Writing Entry #2

One of the members of our Facebook page wrote me a private email yesterday, in which she raised some hard-hitting and very relevant points. “Most people,” she wrote, “DO NOT HAVE the luxury of a lifestyle that allows free days to sit and think and accept that nothing got done or even to sit all day and write.  People, including those that love writing, need to eat. How do you get to the point where you can sit all day and think/write/not work at a job you hate and still have a house and food and heat in winter?”

I wish I could answer that last question, but I can’t, because although I am very, very privileged among academics, in that I have a reduced teaching schedule and have been given more time off to write than most, I still have my “day job” as an academic—I can’t afford to give it up, even though I’m a couple of months away from the age when people used to retire—and envy those writers who make enough money at their writing (or have inherited family fortunes) so that they can actually write full-time. Envy? No, that’s too weak a word.  I seethe with resentment, fury, self-pity!  I say ugly things about those writers to my husband in the mornings, when my emotions are usually least repressed. Some days, I just break down and cry because after so many years, I’m still struggling to “fit” my writing into my life. This semester, I’ve pushed my courses until the spring, so I can actually finish this book that I’ve been working on for years in between preparing classes, grading papers, graduate student defenses, departmental meetings.  And even so, in this relatively unencumbered time, I feel the hot breath of other obligations—to my grad students, to my newly formed department, to my colleagues—on my neck.

So: Despite what I wrote about in my last journal “ripeness” is NOT “all.”  For most of us, including me, finding the time and energy to write is a huge, practical problem. Unfortunately, it’s not one that I have solved for myself, let alone feel I can advise anyone else on.  You struggle with whatever your situation is.  If you are lucky, as I have been, it gets better as you get older.  But as privileged as I am in my present position, I’m not a full-time writer. I rail against it, I resent it, and I fantasize (I’m sure unrealistically) about the wonderful lives the full-time writers lead. (Beach houses figure prominently.) If hundreds of thousands of people buy my Anne Boleyn book, maybe I’ll be able to be one of them.  Buy my book!  Send this aging child to camp!

I want to say something else in this entry.  I’m very grateful to the person who wrote that email.  If she hadn’t, I might not have thought to clarify my own situation, leaving many of you hating me the way I hate the actual full-time writers! JK aside, the practical issues she raises are very real, and although I can’t solve them, we can still discuss them here, and share our struggles with each other.  I may have some life-experience that can help, and so might others.

She also asked how much I welcome challenges to what I write in this blog.  The answer to that is: VERY MUCH.  Please challenge me!  I don’t like writing or speaking in a vacuum; I like conversation.  It’s the way all my books have gotten written, the way I conduct all my classes, the way I live my life.  I grew up in a house in which no one got away with anything without someone else raising an objection or an argument.  And, as a fairly iconoclastic thinker (in the context of academia, anyway), I’ve gotten much more than my fair share of both helpful criticisms and stinging attacks, published and verbal.  Sometimes, they have initially hurt or inflamed me; but always—whether they were accurate or not—they gave me the opportunity to clarify and improve my ideas.

We often forget that every form of communication, whether written or spoken, is selection.  For everything we say or write there are thousands of other things we don’t say.  It seems so obviously true as to not be worth belaboring here. But the fact is that it’s the one thing that critics most often forget (“Hey, you didn’t write the article I wanted you to write! You wrote the one you wanted to! How dare you!”), and it’s the one thing that we have to learn—I mean really learn, not just lip service learn—about our own work. It will always be radically incomplete.  It will always be misunderstood. It will never say what everyone else wants it to say, what they think is important.  It will never say everything that you wanted it to say.  Sometimes, you will even neglect to say the most important thing you want to say.

