Sometimes, I get emails asking for writing advice. I’m not a famous writer. I don’t have any books out. I know, I’m trying. But these things aren’t easy, right? So, I’m not exactly sure why people write me for advice. I do always answer. Always. Even when all I can say is, “Just keep at it. I’m getting rejected too.”
I understand the impulse to write and ask people how they do it. I used to do it all the time. I have some emails from some of my favorite writers, who I wrote to to ask, “How do you do this?” When they wrote back, their advice was very fundamental or generic. It chafed me at the time, but now I understand it. Each writer forges their own way. It’s hard to be prescriptive. I know people who have just been approached and asked to write for places. That’s only happened to me once and it’s because it was an editor I had worked with years before. When I got an essay on the New York Times Motherlode, that was a result of almost two years worth of pitching, writing, rejection and even meeting the editor in person. It’s not always so hard for everyone. It’s not always so easy.
So, how can you say, “This is the path”? When you don’t even know what the path is yourself. I once took a writer I admire out to lunch. She has books and a job teaching. I was plying her with food so she could give me some advice. I was surprised, when during our lunch, she started asking me for advice. When I told her I was shocked, she kindly rolled her eyes. “We’re all trying to get somewhere else,” she said.
Right before Ellis was born, I printed out an article (which I have since lost), that was advice on finding time to write. I was so afraid that having children would swallow me whole and I would never pursue the things I wanted to do. Because writing is so nebulous. Success is so scanty. Writing requires an investment of time that is often unpaid. And when it is unpaid, the pay is crap. I don’t remember much about this article, except that it advised me to steal time whenever I could. To refuse to do the dishes during naptime or vacuum during a quiet moment. Write, she said, always write. I’ve taken this advice to heart.
My mentor from grad school, AJ Verdelle, once told me when I complained that I didn’t have enough time, that Jane Smiley, the Pulitzer-prize winner, had four kids and wrote in 15 minute snatches. She also told me that if I took the time I used on my blog posts and put that toward a book, I would have had five books by now (I have three now, two crap novels and a pretty awesome memoir). AJ said she wrote her novel as a single mother working full-time as a statistician. So, I try to whine less. I do my best not to clean when my kids are down. I don’t do dishes. I don’t cook. I pay for my kids to go to school for 8 hours each week. That’s my writing time. And when my kids nap, that’s my writing time too. I’m not supposed to be on Facebook or Twitter (I use a browser extension called “Stay Focused” to limit my time). Just writing. I can cook and clean when the kids are up (sure it’s harder, but it’s better than not writing).
I think there is this myth out there that we are mothers first and everything else second. That we must put all of that after the job of mothering is done. We will write when the house is clean, when dinner is made, when the kids are perfectly calm. But that never happens. Instead, we find ourselves pushing what makes us ourselves to the outer limits of our time and our priorities. Look, the house will never be all clean, the dinner will never be all made, but you have these 15 minutes, hold them, make them work for you.. The truth is we are not mother’s first, we are humans first. We are complicated. We are so much more than a monolithic thing. We are not defined by what comes out of our uterus or our relationships. All of what we are works together to make us who we are. If we want to be something, we should just be it and not wait for permission from time, from the housework, or our kids. Because if we don’t just stand up and take it, no one is going to hand it to us.
I’ve had times when I’ve been on a deadlines and I put a bunch of markers and paper in front of Ellis and said, “Color, mommy is working.” I hate that. But I do what I have to do. And I hope that she see’s an example of a woman working. A woman trying to be the thing she wants to be. Because that’s what I want for her. I don’t wrack myself in guilt over it.
I use Microsoft Word to make lists of ideas I have for stories or articles, or places to pitch. Whenever I read something I like, I stalk the author. I see where she has published. I add those places to the list. I get up at five in the morning to run, while I’m running, I think of things to write, I think about what I am writing, I think about the things that I have read that I love. When I come home from my runs, I go and write those ideas down. First thing, before the coffee, before the babies, before I shower.
I heard my mom tell a friend who was considering her PhD to go for it. “Look,” she said, “time will go by whether you are working toward that goal or not. You might as well work.” I think about that all the time. My mom’s friend was 40 when my mom gave her that lecture, by the time she was 50 she had her PhD and her dream job. Time always passes, grab it. Make time work for you.
I’m writing this in a week that I’ve received two rejections for the book I finished editing and revising this summer. I also am writing this advice this week after receiving an acceptance for a pitch I sent to a site I’ve always wanted to write for and having an essay published on a site I’ve always wanted to write for. Big failures. Small successes. Writing is 10% talent and 99% being stubborn son of a bitch. (It’s also 5% being bad at math.) I want to cry. I want to raise the roof in an awkward white girl fashion. I want to nap. But I only have 15 minutes left of rest time, so back to work.
And if you want my advice, you should do the same.