Time Out!

Once upon a time, I found writing as much a refuge as a joy. Whenever the world became too much for me, I dived into my story world where I — even if my characters weren’t — felt safe and isolated from whatever was raging around me.

Tonight, as I have finally clawed my way to the keyboard for a few stolen moments of expression, I can’t help but wonder when did it become so hard to preserve my writing time?

It’s always been a challenge. I learned it would be early in my writing career. I discovered that I had to protect my creative time zealously because no one else in the world had any interest in doing so.

Fair enough. We make time for the things we truly want to do.

Even so, writers have to struggle to buffer themselves from distractions, disasters, and dilemmas in order to create their best scenes, chapters, and stories. I have friends who warn their children not to burst into their writing office unless “someone is bleeding.” Some of my family members/friends absolutely refuse to be trained to leave me alone when I’m working. As a result, I either vanish completely or pitch wall-eyed fits of temper.

Again, that’s a normal part of the writing life.

What’s far from fair and normal is when a writer must exhaust herself just to hold the distractions at bay. There is a clamor and a buzz in our world that grows ever more strident. Thoreau’s pond can be found temporarily for a weekend in some lakeside cabin, but otherwise we are expected to be available to distractions and obligations 24/7.

I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of processing time. My writer’s senses are wide open to the world. I’m constantly observing, constantly noticing details, and constantly being intrigued by all sorts of tidbits of information. My reception scoop is large, and I hesitate to narrow it because I never know when I’m going to stumble across something marvelous that will spark an idea.

The downside of this is that I need a chance to sift and sort through what’s coming at me. Yet lately, that processing function never seems to happen. It’s overwhelmed, and I feel as though my writer’s circuits have been fried by the overload.

Do you?

Presently, thanks to eye surgery last week, I am spending time at home. I can’t drive, can’t read, and am able to work at the computer for limited bursts of time regulated by a kitchen timer. Writing with one eye shut is tiring.

Even relatively painless outpatient surgery is still an assault on one’s body, and recovery time is needed. Yet I was at work the next day, feeling feeble and exhausted yet soldiering on at the day job because things needed doing.

Was I crazy? Yes! I needed to take care of myself, and hang the rest. The fact that it took me so long to acknowledge this is indicative of how much momentum propels me from day to day.

However, thanks to the current situation, I catch glimpses of down time. As I sit, timing how long to wait between eye drops of mysterious stuff in small bottles bearing unpronounceable names, I have only my thoughts for company. And within these fifteen-minute spans, I remember what it was like when I did nothing but float inside my imagination.

It’s taken me almost ten days to slow down, but I’m starting to remember what my writing world once was. Back when I had time to write, to think, to imagine, to dream. When I wasn’t scrambling so hard among so many responsibilities and obligations. Am I whining? Yes, I think I am.

What’s to be done?

First of all, amputate tasks and to-do lists.

However, that’s easier said than done. I have another surgery next week. My plan was to clear the week so that I can truly rest. Yet already I’m scheduled for a marketing meeting via phone. There are backlist e-books to proofread and a mountain of tasks piling up as fast as dirty laundry. I was raised to finish what I start, to get my work DONE. I’m a completer, and it bugs me to have unfinished projects hanging over me.

(That quality is helpful to a novelist because it drives me to finish book manuscripts. Still … some things have to wait. And because the list never ends, stronger solutions have to be found.)

Second of all, create bubbles of calm.

As I push the clamor away a little just to recuperate, I’m taken back to another time and place, a time when I could lop off too many obligations quickly. Maybe I had fewer demands back then or maybe I was more ruthless in slicing off the encroaching tendrils of too much busyness.

At the moment, I want a broadsword, an ax, and a dagger to STAB botherations away. I want a giant in front of me, roaring for peace and quiet with such a terrifying voice that the whole crowd falls silent. I want to duck into Mr. Baggins’s hobbit hole and enjoy a cup of tea without feeling rushed or guilty.

I want to listen to my own thoughts, to see if I can recall the few frail, half-forgotten ideas that keep trying to break to the surface and sunshine yet are trampled too often by the rush, rush, rush of my world.

Is this you, as well?

Then all I can say is, hang on, my writing friends. Hang on and be fierce toward anything or anyone trying to trample you. Don’t sync your emails and don’t feel guilty when you turn off your smartphones for the evening or leave dishes piled in the sink or the checkbook unbalanced.

Think of a moment in your past when you were supremely content and blissfully happy. Close your eyes and conjure up where you were and what you were doing. Experience again that emotion of calm delight in yourself or your world. Bathe in the memory. Give yourself ten minutes to go back to that time and place.

If you can’t remember it or can’t find it, then try again. And again. Eventually it will come to you. It doesn’t have to be a profound experience or an insightful one. It doesn’t have to be fancy.

My memory of being completely happy, peaceful, and satisfied is a vivid one. I was perhaps eleven years old and spending the summer at my grandparents’ cattle ranch in New Mexico. My cousins and I liked to play in the sandy draw some distance behind the house, out in the pasture. The sand was coarse and gravely, but it still made a good site for digging and tunneling.

It was a summer morning. The sky was dark blue and cloudless, and the sun wasn’t yet hot. I was on my stomach, crawling beneath a barbed wire fence to reach the sand. Partway under, I stopped and rolled over on my back to stare at that intensely blue sky. I was barefooted and carefree. I was lying in dirt. I hadn’t a care in the world. No one wanted me to do anything. I could just … be.

It was perhaps my first true awareness of happiness. I don’t think I’ve ever felt it quite that intensely since despite a lifetime of other wonderful experiences.

Yet I still believe that I can find it again, even if I’m not eleven and without a single care. If nothing else, I have the memory. I just have to remember to push the world aside and go there. It’s a place to breathe.

And if I can breathe, then I can find the strength to fend off too many to-do lists so that writing — and dreaming — can enjoy the quiet space they deserve.

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