WRITING Around The Edges

A sea cave: the ideal writing spot…until your family members join you!

I used to belong to the most amazing writing-critique group. We had all the ingredients for an effective and supportive group. Our five members were not too many for a personalized approach and not too few to supply something to read at each monthly meeting. We all wrote in the same genre (science fiction and fantasy), so we didn’t have to explain genre conventions like faster-than-light space travel and instantaneous interplanetary communication. We all wrote novels, which requires a different critiquing approach to short stories. We were also committed to being both honest and kind in our critiques. And best of all, we just enjoyed one another’s company. We laughed together all the time about everything from unintentional writing bloopers (you know, everything from extra hands to the right gadget, or even divine intervention, showing up when you need them to) to life’s wackiness in general.

We started out meeting in bookstore cafes, but then we discovered the most remarkable venue: our local writers’ group, the Willamette Writers, had purchased a house that they dubbed the Writers’ House, where members can rent a room for the day and…well, write! Each room had a theme, from children’s literature to whodunits. Our group would decide on a day every month or two and we’d rent the whole house. It was so exciting to arrive, equipped with water bottles, laptops, research materials, and snacks, greet one another, catch up, and pick out our rooms–like a sleepover for adults! Then we’d go off to our spots and write until lunchtime, whereupon we’d stroll down the street, gabbling about what we’d created so far, and have lunch at a local restaurant. I know it’s cliched to describe an atmosphere as electrical, but that’s the best way I can capture the sheer animation, the joy and excitement, of sitting together and bouncing ideas off one another. Even being in the same building with other writers, despite concentrating on one’s own projects, galvanized each member’s creativity. After lunch, we’d head back, write some more, and then spend an hour or two at the end critiquing before having dinner together and returning home.

That was an incredible time of fellowship and shared inspiration. I’m so grateful for the experience and the camaraderie. Thank you, Teri, Tonya, Rob, and Tom!

Then, about eight years ago, our group drifted apart–not because we had a sudden blowup but because for different reasons, writing started taking a back seat to other aspects of life. One member was hired for a dream job he knew he’d love, but it also demanded time that he used to devote to writing. A second member’s two children had reached the age when extracurricular activities start to assume control of the family calendar, and he found himself enjoying attending and/or participating in these activities with them. I was expecting my daughter, and just when the intensity of parenting a young child was starting to ease off, first my father and then my mother began to require my spouse, my brother, and me to assume elder-care duties. I often think of my dear writing friends and hope that when some of these responsibilities loosen a bit, we can get back together to talk about rebuilding our group (or just rekindle the friendships).

But then, first we’ll each need to have written something to share, and while I can’t speak for the rest of us, I know I haven’t got anything ready.

Advice abounds on how to carve out more time for writing in your life. Unfortunately, sometimes it comes with a scolding, guilt-inducing tone along the lines of “Writer X worked 60 hours a week as a bus driver, and yet she managed to become a bestselling author. If you’re that passionate about writing, you’ll find a way.” That may be true, but depending on how oversubscribed one is, that way might involve a major sacrifice: adequate sleep, relationships, fulfilling work (as opposed to work that might fit around the edges of one’s writing but is uninspiring and difficult).

Sometimes you’ve got to work hard and think out of the box to find the ideal writing situation.

In my experience, external impediments to writing come in three forms: organizational problems, inaccurate assumptions about what one needs (environment, tools, etc.) to write, and work/family obligations. The first two are fixable; the third requires either enlisting more support or making peace with the decision to modify one’s writing and publishing goals until one’s season in life changes due to a combination of changes in circumstances and internal changes (attitude, motivation, etc.)

Organizational problems can involve one or both aspects of the space-time continuum. Maybe your physical space is too tiny to establish a writing territory that’s out of bounds to feline, canine, or human family members. Maybe even if you create a home office for writing, you can still hear your teen’s music reverberating through the walls. Perhaps clutter disrupts your focus, but finding time to clean is a hurdle in itself. Perhaps you experience challenges with structuring the free time you have, or you experience mission creep from work or family activities: you end up taking a work project home, or a meeting for which you’d budgeted an hour sprawls out into three. Urgent matters have an obnoxious tendency to crop up at the last minute. Argh!

Some of these organizational matters are beyond your control (like the school bake sale your child doesn’t tell you about until the night before, along with the lovely fact that they’d signed you up to bake cookies for 200 and the last time you baked something was when you were a preschooler cooking play-dough in one of those play ovens). A multitude of materials exist for helping people to achieve greater organization and efficiency, promising to liberate you from the physical and mental clutter that clogs our days like hairballs in drains, freeing your creative energy to flow. (Sorry about the creepy plumbing image there.) All right, maybe these resources won’t solve all of your organizational challenges any more than self-help books will magically transform you into a more enlightened, lovable, date-able human being, but it’s worth your spacetime to pick out what might work for you so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel (or the word processor, or the writing space). Advice from other writers is particularly salient. Be on the lookout for ones who have or are experiencing similar dilemmas to yours (writing with a chronic illness, writing while caring for children and/or elders, writing when you work long hours, etc.)

