I write because I finally believe I can.
That may sound a little strange. I definitely write because I have stories to tell. And I write because it’s exciting to create something from my own imagination. It’s satisfying to watch the thread of an idea weave into a complex world filled with characters I’ve invented and adventures of my own making. I write because I love to, even when it’s hard and feels like work.
When I was a little girl, if you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say writer, then astronaut, then writer, then archeologist, then writer again. It was there all along, this desire to create something with words. I wrote poetry, horse stories, and adventure tales. Later, I wrote research papers for school, documents for work, blog posts, and sometimes more poetry.
But, somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that I couldn’t write a whole book, that I couldn’t possibly carry a story arc from start to finish, that I didn’t have the required skills or the discipline to do it.
Then several years ago, I took on a year-long writing project for work, and I issued myself a challenge. Since I had to establish a daily writing habit around this project, could I also write something creative every day? Could I actually finish a manuscript?
At the end of nine-months, I had a quality report for my job, and I had a finished draft of my first novel. It was a very rough draft, pretty terrible in fact, but it was enough for me to finally believe I could be a writer.
Maybe we ought to challenge our own assumptions. Who knows what we can accomplish when we believe we can?
I’ll never forget a particular conversation. It was several years ago at a sci-fi conference, and I was with a group of authors talking about writing. They all had more publishing credits that I did. Someone asked what was holding me back, and I stammered a bit and then mentioned my two school-aged children.
“I have kids,” said a male writer, “and I still find time to write.”
“Ugh…” (I literally did not know what to say.) “Do you have a spouse that has primary responsibility of your kids?”
“Yes, my wife… but… I’m very involved with my kids. And I find the time.”
This was consistent with the messages I received when I decided about eight years ago to seriously try and “be a writer.” Other writers and well-intentioned people—most whom did not have primary responsibility of children, if they had them at all—kept telling me that I could make it happen through sheer will and through making the time. Many of these folks were male identifying, by not all. About six years ago I was reading another writer’s blog—a woman with young children—and her advice to other women writers with kids was to simply teach your family you’re unavailable when you’re writing. “They will come to respect your boundaries,” I remember reading, “if they demand your attention simply turn them away.” And right after reading that that my then 8-year old daughter came into my writing space because she wanted to tell me something.
I didn’t turn her away.
It’s not that the male writer was wrong about “making time.” It’s not that the blog author was wrong about “setting your boundaries.” It’s just that for many years, for me, these were not simple choices.
I carry the trauma of a horrific birth experience with my first-born and subsequent severe depression and episodes of anxiety. It took me a year after he was born before I had several days in a row where I felt connected to him, felt I might just survive this motherhood thing.
There was no bandwidth for writing. It took almost all of my strength to survive each day and try to maintain a relationship with my husband.
To escape the stifling, trapped feeling that being a stay-at-home mother engendered in me, I went back to work part-time. I slowly got better.
Then I became pregnant again.
I immediately fell back into an anxious depression. I called my doctor once I recognized that dark curtain descending. I begged for medication. By the time I began treatment, I was completely numb again. I had no feelings for anyone, no affect. The only emotion I could experience and name was “anxiety.”
Luckily, this cloud lifted much sooner, while I was still pregnant. The support of my family and friends along with medication and therapy helped bring me back.
Still, I was never quite the same. I spent the next six years in a semi-anxious, under-slept, moderately depressed haze. I despaired I would ever feel the same again. But during that time something amazing also happened—I grew to love being a mother to these little humans. But for almost a decade, I had no capacity for anything except getting through each day.
As I found myself again, I realized I wanted to write. It was who I was. It was a dream I’d had since childhood; it was what I noted I wanted to do in my high school yearbook.
It was time.
Although I made baby steps toward this goal, I found it was not so easy to just do it. To just “set my boundaries” with my family.
I’d brought these children into the world; they didn’t ask to be born, and I suffered to have them. I was going to do my best for them.
