Epic Projects

It’s probably no shocker that I have an affinity for epic projects. I’m a novelist, after all. Novels are projects that often take a year or more and god-knows-how-many hours of work before anyone reads them, plus another infinite amount of work before they’re decent enough to show to the general public. And I’ve never been very good at writing short stories: even the paragraph-long documents on my computer are mostly intended to be the beginning of novels.

As if that process weren’t punishing enough, I have a tendency to take on epic projects in other areas, too. When I was 12 or 13, I was sitting around bored in a genealogical library somewhere waiting for my parents to get done researching when I came across a book called Reading Lists for College-Bound StudentsThis book included a list of 100 of the “most often recommended” books. At the time, I was planning to go to Harvard (I had no idea what Harvard was really like, but I was smart, and Harvard was where smart people go). I figured I should get on that. I copied the entire list out into a notebook and spent eighth grade reading spectacularly age-appropriate books like  The Glass Menagerie and The Stranger by Camus. (I also read 1984 and Slaughterhouse-Five, so it wasn’t all a baffling trip down existential lane.)

I actually did quite well on this list, eventually. By the time I graduated high school, I’d read more than half, and a college career that included Great Books courses and English classes knocked out a lot of the rest. The very last books on the list–five or six, including Native Son and Don Quixote–are still on my reading list today. I fully intend to read them someday.

When I was in college, the American Film Institute released its “100 Years…100 Movies” list, and I decided I needed to expand my cinematic education. I’d probably seen 20 or so already. Thanks to the college library, some understanding roommates, and a lucky Film Club showing of Birth of Nation (abridged, but close enough when you’re talking about a silent Ku Klux Klan epic), I watched all 100 before graduation.

A year or so ago I decided it would be fun to listen to all the number-one Billboard songs from 1942 forward. When I have a slow day, I add some more songs to a YouTube playlist I’ve put together. So far, I’ve made it to the mid-eighties. I watch a few videos when I wake up in the morning, or play them in the background while I do a task that doesn’t require full concentration. The forties were eye-opening (you wouldn’t believe how many songs I thought were just children’s songs were actually the top of the charts during World War II), and the seventies were a slog, but now that I’m into an era I remember, I’m sure I’ll finish this one eventually.

This attraction towards epic projects also has a darker side. Several years ago, stuck in a job with too much down time, I decided to transcribe my diaries. All 28 volumes.  That one was an epic waste of time. Though it was enlightening to really read them all through, if I’d just read them–and scanned them into the computer–I could have cured cancer by now.

And way back in fifth grade, when I was going through my first bout of depression, I designed what has to be the weirdest, saddest epic project of all. When I was 10, we moved from a small town in Minnesota to an army base in Germany. A year later, I still ached to go back, to a town that I remembered as safe and stable, unlike the constantly changing, unfamiliar world of the army. When my Minnesota best friend sent me a yearbook from what would have been my fifth-grade class, I sat down with all five of our elementary yearbooks and made a big chart. The chart tracked which kids had been in the same class together–for instance, Jeremy, Misha, and I had been in Mrs. Sutherland, Mrs. Lindquist, and Mrs. Blomme’s classes together before being split into different classes in fourth grade. It took forever, but eventually I came up with a small list of pairs of kids who had been in the same classes five years in a row. I guess this project was partially inspired by my budding love for math and statistics, but mostly it was a pathetic grasp towards continuity, an attempt to find a piece of this world I could understand. Looking at little black-and-white pictures of my old classmates was a lot easier than trying to mend the fights I was constantly getting into with my two current best friends.

The secret about my epic projects is that most of them (well, except the novels) are easy. They take persistence, and they may expand my mind, but they aren’t difficult to actually do. They’re something to turn to on the days when my to-do list is too daunting, when even the simplest tasks are turning out much more complicated than I thought. They’re a way to feel like I’m accomplishing something without really moving forward. They’re comfort tasks. And as long as I can keep them in their place, on the fringes of my life but not at the center, I’ll keep taking them on.