For probably 10 months I’ve been working on this piece about how the Nickelodeon film of Harriet the Spy is fantastic and teaches good lessons on writing. I have no idea if this piece will ever be finished because it was born in the feverish fanaticism of realizing a thing you loved when you were a child ACTUALLY HELD UP AND AGED WELL. This happens so infrequently that I was on a celebration high but it became harder and harder to write for some reason.
Recently I had someone ask for a post on what it’s like to be a full time writer. Within that correspondence I clarified that I’m not a full time writer and that it’s a part time gig I do on the side but there was still some interest in how I manage to pull off this really weird life I lead.
I’ve avoided writing pieces like this in the past because I didn’t feel like I’m achieved enough to be worthy of writing it. Also I didn’t want to be the bearer of the bad news. I’ve also seen a lot of them and they are generally terrible. Because the answer is “write as much as you can and then edit as much as you can and then hope for the best.” There are a bunch of writing memoirs that do a great job of supporting people through the process of writing a book but it all boils down to the verdict that the only way to be a writer is to write.
Honestly I put on a good show but most of writing is trying to do anything else.
The abridged list of excuses I have used to get out of writing:
This Beer Will Help Solve the Tired and Then I Can Write (this is a trap always)
My Cat is Walking Across the Keyboard so I Can’t Write
My Mouse Isn’t Working so I Can’t Write
I’m Hungry, I Should Eat
I Should Stop Spending All of My Money on Take Out and Cook More
I Should Get Groceries
I Should Learn How to Cook
I Wonder What X is Doing
Someone is Wrong on the Internet and I Need to Correct Them
As you can see from the list above, I am merely a mortal. I’m just a girl, sitting in front of her computer, asking it to write her book for her.
There’s also more bad news. Writing doesn’t pay.
Maybe that’s not fair. Writing certainly can pay, but not for the majority of us. That optional nature of payment makes creativity and art hard to prioritize because it turns out you can die from exposure.
I recently went through rounds of being laid off and spent a lot of time putting in job applications and doing freelancing writing gigs. I guess I was technically a “full time writer” in addition to be a “full time panicker” and a “full time homemaker” and a “full time Zelda caregiver” my experience was generally stress eating, writing about shit I only marginally cared about, and then getting paid $50 for the privilege if I was paid at all. I spent a lot of time waiting for pitches and waiting for payment. Hounding down payment is a skill now. I worked for a lot of my friends who had connections with certain publications or who were building media spaces and that resulted in me finding the biggest supporters of my work and also trashing people I used to consider good friends. Business is nasty and you can’t really predict how working with friends is going to go. As a writer, I say you don’t really have a choice because it’s all your network so try to be as polite as you possibly can while still meeting deadlines and getting paid and then plan for the world to explode.
Hence why I have a full time job. After spending a lot of time trying to find the “ideal” career for my writing, moving through everything from publishing to communications to fundraising, I realized that I don’t write if I have a writing job. I need dedicated space that is completely separate from writing. I managed to find a job that I specifically sought because the work environment was big on 40 hours a week (which is very much a privilege) and it had good benefits and covered rent and my student loans. Nonprofit is like the king of benefits (for now) and it was easier to get a job in that field than trying to break into the for profit sector (sad trombone) but there isn’t as much mobility and your job might expect you to work yourself to death for less money.
As an adult with ADHD, a big symptom of my disorder is that I’m a bit of an asshole. I tend to write as a means of escape from things I don’t want to deal with or struggle to focus on. I can hyper focus on my writing when I’m expected to be focusing on something else. You know, like math class, or church, or cleaning my room. Right now I’m supposed to be working on a draft of a piece for Thanksgiving for Fry Havoc, a great food blog that my brilliant friend runs and who has thrown me a ton of work and here I am typing away about Harriet the Spy. With this in mind, I try to build out a list of things I’m supposed to be doing and then trick myself into writing. Because if I’m supposed to scrub my bathtub, a 700 word article will probably get done.
Now that my day job and a couple freelance gigs (I’m a spin instructor and do some low key social media work) have covered my traditional expenses, I have some time to write. I set aside two days a week for writing. Generally it’s Wednesday evenings and a weekend day. I don’t have children so I have a lot more flexibility. Again, this whole thing is privilege which is complicated for me because I am a firm believer that making art should not be considered a privilege since it’s a lot of work but in order to be able to funnel your work into it you need resources that most people don’t have.
In order to do this I have to not make plans with people or go on Facebook or respond to texts. This is hard. I have a lot of friends and multiple romantic relationships right now and of course my family and all of these people mean a lot to me. In addition, I get tired and have to do things like laundry. So my writing time is often more scattered than I would like. I still believe in David Rakoff’s assertion that “the only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.”
