Writing When Life Gets In the Way

Writing When Life Gets In the Way

by Co-Director Michelle Cameron

“Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

Once upon a time, back when I worked for a digital agency, we were asked to explore a list of life events for a corporate client. No one was surprised by the list, which included birth, death, marriage, divorce, moving to a new home, graduation, new job, job loss, accident, disease… I don’t need to go on. We all know them well.

In my adult novel classes, I’ve grown used to my students telling me that they simply can’t write because life has thrown them a curve ball. And I empathize with them, because of course life events – and even world events – have derailed my own writing many times. (Now, for instance.)

But it can be difficult to pick up a project again if you let it go entirely to deal with, well, life. When you are actively engaged in writing – particularly a long-form piece such as a novel or memoir – the writing moves to the front of your thoughts. When the project is active, how many of us have woken up in the middle of the night and reached for a pad and pencil to capture that elusive, and sometimes nonsensical, idea? How many of our characters talk to us when we’re driving, or in the shower, or on a walk – all places where it can be hard to capture what they’re telling us to do?

But when we drop the project, those ideas and voices fade into the background. Our imaginary friends may be bewildered that we won’t play with them anymore, but life makes us tell them, sternly sometimes, that we simply don’t have the brain space and bandwidth for them. We are busy elsewhere dealing with real problems. Life and death, marriage and birth, disease, moving….

Writing under these circumstances feels like a luxury. Like something we’ll get to when life calms down – when we have the time and energy to get back to what we were doing before, well, life intervened.

And sometimes we do. But sometimes we don’t.

Sometimes it comes down to a choice. A choice I made many years ago, when I was about a third of the way through the novel which became The Fruit of Her Hands. I was at a writing conference, attending a session called “Finishing Your Novel,” and after we completed our critiques, the facilitator asked us all, “What’s stopping you from finishing?”

I ticked off those life events on my fingers: my full-time-plus job, my growing sons, my husband’s need for editorial help on his MS thesis. And everyone around me nodded and agreed – I didn’t have time to write.

But not the facilitator. After ascertaining that I was – and still am – a morning person, she asked me two questions that literally changed my life. The first: “How much do you want it?” The second: “How early can you get up?”

Yes, life gets in the way, but we don’t have to let it consume us entirely. We can make room for our writing, especially if – like me – you’re happiest when you carve out that space to keep making progress.

Since I’m having my own trouble focusing on my writing right now, I’d like to offer a few suggestions – in the hopes that they will help me as well:

  • Advertisers will use the “You deserve…” statement to encourage you to eat the chocolate, go on a vacation or buy the expensive car. You must first believe that you, yourself, deserve the time it takes to write. This means putting yourself first during your writing time, despite all the calls that life makes upon you.
  • Then you need to find the time that works for you. It’s not going to happen when you have to rush and pick up the kids or finish the report. I set my alarm for 4:30 am for years to carve out the time to write. It was an exquisite two hours before the family got up. If you’re a night owl, use the time after the kids go to bed.
  • Sometimes the hardest part is making yourself sit down in the chair. Consider making a date with your muse – who certainly won’t show up until you do. And keep the date. You’re wooing her – she doesn’t like being stood up.
  • Once you’re in the chair, don’t get distracted. It’s so easy to end up watching crazy cat videos “to relax” before plunging into your writing. Set a timer if you need to. Or if those damn cats are irresistible, use a program like Freedom that shuts off the Internet for a prescribed amount of time.
  • Realize how much writing you can do in short bursts. When we offer prompts to our students, sometimes we only give them 10 minutes to write. It’s amazing how much you can do in 10 minutes.
  • And it’s amazing how much easier it is to keep the project “top of mind” even if you only spend a few minutes on it. Those imaginary friends who felt neglected when you dropped them are also forgiving. If you’re writing regularly for even a minimal time, I promise, they will come back and start talking to you again.

So yes, life gets in our way. But life will always get in our way. It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen next, what life will throw at you to threaten your writing. I certainly never predicted how certain world events would totally derail me. But I know I’m happiest when writing and I’ve begun, again, to engage. As this blog post proves.