Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impressions and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.
Some time ago I wrote a post about what Julia Child taught me about writing. This might be surprising for readers who don’t know Julia’s history, or the fact that she’d always wanted to write novels!
Julia’s long been a role model and mentor for me and in that post I wanted to call attention to the ways in which her skill in the kitchen translates and adapts to the writing life. (To find out how, click on the link above and read the post — the kitchen and the writer’s desk are not as far removed as you might think!) Julia truly had an artist’s heart — not only was she a splendid chef, but she was a prolific writer and lived life with a contagious joie de vivre which in turn brought joy to others. Living was an art for her.
In addition to reprising my earlier post, I’m happy to point interested readers in the direction of two delicious Julia tidbits that came my way in the last few days — aptly timed since Julia’s birthday was only a week or so ago.
The first is a glorious new visual biography of Julia’s life — thanks so much to Cinzia Robbiano for bringing it to my attention! The illustrations are vivid and charming, just like Julia herself, and depict with great accuracy and enthusiasm the vastly varied life experience of this amazing woman. It’s perfect for kids, of course — my son, who only recently became interested in watching old episodes of Julia’s The French Chef and is slowly developing a fascination with her, would truly appreciate the book — but Julia fans of all ages will be thrilled with the whimsical art and the humorous writing. Be sure to check out this beautifully detailed post about the book by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings.
And that post by Maria led me to a review she’d written previously about the recently collected letters between Julia and her dear friend Avis DeVoto, which I also encourage you to read and enjoy. The book is called As Always, Julia:The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. Maria provides a detailed review of the book, which catalogues the challenges Julia faced in writing and publishing Mastering The Art of French Cooking via her years of correspondence with Avis. The book also demonstrates the wonderful support a committed, giving friendship can provide to the realization of one’s art and is essential reading not only for Julia fans, but for artists of all sorts who are struggling to find a place for their work in the world. (On a side note, if you haven’t yet discovered Brain Pickings, you should. It’s a revelation, pure and simple. Consider the secondary purpose of this post a “heads up” for those readers who’ve been slow on the pick-up.)
One of the things that helps me the most as I soldier on towards deepening my living of a literary life is the example set by other artists. Mentors come and help us along on the journey from all fields and times. If you’ve not met Julia, or haven’t thought of her as a mentor in your creative endeavors, I hope this post and my previous one, as well as Maria’s reviews, will encourage you to make an introduction and strike up a friendship. Cheers!
When I was 13 years old, I remember attending a (then) California Angels game excited to see All-Star Angels starting lineup catcher and one of my favorite players, Brian Downing, sitting not 20 feet away from us in a reserved section, his leg encased in a heavy cast and resting high on the bleacher seat in front of him, cheering on his team. I never forgot this – he couldn’t play, and would be unable to for some time, but he showed up. He can’t know the example he set for me in that simple act.
When a baseball player is placed on the DL (disabled list) for an injury this represents a serious curveball. The player has been operating on a set routine day in and day out, practicing his skills and working in community with the rest of the team to perfect his game. His success depends upon his participation in the routine and consistent practice. But an injury sets his whole routine off balance, effectively severing it along with the player’s accustomed role in the team community. A new routine is necessary to deal with the curve – often slow recovery from the injury and then physical therapy before a gradual return to practice, with the hope of eventually returning to the original routine and communal role. In the case of Brian Downing, his recovery from that break brought with it the additional curveball of being unable to return to his position as catcher — instead he needed to work and train up to lead the outfield in the starting lineup. Through these life-altering, game-changing curves, Downing and other players stay connected — they make the effort required to join the team and be present for the games and to move into all new territory if that is what is required – they remain committed to being a part of and participating in community to the extent they are able and to the best of their ability.
When the curves come in fast and hard for writers and other artists, they can leave you feeling disoriented and out of the loop, maybe even completely out of commission. This can be especially hard and discouraging, especially if you were writing regularly and now are finding it extremely difficult or even impossible to sustain the kind of work or level of commitment you have been used to demonstrating. As you work to weather the curves and figure out how to deal with them, it is important to stay connected to both the craft and practice of writing, as well as to the larger community of writers.
