Rainy day in the studio
The choices we make, the paths we follow

Still writing

Woodland 1

In her essay "Still Writing" (1981), the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Anne Tyler described working in a library before she had children. After quiet days cataloging books, she would go home to work on the first of her novels. (She went on to publish twenty of them, from 1963 to the present.)

"Then," says Tyler, "our first baby came along -- an insomniac. I quit work and stayed home all day with her and walked her all night. Even if I had found the time to write, I wouldn't have had the insides. I felt drained; too much care and feeling were being drawn out of me....I enjoyed tending infants (although I've much preferred the later ages), but it was hard to be solely, continually in their company and not be able to write."

Woodland 2

"After the children started school, I put up partitions in my mind. I would rush around in the morning braiding their hair, packing their lunches; then the second they were gone I would grow quiet and climb the stairs to my study. Sometimes a child would come home early and I would feel a little tug between the two parts of me; I'd be absent-minded and short-tempered.

Woodland 3

"Then gradually I learned to make the transition more easily. It feels like a sort of string that I tell myself to loosen. When the children come home, I drop the string and close the study door and that's the end of it. It doesn't work perfectly, of course. There are times when it doesn't work at all: if a child is sick, for instance, I can't possibly drop the child's end of the string, and I've learned not to try. It's easier to stop writing for awhile. Or if they're home but otherwise occupied, I no longer attempt to sneak off to my study to finish that one last page; I know that instantly, as if by magic, assorted little people will be pounding on my door requiring Band-Aids, tetanus shots, and a complete summation of the facts of life.

Woodland 4

"Last spring I bought a midget tape recorder to make notes on. I'd noticed that my best ideas came while I was running the vacuum cleaner, but I was always losing them. I thought this little recorder would help. I carried it around in my shirt pocked. But I was ignoring the partitions, is what it was; I was letting one half of my life intrude upon the other. A child would be talking about her day at school and suddenly I'd whip out the tape recorder and tell it, 'Get Morgan out of that cocktail party; he's not the type to drink.' 'Huh?' the child would say. Both halves began to seem ludicrous, unsynchronized."

Woodland 5

After recounting the gentle grace with which her father accepts a series of upheavals, Tyler writes:

"It seems to me that the way my father lives (infinitely adapting, and looking around him with a smile to say, 'Oh! So this is where I am!') is also the way to slip gracefully through the choppy life of writing novels, plastering the dining room ceiling, and presiding at slumber parties. I have learned, bit by bit, to accept a school snow-closing as an unexpected holiday, an excuse to play seventeen rounds of Parcheesi instead of typing up a short story....What this takes, of course, is a sense of limitless time, but I'm getting that. My life is beginning to seem unusually long. And there's a danger to it: I could wind up as passive as a piece of wood on a wave. But I try to walk a middle line.

"I was standing in the schoolyard waiting for a child when another mother came up to me. 'Have you found work yet?' she asked. 'Or are you just still writing?'

"Now how am I supposed to answer that?

"I could take offense, come to think of it. Maybe the reason I didn't is that I halfway share her attitude. They're paying me for this?"

Woodland 6

Woodland 7

"I'm surprised to find myself a writer," Tyler concludes, "but have fitted it fairly well, I think. The only real trouble that writing has ever brought me is an occasional sense of being invaded by the outside world. Why do people imagine that writers, having chosen the most private of professions, should be any good at performing in public..? I feel I am only holding myself together by being extremely firm and decisive about what I will do and what I will not do. I will write my books and raise the children. Anything else just fritters me away. I know this makes me seem narrow; but in fact, I am narrow....

"As the outside world grows less dependable, I keep buttressing my inside world, where people go on meaning well and surprising other people with little touches of grace. There are days when I sink into my novel like a pool and emerge feeling blank and bemused and used up. Then I drift over to the schoolyard, and there's this mother wondering if I'm doing anything halfway useful yet. Am I working? Have I found a job? No, I tell her.

"I'm still just writing."

Woodland 8

As a best-selling writer married to a physician, Tyler's world is an economically privileged one, as she'd be the first to admit --  yet it's instructive to know that even she has struggled with work/life issues, for it's tempting to think that money, or commercial success, solves everything, and of course it doesn't.

So here, dear Readers, is my question for you: Whether you have children to care for, or other family/community commitments, or a day job that pulls you away from creative work, how do you balance these things in your own life?

Illustration for Town Mouse & County Mouse by Lisbeth ZwergerThere is no right way or wrong way. Some artists thrive in the midst of over-full lives (the lucky creatures), while others (and I am one of them) need quiet and solitude like fish need the water and plants need the sun. Plus we change over time, as our lives change around us; thus the strategies we develop to maintain a work/life balance must change along with us. In my youth, for example, I loved the fast pace of big cities and writing at tables in noisy cafes...a work routine that is unimaginable now, quiet Country Mouse that I've since become.

Each of us must find our own creative rhythms -- and then, when we've found them, square them somehow with everything else that life, our loved ones, and our own social conscience demand of us. It's not easy. It's never easy; and I have to report, having reached the far shores of middle age, that it doesn't get any easier with time. Yet from this conflict, this tension, our art is born; our ideas are honed; our children are raised and our communities upheld. We struggle for balance: find it, lose it, find it again, a hundred times over -- while making art of our lives, as well as creating novels, paintings, and other artworks out of our lives.

Woodland 9

During my own times of despair when health, or family, or some sudden life problem blocks the way to my desk and drawing board too often, I often think of these words from Katherine Paterson (author of Bridge to Terabethia) reflecting on her early years as a writer:

"I had no study in those days, not even a desk or file or bookcase to call mine alone....It might have happened sooner [the writing of work worthy of publication] had I had a room of my own and fewer children, but somehow I doubt it. For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who took away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.”

She also said this, wise woman:

"If we marvel at the artist who has written a great book, we must marvel more at those people whose lives are works of art and who don't even know it, who wouldn't believe it if they were told. However hard work good writing may be, it is easier than good living."

I want to do both. And that's why balance, or hózhó, is my daily practice, my religion, my prayer.

Woodland 10Anne Tyler's essay can be read in full in The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternberg. The Katherine Paterson quote comes from her essay collection Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children. The painting above is Lisbeth Zwerger's illustration for "The Town Mouse & The Country Mouse."


This: "Each of us must find our own creative rhythms -- and then, when we've found them, square them somehow with everything else that life, our loved ones, and our own social conscience demands of us. It's not easy. . ." speaks diretly to me. We walk the knife's edge.


And you have taught, dear Jane, over these many years of friendship, how to walk that knife's edge with purpose and grace.

I recently reread Anne Tyler's books and enjoyed walking with her
characters once again. Our time is not completely our own as long
as we care for family. Walking into older age is a gift of time.
Closing the studio door I can listen to the stories of my life.
Beautiful post-thank you!

Once again your post goes to an issue that I struggle and dance with so often--thank you. I feel that there are so many ways to live out this challenge and so many questions I find myself asking, it is comforting to sit in the questions with others, even if we must find the answers on our own. And doesn't it change over time? We learn to separate or make time and then something happens that calls us away. Yes. I struggled as a young person, have a controlled chronic illness that requires me to be careful about my need for rest and my husband has Parkinson's and has been diagnosed for the past 10 years changing our lives profoundly--yet the call to the creative making in my life is so strong and central. I, also, have found that "narrowing" my life has been a positive thing, although it has been difficult for friends to understand and that has at times been stressful. It is a gift to have time to ponder these things, I know I am lucky in this, but always a dance--I would say in response to Patti above, that our time is never really our own because of living in the community of this world and yet we must keep our fingers on the thread that leads us back to the studio door through it all--

And, Terri, I hear that you met my niece as she was working at the Devonshire Dairy this last winter. How funny the connections! I also have a small package to send to you and wonder if I could send it care of Bumble Hill, Chagford (with all the correct codes, of course) would that get to you?

This post is absolutely overflowing with wisdom. Thank you.

In answer to your question: the way that I have found balance is by accepting support and recognizing what I need. For several years I felt that I should be able to do it all and "stay strong". I attempted to raise children, work as a public school teacher, write novels, and remain a friendly, loving, and sane person. Unsurprisingly, that didn't work out so well. I was drained, to say the least. Devastated.

Since then, I've learned (and been taught) to be more attentive to my limits, though occasionally I still stumble. I mother in the afternoons, evenings and weekends. I write, read (Myth & Moor!), volunteer, take walks, and run errands morning and midday. I don't make a dime and haven't been published. I do these things because they make me happy and because I am lucky enough to be able to do them. I still sometimes worry about how others perceive my life and privilege, but I'm learning to listen more to myself.

