Success through Sitting and Staring

“If you want to write and can’t figure out how to do it, try this: Pick an amount of time to sit at your desk every day. Start with twenty minutes, say, and work up as quickly as possible to as much time as you can spare. Do you really want to write? Sit for two hours a day.” ~ Ann Patchett


That whooping and hollering you heard Sunday, August 28th? It was me. It was my 50th birthday, but that’s not what I was celebrating.

As I mentioned in a previous newsletter, I’ve been suffering from the dread “two documents with the same name” disease. For several months, I had unknowingly been alternately editing two documents in two different software programs thinking they were the same. Since that newsletter essay, I discovered a third document with the same name. One was an RTF file I had saved to email to a friend, another was a Word document, and a third was in Open Office. All three documents were titled, “Memorial 11.3.” All three had various chapters recently edited. All three were different.

Last weekend a few other writing friends and I rented a space where we could write without family, friend, Facebook or other f-word interruptions. The facility was none of our homes. We shut off our phones. And, we did not have Wi-Fi. This was crucial. These conditions forced me to stare at those expletive deleted documents for 12 hours on Saturday and 12 hours on Sunday until I figured it out. That was the celebrating you heard. I FIGURED IT OUT!!! I went through all three documents chapter by chapter using Word’s document compare function (don’t even get me started on how much I miss WordPerfect) and cobbled together a new, clean document, “Memorial 11.4,” containing the correct bits and pieces from all prior versions.

I’m telling you this tale because this problem seemed insurmountable. I was ready to give up. I had sort of given up in August when I went on sabbatical to celebrate my birthday for the entire month, but I knew I’d get back to it. And I did! So I wanted to share my success.

I bet I’m not the only one who’s overcome a seemingly impossible writing problem. I’d love to hear your biggest battle and how you worked it through.

No White Flag

Isaac gave good advice to authors. . . . [H]e sent me his two laws of writing: 1. Thou shall finish what thou startest. 2. Thou shalt not judge thyself.

– Janet Jeppson Asimov, author of Notes for a Memoir on Isaac Asimov, Life, and Writing

Some days it feels as if I’m never going to finish this book. It’s sitting out everywhere all around me. Bits of it in notebooks. Bits of it on the computer. Bits of it still living vividly in my head. I work on it sporadically and it never feels like enough.

That leads me to the second of Asimov’s rules. “Thou shalt not judge thyself.” There, I flunk out cold. My mind races with judgment. In 1994, I stepped away from a lucrative job as an attorney with a speciality law firm in Dublin, Ohio. Since 1997, I’ve worked with many different writing teachers, always asking the same question, “Just how DO you write a book?” Most recently, I began MFA school with the same question. Every last teacher has been a helpful step along the way, but I still don’t have a book.

Of course, I’m asking a question only I can answer. I remember a cartoon strip in which a man walks into an editor’s office and asks, “Can you help me with my book?” The editor says, “Maybe. Let me read it.” In response, the man drops his head, droops his shoulders and groans, “Oh. I was hoping to have it surgically removed.” The book is inside me. No one else can write it. Some days I fear it will kill me. I imagine a scene from Alien. I’m innocently eating my oatmeal, talking to Ed about the dog. I begin to feel nauseous. As I reach for a glass of water, the book bursts from my abdomen, ripping my body to shreds.

On better days, I find peace in the daily-ness of writing, the sheer practice of it. If I look back over my shoulder, day by day, the writing gets done. Little by little, I am bringing the book to life. At first I found exhilaration in the sheer number of pages I could churn out. Now that I’m editing, quality counts. And day by day, the pages become bright and shiny. There are huge holes I don’t know how to fill and passages I know belong but not where. Regardless, I put my head down and keep pulling the wagon.

On the best days I remember that I always feel this way no matter how big or small the project. In the middle of every essay, short story, graduate school paper, blog post, and even these little newsletter essays, I feel the same hopelessness. I start off blank as a sheet. Then an idea forms. I begin to write. Somewhere in the middle of the piece, it takes a turn I didn’t expect. That’s when I get scared. I think, There’s no way I’m going to finish this thing. I don’t know where it’s going. But I keep writing anyway, keep following my mind, and something takes form. I print it all out, begin to edit, and the clay begins to shape itself. It comes together. It feels like magic. But it’s not magic. It’s work.

“Thou shall finish what thou startest. Thou shalt not judge thyself.” Perhaps there was a third rule Asimov forgot to mention: “Thou shalt never give up.”


The good news is that I’m feverishly rewriting my memoir, Memorial: Our Last Year on the Links. The even better news (which the faithful readers of this blog already know) is that both an agent and an editor are interested. The bad news is that in order to stick to my deadlines, something must go. The thing that’s going is my participation in the monthly Writers’ Roundtable.

I’ve been thinking about turning the Roundtable reins over to someone new for awhile. Book writing, graduate school, teaching, and family illnesses leave little time for anything resembling a life. When I discussed this with Roxanne Martin (who I dub “Saint Rox” since she put her job on the line for Michael Wilson and I for several years by paying us when she shouldn’t have), she explained honestly that eventually the powers that be at Barnes & Noble would get wind of our arrangement and cut off the funding. It happened sooner than we anticipated. The Easton Barnes & Noble store has become a training facility and, as such, all the staffers, including Roxanne, must now play by the corporate rulebook. While I never facilitated Roundtable for the money, this seemed the time to make the switch.

Fortunately for all of us, two willing souls (also being sainted) have stepped forward to take the completely unpaid helm. Many of you know Valerie Chandler and Sammi Soutar as regular Roundtable attendees. They are working writers, experienced writing group coordinators, and Sammi pinch hitted for me several times.

I’ll end my Roundtable stint with the October group, but don’t worry. I’m not going far. I’ll still teach classes at Lifelong Learning and Leisure, publish this newsletter, and regularly update my blog. And hopefully, before long, I’ll invite you to see me at another venue – a reading and signing with copies of my finished book. Wish me luck!

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