Good habits work where will power fails: “novel” evidence

Working on this site has been a hobby of mine since 2017. I’ve achieved goals I set for working on it regularly for two long stretches, but I also gave myself permission to scale back the effort during one particularly stressful period.

Two years ago this month, my mother died. I’m no easy creature to silence, yet grief holds the power to still my usual ruckus.Torn black felt heart pinned to garment to signify grief and k'riah

Mom thought very highly of my writing. She was an extraordinarily competent individual herself, but in arenas such as powering through concrete tasks and meticulous calculation. Mom never pushed me to study “X” or pursue a career as “Y,” instead trusting my ability to forge my own path.

I recall a few instances, however, when Mom spoke of my creative skills with a tone of particular respect—once, almost in awe. Those moments stay with you.

During the most isolating months of the pandemic, one of my exercises in self-soothing was to imagine ways in which the world could be designed to make people safer from future outbreaks of airborne disease. I bored my family by going on about these thoughts, sketching out alternate forms of housing and transportation. If implemented, I envisioned sparing at least some of the population from the prolonged agony of isolation or the need to trade free movement for good health.

Toward the end of last month, I started incorporating* these notions into a novel.

I’ve started many novels before, and I even approached the roughly 2/3 completed mark with one in the early aughts. That was after I left my professional career in technology but before I dedicated myself to the home education of one of my children. Historically, though, writing fiction was my hobby, and I tended to pursue the work when I “felt like it.”

I would get as far as the first burst of enthusiasm took me, but rarely pick up again after leaving off to work, sleep, or tend to the kids.Hand written and self-bound documents

Intriguingly, this time is very, very different. I have to credit the habit of consistent effort cultivated through work on Really Wonderful Things. Twenty days have passed, and I’ve met or exceeded my writing targets for this novel on all but two.

Authoring a novel is one of my oldest, longest-term goals. I never doubted I would get around to it, but it always lived in “future willo’s” inbox. This summer, it has advanced to the top of my priorities assuming the health and safety of my family don’t require sudden, absolute attention.

Blogging has markedly improved my self-discipline as a writer. That’s not why I started the site, but I’m delighted by the development.

“Will power” as a concept for self-improvement fails us, especially in the short-term. Popular understanding of how it works is often wrong. We blame ourselves for problems largely beyond our control while failing to make the sorts of small adjustments that can help us, offering long-term success at living the lives we want.

Will power may desert us when we need it most, but gradual, incremental change geared toward improving the situation of one’s future self is possible for most. Crafting a life which intentionally reinforces positive habits can, over time, improve one’s ability to approach difficult yet meaningful tasks, or, conversely, to coax one away from harmful behaviors.

My novel isn’t done yet, so take my experience with whatever size grain of salt you believe it deserves. I do have over 24,000 words down on 108 pages, though, and every expectation that this time, I’m going to finish this particular book.

I’m still in love with my concept, and, most evenings, I find myself shooing away my family—whom I generally enjoy!—because I’m itching to get back to work.

If I were to write a dedication for this novel right now, it might be to “past willo” for putting in the time working on Really Wonderful Things. “Current willo” has a lot to thank her for.

* Careful readers may have noted these additions to my mid-year update to my personal goals:

  • Write 3 pages per day of novel, —and—
  • Complete first draft of same.

Ironically, though my novel occurs in a world where pandemic illness never recedes, I still view the project as utopian rather than dystopian, and I find the work to be a projection of my fundamental optimism about human nature in spite of our ubiquitous foibles.

Once, I had a headache which precluded interaction with a screen, and the other—weekend—night, I opted to watch a movie with my family because they are important to me, too. It turns out that I struggle mightily to produce creative work before late afternoon, though I’m better at most analytical tasks earlier in the day. Who knew?

Then again, taking one day per week off from an otherwise daily goal could be a reasonable, even helpful adjustment to a work schedule. God herself commanded a routine sabbath rest!

Novels tend to be works of fiction longer than 50,000 words

Passage from Leave the World Behind epitomizes 2020’s key lesson

Like any sensible reader for whom Christmas triggers profound grief over the death of a holiday-adoring loved one, I began Christmas morning 2020 by finishing up a dystopian novel, Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind.

You can find a proper review from NPR or the New York Times, but I agree with the positive opinions that Alam crafted an unusual and interestingly written work of fiction. It isn’t an easy book to read due to the subject matter, but it wasn’t off-putting to me for the usual gruesome reasons I dislike most horror. Gird yourself for a downward spiral of darkness if you dive in, but Leave the World Behind is well worth reading.

Leave the World Behind book coverWhat follows is a quotation from near the end of the novel, but I don’t believe reading it out of context constitutes a spoiler for the plot. I’m putting it “below the fold” in case any reader feels differently and prefers to stop here.

Continue reading

Cheer a grumpy Christmas by stacking tiny bricks of gratitude

2020 hasn’t been a normal year. This won’t be an average Christmas.

Xmas tree - 1Many of us are heeding public health advice and avoiding travel. Some of us are still grieving lost loved ones whose presence defined* special holidays. Ignoring these very real sources of pain is neither healthy, nor possible in the long term.

But does acknowledging the bumps in life’s road mean choosing between being a humbug or a Grinch? I hope to prove otherwise.

I’m afraid I’m having a Very Grumpy Christmas. While I wish for better for every reader, I suspect my miseries enjoy plenty of company.

When I’m in this kind of snit—so easily degenerating into a full on funk—about the only remedy is the doing of good or the counting of blessings.

As I took advantage of an un-rushed school vacation week morning today by staying in bed for an extra hour with my book, I was grateful for not yet having reached the end of the last series of novels my mother will ever recommend to me.

