Waiting for perfection?

high standards are great. But too-high standards can stop you cold.

In Finishing School, Danelle Morton and I show you how to keep moving. we identify the crazy thoughts that stop you and offer a way to keep going and finish your work.

Dealing with time itself: How Finishing School helps

During the twelve years from 2001 to 2013 when I was writing the daily “Since You Asked” advice column for Salon.com, I had a 3pm deadline every day.

That was great. I knew the one thing I had to do and I could handle that. Like the writer Rafael Alvarez said to me once, “Every day, I have to catch one fish.” That was my situation. Every day, I had one thing to do: Write a column. For a writer like me, that was bliss. A staff writing job is great. My whole life can revolve around one creative act.

But then I lost that job.

The world was no longer cooperating with my creative needs, giving me exactly the setting I needed to produce my best work.

What can I do? The problem isn’t me. I’m fine! The problem is the world. The world is the problem. I can’t change the world. All I can do is cope with the world. To do that, I need a simple method I can follow, imperfectly at times, over the course of a lifetime.

That is why I invented Finishing School. It helps creative people like me schedule time and define tasks in a way that works for them.

Finishing School isn’t for everyone. The excellent time management methods already out there work just fine for many people.

Not for you and me, though. Time management doesn’t really work for us. I’m not sure why. It may be that we crave the interesting and time management is not interesting, whereas the process we use in Finishing School actually is interesting–to us, anyway. To me and the others who use it, the process is motivating and pleasant. We do not get down on ourselves about our failings to be completely logical and regular. We allow for the natural tendency to veer off; we congratulate each other on being creative and irregular, and we celebrate our natural tendencies to veer off; we recognize that this is part of the priceless gift we have of being creative.

But we also recognize that this part of ourselves, this creative quirk, this temperamental difference, can also prevent us from finishing our work and bringing it out to the world. For that reason, we have the Finishing School method that keeps us on track.

But duh. It doesn’t always work the way you hope it will.

Today, for instance, I had made a plan with my Finishing School buddy to sit down here at my desk at 9 a.m. and work out a schedule for the week, and then work on the selection from the novel that I plan to send to agents this week.

Did I mention I’m living in Italy?

I like to start the day with a walk and then come home to write. But returning home after looking out over the gorgeous Val di Chio, coming up Corso Italia here in Castiglion Fiorentino I came to Piazza del Municipio and there was the monthly mercato, the flea market filled with fascinating things. And there, the first booth I saw, were two chairs and a desk, and we have been talking about getting two small chairs for the bedroom, and a desk for my downstairs office. They were really cheap–at least by San Francisco standards. The chairs were €25 apiece and the desk was €17. Plus they had jeans and knicknacks, and across from their booth was a table where a man was selling Italian books about artists. I already had the Alberto Bruni book but he had a book about local ceramicist and painter  Tommaso Musarra. So one thing led to another and I showed Norma the chairs and so we bought them and took them home and then went to Bar Maro for pastries and coffee. I had a cornetto con arancia, a pastry with orange marmalade inside, and te nero, black tea. Then we had to walk down Corso Italia to get the International New York Times and Norma had to charge her cell phone at the Tabaccheria, and there were more doodads and paintings to look at, and one painting really caught my eye. So we bought the newspaper and then went to charge Norma’s phone and on the way back the man with the painting that caught my eye stopped us in the street and began extolling the virtues of the painting and the artist, Gino Tassinari (1920-2001), and he wanted €60 so I started to walk up the street and then it went down to €50 and I really loved this painting so I bought it. And then my allowance was spent, except for buying the book about Tommaso Musarra for €3.

And then we came home.

After having such fun out in the air in our beautiful town, when I thought of settling down to look at my calendar and make a schedule, I felt awful. Dreary. Nah. Don’t wanna. I really didn’t want to do it. So I picked a fight with my wife instead. I’m so mature. That was really fun, fighting about where to hang the pictures.

But I kid. The point is that personal motivational styles have a profound influence on how we get tasks done. I really did not want to sit down and make out a schedule.

