Tag Archives: Writing

Nobody Knows How to Do the Thing Until They Do It


Once in a while, a man of a certain age gets it into his head that he’s capable of certain things; certain things that he never thought about before. And depending on how much of an idiot he is, he may actually try his hand at these things with varying levels of disastrousness.

Which is my cheeky way of saying I re-did the floors in my basement this weekend.

I should preface by saying I don’t feel I’m particularly handy, which I will then undercut by saying that over 10+ (help!) years of homeownership I’ve done drywall repair, replaced toilets, fixed a ceiling (never do this by yourself) twice (definitely don’t do it twice), replaced faucets, rewired lighting fixtures and garbage disposals, and any number of tiny fix-it tasks around the house.

So maybe I’m slightly handy.

The usual pattern — almost without deviation — is as follows.

  1. Notice the thing that needs doing
  2. Ignore it for a few months
  3. Get annoyed by the thing in a heated moment
  4. Get good and angry and watch a few how-to videos
  5. Go to Home Depot and buy about 2/3 of the required supplies (possibly also buying the wrong items)
  6. Attempt the repair, in the process removing the original thing or damaging it beyond repair, thus moving past the point of no return
  7. Screw up and start over
  8. Slink back to YouTube covered in grime to watch more how-to videos
  9. Attempt the repair again, going slower and super cautious not to make mistakes and screw it up even worse
  10. Realize I’m short on supplies or have the wrong equipment, go to Home Depot again
  11. Finish the job in roughly twice the time the how-to videos suggested it should take
  12. Feel immensely satisfied
  13. Spend the next several weeks to a month cleaning up the mess from the job
  14. Get annoyed over new thing, repeat process

I’ve done this over a dozen times, now. So I dunno what I was thinking, thinking I could handle a large basement room (plus an angled hallway) in a single day, but there I found myself, standing by a stack of floor planks, ready to rip up the carpet.

Needless to say, the pattern held. I was a box short of enough planks to finish the job, necessitating a return trip to the HD. I didn’t know what the fargo I was doing installing the stuff, resulting in a totally crap job after four hours of work covering about 15% of the room that had to be disassembled and started over. I tore up the walls taking the baseboards off, a subsequent repair I have yet to properly tackle. And instead of finishing the job on Saturday evening, it took me until late Sunday afternoon before I was satisfied enough to call the job “done” (barring the unfinished baseboards and the aforementioned holes in the wall).

And as with everything, or at least, as should be the case with everything, there were some lessons to be learned in the doing. Here they are, in no particular order.

The hard part is starting.

Before. Bonus points: All those plaques and awards belong to my wife. My awards are on the same wall. There just aren’t nearly as many of them.

This isn’t news to me: every time I run, I have to convince myself to step out the door. And the first mile is nothing if not mild self-torture. Every time I sit down to work on my novel, I hesitate: do I really want to put myself through the pain of working on that project? Can I really face the task of pulling words out of the nothing in between my ears? The starting is the hardest part.

As I stood there, pliers and pry-bar perched in my hands, staring at the carpet before me (which I hated), I hesitated. Once I start, there’s no going back. And the doubts were the same. I’m not up to this task. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I shouldn’t be doing this at all; I should hire a professional.

But up the carpet came, and from there, it never made sense to stop. Just like the run — as soon as I’m out the door, it feels foolish to even think about going back. Just like the novel — as soon as I’ve written the first word (or deleted it, as the case is lately), stopping or going back seems idiotic. Take the first step, and the rest of the steps follow after quickly, almost automatically.

You’re going to screw it up

Finally making progress … eight hours later.

Fix-iteering is about trial and error, it’s about testing yourself, it’s about learning. And unfortunately, nobody starts life knowing how to lay down laminate planks. (Or, for that matter, knowing how to write a novel, or how to run long distance.) You figure these things out by taking that first step, screwing it up (perhaps even catastrophically), learning your lesson, and coming back to the task like Rocky getting up after Creed has brought the thunder to his skull for the forty-seventh time.

