If You Care, Prepare

What knitting has taught me about the importance of preparation.

In most areas of my life, I’m a prepper. If I’m about to go on a trip, you can bet your yearly income on my preparedness. I’ll have everything cleaned, organised, and planned out long before I leave the house. Every eventuality will have been considered - which is why the gas bottle will live on the balcony while I’m away and all the power will be switched off at the board… It might be overkill, but it puts my mind at ease.

Preparation gives me peace of mind.

Why is it, then, that as soon as it comes to my creative work preparation goes right out the window? I jump right in feet first without so much as an outline of what I want to achieve. Sometimes it turns out great, but often I’m left wondering if I made the most of the inspiration and energy I put into my project. Could I have done more with it if I’d included some steps for preparatory work?

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression - I believe in starting before you feel ready. I know that in life you never feel ready, and to wait for that feeling is death to your creative and personal growth. What I’m talking about here is task or project-specific preparation.

If you have an idea for a new project or you’re about to take on a new task, you’ll serve yourself best by including some preparation. It will guide you, focus you, and as my knitting has taught me, it will give you a chance to identify any obstacles you may encounter, adjust for them, and avoid having to go back and fix stuff or, God forbid, start from scratch.

Starting from scratch isn’t always a bad idea. I’ve done it often in situations where it was just easier to start fresh than try to fix something that wasn’t working.

But, have you ever got close to the end of knitting a sweater only to realise that in one of your ribbing rows you purled instead of knitting the stitch and the pattern is totally (and very visibly) off? Or maybe you realised the size was way off and that you should have knitted a trial gauge instead of winging it? Seasoned knitters, please excuse my rookie mistakes.

With a small amount of preparatory work, I could have avoided both those problems. Some mishaps, like a broken ribbing pattern, can be lived with. Others, like a too-small sweater, cannot. (Sidenote: I could not live with the broken ribbing pattern…)

What you realise in those moments when it dawns on you that you cannot live with the mistakes you made in your lovely knitted thing is that you put a lot of time and energy into creating it. It hurts a touch to have to start over - there’s definite discouragement as you begin to pull your knitting off the needle, maybe even a tear in your eye.

Knitting is the perfect way to learn the power of preparation. You can’t simply set the ruined knitted thing aside and start a new one. Oh, no. Wool is a valuable resource in knitting. You have to pull the knitting from the needle and watch helplessly as the stitches you tried so hard not to drop dangle freely, precariously, untethered. And then, you have to pull down your work stitch by stitch, watching your hard work retreat all the way back to the cast-on edge in order to reuse the wool. It is painful stuff pulling down your knitting to start over. It is visceral.

And sometimes you just don’t start over. Because now you know how much time and effort it’s going to take. And you just can’t, not today - maybe tomorrow, maybe never. What a shame that would be. Because it’s an incredible feeling to get to the end of creating something and have it work out (or fit).

It’s true, you can learn from your mistakes - as long as you do start over. But here’s what knitting has taught me: do a little preparation if it’s important to you and/or takes up your time and energy.

A minute to learn how to ‘read my knitting’ so I’m better able to see whether I need to purl or knit the next stitch instead of relying on my memory, or taking the time to knit up a gauge to check I’m using the right size needles and wool - these are preparatory steps that could have saved me time and tears.

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."— Abraham Lincoln

There are times to wing it, there are times to jump right in, but there are also times when a little preparation can go a long way to helping you avoid obstacles and finish successfully.

I’ve never chopped down a tree before, but Lincoln’s words have never rung truer than they do now to this novice knitter.

Got big writing goals? Join NaNoWriMo

The advantages of NaNoWriMo for writers.

NaNoWriMo is just around the corner.

Have you ever participated in the National Novel Writing Month? Do you have dreams of writing a book?

If you write and have aspirations of completing a big writing project like a short story, a memoir, or a novel, joining this creative movement might be just what you need to do that. Finding the time and motivation to tackle such a big task is tough, especially if you’ve never done it before. And since writing is a solitary endeavour, it’s easy to procrastinate or avoid getting started completely.

We need accountability partners. Fellow writers or creatives who will regularly check in on our progress and hold us accountable. That’s what’s so great about NaNoWriMo. It’s a collective of accountability partners who are all on the same mission as you.

NaNoWriMo’ers prepare together, slog together, cry together, and celebrate together. They’re always there to offer encouragement and support. That’s the beauty of this movement. For writers, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Every year I consider joining NaNoWriMo. But I’m always late to the game. I completely forget about it until November is well underway and my Twitter feed starts filling up with #NaNoWriMo updates. By then I’ve missed out on valuable writing days and I have no novel idea. Not a winning combo.

