Category Archives: Inspiration

Press Freedom for Journalists Covering Conflict: Free Austin Tice

Several times each year I have friends ask me to share different aspects on what motivates me to write. Sometimes I halfway chisel out a post, but it rarely comes close to what I mean.

Certain themes in my current novel project, Never Said, are so large I can only imagine them through the one-inch-frame of individual character experience. War, all around us, impacting citizens despite peace. What pulls a person into participating in war — especially the wars dotting our planet at any time, where hate or fear stretch back generations until one day, one side begins to organize, to amass ammunition?

Journalists at Risk

There is another theme running parallel, that I haven’t often found voice adequate to share about.

When my son was one, I watched journalist Daniel Pearl’s wife interviewed on Oprah, telling about the morning he kissed her goodbye in Paris, patted her pregnant belly, and left on an assignment in the Middle East. She spoke of how a fixer led him into an ambush. Pearl was captured, a ransom video mailed to his editors. He was later beheaded.

I want to untype that sentence. More than ten years after hearing the story, it’s chilling. I want to undo that truth.

After that, I wrote about India for awhile.  I started Never Said in response to a trip to Ireland, and then to the emotion of a friend’s son deploying to Baghdad.

Somewhere in the rabbit holes of my research — international affairs, international treaties, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; even after that, something mild in passing — I met the kernel of a passionate cause.

I don’t remember which of these two I discovered first: the CPJ — Committee to Protect Journalists, who report on the continual disappearance, murder, imprisonment or interrogation of journalists around the world.

Or Austin Tice.

Freelance Journalist Austin Tice

AustinAustin Tice is an American freelance journalist who turned 33 yesterday, which I know from watching his mother and his father tweet birthday wishes to him.

Austin Tice is a Marine Corps veteran and Georgetown Law student, who was working as a freelance journalist providing photographs to the Washington Post, English Aljezeera or other media outlets.

I first heard of him when I stumbled on his Twitter stream some time last year.

It reads like poetry, each thread of his dedication to reporting, the worst days of violence, his own reactions, his momentary happiness in the last tweet, celebrating his birthday.

Syria, 2012

Austin is a talented photographer and covered several domestic and international stories in 2012. In the summer, he went to Syria to report on the war between the government and rebel soldiers.

Photographs on his Flickr account reveal Austin’s glimpse into the war. His personality is there as well: his sensitivity to an injured child, boys laughing as they rode bicycles, a community working together to clean up after a bombing, a tranquil little girl resting on a wall, his dry wit observing the personality revealed in the stylish outfit of a rebel soldier.

729 Days Missing

Austin’s parents spoke to him every day while he was on assignment. The stream above shows his last two tweets: the last, on his 31st birthday.

On August 14, 2012, he disappeared.

Syria was the deadliest country for journalists in 2012. The CPJ reports that 31 of the 74 journalists killed worldwide were in Syria.

But Austin is not on list of journalists killed.

Also according to the CPJ, “Cases of journalists missing in Syria are extremely difficult to track. Information is scarce, the situation is constantly changing, and some cases go unreported.”

On August 30, 2012, the CPJ issued a statement calling for Austin Tice to be released, which reported that he was believed to be detained by government forces.

RT: #FreeAustinTice

In all reporting I have seen, there is a continued belief that Austin is alive and detained in Syria.

The CPJ includes his status on their “Imprisoned” list. In August 2013, other journalists who had been missing escaped, adding encouragement of the possibility he could be held despite the government’s denial.

As his parents mark Austin’s 33rd birthday, their local news station provided this coverage, reiterating a belief that he is still alive, although his family does not know where or by whom he is held. FOX 26 News | MyFoxHouston

I’m not alone in the impact Tice’s story has had.  As Michigan Times staff writer Heeba Dlewati talks about dangers for journalists in her March 2013 article, “The Human Element: Missing the Truth” , she says, “The story of one journalist continues to haunt me, the story of Austin Tice.”

Austin’s story was repeated on the floor of Congress Monday and he is followed by journalists around the world, including Richard Engel, who has himself been detained while reporting on conflicts overseas.

What Can We Do?

