The Wagging Finger
Entering the Stream

The Time & Place of a Writer

   How to be a Writer

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“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”

—Enid Bagnold

    This is the time—the dog days of summer—when writing can become more of a chore than a pleasure. The hot days and humid nights don't always lend themselves to creative and articulate thought; plus, the day is always full of enticing and entrancing possibilities. Because writing is part and parcel of my daily life, I need to create a time and a place to write that works for me no matter where I am or what I am otherwise doing.

When I am at summer camp with my family (which this year is a good part of the summer) I set aside two hours each morning from 10:00-12:00. Those are the hours when I am not teaching any classes or running any activities. I also know I can find some cool shade beside our bus to work with my laptop. Maraoghini, a Jamaican drummer at the camp (and an author of many books on drumming), found me there one morning and said—somewhat ruefully because his morning time is spent caring for his child while his wife worked at camp—that he wished he could find a time and a space like I had, so I invited him to join me everyday. And so he now comes over every day with his four year old, Amry, who happily plays for two hours with my five year old Tommy. Even at their young ages, they both seem to sense that this is daddy's time as well, and though they spin around and through us with cars and trucks, planes and songs, they are as welcome and unobtrusive as a pair of butterflies searching for a sweeter nectar.

For the most part, Maroghini and I work quietly and intently, though I relish the moments we take to share with each other what we are thinking and writing. Sometimes it is only a simple comment or question, but often it is evolves into deeper and refreshingly philosophical talk that often shifts the direction of my writing.  When the lunch bell tolls, it always seems too soon, but it is as equally sacred as the time we spend writing, so we stop what we are doing, regardless of the point we are at in our writing. This stopping point gives me the remainder of the day to think about the direction of my writing, and it often gives me new ideas and phrases that I can weave into my writing piece when I return, which is usually after the kids are in bed and Denise is happily settled into her precious reading time. 

Later, the dark hours of night add a mystery and magnificence to my writing time, and, as in the morning, I sit outside; the only difference being that I sit under a single lit bulb with only the moths and mosquitoes to keep me company. Sometimes, Denise will join me for a short while to give me a needed and always welcome break from my work. She is always amazed that I can sit out there as she swats and shoos away my aerial friends. Her invariable toast before heading inside is usually, "I don't know how you can stand it out here," but, as best friends do, she understands why I am out there, and she always gives me that time and space I need. She understands that writing is my "work" as much as anything else I do, though my paydays are measured somewhat differently.

Writing is work. There is no way around that reality, and until we realize and accept that fact, we will always be somehow disconnected from our potential as writers. Few of us have the nerve to call our boss and blithely say, "I just don't feel like working today" and expect a sympathetic and encouraging response. We go to work because we have to, and, hopefully, because we enjoy it as well—but it is still work and our responsibility nonetheless, and so we go to our labors through the thick and thin of life. Many of my friends think that I write because it comes naturally to me. What they don't always get is that I go to my writing "unnaturally." With seven kids to raise and enough side jobs to make the taxman suspicious, I have to carve my writing time out of an already busy life. I love the summers because it is easier carve those hours out of life, but I try—and need—to do the same even in the most compressed unfolding of the year.

Creating the time and space to write is the first step towards becoming a successful writer. Don't measure that success by the beauty and volume of your writing pieces; rather, measure it by the yardstick of time. Do you put in the time that you need to put into your writing? Are you ready to slog through the mud when the words have to be pulled from that same muck and then be polished to some semblance of a gemstone? I have learned from experience that when I am fatigued by a writing piece, it is perfectly fine to put it aside and work on some other batch of words. If the house is full of kids and friends distracting me with their exuberance at a time when I need to be writing, I won't try to force the moment, rather I will use that time to proofread, edit and revise—because every writing piece benefits from revisiting for structure, content, and form, and it doesn't need long stretches of reflective thought to accomplish.

Find a way to create the time and place to be a more efficient and productive writer. Use that time completely. Resist the temptation to be finished; otherwise, you will be finished as a writer