This personal essay appeared in The Review Review in September 2016.
What do you need to write?
A pen and paper, for some people. Keyboard. You need a table or a lap or a drawing board. If you’re making an outline or storyboard, you need a wall to pin your notes on and watch them as they migrate. These objects and surfaces have to be secure, too. The worst fear is leaving a notebook open and losing pages to the wind. A writer is usually one hard drive crash away from total misery.
But, looking more deeply, the writer’s craft requires space. And time. The combination of these, in the act of writing, translates to privacy. Imagine the ideal writer’s room, the studio you’d like to write in. A desk where you can sit without being disturbed. Maybe there’s a window that lets in just the right amount of light, a slice of view that teases your imagination without distracting you. Your books, notes, and clutter, left untouched. There must be a door, too, to close. And outside the door, a life that does not scream stridently when left unattended. Laundry that does itself, dishes that don’t pile in the sink, meals that appear at the right time and don’t need tidying up.
Time, too, is critical. Adam Gopnik observed that “Writing is turning time into language, and all good writers have an elaborate, fetishistic relationship to their working hours.” Time is an essential ingredient, and when writers talk shop, the topic always comes up. We’re like teenagers comparing masturbation habits. When, how much, how long. It isn’t just about the making of words — time for what’s happening off the page is important, too. Writing as an act is incomplete without time to daydream, draft, and edit.
Putting a price tag on privacy, time, and space, not to mention the basic tools of writing isn’t easy. These are the things we take for granted when we are in a position to enjoy them — and that feel as distant as stars when we aren’t. This is the paradox, for writers. Although publishing is often described as a meritocracy, that glosses over the fact that for artists and writers, time is money. Money buys the time, the private spaces, the laptop that doesn’t crap out every third reboot. Without some measure of this — and I call it privilege, because there’s no other word for the sheer freedom it imparts — writing is impossible.
I didn’t realize any of this until my son was born.
Before he arrived, I was a dilettante at best. I wrote every day, in tortured bursts. I was starting to see my short stories published in the journals — the kind of attention that was encouraging, because it meant that I was at least finding my mark with readers. I paced a lot. I arranged my life around my writing, and as Michael Seidlinger says, used “an immense amount of energy creating optimum writing conditions.” I was either procrastinating or producing, and obsessed equally with both processes. I worked, some, with the attitude of someone who knows that the bills weren’t piling up. I could always find another job. I lived in a house with a few other people, my own room, no expenses. I had time, and I luxuriated in it.
Nothing changed my relationship to time like being a mother. Suddenly, my time — not to mention my body — was not my own. My daily life changed. I wasn’t drinking anymore, and I didn’t work the day shift, either. Now, I was waking up every two hours to breastfeed. I addressed the chronic tasks of washing diapers, cooking, cleaning, nap times, doctors’ appointments, grocery shopping. And there was a bad marriage to negotiate, which added immensely to the load I was carrying. For the first year of my son’s life, I wrote one sentence at a time, on a yellow notepad on top of the bookshelf in the corner of the living room.
That year, I got my first paid story published. Vestal Review paid me $12.14, which I promptly spent on diapers. I thought of novelist John Updike, who singlehandedly supported his family as a staff writer at The New Yorker. After two years, Updike left the magazine to write full-time, continuing to contribute until the end of his life in 2009. Was any of that even possible anymore?
Then, I divorced, and my relationship to space changed, too.
I was 26 when I left him. I took our son, the car with my name on the title, and a few hundred dollars from the checking account. My resources were zero. I knew I’d get nothing in the divorce settlement, which was in any case a long way off. This was a hard time. When my son wasn’t with me, I couch-surfed, slept in my car, and tried to figure out what to do next. I took whatever work came my way, eventually landing two barista jobs, a stable writing gig as a book reviewer, and some housekeeping work on the side. Through all of this, I wrote. I wrote ferociously — every spare minute. There weren’t many of them.
Luckily, I was accepted to a low residency MFA program, which meant I’d be able to take some loans eventually. This was not my ticket to a better life, not at all. Even at the time, I knew it was an opulent decision. Graduate school meant that a lifetime of un-pay-off-able debt would be coming my way. Each residency period would mean ten unpaid days away from work, while my mom watched my son and I tried to cover my bills on a third of my usual income. It meant more late nights, more side gigs, more anxiety. All so that I could write.
