The power of tiny pieces

close shot of someone drawing fine pen & ink detail

When I was very, very sick, my body served as its own governor.

I could not push myself further than I should, because I'd be overcome by a sleepiness that would stop me in my tracks. There were times before I learned this that I literally had to lie down right where I stood to rest a bit and gain enough strength to get myself into bed. And this, in an apartment with less than 800 square feet of livable space.

Now that my body is stronger, my mind has gone back to playing tricks on it. Do this thing instead of that other, it will say. We can get to that ugly bit later. Depending on the bigness or ugliness of the thing my mind senses it's up against, I can end up squeezing myself into timeframes that are ridiculously taxing, both because they are so condensed and because they were mostly avoidable.

Last Thursday, for example, I'd committed to performing a new story at the Porchlight series: eight minutes, memorized. But an eight-minute story is a long story, and memorizing it takes even longer. I knew I should have gotten started writing it weeks ago, but I didn't. And didn't, and didn't. The "why" is simple: fear. Nothing more, nothing less. I had plenty of time; I frittered away large chunks of it on nonsense and worry, worry and nonsense.

Most of the worry was about not being good enough. That's old hat, and not particularly interesting. The nonsense, however, is where the gold lies.

In the nonsense, there were the following gems:

  • You have an outline; the story will write itself. NONSENSE. Nothing writes itself. Nothing. Not one thing. An outline may or may not speed up the process, and is certainly a fine thing to have. But in terms of story, it represents nothing more nor less than some thought devoted to the story, which might translate to some work completed.
  • You've memorized longer stuff before, 8 minutes will take no time! NONSENSE. It takes as long to memorize something as it takes. There's no mathematical formula, and no guarantees. The only guarantee, in fact, is that a poorly-written piece will take longer to memorize than a well-written one.
  • You can quit! NONSENSE. I mean, of course I can opt out. People do; people did that night. It always happens. But I know I am not just telling these stories as a lark. I'm writing and telling them as training for telling bigger stories, i.e., going pro. And pros don't flake. Not if they want to be hired more than once.

I ended up writing and memorizing the entire story on Thursday, the day of the gig. The entire day of the gig, which is a luxury I have now, on sabbatical, that I will not always have. And I was still a nervous wreck, because I didn't have the story in my bones, so I wasn't much able to enjoy the experience, either.

On the opposite end of the planning spectrum, there's the newsletter I've been editing for BLANKSPACES, a co-working space here in Los Angeles. In the five months since I took over responsibility for the project, this is the first one that's gone smoothly, actually enjoyably. Why? Because I worked on it incrementally, rather than waiting for the last minute. I broke down the process into a kind of system, worked that system, and came out the other end with a product delivered on time, in good shape and without anguish. (I can't wait to tell my friend (and client, and mentor), Sam.)

I've read 25 books out of the 52 I'd planned for the year, just by reading 40pp per day. From an investment of 15 minutes or so a day, my apartment has gone from a depressing, cluttered and filthy wreck to something that looks like it might be ready to move out of on less than a year's notice. My half-hour of daily Nei Kung practice has wrought changes in my body that continue to astonish me. Why I persisted in thinking that stories (or blog posts) would magically write themselves even when, especially when I was exhausted from working crazy-sporadically rather than slow-and-steadily is beyond me.

The solution is not. Seek the smallest move forward. If there's a hard out, put it in the calendar on the far end and the Smallest Move Forward on the near one. Stick the other small moves in between. Arrive at destination rested, refreshed, and excited about the next challenge ahead.



Image by Vanessa Yvonne via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.