I prefer to think of them as small. Lamott calls them short, but thinking about anything with time makes me hyperventilate a little, so I’m going with small . . . like a hedgehog I could hold in my hand.
'african pygmy hedgehog hoglet' photo (c) 2009, guiltyx - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Before I parse word choice, though, I should probably explain what it is I mean. Assignments. To Dos. Tasks. Writing. These are things I like to think of as small, or at the very least made up of small pieces. When I imagine them big, the muscles in my chest tighten so completely that my heart feels like it will be crushed. I’m pretty sure that I need my heart to live, so instead, I choose to think of what is before me – a writing assignment, a day of work, a trip – as a series of small assignments, discrete tasks that I can complete and physically check off the running list I keep on my desk.

Let me give an example. When I was teaching full-time, my mornings began like this. . . the alarm went off, my brain switched on, and I began running through what needed to be done. “Blog, dishes, shower, emails, cat litter, water plants, grade ten papers, plan accreditation meeting, prep class, clean office . . . ” and honestly, before my feet even hit the floor, I was in full-blown panic. It just seemed like too much. Now, since I’m taking this year to write, when I wake up, it’s more like this, “Write 1,000 words. Blog and promote blog. Tweet. Update Facebook status. Check Whole Story stats. Check Google Analytics. Laundry.” The workload isn’t quite as intense, but the process is still the same.

So, I’m taking the advice Lamott gives in Bird by Bird, and I’m learning to see things as “small” assignments, tasks I can accomplish. And I’m learning that I can write them down and leave them where they are – on that list – until I need to start a new one.

For Lamott, this advice comes from her brother who had to do a major bird report . . . their father told him, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” And her point is that this is how we could approach our writing – one task, one scene, one sentence at a time. I need this advice for my writing (and also for my life) because as I’ve said, I am really good at avoiding writing, and I need any tool I can use to get me to the page.

The truth is that this constant list making is an act of fear for me – fear that I’ll forget something crucial, yes, but also fear that the time I am giving to words is really wasted. Somehow listing over and over again all the things I could do, somehow that makes me feel important for that split second before my chest constricts. But this is a lie – the lists don’t make me important, and the writing doesn’t make me important. My importance isn’t tied to these activities; it’s tied to the love of One greater. The writing is important only because it is what I have been asked to do, and if this is all I’ve been asked for what I’ve been given, well, it’s really the least I can do. . . truly a small assignment if ever there was one.

So, I try to get over myself and get to it – small assignments. One thing at a time. When I can do this, I literally wake up singing, like I did this morning – “I am highly favored.” What a better way to start the day.