“Don’t make up a deadline if you don’t really have one.”
That was a piece of great advice from a colleague early in my career. And one that didn’t sink in until much later. It wasn’t until my body revolted (bursitis of the shoulders, aching tailbone), that I recognized an ongoing problem with my work process: I was setting deadlines for myself that were not only arbitrary, but were impossible to meet.
At first I couldn’t understand it. As a new personal historian, I was excit
ed, motivated, hard-working—so why this feeling of drowning when I was doing work I supposedly loved?
One word: overwhelm.
Compared to the typical number of concurrent projects I work on today, my load at the beginning of my career wasn’t all that heavy. At one point I had three storytellers to interview and two books to write (one was the joint story of a long-married couple), plus another storyteller I met with weekly to improve my interviewing skills. No editing for the last one (although for some baffling reason I transcribed the interviews), but the material for the paid book projects was growing at an alarming rate. My goal was to “process” the transcripts from the interviews as I went along, making sure all of it got added to a cleanly written draft, in prose that would allow room for future additions but wouldn’t embarrass me when I delivered the first, preliminary copy to my client. From the outset, I knew I didn’t want to separate the interviewing phase from the writing phase. Letting the draft take shape starting with the earliest interviews would a) enable me to ask better questions in future interviews and b) keep me from feeling overwhelmed by a heap of material.
Good intentions, faulty logic.
After several months, the ratio of transcript pages to manuscript pages was roughly:
1 million transcript pages : 1/2 edited manuscript page
At least, that’s what it felt like. Yes, I’d been (sort of) conscientious about incorporating new material into the book drafts, but I couldn’t keep up, and the further behind I fell, the less I wanted to do it. Enter overwhelm.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that writing a book takes significantly longer than conducting interviews. With weekly interviews (minus a few blessed weeks when the storytellers went out of town), the mass of new material was piling up far more quickly than I could edit it into the drafts. And the more the unprocessed transcripts heaped up, the more I dreaded facing them.
My problem was that I hadn’t yet worked out the fact that I needed more time to write. I believed, wrongly, that I owed it to my clients to produce drafts at the same pace that we completed interviews.
No, I didn’t promise them a fresh draft after each and every interview. However, as part of my selling strategy, I did (and still do) tell my clients that they would see a new draft each time we completed several interviews. For trusting me to create a totally customized project at an hourly rate with no set project price, it’s the least I can do. They get to read the growing book, make corrections, and tell me when they’ve finished telling their tale. I get the benefit of a feedback loop and the ability to shift in tone or topic before getting too far into the writing. It’s a good model.
But what it took me years to learn is that, if I want what I write to be good, I need to honor the process of writing. And good writing has been my goal from the beginning: produce no schlock. It’d be easy enough to delete all the umm’s and ahh’s from a transcript, toss it into Scrivener, and call it a book, but that’s not what anyone wants to read and it’s not what I want to write. It takes hours of editing to shape someone’s spoken words into a narrative that’s interesting, compelling, and entertaining. Why would I expect to be able to do that in the six days between interviews?
I don’t. At least, I don’t now that I’ve thought it through. My newer and updated strategy is to keep the interviews going at a regular pace—a rhythm that benefits the storyteller—but take periodic breaks between clumps of interviews to dedicate purely to writing. When my writing has caught up to the interviews—when I’ve “processed” all the transcripts to date—I schedule the next interview and arrive with the new draft in hand.
What about the storyteller?
Unless the storyteller has a specific deadline in mind—a birthday, a family celebration—I as the personal historian get to tell them how and when they will see a draft. And so should you. Always remember that you are the expert—that’s why they hired you, after all—and they will follow your lead. The process of writing a book for non-writers is vague and mysterious. Even more so for people entrusting you to write their story. Tell them you can do it in a week, and they won’t bat an eye. Tell them, more reasonably, that it will take many months, or even years, and they won’t bat an eye. My point is, you as the professional shape their expectations. Don’t overpromise on delivery dates. Think them through, give yourself enough time, and then make sure you deliver when you say you will.
Before I modified my thinking about deadlines, my joy at writing life stories had seriously diminished. I felt like I was letting down my clients by not delivering work quickly enough (even though none complained about the pace of my output) and I was letting down myself by not working hard enough (even though I was working as hard as I could). Luckily, some tweaks to my schedule—and my attitude—have turned that around. I have more projects going at once than I used to, and I can still sometimes feel overwhelmed. But having the confidence in myself to get things done, in a timely matter that makes sense, keeps those busy times from sucking the joy from my work.
As personal historians, we don’t have the advantage of daily conversations with colleagues. Lots of this stuff we have to figure out on our own, or luck into reading about online. I hope this post will help you circumnavigate the all-too-common problem of overwhelm in your own career. If you have other ways of dealing with it, please share! I love to hear comments from readers, and others do too.