I don’t know if I can do this.
I’m halfway through week two of an eight-week schedule to finish a book that my father and I have been working on for the last five years. The work has often taken on a purgatorial aspect. It’s hard to remember the time before I was working on it: I had to look up the file creation dates to learn that it was indeed five years. Well. All that is about to end. If I can do this.
Styles & Society was to be a book of photos of Vancouver’s architecture – a showcase for our excellent architectural photography, supported by a little bit of historical information for background and interest. Five years later, that little bit of historical information has metastasized into 450 pages of chapter text. Plus 80 full-page photos, each of which is accompanied by a 500-word essay. A little history has become a social history of architectural style and has further expanded to include social critique.
I get by with a little help from my friends. One of those friends is Jennifer Howd, with whom I’ve been doing a coaching exchange. Each week we meet on the phone for an hour or so and work through stuff relating to our respective projects. A couple of weeks ago, Jennifer asked me when the book would be finished. “I have no idea,” I said. “I catalogued all the work we still had to do on it and I think it’s about 25 weeks. It might be shorter and I’m afraid it might be longer. What I’d really love is to finish it by New Year’s.”
“Why don’t you?” she asked.
Damn her. “I don’t know if that’s even possible,” I said.
“Why don’t you just plan to have it done by New Year’s and work backward from there?”
I thought about what this would mean. It would mean doubling the time I worked on it each week and limiting the scope of my work to fit within the compressed schedule. It would mean saying no to a lot of invitations and a lot of leisure time. And, if it worked, it would mean singing Auld Lang Syne at some debaucherous New Year’s Party knowing that the book, the beast, the magnum opus, was done, fresh-paint shiny, idling on the runway with a full tank of gas, ready for takeoff.
“Okay,” I said.
Now, the heat is up. Each week I do bits and pieces of monkey work from Monday to Wednesday, before and after my shifts at my day job. (“Monkey work” is what I call the work that I can do when I’m tired, or when I’ve just got a few minutes: line-level editing, transcription of hardcopy markup, photoretouching, things like that.) Thursday and Friday are for the heavy lifting – the major restructuring that’s the meat of this rewrite. Saturday and Sunday are for picking up the pieces.
Week One was a near miss. I finished a structural edit of 82 pages on Victorian architecture, but didn’t get through resolving all of the zillion annotations. And I still owe a closing paragraph. Now I’m around the corner into the back of week two. My longhand edits on eleven building commentaries are mostly done, but I have structural edits on Styles and Movements (30p) and Classical Architecture (29p) that I’ve barely touched. It’s doable, but thinking about it makes my chest hurt. And Saturday/Sunday is taken up with rewrites on Shine: A Burlesque Musical and a rehearsal with the City Soul Choir.
There’s an Irish notion that after you die, you will be suspended head down in a barrel full of all the liquor you have ever spilt in your life, and if you drown, to hell with you. This schedule makes me think of that story. I can drop a few tasks on the floor to pick up later. A few. If they’re small.
One of the things that really brings me joy is to help other writers, to share what I’ve learned and catalyze something for them that helps them take their work to a higher level. In the New Year, I’ll be rolling out a project-based coaching practice for writers. And I wouldn’t be much of a coach if I couldn’t practice what I preached. I’ve made up a punishing eight-week schedule, with a ninth week for niptucks and pickups. And now I’m on the ride and I can’t get off. But this is where I like it: with my back against a nice concrete wall, cornered, nothing between me and the exit but the work.
I don’t know if I can do this. I only know that I’m doing it. Which makes the question of whether I can or not beside the point.
See you next week.