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Your One Wild and Precious Life

Bird image [1]
Pitta sordida – Sri Phang Nga [2] by JJ Harrison [3] (jjharrison89@facebook.com [4]) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 [5] via Wikimedia Commons [6]

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

That quote from Mary Oliver has been ringing in my head this past week, ever since I got an e-mail from a writer friend– a very, very talented writer friend, who nevertheless is not writing. She’s in a dry spell, but it’s more than a “spell” really. She has written and published books before, but hasn’t written anything much or finished anything in the last five years. She wrote to me recently, frustrated by her inability to write, asking me how I do it. How do I juggle mothering and homeschooling and all the other responsibilities of real life and still produce any books.

That Mary Oliver quote is the first thing that sprang to mind when I thought about what to tell her. But first let me get one thing out of the way: I am so not an expert at any of this. I’m not sure I’m even especially good at any of this– not naturally so, anyway. Yes, I have all these children (3 at last count), yes I homeschool, yes, I write a lot of books. That doesn’t mean that I have things totally together the majority of the time. Or even the minority of the time. Anyone who doubts it can come an inspect the state of my kitchen floor. I’m not the organization queen who does it all and makes it look easy. Seriously. But maybe that’s a good thing, because it means that I can tell you what works for me, and add that if I can do this, pretty much anyone can.

So. I wish that I had some magic bullet secret to share. And I do, kind of, but it’s not the kind that allows you to rap three times on your keyboard and have a perfect book magically appear on the screen. My secret is this:

I can do hard things.

That’s my mantra. Writing is hard. Even if we had absolutely nothing else going on in our lives– and we all do have challenges and stresses and struggles that make it hard to write– crafting novels would still be hard. That’s okay. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. No one– no one sane, anyway– thinks, Oh, well, I’m looking for a way to pass the time. Writing a novel should be easy. I mean, I also try not to lose perspective, because at the end of the day, writers aren’t mining coal or scrubbing hotel room floors or any of the other myriad jobs that are really, really hard. But if you’re struggling with your story, it’s not that you’re a terrible writer or that your book is a terrible idea. It’s just that this job of writing stories is not an easy one. That’s okay. Don’t quit. Just tell yourself: I can do hard things.

Here’s my second secret: no excuses. The weather lately has been too cold and snowy for me to go for my usual morning run outside, so I’ve taken to doing Jillian Michaels exercise routines instead. Largely because I can work out in the middle of my kitchen floor while the baby sits next to me in his high chair and dumps his breakfast on the floor mashes scrambled eggs in his hair eats. I’ve been a runner since high school, and I still have had nightmares about being trapped in a never-ending Jillian Michaels DVD. I’m not kidding. Jillian is big on no excuses and don’t phone it in, and make every single second count. My point is this: every writer is different, but for me, it works to apply something of the same philosophy to writing. There are loads of other areas in my life where I let myself slack off (for example scrubbing the kitchen floor, see above). I never, ever let myself slack off in the writing department. I write seven days a week, whether I’m sick, sad, exhausted, overwhelmed, whatever. I do that not because of financial pressure or because I feel like I just “should”– I do it because writing is absolutely what I want to do with my own wild and precious life. I love writing. I love it so, so much. I have so many story ideas that it’s sometimes positively irritating, and only so much time to write them all down.

At the same time, though– and this is what I decided that I really needed to tell my friend– go easy on yourself. If you really, truly want to be a writer (and it’s okay to decide that after all, you don’t), then I do think there’s a lot to be said for the good old-fashioned advice of posterior in chair, fingers on the keys. Write. Just write. Silence your inner critic, take chances, make mistakes, write whole swaths of material that you wind up having to rip out and write again. You may write whole books that you wind up needing to just shove in a drawer because no one besides you should ever read them. I’ve been there, done all of that. Giving up on a chapter, a scene, an entire book certainly isn’t fun, but it’s survivable. The important thing is to just keep writing.

But don’t beat yourself up if you’re sitting in your chair and you’re telling yourself that you can do hard things– and the book still isn’t happening. If the pressure of writing-to-publish is making you crazy or giving you writers’ block, maybe it’s time to take off the pressure of thinking about publication and just write for yourself. Write a short story, a poem– heck, a love letter to your pet gerbil. I firmly believe that no writing is ever wasted, ever– not if we’re really writing from the heart and soul. Or if even the gerbil love letters aren’t happening? Well, that’s okay, too. Life is long. Writing careers are (hopefully) also long, and just because you can’t write now doesn’t mean that you never will again. Try something new, explore some other outlet for your creativity. Paint, garden, learn to cook . . . there are endless ways to find your way back to your creative center, that magical space where you can start writing again. Basically, tell me– no, actually, much more importantly, tell yourself– what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Have you ever hit a writing dry spell? What advice would you give to a friend who’s in the midst of one?

About Anna Elliott [7]

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.