Once the carpet was up, I started the job the way I thought it was to be started — and it didn’t work. So I scrapped it and started over, and it still didn’t work. So I started over again and I thought it was going better, until the wife came down to check on me and the look on her face told me I still didn’t have it right. This was four hours into the work, by the way. I was ready to stop, return all the flooring to HD and pay triple to have the carpet replaced.

But I didn’t. Partially because that’s not how you grow, partially because I’m penny-squeezing cheap, and partially because …

You can’t do it alone

Laying the floor turned into a family affair. First the wife came down — bless her — and helped me puzzle over the process, pick a new starting point, and convinced me to apply a little more force — a little more EFFORT — to the task than I had been comfortable doing before. I had been afraid to damage the flooring, but it turns out, to make this stuff click together, it takes a bit of percussive maintenance (i.e., a few — or a few dozen — whacks with a mallet). Then my father — bless him — came over to help out when he learned that I was not nearly finished with the project by 7pm as I had naively boasted that morning, but rather just starting over. We listened to the Beatles, who usually I can’t stand, but somehow under the circumstances quite enjoyed, and laughed as we figured out the tricks and the techniques to get the job done.

Come to think of it, my brother helped me move the furniture out of the room before I actually started the job — and would come over again several days later to help me bring it back in. My mom would offer to help re-paint the trouble spots afterward. Even my seven-year-old son would help me out with the cleanup afterward, doing what would have been the backbreaking work of pulling spacers off the walls, had I been the one doing it.

We all have a lot of sweat equity in the finished product, which makes it feel a little sweeter, a little more satisfying, a little more ours.

And, you know, the running and the writing are like that, too. Sure, these are activities completed mostly on one’s own — but comes a time you need other people to check on your work, because they’ll see it in a way you don’t. Comes a time you’ll want a running partner, because it’s too hard to get out the door on your own if you don’t have the extra obligation of somebody counting on you (even if the somebody goes on four legs).

Point is, no man is an island, even when he’s laminated himself into a corner.

Starting day two.

Finishing feels incredible, no matter how long it takes

Long story short (too late!) we have brand new floors in the basement. And they look bloody awesome.

Not bad for a Drama major. Now about that drywall…

And yeah, it took about nine hours more than I expected. And yeah, working my butt off for two days wasn’t what I wanted to wrap up our vacation days. And yeah, I was sorer than I’ve been in recent memory. But the floors are done, and I love them; not just because they look great, but because they’re also a symbol.

They’re a symbol for all that hippie-dippy stuff I was talking about up there; a symbol of teamwork and of willpower and of tenacity. And above all, they’re a testament to the fact that if you put your mind to it, as George McFly once said, you can accomplish anything. If you decide to do the thing, and undertake the task, you can get it done — as long as you’re willing to suffer a bit, learn from your mistakes, and keep hammering away, you can do the thing. Be it running your first mile, writing your first chapter, or laying down the floors in your basement. Do the thing.

Even if you have no idea what you’re doing.


The Perfect Way to Do the Thing


That thing you’re thinking of doing. You know the one.

Maybe it’s the big project you’ve been putting off starting. Or maybe it’s the habit you’re trying to set. Or maybe it’s just some daily drudgery you have to get through. Maybe it’s even a thing you really, really want to do, but you just haven’t been totally sure how to get the ball rolling.

Whatever it is, you have this thing you want / need to do, but you don’t want to screw it up. Screw-ups are the last thing you need. What you want is perfection. A no-mistakes, no-time-wasted guaranteed method for Doing the Thing without the costly and stressful cock-ups along the way.

Have I got news for you!

What follows are the 100% perfect, tried-and-true tips, tricks, and toodlepips to make your time as productive as possible.

Ignore these tips at your peril.

