by Francine Puckly
I don’t believe in mid-life crises, but my back does. Twice in the last six weeks I’ve been the proud sponsor of a herniated disc that prefers to roam around and rest on a nerve. This pressure makes movement of the leg and hip joint impossible, unless you have an affinity for stabbing pain and cold sweats. I’m immobilized for a week’s time until the disc decides to move back between the vertebrae where it belongs.
The latest attack hit last week—harder than before and 48 hours before my eight-year-old niece and twin four-year-old nephews were scheduled to arrive for a summer visit. I convinced myself I couldn’t possibly be laid up and fought the debilitating pain all the way, determined to clean my house, wash and fold the laundry, and vacuum the pool.
Despite the pain and the tears, I pressed on. What stopped me in the end wasn’t scrubbing a shower stall or bending to unload the dishwasher—but blueberries. I couldn’t get out of the car to buy blueberries from the local fruit stand. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t reach the door once it was open. One side of my brain rationalized the situation. “They’re just blueberries. It’s not important.” But the other half of my brain screamed, “Oh, for God’s sake! I can’t even buy BLUEBERRIES!”
I sat frozen in the driver’s seat and looked for blame everywhere except at myself for not heeding my chiropractor’s advice: no lifting, no twisting, no gardening. Take it easy and let this pass. I had ignored everything and everyone. Even if all I wanted was blueberries and a clean house.
I closed the door—after five or six minutes of reaching and missing—and drove home without the fruit. I grabbed an ice pack, popped some ibuprofen, and laid down to rest. I cried for a long time—a mixture of feeling sorry for myself and releasing various causes of disappointment—while seaside piano music ebbed and flowed in the background.
Then I surrendered.
So instead of doling out frozen drinks with miniature umbrellas and whipping together lunches, afternoon appetizers, and dinners for all, I spent the time with my guests propped up on a chaise lounge unable to move. My children, niece and nephews whirled around me at a high rate of speed, shouting amongst themselves and calling “Watch me! Watch me!” to the adults as they launched themselves into the pool in various poses and gyrations. My husband took care of all of my needs, as well as the needs of our guests. While I hated not participating directly in this mayhem, I tried to be in the moment and enjoy life as it swirled around me.
Lessons, lessons. Always a lesson in life. And this weekend delivered. Because I was forced to be physically still, I became mentally and emotionally still. I saw more, laughed more, and had more meaningful conversations. I made wrong things right with my loved ones and said the things I should be saying every day. I can only imagine this is how a terminally ill person must feel!
I’m on the road to healing now, and I’m grateful to be able to perform simple movements I used to take for granted—putting on socks, turning off the lamp next to my bed, hanging up my towel. But I’m also a wee bit nervous to return to my former ways of packing every minute with motion, to-do lists, and the need (or habit) to please others. If I change nothing I am sure to experience another setback with my back and hips. There are physical changes I must make, true enough, but there are lessons in slowing down that plank stretches or core building will not replace.
Did the lesson to slow down and savor life stick? I don’t know. And that’s what makes me most concerned.
by Francine Puckly
My husband and I purchased our home just over 14 years ago--new construction nestled amongst dense trees. It presented a landscaping challenge that left me anxious and overwhelmed. A few years into my efforts, I had successfully completed gardens for the perimeter of the house and the front walk—they were not quite up to professional standards, but they were respectable. The rest of the untamed property, however, taunted me whenever I stepped into the yard. It would take days or weeks to landscape and even more hours to maintain each season and each year. I did the only thing that seemed logical. I sought out a landscaping company to do it for me!
A local landscape designer visited, and we walked around and talked about ideas for each area. I was encouraged about the possibilities, but in the end I could not afford to have him complete the landscaping for me. He did, however, leave me with the best piece of advice I’ve ever received: you can’t tackle the entire piece of property at once—if you do, you’ll work a little bit here and a little bit there but nothing will be complete—so start small. Pick one tiny area to garden and don’t get sidetracked by anything else.
While I wanted to conquer the entire lot, I knew deep down that he was right. I could do a little plot. That was easy, right? So I chose to tackle the area just below my writing window--a section of our property I stared at every day from my desk while trying to conjure up plots and evil characters. I fondly named this my Writing Garden. A few daylilies, a couple hostas, a lovely fuschia spiderwort. Each week I watered the plants deeply, tended to the weeds, and trimmed the spent flowers. In the fall I added a potted mum to spice it up and dropped in a few spring-blooming bulbs. Each year I added a new plant or two to the left or right of that plot. Ten years later I have an enormous garden that showers me with blooms from April to October. It took time, but it’s beautiful.
