Go away, can't you see I'm writing?!

I'm finally starting to create again, but people won't leave me alone!

By Cary Tennis

Published January 4, 2008 11:23AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

A correction: In my Jan. 2, 2008, column I gave the impression that Eli's Rehab Report was a publication aimed at drug rehabs. It is not. It is a publication aimed at physical therapy rehabs. So a correction has been posted on Salon, and the erroneous material has been deleted from the column. I regret the error, which was mine alone.

Dear Cary,

I'm a writer who's recovering from a serious case of burnout, exhaustion, writer's block ... whatever it was, it dried me up for over a decade. I wrote a lot when I was younger -- poetry, short stories, half-completed novels -- but it fell to a trickle by the time I was 30. My career kicked into gear (I'm a professional/technical writer) and satisfied some of my itch for writing. I got married and had children. We bought an older house that needed work. I became heavily involved with my professional society. Various other family responsibilities took up a lot of time and energy, too.

All this time, people kept telling me that I should write because my earlier work had been promising. But I had nothing to write about. My ideas were fragmented, clichéd, or utterly trivial. The very act of writing was a chore. Even my work-related writing, which hitherto had been pretty interesting, degenerated into a dull routine of churning out the same things over and over and over again. I was relieved when my job was eventually shipped to India and I was laid off.

Recently, though, I've snapped out of this funk. The layoff gave me a chance to breathe and get my bearings. I found a new job that pays somewhat less but is far more interesting than the previous one, my kids are a bit older and don't require as much hands-on supervision, we've been hiring contractors for the house instead of trying to do everything ourselves, and I have cut way back on the professional society. And I've started writing again! Currently I'm working on a fantasy novel that sprung semi-complete into my head. Writing it is a blast. It's kind of melodramatic and will probably never see the light of day, but I don't care. By finishing it, I'll gain the discipline to carry a book-length story through to the end. My hope is that it will break my writing logjam and lead to other things. So I'm just going with the flow to see where it takes me.

What's the problem? Nobody will let me alone to write! Everyone in my family is curious about what I'm writing, but I really don't want to show it to anyone -- especially as a work in progress. I've always viewed my fiction and poetry as my own private business and never wanted anyone else to read it until I was happy with it. (For some reason, though, it doesn't bother me to have drafts of my work writing reviewed by other people.) I don't want anyone reading over my shoulder as I type and offering unsolicited helpful advice. My spouse does this sort of thing all the time and I just don't want to deal with it. I need the freedom to screw up -- and fix it -- in peace! How else can I get back into the fiction-writing game? I try to write for an hour or so every day. I work on my laptop in the extra bedroom or the game room, but the kids find me and want to know what I'm doing. Most of the time I just wait until they're in bed, but then my spouse tracks me down and it starts again.

Until now, I've been putting them off. But then I start feeling guilty about not paying enough attention to my family, or letting the laundry pile up, or blowing off some other urgent thing that isn't getting done. And then my inner editor (who ordinarily is very helpful with my work writing) starts jabbing me with its red pen and telling me that I should be writing something significant. I had to beat it on the head with a typewriter to get it to shut up and let me start working on my story in the first place! Or I watch an "America's Most Wanted" episode about a woman who's so convinced that her husband is holding her back from greatness as a screenplay writer that she kidnaps their children and goes on the run, and I wonder if I'll end up like that.

How should I handle this? I don't think I'm being neglectful or delusional. I just need some space to write in peace.

Not Quite Virginia Woolf

Dear Not Quite Virginia,

In "A Room of One's Own," Virginia Woolf says, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."

I agree with Virginia Woolf: I think you need money and a room of your own. I mean that literally.

You also need a community.

So I recommend that you find a writing workshop and attend it regularly for at least one year. Ideally, it would be a group that follows the Amherst Writers and Artists method, but just make sure there is a method. If there is no suitable workshop in your area, then buy the book "Writing Alone and With Others," follow the detailed instructions in it and create your own workshop. That is what I did.

If the workshop is three hours long and you attend it once a week for a year, with possible breaks for vacation, that will give you, in one year, between 120 and 150 hours of writing time, thinking time, listening time, immersion in writing, your writing and the writing of others. Add to that your one hour a day of writing on your own, and that's at least 485 hours a year.

I went for many years believing that I did not need no stinking writers workshop. As a result of my upbringing and my reading and my education, I had come to believe, as implausible as this may sound, that my job was to become a writer like no other, a godlike, self-sufficient magician of words whose power could ward off the insults and predations of history, an autonomous hero, a superman, beyond human, motherless, beyond nurture, heedless of judgment, warmed by an eternal self-generating flame.

I think I was kinda wrong about that.

But that was my mistaken belief, my particular problem of male pride and intellectual doubt. Uncritical adherence to this notion had begun to cripple me creatively.

How did I come to believe that this was who a writer should be? Well, that is a whole story in itself, and perhaps to correct this legacy some man should write the equivalent of "A Room of One's Own." Perhaps some man has. I wouldn't know. I've been too busy with my eternal self-generating flame and whatnot.

But anyway, this is the practical program I present to you: Get a room of your own and join a writers workshop. Think how much you can accomplish in 485 hours! It isn't just the work that gets done on the page that is beneficial, either. It is the consistent message that is sent to the heart or the unconscious, a message that says, "Writing is a good thing to do. Writing is a good thing to do. Writing is a good thing to do."

As to your domestic situation, well, the room of your own that you need may be outside your house. For that you need money. Virginia Woolf was talking about inherited money, or a windfall, but in your case wages will simply have to do. If you cannot keep your family out of the room that you write in, then you must find a room that your family does not go into. You can use your wages to find a room of your own in which to write. That is what you must do.

Happy New Year! Book offer extended!

"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition!

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