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Question of the Month: Holing Up

by Susan Henderson on May 7, 2012

Talk to me about how you free up time and emotional space for your work, how you say no to distractions, requests, and so on when you really need to focus.

I was going to show a little snapshot of my work-in-progress—my pinboard full of drawings and sticky notes, the stacks and stacks of research books, the 150 single-spaced pages that make up the book so far—but as many of you tease me about all the time, I’m just not one who likes to talk about my work until it’s done. So rather than sharing a photo of my work, I’ve shared some of Joseph Campbell‘s (notes we came across as we were cleaning out his Greenwich apartment). I’m fascinated by works-in-progress and seeing a person’s thought process. I like how organized and balanced Joe’s ideas are, and I like the little arrows on this next one…

My New Year’s resolution was to have a first draft of my book by the time my boys were out of school for the summer. I suppose that’s still possible, but I’m not going to rush it. I want to get this right. I want to get it as close as possible to how the story looks in my imagination. (Do you know what I mean? You know how our ideas seem amazing and bigger than life until we start to scribble them down?) So I was well on my way to meeting my deadline when a fabulous new idea gripped me, and it’s taking some effort to really explore it and rework the shape of the book to include it. I need all the time and focus I can get that doesn’t belong to my family, and this means I have to be disciplined about not adding any more to my plate.

I suspect many of you struggle with this same problem. Each month I get hundreds of requests to read new books, provide blurbs, submit essays to anthologies, edit this, promote that, speak here, introduce this person to that person, write a letter of recommendation or a proposal, and so on.  There are only so many hours in any given week, and it’s easy to carve it up and give it away thirty minutes at a time. Pretty soon, you’ve given away any time you meant to devote to writing your book, and if you’re not careful, any more favors you say yes to will have to cut into your family time.

I’d love to hear what works for you. How do you keep out the distractions when you need to focus? And how are you doing on those goals you set back in January?

*

I hope to see many of you this month at the Backspace Writers Conference (I said yes to this commitment many months ago). I’ll be on two panels (one literary fiction panel and one mystery panel) and then I’m staying through cocktail hour. The Backspace Conference is a great meeting of writers, agents and editors with all kinds of practical advice. If you’ve never been before, I hope you’ll consider attending. Friday, May 25th at theRadisson Martinique (32nd and Broadway) in New York City.

A few thank you’s… Thanks, as always, to those who’ve reviewed UP FROM THE BLUE at Amazon and GoodReads, and to those who ordered the new audiobook. Thanks as well to these bloggers for reviewing the Norwegian and Dutch editions of the book: Les Mye (Read Much), Bokanmeldelser, Bieb Blog Vlissingen (Flushing Library Blog), and Ly Books (Read a Book). Your words mean so much to me (and I get such a kick out of how Google translates them)!

One last note… On Wednesday, Mr. H and I will have been married for 20 years, and for 25 years he’s been my best friend. We’re not big on celebrations in our family, so the most we’ll do to celebrate is go out for dinner. But what I really like are the ordinary days—hearing about his day, going for walks, sharing a cup of coffee, working in the yard together, laughing, calling the dogs up on the bed, and just enjoying the company.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Billy Bones May 7, 2012 at 1:36 am

Oh to only have as organized a mind as Mr. Campbell’s. That would be something.

As far as finding time goes, early mornings (6:00-10:00 am) are Mr. Lincoln’s sanctuary. It’s a lovely time to work, when the footprints of dreams are still warm.

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Susan Henderson May 7, 2012 at 1:50 am

Oh, I know! Mine is far from organized–overlapping, intersecting arrows; dead-ends; a spiraling thought process; and that’s just the outlining stage!

I like the idea of making a sanctuary time, and that’s just a lovely, poetic way of thinking about the morning.

