How to Finish A Novel (Or Anything Big).

I’ve been in a weird season of my life. If I could start with this time last year, and walk you moment by moment to today, I think the conversation would end with your jaw wide open. Seriously. The ups and downs have knocked me around so much that at times, I didn’t think I would be able to get up off the floor.

But sometimes faith is just that. It’s getting up. Again and again and again.

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the book i just finished. hopefully it’ll get published. we shall see.

I made no resolutions for 2016. I didn’t promise myself to finish the novel I’ve been working on. (I’d promised myself that in 2013, 2014, and 2015—by this year, I’d learned my lesson.) If it finished, it finished. If it kept festering and growing and changing, well then, so be it.

I didn’t plan. That was hard for me. I’m a planner. I like to know what’s coming. Better yet, I like to construct what’s coming. But the back-half of 2015 taught me that nothing is in my control. So without a plan, I started 2016, and quickly, all of my fears were realized. Things fell apart. Emotions I’d buried deep under the surface came to the surface. With no tasks to complete or boxes to check or doctors to visit, all I had left was me and my straight-up confused mind to contend with. What I had left was grief.

I don’t know how other people finish novels. I’ve heard of people “sitting in a chair” at 9 a.m. every day with a word count goal in mind. I’ve heard of people breaking up the story into small, manageable assignments. I’ve heard of an author that put on mechanic’s jumpsuit everyday to remind himself that he, too was a tradesman. I’ve heard of people renting out hotel rooms or cabins in the woods to crank out drafts. None of that worked for me. (Although, to be fair, I never tried the jumpsuit.)

To finish the novel, I had to do two things: (1) accept incoming encouragement and (2) face my own grief. Maybe it’s presumptuous. But I think those two pillars are the foundation of any big creative endeavor.

Accepting encouragement is not easy to do. First, it requires that you share your work. That means at some point you have to click save, export the file, attach it to an email, press send, and then proceed to freak out. Are they reading it right now? What do they think? If they’re not reading it, they probably never will. People are too busy these days to read rusty manuscripts anyway. Why did I even send it? They probably hate it, and if they hate it, it’s going to put them in such an awkward position. What do you say to a friend who has worked on something for three years, only to find out that it sucks? It is at about this point that I start wishing Gmail had an “unsend” button. But it doesn’t. Thank God.

When encouragement comes, you have to believe that the encourager is telling the truth. This is hard. We live in a society that believes that white lies are acceptable. Knowing I live in that kind of society makes me think twice when you say you liked my novel. Telling me you loved my manuscript is the equivalent of saying, ‘No way! You definitely don’t look fat in that dress.’ I want to believe you, but I’m just not so sure I’ve put you in a position to be honest with me. Lie and say you love it, and I’ll think you’re lying. Honestly say you love it, and I’ll think you’re lying, too. Sure, I’m probably right half the time, but I get no further in the draft. And that’s the whole point… to get further on in the journey.

Here’s what I’ve learned: you need two groups of encouragers. First: people who haven’t been afraid to correct you on your shit in the past because you know they aren’t afraid to hurt you. Second: people who don’t really know you and have no “dog in the hunt” so to speak. Those two groups are GREAT for encouragement. But the middle group: acquaintances, fellow writers, neighbors, friends who are really nice… those are the people that you might as well not even share your work with. Not yet anyway. They probably don’t feel free to give you honest feedback, and you won’t believe what they have to say anyway. Send to your work to these people, and you’ll just have wasted everyone’s time.

But real encouragement filled with some ideas for improvement is like medicine to a writer’s soul. It makes the writing worth it. It makes the process far less painful. And speaking of pain…

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me, crying real tears of sadness as I write the last few chapters of a very hard story.

 

To finish something great, you must face your grief. The world is full of distractions that seek to pull us out of our pain into comfort. But unfortunately, as mentioned above, meaningful work is painful. It’s toil. It’s training. It’s sweat and tears. It’s the montage that most movies pass over quickly and add inspiring music to, because if they were to show the REAL slog, the movie would take too long and people would walk out.

Us creative-types try to tackle the pain of our work while simultaneously avoiding the pain of our past. Hear me on this. THAT. DOES. NOT. WORK.

During that time between the starting and the finishing, any unaddressed pain from the past will come to the surface. It just will. And suddenly, giving into comfort becomes the only way to survive. The pain (of our work) goes untouched. The pain (of our past) is ignored. And meanwhile, we push fragments of glass pieces around on the table, imagining that we’re making progress, while we indulge in wine, alcohol, shopping, or any other addiction to pass the time. I say this with kindness. It’s not inherently wrong to find comfort, but comfort is the enemy of progress and growth. And if you want to finish a novel, you’re not going to do it at the mall.

But while you’re at the mall… or while you’re pouring that drink… you might as well think about why you’re there. (This, as it turns out, is the progress.) What is the pain that you haven’t addressed? What grief or sorrow or shattered dream haven’t you looked at in the face? If we aren’t able to weep over the difficult things of our own lives, we won’t adequately connect or inspire others as they muddle through theirs.

For me, facing my own grief has meant a lot of tears. A lot of counseling. A lot of time with people that have a lot of patience for me. It also has meant having very hard conversations with the people I love (and hurt) the most. It’s meant taking my hurt and pain to God and asking what he wants to give me instead. It’s releasing that pain so that I can re-engage with the pain of work, without feeling overwhelmed.

