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

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.

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