So I compromised. I wrote this blog post. And the first thing I did, while writing this blog post, was think about the song “Time is On My Side” by the Rolling Stones, and so I had to listen to that song, and then it segued into “Wild Horses,” which, if you’ve ever actually read the lyrics while listening to the song, you realize it’s really quite sad and interesting …

You can see how much I’m getting done. It’s a wonder the book got written at all. But Danelle and I used the Finishing School method every week to stay on track. And that’s how we got it done.




Time to Talk About the Family

Every year around this time when I (Cary) was writing the Since You Asked advice column for Salon.com I would start getting letters from people about their families. At the same time, after taking Pat Schneider’s Amherst Writers and Artists workshop in Berkeley California I had begun leading writing workshops and finding that around this time of year we start writing about our families and remembering things that happened, and fighting with our families and reliving old wounds and conflicts.

It’s never a bad time to write about your family! But it’s always difficult, distressing and surprising. Danelle and I wrote this chapter in the book — well, Danelle wrote it, actually, but I mean, we included it in the book because these things can stop us from finishing:

  • hidden or buried feelings about family
  • worries what is OK to say and not say,
  • worries about whom we must protect and how,
  • worries about who may be hurt,
  • difficulty handling the surprising memories that surface as we begin writing.

All thee things make writing about the family rewarding but fraught with peril. You can read all about it in the book. Which, incidentally, since we’re coming up on the holidays:

It makes a great gift for that special someone!–CT

I hate that question “Why Aren’t You Done Yet?!”

It’s only been like 22 years.

What happened was a few years ago I had a big realization, one of those realizations that shocks you, sits you down, makes you shake when you realize out of nowhere that you are repeating the mistakes of your father that you swore to avoid. That you have designed your life around avoiding.

My father didn’t finish things.

I have avoided his fate in many ways. He only dabbled in journalism. I made it a career. He loved to perform but rarely did so. I made a habit of performing as often as possible. He had musical talent but never formed a band or joined a group. I formed a band, wrote songs, sang, made a record. He got divorced when he couldn’t make his relationship work. I have dedicated myself to making my relationship work and staying married.

Then one day I realized I had been working on the same novel for 18 years and was not so much closer to finishing it. I was leading Amherst Writers and Artists-style workshops which had freed up my creative imagination and my prose style, but I was still not completing work and sending it out for publication. I was sticking to my day job as an advice columnist for Salon.com which was great, a real gift, but I needed to face facts. I needed to find a method that would help me finish things and keep me from going down that same sad path of half-ass self-delusional tinkering that my dad went down, bless his heart, lovely man, deserved better in a lot of ways.

So I came up with this  workshop idea and method, borrowed from experience and from sources too numerous to mention, and then my friend Danelle Morton, a very experienced and highly professional journalist and book collaborator and consultant, got herself in a tangle where she couldn’t finish a certain thing, and so she took a chance on this little group I had going, and so it worked for her, so we said, let’s write a book together about this method, and that’s what we did.

And I’m getting stuff finished.

But I still hate it when people ask. So don’t ask. I’ll get it done and then I’ll tell you.



What do I need to know … *FOR THIS STORY?*

Our chapter IN THE FINISHING SCHOOL BOOK “I’ll never know enough, so why even start?” HELPS YOU GET OVER THAT FEAR THAT you don’t KNOW ENOUGH TO BEGIN.




How not to insult your friend by giving her a “self-help” book

So here is the thing about giving somebody the Finishing School book as a gift and being afraid they’ll think you think they have a problem. The implication being they need help.

Say you have a friend who has a really bad-sounding, nasal, very unpleasant voice and a few unpleasant vocal habits like a screeching laugh and a way of snorting when she wants to make a point, a snorting that is just very annoying and you have seen other people blanch and look away or put their forks down and pat their lips or just walk away and so you know your friend is being laughed at and ridiculed behind her back and you would like to help her so you buy her a self-help book called “Change That Annoying Nasal Voice!” or “Stop Your Honking.”

