Once upon a time, I had the idea that wild swaths of time in which to write and a quiet, home-office space in which to conduct my creative life would result in thousands of effortless pages, effortlessly arranging themselves into books. Like magic! It turns out, though, that wild expanses of time nullify me. Picture a woman wandering aimlessly around an empty field forever. Maybe she’s muttering; maybe she’s fixated on one, specific area of the field for eons; maybe she’s accidentally napping. That’s me with too much time on my hands. And, while it’s true that the problem of too little time is a greater and more frequent problem than the problem of too much time—I’m a writer and an editor and a professor and a mother and a wife, after all—I’ve enjoyed enough aimless, guilt-wracked summers to know that I need structure to make the writing happen and that structure only exists outside the home.
So, what I do even when it actually is summer is to drive to campus to write at least three days a week. My office is a former dorm room and it feels like one. I’ve even populated it with items from my actual college dorm days: a lamp with a brown, paper shade, a poster featuring two eerie-eyed girls, a desk plant that is somehow more than twenty years old, a little white hot pot. There is a sense of containment in this room built of concrete blocks and held together with sixty years of thick, industrial-grade paint; there is a sense of confinement that I desperately need and welcome. I walk into this room and experience extreme focus. I won’t pretend that I always resist the allure of the internet or allow myself to stare wistfully out the window at the sand volleyball courts, but there is no accidental napping in this space. I push the work forward here.
Generally, what happens during my writing days is that I wake up around 6:30 a.m. and spend what feels like ten hours getting myself and my daughters ready for school. By the time I get into my office at about 8:30 a.m., I’m ready for fuel: when I’m writing, I consume truly massive quantities of tea. Once I’ve unloaded my bags and fired up my machine, I stalk to the very dorm-esque kitchenette (the building also features showers in the bathrooms, but they’re filled with old boxes of things like trophies and empty three-ring binders) fill my little hot pot to the tippy top with water, and wait for the roiling boil. I have a bright red carafe, which I stage within reach of my machine, and I refill my Little Women Kick Ass mug at a rate that might alarm casual bystanders. I writewritewritewritewrite and drinkdrinkdrinkdrinkdrink.
It is true that I love tea, but the reason I drink so much of it while I write is that the motion of the cup to my lips allows me a pause in my typing, but not in my thinking. I take a sip of hot tea whenever I need to arrange or rearrange or re-consider, which is often. On the rare occasions when I don’t have tea in my proximity while I’m writing, I feel naked and confused. My dependence is such that I’m not really sure what to do when this happens. I have found myself raising an empty hand to my lips when I need a pause; it’s ridiculous, I know, but it lets me keep working without having to wander around campus in search of a substitute. When my first carafe of the day is empty, that’s when I take a look around and realize that a good deal of time has passed—probably something like three or four hours.
At this point in the day—it might be 11:00 or noon—I decide that I should really eat something. I stalk back to the kitchenette, nuke something semi-healthy and return to my desk. While I eat, I indulge in some poking around on the internet and catching up with non-writing kinds of work. I might spend an hour or so in this mode and then I return again to the kitchenette, fill my little hot pot to the tippy top with water, and wait again for the roiling boil. What a beautiful sound! While I drink my second carafe of tea, I go back through the work I’ve done during the first session of the day and make top edits. It’s an easy way to ease back into the work. Once I arrive at the place I left off, I try to push the story forward again. I don’t aim for any particular word count or page count, but I like to arrive at a point where I feel I’ve done all that I can do for the day: exhaustion. This point very often coincides with the last drops of tea in the carafe.
By this time, it’s about 2:30 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. I do a little more non-writing work, stalk back to the kitchenette for cleanup, and then scramble to pick up one daughter in time to meet the other daughter at the bus stop and then my husband arrives home and we all have dinner together and then we read books and then we go to the fuck to sleep.
Reader, it’s a life.
Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Witness, The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere. She’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and earned her PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She teaches creative writing and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle at the University of Louisville. Visit her online at www.sarahannestrickley.com.