I have a calendar in my office where I make a note each time I do non-day-job writing. Whether it’s a blog post, a cat bio, my novel-in-progress, or something else, I jot it on the calendar.
I’m writing this blog post on March 13. “Blog” will be the second entry on the calendar this month.
The second one.
The first was a cat bio on March 4.
I have a ton of excuses, nearly all valid. Work, of course. Billing. Tax preparation. Rehearsals. Bible study. Lent. House issues. (Remember the mystery of the soggy air handler? It’s not solved yet.) And don’t even get me started on the family stuff—after spending much of the weekend shopping for my elderly parents, I went over this evening to cook dinner and help get Dad to bed because it’s too big a job for my mother. (All this pales beside my older sister’s heroic efforts to address his latest health crisis.)
And then there are the occasional treats. Last night, I enjoyed a lengthy FaceTime conversation with a friend I hadn’t talked to since Christmas. Last weekend, another friend invited me to join him in New York for dinner and a performance of Tosca at the Met. In a few weeks, I’ll reunite with friends I haven’t seen since pre-covid for a movie date.
It would be easy to say I just haven’t had time to write. Easy, but not quite true.
What I haven’t had is the energy. The concentration. The focus.
I don’t know how many words I have in my current manuscript. Ten thousand wouldn’t surprise me; nor would fifteen, or even twenty thousand. For more than a year, I’ve been writing in sections as ideas occur to me. Whether they’re any good is anybody’s guess. One recent afternoon when I couldn’t concentrate, I reduced each section to an index card. I think I thought I’d be able to organize them into an actual manuscript and then I’d at least be able to see where I was. Also, it made me feel as if I was writing when I wasn’t.
At the beginning of the year, I started the calendar plan thinking it would be an incentive: if I wrote, I could put it on the calendar. Then, as the days filled up, I’d be so encouraged that I’d keep writing.
Nice idea. Too bad it didn’t happen that way.
When I was writing my first book, I decided I’d spend an hour a day, no matter what. I knew then what I still know, namely that if the book is ever to be finished, I have to put in a lot of hours actually writing it. The difference was that with the first book, I was writing about a world I know—lawyers. This time, I’m slogging around in territory I know nothing about—long-term relationships, jobs outside the law, and the North Pole. It’s scary as hell, because I don’t want to disappoint the people who loved State v. Claus. I find myself with plot ideas I’m afraid to pursue for fear of breaking faith with them.
If this were a perfect world, I’d be able to take a month and be left entirely alone to think and to write. It’s not possible, at least not for me. Maybe if I had a husband who would stay home to take care of the cats, meet with air conditioner servicepeople, take meals to my elderly parents and cart them to the doctor. Maybe then I could take off for a month’s residency somewhere, completely carefree, with no more to think about than whether I’d packed my phone charger. I could stroll through the woods or along the beach, returning to spend hours delving into my story, fortified by kindly caretakers who would leave meals at the door of my cabin each day.
But this is not a perfect world. I cannot take off for the country and leave my cares behind. That’s not what my life looks like now.
I hear about people who write their books by scribbling for fifteen minutes a day on the back of an envelope while they wait for their kid to get out of soccer practice. You have to want it badly enough, these stories say, suggesting that the reason I haven’t finished my book is that I don’t want it badly enough.
I do want it. The problem is that I also want to earn a living, to keep my home in good repair, to make meat loaf for my parents, to manage my finances, to spend time with friends, to engage in other creative endeavors like making music. (And may I note that I’m not even juggling kids or in-laws the way so many do. Those people should be canonized.)
I want—I need—to grapple with my book’s plot issues, wrestling with them like Jacob with the angel, refusing to let them go until they bless me. I’ve written thousands of words in an effort to solve some of these plot issues. I’ve written in between work deadlines and cats puking on the rug. As I sit here tonight, I have no idea how many of these words—if any—are truly worth keeping.
Part of being a writer is slogging through these times when you’re exhausted in every way a person can be. It’s putting down words in some format just because that’s what you do. Maybe those words are part of a novel or a story, an essay or a poem. Maybe they’re a haiku. Maybe they’re just a few musings in a blog post.
But they’re still words, and they still express ideas.
Tonight, I’m as tired as I can remember being. If I had a modicum of energy, I might empty the dishwasher and reload it with all the dishes languishing in the sink. Instead, after I post these few thoughts, I’m going to give the cats their meds and their snikkies. Then, I’m going to get into bed and read until I nod off—which, I expect, will mean two pages, tops.
Being a writer sometimes means being strict with ourselves: butt in chair, meet that word count, no excuses! But other time, it means remembering that we’re mere humans and we need to take care of ourselves. That might mean going to bed early or reading somebody else’s words or flashing the laser light around the front hall as the cat goes nuts trying to catch the red light.
There’s every chance that I won’t finish my book in time to release it for the holidays this year. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but right now, it seems pretty unlikely. It took close to ten years for me to finish State v. Claus, and much of that was figuring out what the story was really about. The sequel deserves at least as much consideration. I don’t want to dash off something just to have a book to publish. My poor tired brain needs to figure out what story I’m really telling, and that story needs to percolate until it’s ready.
In the meantime, I need to get better about putting words on a page, even when those words suck. It’s like running scales: you’re never going to play scales on the concert stage, but if you don’t do them in practice, you’ll never be on that concert stage anyway. In the same way, the delete key exists for a reason: if you write crummy stuff, you can delete it, and nobody will ever know.
It’s a balance, then. A balance of self-discipline and self-care. Recognizing the need to do the work and the need to refresh the soul. Acknowledging that there will always be a thousand worthy things that will sap your energy and your concentration and your focus. And trying your best to show up and do the work anyway.
So here’s my plan for tomorrow: spend fifteen minutes writing a scene from my book. Slog through those minutes. Put words on the screen. Don’t worry about how what shows up may fit into the whole, or even if it does. Just put down words, one after another.
If I go back the next day and decide they suck, I can always delete them. But if I don’t write them, I’ll never get to make that decision. It’s like erasing air. You just can’t.