I hate giving gifts. But …

It’s a terrible thing about me I guess but the truth is that the approach of the holiday season fills me with a mortal fear that I will have to give people gifts and I won’t know what to get them and so will get something stupid and it will ruin the relationship forever and cause me to spiral into a suicidal depression in which I will drive the car over a cliff but not actually kill myself only become hugely disfigured and then go through a lifetime of plastic surgeries that will only make me more gruesomely hideous.

It’s also possible that while trying to decide what gift to buy someone I will feel ever more frustrated at my inability to make a simple choice that regular people all over the world are making with apparent ease and this frustration will lead to anger and the anger will lead me to say something inappropriate to the person I am with who up till now thought I was a pretty decent person but will then decide on the basis of my sudden outburst that I am rather unstable and maybe made some bad life choices and henceforth that person will block my calls and unfriend me on Facebook.

Or I will spend way too much money on an inferior product. Or I will get something I think the person will like but which I personally find hideous and when the person opens it in my presence I will be seen to wince and that will telegraph something untrustworthy and suspicious about me, that I don’t really like the thing I claim to believe is really really cute and if I’m lying about that maybe I’m lying about many other things and this relationship, too, will spiral out of control and I will find myself blocked in numerous technological ways from further contact.

These are just a few of the bad things that could happen. This is why I hate giving gifts. But here is something. Here is the thing.

Finishing School Book CoverOur book Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done makes a great gift. I propose it as the solution to all gift-giving problems. And I have somewhat reliable proof, based on real people saying real things without prompting or cash prizes. When we talked about this idea, Danelle and I, when we wrote the proposal and showed it to people, especially but not only people in the worlds of journalism and book publishing but other people too, the thing they said, the overwhelmingly most common thing they said was, “I know somebody I want to give this to.”

So that was something we knew from the very beginning, that this would make a great gift-type book. So naturally we thought the smartest thing to do would be to publish just in time for the gift-giving season. Say, in October, just in time to get the advertising ready and everything geared up for a big push to market this book as a great gift book.
Instead, and surely they had their reasons, our publisher decided to release the book in January 2017. And the launch was kind of a bust for a number of reasons most of which totally having to do with me, which I hope to go into in subsequent posts …

Number One Reason the January 2017 Launch Was Kind of a Bust: I moved to Italy. It was a totally unrelated decision, unrelated to the book, which surprised the bejeezus out of Danelle, my co-writer, and probably caused her to think that she had teamed up with a person who was mildly unstable, a diagnosis that in subsequent interactions I must say has proven to be largely accurate, but be that as it may, the point here is that this is a great gift book that came out at the exact wrong time for a great gift book and I’m setting about to do what I can to rectify that totally innocent error by mounting a major push now, now that it is getting to be just about on the verge of gift-giving season. (Plus you don’t have to tell me how complicated the book business is, or how hard it is as an editor to get your favorite book slotted in the publication date slot you want it slotted in, especially if you are a brilliant but fairly new and young editor who has not yet acquired the superhuman clout and intra-business social capital you will later acquire, so I hold no grudge about this, I totally understand.)
Nonetheless, this is just by way of saying that for the next two months I’m going to be all over this trying to explain to people why this is a great gift book because I really am all about helping people and changing the world.

Help! I’m committing professional suicide!

Write for Advice

I know what to do and how to do it but I’m paralyzed! Soon my whole work life is going to come crashing down!


(Cary’s classic column from Friday, March 7, 2008)

Dear Cary,

It may be too late for me. I’m committing professional suicide. I see exactly what I’m doing, and I can’t stop myself. The problem is procrastination. In fact, I thought about writing to you about six months ago. If I had done it then, maybe I could have salvaged something in my present job. Now, I’m not so sure.

Through no fault of my own, I’ve risen to a managerial position in charge of marketing for a small manufacturing business. Deadlines are very important, and I keep missing them. I just spent the past week stalling on meetings with my graphic designer to prepare ads for the new line of products we just introduced. The products have been created, parts sourced, manufactured and shipped. Meanwhile, our introductory ad campaign hasn’t started yet. I know what has to be done, I know what I have to do to get it started. It’s not up to me to create the campaign — I just have to make sure it gets done. But every time I have the opportunity to move forward with the project, I … don’t.

