writing through distractions

Let me tell you about what my week looks like.

Saturday: my brother and family arrive from Texas, and stay with us.  I love having them here, and we’re having a great time.  Saturday night, cook dinner for five.  

Sunday: Mom joins us and we all go sailing for the day.  Cook dinner for six.

Monday: take Mom to doctor’s appointment.  She’s having problems, and needs more tests.  Cook dinner for six.

Tuesday: both sons arrive with significant others to stay with us for a week.  Have to remake beds.  Mom needs to be driven to hospital for x-rays and blood tests.  Will cook dinner for ten.

Wednesday: brother scheduled to leave.  Will be down to only four house guests. Mom needs to go to hospital for M.R.I.  Mom needs prescriptions refilled.  Dinner for nine.

Thursday: Birthday party for younger son, with grandparents invited.  Son wants tacos with hand-made tortillas.  Cook dinner for nine.

Friday: drive Mom to Portland (hour and a half each way) for her ophthalmology appointment.  Take her shopping for summer clothes.  Home in time for dinner with sons.

Monday: sons scheduled to leave.  Guest beds need to be stripped, sheets washed.  Now it’s my turn to go to doctor for medical tests.  (Having upset stomach for past month — wonder why?!!)

Tuesday: Frantically pack for three-week trip to Turkey.  

Wednesday: Catch flight for Istanbul.

Am I getting any writing done?  What do you think?  Even though I have the uncomplaining help and support of a wonderful spouse, life is full of so many distractions that sometimes writing is impossible.  It takes time to get into the creative zone you need to write a new scene.  It takes time to hear those voices, visualize the action, hone the words.  I can’t do it in ten-minute snatches. And as I get older, I’m finding it even harder to write through distractions.  

When I was a twenty-something medical resident, working 80-hour weeks, somehow I managed to fit in some writing when I had a spare moment.  On nights when I’d be on-call, or when I’d get an hour’s breathing space for lunch, I could produce at least a few paragraphs.  But I was writing short stories and articles then, not novels, and I can get focused much more quickly when the piece is compact and the story is less complicated, with fewer plot and character issues to juggle.

After my sons were born, I dropped back to working part-time, but with both a toddler and a baby in the house, I had a whole new set of distractions.  I juggled two feeding schedules, tried to synchronize nap times, felt my IQ melting away as I shuffled around in a sleep-deprived state, the “ABC song” continuously playing in my head.  And yet, amazingly, I managed to write.  I completed my very first novel (albeit not a very good one) when my sons were only two and four years old.

I still don’t know how I did it.  I’m sure there were times when someone’s diaper didn’t get changed in a timely fashion, or someone had to yell “Mommy” a few too many times before I heard him. I feel guilty about not being totally, mentally there for them when my mind was far, far away.  I wonder if they incurred some lasting emotional trauma, being the children of a writer.  Then I look at these sons of mine, and I see two wonderful, independent and self-sufficient young men who grew up washing their own clothes, changing their own sheets, and cooking their own breakfasts.  

I think there’s something to be said for laissez-faire parenting.

I hear from many aspiring writers who haven’t managed to actually write anything yet because their lives are too busy.  “When I retire, I’ll write that book,” they say.  Or when the children are out of the house.”  And to a certain extent, I can sympathize with them.  It’s impossible to write when your kids are tugging and whining at your feet.  Or when your elderly mom needs your constant attention.  Or when your job leaves you so exhausted at the end of the day, you can barely rustle up the energy to eat dinner.  

I used to believe that if a writer really wants to write, he will — no excuses allowed.  But my position has mellowed over the years, because the pace of life in America has sped up so much over the past few decades.  Kids now have to be driven to countless after-school activities. Employers and customers demand instant turnarounds. The ailing economy means many people have to work far too many hours.  

So for those writers who are feeling guilty that they aren’t writing because life has overwhelmed them, I absolve you of that guilt.  Sometimes it truly is impossible to write.  Maybe you have to wait five years until the kid heads off to kindergarten, or figure out a way to unburden your packed schedule, or ask your spouse to shoulder some of the load. Maybe you need to start saying no more often, to tasks you don’t really feel committed to.

