For a long time before I had a writing life, I dreamed of one. I dreamed of living by the ocean in a little cottage, taking long walks, reading, eating good food, relaxing, breathing deeply. Or else I dreamed of living in a little cottage along a river, or along the shores of a big misty lake. Sometimes I lived in a houseboat. Sometimes there was a garden. Sometimes woods. Sometimes soup and sometimes pasta. What I never dreamed of was actual writing. I didn’t bother to imagine an office, or a studio, or even a desk with a window to look out of.
I finally realized that I would never achieve my dream of a writing life without the writing, so I made myself buckle down and get serious. I gave myself a year to write the first draft of a novel. I told myself to show up at my desk for an hour every morning. I reasoned that the morning would be the best time for me to write as I was just too tired for anything creative after a day of work, which at that time was cleaning houses. I also reasoned that once I got my hour of writing out of the way, it’d be done and I need not think about it the rest of the day.
I obviously had a lot of resistance to writing, so I went a step further and made up a schedule. I gave myself days off. I took weekends, and I allowed myself five “sick days” during the year, days in which I could just ignore writing if I wanted. I also decided that I’d complete one chapter per month. After the month was up, I had to move on to the next chapter whether or not I was satisfied with the work I’d done. I kept track of all this with a chart on my wall.
I was fortunate to know the story I wanted to write. I’d already developed it as a short story, and I’d been futzing with it as a novel for about ten years. All that procrastination was not wasted time. I knew enough about my characters and the story to not be thrown blindly into a cave of my own making. I could always see the light, and I fell in love with writing, but the love did not last.
My next book was written under contract. I sold an idea and received an advance for work I had not yet done. I deposited my check, quit my housecleaning gig, and settled down to live the writer’s life. This turned out to be one of the worst writing experiences I’ve ever had.
I lived alone at the time in a remote cabin, just like in my daydreams of the writing life. It was a beautiful place, with a pond I could swim in, and woods I could walk through and I didn’t have to go to work anywhere else. But the pressure of the deadline made the exploration of my novel and characters nearly impossible. What should have felt spacious and creative instead felt constricting and stifling. I fell out of love with writing, and I swore I’d never go under contract again.
People assume that going under contract is the way to have the spaciousness needed for writing, but money does not equal spaciousness. I wrote every one of my books, either the entire book, or in the case of the second novel, a portion of the book, while holding down a job. In fact, once the money from my advance for this book ran out and I found employment again, the writing began to go better.
I’ve now published three books (soon to be four) and written six (two remain unpublished). I always took breaks between my projects, but the breaks I took were filled with angst and anger. Too often I felt like my writing career was going nowhere. I felt bitter and unnoticed. What was the fucking point, I wondered. And so I’d quit.
It didn’t help that some people I knew in the industry told me I needed to write a book every eighteen months, something I knew I could not do in the way I needed to go about it. I needed spaciousness and the subconscious, and instead of deciding to simply give myself what I needed, I decided I wasn’t a real writer. The books I’d written and gotten published, well, what a fluke. I was never going to write again. Instead I was going to spend my time taking long walks, reading, eating good food, relaxing, and breathing deeply. These were the very things I’d imagined doing when I imagined being a writer, and now that I wasn’t writing, or worrying about writing, I’d have time for them.
And then something would happen. A character would stroll into my mind, and it would be a character I couldn’t turn down. I’d have to write his story. I wanted to write his story. Steven King says that writing a novel is like rowing a bathtub from Boston to Great Britain. It’s a wonder anyone attempts it and that so many actually make it across. Relaxed and open after having had some time to just be, inspired by a new character, I’d get back in my bathtub and start the trip from Boston to Great Britain (or its equivalent) again.
I once chided myself for imagining a writer’s life without writing, but now I think there is something to that original vision. I think the downtime is necessary. I think I need it. I think that yes, I want to be a writer, but this sometimes involves not writing, and I need to not judge myself so harshly. I am a writer. No one is going to take that identity away from me. I write. Even when I am not writing for public consumption, I am writing. I am journaling. I am blogging. I am writing to prompts with groups of writers. Just because I’m not navigating a bathtub in the high seas does not mean I am not still the captain of that fine vessel.