In theory, it seems self-evident.  But in practice, it’s something that comes only with the hard learning of sharing your ideas and having others respond. That’s one of the main reasons why putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, is scary; it puts you out there, where not only what you said but what you didn’t say will be there for all to see.  You never know how something “plays” until someone responds, and often you find out that what’s been heard is very different than you intended.   That, by the way, is a lesson for writing, too: learning to respond to criticism—all criticism: good, bad, wrong-headed or on the money—as a gift.  But that’s for another entry.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Writing Entry #2

  1. A really powerful entry Susan. I struggle to fit half of what I want to in a regular day, you are amazing to have the strength and determination to keep on going 🙂

  2. Janet

    Passion is the source of determination and planning is the tool. Even if I can only carve out one hour a day or a week to write, I have done more than if I didn’t try at all because I felt I didn’t have the resources….to the woman who wrote to Susan, I suggest borrowing a copy of the book “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron or check out http://www.theartistsway.com and give yourself permission to spend a bit of time every week doing something you are passionate about. (and as a career counsellor I will tell you that it might also make that job you hate a little easier to bare!!) Good luck!

  3. Jan Abraham

    A very heartfelt and understandable problem for all writers. I must say, it is probably a problem for readers as well. I find now that I have time, I am reading and writing much more, but during those bursts, the dishes aren’t done, and my garden is neglected. I would like to pass this on to some who would very much appreciate these thoughts. I respect and admire anyone who can write and have a personal life and career, as it is a modern dilemma. I think you would find mariestuart@yahoo, a good support group, as there are 3 writers there who struggle with publishing and supporting their craft continually.
    You are doing a marvelous job. Your website is a tool writers did not have until recently, and in that respect, you have utilized this new format beautifully. There is no doubt you will sell many books by reaching out to others besides academics, as you have had very good timing. Certainly the magnificent creation of The Tudors by Michael Hirst, has re energized Tudor history to an unprecedented popularity. Amazon books, and kindle have also been enormous vehicles that have made reading more accessible. If you gave up university teaching, I really believe it would be very sad, as it would make the teaching and personal instruction of history obsolete. I was looking for course on Tudor history at my local college, and found St. Joseph’s university doesn’t even have a history dept. Thank you for sharing your frustration as well as your enormous talent.

    • Susan

      Thank you all for your comments and your recommendations. This would be a great place to pool our resources, for all those trying to “combine” in a world in which everything is a full-time job…
      And I so appreciate the lovely remarks about my work.
      Jan, your mentioning giving up teaching has reminded me to tell any of my students who are reading this blog that my passion for writing and fantasies about doing it full-time do not mean I don’t love working with them! My students feed my soul and have influenced my ideas enormously. The dilemma isn’t having to do something I hate instead of something I love, but more like trying to conduct an affair with two different lovers. You want to give your all to each, but–as someone who tried it once, I know–it’s exhausting!

  4. Exhausting, but the students do inspire the soul, although yours are older than mine, mine are 11. I get to teach Henry VIII in social studies and they are already pestering me every 10 seconds with some sort of question about it. It’s awesome, I love the curiosity! Although it is only September and we have already had to have the “We don’t touch other people’s rear ends” talk…Throw being a mom in the mix and then you get to write only at night, or in the 10 minutes after finishing all your lesson plans before the kids come back from PE. But one day maybe all of our dreams will come true. Anne’s did, in Elizabeth. Elizabeth is such awesome revenge for her mother’s mistreatment. Just, sometimes, it doesn’t happen the way we think it should, sometimes it’s even better.

