Ann Patchett wrote in her new book, The Story of a Happy Marriage, about thinking up stories in her head while waiting tables early in her writing career. She perfected this technique to the point where she was able to, essentially, write entire novels in her head before scribing them on a keyboard.
I wish I could do that! Oh, I can write in my head – I just can’t get through the “scribing” part.
I can’t tell you how many blog posts I’ve written over the last two months. You won't read any of them, though. Admittedly, it has been a strangely busy time. I lost the entire month of April, going to Florida while my 93-year-old mother began a remarkable recovery from abdominal surgery and then accompanying her on a long-planned trip to see her sister in Oklahoma at the end of the month. Then, last week, there was our trip to Asheville to celebrate my daughter Allison’s becoming a Master of Social Work – Phi Alpha honor society, straight As, what an achievement!
All those trips, and the events they surrounded, gave me lots to write about. And I did! I constructed entire blog posts about resilience, determination, living independently when you’re “old as dirt,” realizing dreams when you don’t have enough money or time to be comfortable, observations on parenting a teen and preschooler at the same time, Oklahoma!, going back to work (albeit part time) after nearly two years away, passing the two-year mark after a devastating diagnosis of metastatic melanoma (later revised to melanoma of unknown primary). Just to name a few.
I might even be able to write some of them down now that I have the time. But it wouldn't be the same, because my thinking on some of these topics has changed. In some cases I know how the story ends, and it would be hard for me to write the words as though I didn't – even if I could remember them.
So yes, I can write in my head, and sometimes I can scribe what I’ve written. That's how you happen to be reading this. But, consistently? A whole story? Or a novel? I doubt it.
That’s how Ann Patchett wrote her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, which I loved. She waited tables for months while thinking it up, and then she got a fellowship on Cape Cod over the winter during which she scribed it. Somehow, she dredged up the duo of determination and discipline to make it happen.
I can't go back and reread Patchett’s essay now to check my memory because the library took back my e-book when it expired. But it's a theme she goes back to several times in this collection of essays, some of which are about her success as a writer. She talks about having the determination in high school, and then about developing the discipline that winter in Provincetown.
I have succeeded, on occasion, at things I knew I wanted to do but had failed at before, by using that same formula. In at least two cases, I had previously tried with one but not the other. I quit smoking on January 1, 1975, after 13 years of what became a pack-a-day addiction. I had the discipline to do it before, but didn't really develop the determination until Robert and I decided to have a baby. That New Year’s resolution was easy to keep – I quit cold-turkey, knowing that I didn’t want to be pregnant with my lungs clogged up like that.
Losing weight was a different story. I was determined to do it for a long time, but didn’t begin to succeed until I found a system that would allow me to be disciplined about it. I can’t say it was easy, but I dropped more than 20 pounds by consistently tracking calories and making sure I kept below my limit.
Determination and discipline. I know those are keys to my ability to achieve hard things. My thanks to Ann Patchett for helping me figure that out.