“one had to do some work every day…”

Just the other night, lying awake and worrying, I thought of this quotation. It used to hang on my office wall, over my desk, but that was a couple of offices ago. I couldn’t remember the exact words. And then today, tidying my office (with a goal of creating space to write in, if only for a few minutes each afternoon), I found it. Funny how that works.

“I loved the family and everything to do with them…We lived a life of work and the children were brought up in it, in the middle of the dust and the dirt and the paint and everything….I found one had to do some work every day, even at midnight, because either you’re a professional or you’re not.” –Barbara Hepworth (mother of four children, including triplets)

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Blog Hop

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I’ve agreed to be “tagged” in a blog hop! It’s not the first time I’ve been asked, but this time around, I decided that I’m never going to be asked at a time of leisure. (When would that be, anyway?) So I said “yes.” I hope you’ll visit Jennifer Bullis’s blog, Poetry at the Intersection of Mythology and Hiking, and read her post today (Jan. 29). I’ll be adding my 2 cents on February 15.

Where Do You Write?

Where Do You Write?

Once again The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World blows my mind. This week they’ve linked us to writers’ sheds — featuring a picture of Roald Dahl’s.

When my daughters were 18 months old (to continue the thread from a previous post), my office was behind the couch in our living room. I had stacked some boards on bricks to make shelves behind the couch, and put a table top on two file cabinets against the wall. That’s where my computer sat — an IBM clone with an amber display screen and a daisy wheel printer.

When would I write? A friend from graduate school (Anita Johnson) told me that she stayed up late, after her middle-school age children went to bed. She graded papers and she worked on her dissertation until 1 or 2 in the morning.

My babies exhausted me. I taught early in the morning so that my husband could leave for school at 11:00 and teach his afternoon and evening courses. By 7 or 7:30 when (if I was lucky) the babies were ready for bed, I was ready for bed, too.

If I couldn’t stay up late, maybe I could get up early. I tried getting up at 5:00, and when that didn’t work, someone suggested that I try rising on the half-hour, “when the clock hands are on the upswing.” Four-thirty worked.

And so that’s where and when I wrote my doctoral dissertation, behind the living room couch, beginning at 4:30 in the morning. By 6 a.m. I was in the shower. By 7 I was on the Community Transit bus on my way to the University of Washington. True Story. Do I appreciate the Potting Shed — my writing cabin — now? Yes.

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How do you work?

Hannah-ArendtLast night I went to the Women in Cinema presentation of Hannah Arendt, a film by Margarethe von Trotta. (Click on the link to see the trailer.) The main story — well, that’s the reason to see the film. But there’s another story that unfolds, which is about how one writes. Lots of cigarettes. Lying down and closing one’s eyes. Hannah Arendt was also a professor, and she kept a pretty busy social calendar (friends with both W.H. Auden and Mary McCarthy!).

On our way home, my friend asked me how I write. She wanted to know, specifically, how it is that 15 minutes is all I can manage. “I know you read lots of books. You watch TV with your girls. Couldn’t you write more than 15 minutes a day?”

You’d think so. I didn’t know quite what to say. Don’t I love to write? Why don’t I write all the time, every spare minute? What exactly is my work habit?

I scribble more than I write. Writing the blog is a kind of scribbling, or just one step up from it. I can sit with a journal and fill page after page — when I allow myself to.

Sometimes I write in my journal about my writing. I write about how reading Frankenstein or The Witch of Blackbird Pond gave me an idea for a scene in my novel. Sometimes I’ll ask myself a question about what a character should do, or what outlandish event — that I haven’t yet thought of — I could put in. 

My fifteen minute practice has been purely to do actual writing, notebook open on my lap, pen in hand, scene underway. For some reason, this invention has always been the hardest part of my process and I almost have to trick myself to get it done. Once it’s down on the page, then I have a great time fussing over it and making it better.

Oh, getting it typed up is the intermediate step, and that gives me trouble, too.

greenchairWhat I find with the 15 minutes of “live” writing every morning is that I tend to be more concrete in my daydreaming about the novel throughout the rest of the day. That’s my goal right now. At some point, my time will break wide open and I’ll get four or five hours and make huge progress getting clean pages typed up and printed.

I will not compare myself to Hannah Arendt, one of the great minds of the twentieth century. I can’t claim to be a great thinker (though I’d like to think I’m a good one). And I don’t  smoke. But writing is one of those human activities that seems to require one to spend time doing something else — as if in a deliberate attempt to catch the mind off guard. That’s what I’m doing when I’m not doing my 15 minutes.

Finding a Voice

Benjamin_1d-203x300In Writing Lab today I found the nerve to read aloud from my novel–just the first few pages. Afterwards someone inevitably asked, “How long have you been working on this novel?”

I hate to tell you how long I have been working on this novel.

Later I came across a She Writes feature from Melanie Benjamin, the author of a new novel, The Aviator’s Wife. Okay, so she’s been a bit more successful than I have, but it takes a while to get a book written, and it takes a thick skin to put up with the rejection surrounding the process.

Melanie Benjamin’s story led me to the post’s original appearance on a blog. And then I found this video.

Unlike my students, I was alive in the 1960s, and maybe that’s why I enjoyed this video about finding a voice. It’s from Meg Waite Clayton‘s website for her book, The Wednesday Sisters. You’ll like it too:

http://megwaiteclayton.com/trailer.shtml

 

What Priscilla Said…

bradstreetI have been trying to make progress on a rewrite — a radical rewrite, a reboot! — of my novel. I have been trying to make progress despite having three teenaged daughters, a full-time teaching load, and various other concerns. It occurs to me that I have been in a similar place before.

Eighteen years ago I was trying to write a doctoral dissertation. I had 18-month old twin daughters. I was teaching at the University of Washington, on a teaching fellowship, two classes that fall quarter, if I remember right. I needed to make some progress on the dissertation, to show my committee that I was making progress. I felt, simply, that I was supposed to write a 250-page book, and I didn’t feel I could do it. How could I write a book when I couldn’t produce even a single chapter?

One morning, in a state, I called my friend Priscilla Long. She pointed out,very very gently, that I didn’t have to write the book today. All I had to do was write a page. All I had to do was start.

That couldn’t be good enough. My committee needed a chapter. What I had were notes from my exams, scribbles. I didn’t have a paragraph that I felt I could show them.

Of course you do, Priscilla said. Send me seven pages.

But it’s a mess, I argued.

She said that was no matter. I could show a mess to her.

Seven pages? Seven pages of a mess sounded doable.

So I printed out what I had, and of course I did not send it to Priscilla. I worked on it — now that it was printed out and double-spaced, working on it was possible. I made it a little better by working early in the morning before my classes, with a thermos of coffee beside me, at the Hub on campus. I didn’t have very much time, about 45 minutes. But over a few days I came up with seven pages that were less of a mess, and I mailed them to Priscilla.

 

Oh, Brother…

It’s the second week of classes, and I’m way behind on blog posts. Then my brother has a heart attack. The nerve! It’s funny how you can think your life is as busy as it can possibly be, that you don’t have any wiggle-room for extras, and then something turns up and says, “Hey! Pay attention to me!” And from somewhere, the time appears.

20120725203903_04He’s doing well, and will probably be discharged today. Did I still find 15 minutes to write? Yes.

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