She came down the stairs, a look of defeat on her face, “It feels like I’m not making any progress,” she said, “You can’t even tell I’ve done anything.”
My oldest daughter is going to grad school and is moving into her own apartment. As my youngest is dying to move into her room, I’ve given the eldest the task of cleaning it out before she leaves. Completely.
She’s been sorting through all her things to determine what she needs to take with her, and is tossing or donating what she no longer needs. The hardest part is going through all the memorabilia of her childhood.
Boxes and boxes of craft supplies, photographs, papers, notebooks, CDs, stuffed animals, letters from friends, mementos from her high school years. It’s a tough job.
Cleaning out her room is a big, messy, time consuming endeavor, and not one I can really help with.
“I know,” I say to her, “That’s the way it is when you tackle a big project. It always gets messy before it gets clean.”
We spend the next few minutes talking through her stress. I give her words of encouragement. I suggest she not think about how big the job is, but instead focus on the task at hand. I tell her she will get it done, it just takes time.
It is then that I realize: I need to take my own advice.
I’m working on a book, my second book. And I am smack dab in the middle of the writing. I’ve got pages upon pages of outlines, chapters completed, chapters half-written, a notebook full of words I need to add, change or fact check. I think about it so much my head might actually spin off my body. The thoughts and fears and doubts tumble around my brain over and over again.
Is this a good story?
Is that part even important?
Am I getting my point across?
What am I missing?
Is this entire project a fail?
Just as my daughter is cleaning out the belongings and memories from her childhood, I am cleaning out the inklings and thoughts in my heart.
As I look at what I’ve written, I realize it doesn’t all quite go together yet. I’ve got some stories on paper and others lingering in my brain. I’ve got plot twists rolling around in my subconscious attempting to rise to the surface. Part of me is crazed with wanting to sit down immediately and complete this puzzle. But another part of me wants to run away from it all, ditch the entire project.
Like my daughter, I often cannot see any progress. But I won’t give up. Because I’ve learned that sticking it out makes all the difference.
In 2013, I attended the Midwest Writers Workshop. It was my first time there (I went this year too, it’s a great conference!) and I especially enjoyed a session called Buttonhole the Experts. Attendees can sit down with a faculty member (all of whom are successful in their own right) and ask anything they want. I sat at a table with Hank Phillipi Ryan, a successful journalist and author of multiple, award-winning mystery novels. Ryan spoke of how she became a novelist and how she goes about writing her books.
There were eight of us wannabees at the table, clinging to her every word, anxious to learn her secret sauce. You know what she said? Every time she writes a book, she doubts herself. Every time.
She feels the same way when she’s working on a news story. About half way through, when things get tough, she feels like giving up. The various parts of the story feel unorganized and pointless, like nothing viewers would ever be interested in. It gets…messy.
But she keeps working and next thing you know the story comes together. Ryan eventually realized messy is just part of the process. Her comment really struck me. It helped me complete my first book and as I remember it now, it will help me finish this one.
I need to get comfortable with the chaos. A mess lying at my feet can be overwhelming, it feels as if I’ll never get the job done. Never get the room clean, the event planned, the kid raised or the book written. But that’s okay.
Feeling anxious and overwhelmed is a step within the process.
If I keep cleaning, writing, event planning or sticky-finger wiping, my efforts eventually pay off. The disarray and clutter come together. And then, the hard work transforms into something beautiful.
UPDATE: We moved our Sarah into her apartment last Friday. I’m not sure she could be any more excited for her new journey.
I’m sure her year will be filled with new experiences, some good, some not so good. She’ll have days where she questions herself, her abilities, the choices she’s made. But she’ll also have days when everything comes together. And in the end, because I know my girl won’t give up, she’ll end up with a diploma (and hopefully a job).
My youngest girl now gets a new empty room to make her own.
And me? I’m embracing the messy.
I’ll keep trudging along and remind myself that with time, all my post it notes, lists of edits, and half-written stories will eventually come together. I can only hope it turns out to be something beautiful.