“I used to write whatever I wanted,” I told a few friends before writing group recently, “I just did it, even if I didn’t know how.” It’s true. When I was younger, I wrote short stories, poems, articles, songs. I spent hours working on them, getting the wording just right. Then, I’d type them out—or just make a clean handwritten copy before I had a typewriter or computer—put them in an envelope, and send them off. I entered contests, I submitted to magazines, I gave them to friends.
Once, I even wrote a play—a “melodrama,” our drama club sponsor, Mrs. Ramsey, had called it—and students in the drama club performed it. I was the playwright and director. I found the original script when I was digging out old journals and papers last week. I couldn’t even remember the name of the production, and it wasn’t written anywhere in the spiral notebook. But a quick scan of my senior yearbook revealed, “Christmas Anyway,” a one-act play. I also found the synopsis, the scene descriptions, character profiles, and the dialogue. The typewritten copy Mrs. Ramsey made when she added staging instructions and adapted the characters to the actual performers was tucked in the notebook, too.
As I read through the play, I resisted feeling a little embarrassed for the 18-year-old me who wrote it. The overly dramatic black and white photos of the performance in the pages of the yearbook reminded me that I was terribly young and woefully inexperienced. But I didn’t care back then. Writing the play wasn’t even a homework assignment. When she asked me to do it, Mrs. Ramsey was investing in a student with passion, and when I agreed, I was just a young writer who knew she would never succeed if she didn’t try.
I miss her.
Lately, when the clock marks a certain hour or my family walks in the door, hungry and filled with stories of the day, I turn the laptop off. I put away my notes. I move all of the days’ unfinished tasks to tomorrow. And I tell writing to come back during regular business hours.
For the past eleven months, I have been a full-time freelance writer and editor. Working for myself means when I don’t work, I don’t earn money. It means people think I’m always available since I work at home. It means romantic ideas like “flexibility” and “autonomy” translate into the “responsibility”: I have to get my work done no matter how long it takes or when I do it. As a result, lately I’ve found myself at war with my writing, a battle to the death unless one of us surrenders.
The fight looks something like this: I try to set daytime “working hours” so that I am not always at my desk when my family is home. I try hard to do nothing other than writing and editing and associated tasks all day. But sometimes I have appointments, sometimes I get an invitation to lunch, sometimes the boys are sick and need to stay home from school. I battle with myself whether to accept or not. I strategize with the calendar, planning to get up earlier in the morning or work later on the days when the boys are at their mom’s. I feel caged in when I am the parent that has to sacrifice work for sick days simply because I work at home. I become conflicted when family and friends call or plan visits during my work time, even though they have no idea when that time is. I try hard to protect writing from the rest of my life.
When I’m off the clock, I swing the other way. I push writing ideas aside. I feel upset when people email me about writing-related activities in the evenings. When I schedule a speaking event or lead a workshop discussion after dinner or on the weekends, I feel like my family suffers. If I have to take a Saturday morning to write a blog post or edit an article or read assignments from a workshop I’m leading, I assume I haven’t managed my time well. Too often, I try to protect the rest of my life from writing.
Fighting both sides of a battle is foolish. Fighting even one side of a battle against something I love is dangerous. I don’t want to surrender to writing and risk leaving behind my family, my friends, my community, and more. I also don’t want to defeat writing and risk injuring my soul in the process.
I’ve decided to make peace with writing, to work hard at remembering why I love it, to enjoy the opportunity to do it. I’ve started blogging again, as you know. But I also want to take risks, to attempt projects I’m not sure I’ll be good at, to experiment, to explore.
Making peace with a life of words means sometimes I will give into it and sometimes I will resist it. It means I will continue to get work done for clients, but I also will get work done for myself. It also means sometimes I won’t work at all.
Making peace with writing means I keep living the writing life, the beautiful ups and downs of a life with words.
In that same yearbook where I found pictures of the performance of my one-act melodrama, “Christmas Anyway,” I also found a picture of me with my friend Mark, sitting with our feet propped up on our Vice Principal’s desk (he gave us permission, by the way), fanning ourselves with money. The caption: “Most Likely to Succeed.”
I wonder if she knew, the 18-year-old me with the big hair and the awful shoes, that in many ways, she already had. Succeeded. It had nothing to do with money or power, and definitely nothing to do with big hair.
And I wonder if I remember now, me with the clock and the calendar and the priorities, that the only way I’m ever going to succeed at writing is if I keep trying.