  5. This afternoon I picked up my latest manuscript with the intent of doing a few miinutes of editing before dealing with the torn wallpaper, the dishes in my sink, tI did not make it to the grocery store. I did not even make it to the grocery list. And when I surfaced, it was 9:59 p.m., Are I selfish, irresonsible or am I merely driven? Is it all right to self-publish a second book when I am $400.00 short of breaking even on the first one, a big historical called the First Marie that one reviewer liked, one loved but not enough to spark more sales. Of course I am going to do that, because the people who matter, the Jan Abrahams, and Lillian Rinkes, our local Tudor goddess consider worth the effort. Somewhere along the way, I earned the entitlement to do so. For twenty three years I prosecuted the most horrendous of crimes, visited the worst possible crimes scenes, cried with the vulnerable and learned to laugh when laughter was permitted. And there was always a book at some stage or another, most of them true crime, some of them police procedure fiction, and occasionally there was an excursion back to my college days when i was so immersed in ElizabethR that some New Agers actually thought I was channeling. None of those books ever made it past the first draft, although I currently adapting one of them. Then I retired because I was growing too deaf to be an effective trial lawyers, and I didn’t want the desk job. And I was supervising talent that I had to admit was greater than I had ever been. Time for something different. And I suddenly found myself a caregiver for a chronically ill husband. AS i write this I am on my lptop on my half of the bed in which he spends 18-20 hours every day. So do I feel I need to explain myself when I attempt to recreate giants of the 16th Century like Anne, of Mary Flemyng, Lady Lethington, who is my First Marie? Am I justified in spending my day with the long dead , elusive Marie Stuart. Is it ok for me to ponder whether she really intent to announce her martyrdom by going to the scaffold wearing an underskirt in a martyr;s red, or did she choose it because she was wearing a borrowed crimson petticoat when she surrendered to the Knight o f Grange at Carberry, and watched the Earl of Bothwell ride away. If I were to my life over, I would have done it differently, but if I were to begin again writing the First Marie, I would write it differently. Perhaps tomorrow I will wake up thinking that redoing my living room or fixing the walls my malamutes ate is more important than the romantically tragic life of the Third Earl of Aran, or whether Elizabeth was a virgin or the Queen of Scots the mother of a daughter born at Lock Leven. After all, I spent close to seventy years doing the responsible thing, the day job, the lucrative career thing. So when I am challenged by the issues of my every day existence, I think of Harrison Ford and the fable that he was on a ladder doing some interior house painting when Speilberg called. The relevance is this: Harrison Ford was not a housepainter who suddenly became an actor. He was an actor who was playing the role of a housepainter because he needed food and shelter and an excuse for taking up his living space. But he didn’t hang up when Speilberg called.. He climbed down from the ladder. It may not be the easy move or even the correct choice, And the answer as to whether a clean sink or a pressed seam is more or less important than a well conceived manuscript is not as settled and smug a question as it may at first appear. My answer may be different from the next person’s answer. Writing historical fiction or biographies of people long deceased may seem silly to some. They shouldn’t do it. For me, I like having Anne Boleyn for a friend.

  6. Susan

    Jenny: My daughter is 12, but they haven’t done Henry VIII yet (I think they will in World Civ this year) and I am wondering how they will do it! What do you do? How much of the sex and scandal do you include? Please tell me more about it. It was taught in such a boring way when I was a child! I often fantasized about doing a book on the Tudors (history book, not fiction) for that age group. Don’t you think it would be fascinating challenge? And I love the last line of your reply; it’s one to put up on the desk, the kitchen, the bed, the living room, everywhere! A good example: my daughter, whom I adopted when I was 52. If I had been able to get pregnant when I was 42, she wouldn’t be in my life. Not getting pregnant was a tragedy at the time; now I am profoundly grateful for it, because I have Cassie. Yes, life rarely gives you want you want, but sometimes much better!
    Linda: Wow, what powerful, what vibrant reflections! Will you come be in my writing group?? It’s so completely clear, decisively clear, absolutely clear to me that YOU ARE A WRITER that of course you are justified in coming down from that ladder (an anecdote I love) whenever that red petticoat, metaphorically speaking, calls to you (great detail–this is the kind of thing that writers find delicious, as you know)! The hell with the sales of the first book; you are the real deal. A question: do you and Jan actually know each other (that is, in the flesh) or just through FB?