If you’re not actively writing, take comfort in the fact that, on some level, you’re still working.  Even while your kids are screaming or you’re stuck in traffic, somewhere in your brain, some writing gear is probably turning. Maybe that red-faced, tear-streaked toddler will be perfect as a character in your next scene.  Maybe the traffic gives you time to mull over a plot point.

And when you finally do get back to your desk, you’ll be all the more ready to write.  





22 thoughts on “writing through distractions

  1. Chris Hamilton

    Funny, I posted exactly that on the Florida Writers Conference blog yesterday. Only instead of moms and houseguests, it’s getting ready for school and buying a car and whatever else there is.

    Hope your mom is okay. Hope your trip is good.

  2. JD Rhoades

    Saturday night, cook dinner for five.

    Cook dinner for six.

    Will cook dinner for ten.

    Cook dinner for nine.

    Order out and write during the shopping/cooking time 😉 .

    Seriously, though…part of the writer’s life is, you know, living. You can’t write about people if you crawl into a cave so long you forget what they’re like. Good luck to your Mom. And take care of yourself, too. That stomach thing worries me.

  3. Karen in Ohio

    Tess, as someone who also wrote, and otherwise worked, when my children were small, please take comfort in knowing that you were giving them an awesome example of a strong, independent woman who could manage to do more than one thing at a time. There is a lot to be said for this. Your sons will look for partners who are as much like you as they can manage, no matter what they do. (And don’t we love this?) And they will not have expectations that those partners wait on them hand and foot. How cool is that? You raised them well.

    Good luck getting through it all, and with your own health issues. And I’m pea green about your upcoming trip. Istanbul is on my short list of places to visit someday. It’s supposed to be an absolutely lovely place, and I understand that the food is amazing. Enjoy.

  4. pari noskin taichert

    Thank you for this post. My life is pretty insane most of the time.

    I longer I live, the more I think guilt is one of the most destructive emotions to creativity. And writing w/o that seed of inspiration/creativity is one of the best ways to write lifeless crap.

    So, I’m trying hard to remember to breathe, to look and allow myself these times of "non-productivity" with the knowledge that if I let myself off the hook emotionally, I’ll come back to the writing more quickly and enthusiastically than if I try to force it too much.

    I do still try to write at least one creative sentence a day though — something to keep my heart in synch, to satisfy my image of myself as a writer.

  5. TerriMolina

    Great Post, Tess. Wow….you make your own tortillas??? Okay, that’s not the only thing I took from this post, but it sure impressed me. I can’t make tortillas to save my life! My aunt tried to show me when I was a teen and they came out so hard we used them as plates. :-/

    I hope you and your mom are feeling well soon.

  6. kit

    confessions of a Looney Tune…..

    "I hate HER…I HATE her….I ..HATE …HERRRRR!"
    going into our bedroom and brandishing one of your books under my hubby’s nose….after the second "I hate her"….he’s backed up against the headboard with a look that says "OMG! she’s really lost it this time…"

    "Look at this, Doug….she’s a freaking DOC ..TER, an MD….she probably dictates a few paragraphs, saves a life or two….then …..then…hell, I don’t know…does good works or something….like Mother Theresa …….

    Ever sensible and reasonable….Doug said "then stop reading her books…"

    "Oh….you’re just not getting it…are you? It’s stuff like this, that sets the bar…..how the heck am I to compete for shelf space against something like this…I mean really, think about it, would ya? Geeez….ussss…get a clue, here….."

    Well, I never stopped reading your writing, and I even looked up your website, and yeah, I mutttered over some of the comments I read in response to the blogs. I have my favorite books,the ones I will read again or the ones I recommend when someone is perusing the shelves in my favorite bookstore (unsolicitated advice, I might add, while Doug is all but dragging me, by the scruff of the neck,away)

    So female to female…I will say this. Take care of yourself, medical people make the worst patients…second,kids learn by example and they learn things without us even realizing that they do, when you make time for the important things like home and family…they get it…..it’s a strong foundation on which to build and will serve them well later on. You keep writing and I’ll keep reading and following along…maybe this time with my eyes a little more wide open to reality and not how I think things are…..take care

  7. Louise Ure

    Like Kit, I’m jealous of your incredible organization, energy, output and skill. Damn, I can barely manage dinner for two and a writing life.

    There truly is no perfect time to write, is there? Not when the kids are two and four. Not when you go to part time work instead of full time. Not when you’re totally retired and have the days to yourself. I guess if we want to write, we find the time.

