|"Two," by Meg Flannery|
So when Blood Lotus asked me to compose a guest post about my “life as a writer” I was stumped.
I do write a lot of emails.
And hey, if you’re thinking that writing emails doesn’t count, well then you’ve never received an email from me. I can whip up a mean email. And by mean, I mean good. (Sometimes mean.)
Much of my free time is invested in reviewing student work and offering feedback, and there’s also my editing work. Writers send me their stuff, and I help them fine-tune, develop, narrow down, or expand their work.
On the plus side, I’ve been told that my advice is “reliably brutal” and that I have an eye for detail and style.
Then again, I’ve been told that there’s “nothing quite like taking someone else’s creativity and making it your own.”
(I called that guy an asshole.)
I don’t take credit for anyone else’s creativity, but I’ve certainly realized that if I’m not careful, my own writing often takes a backseat to the endeavors of others.
If I don’t write – and here, I’m not talking about emails – I start to feel like I’m just working in the wings. Sitting on the bench.
But before I can get to that writing, there’s grading and editing; there’s dishes to be done, rooms to be painted, poison ivy to be rassled, meatloaf to be soggied. (I make really, really bad meatloaf).
Me as a writer is an awfully small sliver of that life pie.
And I haven’t even mentioned Little Dude.
I admit that I considered writing something about being a “writer mom,” but before I’d even completed the thought, I was already shuddering.
Any time I see something from a “mom writer” it’s full of wistful anecdotes about how cute it was when Suzy Q got her hair stuck in the vacuum cleaner, or how we need to “hold on to these moments because they’ll be gone before we know it.”
We can worry all day about how fast they grow up – and talk so much about how they grow up so fast that we miss them growing up – but we forget that our lives go by just as quickly. I’m growing up too. And I want something to show for it, something like the things I’ve written.
Then there are the cutting-edge anti-moms who relish their imperfections and call their kids assholes. Quite frankly I don’t really want to read about your asshole kids. I’ve got one of my own.
How about being a writer-who-is-a-mom rather than a mom-who-is-a-writer? (Note: that doesn’t make sense).
One of the first examples I thought of, in terms of authors who had children, was Sylvia Plath. The woman rose at 4 am to write before her children got up. If that’s what it takes, then I’m already out of the running.
Cos screw that.
Then it occurred to me that things didn’t necessarily turn out so well for Plath. In fact, maybe hers isn’t an example I need to aspire to.
Being a writer is similar to being a parent in that both occupations involve soul-sucking, painfully invisible and misunderstood work that moves at a glacial pace. How about I forget this mom stuff and just get back to my life as a writer, no matter how small a slice of me it might seem to be?
Truth is, I spend a lot of time wondering when I’ll stop whining about all the stuff I need to do, and how I can’t write because I have so much STUFF that I need to do.
We all have stuff. No one’s stuff is better than or more important than anyone else’s.
Nope, not even a mom’s.
The truth is I write more now than I ever did before I was a mom. But it’s not about “life as a writing mom” or even “life as a momming writer” (Note: that still doesn’t make sense). The busier I am, the more I get done.
It’s about being mindful of my time—free time or otherwise, and how I spend it.
That doesn’t mean I spend it well. Hell, sometimes I spend my free time cleaning out my DVR. And really, even though I hired a sitter to give me a few hours of daylight writing time, the truth is that by the time I’d found a place that had wi-fi and beer, located a table near an outlet, relocated because of the glare on the screen, taken a call from my mom, and eaten a pizza, I only had an hour left on the babysitter-meter.
You can bet your ass I made that hour count, though.
If indeed I do have a writing life, it’s not one that plays out as leisurely as a pub and pizza at 4 in the afternoon. Ordinarily, my writing life takes place whilst crouched over the laptop on the couch after midnight when the house is quiet, and all the things that needed doing have been do-ed.
Yes, yes, I hear that writing is the most important of all of them, and I’m certain that some of you are rolling your eyes and shaking your fist—damn it, woman, just write! But Horace lived and died before you did and he said “Know thyself.”
I know myself well enough to know that I can’t concentrate unless these things are dealt with. I also know that once I start writing, I’m sure as hell not going to stop to edit, fold laundry, or grade papers.
So what do I have to show for all of this? A stack of graded papers, a stack of folded laundry, and an even larger stack of unfinished stories.
