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A Saturday morning from my childhood is on the other side of the bedroom door. It wafts in on the braided scent of coffee and bacon, makes muted clanking sounds as skillets hit the burners. I can hear my parents’ footsteps on the other side of the door and the faint, short “shhhh” sound that means they’re saying my name. I’m pretty sure that if I check my phone there’ll be a text from one of them. But precisely because I know this, I’ve put the phone on mute. I’ve laid it face down on the nightstand so I can’t see the screen light up. Then for extra measure, I get up, move it to the bathroom counter, and close the door.
That’s me during one trip to my parents’ house, hiding in my bedroom until I was done writing. “I don’t know about you” said a friend before I’d left for the visit, “but I find it almost impossible to maintain any kind of work rhythm when I’m with family.” I knew she was right. So before I left, I’d severely scaled back my idea of what I could get done while I was home. But still--I proclaimed to the world, loudly and repeatedly, that I had to write in the morning no matter what.
After missing my writing time the first two mornings of my trip, I realized I needed to take more drastic measures. “Can you lock yourself in your room in the mornings?” asked a friend, when I told her my dilemma. It was so obvious when she said it, I felt like smacking myself in the head. So the next morning, there I was. Hungry. Tempted. But writing anyway.
This only sounds impressive when extracted from the rest of that week, since I only managed this for three of the six days I was there. I mention it, not because it’s a triumph of writing will. I mention it because it was a visceral reminder of something many scholars who attend my retreats struggle to manage: Write when you have the most energy and focus I tell them. But the fact is, for many of them, their best writing time belongs to someone else.
Mostly that someone else is their young kids. Newborns and infants whose demands are biological and nonnegotiable. Toddlers whose demands may in fact be negotiable, but whose negotiating skills are spectacular (stomping, crocodile tears, wailing like the undead), so that the parent in question feels like she loses even when she wins.
Sometimes the person who owns our writing time is an older parent or a child with special needs—family members whose care requires a particular kind of vigilance. Occasionally our writing time belongs to the students in our 4 pm lecture class, or a nonacademic spouse who still can’t quite believe how much time this job takes. Regardless of who it is, these beloved people help create an almost impossible dilemma for us, because they sometimes need our attention smack in the middle of the time when we find writing to be easiest and most generative.
What makes our unowned writing time so hard is that it’s not a simple case of others taking something we’re dearly trying to hang on to. Instead, we often want to give that time away as much as they want to take it. It might sound, at first, like my bedroom barricade was designed to keep out my parents. But the truth is, it was designed to keep me in. It turns out that the west coast (where I lived at the time) and the east coast (where they lived) are a lot farther away from one another than I thought when I first moved out there. They’re getting older I think, as I flip open my laptop. Is 30 minutes of writing really going to matter when they're not here any more? The true dilemma isn’t just that a demand is being made from the outside. The true dilemma is that the outside demand stokes our own contradictory desires.
I have yet to find a more wrenching description of this dilemma than the one penned by Sophy Burnham, in For Writers Only:
I remember one day sitting at my desk in our bedroom (no room of my own: too poor). I stared at the paper in the typewriter, still blank, while outside the closed door, my baby, my adorable Molly, screamed, pounding on the door. "MOMMY! MOMMY!" She wept hysterically, while the helpless sitter tried to pry her off the door. I sat at my desk, the tears running down my cheeks, convinced that if I let her in I would *never* write, would never be able to write, would never gain the space and time to myself that was needed to write; knowing too that I could not write then with my baby sobbing at the door, my hands shaking, my head spinning with the certainty that to give in was to give up, but that neither could I bear to hear her cry.
The situations we face each day might not be as emotional as the one Burnham describes. But the core dilemma she points to—that terrible feeling that you must stick to your writing time even though you can’t stick to your writing time—is painful nonetheless.
Her words remind us that regardless of what choice you make, it’s going to hurt, which is why so many of us run from the dilemma. But I want to suggest to you that facing that dilemma head on actually makes it a little less daunting. Facing it allows you to come up with new ideas that, while not ideal, nevertheless provide a real, workable solution to your problem.