You can show that Austin is not forgotten and support his friends and family by tweeting your thoughts using the hashtag #FreeAustinTice (you can follow @FreeAustinTice for more), especially this Thursday, August 14, 2014.

Beyond that, one of the most important things we can do is to realize the need to ensure press freedom throughout the world. Often, the frontline bravery shown by reporters to put the truth into words and images is the most powerful tool we have to battle the kinds of atrocities history has shown to take place when no one is watching.

Reporter Emma Beals shares her first-hand fears of abduction while reporting in Syria in “More and More Journalists Being Kidnapped in Syria.”

Journalists, photographers, translators and fixers covering conflict abroad need our support.

At the same time, you might notice there is often a “radio silence” around abductions. I’ll add a link if I find an explanation, but international news agencies often intentionally do not broadcast news of journalist abductions in order to prevent terrorists from using abductions as a means to gain media spotlight. It’s argued that this helps protect the journalists, but often diminishes public outcry in support of a missing person.

In a similar vein, on July 30, 2014, The New York Times featured this article, suggesting Europe Bankrolls Al Queda Terrorism by Paying Ransoms.

If you want to learn more about what can be done: You can offer your voice in support of individual journalists by connecting with web accounts like the ones set up to support Austin. Or, look for more resources from government agencies and NGOs through resources like the CPJ “Assistance” page .

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Respect for Austin’s Safety

In sharing this post, what matters most is the safe return of Austin Tice. I am not a frontline reporter and have relied on national reporting and the articles listed to share Austin’s story. If any family member of Austin’s or anyone else affiliated with his safe return believes that I have in any way misstated, overstated, understated or in any other way included details that could put Austin at risk, please use the contact form on the Welcome page to email me, and I will make immediate corrections.

 

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Writing Life: Celebrating My “Irish” by Writing

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

I was woken this St. Patrick’s Day morning by the most Irish of my sons studying me in my jammies and challenging, “Are you wearing green?”

Slice of Life Challenge - TwoWritingTeachers.com

Slice of Life Challenge – TwoWritingTeachers.com

My family is not fully Irish — one grandfather is Finnish, a grandmother French, another grandfather English. It’s one grandmother alone who feeds my Irish roots. Her family was Irish as they come. I can’t say that without image coming to mind of any of her wiry-haired brothers with his head tipped back to laugh.

Yet I never felt so Irish until my sons were born. I inadvertently tipped their focus toward their Irish roots when I name my oldest son Liam — less in Irish obsession than in the fact I liked the name (it is actually nod to my Finnish grandfather, William).

His younger brother, Blake, however, is the true throwback.  I’ve never met a more Irish person than my youngest son, whose looks and mannerisms perfectly replicate Irish ancestors so long dead he could not be mimicking, and it was Blake (who slept in green shorts) who challenged my commitment to St. Patrick’s Day this morning.

My sons get the double-dose, as my mother-in-law was full Irish, complete with her dark humor. I cracked up over the tweet from Weinstein Books publicity director, Kathleen Schmidt, below, because it so much represents the “catching up” conversations we have with my mother-in-law each visit home:

Not only does my mother-in-law catch you up on family news by cataloguing the latest illnesses and disasters (in the most dramatic stage whisper, as if she were nearly — nearly — too shocked to tell you), but she is an avid lover of murder fiction.

She was never so pleased with a trip to visit us in Florida than the night we ended up trapped on South Beach, in Miami, because the FBI had the island cordoned off while they chased Gianni Versace’s killer. We had given her the perfect mystery-lover’s outing as we walked past the still-stained sidewalk in front of Versace’s house and inadvertently walked through the live taping of America’s Most Wanted, on our way to take her to a salsa-dancing club, where the blue-lit helicopter footage of the chase was being broadcast over the bar.

Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

Still, my boys’ and my own Irish identity reached its peak after a family trip to the ole sod in 2006.

The trip planted a seed that later grew into a novella and then a novel draft, which is the novel I have been working on the past 2 years and often write about here (click for all posts on Wake or on novel revision).

