Archive for the ‘Discipline’ Category

[Editor’s note:  Yesterday, on her terrific blog about writing, writer/editor Lisa Romeo talked about Louise DeSalvo’s piece in this space and added some tips of her own.  Thanks, Lisa, for giving me permission to post them here as well.]lisa romeo blog

Just the other day I was passing along tips to some writing class students who have school-age children and were explaining (that is, complaining) how little time this leaves them to write. Then today I came across this tough-love post by Louise DeSalvo.  To her advice, I’ll just add a few of my own tips; some are different, and some amplify what she advises:

  • No (more) volunteering for school activities that take more than an hour or two a month. Or how about just: NO.
  • Accept that you will have a dirtier (or at least a messier) house than you probably would like – OR hire someone to clean it.
  • Write anywhere. A lot of my stuff has been rough-drafted on the bleachers at baseball games, in the car waiting for kids to finish up at an activity, on the patio while the kids (when little) were playing nearby, even in the ladies room at insufferably long school and family functions!
  • Decide what you can slice out of your parenting life in order to get a writing life. Five years ago, when my youngest was in first grade, I decided I could do without the daily chats with other moms while waiting for our kids at pick-up time after school. I still had to arrive 15 minutes before the bell rang to get a parking space, but I decided to sit in my car and write – bingo, an extra hour or so a week.
  • As DeSalvo says, ALWAYS call it “work.” I realized this important distinction when asking a non-writing relative to watch the kids; and get the kids used to that terminology too. Mom’s working. Period.
  • Break free of the idea that you always have to write…at the keyboard, in your office, seated in that great armchair, with your favorite pen.
  • Get a writing accountability buddy – another parent writer who will exchange daily emails consisting of just one line about how many words or pages you each wrote that day; no venting allowed.

Now – what are you still doing here?


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A celebrated memoirist calls the bluff of a parent who laments that he doesn’t have time to write:

DeSalvo, On MovingHe was across the street raking leaves, and I went over to say hello one a cool autumn day, to take a break from my work, writing about my father’s life during World War II.

“How did you write when you had kids?” he asked me.  “I have this book I want to write, and I can’t get anywhere.  All the housework and time with the kids leaves me no time for writing.”

Bob is a work-at-home dad.  He’s told me about the book he’s burning to write about raising kids with his partner, filled with unconventional wisdom, hard-earned.

Your kids are at school now.  What are you doing raking leaves?

Maybe I should have sweet-talked him about how, yes, it’s tough to get to your work, blah, blah, blah.  But I figured he wanted to know how I did it, so I told him how I kept at my writing when my kids were growing up, and I gave him my “rules” that made it possible.

Rule Number 1:  As soon as the kids are off to school, get to your desk. When they’re babies, as soon as they’re in their cribs, or in their rooms, for a quiet time or a nap, get to your desk.  Don’t do housework.  Don’t make telephone calls.  And for goodness sake, don’t do e-mail, go on Facebook, or look at Oprah.  Don’t waste the precious little time you have.  You can shop, run a household, cook, when the kids are around, and they can help you.  Bob’s kids love raking leaves – they’d raked mine for money.  But there he was, raking, pining for his work, which meant he was choosing to rake, not to write.

Rule Number 2: You don’t need “blocks of time.” Lots of biographies describe writers going to their studies for the entire day.  Nice, if you can do it. Most of us can’t, or wouldn’t want to.  Many writers who aren’t writing tell me they need “blocks of time.”  When I ask if they write in snippets of time, they say no.  When my kids were young, I could get in three hours of work a day, no matter what.  Everyone can get in three hours of work a day.  That’s all Virginia Woolf worked; that’s all the time she took to write. Sometimes, for me, it was an hour here, fifteen minutes there.  When they were babies, I used their nap time and two hours after they went to sleep to write. I took my work to wading pools, doctor’s offices, the park.  I didn’t push my kids on a swing.  They were there to play, not me.

