Writer’s Log, June 20th: Why You Don’t Have Time to Write

When I first expressed an interest in writing, lots of people gave me what I thought was great advice. Develop a regular practice, they said. Try to write at the same time every day. Don’t leave your chair until you have 1,000 words on the page. Tell your loved ones your writing time is sacrosanct, and close the door behind you.

With all due respect, I do not think these people live in the same world I live in. I’m convinced, for instance, that they did not have children, or maybe had slaves. When my kids were little and I closed the door behind me, they slipped notes under the door: “Are you done writing? Circle yes or no.” Or stage whispered in the hallway: “DON’T BOTHER MOM! SHE’S TRYING TO WRITE!!” Now that they’re older, it’s not much better. My fourteen-year-old seems to be entertained by nothing more than insisting that he can’t be entertained. My preteen has MANY questions about how her body is developing, and is excited, haunted, and dubious about the answers. My nine-year-old loves to read, but he also loves to give blow-by-blow descriptions of what’s going on in his books – both during and after he’s reading them. And we have a kitty now, who either has pancreatitis or bulimia.

But even if one doesn’t have children, we tend to carry around enormous mental loads these days. Most human beings on this planet cannot make money writing, which means they have to spend most of their time devoted to making a living or managing the thousands of balls the 21st century insists we must keep in the air. Have you exercised? How’s that Paleo, gluten-free, sustainable meal plan coming along? Have you paid the utility/phone/doctor bills?  And then a phone call comes to tell you your eighty-one-year-old dad, who lives 3,000 miles away, just broke his patella because he decided to do his own grocery shopping after getting his eyes dilated.

Yet most people who get within spitting distance of a writing class still tend to get this kind of advice. It’s great advice, if you can make it work. But I’m really not sure I know anyone who does. So, yes, if you think having a regular writing practice must mean finding a consistent window in your schedule during which you are able to sit down, undisturbed, and have enough time to punch out 1,000 words, you don’t have enough time to write.

But if you’re willing to let go of some of those prevailing beliefs about what it takes to be a writer, you might be able to give yourself the space to be a writer.

Giving yourself the space to be a writer means letting go of that mental load a bit. It might mean that you forget to pay the gardener for three months, or that your kid’s Purim costume is obviously phoned in (which is agonizing to ride out in a school full of Jewish mothers), but mostly, you’ll find you can release a lot more than you realize. It also means recognizing that there will be some weeks when you cannot find the space or mental health to write, and that does not mean that when you return to writing, you have permission to bring one of those medieval self-flagellation devices along with you. It means that you realize that some novels get written five minutes at a time. It means that you will get interrupted sometimes, and will sometimes feel that terrible feeling in your gut that comes when you’ve lost a precious train of thought, but it also means that your writing will be so much richer because you’re devoting your life to children/parents/earning a living, getting through the world by being in the world. It means that if it’s been eons since you’ve had time to write and you find yourself with a few days, your brain might short circuit at first, and that you’ll get much less done than you wanted, but you’ll get something done anyway.

I could obviously go on, but overall, I think giving yourself the space to write means being willing to believe that a healthy writing practice does not need to follow a proscribed or prescribed way, that sometimes the most beautiful things that happen do so without paying much attention to the linear constraints of time or the safety net of unwavering mental health. Sometimes even the most helpful advice constrains more than it liberates.

So please, don’t give up if you don’t have time to write. I don’t have time to write. I am a devoted mom, and a totally overtaxed one, and my life brings me great joy and some anguish, and I’ve written five books, three of which have been published, and my writing practice looks nothing like it was supposed to. What’s more, the only thing exceptional about me is my refusal to give up, which is something we all have inside us, only waiting to be stoked to release its fire.

 

Writer’s Log, June 13th: Diving In

The summer I turned twelve, my parents enrolled me in an early morning swim class. Like the simple creature that I am, my eyes typically shoot open when the sun rises and droop when it sets, so I didn’t mind the early hour so much. The problem was, the swim class was on the north shore of Massachusetts, and the pool was supplied by oceanwater. So to say there was some hesitation in our group when we stood at 8 o’clock in the morning in the gloom of a New England summer morning in our thin eighties bathing suits and thinner rubber swim caps, shivering as the ocean wind whipped through our prepubescent bodies, looking into pool water that was the very color of our iciest nightmares, is sort of like saying feral cats prefer not to be bathed.

