How Four Words Got Me Back on the Writing Track

The Hard Part Quote designed by Jann Alexander ©2015

I discovered that you need to tend your novel daily, as you would a garden, to keep its prose from slowly dying of thirst.

In 2005, two unlikely stories that appeared side by side in The Washington Post caught my attention, and became the basis for a novel I have struggled to finish ever since. It’s been an on-again, off-again affair of my passion for the writing and for the story, while painting, photography, an art gallery, an art studio, designing, exhibiting art, blogging and just plain old life got in the way.

Staying with it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and there are plenty of threats to its completion, even though at this stage I’ve written more than 55,000 words — nearly enough, some would say, for a novel, but for its author, the story isn’t yet fully told.

The two stories that I read were of such unlikely events, one incredibly wondrous, lucky and happy; the other, abominably dark, horrifying and tragic. I saved the section of the paper where they’d both appeared, grateful that I just happened to be visiting Washington, DC that day to discover them, and later, I couldn’t stop thinking about them.

I thought about how each situation might have occurred, how the back stories of those involved might have gone, what the ramifications of the unlikely events might be, and most of all, how I might weave two completely unconnected events together in one novel, loosely inspired by them but each event having no other relation to the other — except for the happenstance of being reported on the same June day.

A week later, when I found myself in the non air-conditioned passenger seat of a jostling, loud vintage jeep on a days-long driving trip across the desolation of the West Texas summer, into Colorado and then New Mexico, I formed my novel in my mind as a coping strategy.

The Long Road Out by Jann Alexander © 2014

And over those miserable days of driving in summer temperatures with nothing to see but cotton fields, cactus, the occasional tumbleweed and only the promise of distant mountains, my novel took shape. Remarkably, I remembered a lot of it when I got home and was back at my computer. For awhile, the words flew out. But it’s a long road to epic.

Thus came the side tracks, those inevitable distractions that take you down the rabbit hole to another pursuit, until pretty soon, the writing is so far recessed into the mind that its story and characters can no longer be summoned. Thus began several years of a passion pursued, dropped, renewed, abandoned. What’s true about writing a novel is that you need to tend it daily, as you would a garden, to keep its prose from slowly dying of thirst.

“You need to tend your novel daily, as you would a garden, to keep its prose from slowly dying of thirst.”

The rescue arrived in the form of a book I discovered as the promise of a new year was upon us, called Manage Your Day-to-Day (edited by Jocelyn K. Glei for the 99U series). It was in a chapter by poet and creative coach Mark McGuinness. While the book contains plenty of pearls (from dozens of productive creative experts) that remind you to put your creativity first, the advice he offered in the first chapter made the most sense to me:

“Creative work first. Reactive work second.” ~Mark McGuinness

Why is he so right about doing creative work first? If you don’t put your own priorities first, you’ll never get to them. The rest of the world will make its demands upon you, and when you oblige them, you’ve given control of your most precious commodity — your own creativity — to others. No wonder it can take years to finish a novel — if ever. So you choose who you want to determine your destiny. And I choose myself.

Create First Quote designed by Jann Alexander ©2015

I shortened that sage wisdom into just four words. Like a mantra, they’ve guided me as I’ve spent the first part of my work day doing one thing, and one thing only: working on my novel. It’s a great feeling — to get your most important work done first, knowing that the rest of your day you can coast on to email, Twitter, answering phone calls, walking the dog, paying bills, doing the tasks that life throws at all of us, but doing them after I’ve actually done the thing I most want to do: Write.

Heading into day three of my new workflow, I can visualize an end to my novel. On Day 1, I produced 1500 words before 11am. On Day 2, 1700 words before noon. The improvement in my self-confidence has been startling, too. Just like any other writer who wonders if what she’s writing is any good, I’m no longer worrying about that — because all I’m focused on is doing my creative work first.

It turns out the world can live without my email responses and my clever tweets for a few hours each morning. And when it’s finished, perhaps the world will even be able to live without my epic novel. But I can’t live without writing it. First. ♣

For more on the art of writing from my blog on creative topics, Pairings :: Art + What Goes With It, look here. Let’s connect on Twitter — Jann Alexander @AustinDetails

Originally published at on January 5, 2015.

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