The power of tiny pieces

close shot of someone drawing fine pen & ink detail

When I was very, very sick, my body served as its own governor.

I could not push myself further than I should, because I’d be overcome by a sleepiness that would stop me in my tracks. There were times before I learned this that I literally had to lie down right where I stood to rest a bit and gain enough strength to get myself into bed. And this, in an apartment with less than 800 square feet of livable space.

Now that my body is stronger, my mind has gone back to playing tricks on it. Do this thing instead of that other, it will say. We can get to that ugly bit later. Depending on the bigness or ugliness of the thing my mind senses it’s up against, I can end up squeezing myself into timeframes that are ridiculously taxing, both because they are so condensed and because they were mostly avoidable.

Last Thursday, for example, I’d committed to performing a new story at the Porchlight series: eight minutes, memorized. But an eight-minute story is a long story, and memorizing it takes even longer. I knew I should have gotten started writing it weeks ago, but I didn’t. And didn’t, and didn’t. The “why” is simple: fear. Nothing more, nothing less. I had plenty of time; I frittered away large chunks of it on nonsense and worry, worry and nonsense.

Most of the worry was about not being good enough. That’s old hat, and not particularly interesting. The nonsense, however, is where the gold lies.

In the nonsense, there were the following gems:

  • You have an outline; the story will write itself. NONSENSE. Nothing writes itself. Nothing. Not one thing. An outline may or may not speed up the process, and is certainly a fine thing to have. But in terms of story, it represents nothing more nor less than some thought devoted to the story, which might translate to some work completed.
  • You’ve memorized longer stuff before, 8 minutes will take no time! NONSENSE. It takes as long to memorize something as it takes. There’s no mathematical formula, and no guarantees. The only guarantee, in fact, is that a poorly-written piece will take longer to memorize than a well-written one.
  • You can quit! NONSENSE. I mean, of course I can opt out. People do; people did that night. It always happens. But I know I am not just telling these stories as a lark. I’m writing and telling them as training for telling bigger stories, i.e., going pro. And pros don’t flake. Not if they want to be hired more than once.

I ended up writing and memorizing the entire story on Thursday, the day of the gig. The entire day of the gig, which is a luxury I have now, on sabbatical, that I will not always have. And I was still a nervous wreck, because I didn’t have the story in my bones, so I wasn’t much able to enjoy the experience, either.

On the opposite end of the planning spectrum, there’s the newsletter I’ve been editing for BLANKSPACES, a co-working space here in Los Angeles. In the five months since I took over responsibility for the project, this is the first one that’s gone smoothly, actually enjoyably. Why? Because I worked on it incrementally, rather than waiting for the last minute. I broke down the process into a kind of system, worked that system, and came out the other end with a product delivered on time, in good shape and without anguish. (I can’t wait to tell my friend (and client, and mentor), Sam.)

I’ve read 25 books out of the 52 I’d planned for the year, just by reading 40pp per day. From an investment of 15 minutes or so a day, my apartment has gone from a depressing, cluttered and filthy wreck to something that looks like it might be ready to move out of on less than a year’s notice. My half-hour of daily Nei Kung practice has wrought changes in my body that continue to astonish me. Why I persisted in thinking that stories (or blog posts) would magically write themselves even when, especially when I was exhausted from working crazy-sporadically rather than slow-and-steadily is beyond me.

The solution is not. Seek the smallest move forward. If there’s a hard out, put it in the calendar on the far end and the Smallest Move Forward on the near one. Stick the other small moves in between. Arrive at destination rested, refreshed, and excited about the next challenge ahead.



Image by Vanessa Yvonne via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. As some crime novel hero (maybe Robert B. Parker’s Spenser?) was prone to saying at intense moments, Jesus wept! This post hit me where I live. I’ve been surfing the Web for an hour to avoid writing a blog post that I ostensibly really want to write. Sigh. I guess I need to manufacture a tiny piece now. And then another. And then another. Thanks!

  2. Boy, has this post come at the right time for me. I’ve been putting off a writing project which I agreed to work on two weeks ago and which is now due a week from today. Today was to be my positively-will-start-today date, and it’s come and gone (my creative mind shuts down at approximately 6:00 pm).

    Yet I’m highly organized, completed a major move to a new home in the past 90 days, and can keep a gazillion balls in the air (not easily, or happily, but I can do it). But there’s this little procrastination thing about certain types of work. And days when all I seem capable of is Procrastination 101.


  3. You are so right, Colleen. There’s nothing worse than an imminent deadline screaming at the back of your head. Going slow and steady is definitely the way to win the race to creativity.

    ALSO, instead of outlining, switch to mind-mapping. I’m a professional writer and when I made this switch about six years ago IT CHANGED MY LIFE! No more writer’s block. No more delaying. Mindmapping is like a secret key to the depths of your brain.

    The reasons for this are a bit complicated but relate to how the brain operates. The brain has a “creative” part and a “linear/logical” part. Outlining is linear/logical and entirely non-creative. But when you write, you WANT access to the creative part. Mindmapping will help give you that.

    There is lots of material on the web and in books re: mindmapping (I’ve written a free ebooklet myself) but it’s so simple you just need to know the general principle: Brainstorm with yourself. Write your subject on the centre of a page and draw a circle around it. Then empty your brain on the page (I sometimes describe this a “vomiting on the page”), drawing lines to connect the thoughts.

    It sounds too simple to be effective, but the process is pure magic.

    1. I need to have someone demonstrate this mind-mapping thing for me. I get the brain dump, but the arrows and connectors and such seem like they would just provoke more anxiety.

      As you say, there are plenty of mindmapping resources online. I guess this is about me keeping my eyes peeled for the right video on YouTube.

  4. I do this with many of my deadlines and am always worse for wear from it. I let it build and build until it’s not a surge of “I work better under pressure” but just panic.

    Terrifying. I try to live in the moment, remember why I wanted to do the project in the first place, start small, and force myself to try to settle in and enjoy it.

  5. Oh, how I love this post, Colleen!

    This reminds me of what a dirty word discipline has gotten to be, for no good reason. I used to hate the word, the concept, and especially the practice of discipline but now, I hear the word, I think of the concept, and when I (manage to) put it into practice, it’s pure freedom. Now, creating discipline and flexible structure for myself and my business makes me feel well cared for — and the paradox is, it gives me more time to spend enjoying my life without dread and guilt.


    Thanks so much for being your super-awesome self!


  6. Once again Colleen, you hit that note of universal resonance! I too have been treading water in the deep end of that damn procrastination pool. And feeling like I am the only one floundering.

    Thanks so much for the reminder that there is an easier way to get this stuff done. I’ll admit that I do relish the rare moments when I have set out steps and actually followed then as you have suggested. ‘Feels like a 40 pound weight has droped off my shoulders.

    Thanks for the reminder … I am off to set out those steps.

  7. Colleen, please don’t worry about the arrows and connectors! Just concentrate on emptying your brain onto the page. I’m going to try to come up with a way to video this — but it’ll be kind of hard as the activity takes place WITHIN YOUR BRAIN!!

    I ignored mindmapping for years because it sounded too simple. But once I tried it, I was sold. I mindmap even for super short articles (ie: 150-300 words) and it speeds up my writing enormously.

    I’m going to email you a booklet I’ve written about mindmapping. Anyone else who wants it can get it for free by signing up for my free weekly newsletter on writing. Just go to: (Apologies that this sounds like an advertisement but both the booklet and the newsletter are 100% free.)

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