  1. You need a space. This space should be dedicated to your Thing and shouldn’t share form, function, or storage with any other Thing.
    1. The space should be in a location within your home or your regular area and should always fit the optimal conditions for your work. It should be quiet, insulated from distractions like family, internet, and sadness.
    2. The space should incorporate natural light, face the rising sun at an oblique angle and the setting sun at an acute one.
    3. The space should have a ready supply of oxygen in tanks for emergencies.
  2. Do not embark on your Thing without the perfect soundtrack. The perfect soundtrack depends on you and your Thing, but here are some guidelines:
    1. The beats-per-minute, should you choose music, must match up with your effort and output precisely.
    2. The thematic content of your soundtrack must align perfectly with your Thing. A thematic mismatch leads to disharmony, disharmony leads to frustration, frustration leads to failure.
  3. Do your thing before sunrise. It is well known that the only time for the doing of Things is before the sun is up, for the very simple reason that inspiration and motivation can find you more easily while everybody else is sleeping.
    1. Set at least sixteen alarms in three-minute intervals to ensure that you don’t do something stupid like sleep while the sun is down.
    2. If you do sleep through your sixteen alarms, forget about engaging in your Thing even a few minutes after the optimal time. The train doesn’t come back to the station until the next day.
  4. Gear and equipment are everything. You can’t do your Thing without the proper kit; don’t waste your time trying.
    1. Lay out your gear the night before. In fact, lay out your entire gear for the entire week’s worth of Thinging a full ten days in advance; this creates a subconscious contract with your future selves that, should they break it, entitles you to legal redress.
    2. The best gear is the most expensive; cheap gear will poison your entire process. If you take your Thing seriously, expect to sink serious coin into the pursuit.
    3. If you can’t get the right gear, put your Thing on hold. The shelf life on any Thing worth Thinging is like, super-long.
  5. Under no circumstance should you attempt to do your Thing while you’re not “feeling it”. Best case, your Thinging will be crap. Worst case, you risk serious injury or death.
    1. When you are feeling it, you should do your Thing at a brutal rate. Some might say an insane rate. When the moment strikes, abandon all else: family, friends, day job, personal health, to do your Thing, as you never know when the moment will strike again.
    2. When you are not feeling it, all bets are off. Do nothing. At all. You never know what might recharge your batteries, and you don’t want to miss the opportunity to “feel it” because you were distracted doing something less important than your Thing.

Ok, so, this post is crap. The fact is, when you’re thinking about doing a Thing, you can find any number of reasons why you can’t do the Thing, most of them crap-scented tripe aimed at convincing you that there’s only one way to do your particular Thing properly.

But that’s crap.

You do your Thing where you can. My “dedicated workspaces” are anything but: at home I share an office with a couple of high-traffic catboxes and my wife’s side-hustle, and at work my writing space is also my main “work” workspace. In both places, cross-contamination is unavoidable, in every sense of the word. (Ew.)

I like podcasts while I’m running and instrumental music while I’m writing, but sometimes I run with music and sometimes I write in silence and sometimes the music or the podcasts are dumb and make me angry and the point is, I run or write anyway.

I run — and write — before sunrise because if I don’t, it ain’t gonna happen. I work full-time and parent sometimes and once the day begins, there are too many demands on my time to steal an hour for a run. And I steal ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there to work on the novel during the day. You find the time to do your Thing like a puddle filling a pothole.

Gear doesn’t mean a dadgum thing, but it’s an easy thing to hide behind. All you need to write is a pencil, some paper, and the drive. All you need to run is some sneakers (and depending on how much of a hippie you are, maybe not even those). Gear is an excuse. Do what you can with what you’ve got.

“Not feeling it” is the easiest way to hide from doing your Thing. It’s also the most insidious, because it’s a term absolutely without meaning. If you really know why you’re doing the thing, there’s no such thing as “not feeling it.” The motivation finds you when you care about the Thing. But even when you’d rather do something else, you know that you should be doing your Thing, so you do your Thing anyway. And you end up glad you did it.

Point is, if you want to find a reason not to do your Thing, the excuses are plentiful. But when you get serious about doing your Thing, you realize how stupid all the excuses are.

The time and place to do the Thing is here and now.

The way to do the Thing is whatever way you can get it done.

Don’t get hung up on the particulars.

There is no perfect way.

