The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our lives is change.
-Dan Gilbert


We're only a few days into the new year... 

…and I got stuck already. 

We’re only a few days into the new year and it feels like I should be going back to work any day now. I am gradually adopting a new retirement routine but, honestly, it feels more like I’m on vacation. 

Work demands used to crowd into my thoughts as soon as I woke up. Into this vacuum now has flooded lots of miscellaneous, un-prioritized stuff. For instance, no one mentioned that when you stop working all the unkempt corners of the house, hidden behind closet doors and inside dresser drawers, will rear up, exclaiming, “Look at me! Take care of me!”

We’re only a few days into the new year.

I got stuck on the plot outline for my book. I had been dutifully working on a story arc (a series of cause-and-effect incidents that propel the story’s action forward) for Johanna van Gogh and how she eventually promotes Vincent van Gogh’s work after he dies. 

I have the major milestones, of course, like Johanna meeting Theo (her future husband, Vincent’s brother) and Theo dying (when Johanna faces a decision about whether to return to her parents or strike out on her own - not an easy choice for a 19th century woman), but there are many other decision points in her story. 

I put a large poster board in my office. I’ve been jotting plot ideas onto post-it notes and adding them to the board, moving them around. I know that Johanna will need to explain the motivation behind her decisions. For example, the story needs to answer the question of why she thanklessly promoted Van Gogh’s work for 15 years without much success? Was this because of values she was taught as a little girl or an experience in meeting Vincent or something else?

What external events do I select for her? What challenges does she face that moves the action forward? 

Then it struck me. 

I shouldn’t map out the external events first; it’s her internal journey that’s the trajectory. Once this is penciled in, the accompanying external events serve as either an influence into, or outcome of, what she’s thinking.

It dawned on me that this is why I’ve been stuck: I was uncertain of the WHY behind her actions. Without this, my ideas felt too random and disconnected. 

A clue came from my professional marketing study of generations. Generational research claims our values come from two major influences in roughly the first 20 years of our lives: The primary guiding light of our first 10 years is family -- what you learn and soak up from your immediate home life. Major influence in the second 10-year span comes from outside your family -- your peers and society. 

This framework helps. In response, I'm sketching out what family values Johanna absorbed as a young girl, and then, as an adolescent/young adult, what societal factors would be an influence. These can be reasons she makes decisions and how she feels. 

In the 19th century, as a member of the rising middle class, Johanna is up against some big headwinds:

  • Women are put on a pedestal; but the trade-off is that they must be willing to accept a lower social standing -- no involvement in commerce or politics. New urbanization has caused a division between the roles women and men played. When life was rural, a married couple worked side-by-side. With urbanization, when men left to go to work, women gradually took on the role as guardian of the household, especially its moral values. 
  • Women can not own property. If they have earnings, a father or husband controls it. They can not go into business without a husband's permission or get credit without a male co-signer.
  • A woman can become educated to a degree in subjects such as music or languages; yet, her true learning is in topics such as deportment (walking with a book on your head to have a straight spine) or moral education (reading the Bible aloud) -- all designed to land a husband. 

Looking back through history's lens in my research I've found a few individual women who beat these expectations. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 - 1861), the greatest female poet of the 19th century, is one who came up with a creative solution. 

The oldest in a family of 12 children, Elizabeth was expected to follow the pattern of other young women: learn how to organize servants, go on morning social calls and look after elderly family members. She'd begun to scribble poems as a child and wrote constantly. When Elizabeth turned 15, she became an invalid, consumed by an illness for which doctors could find no cause. Perhaps she talked herself into the ailment, at any rate, she spent her days bedridden or sitting by a window. By being removed from the normal running of the household, she was able to continue to write and publish poetry. 

When she was 38, her poetry caught the attention of Robert Browning, also a poet. He started a correspondence and eventually asked her to elope. Remarkably, she found the sudden strength to sneak out, get married and move to Italy with Browning -- and then continued to write poetry.

Invalidism gave Elizabeth the socially acceptable way to have the freedom to follow her passion, sort-of a 19th century hack.  

When passion calls, Johanna, too, will have to find the internal strength to hack the system. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Writer Habit: The new habit I’m trying to form is to write or research the book for at least 2 hours/day. Though I’d begun sporadically in December, I’ve started the clock on January 1 to see how many days in a row I can be consistent. 

Books I'm Reading:  I finished The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass and loved it. It's about how to write so that the reader connects emotionally to the story — I’ll be sharing specific ideas with you over time. I also read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. It’s a moving story based on true events from the early 1900s when orphaned children were sent to the Midwest to join new families. The story is of two young women and their search for family. I related the helplessness of the children -- they were not in control of their lives -- to how and when Johanna would feel helpless and not in control of her life. Meanwhile, I've started The Paris Wife by Paula McLain and am still reading Peter Wohlleben's fascinating book, The Inner Life of Animals. 

Back to Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist who delivered a TED talk called "The Psychology of Your Future Self," where I found these quotes.

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. 

We're only a few days into the new year...

Possibilities await!