The “Writing Life,” as Explained to Me by an Expert

When I was working on my second graduate degree, an MFA in creative writing, someone had the brilliant idea to bring in professional writers to talk to us about the writing life. Unfortunately, the guests weren’t always as great as the idea itself. One evening, as we gathered around the conference table, the speaker was introduced to us by our professor–that night’s guest had been in school with our quite successful instructor, who had published a number of books, one of which got a lot of national attention. Her friend, well, not so much.

Nonetheless she was a writer and therefore qualified to talk to us about what it’s like to live that life. I was certainly the oldest student in the class, but most of the time that was not a problem for me. This evening, though. Well. We were told to max out our credit cards, whatever we had to do financially so that we wouldn’t have to let employment get in the way of writing time. We were told not to have kids whatever we do, because there was no way we were ever going to write anything if there were kids taking up our time. My favorite part of the conversation was when a classmate asked about getting an agent. Our speaker had an agent, all right–our professor’s. Seems the best way to get one to me! Hope I have a really successful writer friend who hooks me up, too.

Instead of laughing maniacally and calling her a nutbag, I will address her points one at a time.

  1. Telling young people to max out their debt has got to be the stupidest, most irresponsible piece of advice I’ve ever heard. Clearly the woman never wastes time reading a newspaper. Nothing like starting out a life likely to be impecunious with staggering, unpayable debt.
  2. I sat there, a mother of two, while she told us that mothers won’t write a word. Did I mention I am a mother of two, one a child with special needs, was a full-time college professor, and a full-time graduate student, taking care of my kids, writing my butt off?
  3. The right response to the question about agents would have been, “Don’t worry about an agent while you’re still working out who you are as a writer.” Additionally, she might have said, “I can’t really speak to that, anyway, because the only reason I have an agent is that my famous friend did me a favor.” That’s the kind of honesty we can all get behind, isn’t it?

Here’s what my writing life looks like. My alarm goes off at 6:30 am, and I begin the long and torturous process of waking my teenager. That is, if I’m able to bound out of bed right away, which is unlikely, given that my nine-year-old has been in bed with us, kicking me all night. In the kitchen, we drink coffee and make lunches and feed the dog and discuss when the dog walked and how much he pooped.

When everyone is ready, and don’t mistake this as a simple process–there’s yelling and crying and demands for weird breakfasts and a lot of “has anyone seen my…?” before anybody is ready to head out the door. Husband and son leave first. Then I drop my daughter at her school and pray I don’t get a call ten minutes later asking me to go home to retrieve whatever she forgot. On a very good day, I go from there to yoga. Home for a shower, a dog walk, food, and then writing and reading. That all happens if I don’t have groceries to buy, other errands to run, appointments, cleaning, cooking, and other minutiae to tackle (a bad day). I used to do all this stuff while holding down a full-time job. And in all honesty, I don’t know how I did it.

If I’m very lucky, I get two hours that are all mine. In that time, I write, I do research, I read good books (right now I’m reading We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, and it’s fantastic).

Then it’s time to pick up kids, deal with homework and dinner and extracurriculars. After dinner, there may be time to read some more, but now I’m too tired to write. Bed sometime between 9:30 and 11, ready to do it all again the next day.

And that is as much a writing life as the one this woman tried to sell us that night. It’s just a bit more firmly grounded in reality.

Next time: Rage vs. Outrage