Writers taking care of their backs (and other wonders we’d never thought we’d see in our lifetimes) by guest blogger Annemarie Monahan, chiropractor extraordinaire

Writing spine-1

Hello, campers —

No, the doc have no yet cleared me for post-crash keyboarding, one-handed or otherwise — so if any medical type should happen to ask you about it, ix-nay on the log-blay. (And if the first part of that statement seemed cryptic to you, you’ll find an explanation of last week’s festivities here.)

My left hand (i.e., the currently working one) could not resist volunteering to write a glowing intro for this very timely and magnificently useful guest blog by novelist, chiropractor, and Author! Author! community member Annemarie Monahan. After I hurt my back in April, Annemarie very kindly offered to give all of us writers some much-needed tips on how to set up our work spaces (hint: that foot-wide shelf between the oven and the refrigerator is not an adequate writing desk), how and when to take breaks during those long writing sessions (you know, the ones where you snarl at your SO in hour four, “I’ll just be a minute for dinner — I want to finish this paragraph,” and then are astonished when s/he comes back three hours later to inform you that it’s midnight), and generally take much, much better care of our backs than most of us do.

Although Annemarie is here today at Author! Author! wearing her chiropractor and general medical wise woman’s hats, I can’t resist telling you a bit about her women’s fiction work-in-progress, THREE. She describes it as “Think Jeanette Winterson meets Sliding Doors.” As we’ve discussed at such length in the past, it’s genuinely hard to pitch a multiple-protagonist novel well, so I’m delighted to show you her teaser:

Three women. Three strangers. Yet all were the same seventeen-year-old girl on a yellow April morning, wondering, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Three different answers sent one life in disparate directions. Now, at forty-one, their parallel lines are about to intersect again.

Ántonia searches the sea-horizon every evening. In the last light, she can glimpse it: a feminist Utopia built on an abandoned oil rig, led by her charismatic and bipolar lover. Her lost Eden made by Eves.

For Dr. Katherine North, the memory of two women chafes her like a hair shirt. After the death of one, she contacts the other — only to discover that she has been renounced in the name of God.

Kitty Trevelyan has been happily married twenty-three years. Happily enough. Until her professor asks her for coffee and kisses her.

Piques the interest, doesn’t it? To read more, check out Annemarie’s website.

And now, without further ado — hey, my left hand is new to all of these ks and ls — please join me welcoming Annemarie in her capacity as back care guru. Take it away, Annemarie!

Writing spine-1Writing spine-1Writing spine-1

Do you have a shelf of books about writing? I have a stack of them upstairs. So much good advice about the craft, the business… but so little on the physical process and its challenges. Our gracious hostess, Anne, has asked me to talk about writing and our low backs. It’s a subject dear to her… well, spine. Regular readers of this blog will remember that she recently had a bout of low back pain, like nearly half of working Americans any given year, one severe enough that she had to take some time away from amusing and educating us.

Whether we’ve never had low back pain or have a long history, we as writers are particularly susceptible because we sit. And sit, and sit. However, susceptible does not mean doomed. There are simple steps you can take to protect yourself. Let’s talk about a few.

Where do you write? In a home office? In a recliner? At your son’s cast-off kid’s desk? At a cafe? Probably like many of you here, I wrote most of my novel at my kitchen table. Not a bad choice, biomechanically.

Wherever you work, make sure you’re facing your screen or typewriter dead on when you’re relaxed. No twisting. The desk or table should be high enough to allow your chair to be pulled under it while you’re seated, and leave few inches of wriggle room above your thighs.

Now let’s take a closer look at your work space ergonomics. Sit down in your favorite writing position and take a look at your legs.

Do your heels rest on the floor? Or do they dangle in the air? Are you on tip toes? Your feet should reach the ground comfortably and fully. If they don’t, lower your chair or invest in a foot rest.

Next, look farther up. If you drew a line from the front crease of your thigh to your knee, would the line be flat, sloping down, or sloping up? You want either flat or sloping down a little. If the line slopes up, as it does when you sit in a recliner, you’re putting a lot of strain on your low back. Raise your seat (making sure your heels can still rest on the floor!) or add height to it with a firm cushion or support.

Are you writing sitting in bed, or on the couch, feet up? Stop that. Sure, it feels cushy at first, but the softness allows your behind to sink below the level of your knees. Sooner or later you’ll pay for that momentary pleasure as surely as the naïf in the old public health film who keeps questionable company.

Even if we have the perfect work station, our low backs take a beating. How many hours did you put into that first page alone? That first chapter? How many hours are you sitting at your laptop without getting up or even moving?

Writing is a long slog across rough terrain, not a frolic. A marathon, not a sprint.

The human body isn’t designed for marathons. As I say to my patients, look what happened to the guy who ran the first one. But we can strengthen ourselves to achieve feats of endurance, either active or sedentary.

Fortunately, training for the butt-in-chair marathon doesn’t have to take much time or effort. No yoga among the spandexed, no sweaty weight equipment at the Y. Just a few quiet moments at home between paragraphs.

In the over twenty years I’ve been in practice, I’ve learned that no-one– no-one!– will do a long or complicated back exercise program. It’s just not human nature. And it’s always smart to work with human nature rather than against it. With that in mind, please meet…

The Two-Minute Routine to Keep a Happy Low Back*

1. The Hamstring Stretch
Stand up. With one foot firmly supporting you, put the other heel up on the seat of your chair. You shouldn’t feel any pulling in the back of your leg at this point. If you do, use something lower and sturdy. Now rest both your hands on the knee of the leg you have up.

hamstring ready

Keep your knee completely straight — bending it ruins this stretch. Don’t worry about where your foot points: just relax. Lean over, nose towards those toes.

hamstring stretch

You’ll feel a stretch in the back of your thigh, near the knee. Don’t bounce, don’t yank. Right, in the days before the glaciers retreated, your gym teacher taught you to bounce when you stretch. Mine, too.

But don’t do it. It’s a great way to pull a muscle. Just lean gently and firmly. If there’s pain, back off.

Breathe. Count to ten leisurely.

Come out of the stretch gradually. Repeat for the other side. Don’t be surprised if one side is tighter than the other; that’s normal.

2. The Piriformis Stretch
Next, find a spot where you can lie down comfortably. On a pad or carpeted floor is fine, as is a firm bed if you have a hard time getting up and down.

Lie on your back with one leg bent at the knee, and one flat.

piriformis ready

Now, grab that bent knee with both hands. Pull it up and across your body, towards your opposite shoulder. Right, not straight up. Towards the opposite shoulder.

piriformis stretch

You’ll feel a deep stretch in the side of your behind. Pull gently but firmly, backing off if you experience pain other than that hurts-so-good feeling. Now, read your manuscript aloud in its entirety…

No, wait. Sorry. Breathe! Count to ten.

Again, come out of it gradually and repeat for the other side.

3. The Abdominal Crunch
I heard you whimper. Don’t fuss, these are not the sit-ups you dreaded as a kid.

Stay on your back after the piriformis stretches. Put both your feet on the floor, knees up. Cross your arms over your chest.

crunch ready

Take a breath. As you exhale, come up only about 30 degrees, enough to get your shoulder blades off the floor.

crunch!

There should be no pain in your low back or neck, only the sensation of muscles working in your belly. Hold for just one beat, then lie down again. Don’t flop. Repeat, making sure to breathe, breathe, breathe!

There’s no ideal number of these crunches, but I tell patients to do as many as they can comfortably, plus one. Always use good form; it’s better to do fewer than to use sloppy technique. This exercise should never hurt.

Don’t worry if you tire quickly. I have patients that can’t do a single crunch. If you can’t either, instead just flatten your low back against the floor by tightening your belly muscles.

Unlike writing your novel, this is process, not goal. You’ll get stronger bit by bit, page by page.

That’s it. It may not seem like much, but with daily small effort, your low back will stay strong and flexible as a well-bound book.

Here’s to your health and writing success!

*I’m sure my attorney would want me to mention this, so here goes: the information provided in this post, such as text and images, is for informational purposes only. It is not to be construed as medical care or medical advice and is not a replacement for medical care given by physicians or trained medical personnel.

Writing spine-1 Annemarie Monahan is still able to read the Latin of her diploma from Bryn Mawr College, a skill as practical as her degree in English. Belatedly realizing she had to eat, she earned her professional doctorate from Northwestern College of Chiropractic.

Dr. Monahan has been in private practice for twenty-one years. She writes in western Massachusetts, surrounded by chickens and stone walls.