I have already driven the last few projects I’ve been involved with into crisis mode because of my delays. The further behind I get, the harder it is to get started. I’m sure that’s a cliché, now that I look at it in writing. I know I’ll have to deal with questions about the delay, and I just can’t answer them. When I’m confronted, my brain just goes mushy.

I think I’ve probably used up eight of my nine lives with this company, and yet I still sit here in my office studiously not working on the projects at hand while the clock ticks away. Tick. Tock.

I’m miserable. I know what I have to do to make the misery go away (just deal with the projects, for God’s sake!), but I’m frozen. Or maybe I’m like a car and the driver is stomping down on the accelerator with one foot and stomping down equally hard on the brakes with the other. Whatever, it’s eating me up, causing problems for my employer, and threatening my family (I’m in my 50s and not looking forward to having to find another job).

Any advice?

Stuck and panicking

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Dear Stuck,

Call in sick for three days. Check into a hotel. Bring your documents and your computer with you.

Arrange to meet with a confidant on the morning of the first day. This confidant may be a coach, a friend, a spiritual guide, a psychological professional, a mentor. You must have somebody. If you don’t have a confidant, deputize someone. Deputize a trusted friend or relative. Insist that they meet with you in your hotel room for a minimum of two hours on the first morning of your three-day sick leave. If they have to take off work, tell them to take off work. This is an emergency!

Explain that you need somebody to be accountable to. You need someone to act as a supportive witness as you make a plan, someone to check in with as you complete your tasks, and someone who, if you don’t check in with them, is going to call you and say, What’s going on? Make sure you have their agreement: If you don’t call them up and tell them your progress, they are going to check on you.

Meet with this confidant on the morning of the first day. Make your list of tasks. Go over the list with your confidant. Highlight any difficult phone calls you have to make. Highlight areas that make you wince when you think about them. Then sit back and visualize the whole thing being finished. Visualize yourself conquering the whole thing. Write down on paper, in front of your confidant, how you want it to turn out. Read that aloud to your confidant. Make it in the first person, positive, something like, “I can handle this project and make it turn out well. I’ve done this before and I can do it again. When it is over I will feel accomplished and satisfied. And now I am going to take a swim.” If the hotel has a pool and you like swimming, take a swim. If you work out, work out. Sit in the sauna. Relax. Eat well. Visualize how you will feel when you are done with this project. In the afternoon, if you feel like working, do some work. If ideas come to you, jot them down. But mainly relax. Rest. Get a good night’s sleep.

The next day, get busy. Call your confidant first thing in the morning and say that you are getting up and getting to work. Arise, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, get to work. Do the first task on your list. Just start doing things without thinking about them. If it involves dialing the phone, just dial the phone. If it involves writing, just write. If it involves making an appointment, then make the appointment. Don’t think about the things. Just do the things on your list. Work briskly. Piece of cake. Do six items and then take a swim and have lunch.

After lunch, if there are certain things on your list that you fear doing, do those right away. If you have to make difficult phone calls, make them. In dealing with the people you need to work with, take this approach: Ask for their help. Don’t order them. Ask for their help. Apologize for any delays you have caused. If you admire the work the people have done in the past, tell them you admire their work. If there is the possibility of bigger projects or promotions, mention that. Whatever you have at your disposal to motivate people, use it. If you have authority to promise bonuses or rush payments, do so. If you have personal discretionary funds, use them. If you have people working for you who have time to spare, enlist their help. Mobilize people. Make careful note of what you promise, so that you can follow through on it later.

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If at all possible, do not communicate with your bosses until after your three-day sick leave. Confine your work to setting in motion with your subordinates the things that will make the project succeed. If there are meetings to schedule with bosses, schedule them for after your three-day sick leave.

Check in with your confidant on the afternoon of the first day and on the morning of the second day. Make a new list on the second day. Check in with your confidant on the afternoon of the second day. Make a new list on the third day. Check in with your confidant on the morning of the third day. Check in again on the afternoon of the third day.

