The Story Doesn’t Care

August 10, 2020 § 19 Comments

JulieBy Julie D. Lillis

Bed made and dishes washed, I stare at an unblinking white screen. I frittered away the morning, answering emails and writing far-away friends. I needed to do that, I told myself, just like I needed to bake the apple pie that now simmers in the oven. Sometimes I think I am a genius at procrastination. But, eventually, I am left with nothing to do but write.

My dad spent nearly 50 years as a journalist. His longtime editor at The Christian Science Monitor used to say, “The story doesn’t care.” As in, the story doesn’t care that you have writer’s block or are famished, that your sources haven’t called you back. The story just wants to be told.

I used to think that a real writer needed her own room to write in, that without a dedicated space, a writer could not write. I made my share of pilgrimages to the homes of writers just to see these rooms. Standing in O. Henry’s little house in Austin, I closed my eyes and imagined him easily churning out “The Gift of the Magi.” I felt the same sense of inspiration at Emily Dickinson’s, Louisa May Alcott’s, and Lincoln Barnett’s.

In Tarrytown, New York, in the house I lived in for nearly 20 years, I emulated these writers by turning a tiny bedroom into my writing room. I paired an old maple desk a friend’s soon-to-be-ex gave me with a black swivel chair from Staples and plopped a desktop computer front and center. I painted the room “Linen White,” festooned the two windows with cream-colored curtains, and hung up my favorite art and talismans.

All writers have those. A pastel drawing of the woods by my daughter, a portrait of my husband at a squirmy age four, a photo of his mother on her wedding day, and one of my grandfather beaming at my cousin’s wedding. A hand-carved, African sculpture my student Edwin and his dying mother gave me, on on his graduation day, with a touching note from them on the back. A little painting of Jesus that my husband bought me in Greece. Everything was carefully curated, visually interesting, and all mine.

No sooner had I decorated my lair than my family wanted in. Soon I discovered the evidence: my messy husband’s Latin books strewn across my neat desk, a laptop of teenage origin, dirty espresso cups nestled atop my journals. I did not like these incursions one bit. I tolerated this briefly, then rechristened my office “The Only Child Room,” announcing to my family that “Only ‘only children’ may use it.” In other words, me.

Surprisingly, this strategy worked. My family stayed out, and my writing life returned to a peaceful new normal. I resumed my morning routine, waking before the birds and retreating behind closed doors to think and write.

This was not an easy task, as Mother Nature continually beckoned to me.  Looking out the window by my left shoulder, I could smell the woods that crept silently to the back of the house. I could see the oblong patch of brambles and wild raspberries that I tried to keep weed-free. Raising the window slightly, I could hear the crunch of deer hooves on dead leaves, and the agitated chirping of blue jays whenever my cat Rocky lurked nearby.

I could look out this window forever, but the story didn’t care about the performance art living in my woods, about the raccoons and possums and deer who called it home. It didn’t care about the raspberry patch or the sun filtering through leaves in the summer or the birds’ nests above my sight line.

To my right, another window of magnificent procrastination. Two towering Douglas firs, their boughs waving like choir robes in the breeze, and under them, a splintery deck for lounging. I longed to be out there, sitting in desultory silence while the sun filtered through the pine needles, inhaling the gentle scent of lilacs that surrounded the deck like a stole.

But the story didn’t care that the sun beckoned like a Siren song, that Rocky lay waiting by my favorite deck chair, that my garden called out to be weeded in the morning.

Sometimes I long for that little room. I moved away three years ago, into my parents’ house in Maryland. There’s no space for an Only Child Room here, no room to decorate with talismans, no room to be only a writer. My old house is no more, too, razed to the ground one summer to make way for an apartment building.

So each morning, I sit on a Victorian loveseat in my new bedroom, laptop perched on my lap, notes and drafts strewn to my left. I answer email, text my kids, and wait for the washer to finish its cycle. I may not have the woods calling to me, but I still have my chores, and the house is never cleaner than when I want to write.

But the story doesn’t care. It doesn’t care that I miss my writing room, my house, Tarrytown. The story calls to me, but it is not patient and will leave angrily if I don’t obey. So I’ve learned to listen, to dash to the computer when the muse overtakes me. And I’ve learned that a writing room does not make a writer write.  A writer can write anywhere, on anything.  I’ve written poetry on planes, scribbled essay ideas on cocktail napkins, jotted down notes on cash receipts. I can even write in my little bedroom, snuggled between dirty laundry and a flat-screen TV. And the story doesn’t care.

Julie D. Lillis is a writer in the D.C. area.  Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Grown & Flown, and Months to Years. 

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§ 19 Responses to The Story Doesn’t Care

  • leighgbanks1 says:

    Nice piece … if i get writer’s block – which is bad as like tour dad i’m a journalist – i just write anyway, no matter how painful it is. Some days i have written three words but at least i have written something … and sometimes they are a brilliant three words!

    • leighgbanks1 says:

      Oops! Sorry about the errors in the above comment … that’ll teach me to try and type in the back of a taxi!

  • oruamenhenry says:

    That sound great!!!!

  • Tom Stewart says:

    I enjoyed this piece and the wisdom it contains. You are a writer.

  • Sharon Silver says:

    This made me smile. Thank you. Here I am, reading about procrastination as I avoid getting out of bed—lying on my back and holding the phone straight up at arms’ length to read because I’m just too damn lazy to get up, make myself that first coffee, and get moving. We all long for a place to work until we finally make one. We long to master procrastination until we finally do it. Reading about these things written in a way we haven’t read before is a treat. Thanks again.

  • The Christian Science Monitor has amazing stories. I’m not sure that I’m too lazy to get up, I just know once I do I’m immersed in my reading and writing forever and I think it will just take a little bit of time. Loved this… “I’ve learned to listen, to dash to the computer when the muse overtakes me”.

  • Marilyn Kriete says:

    Lovely! So many lovely images and metaphors.

  • “ ‘The story doesn’t care.’ As in, the story doesn’t care that you have writer’s block or are famished, that your sources haven’t called you back. The story just wants to be told.” Thank you for this.

  • Margaret says:

    What a beautiful series of images, hard truths, and insights – all pulling us to recognize that “the story doesn’t care” and just wants to be told. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • mjhowes says:

    Valuable perspective, delivered in a lovely story. Thank you.

  • dkzody says:

    >>A writer can write anywhere, on anything. << Yes!

  • “The story just wants to be told.” I love that! Thanks for the reminder.

  • Joanne says:

    I love this! Thank you. I have a new mantra now: “The story doesn’t care…it just wants to be told.”

  • What an inspiring story line

  • Wise words. I’m going to try to remember your mantra. Hope you keep listening to the stories in your head.

  • A very enjoyable read. I have struggled with procrastination all my life.

  • lisakunk says:

    My home office which is my domain is filled with shelf and shelf of baby books, labeled boxes of pictures, photo albums, family history and ancestry research files and notebooks. Too much to list and often too much to relax and write. Therefore as you said, my writing happens all over the place. Inside and out. Here and there. When my four kids were small it happened as I waited for them to be picked up from their zillions of activities. In coffee shops or in the car. It’s all good. We just know that a writer has to write. That’s it. Wherever.

  • aqilaqamar says:

    This was an amazing piece

  • aqilaqamar says:

    Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    What I enjoyed about this piece is the reality we don’t live in ideal and perfect circumstances but fortunately neither does our writing have to as well. Thank you for this piece ❤

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