This year is different. I finally have my book idea. It’s been forming slowly since the beginning of the year, vague at first. But now I’ve started to get mental images of scenes and ideas for chapters. It’s go time!

I wrote this Medium post to help you prepare to participate in NaNoWriMo next month.

If you’re on the fence about participating, I wanted to remind you that NaNoWriMo is like a huge, temporary writing group that comes together once a year to make a big push towards making writing dreams a reality. Take advantage of that.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what you write during NaNoWriMo. Use it to connect with other writers and feed off of the creative energy that surges during November as hundreds of thousands of writers dedicate themselves to their big writing projects en masse.

It’s a unique and free creative opportunity. It’s also a chance to make some writer friends to see you through the rest of the year and onwards!

Recovering Lost Treasures: Letter Writing, Loved Ones, and Connection

How letter writing can help you stay connected to your loved ones, your writing voice, and your readers.

Red and blue striped edging on special airmail envelopes, pads of thin lightweight paper, and lined guide sheets saved from long finished pads — memories of the ordinary objects my mom set out on the kitchen table every other week to reconnect with her dad.

These objects were simple but sacred. I knew, even as a child, that she sought the special lightweight paper so she could write as much as possible and not exceed the standard airmail weight. Her letters would fly to her hometown in England all the way from the small town in Namibia where she had made a new life.

She would set out her paper and ballpoint pen, make a cup of coffee, and write her letter. She wrote pages and pages without stopping to think about what to say. Her letters were a ritual and I always wondered what she was writing to her dad. Had so much happened this week?

Her dad returned her letters as religiously. As much as the writing of her letter was a sacred ritual, so too the reading of her dad’s letter. She saved it for a moment when she could read it in its entirety without being disturbed.

The airmail correspondence between my mom and her dad went on for years, unaffected and unabated.

Later, she would write me letters, too. Not the same kind. They were quick catch-ups, special notes to accompany the care packages she would send with people travelling to Cape Town where I went to boarding school.

Admittedly, I took these little letters for granted. Letters were an ordinary thing from my mom, and I was often much more interested in the cache of two-minute noodles and iced zoo biscuits she’d sent me. The thought never crossed my mind to keep them; I thought there’d always be more.

But there wouldn’t always be more letters. A few months after she passed away I boxed up a few recent birthday cards and a small number of short letters she’d written me that had managed to stay out of the bin. I took them with me when I moved.

In the aftermath of her death, I would often look at a photograph of her and I cooking a stir-fry on our balcony that I kept with me in Dropbox. While the memory of her was fresh in my mind and on my skin, the photograph was enough for me to feel her. But I only had the one of her smiling her real smile. She didn’t like having her photo taken and it showed.

Years later, I pulled out those letters and re-read them. They were about nothing important. She’d sent the cheque for my Spanish lessons. She’d added a friend’s parents to my approved-visitors list. She hoped I’d enjoy the goodies.

What I didn’t expect is that after a decade of her being gone and the memory of her voice and physical presence having faded she would be so vivid and alive in her letters.

The photographs had stopped working, I couldn’t feel her there anymore. They didn’t conjure her the way they used to. But in the letters I could hear her voice again, feel who she was again, feel her love for me again. I was overwhelmed by how the words were able to calm and soothe me the way her presence used to, something I didn’t think I’d ever feel again.

In her letters, I found the real her — so clearly after so much time had passed. I could hear her voice in her words and her sentence structure. And I could visit her whenever I wanted, it never faded. Always remained strong.

I wish I had kept more of her letters. They are so much more than photographs, to me. And because she was a great letter writer, her voice is strong and authentic. She is alive in her letters.

“A letter is a soul, so faithful an echo of the speaking voice that to the sensitive it is among the richest treasures of love.” — Honoré de Balzac (Père Goriot)

Now I understand that my mom and her dad’s correspondence was so much more than an exchange of news and happenings. It was about connection, staying close when they could not have been further apart. She could feel his personality in the lightly raised ink on the paper. She could hear his tone of voice, imagine his laughter, sense his mood, all from his words or the words he didn’t write. She could be near him when she missed him. They were together in their letters.

Write Letters To Your Loved Ones

Write letters to the people you love. Tell them all the things you love about them. Tell them about your day, your hopes and dreams and fears. Say what you feel but can’t voice out loud. Write what you cannot find the right moment to say.