Here’s a dirty little secret from the writer’s world: no matter how long you’ve been a writer, you will almost always feel this way when you sit down to write. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Pulitzer Prize winner and/or been sitting down to write every day for the last several decades; in fact, feeling like an “expert” can sometimes make the trepidation about diving in even worse. I, for instance, after several years of a regular writing practice, found those days when I walked in all bright-eyed and bushy tailed and full of myself sometimes translated into the worst writing days of all. (As I’ve said before, there are few things more effective than high expectations at obliterating an otherwise great opportunity to get a little writing done.)

I know this might not make much sense. In most normal human endeavors, the more time we spend doing something, the easier it usually is to do it. But the more time I put in as a writer, the more likely I am to be hard on myself when I can’t dive in right away. I should know better by now, right? Have all the other gazillion times I’ve sat in front of a keyboard meant nothing? The trouble is, this punishing pressure only infests my icy waters with man-eating sharks.

After over a decade of this push-and-pull kind of exchange between my perceptions of what writing should look like and what it actually looks like, I began to realize that diving in doesn’t care how much skill or talent or experience you have to offer. In fact, those things can make diving in that much harder, simply because you expect to start swimming the moment you hit that water. But the more you care about what you’re writing and how well you’ll rise to the challenge it presents, the more likely you’ll be to fear looking at what you wrote the day before, or what you didn’t write the day before, or launching into that new chapter you lay awake all last night imagining into excellence, only to wake in the cruel light of the morning to realize the pesky thing still needs to be actually written.

Fortunately, I have three surprisingly simple tricks for getting over my fear of diving.

One, I expect the fear; welcome it, even, as a sign that I’m not phoning it in. That somersault in my gut is actually a good sign that I haven’t gone soft or failed to challenge myself or, worse yet, stopped caring enough to risk putting the best I have to offer down on paper.

Two, I literally trick myself. I tell myself that instead of writing this morning, I’m just going to read. I have a stock of books I’ve identified as triggers; works that I never tire of reading, and which never fail to inspire me. I pick one of those up, and sit down guilelessly in the nearest reading chair. Fortunately, I’m really an extraordinarily simple creature, and this trick works almost every time. The releasing of myself into a land of beloved words almost always winds up with me typing busily away within an hour or so. Or I set a timer. I tell myself I only need to look at my novel for five minutes, and I promise myself I can watch ten minutes of Long Island Medium afterward. Sometimes, this results in five episodes of LIM watched for every 1,000 words produced, but I’m happy with that ratio, as I am with any ratio that involves putting any number of words down on paper. Novels are composed of words, after all, so even one more is a step in the right direction.

Three, I remind myself that diving in is always the worst part. Once you’re in and used to the initial shock of cold – aka rereading that paragraph of purple prose you wrote yesterday, or that wooden dialogue you still have yet to turn into a Real Boy – you start swimming. You find some other colors in the purple, and you gently coax them into the light. You see how that dialogue has a line in it that rings true, and you see if you can match it with another.

You will almost certainly find your own tricks and techniques, but the idea is to put simple, kind, and extremely workable solutions in the path of your regularly bad habits and attitudes. You can try to eradicate those bad habits and attitudes, but I find that kind of demanding perfectionism around your own character a real buzz kill, creatively speaking. Instead, it helps to realize that you can work really well with your imperfect self, especially if you stop worrying over where you think you should be and remember that where you actually are – even if it’s standing resentfully over an ocean of risk and possibility — is the only place where the work you most want to do can actually get done.

