Two new writing partners in my life: Cora and Sid
by Francine Puckly
The holiday crush is upon us. The buying, the eating, the merry-making. But what about my writing? This time of year it typically falls into the oblivion. “I have too much to do. I have friends to see and presents to wrap. I’ll pick it up January 2nd and make a fresh start in the new year.” But in the deep, dark crevices of my soul, these excuses are just that—excuses. I’m disappointed when I sell out to the holiday hubbub.
This December my goal is to push myself creatively instead of financially. I am rallying to finish yet another draft of my first young adult novel. I have a vision. I have outlines and other necessary infrastructure. But that’s only the first hill to climb. After that, I need time.
Yes, I have the same twenty-four hours in a day that Albert Einstein and Mother Teresa had, but I repeatedly divide it into little chunks and spend it frivolously. I can blame it on the mundane tasks I must tackle each day, but that’s really not my problem. My problem is that I’m easily distracted. A five-minute phone call derails me for thirty minutes. Making a decision about dinner could take twenty-five minutes, even with the duplicate frozen meals I’ve stocked in the freezer. Vacuuming takes forty-five minutes because I discover a magazine on the floor I didn’t quite finish…it’ll only take a second.
My solution? I have had the great honor of finding a writing partnerand a goals partner. Two different writers. Two very crucial roles. Two people who have gifted me with renewed hope that I’ll finish this mountain of a manuscript.
My goals partner, Martha, is a fellow writer from my critique group with whom I must check in weekly—every Friday morning at 7:45 a.m.—whether I’ve written a word or not. And I can assure you, the thought of getting on that phone call having done nothing panics me. Not that she’s an ogre. Not that she’ll hurt me if I don’t do it. But I will have disappointed myself by having to say, “I didn’t get to anything this week.”
Martha also helps me set realistic, achievable goals. When left to my own devices, I say things like, “This week I’ll write 40,000 words, paint the family room, sew new curtains, host a dinner party, and bake and frost a three-tier cake.” My goals are more sensible now. “Write for thirty minutes each day” or “Finish chapter three” or “Draft three scenes that I’ve marked ‘missing’ in the manuscript.” And no cakes are getting baked and frosted.
Eventually I’ll hit those 40,000 words, especially with the help of my writing partner, Sonja. Sonja is a fellow writer who invited me to sit in her writing space once a week. We settle in at a glass table across from each other and work on our own manuscripts. We share hot tea, almonds, dried fruit, and our love of writing. Words are exchanged before and after, but never during. No distractions. No excuses to go see what’s taking that dishwasher so long or to make that phone call to the vet.
Does it help that Sonja’s writing space is a renovated choir loft in a church-turned-art gallery? Yes, indeed. It’s a beautiful, soul-sustaining gem of a space. But most importantly, it allows my writing to be the priority for a few sweet hours.
So this holiday season take heart and take time. Let the gift of your manuscript be the priority. Finding time and setting goals take a little creativity, but figure out what will work for you. Dangle a reward carrot and recruit another artist to help you through. The shopping can wait, but the manuscript or illustration shouldn’t have to.
by Francine Puckly
I spent much of my teen and twenty-something years with running shoes strapped on my feet, jogging down lonely stretches of dirt roads in search of the satisfaction and peace that come from solitude and extreme exertion. Most days it only took a mere four or five miles to find that satisfaction, but other days it required eight or ten miles before I was beaten into submission and had chased the demons of doubt from my life. The logical outcome of all this running was competition—putting my running “out there”, so to speak. And while I completed in numerous 10k’s and half-marathons, I never conquered the ever-dreaded marathon…until 2009.
That January I set off on a five-month training program to gear up for the Vermont City Marathon, held in Burlington, VT over Memorial Day weekend. I wanted my training to have minimal impact on my family, so my alarm sounded each morning before dawn. I ate a “sensible” breakfast and set off on foot down the road. I resisted using my iPod as an escape. Instead I slogged through the miles, just me and the road, a few zero-degree mornings, and the occasional rogue bulldog trying to get me to increase my pace and heart rate.
Training isn’t glamorous. No crowds line the streets to cheer you on or hand out orange slices. No music plays at mile-markers. You don’t get to wear a fancy new t-shirt. And nobody wraps you in a blanket when you’re done. It’s just you and your determination to complete the self-imposed task at hand. Day after day after day.
People ask you why? Why are you doing this to yourself? You answer, “Because.” These same well-meaning people suggest more productive ways you could be spending your time. And most importantly, they wonder out loud why you would do something that requires so many hours of your time when you end up right back where you started.
