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Rhonda Herrington Bulmer
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February 9th, 2019
Out of your head and on the page
by Rhonda Herrington Bulmer

We raised our children in a small historic village in New Brunswick, close to the Nova Scotia border. In the decades before Confederation, Dorchester was a rich place, filled with marine lawyers and shipbuilders and wealthy homes. By the time we lived there it was far less influential, but it was home to one wise and capable senior by the name of Betty Adams.

Betty had grown up on a farm and could do just about anything, from shearing sheep and spinning the wool and dyeing it with the juice from onion skins, to making Victorian costumes by hand. She was keen to teach me how to quilt, and so one day we were gathered with friends around a giant quilt frame in a large upstairs room at the Sir Pierre-Amand Landry House. My three-year old daughter played on the floor underneath the quilt while Betty attempted to guide me through making seven neat stitches per inch.

“Now, Rhonda,” Betty said, in her blunt way, “I know you are a perfectionist, but my mother had a saying. She always said, ‘Children and fools judge things half-done.’”

I smiled to myself, because Betty was so good at everything she did it was hard for me to believe any of her work would be anything less than perfect. I never did catch the bug for quilting that day, but I didn’t forget the adage, because it has helped me see every writing project through to the end.

I always tell myself, “I’ll judge it at the end. Not in the middle.”

habit of excellence

Occasionally, we are all presented with projects that simultaneously excite and terrify us. If you’ve ever had it in the back of your mind to write the great Canadian novel, or if you are called on to write things that you find difficult to finish, here are a few tips to encourage you.

1. Make the commitment to yourself. Unless you’re an experienced writer (or a genius), I’d say that first drafts are generally not great. The point is not to be perfect. The point is to finish. That means you come up with a basic, working story structure and complete it.

I have many files on my laptop filled with half-finished short stories. I lose steam in the middle, because a great idea or a scene is not a plot. But if you finish what you start and you do it over and over again, the quality of your first drafts will improve.

2. Don’t be afraid to set a big goal. But make the goal just beyond your reach, not unreasonably so, otherwise you’ll be discouraged. You need to build on prior experience. For example, a few years ago, I sent my first novel to an editor in New York who was evaluating self-published novels for a nationwide contest. She wrote back and said that the writing was good, but it didn’t have enough subplots to support the main story.

I have kept that in mind ever since, and my current novel is the most complicated thing I’ve done so far, with so many threads that I’ll have to cut quite a bit out in subsequent revisions if they don’t fit, or if I can’t tie them all together. But hey, I did it—it definitely has subplots. Every time you take on a new project, you develop as a writer.

3.Rituals help. I need a quiet room with no distractions. I like to feel shut away from the world, but this can be difficult to achieve in a small house with no private office. I also find that I need background noise to drown out the sounds of my sometimes-raucous family—or even my own wandering thoughts. Baroque music is perfect for me, because its rhythm is about 60 beats per minute, approximating a resting heartbeat. For this reason, it’s supposed to aid restful concentration. When I tire of that, I play rain and thunderstorm background noises. They remind me of childhood summers at the cottage, when I read by the window on rainy days.

And I burn beeswax candles, because I love the comforting smell of warm honey that fills the air as they melt. Whatever you do, the goal is to build an atmosphere that fosters intimacy between you and the blank page.

4.Slow and steady wins the race. Many creative types like me are not orderly people. Our offices are a mess and so is our project management. If you are the type to breakdown your current Work in Progress by task using your best pal The Big Green Spreadsheet, well done you. And if you can follow through on those tasks and meet your deadline, than maybe you don’t need me to tell you what to do.

Those industrious kinds of methods are useful if a deadline has been imposed upon you, but if there is no deadline—meaning, if it’s just a personal goal—it can be harder to keep a schedule.

Because who cares if you finish or not? Only you.

One of my dear friends is a professional musician and piano teacher, and she would always tell me (and my girls, who took lessons from her years ago) that 15 minutes of practice per day is better than two hours, once a week. She explained it was because our brains don’t respond best to cramming. We retain knowledge best with short, regular bursts of repetition, and the gradual addition of new information.

I think the same is true for me when I’m writing. If I only write 200 words a day, five days a week, it only adds up to 1,000 words. It doesn’t seem like much. But it adds up faster than if I expect myself to produce that much all at once on a Saturday—which often doesn’t occur at all. Two hundred words is not intimidating, and on good days, I’ll find myself writing a bit more. Maybe a lot more, who knows?

A small word count is less intimidating, and it helps me overcome the demon of procrastination that has plagued me all my life. If the project is too big or too difficult, I simply put it off. Many people are much more productive than I am, and maybe not so easily tossed by the winds of stress and activity. I need a quiet mind, at rest from the cares of the world.

But then again, that’s where discipline comes in.

Because when is your world or mine ever carefree and quiet? Almost never.

Growth comes when despite the odds, we create ex nihilo—from nothing—because if we do it once, we’ve proved to ourselves that we can do it again. Some of us thrive on the chaos and create amid the noise and circumstances, and some of us manage to create despite them.

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