Reality Mom: When Not Writing is a Good Thing
I recently had dinner with three of my writer friends. We all advised one another on how to write and market our next book, but none of us were following our own advice. “It’s the second book curse,” I thought when I left the restaurant. “We’re screwed,” quickly followed.
A day or so later I shifted my perspective. Yes, none of us are as far along as we’d like (or thought we’d be, or our agent thought we’d be) on our second book, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still working. One of the friends is struggling with her memoir, but just published a collection of “sensual fantasy stories.” I completed a draft of my second memoir, but deemed it horrible nine months later and started over from scratch. The new version is painful to write, therefore very slow going. But in the meanwhile, I wrote a divorce guidebook and have a complete novel out for submission. The other friend has been asked to speak about her first book at conferences across the nation, has several essays completed, but has not started her second book. I questioned our various excuses, but later, reassured myself that everyone was still working and writing, we just weren’t writing the book everyone thought we should be working on.
And this is the beauty and the curse of writing. It has rhythms that we can’t control. When I learn to get out of the way, is when I realize I’m in flow again. Hence the memoir that is painful to write versus the divorce guidebook which flowed effortlessly and easily. I didn’t set out to write a divorce guidebook, in fact I have adamantly stated that I will never write an advice column nor an advice book. Now I do both. And I enjoy writing both, which is the goal right? Does it matter what I write? For me, the answer is no. As long as I’m writing, I am happy and fulfilled. When my books feel too tedious or onerous, I write an essay and submit it to a publication. I can write an essay in a day and gain a sense of completion that is rare when writing books (and being a mother). Submitting them gives me the high of anticipation for a few days, which feeds my inner excitement/anticipation junkie.
In my ten years of writing, I have only recently learned to accept and even appreciate the days that I don’t write. I used to dread these days and rolled my eyes at anyone who made excuses about why they weren’t writing. I caught myself starting to do so at the restaurant the other night when my writer friend said she was taking the summer off to be a mom, find her family a house to buy, and in general stabilize her life. Mid-eyeroll, I stopped and instead thought, that’s really wise of her. She has a nursing baby and preschooler. Her first book won a major literary award. She has accomplished plenty in the last couple of years and deserves a break.
Many times our writing does need us to take a break. Not only can our health be negatively affected if we are too driven, but so can our writing. In fiction, the characters need to separate themselves from us, their creator, and become themselves with their own agenda. When this happens, I know I am on a good roll. When I’m scripting them and controlling them too much, the writing is stilted and awkward.
With memoir, I call it the “and then” conundrum. When my writing reads like a story by a third grader, full of plot, no reflection, it’s time to take a break. The opposite also occurs, the journal conundrum, where you guessed it, it reads like my journal. I never reread my journals because they are even too boring and navel gazing for me. I would never want to subject the public to this torture. Therefore, I must take a break and wait until I have something relevant to say.
The key is to know when I’m procrastinating and when I’m letting my work percolate and germinate. When I’m obsessively checking my email or choosing to do laundry over writing, I know I’m procrastinating. Then it’s time to follow the basic rule of writing: apply butt to chair and write. And usually, once I do so, I’m glad I did and find the words flow out of me once again. If I don’t, and it’s too painful to write or what I’m writing is dreadful, I take a break and go for a walk. Walking and thinking about my writing is not procrastinating, it’s organizing and planning. Walking and stopping to talk to everyone I see and then finding myself at Scoops eating ice cream is procrastinating.
If I’m going to procrastinate, that’s all right, but I admit that’s what I’m doing and set a time limit. Today was the first warm day we’ve had in far too long, causing me to be very distracted and unmotivated. I just spent two hours sitting outside rather than on the computer. For the first hour, I felt guilty about my client’s work I wasn’t editing, the column I wasn’t writing, and the talk I wasn’t prepared to give on Thursday at the Ballard library. Eventually those thoughts turned away from guilt and towards planning, organizing and constructing all of this work in my head. I told myself I could have two hours outside and then I’d get back to work. Taking the break not only refreshed me, it reminded me to be grateful that I could do so. As a self-employed writer, I don’t have a steady pay check, paid medical benefits or a matching 401K, but I can sit in the sun when I want. It doesn’t necessarily pay the mortgage, but it is a benefit and I appreciate it. Lucky (or unlucky) for me, sunny days are a rarity around here so aren’t really a threat to my productivity.
Getting to know your writing rhythms will help you utilize your productive times to write and accept your musing time. It will also keep your breaks as breaks, and not let them turn into the dreaded writer’s block. And being honest with yourself will allow you to enjoy that catnap in the sun or cupcake and chat at Cupcake Royale rather than feeling guilty about the time you wasted. Even Stephen King takes breaks at times (not to mention, had a nasty drug addiction, so really we need to stop using him as a benchmark). Enjoy your walk and cupcake (but please, keep your addiction to sugar) and when you return from them, apply your butt to the chair and write.
Corbin Lewars is the author of Creating a Life: The memoir of a writer and mom in the making, which was nominated for the 2011 PNBA and Washington State book awards and is now available via ebook. Her essays have been featured in over twenty-five publications including Mothering and Hip Mama. She coaches other writers on-line, via the phone and in person in Ballard.