Friday, April 13, 2012

Cues from the Coach: What’s for Dinner?

Have you ever noticed that writers are often not taken seriously? Like the prophet who gets no respect in his home territory, the writer finds herself (or himself) universally available to family and friends.

“Mommy, Suzie hit me!”

“C’mon, Mary, you can work on your book after the kids go to bed. This spring dress sale only lasts eight hours!”

“Honey, can you bring me a beer? I don’t wanna miss this next play.”

You know the mentality: Writers don’t work. They play on the computer all day while the laundry piles up and the kids create art masterpieces in the dust on the end table.

We’ve talked about scheduling, about setting aside time to write, about keeping the creative juices flowing—but the reality is that these things are a lot more difficult than they sound.

In the fantasy world of the writer, we spew out an endless flow of literary magnificence from 8 to 5, stopping only long enough to fill another cup from the coffeemaker that’s perpetually full and fragrant, grab a scrumptious sandwich that our mate prepared and refrigerated before he left for work, and shoot a quick glance into the kids’ spotless rooms that were tidied before they went to school. The phone doesn’t ring unless it’s our agent calling to tell us that she’s placed yet another of our manuscripts with a New York house, or it’s our accountant to report that the latest royalty check has arrived—and it’s thousands more than we expected. Yeah, right.

Here’s the reality: The school nurse calls; Johnny’s fever’s 104. Jenny needs a ride to soccer practice, and she’s volunteered Mom to pick up five teammates on the way. Of course, they need a ride home, too, and expect Mom to stay and cheer them to victory. The hubby phones, and buddies from work are coming by for beer and snacks while they watch the game. It’s a juggling act, and somebody just added six extra balls to the ones we must keep in the air. How do we find time to fit writing into our crazy schedules?

When my younger children and disabled husband lived at home and the teenagers and I cleaned houses to keep a roof over our heads and bread and margarine (couldn’t afford butter) on the table, I didn’t find that time. Since then—with perfect 20/20 hindsight—I’ve realized that my writing skills might have been put to practical use in a number of jobs, which would have set an example for my youngest son, who, even then, was a very talented songwriter. (A piece written in four parts that he composed at age 15 for a high school choir assignment was recorded for him by the Seattle Chamber Choir.) Now in his mid-forties, he’s working on his first album, which could have been out two decades or more ago. Would it have been? I’ll never know. But he learned a great work ethic while he stifled his talent. What’s the point?

Yesterday’s gone. Tomorrow’s an unknown. We have today to use to the best of our ability. If you can buy out just a few minutes to write or even make notes on what you want to write, it will give you the joy of expression, which also is put on hold when you let everything else crowd out those creative moments. Could you manage ten minutes while the baby’s napping? How about slipping out of bed fifteen minutes earlier or jotting a few notes on a pad while you eat lunch? Whatever your challenges, can you spend a few moments to let the writer in you blossom? Even if you must put handwritten notes in a paper file folder to retrieve at some later time, you will be amazed in the future at your creativity under duress. Take it from someone who’s been there—this is important for you.

The baby’s still sleeping, and the school bus won’t bring the other children home for half an hour. You sit down at the computer and open the file that contains your most recent endeavor. With your scribbled notes beside you, you immerse yourself in the world you’ve created and mingle lovingly with your characters.

A sudden sound startles you. The front door opens and closes. A familiar voice calls out.

“Honey, I got off work early and I’m starving. What’s for dinner?”

How do you nurture the writer within when your life screams "no way"?


Retired editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing. With several manuscripts started over the years and then shelved, she's determined to finish each one of them within the next two or three years. Meanwhile, she may take on an occasional editing job or mentor a writer who seeks voice, style, and effectiveness of expression. Visit Linda's website to learn more about her mentoring team.

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  1. I've been battling with this very thing today, Linda. Just when I thought I had time to sit down and work on a chapter that's been bugging me for months, my elderly neighbor called and asked if I might be going to the supermarket for supplies. I wasn't - but what could I say? The poor dear cut her leg badly a few weeks back and has hardly been out of the house since. So, I picked her up and took her shopping. Later, as I was dropping her off at her door, she turned to me and said "I always say that people are more important than things. You're a wonderful neighbor and I don't know what I'd do without you." And suddenly, that chapter just didn't matter anymore. Tomorrow's another day and who knows, maybe I'll have an aha moment between now and then and add something really awesome to it. Or not. Such is life, I guess :)
    Thanks for your post - I enjoyed it.

