Basketball in the Afterlife

Part Seven

How to Complete a Novel

Life wanted me to meet Aaron. When our first opportunity slipped by without us even realizing, life finagled us a second chance.  Aaron had a message for me and now I’m sharing it with you.

I grew up an Army brat. I moved every few years and had the good fortune to travel more of Europe and North America before I was old enough to buy my own booze than many people get in a lifetime. One of our homes was Fort Meade, Maryland. In fact, we were stationed there twice: once when I was a toddler and again when I was in middle school. Since 9-11 and the lockdown of all the bases, I can no longer visit Fort Meade and see the tree my mother and I planted during that first tour. If I could, I would point to that tree as proof that the circumstances of life can fold back upon themselves to present us with second chances.

Aaron was also an Army brat. In 1990, Aaron was in the 7th grade and I was in the 8th. That year, we attended the same Fort Meade middle school, but we didn’t meet. The next year, I went to the high school and the year after that my family was stationed in Belgium.

In 2007, my husband and I moved to Austin, where Aaron and I both worked for the same company. The odds of us both ending up in Austin at the same time is probably pretty small, but the odds of us ending up at the same nine-employee shop has to be infinitesimal. Even with so few people, it took months before Aaron and I discovered our Fort Meade connection. At home that night, I dug out my 8th grade yearbook. Aaron was a skinny kid wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt and a big smile; I had long hair and really huge glasses. A decade and a half later, and neither of us had changed too much. Aaron still cheered the Fighting Irish and I never did make the switch to contacts or lasic.

Aaron loved to play basketball and video games, lift weights, and watch sports. His speech was peppered with wonderfully unique phrasing. When complaining about bad reception on his TV, he said it was “52 inches of hot garbage.” When he talked about his new Ikea mattress he said, “it’s like sleeping on angels.” When he wanted to tell you to take a U-turn, he said, “hook a bitch.” Aaron was quick to smile, always ready to laugh, and once told me to come get him if anyone gave me any trouble and he’d take care of it for me. Aaron was my friend.

He was also suffering.

A degenerative disease stole his vitality.  Some days, his joints would swell so painfully he couldn’t walk. During the advanced stages of his illness, the bones in his hands fused together in a painful process. Over the course of a few months, Aaron’s hands went from being those of a normal thirty-two year old to those of someone eighty.

Aaron’s job involved keyboard input, burning CDs, and packaging shipments for customers. Trivial things when you have two working hands, torturous otherwise. He was in constant pain, but would not take medication because he wanted to have a clear head as long as he could.

Did he have every right to complain, to whine, to pry pity from friends, coworkers, strangers? I’d say so. He was dealt a shit hand he didn’t deserve.

Did he ever complain, whine, or resort to self pitying? No. Not once. Aaron did his job. He made a point of stopping by my cube to talk to me. When he got too weak to work in the office, he’d send me daily Yahoo! messages at 3PM. He made my charity football pool picks for me because he didn’t want to see me place last. He began to share many of his memories with me and I began to understand how bad things were for him. The last time I saw Aaron, we were in a coworker’s office, watching some disgusting video of men making a car out of meat. I remember how perfect the afternoon light was, how disgusting that meat car was, how good it felt to be with my friends in that light laughing at our queasy disgust together.

At the end of June, Aaron took a medical leave from work.

He died one week later.

At his funeral, I met Aaron’s mother. I was there with a couple of co-workers from our original nine person crew, and she made time to come and talk to us. She told us that it had been extremely painful for Aaron to complete his end of month shipments in June. It took him a long time and he had to rest often, but he finished on time.  Aaron didn’t want to leave his boss with a ton of work. Aaron didn’t want to leave his tasks unfinished, and he didn’t. Aaron had a sense of honor that his illness couldn’t tarnish.

What was the message Aaron had for me? It was that even in adversity, life can be approached with a clear mind and humor. No matter how bad things are, we still have something when we have our honor, our work, and each other.

