Messy Work

Good news: I’ve worked on my novel for thirteen days straight.

Duh news: Each time, I am nervous about starting my daily writing session, afraid I won’t be able to write, and each time, I find it is possible to get work done even if I am not immediately inspired. On one day, I got work done even though my prevailing emotion was irritation with moody teens and a needy (but adorable) puppy.

I am at an odd point in the revision in which my goal is, apparently, to make a mess of previous drafts. The metaphors that come to mind are of messy work rather than mess-as-goal, like fluffing rice after it has cooked or adding spices to a soup to see what works.

I struggle to describe this work because some of it is creative, when I generate, often unexpectedly, new lines, scenes, or insights to weave into the text, yet other times the writing feels almost mechanical, add a few words here, cut a few words there. I am not trying to polish the prose, and I am skipping around each scene just to fill in where it felt as if something was missing.

I remember years ago in a sculpting class I would scoop bits of clay on top of more clay to get a mound of clay in the general shape needed so then I could smooth and shape it into something worth viewing. I’m at the stage of adding layers of clay right now.

Messy work indeed.

In defense of Mondays

My goal today is to reclaim Mondays from all the haters out there. It is not a random goal. In recent years, my adolescent children have come to dread Mondays and the return to school in ways they never did in the past. Monday casts a long shadow over Sunday and even sometimes Saturday, as they bemoan the return of the week, the structure and repetition of the school day, the work, the risk of failure.

As a parent, it is hard for me to gauge the intensity of their unhappiness. It seems to me that there can be the typical Monday blues or the intense something’s-got-to-change Monday blues, which I had during my first year teaching middle school. I was so unhappy in that role that I had to force myself to drive to work each morning. I remember literally clenching my hands on the wheel. Everything in my spirit called me to turn around, to do anything else. After four years, I made some progress in the role but found the public school climate so negative that I sought a career change, and from then on, Mondays marked the end of the weekend but nothing quite so traumatic.

So here are two extremes: Mondays where one notices the contrast between the freedom of the weekend and the pressure of the work week versus the Monday that casts a long shadow over the weekend and the horizon.

In my experience, if Mondays feel the way they did for me teaching middle school, it’s time to find another job. Any other job. A larger change is needed.

But the other type of feeling–that is the Monday blues I want to challenge. To rename. To reconstruct.

Here’s why: Your life, my life, my children’s life will be filled with Mondays. And as those who have had brushes with death and loss will tell you, every day is a gift.

Let’s start with the basics.

I am alive today.

The people I work with are alive and they all or almost all came back to work today. If any of us were missing, there would be a void in this office, there would be a loss.

So I can celebrate that we are here.

As I write, it is a Monday, and the sun is shining and the sky is blue. It is a cold but beautiful November day. I could worry about the winter ahead and the ongoing threat of bad weather, or I could notice that blue sky and generous bath of sunlight.

Here’s what also can make Monday a special day. I don’t yet know what this week will be like. I may think I do. I may expect more of the same, or I may think that looking at my calendar tells me exactly what will happen, which is perhaps the most foolish thing I ever find myself thinking, really. There are surprises ahead, at least the potential of surprises.

There is also the comfort of routine. At home, my children and spouse are sweet and easy to be around. And sometimes they are not. At work, the routine provides a space where I may step back from that volatility, a space to be someone else by day, someone I am still trying to get to know. I think I know who I am when I am at work, but I am still learning, still changing. The routine is an illusion; change is happening every minute, sometimes the best changes.

Mondays are full of potential, perhaps the richest day of the week in terms of what could happen this week. It is a launching point. If I am going to accomplish anything amazing, either internally or externally, it will start thanks to a Monday. To hate Monday, to avoid Monday, is to hate effort and to hate the steps forward that bring us to new places.

And of course, Monday happens regardless. So to make a stand against Monday is to make a stand against ocean tides. It is futile. We all have moments when we must endure hard times or even hardships. But to create a hardship out of something that could be a resource? That is a shame.

If I wish away my Mondays, I am sleep-walking through my own life. I am missing out on some of the best moments because I am deciding in advance that they are not worth my time or attention.

I often reflect on the idea of scarcity versus abundance. Monday by sheer perception can be a day of scarcity or a day of abundance. It is in your hands to decide which it will be.


Class news

Class of 1990Periodically I see requests from our class representative to send in updates for our college alumni magazine, in which classmates report events such as weddings, births, prestigious awards, enviable trips, and promotions. I never got around to mentioning anything that might have fallen into those categories, so as it is, I compose then delete contributions such as the following:

Cama Duke ’90 reports that she finally found a brand of decaf coffee she likes, much to the relief of her coworkers.

Cama Duke ’90 discovered that “Mmm hmmm” is the most effective response when her teenage children speak to her. She is still investigating how much eye contact is wise and under what circumstances.

Cama Duke ’90 reports knowing people who have made impressive career advances or life-saving innovations, and she finds that rewarding enough.

