On Finishing A Book

Last year when I was fired (and before they realized their mistake and hired me back as a consultant), one of the reasons I was given for my termination was a lack of project management skills. Now, I was skeptical about this claim, and coworkers assured me it was a b-s dodge, but I decided I would use my unemployment as an opportunity for self-improvement. I spent the better part of one day researching project management apps and systems, and the better part of the next day diving into the world of bullet journaling, the method I ultimately settled on.

As it turns out, I was only unemployed for those two days, and I have been (accidentally, reluctantly) self-employed every since. The bullet journal (#BuJo to the obsessed, which I guess I am if I’m blogging about mine) has been an invaluable part of managing what eventually turned into four part-time jobs, plus a handful of private students, a few one-off side gigs and a growing list of publications to my name.

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It took me about six months to fine-tune a system (minimalist and definitely not Insta-worthy) that works for me, but building my daily To Do list on the train in the morning has been an invaluable focusing exercise: more calming than the meditation app I used to occupy my commute with, more useful than Duolingo Spanish lessons, and untroubled by the lack of Internet connection deep under the Hudson River.

I love the BuJo Collections, where you collect lists of useful things like birthdays and holidays; monthly payments and expenses; pay schedules, company policies, database protocols and calendars at each of my four jobs; student names and rates; even interview notes — because as a freelancer, I’m usually doing phone interviews from whatever Starbucks has a free chair and electrical outlet on a given block…!

So, when I stumbled on a contest deadline for an essay collection, and then realized I had enough published and unpublished material beyond my memoir to pull together a 220-page essay collection, it was only natural to turn to my BuJo to make a project plan. After all, project management had been how I found bullet journaling.

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So I made a list of all the essays, poems and short stories I definitely (or even maybe) wanted to include in the collection, and created columns to cross off when each was finished, published and republished. On the facing page, I made a detailed list of all the small tasks that needed to be accomplished, double-spaced so that I could squeeze in other steps along the way that might occur to me later. Finally, working backwards from the contest deadline, I gave myself weekly deadlines to break up the work over two months. As I made my weekly and daily logs throughout August and September, I incorporated these deadlines, but didn’t always keep up with them well.

This seemed at first like a setback. I knew it was a significant project, but I also knew that the timeline was pretty extended for the work remaining, even while I was working 3-4 other jobs, and even after my partner had a work injury that left him unable to do his usual lion’s share of the cooking and cleaning.

Then I realized that my missed deadlines could be an opportunity. Restrictions on my time were not the only factor here. So was my interest level. And if I wasn’t meeting deadlines because the pieces weren’t holding my interest sufficiently, then would they really hold the reader’s interest?

Once I began to see my reluctance as a trigger for culling essays, it transformed my workflow. I suddenly had new clarity into what was really valuable and riveting in my collection and what either wasn’t landing, or needed to marinate longer before it was ready for publication. My writing buddy pushed back a little on one piece about the American presidency abroad that I ultimately included, though further notes from my partner have me now thinking it may need more marinade. Other pieces, though they were meaningful to me at the time I wrote them, have returned to the “slush for now” pile.

These contest deadlines and the guidelines laid out by each publisher were also clarifying in another way. As one piece in particular grew into a 16,000+ word behemoth (longer than that New York Times expose on Trump’s wealth), word and page limits forced me to cut additional shorter pieces from the collection, focusing it further. One contest required a synopsis of the collection, forcing me to distill each essay to a single sentence, while also articulating the greater thematic arc I was building by ordering the essays in a particular way.

The collection, Lessons from the Desert: Truths and a Few Fictions, has now been submitted to six deadlines, with at least two more coming before the end of the year. I’m hoping to also send a proposal to several agents in the next month or so.

But more than anything, what I’ve gained from this experience is confidence and clarity about the writing process. Now that I’ve seen a workable system, I’m eager to apply it to finishing the memoir, Trusted With Their Children: Becoming Bedouin in Peace Corps Jordan, that’s already more than two thirds complete.

Wish me luck! And more importantly, motivation!

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