If I waited for perfect conditions to develop my writing life, I’d still be waiting.
Back in the early 1990s, I did manage to explore writing as my work, as a way of life. I wrote and submitted a few magazine articles and met with businesses to launch a career in corporate freelance writing. Then we started our family. Our first three children were born within four years of each other (the fourth came along a few years later). Consumed by the demands and intensity of young motherhood, I could have shoved my computer screen, pen and notebook into a closet for about twelve years and waited until the conditions were right. I could have waited until my oldest two girls were old enough to babysit the younger two. I could have waited until I had a little office or study or library or nook to call my own. I could have waited until I had long chunks of uninterrupted time.
Instead, I wrote.
I wrote when the kids were napping. I wrote late at night. I wrote in my head when I took them for a walk to the park and scribbled down my ideas when they were eating a snack.
I stole time.
Sometimes I wrote well and submitted pieces to magazines or posted them at my blog; much of what I wrote, however, merely served as compost, breaking down in my mind, heart, and spirit to feed new and potentially better ideas. Regardless of the quality of what I produced, I wrote; I practiced; I learned. And I read. With a book tucked in my diaper bag or purse, I could steal a moment now and then to consume some new thought written by authors I respected, whose information I craved, whose ideas would feed the glowing coals of creativity that glimmered softly inside of me as I changed diapers, swept Cheerios and scraped hunks of banana from the high chair tray. I kept the energy of writing alive during those hectic years, and when the flame flashed, I’d try to grab something on which to write, even if it meant borrowing a crayon and scribble pad that the kids were using for stick-people adventure stories.
This made for a spontaneous, messy writing life. Scraps of paper strewn on the kitchen table or nightstand represented that flash of insight I managed to scratch onto the back of an envelope. Life with newborns and toddlers required tremendous focus and energy, leaving little chance for a regular schedule. I grabbed opportunities when I could, leaving a trail of pens and paper throughout the house and shoved into cup holders in the car.
I identified with other writer-moms, such as Barbara Kingsolver. She would read about rituals of other authors who had seemingly endless time to create the writing mood—hours of photography or flower arranging before sitting at the desk to compose one word. She quoted one author who described his muse at length. Kingsolver, a busy mom with no time for flower-arranging, had to write with the time she was given. She described her own muse:
My muse wears a baseball cap, backward. The minute my daughter is on the school bus, he saunters up behind me with a bat slung over his shoulder and says oh so directly, “Okay, author lady, you’ve got six hours till that bus rolls back up the drive. You can sit down and write,now, or you can think about looking for a day job.” (p. 96, High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver)
Kingsolver understands the limitations of motherhood and the challenge of writing in the midst of it. She quotes Lucille Clifton responding to the question “Why are your poems always short?” Ms. Clifton replied, “I have six children, and a memory that can hold about twenty lines until the end of the day.” Clifton encouraged me to plan out my work mentally while I’m on-the-go, storing up thoughts until the end of the day, when the kids were in bed and the words could spill out.
My kids are much older now; my conditions remain imperfect but are much more conducive to writing. My children are more independent—my oldest is heading off to college, after all. But with three still at home, it seems I still have to steal time. Apparently the conditions for writing will never be perfect.
I need to be reminded of this again and again. Julia Cameron, in The Right to Write says:
The “if-I-had-time” lie is a convenient way to ignore the fact that novels require being written and that writing happens a sentence at a time. Sentences can happen in a moment. Enough stolen moments, enough stolen sentences, and a novel is born–without the luxury of time…Yes, it is daunting to think of finding time to write an entire novel, but it is not so daunting to think of finding time to write a paragraph, even a sentence. And paragraphs, made of sentences, are what novels are really made of. (p. 14, 15, The Right to Write, Julia Cameron)
This reminds me of a quote I heard at the Festival of Faith & Writing. Parker Palmer said:
If you can’t write a book, write a bunch of essays. If you can’t write a bunch of essays, write a bunch of paragraphs. If you can’t write a bunch of paragraphs, write lines. If you can’t write lines, write some words. And if you can’t write some words, write your truth with your own life, which is far more important than any book. (Parker Palmer at the Festival of Faith & Writing 2010)
Write a book, essays, paragraphs, lines, or just write a few words; but for heaven’s sake, be sure to write with your life. Poets, bloggers, novelists, creative nonfiction writers, essayists, letter writers, journalists, composers; we must all get to work.
And it’s true no matter what complicates schedules—whether you have a full-time job or you’re a full-time caregiver: Write what you can, when you can. Because the conditions are never perfect.
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Modified reprint from the archives.
Don’t wait for the perfect conditions: Sign up now for The Writing Life, an online writing workshop led by Charity Singleton Craig and me, starting the first week in September.