spring cleaning

I'd done impossible things several times in the past, and the prospect didn't scare me as much as it used to. -- Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book

You know how it is. One day you're living in your house, everything tidy and fine, and the next day all you can see is the dust, those cobwebs you've been living under for how long now?, the scuffs, the peeling paint... Your next free weekend, you roll up your sleeves and kick into cleaning gear.

That's kind of what happened to me recently, except that my room looks (mostly) fine. It was more me that was the problem: I felt restless, frustrated, and what we affectionately call snarky: irritable enough that I didn't feel right in my own skin.

It had been building for weeks--okay, months--and I couldn't tell what was wrong: was I brain-sick, heart-sick, or just body-sick? Whatever was happening, I felt like I was falling apart. And it really ticked me off.

Why? Because when I look at my life: rent-free, surrounded by a loving and caring family, living my dream of novel writing at age 25, and using my favorite hobby to scoop up a little money... I feel like I should rush about so full of joy that I almost can't stand it.

Which isn't exactly how the last few weeks looked for me.

So I took last Thursday off, went away with a new journal, a few books, and a clutch of pens to find out why.

my "laptop": journal from Red Velvet Art.

Coffeehouse-hopping around St. Charles, Missouri, I came to a few conclusions, amidst crepes and cappuccinos.

Biggest and weirdest of all, I finally defined a belief I've been living with for nearly four years: That this time of living at home and crafting a novel (which turned into three novels) is an "in-between" time: between the college years and Real Life, between the end of youth and the beginning of adult, between goofing off and career. Between. In limbo. Or in marching band parlance, marking time.

But I've marched my fair share of parades, and four years is a long while to be marking time.

And I think that's what's been frustrating me: the time schedule in my head doesn't come close to the time schedule that I'm living. There's always been this crushing sense that I should be faster at this, faster at writing. When I graduated, someone foolishly told me (joking, I'm sure) that I could probably have my first novel written by October, and move on to its sequel.

Ha ha ha, I said. But some monsterish part of me actually believed I could. I've read novels most of my life, I reasoned. I ought to be able to figure it out.

Well, I'm on my way to figuring it out, but novels are complicated beasts, and I seem to be making my first one even more complicated than usual. It's turning out well, really well in fact. I'm proud of it, but I know it has further to go before it's agent-ready, bookshelf-ready.

Even with this bit of common sense, I chafe at the passing of time. Whenever someone asks if I'm done yet, or when will it be finished, I can hear this massive clock ticking in my head. Some terrible voice notes the passage of each minute, each week, which is why I so often dash about screeching It's late March already, LATE MARCH!

I have the hardest time "forgiving" myself for the time it takes to craft a novel. Especially an enormous, subplot-laden, complication-ridden, young adult fantasy.

But why? Why do I do that, carry that false guilt around? It's like running a marathon with a limp, or swimming the English Channel with weights on your feet. Less kindly put, it's just plain stupid. Writing a novel is hard enough. Pretending it takes no time or effort, and then beating yourself up when it does? Far harder.

Which is why I usually plan my brains out. If I can see my way through the natural writing chaos to all the steps I imagine between me and the perfect manuscript... well then. If I can see it, I can do it. But so many of my plans are basically saying, in neat columns and rows, "I am terrified of writing a book."

So I grabbed that fear last Thursday and did my best to choke it. Obviously it takes a while for me to learn to write a novel. And if the freaking out is optional, then I'd rather not be freaking out, thanks all the same.

Strange--it's hard to give up something you routinely panic about. Quite hard. If I stop worrying about this, will I just sit around in my PJs all day, bellowing for coffee, staring out the window and pretending to be dreaming up my masterpiece? Still pottering around this bedroom at age forty? Though I know my family wouldn't just let me rot away like that. But still.

If you're going to rethink your life, try to have a lovely view. New Town, St. Charles.

I tend to think that the opposite of worry is apathy... but that's not true. I will still care deeply about writing my novel well--and will probably write a better one if I'm not spending time and energy clawing at calendar pages.

Still. It will take some practice believing that four years is okay. That this time of learning to write a novel isn't limbo, isn't in between, isn't a blank spot on my life. That I'm not waiting to begin, that my midtwenties aren't just this space of marking time.

But practice I will. Each day is my life. Each day that I write mediocre dialogue, I'll know that it's one more step toward sizzling lines. Each day that I brainstorm a fistful of complications for my protagonist, I'll know I'm on my way to a thrilling, can't-put-down book.

I'm learning. I'm growing. I'm moving forward. And that's not the same thing as marking time. Not the same thing at all.


  1. Jenn, I can't remember if I've told you this before, but I'll tell you now: I totally covet your life, particularly your glorious time abundance and structure that enables you to do what you love. If it takes you 4+ years to write a novel, how on earth will these bits and pieces of mine ever add up to something?! Maybe one day I'll have more time, either that or grow more disciplined (HA), but I am impressed by and envious of your own version of a writing life. Don't give up! I don't doubt that the final product will be so sweet and so worth the effort.

  2. hey cousin, there was something cool I meant to tell you about when we were at your house but never got the chance to (clearly, we had enough to discuss as it was). I read about a theory called the 10,000-Hour Rule that says that anyone who is renown for and successful at what they do has put in at least 10,000 hours into their discipline. This includes athletes, programmers, actors, and writers (and I imagine chefs). So don't worry about putting so much time into it. It's to be expected :)