Who has the time?

Today marks the end of the first week of this website’s re-launch, and already I remember why the website lapsed into the forgotten recesses of my brain in the first place: time. Or, rather, lack of time.

It’s hard to find the time to write. Nearly every writer will back me up on this, especially those of us with full-time day jobs that do not involve writing. (Yes, I do get to write for my job, but it’s strictly industry, and I love what I do but trends and analyses just don’t satisfy that creative itch, you know?) Even with the best of intentions, it’s ridiculously easy to let things slide. You have a partner who would love to spend time with you, or a baby who will only relax if he’s in your arms, or a million-and-one errands to run. You have friends to catch up with and sleep to catch up on. You have showers to take and groceries to buy and you have to pay for the roof over your head month after month, like clockwork, so speaking of work and clocks, you’d better get to it. It’s the age-old conundrum: where do I find the time to do it all?

The answer, I’m sorry to say, is that you don’t. You can’t do it all, and all the self-help gurus in the world telling you otherwise won’t make it so. Some days your job will suffer. Some days your family will draw the short straw. Some days you’ll skip the shower. Some days you won’t have time to even text with your friends. And some days, you won’t write.

If you don’t do it for a living (and, I suspect, even if you do), writing, like most things in our over-scheduled world, has to become a habit—something you do so often that not doing it makes you antsy and uncomfortable. I’m a runner, and when I don’t or can’t go running, I get irritable. I am a much better human when I can run, because my body is used to being physically active. It is, as far as my body is concerned, a habit. Breaking a habit is hard, and not at all fun. But first, I have to run regularly, so I get used to it. I have to form the habit to begin with.

So.

I’m at the beginning, where I’ve been countless times before when life has gotten in the way of my writing for extended periods of time. I have to make my contributions to this website a habit and, hopefully, training myself to write here will lead to my ability to write elsewhere. That’s what I’m aiming for, anyway.

What are your best tips for finding time to write?

Going Back to the Start

I have serious commitment issues when it comes to the ends of my stories.

There, I said it. I can start a story with the best of them. I can throw my characters into all manner of unsightly and unpleasant situations; I can make them love, hate, burst into tears, rage to the heavens or even sulk in a dark corner when warranted, but writing that final, climactic scene and resolving all their earthly (or unearthly, as the case may be) troubles often eludes me to the point of utter despair. I cannot even begin to count the number of unfinished stories I have languishing on my hard drive, characters poised mid-angst, begging for literary peace.

Instead of peace, I give them cold, hard abandonment. Weeks, months, years go by. I set a perfectly good plot aside, people and places I’ve invested metaphorical blood and sweat and tears in, and force myself to forget all about them. When all else fails (read: when I don’t have a professor breathing down my neck for a graded ending), I simply let my stories go, like birds longing to be free.

And I wait.

Until one day, completely out of the blue, the story will edge its way back into my thoughts. I might be looking for inspiration regarding a different story, or having a completely unrelated conversation that triggers a stray memory, or read a book with a character that reminds me of one of my own. However it happens, the seed is replanted, and there it sits, growing in the back of my mind, pushing against its boundaries until I am suitably nagged enough to pull it up on my computer. And that’s when the fun starts.

Have you ever gone back to a story you haven’t looked at in a while? Inevitably, one of three things happens (listed here, in order of increasing likelihood):

1)      “Oh,” you say as you go through your piece, nodding your head in surprised satisfaction. “Well, this isn’t so bad at all. I can work with this. An edit here and there and I can just keep going right where I left off! This is great!”

2)      “Oh dear,” you say as you go through your piece, shifting your eyes around to make sure no one else is in the room with you. “This…well, this is not completely unsalvageable. These pages will have to go, of course, and this entire chapter—I must have written this after that thing at that place with those people last year. But no, yeah, I can totally do this. Absolutely. The names are great. I won’t change those.”

3)      “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD,” you cry to the heavens as you throw your hands helplessly in the air and lean as far away as you can get from the horrors on your computer screen. “WHAT WAS I THINKING?”

We’ve all been there—blinking at the words we know we must have written down, because the files and pages are most certainly ours, but how, how did those ideas ever make it past our mental editor and into the fabric of our story? Maybe this is why I have such trouble with the words “The End.” Because as a writer, I know that the first completed draft is really only the beginning, the tip of the revisional iceberg. And I worry that, for all my slaving away to get my characters through their trials and over that peak and across the finish line—what if I make it all the way back to the start only to find that the road, once smooth enough to traverse, has become the very quagmire we all fear our stories will turn out to be?

Saturday, Sunday, Snapshots

“I’m up, I’m up,” she grumbles to her Saturday morning chores as they mock her cheerfully from their spots in the living room and kitchen. The cats simply stare at her with yellow and green eyes, waiting for her to pull the blinds so they can get to the difficult business of laying in the sun while their human does all the heavy lifting.

