So what does a writer’s life look like?
A lot of people have a romanticized view of the life of a writer. We awake in the middle of the night, stumble to our computer, pour out the perfect manuscript that needs no editing, then crawl back to bed just as dawn creeps over the horizon, happy and satisfied. We post our perfect book to our agent who within five minutes of receiving our attached file sends a gushing email saying she’s already sent it to the top publishing houses and she’s certain it will be a best seller. Writers live a cushy life off the royalties of said best seller and have plenty of time to have coffee with friends and linger over book signings because, well, we write by inspiration in the middle of the night.
That was some delightful dream I must have had somewhere in my naïve moments. If only it were that glorious.
Actually, there’s some half-truth to my romantic paragraph. I do wake up in the middle of the night. Sometimes I get up to pour my heart out. Sometimes, liking my warm covers better than a hard chair, I snuggle closer to my husband, vowing I’ll remember my ingenious brainstorm in the morning. Sometimes I do. A lot of times I don’t. For the most part, writing is a job you love. Some days you love it more than others. It’s still a job. I always wondered when Anne Lamont had the time to wander the beach as she describes in Traveling Mercies and Bird By Bird, and if she ever had to match socks or write two sentence announcements for her church newsletter.
Every writer is different. Some like to plot their novel before they ever touch fingers to the leading line. Others let the story guide them, taking them where no man has gone before. Folks in the writing industry call them plotters and pantsters. Some writers write for hours upon hours at a time, subjecting their families to suppers of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Others write in “chunks,” fitting writing in to the odd moments between laundry, day jobs, and kids’ homework. My writing colleague, Allie Plieter, who has written a book “The Chunky Method Handbook” uses the Pixar movie “Finding Nemo” to describe these writers as Marlins and Dorys. (Check out Allie’s blog here.)That is so apt. I love it.
What about me?
I’m a wannabe Marlin with family and church responsibilities threatening to morph me into a Dory. I belong to an accountability group where we post how many words we’ve written each day. We set personal goals for each month that fit our life demands. This group has taught me that it’s ok to write only 200 words in one day and to keep my word goals reasonable. When I start a novel, I write in chunks and tend to write and rewrite and edit and fret way too much. Bad habit, I know. I need to just let it rip. Finally, I get in the groove and by about the 50,000 word mark, I’m writing several hours a day. Meals, housework, and laundry move down the priority list. Church bulletin announcements get procrastinated to the last moment. Then it’s our church secretary’s turn to fret.
I like to have an idea of where I’m going with my novel but part of the thrill of writing is that sometimes my characters say and do things I don’t expect. In my novel, “All Other Ground,” I wanted Sis to confront her boyfriend but I had not planned out his reaction or her reaction to his reaction. One of my family came downstairs at that moment to find my hands pounding the keys, my face wet with tears, and my voice sharp and staccato. In that moment, I was Sis and Donald.
Inspiration can hit in the oddest of places. I get many of my ideas while washing dishes. My family teases me about carrying at least ten pens and several mini notebooks in my purse at any given time. guilty as charged. Napkins, church bulletins, and concert programs make great idea catchers too. They’ve threatened to bury me with several pens in my hand. Fine. Do it. I might want to take notes as I approach Heaven’s gates.
Someone has said writing is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. That’s pretty accurate. Writers must spend long hours creating their story world whether in one long session or in chunks. Like any other hobby – knitting, baking bread, or playing the piano – perfection is always a goal, not an accomplishment. Practice doesn’t make us perfect; it just makes us better. I spend about one third of my time on research, one third on the actual writing, and one half in editing. Okay, I’m a writer, not a mathematician. Somewhere in there is the dreaming and thinking stage. Right now, I’ve completed the research for my next novel. Life has shortened my writing moments so I’ve used the time to think, dream and get acquainted with my characters and how they change and grow. Kelsie is an amazing young woman, but a violent tragedy steals her confidence. I need to discover how to help Kelsie regain her amazing by the final page. At some point, I’ll just start writing and let Kelsie find it for herself.
Not everyone loves what we write. The truly skilled writer is willing to write honestly and some people don’t like honestly. Our art wouldn’t stand out if we weren’t willing to take risks and say the things no one has yet dared to say. Nor do most writers make the best-selling lists or rake in the money. Tom Clancy and John Grisham are exceptions to the rule who got to quit their day jobs. We write because we love words, we love the creativity of story, and we have a message to share.
The part about the perfectly written manuscript at 3AM was pulp fiction. Most of what I write in the middle of the night is shamefully pathetic. At least I got the nugget of the idea down, enough to do a lot of sculpting the next day – if I can make head or tails out of my fuzzy notes. But the part about satisfied and happy describes my mental state to a T. Writing is like releasing a valve on a pressure cooker or diffusing the air out of an over-extended balloon. It’s like sipping lemonade on a warm, dry summer afternoon. In spite of the lonely moments, the achy shoulders, and the anxiety of “this isn’t gonna make sense to anyone,” when my fingers fly across the keyboard, I agree with Eric Littell with all my heart: “I feel God’s pleasure.” I feel His pleasure because I am doing what He made me to do.
Writer friends, chime in. Describe your writing life. Are you a plotter or pantster? Sprinter or cross country runner? What compels you to move toward your desk to write?