In the Clearing
by Francine Puckly
After several stumbles, a close-call coming through the ceiling, and one broken finger, I decided it was high time we installed a floor in our attic instead of walking around on beams and occasional planks we strategically placed to hold our storage boxes. Having the floor installed meant I had to clear a space for the workers to lay at least half of the floor before shifting everything to the other side to install the rest. And clearing the space meant I had to come to terms with stacks of empty cardboard boxes we were saving for storage and gift giving, boxes and bags of baby clothes and blankets from my 14- and 11-year-old children I couldn’t part with years ago, and hoards of holiday decorations teetering on disaster.
Anyone who has tackled 900 square feet of clutter knows the heart palpitations it can inflict. And I put this off until the last bitter moment when I received the call from the contractor saying he would be there first thing the next morning.
To fully understand the level of my anxiety when surrounded by so many boxes, let’s be clear that my grandmother, God rest her soul, was a full-fledged, Guinness-World-Records-setting pack rat. The one memory I have of her two-bedroom townhouse (the rest of them I’ve clearly blocked) is my walking through a box-filled kitchen into a box-filled family room with an 18-inch path to navigate to the stairs (lined with boxes) to use the bathroom (also filled with boxes). In fact, the day my mother and father arrived to move my grandmother, she had done no packing or sorting. My mother sat down on the front step and bawled, overwhelmed with the task in front of her that had to be completed eight short hours. Years later as I assessed the attic mess in front of me, I finally understood my mother’s anxiety and was sobered by the fact that I had done this to myself. While I had not hoarded quite as much as my grandmother, I still had a seemingly insurmountable task in front of me.
No coward soul am I, Emily Brontë whispered in my ear. So up to the overheated attic I went. I started by chucking 47 empty boxes from the corner—which we desperately missed this past holiday season…who knew?—and the cats and kids ran for their lives as they dodged falling objects from the attic opening. This was followed by pulling down twelve boxes of baby clothes, several old window blinds and curtain rods stored years ago “just in case”, a giant box of my baby clothes from several decades earlier, fourteen years of my children’s artwork, boxes of letters received from friends and family in high school and college, and several boxes of holiday decorations that hadn’t been used in at least six years. Ruthlessly I sorted, sorted, sorted. So much collected over the years because I couldn’t make decisions.
In the writing world, I have done this to myself as well. I’ve hung onto old drafts of manuscripts because I might need to refer to them “some day”, and I’ve collected stacks of craft books, notes from teachings and lectures, and magazine articles which are old news at this point in my career. I hang onto these collections as if they will provide some sort of solace in the days, weeks or years to come. They won’t.
I finished the attic in November, and keeping with the notorious theme of the New Year—a time to clear, de-clutter and organize—I have set out to conquer my ever-expanding writing space with cute folders and boxes, and, more importantly, the recycling bin. Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I use it?
So as I belt out, “Should all manuscripts be forgot, and never thought upon…”, I clear the space and open the way for new ideas and new writing in this New Year.
In the Moment
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
Ah, summer reading lists. I used to enjoy creating my personal list every Memorial Day weekend in anticipation of the long weeks of summer sprawled out in front of me. I had visions of digging my feet into sand (or the grass in my backyard) and whiling away the hours with book in hand.
But as with most things in my life in the last ten years or so, I started getting carried away. I couldn’t put the brakes on. The list became a goal. It grew longer and longer. And it was impossible to complete it, leading to feelings of guilt and failure. “Guilt associated with summer reading?!” you say. Sadly, yes.
Last summer I set out to read the “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon. The entire series. I couldn’t read one book of the series. I had to read them all. Why I do this to myself, I’ll never know. I read 53 pages.
So this summer I’m trying to resist the urge to stack books two feet high in the corner of my bedroom or to create a list of thousands of pages for my “summer reading pleasure”. Instead of pulling together a list ahead of time, I’m picking up a book here and a book there from the library, the local bookstore, or from friends at the ball field.
This practice has led mainly to beach reads from authors such as Elin Hilderbrand and Luanne Rice. And I’m okay with that. I’m not tackling Shakespeare or Homer or Steinbeck, but as I sip my iced tea, I’m savoring the tales that other writers have taken the time and care to pen.
Isn’t that what reading is all about?
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.
Keep on Keeping on...
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
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.
Seeking Balance in an Unbalanced World
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.
For more blogs, check out Francine's past blogs on goal setting and other writing topics at www.24carrotwriting.com.