My Writing Life II

This past week, I read a blog post on Terri Windling’s blog: “Being Normal is Over-Rated.” In it, she quotes from the writer Dani Shapiro on the writing life:

“I need to live by certain rules in order to protect my writing life. When I was starting out, I didn’t understand this. A friend would call and ask me to lunch or, worse, breakfast, and I’d jump at the chance to get away from my desk for a couple of hours and join the world of real people eating real meals. I convinced myself that I had enough discipline to go out for a bit and then return to my desk, perhaps even invigorated and refreshed . . . and then, an hour or two later, I’d discover that my work day was over. . . .

“Our work requires us to adhere to certain rules — not because we’re rigid or self-absorbed as frustrated friends or family might secretly think — but because it’s the only way we can do it. If we are deep inside a story, we’re in another world — the world we’ve created — which, for the time being, is where we need to live if we are to make it real to ourselves and, ultimately, to others.

“I used to be angry with myself for my inability to live a normal life with normal rhythms and also be a writer. But I’ve come to believe that normal is over-rated — for artists, for everyone. When I was writing Devotion, all but the most essential tasks fell away. My hair got too long; I skipped my annual mammogram; the dogs’ nails went unclipped; the windows didn’t get cleaned; I lost touch with friends. But I took care of my family, and my book got written. That was all I could manage. . . .

Be a good steward to your gift. This is the first sentence on a list I keep tacked to the bulletin board in my study, an impeccable set of instructions left by the poet Jane Kenyon.

* Protect your time.
* Feed your inner life.
* Avoid too much noise.
* Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.
* Be by yourself as often as you can.
* Walk.
* Take the phone off the hook.
* Work regular hours.

” . . . Cultivate solitude in your writing space, your car, at the kitchen table when the house is empty. Get your blood moving, get your feet on the earth. Your mind is not floating in space but connected to a body. Kenyon wrote this before the lure of the Internet became like crack cocaine for most writers so I would add, ‘Disable the Internet.’ Find a rhythm. This is wisdom from a poet who died too young. I never knew her but she has helped me as much as anyone I have ever known.”

I love this, but rather in the way I love a story about a place I may never visit or experience for myself. It’s a vicarious pleasure, a dream of a writing life so very different from mine. I wish I could have that life, where you can stop doing everything else and just concentrate on your writing. That’s not my life at all . . .

So what is my writing life? First, let’s be realistic. The number of people who get do to nothing but write is small. The number of people who get to do that because they make enough money from writing is vanishingly small. When you see a writer who just writes, there are four possible scenarios: the writer has inherited family money (this is a lot more common than you would think or than I thought possible); the writer is being supported by a spouse (again, very common); the writer is making money from writing, but his or her primary income comes from freelance writing, usually nonfiction for corporations, writing the corporations will own; and the writer makes enough money by writing only what he or she actually wants to write. That last scenario is very, very rare, statistically. So what do most writers do? Well, they work.

Writers work at all sorts of different things. And there seem to be two broad ways of thinking about what writers should do. One is that writers should work at something they don’t have to think about too much, that really is a day job, so they can leave it behind at the end of the day and write. The other is that writers should find a job that fits with their writing, that informs their writing — like, teaching writing. What you choose depends on your personality, of course — and also on the choices you have. I chose the second path, teaching writing. It was a choice I could make partly because I had spent long years in graduate school doing a PhD, because nowadays it’s very hard to find a teaching position without an MFA or PhD after your name. But also, I’m no good at doing things that I’m not invested in. I knew that the “just a day job” track wouldn’t work for me. And honestly, many of the writers on that track would very much like to get off it. Those sorts of jobs are often very hard work, not much fun, and badly paid. They do it for the same reason most writers work: rent, food.

I’m very happy with the choices I made: the PhD was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I love teaching. I actually have two teaching jobs: one at Boston University, where I teach undergraduates, and one at the Stonecoast MFA program, where I teach graduate students. It’s hard, intense work, and it does involve the same parts of my brain that write, so after a full day of teaching, it can be hard to sit down and write fiction. But I would not give up either of them. Still, it does mean that my writing life looks very, very different from Shapiro’s. What does it look like? Well, every day is different, but there’s preparing to teach classes, teaching classes, holding office hours, commenting on papers. Dealing with all the administrative things involved in teaching, such as writing letters of recommendations. For my work with MFA students, there’s mentoring students on their creative writing, guiding the preparation of senior theses, preparing for the twice-yearly intensive residencies where we workshop student manuscripts. It’s certainly not a day job (or I would not have been up until 3 a.m. last night doing it). I love it, but when do I write? Well, the answer is, whenever I can.

