Monday, December 6, 2010

Column: The Day I Quit Writing by Mandy Houk

The Day I Quit Writing
By Mandy Houk


A few Monday mornings ago, I opened my eyes and blinked at the ceiling. I had a familiar feeling in my chest: that odd, fluttery mixture of tension and hope as I awakened and wondered if I would find the time to write that day.

Most days, this early-morning planning was not a problem. I could pinpoint a time in my day that I was sure I’d have open, and I’d set my thoughts on that not-too-distant hour. Then I’d set a word count goal, or just plan to revise through the end of a chapter. Or two.

Just as my mornings were consistent—hoping, planning, anticipating—my late nights were consistent, too. I fell into bed dejected, defeated, depressed—lots of “de” words. The precious hour(s) I had set my sights on had been swallowed up by other commitments—the “tyranny of the urgent,” as Charles Hummel would say. So I’d only written half of what I’d planned. Or worse, and more and more common lately, I’d written nothing at all.

As I lay there that recent Monday morning, staring at the ceiling, that hopeful fluttery feeling faded away. Too much of the previous night’s “de” words had stuck, and I felt I had to face it: I was straining toward something that I would never reach. I have published several articles, I told myself. I’ve placed in a couple of short story contests. Why not be satisfied with that? The time had come to let go of the novelist dreams and move on to a new phase in my life. The post-writing phase.

Over breakfast, I calmly informed my daughters that I would no longer pursue writing as a career. When they tried to respond, I told them I’d made up my mind, and there was nothing to discuss. Then I texted my husband at work and let him know. My original plan was to call him, but there was this huge sore spot in my throat that I couldn’t seem to talk around, so I resorted to communicating with my thumbs. They shook a bit, but I managed to get the message sent.

The girls cleared their dishes and we got ready to crack open their school books. I got out the bills and started paying them while the girls got settled. But my younger one seemed distracted.

“What are you doing?” I tried to swallow the irritation in my voice. It didn’t work. “We’ve got a full day. You need to get moving.”

She stepped closer to me and ducked her head. “I don’t want you to quit.” I would have answered, but I couldn’t. I was halfway out of the room, in search of a box of tissues.

I returned a few minutes later to find her at the desk, twirling a pencil and staring at her literature book. I leaned down and whispered, “I have to, honey. It’s not working.”

The rest of the day went pretty much the same. My older daughter said that maybe I could write in the summers. I could only shake my head, not able to articulate my feelings—that if I were to wait until next summer, the story in my head would be as tired and spent as a jack o’ lantern left out on the front steps a couple of weeks into November.

I did a lot of self-talking that day.

“You’re just sad right now because it’s a new idea – you’ll get used to it.”

“You’ll get more stuff done once writing is out of the way. Think how clean the house will be. And how much more time you’ll have to cook. You love to cook.”

“It’s a losing battle. Who wants to fight a losing battle?”

“Shake it off. It’ll get better. It has to.”

It didn’t get better. It got progressively worse until I noticed that my younger daughter was asking my older one for help with math, since apparently Mama wasn’t functional enough to be useful (not that I’m all that useful in math on a good day).

Then my husband called. He’d been in meetings all morning, so he’d only just gotten my text message. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.” He’s the master of the understatement. And is almost always correct.

But I’m almost always stubborn. I told him we’d have to talk about it later. Or not. I really didn’t see the point, since I didn’t seem to have any other choice.

By the time I fell into bed that night, my head was tight and aching and my heart felt sore. All those “de” words I usually felt—those were nothing. This was absolute despair.

On Tuesday morning, I opened my weary, sleep-deprived eyes, looked up at the ceiling, and realized I felt even worse than I had the night before.

So I quit again. This time, I quit trying to quit writing. And you know what? I wrote 2,500 words that day.

No, I didn’t. It hasn’t gotten easier than it was before that day. I still fail on a regular basis to spend as much time writing as I plan to spend. Life still throws things at me and I don’t do a very good job of juggling them. I still go to bed feeling several “de” words all at once.

But I learned something on the day that I quit writing.

When I try to shut writing out of my life, I work against the very fabric of who I am. Who, I believe, I was created to be. I don’t expect to be the next Anne Tyler (oh, how I wish). I can’t even guarantee that I’ll sell another article, let alone a novel (or two, or three).

But I can guarantee this: if I’m not hoping, planning, and taking every chance I get to actually sit down and write, then I’m not whole.

Over the next several weeks and months, I am going to try to figure this thing out. Figure out a way to be who I am—a writer—while still living in this crazy-wonderful chaos that I call my daily life. I hope the things I learn will result in a finished, sale-able novel, and a contract, and a book tour, and everything else in between and beyond. I also hope the things I learn will help you.

Happy writing….



BIO:

Mandy Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and woefully underpaid home schooling mom. She's sold several nonfiction articles and stories, and placed in a couple of short fiction contests, but she has yet to break into book-length fiction. Her first novel is safely and appropriately in a deep, dark drawer. Her second is in its final rewrite, and will be sent out to agents in 2011. No, really.