A writing pal and mom of a 2-year-old recently emailed me this question:
“How’s your Write Life?”
“Sometimes it’s hard as hell. Sometimes, pure joy.”
“Sounds like motherhood,” she responded.
“Yes,” I said. “Rainbows and rain.” This exchange made me think that writing is no different from any other life choice. Joy and pain. Ups and downs. Successes and failures.
What I’ve learned about writing after publishing my first novel, Catfish, completing my second (Lilly, the legacy of Catfish—with my editor now and should be published this fall), and plodding half-way through my third novel for which I don’t yet have a name, is this:
Good habits—I determined early on that if I was to be successful as an author I had to treat writing like a job. I work at it every day, regularly, diligently; no procrastination, no excuses like writers block or fatigue or a million deterrents.
I’m an early riser, usually up two or three hours before the rest of the house. This is when I read and plot my course. It’s where I become energized and fill my tank for the day. I’m an introvert, I like the quiet, alone time.
Once the world is awake, I dress for the day as if I’m going to the office; then I enter the make-shift study in a guest bedroom overlooking our backyard, which is as pretty as a park, and beyond the back fence, a woods with a creek running through it. Birds peck the ground, leaves blow onto the new sod like large snow flakes, the tomatoes and okra in my husband’s garden seem to grow inches each hour.
No one is allowed to enter my inner sanctum unless they are bleeding or having a seizure. I write. Then I write some more. I write for three or four hours, my goal 3000 words per day, every day; sometimes six or seven days a week. Do you know that if you write 1000 words per day that you will have the rough draft of a 90,000-word novel completed in eighteen weeks? That’s about four months
I know! Crazy. But not all of my 3000 daily words are good words, words that I’ll keep. They are the first words, raw words, rough words, but they are words of a story with characters and settings—from there, revision after revision will polish and refine the novel. This takes more months, more seclusion, more diligence.
Learn from others—in my case I read as much as I write. I read books, articles, and short stories by authors from whom I can learn, in order to make me better at my craft: Contemporary artists such as Ernest Gaines, Jo Ann Beard, Ann Munro, Lorrie Moore, Curtis Sittenfeld (a woman, by the way, whose name is Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld), Toni Morrison, Ken Follet; and legendary writers such as Faulkner, Cheever, Chekov, Wolfe, Baldwin, Penn Warren—the list is long.
I also decided that if I was to become the best writer I could be, I needed to gain knowledge, so I went to graduate school and earned a masters in creative writing—at 65 years old. That didn’t make me a writer, but it gave me tools on which to build and it provided me with a community of other writers and professors on whom I can call when I’m at my wits end, or even to share something brilliant.
Listen to the world—the most important lesson I learned in my MA program at the Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative of Lenoir Rhyne University in Asheville, NC was awareness. I learned to watch people’s gestures and try to describe in words how a someone might push and pull the wrinkles off his forehead together, then release them in an effort to relieve stress. I began to notice when someone yanks his left earlobe or twists a strand of hair at her temples. I take time to let my senses capture smells, sounds, and tastes, while I see and touch the world as it changes shape.
I didn’t do this before. I rushed through life, in a hurry to complete something, to get somewhere, to finish.
Now, I enjoy the journey and take notice:
The way the petals of an azalea wrinkles and casts shadows on the leaf below; how a bird pecks the ground and repeatedly picks up its head to look around for predators; the smell of fresh cut grass, diesel fuel of a passing bus, mushroomy odor of dirt after a rain, ink of a new book, cigarette smoke stuck to a passerby-like Pigpen it surrounds in an aura of clouds.
The grinding sounds of gears on a truck, the crunch of gravel under tires, angry machines, chafed cries, a parent’s cancer cough, an anguished scream, the far-off swishing sound of silence—like putting an ear on a conch shell.
The feel of a lover’s skin, warm and velvety against fingertips. Leaves across your face as you run through the woods. A slap that stings, a head bump that bangs, a piercing kick. A skinned knee on concrete, a runny nose stopped by a Kleenex diaper, ice on a burned thumb, ocean waves in your nose and mouth.
The taste of blood from a bitten tongue, the burn of jalapeños sharp and hot, sour raindrops, salty tears, spicy kisses, unbridled despair.
So instead of writing:
Rodney and Jeffrey rolled down the hill into the bayou. Rodney looked up at his family’s burning house. He left Jeffrey and ran back up the hill to find his family.
“While Rodney grabbed at his singed, smelly hair his other arm gripped Jeffrey and they tumbled, one eight limbed body down the steep ravine and fell into the chilly waters of Bayou Barré. The shock of the cool, muddy lagoon brought Rodney back to reality and he looked up the punishing steep bank at the horror that devoured his family’s home.
“He propped Jerry against a leafless black trunk and scrambled up the chewed-up mine field of sparks and burning debris, galloping on all-fours, his pajamas shredded to ribbons, soaking wet, pushing with his feet, bare and bloody, to find the rest of his family.” From Catfish, 2017
Dream Time. I have a chair and ottoman in my office where I do my thinking and dreaming. After lunch I lounge there and cover with a soft, furry blanket that feels like a baby’s cutty-bee. I close my eyes and think about the characters in the book I’m writing. I visualize them, individually and interacting with each other. I can see the shapes of their eyes, the length of their limbs, the cadence of their walk, their facial expressions in response to the words and actions of others. I notice their gestures, their tones of voice, whether they are shy or boastful, whether they are chauvinistic or non judgmental, whether they cry easily, talk loudly, back down from an argument, have empathy.
It’s where plots develop in my head, where new characters introduce themselves, where visualization of gestures, imagination of sounds and tastes, and building of settings create the next scene or chapter or conclusion.
Dream time is essential. Sometimes I fall asleep. Sometimes I enter a semi-conscious state. Sometimes I’m wide-awake for the entire hour. Sometime my thoughts are so powerful I spring to my desk and begin to type what I’ve seen and felt.
This is MY Write Life. It works for me. But as I think through and re-read my thoughts I wonder, is it also the life of a new mother? A clergyman? A marketing expert? A salesperson? A doctor?
I mean, don’t we all need to develop good work habits, learn from others, notice the world around us, and dream? Is there anyone who can be happy and successful without these daily routines?
Maybe my Write Life could be called Contented Life, Good Life, Life Well-Lived.
Madelyn Bennett Edwards