Friday, December 31, 2010

Guest Post: Writer, Interrupted

by Nichole Bernier

“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 ( She is a Contributing Editor (and former staffer) at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, and a member of the literary blog Beyond the Margins (


  1. That's exactly what I do. I write in like 20 to 30 min stretches. I tend to type fast but I'm pretty organized with my thoughts. I have an outline (high level) and when I stop writing I make a list of where my thoughts were heading in the mss. Like - she kisses him - he says he loves her ....? then when I come back I know exactly where my head was. You know what? Usually I change the scene when I've taken a mini-break away. Writing this way works for me. I even have my kiddies jumping around me or encourage them to do homework, draw a scene or act one out for me.

  2. This is EXACTLY what I needed to read...Thank you for posting this and
    HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!! May 2011 be filled with glorious books!

  3. you read my mind. That is how I have to do it as well. sadly, life doesn't revolve around my writing, my writing revolves around my life.

  4. Convincing my husband that "head writing" is just as important as sitting at the computer (and for him to understand that even when I'm staring into space, I'm actually 'writing') is an ongoing challenge.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  5. I love this:

    "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."

    It reminds of that great line from the movie "Cider House Rules" when the character says: "You don't know what your job is."

    Whew! How can we do our "work" when we don't know what our job is??? Yet wandering is good and often necessary as a passage of growth - because often we don't know our calling. Which reminds me of another quote:

    "Many are called, few are chosen."

    And this is what I want to say: I CHOSE my calling, and I CHOSE to be chosen. Meaning, it's been up to me what I want to devote my life to. And I think half the battle for some is that thing of CHOOSING. Esp. those afraid of commitment!!!

    Happy New Year Everyone ˙·٠•●♥ Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ ♥●•٠·˙

  6. I hate my naps or "Judge Judy" being interrupted by have-to-get-done things, but I nap and watch the program anyway. Writing is like that for me. When writing my novel I dance around the have-to's, my laptop often sitting on the counter while I'm cooking. I used to plan writing times but spent more time gazing out the window, just like at school. When the passion to spill it forth comes, I write, typing or pieces of paper or even carry a small recording device to translate later. This works best than my planned time. Blessed be the spirit of writers.

  7. What a spectacular post to end the year--a way to keep the New year in perspective!

    I think it's important to note that sometimes the busy-ness of life can have a postive impact on production. Ever hear that saying "If you want something done, give it to a busy person?" It helps you decide what to prioritize--and, surprisingly, a lot can get done in that half hour between cooking dinner and the kiddo's bathtime.

  8. Great insight! Yeah, my strategy is carrying a notebook everywhere I go. And my ideas tend to pop up in family gatherings...not the easiest time to jot down something when I'm expected to participate. But this helped remind me of where my focus should be. And it's so awesome to know exactly what I love doing on top of that. :)

  9. Absolutely. I couldn't do it without the breaks. Either the brain or the body goes numb and you have to get away from it for a while, or you need to take a coffee/wine/chocolate/bathroom break. I once read an anecdote about a writer on a deadline who wrote for sixteen hours straight through - gruesome. Not me, I'm a sprinter not a marathon runner.

  10. Excellent description of what I call "composus interruptus." I've never been able to write with a lot of distractions - at ball games and mall food courts - like some writer friends. But I've learned to come and go as the demands of daily living intervene.

    The problem it poses for me is that I often have to reread the first ten or so chapters to get back into the story. Of course, I'm tweaking every time, so I've never really known what people mean by "first draft," "second draft", etc. It's not a bad thing. I just have to remember to make sure the second half gets the same scrutiny before sending the book to my agent.

    And I LOVE the teacher's eyes averted at the racy note-to-self. It's why I write small and scribbly - so no one can read the weird stuff my head dreams up at random moments during the day.

  11. A few years ago I read through LM Montgomery's journals (the author of Anne of Green Gables). It was wonderful to see her writing with little people at her feet, with wood-burning stoves to clean, and the like. I felt an instant connection with this author who, though writing 100 years before my time, had regular life to contend with, just like me.

  12. It seems like real life has the habit of taking over, that's for sure. I'm not sure there is a solution - just carry on!

  13. I love this post. For many of us, mastering interruptions makes the difference between writing and not. For years, I wrote in any unscheduled bit of time--in the back of a van on my way back from a conference, every weekend, every holiday, every vacation, every evening until my face literally hit the keyboard. With a full time (more than full time) day job and a family, I gave up most of my other leisure time activities--weaving, needlework, music, genealogy--and focused on writing.
    I've been a full time writer for nearly three years now. I am trying to lose the habit of working all the time and reclaim some balance in my life. Still--it was worth it. My fifth book was released last fall and I'm under contract for four more.

  14. So true! Thank you for posting this. It's exactly how I feel, although I'd never phrased it to myself this way. As the new year begins, I can feel antsy about life, kids, hobbies, job taking time away from my writing, or I can be thankful that I know what I love to do, and that if/when I have more time, I'll never agonize about how to fill it meaningfully. That said, it would be nice if 2011, the eighth year of my working on my novel in bits and pieces, would be the one that led me to publication...

  15. Wonderful post. I find breaks helpful and don't necessarily view them as interruptions. It gives me an opportunity to build up momentum... think about my next words without having to sit in front of the computer waiting for the story to come to life.

    I also find my writing follows my reading pattern. I'll stop at a section break or end of a chapter, but don't have to and usually don't. Sometimes it's the end of a paragraph, sentence, once in a rare while the middle of a sentence. Same with writing. Sometimes the words just aren't there, and I'm left with an incomplete thought. So that's what gets written, and I move on to another activity. :) I return later, geared to go.

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  17. Thanks all for your thoughts, and thanks for reading my guest post. So true, what many of you mention about finding good ideas in the breathing space between writing sessions. Good things happen when you let that manuscript air out a little.

    For more on true interruptions — the practical Rx for the frustration of getting ripped away from your writing before you're ready — you might check out the advice column that originally inspired this one:

  18. Once I resisted the urge to flagrantly steal the line about the surgeon popping off to get the dry cleaning, I realized it was the wrong question.

    "Would a surgeon pause mid-bypass to tweet?" is the right question. That would be fun, too. "OMG, the blade just fell off my scalpel and I can't find it. Don't tell! LOL!"

  19. I know where you come from, but I'm not 100% with you on that. In any novel, some scenes will draw a lot out of you and will make you feel deep frustration when interrupted. Then when you come back, it's all bad gibberish.

    I came to deal with this issue by scheduling important scene writing. Mostly at night, where everybody sleeps.

  20. I love this! What wonderful inspiration and a great reality check. I used to envy writers who seemed to be able to carve a life made just for writing - seclusion, no kids, the cafe life. But these days I wouldn't want to give up my own raucous world for anything--well, maybe that 36 hours of a gift would be great. Printing out blog entry and giving to husband now, in time for my birthday. Thank you Nicole. I am so excited to read your book when it comes out.

  21. As a mom of 7, I would have to totally agree. There's always some type of distraction to pull me away from writing. I finally gave up on scheduled time and just write when I can. I am so thankful for my mini pc.It's small enough to take almost anywhere, I can work on writing while in the waiting rooms of life. Thanks so much for this post!

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