Even though my writing was a priority, the kids were the highest priority. As they grew, I realized I had limited time with them—to shape them, guide them, and let them know they mattered above all else. I wanted them to have the security and confidence they’d need to go out into the world and be happy, secure, accomplished adults.
They’re now 14 and 17. And they’re amazing people. Everything I suffered and everything I sacrificed was worth it. Now I can find more time to write.
I know this is not the choice every writer makes. I don’t believe there’s one “right choice” in such a situation. We must all make the correct choice for ourselves.
Even now, as I have the capacity and more bandwidth, I don’t write every day—another typical “must” you hear from successful writers. I have a family, a few part-time jobs, and a chronic illness which requires me to get a lot of sleep. There are only so many hours in the day.
Being a writer with children is more difficult than being a writer without. But it’s not impossible. You may need to wait several years, do your writing at midnight, or steal twenty minutes here and there while you’re watching a game or waiting for a class to get out. You may not be able to write every day, or even every week. Do it when you can. Be compassionate with yourself. Don’t compare yourself to everyone around you. Find people who support you as you make your own way.
You’ll get there.
When I began writing several years ago, the idea of pursuing my passion felt like an exciting adventure. But when it came time to share my work with the world, other emotions joined the party, including vulnerability who showed up as an unexpected, uninvited guest! Besides my husband, the first group I felt safe talking about this with was my female tribe, many of them artists and writers themselves. But recently, when I wrote about it in my newsletter, the overwhelming response came from male writer and artist friends. I think this theme of feeling vulnerable crosses gender, age, and orientation. I think as artists we often feel exposed. We all know the sting of rejection. We’ve all questioned our own talent. My experience with the writing community, especially the sci-fi/fantasy crew, has been one of support and encouragement. I’m inspired by all of you who dare to bare your souls to the world and create your art. Even if we’ve never met, I feel like we are walking this path together.
Something unusual has happened to me since I started writing. I find myself feeling rather vulnerable, and with some regularity. I had a different career before this – one where I was confident in my abilities and proficient in my day-to-day work. Of course I made mistakes, and I grew and learned from those mistakes, but this isn’t the same thing. This vulnerability is raw and unsettling.
And, to my great discomfort, it’s been creeping into other areas of my life. I’m more emotionally fragile with my husband. I’m less secure in a crowd of new people. I’m sometimes hesitant to talk about my work. I barely recognize myself. My own sense of identity has been completely challenged. And yet…
I can’t imagine doing anything else. The artist side of me is someone I haven’t recognized or honored in a long time. She feels like a different version of the person I knew so well and worked hard to cultivate – but she’s been in there all along. Now I have to acknowledge her, and I have to find a way to balance the discomfort of vulnerability with the joy of creativity.
During a recent yoga class, my teacher and friend played us a portion of a TED talk given by Brene Brown. It was titled: The Power of Vulnerability, and I highly recommend listening to the whole thing. The one piece that serendipitously resonated with me was about people Brene called “whole-hearted.” These were the people from her study who had a strong sense of worthiness, love, and belonging. And all of them had a few things in common – they had the courage to be imperfect, they had compassion for themselves and for others, they created connections by being authentic, and they fully embraced their own vulnerability. I’ve been really sitting with this last one for a while. The healthiest, most well adjusted people in the study were those who fully embraced their own vulnerability. Huh.
My older kids are choosing careers in the arts. One is pursuing film acting and the other screenwriting. We’re all storytellers in our own way I guess. We’ve had thoughtful conversations about what it means to be true to your voice, but appreciate constructive criticism; how to be confident in your talent, yet constantly seek to improve your craft. In some ways they have an advantage – they’ve been putting themselves out there all along. They’ve learned to deal with the critics, the naysayers, and the failures with good grace. They’ve learned to embrace their vulnerability.