The picture of my son on the lawn of an Irish country house, at the top, epitomizes a certain essence of the internal motivation in the novel. While early drafts focused on the love story between Carinne and the paramilitary man she met in Ireland, development of her character and the story have made it clear that it is the need of her son to find his father that becomes the inciting incident for her to unravel all the mysteries in the book. Where she has been paralyzed to act on her own motivation, she is made brave enough to do for her son.

What’s interesting to me, as my boys and I celebrate being Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, is the backwards connections we have to Ireland now. For the deeply passionate connection we feel, my own inspiration is often in reverse to our factual roots.

In tracing family roots, we traveled to the south, although the Cooleys are from north of Dublin. My son poses in front of a country house, although our family left behind roots as humble as a mud-floored cottage. In Kerry, where the Irish Troubles didn’t reach, I first felt the dark spark of my paramilitary character, Michael Roonan, on the shadowy, cool bed of a room in the garden wing of a English peerage hunting lodge. As much as the violence of the north was absent, the dark shadows of the surrounding forest seemed to speak of something in hiding, and Roonan was vivid in my mind from one sleepless night as if he leaned against the wall impatiently waiting for me to write.

But writing is like that. And our Irish love of story is like that: craving surprise, darkness, even shock.

I celebrate this St. Patrick’s day by making the most of the week I have off for spring break by writing. My characters have been speaking loudly to me since the first hour I left work on Friday. I’ve written each of the last few days. I’ve copied new material from the last months into the existing draft (I’m well up to a 6th or 8th draft by now).  I’m due for another print-and-read-through, expecting much from early drafts will be deleted now, and there will be big challenges in weaving together the reveal moments of various threads of the internal and external conflicts.  Lots to do.

But I think I’ll start with the promise to my son: I’ll go don green.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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How About You?

What are you working on today?  Are you celebrating your Irish roots?  Or, how does your own ancestry inspire what you write about?

We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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Dublin from World Bar. c Elissa Field.

Dublin from World Bar. c Elissa Field.

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Motivation to Write: Setting New Goals to Move Beyond a Success

c. Elissa Field

c. Elissa Field

It’s the 12th day of 2014. I’m sitting on the couch, surrounded in both directions with the binders, books, papers and plans from yesterday’s work: reviewing curriculum for the rest of the spring.

I sat down with my laptop to finish what I was working on – but first ended up re-reading comments from author Gae Polisner in response to an excerpt from my novel draft that I had posted on her Friday Feedback column.  The comments from her and other readers had me re-opening the novel draft for Wake.  I scanned past the excerpt I had shared, getting lost in the voice of a new piece I’d written during the holidays.

There are times in life when you are staring down the barrel of multiple to-do items. And there are times you see your life revealed with remarkable clarity.

Last Year’s January Challenge

One year ago, I was teaching writing part-time. I loved the job and the students, and it gave me time with my two sons, but it perplexes me how I kept them fed (or tuition paid at their school) with how little I was being paid.  On the upside, I would drop the boys at school in the morning, come home and write for 2-3 hours, go teach for the afternoon, pick them up and come home. I finished research for Wake.  I finished the novel draft and made it through first revision rounds.

I reached goals.  Every single day, I faced those free hours by asking myself, “What one (or 5) thing(s) could I do right now that will make my life better tomorrow?” and I tried, every single day, to that first.

What puts my life in perfect clarity right now is that one year ago I hosted the January Challenge here to use just that kind of strategy to tackle competing goals and make real progress.  (Don’t check it out now; I’ll put links at the bottom.)

One of those things that would “make my life better tomorrow” was the writing: get the novel polished enough to query by end of summer.  Some of them were personal, like resolving my divorce and where the boys and I wanted to live.  But one big goal was that wanted to be hired to teach full time.  I love teaching in a way that is similar to my love of writing: I love the in-the-trenches intensity of it, the creativity, the constant demand for solutions, the perspective that working with middle schoolers gives me, the way both professions continually re-examine the world.

It’s interesting that New Year’s hit this year and I felt no temptation to set resolutions, because I really did follow the strategies I wrote about, and made a ton of progress last year. I had kept my novel writing goals and tripled my blog traffic.  I made money off my site.  I expanded my writing about education.  I made progress with the family goals.  And one big fat accomplishment: I was hired as a full time teacher, tripling my income from the previous year and satisfying my hunger to grow into a more challenging professional role.

