Now might be the perfect time to start a months-long project. Here's why

Writer Amy Shearn is on a quest to better understand why we take on long-term projects and what keeps us going through the process.

From feats of endurance to daily practices, Amy Shearn explores the value of long haul projects

Novelist Amy Shearn says long-term projects can structure our future and tether us to the present. (Brian A Jackson / Shutterstock)

The pandemic has changed the way we view time, making planning for the future feel daunting. But Amy Shearn has found creative inspiration in the uncertainty of lengthy commitments. 

"Sometimes I feel like it's great when I'm making things or thinking about things or working on something, just to answer my own curiosity. That can feel really satisfying, " she said. 

Shearn, a novelist and the editor of Human Parts, has taken on a rather meta long-term project of researching other long-range projects.

"For me, thinking about a really long-term project, it feels like just sort of a giant act of optimism," she said during an interview with Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

"Just sort of believing that, all right, you know, I can't really picture what the world or my life is going to be like in a year or five years, or, you know, what the world is going to be like, in 100 years, but I'm going to sort of take a leap of faith and work on something anyway."

Amy Shearn (Jeffrey Chuang)

Shearn first started wondering about the significance of long-term projects after completing a novel that took her five years to write, only to struggle to find a publisher. 

"And I had this sort of dark moment of the writer's soul. Where I thought, 'Well, what was that for? If I just spent five years researching and writing a novel and it never gets published, what was it for? Was that a waste of time?' " she explained.  

Shearn took those questions and channeled them into a new project — a book proposal on long haul projects.  But Shearn found herself facing more questions than answers. 

"The response from editors was 'Okay, yeah, this is an interesting topic, but what is it? Why do we take on a long haul project? And how can we keep faith along the way? And like, what's the answer?' And I just thought, I don't know that. I guess I'm not this kind of book writer because I don't know yet."

"That's what makes us human, you know, is asking these big questions, even if we don't know the answer. And when we suspect there's no right answer."

I just love the idea of creating something that is by design supposed to outlast us and everyone we know. And maybe even civilization as we know it.- Writer Amy Shearn


Daunted but undeterred, Shearn turned her work into an ongoing series of essays on Medium that she titled The Long Haul

Shearn says her interest in long-term projects that "envision the long now or the deep future" led her to learning about the Long Now Foundation's 10,000-year Clock. The Clock is made to run for the same length of time that current civilization has been in existence —10 millennia — whether anyone visits it or not. Designed by the inventor and engineer Danny Hill, the Clock, when complete, will stand at roughly 200 feet inside of a mountain in western Texas. 

"I just love the idea of creating something that is by design supposed to outlast us and everyone we know. And maybe even civilization as we know it," said Shearn. 

"It's like a gift for the future."

Shearn isn't only interested in  long-term projects that require massive feats of engineering. 

"On the most human level, I think about creative projects that lend themselves to a daily practice element. Because it is so hard to imagine something big and ambitious right now. And because many of us just in our daily lives don't have the bandwidth, I think, to think of something. You know, I'm going to finally write that book or embark on this big art project I've been thinking of, or run a marathon, renovate my house, whatever it is."

Shearn says that it's the accumulation of small daily steps that can lead to a "big, ambitious project." 

For some people, those daily practices become an entire way of living. Shearn suggests Diana Nyad, the long-distance swimmer, and Tommy Caldwell, the rock climber, serve as important examples. 

In 2013, on her fifth and final attempt, Nyad became the first person to swim the 117-kilometer stretch of ocean between Cuba and Florida without a shark cage at 64 years old. 

Long-distance swim legend Diana Nyad, fresh off her record-breaking swim from Cuba to Florida swims last minutes of her 48-hour continuous "Swim For Relief" benefiting Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts at Herald Square on October 10, 2013 in New York City. (Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

"What's interesting to me about a project like that, is that not only is the thing itself a feat of endurance, but it also shaped the way she lived for many years, trying to train for this and wanting to do it and trying and failing," said Shearn.

She recalls interviewing Caldwell shortly after he became the first person to successfully free climb the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

"I talked to him right after this. And I thought, you know, 'You must be flying high, you accomplished this wild goal.' And he said, you know, 'Actually, afterwards, I just kind of felt a little depressed after this climb.'"

"He said, 'I loved the way it made me live. You know, to have this goal, to be training, to be climbing every day, to feel so focused.'"

Tommy Caldwell, left, and Kevin Jorgeson, right, speak during a press conference in Yosemite Valley near the base of El Capitan Thursday morning, Jan. 15, 2015 in Yosemite National Park, Calif. The two Americans became the first to free-climb El Capitan's Dawn Wall. T (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora) (The Fresno Bee/Eric Paul Zamora/Associated Press)

This realization that the process can be as meaningful as the product has influenced how Shearn engages with her own work. 

"Every time I start with the blank page, I think, 'Am I about to waste many months or years going down some path that is not leading to a publishable book?' And every time I have to remind myself, that's not what it's about. I'm learning. Every quote unquote, 'failure' of course teaches you something about the work itself. And I think too, it helps me to remember that it's always about the doing. The most satisfying part really is always the doing, but it's so easy to forget that."

Written and produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?