Getting good feedback, part X: the coffee date you absolutely must keep — and a great resource for tracking down the perfect locale for a solo writing retreat

travel-expo-portlandtravel-expo-seattle

Before I launch back into our ongoing series on how to track down good feedback on your manuscripts: here’s an announcement for Pacific Northwest-based writers, particularly those who happen to reside in Portland or Seattle: this week, the HX Gay and Lesbian Travel Expo will be happening here, Tuesday the 24th for Portland, Thursday the 26th for Seattle. In general, I’m not much of an expo person, but always encourage my writing friends to check out these fun events for one simple reason — and it doesn’t have to do with the mountains of free pens, notepads, rubber duckies, and other dosh that the travel-mongers hand out on these occasions.

It’s because they’re an absolutely marvelous place to find really, really good deals on writing retreat space. Hear me out on this one.

Writing retreat space tends to be both hard to find and expensive. As we’ve discussed in the past, there are quite a few organized retreats for writers (although not nearly so many as for other kinds of artist, I notice; Poets & Writers maintains an excellent database of deadlines for application), places that will shelter and feed a humble scribbler for anywhere from a week to a year. While many of these retreats are indeed marvelously supportive places to work in peace, one generally has to write one’s way in, often via an extensive and time-consuming application; as spots are competitively awarded, it can be extremely difficult for as-yet-unpublished writers to land spots.

Even if they do, they often end up paying the retreat for the privilege, in addition to the expense of getting oneself and one’s computer to and fro. And that’s not even counting the often quite hefty application fee, or the long wait (often months) to find out if one got in, or the fact that most retreats require a writer to commit to longer stays than someone living on a budget (and who isn’t, these days?) might be able to take off from work, family, and/or other obligations.

The moral: read those application forms carefully before you sign the check for the fee.

For those with less time or resources to invest, but who would give their eyeteeth for a three-day unbroken stretch of writing away from the aforementioned distractions, a solo writing retreat can be a far less costly option. But it takes some research to find good deals, especially to track down hotels where, say, a woman traveling alone — or anyone else who might not find a well-deserved welcome mat out everywhere — might feel safe.

Beginning to catch my drift here?

If the ’09 edition of the HX expo is anything like previous years, it will be stuffed to the gills with representatives of hotels — and resorts, airlines, etc. — who have given a lot of thought to the needs of the traveler who needs to feel safe. I’ve had many productive discussions with hotel managers, assistant managers, and other eager spokespeople about precisely what I want and need in order to be able to lock myself in a room for a week in order to write. In fact, I found the sites of my last two solo retreats at these expos, thanks to information that let me figure out who had the amenities I wanted in a hideaway spot at a reasonable price. On a beach, no less.

How reasonable, you ask? Well, it varied, but both sites gave me a night for free and meal vouchers.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned the discounts? I have walked out of these expos with literally bags full of coupons for everything from 20% off at a restaurant to 10% a round-trip airline ticket to, yes, the third night free if I stayed more than two. On a week-long retreat, those little things can add up.

So even if you Seattleites and Portlanders think you can’t afford to get away anytime soon, you might want to check out the expo, just to have those coupons handy. For locations and to download a free pass to the expo (hey, I have connections), follow this link.

Okay, time to snap out of that fantasy you’re having about locking yourself in a posh hotel room with your laptop and tossing the key off the balcony. Last time, I stirred up some lovely discussion by taking an in-depth gander at one of the most perplexing of social situations in which a writer may find herself, the friend who asks to read a manuscript — then keeps it forever and a day.

For those of you joining this series late, I have dubbed the remiss friend who turns your manuscript into a doorstop Gladys, but feel free to give her any face you like. (I tremble to think how my readers picture Millicent the agency screener by this point: the Wicked Witch of the West probably does not even come close. Go ahead and embellish; it’s a healthy way to work out pent-up hostility.)

Admittedly, I may be harping on this theme a little, but I have my reasons: although one occasionally encounters advice in writing manuals about whom to avoid as a feedback giver (it varies, but the universal no-nos: spouses, significant others, POSSLQs, and anyone else who has ever spent any time in the writer’s bedroom other than to make the bed), I’ve never seen this problem discussed elsewhere, at least in terms of strategy, or heard a brilliant solution posited by a writing guru at a conference.

And this is a shame, I think, because it’s a genuinely difficult situation for the writer, the kind of experience that can make good writers swear off seeking reader feedback forever.

But a writer needs feedback, and not all of us have the luxury of a well-read, genre-appropriate, tact-spewing writers’ group meeting within a couple of miles of our domiciles, or the time to join it if one does exist. So I like to think of this series as a survival manual for trekking through the feedback wilderness.

Advance planning can go a long way toward avoiding a negative Gladys outcome. Observing some of the earlier tips in this series — especially making sure up front that the reader has time available soon to read your work, ascertaining that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do, and that it involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book — may cost you a few potential readers, but being scrupulous on these points will both reduce the probability of your being left without usable feedback.

Being clear about your expectations will also help you hold the moral high ground if your Gladys starts to dither as the weeks pass. And frankly, you’re going to want to cling to the high ground, because some Gladioli have been known, as I mentioned last time, to get a mite defensive when confronted with the fact that they evidently read at the speed of a third grader.

And no, I’m not talking about the precocious third grader who stayed up all night when the latest Harry Potter book came out.

To refine the taunt for those more in the know, the Gladioli of this world read with the speed of a busy editor at a major publishing house, who frequently take months to get around to a manuscript, simply because they have so many of them on their desks. Or propping up their coffee tables, gracing their couches, providing a papery pedestal that Tom Wolfe book they’ve been meaning to read forever…well, you get the point.

In fact, I suppose that an unusually broad-minded writer could construe the Gladioli of this world as prepping writers for the moment when their agents will say, “I know it’s been five months, but they haven’t gotten to it,” but unless Gladys IS an editor at a major publishing house, an agent, or another stripe of professional editor, she probably isn’t overwhelmed with manuscripts clamoring for her attention.

Enough obsessing about the problem: let’s talk solution. How does one set ground rules for first readers without sounding like a taskmaster to someone who is about to do you a great big favor?

First off, remember that giving feedback on a manuscript is indeed a favor, no matter how well-written it is. Unless Gladys happens to work in an agency or publishing house, is a member of your writing group, or you’re paying her to read your work, Gladys is under no obligation to help you and your book. Treating it like a favor from the get-go can go a long way toward minimizing problems down the line.

So why not take Gladys out to coffee or lunch to discuss it?

I would strongly advise you to sit down with your potential first reader to discuss expectations on a DIFFERENT occasion than the one upon which you intend to hand her your manuscript, to give her the opportunity to back out gracefully if she discovers that she’s bitten off, as they say, more than she can chew. Trust me, if the task IS bigger than she can comfortably take on within the next month or so, you will be MUCH happier if you learn this in advance, even if it means having to track down another first reader.

Schedule your coffee date as soon as possible after Gladys has agreed to read your work — but not so soon that you haven’t had a chance to come up with a short, preferably written, description of what you would like your first reader to do to your manuscript. Include in this list some indication of:

(a) How you would like to receive feedback.
Verbally? Writing in the margins? On a separate sheet of paper? A Post-Itâ„¢ note on every page where the story flags?

(b) What level of read you are seeking.
Should Gladys go over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb (a real bore, for most readers, FYI), or just ignore spelling errors? Do you want her to keep an eye out for inconsistencies (rife in most manuscripts), or just to tell you if the story ever seems improbable? Would you be happiest if she made it clear how much she did (or didn’t) like the protagonist, or would it float your boat if she pointed out any reason that she wouldn’t tend to assign it to college sophomores?

(c) Any specific questions about the text you might like her to answer.
Don’t assume that Gladys is automatically going to zero on the parts of the text that have been troubling you: speak up. If you’ve been staying up nights, worrying about whether that improbable love scene set on a bridge in a howling gale (“I love you.” “WHAT?”) actually works, this would be the place to bring it up. Ditto if you’ve been fretting about whether the story takes too long to get started, if your hook is genuinely a grabber, or can’t decide your extensive analysis of the hog market in 1832 is thrilling or soporific.

This level of specificity may seem a tad schoolmarmish — possibly because it is — but having the list on hand will make the subsequent discussion substantially easier on both you and Gladys, I promise. (As long-term readers of this blog MAY have noticed, I’m not a big fan of leaving expectations unspoken.)

The catch: once a writer has presented a first reader with this list, s/he has an ethical obligation to stand by it; no fair calling Gladys up in the middle of the night after you get the manuscript back, howling, “How could you not have caught that the pages were out of order, you ninny?”