I'll leave you with this brief exchange I had in a coffee shop:

Barista: You don't work in the neighborhood, do you?
Me: Well, I volunteer in the neighborhood.
Barista: I guess that counts. Where do you volunteer?
Me: At the Bureau, just there. (pointing across the street to a local non-profit)
Barista: Oh, what kind of volunteer work do you do?
Me: We do creative writing with kids.
Barista: Oh, you're a creative writer? Did you go to school for that?
Me: Well, I have an English degree.
Barista: That helps. So, what's your real job?
Me: I'm a writer.
Barista: For who?
Me: (pausing) For myself.
Barista: (raises eyebrow)
Me: I don't make any money, but I'm a writer.
Barista: (silence. side eye.)
Me: Luckily, my partner makes enough money for our family.
Barista: (now satisfied.) Oh, it must be great to have that support.
Me: Yes, it is.

Thank you for this post as it is timely, and for all your posts because they are all lovely. As I prepare for the birth of my first child this July I flicker between fear and excitement about the narrowing of life and its imminent expansion. I think that I worry about my writer self most of all -- she is terribly young and colt-legged! Striking a balance between life and explicit art-making has never been easy and I don't expect that it will require less attention now.

I take comfort from the fact that there are other people who work on and struggle with and even continue to create. There is some voice inside me that says that adding family to my process will give me more to say (as your previous post's quotation from Katherine Paterson pointed out) and that perhaps against all rational arguments to the contrary, diving richly into life will supply some kind of transcendent resolution to my work.

Thank you for this blog. Best, Jessamine

Funny--I love the coffee shop exchange.
Are we artists/writers/etc. if we don't get paid for it? It helps me to think the answer in my life is yes because it helps to justify structuring my life around my creative work. Somehow it is helpful to me to say that this is in my nature and it is ok if others in my life don't understand why it is so important to be quiet, alone and in the studio--as long as they can be supportive.
And don't you think that there are just times when events in our lives demand that we put focus on things other than our creative lives? But how to learn to come back as soon as possible, or to learn to do more in the little bits of time we might have? I am focusing making the hour I might have be time when I am in the studio, even if it is just to clean and tidy and think about what I might accomplish with the next longer bit of time I have. I am learning that I can get more done than I thought.

Does anybody else see the Green Man in the first photo at the top of the tree behind Tilly?

I've learned that with a full-time day job and commute, I only have so much creative energy left over. Sometimes writing is shunted down the list of priorities, but there's always a reason.
And it always comes back to the top the minute I'm ready.

I couldn't agree more with Katherine Paterson. Infact, I am worried about what I'm going to do when the day comes that I have plenty of time to write. There is something so delicious about making time to be with a story or a poem. It's like making time to be with your husband during the busy every day - catching deep looks, sitting together to talk abut nothing important, listening to the low cadence of his voice and remembering all over again what love sounds like. I think that, with writing (or perhaps just my own brand of writing) such a magic blossoms in these moments, such a romance of souls that can perhaps get watered down with over-familiarity if you spend hours and hours together on work. I personally find I connect more with a story-in-progress when I come to it in magic moments rather than when I have a set schedule of quiet hours every day. And I also find that, when I weave my storymaking and my daily living together, treasuring both, I enrich both endlessly. The key though is believing that, as a mother, you have a right to use energy on writing ... and that, as a writer, you can find magic and creative fulfillment in normal life.

But maybe that's all just a pretty excuse for being undisciplined :-)

Oh, that exchange is infuriating! I know it's not really about the barista, but the whole ridiculous idea that our work must make us money in order to have value or be "real"! For a while I became obsessed with all of SARK's books and before she published them, she told people she was a writer. "What do you write?" they'd ask. "Diaries," she responded. "No," they'd laugh, "what do you really write?" Her ending point was whatever enables us to write our truth, diaries or otherwise, made us writers, period. I know too many people who don't even try at their passion because they can't see the monetary value and it makes me so sad. That's not what it's about-- god, creativity is a primal urge, and when we're creating we're contributing to the whole tapestry-- one that goes on for millennia- of humans making sense of this life, of dipping their hands in that magical, moving mystery of all-that-is. We're making waves on the great spider web and holy cow, I don't care if I make another penny off of it, I'll never stop plucking the strings. It's as necessary as breath. And I'll stop now or I may never stop!

Up on the left side, right side of the tree? Looks like kind of jester Green Man. Another one
on the third photo, to the right, on the brown leaning tree, but not green. Forest magic.

and poems, especially before divorce and need to find jobs . I have the luxury of just finishing a Young Adult fantasy, which took only a year, as I have learned much about
structure (!). Have another of a novel that crumbled, but I think I have a new structure for it.

