When Can Writing Come First?

A few months ago, in a break between terms, I was looking for something to watch on Netflix. I wanted to watch something about another writer, something to make me feel more connected. Author’s Anonymous was on a list of movies for writers, somewhere, and my good friend and fellow blogger, Missy, recommended it, so I hit play. Frustratingly so, the protagonist, Hannah Rinaldi, doesn’t read books but, nevertheless, lands herself a publishing deal. She’s not the kind of writer I’d want to be, but she is a writer, who actually writes. “The writing comes first” is her mantra. No boys allowed. No distractions. And that part about Hannah I can respect.

Hannah’s fictional, but to put her life in perspective, Hannah (as far as I can tell) doesn’t have an actual job. She’s a young, twenty-something, living with her mom, who writes every day and attends a weekly writing group. She doesn’t read, doesn’t know who Jane Austen is, and can’t come up with a single author’s name when asked “Who’s your favorite writer?” Her book becomes an instant bestseller and earns itself a movie deal. It contains lines like “You’re my shining star.” And, just like that, everyone she knows (including the audience) hates her.

There’s plenty of reasons to hate Hannah, but I only hated her for her dedication. Hate isn’t the right word. I envied her.

I, unlike Hannah, never have time to write. I squeeze it in during hours I should be sleeping or on the bus or train home from work and school. In grad school, empty pockets of time are quickly filled with homework to get ahead on, portfolios to develop, and papers to research. It’s like a never-ending game of Whac-A-Mole. Just when you think you’ve beat them all, more work comes to replace it.

Welcome to the real world, you say? But for writers, a chaotic, distraction-filled environment is detrimental to the creative process. To generate sparks, a writer must research and brainstorm—tasks that can take hours, even days, of focus depending on the length of the piece.

So what can you do about it? Nothing.

That’s just the thing. As a student writer, all you can do is ride it out. It’s difficult. You’ll feel guilty and upset with yourself, wondering how you could fit it in, questioning your skills and talent, but unless you’re lucky enough to have parents floating your tuition or scholarships to support you, most of us simply won’t be able to accomplish all that we hope to while in school.

What you can do is seek out mentors, other writers who can help you feel less alone. Last year, at AWP, I met Leslye Walton, author of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender for coffee with a fellow blogger. She went to the same university that we’re going to now. When she was in school, she told us, a few of the students were winning awards for stories and poems they were publishing, but she was just working on one story—a novel. She felt inadequate. And that felt familiar, to me. Knowing others felt the same way made me feel “normal.”

Other writers just tend to make me feel better, offering camaraderie and friendly competition. In fall, after meeting Vanessa Veselka, author of Zazen, for dinner (I won an auction. It was amazing.), she told me, “Oh, you’ll have loads of time have after graduation. You won’t know what to do with yourself.” I believed her more, for some reason, than even myself right then. Just hearing someone else mention an abundance of what I’ve been looking for these past six years—time—took a bit of weight off my shoulders.

Right now, that all sits right beyond the horizon. A place too bright and shiny for my naked eyes to see into. But for all of you other writers out there, on the verge of graduating, just remember, we’re almost there.

When school is over, we can truly say “the writing comes first.”

But then, some snarky friend will say “Welcome to real world,” and we’ll find something else to blame.

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