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?

year of virtues, month five: resolution

Hi everyone! Since we are already midway into May {how did this happen??} I wanted to write a brief post about my focus for this month from Ben Franklin’s List of Virtues. During the month of April, focusing on industry was very helpful in moving forward on some important projects that had sort of stalled-out midway through.

  • I completed and submitted a short story that challenged me {in a good way} and that I think is one of the best pieces I have written since graduate school. It ended up being a much longer piece than I had originally envisioned, and it felt SO rewarding to complete it!
  • I also made a whole bunch of headway on the publication of Dancing With The Pen II, and organized a book launch pizza party for the Bay Area contributors.
  • And Allyn and I made lots of progress in the wedding planning arena. Proof: our “wedding corner” is slowly taking over our apartment!

Wedding corner

I really want to continue this momentum, so for May’s focus I decided to go with number four on Ben Franklin’s list: resolution.


RESOLUTION: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.


To me, this is a virtue that requires two steps:

  1. First, figuring out the most important things you wish do to {perform what you ought}
  2. And secondly, resolve to perform these tasks without fail {make it a habit}

May seems like the perfect month to look back at those resolutions we made in the shiny potential of January 1st and re-evaluate them. Which resolutions are working for you? Which ones are not? Are there any resolutions that you made with the best of intentions and have since let drop to the wayside? Maybe this is a good time to re-commit to those activities or goals.

At the same time, you might have made some resolutions that were more based on your “fantasy self” than your real self. Gretchen Rubin talks about this on her podcast “A Little Happier.” We all have ideal versions of ourselves, but these self-images can be based more on fantasy than on reality. For example, maybe you like the IDEA of being someone who does CrossFit, but in reality a long solitary run or a low-key exercise class like Zumba is much more up your alley. If your resolution was to join a CrossFit gym and go three times a week, and you have yet to make much progress or have stalled out, perhaps it is because you like the idea of being “someone who does CrossFit” much more than you enjoy the actual activity of CrossFit. In that case, it may be time to tweak your resolution to fit your ACTUAL self and the activities you actually enjoy or find the most meaningful.

For my resolutions this month, I am resolving to continue my healthy habits of drinking a green smoothie every morning, going to yoga at least once a week, and working on my creative passion projects for at least half an hour first thing every morning. I am also resolving to continue last month’s momentum by completing my work on Dancing With The Pen II and officially release the book into the world! I can’t wait to share it with you guys when it is available on Amazon.com. Stay tuned! 🙂

Questions of the day:

  • What does resolution look like to you?

valentine’s week: an adorable owl craft project

valentines week

Hi everyone! Happy Friday! I’ve got a little craft project to share with you today as part of Valentine’s Week. I was  browsing Target the other day and this adorable little owl sewing kit caught my eye:

owl sewing kit

I scooped it up, put it together last night, and I am so pleased with the result! Look at this cute little guy:

valentine's owl

The kit I bought had all the pieces pre-cut and the sewing holes pre-punched, so all I had to do was assemble it. But I was thinking that it would be quite easy to make from scratch {and I might do so in the future to make more of these cuties!} You could even make it simpler by making a heart shape, for example, instead of an owl.

Here’s the materials that you will need:
– red and white felt
– a needle and pink/red thread
– red & black markers for drawing on the owl’s eyes and beak
– fabric scraps or stuffing

1. On a piece of red felt, draw the shape of an owl and cut it out. Trace the shape onto another piece of red felt and cut that out two. You should have two identical owl shapes made out of red felt.

2. Cut a heart shape out of the white felt to be the owl’s “face.”

3. Sew the white heart onto one of the red felt shapes.

4. Draw two black eyes and a red triangle beak onto the white felt.

5. Sew the two red owl shapes together, leaving a hole at the top.

6. Fill the owl shape with fabric scraps or pillow stuffing.

7. Sew the top of the owl closed.

Ta da! You have a cute stuffed owl to give as a Valentine’s gift!

Hope your weekend is filled with rest, laughter and love!

Till tomorrow,
Dallas

goals for the week of 12/9

Looking back over my goals from the past week, I am filled with gratitude! I got my thesis manuscript submitted to my advisor, which is a big project I have been working on all semester. It was such a proud moment for me to click that SEND button and shoot it off to him. Hooray!

I also am feeling really happy with my Christmas progress. My goal was to buy and wrap all presents early so I can really enjoy the season with my family and loved ones instead of being stressed out trying to get everything done at the last minute. This week I finished up pretty much all of my Christmas wrapping! I still have a couple little gifts to buy, but for the most part, I’m all done. And it feels good!

Here’s how I did this week:

  • complete rough draft of thesis manuscript and submit to my advisor (!! this is a big one!!)
  • finish reading This is Not Your City by Caitlin Horrocks
  • wrap & mail Christmas presents
  • use Groupons for Nature’s Pharm & Re-Usables {decided to wait for the groceries until we’re back in Indiana!}
  • return items to Amazon
  • take donation box to Goodwill
  • get new windshield wipers installed on car
  • wash kitchen & bathroom floors
  • use or freeze all perishable food items before Mike & I leave for California on Saturday

And here are my goals for this upcoming week:

  • send out newsletter about book drive and writing camp
  • finish & send the remaining post-grad applications
  • read The Zero by Jess Walter
  • watch Christmas movies with Gramps
  • address and mail Christmas cards
  • get email inbox and computer desktop cleaned out and organized

What are your goals for the week? Feel free to share in the comments below!