Next comes the expectation department. In Buddhist thought, we create our own suffering by having expectations and then becoming disappointed when real life falls short. A few years ago, I went to look at a piano for my daughter–the seller was willing to part with it inexpensively, as she was moving soon and it was the last item that had to leave before she put her house on the market. When I arrived, I discovered the most gorgeous house imaginable, with a panoramic view of the ocean and my dream writing space: a top floor consisting of a single room with windows on all four sides. The only problem proved to be a huge one: um, I didn’t have several million dollars to buy that house!

I’ve long envied writers who could go to a busy cafe, park themselves with a meal and a cup of coffee, and spend a couple of hours writing. All that lively energy surrounding me would be distracting, not inspiring. I’ve discovered that I can’t write in train stations, hospital waiting areas, the Department of Motor Vehicles, or any other place where you’re forced to wait for something long enough that you could (theoretically) crank out a few pages. When I say “can’t,” I don’t mean I haven’t tried…I mean my brain doesn’t work that way. Distractions are deadly to me. However, I’ve come to a compromise with my poor brain: I’ve learned to accept the “good-enough” space, just like my sweet daughters have learned to accept me as a “good-enough parent,” to borrow D.W. Winnicott’s memorable phrase. If I can find an out-of-the-way nook in, say, an airport arrivals seating area, I can at least create an outline or edit something I’ve written in my better, more conducive writing space at home. I’ve discovered that not every writing task demands the same level of concentration, and also that as long as I have quiet and minimal distractions in the crucial first half-hour of a writing session, a culinary bomb can go off in the kitchen–or my seven-year-old can wake up and dance around the living room near me–and I can keep going long enough to wrap up my idea and sketch out a plan for the rest when a better spacetime situation arises.

If you wait until inspiration arises to write, you’re not going to spend much time writing. If you wait until you’ve created the perfect writing space, or you can afford to go on writing retreats every weekend, or you’re retired and your children are grown, then you’ll either never write or you’ll complete a total of five glorious pages.

“I bet I could squeeze in there”: the importance of realistic expectations.

The last impediment, work/family obligations, is the most obdurate. Some aspects of life are non-negotiable. Children need parents; in the contemporary world, unless you’ve inherited a trust fund that will last your lifetime, adults need incomes; your friends and family need your presence, your love, and your attention. As publishing professional Jane Friedman reminds us, some writers managed their output at the cost of important relationships: they were absentee spouses and parents who tossed other family members the bone of an acknowledgement at the back of their latest book. (I encourage you to read Jane’s blog post “3 Principles for Finding Time To Write,” September 25, 2018: https://www.janefriedman.com/finding-time-to-write/).

One of my friends is a minister, and when I confided in her about my struggle to write while being a physician, parent, and caregiver to an octogenarian parent with a disabling condition, she gave me a gentle, priceless reminder: “All things come in their seasons. Maybe this isn’t your writing season.” I couldn’t envision not writing–it’s my life’s blood, my breath–but I could adjust my expectations to work on editing existing writing for publication, composing poetry, producing the monthly columns I write on health and bicycling for my local newspaper, and other projects that don’t demand as much unbroken time. I strive to redefine these activities as exercises that keep my “writing muscles” healthy, build a platform for eventual traditional publication, and create connections with other folks in the profession.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created its own special problems for me and other writers. As a physician, I’m defined as an essential worker. During our state shutdown, what might’ve been an ideal time to work on my new novel ended up being a hectic time when I was needed in my community more than ever. Yet I’m also aware that friends who did stay home encountered other obstacles: for example, having school-aged children at home with them and needing to supervise their homework packets and online class meetings. (I had to do these things too…at work.) As the situation continues to evolve, I’ll be spending most of my time helping my patients, partnering with my spouse to care for our family, and trying to stay healthy myself. This extra workload (and care-load) has eliminated my major means to keep writing consistently: getting up early to put in a few hours at the computer before anyone else wakes up. Simply put, I’m too wiped out to get out of bed until I absolutely must. Yet I feel obligated, not just to do my work, but also to create and to connect, to lift up and to celebrate, which I do through writing. I fear I’ve missed the opportunity to provide others with an escape, a pleasure, and food for thought during a difficult, isolating time.

That’s why I’ve pledged to return to this blog after a long hiatus. Even if I’m strained to find time to plug away at my next chapter, at least I can reach out to others who miss browsing in a bookstore, listening to a writer reading their work in an actual physical meeting room, or hanging out with their writing buddies. Beautiful writers and readers, let’s make a new start.

Thanks to Seth Goldstein and Luthien McDonald-Goldstein for making an appearance in these photos.

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