By Yourself

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames. Check out Readers On Deadline and Dame Toni’s excellent post this past week!

Writing is a lonely job.

Yes, you have to deal with people. You have to be personable and professional. You do have to know how to deal with editors, agents, fellow writers, and fans. You go to conventions, you go to signings, you use social-networking because marketing means you must. But that’s only a small (albeit significant) part of a writer’s career. The icing on the cupcake, as it were.

The rest of that cupcake is you and the words. You, sitting in front of your typewriter or keyboard, you with the pen in your hand and the blank paper in front of you. You, you, you.

Nobody else.

This is why I say writing is a lonely job. Even while collaborating, YOU have to do YOUR part of the work. It doesn’t get done by itself. YOU need to carve out time to get YOUR work done. You need to make sure you have the emotional and physical resources to spend on the writing–because writing, like any other activity, takes energy. You must fill the well you’re drawing on, or you’re courting burnout. Which is no fun.

Writing, like any creative endeavor, requires a certain amount of solitude.

We all know about the lone, creative artist. Solitude is an important route to creativity; indeed, research on creative and talented teenagers suggests that the most talented youngsters are those who treasure their solitude. However, the artist in all of us must risk disconnection, for forging a happy and worthwhile life—and navigating through that life fully and gracefully—is itself a creative act. –Ester Buchholz, Psychology Today

Yes, I have a point. I am edging my way toward it, because you’ve all heard me say this before. Here it is:

If you want to have a long-term sustainable career as a writer, a critical component is prioritizing the time you need not only to write, but to be alone with your thoughts, alone with yourself. Solitude is not a luxury, it is a necessity and prerequisite. The responsibility for getting it is yours.

Writers, especially women writers, are used to mortgaging bits of themselves. There’s the day job, and the kids, and the Significant Other, and the bills, and the minutiae of daily life. It’s easy for writing to get lost in the shuffle, to fall through the cracks, for you to say “I’ll get around to it when…” When the dog gets better, when the kids grow up and don’t need me, when the grass doesn’t need mowing, when the groceries don’t need to be picked up, in a little bit, tomorrow, not today, some other time.

These are the little nibbles that eventually end up killing our souls. Or less dramatically, killing the strength and time we need to write.

Did I feel guilty when I ignored the laundry so I could finish a book? You bet. Did I feel terrible each time I was interrupted during a crucial scene by a diaper emergency or some other damn thing and I felt a flash of resentment? Yes. Do I even now sometimes feel like a bad mother/person because I do things purely to keep myself awake and alive (in Peter Gabriel’s words), when I should be sacrificing every moment and every waking thought to someone else’s needs? Sure. Do I feel bad that I’m apparently such a selfish bitch that I sometimes need ten minutes to myself? Oh, hell yes.

I’d feel even guiltier if I let the writing slide. I don’t have the luxury of stopping now, because I’m a single mother and this is how I support my kids. In order to work effectively and turn out books some people (apparently, so far, knock on wood) want to buy, I need certain things. One of those things is a certain measure of solitude. I have skirted the edge of burnout and found out it’s not a place I like to be; it interferes with my ability to meet deadlines. So, even if it takes barricading the bathroom door (and since I’ve had toddlers and I still have neurotic cats, actual barricading is sometimes necessary) I’ve learned that taking some solitude is a necessary evil.

Bukowski once remarked that he needed solitude the way other men needed bread. I am not nearly the misanthrope he had the reputation of being, but I understand the principle. I have had to fight not only against the needs of people I’ve lived with, friends and companions, but against my own feeling of selfishness when I say, “No. I need time for myself.” I engage in the battle because writing matters to me, and having the time and energy to write matters to me. (Not least because it’s how I pay the rent.)

No day is so busy you can’t set aside ten minutes to write. Ten minutes of effort every day is better than saying “I’ll write for hours tomorrow, or the day after, or when this crisis is over, or when I have time…” Don’t weekend-warrior it. Little chunks of daily effort will help send the signal to yourself that you are serious about this writing thing, and that you have a right to be serious about it. That you have a right to do something you love for a small amount of time each day. This can be a stepping stone to larger chunks of time, or you may find out that you’d rather weave baskets or something during those ten minutes.

I should probably warn you about this, too. Treating writing as a priority (and getting in the habit of not getting derailed) has a funny way of helping you enforce healthy boundaries in other areas of your life. In sick systems, including some relationships, you’re not supposed to set boundaries. You are supposed to be ever available, a resource to be thoughtlessly used and discarded. Setting boundaries and enforcing them may have unexpected consequences. Someone who has depended on you to be available and self-sacrificing 24-7 may see this tiny slice of time for yourself as a direct threat. It happens, and it’s not pretty.

Not every writer’s situation is so dire. Your true friends will understand when you occasionally say, “Not now,” or “Not today.” They will feel a momentary disappointment, but then they’ll go on to star in their own lives for the rest of the day. Most of the time, pretty much everyone you say “no” to on a daily basis will get over it. Your own feelings of “I should, I should” are much more insidious, much harder to deal with, and much more dangerous.

In the end, you are the only person who can decide how much solitude you need, how important it is, how to get it, and what the consequences are likely to be. You are the only person who can decide if it’s worth the price, the work, and the effort. This is a lonely job, but at bottom it’s not really any lonelier than the choice you make to keep getting up in the morning and going into an office or to any other job. It’s just that the independent-contractor aspect of writing lays that choice a little more starkly bare.

This is all up to you.

It is indeed a lonely job. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Even if it is–slowly, grudgingly, fighting through my stubbornness–teaching me how to live.

But that’s (say it with me) another blog post.

Over and out.

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