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Amy Wallen May 7, 2012 at 2:27 am

Dear Susan, I always tell myself I’m lucky to be so busy with such things. Or I try to. How does one decide what to say no to when the requests don’t all come in at the same time? I take a deep breath, set aside every morning for just me and my work, uninterruptable, and I feel guilty most of the time because there just isn’t enough time for all of it. But somehow, I find it does all end up fitting. Some work gets done regularly every day–my current project. Some works gets done in big fits/or holing aways, a sequestered month in upstate New York–my favorite long slow and next novel that I am obsessing about being perfect. The month of April, to prepare for the LA Times Book Festival, I lose a few friends every year because they don’t understand how I can’t possibly have ANY free time. I have learned that my truest friends are always still there when I pop back up. I just got asked to be a fiction judge for the LA Times Book Prizes for 2012 and 2014. I will be researching nominations from Booklist and other resources, and all my fellow judges’ nominations. It will be a year of hefty reading of fiction, and I have a reading list to complete for my MFA program which is creative nonfiction. But I love my job, and not a day goes by that I don’t remind myself of that. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Not even one that paid a decent wage. Despite the panic attacks. Just remember to breathe.

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Susan Henderson May 7, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Amy, I was working off of your model for the last many years and I just can’t do that anymore. It took me ten years to write a book that I probably could have done in 2-1/2 years, I was spending most of my time not only doing favors rather than my own work but doing things I didn’t like rather than doing what I was hungry and passionate to do. I could go on for hours but I’d sound ungrateful and bitchy. The bottom line is that my husband has put his foot down because he sees how much this hurts me, the family, my health, our income. I feel like I’m at a point where I don’t always want to be cramming things in and running myself ragged.

That said, I’m totally with you about loving my job and thinking that almost every day. And I’m thrilled you were picked to be a judge for the LA Times Book Prize. What an honor, and how lucky for them to have you!

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Despina Yeargin May 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Congratulations, Susan, on being married to your best friend. That make life SO much better, doesn’t it? 🙂

A neighbor told me last year that the most beautiful sound for her was the garage door going up in the afternoon, because it meant that her husband was home. He is chief of police in our small town, so this sound has more meaning to her than just seeing her husband; to her it also means that he’s safe. This sparked a poem for me. It’s called “Beautiful” and you can find it here, if you have time to read it, http://www.alphafemalemind.blogspot.com/p/national-poetry-month-2011.html Scroll down to number 11.

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Susan Henderson May 7, 2012 at 7:13 pm

That’s just lovely, Despina! And I agree, if you like the people you come home to, life is pretty darn good!

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Despina Yeargin May 7, 2012 at 2:45 pm

http://www.breakoutofthebox.com/journey.htm When things get too demanding, I have to remember this poem by Mary Oliver. I also go through a process, reminding myself what is most important to me. This helps me to organize work and additional demands.

That said, let me add that I WANT to do so many “other” things, that I quite often fail my own process. Also, in life there are times that demand SO much and they are all important. So, I do my best to be my best and sometimes the writing wins. Sometimes, the writing waits, but I look at those times as experiences waiting to be brought together in a poem or short story.

Of course, any resting and alone time is great for reflection and that’s where most of the poems are born.

BTW: Stick with the friends who “get it” about your life and all that free time. 🙂

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Susan Henderson May 7, 2012 at 7:16 pm

Yeah, that’s it exactly. I asked myself, Am I spending my time on the things and with the people who are most important to me? And I found I kept putting aside what I loved in order to do favors for people. After a while the favors were taking up the bulk of my time.

It’s so true that the best creative moments often come out of being still!

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billie hinton May 7, 2012 at 5:31 pm

I love seeing those wonderful pages from Joseph Campbell – inspiring and full of his energy – thank you for sharing them!

It’s interesting that your question this month has to do with holing up and saying no to requests. I have a tendency to over-estimate how much I can do w/o suffering in the process, and in late February, all of March, and the beginning of April I began to feel harried and completely out of control of my days and my hours. One week I just canceled everything on my schedule b/c I knew that week was going to send me over the edge. It took that to remind me that I really do have to have at least two weekdays a week that are completely clear of “stuff to do” that isn’t immediately related to my husband, teens, and the animals we live with.

Fortunately, once it got that bad in March, I worked really hard to not allow my days for the end of April and now for May to get packed. Right now there are only 3 things written on my entire calendar for May and two are reminders for me about horse stuff. I am being like a mother bear watching my calendar right now – nothing is going on it that doesn’t have to do with me or my family. I’m carrying this through August if not the entire 2012.

I am so so grateful for these days with nothing to do but be here with my teens and the animals. I can actually get writing done when things are this clear.