  8. JT Ellison

    "Ergo te absolvo"

    Thanks! I needed that : )

    There’s nothing like understanding that sometimes, life does get in the way of writing. I’m glad yours is so full, Tess. There’s so many stories in there.

  9. tess gerritsen

    Thank you so much for the nice comments! As of today, my house is my own again, the guest beds are stripped, and the washing machine is doing triple duty with all the sheets and bath towels.
    Yesterday, I spent the afternoon at the hospital getting an EGD (that lovely test where a gastroenterologist pushes a big honking tube down your throat for a look-see at the stomach.) Conclusion: stress is eating away at me. Literally.

    So this trip to Turkey is coming at just the right time. My only goals are to hike, swim, and try to regain some of the weight I’ve lost. And I’m going to put a stopper in that guilty voice that keeps harassing me with: "WHY AREN’T YOU WRITING?!!"

    Terri M.: re: making tortillas. Up here in New England, the only way to enjoy really fresh corn tortillas is to make them yourself. I’m a former San Diego girl, so I consider it a necessary skill!

  10. Allison Davis

    I love being absolved of guilt more than anything (like JT). Maybe it’s my catholic upbringing, maybe that constant nagging feeling of inadquacy. I pushed myself this morning to get up and sat at my desk to finish an article on the "new poster art movement." It wasn’t my book but I’d promised to finish it, so did and sent it.

    I’ve quit waiting for the perfect time long ago and just settled for any time, trying to keep the day job separate from the rest of my life and the writing. Hard to tell people, sorry can’t go the game tonight, gotta write, no not dinner tonight — sorry can’t go, can’t go….but we never see you. You work too much. I proscratinated for years diddling with unfinished manuscripts. I will diddle no longer. But won’t feel guilty either. Great, great post. I’ve tweeted it around. many thanks (and listen to your friends, take care of yourself). a

  11. karen from mentor

    I think you should go from college to college and talk to the kids getting creative writing degrees.
    The daughter of my heart just told me that she feels guilty anytime she’s not writing. She has trouble relaxing because she keeps hearing her teachers in her head saying if you’re not writing you’re wasting your life.
    You have to live to write.
    You have to experience stuff.
    You have to take time for your mind to mull things.
    You have to take time to dance, sing, hug trees, play with other folks and just fool around.
    Without guilt.
    I love teachers. I think that they are the unsung heroes of the world. Overworked and underpaid, but sometimes they need to teach our kids that it’s ok to unplug and relax. That it’s better than ok.
    It’s required to be a healthy human.
    No matter what your job.

    Great post.
    Thank you for absolving everybody. I’m sending this out as a mass email right now.
    Hope your Mom is ok, your trip is relaxing and you come back with a few extra pounds on you.
    Karen :0)

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tess

    Wow, I’m in total awe of your shedule, and wish you – and your mother – the best of luck with your health issues. I think we change the way we do everything as we grow older, so why should writing be any different?

    By the way – I’ve just been in London for four days, and saw posters for your books EVERYWHERE on the London Underground!

  13. billie

    Tess, I hope you are finding the time to go sit with your donkeys for awhile every day. If they’re anything like mine, they give wonderful donkey hugs and eyebeams that melt away the stress. Enjoy your trip and take good care!

  14. Stephanie

    Your totally amazing!! However, my first advice to you is to get a cleaning lady and a cook. Save your time and spend it with family, friends and writing. There’s more important things to do then cleaning. I’m a gastroenterologist with two boys and four bathrooms. Let me tell you, I’ve grown to love my cleaning lady!! While she’s cleaning I’m playing with the kids, writing or biking. Try not to feel guilty when you take time out for yourself. You work hard…you deserve it!!

    I hope your dyspepsia gets better soon. Best wishes to your mother! She’s lucky to have a daughter who takes time out to care for her.

  15. Alli

    Tess, I hope you and your mum feel and get better very, very soon. Enjoy your time in Turkey, have you been there before? If you haven’t then I’d be happy to recommend some great places to go – I LOVE that country. And yes, the food is amazing!

