Selvi gave me the keyword “stone” for my media-library game. My book Across the Puddingstone Dam popped up several times, but this long-ago pic of Rilla won the day.
When I said yesterday that I’m not a single-tasker, what I really meant was that I’m not a single-project-er. I can hyperfocus like a champ. It’s one of my greatest strengths and biggest struggles, depending on whether the thing I’m hyperfocusing on is the thing I ought to be hyperfocusing on. For instance, I never care about the state of my closets until I have a book deadline breathing down my neck, and then I’ll care about closets FOR HOURS.
But one project at a time, in an orderly fashion, finishing one before I start the next? Not possible. Not how I’m wired. I’m most creative and (to use a word we’ve all come to loathe, for sound reasons) productive when I have an abundance of projects to move between. A dozen hyperfocus opportunities at the ready, is what I’m saying.
Thus the half dozen stitching projects in various stages of completion scattered around my studio, and the comically long list of books marked “currently reading” in my Goo Dreads (to borrow a very young Rilla’s misreading of Goodreads many years ago—I’ve never not seen it that way since).
Of course this means I’m horribly prone to option paralysis. A pocket of free time can be an occasion for distress. Suddenly the thing that was the only thing I wanted to think about while I was working loses its allure, or at least seems no more or less alluring than any of the other creative projects I was yearning to dive into, or the stack of books I was aching to read, or the poem I was burning to fiddle with. As for the closets, I’ve forgotten they exist.
I’ve learned that in this state of curious misery, I have to pick up any book, any embroidery hoop, any drafts notebook. It really doesn’t matter which. If I can stick with it for sixty seconds, I’ll be consumed by it for hours.
A fun thing about being wired this way is that once or twice a year, I’ll realize I have a whole bunch of projects that are all pretty close to the finish line. Then I go on a finishing spree, which is super satisfying.
How about you? Are you a one-project-at-a-time person? Is anybody a one-book-at-a-time person?
I’ve just had a slender epiphany. For my Patreon yesterday I wrote a post about small projects—how many I have underway, and how satisfying it is to complete them—when it struck me that as a writer and an artist, nearly all the projects I care deeply about and think of as my Real Work are huge in scope.
I write novels, which can take years. Especially historical novels, with their months and months of research.
I have two separate, original, multi-piece embroidery projects underway, and if I thought novels were a slow-burning endeavor, boy howdy. I write at light-speed compared to the rate at which a stitching project develops from a glimmer of an idea to a transferable design to a finished piece hung on the wall. With embroidery, each ‘draft’ on the way to a final piece can take months. Even if, say, there’s a global pandemic keeping me housebound for a year, creating gaps of time where wandering around the science museum or meeting a friend for lunch used to live, my hands and eyes can handle only so much stitching and staring in a given day. And attempting something grand means lots and lots of iterations, lots of experimentation, lots of snipping away errant stitches so you can try something else.
And then of course there’s my epic, my life’s work—the homeschooling project, now in its 26th year, if you begin the count from the spring of 1995, when I began the read-and-research jag that has never stopped.
Pondering this, these large-scale endeavors I’m drawn to, in the context of my being a person who relishes the sudden, the new, the different, the spontaneous, the immediate—I have to laugh. We all live in various states of tension, tugged at by opposing forces (for example, you long to travel but don’t have the funds; or you’re happiest when you’re running but your knees are giving you hell); so the contrast between my nature and my aspirations isn’t unique, but it’s amusing.
Perhaps that’s why I took so readily to blogging and its later incarnations (most social media platforms are vehicles for microblogging, with twists): their quick turnaround, their perpetually changing nature. These forms of expression allow me to share ideas and experiences quickly, and to engage in immediate discourse about any topic that has seized my interest, right away, while the flame is burning high.
Meanwhile, the slow-burning project is simmering away, satisfying a whole different part of me. And it’s the determined part, the part with vision, the molten core roiling deep under the surface.
I grow sunflowers, and I grow trees.
As I said at the start of this post, it’s a slender epiphany—a morsel of self-understanding, not a revelation that changes the course of a river. But it’s a nourishing morsel, a crumb of lembas, that offers sustenance to both my practice of blogging and my larger-scale projects.
The splendid truth (to use Gretchen Rubin’s splendid term), of course, is that sometimes you discover that one of your sunflowers has grown into a towering oak. And some of your trees turn out to be bonsai. Either way, the point is to grow something.
Photo from August 2017. Not an oak.
Through this lens, I can survey my cluttered studio, my open tabs, my Scrivener files, my baskets and bins, and see the garden for what it is: abundance. Life. I grow milkweed, and I grow blueberries, and I grow river birches. (I also, let’s face it, grow a fair share of Bermuda grass.)
A few days off my schedule and I already feel rusty!
How about a quick catch-up?
What I’m reading: Station Eleven (reread cuz I was in the mood); Natalie Goldberg’s The True Secret of Writing; daily poetry readings including Walt Whitman, Lucille Clifton, Maxine Kumin, Kimiko Hahn, Arthur Sze. (Affiliate links.)
What I’m watching: Scott & I are doing a Deadwood rewatch in anticipation of the movie.
What I’m working on: An issue of the Arrow for Brave Writer (next year’s book lineup is soon to be revealed—it’s awesome); a newsletter for my advocacy gig
What’s happening with my novel: It’s in copyediting! I should get it back in June. Got to preview the cover copy last week, which makes it feel super real. (Pub date is August 2020, so there’s still a long way to go. But the hard part is over now—for me, at least.)
What’s next after this book? —Still deciding. Have a picture book manuscript I’ve been playing with for a long time. Am writing lots of poems these days. Giving myself a bit of breathing room before I dive into the next novel. Would also like to work on a book of literary essays I’ve been wanting to compile—pulling some material out of my archives here and expanding, elaborating. I’ve always been wild for books-about-books like A Reader’s Delight or Howard’s End Is on the Landing, and heaven knows I’ve done the legwork for one of my own!
What I’m looking forward to: The annual Index-Card-a-Day Project. Fun, low-pressure, colorful, creative. I’m thinking this year I might use my houseplants as a loose theme—incorporating drawings of each one into my ICAD experimentation.
What’s being discussed in our homeschool: Ancient China, including folklore; fractions; poetry; astronomy; carnivorous plants.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Such a good point. It’s because you can recognize what good art (writing, music, etc) is that you know yours isn’t good…yet. And so the daily habit becomes almost an imperative, if you want to improve. My writing is best when I’m writing every day. If I keep up the sketchbook habit for eight or nine years, I just might be able to draw the way I want to. 🙂
This particular issue was published after Scott had left to go freelance and the awesome Darren Vincenzo took over as editor of the book. I think it’s very helpful (especially for kids) to see how even a highly skilled professional like Ty goes through many drafts on the way to a final piece.
I’d argue that Scott is the single most important creator who worked on the book. Besides launching it as editor, and hiring most of the well known talent that participated, Scott’s editorial hand was very present in many of the best issues of the book ( He certainly helped me to be a better writer)…and let’s never forget that Scott scripted more issues of the assembled series than anyone other than your humble blogger. By my count, I wrote (or drew) about fifty-five issues, and Scott wrote about forty-five, including one of the best Catwoman stories ever published by DC. When you add up his two runs (editorial and scripting) he put his hand in about two thirds of the complete run, and is integral to the series’ success.
(Scott’s going to be ticked at me for posting that, but sometimes a wife’s gotta brag on her man.)