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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A question that’s been bouncing around in my mind a lot lately is what will it be like raising a child and being a writer at the same time? I’ve heard many writers talk about how difficult it can be to find time to write when you have children to take care of and spend time with. This is especially difficult, I’m sure, when you’re not in a position where your spouse can earn all the money and you can just stay home and be a parent/writer.
For a long time—back when I didn’t want to have a kid—I felt very lucky to be living a life where there were never many obstacles standing in the way of my writing time. I had to work, sure, and sometimes work kept me busier than others, and I had to spend time with my husband (“had to” sounds bad—how about “wanted to, but also needed to if I wanted to keep the relationship a healthy one”?), but still, I could always scrounge at least an hour or two every day in which to write, if I really tried. Having a child, which wasn’t something I had any interest in doing for other reasons, seemed especially undesirable because it would further limit my writing time.
Somewhere along the line, though, I completely changed my mind. I knew being a parent and a writer would involve a difficult juggling act, but I didn’t care. I wanted to go for it anyway, and if that meant writing had to be pushed to the back burner, so be it.
As the end of my pregnancy draws near (I’m entering the home stretch—just beginning my third trimester), I am beginning to wonder more and more about the future. I don’t regret the decision to have a baby, and I’m not wondering in that woe-is-me, what-did-I-get-myself-in-to sort of way. Whether being a mom and a writer will be hard or not, it doesn’t change the fact that I desperately wanted to have a baby and am glad every day that my husband and I decided to get pregnant. I’m wondering, instead, in that need-to-be-prepared-for-what-lies-ahead sort of way, because maybe if I know what’s coming, I’ll better be able to keep these different juggling balls in the air.
I’ve heard different things from different moms who have been through it before. I’ve been told that writing will be impossible for the first few months and that I should just go with it, not worry because there’s no way I would have the energy for writing anyway. I’ve been told that finding time to write is easy enough—I just have to be willing to write for fifteen minutes here, twenty there; I just have to write when the baby is sleeping. I’ve heard, too, that I should follow a schedule—get up at 6:00 AM every morning and tell my husband, “This is when I write”; if the baby needs tending to, it’s his responsibility for that one or two hours a day.
So which is it? Will I have the time but not the energy? Will I have the energy but need to steal the time, a few minutes here, a few there? Will I have both, as long as I work it out with my husband (which would be, by the way, no problem. That’s one wonderful thing about being married to another writer—he definitely understands that gnawing need to write).
I guess I’ll find out soon enough. Of course, I’m hoping that I’ll turn out to be some sort of super mom, who has endless energy (and patience) and is able to tend to the baby’s every need when she’s awake, then write like there is no tomorrow when she’s asleep (and when I’m not working), but what’s more likely is that sometimes I’ll have the strength to do it all and sometimes I just won’t, and the thing that will always have to get cut is writing, because I have to take care of my baby and I have to work.
In the meantime, I’m trying to build up my momentum as a writer, and I’m hoping that momentum will carry me through those first few difficult and exhausting months after the baby is born. If I’m in the habit of writing for at least an hour a day when the baby is born, maybe it will be easier to keep it up, or at least keep writing at all, in the midst of all that chaos. Either way, I plan to put in a genuine effort, and if there are days where I just can't seem to manage it, I’m going to try not to get too down on myself. After all, some things in life are far, far, far more important than writing.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

This new project I’ve been working on—writing letters to my unborn daughter in the style of an epistolary memoir—has, fortunately, fanned the embers of the dying fire that is my desire to write. Since starting this project, I’ve not only been devotedly working on these letters but have also recovered my interest in working on fiction—hurray!
But wait. Here’s where it starts to get tricky.
I’m still at least thirty-one flavors worth of excited about this letters to my daughter project—doing something so different like this is challenging and rewarding and exciting and . . . and . . .—but I also want to be working on a children’s book project, which I really, really, really want to finish (at least in draft form) by the time my baby is born. In addition, I’ve been starting to daydream again about that novel I was submerged in the second draft of a year ago when I got word my first book was being published, and I’ve been itching to get started on some new short stories on top of that.
And so this is about the point where I begin to feel overwhelmed.
When I was in my MFA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I attended a craft talk by HarperTeen author J. T. Dutton. During the Q & A after her lecture, someone asked Dutton what advice she has for people struggling with writer’s block. She said that she believes often all writer’s block is is having too many ideas and not being able to settle on one and just get it done. I thought that was absolutely brilliant.
I feel, right now, at risk for developing that sort of block if I’m not careful. For several months I was on again off again blocked in that more frustrating, I-don’t-have-anything-to-say way. This new nonfiction project has successfully jarred that block open, but now the ideas feel like they’re just flooding in, and I’m starting to feel at risk of drowning.
Which of these projects should I be working on? And if I make up my mind to divide my time between some specific projects, what if I just can’t get one of the others out of my head? I know if I try to spread myself too thin, the block will come on full force again, and I’m still too fragile, I’m afraid, to be able to handle another extended period of block. I need to avoid it now before it pulls me down.
So it’s a tricky path I’m treading right now, but I guess the good news is that I see the obstacle in my way and hopefully still have time to maneuver around it. I need, though, to put together a plan to keep the block at bay. I think the best thing to do right now is probably to limit myself to no more than two projects, but the difficult decision is which two? Obviously, I should keep working on my letters, since those are what opened up my block to begin with. But beyond that, what other project is the right project to keep me motivated and keep me writing?
