“How do people just write, then pause, make dinner and whatnot, and then go back to writing?”
I was sent this question as a guest columnist for an advice column for writers (Book Divas’ “Ask A New Author”), and it made me laugh. Maybe it was the whatnot. But mostly I loved the suggestion that writing is far too fragile a process to be interrupted for mundane tasks, a belief I’m hoping catches on widely.
I mean, would a surgeon pause mid-bypass to pick up drycleaning? Would the rescuers of the Chilean miners have brought their rock-burrowing shuttle to a screeching halt to collect the kids from preschool? This is delicate and precarious work, people.
But I played straight man, and focused my answer on surviving interruptions and finding your way back to your train of thought. Practical things, like taking quick notes on where you would have gone if you’d had the time. Key phrases, snippets of dialogue. It was all very reasonable, very "Dealing With Writing Interruptions for Dummies."
But in the time since I wrote it, I've realized the question was really about something else—the variety of ways people live as writers. How some people have lives organized around the writing, while others organize writing as best they can around the edges. Day jobs. Raising children. Maybe even, for people more well-rounded than I am, hobbies. Lives in which the writing has to pause to make dinner a whole lot.
Most of my ideas don’t come during my prescribed times at the computer—babysitter sessions and late nights, sometimes random insomniac hours. So I've gotten creative, like most writers probably do. Send myself texts from the waiting room at the pediatrician, take notes on whatever paper I dig out of the diaper bag. This can be risky business. I've written myself notes on the back of school forms—things like, How well can a husband and wife really know each other? or, It was so hard not to have that third drink—and once had the paper shyly returned. “You might want this,” the teacher said, eyes averted.
I don’t know how many writers are able to spend their days in creative seclusion, forsaking social responsibilities and basic hygiene while they whip themselves into a literary froth. I imagine that’s what it’s like to be at a writing colony, hour after hour of uninterrupted focus, day after day. Once a year or so, usually for a Christmas present, I get a writing weekend away, and my husband stays home with the kids. In the days leading up to these trips, anticipating 36 hours of no noise no parameters no safety net, I'm itchy as a junkie.
Writing without borders. A land without clocks. For most of us, The Writing Life isn't like that. The reality of the daily grind is a longing to write when you can’t, and interruptions when you do. It adds up to a long time getting the draft finished, getting the queries out, the revisions back to your editor. Some ideas will get lost while we make dinner, the spilled milk of the writing life.
Because the fact is, we simply can't do it all. There are choices. And whether you have to go to work or grocery shopping or go feed the chickens, sometimes writing has to take its ticket and stand in the deli line. You can be jealous of your friend who’s won a residence in a writer’s colony, and writes in a cottage with warm roast beef sandwiches delivered at lunchtime in a yellow tin pail. But for most of us, that's not where we are.
When I get too envious of the tin pail, I remind myself how lucky I am to pursue what I love, that I get to have a big raucous family and a book on the way. A book that took longer than it might have if I didn’t have the raucous family, but a book nonetheless.
And something else: At the end of the day, I feel lucky to know what I love to do. I have a friend who used to be in marketing, and after her kids hit elementary school she wanted to find some new kind of work. Chefs cook. Carpenters build, she said. What is it I DO?
Call it knowing what floats your boat, call it knowing the color of your parachute, call it whatever. But knowing what it is that you do, to my mind, is worth the interruptions that sometimes keep you from doing it.
Nichole Bernier has five children and knows a thing or two about interruptions. Her first novel, THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D, will be published by Crown/Random House in early 2012 (nicholebernier.com). She is a Contributing Editor (and former staffer) at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, and a member of the literary blog Beyond the Margins (beyondthemargins.com).