Archive for December, 2004

Why do I write?

I wrote this in response to Sarah Weinman’s latest blog:

I write first and foremost because I have to. It’s a compulsion, to the point where I get really grumpy if I don’t feed it. I also think it’s the only way I have to make sense of the world.

After that, I write for publication. I was the quiet kid in school who never fit in any cliques – not even the geek cliques. My teachers thought I had talent, but no one else did. Being published overcompensates for the fact that almost everyone I knew in my “formative years” underestimated me.

Finally, I write for pay. We need a second income, but I loathe office work – again, never having fit in. I also want to stay home with my child. Writing fits neatly into my world: I have the compulsion and I have the ego. Why not make money at it?

Okay, that may have been a bit flippant. But it’s pretty much the truth. I can’t not write. Moreover, a lot of things had to fall just the right way to allow me to pursue this profession/vocation/calling/art/whatever. They’re too numerous to list, and they might make me sound delusional. Suffice it to say that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and pieces like Sarah’s convince me more of that every time I read them. It’s a wonderful thing to know what you want to do when you grow up.

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Business decisions

It’s that time of year again. Time to review the previous year and time to plan for the coming one. Time to make decisions about financial goals, writing goals, personal goals. The part of the business most writers hate.

I can’t say I hate this part. I’m an organized person, so I like feeling as if I’m getting this part of my life in order. I would say, however, there’s a certain degree of fear involved in making business decisions. No one else in my family has ever done anything like this, and in fact, when I first started talking in 8th grade about writing for a living, almost everyone in my family told me it was close to impossible – for me, at least. (Thanks to my teachers, subversives they were, who kept stoking the fire.)

Freelancing was fun for the first two years, when my irregular paychecks paid for things like vacations, but once our son was born and my husband took a pay cut to teach in a different school, it became business, and I had to face my fears. And many of them came true, not the least of which was the major shakeup having a child caused. I was late on a lot of deadlines. Many articles didn’t get published on time. Thus I didn’t get paid when anticipated. I’m still not sure how we stayed out of debt.

Worse, the writing itself got tough. There was a major metropolitan police department’s press office, which wouldn’t return my calls (after I was promised by both the source and the vendor that the story had been approved) and so caused an article to fizzle. There was a renowned retired FBI agent who told me (not in so many words) that he felt talking to me was a waste of his time. There was the feeling of burnout starting to creep into every PR-type sentence I wrote about vendors’ products. These are the things that make you question your calling. And I did. I prayed hard, and I was so close to applying for a job at the local supermarket. The thought of it broke my heart, but we needed the money.

The turnabout happened in the last few months. Little things, enough to convince me to stay in the business and not turn to stocking shelves:

  • One of my editors, responding to my request for an honest critique of my work, had nothing but good to say about it.
  • An editing job I took for a friend/fellow freelancer/fellow mother who’d just had a baby turned into a new writing opportunity.
  • My website received favorable reviews, and my blogs have gotten attention.
  • I finished the next-to-last draft of my novel.
  • The ends are finally meeting.

No big revelations, no thunderclaps from the sky or other BIG proclamations that I Must Remain a Writer. Just little things that added up. It was a business decision to listen to them. I’m just glad business agreed with my gut.

However, to ensure 2005 doesn’t end up like 2004, I need to make even more business decisions.

  • Must write business plan. When freelancing was “fun” I had only the outline of one, because it was all I needed. Now I need it to be detailed. Marketing plan, competition analysis, financial statements, and all. Hard work, but doable.
  • Speaking of finances, it’s not just about the business. It’s also about my family. My son’s college fund, for one. Our retirement plans, for another. My income is the one thing we’ll be able to depend on to save for our future, be it vacations or sustenance. I don’t make a lot, so careful planning as to where it will go is a must.
  • Focusing. My son is a full-on toddler and I will still need to balance his needs with mine – monetarily and emotionally. There are playgroups, and then there are interviews, and then there’s my novel. I’m sure one or two will win out over the others on many days, but as the saying goes, if Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

I’m sure there are more, but those are the major things. I love what I do, and I hope and pray I will never need to bag groceries to make ends meet. Here’s looking at 2005. May we all prosper.

