The project is time sensitive. A year ago, the land upon which the fort was built was sold to developers in what I’ll euphemistically describe as a shady deal. While the fort’s future was up in the air, the neighborhoods surrounding it rapidly gentrified. Each tall and skinny in these areas surrounding Fort Negley represents a family whose story left with them as they were priced out of the neighborhoods that had been theirs for generations.
I’m not a person who moves slowly. Growing up, I spent many years taking piano lessons and practicing for hours. I always added a bit more speed to the songs than they really needed. When I started learning how to type, my mother told me she wanted me to type at least 60 words per minute; I figured that was too slow. I walk quickly, I talk fast, and even in graduate school, I often worked at breakneck speed. I have a lot I want to do, and I get a lot done.
How do you make time to write when you’ve got a day job?
I think it’s something every working writer struggles with. Most of my friends write, some of them full-time, and others on the side of a full or part-time job, and it looks really different for everyone. Here’s how I found the best way for my current life:
First of all, I had to face that I have many more ideas and dreams than I can feasibly turn into reality. But rather than being sad about all the ideas that won’t get written, I try to be excited that I’m in such a position of opportunity. I have the desire and ability to write academic articles, non-fiction trade books, encyclopedia articles, think-pieces, creative non-fiction essays, novels, short stories, screenplays, blog posts, and more. I have ideas for all of these things, and most of them are exciting to me and allow me to examine something I am interested in or passionate about.
That said, my other goals in life- personal, financial, career- mean that most of my time is spoken for, and there’s not really much I can move around or give up. Every piece I chose to write takes time away from a career development opportunity, time with family and friends, or time I could have spent earning money. Radical honesty means being honest about my shifting collection of needs and how they conflict: my needs for creative expression, versus my needs to feel like I’m doing a good job at work, versus my need to pay bills, versus my need to connect with the people I love. So realistically, I can only give up about an hour a day to writing projects that are not connected to finances or career.
Knowing that means that I have to pick and choose my projects more carefully. I have to be honest about how many hours something will take to complete and how many weeks that will take at the rate of one hour per day. Or actually, less than an hour per day, because most days I use part of that hour to write morning pages.
And by “writing morning pages,” I mean, I scrawl some stuff longhand into a notebook, just to dump all the miscellaneous thoughts that are taking up valuable brain space. Morning pages (the idea comes from Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way, and is discussed on this blog) are a way for me to stay connected to the page and explore how I feel about my writing and the things that get in the way of my writing. I don’t fully understand why they work, or how exactly, but I do know that when I write them, my writing goes more smoothly and I produce more of it, and when I get away from that habit, I start to be more blocked and writing feels like squeezing blood from a stone, so I avoid it. I’ve lived long enough to know that when something works (and doesn’t hurt anyone), you don’t question it, you just do it.
In order for me to wrest that daily hour away for myself and my writing, it helps me, sometimes, to have a routine. I’m definitely not religious about it, and I don’t always need it, but I find that during the semester especially when my to-do list is a mile long, having a routine helps. I take my writing time as seriously as I take my savings- I pay myself first. First thing in the morning, I don’t get online to check emails, I get straight to the morning pages and then transition into my writing project of choice. After an hour, I feel connected to it, and am much less begrudging of the other tasks I have to do for the day.
Since I only have that daily hour to write, I don’t have time to waste on projects that I don’t love. If I’m being paid for a project, I don’t do it in that hour- I count it toward my career and do it during the workday. That daily hour is for my passion project. These projects may never see the light of day or result in a paycheck. I write them for sake of doing it- for the sake of being involved in a creative pursuit, for investigating something that is important to me, and for keeping me tethered to my interests on days when my job or personal life don’t do that as much. It’s a creative, artistic, and spiritual pursuit that I do completely independently of expectations. No matter how successful a writer I become, no matter how many publications I rack up, no matter how much money I get for my writing, I want to always set aside this hour to just do what I feel like doing. If it later ends up becoming a viable project that sells, that’s great, but it’s also ok if it never amounts to anything more than my own enjoyment. Ironically, since I’ve been squishing expectations, a lot of my writing-hour projects have seen publication.
Now it’s disclaimer time- I have the type of job (a postdoc) where writing is built into it. I have set tasks I do in exchange for my salary, and then I have more abstract expectations of what I should be doing with the rest of my work week. This gives me tremendous flexibility in terms of my writing projects. It means that once a project I’m working on in that morning hour becomes a viable project that either will further my career or get me paid, I have the flexibility to incorporate it into my work hours and then use that personal hour of writing time for something else. The way I structure my day makes sense for my day job right now, but this won’t always be my job. Writing, on the other hand, will. I think setting up a habit for daily writing outside of my job hours sets me up for continuing this habit regardless of my day job.