    I have a 3 and almost 2 year old and I am constantly running the fine line between feeling guilty about spending a little less time with them than I would like and nurturing my desire to become a successful, published writer. Yes, I know looking after myself and achieving personal goals while raising a young family is a great example to set for my kids, but it still doesn’t stop the nagging guilt yelling in my ear when I spend longer than my allotted time on my WIP because I am on a roll and just HAVE to finish the scene before Larry the Muse takes a hike.

    This is why I am in awe of people like you and Allison and I do use you both as my inspiration – I can do this and everyone in my family will benefit. At least, that’s how I hope it turns out. Guess I’ll know the truth when they’re eighteen. 🙂

    Go and enjoy your trip – allow yourself some time to destress and best wishes to you and your mum.

  16. Venus de Hilo

    Thank you, Tess (and other commentors) for this post today. I’ve been feeling like a failure all summer because "write something every day" has not been happening due to yet another move plus innumerable other interruptions and distractions. Finally that had all settled down when my mom called to say she wants to visit again this fall (she was here in April), and I had a meltdown at the thought. Knowing I’m not alone in either (a) too-often crashing into the end of the day with no new words on the page, or (b) neglecting other responsibilities when the words are flowing, has helped me lighten up on myself today. It’s also strengthened my (shaky, lately) resolve to have a complete draft of Novel #2 done by the end of the year. Somehow.

  17. Allison Brennan

    Yes, I celebrated when the kids went back to school yesterday because I can’t write in ten-minute intervals. Never have. Someone told me I had to "learn" how to do it, but it does not work for me. I need AT LEAST three uninterrupted hours. I prefer four to six hours. I have (roughly) six when the kids are in school. During the summer it’s constant driving to and from sports practice (summer conditioning) and to friends and pick-ups and movies and day trips and I swear I hate driving now. Can not WAIT for oldest to get her license (6 months!)

    For me, I agree with Dusty. Order out 🙂 . . . I used to make big dinners every night, but as long as you’re together they don’t care if it’s spaghetti or a 5-course meal. (Well, MY kids would prefer the spaghetti . . . ) And with sports (three oldest in sports) they all come home at different times so any "planned" meal–other than Sunday night–is a nightmare. My rule: as long as it’s healthy, I don’t stress over dinner anymore. It has saved me time and headaches.

    I know I have no life. It’s all writing and kids, and for now it works. Writing 9-3; kids stuff (mostly sports) 3-9; then writing at night after bedtime. But we did have a family vacation this summer! Woo hoo!

  18. Dru

    Vacation is what you need. Relaxation is what you deserve.

    Best of luck to you and your mother on the health concerns.

    Enjoy your vacation!

  19. Teri

    Tess, great post! I hope Turkey mends the tummy and time spent with friends washes the stress away! Please take great care of my "favorite kayaking friend, CW " !! We have a Thursday date at Quahog Pond when she returns! All the best !

  20. frank zubek

    You know– nearly everyone loves pizza! Order take out and that’ll give you at least 30 minutes of writing time before they start demanding your attention again!

  21. Leah Guinn

    Tess–thank you so much for this! I’m so close to writing "The End" on this novel, but it’s taken forever (2 yrs) to get there, w/a couple of dry spells I thought I’d never come back from. My husband is a physician with erratic hours and my kids are still little, so my writing can’t be THE priority right now. I’m so grateful to have that absolution, and reassured to know that others have the same struggles. EGDs, ew. Farm out more tasks–take care of yourself.

    And Allison–I can’t write in those little snippets, either. E-mails, sure. Facebook,. sure. But nothing that requires real immersion and thought. I have another couple of yrs before the kids are all in school, but right now I have about 5 hours during the week and the blessing of early bedtimes. So glad to know I’m not alone!


  22. ec

    I appreciate the sentiment behind the advice, "Order takeout and use the cooking time to write!" But my experience as a writer, mother, and avid cook suggests some flaws in this logic.

    First, there’s the assumption that you CAN write for 30 minutes with a housefullof people. Or, for that matter, that you’d WANT to. When the family gathers, you want to be with them. These occasions are precious and, as time goes on, increasingly rare. As for cooking, the kitchen is generally the most sociable room in the house. People gather there to chat, to help, or just pass through to raid the fridge. You’re part of the household flow, available to your family and guests. Ordering takeout would give you more time to play table games or go outside, but going into your office and shutting the door often is neither feasible nor desirable.


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