The only wrong way is Not to Do It.


Story-Matic #46


Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to write short fiction again. Stories that I can dip my toes into and move on from without feeling like I have to explore all their murky depths. Stories that I don’t necessarily feel strongly about, or feel the urge to finish, stories for stretching the legs, for limbering up the ol’ bean, for exploring. That maybe don’t go anywhere, or end satisfyingly, but that tickle my fancy anyway.

Here’s one of them. The prompt: “Librarian, reunited.”

#################

Alise reaches for her mug of tea, brings it to her lips, braces for the scalding bite. It doesn’t come. She looks at the digital desktop clock; an hour has passed, and she’s barely registered it. She looks around the empty aisles, sniffs the comforting, musty air, swigs her cold tea, grimaces at the cool grainy mix sticking in her teeth. She stands up.

Seems like her bones crackle and pop and creak more than they did even a week ago. She presses a hand into the small of her back as she begins her familiar plod through the library. This she can do without thinking, and with a glance she confirms that all is as it should be. Too many years spent making this circuit, too many years without a change. The biographies have always been there, the kids’ section there, nonfiction there. Why not switch it up?

Because she doesn’t have the energy for it anymore, she tells herself. As she has told herself before. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not going to happen. At least she has the place to herself; no unshelved books to sort through, no messes at the card catalog station, no strewn toys in the kids’ section. Not unusual for a Thursday, but welcome. Ah, but it’s Thursday, isn’t it? She goes to check on Gary.

She likes Gary. Likes him a lot, actually, which she tells herself must be a little odd since Gary is homeless. But she does. He’s good at conversation, he smiles when he speaks, and he looks at her in a way that makes her feel actually seen, which is a nice change from most of the people she encounters. Still, liking Gary is the problem, because in fifteen minutes’ time she’s going to have to send him away, back out onto the street, knowing that whatever is in his backpack is all he has to get him through the night. And it’s getting colder. Maybe she has enough in her purse to offer him a few dollars for a sandwich, at least. But maybe he’d bristle if she offered him money. She’s thought about it before, but never done it. Doesn’t seem right. Might ruin the relationship they have, whatever that relationship may be.

But Gary’s not here.

His backpack is, though, leaning like a storm-smashed tree against the internet station (ten cents a minute, but she lets Gary use it for free). She looks around — he’s nowhere to be seen.

“Gary?”

No answer.

With a note of worry in her step, she visits all his likely spots — the restroom, the periodicals, the stoop outside the employee entrance — he’s not anywhere.

He must have just forgotten it.

Forgotten his pack that contains, presumably, everything he owns?

She returns to the backpack, eyes it like a dieter eyeing a piece of cheesecake at a buffet. She takes it to her desk, has a brief moment of doubt, and unzips it.

The first thing that hits her is the smell — an unmistakable fog of spoiled food and rain-fouled clothing. She shoves aside some hastily-folded shirts and balled-up socks (slightly damp, she shudders to notice). And then her fingers close on a book. A hardback book with a distinctive plastic covering.

A library book.

Gary never checks anything out, he just reads in the library. For hours at a time. Books would just be more weight to carry around. She lifts it out.

And immediately drops it, her breath catching in her throat.

With trembling fingers, she reaches to pick it up again.

It’s a bit weathered but in good shape for riding around in Gary’s pack. Good shape for being impossible.

It’s a first-edition copy of her unpublished book from twenty years ago. Same title, the same cover she had always envisioned, the pen name she’d planned to use emblazoned on the bottom. Impossible. She opens it, reads the opening lines. Her opening lines.

Lines she never shared with anybody.

“You weren’t meant to see that,” Gary’s voice says behind her.


That’s a Wrap — Kind Of


So I still have this blarg, apparently, even though I’ve neglected it for a few weeks. Which is a nicer way of saying it than to say nearly a month.

But it’s not a desolate moonscape in the creative real estate of my brain. Far from it. In fact, it’s something like kismet that has me writing today on the topic of this post: the word “wrap”. It’s almost like Linda somehow psychically reached out and tapped my headspace and picked up on the juju I was giving off. Because this week — Wednesday, to be specific — I wrapped the first edit on my current project.

