by Katy Yocom
Associate Administrative Director
In 1909, while working for the Insurance Institute in Prague, Franz Kafka wrote a report titled “Preventative Measures Against Accidents Caused by Mechanical Brushes.” It’s accompanied by illustrations, including a drawing of a hand missing its index and middle fingers. The hand is truncated with a hard line at the wrist, as if it had never been attached to a human arm.
In a way, that severed hand is Kafka. He bewailed the six hours a day he spent at the office, six days a week, spending his writing energies penning pamphlets about accidental amputation. He had already discerned that creative writing was his purpose in life. “Naturally, I did not find this purpose independently and consciously, it found itself, and is now interfered with only by the office, but that interferes with it completely,” he wrote. “ … For me in particular, it is a horrible double life from which there is probably no escape but insanity.”
Fortunately, most of us are not as sensitive as Kafka. Still, we feel his pain. Put together that hand and other body parts found in illustrated advertisements of the era, throw in the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg to keep the literary theme going, and you could build a whole person that way: a Frankenstein’s monster created in the name of commerce and gainful employment. A physical manifestation of the life of the writer who holds down a day job. Or raises children. Or cares for aging parents. Or suffers her own infirmities.
We all know the stories of pluck and perseverance: Christopher Paul Curtis wrote his Newbery Medal-winning Bud, Not Buddy on lunch breaks at his factory job. J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in a crowded café while her daughter napped. As a writer who doesn’t write daily, stories like this leave me feeling half inspired, half ashamed: If they can do it, what’s myproblem? And then there’s that Faulkner quote that leaves me burning with resentment and envy: “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.” Oh, the smugness! I’m tempted to wish it weren’t inspiration that struck Faulkner every morning but the flat of my palm.
Although people don’t talk about it much, I suspect that I’m part of a large group of writers who don’t manage to pull off a productive daily writing life. I think what that looks like is very diverse:
We write even when we can’t write enough to keep the creative fire fully lit.
We don’t write at all, for months, even years.
We write every day in astonishing bursts on deadline. Once the deadline passes, we stop.
We take retreats that allow the words to pour out of us for a week or a month at a time, then return to our daily lives and set the work aside till the next retreat comes along.
We take ten years to finish a novel.
We accomplish less than we might, if things were different.
I did write daily, for about six weeks in the spring of 2012, on deadline. I got up at 5:00 or 5:30 and wrote, seven days a week before going to work or taking care of weekend errands. I kept that schedule through the spring residency. When Jacqueline Woodson spoke at that residency, her words sparked with me so brightly that I cancelled my dinner plans, hurried back to my computer, and broke through a point-of-view problem that had been dogging me for years.
I suspect the timing of that breakthrough was not a coincidence. If I hadn’t been writing daily, likely Woodson’s words would have drifted away without leaving a mark. Madeleine L’Engle once said, not smugly, “Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.” Yes.
I hit my deadline, and I stopped getting up at five to write every day. I’m not proud of that fact, but I’m less ashamed than I used to be. I accept dry spells now in ways I once couldn’t, because accepting them seems better than following the path Kafka foresaw for himself. I suspect insanity wouldn’t feel like much of an escape in the end, anyway.
Better to accept the times when other demands push writing out of our lives. Better to tell ourselves it’s all fodder. Better to know we are still writers, even when we’re not writing.
But also this: Better to make a conscious decision to free up whatever time we can, to shed whatever responsibilities we can morally and financially justify ditching. To disappoint people, if we have to. To let go of the commitments that feed our egos and win us approval but undercut our creative output. Sometimes we feel so dismembered by our obligations that we forget to look for the places we can reintegrate ourselves. “In the end,” Twyla Tharp writes in The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, “there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself.”