“Work on one thing until finished.” –Henry Miller
“Try not to shoot off in every direction like fireworks.” –a Fortune Cookie’s advice
Besides being a poet, a wannabe novelist, and mother of three teenaged daughters, I also teach English, full-time, at a community college. I do committee work. I advise. I’m busy. I like to consider myself the queen of getting-things-done. Many of my students, on the other hand, haven’t figured out how to find time to do the reading and studying that they need to do in order to be successful in my writing classes. So this quarter, I decided to try a social experiment.
It helps that we’re reading a book of essays, Real Questions, that focuses on contemporary issues like what we eat and what media we consume and how we conduct our relationships. While reflecting on such things, it seemed plausible to imagine making some real changes in our own lives. What if we each changed one thing, and wrote about it? I worried that it sounded a little hare-brained, as if I were practicing to become a life-coach. The students loved it. Only a handful of them wanted to change something to do with writing or studying, but they all wanted to change something.
I cooked up a multi-part assignment in which students 1) write a blog-like proposal about something they would like to change, something they can actually DO, daily, for the next forty days of the term; 2) write a persuasive paper about why such a change is desirable; 3) tweet or just write a short reflection which they share with the class daily about the change for those forty days; and then 4) write a follow-up, reflective essay about how their experiment worked out.
In the proposing stage, goals tended toward “Lose 30 pounds,” or “Become a nurse,” or “Get an A in this class.” One man wanted to quit smoking, which I applaud, and another wanted to “be happier,” which I wouldn’t mind doing as well. But even quitting smoking is not quite in the category of “doable,” at least not in the sense that after fifteen minutes one could declare success.
You can write a novel, you can lose 30 pounds, you can quit smoking. But you can’t really do those things right now, today. The first part of this social experiment, it turns out, has been a critical thinking step of figuring out how to narrow one’s focus, how to break things down into parts so small that they’re not merely doable, but scarcely avoidable. I told them to think of things they can do in a single fifteen-minute increment.
When I thought seriously about what I could do, right now, and repeat for 40 days, I decided that the one change I craved was getting through my interminable novel rewrite.
I’ve written this on a list of goals before, and I immediately began to line up my excuses for why it was impossible. This time, however, a voice intervened, a voice I knew—it was the voice I had been inflicting on my students for two full weeks. You can’t rewrite your novel today, but you can write on the novel. So I decided on writing, at my desk—like a smoke break without the cigarettes.
I already write every morning and blog about it, but writing in the afternoon—evening as a last resort—would double my time with the pen. It could make a difference in my rate of progress.
For her first day’s reflection, one student lamented that because the baby kept her up late the previous night, she didn’t get up early and didn’t do the two hours of work on her home business that she had intended. She couldn’t even start, she explained, because her desk was a mess and the thought of organizing it overwhelmed her, and then the baby woke up, and then it was time to plunge into the day. And now here she was, the day half-done, opportunity missed.
And there was that voice again. Wiser than my voice. Don’t give up. Spend five minutes tonight before bed clearing off your desk. Take out one project and lay it out. Just one! (Maybe you’ll actually do something on it! Maybe one step will turn into more!) Check today off your list. Done. Don’t excuse, negotiate, I told her.
I shared a quote that helped me get through my doctoral dissertation when my daughters were small, something the sculptor Barbara Hepworth—mother of four children including triplets—once said:
“I loved the family and everything to do with them….We lived a life of work and the children were brought up in it, in the middle of the dust and the dirt and the paint and everything….I found one had to do some work every day, even at midnight, because either you’re a professional or you’re not.”
How did my own plan work out? The first day it was 5:30 before I remembered. I needed to go home. Then my 13-year-old daughter wanted to go out for coffee and do homework. I, too, had homework, essays to read, a short story to reread in preparation for the next day.
But I couldn’t escape the voice. It’s not midnight yet, the voice said. What would I tell my students? Fifteen minutes? How can you begrudge yourself 15 minutes?
So I ordered my decaf latte and my daughter ordered her Frappuccino and we found a table. I set up my laptop. I went to www.e.ggtimer.com and set it for 15 minutes. I pulled out my manuscript and I started reading and making notes. I circled an image and I brainstormed and I suddenly saw something I hadn’t seen before. I worked for 25 minutes.
I can’t wait to tell my students.
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