While you are explaining what it is you would like your first reader to do, mention that in order for the feedback to be useful to you, you will need it within a month. Or six weeks. Or, at the outside, eight. But do set a date for the manuscript’s return.

How speedy a turn-around time is up to you, of course, but try not to make it less than three weeks — hey, a professional editor would charge you up to 25% more for a rush job — or much more than a couple of months. That’s long enough for a spare-time reader to get through pretty much any manuscript under 500 pages without pulling any all-nighters, so you need not feel as though you are proposing a pop quiz, but not so long that Gladys will simply set it aside and forget it.

The point here is to negotiate a mutually comfortable date that is NOT on top of one of your own deadlines for getting work out the door.

Yes, I’m aware that I made a similar point yesterday, but I cannot emphasize this one enough: do NOT hand your manuscript to Gladys within a few weeks of a submission deadline, even a self-imposed one. Even if she does everything perfectly, it’s not fair to ask her to share your time pressure — and if she doesn’t respond as you like, it’s just too easy to blame her disproportionately if — heaven forfend! — you miss your deadline.

Before you roll your eyes at that last part, hands up, everyone who has ever had to revise on a tight deadline. I appeal to those of you with your hands aloft: were YOU completely reasonable, or even marginally sane, two days before your deadline?

I rest my case.

If you are working on a tight deadline — say, having to revise an entire novel within the next three weeks, as I had to do a couple of years ago; that’s not an unheard-of turn-around time for an agented writer, by the way — it’s just not fair to expect a non-professional to speed-read your manuscript quickly enough for you to be able to incorporate the feedback. If you can cajole your writing friends into doing it within such a short timeframe, regard it as a great favor, of the let-me-send-you-flowers-and-clean-out-your-gutters variety.

But if you thrust Gladys, a non-writer, into that position, don’t be surprised if you never hear from her again. Or if you are still waiting to hear back months after that pesky deadline.

If you like ol’ Gladys well enough to respect her opinion, don’t put that kind of strain upon your friendship. Agree upon a reasonable deadline, one far enough from any imminent deadlines of your own that you will not freak out if she needs to go a week or two over.

Establishing a time limit will go over much better if you explain precisely why you need your manuscript back in a timely manner. If Gladys gives you feedback after the agreed-upon date (you will explain kindly in the course of this conversation), while you will naturally still value her opinion, you will not have time to incorporate it into the book before your next submission. Being able to turn the book around that quickly (you will tell her) is the difference between being the kind of helpful friend who gets thanked in acknowledgments and the kind of friend who is appreciated in private.

Very private. In fact, you may never mention it again.

After you state the deadline, ASK if it will be a problem for your first reader to meet it. Don’t assume that she will volunteer objections or tell you about that long weekend she has planned with that gaggle of friends who went to the travel expo with her: a Gladys who is too nice to say no to reading a friend’s book is frequently too sweet to mention that the next three weeks are the worst POSSIBLE time to expect her to comment intelligently upon anything at all, since her unreasonable boss is due for his annual inventory tantrum.

If Gladys hesitates at all, remind your first reader that it’s perfectly okay to say no. In fact, you would appreciate it, because you are at a point in your career where you need prompt feedback, and while she was your first choice (even if she wasn’t), you do have others lined up (even if you don’t).

Say this whether it is true or not; it will make it easier for her to decline if she feels overwhelmed. By allowing her the chance to bow out BEFORE you’ve gone to all the trouble of printing up a complete manuscript, you are underscoring that you realize that she is promising something significant, and you appreciate it.

Discuss, too, what your first reader should do if something comes up that will prevent her from turning it around as quickly as you and she would like. At minimum, ask her to call or to e-mail RIGHT AWAY, so you can find another first reader, rather than waiting until a few days before you expect to see it. Promise not to yell at her if she actually does need to make this call; tell her you’re already brainstorming about back-up readers.

As you should be, incidentally. The probability of getting genuinely useful feedback from non-professional readers goes up exponentially if the seeker tracks down more than one Gladys. Multiple first readers may lead to some conflicting recommendations, true, but many eyes are more likely to spot that embarrassing half-finished sentence in the middle of Chapter 8, the one that you never managed to get back to after your mother-in-law called during your writing time even though you’ve TOLD her a million times that creative time is sacred to you. It’s as though she sits there with a stopwatch, waiting until she’s positive that you’re going to be hard at work, then whammo! Ring goes the phone. Before she had any writers in her life, she probably specialized in predicting the moment when her nearest and dearest were just sinking into a nice, hot bubble bath — and calling then.

Oh, was I projecting again? Sorry about that.

While Gladys has your manuscript is a delightful time to re-read your own manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, if at all possible. You’re going to want to do this before you send it out to an agent, editor, or contest, anyway — you do want that, right? Right? Speak to me! — but even if that wasn’t on your to-do-before-submission list, it’s a good idea to refamiliarize yourself with your text before sitting down and discussing it in any depth with a first reader. Not only will you have a clearer notion of what aspects of the manuscript you would particularly like to talk over, but you will be a more receptive hearer of specific feedback on Chapter 2 than if you haven’t taken a gander at it for six months.

Not to mention the minor benefit that it’s the single best way for a self-editing writer to catch typos, logic problems, missing words, and other manuscript booby traps that are hard to spot on a screen.

Yes, I have urged all of you to do this before, but there’s a reason that I’m so adamant about it: despite my perennial admonitions, too few aspiring writers reread their own work — even if they’ve just spent the last two years revising it. That’s a serious mistake, since each pass at revising one chapter is likely to change some details in another. Throughout the course of many revisions, these inconsistencies tend to build up, resulting in what I have dubbed the Frankenstein Manuscript, a text cobbled together from many different revisions. If a writer doesn’t read the whole shebang again, s/he’s unlikely to notice these inconsistencies, but believe me, Millicent will, and she won’t like it.

Don’t make Millie angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.

Reviewing the manuscript isn’t the feedback-seeking writer’s only task during the anxious period when Gladys has the manuscript, however. As I suggested yesterday, a week before the agreed-upon deadline, call or e-mail Gladys, to ask how the reading is going. This will give Gladys yet another opportunity to back out, if she is feeling swamped.

No, this isn’t nagging. If she asked to read your manuscript out of simple curiosity — a very common motivation — she will have realized it by now. If this is the case, try not to make a scene; just set up a specific date and time to get the manuscript back.

And don’t forget to thank her for any feedback she has had time to give you.

If Gladys can’t make the deadline but still wants to go forward, set another deadline. It may seem draconian to insist upon specific dates, but inevitably, the writer is the person who loses if the feedback relationship is treated casually. If you are open at every step to Gladys’ backing out, you will significantly reduce the probability that she will let you down after two months.

Or four. Or a year. I’m fairly certain that at least one of the first readers of my first novel has had it since we were both in our mid-20s; perhaps she will get around to it just after we start collecting Social Security.

If you present these requests politely and in a spirit of gratitude, it will be hard for even the most unreasonable Gladys to take umbrage. If you respect her opinion enough to want her to read your book, you should respect her ability to make an informed opinion about whether she can commit to doing so. By taking the time to learn her literary tastes, ascertain that she has time to give you feedback, and not allowing your manuscript to become a source of guilt for months to come, you will be treating her with respect.

Your writing deserves to be taken seriously, my friends — by others and by yourself. The more seriously you take it, by seeking feedback in a professional manner, the better it will become.

In my next post, I shall discuss how to elicit specific information from your first readers, to gain insight upon problems you already know exist in the book. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Creating time and space to write: nothing up my sleeve…

I’m feeling a bit down today — I’ve just received word that an old acquaintance of mine committed suicide. The news comes courtesy of my alma mater. Ever-intent upon creating a far greater sense of community amongst its graduates than it ever was at promoting it amongst its undergraduates (at least while I was one of them), its staff tirelessly ferret out information about all of us and promulgate it ruthlessly, both on a bimonthly basis and in a peculiarly vicious form of sadism known as the reunion book, where poor, quivering souls are expected to account for the last five years of their terrestrial existence. Altogether, the university manages to give us all the impression that we’re all of such abiding eternal interest that we must all want to be kept updated on marriages, promotions, publications, and deaths in perpetuity.

Which means, in practice, that one seems always to be opening one’s junk mail and exclaiming, “Oh, I didn’t know he had died. I liked him.” The fine folks at the alumni office cheerfully informed me when they hit me up to give a eulogy earlier this year that the older one gets, the more often one should expect that to happen.