This landscaping advice sank into my writing over the years as well. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I remember to start small. One scene—often my favorite scene—from which I build characters and setting. A small seed sown in the rich soil of my mind. The entire project will take weeks, months or even years to complete. But I will start with one tiny plot. One flower, one hosta. One character, one scene. And it will grow into something fantastic.
by Francine Puckly
What do you do when you feel like giving up?
The dilemma of knowing when to keep fighting and when to walk away has plagued the human race for thousands of years. In the early years of our species, these indecisions pertained to things such as deciding if an animal was too large to pursue for dinner. Now our difficulties are often more subtle, such as a friendship or love affair that has turned sour, a business endeavor that is failing, or a fifteen-year-old car that has been faithful as the day is long but requires an expensive repair. Or it could be wrestling with when to slide a manuscript into a drawer or, even more sobering still, when to abandon the writing process altogether.
This discussion came up recently in my critique group. Several of us were physically and emotionally drained from having planned and executed an annual writing event, and others of us were licking open wounds from disappointing critiques with agents and editors who were not excited about our work. At some point in your personal regrouping process the question inevitably arises: Should I continue?
Should I continue to invest hoards of precious time in something that “may never happen”? Should I continue to work on a manuscript that still has flaws despite my best effort? Self-doubt creeps in and you ask yourself, What if I don’t have the talent or the fight left in me to bring this manuscript to print?
For me there is the sobering reality that I’m not as young as I used to be. I am not the wide-eyed, optimistic, and naïve thirty-something who set off to conquer the publishing world with her brilliant prose. I had lofty goals as to how many books I could bring to market, and now I realize I don’t have nearly as many books in me as I thought I did ten years ago when I began this journey.
But what I have with me are eight dear writing friends who, despite the foul verbiage I throw down on the page, doggedly stick by me through thick and thin. They read and celebrate my work, again and again. They laugh with me at my social blunders and public “mis-speaks”, hug and support me through family crises, and show up month after month with black ink on the page, ready to share, ready to listen, ready to keep on keeping on.
It’s a scary place, this one of reevaluation and self-doubt. And the decision is and must be an individual one, despite encouragement from others. Could I abandon ship? I suppose I could. But as my goals partner, Martha Calderaro, says, “If I were to stop here, I would regret seeing where this path would eventually take me.” She’s right. I’ve come too far.
So I keep writing. Not because of my ego’s desire to see my books in print, but rather because what else can I do? I would be miserable without pen and paper. Yes, this is taking a long time. Far too long. But Markus Zusak’s wise words from “The Book Thief” are posted by my desk: “It’s much easier, she realized, to be on the verge of something than to actually be it. This would still take time.”
by Francine Puckly
This time of year when we think of carrots, most of us think of cute, furry bunny rabbits nibbling away on someone else’s garden produce. But for me, carrots are the incentives I dangle a few inches out in front to motivate me. It’s gotta be something that makes me want to do the difficult but necessary work to finish various goals and projects.
For the past nine months, I dangled a pair of ridiculously-priced, but fabulous nonetheless, pair of Brighton sunglasses in front of me as I toiled away on yet another complete rewrite of my first manuscript. The sunglasses are an insanity purchase I could never justify without putting myself through hell and back. I wasn’t permitted to acquire them until the manuscript was in respectable condition. Unfortunately, the longer I write, the higher my standard of “respectable” becomes, even if it’s not yet up to the industry standard.
Although I loitered in the Brighton store on various occasions during the past nine months and tried the sunglasses on no less than a couple hundred times, I never bought them.
Monday marked the final push to complete the manuscript. A frenzy of reading and scribbling and re-typing changes to a manuscript I can recite in my sleep. The foggy finish left my family without meals and an unfortunate missed taxi-service, but I ended the day at 11:30 p.m. with a complete manuscript and a terrific feeling of satisfaction…because I was going to get those glasses.
Despite my sleep deprivation, there was a slight lilt in my step as I entered the Brighton store the next morning. The salesclerk was ecstatic that I hadn’t come to drool. A few minutes later, I walked out the door with my sunglasses. And I haven’t looked back. And I don’t feel one ounce of guilt.
It’s the first time in my adult life that I established a material goal and didn’t give in. It felt fabulous…so fabulous that I’ve established the next goal. It’s an even tougher goal for me with a higher reward: a fabulous dress.
Where will I wear it? I have no idea. But you can bet I’ll buy it, perhaps months in the future, when I’ve completed the next milestone.
by Francine Puckly
Like many of you, I launched into the new year with new energy, new hopes and new goals. This would be the year I finally embraced a healthy balance of novel writing with other creative pursuits such as reading a book cover to cover in one sitting, scrapbooking or decorating cakes. This would be the year I stayed physically fit, ate well (foregoing a sample of the aforementioned decorated cake), and slept often. This would be the year I whiled away the hours with my family, sipped chai tea with friends, picked out a tune on the piano, kept my house in order and completed several manuscripts. Yup. The goals seemed realistic on January 1st. After all, these were the important things in life. These were the things I valued. It made sense to make them my priorities.