My seventh suggestion for how to complete a novel is inspired by Aaron:

Work Joyfully

No matter how much you love a project, there will be days where the work will be harder. The words won’t flow or your characters will make you so sad your courage will falter. Some days, you swim as hard as you can, but the tide keeps sweeping you farther from shore. When a ‘retrograde day’ strikes, return to your image of what it will be like to finish. Instead of thinking of what must be done now in the negative, think of what must be done as something you want to do because you want to complete your project. Don’t think, “I have to format my book for Kindle and formatting is a tedious pain.” Instead think, “I get to format my novel for Kindle and when I am done, I will be closer to seeing the book – my book! – on Amazon!”  It may seem like mere semantic sugar, but try it. I think you’ll find that a positive viewpoint makes boring or unpleasant tasks less onerous.

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Perfection Killed the Dinner Party

Part Six

How to Complete a Novel

Tonight friends are coming over to your house for dinner. You had every intention of getting the house cleaned and doing the grocery shopping yesterday, but you spent the whole day beautifying the yard. Never mind the fact that your guests will arrive after dark and no one will see your effort. You just couldn’t stop yourself; you moved from task to task, and each new task led to another unanticipated task until the day was consumed by work unrelated to the upcoming dinner party. Now it is the aching dawn of party day and you’re forcing your tired body to mop the floor. The radio is  tuned to the local indie station. Mellow  rhythms intended to sooth hangover regrets seep into the mop’s wet patterns. A bit of relaxation steals into your soul; you have all day to finish your chores, purchase food, and cook a meal to astound an epicure. Then your dogs come crashing in through their dog door, tracking dirt across the Nirvana clean of your floor. Relaxation? Gone. Anger, frustration, and fear that you won’t have everything done in time? Oh, yeah.

worst dinner party. ever.

I’ve just described myself, circa 2009. I have always had perfectionist leanings, but as I moved into my thirties, those leanings morphed into something closer to a disability. In my quest to achieve absolute completion of any given task, I failed to enjoy the activity of accomplishment or reap any benefits from my unending quest.  I have a real thing for cleanliness and order, and life has a real thing for entropy! I was taking on the universe and losing on every front.

In the party prep scenario, the pressure stems from believing I can create the perfect experience for my guests. I want them to arrive to a house that has a manicured front lawn, even if they will have to intuit it rather than actually see. I want the inside of the house to be so clean that if they were to move the sofa or look under the cushions, they could find no fault with my housekeeping. I wanted to prepare not just a good meal, but one that would ‘astound an epicure’.  I was insane.

Friends don’t come to your house to find fault. The come to spend time, hopefully to laugh a bit, eat some good food, drink some wine, and  to enjoy the company of other people outside the proscribed lockstep of corporate structure. Real friends come to see you and would rather you have fun with them than spend the whole evening striving for some heavenly concerto of expertly timed food service.

Do I think you should leave the stuffed animal guts and the chewed sticks the dogs brought in scattered on the floor? Or dirty dishes piled in the sink? No. But I also think it’s okay to “settle” for a tidy yard rather than a perfectly landscaped one, a clean house rather than a figgen monument to OCD, a wholesome and tasty meal rather than an elaborate feast that does more to showcase your talent than give people something they really want to eat. The environment and the food are accompaniments to the fellowship. Don’t allow the cleaning and cooking to suck the enjoyment out of having house guests or you will stop inviting people to dinner. Most of us want to avoid stress, but it’s important to identify the difference between negative stress and positive eustress.  The stress associated with preparing for an evening of conversation and friendship should be one of anticipation and excitement rather than a fear of failure.

As you might have guessed, the sixth suggestion I have on how to complete a novel is:

Step Back from Perfection

Perfection is the enemy of good enough.

