My Writing Time is Sacred, but Please Don’t Ask Me What I Did All Day

April 21, 2021 § 31 Comments

By Sally Schwartz

It’s easy to be a writer. All you have to do is tell people, “Hi. I’m a writer.”

Gosh. All this time I thought I wrote memoir, and then this nugget of fiction pops out of my fingertips.

The nonfiction version goes more like this: It’s not so easy to be a writer.

Already I need to make an edit. One thing about being a writer is crazy easy: dressing the part. Really, I can’t say enough about the wardrobe. Everyone is going around, giving credit to COVID-19, as if only a pandemic could inspire an appreciation for elastic. Meanwhile, every writer worth her weight in sweatpants can attest to the fact that we’ve understood the joys of pajamas-as-daywear long before the world went into lockdown.

Earning no steady income, and forgoing benefits might be seen by some as professional drawbacks. Those people, who clamor for the gentle buzz of security, are among the short-sighted masses. They are the ones impervious to the thrill of the imaginary world book tour we take in our heads. They forego the satisfaction of daydreaming about the accolades not yet written for the books we have yet to publish. They don’t pretend Oprah, or Reese, are bickering over who gets to choose our memoir for their book club.

It takes a lot of time — time I could be spending writing — thinking about how I would cast the Netflix adaptation of my story.

The secret to my writing career has been my commitment to maintaining a sacred writing practice. Morning is when the muse visits me. Morning is when I am fresh, and the blank page beckons more than taunts me. To write, really write, I discipline myself to say no to all things before noon.

Obviously, I will make the occasional exception. Yesterday, for instance, I had carpet installed from 8 until 2. In my defense, it was the only time they could come. Also, last week, when the disposal broke, the guy came first thing the next day. So those writing days were shot.

Sometimes I need an emergency hair appointment, and Isa, who works magic with cut and color, only works in the morning. So that’s a writing-day exception I have to make every 5 weeks or so, depending on how bad my roots look.  

A few other things have to be in place before I write in the morning. The bed needs to be made, the dishwasher needs to be emptied, the laundry needs to be running. Also, I tend to be more open to creativity if all the bills are paid and my desk is cleared. Emails count as mail, at least to me, so when I sit down, before I write, I get through those.

I do like a fresh pot of coffee. Does that even count as a pre-writing step? Probably not.

Oh. I also need complete silence. No TV. No lawnmower, no leaf blower, and definitely no garbage truck, beeping methodically as it wends its way, slowly, up the street. Tuesday is garbage day, so forget writing on Tuesdays.

As part of the commitment to my art, I ignore my phone between 7 AM – Noon. I’m writing, I’ve told my friends. Unavailable.

If they forget, however, and I happen to be stuck in my process, I will occasionally answer. I should also admit that every now and then, I check my texts and respond. Communication is part of being a writer.

Monday – Wednesday, I find doing the crossword can help get me into a creative flow. Thursday’s and Friday’s crosswords are too hard, so my rule is only allowing myself to do the puzzle no more than three days a week. My writing time is sacred, I remind myself.

I can’t say enough about having a daily word-count target. Let me repeat that. I can’t say enough about having a daily word-count target. As I glance at today’s total, I think it bears repeating: I cannot say enough enough enough about having a daily word target.

Being a writer, a writer who thinks big thoughts, and has the discipline to sit down and get the words onto the page, is hard.

That’s why I like to reward myself, after a solid fifteen minutes or so of writing, with a little stress-relief. Online shopping is, from my experience, a great form of stress relief. You don’t have to buy those shearling lined Birkenstocks, although they would be comfortable. Also, it doesn’t cost anything to look at cashmere sweaters. Most of the time, you can even order and return, free of charge, in case you just want to see how you look in a muted rose oversized boyfriend’s cardigan. While you’re blowing off steam, make sure to read the return policy written by someone else.

Remember: reading is part of a writer’s job!

