How to Manage the Big Projects

“Inch-by-inch, Row-by-row…”

I’m usually pretty good at tackling the big projects, being my own project manager. I guess I learned that from my Dad who grew up on a farm where they ate what they grew or hunted. If they didn’t grow or hunt, then they didn’t eat, so everyone, all eight kids, seem to have been pretty proficient at those tasks. In farming, if something breaks, you fix it and if you don’t know how to fix it, you figure out how to fix it. That was my Dad.

Cornfield, Mattaponi, VA
(pronounced “matt-upon-eye”)

Over the course of his lifetime, he built five houses for himself… as a hobby. (I’m not counting the countless renovation projects he tackled for us, or friends or relatives.) He worked for Sperry Marine as an estimator, but after he got home from work, the necktie came off and work clothes went on. I remember my Dad walking to whatever site on our property he had chosen to begin building, and he built, first the home of my early childhood, then a duplex as a rental investment, then every five years thereafter, he built another house, as he could afford the materials, which roughly coincided with his building speed.

(Not my childhood home. Just a cool abandoned house in Albereen, VA.

I don’t think he had ever built a house before my childhood home. He and mom drew up a set of plans of their dream ranch-style house on graph paper, taking inspiration from whatever 1960s family situation comedy was on television at the time. Our kitchen cabinets came from a set of plans for the cupboards on the set of Ozzy and Harriet’s kitchen. I’ve no idea how my mother came by the plans.

When Dad reached a stage in the build with which he was unfamiliar, he would drive around the county until he found another house at a similar stage of completion, get out of his truck, and go chat with the guys in the construction crew who were working there, sometimes volunteering to pitch in to perfect his skill. In that way, he became fairly proficient and learned, often by trial and error, how to build a home, start to finish. He taught himself masonry, wiring, plumbing, framing, and roofing. He was the plasterer and on occasion, when resources were tight, the excavator. All of this was learned without the aid of the internet. He was the internet!

As you can imagine, building a house, start to finish, is a HUGE task! I’m fond of saying, “a learned man can preach from the pulpit, but a carpenter built the cathedral.” How to hold all of that in your head and delay gratification of completion until it’s finished? Five years later? You don’t. He tackled each task as its own entity. Of course, by drawing up the plans, he had a fairly good idea of what needed to happen in preparation of the next stage in the building process. He dreamt building. The gratification came every day with the completion of a single row of block work, with each window installed, each roll of roofing felt tacked down. The gratification came every day, but especially at the end of the project, when the first family moved into the rental, or when he built our family vacation home on a river and could enjoy the fruits of his labor on the weekends.

There was always another big project in the back of his mind, but I think he compartmentalized the big stuff, breaking it into smaller, more mind-manageable, bite-sized nuggets.

I hope I absorbed a little bit of that from my dad. In 2020, I converted a shed into my writing studio. At first, I thought of it in its entirety. That overwhelming task sat in my brain for five years before the pandemic. It was only when I sat down and wrote down the different pieces, breaking it up into small, easily digestible tasks, tasks that could be completed in one week, that I finally completed the transformation… in two months.

I flatter myself in thinking that writing a novel compares in some way with building a house. You start with a premise, or an ending, or sometimes, just one unique character, then you start, one word at a time, to form sentences, then paragraphs, then pages, chapters, until it’s finished. And then you start all over again. The short-term gratification comes every day after writing a single scene that you later dream about, create a character so authentic you question whether or not they are real, or when you tweak a line until its meaning is filled with sub-plot, yet elegantly simple.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided, (after the third plumber failed to show up) that I would just rip out the upstairs shower myself. I pulled down the tile and had that sudden sense of dread when faced with a big task. That’s when I think I channeled Dad. I’m back on track now, compartmentalizing tasks: remove backer board, remove shower pan, level floor, install new shower pan, install new backer board, solid surface this time, glass shower doors… I think I need to set a timeline for myself to motivate me in this task. Maybe by next week’s blog post I will have completed the demolition. “Backer board, backer board, backer board…” Boom.

Today, I tweaked chapter whatever  – more than halfway through rough edits of the work-in-progress, mowed the grass (until it started to rain), made dinner, fed the cat, cleaned the sink… I started to get overwhelmed, thinking about the half-gutted shower upstairs, then all of a sudden an old song popped into my head, “Inch-by-inch, row-by-row…”

I got this. Thanks, Dad.