I'm a writer who doesn't write

I'm writing constantly in my head. How can I find the time to put these things on paper?

Published October 20, 2011 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I have been formulating a letter to you on and off for the last year, as I would greatly appreciate your thoughts. This is the first time I have actually taken pen to paper (so to speak). I hope to be concise, but feel it is unlikely given the nature of my question. It regards the degree to which a Writer can write as a hobby and be satisfied, without disrupting all other aspects of life.

Much to the annoyance of your readers, and perhaps you, I feel the need to give some back story. First, the present. I am a scientist, a wife and a mother of three children. For all but a dalliance that lasted a couple of years, I am and have always been a Writer who doesn't write (credit to John Irving, who first articulated that very apt concept). How do I know I am a Writer? Well, perhaps a better description is that I am a storyteller. Since I was a child of maybe 11 or 12, perhaps younger, I have spent almost the entirety of my interstitial moments making up stories. Some of them terrible, some of them interesting, all of them amusing to me in some way. It seems to be something my brain needs to do to relax. If I have more than 30 seconds, I am creating or revising a scene of some kind. I am writing or revising dialogue, organizing story arcs, imagining how to verbalize emotions. So just as some people read compulsively in every spare moment they have, I write in my head. For a long time, perhaps even until graduate school, I romantically viewed myself as an observer of life (versus a participator). Likely this was a protective mechanism. Still, I observed and I created and I lived vicariously through my own imagination. Oddly, I did have a social life, with friends, boyfriends and much merriment so I was participating to a degree. State of mind, I guess.

I always believed I would eventually write my stories down, but then my talents in math and science compelled me forward into a more stable career path. I remember my joy when I was bumped up to the "honors" English class in high school, something that meant so much more to me that AP Biology or advanced Calculus. The most memorable compliment I ever received was from my English teacher, who expressed surprise when I told her I would likely major in biology at university — she responded, "I assumed you would be an English major," and my heart leapt. Really? Me? Needless to say, that was too terrifying, so I stuck with my original plan and went all the way with it. I am not a great scientist, as I have never fully committed. That said, there are aspects I enjoy and it is the only thing other than writing I could imagine myself doing.

At one point a few years ago, the stories in my head became too insistent. I could not stop my brain from spending every waking moment that it wasn't otherwise occupied going over scenes, tweaking, creating in an endless loop to the detriment of my work and relationships, so I decided to at least write down the particular story that was bubbling. It worked. Once it was down on paper, it stopped co-opting my mind. Yay! But then of course more stories popped up, desperate to be dealt with.

Writing fiction was an activity beyond anything I had ever experienced before. The mental focus was unprecedented -- for the first time in my life, my brain was entirely focused on one thing (vs. desperately seeking a moment to drift off). It was thrilling and intoxicating in a way that I did not anticipate. I reacted physically as well. The sheer joy of it would send my body into an adrenaline-fueled high that would last for days. Sheer bliss. Addicting. It became all I could think about -- when to find the time to write. I remember my husband expressing some concern when I first started along the lines of "I hope this won't make your work and everything else dull by comparison." Of course it did. And I spent even less time on my work. And then the time became less available, less justifiable. Work, children, husband, real life. I consoled myself with the idea that surely professional writers -- those who get paid to create -- must lose some of the magic of it. They can't possibly be in that state of bliss every day, every week, every year. The body would wear out!  It likely gets boring, right? Just a job. The pressure builds, the joy fades. So I did my best to forget about it. It wasn't terribly hard to do when the children were infants. Extreme sleep deprivation along with forced participation in life strips one's mental function down to emergency-use-only mode. Even my daydreams trailed off for lack of interstitial moments.

But now the fog is lifting and my brain is storming ahead. This past year has been one of intense frustration. There is no time to write, barely time to think (but just enough to tease). I feel physically ill at the thought of postponing this for much longer. I have trouble reading novels because I get so annoyed at the authors and frustrated by stories that could be better. Television, movies, the same frustration, even anger. Of course they are (mostly) not bad and I likely could not do better, but the lack of enjoyment in these things is just a symptom of my dissatisfaction. So I have to do something about it. But how can I? This is the problem. I have a job, I have kids, I have a husband. To be clear, I do not have delusions of grandeur in this. What I could write will not be great literature. I am not the next great novelist of our time. Just because you love to do something with all your heart and soul does not mean you will be any good at it. Life's cruelest irony. But I believe I could entertain.