By the time lunch rolls around, I’m always exhausted. It’s a lot of work, being a writer, and I haven’t even mentioned the energy it takes to envy, and curse, all the writer friends I know who are getting book deals. The toxic energy of jealousy takes so much out of me, it’s almost like working a double shift.  

Non-writers have no appreciation for what goes into the writing life.

That’s why when my fiancé and I sit down to dinner, I hate it when he asks, “So, tell me what you did all day.”

I’m a writer. I’m very busy.
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Sally Schwartz has worked for over nine years as a syndicated columnist for The Chicago Tribune, where, until recently, she published under the name Sally Schwartz Higginson. (Sally’s editorial note: Don’t ever change your name.) Sally has written a humorous memoir titled My Sister Betsy’s Guide to Life, and has an agent who believes she can sell it.

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. 

Avoidance and Writing: The Roberta Mickel Method

March 3, 2017 § 22 Comments

zz-040By Judith Sornberger

You would not believe how many things I’ve done today to avoid beginning this essay. (Except, if you’re a writer, you probably would.) I say writing means more to me than just about anything, but I would do almost anything some days to postpone putting pen to paper (including going shopping for a new, magic pen), especially when it comes to breaking the ice on a new writing project. This morning, for instance, I called a friend to commiserate on how little we’ve been writing. Then I scrubbed a pan that had soaked overnight in the sink, grocery shopped, stopped in at my local bookstore to check on a book I’d ordered (knowing full well it couldn’t have arrived yet) and, of course, had to browse. Then I went through my closet, wondering if it might be time to donate everything below size sixteen, my current size, which caused me to go for a power walk.

Usually, I procrastinate until the need to write becomes stronger than my fear and consequent resistance, which can take days or even weeks. But today I suddenly remembered the Roberta Mickel Method, named—by my sister and me—after our mother, its first practitioner.

Mom worked half-time as a bookkeeper, a job she loved. One reason she enjoyed it was that working outside the home two-and-a half days made the other two-and-a-half weekdays at home especially precious. Nevertheless, on those at-home days, there were plenty of at-home tasks she didn’t particularly enjoy. That was where her genius came in. After making her to-do list, she would choose the least appealing task, let’s say cleaning bathrooms, and tell herself she only had to work on it for half an hour. Then she could do whatever she pleased for half—or sometimes even a whole—hour. In summer that might mean sitting on the patio with a cigarette and a Diet Pepsi, tilting her head back so the sun bathed her face. In winter it might be tucking her feet beneath her as she read on her gold velvet couch.

Before retirement, I delighted in almost every aspect of college teaching—dreaming up exciting new courses, choosing textbooks, planning class sessions, and especially interacting with students in the classroom. But I constantly bemoaned my lack of writing time. And I hated grading papers, putting off starting to read a batch until the students began timidly asking when I might return them. I usually claimed to be reading them very closely, when the truth was that I hadn’t been able to bear removing them from my briefcase.

Wish I could say that I was writing instead of grading. But mostly I was puttering around the house, cruising Facebook, or deciding tonight was the perfect time to try that new and complicated recipe for paella, necessitating a two-hour round trip to a store that carried fresh mussels. At least I later wrote a poem about making that paella.

Then I would agonize on the phone to my sister who would remind me of the Roberta Mickel Method. By that time, I’d have collected so many papers that thirty minutes of grading wouldn’t have made a dent. So I’d set a timer for an hour, grade like a madwoman, and, when it buzzed, I’d go for a walk, read, or maybe even begin a poem. Since writing wasn’t my most loathsome chore, it rose to the category of reward.

Yet it feels wrong that I would use the same method to get going on a piece of writing that I’ve used for grading, especially since, once I get started, I love to write (some days more than others). Mom’s method provides a doorway into the place where writing can become absolute bliss. I tell myself all I have to do is buckle myself into my writing chair and work for half an hour, and, most days, I’m still spreading ink across the page an hour or two later. For to begin, whether you’re cleaning bathrooms or writing, is always the hardest part. As Goethe (second only to my mother in the wisdom department) famously wrote: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Take now, for instance. I began scribbling away on this essay at 1pm, telling myself I’d work for half an hour. Now it’s 2:30, and I’ve written, relatively painlessly, and somewhat joyously, an hour longer than planned. If Roberta Mickel were still alive, I think she might be cheering.