This is all about how wanting to write a novel and not getting one published is not wrong.
For one thing, I feel almost ill If I'm not writing. And a wise old poet friend and I agree,
it is all about synchronicity. She has become famous in her mid 80's!

Somehow this comment was chopped off, at the top. It was about my writing three novels and not getting them published, though one was closes to winning a prize and then,
wasn't all of a sudden, and I had an agent for a while who could not sell it after showing it to five editors. I am not whining. This was just what happened. I then, quite pitching until I
retired. Before the divorce, I had good luck with publishing short stories and poems. That and having to manage my head injured son gave me little time, until now.

And as I said, it's about synchronicity. All that previous luck came as surprises.

Yes! Forest Magic indeed. You can really see where the medieval stone masons got their inspiration from when they carved the Green Man and placed this symbol of Paganism in the holy places of Christianity.

Everybody's right here in my opinion. You make time for creativity; seize the moment. The first book I had published I was determined was going to be the last I ever wrote, quite simply because I was ground down by the whole depressing round of writing, sending to publishers and getting rejected. But once I'd decided that my latest project was going to be my last full sized novel, I relaxed, stopped worrying about 'The Market' and just wrote what I wanted as and when I could. This meant I used tea-breaks, lunchtimes, days off, even times when my partner was watching TV programmes that didn't interest me. And I put everything into my novel that ever intrigued me and sod what was considered acceptable! Anyway, to stop rambling on, the end result was that friends who'd read the finished story insisted I sent it off to publishers again and it was accepted. The point is, I didn't suddenly become a writer when I was published, I'd served a long apprenticeship for years before that. We are all of us writers and artists irrespective of whether our work receives the spurious validation of actually earning us money or not. We are writers from the moment we first put pen to paper, and we are story-tellers before even that. We are artists from the moment we first make marks that represent the world around us or that represent the world in our heads. And we are also artists from the moment we first make frames of the imagination around the images in our minds.

Sorry to have waffled on again

A most excellent wafffle, Stuart; no apologies needed. And I think it can be helpful for up-and-coming writers to hear about the early experiences of those whose careers are now established. The struggle is not apparent in the final published project, which can leave them with the impression that if they are struggling themselves, are occasionally dejected themselves, they are doing something wrong. Au contraire! We've all been there.

And no matter how many publication we have under our belts or how many awards sit on our shelves, there are days when we're there still.

Everyone, I'm appreciating these thoughtful and thought-provoking comments very much. Please don't stop!

I will be late for work reading this post and the wonderful comments. (Work, that thing I do to support my writing and to buy flowers) We should not have to justify to anyone how much money we make in order to call ourselves writers. Years ago I had a dream that I could not buy myself a ticket to a movie. I realized it was about my writing and personal value. At the time I was staying home and trying very hard to make money with my writing. I soon realized it was not making me happy. What sense did it make to sacrifice my happiness to do something that made me happy? What a conflict! I'm still never sure how to answer the question of 'What do you do?' Why do I need to attach myself to a title to feel validated? I write, yes, but I also garden and dream and other things. I guess, overall, I feel more like a poet, because poetry is about how I see the world. That perspective is never shut off. Even when I don't feel like a writer, my poetic observation is always there. It's a lens. A color that blends everything for me. Working has helped me realize even more so to pay attention to the world around me, to live first. I might be responding more to the comments here and not the actual post. I feel like I'm rambling now. I just love this topic. It's important.

I have only just learned how to shut everything else out and just sit down and write without caring whether it's good or bad (I've discovered that worrying about quality is a luxury I can't afford). I am glad to know this but I am still worried about what happens in August, when I have a baby. Will I ever do anything again? I'm not going back to work after maternity leave and I have allowed people to think that this is for financial reasons and because I'm so dedicated to the idea of bringing up my child. Really I know it's for me. With a part-time job and a family I would never have time to do my work. With just the family I might. But I still feel torn, like I'm forcing my partner to provide for us. In my head it's this constant dance between family, meaningful work and money. And I don't know yet how it will work out. But I do know it will be difficult.

Thanks Devony. I often wonder about the very same things. I love the idea of using time in the studio to tidy and think, such a valuable and vital practice in an artful life.

Brilliant. Thanks so much Raquel. I love the great spider web and I'm with you on plucking those strings for the love of it.

My partner sent me a link to this recent piece on money/art and I thought it was pretty grand. Sharing it here for all who might be interested:


Thank you, Phyllis. I hear you loud and clear and agree that writing for the love of it is enough. Congrats on finishing your YA fantasy!

