This is what I did this weekend: walked the dogs into Harvard Square, cleaned up my kitchen, shopped on Newbury St., read the Sunday New York Times, watched the first three episodes of Orange is the New Black, and booked a B&B for Zoe’s birthday. It was a completely unremarkable weekend unless you know that Zoe is a dog.
I reveled in the ordinariness of the tasks since I hadn’t done anything so blessedly mundane in quite some time. Since June, I have been enrolled in Grub Street’s Novel Incubator, an intense, graduate-level program focused on the novel. The workload has been challenging, more so than either of my masters’ degrees, maybe even more so than studying for the CPA exam (back in the day when you had to take all four parts at once). Since last February when I applied then got accepted and started the program, everything became about the book. Slowly, non-writing things fell to the side, household chores, cleaning out the garage, training the puppy, cooking. (I went out every night in January. It gets old. Really.) Weekends were spent in libraries and coffee shops. Trips to the movies or away for the weekend weren’t even discussed. Netflix – cancelled. The New York Times – suspended. Unread novels piled up on shelves and tables (along with a whole mess of paper and items that are still mostly in a heap). I had to minimize distractions, or more appropriately, I had to minimize any excuse to procrastinate.
I’m still in the program, but the tension has eased since I submitted my fully revised (really, rewritten) manuscript on February 10th. Am I done? Lord, no, but I do need to give my novel some space to gain perspective. Both it and I need to breathe.
As writers, we are always looking for time to write. Most of us have day jobs, families, houses to run, and lives to live. With all the demands on us, writing often gets shuffled to the bottom of the list. As such, I think that breathing room for our work is something we overlook. It’s hard to take time away from writing, when we have so little time to begin with. When you can grab an hour, that hour is going to be spent putting words on the page, not thinking about how your protagonist felt after she dropped her ice cream cone on her brother’s head on purpose when she was six, making him cry and hate ice cream forever. Until recently, the idea of spending any time just thinking about a character was an impossible thing. I didn’t have the time to just sit. I had to produce words. Now. Yet, thinking is just what is needed at times. A couple of months ago, I spent three precious days ruminating on one of my protagonists. I wasn’t quite getting her, and I couldn’t move forward with her as a main character until I understood her. I stared at a blank screen for those three days, growing more and more frustrated. But it worked. On day four, I began to understand her and was able to get back to writing. Despite the appearance of doing nothing, it was an incredibly productive time and helped tremendously with the forward progress of my novel. This experience taught me the value of just thinking, and it also taught me not to be afraid of those seemingly wasted hours wandering around inside my own head. In the long run, that ambling saves time.
After I submitted my revised (rewritten) manuscript, I spent a week of feeling lost and not quite sure what to do. Slowly, I gained back myself. I was able to smell the mud on my dogs after they played in the park. I was able to feel the damp between my toes after stepping in puddle after puddle of the melted mess that is New England right now. I was able to see the tiny green shoots in our yard in between patches of dirty, crunchy snow. As I emerge back into normal life and learn how to have fun again, I’ve been thinking a great deal about time. I am immensely grateful to Grub Street for providing the Incubator experience and to my fellow Incubees, who all have made their own sacrifices for not only their work but in spending time critiquing mine. There really is nothing like immersing yourself for long stretches into your story, but I will say that there is equal value in spending time living life and gaining space from your work. I often thought that the best thing to do was to write every day, but perhaps that isn’t the answer. Perhaps it is better to immerse yourself for weeks at a time then take a break, take a walk, and gain some perspective. Your writing may be better for it.