What’s Stopping You?

August 21, 2018 § 32 Comments

Multi-tasking is the key

Yesterday I went viral on Twitter:

And aside from 17 replies of “But I’m 97,” a few scoldings on how I shouldn’t glorify Laura Ingalls Wilder, 12 “What if I’m just lazy,” and a couple of crabapples sniping about factual accuracy (yes, I should have said “novel” for Twain), the overall response was one of relief.

Thank you, I needed that.

There’s still hope.

I needed to hear that today.

A lot of people are worried they might be too old, or not published enough (the paradox of not publishing until you’re published), or that being a writer is somehow a special condition and only certain people are allowed to contract it.

It was fun to see so many retweets and likes, and I checked in periodically while putting together a PowerPoint for a workshop next weekend, “25 Hours in the Day: Planning and Living a Writing Life.” I made pretty slides about saying no to tasks that don’t help your writing, and how many “obligations” we take on aren’t really things we’re obliged to do, and apps and tools to manage our time. Then I edited two hours for a client, went to the library and printed some maps I needed for novel research, refilled a prescription long-distance and answered some email.

My day also included a panic attack, where I wept and vented on the phone to my best writing friend, because I’ve just finished a writing workshop and booked myself three days of personal writing time in the same location, and I’m spending that time working for other people.

Not writing my book.

I feel my age closing in, the sense that I’ve “wasted my life,” which is patently ridiculous given that 1) I’m only in my 40s; and 2) I’ve already done three successful careers which, surprise! gave me shit to write about.

But in a one-on-one consultation with my teacher last week, he looked at me very sternly and said “You need to stop editing and write your own book.” I repeated that to my husband, who said “That’s what I’ve been telling you for four years.”

I like editing. I like teaching and speaking and helping other people work for their dreams, and I don’t want to quit entirely. I like blogging for Brevity.

I don’t want to quit teaching circus entirely.

I don’t want to quit traveling.

And all these things help me write, yes, but they also take time from writing. They demand physical and mental energy. That’s what we forget when planning our writing lives: it’s not the obligations we chafe at that are hard to shuck off—It’s the stuff we love.

Many writers love being a good spouse. Parenting well. Looking after a family member who needs help. Those aren’t writing hours.

We enjoy living in a nice place and keeping it up. We like working to pay rent and food and the care of people who need us. We take pride in doing well at that work—some of us even adore the work itself. Those aren’t writing hours.

If I’m going to write, I have to make writing hours. A lot of them. I don’t have kids, but I like being a good wife. I like the self-respect that came from being self-supporting. Some of being a good writer is sacrificing some of those two things. I contribute to the house with money and work, but after twenty primary-breadwinning years, I’m not self-supporting any more. My best writing time is often away from my husband by thousands of miles. And it’s hard to say no to editing clients, because I’m arrogant enough to think I can help them best.

Small things help: I pop in my earbuds and put on the song that launches me into one book or another. I maximize my time by turning off wifi and my phone. I updated my website to say I’m not taking on new writers, because it’s easier to have potential clients say no to themselves before emailing me.

I’m privileged that these are options I have; your barriers may be different and much harder to surmount. But it’s easy to make time for writing by saying, “I’ll get the kids to do their own laundry and start doing groceries only once a week.” It’s much harder to look at things we love and value, and decide we might love writing more. Especially when we aren’t living on our writing money, the time we spend can feel like self-indulgence, like a frill.

But we’d tell our treasured friend, You deserve that time. We’d say, Modeling dedication and focus is also good parenting. We’d tell them their spouse should be supportive, and applaud the spouses who were.

Let’s tell it to ourselves, too. Let’s ask, What’s stopping me from writing? and be brave enough to let go.


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!

Schtick Lit: My Life as an Immersion Memoirist

October 26, 2011 § 5 Comments

A guest post from Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, author of  My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself:

When I put on a prairie dress and climbed into my car to retrace the pioneer journey of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I had no idea what I was doing, much less how I might write about the experience. As the book developed, people wanted a description of what I was writing in three words or less. My go-to label became “humorous narrative nonfiction.” Then I read Robin Hemley’s discussion of his book Do-Over! In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments and learned to call my book an “immersion memoir,” which he describes as when a writer “creates a kind of framework to actively engage in experience and memory.”

Nellie Bly could be considered the first writer who made situation manipulation famous when she faked her way into Bellevue’s mental ward. George Plimpton practiced with the Detroit Lions and sparred against Sugar Ray Leonard. In 1961, John Howard Griffen traveled the South in blackface and wrote Black Like Me. More recently, A.J. Jacobs has forged an entire career with books ranging from The Year of Living Biblically to My Life as an Experiment. (I’ve noticed “the year I _____” set-up is popular).

A less flattering name for immersion memoir is “Schtick Lit,” implying that the genre relies on gimmick to generate interest, and my initial conception of the Laura trip might have tipped over into this territory. My idea was to travel Borat style, (i.e., in character) pretending to be this kooky woman who really thought she was the reincarnation of Laura. By the first gas station stop, I knew this would never work. I didn’t have enough chutzpah to keep up the act. And why should I? Borat struck me as the worst sort of gimmickry, not to mention mean. Duping people for a cheap laugh struck me as against the spirit of the Little House books I loved.

As it turned out, wearing the dress for a twelve-day road trip was hard enough. On day one, when I zipped up the back and tied my bonnet strings, I learned my first lesson about how costume would change my experience—going out in public alone in prairie garb activated intense social anxiety. Discoveries unfolded from there. I encountered Amish women in prairie dresses and felt like an imposter. I stood on a prairie and learned that bonnets function like sunglasses—and blinders. Children ran towards me. Children ran away from me. Often, people pretended to flat-out ignore me.

At times I questioned (and still do) the “gimmick” of the dress (every time I zip up for a reading). But I know my interactions with people would have been different if I’d worn jeans and a t-shirt (and in the same way, the dress changes what happens at my readings).

So, how to escape the schtick when tackling your own immersion memoir? Hemley defends immersion by explaining that all memoirs and novels have a structure. Okay. Even so, in my case, the road trip provided structure. I didn’t have to wear a prairie dress. The key to me, then, is the sincerity of intention. I (stubbornly and perhaps naively) believe the reader can smell a phony. Bly really wanted to know what was going on in Bellevue. Plimpton loved and excelled at sports. I have had a genuine and lifelong obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder.

A few tips:

  • Be genuinely curious about your immersion and what it might yield.
  • Don’t pre-judge what might happen and take copious notes on what does happen.
  • Comedic potential doesn’t hurt but the piece can’t be slapstick.
  • The experience should have potential for a meaningful discovery.

I was going to write even more “shoulds,” such as “you can’t just go and stare at a fig tree,” but then there’s always the writer who could go and stare at a fig tree and write about it in a way that would transform all fig-tree staring to come. Ah, I miss you David Foster Wallace.

Kelly Kathleen Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, and at work on her PhD at Ohio University.

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