My husband is a singer and songwriter. A while ago he said to me, “Honey, it’s time to stop singing in the basement and get booed on stage.” This was around the time I’d finished an exhausting round of edits for my first manuscript and needed to send my book-baby into the world. I was terrified. As a musician, he understood my fear right away, but that didn’t stop him from giving me a gentle shove. After all, he doesn’t sing in the shower or in the basement – he sings on a stage. He shares his love of music with anyone who wants to listen, and risks getting booed.
In the face of self-doubt, failure, and sometimes-callous criticism, why do we push on? Why do we continue to create? Perhaps because it is immensely satisfying to touch another person’s soul with something we’ve made. Perhaps because the world needs its painters, storytellers, sculptors, photographers, musicians, dancers, and actors. We need them not just to entertain us, but because the mere fact that they exist at all says something powerful about being human. Perhaps because it is uniquely human to create art, and we’re willing to open ourselves up to the world to do it.
Any artist in any field understands that to share our work is to be vulnerable. We’ve risked opening our hearts to strangers – with words, in images, with a paintbrush, on a stage. We’ve put something of our private selves out into the world. Even my stories, full of spaceships and evil villains, myths and magic, have some of the real “me” in them. People who know me well will recognize those pieces. But it’s worth it to tell the story. And, finally, I’m learning to make peace with the discomfort.
As I write my blog, I’m sitting at a long table set up in a living room, surrounded by women on laptops, with notebooks, reading books…and a loving doggy who inspires us with snuggling. We go between soft-clicking silence and conversation; we talk about the science of ceramics, what scares us, and mind-controlling fungus. We pause for “what’s that word for…” requests and brain farts. It’s our first New England Broads writer retreat of the year—but not the first we’ve organized either formally or informally.
There’s a certain energy in a room full of writers, and a slightly different energy if all the writers are women. After all, we can talk about periods, uteruses, and not being listened to by doctors; we talk about the specific horrors (and magic) we face as women. In a mixed crowd, certain members would run away or be uncomfortable with such topics; there’d be pressure to not offend anyone or avoid being judged. There is a particular trust and candid honesty that weaves into our writing and inspires us, comforts us, and gives us courage to submit our work out into the world.
I’m not saying there’s not magic in writing retreats of mixed gender; there is. Any good group of writers can make an awesome retreat. Sometimes, though, you want to be in a group where certain things are shared experiences.
Writing retreats aren’t the main draw to being a member of Broad Universe—in fact, that’s more closely related to the fact there are a lot of members who live close to each other in the New England region. However, we found ourselves through Broad Universe.
Broad Universe is an international non-profit dedicated to promoting, celebrating, and honoring women’s contributions to science fiction, fantasy, horror and all the speculative crevices in between. It started at Wiscon, a feminist SF convention in Wisconsin in 2000, on a panel about how women can get more recognized as authors (and artists). At that time, the gap in pay, advertising, reviews, recognition, etc. was still exceptionally massive. While that gap has shrunk some in the past eighteen years, it isn’t yet “small.” While we’re updating our website, we’ve collected quite a few statistics about who still gets more reviews, better advances, and better placement in bookshelves.
And we’re working to change that.
With message boards, email lists, Facebook groups, and other tools, we help women talk to each other, support each other, and share their collected knowledge so we all can do better. We work together at events selling each other’s books because we all know how hard it is to sell our own; we get the still-strong stigma of a woman selling her wares. In a group, we’re stronger. We also do this online, sharing our news and publications. If a member has ties to a convention, we try to get other Broads (yes, we have claimed that term proudly!) onto programming so more people can discover them.
Broad Universe certainly wasn’t the first women’s organization to do this. We designed a lot of our work based on what Sisters in Crime had already done—and is still doing—in the mystery genre. There are other local and regional women’s groups that are genre specific or general interest. Seek them out.
