Oh, the buoyant thrill of a sparkly new idea! Ooh, the giddy joy of starting in on it--like planting the first footprint on a blanket of new-fallen snow, or drawing the first line on a clean sheet of paper, or sweeping the first brushstroke of slick, wet paint across a wall! Of course, it takes follow-through to manifest a dream through the sweaty, dirty, messy middle of any big project. But when you know you can do it, you can hold onto that shiny new feeling to sustain you all the way to the finish.
Here I am chiseling away at the remains of my old kitchen back in the spring, when my new kitchen lived only in my imagination. My husband and I have been working on our kitchen (with my parents' help early on) for four months now. Our summer has been a marathon of hard, sweaty, dirty work littered with setbacks, frustrations, and frequent changes of plans--including the decision to redo our main bathroom at the same time, while we're at it! Anyone who has repaired or remodeled an old house knows that nearly every step turns out to be more complicated, expensive, and time-consuming than expected. But at long last, we are entering that falling-into-place zone when we can realistically expect every last detail of the kitchen to be completed by the autumnal equinox--if nothing else goes wrong enough to push back work plans.
Here is how the kitchen looks now--no plumbing hooked up yet and some finishing touches to complete, but most of the visual elements are in place. We can finally see our "cozy cabin in the woods" look coming together.
The process has been strenuous, but the results are magical! Now that we are so close to being done, we get to complete the work inside of a beautiful room that was nothing but a raggedy box a few months ago. Part of the thrill of beginning a new project, for those who have experience, is anticipating the victorious endorphin rush of ending it.
You can get that kind of feeling by accomplishing all kinds of goals--completing a long-distance run or enjoying a rich garden harvest or finishing a novel. But not everyone has the endurance to get there. Nobody is born with that skill set, and it takes practice to build it. If you haven't done that work, there is always time! And there are low-risk ways to practice cultivating a shiny new idea into a finished project; you don't need to, and probably shouldn't, begin by demolishing the inside of your house.
Some ways that I've practiced finishing difficult projects with low stakes include: playing long video and board games through my childhood, reading long books, experimenting with complex art projects, learning to play musical instruments in school, studying new languages and sports and dance styles (challenges I am not particularly gifted at), and... after college... participating for several years in NaNoWriMo! If you've ever wanted to join the great American creative hustle of attempting to write a novel but you struggle to get past the shiny idea phase, NaNoWriMo can help some burgeoning writers to break through the ice of their anxiety and inexperience. Back in the 2000s, a friend and I dove into several rounds of NaNoWriMo together. Both of us won some of our NaNoWriMo attempts, and both of us have since completed novels; she has published an award-nominated romance, and I have finished two epic tales that make me proud, one of which I hope to release this fall.
Now the reality check: Most NaNoWriMo participants do not win on their first try, or ever. Most NaNoWriMo winners do not go on to actually do the necessary work on their "winning" documents to transform them into manuscripts that can be submitted to literary agencies with any realistic hope of consideration. Most agented novels don't sell to publishers. Most novels published in any way (traditional, indie, self) fail commercially, artistically, or both. Even spectacular novels often fail to achieve readership or profit because an agent has a personal crisis or a publishing house implodes over a scandal or a market crashes. Most authors of novels considered "commercially successful" do not manage to string their meager blips of glory into the sturdy chain of a sustainable career let alone experience anything close to renown or wealth. The dream of becoming a novelist in 2021 opens the door to a truly dreary business. But if you get into writing--or even just NaNoWriMo--for the sheer joy of creation or community or simply for the practice of perseverance, you can't lose.
Even if you quit. Because part of mastering the art of the long game is knowing when to pause, re-evaluate, and change course. Not every project is destined for completion; sometimes you learn along the way that your original goal needs an adjustment or a replacement. Circumstances and priorities change. It takes wisdom and strength to cut our losses and pivot toward new horizons when those choices can help us to achieve more in the long run. Easy wins make poor learning experiences, and sticking to a goal that has been revealed as unrealistic or foolhardy can literally kill you, a fate successfully avoided by writer Nicole Rodovsky during a failed NaNoWriMo exercise that she wisely chose to survive. Remember: If you survive, you always get free do-overs. But only if you survive.
There is no limit to the number of times you can chase after a shiny new project! Not as long as you're alive. And that new beginning feeling feels better the more hard-won victories you have reached in the past, which you can draw upon to sustain you past the initial sparkle.
Back in the days between the time when I quit graduate school and the time when I decided to get pregnant, when I was struggling with the very concept of being worthy of spending my time on a creative pursuit that might not earn me a profit or a prestigious award, I wrote the following post:
One of the greatest things about being unemployed or underemployed is that you have some free time... to pursue your dreams. Or just goof off!
And that is what NaNoWriMo is all about. Goofing off in the most serious possible way. I have officially signed up at www.nanowrimo.org for the Eleventh Annual National Novel Writing Month, to begin November 1st. I vow to write 50,000 words of a brand new novel during the 30 days of next month.
Wipe that smirk off your face. Miss Moppet and I did a practice run in March, and we BOTH succeeded in busting out 50K by the last day of the month. Are we published authors now? Heck no, but we've learned a lot about the craft of writing. Miss M is still working on her incredibly hilarious romance set in Detroit. My novel about a trip to Italy gone wrong started turning into a hefty tome of biblical proportions, so I rewrote the outline and wrapped it up for another time. This year's novel will be much lighter and sillier, with enough give to accommodate the twists and challenges that the NaNo folks throw at participants during the month.
Maya Angelou once said, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."
If you've ever wanted to write a novel but felt too dorky admitting it to anyone...
Now's your chance to rip one out fast, before anyone can mock your cliched and unrealistic dream!
Do it! I dare you!
Jean Michelle Miernik is the author of Leirah and the Wild Man: A Tale of Obsession and Survival at the Edges of the Byzantine World, available through your local bookstore on October 23, 2021 and in ebook formats on November 11, 2021.