I love this. You are a poet indeed.

For what it's worth, Beth, I've found that my writing life is much more productive after having children. I do understand your worry and let people believe what they will. I think I posted a comment like this recently, so please forgive me if I'm repeating myself, but I've found that the simple act of noticing what I need and asking for it has made me a happier person and healthier mom. Best wishes!

If you look back at Tuesday, there are a lot of comments about having children and art.
It's a whole arena of how it works for all of us. It is not as difficult as we think. There is time
to expand in every way, including art.

Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I think it is all I want to read today, just so that I can slowly and with openness (instead of with my more typical sense of overwhelm) think about all said concerning balance, inspiration, life as art, creating and the merging of it all. Thank you.

Devony, years ago I got a package addressed to: Blonde American Writer, in old stone cottage, Chagford, Devon. But I'm not sure such a package would get to me now in these blander, more standardized days. Write to me via the Endicott Studio's email and I'll send you my address:
theendicottstudio [at] gmail [dot] dome.

It was very nice to meet your niece!


Did you see the article "Sponsored By My Husband: Why It's a Problem That Writers Never Talk About Where Their Money Comes From," by Ann Bauer, in Salon.com? (The URL for it is so damn long that I can't include a working link here, but if you Google it you'll find it.)

In all my years as a fiction editor, working with many, many different writers, I would say that the vast majority do not support themselves solely by writing; they either have day jobs (full or part-time), or a private income, or depend upon their spouse's income. And these are *published* writers, many of them award-winning and well known.

The number of writers who depend on a spouse's income -- both male and female -- is much larger than people think. Ann Baur is right that many writers don't like to admit it publically. This is partly due to the modern idea that success, even in the arts, is measured by how much money you make; and partly, I think, in America at least, due to a cultural fetish for independent achievement -- though honestly, what achievement is ever truly, fully independent?

Personally, I think having a partner who believes in you and your art enough to help enable you to do it is something to cherish and be proud of. The financial support of such partners is not only a valuable gift to the artist, but also to all who enjoy and benefit from the art work thus created. I think it's time to take these family 'patrons' out of the shadows and celebrate them.

At the same time, for the sake of those of us who don't have partners who are able to support us (my husband, for example, is a theatre performer and director specializing in Commedia dell'Arte, which is an even more unstable life than fantasy writing, god help us!), we have to address those aspects of the publishing/book selling industry that continue to erode writers' already-minimal wages. (I'm talking about the average writer here, not the small elite on the best-sellers' lists.) Our work maybe a "gift" to the world, but writers still have to eat like everybody else.

Congratulations on the baby-to-come! How fortunate your child is to have a mother who practices and values the creative arts.

Watching what writer/artist friends of mine with children have gone through in the first year after birth, please be patient with yourself and don't fret too much if creativity goes through fallow periods. Those periods are an important part of the cycle in nature; and, I believe, in human life too. You'll bloom when the time is right.

It's good to hear that hard-won confidence that it *does* come back when you're ready. You're clearly doing something right, Lee!

Again, I'm thinking of all the writers I've worked with over the years, whose wide variety of approaches to writing have taught me that there isn't ever one "right" way to do it. There are quite a number of successful writers who, like you, work best when they have other demands on their time besides writing. Limited writing time focuses them, and makes creative work feel like stolen moments of pleasure instead of a chore. Given the chance to write full time, they actually fall apart and don't get nearly as much done. So if a "limited time" writing schedule creates the work rhythm that is best for you, you're fortunate to know it and to be comfortable with it.

I'm not that kind of writer myself; I do my best (and fastest) work when I have lots of time and few other distractions or obligations. But since this blessed state is one that I rarely achieve (largely due to health and financial constraints), I've learned to write in small chunks of time between everything else going on...but it doesn't suit my nature or natural rhythms, alas, and is part of the reason my writing output has been smaller than I'd like. Not an excuse, just the reality of life right now.

A friend of mine, who writes and paints and makes music beautifully but does none of these things "professionally" (i.e., as a means of earning a living) hates filling out forms that require the label of an identifying occupation. She says she always wants to answer like this...

OCCUPATION: Living a full life.

And what could be more valuable?

And thank you, Jen, and Beth, and everyone here who has contributed such thoughtful comments to this discussion.

"Walking into older age is a gift of time."

I love that. And yes, it is indeed.


The comments to this entry are closed.