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  • The Two-Hour Project: Surprises in small packages
The Two-Hour Project: Surprises in small packages
Written by
Summer Wood
April 2012
Written by
Summer Wood
April 2012

I first met Barb Johnson in 2009, in Albuquerque. The newly-minted AROHO Gift of Freedom award winner was visiting the state to meet with the Board of the Foundation, and they’d asked me, as the outgoing recipient, to come down and check her out.


Even I—skeptic though I am—couldn’t resist the charm of this smart and deeply insightful writer. A Southerner by birth and choice, Barb carries on the tradition of the best Southern women writers: fiercely funny (think Flannery O’Connor), possessed of an incomparable way with language (think Eudora Welty), bound by love and commitment to her people and place (think Zora Neale Hurston).


Barb’s place is New Orleans, and her first book of stories, More of this World or Maybe Another, is a breathtaking, stereotype-smashing look at the Mid-City neighborhood she calls home. It’s hauled down all kinds of awards since its publication in 2009 (including a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award), and if you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a treat when you do.


But Barb and I have more in common than the writing. Both of us spent years building houses as we honed our writing skills, and the habits and perspectives developed through carpentry invest our writing lives with a richness I cherish.


For me, being a writer is just as much a blue-collar job as being a carpenter: I pack a lunch, I go to work, I get the job done. I’ve learned the value of daily, persistent effort. I know that ingenuity coupled with stamina can solve just about any technical problem. And I have honed the ability to focus my attention and effort for long stretches of time.


These days, though, that skill starts to look less like an advantage and more like a rigidity I can’t afford. Yes, I can work for 8 or 10 or 12 hours at a stretch. Yes, I can focus my attention on bringing a chapter or a story to draft, and not give up until I do. But my life doesn’t afford that opportunity as much, lately. Between teaching, editing, promoting the novel, and conducting other kinds of work, I seldom get those long stretches of writing immersion time. I trust they’ll return, but for now, those long, uninterrupted dates between me and the page are few and far between.


What now? I can complain about it (and, believe me, I do—on the grounds that moaning makes any pain more tolerable), but when push comes to shove, it’s either change my ways or get no writing done at all.


It was Barb who helped me out of this bind. Not Barb the writer; Barb the carpenter. When Kathy and I visited her in New Orleans this winter, she showed us some terrific architectural details in her apartment. “I made this,” she said, gesturing to a lovely and inventive fireplace surround, “from scraps I salvaged from my shop after Katrina.” She paused. “It was one of my two-hour projects.”


I raised an eyebrow. Not only is she good, she’s fast. “Two hour projects?”


She explained. As her life changed, she didn’t have the concentrated time to focus on day-long carpentry work. She’d clear two hours in her day, think about it in advance, and throw herself at a discrete project, a start-to-finish kind of effort with terrific results.


I’ve been thinking about this. Little by little, I’ve been trying this on for size. I may not have day-long stretches to work on my novel, but I can carve out two hours several times a week to write.


The trick to all this is keeping your expectations in line. Not expectations for quality; I can write as well in two hours as I can in a full day. In two hours I can’t get nearly the amount of work accomplished, and I can’t get to the kind of sustained hum that allows for full execution of a chapter or a story—but I can get a small part done, start to finish.


It’s a new experience for me, I’ll admit. Sometimes all I want to do with my two hours is scrawl in my notebook, and I’m fine with that. But sometimes, thinking it through in advance, I find I can sit and make extraordinarily good use of the time. I can tackle a tough scene without the relief valve extended time offers—and the pressure that builds can result in some fine, fierce work.


I don’t expect I’ll switch over to preferring the two-hour project. I sure am looking forward to the chance to get back to my long days and the forward motion that practice affords a novel. But for me, the surprise was that I can change; I can try on new patterns, and benefit from them.


Give it a try yourself, sometime. If you’re accustomed to writing in short, furious bursts, see what happens when you devote twelve uninterrupted hours to your work. If you’re a long-stretch writer, try the two-hour project. The forty-five minute project. Hell, write a poem in the length of time it takes to hard-boil an egg. Think of it as a kind of writer’s yoga.


It’s okay to moan. Carpenters do that, too.


Anything that gets the job done.



SUMMER WOOD is at work on her third novel, and eagerly awaiting the September paperback release of her second, Raising Wrecker, from Bloomsbury. 




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  • Susan Evans

    Thank you. I have been in such a slump lately. Your last several posts have been very stimulating. I am feeling the juices begin to stir. 

  • Jennifer Worrell

    Fantastic advice--two hours is a realistic goal for me to reach! Thanks! 

  • Summer Wood

    Thanks for commenting, everybody. Janet, I meant that whenever there's hype or buzz about something I tend to take a step back and try to maintain a kind of objective view. Barb's generous nature was instantly evident, obviously genuine, and absolutely disarming. Andi, looking forward to seeing you in July! Mom--I mean, uh, Ellen--keep that good writing rolling!

  • Janet McAdams

    I enjoyed your post, Summer. But what do you mean in the 2nd paragraph about being  a 'skeptic'?

  • Summer, you bring to this enthusiasm and positive-ness because that is your personality.  I'm so glad I met you at the Taos Writers Conference.  Thanks for this encouraging piece and maybe I'll get to hear more in July - when I expect I will need encouragement!

  • Ellen Wood

    Yes! I needed this. There's always more to be done - and the day is gone. I need the discipline of committing to a specific amount of time - short, or it gets put off - and keeping my promise to myself. Thanks!