Writing While Secure
September 13, 2018 § 23 Comments
When I was a temp, I wrote between phone calls on stolen photocopy paper; when I worked in bars, I used cocktail napkins. On long drives from circus gig to circus gig, I’d brace a notebook against the steering wheel on long, straight stretches of Georgia or South Dakota, scribbling notes for stories, phrases I liked, books I’d write some day. I kept thinking, if only I had a patron to pay my rent. An office. Free time. Surely writing would be easier with time on my hands. Of course I’d do more than an hour a day squeezed between shows, glitter and rosin smudging the paper. Diving into creative headspace would be easier full time. But I guessed I’d keep cranking out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day until my fairy godmother appeared.
Now I have a big table in a sunny room, a freelance editing job with dwindling hours, and a husband who says, “Just write—you don’t even have to publish.” I have the free time and cash to go to writing workshops. I have a co-working space with lightning-fast wifi. I’m still excellent at filling my time. I answer email first thing in the morning, do clients’ pages before my own, make pretty PowerPoints for conferences and go speak at them.
On one hand, writing while physically and financially secure should be much easier. Not wondering where my next meal is coming from has given me time and space. But making writing my job-that-need-not-pay has also blunted some of the urgency. I don’t have to finish this essay now, it’s another fresh morning tomorrow. I don’t have to prove my talent or worth to all my co-workers, because I’m already surrounded with people who take writing seriously.
Back when I was a full-time performer, I told other entertainers all the time, “Quit your day job. You get better when you’re hungry.” In a field where every gig was a one-time booking and we often literally passed the hat after shows, making a full-time living depended on getting much better very quickly. If I wasn’t funny, I didn’t eat, so I got funny. Personal dignity became much less valuable when weighed against paying rent. Every comedian finds ways to abase themselves while still controlling the room, and dignity emerges out the other side brushing its sleeves. Dignity responds to, “Do you really make a living at this?” with “I’ve been a college professor, and this pays about the same, plus I don’t have to go to committee meetings.”
Not writing to eat slows me down, but I’m making better work—it’s more considered, careful, well-phrased. I don’t count on shock value. It’s no longer enough to write the story no-one else is brave enough to tell—it has to be told well. I take time over chapters I would have banged out ten years ago. In fact, it takes me just about ten years to write a book. Two years of generating material, two years of dicking around, four years of fallow time where the manuscript reproaches me from my desktop every time I open the laptop, and two years of getting down to business.
I hope it’s worth it. I hope the book I’m nearly done with will be better than if it took me two years or a year or nine months to write. But in the end, there’s no way to know.
At my desk, my husband picks up my fancy noise-canceling headphones, and says mock-derisively, “You don’t have a hardship in the world.” Then he shakes his head and says seriously, “Must make it hard to write.”
He’s right. He’s wrong.
I still crank out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day, and I do it in about an hour, squeezed in between editing and housework and social media. I can’t write more than a couple hours a day unless I’m in full-on retreat mode, sustainable only for a couple weeks in an isolated place where someone else is cooking meals. I watch TV, which was not a part of my life on the road, and my husband and I take turns pausing the show and predicting what’s going to happen next. Maybe it’s making me a better storyteller. Maybe it’s resting my brain. Maybe it’s wasting my time.
I’ll write when I’m hungry and I’ll write when I’m secure. More money and time doesn’t make me write (much) more, and I’m not going to feel guilty or sad about that. A book takes the time it takes, and that’s not anyone else’s timeline. Writing is what I do, and I do it at the speed I can.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
Reblogged this on The blog of Songa Achille.
Great article. Thanks
You had me laughing with “I’ve been a college professor, and this pays about the same, plus I don’t have to go to committee meetings.” But then again, the process is frightening, this writing process. Unlike the performance, the meal, the quilt (I am piecing just now) there is no clear completion. We live with it for such a long time (even if that time is only a pair of years) and there is no precise point where we can stand back and say with confidence: It is done. The work itself makes these demands upon us. It makes us doubt in return for only slivers of certainty. Those slivers, however, those instants when we feel with certainty, however rare, are slender payment for time and purpose. Your book is worth that.
That’s interesting that even though you have more time and money that you don’t end up writing much more than you used to without those resources. I feel like if I had more time and didn’t have to work that I would write more, but maybe it’s just wishful thinking lol.
Yeah! I thought I’d spend a lot more hours doing the creative part of writing, but now that I have more time, the administrative part of “being a published writer” has taken up a fair few of those hours.
Yeah I could see that. There is so much more to being a writer than just writing lol.
Wonderful insight and perspective. Thank you.
Your take is on point. Unless your mind is genius level (and I would not wish that on anyone), most creative work is preconscious anyway. The recording process is the same, only we allow ourselves to play this game with ourselves when we are ready.
I definitely feel that by the time I get to the page, a lot of what I need to say is stuff I’ve been turning over in my mind for a while.
So many excellent lines in this one Allison. Lots of luck with your book.
Pressure (whether self-induced or not) is a great motivator. Good aritlce.
I love this one. That’s all I can say. You said “rosin.”
If only there was writing rosin to stick us to the page!
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It is indeed very true. When you have all the luxuries in the world, you tend to work a little below your actual potential. As harsh as it sounds, it takes tough times to appreciate the small and beautiful things in life 🙂 And this certainly does not mean that you have to be struggling all your life, of course.
It just means that you should want it as much as you wanted it when you had nothing at all. A beautiful irony of life captured beautifully! Thank you for writing down thoughts which are otherwise so hard to define. Thank you 🙂
I really can appreciate this article. I have been writing the same book for twenty years! In between, I went back to school, got a useless A.A. degree, went through several mental meltdowns, and found I was meant to be a writer. But actually sitting in that chair everyday is brutal. My mind wanders and after an hour, I feel spent. Thanks for sharing your experience with those of us who are in the same battle each day.
This is spot on and infinitely encouraging. But “Two years of generating material, two years of dicking around, four years of fallow time where the manuscript reproaches me from my desktop every time I open the laptop, and two years of getting down to business” had me laughing out loud in appreciation and recognition of my own process.
I had a mentor (painting, not writing, but it applies) who told me, when I was complaining about not painting as much as I thought I should: “you’re still doing the work, even when you’re not working.” After a long dry spell, a friend came back to his work beyond where he’d left it.
A book (or painting, or whatever else) takes the time it takes. Thank you for the reminder.
Thank you for this. I am grateful to be returned both to the essay and your timely comment.
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