Midsummer 2019 was the day I moved into my first house. The sky blackened as I drove a carload of belongings there. I made it to my new neighborhood in North Nashville just as the thunderstorm hit. Pulling into the driveway, a loud snap shook my car. I watched the thick, sturdy tree in the front yard of the neighbors across the street collapse onto the road. It pulled down power lines right across the driveway making it unsafe to drive out. Fortunately, the damage was to property, and not people.
Stranded, I decided to make the most of it and unload my
things. The rain started up again, and cardboard boxes nearly disintegrated in
the deluge, but I got everything in more or less undamaged.
When the electricity went out, I checked my phone and saw that the storm been upgraded to a tornado warning just as the sirens came on. There was nothing to do except wait it out as night fell.
I didn’t want to sleep with no bed, electricity, or water service, so once the warning was over, I considered driving through the front yard to get out. Then I saw that the power lines weren’t just across my driveway, but across the whole yard. There was no way out.
And then two men in soaked hooded sweatshirts and flashlights knocked on my car window. They introduced themselves as Ernesto and Big Will, neighbors from down the street.* They were going house to house checking to make sure no one needed anything. With their help, I was able to reverse out out through the backyard and in the alley. They rushed to clear away tree branches and garbage cans that the storm had knocked over so I could get home and waved me off. Before I left, they talked about bringing out their chainsaws in the morning and helping my other neighbors break down that tree, so I could get my moving van in, as it might be a while before the city sent someone up here. North Nashville, a historically black neighborhood that is now in the grip of gentrification, hasn’t traditionally been high on the city’s priority list. Or even on it, for the vast majority of its existence.
If I don’t go for a career in academia, I still want a position in which I can read, research, think, and write. To brainstorm possibilities for a future career––potentially outside of the university––I often look to individuals who have jobs and lifestyles that appeal to me. Lauren Collins is one of those people. To glean some insight from her path to writing, I requested an interview. She graciously agreed. And now I’m bringing her answers to the SWW community.
Lauren Collins began working with the New Yorker in 2003 and has been a staff writer since 2008 (she just published a fascinating piece on the pioneer-princess of Georgian cuisine, Barbare Jorjadze). She has also written a book, When in French: Love in a Second Language, that explores the nuances of affection in another language.
Oh, not everyone takes paper up with them to make their
Well, old habits die hard.
One of the perks of being a writer is that you’ve always got
words- usually far too many- whenever they are needed. This month, I was maid
of honor in the wedding of one of my closest friends. Without saying too much
here, watching her move through life and appreciating just how much she has
grown in so many different directions in the time we’ve known each other has
been remarkable. Friendships like that make for difficult speeches, because how
can you convey all of complexity in just a page or so?
Only if you are willing to let go of someone for their own good, do you become worthy of them.
While there’s no way I can condense the essence of my friend
and our friendship, as well as her relationship with her husband as I
understand it into a mere page, I can definitely narrow down the topic. Conventional
writing rules still sort of apply:
Theme: One of the reasons why my friend and I are so close is that we see the world in similar ways. We also see relationships in similar ways. Both she and I only want to be with people who are safe to grow with, and who prioritize our growth and their own over other goals or distractions in life. The commitment aspect of a relationship isn’t to love the other person no matter what, but to always ferret out the things that will help them become who they were meant to be, and tirelessly champion them, being their safe place to explore, to fail, and to try again. And of course in turn, they do the same for us. The feeling of being in love can come and go, but the feeling of being with someone who has your best interests at heart and supports those over what is comfortable for them isn’t something that comes along every day. When you find someone like that- someone who cares enough about you to let go of their ego and the need to control an outcome and instead just facilitate your soul’s growth regardless of where it takes you both- you hold on. That’s the theme of the speech.
Plot: Like with everything good to read, stuff has to happen. There has to be an arc of narration. To ensure the speech hit all the sweet spots, the same rules apply- ensure there’s an opening, the rising action, the climax, and denouement. This gives it emotional roundness, and makes it resonate. Rather than just listing out things, I told a story that illustrated how her growth and mine have intertwined, to show that I understand the trajectory of her life That puts me in the position of understanding how her husband is facilitating her growth and dreams.
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!
Thank goodness for this obligation opportunity to reflect. And it really is an opportunity. Because meditating on your experiences and coming up with a narrative about your progress (or lack thereof) can lead to an unexpected diagnosis or even generate a much-needed sense of accomplishment.
Reading through my co-bloggers’posts on their year-in-writing has stirred up feelings of relief, empathy, joy, and excitement. Our relationship to writing is constantly in flux, and we are paying attention to that. We are thing-searchers, as Lynn says, and we respond to that impulse. At least we try to.
Of course we don’t always meet our writing or professional goals, and sometimes we read this as a failure (especially when we set *really* high goals for ourselves—and when we have full time jobs, loved ones, and other passions to attend to!). I met some of my goals in 2018, but not all of them. Who ever does?