One way to keep your hand in the game while you manage the curveballs is to read a book on writing that speaks to where you’re at now, or maybe re-read an old favorite. Perhaps an idea will be presented that speaks to you in your current situation, which helps you make better sense of the thing you are struggling with. Or maybe the book serves as inspiration to continue on at all, even in the smallest, most seemingly insignificant way. Choose carefully, however; not all books on the craft of writing are appropriate sources of inspiration and encouragement if you are struggling with life-changing issues. You don’t want a book that discourages you by setting up impossible expectations which you can’t hope to achieve right now. Rather, you need ideas and options, encouragement and support. I’ve already mentioned one of my favorite books, Pen On Fire, by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett. One other book that I find so inspiring and nurturing is If You Want To Write, by Brend Ueland. bird by bird by Anne Lamott is also a favorite. These books are humorous, fully aware of the curveballs LIFE can let fly at you, and offer practical inspiration and workable ideas to help keep you writing and staying connected when things get really hard.
Another way to stay connected is through craft publications like Poets & Writers and The Writer. These provide articles about what a real writing life looks like and offer many different ways of approaching your craft and working with and through life changing situations. One recent article in Poets & Writers dealt with a writing couple whose child has severe special needs and examined the ways they both manage to stay connected to their craft while managing the challenges of their child’s illness and taking care of their marriage. Other articles have dealt with figuring out how to write while dealing with the death of a family member, experiencing divorce, or navigating serious illness. These have provided invaluable encouragement to me in my own situation since some of my curveballs have recently made it impossible for me to write consistently. Reading craft publications also helps to keep your project front and center, even when you can’t get to it right then by providing ample inspiration during those down times.
If you are able to get out — which might do you good — perhaps you can find time to attend a writing event or conference in your area. Professionals in all fields take time for development, networking, and meaningful conversation with colleagues. I recently attened a Q&A session with a literary agent through a local writers salon which was both informative and relaxing. It provided a nice break from the elder care issues I am juggling and was concluded early enough for me to meet the rest requirements for my health issues. If your curveballs prevent your from leaving the house or committing much time to extra-curricular events, consider staying connected through some of the great places for writers on the web (for some ideas, see my sidebar “Clean, Well-Lighted Places For Writers,” as well as some writing-related blogs I follow). I’ve also gotten very addicted to podcasts on writing. Writers on Writing and Writer’s Voice are two of my favorites — I can listen while I’m folding laundry or cleaning the house or making dinner. I love listening to these interview shows with authors and agents, discussing every aspect of living a literary life. They provide great inspiration and encouragement, especially when you hear how other writers have worked through the curveballs in their own lives.
Staying connected to the larger writing community via these avenues reminds me that I am not alone in my struggles, that I can still find a way to work on my art in a manner that works for the way my life is NOW, that I need to stay hopeful, and that I need to persevere to whatever extent I am able. Staying connected means showing up, even if I can’t play, and showing that I am part of the team, part of the community. This is the life-lesson I learned by the example set for me by that hall-of-famer with the cast sitting in the next section. In his quiet example, Brian Downing left a legacy he doesn’t even know about. And after all these years, I am grateful.