  7. Susan,
    I have and do it without ever mentioning the word sex. I can however mention the word divorce so when we discuss the trial of Katherine of Aragon and the rise of Anne I just say that Henry was so in love with her that he was willing to move heaven and earth for her. We talk about the fact that Katherine was getting older and could no longer have any children and that Henry needed a son to succeed him because of Salic law. We talk about the rights and wrongs of the situation, sometimes we have a debate dividing the room in half. Half on Katherine’s side, half on Henry and Anne’s. (We always do a debate on the guilt of Richard III, sometimes a trial.) I use a lot of clips from The Tudors, and some of the sappy music videos that go with them. (I love those!) We watch Anne walk to the scaffold and give her last speech, the clip blacks out just as the sword swings. Same with Catherine Howard, we watch a couple of short clips of her and her scene on the scaffold ending before the axe falls. With her I just explain the age difference and ask the girls how they would feel about it. We talk about the fact that teenagers delight in risk and that they themselves will one day may have some of those feelings. We just tell them that she had another boyfriend that was not her husband. They are old enough to know that this is wrong and I always end the Catherine Howard lesson by discussing the fact that she did not learn from the fate of Anne. After that we discuss the rights and wrongs of that situation and how she is similar to teens today and what they should have possibly learned about going behind the back of their parents, (or in this case an old husband) that it leads to trouble. That no one profits from being dishonest. I try and make it more about a love story and the reformation than sex. We do talk about the difference between Catholics and Protestants but not in the context of what we ourselves believe. We have to dance around that you know. Most of the time we do also do a play. Last year we did one about Katherine of Aragon’s trial and that class was very serious about the whole situation. The class next door was more suited to a comedy that I wrote for them. They had two amazing actors in that room who totally stole the show. The premise was a talk show called “You Wouldn’t Want To Be Married To…” Henry got confronted by all of his wives and they explained their fates while giving Henry a hard time. The priest that marries everyone keeps making remarks like “You again?” They were amazing and the kid that was the host of the show had on a top hat and sounded like a little Bob Barker. I have the video, if I can get it to attach to something I will send it to you. I don’t know if the file is too big. I love teaching this time period. I think I am saving it until the end of the year this year though because the class I have right now is far behind the class I had last year in terms of maturity. The kids love it though. You Tube is a wonderful help with the visuals and music and I must give props to whoever created one of the videos they love the best where the portraits of the wives come up followed by the actresses who played them in The Tudors. It gives them an idea of what the women really looked like and catches their interest by showing it in a more modern context as well. I hope they do it in your daughter’s class. We have the option of choosing five units our of seven and we choose this one. So her teachers may not have to teach it.
    I’m glad you like the quote at the end there. Apparently I am spouting out profound things lately. My husband said the same thing you did last week when I told him “I know where the line between reality and fantasy is, I just think life is more fun when it’s a little blurry.”

  8. One of the things I love most when teaching this social studies unit is the collective gasp that always comes when Natalie Dormer turns around to face the camera in the clip of Anne’s walk to the scaffold and speech. When the video starts her back is to the camera so when she turns around the reaction is always “OMG she is so beautiful!” Do you think she was really beautiful?” I always say yes. I haven’t had a class who hasn’t had this reaction yet!

  9. Susan

    Jenny, all I can say is I wish you were my daughter’s world civ teacher. What you do with them sounds incredible! And I’d love to see that video. I’m going to email Cassie’s teacher and see what she has planned for that period in history. Maybe she’ll let me do a guest class or two where I can use some of your ideas. (BTW, I will be teaching a graduate level course on “The Creation of Anne Boleyn” this coming spring, and I plan on using movies and doing some mock trials, too. They are fun and useful for all ages!)

  10. Thank you! I am really an ESL teacher but I get to moonlight in the 5th grade classrooms as a social studies teacher! You should do the guest lessons and if you do I’ll be happy to send you the links to the videos I use!

  11. I am jealous of your grad students, I don’t get to be on the student side of things very often, and I like to play too! I tried to attach the video to an email, it didn’t work the file is too large. I will see if I can get it up on facebook.

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