Good to know, I suppose.

Apart from the usual any man’s death diminishes me me malaise about someone I frankly hadn’t thought about in quite a number of years, Alex’s death had got me thinking about my membership in that other group that tends to exhibit an elevated suicide rate: artists in general and writers in particular. He, too, was a writer, and a good one. The sensitive nervous tissue I mentioned a few days ago, that stuff that allows us to perceive lovely ephemeral moments in life and capture them for all time, seems to have a harder time dealing with all of those slings and arrows outrageous fortune sees fit to fling at us all.

Or maybe we’re just better at composing last words than other people. In any case, one of the side effects of a lifetime spent interacting with the kind of fascinating, mercurial, observant souls who devote themselves to coughing up their visions of the world, often at great personal cost, for the delectation of others seems to be finding oneself saying on a fairly regular basis, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that! S/he was talented,” even without the intervention of a shared alumni publication.

It’s one of the costs of leading an interesting life. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There are even those who argue, and cogently, that the urge to produce art is in itself is essentially a self-defensive response to an unjust world. “To devote life to a constantly disappointed hope of happiness,” Mme. de Staël wrote, is to make it even sadder. It is better to direct one’s efforts to going down the road from youth to death with some degree of nobility, and with reputation.”

Amazing that someone who never had to query agents was able to come up with that, isn’t it?

Should you ever find yourself wondering why I put so much time and energy into this blog — over and above, of course, having a general fondness for advising people what to do that’s no doubt buried deep in my little Mediterranean lady genes, along with a pathological propensity for feeding bystanders until they burst — you need look no farther than my fellow writers who have fallen by the wayside. I’m not just talking about fine, creative souls like Alex, whose negative was so very final, but to all of the hundreds and thousands of genuinely talented people who have given up writing because the road to recognition is so very, very difficult.

It is thus with a sense of solemnity and a full appreciation of the irony of what I’m about to do that I return to our topic du jour: carving time and space out of a busy life for writing on a regular basis.

I’ve been dancing around this particular topic all autumn, ever since I took my October writing retreat. Back then, I asked you to start pondering a very serious question: what do you actually need in order to write happily and well?

Over the last couple of weeks, I have periodically reminded you of this request, urging you to give the matter a bit more strenuous thought. So if you weren’t expecting a pop quiz to turn up on the horizon, well, you obviously have never taken one of my classes.

Actually, it’s less of a pop quiz than the assignment of additional homework. Last time, if you will recall, I posed a number of questions that any writer serious about making a career of it is going to need to tackle sooner or later, preferably sooner. To recap for the benefit of those of you who missed them:

(1) What conditions would you actually need in order to write productively for a significant, unbroken chunk of time? What are your necessary minimum conditions — not just generic ones, but yours — for retreating to write, even just for a day?

(2) What specific factors — ambient noise conditions, lighting, seating, height of monitor, being able to lock a door, whatever — are of tangible assistance in your creative process, and what is merely nice?

(3) Is there anything that you currently use that you could do without? If you could snap your fingers and replace a neutral factor with a useful one, what would it be?

(4) Conversely, what conditions render the actual act of writing more difficult for you? Be as specific as you can, please: cold drafts blowing across your keyboard, telemarketers calling every fifteen minutes, a bookshelf that threatens to dump its contents onto your head as you attempt to type next to it, fear of rejection? Write ‘em all down.

(5) If you believe taking a writing retreat of any length to be impossible or well-nigh impossible for you, why? Again, the more specific you can make your reply, the better.

(6) What feels like support for your writing? What are others in your life already doing that’s helpful to your writing progress, and what seems like a stumbling-block?

Yes, these are indeed unusual questions to spring upon people at holiday time, when light, fluffy queries like Where can I find the best deal on cashmere socks?, If I add five pounds to the amount of weight I’m planning to lose after New Year’s, is it okay to eat this seventh cookie?, and, of course, Will Rudolph be able to save Santa’s delivery schedule? are ostensibly supposed to be occupying our minds.

However, as anyone who has been reading this blog for more than twelve months could undoubtedly tell you, I believe that the pervasive practice of writers torturing themselves through New Year’s resolutions demanding such unreasonable feats as finishing that long-delayed novel within the next month or landing an agent before Mardi Gras causes a whole lot of unnecessary misery, ultimately rendering the path to publication emotionally harder than it needs to be.

So there.

Call me zany, but in my experience, slow and steady tends to be a better long-term strategy for those seeing fame and fortune through writing than the occasional — or annual — two-week burst of effort, followed by a month of disappointment when those efforts do not yield results akin to Jack’s having planted those magical beans and awakened the next morning to find a beanstalk. Not to mention the months of disappointment with oneself for not having pulled a rabbit out of a hat yet again this year.

Allow me to suggest a much more sensible New Year’s resolution: this year, don’t make any New Year’s resolutions related to your writing at all.

Instead, why not figure out just a few small changes that would help you write more regularly? Or to rearrange your life in a small-but-significant respect to garner more emotional support for sending out a new query every time you find a rejection letter in your mailbox? Or to commit to removing a distraction that regularly comes between you and your genuine passion to write. Oh, if only you had a list handy of what does and doesn’t help you write…

Wait — what’s that you have clutched in your hot little hands, those of you who obediently donned your thinking caps when I requested it? And you thought you couldn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Presto!

Because everyone’s list is bound to be different, I’m not going to presume to tell you how to prioritize the items on yours. At least not today. I’m going to leave you to ruminate on it a bit more, while we devote ourselves to applying the knowledge gleaned from that list to the long-delayed question of how to set up your own private writing retreat.

Yes, I am trying to clear out my to-write list before the end of the year! How did you guess? Since that’s such a big topic, I’m going to tackle the personal retreat next time.

I do have a little something up my sleeve, however, of a practical nature, to round out our time together today: remember in my last post, when I suggested asking your kith, kin, coworkers, canary, neighbors, and any stray children you may have happened to have taken in recently to cooperate with you in setting aside chunks of time sanctified for writing, agreeing not to bug you with anything less than an earthquake during these regularly-scheduled periods? Let’s give some thought today to how one might go about presenting that request in a manner that elicits neither thigh-slapping and guffaws, blank incredulity, nor doe-eyed moppets moaning, “Don’t you love me anymore, Mommy?”

For starters, I wouldn’t recommend just charging up to your nearest and dearest and accusing them, albeit nicely, of sabotaging your writing progress with their continual demands upon your time and attention. I can tell you from long experience observing and advising writers at various stages of their careers that however dramatically satisfying standing up at dinnertime and declaiming, “Support my writing or I’m leaving, Reginald!” may be in fantasy, it seldom yields positive results in practice.

Why, you ask? For the exceedingly simple reason that in all likelihood, Reginald probably no idea that he hasn’t been particularly supportive of your writing. He leaves you alone while he watches football in either the American or the international sense of the term, doesn’t he? Granted, you may not feel that bellowing at the television in the next room is particularly helpful to your artistic endeavors, nor is wandering into your writing space periodically to demand where his favorite pair of socks are, and sure, these orgies of spectatorship often take place during parts of the weekend when the kids want to be driven from activity — but for heaven’s sake, he’s trying, isn’t he?

Then, too, you may be so myopic that you can’t see that your mother’s nagging you to use your long-planned writing day to visit Grandma more often (because she’s not getting any younger, as opposed to the rest of us, but please don’t feel guilty) is her way of showing that she loves you, you sensitive so-and-so. Or that when you tell your best friend that you have rearranged your schedule so that you can spend Saturday mornings writing for several hours, that what she actually hears you say is, “I have some free time — let’s go to brunch!”

If you haven’t forced your nearest and dearest into a comfortable seated position recently and held them in place until you have explained that you regard such time as one of the greatest blessings of life, consider doing so, pronto. They may genuinely not understand why your writing time needs to be sacrosanct.

And why should they, really, unless they happen to be creative artists themselves? The fact is, dearly beloved, that to most non-writers, the idea of spending hours at a time sitting in front of a keyboard, composing a story from scratch where the grammar and spelling actually count, is not a particularly appetizing prospect. In interrupting your writing time, they may actually be trying to save you from what they perceive to be a grisly fate.

Don’t expect them to read your mind — or wait until you have been interrupted so many times that the only option left for expressing your desires on the subject is in a piercing scream. If you explain calmly and kindly why time and space are important to you, as well as how you would like them to act with respect to it, well-meaning souls will surprisingly often exclaim, “Oh, I had no idea! Of course I’ll leave you alone on Thursday afternoons from 4:45 to 6:15!”