The “Day Job” Challenge for Writers

I’ve written before (link below) about how most writers balance their time for writing against the demands of a day job, whatever it may be, calling it the “time-money-credit trifecta.”  For anyone new to the term, it’s not a pejorative but recognition of a writer’s job other than writing.  The day job could be literary agent, partner at a law firm, teacher or professor, full-time parent, journalist or night clerk at a hotel.  Even the time published writers spend in lecturing or attending book signings is work that takes time away from writing.

The truth is, no matter the drive to complete a novel, it is important for writers to have an income that allows them to be housed, fed and healthy, and not worried about supporting their families.  I can’t downplay how important it is to my family that I succeeded in teaching this past year, nor the opportunity for growth and “street cred” that teaching has offered my writing.

Success as Hurdle to Motivation

I sat on the cusp of 2014 completely unworried. My goals this year related to continuing in success, not creating it.  Sure, I was short on time and behind my target date of getting the novel done, but I still have the coming summer.  Things were going well.  There were still some family goals to focus on and plenty of demands for me to address in teaching, so why worry about the writing?

Let Hunger be Your Fuel

I wonder if other writers would relate to this same moment: what made me go back to setting goals this morning was the hunger that it awoke in me, to have shared an excerpt of my novel draft with another writer and to read her feedback.

“Keep going,” Gae said at the end of her comments.

She had questioned certain things, praised others and wondered about context.  I went back to the full draft and, reading my own work, heard my characters’ voices and saw things to fix. The hunger was there to get back to it.  I wanted to do just what she said: keep going.

And other goals came alive, too: to follow through with the grad school applications I’d started or registration for workshops/conferences I wanted to attend.  To light the fire that would keep me moving forward, not just continue.

During the school year, I focus 1,000% on my students, my sons and the amazing work being done at the genuinely fabulous school where I teach.  If I stop to write, it’s often new teaching materials or an article on what went well in class.  I like that I teach in a demanding environment, where it feels like competing at the Olympic level.  And yes, I still work on the novel when I can.  What I am experiencing now is the success I worked for last year.  It’s awesome.

But current success was hiding the hunger that had compelled me to grow.  I needed to re-find that hunger.

Do First the 1 Thing That Helps You Grow

The hunger this morning recognized that I have dropped my own rules for continuing to grow.

Yes, I will get back to what I need to do to continue my current success.  But I need to remember not to skip that step beforehand: to do, first, one thing that will continue to move my goals forward.

Both as a teacher and as a writer, I have goals I still need to work toward.  Whether it is spending an hour on the novel or finding the number of the professor I need to call for  a recommendation letter for grad school or… the small steps done each day are what get us closer to reaching our goals.

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Are you looking for motivation or working on writing goals?

Does any of this ring true with you?  Feel free to share your own goals, successes, or blocks in the comments below.  If you wrote about a similar theme, feel free to share a link to your blog post.

I’ll re-share links to the January Challenge, below. It was a popular series, as the strategies shared are particularly helpful to writers, who are often challenged to keep motivated despite competing priorities.

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grasp c Elissa Field

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Filed under Inspiration, January Challenge, Motivation to Write, Relentless Wake, Time Management for Writers, Writer's Day Jobs, Writing Life, Writing Mother

Friday Links 01.18.13

Welcome to Friday Links for the third week of January. For me, it has been a week busy with the beginning of a new semester, including getting to work on production of my students’ annual literary magazine. I’ve also been thrilled with some of the work coming out on my novel draft, Wake (shared last Saturday, here).

Writing mornings include reading, and here are some of the links I’ve found worth sharing!

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George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year

Deputy Editor of the New York Times Book Review, Joel Lovell, writes a fascinating discussion with George Saunders (“more or less universally regarded as a genius”), which opens with an amazing reflection on the awareness that comes from a recent proximity to death — and wouldn’t it be amazing if we could walk around with that kind of awareness all the time.

