The Double Life

The Double LifeI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of a career and balancing work-life with creative-life.

I’ve been a full-time student for the last two years. I’ve also worked a full-time job during this time. Student. Employee. Writer somewhere in the midst of it all.

I’ve come to terms (maybe?) with the idea of being a slow writer. I have friends, classmates, and colleagues who can churn out an astonishing amount of work in a given period of time. That is not me.

If it takes me a month or two to write fifty messy, awful pages, that’s what it takes, and I can’t beat myself up for it.

I recently had a conversation where someone asked me what my grand plans were after I finish my MFA. This well-meaning question shouldn’t catch me off guard for the number of times it’s been asked, but even three weeks away from the completion of my degree, it still makes me pause.

My response?

“The same thing I did before getting the MFA.”

Sometimes this response puzzles people. But it’s the only one I have. I’m going to live a double life. I’m going to write. I’m going to work. The point of the MFA program was to improve my writing. It’s not a hot ticket to a life of literary patronage and letters in Paris.

There is a perception that if you are a writer, you must be holed away in single-minded pursuit of that goal.

I think this is a problem.

It’s a problem because even among writers it’s easy to buy in to that standard as the only model for success or legitimacy.

It’s a problem because it doesn’t reflect the reality of many working writers (or people working in other creative mediums, for that matter) who don’t and won’t achieve that “status” of being a full-time writer. There is a mystique, intrigue, and romanticized vision of the idea of that life.

But that life isn’t mine. And at this point, I’m comfortable saying that it won’t be mine. It can’t be, because I know how I work.

Can I confess a secret? I would get bored if I spent my days only writing. I don’t want to be stuck inside my head all the time. This is just one part of my life. I need the external stimulus of meeting and interacting with people in the real world. I need structure, whether self-imposed or otherwise, to keep me on track with things.

There is an analytical side to my brain that thrives in my day job. The day job pays my bills and allows the freedom to pursue my creative goals separate from the pressures of financial stress. I live a double life, and I am okay with that for now.

What does that mean for me as a creative person?

It means realistically that the activities a full-time writer pursues in the space of one working day, I must pursue over the span of several.

Whether it’s drafting, brainstorming, day dreaming, editing, reading, or feeding my creative self in any number of ways, all of this takes more time and spans more days. I need to give myself space for all of those things in a week that a full-time writer may accomplish in a normal working day.

If I spend time daydreaming about my work in progress, and not a single word hits the page, that is okay.

I’ll repeat it, if only to combat worry over my own process. This is okay.

If I write 300 words or a thousand, or two; if I keep them or throw them away in the space of a week, this is okay. No single day will make or break my progress towards my goals. It’s the sum of my days over a sustained period of time. Writing a novel is a process, and we’re in it for the long haul.

Progress is progress, whether it is unknotting a difficult plot tangle in my head, or exploring a new thread on the page.

Or maybe I choose to sit down at the piano or noodle around on the guitar for an hour, letting the other cylinders in my brain fire for a moment. Maybe I read a book, or celebrate with a friend or go out for coffee or dinner….

This is part of life. All of it. And it’s all necessary.

Too often I catch myself apologizing for it, or feeling guilty about the double life. Or quadruple life. Or balancing the multitude of interests and roles I play with the creative projects I tackle. I worry sometimes that I’m working when I should be writing. That I’m writing when I should be seeing friends. That I’m working on a different creative project instead of homework.

There’s a balancing act that takes place, and I find myself wondering what it does to my overall productivity. It’s worth considering from time to time. But I’ve also found that I worry about this the most when I’ve spent too much time thinking about what my peers are doing, and not enough about the creative work that is in front of me.

Part of my routine needs to be reminding myself that this double life – the dual and dueling passions – are all part of my creative journey. We’re all living our lives and pursuing our goals in our own time and own pace. It’s easy to forget that in the midst of a MFA program.

It might take longer to see the fruits of my creative efforts. Some days are more focused than others. Some days are more productive. Some days I’m just exhausted and I don’t work on anything. Some days I sit with butt-in-chair and throw words at the page until something sticks.

Though the creative labor looks different on different days, I make progress and build my novel, little by little, at my own pace. It’s all part of the double life. And it will all be fine.

AWP Recap, Day 3

You may notice, quite conspicuously, that there is no “AWP Recap, Day 2.”

Snow 3-8-13

Let me summarize for you.

Welcome to Boston in March. All the AWP-goers certainly got the real New England experience…. I hated to bow out of attending on Friday, but the thought of trudging a mile in snow that was coming down sideways, followed by sitting in a cold conference center for a five hours just didn’t hold much appeal for me.

But then there was Saturday. Read on for highlights!