That’s a terrible thing to do. But Finishing School is not really a self-help book. It is a guide to starting a movement in which people come together to help each other. And behind it is not the assumption that you have a problem but the assumption that you are working on something great that deserves to be completed and with the help of the method and the group this thing can be completed.

What you are saying to another person when you give them this book as a gift is that you believe in their greatness and you want to see this thing they are working on come to fruition.

Also, giving this book as a gift shows that you have exquisite taste.


“I know somebody who needs this book!” she shouted

This is the book that shows you how to get any project finished while helping others finish theirs.

Our literary agent’s assistant was down the hall making copies of the  proposal for this book and that’s when the shouting started:
“I have to give this book to somebody! I know three people I have to give this book to!”

We get it. We all know a few people we’d like to give this book to. So here’s a suggestion: Think of a friend or family member with an unfinished project or who just can’t ever get around to finishing anything, and click on this link. –Cary T.

Smash the oligarchy, finish your novel, de-clutter your workspace and make new friends: Here’s how!

Listening to Rachel Maddow this morning, I HAD AN INSIGHT:

Finishing School can be a powerful tool for political action!

Think about it: In Finishing School we break down big goals into little tasks.

Then we agree with someone else to do these things at a certain time.

Then we watch with pleasure as all these little completed tasks turn into major accomplishments.

It began as a method for writers. But has been used for all kinds of things.

In fact, it’s ideally suited for political activism.

Political activism is a big project that depends on many small discrete actions. Some of these are, frankly, not all that exciting to do.

Say you need to call your congressional representative but you haven’t done it yet. You can connect with your Finishing School buddy and say,

“at 1 o’clock on Thursday I am going to make a phone call to my representative.”

That’s the Finishing School method in a nutshell.

Get the book and learn more.

You will learn things like, why we schedule more time than we think will be needed.

Here are some reasons:

  • Maybe you are a little nervous about doing it and need a few minutes to get settled in.
  • Maybe you want to make a note of exactly what you’re going to say.
  • Maybe you want to get a cup of coffee.
  • Maybe you do it right away and then get fired up after the first call and want to make more and so you have some extra time to keep going.
  • Maybe you find that you don’t even know for sure who your representative is or what their number is and you have to find that, and in finding that you call someone with whom you then chat for 15 or 20 minutes and then something happens and your two hours is interrupted.

But you still have time!

Danelle Morton and I wrote a whole book about this method but it’s really very simple: Set a time, notify a buddy, and do the thing!
Oh—and when you’re done with the time period you have set, then you also contact your buddy and say you’re done. That’s it.–ct

Does checking in with Twitter work just as well?

In using the Finishing School check-in method, I wondered if using Twitter be just as effective as checking in with my one creative buddy.

My conclusion: Nope. Tweeting a check-in is not as effective as checking in with one individual and having it reciprocated.

For the check-in to work, it has to be acknowledged and reciprocated. Someone has to read  or hear your check-in and acknowledge it and then do the same thing. Otherwise, you’re just sending something out. The behavior is not reinforced. You don’t get acknowledgment and reciprocation. The energy is not reflected back to you.

When someone checks in with you and says, “I’m doing this creative work and I’m starting now,” and you acknowledge that, bang, in that moment, you experience the knowledge that somebody is doing a thing that is a good thing, a thing you support, a thing that is the very thing you also want to be doing. You experience a moment of hope: If this person is doing it, then I can, too. Moreover, since this person is doing it, I sort of feel like I should be doing it, too. I want to be in the game.

Responding is key. Do I hear back from the Twitter world? Not really. It’s not a one-to-one thing. Do I know who is reading that tweet? Not really. Do I know it’s a person who knows me and knows what I am up to and supports me in it, and is doing the same thing? Not really. It’s not a definite, clear transaction.

Pairing off with a creative buddy and communicating one-to-one works best.

So get a creative buddy who will notify you when he or she is beginning work, and agree to notify each other. It doesn’t have to be a long thing. Just, Hey, I’m starting work! And then, Hey, I’m done for now, I did my thing, I’m logging off!