When Life Gets in the Way

My college students often complain about having too much work to do for all their different classes. Because they’re young, they don’t get that I have to grade all the work I expect them to do (times all the sections I teach). Since I’m grading essays, it’s not as if I can skim down a list of answers and quickly mark them right or wrong. Writing is time consuming, especially if we follow the writing process and brainstorm, mull over what we’ll say, and make a few decisions before typing words to screen.

My adult writing workshop students also struggle with time; however, they don’t whine about it but seek advice on how to fit writing time into their lives. Their main gripe is that life gets in the way.

It gets in the way for me, too. I’ve just had more experience finding ways to continue writing despite the speed bumps placed along the road. The key I’ve learned to use it to be kind to myself.

Nearly two decades ago, I was dealing with extreme grief. Since I was only in my late twenties, I took the death of a relative very hard. I forced myself to continue writing, though, and quickly regretted that decision. My belief was that if I wanted to make it as a writer, I needed to keep up a steady pace of writing and submitting–no matter what. Besides, writing was a way to retreat within and avoid some of that grief.

When a rejection arrived in my mailbox, I reread the manuscript that had been returned and was stunned to discover that everywhere I’d meant to type “desert” the word “dessert” appeared. God bless spell check but damn my ignorance in relying on it!

After my face and neck stopped sizzln’, I stepped back to decide what I could learn from this unfortunate event. The guidelines I created then still serve me during today’s “Life gets in the way” moments.

Write, but focus on draft.. Work on developing characters, creating a world, completing research, or adding to an existing draft. Over my 20+ years as a freelancer, I’ve developed a process for juggling several projects in various stages of completion. During LGINTW moments, I often gather ideas and create a new project. It’s too early to submit so errors can be caught later when I am focusing 100 percent on my the revision and polish.

Do not push yourself to submit. Focus on drafting. If you do decide to submit, make sure it is twice-polished and proofread by a trusted friend.

Spin off of a previous project. This may be easier for me since I also write nonfiction. I can pull old articles from the file, update and reslant them, and then find new markets. I can also pull articles to send out as reprints. But, it can also work for fiction and may be a good way to get the creative juices flowing. Reslant a fiction project by telling a related story from the perspective of another character. I’ve done this several times for a science fiction piece. Using the same world, I toyed with the perspective and goal of a minor character, placing my former main character in the supporting role. What I wrote clarified the history of the world and provided insight into the native people, food, and entertainment. Whether or not this short story ever finds a home, it definitely helped in the novel-length project.

Read. Complete some research. Find stories or novels of the type you’re writing to get a feel for pacing, voice, characterization, or genre. Or, read about craft or about your favorite author. Sometimes we simply need to refill our creative well and reading is a great way to do so. Reading as a writer is also a sort of research that writers must do for their own development.

Offer yourself compassion as you take time to heal, grieve, or simply regroup. When you reach a LGINTW moment, you can still feel you’re moving forward without risking errors that will set back your career.

Own the World

I am not a morning person. Not anymore. As a kid I woke before dusk, often before 5 a.m. I recall how dark and still it was during that time of the early morning. I often felt I owned the world. This was especially true in the winter when the days were shorter and few birds were around to chirp and sing as dawn set in. Sometimes it seemed my ears would buzz with the effort of listening for something beyond the silence. Once, after seeing a Twilight Zone episode about a guy who hides in a bank vault during lunch and ends up as the only survivor of a nuclear holocaust, I raced around our house to make sure my family was all still there—just asleep in their beds (as I was supposed to be). Even as a teen, I don’t recall ever sleeping past noon as many of my friends did.

During my 20s and 30s, when I was holding down a full-time job that required overtime, things shifted. Because I was determined to make it as a writer, I found time to make a little progress every week despite long hours at work. This often meant writing while everyone slept. Over time, I found a part-time evening job which allowed me to create until the late hours, as I’d been doing with a day job. Eventually, my writing schedule was my own and I could create whenever I chose.

The past few years, however, I’ve been teaching part-time at a local college. I love the work and my students, but somehow I ended up teaching early morning classes. Of course, I still do my school visits and writing workshops which has meant some very long days, starting at the college first thing in the morning and some days also teaching a workshop until 9:00 p.m.

This semester I’m scheduled to teach late morning, afternoon, and evening classes. I’ve spent the holiday break allowing myself to shift from being a morning person to a night owl again. Perhaps I was simply too busy before to notice, but the night holds its own activities and silences. While there are times in the deep night when silence seems to echo in my ears, the night noises around here include the music of frogs and crickets, the splash of fish or turtles in the ponds, and the squeal of bats. And it is not always blackness, either. At times the moon makes the dew-kissed lawn look silvery, as if covered in front or a thin blanket of snow.

Once the sounds from neighboring condos ceases, and car motors or road noises diminish in the early a.m. hours, it feels much the same as those childhood mornings when it felt I owned the world. I own my time. I own the characters and plots in the projects I work on. But I also own the night.

Write Through the Year

I’ve had a nice long break from teaching. Writing workshops concluded just after Thanksgiving. Teaching for both elementary arts enrichment students and college students concluded the second week in December. That makes it from 4-6 weeks since some of my students have seen me.
My workshops students, however, have been in contact. Not every one of them, but several. Most have asked for advice on how to keep up their writing, so I’ve decided to add postings to Word Coach to help them out. I’m calling them “Write Through the Year” and I’ll answer questions about finding ideas, keeping a writer’s journal, various craft elements, creating or finding critique groups, and so on. Stay tuned!