I built a house once, a long time ago. For years I would pass it each time I went to visit my parents, and then it burned down.
It was hard seeing it there. Harder seeing it gone.
Yet this thing that no longer exists will forever be something I’m proud to have done. It was the best learning experience imaginable. Not just for what I picked up about construction, but for what it taught me about eating elephants.
Before starting that house, I believed I knew enough about construction to act as my own subcontractor. I’d spent a few years reading everything building-related I could get my hands on, and was naive enough to think that would be enough. It didn’t take long to learn that reading — even lots of reading — still leaves gaps only hands-on experience can fill.
Many of the issues I encountered with building weren’t merely knowledge-related. Imagine a quiet and soft-spoken woman attempting to manage men who were, by and large, unaccustomed to accepting female direction. At every turn, someone wasn’t showing up when they were scheduled, materials weren’t being delivered; workers were making adjustments to plan without clearing it first.
There were utility lines to run, deliveries to coordinate, procedures to follow. It all loomed so large that at one point, I sort of stumbled backward a few steps and sat down hard on the grass.
“You OK?” one of the workers asked.
“I’m overwhelmed,” I said. “It’s too big.”
He plopped down on the grass beside me.
“You ever hear the saying about how to eat an elephant?” he asked. I shook my head no.
“You do it the only way you can,” he said. “One bite at a time.”
He told me I needed to stop looking at the entire project at once; that I needed to break it down into single, do-able steps. He asked what my biggest priority was at that very moment.
I thought for a second. “I guess I need to get those beams set,” I told him. Until the beams were in, nothing more could safely happen.
“Then that’s the bite you take,” he said. “Don’t let yourself think of anything else until you’re done chewing that one bite.”
Over and over, I replayed his advice. Every few days, a fresh batch of elephants would arrive and try to rush me at once, and I’d have to stop and say no. Only you. And then you.
One, I could manage. The whole herd — too much.
I have a friend who runs marathons. She told me she never runs a 25-mile race, but rather 25 back-to-back one-mile races. She says she tells herself, with each mile, it’s her last; says she totally wraps her head around finishing just that mile. When she gets to the marker, she celebrates, and then tackles another.
She told me celebrating those mile markers is extremely important; that if she held off celebrating until crossing the finish line, it might not be enough. She recognizes every little victory.
Looking back, I realize how much of my diet has consisted of elephants. When I started my job in February, there was so much new to learn that every day I walked into the office, it felt like I was wading through a sea of pachyderms. There were trunks and waving ears everywhere I looked. And there I was, armed with the tiniest fork.
This writing project I’ve undertaken, too, has become so complicated and intimidating I put a little glass elephant on my desk to serve as a reminder for those times I’m tempted to quit.
For the past few months, I’ve been listening to audio books and podcasts about writing, and the brilliance of many of the examples the lecturers have used tends to make my simplistic story seem asinine by comparison. I hear tips on developing plot and complicating characters and constructing dialog, and this little voice in my head (that is armed with a megaphone) will yell, “Who are you kidding? You can’t do this!”
But then I remember all I have to do is write a single chapter. Or a single paragraph. Single sentence. Or word.
And I tell that little voice about the appetite I’ve developed for elephants.