Maybe I should be working on some new stories, since I currently only have two stories in circulation. The value of working on stories, too, is that I can complete a first draft of a single story in a few days. If, at that point, I realize that I really need to be working on something else, I can. Well, here goes.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A few weeks ago I posted about how I’ve been struggling trying to catch my stride as a writer for the past several months. I received some excellent advice in the comments, which not only made me feel better (thank you! I really needed that!)  but also gave me some thoughts on what I might do to try to keep writing, even if I don’t feel, for whatever reason, that I can produce anything publishable right now.
So since then, I’ve been writing letters to my unborn daughter. It’s amazing how quickly this project opened me up and pulled me out of my slump. Since I started these letters two weeks ago, I’ve written 34 pages and still have plenty more to say. To give myself more practice writing a book length work (and so that it will be engaging enough that my daughter will actually want to read it!), I’m writing it in the style of an epistolary memoir and plan to revise it extensively after I finish a full draft. My goal is to have a complete draft done by the time my daughter is born in September.
This project has made me feel like a writer again, brimming with words I just have to get onto the page. I’ve once again recaptured that fantastic feeling of having my head half in a writing project throughout the day. Even when I’m not writing—I’ll be washing the dishes or doing laundry or lathering my hair in the shower—and some idea will come to me that I simply have to include: I should tell her about the time . . . I should talk to her about . . . I should share with her my experiences with . . .
I think part of the reason I’m so excited about this project is because it feels important. Anything else that I’ve tried to work on lately has raised the question, “What’s the point?” Because publishing a book was so anticlimactic. Because the novel I poured five years of my life into still languishes, unpublished, in a file on my computer. Because even the things I’ve published, hardly anyone will ever read. Because, now that I’m pregnant, I realize there are other things in life that are way more important than my career as a writer.
But this project feels, to me, like it matters. Once I started working on it, I was overcome with the feeling that my daughter has a right to know these things, that she needs to know these things. I want her to know me not just as her mom but as a human being, and I want her to know that she is not alone, that if she inherits my depression, my social anxiety, if she struggles with her feelings about religion, if she finds herself wondering why she doesn’t seem to belong anywhere, I want her to know that I understand, that I’ve been through it too, that I will do my best to help her along the way.
And so this project feels more important and meaningful to me than anything I ever wrote with the end goal of publication. And because this isn’t something I’m writing to publish, it’s very low stakes, which is probably another reason why it so easily opened that blocked writing passage in my mind. Maybe part of it, too, is that I’m doing something completely different from any type of writing I’ve ever seriously done—outside of a few assignments I’ve been given over the years, I’ve never attempted to write creative nonfiction—and perhaps just switching gears so completely knocked something loose in my mind. Whatever the reason, I’m writing again without having to force it, and it feels good. It feels damn good.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

In preparation for a presentation I’m doing this week at my local library, I’ve been thinking a lot about short fiction and what it has to offer that full length novels cannot. I always say that, in spite of the fact that I love reading novels as much as anyone, I believe that short fiction is innately superior. This probably seems a bit extreme, and it’s important that I make it clear that I do love novels and I think there are things that can be done with novels that can’t be done inside the boundaries of short fiction. However, in my opinion, fiction in its most perfect form is extremely focused and tight, and because of the length constraints, that’s exactly what you get with short fiction.
Novels, because they have hundreds of pages to take up, almost invariably meander around. They give lots of background information and provide ample details, and they’ll sometimes spend several pages on some aspect of the story or other that is not really important to the overall story arc. Because they have the space, because, in fact, they must fill in the space, novels spend a fair amount of time establishing characters, establishing setting, and so on. Which is to say, not every page is actively moving the story forward.
As a reader, I like novels because I like getting lost in another world for a period of several days—I like that I can live as if in two realities, one foot planted in my own world, the other in the world of whatever novel I’m in the middle of. This is something that short fiction almost by definition cannot offer, since you can read a short story in one sitting. No matter how much you loved being part of that world, once you put the story down you leave the story behind and wholly reenter the real world.
Yet at the same time, as a reader/writer, I almost always feel dissatisfied with novels after I finish them. I enjoy the ride, but find my mind wandering when a novel veers off into territory that doesn’t feel truly important to the overall story. Again, I feel I should reiterate that I do enjoy reading novels, but most of the time when I read a novel, I feel like it would have been better if certain parts of it had been trimmed. To be honest, it’s not even all that rare for me to finish a novel and feel that it should have been trimmed down to short story length. There was enough for about 30 good pages of story in here, I think to myself when I finish, but the rest of the book was just filler.
Not so with short fiction. Because the shorter forms—even novellas—don’t have room for filler, they remain tightly focused on the story at hand. There is very little room for exposition in short fiction, and the majority of the words must be used to actively move the story forward. While some people might argue that this means short fiction is less complex than the novel form, I completely disagree. In short fiction—good short fiction, anyway—the complexity is still there, but all the complicated nuances of these characters and their world must be layered on top of each other, using the same words that are being used to move from plot point to plot point. The writer must choose his or her words very carefully, and each word must carry as much weight and meaning as possible.
The shorter the story is, the more true this becomes, and by the time we get down to flash fiction, we end up with a story that has been so carefully crafted and with such close attention to language that we find ourselves almost at a crossroads between poetry and prose.
So, yes, based on my opinion (this is, of course, a very subjective matter) of what makes for good fiction, I believe that the short form is better than the novel. Does this mean I don’t read novels? Of course not. Does this mean I’m going to stop trying to write them? Never! But I do have a sincere appreciation for short fiction, especially when I come across a really, really, really good one. Though I’ll never stop wanting to immerse myself in another world for a longer amount of time than a piece of short fiction can offer me, I do see the novel as inherently flawed, and the writer side of me can’t help but praise the short form.