I write late at night after all the other work is done. On the weekends, I spend time with my daughter, and then when she’s asleep, I write. During the summers, when I’m only teaching at one program, I have more time. That has only been true of the last two summers: before, I was finishing my PhD, and had no time to do anything but work on my dissertation. But the last two summers, I’ve traveled and done research for the novel I’m currently writing. I know, it sounds so fancy: going to London for research. And it was, but also, I don’t think I could have written this novel without it. I’m almost done with a second draft, and it’s taken so long in part because I had to learn how to write a novel, this novel. And in part because I had so many other things to do.

I’ve tried to arrange the other parts of my life to support my writing life. That is, I’ve tried to simplify all the parts of my life that aren’t working or writing. I live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, but I do try to live as inexpensively as I can. When I spend money, it’s on food or books. I don’t have a television. I don’t eat out, unless it’s with my daughter. I splurge on a museum membership, the occasional ballet or concert, fancy coffee. Face cream, flowers. When I travel, it’s to conferences or for research. (Anyway, to be honest, for me the perfect vacation would be going somewhere to do research or write. Because that’s what I find interesting.) It’s a lovely, intense life — I wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s, and I feel very lucky that I get to do what I do. But it can also be very tiring!

So, I’m going to give very different advice from Dani Shapiro. It won’t be applicable to every writer, but I think it will be applicable to a larger group. If you want to be a writer?

* Learn how to write whenever and wherever you can. Create a writing space for yourself. This is not an external space, but an internal space: where you can go in order to write, even if you’re in the middle of an airport. Breathe, go to your internal writing space, write.

* Work irregular hours: that is, if midnight to 2 a.m. is the time you have to write, write then. Try to get enough sleep. Try to eat enough food. Make sure your laundry is done. Accept that your life may be irregular. Accept that it may be irregular for a long time.

* Learn how to live a normal enough life that you can make money to pay rent and buy food. The normal enough life is the price of having a writing life. Writing is cheap, compared to being an opera singer. But you still need a roof over your head, a computer, paper and ink. Internet.

* Learn to live cheaply. If someday you make a great deal of money from your writing, you will have learned good spending habits: you can buy the cheapest castle in Scotland. Until then, learn how to shop at thrift stores, and tell yourself it’s more interesting, more charming, more chic to shop at thrift stores than in department stores. And it is, really.

* Forgive yourself for all the things you’re not going to do, for the email messages you’ll respond to weeks or months late, for the things people will ask you to write that you don’t have time for, the friends you can’t meet for coffee, not that particular week or month — for all the things that will be late (and they will be). Apologize and move on. You don’t have time for guilt.

* Keep writing. If you wait for the perfect conditions, they will never come. If you try to create the perfect conditions, you will probably fail. Learn to write under less than perfect conditions, under the most imperfect conditions. And keep writing.

Dora Writer

(This is the writer at her desk. Writing. Note: I’m calling this post “My Writing Life II” because the first blog post I wrote about my writing life, about three years ago, is here: My Writing Life. I wonder what my writing life will like like in three more years?)

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5 thoughts on “My Writing Life II

  1. Great advice. The mistake that I used to make was waiting for the perfect situation to write. I agree you have to make time to write when you can. I don’t mind my day job as an account executive but my writing comes first.

    The hardest part is dealing with distractions. Such as this wonderful blog.

  2. What a great post. I think you have enough wisdom for serious writers to put together for a book one day. When you have time.

    Being a weird kid I read all the lives of women artists and shuffled them together for how I wanted to live. Being a weird kid I didn’t expect to get married. That I did and had three children changed some of my plans, but it became part of my writing life. I learned my children were natural poets at an early age and they helped me with much wisdom.

    I did choose day jobs, or rather night jobs, and the longest and best one was working as a PBX phone worker in a fascinating hotel. Many of us were artists of some kind and we were helpful to each other. One of my best friends in PBX became a fine published novelist though she is in the same boat of not enough to live on it.

    There is an endless stream of stories and poems to write and the weird kid manages
    to end up in weird ways, in places I never suspected I would find.

  3. I am so glad the internet brought you into my daily circle of people who inspire. I am at this place right now, a place where I desperately NEED to hear advice like Kenyon’s AND like yours, a place where I can begin to carve out the kind of life I’M going to lead while I settle in to writing my first novel. I’ve spent a year and a half thinking about it every day, and this gives me solid guidelines on how to get that story out of my head and on to the screen in front of me. Thank you, truly.

  4. lovely post. Gives me reassurance that I am not insane to be a night owl.I love it and you have confirmed there is method in my madness. I thank you!

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