Writer’s Log, June 6th: Reading Tribes

When I first started out as a writer, I attended a few writing workshops. They were pretty typical: we were assigned readings, discussed them in class, and each week one of us would present our work for the others to “workshop.” Sometimes, this worked out rather well. There were almost always some good readers in the class. But there were also always people in the class who did more harm than good. There was the workshop leader whose love for Hemingway and the sailor in our class brought out just the teeniest tiniest misogynistic tendencies; there was the student who had to mention, every class, that an editor at Random House had shown interest in her work; there were the sullen young men in black just waiting for everyone to read what they wrote; there was the mansplaining. Most of the time, these people did not intend to shoot their fellow writers in the kneecaps, figuratively speaking, but so few of us – present company included — were aware of what we needed from readers that we frequently wound up worse off than when we started.

Thankfully, after many, many years of trial and error, I’ve realized a) how important willing and capable readers truly are to a writer’s success; and b) there’s no such thing as an ideal reader. You might be different. You might know a brilliant, selfless, insightful, Perfect 10 reader who is available at all times to give you exactly the kind of feedback you need. Good luck finding a battery pack to charge that one. But for the rest of us, it’s much more realistic to cultivate what I like to think of us a tribe of readers. This tribe will look slightly different for each writer, but for the sake of illustration, here are a few examples of who’s in mine:

The First Stringers. These are the people in my life who are contractually obligated to love everything I do. They are the people on whom I foist the first drafts of my novels, the ones I come to when I’m exhausted and am sure that I can never write again because I’m caught up in the whole drama and self-pitying fatigue of shaping something that only vaguely represents a completed book. They are also, incidentally, some of the people who love me best. They include my best friend of twenty years and my two sisters. Each one of them is also a sharp and brilliant reader, but they love me more than my writing. They make nice noises and tell me how great I am and wipe my nose and talk me off the ledge. They insist it’s shaping up to be the best thing I’ve ever written. And because that’s also a way they tell me that they love me unconditionally, I drink in their love and keep going.

The Conceptualists. These are the people who are most capable of rescuing you from the terrible myopia you will get once you’ve read a draft way too many times. They are smart readers who do not see it as an unkindness to point out areas where they got confused, to ask you why you’ve made certain choices, who want, most of all, to make sense of the book. They respect you, but they are more interested in reading great books than they are in whether or not you’ve produced great writing. I actually don’t have any conceptualists in my tribe right now, as they tend to be more nomadic – passing in and out of my life depending on where they are in theirs. Still, this is part of their beauty and value; they prioritize the read over the writer.

The Bolsterers. Similar to first stringers, these are the people who can bear to read your work a trillion times and still give you thoughtful feedback. They lead with kindness and compassion, but don’t want you to see you go out in the world with spinach between your teeth, as it were. They will always encourage you, but they won’t pretend something’s working for them if it’s not. These are good people to have as members of a regular writing group. They know what it is to hunger for the best possible writing you can produce, and also know the realities of how tough it can be to do just that.

The Critics. These are some of the toughest readers to find: truly critical folks who are still more interested in helping you than they are in tearing you down. Unfortunately, bullies and egomaniacs tend to masquerade as critics, sometimes without even realizing they’re doing so. Fortunately, bullies and egomaniacs throw plenty of red flags up in your path. They tend to be hyper-focused on a particular type of writing or writer, and regularly mock those who don’t fit into that mold. They tend to have written very little themselves, though they might speak of dusty, grandiose aspirations. They might claim to be dispensing tough love, and might have a few insightful things to say, but overall you do not walk away with the sense that they respect your aesthetic and vision and have read your work with an eye toward enhancing your particular voice. True critics, on the other hand, see what the work wants to be and also where it’s faltering; they point out the rough spots, and they believe in the writer who’s created them. I have one true critic in my life, and her read is the one I reserve for that moment when I suspect the book is truly done, but remember that a book is never done until it has a great reader.

Family Members Who Are Too Close. These are the reads we must survive. Take my parents, for instance. They adore everything I do because I’m theirs, but by the same token, they see my position as a published writer as one of excruciating vulnerability. They are the people who oohed and ahhed over my painted rock phase (age 4 to about age 11; I kid you not), but who also worry more than anyone about what The New York Times might say. My husband also fits into this category, for very different reasons. He adores me no matter what I do, but does not adore literature. He’s an engineer by training, a patent attorney by profession, and while he’s a voracious reader, he prefers science fiction that he can get through by simply reading the first and last sentence of every paragraph. We both just about die when he has to read my books, which is usually right when they’ve been published and neither one of us can put it off any longer. He usually says things like, “Wow! That was REALLY well written!” Still, it’s hard. And in all three cases – my mom, my dad, and my husband — I cannot really listen to their feedback. But I do, anyway; accept that it will affect me far more than it should, for better or worse; and move on.