The world still isn’t an easy place for women to get recognition, pay, reviews, or awards for their writing. Working as a group, we are stronger and have a better ability to change that. Whether you find a local informal group or seek out a larger organization, consider the power in numbers and don’t go it alone.
Find out more about Broad Universe at www.broaduniverse.org.
Find out more about Sister in Crime at www.sistersincrime.org.
Trisha J. Wooldridge writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry—sometimes even winning awards! You can find her work in a variety of anthologies, magazines, and online markets. She’s also editor of over fifty novels and two anthologies. As child-friendly T.J. Wooldridge, she’s published three kids’ novels and poetry. Find out more at www.anovelfriend.com.
I used to work as a union gaffer (lighting), scenic artist, and makeup artist. The entertainment field is full of superstitious people. I remember all the superstitions associated with stage work like don’t whistle on stage. Actors telling each other to “break a leg” before a performance supposedly leads to good luck and a fine performance. Leaving a single lit bulb upstage center when the theater is empty is meant to ward off mischievous spirits. Anything associated with Macbeth, especially saying the word “Macbeth” in a theater, will lead to disaster. It’s the curse of Macbeth. Don’t leave peacock feathers or real money on stage or actors will forget their lines and set pieces will break.
So I wondered, what kinds of superstitions do writers have?
I don’t have any myself. I have a schedule I like to adhere to but if I miss a day or don’t start at a specific time each day I don’t panic over not being able to write. I don’t have a lucky pen or statuette or piece of clothing I must wear. Some famous writers had some downright bizarre superstitions. The closest I come to a superstition was keeping the cats away from my laptop because I was afraid they’d delete my files. That’s not really a superstition. That’s being practical.
Here are a few examples of famous writers and their superstitions:
Isabelle Allande – Always starts a new novel on January 8 because that’s the date she began her first novel, The House Of The Spirits.
John Steinbeck wrote his drafts in pencil. He kept 12 pencils on his desk, all perfectly sharpened.
John Cheever put on a suit, took the elevator with other men who were on their way to their office jobs, and he would get off in the basement. Then, he’d take off his pants and write. He said it was more comfortable.
Truman Capote refused to begin or end a work on a Friday. He also wrote lying down.
Mark Twain, George Orwell, Edith Wharton, and Marcel Proust also wrote lying down.
Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, Philip Roth, and Charles Dickens wrote standing up.
Alexandre Dumas wrote his poetry on yellow paper, his fiction on blue paper, and his articles on pink paper
J. K. Rowling refused to title a story until after it was finished.
Carson McCullers wore her lucky sweater whenever she wrote.
Friedrich Schiller, friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, couldn’t write without the smell of rotten apples around him. I have no idea why. That one is just weird.
Superstitions have always struck me as a bit foolish, but sometimes I fall prey to them. For instance, I won’t walk beneath a ladder not so much because I believe it’s bad luck but because I’m afraid a full paint can will fall on my head and crack my skull in two. That sounds like very bad luck to me. When I was a kid and mad at my parents I would step on every crack in the sidewalk, but no one’s back ever broke. I knock on wood because I think it’s a great way to accentuate a point.
Then again, a ladybug just flew into my hair. I’m at a writer’s retreat in central Massachusetts, and I’m working on this article in a bedroom with a beautiful view of the snowy outdoors. I’ve attached a picture of my view to this blog post. How a ladybug survived the winter is beyond me, but I know they’re good luck. I’ll take whatever good luck I can get. Ah, wait, another one flew by! I feel especially lucky right now
Rather than superstitions related to writing I have rituals. I always must have something to drink nearby – most often coffee, hot tea, seltzer water, red wine, or especially champagne. I sometimes must have music on or I can’t concentrate. Other times, I need quiet.
Are you a superstitious writer? If you are, what quirks do you have that help you express your creativity? What do you do to keep disaster or writer’s block from happening?
Elizabeth Black writes horror and dark fiction as E. A. Black. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter. Visit her Amazon Author Page.