Even better, they may actually do it. Naturally, like most New Year’s resolutions, their commitment to keeping out of your hair may falter over the course of a few weeks or months, but if you presented your case reasonably in the first place, you have laid the groundwork for a gentle reminder, haven’t you?

In order to encourage these sweet souls to make good on their promises, give ‘em a little practical help. Don’t answer the phone during your dedicated writing time, unless you are actually awaiting a heart transplant — and if you are, or if you’re not comfortable making yourself unavailable while your kids are in the house/out of the house/not yet old enough to vote, invest in caller ID or establish special ring tones so you know which calls are actually emergent and which merely Reginald eager to find out where you’ve hidden his favorite sweater after you washed it.

I’m quite serious about this. I know several successful authors who have gone so far as to get pagers and give the numbers only to their children, their elderly parents, and their agents.

Also, avoid the all-too-common trap of keeping your e-mail program or IM open while you are trying to write. They’re just too distracting — and as much as it may annoy your bored friends if you do not respond right away to visitors to your Facebook page, have you EVER received such a message that couldn’t actually have waited an hour or two for your response?

Speaking of distraction, some of you are still thinking about my crack about Reginald’s seeming inability to put away his own laundry, aren’t you? Your antennae are not steering you wrong, my friends: I am about to suggest that you sit down with the other members of your household to chat about how the domestic duties might be reapportioned to give you more writing time.

To put it another way, are the chores you do habitually are actually of such a nature that they can be done by your good self, or have you been doing them because, good heavens, if you don’t, who will? Or — brace yourself, neatniks — because you were brought up to believe that if laundry sits in a hamper longer than three days, it will transform into Godzilla and go rampaging through your house?

If you are the household doer-of-chores, expect some resistance to the suggestion that you are not equipped with an extra pair of hands specially designed for the purpose. As I mentioned last time, engrained habits are hard to dislodge.

Which is why I would not suggest walking into such a discussion unarmed: your argument will be more convincing if you are toting some proof that such chores are eating up quite a bit of your time. A great way to establish this is to take an average week and keep track of everything you spend more than ten consecutive minutes doing. Make your record as detailed as possible, then at the end of the week, tote up how much time you spent on each task.

If you’re like many conscientious chore-doers, you may be astonished at the totals. And if you’re like most time-fritterers, seeing how you’re spending your time may be equally enlightening.

Regardless of whether you will be confronting anyone but your pet cat or goldfish with the results (“I invested three hours playing with you last week, Fluffy! Your tyranny over my time must cease!”), keeping a meticulous record of how you spend your time for a week or two is a good idea. Be completely honest about it, so you may discern patterns.you can always destroy the document afterwards.

Yes, even if you’re embarrassed about some of the time-eaters you’ll need to list. After all, it won’t help you to pretend you spent six hours re-reading Marcel Proust’s À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU when you actually spent it watching reruns of Project Runway, will it? I offer no judgments — as a matter of fact, I’m rather fond of Project Runway — but presumably, if you felt you were already devoting enough time to writing, you wouldn’t be trying to find more.

Think of it as a time budget. If you know how and where are you currently spending your time, you will have an easier time figuring out what time expenses, so to speak, can be dropped. Or, to put it another way, would you prefer to invest your time elsewhere?

After you have a reasonably detailed account in your hands, try breaking your normal routine for a week or ten days, to get a clearer idea of what is and is not immutable in your usual schedule. This may require a bit of advance thought, but the results can be fabulously educational.

Switch around chores with your spouse; if you pick up the kids after school, try rearranging your carpool so you drive them there in the morning instead; it may well be that this will leave you fresher for evening writing. If you always do the dishes or laundry in the morning, do it late at night; maybe it will turn out that early morning is your prime writing time, and if so, do you really want to fill up that time with housework?

In short, just how much of that cast-in-stone schedule is actually cast in stone? What could go, at least in the short run, in order to free up more writing time

At the end of your week or ten days of messing with your schedule, after your routines are good and disrupted, look back over your account of how you spent your time. What worked and what didn’t? Where could you fit in chunks of solid writing time on a regular basis?

Could you use this information to rearrange your life so you could get more writing done? It may require some genuine bravery and ingenuity, but most of the time, the answer is a resounding YES.

Yes, it’s a lot of work, but changes implemented in this manner are far, far more likely to still be around six or even three months from now than if you pursue the infinitely more popular route of simply demanding more work from yourself while altering nothing else in your life.

Hey, there’s a reason that the average New Year’s resolution lasts only three weeks.

To minimize the resentment of the rest of your household, as well as to gain a more accurate sense of how you would use your untrammeled time, I advise going on a media fast for that week or ten days when you begin the new Schedule of Joy. It won’t hurt your worldview to turn off the TV and radio for that long, nor to skip the daily newspaper.

Not only will this allow you to assess just how much time every day you are currently spending being entertained and/or informed, to see if you could purloin some of that time for writing, but it will also help you get back into the habit of listening to your own thoughts without distraction.

I go on one of these fasts every year, and it honestly is amazing how much it calms the thoughts. It also arouses the pity and wonder of my household, and reminds my kith and kin just how important it is to me to have inviolate writing time. It reminds them that they, too, are contributing to my success, if only by remembering not to telephone during my writing time. It reminds them that they can actually LOOK for a stamp when they need it, rather than asking me.

Not to mention schooling the cats in who is actually in charge of when that furry mouse gets thrown for fetching purposes.

It also reminds everyone concerned why I am so strict throughout the rest of the year about not wanting to hear what is happening on the currently hot sitcom. For me, getting sucked into an ongoing plot line is a big dispensable time waster. I have seen a grand total of one episode of FRIENDS, two SEX AND THE CITYs, and no Seinfeld at all, but I have written several pretty good books.

I’m aware that the list above is woefully out of date, thanks, and I’m not sure that I could pick Jennifer Aniston out of a lineup. (She was on the first show I mentioned, right?)

Have I made my point?

Is getting a book project finished worth being temporarily out of touch with pop culture? Only you can answer that, but frankly, I doubt that even the most devoted television watchers will be clutching their throats like Vincent Price on their deathbeds, moaning ruefully, “Oh, if only I had kept up with my sitcoms better! If only I had followed reality television more faithfully, I would have no regrets departing this terrestrial sphere!”

And yes, in answer to what three-quarters of you just thought, I don’t believe that anyone Alex left behind wishes that he had spent more time watching television, either.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, that I’m not going to tell you how much time per day, week, month, or year is the idea amount for you to invest in your writing. How you choose to spend your time on earth — your leisure time, anyway — is up to you. If you want to set aside time to express yourself, be my guest; if you’d rather only work on your book sporadically, you have my blessing, too. Ditto with sending out your queries with the clockwork regularity necessary to land an agent vs. stuffing your manuscript pages into the bottom drawer, never to see the light of day. Whatever makes you happy, you should do.

All I’m asking — and I realize that it’s a big, big request, so feel free to say no — is that you make those choices consciously, rather than allowing yourself to be pushed around by the fact that a new year is going to begin in a few days or other people have not to date spontaneously offered to lighten your burdens so you may devote more time to writing. Creating a stellar piece of writing does not happen by accident; 99.9999% of the time, a glorious book is the result of quite a bit of advance planning and sacrifice.

Please do give some thought, in short, to the tender, loving care of your talent and all of that nervous tissue. To help you do so, I can do no better than to show you that Mme. de Staël quote in its entirety:

So let us rise up under the weight of existence. Let us not give our unjust enemies and ungrateful friends the triumph of having beaten down our intellectual faculties. They reduce people who would have been satisfied with affection to seeking glory; well, then, we have to achieve glory. These ambitious attempts may not remedy the sorrows of the soul, but they will bring honor to life. To devote life to a constantly disappointed hope of happiness is to make it even sadder. It is better to direct one’s efforts to going down the road from youth to death with some degree of nobility, and with reputation.

As John Irving urged us in THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE, keep passing those open windows, everyone. And as I have been known to advise a time or two here, keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part X: where you stand depends on where you sit, sometimes literally

In my last post, I lingered on the desirability of making physical space in your home — or somewhere else, if you can afford separate office space — specifically dedicated to writing. Like playing the same music every time you sit down to write, lighting your desk area more brightly than the rest of the house in midwinter, or painting your kneecaps bright green as a pre-writing ritual, setting aside a space where you do nothing but write can be very helpful in fending off writer’s block, seasonally-induced or otherwise.

