to the summit. Enjoying this rocky mountain, I call my dad and talk to him in exclamation points.

“Hi Dad! We made it! I’m at the summit right now! It’s soooo beautiful up here! I feel like I’m on the top of the world!

“It’s breathtaking,” I add, intending no altitude pun.

My dad tells me it is breathtaking to hear me, because he remembers a time I needed breathing tubes when I was born 3 months prematurely weighing a sickly 2 pounds, 6 ounces.

“She’s a fighter,” the doctor told him back then when my fragile life hung in the balance daily, and the doctor was right. With a personal mantra of P.A.S.T. – Preemies Are So Tough – I have now become a conqueror of Mt. Whitney.

I say goodbye on the phone to Dad, and chased by approaching thunderclouds after just 20 minutes of rest, we began our six-hour, 11-mile descent.

me and mom at top

mt. whitney wednesdays

185_mt_whitney

Ten years ago, when I was sixteen, I climbed Mt. Whitney in one day with my mom. It is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. It was euphoric and exhausting; I truly pushed my body to the limit and accomplished something that had at one time seemed out of my reach.

When I realized that this July is the 10-year anniversary of our climb, I wanted to do something here on the blog to celebrate. I came across a journal I kept leading up to and during the climb, which gave me the idea to share those journal entries with you.

Whether you’re planning to climb Mt. Whitney, hike a different mountain, run a marathon, complete a triathalon, or whatever your adventurous dreams may be — I hope these journal entries will be fun and inspiring to read! I’ll be doing a new post every Wednesday and all the posts will be archived here.

mt whitney chronicles

“Because it’s there.” – Sir Edmund Hillary’s reply, when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth

“Because Hillary inspired me,” is my reply whenever I am asked why I climbed California’s Mt. Whitney. While Whitney is 14,541 feet lower than Everest, it is still the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet.

Exactly how did Hillary inspire me? By coincidence, he became the first person to reach the peak of the world’s tallest mountain on May 29, 1953 — and I was born on the 29th of May, 34 years later. This serendipitous piece of information got me interested in doing something memorable on the 50th anniversary of his historic achievement in 2003.

So it was that I decided to climb Mt. Whitney, the “Culminating Peak of the Sierras.” To me — a girl who was born three months prematurely, weighing just two pounds, six ounces, and who doctors feared wouldn’t survive — the goal of standing {if not on top of the world} at least on top of the lower 48 states, was truly an Everest-like challenge.

What follows is the journal of my experiences. {Stay tuned for more next Wednesday!}

year of kindness challenge: week 26

year of kindness button

Happy Monday! This week marks the half-way point for our Year of Kindness Challenge! Can you believe it?? How is the challenge progressing for you? Any neat stories or insights? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!

This past week, my entire family was filled with immense gratitude and awe over the kindness of our friends, family, and strangers — my dad’s Kickstarter project to fund the publication of his new book Wooden & Me reached its full funding goal!! Thanks to all of you for your encouraging words and support. I could not be more proud or thrilled for my pops! The book is now scheduled to be released later this summer. More info is available on my dad’s website. He was also a guest last week on the TV show Sports Central! Here’s a photo my brother snapped of him with the two hosts, Kristine Leahy and Gary Miller:

dad sports central

So cool! The project was a blessing in so many ways and reminded me again and again of how fortunate we are to share this world with such big-hearted, thoughtful people. We were astounded by how many people reached out to my dad and our family with amazing kindness and generosity.

This week I also came across this post by my blogger friend Heather at For The Love of Kale, titled Kindness is Love in Action! I loved this post and I think you will, too: http://fortheloveofkale.com/2013/06/kindness-is-love-in-action/

Last week’s Kindness Challenge came from my lovely blogger friend Ashley at A Happy Lass {if you haven’t checked out her blog, you should hop on over!} and it was to do something kind for people riding public transportation. I left bus tokens at my city’s big public transport center, and I also put change in parking meters. Hopefully it brightened a few people’s days!

The Week 26 Kindness Challenge is to volunteer at a soup kitchen or food pantry. 

As always, blog about your experiences and include your links in the comments section below, or feel free to send me an email at dallaswoodburn <AT> gmail <DOT> com.

