Want in One Hand
I don't know about you, but I come from a people who believe deeply in follow through. When The Boyd Family says we're leaving at 6:45 for a 7:30 movie, we are all assembled at the door at 6:43. Shoes tied, coats on, keys in hand. At 6:44 we are climbing into the car. At 6:45 we are rumbling down the driveway. When my laid-back, unsuspecting husband strolls down the stairs in his socks at ten to seven and says "oh is it time to go?" my parents just give him the side-eye. But if one of the Original Boyds is late...watch out. Accusations are made. Aspersions are cast upon one's character. It doesn't matter if you can't find your glasses or just got a call from your best friend in London. If you aren't serious about getting to the movies on time, then why'd you say you wanted to go?
With standards like these, you can imagine how pained I am when I do not meet my deadlines. And if you're a regular reader of this baby blog, you might realize that that pain applies to this very blog post, which I am three weeks late in publishing. Think back (it might be hard, it was so long ago) to two posts before this one, in which I boldly suggested that I'd write every day, at least for a week or so--then winnow my posts down to one a week.
Now here I am, three weeks later, and not a post to my name. This isn't much different from what has happened with my book manuscripts; or what the writers I coach experience with their own projects. We get started in a burst of enthusiasm, certain that we’ll sail through the writing now that summer’s here/that search is over/we hired a new sitter. Then we look up and two days have passed, and then a week, and now it’s a month, and narry a word has been written. Then we think if we just work long enough/push through/stay focused/keep calm/order in/skip meetings/cancel class, we can still get it done. Gradually though, unfailingly, the truth cuts through the haze of denial. Reality sinks in. And then comes the most painful piece of writing: that email in which we say, “you know that thing I said I'd do? By that date I said I’d do it? I can’t get it done. I’m going to be late.” Again.
Why is it so hard to set realistic deadlines for our writing? Sometimes it's because our work creates work. We gleefully develop a new concept in the theoretical portion of the manuscript, then realize we now have to recode our fieldnotes for instances of that same concept. Or we finally hit upon that perfect turn of phrase, the one that expresses our central criticism of the literature; but that requires us to incorporate a strand of it we'd abandoned because we thought it was irrelevant. Work-that-creates-work is one of those unavoidable realities of writing. It's not a one step forward, two steps back situation. It's more a one step forward, oh look, now I see there are ten additional steps forward I have to take that I wasn’t anticipating.
Another reason we have trouble meeting our deadlines is because the business of being a whole human being gets in the way. When your sitter leaves town, or your sister gets sick, or your basement floods—for the third time—writing has to fall to the bottom of the to-do list. These occasions, when Life-Prevents-Writing, aren’t always dire ones. Last year, when I was supposed to be polishing off the first four chapters of my book, my husband and I decided it would be an adventure to start new jobs, pack up our lives, leave all our friends, and move across the country from everything and everyone we know and love. Exciting. And stressful. And guess what? New home + new city + new job = no writing.
I'd like to say that the reason I’m late with my blog is that Work-Created-Work or Life-Prevented-Writing, but of course, neither one of those is true. The reason I’m late is because of a third reason we miss our deadlines: I didn't make a plan. Instead, I made a wish.
A plan is statement of what we aim to achieve, and a description of the steps by which we are going to achieve it. A good plan includes, among other things, an assessment of our available resources (time) and a well-supported estimate of how long each step will take. A wish, on the other hand, is an expression of what we want; a statement of our heart's desire. In the early-morning mental fog out of which I produced my first two posts, I imagined it was taking me 30, maybe 40 minutes to write each one. But I did not elect to check the app I use to track my writing time. Instead, I wanted to believe I could do it, so I willfully turned away from the data that shows that an 800-word post takes me at least two to three hours to write.
Read the first two posts and you will see that I was willfully turning away from many facts at that time. But I wanted so badly to believe I could do it that I couldn’t resist. Because the blog was public. Because I enjoy writing it. Because people were reading it (!). Because if you aren’t serious about writing a blog, then why’d you say you wanted to do it?
But as my normally prim Nana had been known to say "Want in one hand, and shit in the other, and see which one gets filled up first." When we insist that we can get our writing done, without actually planning how that might happen, we’re bound to come up (wait for it…) empty handed.
If you’re behind on something (and what academic isn’t?) stop berating yourself for a moment and think about how you got here. Did you Want-in-One-Hand, like I did? Or did the normal course of work and life get in your way? Is the reason you’re behind different for different projects? Or is it the same with every manuscript? Figuring out why I miss deadlines doesn’t make writing the “I’m behind” email any less painful; but it does make it easier to address the next time it happens.
How to do that? Let’s talk about that in another post. Right now I have to go. There’s this email I have to send to my editor...
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