The phrase is a slight misquote of Voltaire, and it is one I often hear software developers repeat. What they mean is that producing bug-free software is impossible, and that finding and fixing the last 20% of edge case bugs isn’t worth the cost that will be incurred by delaying the product ship. This maxim can be applied to writing. Do not aim for perfection in the first draft. In fact, don’t aim for perfection. Instead, work to make each revision better than the last in ways that you can express clearly to yourself or anyone who might ask. Unburdened by the impossible goal of perfection, you can enjoy the process of writing. Give yourself permission to make the ‘mistakes’ that will lead you to things greater and more creative than the narrow confines of perfection.

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Can I borrow your hotel?

Part Five

How to Complete a Novel

Quick, how many movies can you think of where the main character is a writer who goes someplace isolated in hopes of getting something written? Three that came to my mind are Deadline, Half Light, and The Shining. How many people do you know in real life who have an isolated cabin or entire hotel they can borrow when they need a little space to write?

I couldn’t think of any, either.

I can think of writers who have come up with creative solutions to the problem of finding a physical space to use as a writing area. I have heard of writers who use the tiny balcony on their apartment, writers who journey to a favorite coffee shop, writers who rent a space in a communal writer’s loft, and writers who are fortunate and persistent enough to get accepted to a colony for uninterrupted months of writing. I have my own ‘office’ now, but there was a time when I did not because my husband and I lived in a small apartment. My solution was not to find someplace outside of our apartment, but to use the space we did have at different times. Like timing  when to leave the house in order to miss rush hour, I timed my writing sessions to occur when I could take over the shared spaces in our house and treat them as my own. It was an effective solution, although I still harbor Yaddo dreams. That might even more awesome than having an entire haunted hotel in a remote and snowy location!

Physical space is not the only external condition that must be satisfied before you can write successfully. It is one of the most obvious, though, and can present a real obstacle to getting started on and completing your novel.  The fifth suggestion I can make on how to complete a novel is :

Identify Resources

Resources come in many forms:  space, time, software, human, and financial. If you know that you’ll need to do most of your writing on the subway, then you have identified you need a portable writing device which, yes, can be as fancy as pen and paper. If you know that you can’t stop yourself from surfing the net during your writing time, you’ve identified that you either need a writing spot with no connectivity or a program that locks you out of the internet. If you know that you won’t have time to mow the lawn and do your writing, you’ve identified that you need to ask for help. When it comes to publishing, figure out what funds you will need. Most importantly, identify the people you can go to for encouragement or a swift kick in the pants, because you’ll need both at some point or another when writing your novel.

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The Moon and the Runner’s Lie

Part Four

How to Complete a Novel

my moon!

I am 34 years, 7 months and 7 days old.  In my lifetime, the moon has passed through her phases approximately 451 times. As a child, the moon followed me everywhere. It didn’t matter if I was in the United States or somewhere in Germany, the moon was always chasing along behind me. As an adolescent, I appreciated the light of a full moon, but came to understand the regenerative power of the solitary darkness represented by the new moon. As a woman, I learned to correlate my body’s moods and cravings with the moon. As a dog owner, I learned that it is true what they say: dogs do howl at a full moon. They howl, they bark, and they mistakenly think it is breakfast time at 3AM. As a dreamer, I imagine going to the moon. I imagine that I can breathe there, that there is the perfect still like that experienced during the early morning hours after a tremendous snow storm. As a writer, I track the moon’s passage across the bit of sky I can see from my writing desk. I say hello to the moon whenever I see her, even if there are other people around and especially if she is making her crossing during the daylight hours.

The moon and I, we go way back.

Back even to that once upon a time when I was a distance runner. When you run more than six or seven miles, especially if you are a slow runner like I was, you learn that there are certain things you must take into account. First, you need to refuel: liquids, simple sugars.  Second, you need a way to keep yourself going when it gets boring or tough. I found that by combining the two needs, I could break a long run into smaller segments that gave me something close enough to attain and far enough to keep me putting one foot in front of the other.  When I completed a segment, there was the reward of fuel. On days when I felt strong and light, that was enough. On bad days when it felt like an impossible effort to go a mile, let alone ten, the segments were too far apart to keep desperation from setting in; I had to come up with another tactic. That is when I learned to lie to myself.

