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Living with the dreary tenants

The thing I find hard about being a writer is that, in between all the busy-ness of daily life, and day jobs, and parenting, and running a small business (which is effectively the kind of approach you have to take, if you want to have any kind of creative career), you just can’t stop thinking about it.

The story, I mean.

So much of writing is in the thinking and day-dreaming, and when you’re busy, quite a lot of that has to happen in the margins.  This is why writing, as a career, has traditionally been done by the upper classes.  Their margins tend to be considerably larger.

daydreaming kidAnyway, the dreamy part: it’s like when you were in school, and you’d lose concentration in class and happily day-dream about something…  Writing is about giving those day-dreams license.  Giving your brain a chance to roam.

The problem is, you need to spend a good long stretch of time on it.  You have to think about a story for a long while to arrive at backstory, and characters who are real people with interiorities, and an interesting sequence of events for their journey. You have to spend hours on it.  Weeks and months of hours.  Years of hours, sometimes.

And you just can’t fit all that thinking and dreaming into a writing session schedule.  It spills out the sides.  You end up dreaming about dialogue on the morning commute, in the gaps during conversations with friends, while you’re making dinner.  It’s especially complex with work and family, because you find your mind is almost split in two.  One part is forced to stay dormant during some parts of the day, when your focus has to be on other people or tasks.  Then at different moments, you can let that secret part of you pop out to play.

And it’s always the most appealing part, that playful part!  You often feel stifled when you’re in situations where you have to limit or repress that side of yourself.  You start to resent other people – including, awful as it sounds, family members – for taking up your time, for making you push that dreamy, creative side of you away from centre stage, where it wants to be.

The dreamy, creative side wants precedence over everything.  Which is tricky, because while that side is great for your writing, it’s not that great for other things.  It’s actually pretty shitty for things like doing your taxes, or staying organised, or keeping up with professional responsibilities, or with which kid needs to get to which extra-curricular event.  It’s not that great for being a friend, or maintaining a relationship – other people like to be listened to, not just nodded at and ‘uh’ed.  It’s also kind of shitty for parenting – being dreamy means your brain is far away, free-floating, so you’re not really present in the moment, and children need you to be present.

squabbling tenants 3What’s the solution?  I don’t really know.  All I can say is that I often feel like my brain is subdivided.  On any given day, all the subdivisions squabble amongst themselves like dreary tenants.  I have to compartmentalise constantly, switching my focus and switching on the appropriate part, sometimes from moment to moment.  It makes me tired, and forgetful, and sometimes cranky.  It makes it hard to enjoy socialising.  I often find it difficult to switch off and relax.

Every writer I know employs different strategies for dealing with this peculiar ‘split focus’ feeling.  Some of them have strict rules about down time – after such-and-such time in the evening, they absolutely do not think about writing work.  They watch TV, or go out and do something else.  I’m not very good at this.  I find that my attention strays – this is probably poor mental discipline on my part.  Some people find meditation helps with this.

Other strategies, I find more useful.  Sleep is a good one.  I’m more capable of switching focus from one subdivision to another when I’ve had enough rest.  When I’m tired, it’s hard to switch.  It’s mentally taxing – I get really cranky then.  I also can’t write – my words get mouldery and dry.  So I try to make sure I get enough sleep.

I also find regular exercise helps a lot.  Doing something that makes you sweat, whatever you prefer – running, walking, swimming laps, weightlifting…  Exercise helps return your mind back to your body, helps ground you.  Sex is good for this also.  Bodywork allows you to be present in the moment, centred in your physical self.  It’s a great leveller.  And of course, it makes you physically tired and ready for sleep.

I find it very hard to maintain mental boundaries when I’m in poor health.  Being ill just makes it hard to concentrate.  Good self-care is important.  If you are living with a chronic condition or a disability, you mind this rule especially.

The camaraderie of other writers is important – to me, at least.  It reminds me that I’m not an isolated case, that other people understand this peculiar state of mind and cope with it themselves.  Sometimes they have useful strategies to share.

I’m a lifelong list-maker.  If I didn’t have my lists, I wouldn’t remember all the stuff I need to be switching back and forth between.  I can’t rely on my brain to remember anything essential – it’s usually too occupied with what one character is saying to another character, or what is happening to my protagonist at any given moment.  List-making is actually for the benefit of other people, all the people in my life who expect me to stay on top of day-to-day events.  My family, and my employer, for example.

Of course, I downsize as much as possible.  I try not to take on too much.  Oh, I know it’s hard to say no – you feel like you’re missing an opportunity.  But the world is full of opportunities.  There’s only one you.  You can’t do everything.  Think of your priorities – you have friends, family, and you want to keep them, right?  Would any of this be worth it without the other people in your life?

And that’s last thing worth remembering, when I’m struggling with anchoring my state of mind.  I have to remind myself to stop.  To look around.  There’s a world out there, beyond the world in my own mind, and I am a part of it.  It informs who I am, it informs my writing, it feeds my creative energy, it provides inspiration and sustenance.

It’s my life.

King said ‘Life is not a support system for Art – it’s the other way ‘round.’  I need to remind myself of that sometimes.


4 thoughts on “Living with the dreary tenants”

  1. Alice Walker said if a woman wants to write she should only have one child. As an artist who wanted to avoid domestic slavery I did this. I have had a satisfying creative life. The downside is I missed out on grandchildren. It’s heartbreaking. I never gave that a thought when I decided!

  2. Are you my clone? Lol, seriously???? I had this exact conversation not 1 hr ago, and you succinctly summed it up perfectly. Thank you Ellie

  3. Absolute truth, this post. You’ve pretty much put into words how I feel a lot of the time! In the end, I figure so long as I am still thinking about my book (dialogue, plot etc), even if I am not actually getting any words down (sometimes for weeks at a time), I end up in a good place with a good rhythm when I sit down again.

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