Despite the number of years I’ve been writing professionally, I’m still surprised by how difficult it is to do what I love. The world is filled with an amazing assortment of distractions and interruptions. They never seem to go away, much less diminish.
In the early days of my career, I assured myself that once I became a big-name writer, I would be given space to write. Gradually it dawned on me that nothing and no one would ever cooperate with that dream. Or if such an understanding person came along, he or she should be considered a pearl above price.
Dorothy Sayers, who wrote the brilliant mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey between the world wars, created any female writer’s dreamboat in Lord Peter. When I read his declaration that nothing should interfere with his novelist wife’s work, I felt I had finally found the perfect man. (What a pity he’s only a character, and probably Sayers’s dream-guy, too.)
I wonder if Thoreau could have been as insightful a writer if he hadn’t known the solitude of his pond.
A writer friend of mine has started talking about regularly renting a remote cabin for a retreat.
And I feel that I must now fight off every kind of interruption and intrusion into my inner space, my mind, my imagination, my thoughts, my very being.
If I sit down at the computer, for example, and even allow myself to peek at my emails, it can take as long as 90 minutes to sort, delete, read, and answer my inbox. If I run simple errands to the bank and post office, half my day is shot, lost in traffic.
Although I’ve been on leave from teaching the last four months, I find myself wondering how on earth I ever found time to teach, much less write. Life is like a body of water: it rushes to fill a void.
Yet we writers need the void, as our bodies need oxygen to survive. We need the chance to fill the void, to fill the inner quietness, with our imagination and stories. We cannot create our best work while multi-tasking or kicking the distractions away.
We need a chance to draw our breath, to center ourselves, to be contemplative, to listen to our inner story sense.
I recently heard from a dear friend who has written successfully for many years. This person has been squeezed of late in the generational sandwich, taking care of an elderly parent, taking care of a young grandchild. There is next-to-no time to write. Life has overtaken the gift, and whether it’s temporary or permanent, a certain measure of joy has vanished from this person’s existence.
The British would say I’m “having a bit of a moan” today.
Yes, I’m moaning. I’ll howl to the moon if I must if it helps me keep going.
Despite everything, I continue to put paragraphs and scenes together. I’m halfway through a project, and by golly I intend to finish it and meet my deadline. The rest of the world can go hang. And if I suffer from sleep deprivation, and don’t get the dishes washed, and snap off heads from time to time, let’s just call it artistic temperament and leave it alone.
We die a little if we don’t write. And so we hang onto our stories in progress, even if the manuscript pages turn brittle from neglect, the spiders spin webs over our keyboard, and we write only in some tiny corner of our mind.
Nearly every day, when I’m in the midst of a book, I give thanks for the writing wisdom of Jack Bickham. He taught me that the only way to insure I actually wrote daily was to make out my to-do list for the next day and then invert it.
After many years, I still catch myself scribbling out the list exactly as I shouldn’t. Invariably somewhere near the bottom, after the reminder to buy bananas and spinach and run to the post office, will be the notation to “write next chapter.”
Why is the most important item at the bottom of the list? Am I saving it for last because it’s the most special? How many of us actually complete each daily to-do list? (I never get through all the tasks.)
Do I think I needn’t bother to mention writing on the list because of course I’m going to write? Why bother to include it with taking out the trash?
Such simple advice: invert your to-do list.
Do I follow it?
As the deadline looms larger on my horizon, yes. I must if I’m to reach it.
So at times, the emails pile up and the blog is skipped and I growl at people and I sacrifice weekend excursions to antiques stores. And for a while, I’m happily ensconced in the land of make-believe, running with my characters, seeing them fight and lose and fight and win.
Then I am happy. My pages are written, and I am content. I become a pleasant human again, and I don’t snap.
At least, until the following day when I will be interrupted … again.