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When my son was born I took for granted that he would love reading as much as his father and I do. I didn’t read aloud to him in utero, but I did read to him from my books as he nursed, and we were both sure to let him see us reading newspapers, books, magazines. One of my earliest memories is of learning to read using The Hobbit, my father pointing out words to me as we went along and using the maps on the covers’ insides to illustrate the story. I was reading Nancy Drew books by the first grade.

I was horrified when, at the tender age of six months, he showed zero interest in a bedtime story (bedtime is about nursies, Mommy, don’t you get it?) and seemed to think books were far more appropriate for teething (most of his board books have been gummed to pieces). Horror stories my husband had told me, of high-school students who had no books in their homes and who wrote essays about “2Fast 2Furious” being the movie that most influenced their lives, rose up in my mind. I should have been reading to my son since birth.

Instead we continued to do what we’d been doing. When my son weaned himself at 13 months following a nursing strike, I realized it was the perfect opportunity to replace one form of comfort with another. I cracked a book. He loved it. He now gets as excited about stories as he did about nursies; moreover, he seeks out books on his own, and lately has even taken to arranging his foam bath letters and refrigerator letters in orders we don’t understand.

This relieves me more than I can express. What my husband, a high-school social studies teacher, tells me about the waning literacy in his classrooms concerns me deeply. Blogging about so-called “trends” in the book business, writer-editor Clint Gaige offered this opinion: “Fewer and fewer people read every year. Our school systems are not building reading programs, they are pumping out and graduating students based on classroom size. Who cares if they appreciate books!” I’d add to his opinion that it’s not so much classroom size as it is dependence on standardized state assessments, thanks to No Child Left Behind. In the meantime, a recent Gallup poll shows that teens are more likely to watch TV than they are to read books or newspapers, and that girls are more likely to read than boys, who prefer video games.

I can see that the odds are already stacked against my son. So even though he shows signs of being a kinesthetic, rather than a visual or auditory learner, I intend to do as much as I can to nurture his love of stories. It’s not just that the more people read, the more people keep us writers in business. Reading is fundamental to free thinking – Gutenberg knew this when he first used his printing press to distribute the Bible to the people – and we just don’t live in a world anymore where either literacy or free thinking can be taken for granted.

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A happy epilogue

My editor emailed to tell me that the evil WMFH contract is no more. As it turns out, someone at the magazine’s parent company “forgot” to send her (and some other editors) the revised contract. I haven’t seen it yet, but she tells me the terms will be much more to my liking. Since I hounded her to death about the WMFH terms, I’m sure she’s probably right.

Moreover, I figured out a way around the lack of archives on either magazine’s sites. I created my own archive blog and plan to link most of the stories listed on my website to that blog (some, written strictly for law enforcement, are too sensitive to post publicly). My editor approves. Everyone is happy. And hopefully it will all lead to more work.

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Mom was (partly) right

When I was growing up, I never understood the bitter moods my mother got into, growling at us to earn our keep and wash the dishes/clean the bathroom/do the laundry/perform some other annoying chore. “I shouldn’t have to do everything around here,” she’d gripe.

(Granted, she was right. The most annoying thing about chores, however, was their inconsistency. She only insisted we do them when she was not in the mood to, or more frequently, when she was grumpy about an overall feeling of being taken for granted.)

Flash forward to 2004. My son is a year old. Constantly on the go. My husband, a teacher, has just completed two online courses he needed to receive his recertification. I am looking forward to the weekend, when he can take the boy and I can work unhindered on the computer for several hours straight.

My husband instead says it would “make his weekend” if we all went out for breakfast on Saturday after making a bank run. Sure, I think, sounds like fun. We go to the bank. But not out to breakfast – neither of us is hungry. Home now, he decides it’s a good time to go to the dump. After all, our son is upstairs in his crib, supposed to be napping. But it’s molar season in our house, so after just 10 minutes, I go upstairs to get the poor crying child.

At 2 p.m. I understand exactly how my mother felt. The day feels like it’s long over, and this was supposed to be “my” weekend, and I got not a lick of work done. I go grocery shopping.

My husband and I have talked about this before. I’ve told him that he needs to give me time, preferably without my having to ask for it, although he tells me that he needs me to tell him when I need time. I suppose it would be best for our marriage if I work on communicating better. And I have been. I told him on Wednesday that I was hoping to spend the weekend working.

Two issues are at play here. The first is that the same terms mean different things to men and women. When I say “weekend,” I mean the better part of Saturday and probably some of Sunday too. I also mean for my husband to take charge of toddler entertainment for the day. When he hears “weekend,” he hears a couple of always-flexible hours on either Saturday or Sunday.

The second is that he doesn’t understand, as most men don’t, that most women are hard-wired to respond to their families’ needs ahead of their own, sometimes even at the expense of their own sanity. He doesn’t understand that when he says going out to breakfast would make his whole weekend, that some little trigger in my brain drops every plan I have ever had for that time, that Being A Family means I am not a writer for however many hours/days/weeks/months/years I am needed to be a wife and mother.

The problem is, I am a writer. That is hard-wired into me just as much as the family-needs circuitry. Madeleine L’Engle said it best in her memoir, A Circle of Quiet: “During the long drag of years before our youngest child went to school, my love for my family and my need to write were in acute conflict…. [T]here was I, absolutely stuck in bucology, with the washing machine freezing at least once a week, the kitchen never above 55 degrees when the wind blew from the northwest, not able to write until after my little ones were in bed, by which time I was so tired that I often quite literally fell asleep with my head on the typewriter… like a lot of other women who have quite deliberately and happily chosen to be mothers, and work at another vocation as well, I did manage to get a lot of writing done.”

Never mind that L’Engle’s children call her “Crosswicks” memoirs more fictionalized than her novels (The New Yorker, April 12, 2004), and that worse, she failed to publish anything during the decade her children were small. She lived what I live, what my mother lived, what I suspect every mother lives at one time or another: A vocational duality.

Parenting experts tell us that all mothers (and fathers) need time to themselves. “It doesn’t matter how you get it,” they tell us, though I know profoundly how untrue this is. An hour-long swim per day makes no difference to my beleaguered soul when I haven’t written a word of fiction in a week. I suspect, when my mother expressed her resentment, that she was really trying to grab time for herself: time to read, time to work on embroidery, time to knit. And I further suspect, that since it never seemed to fill the void, what she really needed was to give in to her duality. She was a writer, too, and by now her dreams are long gone.

My hope is not to give in to my duality to such an extent that one wins out over the other: for writing to alienate my child, for my child to sap the creative energy that keeps me going. I’d like to believe that the two can not only coexist, but reinforce each other: that taking time for myself will enable me to give time to my son, that spending time with him will send me back to the writing. He should see me working; he needs to see his Mommy is a distinct person. But it shouldn’t be at his expense.

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The title of this blog says it’s supposed to be about motherhood and freelancing, and I just noticed that both of my posts are about freelancing. I guess it’s time to talk about motherhood.

Or rather, how I manage motherhood and freelancing. They are, after all, a vocational duality. Solitary profession vs. dependant. Demanding editors vs. demanding small person. Deadlines vs. the near-subconscious drive to drop everything and simply, adoringly watch my son play.

I noticed myself doing this the other day as I edited a story. Before he woke from his nap, I’d been on a roll, in the zone, crossing words out and replacing them and moving paragraphs around. I felt it still in me as I sat down to work while my son entertained himself. I figured it would be enough, as it frequently is, for me to look up every once in awhile to check on him, interact with him, be proud of him.

But my heart had other plans. My son’s obsession with shoes was leading to his sitting in the midst of the shoe pile near the back door, first taking one shoe and putting it in front of him, then taking it and putting it back, only to replace it with a different shoe altogether. He was completely absorbed in his “work,” and wouldn’t have minded at all if I’d been completely absorbed in mine. Instead, I was completely absorbed in him.

I’m trying to figure out how to reconcile this instinct of mine with the need for income, especially now that he’s down to only one nap a day. I didn’t get much published this year, and it hurt. (Our pocketbook, not my sense of pride.) We can’t afford daycare or an in-home nanny, and I don’t want to have to get a second job. (I suspect it would quickly become my only job.) I’m inclined to call the Grandma brigade. The one day she came to entertain the boy while I interviewed a source worked out very well for all of us. He had someone to be completely emotionally available to him. She got bonus grandson time. I had someone to take him out of the house for a few hours. Life was good.

I have this idea in my head that freelancing is one of the only jobs in which you can actually work less and make more. I tell myself that once I get published in those $1/word magazines, I won’t need to work so much anyway. Or if I did, at least I could afford a nanny. The whole point to my working at home is to be there for my son as he grows. To that end, is it really such a bad thing that his cuteness distracts me from work?

More on this as the 2005 editorial season kicks into gear.

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