Let’s Get Messy: On Mixing Writing and Life

June 21, 2022 § 9 Comments

By Bethany Jarmul

I dreamed of a certain kind of life—of nature walks punctuated by the liquid notes of blue jays and the scurrying of squirrels, of a luxurious Beauty-and-the-Beast-style home library brimming with Shakespeare, Aristotle, Emily Dickinson, of quills and inkwells, of typewriters, notebooks, journals, pens, and smeared ink. I desired the life of Thoreau near Walden Pond or Annie Dillard at Tinker Creek.

I bought into the idea that the best writing is done when sequestered from regular life. I envied those who participated in writing residencies or went on retreats. Again and again, I heard the advice to shut out distractions, to close the doors, to write at the same time every day, to protect the time and space in which I write, especially from the people that I love.

But keeping my writing and life separate is not practical for me. I’m a work-from-home mom with a toddler and an infant. I write in a loud, toy-filled living room—often while breastfeeding, while doling out graham crackers. I don’t have an office or even a writing desk. I have a crumb-filled couch and a laptop that’s missing the question-mark key (due to my curious toddler). I write for twenty minutes when both kids are napping, then for an hour more after they’re in bed. I write while my toddler watches the Cars Movie for the 137th time and my baby jingles the toys on her playmat.

While I see the value in setting aside a time and place in which to write, the idea of separating the writing life from real life can be a hindrance for those of us who are primary caregivers or simply live busy, messy lives. Having time periods and spaces that are not occupied by earning a living or caregiving is a luxury. One that many of us do not have. Let’s not let that keep us from writing.

I’ve given up my idea of the ideal writing life and embraced the life that I have. I’m done wishing for my writing and my life to be any other way. I truly believe that living while writing and writing while living enhances both my life and my work. I’m a nonfiction writer, after all.

I hope more writers embrace the messiness of writing in stolen moments and unusual places. I want to read the poem written on the back of a napkin by a cocktail waitress, the taxi driver’s late-night musings, the single-mother’s coffee-stained creations. I want to read the writing of the widest range of humanity.

Even if you don’t have a dedicated writing space, even if your life is too busy, even if you’re constantly surrounded by loud family members, even if you write to the soundtrack of motherhood—“Snack? Snack! Snack, please, Mommy!”—write anyway. Write in whatever environment you have. Write surrounded by the people that you love. Write in any way and anywhere you can.

Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Citron Review, Literary Mama, Sky Island Journal, and Rougarou Journal among others. She earned first place in Women On Writing‘s Q2 2022 essay contest. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two kids. She loves drinking chai lattes, reading memoirs, and taking nature walks. Connect with her at bethanyjarmul.com or on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.

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§ 9 Responses to Let’s Get Messy: On Mixing Writing and Life

  • Morgan Baker says:

    I love this. Gives us all permission to write when and where we can. Also congratulations on the Wow essay! And one more – love Pittsburgh.

  • Elaine says:

    I enjoyed this. You’re so right. Life is full of moments of serendipity and, therefore, it’s a good to get into the habit of writing when and where you can. Mayhem can trigger an idea or present us with a feeling, an experience, or a scene that could well lead us to a great opening paragraph, an exciting plot or indeed a cliffhanger ending! And it might just plant a seed for a sequel…who knows! Bravo on receiving first place in Women On Writing‘s essay competition. Keep writing….

  • Your essay made me smile. I don’t have a toddler or infant. I’m not a primary caregiver of anyone but myself. I have three cats, but also a husband who shares responsibilities for them. I have quiet. I have a place to write. And yet … I wrote more when I was working full-time, when I had a lot less free time than I do now. Maybe some writers thrive when they can only write while their kids nap. It appears that you do (and congrats on placing first with WOW), so I’m glad to read that you’re embracing the life you have. And I appreciate having permission to rethink my “ideal” writing environment. Maybe I need to make my life a little messier 😉

    • Marie, thanks for your comments! I think sometimes knowing you only have a short amount of time to write can really light the fire under me to get something on the page. I wonder if setting a timer would simulate that urgency to help you write more? Maybe worth trying.

  • Sometimes, we can’t reserve several quiet hours and a tranquil place to write. We have to do it in snatches, alongside a chaotic life. That still works! The writing carries on anyway between sessions at the keyboard, in our minds. Shared on Twitter.

  • […] As a mom to two young kids, I decided to write in whatever small pockets of time I have, and to write in messy, loud spaces (because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t write at all). No more excuses about not having the time or the space. Having limited time became motivation to get words down. (I wrote another Brevity Blog post about how I do this here.)  […]

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