After your three-day sick leave, return to work and communicate with your bosses. Tell them that although you were out on sick leave, you were able to finally get things rolling, and that while the project got off to a slow start, it now looks like it will be a success.

Ha ha.

Now, maybe the details are different for you. I put you in a hotel because you’re in management and make the bucks. And it makes a good story. And stories of victory over crisis travel; they enter the culture and help others; they get passed down to family and to younger co-workers; so they make the world better. But maybe the details are different. Maybe the hotel is a metaphor. The essential thing is the process: You change your environment, clear your life of routine commitments, confide in someone about your crisis, make a list of tasks, attend to your physical and spiritual needs, commit to checking in with your confidant before and after doing your tasks, and do them briskly without overmuch thought. That’s it in a nutshell.

And then, after this episode is over, see about working with a coach or mentor, so you do not backslide. If you cannot find a professional coach or mentor to work with you, ask your deputized confidant if he or she would be willing to continue to meet with you. Buy the Julie Morgenstern book, “Time Management From the Inside Out,” and do what it suggests.

And every month, go back to that hotel for a swim in the pool.

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I thought I was so systematic but really I’m not at all!

I found out how truly unsystematic I am by setting a schedule for myself and not following it. That happened because I invented Finishing School. I invented Finishing School because I wanted to finish things I start. I wanted to finish things I start because I feel crummy when I don’t. Crummy is a polite word.

Also I’m too hard on myself. I had two therapists in one day tell me that. I think I just try to see things as they are and not be crushed by them. To others that looks like being hard on myself. So I try not to be too hard on myself about being too hard on myself. But it’s hard, because I want also to know the truth about myself.

The truth is that I am not very systematic. I just think I am.

But I am inventive. That sometimes makes up for not being systematic. If I find a vexatious shortcoming I cannot mend, then I make up a program around it and involve others and then it becomes a service to humanity, not a character flaw.

Tonight we gather again in the living room, seven of us each saying, this is how I break my gargantuan task into doable weekly pieces; this is the part I am finishing now; this is my goal.

And lifelong wishes get built piece by piece.

I know that for me the obsession with finishing, and the fear of not finishing, stems from my fear of repeating my father’s shortcomings. If I could finish the things I start and also be as smart and funny as he was that would be better but I don’t think so. At least I get to finish something — in this case the novel. Ha ha.

I say Ha ha but it is getting done. And the ways I am solving the problems in the novel may be interesting to others. Perhaps I will share some of that as I get closer to finishing.

So: To recap: We do finishing school by deciding every week what part of whatever gargantuan impossible project we want to finish this week and telling people. We mark out time on a calendar. We get assigned a creative buddy and we call or email or text our creative buddy before and after each creative session.

Here is the part where I find out how unsystematic I am: I write down on a calendar what I am going to do and then don’t do it. I get to watch myself not doing it.

But here is the other part: I set this goal and say I am going to do it at one particular time and don’t do that but then wake up at some other time and do it. It comes upon me unbidden, and I buckle down and disappear into the work and emerge hours later as if out of a trance, and work has been done.

I try to be systematic and instead I encounter my essential anarchic nature. But the work gets done!

Thank you for the Yelps!

I just checked out our Yelp reviews today and I am honored and grateful for all the really thoughtful, funny and kind reviews we received. Here are a few of my favorite outtakes:

“I still don’t understand exactly how it works, but every Wednesday evening, when I’m tired from the day, not feeling particular creative or even enthusiastic, I sit down to write with Cary and the group and somehow – I don’t know how – within 2 hours we have all created the most unique, incredible, original work.”

“Everyone who comes through the door is treated as a writer, and all voices, levels of experience and styles are welcomed.”

“Cary helped me get my very first story published in a real magazine! He’s the best.”

“if he asked I might give him a kidney. The man is a brilliant muse.”

“If I were a poodle, nothing would make me prouder than to take care of Cary and Norma.”

Here’s the link if you’d like to read the actual reviews. Thanks again. We couldn’t keep this going without such generous and talented people in our lives.