What Wednesday Night Writing Time Generally Looks Like:
5:30pm: come home and change into comfy pants
5:45pm: put in load of laundry
5:46pm: realize don’t have enough quarters to do all loads
5:50pm: get out drying rack to save quarters
5:55pm: sigh because you don’t have enough cash in your account to go get more quarters and the bank is closed anyway
6:00pm: start to cook
6:01pm: put something on tv, generally Gilmore Girls or Parks and Rec
6:02pm: forget that I’m cooking and sit at the computer
6:04pm: text one of my cuties
6:05pm: play several rounds of a facebook game because I forgot it was writing night
6:30pm: start messaging friends on facebook and then regret it because supposed to be writing
7:00pm: open word document
7:05pm: fall down an internet sinkhole
8:00pm: write some stuff from notes I made on my lunch break at work
8:00pm: move cat off keyboard
8:01pm: move cat off keyboard
8:02pm: move cat off keyboard
8:04pm: see John has messaged me on facebook. I should get back to him
8:06pm: change the show, maybe that will help
8:10pm: melts vegan cheese onto chips and opens a beer
8:15pm: tool around with something I wrote ages ago
8:30pm: wonder if pieces I write have abandonment issues
9:00pm: wonder if it’s pathetic to go to bed at 9:30
10:00pm: go to bed
10:03pm: realize I forgot about laundry
11:00pm: realize the burner has been on the whole time
12:00pm: set alarm for 5:30am to get up early to write
This is not ideal hence why I generally prefer to get more work done after working out on Saturday mornings. It’s a long slow system I’m working to improve. I decided this year that pitching wasn’t really something I would prioritize but I’ve set some deadlines on my Patreon page, figuring people who are paying for my work need to get stuff on time. But for those interested in pitching is a lot of hunting down emails and throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. As is the submission process. I’m working on more fiction lately but none of it is ready to be shopped around and most literary journals don’t pay. Publications I love very much are mostly unpaid, like Reductress and the Rumpus.
And then there’s Medium. Medium tends to be less of my art space and more my tirade space. Medium has been cool because it has a built in audience even though I don’t really get the algorithm of visibility. It’s led to Huffington Post reposting my stuff (for the low low compensation of nothing) and increasing my audience and readership which is really really cool! I’ve been mentioned on Bust.com and I got recognized from my blog in the real world which was weird and awesome. Granted I now have the endless task of replying to men who comment on my posts with angry feelings. Then there was the guy who hit on my cat as his cat on twitter.
I am fortunate enough to live in a city with a huge literary community so I have a ton of understanding and support. When I was more isolated it was hard to think of myself as a “real” writer. I didn’t have a community or people to relate to. Now, I’ve got writer friends! Real ones! And they never ask where I get my ideas. There’s a lot of digital spaces but if you’re a “serious” writer (I’m sorry, this sounds so judgy but I can’t think of better terms right now) or at least one who is trying to produce work, vet those spaces carefully. A lot of writing spaces focused around things like NaNoWriMo can be a bit navel gazing and people get caught up over whether they should write more than their goal number if they are feeling inspired (YES. DUH.) or if they should write in pencil or pen (I still can’t believe this was a thread but it totally was).
How does this all relate to Harriet the Spy? Because she taught me a lot of great stuff. That you need to set clear writing boundaries, that you need to prioritize your work as much as possible, and you need to believe in that work even if it’s difficult and it’s going to be difficult. You will feel like an imposter all the time and you have to do it anyway. Just go on autopilot and never let anyone take what you’re doing away from you. It’s not about being good. It’s about you making something that you like enough that you share it with the sincere hope that you make someone’s life better for having read it. Whether it be through humor, education, or by validating their experiences and passions. Sometimes you will write things that are accurate but they will result in terminating friendships and relationships. You have to decide if that’s something you’re willing to do on a case by case basis.
I also take breaks. If I need to be away from the work because it’s the holidays or work is crazy, I remind myself that I have a break coming up and then schedule extra writing time for those days. I need to make my writing important and calendar updates help me do that. But I’m still a person. It’s a fine line between pushing yourself and needing to get off your own back.
There’s this fairly bad movie called Under the Tuscan Sun that I absolutely love and there’s a line in it where the fancy socialite character who’s life is charming but empty says to Diane Lane “Work on your house and forget about it.”
Work on your writing and forget about it. Writing is a thing you are doing. It’s not a think you are being. Just write and write and write and then edit and edit and edit. Don’t get caught up on whether you count as a writer or not. I just started calling myself a writer this year. Find you community, write things you enjoy and care about, and forget about it. That’s all I have, really. Work on your house and forget about it.
Recommended Reading to Get You Through the Dark Days: