A young and devastatingly talented friend of mine is in the habit of making me squirm by calling me a “real writer.” I’m not sure how many publishing credits and how much hate mail it’ll take to confirm that status in my own mind. I’m not sure there’s enough bile in the world — or love, for that matter.
On the other hand, I do know that I’m a writer. Just a writer, I think would be the most accurate description. Writing is the water I swim in, whether I’m gasping in admiration of other people’s words or holding my eyes open (with my fingers if necessary, which occasionally it is at the end of a long day) as I struggle to order my own.
I write. And recently, I’ve been lucky enough to be of help to other people who also write.
In the past few months, I’ve answered the phone expecting nothing more than a chat about setting up a family play date, only to find myself fielding an urgent plea for help on the writing front. Will this plot work? Is this a good idea? Can a unicorn be a speaking character and also not exactly a unicorn?
Recently I had a manuscript handed to me with a plea not to pull any punches, and became engaged shortly afterward in a discussion about how to craft an unreliable narrator without leaving a reader feeling that she may be in the presence of an unreliable writer.
This very November, I utterly failed to take part in NaNoWriMo but was delighted to be of help to someone who was typing madly away and was running out of fuel well before she hit her word quota.
I gave writing lessons once to a friend’s daughter, and it was fun; but this was different. That had been with the specific goal of teaching a specific skill. What I’ve been doing lately is deeper, and a deep joy. I’m being of help to people who, for whatever reason, have to write.
It’s made me realize that this is something I want to do on more of a regular basis, and on a professional basis.
I’m setting up my site, figuring out my model, learning the wonders of Skype so that I don’t have to be limited by geography. I hope to be ready to make this official in about a month.
In the meantime, and speaking of someone who quite literally has to write, a friend of mine is completely freaked out because she’s homeschooling her daughter and working, plus now she’s working on her dissertation. And she’s getting some terrible advice on how to handle this, which is only making her even more stressed. For instance, someone told her she absolutely had to read a particular book that instructed her never to write for more than two hours a day. I don’t know if this is a book on writing in general, or on dissertation work in particular, but clearly someone’s been smoking something they shouldn’t be.
So if my own experience can be of any help at all, I’d like to offer the following advice. This might be of use to anyone attempting to get some writing done when life keeps intruding.
1. If you can get long stretches of uninterrupted time, grab them — by the neck with claws unsheathed, if necessary. Fight for them. Pay for them. Don’t actually kill for them, since that’ll just get you the wrong kind of long stretches of uninterrupted time; but be prepared to do so. It’s amazing how many obstacles an expression of murderous certainty can knock down — and how willing spouses, children, and good friends will suddenly be to give you whatever you need. At least until they have time to get used to your new look.
2. Regardless of how faithfully you follow #1, stretches of uninterrupted time, long or otherwise, are not going to fall into your lap. They do fall into some people’s laps, but those people aren’t usually desperate enough to be seeking advice here.
Instead of waiting with increasing bitterness for the perfect writing conditions, be willing and able to work with what you can get. A few minutes used well can be more productive than an hour in which you keep leaping up to do other things.
3. The best way to make sure you’ll use the writing time you manage to tear away from a Keats-killing world is to have your ducks in a row. Have all kinds of work ready and waiting for you, suited to all kinds of circumstances, so that whatever comes along, you’re set.
I learned this from the construction crew that did the repair work on our earthquake-damaged building several years ago. The foreman had indoor non-time-sensitive work available for days when it was raining and their outdoor work was impossible. Similarly, writers should have:
* “Low-brainer” stuff for when you’re tired and/or distracted. You have to decide for yourself what constitutes a relatively mindless session. For some, researching and taking notes or marking pages with those cute little sticky tabs is something they can do even if their kid is firing “Guess what?”-type questions at them the whole time. Some find outlining soothing. Or rereading/rewriting. Figure out what aspect of writing demands the least from your particular twisted little mind, and save it for a screamy day.
* Portable pain: writing supplies that can come with you when you’re out in the so-called real world and find yourself waiting around. Again, this might be a book that needs reading, a notebook for note-taking and outlining, or a laptop for composing or doing online research.