“There is one myth about writers that I have always felt was particularly pernicious and untruthful — the myth of the ‘lonely writer,’ the myth that writing is a lonely occupation, involving much suffering because, supposedly, the writer exists in a state of sensitivity which cuts him off, or raises him above, or casts him below the community around him. This is a common cliche, a hangover probably from the romantic period and the idea of the artist as Sufferer and Rebel . . . . I suppose there have been enough genuinely lonely suffering novelists to make this seem a reasonable myth, but there is every reason to suppose that such cases are the result of less admirable qualities in those writers, qualities which have nothing to do with the vocation of writing itself. . . . Unless the writer has gone utterly out of his mind, his aim is still communication, and communication suggests talking inside community.” — Flannery O’Connor
Any writer serious about her work has undoubtedly heard or read the “written in stone” prescription for success: anywhere from 2 to 6 hours daily must be spent writing or the writer simply isn’t – either a writer or writing. This level of diligence and commitment should be applauded and if a writer has the sort of life, temperament, and/or physical make-up and stamina that allows for that kind of daily time-on-task, even if that means surviving on 4 or 5 hours sleep a night while still accomplishing all of the other myriad tasks of a busy family and work life, then I think that is fantastic. It is a remarkable feat and inspires awe.
But the truth is that not all writers are cut from the same cloth and various factors contribute to one’s ability to commit to so many hours a day, or even every day, to work on a project. And when life starts reeling off major curveballs, such as those I’m experiencing, finding a more REALISTIC, and less stressful, schedule that allows you to keep flexing your writing muscles while still allowing you to attend to the have-to’s can make the difference between moving forward (albeit at a snail’s pace) and abandoning the project altogether.
You can see this playing out on the ball field all the time. For example, the Los Angeles Angels star pitcher Jared Weaver was put on the disabled list for an elbow fracture and so was unable to continue his usual (epic) pitching schedule and performance. As of this writing, he still has not been returned to the line-up. Similarly, the Angels new 1st baseman, Albert Pujols, was moved to designated hitter in the lineup when a heel injury prevented him from handling the responsibilities of his field position — not quite the performance the team, the fans or Pujols himself expected from his gazillion dollar contract.
My point here is that things change, often drastically. Ball players know this and need to deal with the curves accordingly. Sometimes they’re benched for an entire season because of the intensity of the curves they’re dealing with. Why can’t we writers cut ourselves some slack and reorient our vision and our schedule in consideration of the way our ability to work has changed?
So ask yourself this question: Before your life took on the velocity and complexity of piloting a Stealth bomber, how often and for how long were you able to write? If your typical 3 hours every evening during the week suddenly proves to be impossible, can you write for 90 minutes two or three times a week instead? Or if you were writing for an hour every morning before you went to work, can you try cutting back to 15 or 30 minutes on several days? Taking some of the pressure off may just make it possible for you to keep writing through whatever difficult situation(s) is demanding the majority of your time, attention and energy.
In my case, before the curves started coming in hard and fast I was writing for 15-20 minutes nearly every morning and often more on some weekends. (Wait! Do I hear snickering and snorting? The prelude to incredulous laughter? Before you start wondering why you are reading this and what kind of writer I could possibly be at that commitment level, do yourself a favor and check out Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s brilliant and wholly unique book Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide To Igniting The Writer Within. The book changed my life: Barbara’s approach is that a book CAN BE written in just 15 minutes a day. I haven’t seen this advice in any other book on writing. And guess what? It works. In a little over a year, I’ve got nearly 300 pages, and I didn’t even write every day. Guys, don’t let the title of Barbara’s book deter you from reading it. It’s hands-down one of the best books on the writing life out there.) Now, as I was saying . . .
. . . when the curves came in hard and fast and made even those precious 15 minutes impossible, the first thing I had to do was to make peace with the fact that THINGS HAD CHANGED. This is essential to letting go of the pressure, both the pressure you place on yourself and the perceived pressure the “industry” places on you. Both Weaver and Pujols had to get their heads around this fact — they’d have been foolish to think they could continue to play the game the same way in light of these new curveballs. As a writer, I needed to do the same.