I’m not discouraged, though. I think of these tidbits lovingly, as pans in the fire. Depending on my mood, I’ll work on a certain one. Here and there I find a submission deadline that speeds me up, and occasionally I find a common strand that groups a few of them together.
My writing life is an act of juggling these pans in the fire (Note: juggling pans in the fire sounds like a bad idea) and compiling scraps of ideas into larger dishes. I don’t underestimate my back-burner ideas; sometimes I’m just not ready to write that story yet.
Sometimes you can just turn the heat up to get things cookin’, and sometimes you ruin your meat loaf. (Trust me, I’m an expert at ruining meatloaf.)
Generally speaking, I’m confident that as long as I stay busy writing – and that’s the most crucial step – they’ll come out eventually. Fully cooked, even. (Note: Dear God someone make me stop with the kitchen metaphors).
Sometimes I just need the right nudge to get those back burner stories completed. But let’s be real clear about one thing: Those nudges don’t come about by themselves.
In addition to writing, and thinking about writing, (and fretting about writing), if I want my writing to be productive then I need to actively seek out inspiration. Sometimes I reread a short story or book that I’ve already read twenty times because it’s one that always gets me itching to write.
I like to shuffle around the things that will motivate and inspire me. Sometimes I shut myself off from the world up and read novels; other times I just go to the coffeehouse and observe the turtlenecks, or I do something out of the ordinary like go the other way down a one-way road (Note: that’s really bad advice).
As much as it sounds like a bumper sticker, it’s about getting out of your comfort zone. When I’m feeling really crazy, I cut my cucumber slices into three sections instead of four. Some of my best ideas have come after a plate of thirds rather than my usual quarters. Because OCD.
Every so often, it seems a story writes itself. Those are good nights. This usually occurs during a period of stimulating intellectual activity. After a particularly engaging MOOC about the history of humankind, I wrote “The Singularity” in about thirty minutes.
And then sometimes I sit on an idea for three years before I finally get it down. Who am I kidding? It took me ten years to write “Lithium Sandwich,” even if typing it out was just a matter of days. I wanted to kick myself when it came out as quickly as it did, but I’ve realized since then that if I had written ten years ago, or five, or two, then it wouldn’t be the story that it needed to be.
That sounds a little too much like ooga-booga writery talk to me, so I’ll move along.
There’s a lot of talk about keeping paper and pen by your bed in case of those late-night epiphanies. I’m all for it, even if it doesn’t work for me. Usually, in true Seinfeldesque fashion, I can’t read it the next day.
(Worse yet, in true Leahesque fashion I find that it just wasn’t all that great an idea to begin with.)
I carry paper and pen with me wherever I go and habitually record snippets from conversations. This generally makes people uncomfortable to be around me.
Sometimes I even get to be that pretentious ass talking into a hand-held Dictaphone (also known as my cellphone) but hey—when that perfectly pristine idea or turn of phrase comes to me I gots to get it down, no matter what it takes.
Okay, not “no matter what it takes.” Seriously, I don’t recommend searching for a pen while driving. That’s where the cellphone comes in.
No, don’t text it to yourself!
Just record yourself saying it, no matter how much it makes you look like “that guy.”
Because really, how else are you going to record gems like, “They rode in silence”?
I tell myself that it helps me compose more realistic dialogue later on, even if the majority of them end up sitting on those lines and never go anywhere. Here and there, though, they take flight.
And even if they don’t, what these little scraps of thought and talk do – or, rather, what the habit of writing them down does – is train me to see life for all of its wondrous, profound, wretched, and absurd mundanity.
Or mundane absurdity. Depends on the day.
Maybe you don’t want to read about that, but any story that manages to express even just 2 out of 4 of those adjectives is one that I want to read.
I can feel this dwindling down into more bumper stickers of writing encouragement, so let me stop there.
What I’m trying to get at is that there’s not always a lot of time to write. It’s because I’m a parent, a student, an employee, a neurotic, and a sluggard. Who’s counting?
There’s not a lot of time to write, and not always a lot of motivation. And when I do write, most of it is junk. What was it I said earlier? Soul-sucking, painfully invisible and misunderstood work that moves at a glacial pace?
But who’s counting?
When I write, wherever I am, however I do it, that’s an important moment. Usually a satisfying one. Rinse and repeat and sometimes the next one is easier.
Sometimes it’s not.
Eventually there’s enough scraps to put into one recognizable heap of words. And so a story is born.