Why, you ask? Well, like the other sensual cues mentioned last time, walking into a dedicated writing environment makes the transition from mundane (non-writing) time to creative time clear to not only your daytimer, but to your body. Just as nice, clean towels coming out of the dryer tell my cats that it’s time to curl up and have a nap, walking into my writing space tells me that it’s time to get to work.

You can TELL your body that it’s time to write until you’re blue in the face, but let’s face it, we’re animals at base, and creatures of habit to boot. That pancreas of yours will need a non-verbal hint or two, and when’s the last time your T2 vertebra listened to reason?

You’ve probably already noticed the stimulus-bodily reaction phenomenon manifesting in less positive ways. The body’s no fool. When you have a job you hate, merely walking into the building raises your stress levels markedly, doesn’t it? The smell of baking bread or cookies cheers most people up, regardless of what else is going on, and incessant holiday music following one from store to store so stuns the nervous system after a while that one begins to buy frantically in self-defense, just to get out of there.

(No one can tell me that last effect isn’t calculated. I was in a children’s choir for many years, doomed to wander puckishly from rest home to shopping mall to stage to insane asylum all throughout the holiday season, piping carols at the top of our childish voices. The sounds we were yelping were generally considered high-quality, but let me tell you, spectators’ eyes glaze over like Santa’s swimming pool before the end of the second verse of even the most beautifully-rendered carol. They’ve been hypnotized by sheer repetition.)

Having a dedicated space usually helps with that other common writerly tendency, jumping up after only a minute or two to do something else. The less comfortable your writing area, the more likely that urge is to overwhelm you.

(Confidential to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver who might still be snuffling around for meaningful means to mark a Hanukkah evening: have you considered giving an office chair with really good back support? Not a generic office chair, but one that fits the writer’s body specifically? Or a copy of THE NOW HABIT, psychologist Neil Fiore’s excellent and accessible book on breaking procrastination patterns?)

A solid fit between computer user and furniture can help avoid all kinds of writing-delaying problems, as many of us now know to our cost. Business offices are notorious for trying to force every body type into identical chairs, as are colleges. When I was an undergraduate, my college saw fit to equip each and every dorm room with large, square wooden desk chairs like the one above, emblazoned with the school’s insignia — so, you know, if we forgot the school’s motto, we could just turn around and read it. My friends who happened to be 6’2” hockey players claimed that the chairs were most comfortable.

Everyone else ended up with sore backs and overworked arms. And in my day, whippersnappers, those chairs did not come equipped with that festive pillow, so after an hour or two of studying, what I shall delicately call the end of the spine began to complain as well.

Perhaps because there is no such thing as a good, supportive one-size-fits-all desk chair, one can surprisingly often find quite decent barely-used ones at thrift stores, I’ve noticed. You may need to canvas your entire city to find one that suits you and take a carpet-cleaner to it before you use it, but the eye-popping discounts are often worth it.

To return to my previous point: once you have established a space, song, lighting condition, specific chair, etc. as THE signal to begin serious writing, your body will soon come to understand that it’s time to stop distracting you with minor matters like the desire to eat, sleep, or have meaningful human contact and get down to work. Perhaps equally important, having a dedicated space — particularly one with a door that closes firmly on loved ones’ noses — tells everyone else in your household that you are not to be disturbed.

So it’s not only your habits that we’re hoping to recondition here. When intensive writing schedules work, EVERYONE in the household is cooperating to make that happen, starting in babyhood.

Oh, you laugh, but having grown up in a family of writers, I can tell you with absolute confidence: a career writer’s kid learns to go to sleep by the sound of typing (and speaking of conditioned reflexes, the sound of a manual typewriter still makes me distinctly sleepy). To this day, I seldom raise my voice above quiet conversational level, lest there be someone writing in the next room.

It’s habit, like everything else.

It’s also absolutely necessary, incidentally, for the household of a writer working on a deadline — and lest your kith and kin be harboring any fond illusions on the subject, the more successful you are as a author, the more deadlines you are going to have and the tighter they are going to be. It’s just a fact that at some point, no matter how nice a successful writer is, s/he is going to have to say to loved ones, “My writing needs to be my #1 priority right now. Which, by definition, places your needs slightly lower on the list.”

And mean it. So why not avoid the proverbial Christmas rush and start getting your kith and kin in the habit of hearing it now?

Did the last few paragraphs make you a trifle uncomfortable? If so, you’re certainly not alone: many writers are too sweet-tempered or too responsible or too habit-bound or just to gosh darned nice to expect their family members to change ANYTHING about THEIR schedules in order to make room for Mama or Papa or Sissy’s writing. Mama or Papa or Sissy simply give up sleep or recreation or dating in order to finish that book in spare moments when nobody else is making demands upon their time; Mama, more often than not, trains herself to drop her train of thought in mid-sentence the nanosecond anything remotely resembling a request for assistance or care falls upon her distracted ear.

Since this is the season of giving, may I suggest that this would be an excellent time to reexamine that attitude just a little?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that writers’ children should be taught to stifle their cries over their bleeding, severed limbs (although admittedly, writers’ kids of my generation often did). I’m merely throwing out the notion that everyone in the household might make supporting the writing project a top priority on an ongoing basis, rather than leaving the poor writer to struggle with trying to carve out time and space alone.

Why, yes, you may pause in your perusal of this post at this point to read that last bit out loud to your significant other, children, upstairs neighbor, or dog. I’m perfectly happy to wait. Tell ‘em it’s my idea, not yours.

While I’m being subversive — and to wrap up my series on gifts that the average writer would love to receive — FNDGG, why not give the writer in your life the gift of TIME TO WRITE on a regular basis?

After all, a few hours a week is a gift that even fairly small children could give to an overworked writer-parent. Maybe Santa could be induced to whisper some suggestions during that usually one-way communication on his lap; I know many, many writers to whom a pack of hand-made gift certificates, each good for an hour of uninterrupted time, would be the best stocking-stuffer EVER.

Monetarily, it would be hard to find a less expensive present — or New Year’s resolution, for that matter. In most aspiring writers’ households, though, it would require some fairly significant reshuffling of priorities to institute.

Which brings me to another very, very good reason that you might want to speak up about desiring dedicated time and space now, rather than holding your tongue until the happy day that you land an agent, sign a book contract, or see your nom de plume jauntily topping the New York Times’ bestseller list. Remember how I mentioned at Thanksgiving time that the vast majority of North Americans have absolutely no idea how books come to be published or how long it typically takes? Until they see the bound volume for sale at Borders or Chapters, even the most habitually kind and considerate of these well-meaning souls is prone — nay, likely — to express puzzlement and even disappointment at the most exciting tidings falling from their writer friends’ lips.

It’s usually expressed through hoping they’ve misunderstood you. “You signed with an agent?” they will say, uncomprehending smiles playing about their faces. “Great — when is the book coming out?”

They don’t do it to hurt you, honestly: they just don’t understand how many stages (or how much work) is involved in shepherding a book from first bright idea to successful publication. Or even unsuccessful publication. From the outside, a writer who isn’t being paid to sit and tap at a keyboard can look an awful lot like an unusually obsessed hobbyist nursing repetitive strain injuries.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because practically everyone in the English-speaking world, or at any rate English-reading one, mistakenly believes that when a genuinely gifted writer adds the last bon mot to any book worth reading, agents, editors, and scouts for the Oprah Winfrey show magically and spontaneously appear on his or her (usually his, in this fantasy) doorstep, clamoring to bring the magical book out tomorrow.

In the face of that preconceived notion, anything less than instant, massive literary recognition for the writer one actually knows personally is bound to seem like a bit of a letdown.

To be fair, plenty of aspiring writers buy into this fantasy, too — at least until they learn how the publishing industry actually works. In reality, even the writer of a book destined to be a classic a hundred years from now will often spend years querying, pitching, submitting, and revising before being picked up by an agent. Even after that legitimately thrilling achievement, there’s no guarantee that the agent will be able to sell the book to a publisher, or if s/he can, how soon it will be.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but I’ve met literally hundreds of authors who didn’t attain any serious recognition of their writing until their third or fourth books, not third or fourth month marketing them to agents.

I’m bringing this up not to depress you (although I could see where it might conceivably have that effect) but so that you will not talk yourself out of considering asking for more time, space, and support for your work just because you’ve been looking for an agent for a while — or talking yoursel into making one of those lamentably common New Year’s resolutions that demand landing an agent or a publishing contract by the end of the year.