So there you have it. If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you probably already have a tribe in the making. But do take care to select members of your reading tribe with the greatest of care, and have the courage to revisit their roles if necessary. You must also give your readers as much as you take; love them back just as unequivocally; ply them with books you know they’ll love; give them nice pens; recognize that just as you are a writer with strengths and weaknesses, so, too, is every reader; and never fail to thank them, profusely, for being vital members of a community your writing cannot survive without.

Writer’s Log, May 30th: The Art of the Jump Start

As far as I can tell, the only thing harder than starting a new piece of writing is trying to restart a piece of writing. In fact, I’m starting to believe there’s a “novel in the drawer” epidemic overtaking our country. I can’t seem to get through a class or a conference or the supermarket without tripping over someone who’s given up on their writing because their novel didn’t turn out so well or they never got that one short story published or they gave up on poetry because of sonnets.

In my mind, this is the equivalent of giving up on your health goals because you accidentally ate a package or two of double-stuffed Oreos that one time. And I can certainly appreciate the impulse, because I gave in to it myself for so many years. There’s a little bit of a delicious, self-martyring element to it, too, isn’t there? It’s so much more romantic and wistful and self-sabotaging to talk about the creative work that got away, the one that got so close to being everything you dreamed it could be but which died a tuberculin death in a dust-filled drawer, than it is to, say, groan and pull that novel out.

But here’s what’s extraordinary. The more you pull that novel – or short story, or poem, or dissertation – out, the better it gets. I know this sounds obvious, but understanding this conceptually is much different than embracing it in reality. For one thing, this is no simple cause-and-effect relationship. The work gets better, but rarely in a convenient, consistent fashion. In fact, as far as I can tell there’s a weird plateau in the writer’s learning curve that occurs right around the time a piece of writing starts to shape up into something decent. One might get a decent piece of writing out of ten drafts, or five, or even just a few. But to take a decent piece of writing into the realm of a great, or even excellent piece of writing, you might be looking at ten times as many drafts. I imagine this is a bit how sculptors work. Initially, they might carve the general shape of a work out after just a few passes, but getting that stone from, say, the general idea of a horse into something that looks like it’s about to start galloping away is going to take a world of polishing.

As I write this, I can picture all of you secretly patting yourselves on the back for having the wisdom to step away from this when you did. After all, who wants to be endlessly chipping away at something when you can have a beer in one hand, a slice of pizza in the other, and Netflix on an infinite loop within a matter of minutes? No one, that’s who. At least initially. But what few people realize when staring down the barrel of endless chipping is that, over time, the chipping itself develops its own intrinsic rewards.

It’s not just about getting your work to a better place. In fact, the more you write, the more likely you are to encounter those days when your work looks worse than it did when you started. It’s more about the benefits of going deep and long into something you care about. We’ve grown used to expecting so much so quickly, from ourselves as much as our world. But sometimes I wonder if that’s why lasting work is less likely to get created these days, why we’re less dissatisfied overall, constantly looking over each other’s shoulder like a bunch of manic squirrels convinced the world cannot possibly contain enough nuts to satisfy us.

The art of the jump start, on the other hand, is subtle. It’s the quiet weathering of your foibles and imperfections, a quiet devotion to meaning that’s seeded incrementally and over time. It’s forgiving yourself for having kept that novel in the drawer for five years or five decades and starting over anyway, even if that means an obnoxious amount of moaning and groaning, even if that means on the first day you have to go lie down because it’s even worse than you thought. It’s about knowing that this won’t be the last time you’re discouraged, and that you can persist anyway. It’s giving yourself the permission to restart without judgement, the audacity to release the story you’ve been carrying around about why you gave up in the first place and dive into the far more interesting work of creating a new story. It’s seeing the trees instead of the forest; an investment in what you can do here and now instead of a judgment about the past or an expectation about the future. And ironically, when you do learn to appreciate your trees, when you figure out how to care for even the stumpy and flowerless ones, your forest will be that much more likely to flourish.

