A Purposeful WIP Cultivates Community

I consider myself to be a full-time writer, which in the societal definition of the term, amounts to writing (or completing other writing-related tasks) for anywhere between 32-40 hours per week. For me, this amounts to 32-40 hours (and oftentimes more) spent in the solitary confinement of my office. I don’t mind spending this time alone and in fact, these hours of creation and introspection actually help me make sense of the world. As much as is humanly possible from my narrow view of it, anyway.

But something happened about a year and a half ago. I noticed a change in my social calendar. I don’t know how or when it happened, but I had slowly, gradually withdrawn from life. In retrospect, I think this was a reaction to not making progress as a writer. I was ashamed and embarrassed to admit to what I considered to be my job when I really had so little to show for it and so my solution was to retreat. I interacted with people (outside of my very small inner circle) as little as possible because without conversation there were no questions about career. My fearful, doubtful, self didn’t have to worry about someone else calling me out as the fraud I already believed myself to be.

This shift affected my outlook. I became self-centered and self-conscious, habitually hiding my vulnerability behind cloaks of blame and negativity and cynicism. I thought I was only protecting myself from the inevitable judgment of others, but what I didn’t realize was that I was also closing myself off from the possibility of their support as well as any opportunity I might have had to offer encouragement to them. I created a comfort zone—albeit a lonely and not very comfortable one—and I was too timid and too insecure to step out of it.

Then, on April 4, 2018, I received an invitation from a good friend of mine to attend with her a live personal development session hosted by a local life coaching company. And I accepted. I didn’t know it at the time, but that “Yes” was going to be a huge turning point. That yes created a domino effect of other yesses and slowly, ever so slowly—and I do mean slow, like a geriatric snail with nowhere to go and all day to get there—I began to take tiny steps forward. As one thing led to another, I finally experienced that which I hadn’t experienced in years: Progress. Progress on my manuscript, progress on my own personal growth.

It was difficult. It was scary. It was a lot of hard work. But I can’t and don’t take all the credit. I firmly believe that if not for the people I encountered over the last year, and the relationships that flourished as a result, I would not be where I am today. I would not be working on the third draft of my novel. I would not have had the courage to let someone else read it. I wouldn’t have created this blog or a Facebook page or a Twitter account. And I certainly wouldn’t have understood the value of community.

I cannot stress enough how important it is for a purposeful WIP to open up to other people. From support and encouragement to understanding and perspective to accountability and shared knowledge, the benefits of community are tremendous. However, as is true in most things, you get what you give. Connections are reciprocal. That’s where cultivation comes in. Relationships require an investment of intentional nourishment and energy and attention to thrive. Offer consistent support and you’re likely to receive it back. Share your expertise and chances are good others will not hesitate to share theirs with you.

Wherever you are on your goal path—whether struggling to start, stuck in the middle, or celebrating completion—there is someone out there who has been where you are, who will root for you, or who will be motivated and inspired by your story. And never before has it been easier to connect with these like-minded souls. Join a Facebook group, set up a Twitter account (for all you writers, there is a wonderful #WritingCommunity out there), or find a local club or organization and attend in-person. And if one doesn’t exist, be bold and create it! But don’t just sit on the sidelines, interact. Be a cheerleader and allow yourself to be cheered.

You’ve heard of the circle of life. This is the circle of community. We were not made to fly solo. God made us to love and be loved. There might be a lot of disparity and animosity in our world right now, but there’s also a lot of kindness and generosity. Don’t miss out on all the goodness because you’re too busy hiding from the haters. Cultivate community and watch your progress grow.

How I Will Finish My Manuscript

Photo by Arnel Hasanovic on Unsplash

I jumped out of bed Friday morning at 6 a.m. sharp, singing praises of joy for having been given another day to live out my purpose here on God’s green earth. I grabbed a prepared-in-advance smoothie from the fridge, cheerfully glided through the usual morning stuff—which included a workout, dog care, packing hubby’s lunch, etc.—before sliding into my desk chair at precisely 8:00 with a prayer on my lips and a wealth of gratitude in my heart.

I spent the next four hours revising my manuscript, sinking easily into The Flow without once being tempted to open a web browser or look at the clock or check my phone, so I was shocked when my stomach told me it was lunchtime.

I stepped away from my computer, ate a healthy and colorful salad, and took Dolly out for a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood. Returning home refreshed and reenergized, I hammered out a couple blog posts, along with a few simultaneously witty and thought-provoking social media posts.

At exactly four o’clock, I shut down my computer, carefully mapped out the next day’s plan, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening reading, resting, and relaxing with family and friends.

I’m kidding, of course.