So there you have it. To finish any big work of art… hear encouragement, face your own grief in the face, and then sit down and get to work.

Good luck. Grab the tissues. You can do it.

Lying, Cheating, Stealing and Tolerating Those Who Do.

Most people who know me know that I grew up at West Point, home to the U.S. Military Academy. I tell people it was a lot like living at Hogwarts—huge stone buildings. Young, talented kids in uniform. Skydivers jumping out of planes. The occasional explosion. I got to watch all that magic from the sidelines.

West Point has educated countless leaders over the course of our nation’s history. Presidents. Generals. Business executives. (Dozens of my extremely bad-ass friends.) And one thing that’s always stuck out to me about the cadet experience is just how seriously the Academy takes its honor code.

“A Cadet Will Not Lie, Cheat, Steal or Tolerate Those Who Do.”

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I’ve been putting off this essay because I don’t really want to delve into political waters. But after the events of this week (re: Melania Trump and/or her speechwriter plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech) I couldn’t stay silent anymore.

As I watch the news, I can’t help but feel like we’ve come to a point in American history when people don’t really know what honor is. It seems like all anyone does is lie, cheat, steal and tolerate it in others. Donald Trump cheats workers out of money. Hillary Clinton lies about her dereliction of duty over Benghazi. Police officers steal breath right out of the lungs of black men. Olympic teams pump steroids.

And meanwhile, most Americans look on and sigh. We tolerate it. We shrug about it. We move on. Or, if we’re outraged, we’re only outraged about whatever we’ve decided is the most wrong.

“A cadet will not lie (too much), cheat (too much), steal (too much), or tolerate those that do (too much).” That wouldn’t be a very good honor code because it bakes valuation into the equation. If the bad isn’t too bad, then it’s not that bad.

But there are no gradations of integrity. From the smallest “pop-off” answer that seems easier than explaining the whole truth, to the biggest cover-up designed to protect your ass over all others, a lie is the most basic breach of trust. It’s taking reality into your own hands and pretending you can change it. Ultimately, telling a lie means that you’ve put your own reputation, story, or ego ahead of anyone else.

The same goes for cheating. A cheater believes that personal gain, glory or pleasure is the ultimate prize. A cheater believes that his time is more valuable than yours. A cheater believes his sweat is more valuable than yours. A cheater believes that his pleasure is more important than your pain.

If lying and cheating are products of pride, stealing is the result of insecurity. People who steal don’t believe they are capable of the hard work necessary to achieve. Melania Trump (or her writers) didn’t believe they were capable of original ideas, so they stole someone else’s. Rapists don’t believe they can achieve pleasure or intimacy on their own, so they take it by force. It’s hopelessness, taken to the extreme.

Taken together, lying, cheating and stealing represent three vices that over-value or de-value a human life. Dishonorable people forget the central tenet of American ideology. We are all created in the image of God. We were all created equal.

That’s why honor matters. Because it is the backbone of justice.

Honor is being willing to admit the truth rather than lie, fail rather than cheat, and come up short rather than steal.

Honor is the courage to look a fool.

Honor is the ability to put someone else’s needs before your own.

Honor is choosing the harder right instead of the easier wrong.

Honor is believing there is a right worth choosing.

There are none of us who haven’t broken this honor code. I’m a liar, cheater, and a thief. I’ve done it all. I’ve also asked for forgiveness rather than doubling down on my pride.

My hope is that sometime in the future, we will have leaders in America who do the same.

Just Press Send

I am not a shy person.

Call it extrovertedness. Call it being an Army brat. Call it a desperate need for approval. But if I walk into a room of strangers, I will be the first person to walk up to someone I don’t know, put out my hand, and say—Hi, I’m Claire. What’s your name? I think that actually may be the first full sentence I ever spoke.

Regardless of my desperate need to be liked (see video above), I sincerely enjoy meeting new people. Learning their story. But the longer I live (hello 30, I see you!)… the more I’m realizing that it’s hard to tell mine.

Here’s the deal. For most people, work looks like showing up. Doing a good job. Hoping you get recognized. Leveraging that recognition into promotions or a new gig. Etc. Etc. into infinity. For creative-types, (think writers, musicians, artists, producers) work looks like showing up. Doing what you desperately hope is a good job because there’s no one out there to really compare to when you’re trying to create something new. And instead of hoping you get recognized, you must actively endeavor to be recognized, while suffering myriads of rejection.

So far, I have sent my novel-in-progress to a total of TWO agents. Both have turned it down. One never wrote me back. The other asked me to keep working and try again.

Since then…. (and it’s been about a year)… I’ve been in a hellish hole of self-doubt, unable to hit send. The Army brat in me is dying to reach across the room and introduce myself. The creative in me is desperately trying to find a hole to crawl in where I can avoid disappointment. It’s kind of a cluster-f#$% in my head, if you can imagine.

But today. I’m hitting send. On an email to an agent. On this blog post. Because hey. Why not. What’s the worst thing that can happen?

You don’t like me?

Ha! Do I need to be liked? Absolutely not. I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I have to be liked. But it’s not like this compulsive need to be liked, like my need to be praised…