Re: goals – I always set them big and high and then have to relax them as time passes – which works okay b/c I don’t beat myself up about it. I’m making progress but it’s as usual much slower than I thought it might be when I set the initial goals. 🙂

The overarching goal is to enjoy the process, and usually that ends up meaning I need to slow down and just be where I am, fully. The crazy thing is that “where I am” is almost always wonderful – it’s my own inner drive to do more, faster, that masks that and makes me crazy. I realized at some point that *I’m* the one setting the pace and high expectations – so when those around me ask me to do things, or expect me to, it’s because I put that energy out there. It’s up to me to notch myself down. (but so easy to start seeing others as being demanding!) I’m still working on this – have insight, need to apply it. 🙂

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Susan Henderson May 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Billie, I feel like you saved me with these comments. This is perfect and I’ll bet you can publish it somewhere.

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Jessica Keener May 7, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Dear Susan. A great question, and wonderful pictures of J.C.’s manuscript pages.

A long time ago, I learned if I overextend myself, my body will shut down or get sick. As much as I’d like to be that person who can do so much more, I have to honor my body’s limitations. I learned this from almost 3 months in a hospital room many years ago. It made me cautious in that regard. I also believe in the power of going slow. Flannery O’Connor talks about this in her letters (Habit of Being). She didn’t let anyone push her to go faster than she needed or wanted to go. It was a matter of pride and philosophy with her.

With that in mind, I wish you a productive, slow, focused time with your family and manuscript pages. You’ve already made tremendous progress.

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Susan Henderson May 7, 2012 at 10:11 pm

I’m so glad to be reminded of her letters. She had a directness and a sassiness that was so refreshing! And you are so right about the connection between overextending and the body. I like your advice of not hurrying or going by anyone else’s schedule.

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ELizabeth Crane May 7, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Wowee, twenty years! Happy, happy anniversary. That’s just fantastic.

Requests for blurbs can be problematic because sometimes I just have too much schoolwork to read and can’t do it in a time frame that works for the other end. But I think of how generous people have been to me (um, Susan Henderson comes to mind as a recent example!), and I try to do it as much I can.

Then there’s also that thing where – sometimes the more you have on your plate, the more you get done. Some of my most productive times, creatively, have also been the busiest with work work.

I give in to distraction often, though I am finding that lately the internet seems to be encroaching more than it once did. But… somehow, breaks and all, stuff still seems to get done, so I try not to stress about it too much unless a particularly long stretch of not writing much goes by. Sometimes life hands you stuff (loss, I’m thinking of, in my case) that just gives you the mopes and for me I just try to allow room for that and know that I’ll get back on track soon enough. Basically, since I really, really like to write, for me it doesn’t require a lot of effort – if I’m in a groove with a story or a book, I can’t wait to get up in the morning and get to it!

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Susan Henderson May 7, 2012 at 11:58 pm

Yeah, again, I used to be fine with doing too much, but I’ve found favors eating up more and more of my time each month, and it leaves me feeling exhausted, unproductive (with my own work), and creatively unfulfilled. Maybe it’s the stage of life I’m in right now, or my kids’ ages or something, but I just feel more desperate for my work time to belong to me and my creative pursuits, and for my family time to be without outside distractions.

Your blurb, by the way, was totally different. I happened to have been reading a galley of your book, was really loving it, so I contacted your editor and told him I’d love to give it a blurb if he could use one. I already knew I loved it, I knew I had the time and energy for it right then, and so it wasn’t about favors, just love.

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Elizabeth Crane May 8, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Wah! Now I’m all misty!

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Nathalie ( @spacedlaw ) May 8, 2012 at 6:24 am

Congratulations!

In my life, writing IS the distraction, so tends to be pushed aside until the pressure becomes unbearable. Then everything else does get pushed aside in turn. This is for stories. Poems are more of an automatic writing nature for me and are often short so they can usually fit in interstitial lapses. They also tend to be less abusive than stories. Stories are bullies that think nothing of throwing you out of bed at all sort of ghastly hours.

