For the past few weeks, I haven’t had time to write creatively. I pushed through the end of the rough draft of my novel before school started, took a month or so off while a couple of smart and generous writing friends gave me feedback, and then dove into the process of re-envisioning and revising.
Revisions were coming along slowly but surely. Without the urgency of a monthly MFA deadline, I found I couldn’t muster the energy to write at night. But I took to waking up an hour early and getting at least a little bit done every morning, before the rest of my day began.
Then came mid-November. I got to a tricky part of the novel, and my non-writing commitments picked up big-time. Don’t get me wrong: the past month has been an incredibly exciting and fulfilling one, and the next couple of weeks promise to be the same. I’ve attended engagement parties for people I love, taken weekend trips, moved in with a completely wonderful guy, had my mom visit, and hosted a couple of lovely gatherings. And now I have Christmas with my family, a great friend’s wedding in Florida, and a trip to Uruguay to look forward to. No complaints there. But with all of these exciting occasions in my non-writing life, my writing has sputtered out. During November and the beginning of December, I kept trying to push on, although not with much success. But for almost three weeks now, I’ve barely glanced at my work-in-progress.
Rationally, I know this is okay. During the last two years, when I was teaching and working on my MFA, I had to say no to a lot of fun-sounding things because I needed to block out evening and weekend time to complete my MFA work. Now, I have more flexibility. And pretty much every story I’ve ever tried to write has been, at its core, about a character who yearns to connect with and feel loved by someone else. So it would feel pretty misguided to prioritize writing over teaching kids I care about and spending time with people who are important to me.
But then there’s the gut-level, irrational part of me that feeds on guilt and isn’t appeased by this reasoning. The part that says, “You need a schedule! If writing is important to you, you need to make time for it no matter what!” And, “You think you’re busy now? Think of all of the people who write and work and have kids! You don’t have to take care of anybody but yourself, you whiner. Suck it up!” And even, “If you don’t keep writing, you’ll never finish this novel and you’ll probably forget everything you ever learned and your MFA will have been useless!”
Not so helpful.
I’ve always been sort of glad that I feel guilty when I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, because it means that I usually get back to work in order to get rid of the guilt. But maybe working-to-pacify-guilt is not the best model. As a teacher, I know that I can usually motivate students by recognizing their successes and supporting them as they encounter challenges. I should probably try the same approach with myself. Sure, I feel happy when I accomplish something, like finishing a rough draft or figuring out how to fix a subplot that wasn’t working. But I feel the guilt and frustration of not accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish so much more intensely than I feel the joy and satisfaction of doing something well. And judging by my conversations with writer friends, I don’t think I am alone in this imbalance.
So I am going to try to silence that nasty, undermining voice inside me by stating my fears out loud or writing them down and then dealing with them one by one. I am going to try to remember something Grace Lin said when she was Skyping with my students: that she doesn’t write every day—sometimes she can’t—but then she’ll write and write on days she can. I am going to try to shake up my guilt/happiness balance so that I feel at least as proud of myself when I get something done as I feel disappointed in myself when I do not. And I am going to hope that when I do have time to return to my novel-in-progress next month, I will see the tricky parts with fresh eyes and feel my love for my main character more strongly than ever.
And to my friends who are also struggling to find time and energy to write, I hope that you will be able to confront your mean, guilt-feeding voices and trust that all of the writing lessons you’ve learned are there inside you, too—they just don’t make quite as much noise.