You Can Count on Me

A few summers ago, I painted my deck. I thought I’d pop out one afternoon and paint it while listening to a ball game. I had a gallon of paint and a brush, put on some flip-flops and cut-offs, and I was set.

Several hours later, I’d painted the railing and a few slats. Those slats proved more work than they seemed… each one had to be carefully painted, the brush swirled and daubed into its little crooks and nannies. Er, nooks and crannies. I had made practically no progress, what I had done looked shoddy, and the Twins had lost. The whole thing made me cross. I capped up the paint can and washed out the brush and probably didn’t paint another slat for two months.

Well, eventually, late in the summer, I decided that the deck looked worse with a few painted slats than it did before. It betrayed my quitting attitude to the neighborhood. In what may have been the hottest August in Minneapolis history, and one of the longest Twins losing streaks in recent memory, I went out every evening after work and painted while I listened to the miserable ball games. It was a joyless experience, and I survived it only by stopping every half hour or so to count the painted slats, just to confirm I was making progress. Eventually I finished a coat. The deck probably could have used another coat (it certainly could now), but at least it looked finished from a distance.

A lot of my writing projects went the same way as my first afternoon of painting. I’d get a bright idea, and could almost close my eyes and see the finished product, from the cover to the blurbs on the back promising readers a captivating story by a bold new talent in fiction. Why, this baby will practically write itself, I’d tell myself. I’d set aside an afternoon and put on some music and settle down to crank it out… and, several hours later, find myself staring in frustration at a few shoddy pages. For most of my 20s, those efforts would get stuffed aside “for now,” and left to moulder in a drawer somewhere.

At some point I decided to resign myself to the drudgery of writing a few hundred words a day. I did daily word counts just to mark my progress, like counting the painted slats on my deck, and entered them into my journal. The book grew, slat by slat, until it was done. As it turned out, it needed a second coat, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth, and a seventh. Those coats went on the same way as the first: a slat at a time.

I now use a little word meter gadget to get a daily snapshot, settling for the minute satisfaction of watching the little bar move forward.

Success is the growth of a tree, goes a Chinese proverb, and not the flight of a goose. That might be the most important lesson I’ve learned, not just about writing, but about life in general. If I were a better artist, I would trade this mean little meter for images of a tree that grows and flourishes with every increment.

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