Writing on Paper Towels

This time of year, time is a precious commodity.  Between giving finals, grading, attending parties with family and friends, and supporting children in their holiday programs, the time to write is limited to what I can sneak in for a few minutes here and there.  Often these minutes come very late at night.

Many years ago, when my children were quite young and I was new to writing, I learned to write in fits and spurts while they were at preschool, or napping, or occupied for ten minutes with a toy.  I learned to keep a  notebook with me everywhere so that I would never lose an opportunity to write down an idea, a snippet of dialog, a character description.  I had notebooks stashed by my bed, in the kitchen, in my car, in my purse, in my laundry room (I get great ideas doing laundry).

It was my normal way of writing, grabbing a few minutes here or there, writing from the top of my head.  It was by no means easy, but it was what I could do.  It’s how I wrote the first book I ever had published, and I learned valuable skills from it.  I learned to focus quickly.  I learned not to waste time daydreaming, I learned not be get distracted by the phone ringing or the dog barking.  These skills have served me well for a lot of years.

Then, when my children were all in school full-time, I discovered the luxury of writing full-time, of spending hours and hours at the computer and creating.  I had days where I would start as soon as the kids were at school, and I would work until they came home at 3:00 in the afternoon. I would work and rework a scene.  I would develop complicated, in-depth character studies, and I would write until my wrists were numb. I had a lot of success with magazine and internet writing, and I sold a little project to Klutz publishing this way.  I also went back to school for my Master’s degree (and met Alison McGhee, whose blog I’ve added to my blogroll!  Check her out!).  After starting my Master’s I wrote two novels in my first six months!  I got used to having my butt firmly planted in my chair in front of my computer. But after I graduated, I had to figure out a way to pay for my student loans, and my royalty checks just weren’t enough to make the payment (the degree cost about $30,000).

So I started teaching English at a private business college.  Part-time worked into full-time, which worked into full-time and paying for our medical insurance (that’s a long story for another blog). Once again, my writing has been reduced to fits and spurts that I fit in whenever, and wherever, I can.  I’ve had to go back to the strategies that I used when I first started out.  Once again, there are notebooks stashed all around my house.  There is a notebook in my purse, and one that I carry in my rolling cart that holds all my teaching materials.  And yes, there is one in my laundry room, which my kids use to leave me messages that we are out of milk or they want me to buy cookies the next time I go to the store.

On rare occasions, I get caught without a notebook handy, and I have to resort to whatever I’ve got.  I’ll write a description on the back of my bank receipt.  I’ve got envelopes with dialog written on them, and a paper towel that has a scene outlined for a s/f book I’ve started work on.

There are some advantages to working this way.  When you work under time compression,each minute you have is precious, and you are less inclined to waste time.  This is why I don’t post a blog everyday.  Some days I just need to focus on the book, and there is nothing to spare.  Working this way also cuts out a lot of the bulls**t.  I can’t rewrite a scene three or four times, so I work it out in my head before I commit it to the computer.  It will get revised later, but it won’t get rewritten.  I strive to make it as good as possible before I put it on paper.

Working this way also forces me to think about the common mistakes made by me and other writers.  I can’t afford to commit verb tense shifts because I don’t have the time to go back and find them.  I keep a sharp awareness of pronoun use, of melodramatic language, and of dialog tags so that I don’t waste time fixing beginner mistakes over and over.  Not having that time makes me more aware of my writing style.

I met Kate DiCamillo during my Master’s program. She is a funny, self-effacing young woman who tells a delightful story of working full-time for a book distributor while writing her first novel, “Because of Winn Dixie”which received the Newbery honor.  She would get up at 3:00 in the morning so that she could write for an hour before going to work.  She would only have a few precious moments each day to spend on her manuscript, so she made sure to make each one count.  While she was at work, she would think of ideas, jot herself notes, and then go home and do a little more work on the book before going to bed.  I forget how long it took her to write the novel, but she worked this way for quite some time, and she said in her visit that she knows it made her a better writer.

It would be easy for me to whine about not having the time I want or need to do what I love, but the truth is it wouldn’t change the reality.  I have what I have, and right now, I’m content with that.  I believe that it makes me a stronger writer both technically and emotionally.  Of course, if I win the Idaho lottery next week, I’d go back to writing full-time in a heart beat.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or extra cash to drive to Idaho and buy the tickets, so I guess that’s not going to happen anytime soon!

Until then, or until I win the Prinz award next year, I’ll be happy doing what I’m doing, and scratching notes on stray pieces of paper.  At least I can take pride in knowing that I contribute to my family, do something I believe in, and still have time for things I am passionate about.  Now if only I could learn to play the Celtic harp sitting on my window seat . . .

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One thought on “Writing on Paper Towels

  1. bkclubcare says:

    Fascinating! I love to hear about artists working their craft. I absolutely love books about writing… It’s such a cool thing, because even if you write for yourself, the very mode of communication is using tools of comprehension. For someone else to read, understand, interpret, create their own image. or not. Just fascinating…

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