Don’t send them. Save them, stack them, and tie them together with string. If you’ve ever wondered what gift you could leave for your loved ones, consider the eternal gift of letters — the gift of you that never fades. Letters from loved ones are unimaginable treasures.

“Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

And if you find this too bleak to contemplate, then write letters for another reason.

Write Letters To Your Ideal Reader

The first time I ever wrote anything in my personal non-school voice, I was writing a letter. Most of us born before the mid-80s got our start in writing this way.

My first letter went to Santa Claus. My second letter — a proper letter with news and full sentences — went to my grandad. In the beginning, it seemed to me that people learned to write in order to write letters. And the recipient of my letters, the reader, was always firmly in my mind as I composed mine.

My mom taught me about the proper layout and spacing of a letter: date and address top right, leave a line, and Dear so-and-so on the left. She explained to me about opening paragraphs and what we customarily put in those first few lines of a letter: I hope this letter finds you well.

Little did I know these were my first writing lessons. And I went on to learn a great deal about writing from correspondence. The most valuable lesson letter-writing offers you is the development of your voice and style — how to put your personality in words.

Although you may have little cause to write letters nowadays with text messaging, you can still use this written form to develop your voice. The fact that letters are meant for one reader, in particular, helps you with this. Focus on your one ideal reader — the reader your writing is meant for — and write directly to them.

“Writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” — Pico Iyer

Like the letters you write to friends, it’s not so much what you write as how you write it. Practise letting words flow in your own voice, directed to your audience of one.

How is this different from journaling or freewriting? It’s different because it’s meant for someone else. It’s for someone to read. It’s not for you, it’s for them. You’ve got to make it worth the time they spend reading it. Entertain them, enthrall them. It’s an opportunity to practise writing what June Casagrande refers to as ‘reader-serving’ writing because the ‘reader is king’.

“When one is writing a letter, he should think that the recipient will make it into a hanging scroll.” — Yamamoto Tsunetomo (Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai)

Write Letters To Connect

Way back when blogging was new, people used the form very much the way we use our journals. The blog post was sent out into cyberspace for anyone who happened upon it. The internet and the people we could reach through it were unknown. It wasn’t clear what the blog form was for or what readers who came to blogs were looking for; blogging was like writing for yourself and hoping someone would find it and enjoy reading it.

Blogging, the internet, and the online community of content readers have changed tremendously since then. The word content is key, here, because what the hell was content before blogs evolved into instruments of marketing and learning.

The way we write our blog posts and articles is worlds apart from the humble letter. We use different voices, styles, and structures. There are rules and SEO to think about. You’re writing for as wide an audience as possible. It’s good to write in different forms to broaden your skillset, but I missed the tone and ease of writing letters.

After I moved to my self-hosted website, I had a creative conflict over my blog. I wanted to write about the craft of writing and delve into topics that would interest people who might also be interested in my services.

I’ve seen that blogs can be a successful, human-centred marketing tool, one I feel comfortable using without feeling like I’m making an awkward sales pitch. But I also wanted to write about personal growth, life design, creativity, and many other topics that didn’t seem to fit well with the content I create for peers and potential clients.

The way I write changes when I write about these other topics, too. I wanted to write these posts in a more personal, conversational style. They felt more like letters than blog posts, and I came to realise that they belonged in an email newsletter, the modern equivalent of letters in the post box.

I wanted to be able to reach people easily and allow them to have the means to write back to me just as easily. I wanted to connect with people one-on-one and the more private setting of the email inbox was appealing.

And so, separate from my website’s blog, I started this email (news)letter with the hope of connecting through the form of letter writing.

Maybe traditional letter writing (untraditionally delivered by email) is the creative outlet you’ve been looking for, particularly if you, too, are hoping to make deeper connections with your online readers.

Recovering Lost Treasures

Writing letters for their original purpose of communicating across long distances is no longer necessary or convenient. An email does the job faster and cheaper.

But the art of letter writing is worth recovering.

With smartphones constantly connected to the internet, written (typed) communication has evolved. We write shorter messages more frequently which means we’ve cut out the opportunity to meander in thought on the page (screen). In limited characters, we say only what we need to say and nothing more. Email has followed suit despite its unlimited character cap.

The letter writing form still has much to offer us. It doesn’t need to be written on paper or mailed, but the way we used to write letters enabled us to more deeply connect with loved ones, with the recipient, and with ourselves.