I remember my first semester at my MFA. The writer leading the group asked us to go around the table and, as an icebreaker, describe our work spaces. I listened carefully as the others talked about their rooms, studies, studios, and offices. They all had computers. They had privacy. Their children were in high school or older, not still in diapers. When it was my turn, I told the truth: that I wrote, one sentence at a time, with whatever was at hand. That I wrote on the bus with my son on my lap, taking him to day care before I went to yet another double shift. That I wrote on my breaks. That I texted sentences to myself. I told them that I wrote when my son went to sleep at night, staying up an extra hour to crank out the draft of another short story.
They stared at me as though I was an alien. My ears prickled, and my cheeks flushed. I was ashamed of my poverty — ashamed that I couldn’t afford what they had. Finding an apartment with an extra bedroom was beyond my reach. Taking a day off wasn’t an option for me — we needed every penny. And then, I looked at my classmates and realized that, regardless of the comforts they possessed, they were not better writers than me. They had yet to be published, much less finish a long project. They didn’t know how to work at writing. I did. And I was willing to do anything to keep writing — I had to, if I wanted to produce anything at all.
That may have been the most valuable thing I learned in graduate school.
Writers who are short on time — who aren’t born rich, or have families to support, or are busting our rumps to make up for the disparities imparted by class and race — write less, as a rule. There simply isn’t time. Add to this the expense of submission and contest fees, photocopying, postage, buying books, maintaining a computer or even paying for new pens. One of my favorite daydreams was walking out of a bookstore with anything I wanted. I admit to stealing stamps, envelopes, and paper from one of my office jobs. I swiped my library card until the bar code was unreadable. I got familiar with Submittable and kept sending out stories. Sometimes, I got published; usually, it was not for payment.
As much as I invested in my fiction, I had to learn was that I couldn’t be precious about my writing anymore. I no longer had long afternoons to loll in bed, restructuring a paragraph. Self-doubt had to go straight out the window. So did writer’s block. I simply didn’t have time to agonize over my process anymore. By the time one of those rare free minutes came along, I had to use it. I didn’t know when the next one would arrive. The amount of effort I had to invest in finding the time to write, edit, and submit was Herculean, for me. I stopped asking for permission to write and just did it. I had to. Nobody was going to tell me that I deserved time to write. Nobody was going to make that easier for me, or lighten my load, or even congratulate me on my progress. I had to do that myself — so I did.
In the beginning, I didn’t have time to make it to readings, connect with other writers, or take a weekend away just to hammer out a much-needed chapter or two. Applying for a fellowship or relocating for a residency was completely out of my reach. That’s the “privilege” part of creativity: the time and resources to invest in your talent. I was painfully aware that every single minute I spent on my writing was a minute stolen from my son, or from a job that kept us afloat. I know I’m not the only one, either. How many writers remain silent because their words never make it to the page? How many stories remain unwritten? When you pick up a literary magazine and flip through it, you’re handling hours of work. The novel you breeze through in an afternoon cost someone years to make. I didn’t appreciate that before I tried writing one.
Envying the people who did have the opportunities I coveted wasn’t productive, so I had to stop comparing myself to others. I also had to give up the fantasy that I think so many writers have: that as my writing got better, everything else would improve, too. I stopped hoping that I’d somehow qualify for Updike’s kind of success and focused on economy instead. I realized that great writers weren’t necessarily people who had access to education, a work space, family money, and the other things that give creativity a nice cushion to sit on. A writer was someone who wrote, no matter what. I got my pen and went hunting for my muse. What I found was the confidence to create under all conditions, and a rock solid belief in myself. I didn’t need those things. I was already writing. My creativity existed regardless of privilege. I was free.
My obsession paid off. Instead of feeling trapped by my revolving day jobs, parenting responsibilities, and conflict with my son’s father, I felt like I was being forced into a narrow channel. My energy was concentrated, becoming a single beam. I ceased fucking around. I wasn’t a writer who merely wanted to write. I put my head down and I wrote.