I should know better. I really should. I’ve been doing this for over twenty-five years now and I’ve heard every stupid statement a writer can possibly hear.
Maybe I’m just feeling short-tempered tonight or maybe I’m seeing the situation more clearly, without the layers of emotion that usually attach themselves to the subject.
Let me back up and tell you what I’m talking about. I came home to two emails from two friends. One is a published writer with stellar credentials. She was out driving with her thirteen year old son the other day and he said, “You know, my friends’ mothers think you have the prettiest garden in town.” My writer friend puffed up with pride. Her garden is her baby. She lavishes it with as much attention as possible and it’s a thing of beauty. “They really said that?” she asked her son. (Truth is, she wanted to hear it again.) “Yeah,” said her son, putting his feet up on the dashboard, “they said that’s because you have a lot of spare time because you don’t have a real job. You know, you just write.”
Well, there’s something I’ve heard a thousand times before. I wince every time I think of Anne Tyler’s anecdote about bumping into an old friend who tells her chapter and verse about her own exciting, busy life then looks at Tyler and says, “So what are you doing these days? Still just writing?”
Then there was a note from an aspiring writer I’ve known for at least ten years. Lots of talk about the writing life, lots of clever observations about the process, lots of dreams, damned little product. Ten years of no product. She attends a half-dozen conferences each year. She volunteers for the board of various writers’ organizations. She edits the newsletter. She makes the phone calls and meets with her critique group every week. Only problem is, she never has anything for them to critique.
She wants to sit down and write. She knows she’d make the NYTBSL first time out if she just had the time to tap out a few hundred pages but she’s so busy taking the kids to soccer practice and play dates and she can’t miss her two hours a day at the gym or her hair appointments or her therapist – you get the picture, right? If she had time, she’d be the world’s best writer and the only thing holding her back is a busy calendar. She’s not like me, she said, with all these extra hours lying around waiting to be used or tossed away. But she’s a writer, dammit. She’ll tell you so herself. She’s a writer because she surrounds herself with writers and surely that’s all it takes.
I wanted to take a machete to my laptop after I read that note. I thought about her pampered privileged life and I wanted to scream. How many women’s voices were lost to the harshness and dailiness of life in years gone by? (Read Tillie Olsen’s ‘Silences’ for more on that topic. Read ‘I Stand Here Ironing.’) How much does writing mean to you if you’ll sacrifice it for a hair appointment or a date with your manicurist?
News flash: nobody has time to write.
Let me repeat that in case you weren’t paying attention.
NOBODY has time to write.
I don’t. You don’t. Grisham doesn’t. Hemingway didn’t. I’ll bet Shakespeare had trouble carving a few good hours from his day in order to write a play or twenty.
You make time. You sacrifice something you enjoy for something you can’t live without. You say no to the movies, to dinner out, to the hair salon, to the gym, to watching videos, to reading books for something as frivolous as pleasure, and you do it because you can’t imagine doing anything else. You need to write the way you need to breathe and you’ll do anything necessary to find the time to do it. You’ll do whatever you have to do if you’re a real writer. That’s how you start. That’s how you continue.
You get up early and write before the sun comes up. You stay up late and write until you can’t keep your eyes open a moment longer. You take a sandwich or a cup of yogurt to work with you and write through lunch hour. You write when you’re happy. You write when you’re sad. You write when you’re sick. You write when you’re dying. You write when writing is the last goddamn thing you feel like doing. You write because you’re a writer and that’s what writers – real writers – do.
You say you want it all, you want time to play, time to read, time for your family, and time to write. Guess what? You can’t have it. Sorry. It’s impossible. There’s just so much you can do with your allotted twenty-four hours a day and if you want to add writing time, you’ll have to subtract something else. It’s that simple. It’s that painful. It’s that rewarding.
I did it. You did it. I gave up a social life because the need to write burned hotter than almost anything else in my life. It still does. And you know what? The balancing act never gets easier. It’s always about compromise. It’s always about sacrificing something you love for something you can’t live without. And I can’t live without writing.
Believe me, I understand that it’s tough to find time – the right kind of time – to write in the middle of a crazed schedule. Been there, still doing that. It never gets easier. Not ever. I’ve written on planes, in airports, in hospital waiting rooms, in the car, in a restaurant, in a movie theatre. You can too. If you’re a writer, you’ll find a way. If you’re not really a writer, a month at Yaddo won’t make you one. You’re always stealing moments, ducking phonecalls, locking yourself away to get your pages done while your family goes off to play. But you know what? Nobody’s forcing you to do this. There’s no gun at your head. It’s your choice, to call yourself a writer, to say that writing is how you define yourself, but damn it to hell, how can you call yourself a writer if you don’t write? A writer is defined by the act of putting words on paper. It’s that simple. No words on paper? Honey, you ain’t a writer and all the conferences, all the lofty ambitions on earth won't change that fact.
I love when people say, “Oh, it’s so easy for you. You’re a born writer.” Yes, I think I was born to write but maybe I was also born to be a world-class tap dancer too. I’ll never know, will I, because I’m not willing to put in the time to find out. You’d laugh if I walked around calling myself a world-class tap dancer without portfolio, wouldn’t you? You might even think I was crazy. Everyone knows that dancers dance. You can’t call yourself a dancer if you don’t move around the floor.
Believe me, I’m not unsympathetic to the time issue. I fight it every day of my life and I lose as many battles as I win. But that’s my situation today, one of deadlines and contracts, of writing to meet commitments as well as writing for love. I have my problems with the process, but one thing I’ve always understood is that it all starts with words on paper. If you don’t have words on paper, you have nothing at all.
Yeah, we all have problems managing our time but so what? Get over it. Sit down and write. Grab five minutes if that’s all you can manage and write a sentence or two. It doesn’t have to be a perfect sentence – very few sentences are – but it’s your sentence and it’s a start. That sentence makes you a writer. That’s all it takes. Ten years of talk hasn’t turned my friend into a writer but with that one sentence you lived her dream. Five minutes a day spent writing accomplishes much more than thirty hours a month spent dreaming about it.
It’s funny how things come to you when you need them. I was thinking all morning about Aspiring Writer’s letter and how much it bugged me but it wasn’t until I went upstairs looking for Brenda Ueland’s book on writing and found Ken Atchity’s “A Writer’s Time” instead that I figured out why I was so angry. In the first chapter, Atchity says: “One of the first questions I ask when a writer needs help to become productive is, ‘When is the last time you sat down and wrote?’ I don’t mean sat down and stared out the window, but actually moved your hand across the page or your fingers on the keyboard.” He says that most times such people haven’t written a word in weeks.
Atchity continues, “If you simply define a writer as someone who is writing, clarity sets in. You’re truly a writer when you’re writing; and if you don’t write regularly, don’t pretend to give yourself that title.” We’re not talking publication. We’re not talking money. We’re not talking about anything but the simple act of writing.
I don’t think my Aspiring Writer friend is ever going to do it. I don’t think she has it in her. Oh, she has the stories and she probably has the talent but she’d rather live within her comfortable dream than step outside and try to make that dream come true.
An editor once told me about her nephew who was turning away from a singing career on Broadway because his spoiled young fiancee thought he should find himself a “real” job as a teacher. His heart soared when he performed. He’d been told that a talent like his came along once in a lifetime and that the sky was the limit. “What a waste,” she said. “He has a responsibility to live his dream.”
We all do and for some of us it begins with that first word on paper.