“Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.”
“How do you do it?” a friend in my writing group asked. “How do you turn in this many pages? As a working mother? How did you get this much writing done in a month? How is it possible?”
The answer, my friends, is four thirty a.m.
I hate typing that out loud.
I am a morning person. It’s true. But no one is a that early of a morning person. I certainly am not. But I’ve set a deadline for revising my novel and I realized a few months back that I didn’t have a prayer of meeting the deadline if something in my life didn’t change. And so I sighed and gnashed my teeth and adjusted my alarm clock to go off at an ungodly hour because it is the only hour in my day where no one needs me.
Stephen King famously said that you should finish your first draft in three months if you were at all serious about it. The idea of it is absurd to me — perhaps it is lack of practice, but I am just not a very fast writer. And so I do what all slow runners do: I put on my shoes and get out there anyway, counting on persistence to pull me through the spots that natural talent won’t.
But every time I want to go back to sleep and ignore the alarm, I remember my friend’s words. How do you get this much writing done? Apparently, if you put the work in, it happens. If you show up, day after day after day, eventually you get there. But you have to show up. Day after day, you have to rise from your dreams and put in the work. Even if it means that you are half-dead and dragging yourself through your real world obligations by Thursday afternoon.
After all, the draft gets closer and closer to completion each week. It’s solid proof that I have done A Thing.
And so, each morning, I put in my hour. I try not to complain. Too much.
I am getting there. I have six chapters left to revise in my far-too-long first novel. I have two and a half months before my Significant Deadline. I can almost taste the joy of completion. If I can just keep going, I’m going to make it.
I want this more than I have wanted anything in a very, very long time.
But when it’s finally done, I am going to sleep for days.
I realize that it’s been a while, but just in case you’ve never heard this before, writing a book is a lot of work.
I had to dispel the illusion, just in case you happen to have also read Stephen King’s memoir, in which he makes a flippant comment that it should take 3 months to write a first draft, but that’s really not how it works. Or, at least, it’s not how it worked for me.
I am steadily moving forward with the first revision of my novel and each day’s work delights me with how much tighter my ideas are getting and how many things I can see now that I couldn’t when I was writing my first draft. I had hoped to be done by now with this revision, but life has a terrific way of interfering. But you keep putting one foot in front of the other and eventually, eventually you get there. Even when there is tortuously far away and you know you just have another revision in front of you again.
One step at a time, one chapter at a time. I steal minutes when I can to work on it. I carry around a printed copy of the 668 page first draft so that I can edit anywhere, even if it’s not handy to pull out of laptop. The weight reminds me of how much work there is left to do, even though I’ve put notes of encouragement at key points. 25%! 50%! Only 100 pages left!
There have been days when I wanted to set the entire manuscript on fire. And there have been days where the revision goes so smoothly that I feel like I’m cheating someone. And sometimes, editing is both of those things simultaneously.
Perhaps this is the journey. It is my first time down this road and I feel like I’m learning from every aspect of it. Perhaps what there is to learn is more than about just the writing.
Sometime in the middle of the month, I wrote THE END on the first draft of my novel, THE MOZART GIRL.
It’s a biopic about Nannerl Mozart and yes, there is a tremendous amount of work to do yet, and I am getting ready to jump with both feet into the revisions now that Christmas has passed.
This is the first completed novel that I’ve written as an adult and it has been a long and meandering journey to do it. I’ve already learned so much about what to do next time, because it has taken me three times as long as it should have to complete what I have. I’ll be throwing out a lot of material, since it’s about twice as long as it ought to be, but I love that, because it means that what I keep will be improved for it.
It’s the time of year where we set our resolutions and intentions for the new year and there can only be one for me, which is to finish the damn novel already. I took my first steps in this story line four years ago, though the story that I began to write back then was a completely different story arc from the one I settled on. But I have been thinking about the Mozart family for half a decade now and I am, dare I say it, pleased with where the work has taken me.
This is a book that has been written in the margins of my life, in the crevices formed between other obligations, in the hours after bedtime and before the work day, in the minutes stolen between the endless march of all my other responsibilities. And it has been written in dribs and drabs, sometimes in little spurts of energy, and sometimes in long months of sustained effort that have required sacrificing personal relationships as I raced to a word count that was both arbitrary and exhausting.
2016 and 2017 were the years I researched my novel. 2018 was the year that I wrote it. 2019 is the year in which I remold it until it is fit to be shown to the world. And then, what will happen then? Will I finally believe that this is a thing that I can do?