Although there is some truth to this romanticized version—e.g., my alarm does go off at six most mornings and I do spend four hours revising—the majority of it is far from reality. There are, in fact, many days that I’d rather hit the snooze button and I sleepwalk through most of my workout and writing is so hard that I can’t remember why I ever wanted to do it in the first place.

And yet I keep showing up.

My butt is in the chair each weekday at eight because I made a promise to myself that it would be. Because a little under a year ago I decided that I was going to make progress on my novel manuscript. I took an honest look at my irregular writing routine and I figured out what worked and what didn’t and why. Through trial and error, I landed on a schedule that fit my life and I committed to staying firm but flexible in sticking with it.

That consistency is how I am going to complete this manuscript. Will it be a bestseller? Or even good enough to find its way out of an agent’s slush pile? I don’t know. What I do know is that before the end of this year, there will come a day when I will sit down at my desk during my designated writing time and I will type the words THE END.

If you want to make progress on your own goals, you have got to decide to keep showing up. Write even when the words are terrible. Go to the gym even when you’d rather sleep in. Do what you need to do even when you don’t feel like doing it. Commit to creating that consistency and you will see progress.

You can do it, my friends! I believe in you!

A Purposeful WIP Creates Consistency

Published authors. Expert doctors. Accomplished musicians. Legendary athletes. Successful business owners.

What do all these people have in common? They made the intentional decision to regularly put emphasis on and effort into improving and developing the skills needed to specialize in their respective fields. This trait is otherwise known as consistency.

Although everything I wrote about for the last two weeks, and everything I will discuss in the coming weeks, has played an important role in my novel writing progress over the last year, consistency has been one of the most valuable skills that I’ve learned. Setting and sticking to a consistent writing schedule is one of the biggest reasons I went from spinning my wheels on a perpetually in-progress first draft for almost two years, to completing not only that first draft and a second, but also the start of a third draft all in just under a year. (As of the writing of this post, I am eighty pages into that third revision.)

But consistency isn’t only a necessary piece of novel writing, it is also a key aspect of most goals and habits. Whether it’s getting in better physical shape or spending more time in prayer or meditation or learning to play the piano, none of these things can happen without consistency. You can’t show up at the gym twice a month and expect to develop washboard abs, just like I couldn’t show up at my desk whenever I felt like it and expect to write a cohesive, bestselling story.

So how do we create consistency?

  • It starts with determination. If there is something you want to accomplish, something you’ve been meaning to or wanting to do, you have to decide that you are going to Make. It. Happen. Until I determined with absolute certainty that I am going to finish writing this novel, I would have never made progress. Because if we approach our dreams and goals with a laissez-faire attitude it is easy to brush them aside the second we hit a road block or life interferes.
  • It takes honesty. Take a good, long look at your day-to-day life. How much time and energy do you really have to dedicate to this goal? Are there blocks of time that you could be putting to better use? Pay special attention to time suckers such as social media and TV binges. Be honest without being critical. It is also important to realize that in an already jam-packed schedule, something else may have to give a little in order to create consistent space and avoid burnout.
  • There’s a little trial and error involved. These days, there’s a wealth of information available regarding just about every topic. If you want to become a writer, there are oodles of books and blogs and podcasts on how to do it. Want to minimize your belongings? Chances are good you can find a detailed step-by-step process from a former pack-rack consumerist who now has less than 100 belongings to her name. But although these resources are helpful and definitely a good jumping off point, it is important to realize that what worked for someone else may not always work for us. When I first started writing, I thought all I had to do to bang out a book was emulate the writing routines of people like Stephen King or Jodi Picoult. But I couldn’t make them stick. Several years later, after a lot of trying, tweaking, and tuning, I settled on a regimen that fit me and my life. So if something isn’t working for you, figure out what the issue is, try something else, and be patient with the process.
  • Be firm but flexible. This goes along with last week’s discussion about finding balance amid life’s busyness and unpredictability. Things often pop up that are out of our control, throwing us off schedule for a day or two here or there, but incorporating a consistent time to work on a goal doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. Just because a family emergency impeded your writing today or you slept through your alarm and didn’t make it to the gym two days in a row, doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel. All progress is not lost. If it’s possible on those days, sneak in a shorter writing session or work out at a later time. If it’s not, get back to your regular schedule as soon as you can.

If you find yourself struggling to move forward and make progress, I encourage you to ask yourself if consistency is the issue. If it is, take a few days or even a week or two to really pay attention to your daily schedule and responsibilities. Be honest with yourself about how you’re spending your time and it might even be helpful to jot notes in a planner or calendar as sometimes seeing things in writing can be completely revelatory. Determine what works best for you, decide to guard that time, and you are well on your way to creating consistency.

