My secret desire is to live alone, not in desolation, just by myself. I have this idea that all the people around me and my obligations are one gigantic creativity buzzkill. This is a complicated fantasy for someone like me, a writer with a family. How is it possible to love people and also wish they would just disappear?
These are complicated emotions, and I often manage them badly. As hard as it is for me to find time to create in the middle of family life, I have to remember that it has to be just as hard on my family to live with someone who really likes to shut the door and make believe all by himself.
My particular struggle to find solitude doesn’t come from an imagined possible Eden. For me it comes from a real time that is now half a lifetime away. In my early twenties, I spent a winter working at a summer camp on Orcas Island in the Puget Sound. In exchange for writing a training manual for their environmental education staff I was given a small stipend and allowed to live rent-free in a small cabin one hundred yards from the high tide line. That arrangement gave me the security of a place to live, minimal responsibilities and an unparalleled natural environment. And it is where I began learning to be a writer.
Those five months were one the most deeply satisfying times in my life, but now I sort of wish it had never happened. It gave me a taste for solitude that has not been part of my life since.
That rich, monastic winter transitioned to spring, and my seclusion gave way to people: spring staff, school kids, then to summer staff and summer campers. After that I left the island and went off to graduate school where there were more people, classes, and students. I got a new job, friends, a television, a VCR, and cable. By the end of my PhD, I’d become a cancer survivor, met a woman, fell in love, and got married. I took a teaching job; we had a daughter, then a son. My wife launched her career as an art teacher. I published two books and earned tenure. We had a second son, and somewhere in the that hailstorm of abundance, I stopped writing.
I just quit, fizzled, ran out of gas.
This wasn’t because I hated writing or for lack of success. It happened because I was looking for the lost mine of peace and quiet, which I never found. I was also looking for an equally elusive “room of my own.” My old study had become a kid’s room years earlier. In addition to all of that, I was looking for a sliver of time when nobody was trying to tell me about Minecraft. I thought I might find that time in the darkness before dawn, but my boys are morning people and once someone is awake, so are they. I tried to find that alone time late at night, but my wife and daughter are night owls. So, somewhere in the midst of that quest, I threw in the towel, snuggled in with everyone on the couch, and watched television.
The years went by. When I finally came back to my writing, I realized that the stories I’d abandoned were so old, none of the characters had cell phones. The world had changed so much, I had to rewrite everything. I felt like I’d awakened from a slumber into a changed world, maybe like Rip Van Winkle or Captain America, but actually it was more like Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead waking up in a devastated hospital full of zombies.
Every writer I know who has chosen to be part of a family scrapes their writing time out of the couch like so much lost change. The anxiety people have about it is tremendous. If we could put all that energy into the grid, we could keep the lights on in a lot of houses. Getting the habit back was like every single training montage you’ve ever seen in a movie. I didn’t come back to writing with grace or flow. My return was coarse and halting.
I love my family dearly, but the sad truth of things is family life attacks creative work like white blood cells going after an infection. Writers need strategies to keep going. I did, for sure, but I don’t know that there is any one set of strategies that will help. But I’d like to offer a few things that helped me climb out of that ditch and learn how to write again.
Years ago I read an article about Wynton Marsalis. The interviewer was invited to the Marsalis’s apartment, which he found full of kids, the friends of kids, and extended family. Everyone was watching football, getting stuff out of the fridge, talking, and in the eye of that hurricane, Marsalis sat at the piano composing a song with unbroken concentration. When the interviewer asked him how he did it, Marsalis said he just had to, or he’d never get anything done.
That story was the beginning of my new habit. I am not as strong as Mr. Marsalis. My secret weapon isn’t willpower, it’s noise-cancelling headphones, and buying a new house with rooms in which everyone can do their thing.
Recently, I was giving a workshop and a reading at a high school writing conference in Colorado. The students asked me all the standard questions about how I write. I think everyone wonders if there’s not some trick. This is what I told those earnest, hopeful kids. I realize now how lame it must have sounded.
- You’ve got to be with someone who gets what you’re doing. Solitude is nice, but you can’t sustain it, so find someone who is cool with what you do. I am lucky on that account.
- When it is time to write, breathe in and out seven times and begin. Don’t wait for the muses. Don’t wait for inspiration to come. If anything, tell the muses you’re starting and they better hustle if they want in.
- When it’s time to stop writing, quit in the middle of a sentence, right at the moment it’s clear to you what should happen next. This will help you come back to a moment in your writing that will need your immediate attention. You’ll have a problem to solve, and it’ll suck you in. This is the best advice Ernest Hemingway ever gave.
- Don’t fiddle around too much with technology but get a workflow that allows you to write anywhere with very little friction. I use an application called Ulysses. It’s a gift from the gods and so wonderful I’ll have write about it in another post.
- To paraphrase Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, “Your time belongs to the tribe.” When your beloved people give you time to write, any of the precious minutes you get to create is time you’re taking away from them. You owe them your best efforts. Don’t squander the gift.
Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.