Write Where You Know

Jennifer Haigh and Richard Russo answered questions and shared conversation about the ways their writing reflects a sense of place. To be honest, one of the best parts of this panel was how the authors held each other in such high mutual respect.

Both spoke about memory and nostalgia, and how our experience of a place changes over time. The way we experience a place as a child is different than the way we experience it as an adult.

Jennifer Haigh spoke of leaving her childhood hometown and moving to Boston, and the way that she alternates between places in her writing, as though constantly escaping from one place to another. There’s a sense of wanting and needing to document life in a small town America that is rapidly disappearing. Haigh remarked that it was “a function of growing up in a place where the good days are far behind you…. I have no memory of my town booming, and by the time I was old enough to have a sense of these things, it was already long past.” There is a sense of longing for that past, but in some ways, it is a past that never was, or a past that can only be returned to by writing and recreating. It’s interesting to put into words a sense of yearning to return to something you may never have experienced.

Richard Russo spoke of getting the details right, and the phenomenon of an audience with varied geographic backgrounds seeing themselves in the writing of a particular place. “If you get a detail right,” he says, “a truth reminds you of another truth.” I’m not sure I have any deep philosophical unpacking of that statement other than it sounds true. Perhaps it relates to a common emotional experience evoked by a setting, or perhaps larger ideas of home, having a hometown, or belonging. If you can depict those convincingly in fiction, it strikes a chord with readers who may have experienced or longed for the same thing. As Jennifer Haigh said later in the panel, reading and writing fiction is really an exercise in empathy (quoted below).

In all, it was a pleasure to listen to these two established authors share their experiences and ruminate on their approach to setting.

“One rule as a writer is to never, under any circumstances, try to settle a score.” — Richard Russo.

On inspiration: “I write to make sense of things that trouble me or haunt me.” — Jennifer Haigh.

On finding your writing voice: “I was never going to be who I wanted to be. I could only be who I was.” — Richard Russo.

“Writing fiction, like reading fiction, is a practice in empathy.” — Jennifer Haigh.

Life After the MFA

The next panel I attended featured four writers across varied genres who discussed their experiences post-MFA program: balancing life, work, writing, grants, and all the myriad distractions that can help or hinder your creative writing goals. It was actually just nice to hear people being hopeful and encouraging. We writers can tend to be an angsty bunch when we’re stuck in our own head for too long.

To sum up: having a writing community to spur you on is so, so important. Keep going, keep writing, keep doing your art.

The Contemporary in Historical Fiction for Young Adults

And last, but certainly not the least, was this fantastic panel about historical fiction. Jacqueline Davies, Jeannine Atkins, Pat Lowery Collins, Sarah Lamstein, and Padma Venkatraman gave brief remarks about their historical fiction novels, followed by a teen panel of responses to the works. There were so many gems I’m not even sure where to begin.

Padma Venkatraman spoke so eloquently and passionately about post-colonialism, race, class, and gender equality issues in India. It was truly inspiring, and made me very interested to read her novel, Climbing the Stairs.

Jacqueline Davies discussed the ways in which history tends to repeat itself, and we find patterns and commonality across time and space. Similarly to the first panel I attended in the day, the idea that a common emotional experience can connect people regardless of their background was a recurring theme.

Several panelists brought up the sense of responsibility they felt to get the details right; however, Davies tempered the ideal by saying that not all historical details serve the story equally. If descriptions of place or certain customs and practices distract a modern day reader too much, it can pull them out of the story. In some cases, she prescribes that it may be best to err on the side of fiction, and leave the detail out.

One of the best parts of the panel, to be sure, was the inclusion of five teens from the local Boston Latin School. Man, these teens were smart. I mean, really smart. They had each previously read the author-panelists’ novels, and then discussed them in front of a room full of writers in a reader-response sort of way. It was fascinating to hear how brilliantly they spoke about history coming to life on the page, and how reading historical fiction better prepared them to approach complex moral and emotional issues of the past… issues that inform our present.

It reminded me once again why I feel compelled to write for children and young adults. It’s easy to forget sometimes.

“We’re not writing what really was, but the feeling of what was.” — Jacqueline Davies.

“Poets and novelists writing about history accept gifts from the past.” — Jeannine Atkins.

“Historical novels are about the same emotions that we all feel: regrets, loss…. I don’t think that changes with time.” — Pat Lowery Collins.

In Short (tl;dr)

AWP was inspiring. Overwhelming. Tiring… (even with a day off in between!). But at the end of it all, I feel like I was fed, and it was well worth attending.

I met a lot of people, saw a coworker, caught up with an old friend from my undergrad days, and spent two days surrounded by people all talking about the writing life.

How many ways can you say awesome?