The chocolate fudge cake sits innocently in the refrigerator surrounded by basmati rice, free-range eggs and skim milk, the light from within highlighting it like a gift from the heavens. She glances at it, then at the stove’s clock, then back at it again, biting her lip and tapping her finger on the fridge door. What good is being an adult if you can’t have cake for breakfast, she decides with a shrug and a smirk.

’90s West Coast rap is good music to clean to. She knows their younger versions would vehemently disagree, but the thought of present-day Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre loading their dishwashers to their old music makes washing her own dishes a little more palatable.

A second piece of cake for lunch really won’t hurt anything.

She goes to Target for hardware to hang a couple of paintings. She comes out with hardware and a book. How did she even manage to find the book section at Target? Can books be considered a vice? Her to-read pile is monstrous enough, but she was already two chapters in taking up space in the middle of the aisle and by then she figured she might as well just buy the thing. There is, after all, no such thing as too many books.

The living room furniture could do with some rearranging, she thinks. Whether it needs to be done at midnight, however, is up for debate.

No matter her intentions, Sunday almost always ends up being a throwaway day, a true day of rest. “Any chance you’ve learned to cook?” she asks her cats, but they are in the sun again, which now crosses the rearranged furniture, and don’t even bother twitching their warm, languid tails at her in negation. She sighs heavily and stands, contemplating her food stores as she makes her way to the kitchen. The cake, after all, didn’t live to see the end of Saturday.

It’s All in My Head

My writing process, should I ever become noteworthy, will be the despair of Literature students everywhere. I know people who live and die by the outline, but outlines are the arch nemesis to my creative process—no good has ever come of my attempting one, either for class or on my own.

And character sketches? My characters and I came to an agreement long ago that I would give them names, and descriptions, and send them out into the worlds I create to make their fortunes. As long as they do roughly what I instruct them to, and stay more-or-less on the side I need them to (the last thing I need is my main protagonist becoming my main antagonist three-quarters of the way through a story with no backup plan in place), I mostly sit on their shoulders and let them run the show. This came about because whenever I try to force my characters too strongly in a particular direction or down a particular plotline, it invariably ends in full-blown disaster and prodigious use of my delete key.

Frankly, the Delete key is too small and out-of-the-way on my laptop to be bothered with.

So, about 85% of my writing process, such as it is, takes place in my head—long before I sit down anywhere near a computer. First, I am struck with a story idea. I’ve had ideas hit me in the form of a single quote, a flash of what the main character looks like, a plotline, an entire scene, even something as nebulous as a theme I’d like to convey. Whatever it is, I grab on to it and mull it over, in my mind, for weeks. I’ll contemplate things while I’m driving to work, eating lunch, falling asleep in bed, brushing my teeth, in line at the grocery store—whatever people normally put down on paper to flesh out a story idea, I lay out in my head. Eventually my seed of an idea stretches out in my brain like a vast landscape, and only when I feel like I have something to work with—enough pages of notes, so to speak—do I finally fire up the computer and get to the business of bringing my creation to life.

My mental organization carries me throughout the entirety of my writing. Plotline stressing me out? I worry it like a dog with a bone, but only in my head. Need to refine a scene? I’ll run dialogue with my characters, but no one will ever find any written evidence of my drafts. The only partial drafts of my work are in the wrinkles of my brain, and the only times I take actual, physical notes are when something comes to me at so inopportune a time that I worry I’ll forget what I’ve come up with.

I wonder, sometimes, if there are other people who have such a heavily mental process to their writing. I suppose I find physical outlining cumbersome; it only slows me down and I was always resentful when a professor insisted upon it in class. At the same time, I’ve never met two people with the same writing process, and I’m always fascinated by what fellow writers need to wrangle their creativity. Maybe one day I’ll regret not having notes to go with my work. Maybe my process will change. Maybe my brain will burst, a shower of characters and plotlines raining down all around me in gleeful freedom. Until such a time, however, I’m perfectly content to let it remain all in my head.

Writing Prompt: Letter to My Past

The Prompt: Write a letter to the you of ten years ago.

Ten years ago at this time, I was 18 and rounding the home stretch of my sophomore year of college. (Good lord, does that thought make me feel old.) Sophomore year was the year I finally settled on my double major, which had been fluctuating for a year and-a-half. I added part-time job number three to the mix (jobs one and two were back home, 2.5 hours away, and I drove back down every few weeks to keep myself in the rotation at both). I had the best roommate ever, and I distinctly recall us being far less sane than anyone would have ever suspected of us on several occasions during late-night study sessions around midterms and finals.

Sophomore year was my favorite year of college. That’s probably an unusual claim to make, but it’s certainly true.
*~*~*

Dear Me,

If I were anyone else, I’d tell you that you spend too much time studying, except that I know you, and you and I both know that the reason you’re double majoring is that you love studying. So, I won’t say any such thing. Study on, sister. It’s going to serve you well, and you’re going to enjoy nearly every minute of it. Except Analytic Philosophy. That’s going to be a beast, but pretty much everyone is going to have their brains scrambled by that class, so don’t even worry about it.