Writing About What Haunts Us

Thanks to Gerry Wilson for sharing the link to this New York Times essay by Peter Orner — whose images of confession and truth and ensuing emotion really do haunt. Together with the Saunders interview, these two articles made for a great reading morning.

Breaking Down Story Structure: MORNING GLORY Act One

Thanks go to Sarah Turnbull for sharing this link.  As I drafted Wake, through much of 2012 the posts I shared had to do with developing character. But, at some point, as your novel draft takes shape, what you are looking for is an understanding of the story line, and talk turns to analyzing plot. This link is to Lydia Sharp’s post which demonstrates story structure by breaking the first act of a movie into opening, inciting incident, catalyst, etc. The expression “instinctively preserves her self-concept” perfectly triggered my morning writing, as I closed a gap in understanding of my character’s early motivation.

Creative Writing: A Master Class

Gee, you know what I just did? Subscribed to a series of free masterclasses with Toni Morrison, Nora Ephron, Rita Dove and more, via iTunes! The Creative Writing: A Master Class link takes you to the full list of courses offered via iTunes Academy of Achievement. Each “course” is an audio or video podcast on craft from some of the masters of fiction, poetry and memoir. For me, these are a welcome download for listening in the car or when too tired for reading before sleep, or as a morning warm-up. For a more complete summary: I first read about this in Fordham MFA candidate Josh Jones’ post on Open Culture.

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Friday Links 01.11.13

The second week of January means I began the week tying up last week’s semester and finished the week having started with a new group of writing students. It also means my sons are back in school, so I’ve had a few productive mornings writing before afternoon classes. Two great a-ha moments led to some great work, so I’m ending the week in a fabulous mood.

Writing mornings include reading, and here are some of the links I’ve found worth sharing!  If you have an article you think I (or my readers) should see, share the link in the comments.

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On Beginnings: Ann Hood

Ann had mentioned in May that she wrote an essay for Tin House outlining the dozen or so different ways she had identified that a writer can use to begin a story. Somewhere, on a fat, full legal pad, I have notes on all of them — but had been periodically checking Tin House for the full essay to post. Oh. Found it — ran in October — but it’s just a tease. Click through for this one piece on opening with dialogue. I’m pretty sure I’m going to want to buy the full collection of essays when it is published.

12 Letters That Didn’t Make the Alphabet

A title like that suggests lead-in to a Far-Side-esque joke about letters not up to snuff. No such gag. I dog-eared this article in fascination, as it shares the evolution that left certain letters out of our permanent alphabet, even as their sounds or symbols still linger. An interesting piece for all of us working with words.

Solving a First-World Blogging Problem

As we start a year evaluating our goals, accomplishments and maybe even worth as a writer, this is a fabulous post at Writer Unboxed by Jan O’Hara. Applying medical wisdom (“If the results won’t change your treatment plan, don’t do the test in the first place.”), she offers thought-provoking inspiration.

Inspiring Your Writing With Contemplative Practice

Just as many of us are beginning the new year with goals that have us wondering how to carve more writing hours (or discipline) out of our days, Patrick Ross (an instructor at The Writing Center in Bethesda, MD, and blogger at The Artist’s Road) shares Kurt Caswell’s advice for using contemplative activities to create healthy writing practice. Taken from a lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts, this short piece is just enough to get you inspired — but not keep you from your morning’s writing!

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Friday Links 01.04.13

One of my great discoveries during 2012 was the wealth of insight I stumble across each week –  from the fabulous writers, editors, agents, journalists and more that I follow on Twitter, to some of the professional groups I participate in, to resources I come across in my work.

Fitting for the first Friday of the new year, I’m kicking off this new column — Friday Links — to share the best reading I’ve found each week, just in time for your weekend reading. I anticipate featuring anything from interviews with writers, advice on writing and publication, reading and publishing news… to issues on art, education or culture.

Welcome to Friday Links — and the new year!

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“Posthumous” Jeffrey Eugenides | The New Yorker

Adapted from a speech given to the 2012 Whiting Award winners, this fabulous essay from the New Yorker’s blog is identified in the magazine’s link as “Jeffrey Eugenides’ advice to young writers.”

