People ask how I do it—children, freelance work, dance, volunteering, home and meals, writing, but the fact of the matter is, the secret is, very often I just don’t. And when I don’t, it’s the writing that is the first to go. (Well, except for when Next Doors is providing the meal, in which case I can happily let go of the cooking knowing a fantastic dinner is on its way.) Anyone in my situation—and I know that means a lot of people– will understand this. I know I am not alone, and usually I manage to cope, but there are times when I start to despair that I’ll ever get two sentences down for my next book. Because the problem that I have now recognized is that I can never manage to enter and then inhabit the world of my book, across the world and nearly two centuries ago, long enough to get the muse going. How do other writers in this predicament do it, I wonder? And why have I set myself up to place my next story in a setting that requires me to transport myself into another world? (Well, that’s a whole other story, one that David Rocklin touches on in this post on Beyond the Margins.)
Take the other day, for example. It was not even a particularly, remarkably complicated day. Just an average one. But even with one child attending school and one with a sitter for a the morning, I was not able to extract myself from the household scene until 9:30 am, almost three full hours after getting up. There were lunches to make and pack, a full breakfast to cook so we could have a solid meal and some family time to get the day going, negotiations about attire appropriate for the weather and school activities, the spare crib to set up for the Next Doors child who spends Wednesdays with the sitter as well, dinner logistics to arrange, and so on.
When I finally managed to retreat upstairs with my twice reheated tea, leaving two babbling toddlers with the sitter, I found a slew of emails pertaining to my dance group’s performance, including logistics relative to costumes, the cues for the lighting and sound techs, the order of the dance items and more. I skimmed them, responded to as many as possible, and turned off my email program so as not to be distracted by the notifications of new mail. I averted my eyes from the pile of envelopes and papers in my inbox marked “To Deal With Now” which was leaning precariously because of something lumpy buried somewhere underneath, the identity of which I have not tried to elucidate for fear of causing an avalanche of papers that might reveal long overdue bills.
I put my teacup down and wondered if I should, instead of drinking it, go upstairs to practice my dance piece, then decided not to because a serious practice would then entail a shower, and the whole process would seriously cut down on my already dwindling and precious work time. Instead I turned on the music to the piece and went through it a few times in my head. Better than nothing, I told myself, although I still felt guilty. Guilt is a large part of trying to do so many things: one is never fully satisfied with the level at which one is managing to do any given one of them.
Finally, after running the gauntlet of aforementioned toddlers in my living room, I escaped to a coffee shop, settled in, was distracted for a while by the conversation at the adjacent table which I started mining for ideas for another story. By the time I opened the book I’d been toting around for days, a book that looked like it would yield some good research, it was 11 am.
I was right—the book I launched into, singer Sheila Dhar’s Here is Somebody I’d Like You to Meet, was, despite its unwieldy title and dreary cover, engaging, funny, smartly written and full of colorful anecdotes which drew me into the world of Indian classical musicians in the early to mid 1900s, their eccentricities, their art. (See her obituary here. I wish I could have met her in person.) I felt myself slip into that world, and ideas for my own characters started forming. I jotted down some notes, noticed that I was doing so, smiled to myself, then glanced at my watch. And the whole mood was instantly lost. I realized I had only one hour until school pick-up, and that before then I needed to check into my work email for edits to a cover letter for an overdue federal grant proposal. Ugh. I started despairing as to when I’d have another chance to enter that world and recapture the source of story and character ideas. (It’s now over a week later, and that chance has not yet come.)
This is the true challenge of the writer: to be able to create (or re-create) and inhabit a whole different world, to have lengthy and complex experiences in it, to see it in all its detail, and to fit all this into just an hour or two of actual existence. That space is like a dream, one that one can conjure up at will, in which a whole day’s events are compressed into a few minutes of sleep time, or like the cloud at the top of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree which holds within it an entire universe in which Fanny, Jo and Bessie can have fantastic adventures with Moon Face and Saucepan Man, but be home in time for supper.
I want one of those clouds, one of those dreams. I want a place I can jump into for an hour, and experience ten hours of ideas and adventures. Someone mentioned to me recently that I should apply for a MacDowell Colony fellowship, and so I looked it up, and watched this video, and realized this is it. What a magical-sounding place, where for two weeks (more would be impossible considering children and such) I could be given a studio in the woods, quiet time, lunch delivered in a picnic basket by a kind soul on a bicycle, and the evening company of dozens of other artists with whom conversation would spark ideas and creativity and energy. I could get a year of work done in fourteen days. Of course, there’s the minor issue of being selected from amongst the thousands of applicants each year. But I think I’ll try. If not that one, which is so highly selective, than others, as long as they are open to all sorts of artists, not just writers. In a year or so, when a draft is hopefully well underway and Little One is bigger, I think I’ll try to enter that cloud for just a wee bit of time, and see what happens.
And now Little One is about to wake from her nap, Big One has been chatting at me for a while, and it’s my turn to make dinner. At least the grant proposal is in.