Tag Archives: finish what you start

Metaphor Monday: Splinters


Over the long weekend, I built this kitchen bench.

Our old kitchen was enormous, you see. Cavernous, you might even say. And while our current kitchen is by no means tiny, it’s also definitely and noticeably smaller than our old digs. So we’ve been economizing the space in as many ways as we can: shelves over the backs of the doors. Stuff stackers on the tops of the cabinets. Racks and organizers galore. (Minimize, I hear you say. Pshaw, I say. This is America.)

Then, my wife had a great idea. We have this recessed window area in the kitchen. Why not put a thing in there that can hold other things and not look like just a pile of stuff?

Yeah, that’s cool, I think. I love a little weekend project.

So I build this bench. Heavy as a bale of bricks and long enough to store a dead body or two. And it fits pretty snugly under the window. It blends in well enough with the space, in fact, that despite having some family over during the weekend, nobody noticed it squatting there, disguising the economy bundles of water and diet soda we picked up in advance of the storm.

Thing is, it took me most of the morning to build it; a good three or so hours, to say nothing of the trip to Home Depot for lumber and screws and so forth. Lots of frustrating work by myself in the garage, balancing things on edges, leveling them off, toiling to make sure the thing came out even in my modest home-fix-it setup.

It’s a weird thing, building stuff. I know enough about construction to get myself into trouble, as they say; I know a little bit about carpentry principles and if I really work at it I can build stuff that’s sturdy, but forget about making it look particularly presentable from any closer than fifty feet away. (Incidentally, this makes me fantastic at building things for the stage, which — surprise! — is a not insignificant portion of my job.) And because I’m decent but not great at building things, I have this love/hate relationship with building things. I love it — for a while. When it comes to building the thing and making it structurally and functionally sound, boy howdy, I can jump in with both feet and work ’round the clock without even really noticing the passage of time. But once I reach the limits of my expertise? Once the thing is built, and functional, and it’s time to make it look pretty? I lose interest faster than a goldfish in a dark room.

But that’s the problem, innit? Because the thing’s done only when it’s done. Which the carpentry gods reminded me of, painfully, with my bench.

I build the thing. It’s sturdy. It’s functional. Its edges are square. Its lid goes up and down. It’s basically done. The thought goes through my brain: you should probably sand it down. But having just put the hinge on, and having seen that the lid fits just so perfectly, I figure I’ve earned a break. The plywood I built it with, after all, is sanded on the outside anyway. I go upstairs. Poke at the wife until she agrees to come have a look at it. She agrees with me: it’s not bad.

“Is it done?” she asks.

“Basically,” I say.

“What’s that mean?”

I perambulate through the garage, winding up extension cords, sweeping up piles of sawdust. Job’s basically done, after all. “Well, it’s almost ready for painting, but seeing as we don’t have the paint yet, I figured I ought to take a break. Maybe try it out and see how it looks in the space. Maybe we’ll see what color we want to paint it when we get it up there.”

So we haul it upstairs. Plonk it down in the corner. Sit on it, test it out. Yep, it’s a bench seat.

“Looks good,” she says. (Actually, she lays it on a little thicker than that. She strokes my ego a bit. I think she must’ve been reading some articles or something lately; I feel her psychologizing me.)

“Yeah,” I agree.

“So, what now?”

I ponder. What I really don’t want to do is haul it back downstairs, or work on it at all anymore right at the moment, or perhaps, ever. It’s functional, after all. You can sit on it. The lid opens and shuts. Case closed. (So to speak.) Finally, my answer: “I guess it’s not hurting anything here. We can just keep it over here until we get the paint; then I’ll prep it.”

She gives me a look that I should recognize by now, but I let it bounce off me.

Fast forward a day, and I’m sitting down with the Sprout to work on some sight words. He wants to sit in the kitchen while mommy cooks. Hey! I just made a brand new bench seat for exactly that purpose! So I sit down, scoot over to make room for him, and catch a dagger-sized splinter in the meat of my hand.

Needless to say, after a healthy bit of cursing and an unpleasant bout with some tweezers, I find myself out on the back porch doing the job I should have done to begin with: sanding down the damn bench. It takes all of twenty minutes, and at the end, the thing is well and truly safe and pleasant to sit on, painted or not.

You see where I’m going with this.

I left the project nearly but not entirely finished, and its rough edges caught up to me almost immediately.

The parallel to writing is striking: the thing is not done until it’s done. That means whatever it means for the stage of the project you’re in: the draft isn’t done until you actually write an end to the thing (and go back to write all the things you intentionally skipped over on the way). The edit isn’t done until you’ve been through every inch of the project with your fine-toothed editing comb and fixed all the little fitzy bits. The submissions aren’t done until you’ve written and perfected the query letter and delivered it to the inboxes of everybody you can stand to send it to.

I’ll admit, I’m somewhat of two minds on this topic; I’m acutely aware of the dangers of overcooking an idea. You work at a thing too long and it turns to mush. You break yourself trying to perfect a thing which will never be perfect. There’s a virtue in being able to say, nope, that’s enough, and let a Good Thing simply be good.

But there’s a difference between stopping before you overcook the thing and leaving it properly unfinished, covered in jagged little splinters or worse. (Mixed metaphors, for example.)

