Just do the simple, quiet work

I’ve spent my week on the floor with index cards revising the plot of my memoir. It’s painstaking work. It’s also astonishing how a story changes depending on the order in which you tell it.

I’ve been noticing that when the work is going well, when transitions work and the structure I’m building is adding tension to the story, I feel happy. Sometimes this happiness can lead to fantasies of accolades in the New York Times. Then, when things aren’t “working,” when an idea I had about how to write a certain transition fails or I don't like a chapter ending, I start questioning the whole project.  Or I scare myself with "what if" questions like "what if I don't ever think of a good chapter ending?" 

Then, there are the moments when I’m actually working: editing a sentence, moving a paragraph, cutting a chapter, making a note to fact check. If you saw me from afar, you might think I was just reading or writing, something very simple and small and quiet.

Actual work is very simple. It’s like sewing a quilt. You lay a patch in, you sew a stitch, then another, if the patch doesn’t look right, you take out the seam ripper and stitch by stitch, you cut the thread. Then, start again.

When I used to quilt, I didn’t doubt the entire quilt when one patch of fabric didn’t work. I never had a “bad” quilting day because it was all just work, no matter how much or how little I accomplished.

One method I’ve been using recently to keep myself in the “just work” mode, is to end my writing day by making my “to do” list for the next morning. I never let myself throw up my hands and walk away from the work at the end of the day. Even if I’m frustrated or exhausted, I make a list of where to start the next morning.

Two things have happened as a result: the list helps me dive right in when I arrive at the desk or the floor, as the case may be. More important than that, the list shows me how much I know about how to work on this manuscript, even if one small thing isn't “working.”

I often end my list with a note like: “Remember how much is really working!” 

I said to a friend this week: “The only way to make this manuscript work, is to work on it.” By which I mean, resist the fantasies of fame or ruin. Just work. Pick up the needle, choose the thread, sew the next patch in. If it pleases, leave it. If it doesn’t, rip it out.

Try this: Before you quit for the day, write a note about where to start the next morning. It may show you how much you know about how to just work, not worry, not fantasize, not mope. And don’t forget to say your version of: “Remember how much of this is already working!”

Marie Thérèse Durand-Ruel Sewing, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, oil on canvas, 64.9 x 54 cm, 1882, The Clark Art Institute.