She bugged me for months to pick up the first one. Why did I resist until after she was gone? I wish with every page that I could tell her how much I’m enjoying them…

Comforting myself with this small thing for which I could give thanks, I realized each little blessing is a brick. If I stack up enough of them, I’ll have built a sizable structure. One brick won’t do a person much good against an invading army, but enough humble chunks of masonry suffice for The Great Wall of China.

Thanksgiving give thanks - 1So perhaps I’m not playing so well with others, today. I’m hardly a Sugar Plum Fairy. I’ll be a builder, though, of my own Great Wall of Gratitude.

I think it will hold.

QC city walls

Here are a few more trivialities I’ve found to be thankful for today:

  • My husband went back to the too busy, too crowded day-before-holiday bakery when they forgot to include my favorite cinnamon buns in the pre-packed bag he went out for at dawn.
  • My teenager told me he loves me… without me prompting him by saying it first.
  • My younger one never hesitates to show me affection, not even when his friends can see him doing it.
  • My kids can collaborate on a project and produce something great without adult supervision.
  • My pantry is full; I’m not afraid for how I will feed my family.

Readers, please feel free to share in the comments what you can find to be grateful for this topsy-turvy holiday season. Your smallest joy would be a Really Wonderful gift to me.

* I can’t look at a Christmas decoration without being reminded of my mother, who died of cancer in 2019. On the other hand, to ignore her favorite holiday would be the most disrespectful possible thing as far as honoring her memory goes.

Today’s post is brought to you in memory of Mother Christmas.

Mom decorates Christmas tree with ornament

That would be the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. Find them listed in order here; I’ve made it to book 13, Glass Houses. You definitely do want to read these in chronological order if you opt to give them a try. They’re decorous enough for readers of cozy mysteries (Mom), but complex enough for those of us who like to pretend we’re exercising our minds with our choice of literature.

Be warned, however: If you get into these mid-pandemic, you’ll be cross that you can’t make a visit to Quebec, which Penny paints as paradise… if you can get past the political intrigues and frequent murders!

Books by her bedside: a novel unfinished though the reader’s life is done

The smallest tragedies keep haunting one after a loss.

Mom was not quite halfway through a novel when she died. I found it in her nightstand today as I began the process of sorting through her closet to donate what my sisters-in-law and I don’t want to keep.Paperback novel with bookmark in the middle

Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast is a wonderful read, too, though a surprisingly gritty choice for Mom. She tended to prefer a comedic or cozy murder mystery. If it had been a Mary Daheim or Elizabeth Peters caper, I bet she would’ve finished it.

Hokitika Gorge and the town of the same name on New Zealand’s West Coast

The town of Hokitika on New Zealand’s West Coast reminded me of a nostalgic seaside experience I’d never actually had. Though the views are spectacular and tourism services are plenty, the region maintains an element of the undiscovered country. Sure, there are tourists, but they don’t overwhelm the place.

There’s an electrician’s shop on beachfront property. Industrial spaces like these have been gentrified in every seaside town I’ve visited in the USA. Driving along Highway 6 from Greymouth, you’ll see cows in a pasture with a view. More than a view, this is 100% ocean frontage, and the cows don’t even appreciate their prime real estate. They just stand there nibbling the ever-growing grass as the Tasman Sea churns beside them.

On a Sunday afternoon in February–New Zealand’s summer–the easy availability of parking in Hokitika’s heritage district made me fear we’d arrived after the shops and restaurants had closed. In fact, there were a few shuttered doors, but most cafes were serving and opportunities to buy pounamu (greenstone) and possum merino abounded. I was also struck by the number of book shops and vinyl record stores for a little hamlet. No wonder they call themselves “the cool little town.”

Having arrived on the TranzAlpine train to an hour of heavy downpours in Greymouth, we learned immediately to appreciate the sun when it showed its face. Make hay–or make merry!–as soon as the sun shines.

Note: Every season warrants foul weather gear in the Westland. Do not visit New Zealand without a rain jacket unless you plan to buy one for an apt souvenir.

Our decision to store the large baggage with a helpful Greymouth i-Site Visitor Center employee at the station while we ate a late lunch and let the crowds disperse from the car rental counters turned out to be clever. An hour after the TranzAlpine’s arrival and subsequent return to the Canterbury Plains, we were the only people requesting information in the fully staffed station that had been a scrum a short while before.

I still forgot to ask where I could buy postage stamps, but not because of madding crowds. Chalk that one up to my aging brain or jet lag.

Note: My postcards arrived about two weeks after I mailed them from a downtown Christchurch streetside post box. Don’t be surprised if you beat your posted letters home.

“Hiring” a car, while not essential, offers the West Coast visitor the most flexibility to vary one’s itinerary with the rapidly changing weather. Neither DH nor I particularly enjoyed driving a strange car on the “wrong” side of the road, but the low population density and clear signage in our native language made the process manageable. He never did master using the turn signals backwards, though. We ran our windshield wipers every time we turned.

The next morning, being blessed with stunning weather, sunny and warmer than average, sent us from our oceanside B&B in Awatuna straight to Hokitika Gorge… after a better than average continental breakfast and one more cup of coffee.

The GPS knew the way, but the simple tourist map available everywhere plus bright yellow informational signs at every relevant crossroads would have gotten us to the popular site without any need for modern technology.

New Zealand rates and advertises many public parks with specific advice for fitness levels and time required to complete each track. This attention to detail is reflected on road signs as well.

The primary car park at Hokitika Gorge was full by 10 AM, but the overflow lot had plenty of space when we arrived. Parking looked a bit more difficult closer to noon, but there were definitely still spaces available. I’ve found that most popular tourist destinations are best seen either early or late in the designated hours, and that seemed to hold true here.

Continue reading