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

25 responses to “Writing Life: Today’s Job – Nonwriting Days

  1. Good luck! Get some rest; you deserve it. I am exhausted just from reading your post.


  2. So well said, Elissa! You DID have a rough week, but you’re right: the best material can come out of chaos. And you have all that desire to write building and building . . .

    On another note: I wish I could have heard what Ann Hood had to say about the characters closest to who we are being the flattest. I believe that’s true. I still struggle with the protagonist of my first novel (that’s shelved right now while I work on the second), and I think that’s why. It’s really difficult to be objective and achieve emotional depth and honesty at the same time.

    I wish you rest and renewed energy! Thanks for this insightful post.


    • Gerry, I think Ann Hood’s advice about character merits its own post, so I’ll have to pull that together and post a link here when it’s up. I have PAGES of notes from the workshop, so much so that the notes on character were just a tiny aside to the rest of her advice. I highly recommend doing workshops with her as she is very generous and concrete in the advice she offers. Thanks for commenting, Gerry, and good luck with your writing as well.


  3. Thanks for this encouraging post, Elissa. I, too, had to put off writing for an out-of-town excursion and a list of other things, and I don’t even have a son or other people in the mix. But as writers, we get to mull all these little adventures around in our heads to use later.


  4. Thanks for the writing inspiration, Elissa. You’ve got many words of wisdom here.

    Oh, and p.s. –that picture of guacamole made me hungry. lol. Nom, nom, nom… :)


  5. muddykinzer

    Elissa, this was marvelous! I had to laugh when you mentioned backing into your ex’s car…don’t we all have moments like that! Especially when we don’t have the time to deal with them! I feel the same way: sometimes, the best thing you can do is sleep. Rest, recharge, and face another day. After a sleepless week last week, I told my kids I desperately needed to take a nap, and I asked them to wake me up at 2:00pm because we needed to head out for Saturday baseball games. My 6 year old woke me up saying it was 2:00pm, but when I looked at the clock myself, it said 1:25pm. “Don’t you realize how tired I am?” I scolded him. “Why did you wake me up so early?”
    “Because I want a Popsicle.”
    Well, ok then.
    Hope you get more hours of uninterrupted sleep than I did!


  6. Muddy Kinzer

    By the way, I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award! Your week, and the way you managed it, sounded nothing less than Versatile! Congratulations! Read more about it here: http://www.muddyingthewaters.com/


  7. Great post. I am in the middle of a very busy and hectic time in my personal (and professional) life, and I’ve had to consciously let go of the prospect of doing any solid writing work at the moment. It’s hard, but it’s also necessary. I’ve tried to do it all before, but that’s no good — it only leads to stress sobbing.


    • You’re so right. I’ve been excited to see the success your story collection has been having, so hopefully that will be consolation during a period when you can’t write? I try not to beat myself up when other things intervene, but just look ahead to when the time will be there. I hope your hectic time is all good! Thanks for commenting!


  8. Why is it that the most basic, essential need is often the one most overlooked/neglected? Thanks for this reminder to pay attention to allllll our needs, Elissa, not just what’s on our to-do list! Thanks for linking up with TALU! Always love seeing my Wordsmith friends here.


  9. There is the life we imagine we are supposed to be living and then there is OUR life. What shame some folks spend so much time mourning the former that they neglect to appreciate the latter until it is merely an artifact in a photo album. Talu-ho!


    • elissa field

      Lara, great to see you here! You’re so right — I have a quote something like that on my Pinterest: like, the only problem with life is our belief there was a certain way it was supposed to go. That week still goes down as a fabulous week, despite and because of all the ways it went wrong! TALU-ho indeed — thanks for visiting!


  10. My sympathy for you “washing dishes” was audible. What a week you had. I love the “in honor of” paragraph. TALU


    • elissa field

      Kenya, that is so funny (sympathy @ dishes). I would have done anything to get rid of them, at the time! Thanks for stopping in, and it was great fun getting to see your son during our TALU hop!


  11. I couldn’t agree more! This sort of sounds like how my life was going at the end of last year. I managed to keep up with the poetry writing, though I had to put some other things on the back-burner to have more time for my kids when they were home in the evening. (And sleep sounds really good right about now.)


    • elissa field

      It’s great to see you here, Linda. I agree — I post these kinds of things because I figure we’re all juggling what matters and what gets set aside, all the time — especially when it comes to finding time with our kids and time to write. Thanks for the TALU visit!


  12. Veronica Roth

    Love it Elissa. I used to hate those rush-hour commutes till I started writing magazine articles and kept a digital recorder for interviews. The recorders are great for car rides or whenever an idea hits. I haven’t stopped using it since. :) Linking from TALU.


    • elissa field

      Veronica, that’s great advice. So many ideas come to mind in the car that commutes aren’t all bad. Thanks for stopping in during TALU.


  13. Via TALU: Elissa, I enjoyed this as much as the first time I read it. Still so pertinent and worth remembering. Thanks!


    • elissa field

      Gerry, thanks for stopping in and commenting, especially as a second-read! It was great to have the TALU link-up! Hope your week is going well.


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