Tonight I sit in a middle school cafeteria scented with stale chicken nuggets and French fries while my butt goes numb ever so quickly on a plastic, circular seat. I wait for my daughter’s rehearsal to finish and watch a March 1st storm whip snow horizontally outside the window. As I see the flakes swirl by, I start to think my goals and enthusiasm have blown away with the storm.
When I’m tired and numb (quite literally…remember the plastic chair?), it’s easy to start beating myself up about what I don’t do. I usually only allow myself a year-end assessment of accomplishments, but tonight…why not a two-month rundown of the things I have accomplished year-to-date?
Success #1: Manuscript time. I’m “dating” two writers simultaneously. Lest you get some distorted idea of my personal values, let’s be clear that our dates constitute sitting across from each other for three hours while working on our respective manuscripts. No talking. No excuses. But an occasional mug of chai tea is thrown in. I go out with each of them once a week so that it keeps the relationship (and manuscript) alive. My husband and I, however, haven’t been out together since our anniversary in September. Maybe he should write a book.
Success #2: Order. Despite trying really hard, I didn’t burn down my house yesterday when my oven locked shut and cooked my zucchini bread at 800˚ F. The added bonus was that this confirmed the smoke detectors needed new batteries. So check that off the Daylight Savings Time To-Do List. I also had to scrub soot off the outside and inside of the cabinets, so everything’s neat and orderly again in the kitchen. I’m thinking of setting fire to the family room next week.
Success #3: Scrapbooking and photo management. I love scrapbooking, and I think the reason I’m so passionate about it is that I get to tell a story with photos instead of words. It takes time from my manuscripts (which induces guilt), but some days it’s worth it. Like today. My daughter graduates from middle school this year, and her baby and school activity photos were due to the yearbook staff today. Yes, I knew about this six weeks ago, but first of all, I’ve been playing the field a little bit, haven’t I? And that takes a lot of time. And secondly, I worked in manufacturing for years, and the Just-In-Time inventory philosophy is permanently entrenched. So I spent the morning digging through boxes of her baby photos—reluctantly skipping over the picture of her lying buck-naked on a blanket after her bath—and sent two conservative photos off. In addition to that little task, I’m compiling a scrapbook of the holiday photo cards we get each year from our friends. Wanna see someone age quickly? Line up ten years of photo cards.
So, look at that! Chalk up a few successes. Slap a couple pats on the back. But what about those detailed goals? You know the ones. The ones about changing daily habits and routines and sticking with them…Well, those aren’t going quite as well.
I hyperventilate over rituals I still can’t seem to develop, slips in my diet or fitness goals, and the litany of things added to my daily, weekly, and (soon-to-be) monthly to-do lists for writing, family and home maintenance. But when these heart palpitations hit (daily between 12:37 p.m. and 1:49 p.m. and again late at night), I brew a cup of strong tea, meditate on the good, and re-read my 2012 aspirations. Because tomorrow may be the day I read a book cover to cover or decorate a cake (baked in somebody else’s oven). You just never know. Until then, I’ll go out on a date or two, place my butt firmly in a non-plastic chair, and work on my manuscript.
Zinnias - Hyde Park, London
by Francine Puckly
As many of us step into the final days of preparation for Hanukkah and Christmas, I personally stare down the draft of a young adult manuscript I had hoped to finish by year-end. Each day that passes finds me more and more frazzled and bewildered, due in part to the physical and emotional drain of the holidays but also the physical and emotional drain that accompanies a long-term project. My days feel wobbly, and I’m in a constant state of trying to establish balance.
My goals partner, Martha, encourages me to plug ahead by saying, “If life is balanced, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.” Several times a day this reminder sustains me so that I can keep moving toward my goals. As I’m sure it is with most of you, my life isn’t balanced. Sick and injured children, an unexpected death of a family member and his funeral, and the general chaos of holiday shopping and entertaining have left me dragging into the final writing weeks of 2011.
I’m disappointed that I probably won’t hit my annual writing goals, but I must move forward regardless. And this movement begins with my secret writing spot. I have promised myself (and my goals partner!) that I will report to my writing location each day between now and Christmas Eve. One solitary hour a day. I expect most days I will work on my manuscript, but alternatively I might meditate or write holiday cards to dear friends or read from the current novel I’m savoring. But this daily commitment to be creative will sustain me through the final days of my project, as well as the holiday season. I will come close to hitting my writing goals, but more importantly, I will be rewarded with an hour of balance in my unbalanced world.
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 past blogs on goal setting and other writing topics at www.24carrotwriting.com.