Speaking of double majoring: You went from environmental science and English to philosophy and classical civilizations, so welcome to the world of “What are you going to do with that?” The answer, believe it or not, is “Marketing and graphic design.” Even ten years later I can’t explain this phenomenon, but when you graduate, and decide that you’re going to give these two careers a shot for a while, every job you get will be partially because the interviewer thinks your degree is awesome. They will think your majors give you a fresh perspective on the world. Seriously. You will hear this from more than one employer. So just smile and nod for the next two years. It’s going to be just fine.

Fencing and playing the bagpipes will not last beyond junior year. Staying up until three in the morning watching movies and playing Mario Kart with your friends will. You will not always put studying first. Your priorities are exactly where they’re supposed to be.

The world you knew before 9/11 no longer exists. You will be amazed at the personal invasions you won’t even blink at ten years from now. Invest in slip-on traveling shoes and tiny shampoos. Cupcakes and underwear can be deadly weapons, but for some reason knitting needles are still safe.

By the way, you’re going to take up knitting. And cross-stitching. And own cats. Will it help if I tell you that you’re also going to have spiky hair and a tattoo?

You will take more paths in the next decade than I could possibly describe in a letter. They will lead to careers you never considered, loves you never imagined. Some will turn out to be dead ends. Some will end in heartache, or heartbreak. Some will distract you, others will toss you into what seems like complete madness, still others will turn you back to where you were always meant to be. As Frankie said, “that’s life.” And, as Tolkien said, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Wise men, both.

So, enjoy the time you have now, because people are right when they say every year goes by faster than the last, and you’re an adult before you know it. It sneaks up on you, and you’ll get nostalgic, and ten years from now you’ll be sitting in your living room, typing on a laptop they can’t even make yet, following a writing prompt and speaking to your 18-year-old self.

Now, get back to that philosophy paper I know you have due.

Love, Me

P.S.: When the idea of taking German pops into your head, resist. You’re only going to last three weeks, and you will burst into tears of utter frustration in front of the professor when you have to drop the class. Ancient Greek and German at the same time? It’s not going to be one of your finer moments.

P.P.S.: Stock up on winter coats, because even though you loathe the cold and can’t imagine ever living anywhere you’d need them more than a couple months or so out of the year…boy, oh boy, are you going to need them.

On writing, and the choice I never made

I was a storyteller long before I understood the power inherent in pulling words together to create a world, to manipulate characters, to bring plots and arcs and drama to life on pages. I have been writing since the concept was introduced to me in the first grade by my teacher Mrs. Valerie Frederick, and for better or worse, she encouraged my fumbling six-year-old attempts. I can’t remember now what I wrote about — I shudder to think of the Herculean task that woman took on reading what must have been the barely coherent ramblings of her students— but she awoke my Muse with a vengeance that has yet to be satisfied more than two decades later.

(An aside, and a lesson to all you teachers out there, wondering if you’re making a difference: As a Navy brat, I attended eight different schools from Kindergarten through high school graduation, so for me to remember the full name of my first-grade teacher is no small thing. If I ever manage to come across Mrs. Frederick, who I can picture in my mind with startling clarity (she was a teacher at Birdneck Elementary School, Virginia Beach, VA, in the early ’90s) I plan to thank her for helping to plant the seeds of what became an enduring love of my life.)

But back to my Muse, who gripped me at age six, before I even knew what a Muse was, much less what to do with her. She has always been a presence in my mind, urging me to revel in words and the joys they can bring. Even when I’m not writing myself, I’m enjoying the creations others have woven, and the things I enjoy the most now are the things I’ve enjoyed my entire life: books, music, movies, plays; the worlds others pull from nothingness and bring to life are the worlds I want to be a part of, and the feelings they invoke are the feelings I want to share. But beyond that, I want to grasp at my own universes, invoke my own feelings and throw them out there for other people to experience. That’s what being a writer is for me.

This is who I am, and who I’ve always been. I just didn’t always understand that it wasn’t a choice I was making. Back when I wanted to be a marine biologist, or an environmental lawyer. When I was suffering through biology labs in college (honestly, a vegetarian trying to dissect a sheep’s eye is worth a story all its own; do you have any idea how bouncy — but I digress) or finally coming to my senses and settling on Philosophy and Classical Civilizations as the wholly impractical but completely enthralling double major I would eventually graduate with. Still, it took careers in marketing, graphic design, and editing before I finally smacked myself mentally and gave myself permission to say out loud that I wanted to start being a writer — the thing I’ve always been anyway, whether I meant to be or not.

Because whether I was six and writing about my cat (Tigger; he was a good cat) sixteen and writing angst-filled poetry (you did it, too, don’t pretend you didn’t), or just chasing sheep eyes around a college biology lab (seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve — but I digress again), my Muse has always been on my shoulder, looking around, taking notes, waiting for me to get done with my so-called “choices,” so we can get down to what we’ve both really known all along. I’m sure she’s quite relieved that I’ve finally started listening.

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” —Ernest Hemingway
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