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Writing at Five Miles per Hour

A few lucky devils get to Be Writers, and have daily schedules neatly arranged into writing, a light lunch, and more writing, followed, I guess, by lovely evenings spent catching up on other writers’ output, whilst the house help brings you champers and oysters to keep the edge off.

But the rest of us squeeze writing into those precious few hours in life that are not assigned to rendering unto Caesar, child-rearing, cooking and cleaning, bill-paying, attending one’s preferred house of worship, untangling Christmas tree lights, or sleeping.

Those of us writing at five miles per hour have our survival methods. I have a writing friend who marches off to a lunch place nearly every day to write for forty or so minutes. I admire her; she cranks out the prose, and dang, it’s good stuff.

But it takes me at least twice that long to corral my yawing, meandering mind into its Writing Place — an exercise that requires rearranging my pencil-pots, flipping through an old, suddenly interesting book, or embarking on adventures in personal grooming (usually involving sewing-scissors and toenails). For that matter, when my brain is in its Work Place, it wants to stay there until the day is over, so the yammering begins:

Writing Brain: It was a dark and stormy night…

Work Brain: Whoa! Did I remember to list that Very New Standard in that report? Also, wasn’t I going to get a call-back from that university that deployed that Cool Tool last week?

Writing Brain: It was a dark and stormy night…

Work Brain: I wonder if I could get by with an estimate for that line item on the spreadsheet due Any Day Now to the Very Large Nonprofit?

The best the best I could hope to do on a lunch hour is open a file, squint at it, tweak a few words, and close it — and then go home and fix what I had broken because I made that change while in the Work Place, which doesn’t give two figs about narrative arcs or the rhythm of a sentence (as is all too obvious from most professional literature). So I need to find methods that carve out several hours, long enough to pull my wayward soul into the writing position and stay there for a good spell.

Some of us eke out writing time through shaving away at expected adult behavior. I’m very lucky that way. Sandy and I are at best lackadaisical housekeepers, and she’s remarkably appreciative of my whipped-together, “look-I-grilled-lamb-chops-again” meals. Frozen spinach perked up with Bay Seasoning? She’s all over that, as if I leafed the spinach and ground the spices. (I don’t grill anything when she’s away, due to a bad incident involving an expensive Porterhouse steak burned to a small, brick-like chip while I flailed away at my laptop in a moment of inspiration. It was worth the writing, but I don’t really want to burn down the house — it would be too hard to explain to Sandy.)

So my first real tip: marry well. Some writers marry really well, and don’t need huge, absorbing day-jobs, and do not let me discourage you from that solution. But if you can at least find a spouse who supports your crazy hobby — a hobby, no less, where you disappear into a room or shed or coffeehouse only to emerge hours later with very little visible output: no model railroad or neatly-lathed end-table or even coin collection to show for it — then be very, very good to that spouse, even when he or she plies you with “suggestions” for your writing or asks how soon your new story will be published.

You could stay single, but spouses are the single best source of good material, and don’t pretend that isn’t so.

Other strategies for writing in a very full life include what I am doing now, which is to get up at an insanely early time in the morning (or stay up insanely late at night, something I am not good at),  bathe your brain cells in caffeine or whatever else jolts you awake, and write. In this way, stolen hours are your “place.”

The writing getaway — whether built through space or time — is crucial.  I asked a friend who lives with his wife in a one-room apartment and has his own huge day job how he finished his lengthy, superbly-written thesis on time. He replied, “I rented an office.” He had reached a point where even Starbucks couldn’t meet his needs.

But for an amazing number of writers I know, a lot of great writing happens at Starbucks, Panera, and other coffeeshops with generous policies about how long you can nurse the stone-cold dregs of that latte you ordered two hours ago. Book-loving organizations should honor these coffeeshops for their contributions to the Letters. You also need an iPod or something like it, unless you are not easily distracted by the loud cell-phone yakker at the next table sharing his financial woes with thirty strangers or the young woman behind you who is smacking her gum.

The laptop is also the writer’s friend. How amazing it is to transport entire books-in-work to a small window table in the back of a coffeeshop across town! While I admire those writers who can fill legal pads with elegant writing, I’ve been keyboarding since I was 16 (banging away at my Sears knockoff of a Smith-Corona — lordy, I was hot stuff with that electric return!). My handwriting, once a perfect left-handed Palmer method, is barely readable in my small writing notebook, and useless for sustained text. Besides, I think best on the keyboard; I’ve never written anything by hand that didn’t get a thorough scrubbing behind the ears once it hit the shimmering white screen.

Laptops are useful for another writing strategy, shared by Terry Lewis when he spoke to the Tallahassee Writers Association last year: spousal deafness. He didn’t put it that way; he said he often wrote while he and his wife “watched television,” and he’s turned out two good mysteries that way, one of which, Conflict of Interest, is a crazy careening drive through Tallahassee through the eyes of a drunken lawyer — far better than any guide book.

For Terry’s strategy, the television acts like the getaway/coffeeshop: white noise as a fence between you and reality. It works for Terry, but I warn you: when I try this, I later learn that while in my Writing Brain, where words come out of my mouth on autopilot, I have blithely committed myself to vacations to places I don’t want to visit or household chores or projects I’ve been adroitly avoiding. Within that dangerous phrase, “Yes, dear,” I have found myself migrating church-office email accounts or, heart in my throat, driving narrow, wind-swept roads along rocky seacliffs (and I’m not sure which of the two is worse).

Writing friends are important to me, for about the same reasons people join twelve-step groups. I know writers who cannot share their work with others, but the opposite is true for me. I need someone to say what I was thinking (“That section needs to go!”) or what I was not thinking (“It’s unclear why she got in that car”), but even more than that, I need deadlines and accountability. Otherwise the bad voices take over, yammering their nasty half-truths and poisonous propaganda: no one wants to read what I’m writing; writing is pointless; I suck; or even I’m tired, I just want to go back to sleep.

But if I yield to those voices, if I do not totter to the kitchen in the dark and lean yawning on the counter while the water boils for my wake-up cuppa, and then slide into my chair, boot up, and commit myself to the written word: then I’ll be “back to sleep” for the rest of my life, because it is in writing that I am fully awake. That’s why we crazy writers write.

It’s now just after seven a.m., which means that my golden writing carriage is once again turning into a pumpkin. I had other ideas to share, and perhaps I’ll share them later; if this were not a blog post, I’d set it aside for a thorough rewrite. But I think I’ll let it go, because I have this other piece I’m working on that is so close to being done, and when you are writing at five miles per hour, every downhill stretch matters.

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