In a Boston Globe interview, a local author claimed to have written her novel during the day, while caring for her three young sons, presumably in the snippets of time between feeding the kids, cleaning up smeared PPJ, and baking brownies for playgroup. I won’t accuse her of fibbing. She might have been telling the truth. And there might have been a twelve-toed purple platypus lurking beneath the veneer.
The problem isn’t that Super Writers make the rest us of look bad. It’s that they make us feel guilty. Toss a healthy dose of Mom (Dad, spouse, teacher, friend) guilt into the mix-and, voila, the perfect recipe for A-N-X-I-E-T-Y.
Deadlines loom, networks beg for attention, your novel sits like an abandoned foster child, all puppy-eyed and neglected; meanwhile, ten new messages have flooded your inbox-never mind you haven’t responded to the previous twelve, the kids are crying-or whining-your cellphone’s ringing or singing . . . And all you feel is guilt.
So what do you do? How do you silence the monsters taunting you, accusing you of neglecting your work?
My friend and former teacher, the wondrous Jessica Treadway, in response to the dreaded process query (What’s your writing process? Meaning: what’s the formula, the A + B that ensures success?) advised: ‘Write when you can.’
Jessica’s simple, yet sage advice has resonated over the years. Last week, our beloved aunt passed away. Our eldest daughter Jen, bless her, drove up from D.C. for the services, and to be with us. There was nothing I wanted more than to spend time with her and her three little cuties, and I did. All week, though I spent a few hours each day at my desk, the little birdie trilled in my head, work to do, work to do, work to do.
This is a big improvement over the old days. Back then, that bird drove me nuts. Now, for the most part, I can ignore it. Yes, the work piles up. Sure, I wish I had more time to work on my novel. Despite our best intentions-at times, because of our best intentions-life gets in the way. When the kids whine, a friend phones, or we just want a break, we ought to be able to step away from our desk, without feeling guilty.
Write when you can.
I know what you’re thinking: easier said than done. And you’re right. But it’s possible. It can be done.
Here are 5 strategies that have helped me conquer the demons:
Make a list
This is so simple, yet, probably for that very reason, seems silly. I’m not advising you to create a flow chart or a organize your work on an Excel spreadsheet (if that floats your boat, sure, go to it). An ordinary list, handwritten or typed, as long as you can easily find it, will do. An itemized list allows you to see all your tasks at a glance, and gives you the gratification of crossing them off as you finish. A list, to me, feels less overwhelming, and infinitely more doable, than detritus floating around in my head.
Now establish a hierarchy. What’s most important? Finishing the article you promised? Editing a friend’s novel? Working on yours? Responding to e-mail? Touching base with Twitter or Facebook friends? Unanticipated jobs or requests always pop up, so priorities may change. Try to stay flexible. If you’re too rigid, you’ll only frustrate yourself. And be sure to include on your list a few 10-minute items, things you could do in a hurry. Alternately, break bigger chores into component parts. When time is short, this will allow you to progress.
Cut, Cut, Cut
Cross any inconsequential items off the list, and then block them from your mind. And don’t take on more than you can reasonably handle. A perfectionist, I used to think I had to be Wonder Woman, Super Teacher, Mom of the Year-I still do, at times-and I’d run myself ragged trying to fit everything in. Guess what? Nobody cares. As often as not, no one notices.
Here’s what I’ve learned: the most productive, accomplished people are 90 percenters. That’s right: 90 percent. The trick, the differentiator between them from everyone else, is that they’ve figured out which 10 percent they can neglect. Think about it: do you really believe the top 25 newspaper columnists or power bloggers care if every essay or post is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize? Of course not. The legendary New York Giant Willie Mays averaged .302 over his 22-year career. That’s 1 hit for every 3 times at bat. No one hits every day. No one expects you to either. I’m not advising you to be selfish or neglectful or sloppy; I’m simply suggesting that it’s OK to let go.
Quit beating yourself up
Along the lines above: be kind to yourself. Lower your expectations. Don’t assume, just because a friend, a neighbor, that sanctimonious writer spouting her mouth off in the Globe gets cranking at dawn and you don’t, you’re a slacker. There’s no crying in baseball, right? There are no rules for when writers write. Recognize that you’ll have days, weeks, possibly months, when you can’t get to your desk. Remember the proverb: this too shall pass. Soon, the kids will grow up, and (between calls, texts, and shopping trips to your pantry) you’ll have long, peaceful days alone. Try to stay within yourself. Don’t worry about what other writers do or don’t do. No one, no one, has a guaranteed formula for success. If they did, they’d sell it. Write when you can.
Baby steps, friends. We don’t have to win a marathon to be worthy of praise. Some days, the best we can do is to crawl out of bed, put on joggers, and circle the block. And that’s OK. If you walked at all you did something, and that counts. It means, despite feeling tired or sick or bored, you got up, gathered your energy, and pushed yourself through. That’s a big deal.
A very big deal.
Maybe, distracted, the kids whining all afternoon, you wrote only a sentence or two. Or you sat at your computer, contemplated the blank screen, read for an hour or so, scribbled a note to yourself, and got up. Trust me: any monkey can write when he or she feels like a million bucks, everything’s honky dory, life’s a box of chocolates. It’s the days when you feel like dog meat, your brain’s cramped, you’re exhausted, that count. Those are the days that separate the winners from the losers.
Relax, enjoy a cup of tea or a glass of wine, treat yourself to some chocolate. You deserve it!
Yesterday, the lovely Terri Rochenski tweeted: ‘You want to share tips? How ’bout ‘how do you write with two whining kids in the same room???’ I’d love an answer for that one!’ Thank you, Terri, for inspiring this post!