The Writing Life: Re-entry and Changing Gears

For the last seven weeks, I’ve been away from home, helping to take care of my best friend and her family during the end of her life. I had no idea how hard it would be, but we did well by her and her passing was peaceful, attended by great tenderness and forgiveness. I stayed on for another ten days to organize the memorial and transition for her family.

During this entire time, one of my personal anchors was writing. I loaded up my netbook with current projects and took the folders with checklists for various Book View Café projects I was working on. In this way, I created a portable office, albeit one that lacked all the resources I had at home. For example, although I had access to the internet through my carrier’s website, I didn’t have my address book files. I learned to “work around” these limitations, focusing instead on what I could do, delegating and asking for help with things I couldn’t, and postponing other tasks. As a result, I was productive with some projects but “on hold” in others.

Now I’m back in my own office, resources at hand. I’m facing a dual challenge: coming “up to speed” and getting back into balance. What do I mean by balance? I mean reapportioning (or rather, un-deapportioning) my time and focus. Rarely have I been so aware of the many activities involved in my life as a writer. These include, to name a few, original fiction writing (drafting, revision, revision-to-editorial-request), other aspects of book production (proofreading); editing anthologies; beta-reading and editing books, often for other Book View Café members; writing blog posts like this one; keeping up with professional communications (reading and responding to email from fellow writers, fans, and editors, not to mention news of the publishing world).

Back in 1991, I lived in Lyons, France, for the better part of a year, and I faced a similar changing-of-the-gears. Then I didn’t have internet/email access, but I did have a portable computer and printer. I’d been used to writing in short, intense bursts because my children were school-aged. Once both of them settled into French schools (the younger went from a few hours of American preschool a week to four full days of école maternelle). Faced with much longer stretches of work time, I learned how to change from “sprint writing” to “marathon writing.” (I wrote Northlight during that time.) And when I returned, I had to flip back to shorter periods of time.

Now one of my challenges is how to resume those activities that were either curtailed or not possible while I was away from home, and keep the momentum of the things I was able to do, notably complete (most of the second half of a first draft of a new novel)? I don’t want to devote all my energies towards “catch-up” and risk losing that wonderful surge when the parts of a novel come together.

This is where the twin concepts of small steps and balance come in. I’m transitioning from a time of limited resources and skewed focus to one that has many more choices and demands. I may end up with the same mix that I had before I left, but I do myself a disservice if that is what I expect. That time in France taught me how to “dive deep” into long stretches of work. Other gifts may lie in store for me from this sojourn . . . but only if I give them room.

By small steps, I mean putting things in order of priority. Are there hard deadlines? Can I break down an activity into smaller daily goals? How do I carve out time to finish that novel, keeping in mind that if I intend to get any sleep (let alone spend time with my husband), I need to put limits on how much time I devote, at least until the deferr ed tasks are completed?

By balance, I mean making sure that I don’t overwork in any one area. I need a mix of creative work (drafting), of critical work (revising and editing), of correspondence and the like. And also of play. Play allows me to recharge my energy and to stay in touch with what my own needs are. Changing gears is hard work. Just because I know how to do all these things and have done them for some time (in my case, decades) does not mean I can start and stop effortlessly. I need to make allowance for the energy it takes to change speed, either from a dead halt or going faster or slower or in a different direction. In physics, we call this acceleration. Re-entry definitely falls under the category of acceleration. Balance allows me to dance through the acceleration phase, my best chance of avoiding crisis-mode emergencies or burn-out.

One breath at a time, one paragraph at a time. I’m reminded how important it is to be gentle with myself, to mix liberal quantities of fun with work, and to give the process time.


The painting is a portrait of the Russian writer V. M. Garshin, by Ilya Repin (1844-1930), public domain. I think it perfectly captures the despair of trying to tackle all the paperwork at once.



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