Cama Duke ’90 recently drank one of the best glasses of iced tea that she’s had in awhile, an experience she is yet to replicate.

Cama Duke ’90 sends her apologies to friends from college who used to get letters or emails from her before she had kids. “It’s not you, it’s me,” she says. “I did think about posting an update on Facebook the other day, though.”

Cama Duke ’90 was immensely relieved to find out that you don’t actually have to drink 64 ounces of water a day and that coffee and tea actually count as hydration.

Cama Duke ’90 begrudgingly drove across town last week because her children received gift cards to a store that was neither in walking distance nor online.

In praise of naps


A loved one has Alzheimer’s. While her memory resembles Swiss cheese, her mood is upbeat, which is not what you read on the list of scary symptoms of Alzheimer’s. I attribute this to her commitment to naps, lots of naps. Now that I think about it, it makes sense. I, too, may get annoyed when I forget something or make a mistake of any sort, really, yet if you just let me take a nap, I’ll be fine later on.

I think I am on to something here. I wonder if the world would be a more peaceful place if naps were more accessible, especially to anyone with a finger on any kind of trigger. You really shouldn’t be sleep-deprived in the vicinity of weapons.

Okay, you may be right. Making sure everyone has enough to eat probably should come first. And health care. And, yes, respecting human rights would be a plus.

But let’s add naps somewhere on the list.

What have I forgotten to say?

Good news. So far, I am 4 for 4 in keeping my daily commitment to work a few hours on my novel each day.

A recent writing/revision strategy emerged for me in working on this novel and on my e-book, which is to ask myself this question: What have I forgotten to say? Now, in keeping with my future epitaph of “done is better than perfect,” I don’t claim to have successfully filled every gap in my writing. I do claim, though, that asking this question tends to lead me to discover areas to improve or expand in my work.

While I believe “Less is more” when it comes to writing, I also know that sometimes I write less than I should. I usually know what everything means, what every character is thinking, why events are unfolding the way they are, but I forget to share enough of this with the reader.

At any rate, I am finding my way back to work on my novel. Of course, the most effective strategy that nonetheless always comes as a surprise to me is this one: Just start.  Don’t wait for inspiration: Just spend some time with the project.

Diving back into my novel

My e-book on time management is now complete, or at least, moved into the category of “done is better than perfect,” which I might ask people to write on my tombstone or whatever you get when you wish to be cremated. So I am diving back into my historical novel after taking several months off.

At a writer’s retreat recently, our fearless leader asked us to state where we were in the process. If I were a cartoon character, my eyebrows would have hopped off my forehead. There is no right answer for that question for my novel right now. So much has been written and rewritten already over the past five years. Scrivener tells me it’s over 100,000 words, which is the longest novel I’ve ever written, though still short by other writers’ standards. Yet done, even “done is better than perfect,” still lingers somewhere in the horizon.

So how to dive back in? Other than committing to work on the novel first thing every day from now on and aiming to clock in 1-2 hours of effort, I wasn’t sure what to do. So I started surfing through the novel’s file on Scrivener to see what might tempt me. Before I knew it, I was sorting and reordering ideas and notes into existing scenes, and then dove into a major reworking of my task list for the novel. Does this count as writing? For today, yes. Tomorrow I will begin working scene by scene to begin making the changes assigned to each of them. Usually if I narrow my focus to just one scene, I can begin writing or revising. I hope.

Cross your fingers that I move smoothly from goal-setting to goal-implementing.

Podcasts I recommend

vintage-music-business-shop.jpgI mention my addiction to podcasts in my time management book, so I thought you might be curious to know what I’m listening to. My favorite right now is Pod Save the People. I feel as if this podcast keeps me aware of what gets hidden or lost in typical news coverage. Deray Mckesson also starts off with such wise advice that I would quote to everyone daily if they’d let me, words of comfort and insight to help anyone get through the week. While the topics covered in this podcast are relevant to anyone committed to democracy and justice, my historical novel is set during the 1898 race massacre in Wilmington, NC, so their discussions help me become more sensitive to some of the nuances then and now. I enjoy most of the offerings of the Crooked Media, for that matter.

I have also fallen hard for the podcasts offered by Book Riot, especially Hey YA because they provide a lively crash course on trends in different genres, filling in gaps where I haven’t had the chance to read as much as I might like and giving me ideas (sometimes too many) of books I will add to my reading list.

I have dabbled with other podcasts, but those are the ones that I am making time for right now. As I mention in my book, I use the podcasts to motivate me to exercise, since I am (usually) only allowed to listen to them when I work out or go for a walk.

Blogging without a net.

I am venturing into the world of blogging, one that is inviting because I love to write. I hesitate because I want to be able to share anything–jokes, rants, reflections, stories. Yet I fear hitting the wrong note. Is it better to say nothing and thus never say the wrong thing, or say something and make amends if it goes awry?

Better to say something, yes. But it’s taking time for me to step out on this wire.