Rule Number 3: You’re not a taxi cab driver. The suburbs are wonderful, sure, but also hellish places for parents, especially if you feel bound to ferry kids from one activity to another.  I tried it.  I died inside.  Each of my kids got one ride a week, no more.  Sure, they got angry.  But they figured out how to get places.  Like walking.  Or riding their bikes.  And I didn’t go to every one of their games.  That was their thing, not mine.  There’s nothing sadder than seeing talented, dying-to-express-themselves parents sitting around doing nothing while their not-so-talented kids dance, play soccer, or twirl around on gym equipment.  If you have to go, bring your work and do your work.  Ignore your child.  Wave occasionally.

Rule Number 4:  You have a right to do your work even though you’re not getting paid for it (yet). Writing, as Audre Lorde said, is not a luxury, surely not for the person yearning for self-expression.  The way I look at it, you can either write, or you can get angry, feel ripped off, or worthless.  Better that you write.  And when you get paid, even a pittance, invest the money into your growing business.  Think of yourself as a start-up company.  Keep ten percent of the profits for yourself.  Spend the rest to replace your labor to give you more time.  To write.

Rule Number 5: You’re the grown-up.  Your life is yours, not your child’s. This is the way Europeans run their households.  This is the way I ran mine.  My needs had to be met.  First.  Selfish?  Yes.  “She sacrificed her life for her children” is not something I want written on my tombstone.  A parent’s life is a terrible thing to waste.

Rule Number 6: Touch your work every day. Live by Anne Lamott’s father’s rule: Work every day, and finish things.

Rule Number 5: Call it work, not writing. No one I knows cares if you’re writing.  That’s why you have to call it work.  Because that’s what it is.  Your work.  Your life’s work.

Louise DeSalvo is the Jenny Hunter Distinguished Scholar for Literature and Creative Writing at Hunter College.  Her most recent book is On Moving.  Her other titles include the memoir Vertigo, which received the Gay Talese award; Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family, which was named a Booksense Book of the Year; and Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. DeSalvo is also a renowned Virginia Woolf scholar.

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writers_block2Gretchen Rubin is the guru behind the phenomenally successful blog (and soon-to-be book) The Happiness Project.  In this post she shares an inside glimpse at her process.

One of the challenges of writing is … writing. Here are some tips that I’ve found most useful for myself, for actually getting words onto the page.

1. Write something every work-day, and preferably, every day; don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Staying inside a project keeps you engaged, keeps your mind working, and keeps ideas flowing. Also, perhaps surprisingly, it’s often easier to do something almost every day than to do it three times a week. (This may be related to the abstainer/moderator split.)

2. Remember that if you have even just fifteen minutes, you can get something done. Don’t mislead yourself, as I did for several years, with thoughts like, “If I don’t have three or four hours clear, there’s no point in starting.”

3. Don’t binge on writing. Staying up all night, not leaving your house for days, abandoning all other priorities in your life — these habits lead to burn-out.

4. If you have trouble re-entering a project, stop working in mid-thought — even mid-sentence — so it’s easy to dive back in later.

5. Don’t get distracted by how much you are or aren’t getting done. I put myself in jail.

6. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that creativity descends on you at random. Creative thinking comes most easily when you’re writing regularly and frequently, when you’re constantly thinking about your project.

7. Remember that lots of good ideas and great writing come during the revision stage. I’ve found, for myself, that I need to get a beginning, middle, and an end in place, and then the more creative and complex ideas begin to form. So I try not to be discouraged by first drafts.

8. Develop a method of keeping track of thoughts, ideas, articles, or anything that catches your attention. That keeps you from forgetting ideas that might turn out to be important, and also, combing through these materials helps stimulate your creativity. My catch-all document, where I store everything related to happiness that I don’t have another place for, is more than five hundred pages long. Some people use inspiration boards; others keep scrapbooks. Whatever works for you.

9. Pay attention to your physical comfort. Do you have a decent desk and chair? Are you cramped? Is the light too dim or too bright? Make a salute—if you feel relief when your hand is shading your eyes, your desk is too brightly lit. Check your body, too: lower your shoulders, make sure your tongue isn’t pressed against the top of your mouth, don’t sit in a contorted way. Being physically uncomfortable tires you out and makes work seem harder.

10. Try to eliminate interruptions — by other people, email, your phone, or poking around the Internet — but don’t tell yourself that you can only work with complete peace and quiet.

11. Over his writing desk, Franz Kafka had one word: “Wait.” My brilliantly creative friend Tad Low, however, keeps a different word on his desk: “Now.” Both pieces of advice are good.

