Writers With Responsibilities: Keep Your Mojo


Dear Sally,

I found my voice relatively late in life—40—but once I started to write I couldn’t imagine a life without it. I took classes, joined writing groups, and wrote all the time. I published essays in my local paper and people stopped me in the grocery store to thank me for making them laugh. I felt complete. Before I got my MFA I wrote for the love it, whenever and wherever I could squeeze a sentence into my busy life.

When accepted into a program, I started to feel like a “real writer.” I went to school  full-time, worked part-time, and managed a household of five, all as a nontraditional student (think old). I powered my way through doubt and thoughts of “Do I belong here?” towards relative successes. And that’s where the problem lay: after learning about craft and understanding what I did well and what innate skills I lacked as a writer, I silenced myself.

Degree in hand and work ready to send out, I started worrying about measuring up. Would I be one of the lucky few who “Made it?” I focused on publishing and collected rejections with relatively no new work to speak of. The short essays and stories that used to pour out of me dried up.

I want to write because I have to, because it makes me feel good, and to stop wallowing in the land of It’s So Hard and I’m Not Good Enough. So what I want to know is: how do I get back to that place of love? 


Your friend, Where’s the Love?


Dear Where’s the Love?

Mark Twain once said, “Dance like no one is watching. Sing like no one is listening. Love like you’ve never been hurt and live like it’s heaven on Earth.”

You must write the same way. When you write from a place of ambition rather than intention, your desk mates are self-doubt and “supposed to.” I’ve hung out with them and believe me, they’re beat. You’ll never get anything done with those two in your ear.

But they’re big mad babies, too. If you ignore them, they get madder and louder. So address them, but speak to self-doubt in a way that you would advise your best friend or your child. Try a little compassion rather than starting from the “Yup, you suck,” place.

I would suggest taking “supposed to” and “should have” out of your vocabulary and don’t let them any where near your to-do list.

Oh and just so you know, I have spoken to many writers who find that the first and sometimes second year out of an MFA program are really hard. Something that seems to help is fighting to keep your writing community intact. That is very important. And try not to be competitive—it will kill you every time. Instead, revel in your friends’ successes. Their publishing a story is not evidence that you are not a talented writer.


Dear Sally,

I write for a living.  My professional work stifles all creativity and I feel like I have nothing left to give my creative self at the end of the day. Basically, I believe I can’t write for myself when I’m using my words to put bread on the table.


Your friend, I Used to be Creative.


Dear I Used to be Creative,

I used to think the phenomenon you’re speaking of was BS—an excuse not to write. Then I took a freelance writing job and suddenly I got it. It is so difficult to switch hats at the end of day and write for yourself. The words feel used up and the purpose of professional and creative writing seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. One must give way to the other. I think it’s near impossible at the end of the day to cultivate that sort of creativity but don’t loose hope.

clowns w:coffeeI recently read an article by Merrill Markoe in the New York Times about beating procrastination, which I think could be a life saver here. Markoe suggests you need to write creatively first thing in the morning, Before coffee! Pen should be put to paper in that sleepy yet waking place as you roll out of the slow fog of REM.  

For me, I don’t consider doing anything without coffee. As soon as my children could reach the counter, I taught them to turn on the coffee pot. But this makes sense; before you are fully awake the right side of your brain—the creative part—dominates. With each cup of coffee the left side—the critic—wakes and takes over. It’s that voice that tells you to get busy, prioritize, stop wasting your time on those piddly, little musings. It’s that voice that puts creative writing on the bottom of your to-do list.

So I say, get a notebook and a pen and put it next to your bed. Set the alarm for one half hour early—even fifteen minutes will do—and give it a try. And remember: don’t hydrate the critic.

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