Thursday, August 26, 2010

One Box at a Time

No, this is not a blog post about some TLC program on how to pack and organize your house. Okay, well, besides the TLC part, it is about packing and organizing your house but it's also about how going through that horrible process can teach you a few things about writing.

Many of you know that I'm in the process of packing up an entire house for our move in September. The last time I moved was over ten years ago and I still have the herniated disc to show for it. But physical impact aside, a move of this size is huge people. Do you have any idea how much stuff a family of five and a hundred pound dog can accumulate in ten years??? And why do we need to keep every single hockey jersey my son has worn in the last five years??? Seriously, it's enough to daunt the most organized of people into paralysis and I'm not the most organized of people by a long shot. While I can plan like a five star general about to invade a country for some things (think vacation planning), going through every item in a two storey house and either packing it for storage, packing it to move to the rental, throwing it away or taking it to the Goodwill is an exhausting, mind-numbing process. Pretty soon you start to make snap judgements without thinking just because you want to get it over with. "Who needs that brass candlestick I paid $200 for seven years ago? I don't like brass anymore. Goodwill." "Do I really need those suit jackets? How many conferences for work do I attend where I wear suits anymore? Goodwill." "The Boy will never miss this Bumblebee Transformer. It's practically broken anyway. Trash."

Pretty soon I'll have emptied out an entire house and the inevitable will happen: I'll redecorate and remember that the candlestick I blithely gave away would have looked perfect on that new table. I'll suddenly have a slew of meetings and won't have a thing to wear to them. My son will sob when he's looking for that favourite transformer and it's gone forever. Sigh. You see what I mean about paralysis. It's enough to make you want to sit in the middle of a half-packed room and cry.

But decisions have to be made and lived with if you are going to move forward with your life. Knowing this tendency of mine to go straight to being overwhelmed before I even start making decisions I have trained myself to think: "One room at a time. One box at a time. One item at a time." I can't tell you how that mantra has saved my sanity over the last few weeks.

So, what does this have to do with writing, you ask?

Well, when you start writing a book it seems like a huge mountainous task that would be impossible to complete. But, just like organizing a move, a little thought and preparation can help you break free of the paralysis. For example, think when you're preparing to write a book

One room at a time means Chapters: What does this one chapter have in it? What places and people are there to be organized?

One box at a time means Characters: Who is your main character? Who are their friends? What are the things that are most important to those characters that must go into that box?

One item at a time means Plot/Goal: What single most important thing does your main character want in this chapter? Keep that one item (your character's core goal) safe and secure and treasured. All the other stuff you can trash or donate (set it aside in another Word document if you don't want to let it go right away) But make sure you keep that one item safe and always know exactly where and what it is.

In this way, using this mantra, you can work through the house that is your book keeping the most important things and not worrying about what you've donated or trashed. One chapter - i.e. one room - at a time. Before you know it you'll have filled an entire house of rooms with neatly packed boxes.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go pack another box.


  1. Life is a metaphor for writing. Almost everything I do! But this is great! We've lived in our house 8 years and I'm trying to throw stuff out bit by bit because its driving me crazy!

  2. Hi Laura! Ain't it the truth, sister. Seems every obstacle I come across in life teaches me a lesson about writing. Good luck on your house cleaning!

  3. love the analogy, Nelsa. keep at it, woman :)

  4. Great analogy.

    I think writing has helped me in other areas of my life, because I notice that I'm better at tackling projects and working on things piecemeal, same as my writing.

  5. Hi Stephanie! I'm keeping at it, buddy. But boy oh boy does it suck.

    Hey, Medeia! It's so true - when I think I can't possibly tackle a huge problem I remember, "Hey. I wrote a novel. Heck, several novels. If I can do that, shoot, nothing else seems that hard."