Writer’s Log, May 23: Fun Shaming

Every now and then, I’ll meet someone who comes to a full stop when I tell them I’m a novelist. “What?” they’ll say. “A novelist,” I’ll say, and then, because I’m super helpful I add, “I write fiction.” “Wow,” they’ll say, “Really?” “Really,” I say, trying to will the tics from kicking in.  “Have you published anything?” they’ll stutter next. “I have,” I say. “Wow,” they say, relieved, “Good for you! That must be so much fun!”

At which point I usually fail colossally in holding up my side of this particular type of social exchange and make some sort of mildly subversive, slightly dejected attempt to explain how much work being a literary novelist in 21st century America can be.

But what I wish I had the courage to say is this: “Yes. It is fun!”

Because the truth is, it is fun. And that’s an important truth. In fact, it isn’t just the fun of novel writing that inspired me to devote as much as I could to it long before I ever had a hope of being published; it’s the very fact that I do find my work fun (among other things) that proves, in my mind, that it’s the most important work I could do.

So many of us hold ourselves back from admitting how essential fun is to good work. We think of fun, and we think of goofing off, taking valuable time away from work, playing hooky from our real responsibilities. And yet we wonder why we get stuck in our careers, why we no longer generate the great ideas we had when we were young and simply thrilled to have a job, why we obsess so much more over what isn’t working than what is.

Somewhere along the way, I think we made the very grave mistake of conflating dedication with seriousness. We got very fearful of ourselves, and became convinced that if we let loose on a regular basis, we would fall down the slippery slope of being unproductive, slothful, and generally out of hand. Even now, as you read this, I’m sure it’s making you a little uncomfortable. Heck, it’s making me a little uncomfortable to write it. I don’t want you to think I’m encouraging everyone in the world to take their tops off in Times Square and go for broke. But I, too, need to be reminded of the difference between having fun because it’s a healthy and natural part of the human mind’s impulse to be engaged and thriving and thrilled, and a tendency to behave like a drunk teenager on perpetual spring break.

Of course it makes sense that no one will get anything done without dedication, a ton of grit, and a healthy dose of good sense. But by the same token, we can’t expect to get our best work done if we’re not flourishing. After all, is joy really something we need to actively avoid? Is that why we’re wired to seek it? Why it makes us feel more powerful, more flexible, and more creative? And if we’re constantly playing Whack-a-Mole with activities that invite joy, fluidity, and creative fast balls, how can we expect to produce in the age of innovation and invention? A related question: When have personal flourishing and success ever really been at odds with each other?

Where I live, in Silicon Valley, people have a lot of fun. They’re mocked for it regularly; but they keep doing it. Sadly, no one here is doing anything worthwhile or interesting, and we’re all dying early of heart attacks. I miss the Boston that raised me, but sometimes I think I had to come out here in order to really embrace the person I most needed to become; the fullest, most ridiculous(ly productive) version of myself.

The photo I’ve shared with you was taken when I was around three years old. Fun fact: I recently discovered that my family has been showing me only the “pretty” pictures of myself when I was little; much to my delight, I found a treasure trove including this one of me looking like a miniature Latke Gravas on the days he forgot the Brylcream while going through my parents’ storage locker. The truth is, I knew I always had a miniature Latke Gravas inside me, and it saddens me that I ever shut her (him?) up just so I could look a little prettier, appear a little more somber in my family of full professors and widely respected doctors. And for the first three decades of my life, I did manage to fake it in the world of Serious Work. But look at me here, at the typewriter, with my sunglasses upside down, frisbee at the ready — in my natural state. I see this photo and I just think: Thank God that at least I eventually remembered I was supposed to have fun. What’s more, I suspect we all have such photos in our archives. Where are you in yours? What are you doing? Have you ever felt more genuine or more engaged? Is it really so far from here to there?