Is That Kind of Like a French Pencil?

Perhaps I found kindred spirit in this interview — connecting over the voices of his 7th grade writers compared to my own middle grade writing students — but I loved The Literary Man’s interview with Andrew Slater, a writer and former soldier who has gone back to live in Iraq, teaching English and writing. The title was his answer to the question, What is your writing routine?

Rachelle Gardner: What Not to Blog About

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner has endeared herself to writers with the depth of her advice about all levels of the publication process, including best uses of social media. In this article, she offers the most important “no-nos” for a writer to avoid in protecting their professional persona.

Day of Week Affects Facebook Responsiveness

While on social media… here is an interesting analysis via MarketingVox. I’d heard analytics before about best days of the week to post to Twitter or Facebook — but this analyzes the level of interaction posts get for each day of the week by industry.  Holly Harrison (@hollharris; the “marketing broad” for litmag Paper Darts) cleverly observed that each industry’s target graph looks like a different origami animal. For those of us communicating in publishing, Sunday is a hotter day to hit than Monday.

And, celebrating the new year, some great New Year posts:

Stones in My Pockets: Resolve for 2013 by Gerry Wilson

Starting the New Year 60,000 Words Ahead by Laura Maylene Walter

In Which I Fail (Most of) My Resolutions… But End 2012 on a Good Note (Really) by Nova Ren Suma

The Yearly Reboot by Jeannine Bergers Everett

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January Challenge Week 1: Finish Something

write start badgeI started yesterday’s January Challenge (read overview here) by saying I’d found 2 great online challenges — the only problem being that the first month of 2013 required me to focus not just on one thing, but many.

So the January Write Start Challenge was born:

  • Week 1 (that’s now), I’ll finish one thing
  • Week 2, I’ll start one thing
  • Week 3, I’ll focus on improving one thing
  • Week 4 will be the wrap up to evaluate how things are progressing and plan what comes next.

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First, for housekeeping’s sake – if you want to participate at any point in the month: say hello in the comments here, then post your goals on your site. Be sure to share link to this post in your article (you can include the badge above, if you want to be festive), and then come back here and share link to your article in the comments so readers can follow your success.

Most of my readers are writers, but you’re welcome to share any goals you are working on!

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Week 1: Finish One Thing

Inspiration for the Week 1 Challenge:

Christa Desir was the source for this week’s challenge.  Christa is a writer (repped by Sarah LaPolla of Curtis Brown) whose debut young adult novel, Faultline, comes out in November. So, first off, kudos to her — I look forward to seeing her book in the fall.

Picture 6Earlier this week she shared her 2013 Jan Plan: an unstructured challenge to simply complete one thing in January.

She said, “This is the month for all of us to take a project and finish it. It can be anything…book, cleaning out the garage, knitting a sweater…it doesn’t matter. Just whatever you have been putting off, it is time to finish.”

Be sure to visit her blog and let her know, if you take on this challenge.

Choosing The One Thing to Finish:

Originally, I intended to take on only Christa’s challenge for January (and you are welcome to do that, rather than a different challenge each week).

It was the perfect excuse for me to take on one of my nearly-finished short stories, complete revisions, and get one submitted to a literary magazine. I have unfinished grad school applications.  I have a half-painted living room. I’m sure everyone has some project like these on their to-do list – and there’s something reassuring, even fun, in tackling them together.

But the truth is that I have a deadline to complete all paperwork for fall semester by this Monday, which includes grading all the essays turned in just before the holidays.  So — while I may use Christa’s challenge to tackle one of those other projects later in the month – my goal for the first week of the challenge is to complete grading for last semester.

Some Thoughts on Tackling Unfinished Work:

It’s possible you are just taking up the next thing on your list. Maybe you just hadn’t gotten to it yet. Maybe it was already the thing you planned to do this week — like my grading or taking down holiday decorations or writing holiday thank-you’s (shoot, I need to do that). If that’s the case, your path forward may be simple. Get to it.

But often, when we face an unfinished project like the unrevised short stories, or the grad school application or even things like unfinished painting or a half-knit sweater, we are facing a project that has lingered, getting stale and unlikable, on our to-do list for months or even years.

