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by Jenny Kurzweil

doughnut

 

“Just bring a notebook with you wherever you go,” Erika said and then took a bite of the sea salt caramel glazed doughnut we were sharing, followed by a slug of coffee.

Erika Schickel and I were having breakfast at an impossibly hip diner in downtown Los Angeles; one that I joked was way too cool for my nerdy self.

“We’ll become hip by osmosis,” Erika assured me. “Who knows, we might even walk out of here with tattoos and beards.”

I was in LA for a work trip a few months after Erika and I had met at Hedgebrook and I was complaining about how little time I had to write.

Erika told me that she wrote in a notebook when she was in the car waiting for her kids or if she had a few minutes to kill before a meeting.

“But I only write on a laptop,” I whined.

Then I thought silently about all of the reasons why Erika had more time to write than me: her kids were way older, she worked as a freelancer, and…I couldn’t come up with a third reason, but it didn’t matter, I figured two was good enough.

I couldn’t see how to squeeze writing in regularly among everything else. It wasn’t like brushing my teeth, for goodness sakes.  I needed time and space to think before I could write.

The writing that I was doing had come in chunks—weekends away or a day at the library once a month. There were long dry spells of domestic and professional life in between.

 

Tug of War

Mother. Writer. Professional. It is a three way identity crisis. Even determining what order I list those words is a struggle. Having erected strict definitions and corresponding expectations for each of those titles, it is unsurprising that I constantly fall short.

I started at the nonprofit where I work 13 years ago. First it was three days a week so that I could write. Then we had kids and I wasn’t working part time anymore because I was a writer, it was because I was a mother.

For years, I held on to the time when both kids would be in school as some sort of Holy Grail. The plan was that I would stay working part time and get those two days back to focus on my writing. But then responsibility at work, preschool tuition, and the need for me to secure the family’s health insurance (in other words, “reality”) set in. I started going four days a week.

I had one precious day a week to write. And it wasn’t even a day; it was more like five hours from dropping the kids off to picking them up again. How easily that time got filled with errands, and appointments, and switching my work schedule around to accommodate sick kids or school holidays.

“I HAVE NO TIME TO WRITE,” I raged continually at my poor girlfriend. The years were slipping by and I had nothing to show for it. No new book. A couple of measly articles. NOTHING OF SUBSTANCE. The pressure inside me was building and building. “JUST RELAX,” I screamed at myself. “YOU CAN’T WRITE IF YOU ARE TENSE.”

 

A Decision

A few months after I had breakfast with Erika, I had the opportunity to apply for a leadership position at work. It was clear to my friends and colleagues that I should go for it. I was qualified. I had seniority. It was more money. But it was also way full time and a lot more responsibility.

I had a heart to heart with my girlfriend (now spouse.) I told her that first and foremost, I was a mother. That meant supporting my family the best I could. I also admitted that I loved my job (most of the time) and was continually inspired by work that the nonprofit does in the world. That meant I was a professional. But what about my writer self?

 

Changing the Game

Exhausted from waging a battle against myself, it was critical to redefine the labels that had been crushing me. So what if it has been eight years since my book came out? So what if I was laboring through a draft of a manuscript that very well may never see the light of day? Who was imposing this suffocating timeline anyway?

At a Bay Area Hedgebrook event, I got to breathe the same air as Dorothy Allison, Gail Tsukiyama, and Karen Joy Fowler. In their public conversation, both Gail and Dorothy (note: just by having attended an event where they spoke, I am now on a first name basis with them) reiterated emphatically to “GET RID OF THE TIMELINE.” Dorothy said, “All that matters is that you take the time it takes to write the best book you can.”

“I am a writer. All that means is that I write.” I started telling myself, hoping that the repetition would eventually make it feel true.

 

Rusty clock swirl

 

An Experiment

At work I came across an article geared for academics about how to tame a stressful writing project. The author, a professor of communications, offered some great insights about how to manage overwhelm and anxiety. One of the tips was to write for 15 minutes a day. She said, “Anyone can find 15 minutes a day.”

“Damn,” I said, my head meeting the keyboard. This is just what Erika was saying, too. It was time to pull my big girl panties on and make a commitment.

Last February, when I started my full time job, I also started writing 15 minutes a day. And checking email or hopping on Facebook doesn’t count. It is a straight 15 minutes. That’s all. Some days the 15 minutes flies by. Others, I desperately glance at the clock on the lower right side of my screen.

My boys have been very supportive, especially the little one. “Ima,” he asks, using the Hebrew word for mama, “how many pages did you write today?”

“Only a paragraph, honey,” I answer, “but I did it!”

 

Juices

There are days when I just don’t make it. But most of the time I can find 15 minutes to sit down and turn the computer on.

What I have found is that the regularity makes the creative juices flow a little more easily. After I drop off the kids and am driving to work, my mind turns to the writing. Or on my lunch break, I mull over a piece of dialogue.

15 minutes a day keeps my foot in the door. It makes this beast of a book inside me—the one that paces and stalks the perimeter of my rib cage—a little more manageable.

Now, dealing with the inner critic who howls that what I’m writing is no good, is another matter. I’ll need to sit down with Erika and another doughnut or two to figure that one out.

 

 

jennyJenny Kurzweil mothers, works, and writes in Santa Cruz, California. For 15 minutes a day she is writing a memoir about growing up with a Jewish grandmother and two goy stepmothers in a radical feminist lesbian post-Communist household. Learn more at www.jennykurzweil.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members. 

Jenny Kurzweil
About Jenny Kurzweil

4 Comments

  • Shannon Hopkins
    1:29 PM - 16 July, 2014

    Thank you for writing this. I attended Hedgebrook in 2001 but had a long dry spell afterwards for various reasons, including “overwhelm and anxiety.” I’ve been writing again more recently, and doing so publicly, which is a huge step for me after years of silence. Memories of Hedgebrook are a large part of the reason why I’ve been able to write again, as are reading stories like these on the blog. Thank you so much!

    • Jenny Kurzweil
      1:55 PM - 16 July, 2014

      Yay! A comment. Hi Shannon! So glad this post was helpful. I’m glad you are writing again. Dry spells happen, right? My spouse says that there are no dry spells, it’s just that we are “percolating” on the next great thing. This sisterhood of writers is powerful. This morning it took every fiber of my being before a long busy work day to sit down and do the 15 minutes, but I thought about all of my other sister writers powering on and I did it. I look forward to reading your work!

  • Kim Kankiewicz
    11:03 AM - 5 August, 2014

    Thanks for this encouragement. I found myself nodding my head several times during this post. Your description of the beast of a book “that paces and stalks the perimeter of my rib cage” is perfect. I love that your son is cheering you on.

  • Jennifer D. Munro
    3:28 PM - 3 September, 2014

    You had me at “sea salt caramel glazed doughnut” and kept me all the way past the “big girl panties.” Great post.

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