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Susan Henderson May 8, 2012 at 12:49 pm

I try to never forget what a luxury it is that writing IS my job, rather than having to squeeze it in after a full day of work. I feel the same way about poetry, which is why I sometimes edit my manuscript in very small segments as if I’m working on a poem.

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Nathalie ( @spacedlaw ) May 11, 2012 at 3:00 pm

But it is wonderful to have writing as a distraction, a way to keep sane.
If I were to write stories for a living, I might soon find myself pushing bootleg license agreements on a dark internet street corner too keep my mind together and THAT would be beyond the pale.

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Susan Henderson May 11, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Ha ha! Good point!

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Jeff Sinclair May 8, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Hey Mrs. H,

Been thinking about this most of the afternoon. A few things came to mind. First, I’ve found that no matter what kind of schedule I have, getting enough rest is important to me. If I’ve got a busy day ahead of me, feeling charged enough to get through it without falling on my face at some point allows me to get to that set-aside writing time and not be too crippled to put together a coherent creative thought.

Second, most of my family and friends have gotten used to me saying no by now. They know I’m an introvert and need my solo time. But every now and then when they need a reminder that I am serious about this whole writing thing, I let them know just that: I’m very serious about it. And though they may be secure in their chosen professions and bringing home the money, I am not yet there with MY chosen profession. Therefore, I need my time to continue the drive. At that point, if they still give me a hard time, they’re just being inconsiderate, and when it comes to my writing, I’ve got little patience for inconsiderate folk, especially the extroverts.

Third, it helps that over the years I’ve learned how to ‘be still.’ Eckhart Tolle has taught me much about that. He has whole segments on stillness, but this one comes to mind: “To end the misery that has afflicted the human condition for thousands of years, you have to start with yourself and take responsibility for you inner state at any given moment. That means now.”

I’m not a Taoist, but I study religions, and Taoism has reinforced my belief that a primary source of the suffering of mankind lies in the need to continually push forward and gain more, with little regard for the benefit of the whole. I’m no good to humanity as a crazed and scattered ‘mover and shaker’ or being simply part of the flock, moving in unison and on cue with my fellow man and woman. I prefer to exist in my individuality, and to contribute in the best way I can. To do that, I need to write and teach, and to do those things, in turn, I require a certain level of inner peace… moving at my own pace whenever possible.

Always a pleasure contributing here. 🙂

*hugs*

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Susan Henderson May 8, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Oh my. All I can say about this is, Thank you! I’m printing this and I’m going to read it each morning until some of your wisdom sinks in to my stubborn head.

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RJ "Bob" McCarthy May 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Re: Holing Up – At this point in my life, regarding time, I’m incredibly fortunate. I retired as a Clinical Psychologist 6 years ago and have written full-time since. But throughout my career, I always wrote in the cracks. Currently, while it’s less difficult to free-up time, time still has to be carefully monitored. It can be rapidly siphoned off by an amazing array of household and other duties as well as external requests.

Mornings are for creative writing (generally 2-3 hours, on occasion, more). Adjunctive or support activites are squeezed into afternoons or evenings, but not so much that my days become one-dimensional.

I can write almost anywhere at home and while I don’t need total silence, I do need relative quiet. My tendency therefore is to find a quiet room and work there. As a partner in the writing process, my wife (of 50 years – 1st reader and editor) leaves me alone to write knowing she’s free to interrupt anytime she feels it’s important enough.

In my 30’s, at a point of being overwhelmed physically and emotionally by requests for my professional and personal time, I finally learned to say “No.” I began to guard time away from work, selecting community activites involving time donation compatible with my work.

People tell me I’m unusually disciplined in the things I do. I do believe there’s a strong element of truth in this. Therefore, above all, I try (not always successfully) to remain flexible to circumstances beyone my control that dictate a need to reorganize my day.

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Susan Henderson May 11, 2012 at 1:07 am

Bob, There’s so much calm wisdom here. I’m trying to soak it in. Thank you for this, and huge congratulations on 50 years of marriage! 🙂

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Jessica Vealitzek May 26, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Hello Susan — such a pleasure hearing you speak at Backspace and talking with you at the book table. I’m looking forward to diving into your book.

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Susan Henderson May 27, 2012 at 3:12 am

Jessica, It was great talking with you, and I’m so glad you stopped by LitPark. 🙂

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