You’ll be happier in the long run — and, dare I say it, less likely to fall prey to writer’s block — if your view of what a good writer can hope to achieve in the short run is realistic.

These days, even the IRS recognizes that ultimately very successful authors often expend years of effort without making a profit at their craft before hitting the big time. (It’s true; look it up.) If the government can accept the unappetizing fact that they’re going to have to wait to tax your book sales, is it really too much to expect those who love you to do the same?

Astonishingly often, it seems to be, but again, try not to blame your kith and kin too much. When everyone one knows seems to believe that an unpublished book must be by definition inherently flawed — because if it weren’t, it would already be published and featured on Oprah, right? — one is likely to look a trifle askance at a dream that takes a long time to come true. Or which appears to be coming true in small increments whose importance the observer doesn’t really understand.

All of which is to say: if you were planning to wait until your writing caught a break before politely requesting that your kith and kin

(a) stop nagging you to get published and go on Oprah,

(b) arguing that other activities are inherently more important than preserving your writing time and/or space,

(c) installing fitness equipment in the only logical space in the house for your desk,

(d) interrupting your scheduled writing time with the crisis du jour,

(e) interrupting your scheduled writing time for phone calls, and/or

(f) interrupting your scheduled writing time because someone just said something funny in a sitcom (improbable, but within the realm of possibility, certainly),

it might not be worth the wait. What is to a writer a major event — the realistic possibility of completing a novel within the next three months, for instance, or an agent’s request for materials, or finally selling that book proposal to a small publisher — may not be to them the unanswerable argument for support you’ve been expecting it to be. They may not respond as you would like, because after all, if your book were REALLY destined for greatness…

Well, you know the tune by now, don’t you?

And that, to slip into the vernacular for a moment, is going to suck, because at that point, you’re going to want to drop everything and devote yourself to your art. Trust me, because I speak from long, long experience and observation: at that ostensibly-joyous-yet-practically-stressful juncture, even the most sweet-tempered author is bound to feel bubbles of ulcer-inducing resentment welling up against her solar plexus.

Consider, then, the alternative. There are many advantages to gathering one’s significant other, paramour(s), children, parents, grandparents, friends, coworkers, pets, and anyone else who might be at all likely to disturb your writing time and announcing, “Now hear this! Starting this very minute and until this project is complete, I’m going to need all of your help. Raise your right hands and repeat after me: ‘Unless the house is actually on fire, I shall not interrupt my beloved writer while s/he is working…”

I’m feeling waves of panic floating from the timid at the very notion of saying such a thing. “But Anne,” I hear some of you kindly souls squeak fearfully, “isn’t that a little, you know, drastic? After all, they do leave me alone to write sometimes; I don’t want them to think I’m not grateful for that. I’ve got a much, much better idea: what if I don’t say anything at all, and just hope that they’ll take the hint?”

I understand your reluctance, oh gentle souls, but I have one question to ask in response: how has that strategy worked out for you so far?

As lovely as it would be if one’s families, roommates, and friends would spontaneously cry, “You know, honey, I’ve been thinking, and you would have two and a half hours of clear extra time per week to work on your book if I did the grocery shopping for the next six months. Please let me do this for you!” in my experience, it doesn’t happen all that often. Habit is habit, unlikely to change without somebody laying out some awfully good reasons that it should.

(Although for the benefit of any Significant Others, paramours, cats, etc. who may be reading this: anyone who DID murmur such words under the mistletoe — and actually followed through on them — would be exceedingly likely to find by spring that every writer of his/her sweetie’s acquaintance is bright green with envy. I just mention.)

Call me a cynic, but I believe that one is far, far more likely to get what one wants if one asks for it, rather than waiting for those in a position to give it to read one’s mind. Especially when, as so many aspiring writers do, you’ve probably been juggling your writing and the rest of your life well enough that from the outside, it might not look like the strain it undoubtedly is.

So instead of relying upon your loved ones to realize that you could use a bit of extra time, why not come out and request it? Or — don’t faint on me here — decree establishing time and space to write as your holiday present to yourself?

Your writing is important to you. You are NOT being selfish to ask for time and a place to do it.

Before any of you tell me that you are far, far too busy for this to be practicable — I can tell which ones intend to make this objection by the loud guffaws of disbelief and tears of mirth running down your faces — let me hasten to add that I’m thinking about some fairly small increments of undisturbed tranquility. What if, say, you were no longer the one doing the laundry? Or your teenager cooked dinner twice per week? Or you stopped playing canasta with those neighbors you never really liked in the first place? Or — and I suspect this one might resonate with some of you at this particular season — you opted out of hosting your thirty-person family’s holiday dinner next year?

How much time would that free for your writing? And, more crucially, just what message would such a step send to your kith and kin about precisely how important your writing actually is to you?

Because, if you don’t mind my asking, if you’ve never asked them to sacrifice anything for it, even momentary pleasure, are you positive that they honestly understand that you consider it your real life’s work, your genuine passion, regardless of whether your writing ever actually gets published?

Assuming, of course, that you feel this way. Most of the dedicated writers I know do.

Yes, working up the nerve to convey this to non-writers is hard, but anyone who ever told you that being a writer is easy was — well, let’s say inadequately informed. I’m going to talk more next time about how one might go about expressing this to one’s kith and kin, as well as some practical means of figuring out what can and cannot be altered in order to make more time and space for writing in your life. Before you groan, believe me, the rewards of self-expression are massive and ongoing. It is well worth reassessing the demands upon your time and space to make room for you to try.

At least think about it, please: even writers with great support and lovely, comfortable, well-lit writing spaces can usually figure out where there’s room for improvement. As Emily Dickenson wrote so charmingly, “We never know how high we are/till we are called to rise.”

She was talking about something completely different, of course, but it brings me back to a question I asked you to start considering way back in October: what do you actually need in order to write happily and well?

You didn’t honestly think that I was going to content myself with a mere pep talk today, did you?

To render subsequent discussions of October’s burning question and today’s modest proposal both more useful and more interesting, let’s expand that general question into a number of more focused ones:

(1) What conditions would you actually need in order to write productively for a significant, unbroken chunk of time? What are your necessary minimum conditions — not just generic ones, but yours — for retreating to write, even just for a day?

(2) What specific factors — ambient noise conditions, lighting, seating, height of monitor, being able to lock a door, whatever — are of tangible assistance in your creative process, and what is merely nice?

(3) Is there anything that you currently use that you could do without? If you could snap your fingers and replace a neutral factor with a useful one, what would it be?

(4) Conversely, what conditions render the actual act of writing more difficult for you? Be as specific as you can, please: cold drafts blowing across your keyboard, telemarketers calling every fifteen minutes, a bookshelf that threatens to dump its contents onto your head as you attempt to type next to it, fear of rejection? Write ‘em all down.

(5) If you believe taking a writing retreat of any length to be impossible or well-nigh impossible for you, why? Again, the more specific you can make your reply, the better.

(6) What feels like support for your writing? What are others in your life already doing that’s helpful to your writing progress, and what seems like a stumbling-block?

Yes, yes, I know: these are some pretty weighty questions, downright fundamental to who you are and how you write. That’s why I’ve given you a couple of months — and the upcoming weekend — to ponder them. They are questions that every successful professional writer has to face sooner or later, not as daydreams, but as practical realities that can be changed as necessary.

Usually, the answers become apparent about three days before a major deadline, but I think we can do better than that, don’t you? Give ‘em some thought — and keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part IX: desirable alterations of the space-time continuum

All right, I’ll admit it: I love all forms of temporary public decoration, the more bewildering, the better. Take, for example, the wee park above, seasonally fraught with enigma. The bench urges one to pause and enjoy the view, while the snow argues for walking on swiftly. The garland clambers far overhead, yet somehow neglects to finish the shape inherent to that lamppost; it simply cries out, “Make me into a candy cane,” does it not?

Which naturally begs the question: had the person who selected the decoration perhaps never seen the lamppost before (or own a tape measure), but merely went on a mad garland-purchasing spree whilst in a state of ignorance? Or did s/he have a traumatic childhood experience with sweets that caused the bare sight of a candy cane to be hideously painful?

Finally, whatever does that semi-permanent banner mean? Are the wave shapes intended to alert the inattentive viewer to the fact that there is a body of water just a few steps away? Is that something anyone of reasonable intelligence is likely to miss at any time of year? More mysteries of the season, I guess.

