I was on the phone with my sister today, trying to encourage her past the terror-induced paralysis that had overcome her ever since she quit her job in order to have time to get her house ready to sell and then to sell it and move with her husband from Colorado, where she lives, out to Arkansas to be near me. She was supposed to have put her house on the market back in May, when she quit working, but she had so much to do—cleaning the carpet upstairs, painting the porch, replacing some windows, regrouting the tile in the bathrooms, getting rid of stuff, selling the cabin up in the mountains, fixing the solar panel on its roof so that it was sellable, and on and on and on—that she just couldn’t seem to get started on any one task.
“What can’t you do?” I asked. “What do you mean by ‘this’?”
“This whole thing. The move. It’s just too much for me.”
In a sudden life coach epiphany, I saw what her problem was. She was stymied by the enormity of “this”—the future, the worry about whether they were making the right decision to move, the overwhelming impossibility and complexity of the move, with all its imminent troubles and certain catastrophes.
“You’re worrying about the wrong ‘this,’” I told her. “What you need to concentrate on is today’s ‘this’: cleaning the upstairs carpet. You can do that.”
Her situation reminded me of my novel, how I kept getting a particular species of writer’s block in which I was seized with a paralyzing certainty that I wasn’t going to be able to figure out how to make the plot come together in the end and thus couldn’t seem to move forward. In my mind, the novel became a huge problem, overwhelmingly complex and unwritable, that I worried about constantly. Then I started scheduling a rigidly regular time, every morning from five to seven, to work on it.
“Just sit down at the computer and take up where you left off,” I told myself. That was three months ago, and I haven’t stopped writing since. It was like magic, as if my sense of the novel as a whole just fell away and I started seeing just the chapter I was in.
“That’s what you need,” I told her. “Make yourself a list of everything you need to do, include the smallest task, everything. Then figure out a time each day that you can devote to accomplishing one of the tasks on your list. Don’t try to do any more than just that one task. If it’s like my novel, you’ll progress through more than one task at a time.”
She is wise, my sister.
“That’s exactly it,” I said. “Concentrate on today’s trouble, today’s chapter, and the rest will work itself out.”
We hung up encouraged, I think. Both of us.