Time is of the Essence

I have written extensively on the time it takes to be a writer.  But it’s not just time, it’s discipline.  Someone ought to invent “writers’ glue” that sticks writers’ butts in their chairs for a minimum amount of time each day.  Oh yeah, and while they’re at it, the special glue should automatically disconnect the phones and the internet for a few hours.  Any inventors out there?

In the past year I have done an extensive amount of teaching and a lot less writing than in the prior five years.  In fact, beyond my twice-weekly blogs, I barely wrote at all.  But now, with enrollment down in the international schools in Tokyo, including Temple University, I find myself unemployed and with unlimited time to write.  Okay, I have parental responsibilities and a husband who needs my time, too, so the time isn’t unlimited, but it sure does stretch out.  Just like one’s “stuff” expands to fill the available space in a house, so a task seems to expand to fill the available time.

In the past three weeks since being back in Tokyo from my summer holiday, I have spent a lot of time simply staring at a blank computer screen. It takes a lot of time and just plain gumption to put words on a page and make them into a story or a nonfiction piece.  At the moment, I am building my gumption.  It will come.  I promise it will come.  It will just be a slow process to get back in the saddle.  But I’m working on it – I promise!

My Characters’ Bad Behavior

There I was, writing along, and I came upon a stumbling block.  This character, a woman I had created in my own mind, was not behaving as I thought she should.  How could this be, I asked myself.  Characters in novels do not behave in certain ways.  They come alive off the page as the author imagines them.  They are not flesh and blood people and they do not have whims and wills of their own.

I am an experienced writer.  I have written short stories, essays, and magazine articles and I keep a weekly blog religiously, so writing, as well as potential writer’s block, is not a new phenomenon to me.  But this was a different problem. I am not accustomed to accusatory characters in my writing, especially when they are accusatory toward me.

The character, whose name is Jess, is a working mom.  She is a trader with a big bank and she has two sons who are eight and six.  Her husband is a lawyer.  The family, like mine, is an expat family in Tokyo. (Hey, everyone says to write what you know!)  But Jess is different than most other women I know or consider because she loves her job to distraction.  She can’t see how her work and her devotion to it are hurting her husband and sons.  She doesn’t want to see it.  And I’ve realized, as I’m moving forward with writing a chapter in my book devoted to Jess, that she might not ever see it or ever really change.  I, as the author, will have to deal with the consequences of my character’s inability to change.  This is not usual for me: I cannot control this woman.

My biggest problem, though, is that I do not like Jess.  This is another first for me – normally I like my characters and give them traits I admire, or at least I can garner a healthy respect for them.  Jess is not one of these characters.

Another problem is that Jess is forcing me to examine my own life and my own priorities.  I do a lot of teaching and I do a lot of writing.  I belong to a book group, and a writing group, and I am a board member of our local Jewish Community Center.  I have two wonderful children who are generally happy and healthy, and they deserve the very best that I, as their mother, can give them.  My husband is an attorney with a large, American law firm, and he requires support from his wife, as well.  So I am stretched pretty thin, as you can see here.

I have been struggling with Jess for the better part of two weeks.  I wake up thinking about her, and I went to sleep thinking about her.  What is she doing? Her husband is going to put his foot down at some point, isn’t he?  What about those poor little kids of hers?  But doesn’t she deserve to do the work she truly loves if it brings her fulfillment?

Then, at 5:45am on Sunday morning, I realized that it is okay for me, the writer, to follow Jess, the character.  Sometimes there are things in life that cannot be controlled, and in this case, one of those things is my character.  I am not Jess, and I do not have to struggle the way she does.  I can be grateful for my well-lived and busy life and the busy-ness does not have to reflect on my family if I don’t let it.

What brought about this epiphany of sorts? I’m still uncertain, but it might have to do with the fact that my family was all asleep in their beds and happy after we had spent a fun Saturday night together.  Maybe it was just the stress of the writing group meeting planned for Monday and I had to get something out to them to read.  I am not sure. I do know, however, that I spent about fifteen minutes in bed at 5:45 thinking about Jess and her priorities, and then was able to go into the computer room to write a quick 1000 words of Jess’s story.

Not all characters are like-able and perhaps it is a good thing if my characters provoke this type of reflection.  For now, I plan to look at Jess and let her tell me where her story is going.  It is okay if the story does not have a neatly tied-up, happy ending.  What matters is that I work on the story and write it to the best of my ability and that I stay engaged with my real life and the people who need me in it.

Sometimes we have to give up control.  Even as a writer, I have to give up control in order to learn and grow.  I have learned a lot of lessons with Jess.  I can’t wait for the rest of the world to meet her, too.  Back to the writing board.