So given that I have no delusions of gaining fame or money by this endeavor, it must then be a hobby.  People paint as a hobby, right? When they retire. They don't have to be any good -- they just enjoy the act of it. So can I do that with writing? Maybe. And I have taken some limited steps to make this possible. But it just takes so much time (for me). And it is such an individual activity. It is not a hobby that I can share with my family. And I fear I will withdraw from them. I fear I will want to withdraw from them. Now, before I start, I can still respond to the disappointed look on my husband's face when I tell him I don't want to watch TV with him tonight. I give in, forget the couple of hours of writing time, because I have not really started yet. But once I start, what will happen? I remember reading a story about the author of "The Help" -- she said she used to arrange fake "girls' weekends" and "girls' nights out" so she could sequester herself in a hotel room to write. I could totally see myself doing that. Some time ago, I spent 30 minutes outlining a story (that was all the time I had). For the rest of the day, my heart raced with excitement. I felt high! I had a doctor's appointment that day and was worried that they would bring in an EKG machine because my heart was racing so fast. Now it has been three weeks since that 30 minutes and I have not been back to it.  And I want to scream. But I am also afraid.

I need to write stories. I can't quit my job. I can't quit my family.  How can I do it all and remain sane? Do I just postpone the writing until years down the road when I will have more time? (Ouch.) Do I take my 30 minutes every three weeks and be constantly dissatisfied? Do I steal more time, but then risk it enveloping my life? Can one do this thing "a little bit"?

I would greatly appreciate any advice you have, practical and/or philosophical.


A Writer Who Needs to Write

P.S. It would seem obvious to try to work my storytelling abilities into activities I could do with my kids. Making up my own bedtime stories, perhaps working on a children's book to start. Thus far, I have not been terribly successful at this for reasons I can't really explain (the types of stories that emerge naturally are not child-appropriate). But I could try to force it.  

Dear Writer Who Needs to Write,

Since you and your husband are scientists, I would argue that the urge to write is material. It arises in the network of neurons and chemicals we know as the brain and nervous system. Otherwise, it's some kind of mystical, nonmaterial thing, and why would a scientist assume the existence of mystical, nonmaterial things? That doesn't seem scientific.

So either you are telling the truth and this is a material phenomenon worthy of your scientific acknowledgment and scrutiny, or you are in the grip of mystical forces that as a scientist you don't believe in. Or you are a lying insane person and your husband should divorce you because God knows what other deceits you are perpetrating. Perhaps you don't really go to work every day but are carrying on with a European count on the Jersey shore.

So let's assume that this material thing is occurring and then decide what to do with it.

I personally don't favor writing just as a hobby because the external rewards are not powerful enough to sustain the behavior. Sure, as a brain in a jar, you would write night and day. But you are not a brain in a jar. You are an employee, a scientist, a wife and a mother. You require permission and support from your family. It is too hard to get that permission for a private hobby.

What's Mommy doing? Oh, she's locked in her room again, doing something weird.

If you're doing it as a hobby, that's what happens.

But look what happens when you have a book contract:

Don't bother Mommy, she's working on her book proposal! Don't bother Mommy, she's got a book deadline!

Everybody gets on board.

OK, there's Emily Dickinson. But who has that kind of attic?

I have to write for a living because that's the only way to gain enough time to devote to my disease. I have to sit in a room for hours a day alone working with words. I don't have much choice about that. There are only a few ways one can be allowed to do that.

So my rule is: Make your writing socially useful in order to gain material support for it.

The urge is weak in some and strong in some. When you say, "It seems to be something my brain needs to do to relax. If I have more than 30 seconds, I am creating or revising a scene of some kind," it sounds like the urge is strong. That's good.

As Dr. Alice Flaherty, author of "The Midnight Disease," says in an interview, "In psychological terms, it seems that drive is more important than talent. Dean Simonton at Stanford has argued that the composers who produced the greatest works, like Mozart and Beethoven, are simply the ones who wrote the most -- they were composing all the time, as they walked down the street or sat at a dinner party."

So when you wake up in the morning and find yourself compelled to write, that's an augury that you can become good at it.

A scientist might ask, What is it for? If we had instruments sensitive enough we could identify this signal, decode it and perhaps see the very visions that are erupting organically in your brain; you wouldn't even need to write them down. It would be just a few generations more sophisticated than voice-recognition software; it would be brainwave-recognition software.

Why are these neurological impulses being generated? Are they signals from another world? Are they memories? Memories of what? Are they organic patterns, a byproduct of the organic organizational principles responsible for the growth and regulation of the body? Are they species-specific?

Might these signals be the blueprints of human civilization? Might they be instructions for species cooperation?

What are poems for? What is song for? What is story for?

We could go on and on about that. The central thing for you, as an individual, is that this phenomenon is taking place and you ignore it at your peril. What is the difference between the compulsion to write and the compulsion to eat, or to have a baby? What is the difference between this brain activity that wants to write and the brain activity that wants to solve differential equations or build cathedrals? It is activity in the brain. Why not encourage it and see how it manifests? Why not listen and find out what it is?

Why not give birth? Why not find out what strange being it is within you, trying to be born?

That, to me, is not mystical or crazy. That, to me, is science.

By Cary Tennis

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