Monthly Archives: May 2012

Writing Life: Today’s Job – Nonwriting Days

Considering my last two posts had to do with managing time and keeping the writing work moving forward, I shift gears today.

For me, today’s writing job, no exaggeration, is to sleep.

A week ago, I had been driving back and forth to Miami for three days to complete a writing workshop with Ann Hood. If you live outside a major city (think: New York, LA, Chicago, even DC), you know what that means. I live 60 miles north of Miami: the drive there is bearable; the drive out at rush hour is stop and go for two hours. Add to that, my son was home sick the whole time and we had family in town, so it was an exhausting few days.

My writing job in the week(s) leading up to the workshop had included preparing and sending a manuscript for the workshop, then reading and commenting on the 15 manuscripts for the other writers in the workshop. I mixed that in between commenting on student essays for classes I teach, and responding to submissions to the literary magazine I read for. This was in addition to regular daily writing, which included new material for Wake, a brief interview, and a couple blogs you’ve seen here.

The workshop then provoked new writing tasks. While the workshop was to focus on beginnings (making the first 250 words work), Ann Hood mentioned at one point how, in draft, characters most like the writer are often the flattest (Note: I blog about this advice later, here and here). Her advice inspired new insights into a main character I hadn’t spent much time with yet, so last weekend was spent writing two important new scenes. Also, the main response Ann had to my manuscript was a comment that it had reminded her of writer Alice McDermott. I knew the name, but had not read McDermott’s work, so a new writing task was to find and begin reading Charming Billy (which later made my annual best-reads list).

Round about then, the inevitable happened: mom caught the 8 year old’s cold.

This is how the week played:  I teach, and am in the last month of the year. My house looks like sheep have moved through.  Not hyperbole.  As a single mother, I have been done in by my house. The disposal died, causing the dishwasher not to work, and I won’t have time to get a repairman in until next week, which means I’m washing dishes.  I have student essays to read, which are completely disorganized after leaving all the drafts for them to work on with a sub while I was in Miami.  I spent Sunday teaching my son how to restore the research project he’d gone off-road with at school, helping him select a new topic, and directing him through online research.  Monday: student work and teaching, and helping the son who’d missed school all last week catch up. Tuesday: called in to sub for a colleague, so missed my planning time, which got shifted to the evening.  Wednesday, slept as late as possible.  Wednesday night: out with my college boyfriend, who I hadn’t seen in more than a decade and happened to be passing through town on business.  Thursday: shot.  Teach, then out late for son’s spring musical.  Friday, teach early, all day, then out all night to deliver and pick up son from his first middle school dance.

Today’s job: sleep.  Do not yet open eyes to the housekeeping and laundry put off through this week, waiting for you to wake up.

None of those things seem to have anything to do with writing.  They sound like the writer’s nemesis: a list of all the things that kept me from writing today.

I don’t see it that way.

To me, when I’ve just posted two articles on how to make the most of your writing time, it seems only fitting for the third to be about all the things that happen in the rest of our time, and the fact that some days your job is really just to sleep.  Some days, it is to mend house, or to jockey for strategic seating at your 8-year-old’s spring musical, or to go to work early to cover a friend’s class or to assist with the school Eucharist where the mayor shows up to honor your retiring head of school.  Other days it is to sit shoulder-to-shoulder as your son struggles through his first research project or be on hand as he dresses for his first dance.  Some nights it is to sit at a table along the sidewalk at Rocco’s Tacos with an old friend who has come to town, laughing and talking until the busboy says he needs to carry in the table and chairs because the bar is closed.

Strategize your writing time, yes.  But there are days when a writer’s life is about the living of life, the connections with others.  When insight and understanding comes from having lived through the weakness of sickness or broken appliances or bad schedules and struggling children.

So today’s post is in honor of those days — recognizing that today’s writing chore really is to sleep, recovering from the week’s experience so I’ll have it in me to write tomorrow.

An observation I would offer is that much of this week I was pushed out of my comfort zone.  Things did not go the way I wanted. I had to put my intentional schedules aside to do things I hadn’t planned on doing. I even managed to back into my ex’s car in my driveway – while leaving him to watch our kids so I could go out to meet the boyfriend I’d dated before marriage. Crunch.

As writers, we don’t write “screw up” as a to-do item on our calendar, but isn’t the imperfection of life where much of inspiration comes from? Awkwardness, inconvenience, failures, crossed wires, confusion.  The realistic brokenness of life happens out there — not in all our planning while sitting at the computer or our writing desk or wherever we work — but sometimes in those hookie moments when we needed to be working but life intervened.  It’s just worth saying, to all of us struggling to work writing hours into our days, there are times to embrace the chaos of life, wecome it in and even count it as part of your writing goal.

