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Writing While Living

By Leslie Daniels, Fiction Faculty

Nabokov writing in his car

I am struck by how many of my students write beautifully in the midst of very dense lives. Some are working extremely hard on other jobs, some have young families, or run their own businesses, or care for elderly parents.

I ask them when they write. Some get up at four AM, or write after everyone has gone to sleep. Some write on their lunch hours.

Don’t wait for the right time to write. It won’t come. If you look around and there is no competition for your writing time, no one to knock and demand that you come out and play, no one to need you, you may have shut the door too firmly on life. Crack it open!

The turning point in my novel Cleaning Nabokov’s House was written in the back seat of my car in my son’s (then) childish handwriting. I was driving. “Write this down,” I demanded, and tossed him the tiny notebook I keep on the console. He liked to catch things on the fly. I keep that piece of paper with its pencil scrawl, proof of how writing happens while living.

The only time to write is now, this day, this morning with coffee, this afternoon when everyone thinks you’re getting groceries. They won’t notice when you come back with a roasted chicken, a bag of apples, and half a chapter. You’ll be so happy with yourself that dinner will be a joyous picnic.

You can try to set up the ideal writing time, free of distractions and demands, but life will seep in, like flood water under the door.

Occasionally I will be deep in my work—this only happens when I am immersed—I’ve turned off the phones and the modem, and yet the doorbell will ring. Two people stand outside who would like to tell me about their personal relationship with ________ (fill in religion-specific deity name here).

I talk to them because I too have faith. My faith is in kindness, in the belief that we are all in this together. I too have a mission: I want to be the nicest non-believer they will ever not convert. I want them to leave happy that we met.

After we talk, I go back to my desk, laughing at how imperfectly perfect is my writing day. Get practiced at returning to your work. Let the impulse to write be unresisted.

Most of all, respect your inner life. Are you too sad to write? Honor that. Write my sister is gone and I can’t go on. Are you too angry? Write your truth of this moment. Don’t censor. Let it be there on the page, witness to this specific moment of your good life. Let it be the doorway, the portal, the truth through which you enter your work. Embrace the duality of the moment: I am too sad to write, and I am writing. I am too scared to write, and I am writing. Let it be OK to write from where you are right now: in a real life, in a real world, in a real exploration of writing.

There is no escape; you will always be in the midst of your life. Much of what stops you from writing is not the semiannual evangelist at the door, nor the demanding and beloved people who share this planet, nor even your job, but an unarticulated fear that writing—the writing you will do this day—will not lead to meaning. I suggest that your meaning, the meaning of your life, is something you must make, not find.

Write now. Right now. There won’t be a better time.

Leslie Daniels is the author of the novel Cleaning Nabokov’s House, published by Simon & Schuster, in translation in four languages and under option for film. She writes and teaches from Ithaca, New York.



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