But you persevere despite your own doubt. And then the time comes to put yourself “out there”. To run the race. And of course it’s raining. And of course the conditions are not what you trained for. But you get out there anyway, slogging away the miles, fighting the demons in your head that say you can’t do it and that you’ll never finish. And then something miraculous happens. You DO finish. And the only other people who can share in your emotional and physical exhaustion are fellow runners hobbling over the finish line with you because they were crazy enough to do it, too.
I now spend most of my adult life with a pen stuck in my hand and wide-ruled paper in front of me or with a laptop screen pulsing in my face. I cannot use the internet or e-mail or Facebook to escape the task at hand. I must flesh out characters and settings and plots, oftentimes ending the day in the exact same spot I began it. I head down lonely stretches of days in search of the satisfaction and peace that comes from solitude and extreme exertion.
Writing isn’t glamorous. No crowds line your driveway awaiting future book signings. No heavenly harps play when you finish a chapter. You wear grungy sweatpants and t-shirts that you’d better not sport in public in case you get into an accident, and nobody brews you a cup of tea at the end of the day when your head is spinning with information. It’s just you and your determination to complete the self-imposed task at hand. Day after day after day.
It takes months and sometimes years. And then you have something. You have stamina and resolve, two under-appreciated commodities. And you have a book. And then you must put yourself “out there”. You must run the race you’ve been training for. And of course it’s raining rejection letters. And of course the conditions (public sales pitches) are not what you were training for. But you get out there anyway, slogging away the miles, fighting the demons in your head that say you can’t do it—until you reach the elusive finish line of contracts and negotiations.
With my family the night before the Vermont City Marathon, May 2009
by Francine Puckly
Last week I welcomed the summer solstice on a glorious sunny afternoon. I almost didn’t take notice, however, because I was frantically wrapping up my to-do list. A couple days later my kids leapt off the giant yellow heap of metal one final time, screaming for joy and rejoicing in their new-found freedom, while I ran screaming in the opposite direction because I had left sixteen unfinished writing projects on my agenda. How did I not finish? And what on earth did I do with all that time during the school year? It doesn’t matter. School’s out for the summer, and so is my writing.
I have long waved the white flag of surrender when it comes to mixing mass quantities of writing with heavy doses of my children. Despite numerous attempts to create an emulsion that looks like a blended lifestyle to the naked eye, I’m always left with two distinct layers. They do, however, have one common thread: unhappiness. Unproductive days spent at the keyboard due to a multitude of interruptions, and unhappy, caged children pacing, circling, waiting to play. Even as my kids enter the tween and teen years, they still need and/or want my attention. Guilt gnaws at my conscience. We should be biking. We should be playing tennis. We should be sitting on a beach together. Basically, I should be anywhere but in front of my laptop.
So I “take the summer off.” I ceremoniously pack away my thesaurus and dictionary and tidy the notes from the most recent revision of the latest novel. I enter the delusional world of the schedule-less. Weeks stretch out in front of me with little or no agenda. The grind of insanity stops, and peace and harmony step forth in my life once again. Taking the summer off is easy to do as a yet-to-be-published author. It’s also a lie.
Artists never take time off from craft; we just use the hours differently. Mental recharge. Filling the well. Rejuvenation. Restoration. Resuscitation. Call it what you will. Like a fine wine or cheese, our craft benefits from forced aging.
Gone are word count goals. Instead, novels, gardening tombs, and travel guides beckon. Letters from old friends ask me to re-read and answer them while I lounge on a blanket in the backyard. Flowers, ready to bloom, nod and beg me to get rid of the creeping charlie draining the nutrients from their soil. These are the summer pastimes that appear on the horizon. They promise to restore sanity and simplicity in my life. But most importantly, these activities are acceptable to my children. My daughter tags along with me in the yard, pulling weeds and chatting about her most recent social woes at school. My son pulls out a book of his own and sits next to me on a blanket, and we sip piña colada smoothies while devouring the words of others. These tranquil pastimes can be sprinkled amongst their demands for badminton or biking with little or no anguish. We are happy once again.
But it is against my nature to sit still and abandon the tasks on the to-do lists I love to write, so I repeat the words of John Lubbock like a mantra. “Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.” I train and retrain myself daily to take the required break I resist.
So if this summer finds you facing a similar dilemma, let us step forth together into the glorious months of July and August. I wish you long, languid days free of appointments and full of ice cream, afternoon naps, rejuvenating words and beautiful images. May we be granted the wisdom to slow down and “be”, for the “doing” will be waiting for us the Tuesday after Labor Day.
For more blogs, check out Francine's group blog on goal setting and other writing topics at www.24carrotwriting.com.