I wasn’t surprised when Marie Kondo started trending on my Twitter feed. Not only did her show, “Tidying up with Marie Kondo”, recently debut on Netflix, but her approach seems to characterize what the month of January is all about: evaluation and change. I find New Year’s Eve to be annoying enough, but the rest of the month isn’t any less so. It’s filled with making room in an already crowded space, weather that space be literal or metaphorical. It’s filled with making piles: what to discard, what to pass on, what to retain, what to do with the things that fall between.
More difficult than clearing out space for things is clearing out time for self-improvement. I am not a resolutions person. I don’t like setting myself up for failure, which is usually what I associate with the pressure-filled tradition. However, as it has been in years past, I thought that maybe 2019 could be my year. What did I need to accomplish in 2019 and how would I get there? A resolution? A game plan? A promise to myself? So, while hauling some shit out of, and some shit into, my basement, I contemplated the possibility of taking part in a twitter phenomenon that I had seen off and on posted by those I follow: the goal to write (enter seemingly random number, mine would be 400) words a day.
“Yeah!” I thought to myself, while finally dumping out container after container of play-doh that had dried to crusty clumps. This will be perfect. I’ll do it, and all my writing related productivity problems would be over! On January 1st I wrote 100 words, and then promptly forgot about my resolution until January 4th. Seriously. Completely. Forgot.
This got me thinking about the nature of my resolutions and positive daily habits in general. I don’t have have many daily habits that center on my own self-care/self-improvement except for one: I run. I don’t say “I’m a runner” because that often conjures up images and personality traits that I do not assign to myself, but I do put one foot in front of the other, above an ambling pace, daily.
This is probably why I thought writing 400 words a day would be a piece of cake. As a person who runs, I have become very good at keeping myself accountable and keeping track of numbers. I have found ways to motivate myself into doing the work and logging the miles. However, what I had forgotten is that it took years of successes and failures to get to this point. Now I like it, feel good doing it, and feel the positive results of the hard work, but at the beginning it was a slog. First, it was just about getting out the door and walking around the block. When that got easier I quickened the pace or lengthened the distance. Over time, I was able to do both. It’s been an on and off relationship that has finally transformed into something beautiful and has allowed me to maintain my physical and mental health. After 12 years of serious commitment, I’ll be running my 6th marathon this year, and I’m actually looking forward to it. Although, I know when I reach mile 22 of said race I will question all the choices that have led me to attempt such a silly distance on foot because it has happened 5 times before and let’s face it, 26.2 miles is crazy and this is why humans invented cars…but I digress.
Of course during a morning run I began thinking about this journey and I questioned why I don’t approach my writing in the same way? Certainly this physical and mental endeavor is akin to running. In the same way that I don’t call myself a runner, I would never call myself a writer. I am not special. Anyone who can walk, can run, and this is not far from the assumption that anyone who can write, can, well, write. While true, it’s so much more complex than that, isn’t it? It needs to be done daily, and strengthened with proper training, equipment, and realistic goals.
Over the years I’ve read a lot of books and articles about running. Runners apparently like to write, or perhaps writers like to run? Chicken or the egg? Sure I’ve had a lot of practice, off and on, writing in my professional and personal life, but I hadn’t read a book or taken a class on writing in about 20 years. I would never attempt to run a considerable distance without training properly, why would I ever expect to spin gold when I sat down to my laptop? This is why I’m making strides to train properly as a writer and the first step I’ve taken is by reading. I am in the middle of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and I find it’s a good omen that one of his early chapters focuses on clutter.
Rest assured, I’m going to persist. I’m not ready for 400 words per day, not yet, but I’m ready to take daily actions that will help improve my writing skills like continuing to read about writing, learning more about the craft, about creativity, pursuing writing prompts, and making healthy writing practices a priority. 2018 was the year that I began to take my writing more seriously, 2019 is the year to take it a step further. However, like my approach to running it’s not going to be a New Year’s resolution, but a lifelong endeavor that will have successes, failures, setbacks, and hopefully, personal victories.
Wishing you all your own writing victories this year!
I caught my first episode of Netflix’s Nailed It! tonight, and this might either be the perfect metaphor for what I want to say this week, or the worst, so bear with me. In case you’re don’t know the show, the premise is pretty basic: think baking competition show with the worst amateur bakers possible. This isn’t The Great British Baking Show, where everyone’s doing these complex recipes that somehow come out at least decently, because everyone there knows what fondant is. No, this is the show with every single food-related Pinterest fail ever.