Have a wonderful week!
Dallas

—————————–

year of kindness archives:
– week 1 challenge: donate items to those in need
– week 2 challenge: leave quarters & note at laundry machine
– week 3 challenge: write & send a kind handwritten note
– week 4 challenge: give hot chocolate to someone outside in the cold
– week 5 challenge: do something kind for a neighbor
– week 6 challenge: deliver valentines to a nursing home
– week 7 challenge: donate to a food pantry
– week 8 challenge: donate toiletries to a shelter
– week 9 challenge: post a kind note in a public place
– week 10 challenge: do something kind for a child
– week 11 challenge: thank someone in a genuine & meaningful way
– week 12 challenge: deliver baked goods to a fire station
– week 13 challenge: give someone flowers
– week 14 challenge: donate books
– week 15 challenge: reach out and spend time with people
– week 16 challenge: smile at everyone you meet
– week 17 challenge: pick up litter/trash
– week 18 challenge: write a kind note to a mom figure in your life
– week 19 challenge: leave an extra-generous tip
– week 20 challenge: donate blood/join bone marrow registry
– week 21 challenge: visit a cemetery and pay respect
– week 22 challenge: practice a little patience
– week 23 challenge: call 3 loved ones on the phone
– week 24 challenge: do something kind for a senior citizen
week 25 challenge: pay for someone’s public transportation

school paper organization

Happy Wednesday! Hope you’re having a great week! It’s been sunny and gorgeous here. I have been eating lunch outside whenever possible. There’s a grassy quad outside of Heavilon Hall, the main academic building for the English department where I spend most of my time, and it’s so nice to sit under the trees, soaking up the warm sunshine. Hard to believe it will all be covered in snow in a few months! As a California transplant, that is one thing I still can’t get used to — the extreme change in seasons. When it’s summer, I can’t imagine it ever getting cold. When it’s winter, it seems like summer will never come again!

{Or maybe I just need to stop being so dramatic…} 😉

At the beginning of a new school year, I always start off with such great organization intentions. I’ll buy a new binder or notebook. I’ll print out my schedule of where I need to be and when. I’ll redouble my efforts to keep a daily planner. {Something I tend to be good at for a while, and then forget to write things down for a few weeks and get off-routine. Does that happen to any of you guys?}

Organization is certainly important to being a successful student, and it has become extra-important for me since I’ve started teaching. I want to model good organization habits for my students. In previous years I’ve never been supremely disorganized — in fact, from the outside, it probably looks like I have everything together pretty well. {At least, I hope my students think so!} But it’s been something I’ve wanted to get an even better handle on. I hate carting around old papers I no longer need. I hate having to rifle through papers to find a handout for a student who was absent. I hate that sinking-stomach feeling when I realized I didn’t make copies of an assignment sheet I’d been planning to go over in class that day. Etc, etc, etc …

In previous semesters teaching, I tried to use a 3-ring binder to organize everything. It worked pretty well, but was a little bulky and cumbersome to carry around, and the cover started to fall off after about a year. It could also be a little tedious to have to 3-hole punch all my papers, and as the semester progressed I would always accumulate a pile of papers hanging out in the front pocket that I hadn’t gotten around to 3-hole punching and organizing into the proper divider.

This year, I decided to try a slightly new tactic and use an accordian file folder instead of a binder to organize my teaching papers:

I found this one in the $1 section of Target. Look familiar? Yep, it’s the same style I used to organize my stationary stash, only this one is clear instead of blue. I like that it’s made of a durable-feeling plastic, has an easy-to-use elastic clasp, and folds up pretty narrowly to easily slide into my bookbag.

I am teaching two classes this semester, Freshman Composition and Professional Writing. Most of the assignments and grading for Professional Writing are done online through a course website, so I only needed to use one section of the accordian folder for that course. I put that section in the back since I teach Professional Writing directly after I teach Freshman Composition. The rest of the file folder I used for my Freshman Composition course. I organized my papers as follows:

– First section: Attendance sheet, class calendar, and handouts for the day.

– Second section: Copies for the upcoming week.

– Third section: Papers to pass back.

– Fourth section: Papers to grade.

– Fifth section: Professional Writing.

This new system is working really well for me so far! It’s forced me to purge all my unnecessary & old papers, stay organized week-by-week, and keep everything in one place. And it’s easy to carry around with me, allowing me to get a lot of grading and responding to student work done in small snippets of time throughout the day. I find it a lot less overwhelming to grade in little-by-little chunks instead of in one big block of time on the weekend.

How are you getting organized this school year? What helps you stick with an organization system? I’d love to hear your tips for organizing the tons of papers that inevitably pile up during the school year!

Always,
Dallas

————————–

-Time spent: 15 minutes
-Cost: $1