(5) How I don't Write
After reading my entry, “How I Write,” you might assume that I easily bound out of bed in the morning, drink my coffee, brush my teeth, and with ideas and outlines buzzing, sit comfortably at the computer, and write brilliant prose at the speed of five single-spaced pages per hour. No, that doesn’t happen. At this point, if you haven’t already read my “Writing” titled, “How I write,” please read it before moving on with this piece. Because---writing is challenging, writing is subtle, writing is grueling, writing is intense, but most of all writing is astonishing. It can make you feel like you have given birth to a child, or bared your soul, or created something marvelous—or something dreadful. Writing can be everything, or writing can be nothing.
I need to write. You may feel this same need. We want to be heard; we want to figure out what happened and why. We want to understand ourselves and help others understand us, so they may have more compassion for themselves and for others. When I wrote science books for my mainstream publisher, I knew that science could be a kid’s favorite subject if only it was presented in a way that made them say, “I love science. It’s my favorite subject.”
Just like my husband loves to play golf, and my granddaughter loves to dance, and my grandson loves to ski, so do we as writers love to write. As with golfers, dancers, and skiers, we had to learn how to do the thing we are now passionate about. We writers and sports people have good days and bad days. Somedays we wake up and wonder if we can measure up, or if we can do it at all any more. We have low self-esteem. We are smug with our superiority. Both at the same time.
How did we get to be writers? First, most of us were readers. For me, reading was my refuge from a very cruel home in my elementary and junior high years. The librarian was my friend, and saved new books she knew I would like. By grade six I had made a huge dent in the children’s section of the library—reading animal books, historical novels, mysteries, and my favorite, the Thornton Burgess nature books. In grade six I read a set of 25 encyclopedias in addition to the 20 book set of the “Harvard Classics” and at least 20 volumes of poetry. After reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo for a book report in sixth grade and deciding it was my favorite book next to War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, my teacher told me it was “too advanced” for me. Maybe too advanced for her I thought.
Because my mother took “McCall’s,” “Ladies Home Journal,” “Good Housekeeping,” and “Reader’s Digest,” I read those from cover to cover each month. I loved the humor in Reader’s Digest and the stories serialized in the “women’s magazines.” With my allowance I bought at the drugstore 15 cent copies of “True Love” and “True Confessions” that I kept hidden under my mattress as Dad would not have approved of my reading such “trash.” I read the local newspaper, and loved the “funny pages,” “Dagwood and Blondie,” “The Phantom,” and “Dick Tracy.” I remember lying face down each day with the paper spread on the living room floor and wondering about the articles I read about Rosa Parks, the United Nations, and the discovery that humans have 46 chromosomes.
It was this love for reading that inspired me to want to be able to write like Thornton Burgess or Leo Tolstoy! Little did I know how hard it would be to learn to write, to deal with the doubt, the voice in my head that said, “You can’t do this.” I didn’t know how much persistence and hard work it would require. For example, when I was on a tight deadline with my science writing, there were days that I would wake to my alarm at 6:00AM and go in my pj’s directly to the computer while my husband made breakfast, then lunch, then dinner and brought it to me at the computer. Finally at midnight I fell into bed again only to hear the alarm ring again at 6:00AM again. Do you get the picture?
Now I can make my own schedule and create my own deadlines as I write my memoir. But now life can get in the way. I set the alarm for seven and plan to be writing by 8:00, and by 9:00 I am resetting the alarm for the second time. At 10:00AM I sit at the computer for a moment before I realize that I need to do laundry. I can get that going and then write. Back to the computer. After opening, I see that there are 25 new emails, mostly junk, so I delete, except one from a friend I need to answer-- she sent me a link I want to investigate on a really cool sewing project. The phone rings--I have to explain to the window guy calling back about how the hole in our siding is caused by the siding rotting from the inside due to the leaking window. He says I need to call a roofer to see if it is leaking from the roof. “Home Advisor” to the rescue—after entering all my data into the site, immediately I have two roofers calling to make appointments to view the problem.
It is now 11:00 AM. I put the clothes in the dryer and get another load going. Back to the computer. My phone is beeping with text messages. My daughter is setting up a birthday party for our grandson, but uh-oh, it is when my writer’s group meets. Talk to my husband—he has PT late that day, so have to figure out if we can change our appointments. Send email, and notice more email has come in—deal with that. Someone knocks on the door. Back downstairs. Amazon delivery of a new memoir I ordered. Leaf through that for a while.
It is now 12:00. I throw a piece of cheese on a slice bread, nuke it in the microwave for 30 seconds, grab an apple and make tea. I can take it all to the computer, and finally get started. But the load of wash is ready for the dryer, and a couple things in the dryer have to be ironed. Maybe I’ll do that “real quick” and then get started writing.
It is now 1:00. In my email, Starbucks tells me that if I buy a Caramel Frappuccino, a Latte, and a Green Ice Tea by Monday, I will earn 50 points. OK, I think I’ll go for a Chai Tea Soy Latte on my way to the gym since I haven’t been there in a couple days and I really want to stay in shape. I hate it when my clothes don’t fit.
It is now 3:30. I think you get the drift! So how do you do it? Writing, that is. When you figure it out, let me know. My best attempts incorporate several ideas:
1. When you set aside time to write, and I mean an actual time frame, such as 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM, write it on your calendar with your other appointments.
2. Keep your to-do list in another room from where your computer is, or wherever you write.
3. Ignore your phone, including texts and email. If it is important, people will leave you a message.
4. Ignore your to-do list while you are writing. Keep the list in another room. Notice I mention this twice as the to-do list is my biggest problem that keeps me from writing.
5. Hire a sitter to take care of your kids, a lawn service to take care of your lawn, or send out your laundry if you set a writing deadline you are determined to keep.
6. Order take-out—healthy that is.
7. Read books about writing. Find them on line, at the library, bookstores, or Amazon.
8. Seek professional therapy and/or join a writer’s group if the voices of criticism and judgement in your head get in your way and tell you that you can’t do this, that you are a fraud, that you are wasting your time. The website called “Meet Up” will help you find other writers.
9. Go to talks by published authors, often held at libraries and bookstores. Ask them how they get going each day they plan to write.
10. My therapist gave me a good idea. Imagine a large jar that you open and one by one put in all the things that can get in the way of your writing such as your to-do list, your laundry, the meeting agenda you have to create, the critical voice in your head, the oil change for your car, the grocery list, and your phone. Secure the jar lid and imagine putting it on a high shelf in another room while you write. Then sit at your computer, let an image form in your mind, and write.
Good luck! Let me know how you do.
Writing Prompt: Sit at your computer or your writing space. Close your eyes. Imagine a large jar. Put everything that could distract you today into the jar of your imagination, maybe your phone, the TV, the video game, the unwashed dishes, anything that could distract you. Open your eyes. Place your hands on the keyboard or grasp your pen. Let your mind think of an image or idea you want to write about. Write!