I read about Lynn’s year of writing and my first thought was “that’s excellent! I love when people decide on a path, then walk it despite their fear.” She’s such a strong writer and the world needs more of her voice. She’s got nothing to be scared of.
My second thought was “Oh boy, how do I follow this? My 2018 writing year is a hot mess.”
It’s all over the place! I wrote… all the things. For all the people. And the range is intense:
“’I don’t know what you’ve got in mind,’ said Pippi, ‘but I’m not the sort to lie around. I’m a thing-searcher, you see. And that means I never have a moment to spare…The whole world is full of things, which means there’s a real need for someone to go searching for them. And that’s exactly what a thing-searcher does.’”
As the holidays begin, and the year winds down, it’s a time for Smart Women to reflect. For this writer, 2018 has been full of highs and lows, lasts and firsts.
A few weeks ago I attended my first parent-teacher conference in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom. It was much as I’d expected: seated in a doll-house sized chair I learned of my daughter’s exploits (both good and, let’s say, not-so-good), which, to me, reflect her can-do attitude and Pippi-like personality.
While brave, imaginative, and sharp as a tack, my daughter has “difficulty with transition” and her teacher and I discussed strategies for improvement. She is not the type of child who can easily shift gears. Announce to her that she has 5 minutes left to finish whatever she’s immersed in and panic immediately sets in, as does the frustration, the anger, and the despondency. This is particularly the case when she is creating stories. Already she is well aware of the feeling that there’s so much to do, but not enough time to do it. She is a thing searcher, you see, and she feels as if she hasn’t a moment to spare.
The trait is hereditary because that summarizes my own year of writing. In many ways it’s been exciting. I have so many wonderful writing projects in the works, so many ideas to pursue, so many things to be researched and discovered and learned. In many ways it’s been frustrating because I have so much to say but not enough time to put it down. I’m a thing searcher, you see, but I haven’t a moment to spare!
However, “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset” (a phrase my kid has somehow picked up, though not from me because I’m constantly pissed). This is her way of dealing with the disappointment: the amount of ice cream in a bowl, the color of the free balloon at the supermarket, the amount of time we get and how we spend it. Her expression (ugh. She’s already SO much smarter than me), reminds me of something very important, something I have to remember about this journey that is writing; it’s about creating threads that transcend the time I am so obsessed with.
One of my goals for 2018 was to write more and to be braver about letting people read it. This is one of the reasons that I applied to be a contributor to Smart Women Write. I feel so lucky that I have had this opportunity because being welcomed into this writing community has been one of my biggest writing successes. Not only has my writing improved, but my approach to writing has improved. I’ve fallen back in love with it, I’ve used it to get through some really tough times, and I’ve found important threads that link me to others, past, present, and hopefully future.
While 2018 was about dipping a toe into writing again, 2019 will be about jumping right in, Pippi-style.
For the first time, I will be submitting an article for publication in an academic journal. It is terrifying. What if it’s terrible? What if I fail? What if they say no? What if reviewer #2 is so harsh they make me cry? Well, I’ll get what I get and I won’t get upset because even if it’s unsuccessful this time, the thread has been woven and it will find its way to those who need to read it. I have been researching the Paris Commune for almost a decade now, and this is my connection to the past, my thread to the revolutionary women that predate me, but to whom I feel deeply connected. They too were thing searchers and they were searching for equality. I will tell their story.
In addition, for the first time I will be pursuing a more personal writing project that I also hope to get published. I recently discovered journals written by my grandmother. I never knew she was a writer, but apparently writing a daily journal was a lifelong exercise because there were copious wire notebooks in myriad colors. Even after she became too sick to write, my grandfather took up the mantle and did it for her. The entry on the day that she died is heartbreaking. It is one sentence, 4 words, but it conveys all his feelings (he must have been a writer too). Long before this day though, my grandmother detailed a birthday camping trip taken in 1974 with my grandfather and her youngest daughter. She wrote about everything: what she packed, how she packed it, when and where they got gas, their exact route, the people they met along the way, the weather, the landscape, all that she saw. Her descriptions of the landscape, in particular, made me realize that she too was a thing searcher. It is my plan to recreate the trip this summer on my own birthday (only days after hers) to a town in Canada that no longer goes by the same name. I, too, will document everything.
I will also be pursuing all the writing projects, here and there, that get me through my day: writing improved and inclusive lectures, learning to write code, and writing blog posts that help me to keep it all in perspective. Perhaps nothing will ever get published, but I hope my daughter will find my writings someday. They will be online and in randomly named documents on my laptop rather than in notebooks, but hopefully they’ll remind her that she is from a long line of thing-searchers and story-tellers.