You know, the one that, along with a few extra responsibilities at work, ground me first to a halt and then into an anxiety I couldn’t shake to save my life. Panic attacks and existential doubt. A fog of doubt obscuring everything like a thick London pea soup. I didn’t touch my project for something on the order of seven or eight months, which, for a guy who’s always blathering on and on in his online space about the importance of momentum and the good feelings that creating brings, is, to put it lightly, a problem.

So to get back to the project — as I did toward the end of the last school year, in May — and even simply to start getting words on paper again, to be creating the story again, to be making clear, measurable improvements to the work again.

And now it’s done.

Well, not done. There are still fixes to be made, plants to be planted, narrative threads to be sewn up or trimmed, fluff to be excised. But if this novel-writing journey were a walk to Mordor, then this feels perhaps like arriving at Osgiliath. Not quite “almost there”, and certainly there are obstacles — and perhaps some of the hardest obstacles — ahead. But there’s more ground behind me than there is in front. And there’s a feeling about arriving somewhere, even if it’s not the last stop, that clears the head a little, that lifts the spirits. You stop, you relax, you stretch your legs. You check the map, survey the road ahead, start to realize that it’s not so bad, that you’ll be there before long if you can just keep pushing.

That’s where I’m at right now. Wrapping up a first-pass edit is a huge milestone to pass, and for a project I wasn’t sure I’d ever finish, it’s a milestone I am more than happy to commemorate.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is that I have taken a step back when it comes to the ol’ blarg here, and while I’m not particularly happy about that, it’s a tradeoff I can live with. The website has always been something I thought of as a diversion, a pressure release valve, a place to write to clear out the cobwebs or when I need to clean the slate after working on the novel. And, well, there just hasn’t been all that much pressure to release, because I’ve allowed myself to be okay with writing days that don’t go great. With missing days here and there. With spending a little time foundering around, letting ideas marinate, spending writing time just thinking about the project.

And as for writing about something that’s not the novel, well, I’m doing that now with my Morning Pages, where I drivel out a solid 7-800 words every morning, but without the added pressure of feeling like I have to polish and shape those words and keep them on topic for the purpose of posting them online.

Like I said, it’s a low-pressure environment, and it’s working.

And while that makes me think that maybe I need to reexamine what I’m doing with the blarg here, I kinda don’t want to go making new commitments or thinking too hard about something that’s just meant to be a bit of fun.

So I’m going to let it be what it is for now, keep shooting for a post or so per week, but keep my focus on the novel. Because getting a taste of a milestone like this has me wanting more again. I want to wrap this project for real, and I’ve already started the next edit.

All of which is to say, thanks for reading. Sorry I haven’t put as much here lately, but it’s only because I’m putting the words where they count, where (I hope) they’re doing the most good.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


A Quick Monologue


I owe you something extra for my half-post last week — so here it is!

*****

A teacher finds their student at work in the library and approaches them.

Teacher: Chaucer, huh? Canterbury Tales. I remember reading that when I was your age. What, you don’t think I was young once? World’s full of surprises, huh? (Looking at the book.) You know, I never got The Canterbury Tales. I still don’t. And I have to teach it. (Beat.) But you get it. You’re smart. Good head on your shoulders. Which is why I know you’re going to come through for me. I know you’re dealing. (Student stands up.) Uh-uh. Don’t. Sit down. Nice and easy. We’re just talking. Don’t worry about how I know. Just know that I do know. Now, relax. I’m not here to turn you in. I’m here to help you. You’re good in English, but you’re struggling in math. You need a tutor. I need a new supplier. You take cash, right?

*****

I’m at a theater educators conference this week, and one of the workshops I took was in monologue writing for students. Part of the work was — you guessed it — writing monologues!

I wrote three over the course of the hour – this one in less than ten minutes – but this one was my favorite.

Needless to say, this is entirely fictional.

Use if you like.


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