Make no mistake — it’s easy to get sick of a project. To want to slap the last chapter in place because you’ve been after it for months and you want desperately to think of anything else. But if you don’t knuckle up to the tedious work that comes with dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and making sure that all of your plotlines properly resolve and don’t just wander off into the ocean or something, well…

Somebody’s gonna catch a splinter up their backside. Maybe even you.

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A Burp of Inspiration


Writing is an act of discovery as much as it is an act of communication. I forget that sometimes, but then there are days when it comes crashing back into my consciousness: like today.

My current WIP has been struggling forward on lame legs for a while — I love the idea in general, but it has failed to stand up under its own weight for some time. Like a newborn calf, it struggles to stand, it collapses and has to be helped up. And since I’ve never quite been able to figure out how to keep it steady, I’ve struggled to find a groove with the project. It’s been tough going, tougher than I would like and certainly tougher than I sometimes make out.

So today I kicked back and let a few of my characters talk some sharknado out, and holy carp. Out of the conversation sprang the solution to the problem that’s been plaguing this story from the start. It gives shape to the entire narrative, gives motivation to the protagonist, gives foreshadowing and tension to the early chapters and closure to the late chapters.

I haven’t gotten there in eight months of thinking about this story, and finally — while in the midst of a perfectly ordinary writing session, I might add — it just pops out, when I’m not even thinking about it. Which probably means it was clunking around in my dome the whole time, I just didn’t know how to let it out. And it almost certainly means I would never have found the solution if I hadn’t set my shoulder against the problem and worked forward anyway.

One of my favorite quotes on creativity comes from Pablo Picasso: Inspiration exists, but it has to catch you working.

Today’s session was a perfect example of that. I needed this today.dory


Finish What You Start; Start What You Can Finish


This is about the time of year when I post a big rant about New Year’s Resolutions. But not this year. This year? I’ve got enough of my own sharknado going on to worry about starting in on anybody else, let alone myself. You want to make a resolution? Go ahead. You want to be one of the throng that’s overwhelming every gym in the country during the month of January? Do you.

The only thing I’m going to say about resolutions this year is: finish what you start.

It’s simple advice, but I forget it myself from time to time, and there’s sure as hell a lot of unfinished business in the world to testify for it.

Finish what you start.

This is the year you decide to start doing the thing? Great. Be real specific about what that thing is. Make sure it’s a thing you actually can finish, and then start doing it with the goal in mind.

You’re going to take up running? Nah, that’s not specific enough. Decide instead that you’re going to run a 5k. Then, instead of going out on Jan. 1 (or, okay, Jan. 2 if you’re hung over), padding around in the cold a bit and deciding this whole “running” thing isn’t for you, you start down a path. You go out, run a bit, and it sucks, but you’ve still got that 5k distance looming, and you’re not there yet. Probably won’t be for some time. So the next day, you’re compelled to lace up again and try a little harder, until you can finish what you start.

Taking up writing? Super. Put a goal on it. If it’s a blog, make it a post a week, or a post every three days, or a post every time Saturn is in the house of whatever bullshirt astrology thing tickles your toes. If it’s a novel, well, then, it’s a novel; that means 50,000 words on a conservative estimate. If it’s just “writing”, nebulous and dreamlike, well, technically, you write an e-mail every couple of days, right? Or a shopping list? Or a note to yourself in the fog of the shower mirror? And that’s real easy to do, except that’s not what you meant by “writing”, and you know it. Writing 500 words a day, every day, until you have 50,000 words? That’s 100 days. That’s an accomplishment. That’s a thing that, when it’s finished, will feel solid in the hands, like a participation trophy or the trunk of the neighbor’s tree that hangs over your yard when you finally cut it down.

Me? I’ve got a handful of things that I’ve started, but I haven’t yet finished. Chief among them are several writing projects, but I’m not worried about that, because even though I’m in a lull right now (man, it’s hard maintaining a daily word count when you’re a teacher on holiday break) (make that nigh impossible) (okay fine I took a week off from my project, are you happy now??), I know I have the momentum to finish anyway.

Not because writing novels, or short stories, or even blog posts is easy. It isn’t. But I can write 500 words a day. (Okay, FINE, I can write 500 words a day when I’m not on vacation.) And when I’m in those 500 words, I finish what I start.

Then, the next day, I start again.

Then again.

By the end of a month, I’ve started and finished over twenty 500-word sessions, and that goes a long way toward finishing the 80,000-word first draft I started some five or six months ago. Two more months should just about do it. Two more months to finish what I started in the middle of last year, even though the end of that particular road wasn’t even visible from the starting line.

Manageable, achievable goals. Baby steps. Small successes lead to big successes.

This is why you won’t find me vowing to write and publish three novels next year, or resolving to cut all the carbs out of my diet, or promising myself that I’m really going to keep in touch with my friends this year. Those aren’t things I can reasonably finish.

But I can finish this draft I’m in.

Starting a project and finishing one actually feel very much alike. Lots of confused looking around, waiting and hoping for directions from on high, for the disembodied voice of god or the angels or your conscience to say, “look, this is what you need to be doing, so just get to it”. The blank page is disorienting in its perfection, its vastness. The completed page is disorienting as well, in that you’re suddenly untethered from this thing you’ve been attached to. There’s a lostness.

But if you never get lost, you never feel the high of finding yourself again.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


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