“The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters.” — Lewis Carroll

People explored, discovered, and stayed connected as they composed conversations with someone they held in their mind. They spoke directly, in writing. They left permanent traces of themselves in little paper treasures.

If any of this speaks to you, you might want to recover the art of letter writing.

If you want it, just do it.

Taking action, even when you don't know what you're doing, is the only way to get where you want to go.

I remember when Nike came out with its famous slogan, ‘Just Do It’. It resonated with a lot of people, not just professional athletes or sportspeople. I had a t-shirt with the slogan on it and to date, it’s the only branded sports shirt I’ve ever owned.

There was something very powerful about those three words that seemed to cut through all the bullshit. It went beyond the realm of sports and spoke to people of all walks of life doing all kinds of things. It was a battle cry. It urged us forward. It reminded us of what’s important: action.

Thinking Isn’t Doing

We spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to do or achieve. We imagine how things will look if we succeed and if we fail. We live in our heads, talking ourselves up and talking ourselves down without ever taking a step.

It’s natural for us to think a great deal about what we want to change, where we want to make improvements, and what we’d like to be. But thinking doesn’t get us any closer to what we want than if we did nothing. Unfortunately, thinking is doing nothing.

Take Action

Thinking is good preparation, but taking action is where the magic begins. Taking action is key to both internal and external actualisation.

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act.  There is no other route to success.”  – Pablo Picasso

If you want to feel less afraid, you’ll have to do more things that frighten you. The same applies to your goals. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you want to play the piano well, you have to practise playing the piano.

Aristotle was a firm believer in taking action whether it be to cultivate virtues or skills. He believed that if you wanted to be better, internally or externally, the strategy remained the same – just do it.

“The virtues we acquire by first exercising them, as happens also in the case of the arts… For instance, we become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” – Aristotle

Nike’s slogan doesn’t imply that it will be easy. It’s saying get out of your own way and get to the doing part.

Baby Steps

You have big dreams and high hopes, but start small. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Figure out what small action you can take each day to move toward your ultimate goal and do it. Any action is better than no action. We become by doing.

As a writer, Julia Cameron’s morning pages is the minimum action I take every day. When it’s done, I know I have taken at least one action toward my writing goals. It’s my small win.

Give yourself what Charles Duhigg refers to as ‘small wins’. In Duhigg’s The Power of Habit he writes, “Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach”.

We often feel powerless to make changes or achieve big goals because we can’t see how we’ll get there. There’s no one action or small number of actions that will get us the results we want quickly or easily. There’s no clear path to achieving our goals.

This is why Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ is so powerful. Don’t worry about how you’ll take every step to get there or what exactly each step will be. Just take a step. Take one small step, whatever step you can take right now, in the direction you want to go. And when you’ve done it, claim your win. Do it again tomorrow, and claim your win again.

Make A Habit Of It

In our material world, physical action is what gets results. But you can’t do it once and hope that’ll be enough. You have to commit to doing, multiple times. To practise, to persevere, to ‘just do it’ over and over again.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

Just like any new habit, it’s hardest to begin and keep at it when you don’t see immediate results. There’s an adjustment period where we have to do it enough times to normalise it. For a time, we have to have faith in what we’re doing before we see the effects of our action.

Create A Refuge Action

Start small, build a small action habit. For me, it’s small actions taken every day that keep me going. They feel less risky once they become a habit, and then they transform into a refuge action I can take even when I feel overwhelmed and imposter-ish. This way, I always have a small win.

My refuge action for my writing is doing morning pages or journaling. It is an action I’ve committed to doing every day with the goal of getting into the writing mindset. Sometimes, it’s the only writing I do or the only action I take. But it means I have written. I took one more step in the right direction and that’s something to feel good about.

Even if you’re making great strides, keep a refuge action for those lower energy days. Build towards your end game and set yourself up for success. Keep track of your wins so you can look back and see how far you’ve come.

Enjoy The Journey

Changing, growing, and achieving your goals is a process. You know that old saying, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”? That applies here. The goal, the dream, the result is the destination. Taking action is the journey. Fill your days with action that brings you a sense of joy or satisfaction. Celebrate your small wins. Because, in the words of Annie Dillard, “How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives”.

If you want it, just do it. Take action. Take steps, no matter how small, every day, because this is how we get where we want to go.   

When you feel overwhelmed by the enormity of your goal or by self-doubt, what strategy do you use to keep going?

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this, consider subscribing to Letters from Verity.

You can find me on my website, veritymarques.com

A conversation between friends about life, growth, creativity, and writing.

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