Book Worm. Writing Bug.

Book Worm

Living in a house without books is like walking around with one hollow leg.  I am off balance, incomplete.  After a move, I’m always eager to jump into unpacking my books as soon as possible because of that sense of comfort, that sense of safety the books bring to me, but in my last few moves I noticed a new feeling creeping in – disappointment.  A certain nostalgia for the hopes I once had and disappointment in what my life has become.  As a result, this time around I had been putting it off, both delaying the gratification of feeling once again whole and staving off the introspection this process brings about, but after weeks of letting them stew in their big stacks of messy reused boxes, I just couldn’t put it off any longer.

Unpacking my books is like walking through a retrospective of my life’s dreams, all of which have involved writing.  From the stack of Hemingway that blew the doors off of my adolescent world to the Beats that legitimized my years of drug-hazed rebellion to Lydia Davis and Mary Robison and all those genius contemporary women that made me believe there might be room after all for a voice like mine squeezed into that cannon of great literature.

I don’t know if the relationship to books is the same for all writers, nor do I know if non-writers experience a similar attachment.  All I know is that for as long as I can remember, my books have been my refuge and my identity, my peace and my joy.  In many ways, they have shaped me more than any friend, teacher, or parent.  But this is ground that’s been covered by a million other writers more skilled than me.

This is not a post about how my books are my best friends.  This is a post about how my best friends have let me down.

From the first novel I wrote when I was seven years old all the way through the inception of this blog, I have always known that I was meant to be a writer.  Writing is, as I so often tell my staff, the only thing I am an expert in.  But none of the staff I like to share this expertise with are writers, and my job has nothing to do with writing.

Like so many writers before me, I found a place for myself in higher education, but unlike most of my heroes and my more successful contemporaries, I didn’t find a place in the classroom, but in the administration building.  Yes, I teach a class every semester or two, but aside from those intermittent schedule assignments I’m only nominally involved in the writing program and in no way connected to the literary magazine that they produce.  And what’s worse, I have no desire for any involvement beyond this.

I like teaching freshman composition because I’m able to help build the skills that my students will need no matter where they go in life, but at the risk of branding myself a heretic I must question the value of teaching them writing skills beyond this.  What good will it do them to learn how to write short stories or free verse poetry?  What’s the point of an undergraduate writing degree anyway?  Isn’t it just setting up these young people for the disappointment of day jobs and rejection letters?

When I consider my own academic path and the value that my MFA has brought to my life, it seems unfair to deem writing programs unworthy or a waste of time.  But for all the good my degree has done for my me, I can’t help but wonder if maybe my life would be happier without it, and without a writing practice at all.  Couldn’t I then just be satisfied with my life without always asking those same questions – What if I had only tried a little harder?  What if I committed myself a little more?  What if that last unfinished story was the one that would have been my big break?

All my life I travelled with the dream of something bigger.  I thought my life would be something worthy of literature, and that my attempts at literature would be worthy of someone taking note.  And for a while my life was noteworthy.  I did exciting things all the time.  I was impulsive and passionate.  I fluttered around from country to country, driven by dreams and by true love – what could be more bookworthy than that?  But when it came to writing it all down, that charisma didn’t quite translate.  I managed to fulfill my dream of living a modern day equivalent of The Sun Also Rises, but Hemingway I was not.

While I was unpacking this weekend, I found a stack of stories and chapters in progress that I had printed out months ago during one of my increasingly infrequent bouts of ambition in which I believe I will find the time (and the cojones) to finally start sending out work for publication.  I looked at the stories I was writing, the worlds I was creating, and all I wanted was to lock the door to my den and not come out until that next book was done and ready to go.  But then I looked at the clock and counted backwards from an optimistic estimation of the baby’s wakeup time and came up with a number that was already too small to constitute a full night’s sleep.  I thought through my calendar for the week, thought about ways that maybe I could sneak in time at work or get myself functional at 4am to have an hour of writing time before the baby starts calling for me.  For a few minutes I dreamed that with just a little more time management ingenuity I could come up with something solid and complete for the first time in too, too long.