Surprised? I was, too. Both that I could be so convincing and that it would work. Before I describe my technique,  I want to note that none of this applies if you are sick or injured! Unless you are being chased by some terribly trite horror movie villain,  push through discomfort but stop if you feel pain. Otherwise, go ahead and lie to yourself. Tell yourself that you only have to run to the next stop sign and that once you get there, you can walk the rest of the way. If you have to, promise yourself that when you get to the stop sign, you never have to run again, period. Then, when you get to the sign, check in with your body. Is it complaining, or is it just your will that’s flagging? If your body still feels strong, lie again. Tell yourself you only have to make it to your next refueling station, and then you can quit for the day. Lie, run, repeat until you cross the finish line. I logged hundreds of miles using this technique. It’s useful for other tedious tasks, too, like reformatting the chapters in your book in preparation for print or making it through reading a novel you don’t love, but want to finish because you appreciate what the author is trying to do.

In the first post of this series, we began by visualizing the final phase of the writing project. Then we shared our dream with others and negotiated the time and space in which to complete our work. Now it is time to define intermediate phases that give you something to work towards and that you can use as a lifeline. You can base project phases, or milestones, on word count, pages, chapters, scenes or whatever works best to motivate you. Once you decide on the ‘phases,’ choose  a way to reward yourself. Although you can, you don’t have to pick the actual form of the reward at the outset; just commit to doing something to celebrate the completion of each phase. I like to choose my reward when I reach the milestone, mostly because my desires and moods are mercurial! White wine sounds good now, but I might want beer by the time I finish the next three chapters! If writing to the end of the first phase seems daunting, employ a variant of the runner’s lie and tell yourself you only have to write one chapter. If that is overwhelming, tell yourself you only have to write one paragraph. If it seems like the pressure to write a perfect first sentence is overwhelming, tell yourself you’re just penning a  practice sentence, and don’t have to consider it the one, true First Sentence. Tell yourself whatever you have to in order to get yourself writing. You’ll reach your milestones and get pretty good at coming up with delectable rewards, too!

As you may have guessed, the fourth suggestion of How to Complete a Novel is:

Define Milestone Events

No matter how monolithic a project appears, it can always be broken into phases. In writing a novel, you can define initial phases by draft. Later phases might include getting a copy edit, working with a cover designer, or sending agent queries. Decide in advance what you want to consider a milestone event. It relieves a lot of psychological pressure if you can focus on a smaller goal with a shorter in timeframe that won’t overwhelm or discourage you.

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Balance Through Compromise

Part Three

How to Complete a Novel

Are you a hermit, gone to live on your mountaintop? Do you have unlimited time, a trust fund, and a significant other willing to appear for scheduled conjugal visits, then disappear until next time you send out the passenger pigeon from your mountaintop? If so, this post isn’t for you.

from the mountaintop, with love

Image via Wikipedia

However, if you happen to be more like me, you should keep reading. My time to write is constrained by the many facets of my life. I used to be consumed by resentment that I could not allocate the time I wanted, when I wanted, to whatever I wanted. Years of frustration gave way to simple acceptance: I am not constrained by the richness and variety of my life. I am liberated by it! My job exercises my intellect and my compassion far more than either could be if I were alone on my mountaintop. Home ownership has given me responsibility and forced me to discover the joy in caring for a place that is my own. My marriage has brought me clarity, comfort, laughter, and a shared history that grows more evocative as time passes. My writing has given me access to noumenal, intransitive truths.  I love all of these facets, but that doesn’t make it easy to find and maintain balance.