  2. Thanks for painting the picture so many face. Of course, it works the other way, too. Substitute "Dad" for "Mom" and change the pronouns and you have the life of many male writers. Then there are those of us who would, by all rights, be retired and settled into full-time writing but still carry the responsibilities of sole breadwinner. In the end, we all make the time for the people and the passions in our lives in some muddled, imperfect way. And some of the unfinished manuscripts get finished and published and read.

  3. Yes, Amanda, people are definitely more important than things. And one thing that makes us good writers is our compassion for people, their problems, their strenths and weaknesses, their needs — the list goes on. And as you note, our digressions to help someone just may take us to an "aha moment" that we would never otherwise have experienced.

  4. As you note, Larry, this post applies equally to male writers. I had no intention of excluding them, but was just trying to avoid the complication of "he/she" and double examples in writing it. Thank you for reminding all of us that these problems are not gender specific.

    Isn't it funny how "retirement" has become such an ambiguous term? At one time well within my memory, it meant a cessation of employment at age 65. Now, times and economics have written new rules. Even though I have "retired" as an editor, I still may need to take an editing or coaching job now and then to make ends meet. Life is never simple, is it? But then this is what makes great grist for a story.

  5. I remember my first few Book-in-a-Week sessions when hubbo served me lunch and snacks even as he tiptoed through the house. So cute! That lasted about three months. Now years later, he groans when I say "next week is BIW". The best plan is private space and predesignated times that are sacrosanct, except in case of dire emergency. It's a good opportunity to teach respect and boundaries.

  6. Linda, this post reminds me of an episode of Judge Judy. We writers have to believe that what we are doing is worthy and important to society so that we can create the boundaries that protect our creative lives—even though that work may go in rewarded, monetarily, for many years as we learn our craft.

    Well on the episode I saw this woman was breaking up with her boyfriend, saying he was a slacker and hadn't contributed to the rent per their initial agreement.

    "What do you do for a living?" Judge Judy said.

    "I'm a novelist," he said.

    "What have you published?"

    "Nothing, yet," he said. "You have to write a lot before you're ready to publish."

    Judge Judy went ballistic, and basically said he was a good-for-nothing and that writing wasn't a career until he published and was earning money.

    It physically hurt me to watch that episode.

  7. Excellent plan, Dani. Respect and boundaries are sadly lacking qualities today. We need to teach them to our children (and perhaps to our mates — keeping in mind respect and boundaries ourselves, of course).

  8. Geez, Linda, I sorta envious ... I have to manufacture the interruptions for my task avoidance.

  9. This is telling like it is, Linda. You'd think I'd have all the time in the world to write since I'm retired, my kids live in other parts of the country, and my husband plays bridge and works at his ham radio hobby. Truth is, I need to set up writing sessions at the library just to escape my demanding kitty. There's always something.

  10. Time comes and goes, but the word on the page is forever.

    Here's to any moment in time that produces priceless treasures, one word at a time.

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  12. Kathryn, this is really sad. To say that Judge Judy's assessment of writing is demoralizing is an understatement. Writing is hard work.

    Several authors I know put in more hours on the job than many non-writers; others write in addition to holding down other part-time or full-time jobs. I can only suggest that perhaps Judge Judy isn't the creative type, so she may not appreciate the labor of love and and dedication to purpose that goes into being a writer. No offense intended, Judge.

  13. Oh, Patricia, the kitty? I'm so sorry. Have you tried reading to it? Maybe it doesn't yet appreciate what you do. Seriously, buying out the time to write is a challenge no matter what our situation.

    You're manufacturing interruptions, Christopher? Consider yourself fortunate to have that luxury.

    You're exactly right, Dean — one word at a time. And each of those words must bring value to that chest of priceless treasures. It's not nearly as easy as it sounds.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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