And then I snapped out of it.

So now what?  At thirty-four, I feel a number of decisions weighing on me – Do I have another child?  Do I embark on a PhD?  If I pursue a PhD, do I follow the course of my heart or the course of my career?  And where would my writing fit into these hypothetical scenarios, if at all?  I think so often about leaving it behind, but it seems no matter what I do, this is a bug I just can’t shake.

Lately I’ve been feeling that I finally may have hit on something.  With this blog I feel I have freed up my voice, I’ve finally figured out how to write freely without the pressure of all those literary giants looming down on me.  I feel like only after giving up on those big ideas of being a writer did I finally really start to write.  And right now, for one more week at least, that feels like enough.

Writing Bug

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10 thoughts on “Book Worm. Writing Bug.

  1. Dear Anna, I so connected with this post as I too always thought I would be a writer and also wrote my first novel age 7 about war evacuees. Unlike you, I married young, had two children and studied for a degree and then a teaching qualification. It was only in my mid-thirties I returned to writing and believed if I would just put in some effort I would make it. So many years on, I have plenty of novels (most unfinished) and a lot of short stories, some minimal successes (places in competitions), but also a growing feeling of disappointment that this dream of mine is not going to happen because I am not really serious about it. If I was I would have given up my well paid job and put my all into getting there. At best I am a part time writer. I love teaching and i am good at it. If I did give it up and I still failed, I am not sure how I would view myself. I guess it is fear of failure that stops me taking the plunge (that and the mortgage). But like you I need to write. Not sure I can offer you any encouragement, except to say, I hear you and I get you and your blog posts always make me think.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Juliet. I think working in education creates an especially difficult paradigm for writers – it employs many of the same skills and provides much of the same sort of creative satisfaction, but in creating this opportunity for a contented (if not totally fulfilled) life makes it awfully easy to sit back with comfortable lifestyle and never fully take that big plunge. It sounds like you are managing to have a lovely life with your husband and children despite all of the effort involved in being both a full-time teacher AND a part-time writer. I hope that I am able to continue with my writing practice and find the commitment and balance you seem to have found in your own life. Thank you for your kind words!

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  2. Hi Anna, another great post. You have a gift. I am starting to realise that many of us feel the way you describe. I am no writer, and I can’t put into words what you just put out there even though I do have my fair share of stories. Photography is my thing. Always has been. And I am stuck. In exactly the same way. Except that my full time job right now is looking after my 3 girls because my husband is the one “with the career”. I blame myself for not trying hard enough. Then I go back and look at it from another angle and I try to be a bit kinder to myself because sometimes it’s not “just” about trying and time management, sometimes you have to be in the right place in you life, that only will enable to ride that wave.

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    1. Yes, you must be kinder to yourself! At a certain point I think we need to accept that all of the time management in the world will still only yield 24 hours in a day, and as far as I’m concerned right now, certain things must remain sacred. I think you’ve hit on an important point by saying that sometimes you just need to be in the right place in your life, and right now the place I’m in demands other things of me – being a good mother to my daughter, laying the foundation for a strong marriage, and establishing myself in a career that will create the kind of long-term stability that will allow more room for writing later on.
      I read so many blogs about the seemingly perfect lives of other moms, and I get so nervous when I post an admission of how my life feels sometimes less than perfect, less than exactly what I wanted it to be. Thank you for reading and thank you for sharing!

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  3. My novel (at nine years old – late bloomer compared to ya’ll) was of course about a bunch of orphans trying to make it on their own, and my writing goal was to make it to 100 pages, handwritten, front and back. Now, as an adult, I have a finished novel that I am equally proud of, but lack the motivation to keep researching agents, editing query letters, sending it out, etc. I just want to write and be fulfilled by it, not sell myself. This is not a criticism of the publishing world or the whole necessary process. It’s just where I’m at, with two young kids and all the other life stuff that goes on. At some point I will start writing fiction again, and maybe revise the novel to keep sending it out, but for now the blog is enough to feed the writing bug. Thanks for sharing your own thoughts on what it means to be a writer in the real world.