I wish you all a productive week — in the hours things go as you planned, and when they don’t!

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Filed under Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother

Writing Life: A Zen Prompt for Writing Past Blocks

My car’s view while I’m in a fiction workshop today (Freedom Tower, overlooking Biscayne Bay, Miami)

I wasn’t planning to post today, as I have about an hour to get ready to head to Miami for the last day of a writing workshop I’m doing with Ann Hood, on beginnings.  It has been a fabulous workshop, astounding in the depth of advice Ann has offered, and I’ll be putting together posts about this in the coming week.

Although I’m in a rush this morning, in responding to reader comments about managing writing time on my last post (What I’m Looking for Isn’t Here & 5 Tips for Managing Writing Time), I was struck by Eden’s comment:

“As my husband always says, ‘Do something, even if it’s wrong.'”

For many writers who are getting started, or those beginning to have successes but still balancing day-jobs, family and other priorities with their writing goals, simply doing something is at the heart of making any progress.

Do something, write something – even if it’s wrong. Claim the time, get something done.

Two other commenters on the same post spoke of the times they finally have the time, but not the inspiration or (heaven forbid) forgot what they had been planning to sit and write.  This made me think of advice I read in one of Natalie Goldberg’s books (either Writing Down the Bones or Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life).

Common writing advice is to write every day and, when writing, to keep the pen or keyboard moving.  As Eden’s husband encouraged, do something.  Write something.  It is also common advice to not be afraid to write something bad, or at least not good.  Frequently I hear writers say, there’s no such thing as waiting for inspiration.  You write anyway.  Write something, even if it is wrong.

What is different in Natalie Goldberg’s advice is her use of Zen principles, and the concept of positive and negative space.  Writers waiting to write the right thing, the inspired thing, insist on that positive space: the thing they want pictured, described, acted out.  Writing negative space is to acknowledge the non-thing.  To write what is not there, not happening, not inspired, not the focus of the story.

Goldberg offered this daily prompt, as a way to get writers past fear of the blank page.  When you don’t know what you want to write, then start by finishing the sentence, “I’m not going to write about…”

Try it.  I know it is strange, but it is oddly freeing.  The first time I did it, I remember the first line that came out was, “I’m not going to write about the blinds.”  How mundane.  But the riff that followed (I’m not going to write about the cat quacking at my feet, I’m not going to write about the growl of the trash truck and silence of the trees, with no wind.  I’m not going to write about the main character who is stuck sitting in that cafe…) revealed entire reams of detail and even a scene I hadn’t thought of before.

It’s an odd little practice, but sometimes flips energy just enough to loosen your voice.

There are two ways to use this activity.

1)  In the example above, I wasn’t even trying to go head-on at writing something I would use in existing work.  It might only shake loose distractions, quiet a preoccupied mind, and mess up that pristine white page enough to get past writers block for the moment.  It might free you enough to move on with more effective writing for the day, or might just be an activity in creative practice, maybe percolating some interesting details that might at some point be useful, or maybe just dormant or even discarded journal entry.

2)  Where Goldberg’s Zen approaches have been more meaningful to me, is her entire approach of thinking of negative space can be liberating and eye-opening in imagining story.  So often we are focused on inventing what is happening in the story, but what about what is not happening?  We focus on our main character’s experience, but what did those same scenes look like from a fringe character’s point of view?  Generally speaking, when we take our focus off the main attraction and take in the negative space, we understand (and can write) the story more fully.  We begin to notice the blank space around the story we wrote, and realize what might have been happening in the world around our character.  New “what if’s” begin to come to mind.  In using this practice, I’ve written scenes from another character’s perspective, which might lead to more insightful dialogue.  I’ve realized entire scenes or tensions, or outcomes of the conflict that hadn’t otherwise occurred to me.

That said, this girl needs to get in motion or I’ll miss Ann Hood’s reading during lunch today.  Since I won’t take time to edit this post as carefully as usual, do let me know in the comments I’ve left it unclear — or let me know if resonates with you.  Have a great day!

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Update 10/8/12: I have to share with you all a link to this beautiful post by fellow Florida writer, Kelly Turnbull, from her blog Parsley and Pumpkins on “writing what you don’t see”: Change with Color.

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Filed under Inspiration, Novel Writing, Writing Life, Writing Mother, Writing Prompt, Writing workshop