At the newspaper where I work, I am the features department. Almost three weeks ago I assumed the job of features editor, a job I mostly did anyway, already knowledgeable in designing pages, writing stories, assigning stories, and even updating the weekly calendar of events (which I did maybe once in my almost five years at the paper). Only now I’m the only one doing it.
We used to have three people in the features department — we always had three people, until recently, in September, when we became two and didn’t replace someone who left for another job. Then, as of January 6, we became one: me. I’m not exactly doing the job of three people; for that to happen I would have to write three or more stories a week. As it is, I’m officially responsible for one story a week, but so far I have averaged two and a half. Yeah, I’m an overachiever. I’m also not real good at predicting what might be too much to take on all at once.
The other day a coworker forwarded a message to me that said, “Here’s a story idea for Josette and what is left of the features dept.” I said, “That makes it sound like it burned down.” I told my coworker that I hope I’m propping up the department sufficiently, having to paginate the D section five days a week (for six days of papers) and coordinate interviews, the writing of stories (by me and by the stringers I just hired), and the training of the person who took over my previous temporary job: interim business editor.
As strange and overwhelming as my job has been recently, I feel like the phrase “propped up” pretty much defines my entire life right now. Everything feels like it’s merely held together with Scotch Tape and some well-placed brackets or a lean to, as if my current existence is surrounded by scaffolding.
I’m reading a library book called The Checklist Manifesto, and, though I have not actually made it far enough into the book to have learned anything practical, I nonetheless was inspired. I decided that what I needed right now for my life at and outside of work, is a checklist — or, actually, multiple lists. At work I have a sticky note for each weekday, which I amend according to what I don’t accomplish on a given day or what I add to my already bursting-at-the-seams schedule. Then, when I get home, I have another checklist, only this one is like no other list I’ve ever concocted previously. Instead of the daily mostly-unachievable lists of the past, this one covers a full seven days and has categories with rations of time assigned to them. My category for reading the book my friend wrote is five 30-minute periods (I’ve already exceeded that by about two hours); the category for editing my novel also has five 30-minute periods. Other categories have five 15-minute sessions, the grand total of which would amount to three hours and 15 minutes a day, if I were to work on this list seven days a week. It might not be any more achievable than the other lists I’ve failed at maintaining, but at least I’m checking off boxes; at least I’m crossing off items on the list. This week’s list — the first one — is a test, to see what I might achieve if I dole out more manageable snippets of time, rather than assigning each night of the week to cleaning, going over finances, or reading people’s blogs. At least this way, if I take a night off from the list, I don’t feel like I’ve failed utterly. All I have to do is fit in some writing here, some editing there, and I’m good.
As for the scaffolding, I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t a constant state of being for everyone at any stage in his or her life. We never really know what’s coming at us from around the corner; we never can tell if what we’ve built up so far is going to come crashing down around us or, conversely, if we aren’t only making tiny steps along the greater pathway that will lead us to ultimate success. My future is only partially achieved, but so far I think I’m doing pretty darn good.
When I was driving through town the other day on my way home, I passed by our community park, where I used to sit and edit my book last summer. I thought about how I haven’t been there in awhile to sit and write — it’s been about six months, actually, and I thought about the days when the weather will be warmer and I might sit there again … editing … the same book … a year later … picking up right where I left off a year ago. That’s when it felt like I’d been flattened by a sand bag. I need to edit this book NOW, I realized. What am I waiting for? This life with the scaffolding around it isn’t going to build itself, for heaven’s sake. All that’s been stopping me is myself, and I’m sick of my life looking like one of those perpetual highway construction projects that never seems to change no matter how many workers are there day after day giving the illusion of accomplishing anything. How many years now have I been saying I’m editing my book?