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    1. Whenever I feel bad about not having published a book, I try reminding myself of the different paths to publication that my friends have followed. One sent her notably non-commercial book to almost a hundred publishers and got rejections for all but one, then her book ended up being a critical and commercial success. Another friend published several experimental novels in small runs with small houses, then found an agent, then in middle age had all of his early work discovered by the French and ended up in the middle of a bidding war for European publishing rights. Yet another went the totally traditional route – she wrote a novel, followed the right plot and character structures, found an agent, got a big book deal. There are many paths to success, and I like to think about this whenever I get down on the whole publishing world.
      But then I think about the common denominators among these three friends – time, persistence and guts. They all spent a LOT of time not just on writing, but on trying to get their writing published. They also didn’t give up when they got rejected, or when no one bought their books. Unfortunately, as a working mom I so little time to spare that getting even one rejection letter can feel like a massive failure because of what I had to sacrifice just to get that one submission out. Which, like you I suppose, is why I blog. All the joy of writing without all that postscript work searching for publication.

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      1. Thank you for your thoughtful response. I wonder if I would react as maturely if I were surrounded by as many successful writers as you! But it’s reassuring to know that the attempt to get published is time-consuming for almost everyone. I’m going to remember the “time, persistence and guts” model and try to work up some ambition sometime in the near future. Because, even if I am sometimes loathe to admit it, recognition can deepen fulfillment.

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  4. Oh, I so get this, especially the part about being at a point in your life where you feel like you need to decide — go for it or shelve it for who knows how long. I trap myself into thinking this way a lot. With three small children, a freelance career that I’m trying to grow (out of necessity), and no outside help, there’s very little time for my own writing. And when I do get that time, all the other things I should be doing nag at me to the point where I can’t concentrate. For now, I’m setting a goal and taking it one day at a time. There are days when I miraculously carve out an hour or so of writing and there are days when a clumsy 10 minutes will have to do. And that’s okay. For now.

    This sentence jumped out at me: “I think so often about leaving it behind, but it seems no matter what I do, this is a bug I just can’t shake.” I actually just wrote a post on why I continue to write. I firmly believe that some of us are just born writers, even if our work is never published. Your friends who have been published are no more writers than you or me. We just have to decide how bad we want it, if we’re will to shake the bug for good, or if we want to commit to it, whether it’s 10 mintues a day or 2 hours a day. I read somewhere that a well-lknown author (I forget who now) wrote their first novel by snatching 10-minute increments here and there when their kids were young. Just goes to show that it can be done. It’s all mindset, drive and discipline — all of which are difficult to hold onto when you already feel pulled in so many directions.

    So sorry for my novel length comment! Loved this post. It obviously got me thinking. 🙂

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    1. Don’t worry, I love long comments! What I find amazing is that before I had my daughter, I was always complaining that I didn’t have enough time for writing. Unless I was able to sit down for a good two or three hour stretch, I just didn’t think it counted – who can get the flow going in less than ninety minutes? So I would write maybe once a week, maybe a couple of times a month. I was always just too busy to give it any more than that.
      Then I had my daughter and the choices became very, very narrow. I could give it up completely, or I could make the most of every moment. I thought about stories I had hear Elizabeth Alexander tell, about writing a line or two of a poem with one arm while nursing her baby with the other, or the story about Mary Robison writing Why Did I Ever on a collection of sticky notes and index cards. And I decided I would make the most of every moment.
      In the last year and a half, I’ve written more consistently and produced more work than I had since finishing my book in the year after grad school. The compromise is having less down time, and basically giving up on the idea of getting published in the traditional sense. I think as young mothers struggling to maintain an independent identity – whether as an artist or just as a human being – it’s possible to not only make do, but to do better thanks to the challenges that could otherwise feel constraining. I guess it’s all a question of perspective (which is fluid, of course – I might feel very differently about this again next week), and of focusing to a certain extent on the “For Now” quality of it all. At some point our kids will grow up and go lead their own lives; it’s important we not stop building our own while we wait for that to happen.
      I’ve missed your posts over the summer, glad to see you’re back at it!

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