“The biggest thing separating people from their artistic ambitions…”

The biggest thing separating people from their ambitions ... | Modern Mrs Darcy

” … is not a lack of talent. It’s the lack of a deadline. Give someone an enormous task, a supportive community, and a friendly-yet-firm due date, and miracles will happen.”

So says Chris Baty, in his book No Plot?, No Problem!, also known as the NaNoWriMo handbook.

(NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, which happens each November. Participants commit to writing a 50,000 word rough draft between November 1 and November 30.)

I’m inclined to agree.

NaNoWriMo calls itself a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to writing a novel, so it seems appropriate that I decided at the very last minute to go for it.

In the kitchen Saturday morning, after I’d done my first 1,667 word session, Will asked me what the point was. Why write a novel in a month?

Many people do it for fun; many do it for the community aspect. Many more people seize the opportunity to move another bucket list item from “someday” to “now.”

I can’t speak for everyone, but I know exactly why I want to do it, and it has everything to do with personality.

I’m an INFP, heavy on the “P.” I’m terrific at endlessly generating ideas (or characters, themes, and plot points) but terrible at committing to one course of action and following through. (As the authors of Creative You put it: “I’m an endless lightning storm of ideas, but the bolts don’t often strike the ground.”)

Trying to commit to a single course of action (or, in this case, a single story arc) brings out all my worst perfectionistic tendencies. I get paralyzed with indecision thinking about the infinite possibilities for a first line, an opening scene, an inciting incident.

This is where deadlines come in.

I need deadlines. I love deadlines, because they help me follow through.

The goal of NaNoWriMo isn’t to write a good novel, it’s to write a 50,000 word rough draft in a very short—probably too short—window. My goal isn’t to write something good, it’s to write 50,000 more-or-less coherent words. Most of it will be crap. Knowing that frees me to actually begin.

(I’d be very curious to hear more about why other NaNoWriMo writers’ personalities and why they choose to participate.)

By the way, I read No Plot?, No Problem! in preparation for NaNoWriMo (if you can call skimming it the night before “preparation,” and while it’s known as the NaNo handbook and has some good tips, there are other books on writing I’d recommend with a lot more confidence.

I love Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k (65 pages, Kindle only, $0.99), which is aimed at fiction writers but is equally applicable to nonfiction, and Marion Roach’s The Memoir Project, which addresses creative nonfiction but is equally applicable to fiction.

I keep coming back to The Getaway Car, Bird by Bird, and Stephen Pressfield (especially Do the Work). I’d like to be able to recommend On Writing Well by William Zinsser, but I haven’t read it yet. (Don’t worry: I have a deadline for that, and I’ll have it read before the year is out.)

I’d love to hear about your relationship with deadlines, your experience with NaNoWriMo, and your favorite books on writing in comments. 

Halloween: love it or hate it?

This post originally ran on October 28, 2011, but it still perfectly captures my thoughts about this season.

Halloween: love it or hate it?

Nobody I know is lukewarm about Halloween:  they either love it or they hate it.

There is a lot about Halloween that I don’t like.  Its got a shady past, for starters.  And all the scary decorations my neighbors have in their front yards—which have been on sale at Target since August 1—have me driving home with my kids in a weird, fuel-inefficient, zigzaggy pattern so I can bypass the seriously scary yards in favor of the relatively innocuous ghost trees and giant inflatable black cats.

Costumes for kids are generally cute and fun. But costumes for adults range from the objectionable to the awkward (I am shocked at the number of people coming to my site searching “matching girl and dog Kate Middleton costumes.” What does that even mean?)  Top choices for women this year include “sexy queen bee,” “sexy pirate,” and “Jersey Shore.”

And the candy! My kids have a fair number of food sensitivities, and I’ve spent hours answering questions like “Why can’t we have twinkies? Why can’t we eat skittles?” Am I really going to send my kids out to canvas the neighborhood for smarties and laffy taffy by the bucketful?

Well, yes. Yes I am.

Because Halloween is the one day of the year where our neighbors come to our doorstep, and we visit theirs. And I love that about Halloween.

We don’t live in a real tight-knit neighborhood. We know all (well, most) of our neighbor’s first names, but not their last.  I only have a few phone numbers.

But on Halloween, the kids love to don their costumes. They’ve been planning for months—this year we’ve got a football player, Little Red Riding Hood, a princess of some sort, and a puppy dog. We’ll ring the doorbells and take it slowly and chat with the neighbors, and we will make sure we visit the families who’ve only recently moved in. It’s tricky—because we try to avoid the super-scary decorations—but we’ll do our best.

And at my house, we’ll be ready and waiting with our porch lights on and good candy (or glowsticks) in our bucket.

Because there’s only one day a year when the neighborhood comes to our doorstep, and it’s Halloween.  I love that about Halloween and I don’t want to miss it.

Where do you stand on Halloween?  Love it or hate it?

photo by Halloween Haunt

Pets, personality, and the faces we deserve.


Last week we took our dog to church.

The Episcopal church follows the lectionary, and the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost belongs to St. Francis of Assisi. Though best known for his solidarity with the poor, legend has it that Francis could also talk to animals. In honor of St. Francis, everyone got to bring their dogs and cats, bunnies and hamsters, turtles and guinea pigs to church last week.