Finding Community Across the Country

Community.

It’s a broad term, but one that, for me, once had a narrow definition. I used to think that community referred to my neighbors. The people I encounter at the local grocery store or the gas station down the street or the public library. The collection of those who inhabit the same small city that I call home.

But two weeks ago, my view of community was challenged, changed, expanded to a scope wider than a ten-mile radius from my front door. Two weeks ago, through three separate experiences, I found community across the country.

It all started in a town called Twentynine Palms in southern California where a National Park Visitor Center employee took the time to not only orient my husband and me to all there was to see and do in Joshua Tree National Park, but also helped to allay my fear of snakes. She didn’t downplay the threat and dismiss my fear, but instead was patient and kind regarding my anxiety and straightforward and truthful in her response. It was springtime in the desert, the likelihood of seeing snakes on the trails was very high. She went on to outline their behavior, how to safely coexist as an intruder in their territory, and what to do if “life happened” and one of us did suffer a bite.

So, armed with a new perspective and a detailed hiking plan, we headed out to explore the park. Was I still on high alert and incredibly jumpy any time a living creature presented itself? Absolutely. Those fears are too deep-seated to be fully dismantled with a single pep talk. But I was able to chill out enough to appreciate the richness of the area—its quiet, remote, unspoiled beauty—and when we did encounter a snake (top left in above picture), my initial reaction was not one of shrieking panic, but a calm sidestep away from his warning rattle.

The next morning we rose with the sun in order to complete a three-mile out and back trek into a desert oasis before the heat of the day became unbearable (bottom left in above picture). We climbed 300 feet over a ridge and before beginning the descent on the other side, noticed that the few cars in the mostly empty parking lot below had been joined by a school bus. Shortly before we reached our destination, the occupants of that bus—a group of sixty-five men—caught up to and passed us by. They were pleasant, polite, and proactive in warning us that the reason for their visit was to engage in an anger release ritual. “We don’t want you to be alarmed,” said the man who appeared to be in charge. “But there will be a lot of yelling.”

He wasn’t kidding.

Moments later, the tranquility of that desert oasis was transformed into a fierce expulsion of human emotion. There were screams of fury, cries of regret, and shouts and swear words so full of anguish that I was moved to tears. I didn’t know these men. I didn’t know the demons they were fighting or the injustices they had endured. But I do know pain. We all do. And in that intersection of apparent opposites—sorrow and splendor, desolate earth and life-giving spring—my husband and I were reminded that despite our superficial differences, despite our ethnicity, orientation, gender, or age, we too intersect. We are inextricably linked by construction, compassion, and the intrinsic desire for human connection.

Two days later, after settling into the La Jolla hotel that would be our home away from home for the rest of the week, I was faced with a choice (not a life or death decision, by any means, but a decision just the same): work out by myself in the very nice and completely adequate hotel fitness center, or take advantage of the classes at the facility next door that were included in our stay.

In my experience, group fitness classes—especially well-established ones—are not very welcoming to outsiders, so I was tempted to retreat into isolation as per my introverted nature. To hop on a wall-facing elliptical or treadmill, get through 30-40 minutes of cardio, and get on with my day. But something was telling me to step out of my comfort zone. Maybe it was all the time and focus I’d recently placed on personal growth and development. Or perhaps it was the kindness we encountered when my husband and I toured the facility the night before. (Thanks, Rocky!) Whatever it was, it nudged me out of bed at six a.m. to tackle my first ever spin class with a handful of perfect strangers.

But from the moment I walked in, these people were no longer strangers. And neither did they treat me like one. The woman at the desk happily got me set up on a bike. The gentleman on my left suggested grabbing a second towel, which the young man on my right retrieved on my behalf. There was the social butterfly, a cheerful woman who wanted to be sure that I experienced all the local flavor I could while in the area. And then there was the instructor. An awesome and encouraging woman who led kick ass work outs, carried an inspiring and motivating outlook, and exuded a beautiful spirit of wholehearted generosity. (Teresa, girl, you are amazing!)

This wonderful group of friendly souls had been spinning together for several years. They knew each other well, they had backstories and inside stories and roles they filled, and as an interloper—and a temporary one at that—they could have easily excluded me from all of it. Yet they chose not to. They accepted and embraced me as one of their own and I am forever grateful for the warm welcome.

To all of you: The National Park employee at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, the men in the desert oasis, and everybody I encountered at the Shiley Sports and Health Center in La Jolla, thank you.