Focus – Choosing a Writing Life

Lately when speaking with my friend, we’ve been trying out the mantra “NO NEW PROJECTS!”  She and I tend to say yes to everything offered to us without deciding first what would be in the best interest of our already stretched-thin lives and precarious time management skills.  What’s exciting is that we are both being offered new things that are new and exciting, and well within our realm of interest and capability, so it’s just difficult to say no to some things that are so enticing. But frankly, the idea goes beyond time and ability and right down to focus.

As I write most days, I wonder what type of writer do I really want to be.  And then I wonder what type of writing teacher do I want to be.  The two could be very compatible if I weave them together properly.

For example, I write my blog posts pretty quickly and easily.  I also write about my kids and paint little sketches of their lives pretty well and without a great time investment.  My fiction, however, is a more arduous process that takes up an inordinate amount of time for me.  Is it worth it, I wonder?  Should I focus on non-fiction if that is easier for me?  My teaching is an interesting parlay to this.  I can teach freshman composition with ease.  But I am responsible for these middle and high school students this school year.  Is it worth it if it is much harder and takes so much more work from me?

Luckily I do not have to answer either of those questions definitively today.  Sometimes things that are worth the time one day are not quite as worthwhile the next day.  And that’s where it is good that we have multiple projects moving forward at once.

However, I do hope to make a plan over the winter holidays to focus my writing life.  Writing is based on projects and I want to complete the ones I have started and then list the ones I would like to do once the current projects are complete.  Perhaps I even need to shelve a project or two for when I can focus on different things that are not as urgent right now. I have to start managing what I am doing and for whom.  I have to evaluate which projects intrigue me most and give me the most joy, and then put away all the rest – or turn down future requests.  I believe if I focus on what is good and moves my career forward in the direction I choose, then I will be happier – and a better writer. It’s a matter of me choosing the direction and not letting the direction choose me.

These are goals of course, and I plan to meet them.  Of all the things I can say about a writing life, the journey of it is certainly the most interesting.  See you on the road.

The Writer Edits

Every writer has his or her own process for working.

I’ve met people who write slowly and edit as they go, so each sentence comes out pristine and ready-for-action.  These people labor over the words and how they want to craft their ideas on the page so that the product after an hour of work might be 300 to 500 words, but what incredible words they are.

I am not in that camp.  For me, and hour means 1000 words of ideas, perhaps half of which are usable.  Oh perhaps I am being hard on myself, but I have a tendency to over-use adverbs and complicate my sentences with too many thoughts in one.  I am notorious for leaving out commas, though I avoid passive voice pretty well.   What this means is that I can do the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), where writers produce 50,000 words in a month, without too much pain.  However, after the 50,000 words is where I get stuck.

Editing.  Revising. I hate ‘em.

I know that if I go back and smooth over my work, it all comes out better.  I know that if I tighten up my dialogue, characters walk off the page more clearly.  But I don’t like doing it.  It has been suggested to me that I journal to see what it is I don’t like about the process.  I should force myself to do it and see where my roadblocks lie.  I have another friend who suggested that I like my words and I don’t want to delete them.  I’m not sure either approach is quite right – maybe it’s a combination of ideas on why the thought of it makes me attend to every task known to man before sitting down at the computer to actually do it.

I do know that I had an experience last week where I wrote a short story with a certain contest in mind that I wanted to enter.  The story, which came out pretty well on the first go, was just over 1800 words – very short.  I tried an experiment as I wrote – I wrote VERY SLOWLY.  Like others I know, I crafted the words carefully, and wrote down ideas on a separate piece of paper if they popped into my head as I was drafting.  It worked.  As I forced myself to edit, I realized that the work was better – much better – than any fiction I’ve produced in quite a while.

Then I looked at the contest rules.  The story had to be 750 words or fewer.  I still had to cut half of it out.  It took me almost two hours, but I did it.  I cut cut cut.  I took out adverbs and the word “said” from everywhere.  I completely removed an ancillary character from the story.  There was a small, two paragraph flashback, and it too, hit the bin.  The story is different from the first version in many ways (of course I kept both!).  I like them each for different things, the way one likes her children – for the different things they offer.  (Let me know if you want to see the two stories – I’m happy to send them.)

It was a great experiment for me to do that story.  I feel stronger for it, though I do not like the process any more than I did a week ago.  At least, though, I can appreciate it.  I have a NaNoWriMo novel from a year ago that needs a lot of work.  The bare bones ideas are good and I think the characters are fun.  The book need beefing up and paring down all at the same time.

It seems to me to be a good February and March project.  Editing.  Here we go!