Then I came up with a plan that could work in light of the new challenges I was presented with – I’d write for several hours a few weekends a month. These days got blocked out on my calendar and I made a promise to myself to set some boundaries around this time so that I actually could continue writing. This meant saying “no” to some – but not all – invitations and events. The important thing to remember is that no one is going to come up to you with a silver tea tray and serve up hours for you to write in. You need to find the time and take it, make it your own. This can be done, provided you make peace with the reality that things have changed. You may not be able to control the curveballs coming your way, but you CAN control yourself and how you approach the challenge they present. Look for niches of time that work best for your process needs. And don’t laugh off something so small as 15 minutes. Even 10 minutes. I’m proof a book can come out of miniscule increments of time.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember in negotiating how to let the pressure off is that you also make a promise not to beat yourself up if you CAN’T do it. That means that if you’ve blocked off a certain time to write, but the baby cries and you need to tend her, DO IT. If your nephew’s wedding is on that weekend and attending it means you won’t write until three weeks from now, go to the wedding. If you’re thoroughly wiped out from dealing with the curves and desperately need a nap, take one. Guess what? Your book will survive and will be waiting when you get back. Life happens. The key here is to be realistic and protect the time against less important commitments and distractions.
If your life and your body are in complete turmoil, chances are you have enough pressures and worries weighing on you – don’t let your project be one of them. Keep working, but get pragmatic: let the pressure off, come up with a plan of action for dealing with the curves, and move forward with a changed game.
What are some of the ways you have found to let the pressure off so you could continue working on your creative project even amidst major life changes? I’d love to hear what’s worked for you, and perhaps some one else who is struggling can benefit from your strategy!
This is part one of a six-week series. You can find the series introduction here.
“Why is it that we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult who is making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and that there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, “I’ll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!” you would pity her delusion, but beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker. Perhaps you’re thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art in itself but an interpretation of the composer’s art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art, you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath. Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well, yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we’re more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound—not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself.”
Was it worth it to drag myself out of bed at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning to head over to Los Angeles for the annual UCLA Writer’s Faire? Absolutely!
The Writer’s Faire is a program hosted by the UCLA Extension Writing Program and it’s held annually every August. I first attended this event many years ago as a spy . . . . sssshhhhhhh…….. I say that because I wasn’t writing back then, only dreaming of it, talking about it, pretending to myself that I was serious when it was so much easier to avoid doing anything. I’d yet to make the COMMITMENT to making writing an active part of my life. I’d yet to say “Yes” to allowing my writer-self out of the closet so she could finally breathe after years of being suffocated. And truth be told, when I last attended, I felt a little guilty, a little out-of-place. I wasn’t writing after all, not a word, and so could not in truth call myself “a writer.”
But I also remember being absolutely impressed and moved by what I heard that day and the people who came and gave of themselves and their time so that other people — like me — might have the courage to pick up the pen and do what their hearts had been calling them to do.
Fast forward to today and I AM writing — have been in earnest for a year now — and have made the commitment I was lacking before to be the disciplined writer I knew I could be. Thus, today’s experience was even better than the previous one. I came away energized, inspired, and motivated to recommit myself to my project and to continue to choose to embrace the hard work of writing. The writers I listened to today are regular people, just like you and I, who don’t take themselves too seriously and who truly see themselves as writing mentors. They seem approachable and they encouraged those in attendance to consider becoming a part of a caring and supportive community of people who genuinely want to help others succeed at living a literary life. Many, if not all, of the writers who spoke on today’s panels juggle full-time (non-writing) jobs, families, and lives outside of writing. All of them write and all of them teach in the extension program, in addition to the burden of their daily responsibilities. And all of them at some point or another were students in the Extension Program. They came across, therefore, as very approachable, as having lived through the trenches not once, but on a continual basis, and as being open and willing to share their experiences with others.
This all left me feeling even more strongly the need to give back, to make a gift of my writing life and to build on the sense of community I was gifted with today by sharing what I learned in a series of four short posts over the next week or so. If you’ve been hem-hawing around, worried about getting started, doubting yourself and listening too much to the nagging voice that whispers (or shouts) “What are you thinking?! Who do you think you are? You can’t WRITE!” then I encourage you to stop by for a share in the healthy dose of inspiration and encouragement I received today. Do it for you and do it for the story that is inside you. Cheers!