How to Find a Little Project to Sustain You

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Writing a novel will make you crazy if you didn’t start out that way. Each day you wake up with it on your shoulders. Occasionally, it slides off and what lands on the page is its own reward. But, in my experience that’s one day in thirty. The rest of the time, you’re carrying a backpack full of rusty salvage and your job is to build a large hadron collider out of it. Because it’s not actually a large hadron collider, no one but you really cares if you do it or not. At least, that’s how it was for me.

As a mom, step-mom, wife and teacher–as a human who really would prefer to live a happy life–I had to find intervals where I could be done with something, even if the something was not actually the novel. These were my little projects.

I think we could all use little projects right now, so I’ve been thinking about which ones work, and which ones got dropped or ended in frustration. It started with an inventory. What is a project?

1)It’s a thing you make yourself, that you can finish and look at and say, I made this. Right now, my husband it building a magnificent shed for me in the backyard where I’ll be able to write even, say, in a pandemic. I have a friend who takes photographs. I saw her capture three heart-shaped stones by a little secret pool. I have another friend who made a calendar, one drawing for each day of the month. These projects (literally, in one cases) are heart projects. Sure, my husband comes in from the 80-degree weather covered in sawdust sometimes, gulps a gallon of iced tea, and then lies on the floor by the air conditioner for an hour, but at some point, the shed will be done, and we can go inside of it. I should say, because he’ll read this, that my husband’s shed is actually a Big Project. You know, for the record.

2) It’s limited. The calendar project is a great example. My friend had a finite number of drawings to make, and then it was on to the next thing. One of my projects was to follow the Democratic Nomination by putting a yarding for each candidate into my front yard and then endorse the candidates in a short post. I endorsed all of them, but yes, I had a favorite and no, it was not the nominee. I also really like planning things, like travel, parties, secret gifts.

3) It has an audience built in. People who cook for their projects know what this is like. My brother gave me a chicken once–actually, it was a rooster, or as one can say in French without making a dirty joke, a coq. He was working on an organic farm, and they couldn’t sell the scrawny birds, so he brought one home to me. For three days, I marinated the rooster in red wine. Yes, it was dead already, though maybe someone wants to marinate a live bird in wine. Could be funny. And then, I served the meal to him–my brother, not the rooster. Project over, audience built in.

3) It’s challenging in some way, but builds on your existing skill set. I’m not at all crafty, but over the years, I’ve taken a couple of sculpture classes and I realized clay is really a good medium for people who are bad at art, because it responds to trial and error. You can work it, and work it and work it again. So, for a gift once, I made an action figure of a then-boyfriend. I used a pre-exisiting action figure body from a toy, and made the head out of clay. Is that weird? Yes. Did he like it? No. But, it did really, really look like him.

4) It’s got an element of fun in it. I like, for example, to plan elaborate hoaxes or practical jokes. My friend Maria and I once sustained a whole imaginary romance on Craigslist for a summer. Then, in the finale, we went and impersonated the romantic partners at a pre-arrange and public location. Was anyone following our missed connection? I still don’t know. But with Maria as my audience and co-conspirator, I had audience enough.

Maybe your project is physical–you want to canoe each of the Finger Lakes. Maybe it’s intellectual. You want to learn French. Maybe it’s altruistic–you want to collect masks and distribute them to reckless college kids while they guzzle beer. Or maybe you don’t know yet. If that’s you, I’d encourage you to do your own inventory, make your own list of qualifications. The heart of it is that it can’t be a should. It has to be a want.

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