09/07/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2012

How College Move-In Day Is Like Writing A Novel

A few weeks ago, my son Zachary and I packed up two cars with the necessities and incidentals for his junior year in college. I stared at the mess cargo while standing in my driveway before we left home, and it hit me how that tightly packed, carefully chosen, absolute catastrophe in the back of my SUV and his compact car somewhat resembled my work-in-progress.

That was not a pleasant revelation, at first.

As for the stuff in the car, why he needed it all -- why he needed even half of it -- well, I was both intrigued and incensed. Kind of like the way I felt about my story. I knew there was a lot of dreck I wouldn't need, but that didn't mean I wouldn't end up schlepping it all along for a while, just in case. Plus, on that early Monday morning in mid-August, there was no time to fuss, I had to get moving. Also the way I felt about my novel-to-be. Usually when I have no time to write I have the most ideas. And with 3.5 hours to myself, I had plenty of time to think.

Always dangerous.

The way my son meticulously and sometimes randomly chose what was accompanying him this year was not unlike the way I was thinking about my new story. I had some threads from discarded work, ideas I'd jotted down on napkins, unusual names that piqued my interest, an old storyline I was renovating into something sparkly and new. I'd packed it all into the idea for a new novel, but had yet to unpack it, organize it, rearrange or make it pretty. I mean handsome.

On the drive through two states for 3.5 hours, as I listened to a book on CD (old-fashioned, I know), this time seemed to serve as bridge between having Zachary home for three and half months, and going back for another ten months with just me and my daughter, Chloe. It was also the bridge between me thinking about my new novel and actually writing it. The metaphors became real as I made that final left turn into his picturesque college town and drove over -- you guessed it -- bridge.

At his new house, we unpacked the cars for a very long time, bit by bit, first into the garage, then putting the boxes, bags, crates and cases in the rooms and onto the floors in which they belonged, or where we thought they belonged. When I rested on the questionably-obtained pleather couch and watched Zachary and some his friends do the heavy lifting (ah, male youth), I knew that the heavy lifting of my novel would also be when I would sort out the bits and pieces I'd compiled and decided where they were supposed to go.

Zachary has to look at something for a while to know where he wants it to be. He has to live with it for a while before finding its place and making it fit. But when he's ready, a few days in perhaps, it's a whirlwind of activity and the results are great. He's always had a knack for getting things done right -- especially when left to do in his own time, in his own way.

I too, have to look at something to make it make sense -- and after a lot of thinking about the work in progress and messy notes and lists and outlines (outlines without Roman numerals that do not look like the outlines I learned to write in elementary school). But, like with rearranging closets, drawers, furniture, electronics and food -- not to mention the yet-to-be-purchased books -- I would also take everything out and make sense of it, look at it, study it, make it work. And, like Zachary and his four fraternity brother roommates, sometimes things would sometimes go smoothly, sometimes not, sometimes it would be noisy and sometimes it would be quiet.

As I ordered pizzas from right across the street for $6 each to feed the kids (the men) that helped him move in, I knew that he would continue to make changes to his room, to the kitchen to the living room -- there would be input from trusted friends, and he'd take some advice and some he would toss with last week's beer bottles -- oh -- I mean soda cans.

And then it was even more clear to me. It's a process -- the book, the move-in, everything. It's been a while since I've started something from scratch that I knew would be a full novel. It's been a while since I want things in their place so much that I became impatient with the process -- but that won't get me anywhere. I had to wait. Just like Zachary had to wait for his bed to be delivered the next day, just like he had to wait for the landlord to install -- get this -- toilet paper holders. Waiting pays off. In the end, waiting gives you time to make things the way you want them to be, the way that works for you -- an that is what will help you going forward, whether that's moving on to a senior year of college or a third novel. Or your second kid going off to college in about a year if anyone is counting.


The next day I left for home, eager for Chloe to start her senior year of high school and to unpack, organize, rearrange, rethink and remodel my WIP. I couldn't wait to get my hands on the keyboard. With my hands alone I would move into that new story and make it my home.

Even with lots left for him to do, when I drove away after having breakfast with Zachary, I didn't shed or tear or feel a twang. I knew he too, was in good hands.

His own.