12. If you’re stuck, try going for a walk and reading a really good book. Virginia Woolf noted to herself: “The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw.”

13. At least in my experience, the most important tip for getting writing done? Have something to say! This sounds obvious, but it’s a lot easier to write when you’re trying to tell a story, explain an idea, convey an impression, give a review, or whatever. If you’re having trouble writing, forget about the writing and focus on what you want to communicate. For example, I remember flailing desperately as I tried to write my college and law-school application essays. It was horrible – until in both cases I realized I had something I really wanted to say. Then the writing came easily, and those two essays are among my favorites of things I’ve ever written.

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Bestselling* author Marty Kihn reveals the secret of his success:

How is it possible to get something done without a deadline?  An easy question, really.

Get a dog.  I’m totally serious. My beloved Bernese Mountain Dog, Hola, has for the past five years awakened me every morning at 6 a.m. and not a moment later. She won’t leave me alone until I physically vacate the bed.  She even adjusts for Daylight Savings Time (don’t ask me how) – but, sadly, she has no concept of weekends, holidays, snow days, sick days or mornings when I’d just rather not bother.  Every day is the same day, and so in the inexorable logic of dog ownership (meaning, the dog owns me), every day of my life starts the same way.Hola3-new

Most writers require routine. In this way they are similar to children – and dogs.

Once I’ve rounded the Trinity Church graveyard (“Manhattan’s Only Active Cemetery”) with my four-legged love child, it’s not possible to go back to sleep, especially since I’m also a very weak trainer and can’t seem to stop her jumping up into my spot with her head on my pillow. So what can I do? Go get some coffee and write something.

Although it has proven pretty effective for five years now, my method does have a flaw. Sooner or later, inevitably, a certain theme started to invade my work, nuzzling its way gently into page after page. Yes, I’m writing about my dog. And I’m reading the work to her as I finish it.

Luckily, she loves everything I do. Unconditionally.

Martin Kihn is the author, most recently, of A$$hole: How I Got Rich & Happy By Not Giving a Damn About Anyone.  *Although blacklisted by a cowardly media elite in America when it came out last year, A$$hole is a breakout bestseller in Germany, where it is currently in the Top 20 in paperback. Martin is proud to be known as the David Hasselhoff of satirical non-fiction.

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The words on the page are the only things that count. (See “It’s the Writing, Stupid,” below.)

That’s all well and good. But novelist Debra Galant poses an interesting question: what about those non-writing writing days? Does it count, for example, if you’re sketching notes about a character, doing historical research at the library or online, or creating an outline for the story? Does it count if you’re mulling things over while washing the breakfast dishes (what if the secret the brother is hiding from the family involves the mysterious neighbor; what if it turns out, in fact, that he is intimately involved in the mystery…) or taking a brisk walk?reading-tarot-cards

Deb says, “I always keep a process journal for whatever novel I’m working on. Today I did a tarot reading for my character Hugo. Took notes, thought about him, mused a bit, saw the need for new character to be developed. But no pages added to the manuscript. I’m at very early stages. What do you think? Does note-taking count as writing?”

Well — since you asked! — here’s what I think.  For me, note-taking does not count.  It’s a necessary part of the process, of course – like research and planning and ruminating in the shower. All of it is part of creating a novel.  But it’s not writing.

In order to get those words on the page, I have to remind myself that I can fill notebooks with musings about my characters’ motivations; I can research the history of the orphan trains until the proverbial cows come home; I can plan and strategize and plot. But none of it actually means anything until it becomes part of the story.

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pencilEven if you waste the entire day running errands and responding to “fire drills,” as my husband calls last-minute, drop-everything requests (which for me might range from picking a sick kid up from school to reading page proofs), you can redeem the day if, at some point – for fifteen minutes or an hour – you write.

Nothing else counts when you’re writing a novel.  Shopping for groceries.  Going to the dentist.  Doing laundry.  Carpooling to a baseball game.  Making dinner.   Answering important emails.  Getting much-needed exercise.

Of course these other things matter.  It’s all real life.  But if you don’t put the words on the page, you have wasted a day.  Because every minute you spend writing brings you a small step closer to finishing your book.

When you’re working on a novel, the words on the page are the only things that count.

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