GRETCHEN HAERTSCH ON: KEEPING TO THE WRITING LIFE
As I write this, it’s Thanksgiving weekend, my house is full and I’ve embarked – however tentatively – on the bravest of “heavy cleaning” efforts to prepare for the looming December holidays – not easy with a house that’s too big, too hard to maintain . . . and 140 years old. Being an American woman of a certain age, I will decorate, bake, cook, shop, and wrap, as well as host the annual sit-down Christmas dinner. No secondary holiday party this year, I’m afraid. Having recently taken on the challenge of a full-time job in addition to my part-time teaching gigs, I am feeling pretty seriously time-challenged. How then to remain true to my writing life? That, indeed, becomes the question for many of us as we try to remain committed to writing despite our many responsibilities.
I was provided with a partial answer when I met with my wonderful group of writing friends last weekend: Joan, Sharen, and Sandy. They never fail to encourage, inspire, and spur me on with my writing efforts, and I hope I sometimes do the same for them. After listening intently to their comments on my latest magazine article, and describing to them – in too much detail, I’m afraid – my time constraints, I was driven to write a list of the writing tasks I can certainly still manage. Perhaps it will inspire others striving to keep to the novel-writing life in the coming happy but dizzyingly busy month ahead.
Ø Write magazine articles – short ones, of course. It doesn’t hurt that much of the market prefers short these days. From a marketing perspective, having credits on a subject related to your novel can only help. My latest effort sticks to my novel topic and uses my research on the 1918 influenza pandemic. A nice side benefit: it helps clarify my thinking to explain a complicated topic succinctly.
Ø Keep up with publishing news. My writing group members are particularly adept at keeping abreast of writing trends by reading agent, editor, and publishing blogs. I remind myself that I can do better in that realm. Contacting one agent or editor a week is do-able, even if your time is limited.
Ø Read as much as possible. It isn’t always easy, especially for a super-busy news junkie like me, but it’s pleasurable and inspiring to read good books, especially in the genre in which one aspires to be published.
Ø Carve out the time to write. I’ve found that it isn’t the fact that a writer can devote huge chunks of time to writing that counts; it’s the consistency she’s able to devote to the act of writing that matters. A new novel can be started, however slowly, without an endless expanse of open time on the immediate horizon.
Regarding that last point, Jerry Spinelli, local children’s writer extraordinaire, pushed on for 20 years in ordinary writing jobs to help support his six children, yet he managed to write for himself on his daily lunch hour, weekends, and evenings. His first book, published in 1982, was Space Station Seventh Grade, but he’s written lots since then, including Stargirl, Maniac Magee (for which he won the Newbery Medal in 1991), and Wringer (Newbery Honor in 1998). He’s married to Eileen Spinelli, a highly accomplished picture book writer. It can be done.
I don’t have the luxury of spending most of my day writing, but I still have little chunks of time I can devote to it: early weekend mornings, evenings, sleepless nights. I remind myself that it’s staying inside the project that matters. If we trail away from our writing projects for too long, we lose touch with them. Like losing touch with an old friend, it can be hard to reconnect if too much time passes.
In her classic book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott extols the virtue of E. L. Doctorow’s advice: “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Lamott writes: “You don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.” She comments: “This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
It’s nice to be in such good company – the larger community of writers who can inspire, prod, and nudge. For me, in the immediate future anyway, it’s “short assignments,” as Lamott would say. Short is good, short works, short is still something.