When we first moved into our home, I was overwhelmed. The sheer space was magnitudes bigger than any place we had lived before; mind you, we bought conservatively, but even a small house is a big thing when compared to a one room apartment! I felt like I couldn’t balance all of the chores, and the yard work, and the grocery shopping, and the dog walks, and my job, and my marriage, and the fact that ceiling fans somehow gather monstrous amounts of dust even when they are in use.  My stress was squeezing the companionship and fun out of my marriage, guttering my inner light, and stealing energy I could have used to write. My husband diagnosed the root of my problem:  I was trying to do everything, all of the time. I also wasn’t writing, which has an inverse relationship with my mood. We came up with a plan of action that divided what needed to be done into manageable blocks of work.  We closed off the section of the house we never even use, and he began to help me with chores I had always done alone simply because they were trivial in a small apartment (floors! Who knew there would be so much of them in a house?!).  I have even learned how to let inessential things slide.  I trained myself to recognize what needs to be done, and to do only that instead of following some preconceived list that I had in my mind. I let the situation dictate what amount of cleaning is done rather than stick to a rigid set of tasks.  You may be skeptical, but I promise that you and your family will be OKAY even if you don’t steam clean the rugs every week.

The same sort of battles occur in every facet of life. Work is an expanding protoplasm of unending tasks, but if you are firm in separating work from home, you will prevent it from overtaking your entire life. Say no to getting work emails on your phone. Say no to weekend ‘extras.’ Say no to late evenings that prevent you from exercising. Will you be on the fast track to the top of the corporate ladder? Probably not. But is that what you want? If it is, you and the hermit are both reading the wrong blog! Do the best that you can while you are there, practice kindness in the face of stress (easier said than done, but try!), and enjoy the time you get to spend with people you might otherwise have never known. Then clock out, head home, and focus on the other parts of your life. Your writing, for instance!

And now, I gracefully segue into the Third Tip in the “How To Complete a Novel” series…

Negotiation

If you’re married or  have room mates, you will need to negotiate for dedicated and uninterrupted time to spend working on your novel.  Begin by opening a dialog about the realistic time expenditure writing will require, and acknowledge that some of the time you will put into the novel will have to be taken from time you would have otherwise spent together.  If you know you can only write when it is quiet, discuss sound management techniques.  Ask for permission to ask for help if you fall behind in your household chores.  Note that I said ask for help, not demand!  Do not allow yourself to ask for help to the extent that it becomes an ongoing sloughing off of your duties onto someone else.  The people you love and live with have dreams of their own; don’t steal time from their pursuits unless you really must, and then make sure you return the favor.  No matter what chore exchange you negotiate, make sure you leave enough time to strengthen the bonds that gave you the gift of this person in your life.  Sure, you can dream alone, but it’s much more satisfying to dream together.

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Zen, Agile and Positive Psychology

Part Two

How to Complete a Novel

Zen is a religion. Agile is a software development methodology. Positive Psychology is an area of clinical study. For the purposes of this series, I am treating each of them as a practical philosophy with applications beyond any individual niche.  Zen, Agile and Positive Psychology illuminate guiding principles that I have found helpful in accomplishing my goals, including completing a novel.

Writing is meditation.

Image by Maggie Osterberg via Flickr

The practice of Zen emphasizes meditation. The meditation can be done while sitting, while walking, or while contemplating a koan. In fact, meditation can be done during any activity by being mindful of what is happening, both in the external world and within your own mind. Deep meditation sharpens the focus of the mind to one single, bright point that paradoxically expands outwards to enclose the totality of existence. This single focus+enclosed totality is my admittedly clumsy and inadequate way of defining enlightenment, which is one goal of a Zen practitioners. Zen and many other Buddhist varieties also focus on the idea of the Bodhisattva, or one who has reached enlightenment but remains in this physical plane to help other beings attain enlightenment. For me, writing is a form of meditation. My mind becomes calm and I tap into resources beyond my small circle of experience. When I finish, if I have done my job honestly and with mindfulness, I will have something of that experience to bring back and share with others. Zen not only helps me define the terms of what occurs during the process of creation, but also gives me a way to understand that the purpose of creation. What is a written work without readers, and what is a true story if not the enhancement of our humanity and a step towards enlightenment?

