I re-titled the article "Don’t Moan—Improvise", revised a few times and included it in Tropical Affairs, under the “Being a Writer” section. Even though the article feels a bit dated since I was writing about the mid-1990’s (I haven’t dusted off that manual typewriter for a long time, finally sold that old unreliable car, and haven't been playing tennis either), still the advice rings true today, especially since moving to Borneo and leaving teaching.
“No wind, row!” barked Winston Churchill, no doubt to a group of hapless sailors bemoaning the lack of wind to fill their sails. Although I’m no sailor, I often apply this nautical advice to other facets of my life. When things don’t go according to plan, instead of moaning, I force myself to make a new plan by improvising. In other words, I do whatever I have to do to get what needs to be done completed on time.
For instance, in Malaysia where I live as an expat, we occasionally have power shortages, so if I’m in the middle of writing, I’ll permit myself to groan a little, then I’ll say, “No computer, type!”
I’ll dust off my ever dependable manual typewriter and get the job done. If the typing isn’t urgent, I’ll take advantage of the down time by completing other non-typing tasks, like editing or brain storming new ideas for articles, short stories, screenplays or novels.
This is also the time to reorganize my writing notes, straighten out my files, update my non-computer records, and clear away everything that has been accumulating on my desk, so when the power – and especially my computer – is back on, I’m raring to go with a clear mind and an uncluttered office.
Then on those days when I have errands to run and my car refuses to cooperate, which happens a lot with my less-than-trusty old car, I’ll boldly announce, “No car, walk!”
By walking, I still get to my destination and pick up some much needed exercise in the process. If the distance is too far, as is often the case, I’ll take a bus or a taxi, or – if I feel truly inspired – I’ll ride my bicycle. I just do what I have to do to get wherever I have to go. Instead of complaining that I have no car and use that as an excuse, I get on with my life.
To make sure that I get to my destination or to my appointment on time, I’ll leave early to allow for delays, and will often bring along an umbrella in case of rain as well as a book or a magazine to read while waiting for the bus or taxi.
Every now and then when I go to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, I’ll make my rounds visiting magazine editors and publishers, and if I can’t make an appointment ahead of time because the editor is out or if I just happened to be in the area, I’ll stop in and present myself and my work. If the person I want to see is busy, which is usually the case, and if coming back later or the next day is inconvenient or impossible, I’ll tell myself, “No appointment, wait!”
While waiting, I’ll browse through the publishers’ latest publications, go over my manuscripts, and rehearse my selling pitch – for articles, short stories, or a book proposal.
Invariably I get to meet the person whom I came to see, even if it’s only for a few minutes while they are rushing out of the building to meet their own appointments. More importantly I’ve put a face behind my words and have established contact, which later will lead to sales.
Now that I’m teaching writing full time and freelancing part time, I have these days, weeks, months, when there’s just not enough time to complete all of my tasks, so I think back to a time management seminar I once attended and say to myself, “No time, make time!”
So I’ll get up an hour earlier, shorten my lunch hour, cut out unnecessary breaks, limit phone calls, cut short e-mails, avoid idle chatter with colleagues, leave the TV off, and just try to work more efficiently both at work and at home.
Then during those intense periods of my life when I feel that all I ever do is work, I’ll use my final battle cry, “No life, get one!”
So I’ll go to a movie, play tennis, visit a beach, read a novel or just play with my son who’s always so full of life.
Now whenever I find myself in the middle of the sea of life and there’s no wind, I rarely moan or shrug my shoulders in defeat and say, “What to do?” I just do my best Winston Churchill imitation and get on with my life and gain a little life in the process.
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*Oh, it sounds like we're going to have another thunderstorm here in Borneo, so I'd better post this before the power goes out...I'll grab some romantic candles while I'm at it and get those two little boys bed to early!