Krista Tippet interviewed Mary Oliver, the famous and beloved poet, for On Being recently. She encouraged writers to have a specific time to write. It’s great for discipline, she says. The muse will come for regular appointments.
I’ve often thought that is true. But I don’t write like that. Maybe one day I will. It seems like a good idea. But what I actually do is scribble in the margins.
I’ve had a blog for 13 years, with about 2,000 posts. I have three books for sale on Amazon, and the big one that I’m getting ready to put out there this year called The Russian American School of Tomorrow.
RASOT is the one that demanded to be written, and I’ve been slogging away on it for more than ten years. I’ve given hundreds of incomplete drafts to friends, talked about it with strangers, mentally flagellating myself for not getting it done already.
What was wrong with me?
I would write on it on weekends in coffee shops.
I wrote on it while riding the bus to work.
Spare moments in my cube would find it up on my computer, me typing away.
I always always always had a notebook at hand. I would arrive early to meetings and write. I would write on it while other people were late to meetings. I would write on it when meetings got boring.
I loved work trips, plane flights and lonely hotel rooms where I could write. A hard day doing the paid day job and then no interruptions to write in a restaurant while the company bought me dinner.
Those were the times when I can look back and see the clarity. I may not have known what the book was going to say yet, but I loved the writing and myself doing it.
There were other times. When I just didn’t know what to do with RASOT and I cheated on it with other writing projects. That is how my first published book, The Parable of Miriam the Camel Driver, was born. I wanted to write a story that was easier. It came out in a series on my blog. I didn’t really think much of it, until it was done.
That was 2006 and self-publishing was an achievable thing. I learned about editing and layout, cover design, ISBNs and print-on-demand. I put it out on lulu.com and felt like a star.
But I knew my real book was still waiting to be finished. And my life was still pushing along. I got pregnant and knew that the book was in trouble. I printed out all my chapters (to date) and stapled them separately. I knew I might be able to read them and make notes while holding my newborn. Not the first month, but the second I went over each of these chapters and made notes and found plot inconsistencies, and got a better idea of how the story might progress.
And yes, I showed them to the people who came over to see the baby, with that special cringing pride of the work-in-progress.
Still later came the well. I mean, the falling-into-the-well-and-not-knowing-how-to-get-out. Was it post-partum or regular depression? Or maybe it was life circumstances that happen?
That was the time when it was so hard to think about anything but my victimhood. Oh Me! Me Me Me Me Me. No room for story development.
So naturally, I wrote a non-fiction book. Cheating on my creative work-in-progress to write something very doable. The Pregnant Professional; A Handbook for Women Who Plan to Work During and After Pregnancy was written and published in the middle of some of this. After all, I’d learned from Miriam how to hatch a book. I didn’t want to let it waste.
But I still wasn’t done with RASOT. And those were the hard years. I’d started to think that hopelessness was a lifestyle choice.
Oh. I forgot to mention the writing groups. My delicious word sisters. I’d joined and formed many along the way. And one of them got back together at that time to save me.
I had given up hope, barely remembering that it was an option, when my writer lady friends had a writer group reunion. Well. I tried to make myself presentable and showed up. I looked around at this group and thought, “I was once a capable, competent and valuable person. That is who these people see. They don’t see who I am now.”
And I realized I had to climb out of the well. Whatever it took.
I started to make recordings on my phone of the story. Nonsensical. “This is the part where she is going to have to find the cow…” NOT writing. But something. Something that pushed it forward. Then I could listen to the recording and type it into the computer.
Over time the story worked it out. And when I found myself in the well, victim mantras running through my head, I grabbed on to my creative work and said “NO!” No imaginary conversations, no running through the same tired stories in my head. Right the book!!! What happens after the cow? SAY IT! WRITE IT!
And I did. And I still always kept a notebook with me. And now my phone, which could recognize and type my voice. And every single tool I could think to use to get that beast of a book out there.
Now it stands at 90,680 words. HA! As if those were all. Multiply it by one hundred for all the re-writes. But here it is. Waiting for a cover and a birthing.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron lays down the rule that a writer must write three pages every morning right away. She and Mary Oliver concur on this appointment-style writing habit. Many people swear by it. No doubt it is helpful. That’s simply not the way it happened for me.
Thank you so much, Murphy! Congratulations on the imminent delivery of The Russian American School of Tomorrow!
For more of Murphy’s insights, visit her Wonderblog.