* “Focus, please” stuff for those times when you really did get up at four in the morning (or, if you’re me, stayed up until two) in order to work undisturbed, or your family left and promised not to come back before a certain hour. This is crucial time. You must use it well. But this kind of pressure is exactly what can make you freeze up with a bad case of performance anxiety, and make you hate yourself for not being a better, more productive human being. Warm up with a little — just a little — of whatever constitutes an easy ride for you. I often find it helpful to start by rereading the last page or paragraph or chapter I’ve been working on, correcting as I go along, and then just keep writing when I reach the end of my charted territory. Or maybe you can map out exactly where you’re going to go next with this project. Or read the research material that demands silent concentration. Be honest with yourself about what aspect of writing is hardest for you, and time it accordingly.
4. Speaking of quiet time: If you’re the anxious type and you wake up in a writing-related panic and can’t calm yourself down right away, just go ahead and get up and work. I’ve learned this the hard way. If your personal demon is going to torture you, you may as well get some work out of him as long as he’s there. Make a cup of herbal tea (or black coffee, if you know you’re not getting back to sleep at all) and just write. If you’re too panicky to get anything constructive done, try to distract the tormentor. Take a hot bath or a cold shower. Or try an exercise a friend of mine told me about, where you choose one particular object or corner of the room or patch of garden and just stare at it. You can blink, but don’t look away when you open your eyes. This is all you’re allowed to look at or focus on. With any luck, the foul imp assigned to your case will die of boredom, or at least fall asleep, and you’ll be calm enough to work. Don’t let yourself start right away. Keep staring until you’re sure he’s really out, and then quietly begin to scribble or type.
5. And speaking of scribbling or typing: if you’re feeling absolutely stuck, try varying your usual medium. Try making an outline in longhand if you usually type, or jot down your first drafts in pencil instead of pen. Use a weird-sized paper, and/or something colorful. At one point, I found writing sideways across pale purple legal pads very helpful.
6. Take care of yourself. Do not do shove this into the “When I have time, if I have time” bag and then kick it under the bed. Do it first. Every study in the universe currently concludes that exercising wakes up your brain and makes it work better. Exercise early or late, depending on when you’re going to be writing. Exercise and then write. And don’t forget to eat. And don’t eat junk. Use some of your most tired, useless time to shop for and prepare healthy stuff to have around that you can grab when you don’t want to stop working but need to energize: chopped fresh vegetables, nuts, hard-boiled eggs, whole-grain snacks. Don’t forage when you’re already starving. Eat when you need to — some people find it helpful to eat before they need to. If you’re working with a computer, you already have enough potential system crashes to deal with. Don’t add yours into the bargain.
7. Find what works for you. Listen to other people’s advice and ideas, but don’t necessarily adopt them. If the idea in question feels like just one more thing to add to your to-do list, it’s probably not a good fit for you.
8. Seemingly in direct contradiction to the previous item but in fact in complete agreement with it: be willing to try something new if what you’re doing now isn’t working. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself: do you feel reluctant to try this new method or system because it doesn’t seem like a good fit, or because it sounds too much like work?
9. Almost every writer in the world doesn’t feel like writing when they sit down to write. It doesn’t matter if this is for work, school, or was 100% your own idea. If you’re a parent, you’ll have plenty of experience with a small immature creature screaming “But I don’t WANT to!” about something that they really ought to be used to by now. You may not have realized that you’ve got just such a creature living in your skull. They usually respond well to calmness, consistency, and a refusal to negotiate with terrorists. Keep working for however many minutes it takes for the whining and pleading to stop (“I’m hungry! I’m thirsty! I want to do something fun!”). Be prepared for some low cunning (“Is this really what you should be doing with your time? With your life? Are you sure this is a good idea?”). Keep working. Keep working. It does get better.
And then it gets worse again. But you can do this.
Think about it this way: the part of your mind that keeps trying to convince you to stop believes that you can do this. That’s why it’s trying to stop you. Because writing is work, and all of us carry around a lazy slob who shudders at the prospect of anything that looks like work. And succeeding at writing usually means you’ll be doing more of it.
You can do this. Just keep working.