__

Judith Sornberger’s newest poetry book, Practicing the World without You is forthcoming from Cavan Kerry Press in 2018. She’s the author of one full-length poetry collection Open Heart (Calyx Books) and five chapbooks, most recently Wal-Mart Orchid, winner of the 2012 Helen Kay Chapbook Prize. Her memoir The Accidental Pilgrim: Finding God and His Mother in Tuscany was published by Shanti Arts Publications in 2015.

A Review of Joey Franklin’s My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married

December 22, 2015 § 3 Comments

By William Bradley,jf

As I type this review on the Sunday before Christmas, I realize it’s probably unlikely that it will be published on The Brevity Blog before Friday. That’s too bad—Joey Franklin’s My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married would make a perfect gift for just about any literate person on your Christmas list. In this collection of essays, Franklin comes across as an affable and reflective person, and I have a hard time imagining that there are people out there who might not like this book.

I have only myself to blame for this review being posted so late in the holiday season—Dinty W. Moore proposed that I write this review back in October, and the review copy arrived at my house in the first week of November. But there is always an excuse to not read, right? For me, it had to do with my job as a local government reporter for a small newspaper—we had the November election, and then election follow-up, and then year-end city council and county commissioner meetings where budgets were debated and established. If this paragraph bores you so far, just imagine how tedious it was to live it. I would frequently finish writing my articles at around 11 p.m., then crawl into bed, look at Franklin’s book on my nightstand, and think, “Tomorrow, Joey. I promise” before turning off the lamp.

But then a funny thing happened. I actually started reading the book. People often compliment good writing by saying “I couldn’t put it down.” That wasn’t my response to these essays. In fact, I frequently did put the book down in order to think about what I had just read. The best of these essays—and I think three or four of them are so excellent they’re all jockeying for “the best” designation—practically compel the reader to reflect on them.

I admit, I’m an easy mark for essays about marriage and love and stuff like that. Like Franklin, I write about my relationship with my wife quite a bit. But I don’t think the issue here is just “I could relate to this book,” as some of my former students might have said. In fact, I don’t relate to a great deal of this book. For example, Franklin writes of his first kiss with the woman who would become his wife: “Five months we’d been dating, and I hadn’t kissed her yet…” When I read that sentence, I thought, “Wow—I wasn’t sure Emily and I were even officially dating until we’d had sex at least a dozen times.”

But frankly, the phenomenon of “relating” to a work of art is grossly overrated—it suggests that the purpose of art is to reflect our own experiences and biases back at us rather than challenge us and expose us to new ways of thinking about and being in the world. So though I do not “relate” to all of Joey Franklin’s ideas and experiences, they resonate within me deeply, because he renders them with such eloquence and beauty. Seriously—I challenge any of you reading this to take in his essay “In Their Ears and On Their Tongues” and not find yourself moved by his reflections on culture, sharing faith, facing disappointment, but finding a type of strength in faith regardless. I suspect even Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens—both outspoken atheists—would read this essay and have to concede, “Yeah, that’s just astonishingly beautiful.”

So it’s 11:20 on Sunday morning right now. I’m going to email this review to Dinty and hope that it reaches you before you have finished your holiday shopping, as unlikely as that may be. But look, even if you wind up reading this on December 28th, you probably have someone you forgot to buy a gift for, right? Or maybe someone who surprised you with a gift, who you now feel like you are obligated to purchase something for, maybe with an awkward, apologetic lie like, “I ordered this weeks ago, but, you know, damn post office.” I propose that this book should be that gift. No doubt, Joey Franklin—man of faith, Boy Scout leader, devoted husband and father, and all around decent guy—wouldn’t tell such a lie himself (he takes a particularly strong stand about the importance of honesty in nonfiction writing in this collection’s title essay), but I won’t tell if you don’t.

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William Bradley procrastinates.

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