Thursday, June 2, 2011

After Midnight

“Aren’t you coming to bed?”

“As soon as I finish this.”

“Do you know what time it is?”

“No, and I don’t care. This needs to be finished by morning.”

Oh, the joy of being under pressure to focus on one thing only, to feel as if I can live in the zone for a few hours because I have no choice.

Housemates and Significant Others of all kinds tend to resent writers who stay up well after midnight to finish writing something because the deadline is looming or already past, and the editor has graciously granted a limited extension of time. The people who share one’s mundane life of cooking, eating, grocery shopping, bill-paying, tidying up and tending the zoo generally don’t understand the concept of a writing deadline.

“So what will happen if you don’t send in your story or whatever on time?”

“Nothing. It won’t be published. Or posted.”

“Pfft. And that’s why you’re up so late? Come to bed.”

Unfortunately, this advice is not usually intended to give the writer more inspiration for a sex scene in a story.

It still seems miraculous to me that my writing (mostly fiction) has been accepted for publication in print and e-form, while my other writing (mostly non-fiction) has been posted on-line without sending stalkers to my actual door. Reasonably sane people choose to read my words, which continues to amaze me. And every time someone pays me for something I wrote, I am reminded that I can honestly call myself a professional writer.

The pressure to write something by a deadline usually feels less pressing than the pressure to do something else first: feed the pets, water the plants, finish the laundry, grade the latest stack of student essays, type the minutes of the latest meeting, take out the garbage, weed the garden. Domestic chores are like water that flows into any available time-space. The overflow problem seems especially bad for those of us with day jobs (teaching, in my case) that are not limited to hours spent in public space, so the work leaks into “private” time.

According to biographies of the scandalous French writer Colette, her first husband Willy used to lock her in a room for several hours a day and force her to write. I’ve never been able to work up the amount of feminist outrage I am expected to feel about this form of wife-abuse. He forced her to write – not scrub floors, feed a multitude, give sexual service, or wake up at dawn to work in a factory, but write.

Some of us go out of our way to inflict this ordeal on ourselves when possible. It’s usually called a “writer’s retreat” or “Novel-Writing Month.”

My chosen form of self-seclusion is to remind myself regularly to flesh out a story-idea before the deadline on the call-for-submissions. Then when the deadline is staring me in the face like a hungry cat, and I only have a paragraph written (if that), I ask the editor to give me a little extension of time, usually a weekend.

If my request is granted, I have a good reason to put everything else aside until I’ve finished the work-in-progress, or finished it enough to send it off. I can be my own Willy, so to speak. (And this ability comes in useful when writing erotica.)

The real reward for writing, I’ve come to realize, is not the money (trickle of pennies) or the fame (ha), or even the ego-massage of seeing one’s own words in print. It’s the pleasure of being strictly in writing mode, totally focused on working out problems in a plot, getting to know the characters, finding better words than the first ones that come to mind, and not feeling guilty about ignoring all other obligations for the meanwhile.

The silence of the world (the one I live in) after midnight is part of the enchantment. When I have to finish a writing project because I promised I would, the night is mine.

Best of all is that anyone who writes anything, no matter how bad it might look by the sober light of day, is not a Phantom Diva. This is my own secret term for a role formerly played by my late mother, rest her soul. (Or maybe her soul is now writing non-stop, not having any annoying physical needs for sleep or food. If this is her idea of heaven, I hope she is there.)

My mother earned a Master’s degree in English in 1944, when it was a rare achievement for a woman. After that, her academic career was spotty, mostly consisting of temporary teaching jobs at a state college where my dad was a full-time instructor. (Rules forbade hiring family members of existing faculty for anything other than fill-in jobs.) Among the mothers of my friends and classmates, my intellectual mom stood out, but Dad's colleagues never treated her like a member of the club.

She helped with homework and answered questions about assigned reading. I was grateful. But literary topics led my marginally-employed mom into the fairy realm of “what-if.” She would brag about what she could accomplish as a writer, if only there were no obstacles in her path. If only she hadn’t been sidetracked into raising children, she could have written a bestseller, and then another. She could have written a scholarly book on the poetry of John Donne (subject of her Master’s thesis) and won awards. If only.

When I reached my teens, my urge to burst my mom’s bubble was intense. I pointed out pointedly that writers are people who write, period. Daydreaming about a wonderful literary/scholarly career is not writing. The only way to prove what you can do is to do it.

Long before Mom left this disappointing world, I was torturing myself with my own words. Am I writing? If not, maybe I’m not really a writer. Am I blaming everyone but myself for my own failures and rejections? Excuses, excuses.

In the still of the night (the title of one of Mom’s favorite songs), writing becomes a way of communing with the “unreal,” as other writers have described it. It becomes an escape hatch between Mary Sue fantasies that are ultimately self-defeating and the narrow-minded “realism” that can destroy all faith in one’s own Muse.

Like Thomas the Rhymer in the old ballad, we all need to find a portal to Fair Elfland. No pressure.


  1. "Then when the deadline is staring me in the face like a hungry cat, and I only have a paragraph written (if that)..."

    I was wondering how you were going to work the cute feline in!

    You're 100% right about the real reason for writing. And although I personally don't thrive on the kind of focused, last-chance-better-get-it-done-tonight pressure that you describe, I can see that it might work for someone with as full a life as you describe.

  2. So if I enjoy reading your work, does that automatically make me one of the "reasonably sane people"? ;)

    I need deadlines. When I don't have them, I have to ask for them. Even if I know they've been made up, I still need them. The punctuation to the flow of my writing.

  3. Thank you, you made so many interesting points in this. Briefly the one that I most connect with is when you;ve said that for you what is most compelling is being in the zone, in the world of the story. Most of us start out as obsessive readers when we're kids, and I remember being so far into the world of the story that people could call to me and I wouldn;t hear them because i was wearing those mental headphones. The closest I get to that now is when i'm down in the zone with a new story.

    Your mom has an interesting story. As hard as things are these days, the culture itself has inproved so much in our generation as far as giving a diverse variety of human beings at least a fair shot at their dreams.


  4. Thanks for comments! I consider all of you distinctly sane, at least by my standards. :)
    The deadline thing is a catch-22 - I don't realy believe I write best under pressure but without pressure, it's too easy to let other things take priority.

  5. I love this post. I really relate to what you said about being on deadline and feeling "permission" to thus ignore almost all else while working on it. I have (regularly) done that too.


    "Domestic chores are like water that flows into any available time-space."

    What a fabulous line!!

    I like also your description, as Lisabet and Garce mentioned too, of the reward of writing. Lovely description, and it is something by which I have felt repeatedly inspired as well.

    Also, Garce, I really like this line: "as far as giving a diverse variety of human beings at least a fair shot at their dreams".

    Thanks for this post, Jean!


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