Incense Ashes


A project is running late, and I’ve had to put myself in hyper-focus lockdown mode in order to rein it back in. So, I’m keeping the Internet more or less off, only letting myself use, and hiding from the social media sites that call to me like sirens, from their treacherous rocks. I monitor email only every couple hours, just to make sure nothing urgent has come up, and that I’m keeping everyone busy that I can. Chat is mostly off. I’m not checking in with anyone to get their status reports, and am temporarily not giving some languishing authors any productivity pep talks. I haven’t started my tomato seedlings, I’m not peeking at my new book’s activity analytics, and I’m only writing this blog post because it’s nighttime and I’m taking stock of my strategies for keeping focused, in hopes that it will help me keep the momentum going after tomorrow, which is shaping up to be a brief reprieve from this charrette. I’ve been soaking in coffee, and avoiding sugar, red meat, and certainly alcohol, until after I’ve moved enough of the day’s ink. Okay, enough pixels. And not checking the news during my coffee breaks. Just editing. Because by nature, I would rather do any of these things than maintain this intensity. But that’s what needs to happen, for a few days, if this book is to be in print by an important deadline this fall, in seven months. It seems a little far out, but I see the potential cascade of falling dominoes that must be circumvented, so here I am.

Ideally, project managers should focus on strictly PM tasks, rather than having their hands in content. But in many environments, that purity of specialization isn’t possible. Particularly in relatively small shops, where everyone wears multiple hats. And particularly in the arts. There are many reasons why being a generalist, like this, is a bad idea. First, there are benefits for project managers to be emotionally detached from the content, so that we can focus on making cool-headed logistical decisions, regarding a project’s rate of progress and ultimate destiny. Sentimentality towards details can sabotage the over-arching project vision. (Yes, it can also save it, but for now, let’s acknowledge that it can sabotage it too.) Second, fragmented attention leads to mistakes. Multitasking generally results in loss of quality control, and when experts practice their highest trade, we get the best results, if it’s all managed well. Again, though, while that kind of division of labors is an ideal, it is not always the most cost effective. I’ve got my own hands deep into the content. It works out okay most of the time, but there are periods like this when I’ve got to stake out some territory and focus, on one side of the work or the other.

This week, I’ve had to pull my personal nuclear option for maintaining focus: keeping incense burning most of the time. The perpetual jasmine scent and slight stinging in my eyes reminds me that I don’t have the luxury to mess around. I’m not answering the phone, and only checking for messages every two hours. Strangely, the world hasn’t come crashing down around me, yet. And in the past week or so, I’ve reviewed 600 pages of galley proofs and edited about 90,000 words. Too much. And not enough.

I imagine the incense smoke rising from my writer’s garret in central Massachusetts, reaching out a gossamer strand towards the Vatican, where the College of Cardinals’ black smoke will be soon similarly wafting upwards, as they burn their papal ballots. Hopefully, it will turn white for all of us before too long.

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