“If you’re ever absolutely desperate to write and can’t get the time,” I tell students—all around the classroom I see heads nod—“set your alarm for 5:00 a.m. and get up and get an hour at your computer before the rest of the day begins.”
“Oww,” someone says. Exactly. Getting up early is not a popular suggestion. These are fourth year university students and they’re already juggling school and a job. Some are parents. One is a single parent.
“I know how hard you work,” I say. “For me, this is a strategy that’s successful for two or three weeks. Then I collapse.”
“Or you can try writing a page a day. That works with prose. One page a day equals seven pages in a week, which is a chapter in a week and a half. 365 pages in a year. A book. That assumes you do a couple of pages once in a while, so you can take Christmas or your birthday off. Most of us are at our best in the morning. But pick a time that works for you and stay with it. That way you don’t have to continually re-invent the wheel. That takes energy. Any energy you have needs to be used for your writing.”
“I found my family was quite understanding when I’d say, ‘It’s my one page that I’m working on right now. I’ll be with you when I finish.’ I used that strategy for a couple of months to finish a novel. I was going to university, my daughter was five years old and I had occasional part-time jobs.”
Oh, I know all about discipline. I’ve done it. So why am I not following my own advice right about now? Why I am allowing Life to get in the way of regular writing practice?
Excuse 1.) I just finished a book of poetry recently. Don’t I deserve time off for good behavior?
Excuse 2.) But I like going for a walk in the morning with my husband and our goofy Golden Doodle. Isn’t exercise the most important thing we can do for quality of life? And if I let dog and spouse go by themselves and plan to walk in the afternoon. . . it somehow doesn’t happen. What’s the use of living on Pender Island with its wonderful trails and beaches if a person doesn’t get out and get views, fresh air and some good hard cardio on the hills? The dog needs her exercise first thing. She snouts me with her cold black nose and says, “Help, I’m desperate.”
Excuse 3.) I need to think a bit more about the plot line on the YA novel I started a couple of years ago before I get back to it.
Excuse 4.) The book of poetry I finished: I need to send off some queries. Surely the world is salivating to read a book of form poems titled The Girl Who Defied Odin? Many of them use a tip of the hat to Old Norse verse with repeating sounds within each triplet. There’s lots of gore and a gutsy heroine. Yeah, okay, it’s possibly not avant-guarde but what about edgy or cutting edge? Those are puns. There are swords in this book. Exactly. I had the best time writing this!
Excuse 5.) It’s coming up to Christmas and I have orders from stores that I have to fill for Pender Botanicals, the organic skincare line that I make.
Excuse 6.) The website for North Star Cottage, the little cottage on our property we rent out, needs updating. My friend Lindy came and took some beautiful photos a couple of weeks ago. We’re heading into winter, slack season, and we’ll get more bookings with professional photos.
Excuse 7.) I haven’t quite got the timing down since I retired from teaching Creative Writing. That was fifteen years at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, starting off as a part-time sessional and working up to full-time regular faculty.
And that last might resonate even more than the rest. “Retired” means retired from teaching, not from gardening—I have a vast garden, forgot that in the Excuses section—not from doing lotions and potions or being in the hospitality biz.
I’ve lost the timing bit. My friend Nicola, who is at the moment staying for a few days in the cottage, took my advice seriously. “I write in the morning and everything else happens in the afternoon.” She’s finishing her Master’s thesis in poetry at UVic. She calls me her “secret weapon.” We workshop poetry over the phone a couple of times a week. Hers and mine. We usually touch base at tea time, which at my house is between 3:30 and 4:00.
When I visited Nicola and her partner this summer in Desolation Sound, I watched her row out every morning to work on a sailboat and only return for a late lunch. That was the Sacred Writing Time. I lazed on the beach and felt proud of her.
Apparently I told Nicola that my best writing practice was when I had an office in an attic where I worked from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 a.m. every day in the off-teaching season. It was literally reached by a ladder. I made myself a mug of tea and up I went. Breakfast, a shower, getting dressed, that all happened after.
Interruption: Nicola now comes down from the cottage to say she’s got a day’s extension on her thesis hand-in date. She can stay another day. “Hey, since Garney’s away with the dog, do you want to meditate now?” she says. “We won’t be interrupted.” (We belong to the same spiritual group.)
I am writing on the bed as my office is currently uninhabitable due to Excuse 5.) Pender Botanicals, with its trays of soap and boxes of supplies. (See photo.)
I look at her over my open keyboard. “I am writing now,” I say. “I have a deadline. It is today.”
From the doorway, Nicola flaps her hand in distress. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. I’ll leave you alone.”
“We can meditate in the afternoon,” I say. “I just need to finish this first. I’ve never missed a deadline in my life.” And just like that, laughter bubbles up gold in me. All these years of telling students, “The definition of inspiration is the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair,” (Thomas Edison) and even when I was busy reproaching myself, the habit is still there.
I am writing. Writing this, a new book of poetry about volunteering with on-water Search and Rescue (less glamorous than a person might imagine), writing actual paper letters to my brother and sister. Writing in my journal. My template isn’t perfect—I still haven’t quite got the wrinkle with the eager dog worked out—but maybe if I get up earlier, just for a while . . .
ZoëLandale is the author of seven books and editor of two. Her work has won significant awards in three genres, including a National Magazine Gold for memoir, first in the CBC Literary Competition for poetry and first in the Stony Brook University Short Fiction Competition. Her most recent book is Einstein's Cat, published by Wolsak and Wynn.
Zoë gardens to her heart's content on Pender Island, in the Southern Gulf Islands in BC, where she lives with her husband and floppy dog.