Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Riding a Bicycle in the Snow

photo credit

In the past few months several readers and friends have reached out to me to ask, How goes the writing life? And how about the holy grail of publication? 

My oldest daughters are only twenty months apart and during their first few years of life it was hard for me to believe I'd ever have time for anything other than washing their tiny pink clothes and feeding, feeding, feeding them! During those years I would sit down to write and within minutes I would hear one of them cry out for me. This will have to wait, I would tell myself through gritted teeth, rising from my desk and following the sound of the cry. Those first few years of motherhood taught me to be diligent in using whatever free time I had, no matter how brief, to work on my writing and push forward. I remember a day when my neighbor invited my little girls over for an hour and I thought An hour! Where do I begin? I can accomplish so much in one hour. 

Surprisingly I made a lot of progress during those years, even though back then it was nearly impossible to measure. Thirty minutes here, an hour there, and gradually my efforts began to add up. I began to improve. Even so, I used to feel a constant anxiety that my life and career would pass me by. That I would suddenly wake up one day and feel overwhelmed with regret for all that I didn't accomplish. Or worse, that the flicker burning inside me would eventually be smothered out by the overwhelming demands of motherhood.

Fortunately, none of these anxieties have proved true thus far. In fact, as time marches on I have become increasingly comfortable in the duality of my work. In my mind I have two jobs, the motherhood gig and the writing gig. Admittedly, the first one is ten times more aggressive in dominating my daily life, but once my girls started school I glimpsed how the lop-sided distribution of my time will eventually even out. Plus, there are so many moments when these two "jobs" run together. When I'm writing it is often my life as a mother that I'm trying to understand and put into words. And when I'm mothering, I'm constantly struck with moments, phrases, and images that prompt the writer in me.

Hiding under the sheets with Elisabeth during nap time. We are explorers in a dark cave, she and I! 
Feeling little teeth pushing out from my baby's gums like the first sign of green in spring. 
Watching Madeleine perform her part in a school play, so earnest, so excited. 
Cringing as a soccer ball is kicked at close range straight into Kate's face. That's gonna hurt!

I can't experience these moments as a mother without the writer part of my brain shaping the image into language. I can't turn it off anymore, and at some point I became comfortable functioning as a full time mother and sometimes writer. That's not to say I don't occasionally twitch from the same frustrations I felt all the time when my older girls were babies, or that I don't have to remain vigilant in finding time to work. Even now my sweet baby is sitting in his bumbo chair right next to my key board, sucking away on his binky. I'm guessing I have about ten more minutes before he'll be done watching and ready to play.

But I've become accustomed to stopping before I'm finished. Working in ridiculously small time increments. Allowing the demands of motherhood to always "win," and essentially being in it for the long haul. One writer suggested (in Writer's Digest Magazine) that it takes ten years. At least ten long years of practice before you're ready to show your work to the [publishing] world. In Stephen King's memoir On Writing he affirms this point of of view, suggesting that most writers begin with years of private toil, a few published essays here, another article there. And gradually the rolling stone will gather speed.

I see myself sitting comfortably on this path. During the first few years that I set out to write a novel I had one eye fixed on the publishing grail. I don't write that way anymore, and I think that's a testament to my maturity as a writer. It's not the publishing that I care about so much as the process, and a belief that publishing will, in time, happen as a natural outgrowth of the process. This is the profession I have chosen and I love it! I love the quiet afternoons at my computer with lazy snow flakes falling outside my window (it's wintertime again in Denver). I love beginning every book I read with the thought, Let's see how this writer does it. And I still love keeping my notebooks. Seeing my ideas for articles, stories and blog posts evolve.

Two years ago a reputable literary agent wrote to me that she loves my work, but my manuscript wasn't quite ready. For six months I put it away, determined to allow my ideas for that story to lay fallow while I shifted my focus to the other stories and projects that had been floating around in the back of my thoughts. Then, as I grew a baby, endured bed rest and began acclimating to life with four children, the natural way of things occurred and my work receded. But still, most nights as I lie in bed my thoughts return to my work. I drift to sleep while considering the scenes, people and voices in my novel. And just like with my other babies, soon I'll be sleeping longer stretches at night and the brief, sporadic episodes of fiddling with my manuscript will once again become a dependable writing routine. So, I don't know when I'll be done, or how long this process will take. But I can say with confidence that I'm moving forward and something within me is slowly uncurling.

There may be only a handful among you that have chosen writing as your profession and can identify with the specifics of the experiences I just described. But I'm betting most of you can relate, in your own way. Whether it be motherhood or other demands, it usually takes a lot of patience and a long time to get where you're going. Some days it may feel like riding your bicycle in the snow, but I've learned to be gracious about   adjusting my plans. I'm a big believer that people should set goals that don't necessarily fit with their current life and assume they can grow into them. I want my children to see me setting my sights high and living the adage, If at first you don't succeed, try and try again. There are plenty of blue skies and dry roads ahead.

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