Thank you for reminding me that amid our often judgmental and divided society, there remains an abundance of goodness and benevolence. Thank you for reminding me that it is inside every single one of us. That it’s a choice. And each day, with every interaction, we have the opportunity to include, to embrace, to make connections. To respond to others with compassion. To dig deep, past the experiences and beliefs and opinions that make us different, to the root of what makes us the same. Our need for community. Our common unity.

*Also shown in the picture above are Rocky and Teresa from Shiley Sports and Health Center.

A Purposeful WIP Builds Balanced Boundaries

I have a tendency to operate from an all or nothing perspective. Or at the very least from a 90/10 level of effort (i.e. I give 90% of my energy to whatever it is I’m currently focusing most of my attention on and everything else gets the remaining 10%). This is especially true when it comes to my goals. As I’ve mentioned before, when I first started writing, I called myself a writer, but if I was being honest with myself, I probably only wrote for about ten percent of my work day. I would schedule writing time into my daily life, but I hadn’t yet learned the art of protecting that time. I hadn’t yet learned that A Purposeful WIP Builds Balanced Boundaries.

This means not only carving out and guarding time to work on goals, but also doing so in a balanced way. And although I have grown in the area of boundary setting, balance is something with which I still struggle immensely because now that I have become more focused on writing and more determined to make progress on my manuscript, I have flipped that 90/10 tendency on its head.

Well, sort of.

I do give writing way, way more attention than I used to. The problem is that I still feel the need to give the other responsibilities and other priorities in my life the same amount of energy that I was giving them before. So, in my effort to find some semblance of balance between writing and goals and spending time with family and friends and home chores and rest, something has to give. And for me, that something is often rest.

I just keep going and going and going, taking one thing off my to-do list and then adding three more. I tell myself that I need to get all these things done and then I can take a break and such an internal pact almost always guarantees that I won’t actually get around to taking that break. I will, instead, continue as if my inner monologue isn’t constantly reminding me how tired I am.

When I talked about this with my life and business coach, she asked me why I think I behave in this manner and I came up with two reasons: 1) I’m afraid of reverting back to that stuck feeling, that place of unfulfilled goals and lack of progress. I would much rather work myself to exhaustion in the name of progress than get stuck in that place again. 2) I am a competitive person by nature and I feel the need to keep moving in order to keep up with our fast-paced world. I’m worried that slowing down will result in losing momentum and falling behind.

My very wise coach pointed out the fallacy in my thought process. She said that continuing to push myself to the brink of exhaustion is not actually making progress. I might still be producing work, but I’m not producing the level of quality I could be if I were working from a place of rested focus rather than chaotic overwhelm. She’s right, of course. We can all certainly accomplish goals and get things done and spend time with family and friends while in an exhausted state, but it’s difficult to do so very well or very presently and it’s definitely difficult to absorb all of the joy life has to offer. So that’s where balance comes in. But how do we strike that balance?

As I thought about this further, I found it interesting that two of the three features that aid in our body’s physical balance: the inner ear and our joints and muscles (the third being our eyes) are also in a way responsible for our internal balance. There is our mind—resting nicely between those inner ear canals—and probably the most influential muscle system in keeping us stable, our core. Looking at it in these terms, it makes sense that inner ear issues and a weak core would lead to physical imbalance in the same way that chaotic and unfocused thoughts and chaos in the core values of our lives will also lead to an overall feeling of imbalance. But on the flip side, if we can be intentional in our thoughts and intentional in our core values—what we build our lives around—and focus on those things that is how we build balance.

But is that really possible? I’ll be honest, I considered calling this Building Better Boundaries instead of Building Balanced Boundaries because I find the concept of balance to be a little bit illusory. Something that sounds good in theory, but is not actually attainable. I’m doubtful that there is some Aha! Moment when we can say, “Okay, my life is balanced and I am just totally at peace.” That would require a level of control over our lives that none of us really has. And even if the stars did align one day and we did reach a state of perfect equilibrium, it wouldn’t be possible to maintain because our lives are constantly shifting and so too must our balance. There might be seasons when work needs more attention or a sick family member needs care or an issue comes up at home that needs to be dealt with.

But although I’m not sure of the possibility of achieving Balance, I do think that we can develop a certain level of awareness. We can pay more attention to what our body needs or what our lives need and adjust from there. We can admit that we can’t do everything—and don’t necessarily need to do everything—immediately and perfectly. For me, this involves limiting my work hours and actually sticking to those limits. It involves building time to rest into my schedule and following through with that as well.

What about you? Do you feel you’ve achieved a good balance between your goals and work and other important areas of your life? If so, how have you made that happen? If not, if you often feel as imbalanced as I do, what small change can you make to regain some stability?