Strategy for Tackling Stale Projects:

Awhile back, I faced a to-do list like that. A couple items rotated from one to-do list to the next, but never got smaller.

Mystified, I applied a new trick —  I wrote my To Do list in 3 columns:

  1. The first column named the project that needed to be done.
  2. But, in the second column, I answered the question, “Why have you not done it yet?” Almost always, the answer was that it took materials, money or time I didn’t have, or… eek… I was afraid of failing or lost interest.
  3. So, in that third column, which became my actual to-do list, I wrote what I needed to overcome that resistance. Instead of “paint the living room,” my to-do item started with, “match paint sample, buy paint and roller.” Instead of “revise Hotsy Totsy,” my to-do item became “send HT to a beta reader for feedback; then, revise with feedback.”

Why is it so important to ask why you didn’t get it done before?

  • To address any resistance. We couldn’t finish painting the living room because the paint had been discontinued, so it helped to add “get new sample” to the action list. Addressing the resistance honors that you weren’t being lazy or unproductive; there is an actual obstacle to fix. Action steps always feel more constructive.
  • (Restated as a specific for writers:) Avoid telling yourself to “revise that story”or “finish that book” — it helps to break writing projects into action steps. Where vague orders like “revise” or “finish” beat you down with over-repetition, being clear gives you direction and the chance of actually completing the step.  Try “write the ending,” or “submit a proposal to (target publications),” or “address rambling in middle chapters,” or “research names of participants in the Easter Rising.” I gave the example of my short story Hotsy Totsy because we sometimes bang ourselves (and our stories) over the head with the same approach to revision, over and over. I knew that story didn’t need my revision again, but feedback from another reader, and solutions came much more quickly when I wrote “find beta reader” on my to-do list. (Kudos to Gerry Wilson for that!)
  • To identify overlooked steps. “Submit grad school applications” sounds like I need to fill out a form. But no, I did that already. What I’d need to write on my action list is: “email (specific names) for recommendation letters” and “write personal statement.” I might have forgotten, also, to budget for the application fees.
  • To plan better. As a mom, often I’m short on time. If that was the case, I answered the question, “What did I do instead of this thing?” I used my answer to that question to plan better times to work on the project — say, when I had time off from work or when my boys were at school.
  • To shift priorities.  Sometimes you need to honor that there is a roadblock that won’t move any time soon. When almost all of my hold-ups on one list were the cost, I realized the some of the unfinished projects were low priority compared to other expenses — and literally moved them off my list. In fact, I switched them for tasks that increased whatever was in short supply (“send out resumes” or “submit expense report”).

In some cases, projects are unfinished because we lost interest.  Maybe sharing this challenge will help you regain that excitement. Post a picture showing progress of that baby blanket getting crocheted. Post the garden you hope to plant, come summer.  Share your fears or frustrations, and the small steps as you move forward.

Here’s mine:

I have stacks of essays to grade, which is daunting. I need to chug my way into them.  I will find inspiration to move forward as I hit some great work.  Some of them I will flag for inclusion in the literary magazine I’ll be working on next week.  But I’ll use other milestones to keep me going: the satisfaction of watching grade columns fill in our grading software. Or I might use a timing clock, setting an estimated time-per-paper to help me read more efficiently. Maybe I’ll put some easy ones first to make quick progress, then save a few easy ones to reward myself with as I near the end.  And I’ll schedule a break, here and there.  Thirty minutes of TV with my boys, or a walk, or a snack, or 30 minutes to work on the novel… If I’m not back by Sunday, send a rescue crew. (Kidding.)

For more strategies for finishing a goal, read Sunday’s motivational post:  January Challenge: 14 Strategies for Finishing Work

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Your Turn!

In the comments below, on another post this month or on Christa’s blog, be sure to share with us the unfinished project you will be tackling whether this week or any time in January. 

What obstacles hold you back? Did you do the 3-column to-do list, and what did you learn from it?  Whatever your challenge, know you have a cheering squad here and be sure to check back in for the rest of the challenge, throughout the month!

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