Long-Range Writing

"People—particularly women—need to hear that you can start late." --Ursula K. Le Guin

A couple weeks ago, my husband and I had a fight discussion about the role my writing plays in our relationship. Truthfully, our discussion had little to do with my writing and a lot to do with the fact that we had both been neglecting our days off, had not been spending quality time together, and were in the middle of the Christmas season.

Fa-la-la-la-la. La. La. La. La.

Still, our discussion turned out to be a good thing if only because it gave us the chance to clarify what God and we both expected from the other. As we talked, I realized that I don’t consider writing a “job” so much as a low-risk investment in the future. Right now, despite my work, there aren’t a lot of immediate rewards; instead I'm counting on the fact that if I put my time in and slowly grow, they will come.

Like it is for so many folks, writing is a sideline for me. My full-time job (if you want to call it that) is being a SAHM & small church pastor’s wife. My day can include anything from running a pick-up/drop-off shuttle, babysitting, learning a new choir piece, discussing a finer point of theology with my husband, or simply being the only one in our family who can find the 5yo’s missing shoe. In our season of life, one of us needs to be available to handle whatever comes up.

On the flip side, this kind of flexibility also frees me to pursue writing in the in-between moments. But this in itself can also be excessively frustrating; especially when I wake up with ALL THE IDEAS only to remember that I’ve already committed to chaperoning the 2nd grade field trip to the science museum. I’m coming to terms with the fact that my writing probably won’t peak until I'm in a season when I can devote more time and more grey cells to cultivating it.

This could be depressing, especially since we live in a society that idolizes youth and believes that if you haven’t accomplished your dream (cue the rainbows and sparkles) by the time you’re 35, well then, honey, you might as well give up. But here’s the thing: writing is precisely the kind of work that can be cultivated over the long term because it’s the kind of work that requires keen observation of both the human condition and language. The kinds of observations that can be gathered while you’re diapering babies, working in an office, or chaperoning a field trip.

And while I can’t speak for men, I know that this is especially good news for women. A woman’s prime child nurturing years are in her twenties, thirties, and forties; the same decades that society tells her she must accomplish her greatest professional achievements. But this isn’t simply a problem for women who are married or raising children. Single women feel the pressure of finding a spouse in order to have the babies as well as the need to work a full-time job to keep a roof over their heads. Going it alone is not an easy thing.

So whether they’re exhausted at the end of the day because they ran after toddlers or because they've worked long hours to keep the budget balanced, women often end up at the same place: squeezing writing into “the-in-between” moments with no certain hope that it will ever amount to anything. Sometimes it seems easier to give up altogether. In fact, this piece, “10 Worst Dreams to Chase” actually suggests as much (see # 2).

But I’d like to suggest an alternative: Don’t give up; simply modify the dream to meet reality. And often, this means taking a long-range vision. Just like Katherine Paterson, P. D. James, and Laura Ingalls Wilder did; their first novels were published at 43, 42, and 65 respectively.

The tension between your day job and your dream to write is not a new one. The real problem is that too many of us aren’t content to simply write; at the very least, we want to make our living by writing and at the most, we want to be celebrity authors. This may happen for some, but whether or not it happens for you doesn’t mean that you can’t write.  And having a non-writing day job doesn’t mean that you can’t spend these years learning the craft, taking opportunities as they come, and squirreling away ideas.

This week, you may make writing goals for 2015. I plan to. But if you’re not careful, these goals will quickly mutate from opportunities to demands: demands that you get a book contract or make it onto a list of top bloggers by a certain date. Can I suggest another approach? Put away the calendar and simply write.

Write in the in-between moments. Write on the backs of school papers and discarded envelopes. Write about the things you know and the words you love. And then give them time to cultivate. Give them time to grow. After all, the acorn hidden in the ground doesn’t become a mighty oak in one night. But it might just become one after twenty-five years.