I’d just opened my laptop when my niece Sidney floated in and flopped down on the couch. When we have visitors, part of my office turns into a guest room…which means I get displaced from my writing space. After a week of working on my bedroom floor, hunched over my laptop with an aching back and a bad attitude, I was praying for a chance to write in an upright position. I gave her the side-eye when she came in, but said nothing. Instead, I put my hands on the keyboard and hoped she would hear their silent plea: please, please, please don’t start talking to me.
She starts talking to me.
“Heyguesswhatyouwannaknowwhatjusthappenedtome?” She’s 17 and talks a mile a minute in a voice that is deceptively airy for a girl who rows crew and kills it in IB Calculus. Without waiting to see if I actually do wanna know what just happened to her, she starts telling me. And for maybe the first 15 seconds, I am fury. I am frustration. I am mmmmm hmmming her as hard as I can in the hope that she will understand that here, sweet child, in the temple of writing, speech is not allowed.
But then my mind catches up with my ears and I actually take in what is happening: my husband is at work. My sister-in-law is running errands. And I have my 17-year old, off-to-college-in-a-year-and-probably-won’t-look-back niece all to myself. For like, a whole hour. And she wants to tell me whatjusthappenedtoher.
I close my laptop while she chatters away, zipping from topic to topic like a hummingbird. She tells me how happy and relieved she is that the big event she’s planning with her volunteer group is going well (“Itssooooocomplicated!”). Then, don’t ask me how, we’re talking about epigenetics (she’s explaining it to me), which leads to a consideration of Karma and an interrogation of the concept of fault. Our conversation winds down with a quick primer on Instagram etiquette (no overposting). When she flounces out the door an hour later, she’s got tiny pieces of my heart in one hand, and all my writing time in the other. And frankly, I was happy to give her both.
It took me a while to figure out why that was true, as I take a pretty firm line on the necessity of regular writing. So why, during a period when both the quality and the quantity of my writing time had been diminished, was I willing to sacrifice the one precious hour that I had to get some decent work done?
I realized that I have some pretty clearly defined instances in which It’s OK Not to Write. Times when I give it up willingly and without thought, and feel no guilt, nor regret, nor anxiety. There aren’t a lot of situations like these, and they don’t happen often—maybe 10% of the time. But having them—and being aware of what they are—is crucial to a writer’s ability to maintain her discipline the other 90% of the time.
The first time it’s OK for me not to write is when I Haven’t Slept. I used to feel like a punk about this one, since most of my friends are parenting at least one toddler, and they seem to be just fine without sleep. Well … not fine, exactly. But they don’t seem to deteriorate to the depths of petulance and incompetence that I do after a couple nights of broken sleep. Fortunately for me, there’s a mountain of research on sleep deprivation suggesting that my response is linked more to biology than weak character. Not only does sleep deprivation affect your cognitive functioning and memory, but it’s also associated with mood changes and poor physical health. My mind loves to whiz around nice and early in the morning, so even if I’ve had several nights of insomnia, I don’t sleep in very easily. On the rare mornings when my body offers that option, I snatch it up quick-like and never look back.
The second time It’s OK Not to Write is when Someone Is Crying. This might involve actual tears, or it might involve the kind that are only audible; the ones lodged in the thickened voice and swallow of the person you’re talking to. It doesn’t matter whether they’re stuck or flowing; if tears are involved, the writing can wait. The only exception to this rule is when it’s me crying about writing. In those cases, the tears can last five, maybe 10 minutes. Then I have to call somebody to help me get a grip on the situation. One of the many friends who know how to tell me, with gentle steel, that everything’s fine, so wipe up your tears…and getcha self on back to writing.
Maybe you’ve never thought through when It’s OK Not to Write. Or maybe you have, but you feel like your criteria are a little too loose. You’re a few weeks into the semester, or maybe Fall quarter starts next Monday. You’ve told yourself it’s ok to miss a few days in the rush to finish syllabi, but somehow a few days has turned into, well, more than a few days. Now that classes are upon us, it’s a great time to implement your own It’s OK Not to Write criteria. In order for them to work, it’s best to follow a couple simple rules.
First, they have to be right for you. My crying standard, I imagine, is not likely to work for most parents, since having one or more humans in the house under age—what, nine?—makes crying a fairly regular occurrence. A parent’s Non-Writing Formula might require a second bodily fluid (e.g., “tears + blood = no writing”). That’s just a guess; I’m not sure. The point is that in order for these criteria to work—in order for them to rein you in and release you at the right times—they have to be connected to the realities of your life, not someone else’s.
The second rule about non-writing criteria is—sorry—they’re going to vary over time, so you have to rethink them every so often (the beginning of the term is a good time). They change with the stage your project is in, with your tenure status, and the proximity of your deadline. They’re also affected by the broader circumstances of your life. Take my friend Ellen Berrey, who has a writing habit like you wouldn’t believe. Her Writing Beast is like the Kraken, constantly roaming the seas of her mind and pulling her below the depths at all hours of the day and night. The gleaming discipline of her writing practice is one reason she just landed a new job. But the vagaries of academia being what they are, it’s two time zones away from her husband and young kids. The last time we talked, she told me that she’s trying to figure out how to be a “virtual parent.” One way she’s doing it is by letting her kids know that she’s available for them any time they need her. “Basically, if I’m not in class,” she told me, “or I’m not in a meeting, I pick up the phone.” In other words, if they call when she’s writing, she’ll slip willingly and with pleasure from the arms of her Kraken into those of her children. Something that might have been harder to do before she lived so far from them.
You might have noticed that conversations on epigenetics fit neither the I Haven’t Slept nor the Someone Is Crying scenarios. And it wasn’t until I talked with Ellen that I realized that I have a third, unspoken time when It’s OK Not to Write—one that I hadn’t articulated to myself, but was at play when my niece strolled into my office. That third time is when I’ll Never Get it Back. In other words, when something precious and rare is happening, whose loss is eminent—my writing moves to the side. That’s what was happening with Sidney, whose summer visits were more regular when she was younger, and in whose company my husband and I used to have weeks to revel. As she’s grown older, her summers have rightly been filled with other places and people besides us. We see her regularly amid the hubbub of large family gatherings; but a private conversation with my niece—one unmediated by social media or technology—is much more precious to me than a few hundred words. I just didn’t realize it until last week.
Having a strong writing practice isn’t about being perfectly, rigidly, robotically beholden to our writing routine. This is the mistaken impression most scholars have when I first start coaching them: their vision of what it means to write regularly is pure and polished and perfectly unrealistic. I’m the first one to agree that a strong practice requires you to prioritize writing over other parts of life. But the flip side of that discipline is a shining clarity about its limits—and an ability to maintain your balance on the thin line between discipline and flexibility.
A scholar with a healthy, productive writing practice knows how to give themselves to writing. And they also know how to give it up. Happily and with gratitude.
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