Giving Myself a Birthday Gift: Time to Write

Birthdays are always a little bit of a conflicted time for me. It’s not that I’m tremendously concerned about the idea of getting older (though, seriously–what are these wrinkle thingamajiggers doing creeping up on my face?). It’s that I find it hard to avoid using the day as a natural pause to do some soul-searching, assessing the ways I’ve spent time and what I’ve managed to accomplish since the last such mile marker.

This year, I had one major goal: finish the current novel-in-progress. Obviously, I also needed to meet the goals of being a good editor at LAR, a good teacher to my students, a good partner to my husband, and a good friend to those I care about. But in terms of goals that were purely for my own sake–my totally selfish goals–I just wanted to finish this damn book.

Unlike the manuscript for my book Jacob Wrestling, which I completed in four exciting, inspired months, this book has been creeping along so slowly that it has begun resembling a three-toed sloth. I’d set myself a deadline of late June for finishing a full first draft of this novel, knowing that my heavy teaching schedule over the summer would prevent me from doing much writing. So I launched ahead, writing several thousand words each day, feeling pretty chuffed about my progress.

Soon, though, the process of running LAR intervened. Literary publishing is a tricky business. You’re not just reading and picking submissions. You’re copyediting them. Formatting them. Collecting contracts for them. You’re selling and fundraising, taking your journal to conferences and teaching workshops. You’re making presentations to boards and compiling Excel spreadsheets beyond believing. You’re scraping up your knuckles in the pouring rain while unloading boxes of books from shipping palettes. Is it worth every bit of effort? Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I’m honored every day that I get to edit LAR. But just when does the writing happen?

Then there’s teaching. I love teaching, and I love my students. It’s a pleasure to see my high schoolers become readers and thinkers. But teaching year-round, without the types of breaks in the public school system, underscores the question: when does the writing happen?

Certainly, other people–friends, coworkers–also need a good chunk of time. Someone needs help moving. Someone needs help editing. Someone needs you to meet an obligation for him or her, for good reasons or for frustrating ones. It’s important to me to be a caring person who will drop what I’m doing to help others when I’m needed, but when does the writing happen?

The writing didn’t happen. My manuscript sat untouched on my desk for four months. I don’t love looking back on my year and seeing that I failed to meet the goal of having the novel drafted in full because I didn’t manage my time well enough to accomplish my own work. But I’ve realized something (something that probably should have been obvious to me): no one else is going to make my writing a priority. Much as I would love others to lavish space and time on me to complete my work, it’s unreasonable to expect it. I am the one who has to say a firm no to extra obligations, and get this book written.

So I’m giving myself a birthday gift this year: time to finish this novel. I have set myself a word count goal for each day of November and December, and for the past 18 days, I’ve met my goals. I plan to keep meeting those goals regardless of obligations or requests that may creep up, and I will hit 80,000 words (and the end of the book) by New Year’s Eve. My house may be a mess. I may not exercise a bit in the next two months. I may not be able to help every person in my life in every way they might desire. But the writing? It’s going to happen.

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5 thoughts on “Giving Myself a Birthday Gift: Time to Write

  1. Carol, I highly encourage you to do so–it’s a liberating feeling! And you know what? The earth has not imploded, as I suspected it might, with my taking time out for my own work. 🙂

    Naomi, thank you so much!

    Joe, I’m delighted to hear you’ve finished your latest work in progress–cheers to you! I wish you much well earned success with this book.

  2. I love the image of your book as a three-toed sloth and I’m chuckling as I picture you carrying this doting thing draped lovingly around your neck. Probably beats the albatross…

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