Hemingway’s famous advice to “go and write” is almost the contrary of what Virginia Woolf writes about in “A Room of One’s Own.” Woolf speaks of the metaphorical space of a room and the need for actual physical space and income for women, or anyone, to practice the art and craft of writing. This juxtaposed with Hemingway’s somewhat disingenuous directive really forms the basis of a common dilemma when dealing with giving writers tips on writing. While Hemingway went and wrote in Paris under the direction of Gertrude Stein subsidized by his wife, and Woolf was well aware of her unique position among most women writers at the turn of the twentieth century, most of the rest of us don’t have such opportunities nor do we have the financial backing. So, how do we write? What will make it so that we can write and survive?
Having a job and writing can be done, but it is not easy
One fundamental way that can and does work is to make a special time for writing that can’t be negotiated away. Whether you’ve set aside a two-week vacation, write every Monday afternoon between lunch and dinner time, or get up early and write for two hours before going to your job, anything that works for you with your schedule. I’ve written short stories in the mornings before going to a “real” job, and with my schedule as a professor I can set aside time during breaks, and sometimes grab a few hours each week when school is in session. My job can make finding the time to write easier than other occupations, but there are also demands on educators that can make it just as difficult to write as any other work. There are also writing jobs such as journalism that can help you focus on writing, but have their own demands. However, some people have become critically acclaimed authors while working as doctors, lawyers, insurance actuaries and so on. Having a job and writing can be done, but it is not easy, and brings us to one main point – writing takes discipline.
However, there are problems with mixing any form of work, including child rearing with writing. While you have to guard you writing time, you also will need to be flexible. Writing during your child’s nap time is a good idea; let the house get messy. Shut off the phone; stay off the internet. I have a friend who disconnects from the internet when he writes. The point is to make sure you write often enough to keep the ideas flowing, and limit your distractions.
Keep track of how much you write. This will keep you honest. If it was only 100 words, that’s 100 more than you had the day before. If you get on a role and crank out a couple of thousand, then pat yourself on the back. My undergraduate workshop writer-in-residence Campbell Black claimed that he could write 10,000 words at a sitting. I think that such productivity is very rare; it’s more likely for you that some days you will write one sentence, and then later delete it – so be it.
It’s good to have an idea notebook or folder full of files on your computer where you keep story ideas, anecdotes, first lines, dialogue, or other good ideas that you can draw on if you are having problems with a story. My novel (Daring to Eat a Peach, Atticus Books) came from a short story that started in my idea book as a few sentences about using translation as a metaphor for interpersonal relations, and another idea of having characters making decisions with a mix of autonomy, temperament, and random chance. When I was listening to a reading of T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” on NPR the rest of the idea fell into place. Similarly, as I work on a piece, if I have an idea that doesn’t quite fit what I’m working on, I save it in a separate file and go back to it later. Some have compared writing to fishing. You need to keep the line wet in order to catch a fish. Another thing is to be persistent. Some writers get lucky and find an audience right away, sundry others don’t. But you need to keep sending your material out, and keep track of where you’ve sent it. It’s all part of the chore of writing.
What else can I offer? Perhaps a variation on the advice “go and write,” would be to “make it a point to write.” Make it part of your life, not an extra thing that you will get around to when the mood strikes you – it won’t. Many have noted that it’s a lot easier to talk about writing than it is to do it. Above all, though be honest with yourself. If whatever bizarre brain chemistry makes it so that writing is part of your being, then let those around you know it, and make sure they understand what it means. Many are willing to deal with the eccentricities of living with people who have unusual interests such as mountain climbing, graffiti art, or competitive church bell ringing; writing is just another of one of those unusual things that people do.