Writing in Real Time, by Louise DeSalvo
June 24, 2010
This is the time of year when some of my writer friends head off to retreats. I’ve never been to a writer’s retreat; the idea of going to one has never appealed to me. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t mind going to one of those places set in idyllic surroundings; wouldn’t mind having my own little cabin; wouldn’t mind someone preparing me a meal. But I wouldn’t want to be there long. And I wouldn’t want to go to write. I wouldn’t want that pressure on me – to produce because that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I think I would like to be in such a place, but I’d like to use it as a kind of vacation, to read, to knit, to look at movies on my computer. But then I’d feel I was cheating, that I was taking the place of someone who needed that kind of environment to get a project off the ground.
Perhaps I’ve never been to a retreat because I’m not that social a person – I’m actually very shy and my idea of hell is a party – and the forced camaraderie of conversation at the end of a day at dinner is just not my style. Perhaps it’s that I’ve never been the kind of writer who can work all day long (though once in awhile, when I know what has to happen to a chapter, I might put in a six hours at the desk, but that’s rare). Perhaps it’s that I’m a control freak about what I eat (I love to go to restaurants, but I’m almost always disappointed by the food and disgruntled about the cost) and I like to eat my own food. Perhaps it’s that I don’t want to be away from my family or the familiarity of my surroundings.
Many writers I know who’ve gone to retreats have gotten tons of work done – a novel drafted, a novel completed. But others have just, well, fooled around.
In my writing life, there’s been no correlation between the amount of free time I’ve had and the amount of writing I’ve done. In fact, with me, there’s almost an inverse correlation – the more free time I have to write, the more likely I am to worry every word on the page, to have a difficult time making decisions, to let myself lose focus. I wrote more, and published more books when I taught more classes than I do now and when my kids were small. The most troublesome writing times for me were when I had Sabbaticals – those times off that most writers who teach look forward to. In the words of one of my colleagues, I had rather too much of myself on my Sabbaticals. I worked, sure. But not so happily.
I prefer writing in what I call “real time.” I seem to need to know that there’s a class I need to prepare, a set of papers I need to read, a load of laundry that needs doing, a list of food I need to buy, a supper I need/want to put on the table to get me to my desk during the hours I set aside to write. Knowing that there are other tasks I must accomplish in a day seems to urge my writing along. Knowing that it’s write between 10 and 12:30 or so or don’t write at all, urges me to get to the desk, to get to work, to get the pages drafted.
I prefer to write during a day when I see a family member, when I cook a meal, when I organize a closet. I prefer writing in familiar surroundings – the same desk I’ve sat at throughout virtually all my writing life. I prefer writing a little every day (or five or six days a week, depending) than writing all day long. I prefer to end a writing session wishing I had more time than having all the time in the world to write.
When I have too much time, I tend to postpone getting to my desk. I have all day long, I tell myself; I can write any time. But I don’t, and then I feel awful, as if I’ve wasted my day, as if there’s one more day chalked off my lifelong allotted days to write (and who knows how many there are, how many I have left).
One of my mentors at NYU made me do an exercise that he said would guarantee I’d get to the desk more often. He told me to take the normal life expectancy for a person my age, to determine how many years I had left to live, assuming I lived the full term, to determine how many writing days I had left (deducting weekends, holidays, some days for illness or emergencies). He said to post that number on my desk, and every day that went by, to cross one day off, whether or not I wrote.
It’s a scary exercise, but an important one. How much would you write if you knew how many more writing days you had? More, probably, than you write now.
Retreats. Of course they’re wonderful for writers who can use them. But I wouldn’t want to go away to a retreat. And I know why. I wouldn’t want even a taste of writing in such an extraordinary environment so far removed from my real time writing world. Because after, I might resent the real life I lead. One writer I know was plunged into such a deep depression after she left an idyllic retreat in a foreign country, that she couldn’t get her writing act together for a year afterwards. She mourned the loss of that “perfect” environment; she resented the time it took to deal with the garbage, the dishes, the meals. (Like me, she has a partner who shares the household work, really shares it, so it’s not that she was the only one in the family responsible.) Instead of being grateful for that time out of time, she was pissed off.
What I have done, though, is to create retreat-like writing times at home, which suits me better than going away.
I pick a week, and I keep my calendar as clear as it can be. I postpone haircuts, doctor’s appointments, lunches. I don’t change the sheets; I don’t do the laundry every day; I cook simple rather than elaborate meals. I don’t spend time on the phone; I don’t check email every day.
During my retreat-like writing times at home, I still only write my two or three hours a day. But I use the time I’ve freed up for reading, for organizing my work in progress, for thinking about the shape of what I want to do.
A week is about all I can take. After that, I again want the pressure and the pleasure of real time writing.