We’d been to this particular service, held annually, once before. Oddly, it was the first service we attended at what was to become our church: we showed up on a Sunday morning to find the service was in the gym, and everyone had their pets with them. It was unexpected and a little nuts and a very fun and unthreatening way to ease in to a new community.

Now that we knew what to expect from this special service, we were looking forward to it. What I didn’t expect, now that we know people a little better, was how interesting it would be to see everyone with their pets.

Do you remember that scene in 101 Dalmations when Pongo stares out the window and watches the dog-walkers go by, all of whom bear an eery resemblance to their owners?

That’s exactly what it felt like at church. The Great Dane owners looked like they belonged with their noble, elegant Great Danes. The collie owners looked like they belonged with their fluffy, loyal collies. The Scotty dog owners looked like they had the Scotty dog personality, even if I hadn’t recognized it before I’d seen them with their dogs.

We have a chocolate lab named Harriet. she’s placid, companionable, and loves retrieving tennis balls more than life itself. Now, of course, I’m now wondering what our choice of Harriet says about our family. Did we choose a pet that reflects our own selves back to us?

George Orwell said that by age 50, everyone has the face he deserves. Our faces are the windows to our souls, and with every day we live, we choose—with every thought we think, every decision we make—what they reveal about our innermost selves.

(For years, I inadvertently attributed this quote to Oscar Wilde—it seems like the sort of thing he would say, doesn’t it?—and pegged the year as 40. I thought about this quote a lot as I edged closer to the imagined milestone. Now I’m relieved to discover I’m not so close after all.)

In a decade and a half or so, I’ll have the face I deserve, and my personality will ostensibly be on display for all to see. In the meantime, my chocolate lab is doing the job for me.

Does your pet reflect your personality? Have you noticed that other people’s pets accurately reflect THEIR personalities?

P.S. Musings on personality, from the archives.

It happens when you’re not looking.

It happens when you're not looking | Modern Mrs Darcy

We’ve been half-heartedly searching for a new kitchen table for months.

Our old one (visible in this instagram shot) was truly terrible, not for how it looks, but for how it functions. The table was literally somebody else’s junk: my parents’ old tenants left it behind when they moved out of their rental house, because it wasn’t worth moving. I don’t remember how it ended up in our old basement, but it spent a good 5+ years there, buried under craft supplies.

We weren’t planning on moving it to the new house—it was destined for Goodwill, if not the dumpster—but at the last minute decided to use it as a stand-in for the new IKEA table we planned to pick up within weeks of the move. The new table was a top 5 priority.

But we soon discovered our space was just a little too snug to accommodate the table I’d picked out, and finding one that worked was tough. My casual searches didn’t turn up anything that was the right size, the right style, and the right price.

Now that we’ve been in our house five months, I was more than ready to cross this item off the list. (Top 5 priority—ha!)

I didn’t like our kitchen table, but Will hated it with a fiery passion. He was in Seattle for business last week, and I wanted to surprise him with a new one when he got home. (Not everyone likes that kind of surprise, but he hates making house decisions even more than I do: he just wanted it done.)

So for weeks, I looked and I looked and I looked, and found … nothing.

I called off the intensive search. We’d keep an eye on craigslist, or build our own if we had to. (Shudder.)

It happens when you're not looking | Modern Mrs Darcy

But then our electricity went out Friday night, and the kids and I made an impromptu Trader Joe’s run so we wouldn’t have to open the fridge.

We found a parking spot in front of the newish furniture store next door. I’d noticed it before, and the cottage-meets-modern pieces they set out on the sidewalk to lure you in.

Just inside the open door, they had a round wooden table that looked just the right size, painted a cheerful Mediterranean blue.

I pulled the kids inside. We confirmed it was the right size and within budget, and I texted photos to my friends with great taste. They approved, and on Saturday, I went back to buy it.

The table is all set up and we’re all really happy with it—even my husband (he’s home—yay!) and my child who fears change. It’s not practically perfect in every way, and it could use a glass top, but it’s 400x better than the old one, and that’s good enough for me.

The irony doesn’t escape me, but it no longer surprises me. This is far from the first time I’ve found the perfect (enough) thing when I wasn’t looking, maybe even because I wasn’t looking.

One of my mom’s rules of life is that you can’t force a shopping trip: great dresses stubbornly appear only when you don’t need them. You have to buy them anyway, because when the time comes when you actually need one you won’t be able to find one in the racks.

And I have a half-dozen friends who met their significant others at a time when they’d sworn off dating. They said they were done … and then they met someone who made them change their mind.

Maybe this is just one of the laws of the universe, like Murphy. But I’m tempted to think there’s logic behind it, as well as serendipity. When we’re looking for a table, we see tables. Lot and lots of tables, to evaluate and compare, and ultimately choose from those options.

But I wonder if our bar is higher when we’re not looking. We have to like the table (in my case) well enough to let it seize our attention, interrupt our day, pull us into the store, and inspire us to negotiate moving it home on the weekend I’m single parenting. That’s a table worth pursuing, and one I’ll (knock on wood!) be happy with.

Do you find the best stuff when you’re not looking? I’d love to hear your examples, and your theories about why it works.