About Your Writing: Protect the Space by Steve Adams

I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.

“Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”― Zadie Smith 

If I may adjust Zadie Smith’s last line, instead of “even” I’d say “especially.” You must protect the time and space in which you write especially from the people who are most important to you. Why? Because they’re the ones with the greatest ability to crash through your boundaries, whether they mean to or not.

Alright, this concept isn’t rocket science. It’s not even high school-level physics. It’s something everyone who writes knows on some level, and yet I run across it over and over with clients who can’t seem to get their writing done. So I tell them. I give them permission. Protect the time and space in which you write from your loved ones.

The thing is, writing takes time, and for most of us, it takes regularity. To write and finish a novel usually demands an investment of years. If only one member of a couple is a serious writer, it can put a lot of pressure on the non-writer to be both support system and primary source of feedback. A well-meaning non-writer partner will be supportive, but that doesn’t mean they understand, and not understanding may lead them to question, to say the wrong thing, to judge early drafts through the lens of final drafts, to step into the room just as things are starting to move on the page. Listen: They’re not equipped for this. I recommend getting writing support elsewhere. And at home, support your writing by establishing consistent rules and boundaries around your process, which will in turn support the relationships. Because a writer who is failing at showing up to write can fall into moods foul enough to upend an entire household.

And kids? Their needs are so pressing to them (they are the center of the universe, after all!) that they are rarely supportive, especially when young. If Mom or Dad has something more important to tend to than…them…well, it can set up a particular challenge in their lives. They may for a time push against, test, what rules you set up. It’s okay. Let them. It’s their job. Your job is to keep your writing boundaries in place long enough for your kids to accept them. Which they will, quicker than you might think.

I had a novelist who’d already successfully sold one novel hire me as her coach when her agent was sending out her second novel. She’d been extremely stressed and anxious around her family the first time she had a novel being shopped, so this time she hired me to help keep her from putting them through the same ordeal twice. I—not her family—was her outlet for her insecurities, her doubts, her worries. Which I was more than happy to be. It’s what I do and love. She processed her fears and writing issues with me, and brought her love to her family. Using me, she created boundaries for her work. Writing groups, writing buddies, function the same.

There is the occasional writer couple who are each other’s dedicated first reader and support system (see: Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne), but they’re rare. Also, even if a partner “gets it,” too much early familiarity with what the other one is working on can be disruptive; some of this stuff needs to grow in the dark. Further, if one person’s writing is moving or finding publication and the other’s isn’t, it can create tension. I once had a girlfriend who was a writer and we purposely avoided each other’s work. It was just too loaded a situation, and each of us had an overweighted influence on the other, which can muck up the writing.

So like you do with kids, and pets, as well as partners in other areas, establish the rules in this one. And stick to them. The people in your life really don’t know what to do, so tell them. All they need to know is that Mom/Dad needs 2 hours every Monday through Friday from 9 to 11 a.m. (or whenever, but pick a time where you’re least likely to be distracted) to be at their desk…whether it looks like they’re doing anything or not. And, outside of emergencies, it’s non-negotiable. This means, no, you cannot take a business call, or dash out to pick up laundry, or check in with your parents, or make somebody a sandwich. Even if all you’re doing is doodling on a piece of paper and staring out the window. (As an aside, doodling is good for the creative process.)

By the way, I just listed those mundane chores to show how trivial many of the tasks we let distract us from writing truly are. I’ve literally had clients tell me they didn’t get their writing done because they had to clean the oven. That they can’t think with a messy house (informing themselves subconsciously that the vacuum is more important than the writing). You get the point, I think, that some writers actually may be using their loved ones to provide a distraction from the writing. Be mindful and don’t give yourself the excuse.

And here’s the deal: Your doing this, your creating some boundaries and showing up to do your writing will train your loved ones, as well as you, as to what that time at your desk means. They will adapt, trust me, seeing you return from your time away from them more fulfilled, and with more to give them, because you’re doing this other necessary personal work. They will come to look upon this as a good thing, and if you have kids you will provide them an example of an adult who didn’t give up on their dreams just because they had children. I once heard a major poet (whose name I can’t track down…sorry) tell an audience about getting up early each morning to go to school as a child, and seeing her father, who’d woke before dawn to claim his writing time, at his desk scribbling away. She said it imprinted her that such work was important, and his example taught her to respect her own inner life, and to create the necessary space for it.

Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.

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