Speaking of which, I spent a small-but-significant portion of yesterday’s post on the dreaded subject of writer’s block, or at least that species of it that leads to seemingly perpetual procrastination. Not entirely coincidentally, last week, I began talking about that reliable annual writer’s block-inducer, the winter blahs.

And no, I’m not just talking about depression induced by hearing the same fifteen carols, often in precisely the same versions, in EVERY store into which one has the misfortune to wander between Halloween and the after-Christmas sales. Admittedly, after an interminable decade singing in children’s choirs, I have a lower-than-normal carol tolerance, but geez, I don’t know how retail workers stand the sheer repetition.

I’m digressing again, amn’t I? Back to seasonal writer’s block.

Annually, light-deprivation, overtaxed schedules, family demands, and constant invocations to be overtly jolly and spend lots of money leave many aspiring writers too blue — not to mention too tired — to write. This year, with grim news about publishing hitting us every time any of us pass within a few yards of anything remotely related to the media, I’m betting that even writers normally suffused with seasonal cheer are finding their vim fading a trifle faster than usual.

Ho, ho…hum.

With the new year approaching swiftly (and with it, perhaps, the consciousness of another year’s having slipped by without landing that yearned-for agent and/or book contract), the temptation to turn off the computer and cry, “Oh, the heck with it — I’ll start writing again in January!” can become downright overwhelming.

I want to concentrate today on techniques designed to fend off that state of mind, before any of us find ourselves glancing at our dust-laden manuscripts on Valentine’s Day, murmuring, “Will it REALLY make a difference if I don’t get back to the book until Groundhog Day?” or “Can’t I get away with not sending another set of queries until Easter?” And if I happen to mention in passing a few helpful and not-very-expensive gifts for writers to suggest to the FNDGGs (Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Givers) in their lives, well, let’s just say that I shan’t be terribly surprised.

If you thought you were the only writer who ever thought like that — about delaying getting back to a regular writing schedule, that is not about peppering one’s FNDGG with hints — let me assure you, you’re not alone. I’ve known authors with lucrative three-book contracts in hand who still habitually burrowed under the covers in the morning because they couldn’t imagine anyone paying to read anything they might conceivably write that day.

Listen: talent doesn’t just dry up. But motivation can and often does. The good news is that with effort, it can be revivified.

Earlier this autumn and again last week, I mentioned the possibility of refreshing writerly momentum by scheduling a writing retreat, a time when you can leave all of your everyday duties behind and just WRITE for a while. But realistically, absent a very generous gift-giver (hint, hint, FNDGG) or suddenly acquiring the independent income and a room of one’s own Virginia Woolf recommended, for many writers, the very idea of arranging quotidian life to disappear for a month, week, or even a day seems like an impossible dream.

Believe me, I understand this feeling: you’re a responsible person with obligations, after all, someone who is going to have to keep paying bills throughout this retreat.

And let’s face it, other people’s demands and schedules would need to be disrupted. If you have kids, it may be hard even to imagine disappearing for as much as a week before they graduate from high school. If you have a demanding job, even the suggestion of being absent for a few days running may be enough to induce hearty guffaws in your boss’ office.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have.

If you have been able to find an hour or two per day for writing, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! You need to make the most of every second – which in and of itself can be intimidating; if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible.

(Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s a strategy I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. Like the light bulb trick from earlier in this series, it seems disappointingly simple at first, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music EVERY time you sit down to write.

Not just the same CD, mind you, but the same SONG.

The repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent; pretend you’re working in a mall during the holidays and can’t change the music, or one of Pavlov’s dogs waiting for a bite to eat. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing — which in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly.

After a while, you can put on other music later in your writing sessions, as long as you always begin with the same song. Your brain will already be used to snapping immediately into creative mode.

I do the music-repetition thing myself, so I can give you first-hand assurance of its efficacy. For the novel my agent has allegedly been circulating for me recently (one never knows, does one?), I put on the same Cat Stevens CD (hey, I was writing about hippies) literally every time I sat down to write – and now that I have finished the book, I can’t hear THE WIND without moving instinctively toward my computer. And even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s UPSTAIRS AT ERIC’S without starting to think about my long-completed dissertation. For the novel I’m currently writing, set at Harvard in the mid-80s, Berlin’s FOR ALL TOMORROW’S LIES is destined to be forever associated with a keyboard for me.

So I can tell you from experience: it works, if you give it a chance.

(So yes, Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: installing a small stereo system in a writer’s designated workspace WOULD be a delightful surprise, now that you happen to mention it. How clever of you.)

If you are a person who needs to write under conditions of complete silence, try lighting the same type of incense or scented candle seconds before turning on the computer. Always wear the same socks, or pull your hair into a specific type of ponytail. Do twenty-five jumping jacks immediately before sitting down to write, or lock the door and belly-dance for a few minutes.

It actually does not matter what your ritual is, as long as it is a sensual experience that occurs ONLY when you are writing – and is repeated EVERY time you sit down to write, so your body will come to recognize it as a signal that it’s creativity time.

Or you could institute a ritual in reverse, rewarding yourself for staying a set amount of time in front of your computer, even if you are feeling frustrated. Graham Greene, I’m told, forced himself to write 147 words prior to taking his first drink of the day.

While that may not sound like much — the preceding three paragraphs add up to 146 — don’t underestimate the value of cumulative endeavor: Mssr. Greene’s enormous daily thirst added up to a very successful 30-year writing career.

Okay, so he wrote mostly about alcoholics, but still, you’ve got to admit that it’s impressive.

It’s also helpful, when you find yourself avoiding writing, to take a good, hard look at your writing space: can you in fact concentrate there? Is there a way you could make it more comfortable — or more private?

Or — and I find this is often the case with struggling writers — do you not have a space dedicated to writing at all?

Yes, you CAN write in a crowded café at a table immediately adjacent to a bongo band while babysitting a hyperactive rhesus monkey. And Antonio Gramsci wrote a major work of political philosophy entirely on toilet paper while imprisoned in a small, dark cell, but that doesn’t mean that either is an environment particularly conducive to long bursts of concentrated creative thought.

Frankly, I think the advent of the laptop, however laudable in itself, has resulted in a general lack of recognition that writers tend to be more productive if they have their own spaces in which to write. (Not that a laptop wouldn’t be a pretty great present for a writer, Furtive NDGG.) Or at least more space than is taken up by a standard-sized placemat, sans silverware.

Call me overly reliant upon symbolism, but a writer’s home that does not contain at least a few square feet of floor space set aside ONLY for writing has always struck me as more likely to induce writer’s block than one that does. Not to guarantee it, mind you — plenty of authors have typed up a storm in cramped spaces — just to be conducive to it. Like a schedule too jam-packed to permit a few hours of quiet meditation at a stretch, not having space to write renders the likelihood of being able to take immediate advantage of an attack of inspiration considerably lower.

And yes, Virginia, I am deliberately mentioning this at a time of year when some of you have whisked your notes into desk drawers so relatives can bed down on an air mattress in the room where you normally write. That alone might well tempt even the most hospitable writer into shelving the novel or book proposal until January.

Or, if the seed I’m trying to plant here germinates successfully, to try to figure out a part of the house or apartment where one can retreat to work, even with guests in the house.

Hey, Furtive NDGG: what about committing to converting a spare attic, bedroom, basement, or corner of the living room into a comfortable writing space as a present? How about improving an existing one to make it more ergonomically friendly to its user — good desk set-ups are definitely NOT one-size-fits-all — or a more cheerful place to be?

Remember, though: lighting, lighting, lighting. And did I mention lighting?

In smaller living situations, how difficult would it be to install a screen to create a private space for a writer? Or, if even that is spatially impossible, investing in a really good pair of noise-blocking headphones?

Seeing a pattern here, FNDGG? Anything you can do to alter space and/or time to render concentration easier is a dandy gift for a writer.

What about you, writers? All too often, we writers assume that the only possible reasons for feeling stalled in our writing are problems within ourselves: lack of willpower, lack of commitment, an unwillingness or inability to restructure our lives in order to write rather than fitting writing into already overcrowded lives, limited talent.

Or just a book idea that’s not as spectacular as it originally seemed.

While either the actuality or the fear of any or all of these can certainly stymie a writing project, it’s worth considering practical steps that may make the physical act of writing easier — and creating long-term habits that will encourage us when the words are not coming easily.

Give it some thought. Or don’t, and wait until I come back to this absorbing topic next time — which, judging from the dirty looks the relatives have been popping into my writing space for the past fifteen minutes to give me, is going to be after a certain holiday that shall remain nameless.

Either way, have a merry one, and keep up the good work!