Perhaps it is the middle of June, but out here on the island, the weather has finally just reminded us of what summer feels like. We’ve shed our jackets and dug out our shorts to swelter in the heat. I finally covered our porch in potted plants that I think might actually survive the night temperatures now. At last, the weather matches the long hours of sunlight that have been making bedtimes with Baba more than a little insane.
“It’s NOT bedtime, Mama,” she says every single night. “Look, it’s still daytime.”
“Alexa,” I ask our Internet overlord, “what time is it?”
“It’s seven o’clock,” Alexa says, backing me up with her calm and robotic voice, as though hours and minutes are a thing that Baba actually cares about.
“ALEXA!” Baba shouts. “IS IT DAYTIME?”
I feel this is a good time to mention that nothing in the baby books prepared me for parenting a three year old.
And yet, I’ve caught the itch too – it’s impossible to do all the sensible things that you know that you should when the world is glorious and filled with light. And it sure it hard to go to bed after spending far too many hours convincing your toddler that she really does need to lay down and go to sleep right now or…
There is no or. Although absolutely every neighbor and every book confirms that this is a sign of my inept parenting, the three year old is in charge, as it apparently illegal to actually staple her to her bed. Between bedtimes and potty training, my life has been consumed by her needs. By the time she finally gives in and accepts unpleasant states like lying down and closing your eyes, it is generally about half an hour before my normal bedtime, which is just not enough time to settle down and relax. And so I stay up far later than is wise, night after night after night.
I know they warned me, but this motherhood trip sure is intense in the first few years.
I was walking home from the train station the other night, enjoying the glory of the sun still out and about, when I suddenly thought about how I am now only a decade younger than my mom was when she died. She was absurdly young, but women in my family have a tendency towards overachievement, and racing to the finish line is no exception.
But then, the inevitable next thought always comes: But I have not yet done what I always knew that I should do with my life. I have published only one story. I have written the majority of several novels. One of them should even have a finished first draft by the end of the, dare I say it, by the end of the summer. But it’s hard to not to despair that it has taken me so long to get this far. What if the same thing happens to me and I leave all of that work incomplete?
My Beloved is approaching retirement in the next decade and so we are beginning to talk realistically about what that next stage of life will look like. How will we afford it? Can I retire anywhere near the same time? When I was younger, I thought that I would retire early – or at least semi-retire – because I wanted to travel. But travel in the way I had pictured has lost much of its appeal, as my life grows to make my home the place I really want to be.
So perhaps not that. Perhaps I will retire just to find a second career. I’m not certain. But I know that whatever I do, it will be arts based. That is who I have always wanted to be: someone who creates something that matters to other people.
But what does even that look like?
Like most fiction writers, I dream a lot about what would happen to my life if I managed to write that best-selling dream novel. Who does not? Isn’t it fun? Just one success and then your money worries go away for the rest of your life. Get optioned by Hollywood and then pay off your house. You’ll take the lump sum of your earnings that year and invest them in ways that keep turning the money into more money. Maybe you’ll take a part-time job, just to keep the brain cells flowing. Maybe you’ll work on writing your next ten novels without having to balance another full time job. Maybe you’ll spend your days just sitting in the garden, enjoying the kind of time you never used to have.
Creativity needs space and time. Executing the dream, the work of the doing, that takes time too.
At the end of the day, every dream I have is really about freedom, not money. It’s about being able to buy the time that I feel so starved of now, here, in my present life that sometimes feels like it’s lived entirely in service to the needs of others. How is it that I’m spending my days folding laundry and going grocery shopping and and not doing, doing, doing the creative things that would satisfy this longing?
This feeling is only temporary, I tell myself. It’s just a few more years before Baba can fold her own laundry and cook her own meals and won’t want me around. How I’ll long for her then, this sweet-skinned babyish form of hers that crawls into my bed and curls against me and says, “Mama, I just want to sleep on YOUR pillow,” as if that makes all the sense in the world.
And then I will miss this time, this hard, frustrating time that is filled with a thousand small moments like that one.
And so. So I carry on, scribbling when I can, as best I can, and trying to be gentle on myself for staying up too late, for forcing myself exhausted through the motions of each entirely forgettable day, for not doing the work that will satisfy my dreams.
It is October and I have been writing short stories for most of the past year, among other things. More on that later. But I was reminded the other day of my favorite Hallowe’en story, read by one of my favorite authors, so I thought I would share it with you.
The world might be dark and scary outside, but I just wanted to remind you that literature can make it even scarier.