by Amy Henry
“Life is just one damn thing after another,” American writer Elbert Hubbard once observed. Ah, if only it were that simple. In my experience, life is usually dozens of damn things, converging all at once like a bad pile-up on the Interstate. But somehow, we’ve got to manage all the craziness bombarding us, so I’ve put together a little blueprint for meeting the challenge.
Two things to know here: 1) Life is always chaotic. 2) As humans, we are always trying to order this chaos. But how do you manage a thing like life? As with some fantastical dragon of yore, it seems to sprout two new heads for every one you slay. Revisions of one book teeter atop a stack of research for the rough draft of another, e-mails pile up in the Inbox, there’s nothing in the fridge for dinner, you’ve got a dental appointment, and your body is threatening mutiny if you don’t get to the gym soon. Over it all, dust settles on every surface and rolls in drifts across the floor like tumbleweed. A good day is when nothing arrives in the mail requiring your immediate attention.
Prioritizing, that mantra of you-too-can-be-organized gurus, is useful and arguably an absolute necessity when you’ve got a deadline (especially the sort involving contracts, lawyers, and money). But let’s be practical—sooner or later, someone’s gotta unload the dishwasher.
Posit #1: It is not possible to do everything at once. It is not even possible to always do the most important thing first. If you’re rushing to get edits done and the pipe bursts under the kitchen sink, are you going to finish Chapter 12 or call the plumber and start mopping?
This is where perspective comes in handy.
In the 2015 film, The Martian, during a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets struck by debris, then lost, in a whammy of a dust storm. The biometer on his spacesuit is now busted and quits chirping, leaving the rest of his crew to assume he’s dead. In peril themselves, they boogie out of there. Watney regains consciousness to find himself alone, on Mars, with no working communications gear, a length of antenna lodged in his gut, and a limited supply of food in “the Hab” (the crew’s martian living quarters). His only hope is to survive until the next scheduled crew lands at the Schiaparelli crater 2000 miles away in four years.
I would argue that life doesn’t get more challenging than that.
Posit #2: If you’ve still got most of your body parts, a working mind, and you haven’t been stranded on another planet, then there’s hope.
But it helps to recognize and respect our human limits. Multi-tasking, that great savior of the ‘80s, turns out to be more myth than fact. Our computers may be able to open 12 windows at once, but we cannot. And trying to do so just results in a lot of stress, silly mistakes, and badly-burned dinners.
Which leads to the necessity of developing some basic life philosophy about our limitations and how to deal with them.
Basic Life Philosophy
When I was raising kids and teaching school and writing a book and doing the cooking, laundry, et cetera, I realized I would go right smack out of my head if I didn’t figure out some way to juggle the chaos. As with most things, necessity proved to be the mother of invention. One evening, with dinner bubbling on the stove, two dozen cupcakes baking in the oven for a fundraiser, and a pile of federal tax forms waiting on my desk, my daughter informed me we needed to do a science experiment that night for her class project the next day. She began listing the many items we would need. Wiping a strand of hair from my (tired) face, I gave her one of those smiles parents employ to keep from committing hara-kiri before their children’s eyes. “One disaster at a time,” I told her. Thus was born my succinct philosophy for managing the impossible.
Posit #3: You don’t need a 48-hour day (though if you know where one can be obtained, please write me immediately!). You need to exercise your power of choice.
A few weeks ago, I was feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff that needed doing RIGHT NOW. And a tad cranky about how this was affecting the overall quality of my life. In a fit of take-charge/can-do, I made a list titled “Life Crushers.” (Okay, I was feeling very cranky.) On it were 11 items that felt like five-ton weights around my neck because it seemed: 1) I had to do them and there wasn’t time; 2) I wanted to do them and there wasn’t time; 3) I was just generally consumed with anxiety about them. Weirdly, I felt better as soon as I finished the list. Looking it over, I began to see choices rather than musts. I could work on two books simultaneously, or focus solely on the revisions for one, or take a break from writing. I could allot one day a week to deal with routine house stuff, tackle it in small doses daily, or wait until we have our next party. I could blog twice a month, once a month, never again. I made a list of 3-4 alternatives for each life-crusher. In most cases, my choices reflected my original goals, but the exercise helped me to see that I had more control and flexibility in my life than I’d realized. And that very little has to be done by any particular date.
Posit #4: You can slow the merry-go-round any time you want, rearrange the horses, or get off it completely. Yes, there are consequences for your decisions. Choice is not about escaping consequences. It’s about deciding what things you’re willing to pony up for and how high the price you’re prepared to pay.
At the close of The Martian, Matt Damon’s Watney (safely back on Earth) explains the reality behind their dreams to a class of wannabe astronauts. “At some point,” he tells them, “everything’s going to go south on you. You’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now, you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin … You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
Hey, it’s one disaster at a time. It’s what we all do. It’s really all we can do.
It is enough.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I grew up in the Midwest. After earning a B.A. in literature, I did a stint as the editor of a monthly publication for women’s retailers. The job took me around the country—Dallas, Chicago, Boston—and introduced me to many delightful people. I interviewed industry bigwigs, gave seminars, and wrote several hundred articles about fashion retail. It was a great opportunity, but it wasn’t my dream, so I loaded everything into my VW Bug and—against famed editor Horace Greeley’s advice—headed east to Massachusetts, where I kept a (small) roof over my head writing anything and everything. Cover stories, profiles, how-to articles, news features, essays, and theater reviews. (Click here to read two of my articles).
Somewhere in there, I managed to have two kids, earn a M.Ed., teach first grade, and edit several series of college textbooks in psychology and sociology.
Through it all, I wrote fiction. I have always been writing fiction since I penned my first short story “How the Zebra Got His Stripes” at age seven. (This deathless prose still resides in my attic somewhere.) I went on to write reams of comic adventure fantasy in fourth grade because the stories made my friend Lisa’s mother laugh out loud and she always asked for more. Writers love their readers.
In recent years, I’ve had the good luck to be writing fiction full time. The research for my World War II thriller, The Sticking Place, took me to many fascinating spots—Bletchley Park, Churchill’s famous bunker (the Cabinet War Rooms), and the American Bar at the elegant Savoy Hotel, among them—and introduced me to a variety of experts, like the man who helped me calculate the rate of fall for a parachutist dropped over occupied France in 1944. You can read a teaser here.
While revising The Sticking Place, I published two short stories in The Barcelona Review and The Alembic (links to both stories can be found here). The (relative) ease of writing short fiction leaves me giddy. Without those annoying 300 middle pages, by the time you start, you’re almost done.
I also completed another novel, How Did We Get Here?, the structure of which owes a debt to Kierkegaard’s observation that life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.
Let no one tell you that contemporary fiction does not require research. Not Spitfires and Enigma machines this time, but megatons about Senate and House procedures, Child Protective Services, lawsuits, morgues, and human decomposition under water. Like life, How Did We get Here? is funny, heartbreaking, a wee bit macabre (well, the morgue scenes anyway), and full of surprises. Click here for the teaser.
Despite my light tone and love of a good laugh, I’m quite serious about my fiction. As Gustave Flaubert noted: Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.