The leap from Zen to Agile sounds a little like mixing patterns with stripes, but we can do that because we’re moving beyond appearances to essential truths. Agile is a process designed to ensure a manufacturing process produces only what is needed when it is needed. For example, if the customer requires a website that allows Paypal payments, but would also like another specialized widget, start by building a website that has PayPal. If you have time in the development cycle to add in the “Customers Who Bought This Also Bought …” widget, build that, too. The important point is to concentrate on what is required and, when that is delivered, add what is nice to have. You take the pulse of the project as you go, judging what can and cannot be accomplished by constant communication between customer, project management, and the development team. When properly managed, the Agile workflow ensures  that at any given point, there is a shippable product that can be delivered.  Writing can be viewed as an Agile process. When you write a novel, you need to be careful to include what readers need to be transported, and be careful not to include details that will only confuse. Write what is needed, and you will tell a complete story. As you revise your work, you are participating in communication with the essential nature of the story, the people who have given feedback, and your own judgment as the author.

In the first post of this series, I suggest that the starting point for any large project should be to visualize what you want to achieve. I lifted this idea right out of Positive Psychology. The goal of Positive Psychology is to help people live hopeful, optimistic, and productive day-to-day lives. While traditional psychology focuses on identification and treatment of negative mental states, Positive Psychology attempts to identify and cultivate positive mental states. I have found that altering my viewpoint away from pessimism and nihilism and towards optimism and vivacity has helped me at work, at home, and in my writing. As antithetical as it seems, you can be a happy person and write horror.  In fact, I contend you can be a happy writer, regardless of genre!

Without further ado, here  is the second suggestion in the series:

Let Others Know What You Want

Share your dream and intention to write a novel. Let people experience your excitement. Not only will you receive a psychical transfusion of energy, you will also have people who will, wittingly or not, hold you accountable to your dream.

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Overcome Beginner’s Anxiety

Part One

How to Complete a Novel

There is something you want to do. It is a big something. The sort of something that will imbue your daily life with new meaning, vigor and purpose… if you could get started!

Perhaps you want to write a novel, landscape your yard, or learn to read Sanskrit. Any one of those things is daunting. In fact, accomplishing such a goal will probably be more work than you expect, even in your worst case scenario. The good news is you won’t be able to quantify that until you are looking back in well-earned retrospect. The bad news is that the amorphous and seemingly inexhaustible amount of work you can see clearly from the outset is enough to induce panic, or at least drive you to put off starting until that magical, perfect time when everything is in alignment. Do you know what is universally true about magical, perfect times?  They don’t exist! Stop waiting for “until” or “after” or “when” to arrive, and start your project now. If your goal is a novel, there’s no better month to ramp up than November, the National Novel Writing Month. Even though I have never participated in NaNoWriMo, I love the energy it generates in the writing community. Energy, drive, passion: if you have these, you have what it takes to get started on that life-changing something!

If you’re inspired, yet uncertain where to start, I have eleven suggestions that have helped me complete (and survive!) large-scale projects. Since I am a writer, the examples associated with each tip will focus on completing a novel. However, the same suggestions can be applied to any sort of project. I’ve used this approach in my writing, in developing software, in figuring out my work-life-write balance, and most recently in beginning a big landscaping project in my yard.

Here is the first of eleven suggestions:

Know What You Want

To strengthen your commitment to writing a novel, visualize the outcome you would like to achieve. Picture typing ‘THE END’ on the first draft of your manuscript. Imagine how it will feel to have someone you respect read your novel. Think of going to Amazon and seeing your book on the virtual shelf.  Add as much detail as you can, especially regarding the positive mental state your accomplishment will induce in you. You will return to this picture often in the weeks and months to come. The more vivid and convincing your visualization, the more inspiration you will be able to draw from it.

Now is all we have – so use it!

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