Writing through life

I made up a writing project thing a few months back that I like to call 100 Days of Writing. My goal is to write, more or less, for 100 days (betcha didn’t see that one coming). It’s really helped me get my discipline back post-thesis, and just last week I hit the 2/3 mark.

I’ve always been the type of writer (read: person) who procrastinates. I get my work done, but I tend to work best under pressure. So when I’ve got time to myself and I’ve got a choice between writing and, say, reorganizing the pantry, guess which I choose? (Seriously, not-writing helps me get a lot done.) But now I’ve got this daily deadline, as it were, which means that if I, say, decide to go to the bar before I’ve written, I’ll be staying up super late to get it done. It’s done wonders for my productivity.

But then this week some unexpected things happened. Wednesday I got un-laid off (maybe, sorta, kinda?). Thursday I got a phone call informing me that my dog immune system decided to attack his own blood cells and that he was effectively dying (he’s still at the vet’s). Saturday I had to redo my taxes because I realized I screwed up the first time, and I spent the entire day in a (totally stupid) panic that now the IRS is going to come after me. Basically, it’s been one big emotional roller coaster, and my up-til-now elevated level of just-do-it-ness has plummeted drastically. I find that I pretty much just want to sit on the couch and play video games do nothing. And I can’t help feeling that it’s times like this that separate the real writers from the wannabes, and I’m afraid I’m falling on the wrong side of this stupid little dichotomy I’m setting up in my head. But life does happen, and we must write through it.

Yesterday, while at the vet clinic for a visit with my dog, in an attempt to detach myself from the sight of my 6 pound dog with an IV in his leg, a cone around his neck, and a downright depressed attitude, I found myself composing lines about how I can now speak in bilirubin and blood count numbers (though I had a lurking suspicion that I was inadvertently plagiarizing someone, not that I can’t think of who). I knew I wasn’t going to use these lines right away, knew the moment was too raw (not to mention stuck in limbo), but the thought of creating them and saving them made me feel like I was creating, even with everything else that was going on. I still haven’t written any of it down. I know I should. Not only is it good practice, but I know good can come of it.

The last time something like this happened (though, please don’t think I’m equating sick dog to what I’m about to mention, I’m really not that callous), I ended up writing, in almost one straight session, the piece that would become my grad school writing sample. I wrote about a family sitting in the waiting room of a hospital while their grandmother was in ICU…while my family was in the waiting room of the hospital and my grandmother was down the hall in ICU. That was all that matched—no characters, no dialogue, not even any description—but that moment felt so real, and I needed to write (one of the few times in my life I can honestly say I felt that cliche).

I’m not really sure what I’m spiraling to in the end here, other than an examination of the times when life and writing intersect in difficult ways. I’m starting to accept that there isn’t some one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how we go about working through these times, using the moments of our life that we want to just step away from—I don’t even have the answer that fits me, now. But I’ve got this life, and I’ve got this goal, and I’m determined to not fail.

6 Comments

  • Melissa says:

    “I knew I wasn’t going to use these lines right away, knew the moment was too raw (not to mention stuck in limbo), but the thought of creating them and saving them made me feel like I was creating, even with everything else that was going on. I still haven’t written any of it down. I know I should. Not only is it good practice, but I know good can come of it.”

    I like this observation. I wonder if by worrying so much about not writing about these raw moments because we’re too close to them, if we lose the ability to really capture the emotion of them later. If we assume that hindsight and distance from the moment changes our perspective (for better or worse), I would think that I’d want to be able to look back at notes to see exactly how I was observing things at that moment. That way, like some of us talked about in the “Core Emotions” workshop, you can extract the most powerful parts of that experience and translate them into your fiction. The resulting story can be wildly different, but you’re still capturing that emotion in a true way. Still, maybe there are certain things we can’t or shouldn’t write about until we have a little distance from them. I just wonder if we’re overly concerned about avoiding writing about those hugely impactful moments in our lives.

    • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

      I think you’ve inspired me to go try to write out at least some of what’s been going through my head. Especially because now I’ve added a hospitalized family member to list. Avoiding it doesn’t mean it’s not happening, and I don’t really have anything to lose.

  • Sam Edmonds says:

    My grad school sample was actually an edited email I wrote to a friend, after I found out my girlfriend was boning my best friend. I hate to think that terrible things have to happen to one to push one into the desk chair, but that’s just kinda how it goes sometimes. Especially for vanilla-ass dudes like me who had happy childhoods and write nonfiction.

    • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

      I’ve worked hard to get away from being an emotional writer, especially since I spent a long period of time only writing when I was depressed or angry. And now I’ve apparently gone too far the other way. I think I just need to push the pendulum back toward the middle.

      And I also had a happy childhood. So I write fiction and create characters with unhappy childhoods, almost as if I’m jealous or something. I can’t decide if that’s screwed up or just…interesting.

      • Melissa says:

        There’s a line from a movie I haven’t seen yet (the nearest place it’s playing is in Seattle), but the main character is a male writer who says, “My great shame as a writer is that I’m just this suburban kid with good parents. Hardly Dickensian, you know what I’m saying?”

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