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Cheers for the 99%

Updated: Feb 23

I’m a sucker for completion.

I love checking things off a list, scratching a line across each item with the swift hand of the productive, the efficient, the in-charge. (And if, while blazing through my to-do list, I complete an unlisted task, I will write it on the list just so I can cross it off.)

I love putting things away, love a clean counter and that wondrous, albeit brief, moment when all the laundry is clean, folded and put away. I love a full tank of gas, a balance paid, a package sealed and sent. I love shutting off the light on a tidy kitchen at the end of the day while the dishwasher hums in the dark.

I love the satisfaction of getting everything on my grocery list and heading to the checkout, love the cool-down after a hard workout, love zipping closed a packed suitcase and pushing the mower over the last line of long grass.

I love pressing send on an email and hitting publish on a blog post. It’s all just so gratifying.

And there is nothing in this world that parallels the feeling of finishing a novel.

It feels like shooting stars streaking across your insides, like your arms turning to wings and lifting you skyward. It is like standing in the impossible for a moment, as if balanced on the head of a pin, a moment of brief but blinding glory. It’s a world turned rose-colored - every person stunning, every joke funny, a pothole as beautiful as a poppy, the whole planet in bloom. You cannot imagine ever feeling pain or doubt or sadness, of feeling anything other than this pulsing firework of joy.

I suppose it’s textbook euphoria. And what I imagine doing hard drugs would be like.

My first book took me five years, eight drafts and seven grueling edits to complete. That’s a long damn time to wait to feel done, an eternity even if it comes with a side of elation. A person could starve to death waiting for the satisfied sigh of completion.

I used to take the head-down-get-it-done approach to life, which is a close cousin to the work-hard-and-wait-for-it-to-be-over mantra. I don’t recommend it. Not only does it bleach your life of meaning it also has you running to the doctor for a spriometry test and an inhaler. (true story)

I’ve come to learn that true completion is rare; the richest part of life is comprised of long-term endeavors. The trick is to design the journey with rest stops of achievement along the way rather than needing to cross the finish line to feel proud, to feel satisfied. Whether earning a college degree, writing a dissertation, starting a business, raising kids or simply living (the longest-term project of them all) waiting for fulfillment at the end isn’t just bad for morale, it robs us of our actual lives.

I calculated * how much of my writing life is spent in completion, in that brief nugget of space where I am finished, and came up with less than 1%. (And by finished, I mean my book has become a stand-alone entity that no longer needs my breath for its life, where others can read it without me looking over their shoulder whispering about how I’d like to do more with…how so and so’s character arc could be stronger…how I am still searching for the right word…and…and....) This means that 99% of my writing life exists in a state of incompletion, in the trenches, in constant development. Creating, editing, honing, rethinking, cutting, sharpening - that is the work of a writer.

And here’s the kicker: I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Because while I love the rush that comes at the end, the satisfaction of it is shockingly brief. While the pride remains, the gratification wanes, a tide receding. Then the wheels begin to turn again, the cycle winding itself anew. That is creativity - the energy of ideas flowing to me, of looking up an April tree that is gathering the energy to bud and having a flash of insight about a character, of being woken in the night with an idea. To be “done” means this would stop and I don’t ever want it to stop.

Perhaps, then, it’s not completion that I seek but fulfillment. And fulfillment isn't a destination but a cyclical pursuit, the drumbeat of life.

Because the truth is, the euphoria at the end is made possible only from the journey of daily progress, exactly as the triumph of standing on a mountain summit is thanks to the challenge of the climb, the micro-success of one foot in front of the other. We feel fulfilled when we earn something, when we unearth a part of ourselves previously unknown, when we rise above or around an obstacle, when we prove ourselves to ourselves and grow strong on our own belief, when we become more.

There's a trap here, though. How do we balance our natural desire to grow, to expand, with the compulsive mind-pressure to achieve, to strive, to get somewhere in the future that is better/richer/more than where we are now? How do we fully live our 99% and not just wait for the majesty of the 1%?

For me, I simply don't want to miss any more of my life. I lost years to striving and the erroneous belief that I would feel complete when I reached a certain point. Now that I understand the cycle, that every completion is followed by a new desire to grow, I am no longer in a rush. My new mantra: I love where I am and am excited for where I'm going.

The novel is the like the world’s longest birth, a slow excavation of a story asking to be told. It’s also a pilgrimage into the deepest self, a journey on which you will get lost in the dark alleys of doubt and insecurity, you will claw and climb your way to golden panoramas, you will be bereft of ideas only to find one ping into your brain while taking out the trash or - my personal creative salvation - walking in the woods. It’s about story and character but more than that, it’s about how far you are willing to go, how deeply you will trust, how much you will allow yourself to be unblocked, to let go, so inspiration can flow. How bravely you will face the thoughts that tell you to stop, that question your worthiness and your talent and even your hair and your pants and your shoes until you tell them all to FUCK OFF and get back to writing because it’s what you came here to do, and you will not be stopped.

This, to me, is the gift of novel writing. It’s not about dynamic plotting, the perfect twist or the sentence that sounds like a poem. It’s about the grit of choosing to claim this reality for myself every day, to call myself a writer before the world deems me one, before anyone pays me for my words. It’s heeding the voice inside me, not the mean bully, but the confident calm that says: This is yours. Own it.

And the only way I’ve been able to sustain myself for the expedition is by building in everyday success. I make lists of small tasks just to cross them off. I set small goals and meet them. I celebrate a hard-fought scene, relish a line well-written and cheer when I manage to trace a theme from beginning to end. And on the days when there is no proof of a win, nothing tangible to point to and say, “I did that,” those days are the most challenging and also the richest. Days I close my laptop and shrug off the inertia, finding pride in the fact that I showed up at all and that I will be back tomorrow because I simply WON’T. GIVE. UP. I’m starting to understand how no book deal, no bestseller list, no fat royalty check can ever rival the feeling of believing in myself day after day, especially on the days when it is hardest.

There’s something really special about not letting yourself down.

I like to think we all have this urge, not for novel writing per say, but a call to answer inside our own lives and selves. That thing that lights us up, that connects us, that makes us feel alive. It could be full on passion or could be something quieter and more subtle. This too, ebbs and flows - sometimes we want broad strokes and bold moves while other times we are fulfilled by something as a simple as a frosty morning, a hand placed trustingly in ours, or the perfection of our own breath, coming in and out, sustaining us. It all counts, all matters. It’s not about what but how, about how we rig our lives in our favor, how we create meaning, how we allow ourselves to be fully alive.

Our lives will forever be unfolding. We will always be evolving and becoming. I’ve decided to make peace with my own perpetual undoneness, inside myself and as a writer. Because to be done is to be dead and, no thanks. For now, I like it here.

*Figures are theoretical. I don’t actually do math.

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