The first step to managing unowned writing time? Work through your ambivalence. Livvy is a former client of mine who really wanted to spend her morning writing. But she also wanted to meditate. And she also wanted to spend time with her kids. She was torn because each of these things mattered equally, but to different parts of her identity: the writing fed the scholar in her. The meditation spoke to her Summer Self. And time with her children let her be the mother she wanted to be.
But once we started talking, it became clear that the amount of time Livvy spent on these activities didn’t matter; it was the outcome she cared about. Livvy noticed that when she didn’t write first thing in the morning, she was so distracted by her untended ideas that it took her hours to be able to focus on anything else. Of course, she would have loved having the whole morning to write; but what she really wanted most was to get the ideas she wakes up with out of her head and onto a piece of paper. Of course, figuring out what you really want doesn’t send all your troubles away. It just clarifies what’s most important to you and what you want to prioritize.
The next task? Figure out what you’re willing to suffer—that is, what imperfection you’re willing to endure in order to have the experience that matters most to you.
If writing at a certain time is your priority, a few possible “imperfections” spring to mind: Can you write during your ideal time, but do so less frequently? That is, can you write on the off times for three days out of the week, but get your best writing time on the other two days? Can you write more briefly? That is, can you write during your ideal writing time, but for less time than you’d prefer?
Livvy chose this imperfection once she realized that what she essentially needed at the beginning of each day was a serious brain dump. Rather than trying to make sense of her ideas and put them in order, she wrote for 15 minutes each morning, freewriting like mad until everything was out of her head and on the page. Then she meditated for 15 minutes (which turned out to be much easier when she wasn’t trying to remember all her ideas and the connections between them). The rest of the morning she devoted to getting her kids up and out the door in a relaxed fashion rather than a mad dash. Not perfect. Not our frozen, unyielding image of what a writer is "supposed" to do. But something that worked for Livvy. Something that made it so Livvy could move her manuscript forward--and let it peacefully coexist with the rest of her life.
The point isn’t that you should write the way Livvy did. The point is that when we do things in a way that’s less than ideal, it often turns out to be the perfect solution—for us.
Can you write at the “wrong” period of time, as long as the writing gets done? (“A child is not a dog, to be trained to heel or sit,” says Burnham. “You learn to snatch ten minutes. You learn to write at night. Or at midday when the baby naps.”) Or perhaps write amid distraction? This is what Burnham decided to do and she gives us some idea of what that might look like:
“MOMMY!" she howled. "LET ME IN LET ME IN LET ME IN!" Eventually I did. It was exhausting for us both. Later I learned to concentrate with the baby paddling at my feet, just as she learned to play in innocent whispers, fearful of disturbing me.
Burnham chooses to keep writing, even when her daughter is at home with her. To make this work, she had to develop a skill she’d previously considered impossible to achieve. She’d originally drawn the scene as a conflict between her and her daughter, a zero-sum game in which one of them has to come out on top. But what we find out is that after exhausting each other in the struggle, they both learn to experience her writing time in a way that's significantly different than how they would have chosen on their own. Burnham finds a way to concentrate on writing with a fidgety child in her writing space. Her daughter comes to accept her mother's presence without her attention.
What I love most about Burnham is her refusal to sugarcoat the situation. We can clearly see that the outcome isn’t what either she or her daughter would have preferred. (Am I the only person who feels a little twist at the image of a child so fearful of disturbing her parent?) Yet we also see that circumstances don’t have to be ideal in order to work—a fact that’s difficult for us to see and even harder to accept.
In the end, Burnham insists that her kids are more important than her writing:
Nothing in this world has given me such pleasure as my children--no book or article or any prize has matched my pride at being the mother of my daughters; and at night in the shadow of my bed, alone now that they've grown, I think of Thoreau's wisdom when he said, "How can you sit down to write until you have stood up to live?
Whether you agree with her is irrelevant. What’s most important is the idea that writing shouldn’t be your life. It has to fit your life. And it can. Even if the fit is a little more cramped than we would like.
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